When Jo was hired to run the personals section of the local weekly newspaper, she bragged to friends that it was almost better than sex. Every day she’d stop at the café at the corner of Throckmorton and Blithedale for coffee and a bagel, which she’d enjoy at her desk, working her way through a thick stack of submissions, chuckling and chasing stray sesame seeds with a whetted fingertip. She used a plastic knife to jimmy open each envelope, the contents of which she’d input manually into her computer, taking her time, savoring each ad’s individual nuance and flavor, amazed at how much personality might be discerned in a hundred words or less. But even after they’d been transcribed into Helvetica, every curlicue and quiver of desire showed through. There was a flat rate—a hundred words for $10, 20 cents for each additional, a restriction that added weight and urgency to every word.
After a few months on the job, Jo began to recognize familiar tics. There were her fellow thesaurus-abusers who wanted to sound smart but ended up sounding silly, the blow-hards who spent all their words trumpeting their achievements so forcefully that it sounded like they were hoping for trophies instead of dates, and conversely, the ones who had such extensive and nit-picky stipulations that only a masochist could read the whole list. If she had a dollar for every time she typed the word “attractive,” a word that lost a layer of meaning with every repetition until its meaninglessness began to infect the words around it, until nothing in that square inch box of personal advertisement said anything at all and there might as well be a hole in the page, an utter absence hissing its vapid, fart-like deflation. If she could demand a tenner from every person who said they liked walks on the beach, she could spend the rest of her days at the beach looking meaninglessly attractive.
The last time Jo went to the beach, it had been covered with listing umbrellas and the sand was too hot to walk on so she followed the waterline all the way to its end where the beach was swallowed by a tumble of rocks, where she rounded a boulder and found a silver-haired man sitting there, watching her as if he’d been watching for awhile. Instead of looking away, she’d returned the look, noting how his eyes were brown and friendly-looking and his dark eyebrows arched with emphatic intelligence and a touch of panache. She kept looking until his gaze wriggled away and fixed on something fascinating in the distance.
But some of the personals were real gems. The clever ones who managed to arrange words in a way she’d never seen before, the ones that didn’t take themselves too seriously, and the poets whose tenor was so loaded with longing it made her stand up from her desk, walk to the window, and search the street for a familiar face. She would think about them when she had to stand in line or on the long bus ride to and from work. She’d sometimes find herself staring deeply into strangers’ eyes, wondering if it might be them. Not just the men but the women, too. Men Seeking Women (MSW), WSM, MSM, and WSW, there were no other options. But to Jo, it didn’t matter who, as long as the personal ad felt personal.
Her favorite section was one she called “Missed Opportunities.” Before she was hired, there were no Missed Opportunities, but she’d felt that the personals needed something extra, a dose of reality— less predictability, perhaps, or a little more drama. It was the column for those who had almost managed to meet someone the old-fashioned way but had somehow been thwarted—the train pulled away too fast or it started to rain or they got cold feet, whatever, some act of god or human weakness intervened, leaving their aching desire to connect unfinished and unsatisfied. The Missed Opportunities usually went the same: “You were sitting in front of me on the bus….” “You wore a blue sweater (was it as soft as it looked? I still want to know…).” “I was the one sitting by the window, trying not to stare.” “You asked me for the time, and I can’t stop wondering what you might have meant.” “Our eyes met just before you left: Did you feel it, too?” There was something so poignant yet futile about each scenario, and when stacked in a column and read back-to-back, they made a swelling, stabbing chorus of desire, and she could not help but be stirred.
Southbound after work one day, Jo was sitting in the back of the bus replaying her favorite dystopian fantasy, a scenario that went like this: Some disaster had occurred—maybe a bomb had dropped or the Big One had shaken all the highways to gravel, something sudden and utterly cataclysmic—and the only thing that survived was the bus she was riding. Outside, nothing but rubble and ruin from to the rust-colored horizon, but inside a ragtag group survived, and her first task was to ascertain who’d be on her team and who she’d have to get rid of. This necessitated a rigorous and cagey inspection of each rider, which Jo conducted over the edges of an open book.
That day, the group was more friendly-looking than usual: she wasn’t sure about the businessman because who rides a bus in a power suit, but there was a clean-looking old guy in a sweater vest clutching a bag of groceries, two pudgy, sticky-looking toddlers and their mother who could probably cook, a huge slouchy guy sporting a “Mom❤️” neck tattoo, and a polite group of dusty-looking day laborers. Lindy, the bus driver, was probably armed, and a gun might come in handy. They could unbolt the seats from the floor and push them together to make beds. They’d have to eject the businessman before he started giving orders. One of the laborers had lovely, soulful eyes and Jo imagined him taking his shirt off to help push their bed together.
At the next stop, a young woman got on. Despite herself, the first word that came into Jo’s head was “attractive.” It had something to do with how every eye, even the toddlers’, flew to her like flies to meat as she rocked her heels all the way to the back of the bus and slid into the seat in front of Jo, who stared at the back of her naked neck where her sweater’s tag flapped up and fought the urge to tuck it in. 100% Cashmere: What did it feel like cupped in the palm of your hand?
It wasn’t important to Jo if the Missed Opportunities ever made a connection; it was the longing itself that turned her on. The dream that she might meet someone on the bus was not quite as juicy as the idea that every ride was an opportunity, and every time she went outside, she joined a strutting, blushing, writhing, flexing, stammering parade of collective longing.
It was a Friday morning in early June when it finally happened. She had just slung her cardigan on the back of her chair, plunked down at her desk, and taken her first slug of coffee when she found it atop the stack of submissions—nothing outrageous or outstanding, just a business-sized envelope marked with nondescript blue ballpoint, but inside: “I see you at the corner café almost every morning,” it began, “buying yourself a cup of coffee and a bagel.” This reminded her to take a bite, scattering sesame and fennel across the page. “You like the ones with all the seeds, the ones they call ‘everything.’ I’m the one who’s always sitting at the table by the front window, watching you.” The skin on the back of Jo’s neck rippled, and she reflexively turned to look. “If my eyes could speak, they’d say you’re beautiful. They’d ask you for your name and they’d beg you to look at me, too. You seem like a girl who understands missed opportunities, so let’s make every single one of these hundred words count. Please pull up a chair and join me tomorrow!”
Jo spent the rest of the morning savoring those words. By lunchtime, she was knocking on her boss’s door. She announced it was time for her to expand her horizons because after all, there was no future in personals. Her boss agreed and offered her a position in sales, which meant a decent raise and a better desk, one on the sunny side of the building, closer to the fancy bakery she’d been meaning to try. When the paper came out on Monday, Jo cut out her missed opportunity and hung it on her office wall in a delicate gold frame.