ome weeks ago — my sense of time these days is admittedly fragile — I received an email from a young woman about to graduate from a West Coast American college and eager to find work with this magazine. The mail was read to me by a friend, the only means I have to get a sense of what’s been sent my way. Artificial intelligence, for all its wordy skills, falls short on understanding, let alone conveying, nuance.
The little note was sincere but choppy, its sentences snarled and broken by poor comma placement and a few oddly archaic phrasings, to wit: “I desire you to know my history and ethics of work passion.” More nineteenth century than twenty-first, I thought to myself, though writing these days is a mish-mash of the spoken and the written and seems to exist outside time. It is also laced with all kinds of abbreviations, typical of the children of the text world.
I mention the latter because the young candidate— whom I had to turn down because we offer neither internships nor pay — concluded by telling me how much she looked forward to visiting Rome and perhaps meeting me “IRL.”
An IRL is an Italian limited company but surely a woman from California wasn’t looking forward to meeting our company, never mind that we don’t have one.
The reader of the email, a man in his fifties, laughed out loud. “It means ‘in real life,’” he said. “My daughters use it all the time.” When they’re stumped by something they also use “DKTS,” a nifty and less time-consuming way of telling a friend or foe, “I don’t know what to say…” In theory, a request for an “IRL” meeting could be met with “DKWTS.”
The young woman’s note (which incidentally contained no “Dear Mr.” to start, only the gender-safe “hello”) and the mysteries of “IRL” had a back to the future effect, vaulting me exactly back to the fall of 1988.
At the time, I lived in Washington, D.C. The year before, I had brought my critically ill mother back from Rome and she had died that summer. A relationship of longstanding had fallen apart, my own restless sullenness to blame. I was thirty-five years old, single, unemployed, and lonely. “IRL” meetings of any kind were few — I was too moody — and dating out of the question.
So it was that I drove around the city stewing and brewing. There was no internet and, just as inconceivably, no mobile phone communication — though thigh-sized mobile phones did exist, but they were mostly laughed at.
One day in my now-empty home, while reading a glossy local magazine, I idly thumbed my way to the “personals” section — long offset as a kind of “back-of-the-book” pariah among highbrow journals. The editors wanted you to know that this was dirty small print, though they all enjoyed the revenue such ads produced. Unlike these porn-unlimited days, the ads were neatly presented and the language tidied up for family consumption. It was, almost incredible to say, that era’s adult” content.
But this is a me, myself, and I story, and there’s no time for asides into social or sexual anthropology.
Reading these ads I was stirred by a longing that placed me all at once in uncharted territory, to some a netherworld of vice and sin.
But the ads didn’t read that way. The acronym of the time was SWF, “single, white female,” and most desired discreet companionship with a few (but only a few) hinting at something racier, less morally frugal.
To pass dull hours I began replying to some of these ads, banging away on my green portable Olivetti. All had to be sent to post office boxes care of the magazine.
Images were roundly discouraged, the magazine fearing male and female zealots. Who knew what the images might show and the magazine wanted no part of such potentially thorny problems.
You were, God forbid, forced to write actual letters, abbreviation free, since attempting to woo a young woman by telling her you wished to meet her “IRL” wouldn’t have got you far. I instead told recipients who I was, that I lived in town, enjoyed reading books and seeing films (naming authors and titles), and closed by hoping they might think enough of plebian courtship to write back. Again, it was the magazine that sent on the responses, behaving as a sort of corporate chaperone.
The early returns were meager, but one letter, from a woman in the Virginia suburbs, was so heartfelt that I wept. She suffered from a genetic disorder that left her bound to a wheelchair. She had placed the ad, she said, hoping not to tell anyone about her disease and, for once, to receive what she’d only ever imagined: a love letter. I wrote her a poem and sent her just such a letter, romantic and pining. I received a one-sentence reply after which she vanished: “I will never forget you, and will imagine you as the love of my life.”
I grew bolder and finally wrote my own ad, a long, passionate (and costly) ode to the sadness of being alone, Young Werther minus the acres of manly melancholy.
Today, some might say the ad went viral. No one used “DKWTS.”
I am not a Casanova or a bed-hopper — and none of this has to do with sex. Yes, I did meet and become intimate with several of my correspondents, but not before weeks of layered lettered courtship. One woman I fell hard for challenged me to prove I’d lived in Italy. No Google to turn to, she wrote me a passionate note entirely in Italian. All was parry and thrust. I replied in Italian, though not as inspired as hers. Late one rainy night, months later, she confided she’d lived in Florence and had had an Italian boyfriend for a year.
Letters came from single mothers, sales clerks, lawyers, writers. This seemingly endless flow (in fact just a few months) lifted me from my doldrums. The letters covered wants, needs, life histories, politics, only occasionally veering into the erotic. The will these women had to write and the way they told their stories would revise my view of relationships. The dinners I had with the women I dated were swollen with conversation and laughter. The intimacy grew like vines up a wall. The wall was fertile because our words and phone conversations had created an arable façade. When we met, we had far more than pixels and abbreviated thoughts as romantic fodder.
One woman, at the end of lovely dinner date I hoped would end in a kiss, summed up the wonderful if at times disappointing quirks of those months. “I had a great time with you tonight,” she said, kissing very, very lightly, “but I have to tell you something. If we take this any further the letters will stop, and I don’t want them to.” I protested to no avail and the letters of course continued. I was smitten. I bought her brand of perfume and kept it on my desk.
I pushed hard and harder still, and we finally had our second date, this time at a lovely place outside Washington. I had — I admit it — set a trap, and she chose to relax into the beauty of the settings. The night was memorable. But she’d been right. The letters ended and soon our fling did as well.
“I know you got what you wanted,” she wrote me in her final note, “and I was an accomplice, and nights like that don’t happen often. But there’s this little bird in me that still chirps and says if we’d let the words keep flowing, even for a year, our night, when it came, might have been the beginning of something big, something lasting. Because the anticipation of writing and hearing back was larger than life for me.”
I returned to Rome and we remained in touch albeit haphazardly, but the thrill was gone. The “IRL” had stolen away with it.
What it did not and cannot steal are the words and letters, most of which I still have but can no longer read. Holding them in a thick batch as I do from time to time to time, the faint aroma of ancient perfume undeterred, I cannot help but pine for that “IRL”-less world in words were precious. No one would dare abbreviate, let alone paraphrase, “You are the love of my life…”