Subject: Matchmaker, matchmaker!

Sent: October 29th, 2017

Dear friends,

My freshman year of high school, two of my closest guy friends asked me to their homecoming dance at Thomas Jefferson, or “TJ.” It was the kind of school where boys wore thick-framed glasses and programmed formulae into Ti-83+s. The kind who now earn their living developing trading algorithms for Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan.

(Yes, Mom, all the boys I probably should have married.)

“Bob” called to ask me out Friday afternoon at 3:00; by the time “Dave” got in touch at 3:30, he was half an hour too late. Rather than reject Dave outright, however, I came up with a different idea: what if I found him a date instead?

I called my friend Sarah, told her all the things she and Dave had in common, scheduled the chauffeur (i.e. my parents) and purchased two boutonnieres from the local flower shop.

It was my first official double date! Until it wasn’t. Some 48 hours before the dance, Bob called to say he’d found a girlfriend.

“Still, my mom says it would be rude not to take you,” he said.

Which is how I ended up, one October evening in the year 2000, in unfamiliar social territory, dateless on a gymnasium floor beneath a sparkling plastic crystal chandelier between Dave and Sarah and Bob and the girl who’d not only replaced me but taken my corsage. It felt awkward by moments, certainly -- I still remember when KC & Jojo’s “All My Life” came over the loudspeakers and wondering whether I was destined to end up alone.

But I also remember something else: Dave & Sarah during that song. His hand on her back and the smiles on their faces. Contentment. A feeling of satisfaction knowing that, even if I’d messed up whatever semblance of an adolescent love life I laid claim to, I still had the ability to bring other couples together. 

Sure enough, when prom came around three years later, I was still the person Dave called to get a date. The walking Rolodex of girls who might say yes, the soft no for the ones who wouldn’t. A reference point and a proven reader on who was available, who wasn’t, and why.

If you’d told me then I’d grow up to be a matchmaker, I probably wouldn’t have believed you. It’s one of those things that only makes sense in retrospect. More like a lifestyle or a calling rather than a job.

But here I am.

Working as a professional matchmaker hasn’t been without a learning curve. It’s probably the element of culture shock I’ve found most fascinating, returning home from a country that lives and breathes romance into everything they do to one that shies away from it, overthinks it, longs for it, fears it. That popularizes neologisms for the most frustrating of courtship trends and analyzes them ad nauseum on podcasts and Medium think pieces -- ghosting, breadcrumbing, breezing, cuffing.

In France, my conversations revolved around the spontaneity and inevitability of love. (As Frederic Beigbeder says: Love is a magnificent catastrophe. We know we’re headed straight into a wall and step on the accelerator regardless.)

In America, most of my conversations consist of mapping out a more strategic route over or around said wall.

I have conversations about isosceles triangles (the impossibly perfect balance of smart, sexy, and sane) and toolboxes (a man who owns one is a keeper), about nit-picky hesitations (can a man with a full head of hair really be trusted?) and bigger picture philosophical musings. Whether it’s possible to love only one person or -- from a would-be adherent of polyamory -- whether settling down with one person is preferable to nothing at all.  

I’m a professional wingwoman for recent divorcees, an on-call friend to widowers when they’re feeling lonely, a romantic headhunter for discrete and discerning executives. A project manager for the alpha female’s datebook, breaking down number of quality dates obtained into spreadsheets of emails sent, coffees taken, events attended.

Sometimes it feels like love in Washington evolves faster than the new neighborhoods popping up to house it. And I spend my days running between them, doing everything I possibly can to keep up. I fill my reading hours with both classic (Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus by John Gray) and more contemporary reflections on dating (Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari.) I dig into stories from people who’ve found love, those who’ve lost it, and those are still seeking (The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy or Andrea Silenzi’s Why Oh Why.)

I’ve founded a book club with a separated bachelor at The Four Seasons. We’re reading Esther Perel’s State of Affairs and talking about how he might repair his marriage.

Still, sometimes my favorite moments are still those when I can get back to my desk and refocus. I sit down after a yoga class and match based on a smile, or the way she laughs, or two persons’ shared passion for making this world a better place. I take a chance on two people who might have otherwise never met -- diamonds in the rough looking for more old-fashioned things like romance, or monogamy, or commitment.

The advice I give, of course, is still a little French. A client asked for my opinion on her outfit the other night and I found myself going back to the Little Black Dress, beauty from the inside out. Let her smile and conversation outshine all the rest. As Francoise Sagan would say, a dress only serves its purpose if a man wants to take it off you. 

Which is maybe why clients pay me. To help them sort through the noise so they can simply focus on the romance of it all.

Some people refer to me as a “dating expert,” which is a title I still hesitate to own. I can never guarantee chemistry -- the same way a parent can only aim the arrow that is their child, rather than determine the exact location where it will land. I’m experienced, in the same way someone who has been through a few car wrecks is a more confident driver?

If I can reassure my clients of anything, though, it’s that wherever the slightest possibility of a love is hiding, I have the courage to go out and find it.

(Speaking of which, are you single?)

With love on a rainy day in Washington,
Alicia

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Subject: Dear Eliza

Sent: Monday, June 26th, 2017

Dear Friends,

When I was six years old, my family moved to Dallas, GA. We lived in backwoods — on a gravel road surrounded by dirt roads, across the creek and two acres down from my best friend, Polly.

Polly had short blonde curls and a deep Southern accent. We liked to ride horses bareback to 7-11 for Slurpees and then — because she was always in trouble for something —  hide in the hay of a neighbor's abandoned barn.  

I can still hear the sound of her mother’s voice, hollering.

Last fall, Polly and I saw each other for the first time in 20+ years. I rented a car and drove down south, to the same house where we had our first sleepover. We sat around her family's kitchen table and told each other everything. How her oldest son wants ripped jeans just like his father’s. How her youngest, Scheylla, nearly drowned at 2 years old.

Scheylla insists it’s TinkerBell who saved her; she was telling me so much when her grandfather walked in and greeted me with his characteristic, stoic nod. 

“You done got yourself an accent, girl,” he said. “And it sure ain’t country.”

It was late afternoon by the time, Eliza, Polly’s eldest, came home. She paused for a second in the doorway, took me in from across the screen door.

“Are you the one who knows French?” she asked.

Eliza's so much prettier than I was at 13 — tall and slender, with cut-off jeans and doe-eyes. Still, I recognized something of myself in her. Restlessness, curiosity. The same spark that sent me escaping, thanks to a generous grandfather, to the vineyards of Champagne to figure myself out before college. That sent Polly escaping, on her 17th birthday, to the Florida-Georgia line.

“I am,” I said. “I could teach you, if you’d like.”

“Mama, can I?” she asked.

This week, I went to fix up my MacBook Pro which, though it’s working just fine, needed a keyboard replacement after a bottle of Bourgogne was spilled on it last year. (Note: when speaking with the Apple Genius bar, describe all events in the passive voice. Who spilled the wine? No one knows. All we know is that wine was spilled.)

When it’s back from repair, I’ll drive it down to Eliza for her Freshman year, along with a newly installed copy of Rosetta Stone, a bottle of Nuxe Huile Prodigieuse, a CD of Barbara’s greatest hits, some grammar exercises, Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan and a collection of existential French films for good measure.

And then a card that reads, “Dear Eliza.”

I’m still figuring out what to write. I want to tell her everything. How if she’s not careful, French might consume her. That once she’s fluent, she might start carrying on like she’s got a split personality — speaking in hyperbole in one language, scoffing at it in another. That one day, when she’s freshly returned from Paris, her friends might set up a jar for every time she says or does something obnoxiously European and she’ll go broke, giving up a dollar every time she insists on putting eggs atop her pizza or looks, skeptically, at mayonnaise that’s not homemade. 

But I also want her to know that French can be a place of comfort — somewhere she can take words and reclaim them as her own. That when she writes with accent aigus and c circonflexes in a diary, no one will care to read it; she won’t find her innermost thoughts in her brother’s room, xeroxed, or hear them repeated verbatim over the phone.

I want to tell her that Southern girls make the best French girls. Because we know all the rules and when to break them, too.

I want to teach her the joke my grandfather used to tell me — the one about Napoléon and Joséphine — and how to use it at a dinner party in just the right way. Un miroir réfléchit sans parler, Monsieur, mais vous, vous parlez sans réfléchir.

To warn her not to fall in love with a Frenchman (but that’s a story for another day.)

And here I am, projecting. 

I cross it all out, 

start again, 

keep it simple.
 

Dear Eliza.
 

Alicia

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Subject: Breaking Up is Hard to Do

Sent: April 11, 2017

Dear Friends,

It feels like it’s been forever — at least, since I popped into your inboxes with an unsolicited “hello” to tell you about the emotional exhilaration of bra-fitting, the difficulty of folding underwear, or the ups and downs of entrepreneurship.

You might have heard that, since we last spoke, I split ways with my lingerie startup co-founder to participate in a Reality TV show called Find My First Love

(I know, my career has been nothing but an upwards spiral.)

For those of you who missed it, Find My First Love is a series about “the one that got away.” My episode, the pilot, debuted two years ago on FYI, bringing Kathie Lee and Hoda to tears on The TODAY Show before making its way around the world: Indonesia, the Philippines, Italy, Romania, Poland, the UK, and Australia. Ever since, I've received messages from viewers asking things like, does true love exist? Or, when are you and Benjamin going to get married and have lots of adorable babies?

Questions that, until this week, I've left unanswered.

Ostensibly, I've avoided updating you on my life out of consideration for my growing fan base in the Czech Republic (spoilers are the worst, right?). The reality, though, is somewhat less glamorous: after two years in Champagne, I decided to leave Ben and, by extension, the life we'd built together.

It sounds silly but, when you’ve subjected a romance to the bright lights of television, it’s hard not to feel like a failure when it ends. I remember standing on the Pont des Arts as if it were yesterday — the sound of water lapping against the quais and the smile in Ben’s voice when he called his mother, to tell her the news:C’est bon, Maman, c’était bien elle. The sound of her voice, gentle and laughing, as she relayed the news to his father: c’est bon, mon minou, c’était bien elle

I remember calling my own mom from a Parisian hotel room — one hand on the phone, the other removing mascara — to tell her I’d found my husband.

How it was all so happy, until I wasn’t.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why I left, hoping I could provide viewers (and our families) with a satisfying answer. But the truth is, for every reason I left, there are a dozen moments I wonder if I shouldn’t have stayed. We were perfect for each other and terrible for each other, best friends and complete strangers, and ultimately each a little too crazy — a little too lost, a little too hopeful, a little too stubborn.

There's a tendency to talk about past relationships in terms of lost effort, lost investment, and lost time; the years I spent with Benjamin were anything but. He shook me up and changed me in ways I’m just beginning to understand (mostly for the better, I'd like to think!) He taught me to value solitude a little more, to make a delicious chocolate mousse (trick: add Cognac), to devote more time to daydreams and reverie. At his encouragement, I spent most of our time together pursuing an unofficial MFA: online writing classes and multiple afternoons cuddled up in the garden with our angora kitten, Oliver, and a good book.

Maybe there’s some irony to the notion that, the more I've fallen in love with stories, the less I've felt equipped to share my own. What do you say, exactly, when you’ve made the decision to leave a relationship and wake up to a tweet that makes you think twice? How do you communicate from a place of authenticity when you’re feeling a little guarded? Acknowledge pain and failure, especially online, without inviting judgement or unsolicited advice?

In this crazy, social-media driven world, it seems we've designed a million templates for announcing a relationship's beginning — Valencia filters and #blessed humblebrags, among others — but hardly any for acknowledging its end. We hide heartache away in a drawer and pretend it never existed, or else let it fade into the ether as the status update that never was. But maybe that should change. Maybe we need more reminders —and, OK, this is definitely my French side speaking — that not everything needs a filter to hold meaning. That there's a certain beauty to unedited snapshots, and even to pain.

Writing this update, I kept going back to something a close friend told me over coffee in Paris. "You’ve lost a few feathers," he said. "But you’re on the verge of something beautiful."

I like to think that's true.

With love and gratitude,
from the cobblestoned streets of Montpellier,

Alicia