January 20, 2013

"Return to Sender: You've Got Mail" by Susanne Reece

The first time I saw You’ve Got Mail, I was cuddled up with a bottle of red wine several months after a bad break-up with a live-in boyfriend, and several months into experiencing everything the NYC dating scene had to offer a girl of 36.

I’d had a fling with the friend of a friend, who I trusted not to be shitty to me, because I was the friend of a friend, and then he was anyway. I’d been out on a date with a guy I met in a bar who picked me up after work in red convertible and took me to an expensive meal in Park Slope during which he sat very close to me in the booth, hanging with his arm around me through the entire dinner, and who afterwards dropped me at a subway stop. I never saw or heard from him again.

Then there was the guy, again met at a bar, who took me to see a soul-crushing arty film in which the protagonist commits suicide. Afterward he figured since he’d sprung for the movie, I really ought to let him take me back to my apartment and fuck me up the ass. And while I’m on the subject, there was the guy with the DVD porn collection that ran around the entire floorboard and completely filled a large floor to ceiling bookshelf in his living room who proudly showed me the “incest fiction” story he had written.

So, at that time in my life, everything about You’ve Got Mail appealed.

In the film, Meg Ryan’s character, Kathleen Kelly, owns a children’s bookstore on the Upper West Side of Manhattan called The Shop Around the Corner. Everything about it is adorable.

She lives in a sunny pre-war apartment building on a leafy street on the Upper West Side. Everything about it is perfect.

She has a perky little short haircut that I could never have because I have thick, naturally curly hair. She wears simple, immaculately cut clothes in black and grey that fit her slim frame as if created just for her. Everything about her person is flawless, except for maybe the endearingly goofy, loping way she walks.

She’s got a boyfriend who’s kind of a self-absorbed jerk, played by Greg Kinnear. But never fear. She has begun corresponding by email as “Shopgirl” with someone she met in an Internet chat room. She dials in via modem to AOL. When there’s a new email from him, the little AOL voice says “You’ve got mail.”

Meg’s email suitor, Bob Fox, “NYC152,” is played by Tom Hanks. He is a successful businessman preparing to open another in a chain of mega bookstores called Fox & Sons. He has a golden retriever named Brinkley. He’s got a girlfriend who’s kind of a self-absorbed jerk, played by Parker Posey. Everything about him is charming. Tom Hanks would never even think about trying to assfuck a gal on the first date.

At long last, after a series of misunderstandings, and many funny, sweet, and sometimes achingly sad moments, the two of them end up together, sharing a kiss in a garden full of irises in Riverside Park, with the sound of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" swelling and the golden retriever barking approval.

I watched raptly. In spite of myself. Because I’d always had a snotty attitude about chick flicks. I had spent the entire decade of my 20s in graduate school, high up in an ivory tower, studying medieval art history and reading French critical theory I didn’t understand. But my disdain went further back than that, to something one of my friend’s boyfriends said. This boyfriend was a Communist who wore little wire-rimmed Trotsky glasses, a leather jacket, and rode a vintage 1930s motorcycle. My friend and I had recently been to see Pretty in Pink, which constituted a serious offense. The problem is, he said, blowing a smoke ring from a hand-rolled cigarette, is that you women watch these romantic movies where everything always turns out perfectly in the end, and you expect life to be that way, and you make yourselves miserable. I didn’t really get what he meant—why all the fuss about just seeing a movie?—but I did get that he was cool, and that he was contemptuous of chick flicks. Therefore, chick flicks? Not cool.

I didn’t stop watching them, though. I watched secretly at night on cable. Alone. Like I was doing that night I saw You’ve Got Mail.

I thought about that movie a lot after I saw it. Where was my smart, handsome, funny, sensitive, gainfully employed Tom Hanks? After a pathetic Valentine’s Day when I showed up for a date at the apartment of the guy I’d been seeing for a couple of weeks, and he answered wearing a dirty t-shirt and a pair of plaid flannel pajama pants so decrepit they looked like chaps, I decided I’d had enough. I wasn’t going to find my Mr. Hanks in a bar in Brooklyn, and so, like Meg, I turned to the Internet.

The era of AOL chat rooms was long gone, but in their place were now Internet dating sites. I agonized over my match.com profile, writing and rewriting it. I went through photos until I found the right one. Finally, I felt like I had achieved something approaching Meg Ryan-ness, and hit publish.

I waited patiently. Meg would let Tom come to her. I got a message from a 19 year-old. I heard from a 40-something milkman from Long Island City who still lived with his parents. And then I got a wink from another dude in Queens. This one didn’t like the very un-Meg attributes of sarcasm and tattoos, both of which are inseparable parts of the package deal that includes me.

The movie in which I was starring was not supposed to go this way. Tom Hanks was not finding me, so I would have to do a quick scene rewrite and look for him. After a couple of weeks, I ran across a profile of someone. He didn’t look like Tom Hanks, but if I turned my head just the right way and squinted, he kind of looked like Stargate-era James Spader.

Never mind that his profile was long, rambling and just kind of trailed off. Sure, parts of it were vague, like what he did for a living. Also, he wanted 4 children. It was my movie, after all, and if I needed to adjust certain scenes ever so slightly, as long as I got my happily ever after, things would be just fine.

He had gone to the same college I had, so that was my in. I wrote a quick note and sent it off without even agonizing over it like I normally would over any piece of writing. I had pluck, just like Shopgirl did when she was emailing NYC152.

My Mr. Hanks wrote back almost immediately. It was a cute note. I wrote another cute note back. Soon we had plans for a cute date at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I waited in the lobby, wearing a white scarf, though if I’d been following You’ve Got Mail, it would have been at Café Lalo on the Upper West Side, and I would have been holding a red rose and a copy of Pride and Prejudice. When he showed up, he didn’t look crazy. He was no Tom Hanks, but he really did look a little bit like James Spader. I had my leading man.

We walked around the medieval collection. Then we walked through the park. We walked over to the West side and up Broadway. We walked and walked, and all the while, I and I talked and talked, because otherwise there would have been uncomfortable silence. It was now several hours into the date, and it was beginning to get dark. I was cold and beginning to get hungry, because now it was nearing dinnertime.  We somehow wound up in Ray Bari’s pizza on the East Side. We sat there for a while and he made no move to get up to order anything. Did not even suggest ordering something. I was starving, but didn’t dare suggest this myself. Was he testing me, I wondered, seeing if I was one of those “dinner whores” I’d heard guys at work bitching about.  I finally got up and bought myself a bottle of water. I was thirsty what with all the talking I was still the only one doing.

At one point, I said something that made him smile real big. This was when I noticed that he was missing two teeth on the left side. I wish I were joking.

Finally, he said something. He needed to go. To church. Anyone who knows me knows that this is an absolute dealbreaker, not negotiable in any way shape or form.  But I brushed that and a lot of other stuff aside, and continued to do so for the next 5 years.

We actually spent a lot of time on the Upper West Side, where You’ve Got Mail was filmed. Once we even went to Café Lalo, where Shopgirl arranges to meet NYC152. He got a sandwich on baguette and cracked a tooth.

We would go to the big Barnes and Noble near Lincoln Center, the model for Tom Hanks’s Fox and Sons megabookstore in the film. He always looked at Civil War history books. Exclusively. Did I mention that he is a reenactor?

After the bookstore, we’d usually go see see a movie at the same multiplex where Meg and Greg Kinnear went in the film the night they broke up, the night she said to him, no, there’s no one else, “but there’s the dream of someone else.”

By the end, it wasn’t the dream of someone else that made me finally stop trying to be Meg Ryan, stop trying to turn him into Tom Hanks. It was an old dream of my own that I remembered, one used to have back when I was a teenager sulking in my room in a house on tree-lined street in a small town in Texas. That dream never involved Tom Hanks. It never involved a man at all. What I wanted then, and found myself wanting again was to stand on my own, to live in New York, to have a career, to be free.

So finally, in a move, more like Parker Posey’s character than Meg Ryan’s, I went out with my best friend to the gay bar in my neighborhood, got loaded on vodka martinis with a bunch of drag queens, stuffed dollar bills into the G-string of a go-go boy dancing on the bar, came home, and told my leading man to get out.

I still watch chick flicks. Openly now and without the former shame. I find them comforting when things aren’t all perfect. My go-to these days is that 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice with Keira Knightley. But I don’t want to be her. And I don’t want to be Meg Ryan, either.

Susanne Reece is, to quote Collette, "a woman of letters who has turned out badly." Originally from Texas, she arrived in New York City 14 years ago as an academically trained art historian and research fellow. She was led willingly from the ivory tower by the promise of a living wage to work as a copywriter. She has written copy about cashmere sweaters, the benefits of a law school education, and about prescription pharmaceuticals. Sometimes she writes things that are not for work. Sometimes she paints pictures. After writing her essay for Delirious Hem, she's thinking of composing a book-length memoir about her dating life in NYC and calling it Fifty Shades of Stupid.