PRISONERS OF THE HEART
Ann-Marie Moore was finished with the world of men. Her last date had ended when the attorney with whom she’d been set up excused himself from the table, vanished into the café bathroom, and didn’t emerge for three hours. Ann-Marie sat there the entire time, tapping her foot to the beat of the mediocre house band, staring at the double doors with murderous intensity. And when her date finally reappeared, glancing around the restaurant like a five-point buck on the first day of hunting season, he didn’t respond to her calls or whistles. No, he kept on walking, past Ann-Marie, past the table, past the bar, out the front door and into the night. By the time she arrived home at her empty two-bedroom apartment at the end of the evening, her left heel broken, makeup streaked with tears, she realized that, all told, it was the best date she’d had in months.
She was thirty-five years old, carried six thousand dollars’ worth of credit card debt, and owned two cats, one of which she hadn’t seen in weeks. This, predictably, was the male one. She had never been to Paris, though the prior summer she had spent three miserable days in the sweltering Las Vegas heat, and she could count the number of times she’d been truly drunk on seven fingers. Her mother called her every other day, at 8:00 p.m. precisely, and the first question out of her mouth was always whether or not Ann-Marie had eaten. The next question, of course, was about her love life. Most of the time, Mother was spoon-fed a meal of beautiful lies.
For Ann-Marie had worked her way through the visible spectrum of males, finding herself deep in love and lust with men of all races and skin tones. Strong arms, strong backs, skinny legs, wide butts, caramel tones, pale faces; a smorgasbord of masculine delights. But one by one, regardless of their physical differences, regardless of their varying professions, hobbies, and personalities, each and every one of them had a single element in common, a collective trait that both identified and grouped them as members of the male gender: They left.
At the end of the day, after the roses and the chocolates and the sweet whispers in bed, Jason and Miguel and Brian and T.J. and Elton and George and the rest of them found an escape clause in their vows of love and took off into the night. Walter flew the coop at high noon, actually, running out the front door with his jacket thrown over his shoulder, as if he were on a train platform and chasing after the 4:09 Southbound for Atlanta.
So as of Sunday night at 11:34 p.m., Ann-Marie Moore was finished with the world of men, and good riddance to them. After fifteen years of hard dating, her bank account was substantially depleted, her bedframe was cracked in three places, and her self-esteem had found a tight little hole deep down inside some gutter in which to curl up and die. It was enough, and finally, gratefully, it was over.
On Monday morning, flush with the excitement of a new, untested lifestyle, she treated herself to a bubble bath. Called in late to work, told them she had a spot of flu. She ran the hot water, submerged herself, closed her eyes, and drifted off to a world where men didn’t walk out of restaurants and ignore their dates; where men didn’t act like wild animals, treating women like gristle on the bone; where men were, finally, what all of the fairy tales and romance books said they were supposed to be: Men.
And for an hour and a half, it was glorious.
When the phone rang at eleven, she answered it out of habit. Realizing that she was still supposed to be ill, Ann-Marie flopped sideways in the bath, hanging her head off the edge in order to lend her voice the proper amount of nasal stuffiness. “Hello?” she said hoarsely.
“I found him.”
Ann-Marie sat up quickly, water splashing onto the bathroom linoleum. “Excuse me?”
“I found him. I found the man for me.” It was Ellen, always Ellen, three-phone-calls-a-day Ellen, who regularly regaled Ann-Marie with sob stories of her own sordid love life.
“Ulysses,” she said proudly, with a hint of grandeur. “He lives upstate.”
Ann-Marie stood and grabbed for a towel, balancing on her left foot as she tried to lean across the tub. The terry cloth felt good against her bare skin. “You’re being vague, here, Ellen. I’m late for work.”
“Forget work. Call in sick.”
“I did already. I took a half day.”
“Then take a full day. You must get online.”
Ann-Marie clucked her tongue. Ellen was always full of demands, no matter the situation. She was barely able to start a sentence without some variation of the word must. “Why?”
“Because I’ve found paradise, darling. We’ve been looking in the wrong places for years. Go online as soon as possible—I’m telling you, that’s where they are.”
“The men,” sighed Ellen. “All the luscious men.”
They were in front of Ellen’s computer forty minutes later, staring at the screen as the old modem dialed up a connection. “So I’m online, just messing around,” Ellen explained, “bouncing from page to page, checking out links, and I hit this amazing site . . .”
Ann-Marie didn’t own a computer. She hadn’t ever bounced around anywhere, let alone from page to page, and didn’t much care about the whole Internet craze. She thought of it as a sidebar to her life, a state of affairs that, while meaning a great deal to a certain percentage of the population, could just as easily continue its existence parallel to hers, without the two ever crossing.
But suddenly Ellen was talking about websites and search engines and pen pals and then, as if it were the most logical transition in the world, she was on to men. And she was on to Ulysses.
“I wrote him first,” she said, “because that’s how the rules work. You read their profiles, you find one of them that you like, and you e-mail him a message.”
“So there are rules?” Already Ann-Marie was suspicious. If, as she’d decided, she was through with the world of men, then she was through with the world of men, digital or otherwise. Any extra regulations would only complicate matters further.
But Ellen was already online and typing away, slapping a URL into the location box of her browser. In the time that it took for the page to load, Ann-Marie decided that she would listen to Ellen for five minutes, then stand up from the ergonomically correct desk chair and walk out of the apartment, down to her car, and make it back to work just in time for her boss to bawl her out for missing the morning meetings.
That’s when the page fully loaded, and there it was, five inches high on the seventeen-inch monitor, glaring out at Ann-Marie in a bright, gaudy, Web-design-in-a-box font, replete with whirling animation: Prisoners4Love.com
Ann-Marie tried not to laugh. She understood that this was important to Ellen—in the way that everything was important to Ellen—but it was difficult to take seriously. Below the blinking homepage title was a small cartoon prisoner in black-and-white cartoon stripes, peering out from behind small cartoon bars, a small cartoon heart beating in his small cartoon chest. We made mistakes in life, the caption read. Don’t make a mistake in love!
“Armed robbery, if that’s what you’re thinking,” said Ellen.
“They’re all . . . armed robbers?”
“No, that’s what Ulysses is in for. Armed robbery. But he was framed.”
Ann-Marie smiled her best smile—this was her friend, after all—and grabbed her pocketbook. “It’s all fascinating, Ellen,” she said, “but Mr. Saponaro is gonna give me the boot if I don’t get in by two—”
“Sit, sit,” said Ellen, pulling Ann-Marie back into the seat. “Ten minutes. You must try it for ten minutes, and if you don’t find someone fascinating, you can go.”
Ann-Marie looked at her watch. If her car started properly and if traffic held up right, she could sacrifice the time and still make it into the office before the two o’clock deadline. Ellen was a kook, but she was a kind kook, and the least Ann-Marie could do was humor her for a while.
Excerpted from Men Seeking Women by Po Bronson, Richard Dooling, Eric Garcia, Paul Hond, Gary Krist, David Liss, Chris Offutt, Alexander Parsons, Robert Anthony Siegel, Bruce Sterling. . Excerpted by permission of AtRandom, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.