After Years of Terrible Dates, I Found the Love of My Life—Through a Telepersonals Ad

In the days before online dating, this couple took a chance on recorded messages and found their greatest loves.

upper view of red phone with heart shape made out of its cable, on yellow backgroundComaniciu Dan/ShutterstockReader’s Digest editors asked the Reader’s Digest contributor network to tell us their stories of first-time love. The following piece was written in response to that prompt. To share your own 100-word true story for possible inclusion in the magazine or on, click here

I wanted to tell a story about my first love. But when I looked across the kitchen counter at my husband of 20 years, I realized I didn’t have any.

“Are you kidding?” he said. “What about your first boyfriend? The one who watched football games with your mom while you went off to read a book because you didn’t like football? Who brought your mom flowers whenever he brought you some? Who weeded her garden when she hurt her ankle? The one your mother liked so much, she was more upset than you were when the two of you broke up?”

Oh yeah! I had forgotten about that. After I broke up with Mike, my mother kept trying to convince me to go back to him. I finally told her she ought to just divorce Dad and marry Mike; who cares about the 34 year age gap? She was shocked at my words and said she wouldn’t speak to me for a week—but couldn’t help adding that she would never like any other boy I ever dated.

“And what about Bob, the boyfriend who didn’t like you?” my husband went on. “Who you kept dating until you finally decided he should go find someone he might actually like.”

“I can’t believe I went out with him for a whole year!” I laughed. (Actually liking each other is a sign of a healthy relationship.)

In addition to not liking me, Bob was the jealous type. He worked part-time in the men’s department of a J.C. Penney’s and once told me that when I came to the store to meet him, I should put a rack of clothes between me and every other guy who might look my way. He also didn’t like me telephoning my girlfriends unless they phoned me first. “What? Why should I do that?” I asked and his answer—“It’s a matter of pride!” —made no sense to me. He had opinions on everything from my makeup to the clothes I wore to the length of my hair. He also preferred blondes (I’m a brunette). When I had finally had enough, he was furious and quite certain I was breaking up with him to date someone else. “There’s nobody else,” I told him. “I’m just not the kind of person you really want. I’m not a pompous, long-haired blonde with no friends but you.”

Husband: “And what about that guy who lived next door to you when you were 15, who used to watch you sunbathe every summer—and you pretended not to notice!”

“I don’t know if you could call that a first love,” I said, still laughing. That was Matt. He and one of his friends used to sit on his porch and watch me strut around in the backyard in my little white bikini. I’d sit on a towel on the grass and put on suntan lotion and try to act like I didn’t even know they were there. We had all gone to grade school together and had ignored each other back then, but at 15, we weren’t ignoring each other anymore. I got a great tan that summer, and every guy in the neighborhood—young and old—couldn’t resist taking a look or two. Before the summer was over, I had my very first date with, of course, Matt. But I couldn’t really call him my first boyfriend, for soon after that I dated his friend John. My friend Maureen started dating Matt, and then we kept switching boyfriends back and forth so frequently, the neighbors couldn’t keep up with who was dating whom. Oh, those days were so much fun.

“And,”—my husband, again—“don’t forget your very first love—the pretend one you made up as a kid, along with ‘Nosy Girl,’ your pretend rival! You can write about all the stories you made up about how ugly and mean Nosy Girl was and how being sweet and beautiful made the guy always fall in love with you. Every single time!”

“Oh, I forgot I told you about that,” I said, wiping laugh tears from my eyes. Nosy Girl had been my favorite enemy when I was about eight years old. She looked kind of like me, but her nose was all scrunched up and so wrinkled it pulled her lips up. She also had evil colored eyes that went from purple to black when she lied, and she was always lying, just like she was always trying to steal Gus, my pretend boyfriend. She was the kind of girl who would steal money from his pocket and put it in mine to get me in trouble, only to find herself in trouble when she realized that I—known for being beautiful, kind and exceedingly honest—figured out what she had done and replanted it in hers.

“You could even tell them about Telepersonals,” said my husband, referring to a very early precursor to “About how you decided to date when you quit smoking because you thought it would make you mean and you wanted guys you could be mean to so you wouldn’t be mean to your boss.”

My laugh melted away into a smile because Telepersonals was the very way I met my husband almost 20 years ago.

Telepersonals recorded people’s voices so they could listen to each other’s ads. When I recorded mine, I tried making my voice sound very soft and sexy. First I introduced myself as “Catherine, like the Great—only greater.” Then I went on to describe myself as a single, 43-year-old brunette who looked Irish and was used to being called pretty, and then I added that I was “looking for a little romance.” What a mistake that was! What I discovered was that over three-quarters of the men who listened and responded to my ad were, to put it delicately, morally challenged, and had a vastly different interpretation of the word “romance” than I had. (If you’re over 40, don’t make these dating mistakes.)

When I’d had enough of these thoroughly unromantic conversations, I started listening to ads some of the other men had recorded. I left messages for some who sounded normal and met a few of them in crowded restaurants. No man of my dreams appeared, but I did make a little money on the deal. As soon as they found out I worked in children’s book publishing, no less than three guys hired me to edit their manuscripts! It wasn’t exactly what I was looking for, but the extra money was nice.

Despite remaining unfulfilled, I continued my pursuit of romance—or at least, distracting myself from smoking—through dating on Telepersonals. At last, success came in a cute ad from a guy with a Midwestern accent. “I guess you could say I look like a five foot eight leprechaun,” he said to describe himself, and that made me smile. We met at Pete’s Tavern in Gramercy Park, the oldest bar in New York City and the one that O. Henry made famous. We met for drinks and ended up staying for dinner, and then we went for a long walk. I don’t remember what we talked about, only that we talked for hours. Before we finally parted, Charlie took a picture of me with the camera he’d been carrying all evening. The next morning, he emailed it to me at my office while I was on the phone with my sister. “The guy I went out with last night just emailed the picture he took of me,” I told her. “Isn’t that sweet?”

“Was this a first date?” she asked suspiciously.

“Yes,” I said. “I like him.”

“I don’t want to hear anymore about him until after the third date,” she said.

“I think he’ll still be around, I really do,” I said, but all Mary said was, “We’ll see.”

Three months later, Charlie and I went shopping for an engagement ring and not until after he put it on my finger did he ask me to marry him.

When my mother found out we were engaged, we were at my brother’s house, and she looked from me to Charlie and back to me with a puzzled frown, then said, “But this is not Mike.”

“Mother! Really!” I cried, completely embarrassed. But Charlie was unruffled. He had already heard all about Mike, the boy who would bring my mother flowers, and he just laughed good-naturedly, proving to me yet again that I was making the right choice.

And here we were in our kitchen almost two decades later, talking about my first love.

That’s when it hit me. I couldn’t remember all my first loves at first because I was too distracted by my last love, my husband of 20 years, who I met when I was trying to quit smoking, who remembers all my stories and always makes me laugh.

Catherine Balkin is a Reader’s Digest reader from Hudson, Florida. She is also a member of the Reader’s Digest contributor network.

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