Which always seems to be the goddamned case. It’s not that I enjoy seething in a blinding rage over the rapidly congealing Lean Cuisine on my desk while the girl I share an office with gets four dozen roses delivered to her on Valentine’s Day. Never mind that I want to snatch that box of Belgian chocolates out of her hands and clobber her over the head with it, my real dilemma is that the UPS man is never leering suggestively over a heart-shaped package with MY name on it. Because romance is never really about the dude who sent you the cookie bouquet, it’s about making sure that every ho in your office knows that you are desirable. And worth $27 plus next day delivery. Years of banging the kind of dudes who think an affectionate gesture is bringing a bag of tacos over to eat before you fuck him will erode a girl’s faith in fairytale romance, for sure. I’m fucking jaded, dude. I was raised by the television, primarily, and even as a kid I had a grim view of interpersonal sexual relationships that was rooted firmly in reality. My Barbie dolls had intense, complicated relationships; Ken was always coming home late and sneaking out behind the dream house with the cordless phone to call Midge, Skipper was abusing diet pills, and Barbie spent all of her time driving around in her Corvette crying off her perfectly-applied mascara. It was all very tumultuous and dramatic and often mimicked whatever story lines were currently airing on General Hospital.
My parents, like everyone else’s, divorced early on in my childhood. And it was totally normal and not tragic, because it was really easy to understand why two people who fought that much over shit like unwashed laundry and misread grocery lists might not want to live with one another anymore. The thing that resonated with me the most at that young age was that love is boring and requires more yelling than I am comfortable with. I was loath to get excited about some ill-fated, star-crossed romance or, conversely, life behind a white picket fence with some doting, devoted suit and tie. Especially because even if I found it it was destined to devolve into shouting matches about the recycling and beard stubble left behind in the sink. Even the most torrid love affairs turn into passionless arguments about tax deductions and why I’m making spaghetti for dinner again. Seriously, that’s what I imagine when I think of a married couple: two exhausted assholes grimacing at each other across a dining room table, a pile of unpaid bills scattered between them, leftover chili reheating on the stove.
And then my view of modern romance changed completely the day I happened upon the Missed Connections ads in the Chicago Reader. The first time I ever saw one I sat jaw-agape, staring in disbelief at the newspaper. In that instant it seemed like the most perfect and romantic thing I had ever motherfucking seen. It’s possible that I only think so because I walk around pretending to be the star of a movie everyone else is watching, but I was blown away. All those shy glances across a crowded laundromat could actually mean something? The guy I spilled a beer on at the Rocking Horse last week might have actually thought I was sweet and adorable rather than a drunk, clumsy ape and put an ad in the newspaper to find me so that I could drop my drink on him AGAIN?! HOLY FUCKING SHIT. That revelation turned my sour thinking on its negative head. Every pharmacy trip and train ride was now a potential opportunity for me to awkwardly trip over the human being of my dreams. Provided that we could connect if he placed an ad in the paper in a timely manner after having serendipitously locked eyes with me across the Starbucks line and I remembered to pick up a Reader on my way home from work every Friday. I never forgot, though. I would get takeout for dinner and sit in my bed combing that shit for hours, every single week, fruitlessly searching for some sort of descriptor that could vaguely resemble me. Did I wear a red shirt last Tuesday? Have I ever been to Elephant and Castle on a Thursday night around nine? Do I have a dog?!
There’s a dude who used to ride the 147 bus with me every morning. Tall-ish, tortoiseshell glasses, peanut butter skin, fucking handsome. But, like, real life handsome. Accessible handsome. I became convinced, after about three weeks of shyly glancing away every time our eyes met on the bus, that he was the person I’d spent my whole life riding buses to meet. I couldn’t speak to him, because I’m a fucking idiot, but every morning I would get dressed and think, “Maybe today is the day he’ll notice me and say something.” My eyes would bore holes into the back of his head, yearning for him to turn around and ask me how to get to the Art Institute or where he could get a decent latte. He never did, he just smiled at me, sometimes with a wink (which would make me come completely undone), and get off two stops before mine.
I placed the ad on a whim, drunk on boxed wine and feeling especially miserable and alone. I included as many details about him as the character-limit would allow, trying not to sound too much like a groupie stalker, despite the fact that I’d memorized everything about him (fitted plaid trench coat, blue leather work bag, sometimes a tweed Kangol, brown square-toed boots every day except Tuesday when he traded the boots for a pair of gray New Balance and a hoodie in place of the fancy coat). The Monday after it ran I sat on the bus with butterflies beating against the inside of my stomach, waiting for the light of recognition to shine in his eyes as he boarded what was no longer a bus. No, this was our Cinderella pumpkin turned fantasy carriage, and all he had to do was pay his two dollars and push the singing rats aside to slide that glass slipper onto my breathlessly awaiting foot. I held my breath at his stop, my hope unwavered by the double-lightning strike coincidence that would have to occur in order for this whole thing to work out the way I wanted it to. He didn’t get on at his stop, that day or the next. Or ever again.
I still scour the Missed Connections every single week. Not looking for that dude, because that shit was, like, ten years ago, but because I still want to believe that random-ass romance could really be a real thing. And the day I see an ad looking for a scowling, tattooed asshole who pushed past a woman with a walker trying to get the best seat on the goddamned train, I’ll know in my heart that it really, truly is.