Next time you see someone reading the back pages of The Washingtonian, edge up close. If he or she quickly flips to the front, you've probably frightened off an "attractive," "intelligent," "professional" person engaged in the great American singles pastime: reading the personal ads while no one's watching.

Charna Lester and Jane Reynolds, being good friends and all that, happened to be reading them together.

"We were just having fun with them, kind of fantasizing what someone's idea of 'handsome' would mean, or evan 'tal,'" explained Lester, a petite redhead "over 40" who writes for the National Weather Service. "So we decided it would really be better to see all these people -- we decided to have a party."

Saturday night at the Linden Hill Hotel in Bethesda, they did. More than 125 people who had, as the party ad put it, "placed ads, responded to them, or just thought about it," showed up. For once, everyone stood behind his ad.

"Once-in-a-lifetime offer, U.S. special edition, user's manual free, test drive today," read the tag on one woman's blouse. "Janette" offered a more precise description on hers: "Heiress with mansion, pool, private jet and large collection of porno flicks (on video discs) seeks man willing to share his time and body." Jeanette just smiled all friendly-like when asked if she were kidding.

Most of the instant copywriters aimed for the witty or alluring: "One 'Bill' you don't have to pay," announced a bashful 40-year old civil engineer from Maryland who confessed that personal ads were something he had never had any experience with before "being transferred to Washington." His reason for coming? "Curiosity."

"Slender, Dynamic Physician" arrived early and had to stand around with hands dynamically in pockets until the crown started to flow in at 9. Sleek in a beige summer poplin suit, the 38-year-old psychiatrist declined to give his name ("since the whole context of the operation was to remain anonymus") but cheerfully praised ads as a way of "meeting people that you would otherwise never meet." Call him Sigmund.

Like others at the party who had actually used the ads (about half the group), Sigmund finds them safe and efficient.For the most part, people describe themselves accurately, though words like "attractive" cover a multitude of self-images. Sigmund's ad said he was seeking a "slender , psychologically minded woman . . . " But he's about ready to throw "slender" into the same bag with "attractive."

"Some people," he chuckled, "have 'delusion systems' about what 'slender' means".

A woman nearby began to read Sigmund's ad aloud. A hefty woman. She talked. He didn't. End of relationship.

"that's what I call an 'I'm okay, you're not' conversation," he said.

In the Terrace Room, Lew Merkelson, an announcer for WGAY, played tapes of Willie Nelson, Donna Summer and others: "Whatever will get them out there dancing." Only rifles would have worked. These people had come to talk. They preferred the terrace.

Uniting everybody was a lingering sence that meeting through personal ads and singles parties still carries the threat of embarrassment even if it shouldn't. Co-host Reynolds, a testing and marketing representative, agreed that "There's a connotation that you're somehow desperate and looking." Alex Fraser, who teaches a course on meeting people at the Open University, chimed in, though, that such attitudes are passe, that the really sad types are "The ones sitting home watching TV and getting fat. These people, at least, are out here on a first name basis."

Fraser hobbled in on crutches to observe the scene. Of course, he's still single, too. Age? Just say I'm the same age as Paul Newman."

By late in the evening, many singles had left in pairs. One couple necked in the corner of the dimly lit patio. Some swapped ad stories. Anne, 41, a writer-editor in Rockville and probably slender enough for Sigmund, described how her friends pass along envelopes they've received after a satisfactory relationship has already blossomed. A doctor came down the pike just this week.

Ginny and Sylvia, both teachers from Northern Virginia in their late 30s, once shared a Washingtonian ad since both were looking for a man who wouldn't be intimidated by their positions. Sylvia opened one letter and showed it to Ginny. It turned out to be the author of a textbook Ginny uses. She went out with him three times.

"His book was much better than he was," she sighed.