One evening after dinner, Charlotte snuck into her husband's study and used his computer to subscribe to an online dating service. Breaking into the study was easy, a few extra glasses of wine and Tom was snoring loudly on the couch. Finding a suitable photo to post on the Match Made in Heaven site was considerably more challenging. Charlotte sat on the floor of the bathroom with a shoebox, narrowing her choices down to a Theda Bara close-up of her face and a black and white shot of her body covered by a sheet, her head turned artistically to one side.
The black and white photograph was taken in Paris, on her honeymoon. Charlotte had never looked forward to anything as much as that trip. Most brides-to-be pinned their hopes on their weddings, but hers had been a subdued affair. In less than five minutes, the judge at the courthouse had pronounced them man and wife.
“It’s over? We're married?” Charlotte said, blinking at Tom.
“Don’t worry,” the judge said, shrugging off his black robes to reveal golf togs underneath. “It's legally binding.” And with that, he rushed out of the room with his bag of clubs, waving at the startled newlyweds.
Charlotte counted down the days until Paris, making a list of all the romantic things she and Tom would do together: walk hand-in-hand along the Seine, kiss on the Pont Neuf bridge, spend the weekend in bed feeding one another grapes and cheese. It didn't matter that her new husband didn’t like cheese. Paris was the city of romance. Some of it was bound to rub off on him. But when they arrived at their hotel, the only room available was a single with two beds. She hoped Tom would kick up a fuss, but he signed the register without a peep, placing a key in his pocket and handing the other to her.
“We better get an early night,” he said, as they unpacked their luggage in the tiny room. “We have to be up early if we’re going to see the sights.”
The next day, after Charlotte complained of a headache, Tom went out by himself, leaving his new wife alone in the room. When she was sure he was gone, she leapt out of bed and treated herself to a shopping trip, inspired by a magazine article she had read on the plane, offering ten top tips to seduce your man. Charlotte was particularly intrigued by number four: ‘Sexy Makeovers and Glamour Shots for Special Occasions’. The article showed a leggy blonde reclining in bed wearing nothing but a pair of stilettos and a smile.
“I can do that,” Charlotte thought.
The silver sandals made her ankles look impossibly thin. She tottered around the room, trying out various poses, wondering what Tom would say when he saw the photos. But when he came in a few hours later, holding a map and a baguette, he did a slow double take like a cartoon character. “What on earth are you doing with my bedside lamp and the camera?” was all he managed, as he looked at his wife crouched over the bed.
Charlotte sat up, trying to cover herself with the sheet, as the shutter snapped. “I was posing. For a glamour photo,” she stammered.
Tom marched over and yanked the lamp from the wall, returning it to its rightful place on his side of the room. He picked up the baguette and jabbed it in her direction. “I thought you might be hungry.”
“Wait. Please don’t go,” Charlotte said. But it was too late. Her husband slammed the door on his way out and didn’t return again till later in the evening.
Until she met Tom, Charlotte hadn't had much luck with men. The teachers at the elementary school where she taught had been trying to match her up for ages, but the dates turned out to be inevitably dull. Charlotte would sip her tonic water and make small talk, counting down the minutes until she was safely back at home.
“Well?” her friends would ask the next day at school.
“Well, he was nice, but we had nothing in common.”
“Charlie, having things in common is nice but it isn’t a requisite for romance. You need to loosen up. Guys enjoy being around someone who is fun and light-hearted. You need to be less introverted, more outgoing.”
“More outgoing and fun. Got it,” she said. But it soon became apparent that Charlotte, with her sensible shoes and old-lady cardigans, wasn’t trying hard enough. Eventually, her friends stopped fixing her up.
She was secretly relieved. She much preferred to spend her evenings reading or going to the cinema alone, instead of being out with men who kept asking her the same inane questions.
No, I have never been married.
No, I have never been in a long-term relationship.
Yes, I’ve always been the kind of girl who values her solitude.
When she was fourteen, Charlotte’s parents sent her to summer camp, hoping that being around people her own age would get their shy daughter out of her shell. But Charlotte hated everything about camp: the enforced gaiety, the hikes, the tinny taste of well water. Worst of all, she couldn't relate to any of the other kids, who were desperate to pair off like animals from Noah's Ark.
“I can’t really explain what it is like to be in love,” said a girl to a group of her friends, as they stood in line in the canteen. “But it is like so obvious. You just know.”
“Yeah,” said another girl. “It happened to me last summer.” She placed a carton milk on her tray. Love is like a sickness, but a good sickness. Even though you feel all feverish inside and do stupid things you wouldn’t normally do.”
The other girls giggled.
“Being in love is like surfing on a giant cloud, but it's so big, it blocks everything out.”
“Even the sun?” asked Charlotte, who forget herself in her eagerness to define the elusive emotion.
Everyone turned to stare at her. “Don't be stupid,” said the first girl. She shook her head disgustedly and she and her friends walked away, leaving Charlotte by herself.
In the evenings, while singing rounds of Kumbaya, the girls passed notes to the boys and pretended to be upset when they were intercepted. Meanwhile, the boys walked around the campfire, circling the girls as if they were herds of prized elk.
During one of the nature walks a boy approached Charlotte.
I have something for you,” he said, asking her to hold out her hand. “It's a tree frog,” he beamed proudly, as if he’d given birth to it himself.
Charlotte stared at the tiny green thing.
“I got it for you. Especially.”
“But why?” she asked, unable to see how the frog related to her in any way.
The boy stopped smiling and looked at his shoes. After a few seconds, he shrugged, took back his frog, and walked away.
Charlotte had never felt more like an outsider looking in. She wrote to her sister at home: Rachel, it’s as if all the kids were slipped some sort of love potion in the Kool-Aid to make them act so goofy. Everyone except me.
“You're too uptight, Charlie. Relax and have fun,” Rachel wrote back.
Fun. As if life were an attraction at an amusement park––a thrilling roller coaster you could ride until you grew tired. Charlotte’s idea of fun did not consist of pimply, smelly, awkward boys bearing amphibians.
Not that it mattered, because after the frog incident, the boys pretty much left her alone. They reminded her of a program she watched on the Discovery Channel about salmon. When it came time to mate, salmon would go to extraordinary lengths: swim upstream, travel for thousands of miles, do whatever it took to find a partner. Any partner. Like the kids at her camp, salmon had no criteria.
By the first week, everyone had found someone to pair off with, evolving from fish to two-headed beasts—beasts with fingers stuck in one another's back pockets. The campers went around entwined at all times: on hikes, while swimming in the lake, during the evening campfire. They stayed that way until the end of camp, as their parents and counselors tried to wrench them apart.
“I’ll write to you everyday,” they promised one another amid tears and saliva.
Charlotte, sitting by herself on the bus, was disgusted. She promised herself that when it came time to fall in love, she'd do it quietly and with dignity.
In college, the salmon pattern continued, Charlotte’s classmates needing only the slightest commonality before hurling themselves lemming-like into relationships. You like soup? Wow, what a coincidence. I love soup. They were so young and eager, so prepared to clutch at love by the lapels if necessary.
“Love should be well thought out,” Charlotte would say. “It’s not something you should rush into blindly. Give it time.”
Her friends waved away her words as if they were too ridiculous to contemplate. “Charlie, you have no idea what you are talking about. You are always playing it safe. You don’t allow yourself to fall, even while the rest of us crash and burn. Human emotions can’t be calculated. The heart wants what it wants.”
Later, as adults, when hormones could no longer be held responsible, her friends continued behaving as if romance were something inexplicable that occurred given the proper alignment of stars and planets.
The teachers were sitting in the break-room eating their salads. As usual, their talk turned to romance. Donna, who taught mathematics, told her that love was possible when the tangents of Right Time and Right Place intersected.
“Right place? What in the world is Right Place?” asked Charlotte.
“Place is a state of mind,” Donna said, chewing on a cucumber. “It means your head is in the right space.”
“I was once like you, Charlie,” said Evelyn, who taught Science. “So sure I knew what I wanted, but it turns out I had no clue. I’d given up hope on men, but that afternoon I met Dan at the bank, even though you know, I never go in person. We bumped into each other. Literally, and was as if time stopped. I knew it then, even though we hadn’t even exchanged hello. I knew he was the right guy.”
Charlotte wanted to tell her that it had nothing to do with intersections or alignments, but a simple coincidence. Evelyn just happened to run into a great guy. She was one of the lucky ones.
Most of the proclamations of true love from her friends tended to be short-lived. Even though her friends were smart, independent women who didn’t believe in fairytales, they constantly disregarded their criteria anytime a good-looking man came into the picture. It was as if hope and common sense could not exist in the same room.
Charlotte was more familiar with gritty tales of failed relationships than of successful romance. Still, she dutifully listened, as her friends recalled their miserable break-ups, the hours spent on the self-analytical couch of regret, eating tubs of ice cream and asking themselves what went wrong. “I don't understand. We were so right for each other. Why didn’t it work out?” they asked.
She realized again that love, elusive love, was infinitely more complex than books and movies made it to be. “Be patient,” she told her friends. “Have faith and it will happen.”
For years, she believed in this mantra wholeheartedly. But the truth was that Charlotte was withering on the vine. She found her first grey hair the day she turned 32. At 36, the first set of tiny etchings appeared at the corners of her eyes. When had her youth crept away? Was she so blinded by her ideals that she couldn’t see the countdown clock had started ticking? Overnight, her field of possibilities had turned into a bitter wasteland of nothingness. That’s what patience and waiting had done, they had ruined her chances of finding romance, sort of the way a magic trick was spoiled when you were in on the secret.
After years of observing the love lives of other people, Charlotte finally understood. She was supposed to take the plunge. To be impulsive, inquisitive, to launch herself into unknown waters and swim desperately with the rest of the fish, not to sit around analyzing the situation until it was too late.
It was only now, when she finally lowered the gate, that opportunity refused to present itself. Men, who had once asked her out, suddenly stopped, as if sensing Charlotte’s desperation.
Tom appeared out of nowhere, like a godsend. Well, not out of nowhere, exactly. The Internet to be precise. The Internet, where Charlotte could be herself and avoid vapid small talk. Where no one really cared if she had a few grey hairs or wrinkles.
She met Tom on a Star Trek forum, finding common ground in the adventures of Captain Kirk and in a mutual adoration of Thai green curry. Tom was funny and smart. He kept saying how sick he was of the singles scene and how tired he was of meeting women with whom he had nothing in common. Charlotte was relieved and felt sympathetic toward his plight, even though Tom didn't really seem the type to have dated much.
“I met someone,” Charlotte told her sister Rachel. “His name is Tom. He's works in IT.”
“Fantastic. Spill the beans.’
“We met online.”
“Wait,” her sister said, giving her a strange look. “You mean on one of those dating sites?
“No. Not like that. On a science fiction forum.”
“I don’t get it. I’ve set you up with attractive, eligible men, so you go for a guy you’ve never even seen?”
“I don’t know. With the blind dates, I was so worried about whether I was making the right impression that I could never focus. I don’t have that problem with Tom. I can be myself.”
“By that comment, am I to infer that you’ve not met in person yet?”
“Not yet. We’re still courting,” said Charlotte, through mouthfuls of her salad.
“And how long have you been courting?”
“What? We’re getting to know one another.”
“How? By spending your evenings chatting in your bathrobe?”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“It’s a romance killer, that’s what. You should make him take you out to dinner. Or dancing. See how you get on in a real life situation. Otherwise, how will you know?”
“Know what? And by the way, this is my real life.”
“Come on,” said Rachel. “You plan on having sex with this guy, right? You need to know if you have chemistry.”
Charlotte shook her head. “I’m happy with the way things are. Tom is fun. Besides, neither of us is in a rush to get physical.”
“Sounds more like a friend than a boyfriend.”
“For now. We have time before the other stuff kicks in. I’m not worried.”
“I hope so,” said Rachel. “Everyone deserves a little romance in their lives. Especially you.”
Three months later, Charlotte took a bus to the city courthouse with a copy of her birth certificate and married Tom in a quickie civil ceremony. Despite her hopes, marriage didn’t turn out the way she had hoped, and if Charlotte didn't do something, the disappointment would eat away at her bones until there was nothing of her but exhaled sadness.
Charlotte peered at the black and white Paris photo. Part of her face was cast in shadow and it was blurry, but it had a Catherine Deneuve in Belle de Jour quality.
She tiptoed into the living room to make sure Tom was still asleep. After ten months of marriage, her husband was already behaving as if they had been together for twenty years. His head was flung back and there was drool pooled on the left side of his mouth.
Charlotte considered wiping it off. Instead, she went back into the office and uploaded her photo to Match Made in Heaven. Under status she firmly checked 'single'.