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638: Rom-Com

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Prologue: Prologue

Ira Glass

It's This American Life from WBEZ Chicago, I'm Ira Glass.

Valentine's Day is around the corner, and here at the show we were talking about romantic comedies and how they don't get a lot of respect. I think it's maybe because of the bad ones. Every part of them just feels too obvious, you know? The couple meets, but they hate each other at first. They go through some things that make them, you know, learn some important lesson about themselves. You know from the very beginning they're going to end up together. And then, no surprise, they do. When it's not done well, it's all too obvious and tired, and you can feel the gears working in the thing.

One of the producers on our show, Neil, he wholeheartedly really loves romantic comedies, has favorites that he's watched over and over dozens of times. He once collaborated with the producer of Sleepless in Seattle on a rom-com script that never got made. He has all kinds of thoughts about them.

And he realized this thing about rom-coms and what's so satisfying about the good ones that I really think is true.

Neil Drumming

I used to say that it was just watching just the close-ups of two beautiful people being funny and clever and witty to each other.

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Neil Drumming

Being their sort of best selves, or sometimes worst selves, but then eventually their best selves. And that was kind of enough for me.

Meg Ryan

Now, why shut me out? You know what happens to people who shut everybody out?

Kevin Kline

They live the quiet, peaceful lives?

Meg Ryan

No, they fester.

Ira Glass

That's Meg Ryan and Kevin Kline with a fake French accent in the movie French Kiss.

Kevin Kline

Fester. I am festering.

Meg Ryan

Inside, fester and rot. I've seen it happen. You'll become one of those hunched-back lonely old men sitting in the corner of a crowded cafe mumbling to yourself, (FRENCH ACCENT) my ass is twitching. You people make my ass twitch.

Neil Drumming

If there's there's a simple thing that resonates for me, it's that, in the best of these movies, you get to see two people get along in a way that is great.

Ira Glass

It's just like nice to see that part of people.

Neil Drumming

Yeah. Yeah. And I think, if you're projecting at all, it's the idea that you can be that connected to someone or receive someone that well. When you see it, you're like, oh, yeah, that would be nice. That's why I like the ones where people spend a lot of time together.

Ira Glass

That's key for Neil. In Neil's personal ranking of these films, which has the 2009 film The Ugly Truth at the very, very bottom, the three rom-coms that sit at the very top like the tousled hair above Hugh Grant's head, are French Kiss, Two Weeks Notice, which is a real estate rom-com, and his very favorite-- lots of people's favorite-- When Harry Met Sally. And they're all at the top of the list for this very reason, because of how much time the couple spends together talking. Take When Harry Met Sally.

Neil Drumming

The thing that I like about it is that at least you get a vision of what their relationship actually is, because they spend 12 years together before they finally get together. So you get to see real fights. You get to see their relationship grow. You get to see their personalities clash.

And so they actually have a chance to fall in love by talking to each other, as opposed to, in romantic comedies now, or like where there's the montage and music playing and then you're just supposed to come out of that thinking they're in love, they actually spend time with each other. Like there's a sequence of scenes in When Harry Met Sally where they're just getting along, and they're just talking on the phone.

Meg Ryan

Hello?

Billy Crystal

You sleeping?

Meg Ryan

No, I was watching Casablanca.

Billy Crystal

Channel, please.

Meg Ryan

11.

Billy Crystal

Thank you. Got it. Now, you're telling me you would be happier with Victor Laszlow than with Humphrey Bogart?

Meg Ryan

When did I say that?

Billy Crystal

When we drove to New York.

Meg Ryan

I never said that. I would never have said that.

Billy Crystal

All right, fine. Have it your way. Have you been sleeping?

Meg Ryan

Why?

Billy Crystal

Because I haven't been sleeping.

Neil Drumming

I think if I was dating someone who hated When Harry Met Sally, I don't know that I could date them. Like, [LAUGHS] I don't know that I could. If you're not interested in the relationship between Harry and Sally, I don't really understand what kind of person you are. [LAUGHS] I don't know.

Ira Glass

Wow.

Neil Drumming

That's not to say that you're a bad person, it just means I don't think I understand you.

Ira Glass

OK. Romantic comedies are contrived. The people are way more clever and way better looking than in real life. The stories are full of things that would be ridiculous and sometimes maybe even on the stalker-y side if they happened to any of us. But this totally artificial form, when it works, reminds you of what it feels like to be in love and of somebody who wants to listen to what you say and who says things that you want to listen to. And so for this Valentine's Day, we're devoting our show to rom-coms.

In each of our acts today, we found a story that reminds us of some aspect of a movie rom-com. And yes, we did go on a search for stories of people running, sprinting down the street in real life in an urgent rush to tell someone that they love them. Stay with us.

Act One: Meet Cute

Ira Glass

Act One, Meet Cute. So the first thing a rom-com needs is for the couple to meet in an appealing way, the meet cute.

Neil Drumming

The meet cute is supposed to make you feel like no matter what happens, these two people should be together.

Ira Glass

There are so many ways to do this. In The Wedding Planner, Matthew McConaughey saves Jennifer Lopez from a runaway dumpster that is rolling down the street. In Pretty Woman, Richard Gere gets lost in a very fancy car and Julia Roberts gives him directions. Bringing Up Baby, Katherine Hepburn picks up Cary Grant's golf ball on a golf course. In Reality Bites, Winona Ryder throws her cigarette into Ben Stiller's car. And Neil's favorite, When Harry Met Sally--

Neil Drumming

The thing about When Harry Met Sally is it has an extended meet cute, which I like. They take a road trip from Chicago to New York, and so they're kind of meeting for several hours. And from the very beginning, it's contentious because Harry has all these theories about relationships that she finds like crazy and off-putting.

Billy Crystal

What I'm saying is-- and this is not a come on in any way, shape, or form-- is that men and women can't be friends because the sex part always gets in the way.

Meg Ryan

That's not true. I have a number of men friends and there is no sex involved.

Billy Crystal

No, you don't.

Meg Ryan

Yes, I do.

Billy Crystal

No, you don't.

Meg Ryan

Yes, I do.

Billy Crystal

You only think you do.

Meg Ryan

You're saying I'm having sex with these men without my knowledge?

Billy Crystal

No, what I'm saying is they all want to have sex with you.

Meg Ryan

They do not.

Billy Crystal

Do too.

Meg Ryan

They do not.

Billy Crystal

Do too.

Neil Drumming

I think it sets up the chemistry. Like it sets up that there is something about them that you want to root for.

Ira Glass

Meet cutes do happen in real life, but for this first story in today's show, we have a piece of fiction, a story where the meet cute plays an important role in the story as a turning point for one of the characters. The story's by Simon Rich. The actor Daniel Radcliffe read it for us.

Daniel Radcliffe

"I don't understand," Professor Xander Kaplan said while his girlfriend sobbed into a pillow. "I thought you liked tulips." "I do," she said. "It's just-- you get them for me every year. It's starting to get a little impersonal. I mean, this time, you didn't even include a card."

Xander winced. Her reasoning was sound. "I apologize," he said. "I obviously made an error in judgment." He tried to take her hand, but she pulled it out of reach. "Do you remember what I did for your birthday?" She said, "I got you that new Bunsen burner you wanted. I knit you a pair of wool socks so your feet wouldn't get cold in the lab. You never make that kind of effort for me. All you do is think about yourself."

"That's incorrect," Xander said. "What about Emiladium? It took me nine months to synthesize that element and I named it after you." "You were going to synthesize that element anyway," Emily said. "You needed it for your secret project, that silver orb thing in your lab. Emiladium wasn't about me, it was about you. I mean, for god sakes, you won't even tell me what it does."

Xander sighed. "Is there anything I can do to make it up to you?" Emily blinked back some tears. "I don't know. I mean, it's not like you can just go back in time and get me a different present." Xander's expression brightened. "Wait there," he said. "I'll be right back."

Xander hurried down the hall, crept into his laboratory, and locked the door behind him. His time machine was right where he had left it. He climbed inside the silver orb and flicked on the power switch. His plan was simple, travel back in time to this morning, find a new gift for Emily, and bring it to the present. But there were a couple of risks.

There was a chance, for example, that using the machine would cause the universe to explode. He'd never tested the thing out before. There was also no guarantee that he would be able to find a good present. He only had enough Emiladium to fuel five minutes of time travel. That didn't give him a lot of wiggle room. Wherever he went, he would have to shop efficiently.

Xander was usually a pretty good problem solver. He had, for example, invented a time machine. But quantum physics and nuclear hydraulics were trivial compared to the rigors of gift shopping. He massaged his temples, trying to remember if Emily had dropped any hints lately. He vaguely recalled her staring at a vase in Crate & Barrel, but that place was full of vases. There was no way he'd be able to pick out the right one.

He was trying to remember the name of her favorite perfume when a thought entered his head. Maybe he was thinking too small. His machine could transport him to any time and place in human history. Why go back a few hours when he could go back a few centuries?

He knew Emily loved Shakespeare. She'd written her senior thesis on one of his tragedies. Why not travel back to the Globe Theater and swipe her an original script? It wouldn't be too difficult, he reasoned. All he'd have to do is dash back backstage and grab one. It would be the most impressive gift she'd ever received in her life.

But which tragedy had Emily written her thesis about? He knew it was one of the king ones, Richard the something or Charles the something, but there are a bunch of those. What if he got it wrong? It was too risky.

There was always jewelry. He knew the general construction dates for King Tut's tomb. He could park in front of the pyramid, run inside, and snatch a jade stone. He entered the coordinates and was about to push the lever when he started to second guess himself again.

Buying women jewelry was always chancy. Emily had very specific tastes, and what if she didn't like jade? It wasn't like he'd be able to go back and return it.

He thought back to the night they met. He was finishing his PhD at the time, and his lab had closed early because of Easter. He'd stuffed his papers into his briefcase and shuffled through the rain to the 116th Street Station. It was 4:05 AM and the platform was deserted, except for Emily.

It had been several days since Xander's last conversation with a human, and when she started to speak to him, he felt the stirrings of a panic attack. But Emily's friendly smile managed, somehow, to put him at ease. She was awfully cheerful, given her circumstances. Her MetroCard had expired, she said, and the machines were broken. She'd been stranded for over 20 minutes. Would he be willing to sell her a ride?

Xander nodded and watched as she rooted around in her purse for some cash to pay him back. It was a moment or two before it occurred to him that she had given him the chance to be gallant.

"You-- you don't have to reimburse me," he said. "I'll swipe you in for free." She thanked him enthusiastically and then, shockingly, wrapped her arms around his torso. Xander wasn't used to physical contact. And although the hug was brief, it caused his entire body to tingle from head to toe. It was a startling sensation, like walking through an electrically-charged field. He still felt that way whenever she touched him.

Xander was an atheist and believed fiercely in random causality. But by the end of their shared subway ride, he was sure he'd experienced a miracle. This wonderful person had shown up out of nowhere and given him a chance at love. And in return, he'd given her three years of misery.

He thought about all of his Saturday nights at the lab, ignoring her calls, making excuses. He thought about the way she cried when he handed her the tulips. How could he make up for three years of romantic ineptitude with a single birthday present?

He closed his eyes and concentrated. There had to be a right answer. Cleopatra's crown. Joan of Arc's sword. A baby dinosaur. What was the greatest thing he could give her, the very best present in the world? It was the hardest problem he'd ever attempted to solve. But then, as always, the solution came to him.

Xander parked his time machine by the 116th Street Station and dashed into the subway. It was 3:45 AM a little over three years in the past. Emily was standing by the turnstile, swiping and re-swiping her expired MetroCard. He took a deep breath and approached her.

"Let me guess," he said. "Expired MetroCard?" She chuckled. "How'd you know?" "I had a hunch. Come on, I'll swipe you through." "Oh, that's OK," she said. "I'll just go to the machine upstairs or--" "The machines are all broken," he said. "You'd better catch this one," he said. "The next one won't come for another 20 minutes."

Before she could protest, he took out his MetroCard and swiped her through the turnstile. She smiled back at him with confusion. "Aren't you coming?" she asked as the train pulled into the station. Xander averted his eyes. He worried that if he looked at her, he would start to cry.

"I need to take a different train," he said. "Well, at least let me pay you for the--" "That's all right," he said, his voice breaking. "It's a present."

He was about to turn away when she leaned over the turnstile and hugged him. It was exactly as he remembered it, her long brown hair brushing softly against his neck, his entire body tingling with warmth. "Thanks," she said. He tried to say, you're welcome, but the words got caught in his throat. He waved goodbye as she boarded the train, then he marched out of the station alone.

Ira Glass

Daniel Radcliffe reading the short story, "The Present" by Simon Rich from Rich's book, The Last Girlfriend on Earth. Radcliffe is also the star of Simon Rich's new TV show, Miracle Workers, which will be out soon on TBS. And he stars in a new film, Beast of Burden that comes out this month.

Act Two: The Obstacle

Ira Glass

Act Two, The Obstacle.

Neil Drumming

The main body of most romantic comedies is there's something or a group of things keeping them apart. There's always obstacles that are keeping these two people who are fated to be together apart.

Ira Glass

The obstacles can be big or little. Tom Hanks isn't over his dead ex-wife in Sleepless in Seattle. In Notting Hill, a guy falls in love with somebody who's too famous for him. In Bridget Jones, she's going after the wrong guy, which, of course, is Pride and Prejudice, and, I don't know, so many films. It's one of the most common.

In When Harry Met Sally, they each are involved with other people for a lot of the film. But the real obstacle is that they're friends, which, in this film, has a special meaning, because if you remember when Harry met Sally on that car ride originally, he told her that he didn't think that men and women could ever just be friends. So this is new for him. Billy Crystal has a scene in the film with a sidekick character, a best friend, played by Bruno Kirby, where they talk about this.

Bruno Kirby

I don't understand this relationship.

Billy Crystal

What do you mean?

Bruno Kirby

You enjoy being with her?

Billy Crystal

Yeah.

Bruno Kirby

You find her attractive?

Billy Crystal

Yeah.

Bruno Kirby

And you're not sleeping with her?

Billy Crystal

No.

Bruno Kirby

You're afraid to let yourself be happy.

Billy Crystal

Why can't you give me credit for this? This is a big thing for me. I never had a relationship with a woman that didn't involve sex. I feel like I'm growing.

Ira Glass

We went out looking for a real-life couple facing some obstacle that kept them from being together, and that's not actually very hard to find. But one of our producers, Elna Baker, heard about a couple where the obstacle that confronted them, once the relationship got going, was pretty unusual. It was a couple one of her friends was in years ago.

Quick warning to everybody who's listening to this podcast version of our show, there are some words that we have un-beeped in this and other stories in the program. If you don't want to hear that, maybe you're listening with kids, you can get a beeped version at our website, thisamericanlife.org. Anyway, here's Elna.

Elna Baker

My friend, Michelle Buteau, is one of the most audacious, ballsy people I know. And she brings this attitude into all aspects of her life, including relationships. This is a story about her and her boyfriend. It starts in the '90s, when she was 18, going to college, living in Miami. And as college students do, she adopted a new cool persona for herself, one that wore dark lipstick, cargo pants, and danced in reggae clubs every weekend.

Michelle Buteau

I loved dancing. I wanted to be a fly girl on In Living Color. I definitely would have been Snoop Dogg's video ho if I had the chance.

Elna Baker

Yeah.

Michelle Buteau

And, yeah, I was out one night at a teeny bopper club, and that's where I saw him. I remember the smoke machine was working. It felt like we were at a bar mitzvah somewhere in Jersey. And literally, when the smoke cleared, I'm like, who is that tall boy with the khakis on and the big gold chain and the curly hair? How do I talk to him?

And I kind of just sort of like inched my way over to him on the dance floor. I remember doing this move where we're like-- we both sort of like roll into each other's body, and I can get a whiff of his Drakkar Noir and I was like, mm, yes, yes, yes. And my heart was beating so fast, I could hear it. And I'm like, oh, my god, this is what love is. I feel like a Puerto Rican Molly Ringwald.

Elna Baker

Like in any good first encounter, there were magical coincidences.

Michelle Buteau

We were walking out to the parking lot, and we realized we both had the same car, Mazda Protegees, both leased by our moms.

Elna Baker

Was that a moment where you're like, this is fate? I mean, not only did I go to this club--

Michelle Buteau

Oh, definitely. I'm like, what? Like, out of all the cars in the world, out of all the dance clubs, you and me.

Elna Baker

He was 18, too, but he seemed really grown up.

Michelle Buteau

He worked at Best Buy selling DVDs, and he was also a drug dealer. And in my mind, I was like, oh, my god, he's so cool. He's so good at math. He counts so quickly.

[LAUGHTER]

Elna Baker

In case you're thinking, drug dealer, red flag, he was barely a drug dealer. He dealt weed. Nearly every woman I know has dated a weed dealer. They quickly got serious. And he was Michelle's first big relationship. He was funny, smart. They had good banter. And he was this incredibly accepting person, made her feel comfortable, confident about her body and about sex, which she'd never really felt before. She imagined a real future with him.

Michelle Buteau

The plan was-- I mean, looking back on it, it seems so basic, but just to be with each other, and to have fun, and to have kids, and to go out to dinner after a movie on a Friday night, you know, the Olive Garden, Cheesecake Factory, just kind of exist in a really cute apartment with beige carpet and white blinds. Yeah, the American Dream.

Elna Baker

Fast forward three years into the relationship. Their lives are totally entwined. Their families are close. They vacation together. It was that point of no return place in a relationship where you're just like, here it is. This is it.

But there was this one thing that seemed sort of off, a lack of photographic evidence, no pictures of himself as a kid, specifically no school pictures, no prom picture. Even his mom didn't have any shots of him. It was just weird. And then one night--

Michelle Buteau

I had a dream that he called me up. He told me that he never graduated high school. When I called him the next day and I was like I had this crazy dream, he just started crying. I could just hear him gently sobbing and he's like, not only did I not graduate high school, I don't even know how to read.

I'm just like, how? Like, I thought I knew you. Like, what? Like, haven't we read something together?

Elna Baker

Their entire relationship flashed before her eyes, one moment after another. Suddenly, it all made sense.

Michelle Buteau

And I was going back. You know, I realized, like, oh my god, this is why we go to the same restaurant. We would go to the same restaurant, and he'd order the same thing because he couldn't read the menu.

Elna Baker

Oh, wow.

Michelle Buteau

And he liked you go to restaurants that had pictures of the food. You know, I would write him poems and stuff and he's like, read them to me. You know, it's better when I hear it from you. And never wanted to go through his mail. I had to help him.

Elna Baker

When you stop and think about it, the fact that he'd been able to navigate the world convincingly and keep this from Michelle for over three years, it was an incredible feat. He must have been covering this up constantly.

Michelle Buteau

When he told me why he didn't know how to read, it just made my heart break even more. I mean, his dad died when he was young, and so his mom had to work three jobs. And he was depressed and just dropped out of the fifth grade, and nobody ever noticed. His mom didn't want to deal with it. And you know, I'm not judging because it must been so hard for her.

The only thing that kept going through my mind, I remember, was, I want to save you. I want to help you. I want to make this better. You know, we're going to get back on track to what we had planned.

Elna Baker

She was not going to allow this obstacle to push them apart. She jumped into action. This was before you could Google everything, so Michelle went to the library and did research on adult literacy. She broke it down into manageable steps and wrote out a timeline for him.

Michelle Buteau

My game plan for him was I had a list of places he could go to to go to night school, a therapist he could talk to, easy adult reading books, tips and tricks. It was like a whole sort of care package of how to just take it on. And he was really overwhelmed by it. I don't know. It's like, OK, this is a really big deal. I get it.

Elna Baker

Michelle's dyslexic, and her boyfriend didn't have a learning disability. But still, she could empathize with how hard it can be to read. And at first, Michelle's boyfriend was totally on board with the plan. But after a year of Michelle offering him solutions, he still hadn't taken any action. It just seemed like he didn't want to. He got around the world just fine without reading. She started realizing, oh wait, his illiteracy was a way bigger problem for her than it was for him, and it really started pushing them apart.

Michelle Buteau

I stopped being his girlfriend and sort of became his coach or his mom, and it wasn't fun for either one of us. I tried every tactic. I was patient. I was nice. I was stern. And then I kind of backed off. I'm like, whatever. He needs to do on his own time.

Elna Baker

It started to bleed its way into every moment they shared together, like she could never fully relax anymore. Even when they were happy, she'd snap herself out of it and think, wait, no, no. We're forgetting that there's this huge, looming problem, and we've got to fix it before everything can be OK. She started to resent him.

Michelle Buteau

We don't even laugh anymore. We're not even holding hands like we used to. We're not even having sex like we used to, simply because you're not even going to this class. Like, if you just went to a class, I would just be so happy.

Elna Baker

Did you feel like, if you love me, you will learn to read?

Michelle Buteau

Absolutely. I mean, is that weird? But I totally felt like that. I was like, who's going to read books to our kids at night? Like, you've got to get it together.

This was like the bane of my existence. I was like-- and I couldn't really talk to anyone about it, because how embarrassing. Because I didn't want my friends to think less of him, you know? And I wanted him to still feel like a man, so I just kind of carried this by myself. And at some point, I just looked at myself and I was like, you've got to go. But even then, it was just like, how do I leave somebody when they're down?

Elna Baker

Well, in a sense it actually-- like, it made the relationship last longer because everything became about him reading. And so if you could just crack that or fix that, then maybe it would work out.

Michelle Buteau

Oh, my god, what are you? Dr. Phil with tits? [LAUGHTER] Yeah, I mean, I feel like I always live like that. If I could just lose those 20 pounds. If I could just have a clean house all the time, I could do everything I really want to do on my list. And so, yeah, there was that. You know, if we could just get past this, then we'll live the life we're supposed to live.

Elna Baker

That's the promise of an obstacle. You feel like all you have to do is conquer it, and you get your happy ending. How would it play out in a rom-com?

Michelle Buteau

The obstacle being his illiteracy?

Elna Baker

Yeah.

Michelle Buteau

Ooh, OK. Boom. He learns how to read. He writes a New York best seller situation. It becomes a movie. Channing Tatum plays him. Lisa Bonet plays me. And we live happily ever after with a bunch of mixed children in a huge apartment with beige carpet by the Cheesecake Factory.

Elna Baker

Amazing. [LAUGHS] See, I was imagining that he would greet you at the airport with, like, a sign that he had handwritten himself that was like, Michelle, I can read now.

Michelle Buteau

Oh, my god.

Elna Baker

And then you'd see it, and you'd start crying. And you'd be like, oh! And he's worked so hard behind your back, secretly going to night school the whole time. Aww.

Michelle Buteau

I know. Instead, he just like fucked a stripper.

Elna Baker

OK, she wasn't a stripper, but she was sleeping with Michelle's boyfriend. Michelle suspects that the entire time she was struggling to get him to read, he was cheating on her. She was so focused on the obstacle she thought they were facing, she totally missed it. Of course, as rom-coms go, the thing missing from this story is com, at least until Michelle started doing stand up and figured out how to tell it on stage.

Elna Baker

When did you decide, this story's funny. I'm going to put it in my act? Because it's actually really sad, but--

Michelle Buteau

Yeah, you know, most of my-- the first joke I ever wrote was about him.

Elna Baker

Will you tell it to me?

Michelle Buteau

Sure. It's lines at Disney World remind me of my ex-boyfriend, three hours of waiting for a two-minute ride. Ayo. But the story, I didn't feel comfortable doing it on stage till 13 years later.

And I stayed with him, but then it got, like, real ratchet. Like, we would get into arguments, and I'd say shit like, but you said you'd learn how to read for me. Like, that's not how you want your first relationship to be.

[LAUGHTER]

Elna Baker

In her act, she even talks about how great it feels to tell this story on stage.

Michelle Buteau

But it just felt so good. It was so cathartic. I was like, yes, I got to get this out. And I just started doing jokes about him and blogging about him. And my friends are like, you got to be careful, because you're using his first and last name.

[LAUGHTER]

And I was like, bitch, I don't give a fuck, because that motherfucker can't read!

[APPLAUSE]

All right. Good night, everybody. I got to go.

[CHEERING]

Ira Glass

Elna Baker's one of the producers of our show. Michelle Buteau is going to be hosting a new podcast, Late Night Whenever from WNYC. It's going to launch in April.

Coming up, a real life rom-com that involves Shakespeare, real kisses that are like stage kisses, and the police. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio, when our program continues.

Act Three: The Run

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's program, for Valentine's Day, "Rom Com," stories mostly taken from real life that mimic things that we have seen in romantic comedies. We've arrived at Act Three of our show. Act Three, The Run.

This, of course, in a romantic comedy is the scene where somebody has to cross town at some point, literally sprinting to chase down the person they love and stop them from either marrying somebody else or winning them back somehow. It doesn't always end up at the airport, but lots of these do. And honestly, I have to say, I was surprised we found this ever happened in real life, but here is one story like that.

Marissa Kohan's dad used to like to tell the story. It was about his own marriage. He died a couple of years ago. His name is Ron. The story goes like this. When he was getting together with Marissa's mom, Marissa's mom, Debbie, drove across the country to move in with Ron in Florida. And before she left, she had the post office forward her mail to his house in Florida. And he saw a letter arrive from her ex-fiance.

Marissa Kohan

I think it's crazy, but my dad decided that he saw that letter and he had to read it.

Ira Glass

This is Marissa.

Marissa Kohan

So he just opened the letter, read the whole thing. And as my dad put it, my mom's ex-fiance was declaring his undying love for her, and was begging her not to go, and was saying he wants to get back together with her. And my dad freaked out.

Ira Glass

He decided, this is it. It's now or never. He decides he's going to meet her in Dallas, which is where she is in her car trip, and also is where the ex-fiance lives. He hurries to the airport.

Marissa Kohan

The way he told it was he was going through the airport, you know, running through the Florida airport. Gets a ring out of a little gumball machine. Puts, you know, however much that costs, a quarter or whatever, in the gumball machine, pulls out a Mickey Mouse ring-- because it's Florida, naturally. Gets on the plane. Flies and meets my mom in Dallas. And right there in the airport, gets down on one knee the second he sees her.

Debbie

I had no plans of seeing the ex-fiance at all, whatsoever.

Ira Glass

This is Marissa's mom, Debbie. She had no idea the ex-fiance had written a letter or that Ron had opened it. All she knew was that he had offered to drive the rest of the way across the country with her and was going to meet her in the Dallas airport.

Debbie

He gets off the plane, and I greet him. And practically the very next thing out of his mouth is, will you marry me? And he opens up his hand. And in his hand, he's got this little Mickey Mouse ring in his hand. And I am not proud of my reaction at all. [LAUGHS] Do you want to hear it?

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Debbie

[LAUGHS] My reaction was, are you crazy? This is the craziest thing I've ever heard of. I barely know you. That was my reaction.

Ira Glass

I have to say, that is my favorite part of the story.

Debbie

I could have been a little more gentle.

Ira Glass

No, what I love about it is that in the movies, when somebody does a gesture like that, often it's way crazier than what he did.

Debbie

Yes.

Ira Glass

And kind of stalker-ish. But the movie just acts like, oh, that was a totally lovely thing for a person to do because true love will out. And I like that you had the normal human reaction that a normal person would have. It would be like, are you nuts?

Debbie

Right. Right. Right. Right. Yeah. Well, I'm too pragmatic to fall for that one, I guess.

Ira Glass

True love eventually did win out though. At their wedding, in addition to a regular ring, she also wore the Mickey Mouse one.

There was another story we heard about somebody running to win love, which actually kind of paralleled the run that happens at the end of Neil's favorite rom-com, When Harry Met Sally. In When Harry Met Sally, the way it goes is that it's New Year's Eve. Harry's wandering around the streets of New York, and he realizes that he loves Sally, has to tell her now, breaks into a run to go tell her.

Neil Drumming

It's very New York-centric in this one because he tries to catch a cab, and of course he can't-- so he's just going to run the entire distance.

Ira Glass

David Kestenbaum has our real-life version of this story, about a guy named Steve Snyder.

David Kestenbaum

The thought that someone actually made one of these runs in real life seems so unlikely to me that I wanted to see where it had happened, retrace the steps of it. So I met Steve where the run began, at this burger place on Ludlow Street in New York City. Steve is the kind of guy who is not very good at hiding his feelings. Like, if this were a movie, you could title it "Say Everything."

The setup to the run is this, he'd met this woman, Emily, at a birthday party. He was totally smitten.

Steve Snyder

What I remember is the party kind of turned into sort of a tunnel vision moment. All I really did was talk to her.

David Kestenbaum

It didn't go great. He kept asking her, you want to go to a movie? Maybe we could hang out sometime.

Steve Snyder

If there's a trajectory of my life, it's going from clingy to a little less clingy.

David Kestenbaum

Steve emailed her after the party. Nothing came of it.

A year passes. And just like in When Harry Met Sally, they meet a second time. In Steve and Emily's case, it's at the very same birthday party, same apartment. And they become friends. It was the kind of friendship where, really, it could go either way. She seemed kind of interested in something more, but maybe not enough. And the longer they were friends, it was like, well, maybe that's what they were.

Steve had a job as a film critic, so they would go to movies, lots of movies, where they would not hold hands and not kiss.

Steve Snyder

There is a pathetic moment. So Lincoln Center Station, we're waiting for the train. It's like some crazy, 20-minute wait where the words actually come out of my mouth, you know, hey, if you ever want a film critic as a boyfriend, you just let me know.

[LAUGHTER]

I think we were talking about-- it fit into the context of the conversation somehow, but I can't think of anything more pathetic.

David Kestenbaum

What was her reaction?

Steve Snyder

She just kind of laughed and was like, yeah, OK, OK.

David Kestenbaum

The run happened on a night where they were not going to hang out. Steve thinks he was working on a review of some Mutant Ninja Turtle movie. And after work, he goes out with some friends to a music place.

Steve Snyder

Music's so loud and it's kind of fun. You know, it's a great night. And we're dancing. I actually started dancing for once. We leave the place. We're going to go get some greasy food because we're hungry and we haven't eaten. And I have my bag and everything, so we walk into the burger joint.

David Kestenbaum

The place we are sitting in right now-- greasy spoon, tiled white walls and painted brick. It's like a piece of a subway station that's somehow above ground.

Steve Snyder

You know, there's what, five tables here? It's tiny. And so I remember just kind of throwing my bag down. And then I pull out my phone just to check. And it's one of those weird nights, right? Like, I just haven't checked my phone almost any night-- any night, 99% of nights, you know, your phone's right next to you. If it's buzzing, you hear it. If it rings, you hear it.

I don't know if I had bad reception in the place because it's kind of an older building, but I looked down, and I swear to god, I have like 22 text messages. And I'm like, what? And they're all from Emily. And so I run out of the burger place to the street.

David Kestenbaum

Right, let's go outside.

Steve Snyder

[LAUGHS] OK.

David Kestenbaum

All right, so you rush out here.

Steve Snyder

I rush out here, and there's not exactly a lot of room. I mean, there's not room at all. So this is a crowded-- like, this is where you hang out till 4:00 AM.

So I rush out and I start reading through the messages. And it starts very kind of innocently, very like, hey, what are you up to tonight? Oh, are you-- oh, maybe you're out? I was wondering if maybe you wanted to like get a drink or something? And then it starts escalating like, wait, are you not texting me? Or why aren't you texting me back?

David Kestenbaum

Usually, he was pretty quick at getting back to her.

Steve Snyder

Because I was totally into her. And then it started being like-- it started getting a little more paranoid. And then I think she started thinking I was on a date or something.

David Kestenbaum

In just two hours, it looked like she'd gone through all these phases, everything laid out in all these texts, ending with one that Steve was not expecting.

Steve Snyder

And the last text message said, maybe we need to talk about this whole not dating thing. I just-- I-- I thought, this is it. Like whatever's about to happen, this is the moment. And so I immediately called her. I immediately just hit dial.

I didn't quite know what I was going to say. And I think she picked up the phone, said, hello, and I just kind of started going into it, like, I don't know what to say here. Like, yes, I want to date you. And what have we been doing?

You know, I'm screaming in the street. The cars aren't moving. People stop walking by me. They just stop to see what's going on here, because I'm screaming like, I love you. I don't know how to be clearer, like, I love you. And so I'm screaming this. And this crowd is starting to cheer me on. Someone does yell, like, say you love him! Say you love him, yelling to her through the phone. And--

David Kestenbaum

I love New York. [LAUGHS]

Steve Snyder

And all I remember her saying, and it might have been all that she did say, was, you need to stop yelling. If you want to talk about this, you might as well just come here. And as far as I'm concerned, this is the moment-- like, it's on. This is happening. And I just start running down the street looking for cabs.

David Kestenbaum

Let's run. Let's run.

Steve Snyder

[LAUGHS] OK. So I start running.

David Kestenbaum

We are now jogging up Ludlow Street. It's actually kind of exciting.

Steve Snyder

The crowd's looking at me, wondering what the hell I'm doing. And literally, I'm banging on every cab, because it's that time of night where some are just saying they're off duty. So I think I hit a couple. And I'm sort of like, can you take me just up to the East Village, not that far?

David Kestenbaum

But taxi after taxi is like, no, or there's someone in it. So he keeps running.

Steve Snyder

It's like I didn't tell my friends where I was going. I left my laptop, all these screeners that I had taken assignments to review, that the movie studios told me they needed back. I ditched everything.

David Kestenbaum

Can we talk about the running?

Steve Snyder

Yeah.

David Kestenbaum

Why does love always involve running?

Steve Snyder

[LAUGHS] That is interesting. Why did I feel like I had to run?

David Kestenbaum

In the movies, they run, but usually it's because someone's about to get married or about to get on a plane.

Steve Snyder

It felt very urgent to get there very quick. This had been building up for years. And for a moment, she was willing to consider it. And I was going to get there before she said it was too late or she was too tired.

David Kestenbaum

Steve told me he'd been living in the friend universe for so long, and now it was like this little wormhole had opened up-- he didn't know for how long-- where he might be able to slip into the parallel universe of boyfriend. Steve did eventually get a taxi, he made it to her apartment, and he stayed over. And they did become boyfriend and girlfriend.

In the movies, this is often the final scene. The end of the movie is the beginning of the relationship. You don't really get to see how it goes, how he gets too clingy, one of them meets someone else, how it just fades. But that is not this story.

Steve Snyder

We got married, and now we have two kids. And I still can't believe it's all played out the way it did.

David Kestenbaum

I know things don't always work out in the end, but sometimes you just want to hear the ones that do.

Ira Glass

David Kestenbaum is one of the producers of our show.

Act Four: You Had Me at Hello

Ira Glass

Act Four, You Had Me at Hello.

So after Harry does his run across New York City on New Year's Eve and reaches Sally, he explains to her that he ran because, once you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible. And he tells her all the things about her that he notices and loves about her.

That's the final thing you need for a rom-com. You need for somebody to declare that they see you in ways that you're usually not seen-- maybe you don't even know yourself. And it does happen in real life sometimes after some obstacles. Diane Wu has a story like that.

Diane Wu

She fell for him in an acting class. Jillian was a serious young actor bent over her desk taking notes when Geoffrey got up in front of class to read from A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Jillian Welsh

I just remember hearing his voice first and then actually looking up from my notebook and just watching him do the scene. And he was so, so good. And he had this really awesome voice. It's super low and really resonant, and he was really hot, too.

Diane Wu

By the time he sat back down, she was done.

Jillian Welsh

I was immediately more attracted to him than I'd ever felt attracted to anybody before. And I didn't know how to talk to him. I just knew that I wanted to talk to him, but I just didn't know how. It was like a mix between wanting to be right next to somebody and then run away and hide.

Diane Wu

Jillian was young, 20. She'd had boyfriends, but nothing too serious. And they'd always liked her more than she liked them, until Geoffrey. They were working together at a Shakespeare theater in New York. At the end, they put on a production of The Winter's Tale.

Onstage, she'd sometimes gets so distracted that he was there that she'd forget her lines. Sometimes offstage, she thought maybe Geoffrey was flirting with her, but she couldn't tell for sure. And anyway, she had a rule, never sleep with a cast mate. So for four months, she kept her feelings to herself.

Cut to the night of the final cast party. Everyone's at the bar that they always go to, and it's the first night they're no longer coworkers. So on her way over, Jillian makes it her mission to try and kiss him that night. She talks to him a lot at the party, but keeps chickening out. Finally, she gives up and decides to go home.

Jillian Welsh

And so I was standing there, and I was getting ready to hail a cab, finishing up the end of the cigarette, and I felt him come up next to me. And yeah, he just-- it was kind of like-- I remember him just like brushing back hair kind of off of my cheek. And it's that moment, you know, where you know that you're actually going to kiss. You just feel it in your two bodies. And he just so very lightly pressed his lips up against mine. And then it was like, well, now like an actual deeper kiss. And I know from the outside, we made it look good, because it very much felt like one of those-- like a good stage kiss.

Diane Wu

After their perfect first kiss, everything falls into place on cue. He invites her back to his apartment. She flicks her cigarette to the curb. He opens the door to the cab. She glides into the backseat. More kissing ensues.

Jillian Welsh

And I think that's probably the first time I've ever made out with anybody in the back of a cab. [LAUGHS] I think I was probably like, oh, this cab driver's here.

Diane Wu

They make out all the way across Manhattan, over a bridge, and up five flights of stairs. Somehow, Geoffrey manages to unlock the door without removing his lips from Jillian's. This impresses her very much. Everything is going so perfectly.

Jillian Welsh

So then I use his bathroom because I've been drinking a lot of beer all night. And I'm so nervous. I notice that my hands are shaking in the mirror. I'm so nervous. And I just look myself in the eye, and I actually gave myself a pep talk, like pointer fingers and dancing in the mirror and being like, this is everything you've waited for. It's actually happening. It's like excitement, nervous, I believe in you. Yeah.

Diane Wu

Then Jillian encounters the first obstacle in what will turn out to be a very strange night for her.

Jillian Welsh

And my whole heart just sinks. And I'm not actually going to be able to have sex with him. I just got my period. I realize that making out with him in the back of the cab and just my cigarettes and my leather jacket, you know, it makes me seem like I was this really cool city girl, but the reality of who I am is this very nervous person who grew up very conservative, like very, very conservative.

Diane Wu

Jillian grew up on a farm in rural Canada. This one time when she was young and got her period while wearing white pants, her whole family participated in a weird game of denial. Everyone just pretended like she sat in some jam. She didn't even like to say the word period.

Jillian Welsh

It was something that was kind of like very hush-hush and not something I was used to discussing openly.

Diane Wu

Jillian thinks, there's no way we can sleep together tonight. So she's disappointed, and she's stressing over how she's even going to tell him. But she can't hide in the bathroom much longer. He's waiting on the other side of the door.

Jillian Welsh

So I left the bathroom, and it was like I stepped out into another world, this romantic world where he'd actually taken a scarf and put it over a lamp, so the lighting was this orange mood lighting. And he didn't have a shirt on. And my mind remembers him glistening. He probably wasn't actually glistening, but that's how my mind remembers him.

Diane Wu

We checked. Her mind remembers right. Geoffrey told me, and he said, yes, this was very embarrassing looking back, but while she was in the bathroom, he slathered on baby oil to make his muscles pop. Anyway, they start to kiss.

Jillian Welsh

And I remember at first being really into it, and then remembering my situation. So my mouth does that thing where it curls up a little bit. And we kind of laugh a bit and he goes in to kiss me again, and I do that thing where I pull away again. And he was so sweet. He was like, wait, what's going on? You know, he noticed it. He read it right away, and was like, we don't have to do this. I want to be clear, nothing is expected of you in this situation. We don't have to have sex.

And I was like, I want to. I really-- like I honestly-- I want to. It's just-- and I kept trying to think of, how am I going to phrase this? I think of this thing that my roommate used to say. She calls it her Aunt Flo. So I look at him, and I tell him that my Aunt Flo has just landed and she's very much in town. And he gets a little bit confused.

[LAUGHTER]

He asked me if my Aunt has just arrived at the airport and if I have to go see her or something. So eventually, I just fess up. And I tell him, no, I have my period. And I'm pretty sure I whispered it. I'm pretty sure I was like, I have my (QUIETLY) period. And he smiled this half-smile and was like, so? I was like, so? What do you mean, so? And he just-- he didn't care.

Diane Wu

He didn't care. He was older than her, grew up with a bunch of sisters. Jillian is briefly astonished, considers this totally new possibility, not caring, decides she's into it, and they start kissing again. And because this is a family show, I will just say that everything that happened next went really well. In fact, it was the first time this particular activity went quite so well for Jillian.

Jillian Welsh

I felt like I finally understood what it was about. I remember lying there and listening to his heartbeat. Yeah, and just listening to his heartbeat was such a comforting sound that I can still hear it so distinctly. And after a while, he gets up to go to the bathroom, and he kind of flicks on that little light.

Diane Wu

She's talking about the lamp by the bed.

Jillian Welsh

And I turn off that light. And he flicks it on again, and then I turn it back off. And we have this little shared moment laughter. And he leaves, and I turn the light on again, and it looks like a crime scene. There is blood everywhere. This is the first time I had seen so much of my own menstrual fluid. I was afraid of it. I couldn't even fathom what he was going to think about it.

Diane Wu

Just when Jillian thinks it can't get worse, she looks up from the bed.

Jillian Welsh

And then I don't know how this happened, but my very own like red, bloody hand print is on his white wall.

Diane Wu

[GASPS] Oh, my god.

Jillian Welsh

I just panicked.

Diane Wu

Jillian tears the sheets off the bed and throws them aside. Next, the hand print.

Jillian Welsh

He didn't have any water or anything in his room, so I used my own saliva to wipe the bloody hand print off of the wall, like, out, out, damn spot.

[LAUGHTER]

Diane Wu

Next, she bundles up the sheets, but she has no idea what to do with them. She starts to put them in the hamper, but then realizes that he would still have to take them and wash them himself, which she cannot bear to imagine. She peeks under his bed to see if she can stash them there, but then she thinks, no, no, that's crazy. He'll still find them. Geoffrey will be out of the bathroom any minute. She's running out of options.

Jillian Welsh

So I stuff them into my own backpack.

Diane Wu

Wait, were you going to take them?

Jillian Welsh

Oh, yeah. Well, I have to get out of there.

Diane Wu

You're not going to get away with that, though. He's going to notice his sheets are gone.

Jillian Welsh

I know, but I wasn't thinking about that at the time. All I could think of is that I didn't want him to have to wash these sheets. And I didn't want him to have to clean up my mess, I guess.

Diane Wu

To cover her tracks, Jillian throws the comforter over the bed so you can't see the sheets are missing, straightens the pillows, and gets ready to bolt. When Geoffrey comes back from the shower, she makes up a lame excuse about why she can't stay the night, something about having to go to work early the next morning. She could tell how flimsy it sounded as she was saying it.

Jillian Welsh

And I just, oh, it breaks my heart, but I remember him looking so hurt and so confused. I wish that I didn't leave. Like, I wish that I had stayed, but--

Diane Wu

She didn't. Geoffrey offered to help Jillian hail a cab, but she was like, no, it's fine. I'll just take the subway. She walked to the station, totally miserable.

Jillian Welsh

Then it really hits me that I have stolen this man's sheets. How do you come back from that? How do you-- how are you not the weird girl who took his bedsheets?

Diane Wu

Yeah.

Jillian Welsh

So then I'm so inside myself and I hear this voice being like, ma'am, excuse me, ma'am. And I look up. And in New York, they have this station outside of subway entrances with this folding table and the NYPD stands behind. And it's a random bag search.

Diane Wu

No!

Diane Wu

And here, Jillian does what any sensible leading lady would do when confronted by law enforcement.

Jillian Welsh

I pretend I don't hear them. And I try to exit the subway station in like a brisk, like, run-walk. And nothing looks more suspicious than trying to avoid a random bag search.

Diane Wu

I'm sure. I'm sure.

Jillian Welsh

Yeah. Oh.

Diane Wu

The officer catches up to Jillian, unzips her backpack, and pulls out the sheets, which are covered in blood.

Jillian Welsh

I remember him-- and the subway has such distinct lighting, like I just remember him holding up these sheets, my menstrual sheets of shame, like menstrual sheets of doom. I realize that they didn't look like menstrual sheets of doom, they looked like murder sheets of doom.

[LAUGHTER]

He asked me to explain it, and I just start crying. And I can barely get the words out. I'm just trying to explain to him, it's my period on those sheets. And I stole the sheets from the guy that I was with. And I know that that's wrong. Like I know that the actual theft of the sheets is wrong. And I promised the officer that I would return them, but I just needed to wash them first.

Diane Wu

The police officer looks Jillian up and down, asks for her ID, and points her to go stand in a little box taped on the floor by the wall. She watches him walk over to his partner and have a very serious-looking conversation. The sheets stay crumpled up on the plastic folding table.

Jillian Welsh

Then he comes back, and gives me an ultimatum. So we can go down to the precinct and they can file a report and they've got to keep the sheets just in case it's evidence, you know, and they're going to ask me a bunch of questions and follow up, or I can take him back to the apartment, the apartment that I just came from, and have my partner corroborate my story.

Diane Wu

Oh, my god.

Jillian Welsh

And I had to think about it. Like, I honestly-- like, I honestly gave it a really solid, good think. There was a huge part of me that would rather go to the police station than have to go back and show Jeffery these-- not only show him these sheets, but also bring the police there. But, you know, my common sense caught up with me of, this looks like I've done something very wrong.

Diane Wu

They make the long walk to Geoffrey's apartment, silently. They get to the doorstep and buzz, wait for Geoffrey to walk down five flights of stairs. When he gets there, the police officer does all the talking.

Good evening, do you know this woman? Geoffrey says he does, that they'd just been hanging out. Then the cop reaches into Jillian's backpack and pulls out the sheets. Do you know what these are? Geoffrey says, those are my sheets. The police officer asks, can you identify the substance on these sheets?

Jillian Welsh

And I just remember being fascinated, because without hesitating and almost in this stronger voice, he just says, menstrual fluid, which is like-- you know, I would call my period anything other than what it actually was. So for him to look a police officer right in the eyes and just say very confidently, menstrual fluid, it was just-- it sounded so scientific and very grown up.

Diane Wu

The cops, having fulfilled their narrative purpose and successfully reunited our couple, leave.

Jillian Welsh

And then I'm alone with Geoffrey. And I'm trying to apologize to him, namely for stealing his sheets, but also just for everything, for bringing the police back to his house.

Diane Wu

Jillian remembers sobbing through all of this. She's mortified. All of a sudden, Geoffrey stops her and says this thing that still hits Jillian in a soft spot.

Jillian Welsh

He told me-- I just remember him looking at me and he's like, you're so strange. [LAUGHS] He said, wonderfully strange. Everything that you could possibly think of going wrong went wrong, and it all still turned out OK. He still liked me, no matter what.

Diane Wu

This is like my favorite moment in any rom-com. It's the scene in 10 Things I Hate About You when Julia Stiles reads her poem to Heath Ledger in front of the entire class. It's Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets telling Helen Hunt how he just can't believe she runs into strangers all day long, and they don't know that they just met the greatest woman alive. And of course, it's Mark Darcy at the bottom of the stairs telling Bridget Jones, I like you very much, just as you are.

To me, the whole point of rom-coms is to set up that line. It's what we all want to hear and say to the people we love most. But real life doesn't guarantee a plot line that pushes us to say it.

Ira Glass

Diane Wu, she's one of the producers of our show. Jillian and Geoffrey dated for a few months, and then they broke it off when real life, new jobs, her expired visa from Canada, got in the way. She says she's glad it ended before anything bad happened. Keeps the memory sweet, just like a movie. Today, Jillian Welsh is a comedian in Toronto. A version of this story first aired on the RISK! Podcast.

Our program is produced today by Neil Drumming and Diane Wu. The people who put our show together includes Elna Baker, Elise Bergerson, Ben Calhoun, Danny Chivvis, Sean Cole, Whitney Dangerfield, Stephanie Foo, Damien Grave, Kimberly Henderson, Chana Joffe-Walt, David Kestenbaum, Seth Lind, Alvin Melathe, BA Parker, Ben Phelan, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, Christopher Swetala, Matt Tierny, and Julie Whitaker. Our senior producer is Brian Reed. Our managing editor is Susan Burton.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Our website, thisamericanlife.org, This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.

Quick program note, our colleagues at our home station, WBEZ Chicago have a new podcast called Making Obama about Barack Obama's early years in Chicago, which features him, his friends, mentors, and rivals talking about his years in Chicago and his rise. It's six episodes, stuff I have never heard or read before about him. Making Obama, get it wherever you get your podcasts.

Thanks, as always, to our program's co-founder Mr. Torey Malatia. You know, he and I were reminiscing about that taxi ride we had years ago in England with Margaret Thatcher.

Jillian Welsh

And I think that's probably the first time I'd ever made out with anybody in the back of a cab.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Happy Valentine's Day. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Serial Season Three is here. Listen Now