Dan Brownstein / Susan Shapiro and her husband
You would think finding someone their bashert would ensure a lifelong friendship, not a vendetta. When I was 29, my friend Valerie set me up with “Aaron,” “a smart handsome screenwriter mensch” she said I should marry. After a tumultuous off-and-on courtship, I finally heeded Valerie’s advice. She applauded my decision, danced at my wedding, then she dumped me.
Valerie’s rejection of me was painful and confusing, since she’d been a close confidante for a decade. We first met when she was a 30-year-old acclaimed filmmaker in Greenwich Village. I was a 20-year-old NYU English grad student sleeping on a futon in a one bedroom I shared with Ellen, another Midwest Jewburb refugee. I was good at typing, proofreading, editing. Interning at Valerie’s company, Ellen came home one Friday asking, “Can you work on Valerie’s screenplay over the weekend for two hundred dollars?”
I was pumped to meet a feminist luminary. Valerie spoke even faster than I did, asking rapid-fire invasive questions. “How old are you? Are you single? Are you sleeping with anyone? Are you in therapy? You should be in therapy.” Valerie’s elegant apartment had sleek wooden floors, high ceilings, built-in book shelves and the biggest desk I’d ever seen. She handed me her script, marks and changes scrawled throughout. Valerie read aloud as I typed. I was floored by her cool work space, fame, and creative energy as we recited her witty lines, playing the lovers in her romantic comedy. I changed a line and showed her. She looked at the new version, then me. “You have balls,” she said. “Lucky you’re a good critic.”
I beamed, like I’d been discovered. She poured us wine. I babbled about my problematic ex-boyfriends. She spoke of her estrangement from her crazy mother after her parents’ acrimonious divorce, her handsome long-time lover, getting her feature film made. I devoured her scene, unsure if I wanted to be her best friend, her protégé, or just be her. She wrote me a check for $200 plus a $50 bonus, and soon hired me for other chores; I was her eager sidekick. She became my teacher, editor, close comrade and older sister. I took her advice to find a therapist with a sliding scale, though Valerie was my surrogate shrink, analyzing my love problems. She hated my taste in men.
Way before Patti Stanger’s “Millionaire Matchmaker” made carnal criticism from a yenta popular, Valerie critiqued my romantic roster. She trashed the poetry prof I had a crush on (“too old and crazier than you”), my visiting college ex- beau (“no Midwest Republicans”), and the hot theater director I dated (“Emotionally, he’s 10 years old.”) She became my amateur yenta and relationship mentor, hooking me up with a French doctor who was smart, but lived abroad. As a doctor’s daughter, I couldn’t marry one, even a Parisian. Lenny, a playwright showed up with another male, saying “In case you don’t like me, you have another guy to choose from.” I found it charming. Valerie declared it wimpy; Lenny and I remained platonic.
She first met Aaron on a strike line at the Writer’s Guild, picking him up for me. She told him I was a long-haired journalist who wore “tight jeans, T-shirts with no bra and cowboy boots.” (Any surprise he called quickly?) He was sweet, smart, funny. But he was also 10 years my senior, in untucked flannel shirts and sneakers with untied laces. He seemed too old and schleppy, reminding me of my brothers. After a few dates, we fizzled out.
Valerie was devastated when she and her boyfriend split. It took her until 43 to nail her prince. I was nervous amid rich guests at her country wedding. My heels got stuck in the mud as I toted a candy basket my Midwest mother (a party planner) had sent that Valerie didn’t notice. She said the black ceramic bowl I’d given her for a present wasn’t her taste. I kept the bowl and picked an Impressionist art book that didn’t impress her either. I felt hurt, ignored, an unimportant disciple. Single and broke, I was inept at the protocol and presents. I’d clearly flunked her wedding.
Meanwhile she kept hounding me to give Aaron another shot. “He’s sweet, but not my type,” I confessed. “Your type is neurotic, self-destructive and not interested in you!” she yelled. “Take him to bed.” Envious of Valerie’s happy marriage, I tried again. Aaron and I sizzled under the covers more than I’d expected. Valerie was right — he was a keeper.
While my love life and career finally picked up, Valerie was commissioned to pen movies for stars that weren’t green-lit. When she lost her agent and work dried up, I invited her to my writing group, recommending my magazine and newspaper editors, who bought her pieces. Imitating Valerie’s flair for fix-ups, I set up my younger colleagues in the workshop. When two couples married, I felt a vicarious thrill and began introducing more couples.
After Aaron proposed, I thanked Valerie with a silver Tiffany heart locket. She wanted to throw us an engagement party at her country home, three hours away. We begged off, saying we were city mice, without transportation. She seemed annoyed, but I was too crazed with deadlines and planning my two big weddings (one in Manhattan with a judge, the other in Michigan with a Rabbi) to focus on it. I wore a black dress at my downtown ceremony in New York where Valerie danced, posed for pictures and hugged me. Afterwards she stopped returning my calls. “What’s up?” I emailed. No answer. I tried to call and write — no response. She was finished with me. I was confused, miffed, devastated.
I asked Aaron what to make of her desertion. He said she was a child of divorce who’d completely blown off her own mother and sister. Maybe that was how she dealt with conflicts? Troubled, I couldn’t let go, analyzing what went wrong. She’d had a quaint outdoor wedding so maybe, with my two big receptions, I looked like Bridezilla? We’d received splashy press about the bride wearing black, where I’d bragged about my upcoming relationship book, the eight foot built-in bookshelves (like Valerie’s), our two-bedroom Village high rise, and Aaron’s upcoming film deal. I should have been more humble. Since refusing her engagement party seemed the turning point, I feared it offended her. In retrospect, I should have taken a train to let her host whatever celebration she’d offered.
A year later, I bumped into Valerie at a book party. I mentioned I couldn’t find a publisher for my new project. She was sweet and sympathetic. “Now that she sees we’re not rich, successful or threatening, she can be friendly again,” Aaron joked. I kept trying. But when she didn’t even return my emails, I remained puzzled. Aaron was a seasoned screenwriter Valerie’s age who was just as strong-minded as she was. Had I chosen him over her? I hoped she hadn’t felt neglected that I no longer needed her like I used to.
It’s been 10 years since we last spoke. I miss Valerie and think of her whenever I play Love Guru to my single students and younger acolytes, who prefer my free match-ups and singles parties to going on crappy Internet dates. I even wrote a book about it. However, I learned that deciding who someone should sleep with can be intrusive and dangerous. Of the 25 married couples I’ve set up, five led to divorce and I felt horribly guilty. Yet I can now see how the joyous unions might be harder to handle — when someone seems younger, richer, and more lucky than I am. Valerie’s setup was a triumph. My marriage felt blessed in every way. Was it too triumphant for our matchmaker?
I once believed, “A true friend walks in when everyone else leaves.” Yet a true friend also has to share the victories. So even when I’m feeling jealous or drained, to keep returning my good love karma, I make a point to celebrate all the successes of my protégés. Ironically, I became a successful wife, fix-up fanatic and career woman by emulating Valerie, who no longer speaks to me.
Susan Shapiro (@susanshapironet) is a Manhattan writing teacher, author of eight books and coauthor of “The Bosnia List,” just out from Penguin.