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The Love File: To Hold the Incandescent Moment

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I started the manila folder dubbed “The Love File,” a record of my search for romance, at a major inflection point in my life. The idea struck me in the weeks after I graduated from Princeton and moved to Brooklyn in June 1980. I read an article in New York magazine, “A First Avenue Romance,” about the adventures of 20-somethings Barry and Debbie in the New York singles scene. The article whispered about the potential of my new urban life after affection-deprived college years. I thought, “I’ve got to hang on to this for future reference.”

For eight years, the Love File swelled with articles, letters and pictures related to my quest for connection. Meandering through its pages, I feel like an emotional archaeologist. Every scrap of material hints at my hopes and anxieties. The files include articles that rocked nervous singles of the mid-80s, such as the notorious Newsweek “Marriage Crunch” cover article from June 1986 warning that college-educated women “still single at the age of 35 have only a 5 percent chance of ever getting married.”

What quirk spurred me to start the Love File? I’ve stored away items with emotional weight since I was a kid – letters, pictures, articles I wrote as a journalist. It had a precedent – in 1973 I started a literary folder called "Projects, et. al." to hold poems like "Junkie's Lament," "A Watergate Trilogy" and "Faded Ponies on a Merry-Go-Round." Short stories included "Our Trip to the Mortuary," about an imagined grade-school field trip, and its delightful sequel, "Our Trip to Reynosa," about a sleazy town on the south side of the Texas-Mexico border.

Some content makes it an ur-Love File, with melancholy teenage poems like "Just Friends" and this note from November 1972. Probably stuck in my locker at Mission High School, it sounds remarkably like emails I would linger over 35 years later: 

"Van, it is late! I am just thinking about your call. I want you to understand that I have nothing against you and I would have gone to Homecoming. But understand a girl needs time to get ready and make plans. Believe me, Van, I'd love going with you but – but; I don't know how to put it. Van please excuse my writing as well as this letter, I mean I don't have a way with words! OK! If you would have asked me a week before I would have gone with you. I like you as a friend Van. I want you to understand that! I think you're swell. I really dig you. And I hope you and I can become best friends. Also understand that I have a crush on [name omitted] and I can't help that. But I really do like you. Van I hope that you and I can become pals and whenever you have a problem I am here to help! I hope this goes the same for me! Thanks for asking me!"

The Love File extended my organizing mindset to a specific topic. Maybe the Love File reflects my highly literal mindset; if part of my life exists in a tangible, printed form, then it really did happen. The quip of late New York Times columnist James Reston describes me perfectly: “How do I know what I think until I read what I write?” I never did trust my memory, hence my reliance on a camera, a journal, a letter to capture the light of an incandescent moment of high feeling. I don’t want to die having forgotten my memories; rather, I want them to surround and wash over me and testify that, yes, I did all that.

The Love File helped me make sense of the experimentation and turmoil in which I tumbled. The contents remind me that I had relationships and that, however lonely I felt, I had plenty of company in my frustrations on the New York social scene. And I did have my memorable moments, from falling in lust to meeting women's parents to a screaming match on Park Avenue to one brash woman trying to win my affection – or more likely, stoke my insecurities – by declaring, “I’ve had sex so many times I had to get a bigger diaphragm!”

To paraphrase the Rod Stewart song, every clipping tells a story. New York Magazine’s “Single Forever?” issue, from the summer of 1984, turbocharged the angst of a woman I was dating who had just turned 30. I know how her life went as she soon married and moved to Long Island. Endless iterations of the man shortage coldly amused me, as I faced the more relevant woman shortage. One favorite was “Older Women are Pooling Their Male Resources,” from the New York Times of Feb. 5, 1986. Even the Village Voice chimed in with a round-up of books in February 1986, with the story “The Mensch Shortage: Or, What Do Women Want?”

In those pre-digital days, most Love File items came from newspapers and magazines. I didn’t save copies of the letters I wrote to New York and Village Voice ads. Personal items include a stack of birthday and Valentine’s Day cards and scrumptious morning-after notes tied in twine in the Love File Annex. I’ve got the 1980 wedding announcement of a woman I dated in the summer of 1976 after we met at high-school journalism competition in our home state of Texas. 

An envelope holds photos of women I dated, with names like Shulamith, Adina, Joanne and Amy. I threw in an item I submitted to the New York Times’ “Metropolitan Diary” that was never published, as well as a letter I wrote to relationship columnist Susan Dietz. I pushed the file’s contents back to July 22, 1976 with a photo I took of a friend competing for the title of Miss Rio Grande Valley.

The Love File swelled in 1986-1988 as I approached and then passed my 30th birthday. I saved a profile of actress-director Melanie Mayron, who battled Amy Irving in my mind for the title of Sexiest Jewish Woman Alive. AIDS and condom articles appeared, as men and women negotiated terrifying new realities. Parenting articles such as “Older Parents’ Child: Growing Up Special,” from the New York Times of January 26, 1987, became relevant as I gamely looked ahead to marriage and fatherhood.

Then I found the woman I would marry, and the collecting mostly stopped. Why clip those angst-wracked articles, when I had the love of my life, my beshert (Yiddish for “intended one”), with me daily, nightly? Some final articles dribbled into the Love File as the ‘80s became the '90s, but whatever got published in the next decade passed me by. Marriage freed me from the need to worry about how the trends of single life warped my life. I was looking no more.

Alas, the Love File commented on my married life as it unfolded, refolded and fell apart. I clipped Dear Abby’s column on “Ten Commandments for a Successful Marriage” from the New York Post on Valentine’s Day 1992. I prayed it would work like a rabbit’s foot, a four-leaf clover, a meteor chip or a rattlesnake’s tail, with lessons to help us in a marriage beset by crises. For years I carried it in my wallet, until it became so worn I transferred it to a folder that holds insurance policies, my birth certificate, my passport and other supremely important papers.

As the marriage struggled in the new millennium, the Love File began to grow again, with a new slant. Articles on saving marriages, then divorce, slipped in. An article from early 2002 was “10 Ways to Marry the Wrong Person,” from the site Jewsweek. Better late than never, I thought.

I edged into dating several months after I moved out of the house in late 2002. The last paper ad I ever answered was in the Forward newspaper, resulting in a date with a stylish Russian woman who was a Slavic version of the Icelandic singer Björk. She briskly steered me to the St. Regis Hotel for talk and glasses of pricey wine, and that was the last I ever saw of her. After her, I went digital.

I found that the dating game had changed drastically while I was married. Forget personal ads in the back of magazines; online dating sites had taken over. This paperless virtual world challenged my notion of the Love File. My drive to document remained strong. However, I would no longer clip ads from the Personals section of New York magazine, paste them in a journal, and note the day when a woman responded, a process that took weeks. By the time a woman called, I could barely remember what her four-line profile said.

Online profiles gave far more information and even pictures, but they only existed on my computer screen. Our emails and chats flashed like lightning; they were there and then gone unless a site saved them. While JDate stored all emails until the user deleted them, Match deleted emails after a month, so they really had a short shelf life.

In response, the Love File moved in a radical direction. I began to print out some profiles, emails, and IM conversations I had with women. Not all of them – I’m not that obsessive-compulsive. I only saved the handful that had visual, psychic, or freak-value appeal, like the most hostile profile I ever read (from a tough-talking Bronx Latina who sounded like a character from a Spike Lee movie). The sheer amount of paper soon equaled years of Love File accumulation. It made no sense to stuff more materials into that bulging folder, or even start a new one. Instead, I punched holes in the printouts and slipped the pages into three-ring binders.

The initial, physically limited Love File has evolved into the open-ended Love File 2.0.

One binder holds the most memorable profiles, another emails and IMs. I call another folder “Love File RCI: Romance Crime Investigation.” They show why digital communications are an obsessive’s dream. Every email and chat carries the exact moment of contact. The binders recreate in print the digital reality of my dating days, with profiles and letters and chats. They can trace the rise and crash of relationships from the first tentative “hi” through sharing and meeting to my hopeful “I had a great time, let’s do it again soon” notes, which can be terribly painful to read because I know, now, how some of the encounters would play out, as I flung myself over emotional cliffs to impale my heart on spike-like messages such as, “I know how you hate long silences.”

But the Love File also has playful conversations that sound like two friends yakking over coffee. Once, a contact and I were dishing about women’s profile pictures. She wrote, “Jewish girls wear bikinis?”

I replied, “Sure, Jewish women in bikinis and low-cut tops. I’m amazed at some of the photos that get shown, stretched out on fur rugs, sprawled across a bed, in a bikini with THE KIDS in the picture.”

Sometimes materials in the Love File circle back on me; what I relegated to the digital past returns to the current reality. That’s how I think of one woman, Dulci. She was a multilingual (that does impress me, doesn’t it?) executive and we both felt a spark. We enjoyed make-out sessions in my creaky 1986 Saab at frigid Connecticut beaches and fervent hand-holding at movies. I printed out her long and affectionate emails written in bold purple type. “When is your birthday?” she coyly asked one January night, a question that suggests a long time horizon and exotic plans.

Very quickly, Dulci talked about getting my child together with her nephews, and us coming to her family’s Passover seder. I told her I needed to think about that. Then: total silence. She never responded to me again after I said that, despite my efforts to restart contact. Five years later, on a date, I saw her in a restaurant. I recognized her instantly and she must have recognized me – I’m the same bald Jewish guy with glasses that I was then. But given the circumstances, I decided to keep quiet. I simply noted that Dulci ate with a couple – just the three of them on a Saturday evening.

The Love File itself grows, but glacially. I’m intrigued by the latest wave of man-shortage articles and essays on relations between current and past spouses. Newsweek’s July 2004 look at “The Secret Lives of Wives” speaks to the times I’ve been in touch with married women – and the perils of new technologies. In one embarrassment, I sent a long-distance friend a saucy text message – after she loaned her cell phone to her husband. Yikes! She did some fast talking, I sent an apologetic follow-up text saying something like “Sorry, my finger slipped,” and nothing else happened, although I never called or texted the woman again.

For the past 18 months I’ve been dating a delightful, affectionate woman I met online. I stopped printing profiles and emails from sites. Website articles on the romantic quest no longer interest me. The Love File is an artifact of a time in my life, rather than a reflection of my current reality. I hardly ever look at the Love File, much less add to it. As with the time during my marriage, research on the singles life is pointless. Why read when I can live?

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About Van Wallach

  • Renee

    Why oh Why do we go through this to find love? Makes me wonder if “arranged” marriages are the answer. They certainly have a longer shelf life. Maybe if I had married the guy my Mom liked, I would have avoided the whole “dating” rituals with the pain, heartbreak, and separation associated. Alas, we wait for the “right one” to come along.

  • Laura

    Do you still have the Marriage Crunch Newsweek?

  • Van Wallach

    Hi Laura, yes, I still have the Newsweek issue and everything else mentioned in the article.