Corpus Christi, Texas, or Body of the False Messiah, as my friends back East called it, was no place for a single Jewish woman to meet a Jewish man. Even the Catholic editor who recruited me to the city's daily newspaper in 1993 warned of scarce pickings of any faith.
It didn't take but a week to realize that my editor was right. My first romantic prospect gave his address as a homeless shelter. The few single Jewish men in town were old shleppers who mooched Sabbath meals at the rabbi's house.
Still, having reported for a newspaper in Washington, D.C., I welcomed the slower pace of Corpus Christi. I embraced my job as a lifestyle reporter in a town where nothing happens.
Content with my job and new friends, I was not about to move to a big city just to meet men. The suitors would have to come to me. And come they did, by the hundreds, thanks to the Internet. By 1996, online personal ads had become a godsend to Jewish singles like me who lived in rural, two-synagogue towns. That year, I began an intensive Internet search for a husband.
Serendipity, a chance meeting in a chat room, was not for me, so I posted my first ad at keyword: Jewish Matchmaker at America Online. Until then, I was dating two or three guys a year, men I'd met through friends or chance meetings. The average time wasted per man had dropped considerably since the days when my entanglements dragged on indefinitely without commitment.
Still, maritally speaking, I was on a slow route to nowhere.
I went online for quantity — the raw numbers that only AOL could generate. I believed there was more than one Mr. Right out there, maybe even dozens, in the same way that I suspect that life exists outside our solar system: simple laws of probability. With an online ad, I could cast a net as wide as the country and as long as AOL's membership list. (Only 5 million or 6 million back then, but it would have to do.)
Luck be damned.
With this new tool for matchmaking, I would no longer have to depend on a friend's introduction or running into men at parties, bookstores or supermarkets. Has anyone ever met a man at a grocery store?
The search lasted four years and consumed every waking hour outside my other job. Relatively few of the prospects excited me, maybe one in 20 men. The hopeless procrastinator in me filed away these potentials so I could waste time rejecting the rest. What fun! I embroiled myself sadistically, or possibly masochistically, with men I had no intention of meeting. The contentious ones thrilled me, particularly those who objected to preferences I had clearly stated in my personal ad.
"Let's keep it under 46 and over 38," read my ad from SJF, 38. I wanted a guy within my own generation. Why so many men in their 50s and 60s responded, I can only guess. As my ads aged with me, ("Age 40-1/2, but I look 40!"), I drew even more men from the dark side of my age specs.
To early retirees and seniors, I was still a young babe. Never married. Willing to relocate. No children. No desire to have them.
Boy, was I in demand.
I posted a photo with my ad. I heard it would generate five times as many replies. The photo changed with my age and moods over the four years. The depressed photo, released after a breakup, was my personal favorite. "Haunting," one man replied.
I insisted that replies include a recent photo. Who doesn't have a photo of himself that's less than 10 years old? Well, they found me, those camera-shy guys. "I still look like that," they insisted. "Really!"
I was frank. "Look, I'd love to send you a photo of me at 30 because I was really hot back then. But it's just not me anymore."
Another shortcut to the delete key: "What's a nice Jewish girl like you doing in a place like Texas?" Staying far away from you, I thought.
If I gained anything from this experience, it was a new feeling of empowerment. My mother always told me it's a man's world in romance and that good Jewish men are scarce. So don't expect too much, she warned.
The quantity of responses changed that thinking. Most important, culling through hundreds of ads forced me to keep clarifying what I wanted and not back down. Having no set of clear standards was what kept me in lousy relationships all these years.
I received 800 responses over four years. Of those, I responded positively to 15. I got to know them better over the phone. I crisscrossed the country to date them. From that point, the experience was no different from offline dating, a roller-coaster ride of hope, disappointment and depression.
Smarting after a rejection, I'd always get back on the computer, more obsessed each time. She's man crazy, my girlfriends thought. "Sit back, relax," said a younger friend, whose husband proposed two weeks after they met. "Learn to be alone."
By my mid-30s, my mother abandoned all hopes for a Jewish son-in-law, having seen enough of what was out there. By the start of my search, she was holding out for anything in pants. Near the end, she decided I was better off being single.
Little did I know I had already met the man.
Mark, a 41-year-old musician and violin dealer, had e-mailed me five months earlier. Not hearing back, he followed with a second letter. Twice I ignored his intelligent and thoughtful letters from Toronto. By then I was burnt out on cross-country dating. I was working on my Texas pile.
I don't remember my first phone call with Mark. And I broke an appointment for our second conversation. I was too busy writing and calling men who weren't interested in me. Occasionally, Mark would pop on my computer screen, annoying me with instant messages: "Hi!"
He just wanted to talk.
One night, I was ending a two-month affair with a Houston man. I was crying as I typed instant messages, saying how much he had hurt me.
And there was Mark again, instant-messaging in the corner of my screen. "Can't talk," I pecked. "In tears. Am breaking up with someone."
"Online?" he wrote back. "Do you need someone to talk to?"
Well, I should have reread my personal ad. Because buried between "An old 38 is okay" and "You don't have to tell me your whole life story. A few talking points will do" was something about wanting a man with "best-friend potential."
Mark was it: a great listener, and he had accepted me at my worst — right away.
Everything after that went as smoothly as my mother said it would when Mr. Right came along. We met the following month, got engaged in nine months and married five months later.
But of course, you haven't heard his side of the story.