Getting Personal

by Jamie McKenzie

© 1993


They coached her and edited her - unmercifully, she felt - demanding that she use words like "beautiful" and "elegant" and "sensuous." They deleted phrases like "walking in the rain," "enjoying the sunset," and "flying a rainbow-colored spinaker" which had pleased her the most in the drafting.


Marilyn watched her brother and sister-in-law work over her personal ad with growing dismay and anger.


"Just who do you think I am?" she complained, arguing stubbornly against their packaging, their not-so-subtle marketing and their image-building.


"We're just trying to be helpful, big sister. We want to make sure you snag some great guy, not some computer nerd or weirdo."


Her brother Mack, a tall, lean rugby player who had married well and early on his way up the bankerly ladder he had chosen for a career, had no business, she felt, acting the expert on dating with her, his recently divorced sister. He, after all, had met Susan, his wife, during college while crewing on her father's yawl one summer day. In retrospect, their meeting and subsequent marriage seemed about as spontaneous as one of those nicely arranged Chinese marriages of the last century. He had never really been single, as far as she was concerned.


"But I just don't feel comfortable describing myself as some kind of Hemingway woman. Your ad is likely to attract a Hemingway man." And I've tried that once already, she thought to herself.


Neither one of them had any credentials to justify this heavy-handed editing. Marilyn had shown her draft to them more as a gesture signifying recovery. She wanted them to know she wasn't sitting around mourning Harry's sudden flight. She certainly hadn't intended this . . . this attempted make-over.


"The basic mistake women make in writing these things is excessive modesty or sentimentality," Mack lectured. "The guy basically just wants to know if you're a dog or a beauty queen. All this talk of sunsets and spinakers is a turn-off. At least you don't say you're looking for your one true love."


"Give me some credit, Mack."


She reached out one hand - Harry had called them "concert hands" because they were fine-boned and delicate-looking - as if to signal the end of the exchange, as if to recapture the paper from Mack's grip, but he ignored her and plunged ahead with a steady stream of ideas, words and phrases.


"Cary Grant!" he blurted out. "We've got to work in Cary Grant somehow."


Marilyn frowned as Susan nodded her head in fervent agreement with her husband's madness. They were an impossible team. She was playing doubles but alone on her side of the court.


Her marriage, too, had been a tennis match. Too many smashes, volleys and forced errors. Harry, it seemed, was always rushing to the net ready to aim the next shot right at her chest. He never showed much mercy or much subtlety. There were few lobs or graceful ground strokes. His serves were so strong that half his points were scored as aces.


She was relieved when he fled to an Olympian, younger lover, actually glad he'd made the move, because she didn't think she could have broken out of their fierce game on her own. She was trapped, loving him and hating him all at the same time. It took time adjusting to the empty bed and the quiet, the unending quiet, but she grew to welcome the solace.


"How about 'Audrey Hepburn invites Cary Grant to skipper her sloop?'" Mack asked his wife, acting as if Marilyn's opinions were irrelevant.


"That's nonsense," she protested. "I don't own a sloop and I don't look like Audrey Hepburn. People sometimes tell me I remind them of Meryl Streep, but not Hepburn. Besides, you're going to attract a crowd of old guys with that line. I'm only 34, remember."




Two weeks later she began screening responses. She had thrown away Mack's pitiful copywriting and started fresh.


Her New York Magazine ad read . . .


"Let's give them something to talk about. Raspberries. Eric Satie. Citron moons. Coatue. Mid 30s, Streep/Raitt resemblance. Read me a poem. Box 3701."


She did not show this ad to her brother. When he called and asked how she was doing with the ad, she didn't confess her trashing of his work. It felt cowardly, but she just didn't want to hear his lecture. Here she was approaching the middle of her life and her father kept reappearing to lecture her and tell her she was all wrong, first in the person of Harry and now Mack. A passing acquaintance with psycho-babble made this all seem rather natural, but it still seemed a bit mysterious to her.


Not wanting to confront Mack, she side-stepped him, just like she had side-stepped her father and then Harry. "Bite your tongue, girl!" a voice inside warned her.


She sat listening to responses for an hour. Each person could call and leave a 60 second message. Out of 48 messages, only 8 actually read a poem. The others just couldn't do it.


"I love red hair and older women," raved one apparently young man.


"I never was much for poetry," apologized another, "but I do love the Rangers.'


Some seemed to think her ad was a riddle. "Coatue! That took me a long time to figure out," confided one caller. "That's on Nantucket, right? It's a long spit of sand that stretches out to make the bay, right? One of my friends has been there and that's how . . ."


She was amazed by how many voices were cut off mid sentence, as if they made no attempt to plan or time their remarks. And then they almost never called back to finish the message. She figured they were responding to ten or more ads and were unwilling to invest another $3.90 for the second minute.


Coitus interruptus , she kept thinking. Maybe she should write "The One Minute Lover."


The eight poetry readers were mostly a disappointment. Only one or two could read very well. And most read someone else's poem, generally the singsong type of poem they might have encountered in grammar school.


Except for one raspberry poem, she concluded that poets just didn't read personal ads, a conclusion that she found rather reassuring, even if it were frustrating.


The Feast

I set my table with wild flowers
And then a silver spoon
I light a candle at eventide
Await the rising moon
An earthen vase
A stoneware bowl
A pitcher full of cream
A pile of ripened raspberries
Await the rising moon

This one poetic voice left a Manhattan phone number and a request for a poem of hers.


How did he know? she wondered. But then she smiled. Of course he would know, she reasoned.


She turned to her computer and scampered through the hundreds of poems she had stored there, trying to find a raspberry poem from her 20s, a poem she had written before meeting Harry.


The Kiss

Staining lips ripe
Are meant to be shared
One at a time
Hand to mouth
Not frozen
And put aside

As love
Which has its season
Is meant to be tasted
Staining lips ripe
One kiss at a time
Not later


She read it aloud half a dozen times, rehearsing and pondering its meaning as an opening gesture. And then she called, expecting an answering machine.


"Hello," he answered, "this is Andrew."


It seemed strange that he answered his home phone on a Tuesday morning, and she found herself on the edge of panic. "Get a grip, girl!" she chided herself.


"Oh, good morning. This is the Chelsea Poetry Workshop calling to deliver your morning poem."


Where did that come from? she marvelled, unaccustomed to such spontaneity.


"Oh, how delightful." She could hear the smile in his voice.


When she was done reading, there was silence. She waited for a minute, and there was still silence. The panic began to creep toward her again.


"Hello?" she ventured, afraid he had disappeared.


"Oh, yes," he answered. "I am sorry. I was just savoring the thoughts you provoked. Sort of like when a concert pianist plays the final notes and the sound lingers. The audience waits until the vibrations cease before applauding."




"What is your name?"


They chatted for an hour, covering all the bases, all the items she might have put in an ad but hadn't. It was apparent that they were a good match, if lists of traits meant anything at all. They shared at least two dozen major, major passions. They were both writers and sailors who dabbled in art. Etc. Etc.


So she agreed to meet him.


"Where?" he asked.


"How about the pool at the Temple in the Met?" she suggested.




As luck would have it, the Met had closed down the wing with the Temple for the afternoon, a rotational cost-cutting measure she had forgotten about.


But she stood in an obvious place where he would probably pass, and he found her with no trouble at all.


She had enormous difficulty hiding the disappointment she felt upon seeing him. He wasn't at all what she had expected. As they swapped life stories on the phone, she had begun to draw a picture of him in her mind, which was, she confessed to herself, a bit like Paul Newman. He had said that he was middle 40s, after all.


He was quite short, blond and a bit unkempt, with very dark horn-rimmed glasses and a generous belly. Not so scrawny as Woody Allen, but an Irish version, nevertheless.


But even as she struggled to hide her own reaction - which she knew was bordering on repulsion - she noted discomfort lurking behind his thick glasses and realized he wasn't all too happy, himself.


They shook hands a bit awkwardly and stood there hesitating.


"It's closed," he commented.


"I know," she replied, her mind spinning with escape plans, excuses she could make, anything to get out and away. God, she shrieked silently inside, this is worse than a blind date. How did I do this to myself?


"What do you want to do instead?" he asked, sneaking a glance at his watch. "I only have a half hour or so. I'm expecting a call at three o'clock."


She shrugged, feeling immobilized.


"How about the urns?" he suggested.


"The Grecian urns?"


He nodded. "They're amazing," he assured her. "Once you look closely."


She acquiesced, realizing she had never really looked at them during her many visits to the Met. She had always hurried past on her way to the European paintings.


It was, as he said, actually amazing, once she paid full attention to the figures. He pointed out favorites and helped her to recognize heroes and monsters.


"That's Theseus and the Minotaur," he reminded her.


She smiled, finding him gentle and patient. There were no stirrings of chemistry, no romantic flair and no hints of excitement. She was feeling very relaxed. Almost comfortable. He had not, she suddenly realized, teased her or toyed with her. He had no edge.


"Well," he announced, checking his watch once again. "I guess I better be running off to catch that phone call."


"Oh," she replied. "I was just beginning to enjoy this whole thing."


He smiled, a bit weakly she thought. "Yes," he said. "I did, too."


She knew he would never call her again, that he was just biding time until he, too, could escape and leave this mistake behind, but she reached out her hand and touched his arm.






"Will you tell me something?"


His eyes seemed to her to grow a bit guarded and suspicious. He must be worried that I will ask him for another date, she realized.


"I don't mean to get too personal or anything, and you certainly don't have to answer my question, but I just noticed that you seemed somehow disappointed when we first met earlier, and I wondered if you could tell me what it was that threw you off balance right from the start?"


He stared at her with obviously growing discomfort as she spoke, and he seemed to be preparing to bolt away before she could finish, but he stood his ground and met her eyes. He even managed a smile.


"I'm embarrassed to tell you this," he began, "but I had pictured you in my mind . . . well . . . I know you mentioned Streep and Raitt in your ad, but . . . "


He stalled at this and began to look down and away.


"Go on," she urged him. "I want to know."


"Well, I have always loved red hair and I guess I began to picture you as someone more like Bette Midler."


"Oh," she said, smiling at his confession. She wondered if he would counter her question with a probe of his own, but he seemed too rushed to bother, she noted with considerable relief.


When they shook hands at the top of the stone steps and parted, probably for good, for the last time, Marilyn stayed behind to watch a street mime work the crowd on the steps, opening and passing through invisible doors. He even climbed stairs where no stairs existed. But she noticed that each step took him no higher. He was an Escher print. Silent. Illusory. Masked.


She bought a hot dog, smeared it with mustard and didn't bother to wipe her mouth when the mustard spilled a bit.


This will be difficult, she thought to herself, more difficult than I imagined.

- The End -