"Oh, I'm a sucker for romance," admits Paul Freeman, a consultant for a Washington area government contractor. "In my line of work, I often have to communicate with someone on a fairly substantial level, though not a personal level, over an extended period of time. I have found that even without seeing someone in the flesh or knowning that much about them, I can experience romance over the telephone.
"Several things happen. First, I get little tingles, you know? Then, it becomes like a drug -- I'll make up ridiculous excuses to call someone just to get a fix. When I realize I'm really jumping through hoops just to come up with a legitimate excuse to call someone and get a fix, I know I'm experiencing romance."
The symptoms are classic, and over the telephone Freeman practices the romantic's highest alchemy -- transforming banal circumstances into an experience unique and thrilling. Launching the romance has probably required a tremendous work of his imagination; to sustain it for any length of time may require a heroic suspension of his critical faculties.
"Sometimes," admits Freeman, "the dynamics when you're actually sitting across from someone are very different from those when you [are on the telephone and] can slouch under your desk and grimace if they say something stupid."
In 1916, H. L. Mencken reduced the phenomenon of romance to a caustic equation: "In the relations between the sexes, all beauty is founded upon romance, all romance is founded upon mystery and all mystery is founded upon ignorance, or, failing that, upon the deliberate denial of the known truth." Any desk edition of Webster's gives the same emphasis, more bluntly, when it defines romance as "something that lacks basis of fact." Whatever the wording, the message remains a significant one, especially today. For even in 1983, romance survives in its most classic form -- as an elaborate illusion that man creates for himself. It does so, however, against tremendous odds.
Since its official invention, when medieval troubadours professed chivalric love for a "lady" who was virtually a stand-in for the Virgin Mary, romance has been at its best an irrational, one-sided affair. A fantic devotion to someone unattainable -- at least remote -- can produce a purity of emotion that is somehow admirable. But the moment the romanticized one draws near, the impulse disintegrates and the beauty of the illusion is lost; the whole affair descends to the level of mawkish domestic sentiment as onlookers avert their eyes in horror.
In the 20th century, the simultaneous occurrence of the "Feminist Movement" and the "Sexual Revolution" has dealth pure romance widked blows. It is difficult to hold remote someone who works at the adjacent desk, let alone someone who shares your bed. Distance, so critical to the mirage, is no longer a natural perspective in our crowded, busy, homogenized world, and the conventions of chivalric courtship have fallen extinct.
The purest of romances in modern times seems reduced to the level of a domestic science. Consider briefly the apprenticeship every American youth now automatically undergoes in the manufacturing of romantic illusions. When we're 5, our romantic heroes are Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy -- full-blown fantasies, delivered by a conspiracy of our elders. But by the world-weary aage of 12, we have already developed a romantic appetite that demands more substance, and we turn to distant but real humans -- baseball players, movie stars, rock 'n' roll musicians. Seizing all the data we can find -- statisitics, photos, quotations -- we piece together a pair of clay feet and then extrapolate to create romantic gods. By our mid-teens, when romance with a capital R (romance between the sexes) begins, most of us have become skilled enough to practice the hocus-pocus at close quarters -- on the boy or girl next door, even.
Thus far, our basic training in romance has guided us from a state of ignorance through intermediate-level techniques of misreading and distorting reality. Finally, when we've become truly adept at what Mencken calls the "deliberate denial of the known truth," we move oon to the hard-core stuff: Adult Romance.
Even for a pro, adult romance in the 1980s is not a simple prospect. The advanced technology and androgyny of our times are antithetical to every premise of romance. In an information-obsesed society, where even the most obscure fact has been charted, graphed and translated statistically into percentages and probabilities, denial of the known truth becomes a Herculean task. The chameleon-like quality of modern sexuality only confounds matters. But in the face of these forces, some modern romantics are exhibiting unprecedented ingenuity.
Freeman's telephone romances provide a case in point. For decades teen-agers have used the telephone rather than the troubadour's lute or poet's pen as an instrument of serenade. But in a city like Washington, the telephone also serves as an effective conduit for romance on a more sophisticated level.
"The very nature of the Washington scene," explains Freeman, "cuts both ways on romance. It's transient and fast-paced here. People are filled with self-importance and define each other by what they do. This doesn't lend itself to blind romance and love at firt sight ... there's probably a greater element of cynicism. But at the same time, there's a greater corresponding need to find an oasis, an escape from the crap." The telephone provides the solution. The very gadget that is designed to let you "reach out and touch someone" can also be used to hold someone at bay, allowing a delightfully slow-paced incubation of an illusory oasis -- a mirage.
Another young professional, this one female and insistent on anonymity, provides a grimmer view of romance in Washington's highly charged setting. "There's such an emphasis on professional success," she says, "whether political or financial, that young people can't devote the attention or time to really having a romance ... A successful romance in Washington is not even the illusion of a love relationship. It's a partnership that may have some of the decorative accessories of intimacy, but that actually serves to allow two egos to proceed unimpeded." One yearns for mawkishness.
Whether set up for emotional or business purposes, all modern-day romantic illusions share the risk of collision with reality. "I can think of moments in my lie," says Freeman, "when I've done some pretty bizarre stuff driven by romance. That's very real ... Romance is only illusory in that it's so often, so unfortunately, so fleeting ... It's like the old B. B. King sons says, The thrill is gone,' that implies that something was there."
As a veteran, Freeman can point out two more obstacles that interrupt his abstract pursuit. The first is money. "I used to be willing to do anything, go anywhere for romance. Then I got my first bills from the credit cards ... You can't have breakfast at Tiffany's every morning."
The second reality that intrudes is time. God knows what the troubadours did when they found themselves pushing 30, but 28-year-old Freeman senses "a real tension among people my age, between grabbing at the last chance to sow some wild oats and, on the other hand, joining the many people who are contributing to the new baby boom ... It's a tough situation ... It affects the way we all think about romance ... What I really think about is time -- and the relationship off my romantic journeys to the reality of time. It's rather unsettling."
Few of us can afford -- imaginatively, financially or temporally -- to sustain the delightful illusion of pure romance. For those who surrender to reality, life offers an abundance of alternative sources for the occasional romantic fix. Loneliness, empty summer homes and even the sound of tires on gravel can be romantic. And beauty, in any form, is always good for a quick rush.
Finally, for those few who persist in making a feast of illusion, here's reassurance in another line from Menchen: "The hole of the doughnut is at least digestible."