"The assignment was to write a tutorial for men on proper proposal etiquette while heavily outlining your own engagement experience…"
I was perusing Craigslist in the wee hours of the morning, soused and hungry for excitement. Typically, Craigslist is a place where I get my rocks off creating fake posts offering artisan bike spokes, but tonight was different. It was while scrolling through the writing gigs section and idly looking for freelance work that I came across a post that read, “Are you a recently engaged writer? (Paid gig)” The assignment was to write a tutorial for men on proper proposal etiquette while heavily outlining your own engagement experience.
Despite being thoroughly unengaged at the time (and single to boot), I responded to the ad, and the next morning, as I alternated between throwing up and taking Advil, I received an e-mail saying I'd landed the gig.
The first step was making up my dream girl. Had honesty prevailed, I would have written about a moody sexual deviant with bangs, but I opted for a less obvious, more relatable choice: a sweet and nerdy pharmacist named Danielle. She stood a modest 5’4”, with strawberry blonde hair and big green eyes. Danielle adored Star Wars, was a messy eater, and loved me unconditionally.
I outlined everything in my article: how I went up to her and introduced myself after we ordered the exact same toppings on our frozen yogurt; her favorite food (chocolate chip pancakes with strawberry syrup); and how I proposed. I would get lost in my fantasies as I typed away at my computer, nearly expecting Danielle to sneak up behind me and give me a peck on the cheek. 1,500 words later, I had created a monster — a beautiful, loving monster.
In the real world, though, I wasn't doing too hot. I had too much time off work, which I spent at home, mired in long stretches of nothingness. My days were spent drinking iced coffee and buying fast food and my nights consisted of brewing coffee for the following day. I justified my vacation from real-world activity by immersing myself in my fictional-husband role further and writing a far more detailed account about Danielle than my editor had asked for. I made up a back story for Danielle and devoted ample time to her goofy dad, who'd spent a large portion of his life in Vietnam as a sous chef. I would craft conversations in my head even while away from the computer.
“Babe, are we still getting dinner tonight?” she'd ask, looking beautiful in a totally casual way.
“Babe, I'm so sorry. I blanked and totally made plans with my friends,” I'd reply, panicking about being so absent-minded. She'd sense the worry in my voice, and even though she'd be bummed about missing dinner, would comfort me anyway.
“Babe. Babe. It's no biggie. Go have fun with your friends! Beep me when you’re done.” (In my fantasies, she has a beeper.) I'd come home from the bar that night a little drunk, and Danielle would be asleep on my couch. She’d give me the biggest, warmest hug in the world, and we'd have sweet, protected sex right then and there, because we'd be waiting to have kids.
I started talking to Facebook friends who had recently gotten engaged. I sent lots of messages, usually along the lines of, “Oh hey! I saw you're getting engaged! So awesome. I'm actually thinking about proposing also! Her name's Danielle and she's a total sweetheart. I'm looking into buying a ring, but I don't really know where to start! Where'd you get your ring? Anyway, see you next Thanksgiving!”
My friends would write me back, clearly still in a euphoric post-engagement daze: “That's wonderful. I am so happy to hear you've settled down, man. When you find that special someone, your entire life makes sense. I wish you and your fiance luck in your life and sincerely hope you stay in love forever.” I had twinges of guilt at dragging other people into my web of intrigue, but shrugged them off as I fleshed out Danielle's complicated relationship with her brother.
I kept at it, writing long into the night, alone in my apartment with a symphony of microwave noises and porn in the background. I looked at Facebook albums of people being happy and not-so-secretly hoped they would all be jealous of me and my fictional girlfriend. I'd show them. I'd show them all. I wrote draft after draft, tunneling deeper into my fictional relationship as the burrito wrappers and empty coffee cups piled up around me.
Eventually, I sent the completed draft off to the editor. She loved everything I wrote and congratulated me on my perfect relationship. I graciously accepted her well-wishes and told her there was a spot for her in my wedding party, trying my best to keep a level head about the magnificent lie I’d submitted for publication. I had a close call a few weeks later when my editor requested three high-resolution pictures of me and Danielle. I recruited a friend of mine to pose as her and hoped no one would notice the discrepancies in height… and race.
Occasionally I’d wonder if that article — or this article, for that matter — would ever come back to bite me in the ass. Like, one day I'd be accepting a high-profile position at The New York Times and they'd call me into their office with my article on their desk.
“Glass,” my editor would shout, cigar clamped firmly in his mouth. “This says you're married! But we've had several reports of you being a single, womanizing nogoodnik. Turn in your gun and badge, and get outta my office!” I spent hours devising clever monikers for my next assignment, like Charlie Dangerously and Fritz Von Stupendous.
Nearly seven months after the article was done, I received my check and a copy of the magazine in the mail. Sitting in my kitchen, alone, eating my customary dinner of burritos and iced coffee, I couldn’t believe I had pulled it off — now everything seemed so transparent, so blatantly fake, especially compared to the life I was actually leading. Memories of my fictional life with Danielle came back — the proposal, the time she'd given me a discreet handie during a midnight showing of Evil Dead 2. How had that editor not been fooled by a girl who liked Back To The Future and unreciprocated oral pleasure? Or was I just that good at fooling other people, and by extension, myself?
I went to my unmade bed without a sci-fi-loving nursing student draped warmly across my chest that night. The next morning, before I went to work, I re-read the original, 5,000-word draft of my engagement story, disappearing back into a life I had the wherewithal to make happen only in fiction.