Two Chicago Columnists Guide Readers Through the Minefield of Romance

updated 10/13/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/13/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

No one ever said dating was easy. Picture a quiet table for two—candelight, soft music, the works. Romance is in the air, right? Wrong. Tension is in the air. Here's one report: "When I'm on a date in a restaurant, I gauge my nervousness to determine whether I can order something requiring utensils. If I'm really jittery, I get a hamburger—something I can eat with my hands. I've ordered soft drinks and never taken a sip from them throughout the entire meal. Why? They, came without a straw, and I was afraid my hand was shaking too badly to pick up the glass." This story, sad but true, is just one of the many recounted in "Tales From The Front," a syndicated newspaper column that speaks to the human condition of modern lovers.

"Tales" is the brainchild of Chicago Tribune writers Laura Kavesh, 32, and Cheryl Lavin, 40. Both single, Kavesh and Lavin found themselves exchanging endless stories about how they and their friends were negotiating the rugged romantic terrain of the '80s, and it occurred to them over dinner one night that if they were so obsessed with the how-should-yous and how-could-theys of ill-defined liaisons, others might be, too. Lo, the column was born. Lavin's napkin doodle, a heart behind barbed wire, provided an appropriate logo.

The column appears twice a week and is picked up by 50 or so newspapers across the country. Equal space is given to the stories of men and women; heartbreaking accounts are balanced with heartwarming ones. Although the occasional married voice is heard, the overwhelming bulk of material comes from letters sent by single contestants in the contemporary dating game. The idea of "Tales" is to be a forum for commiseration and celebration, written by the very audience it is for—the categorically bewildered.

Take Muffy, 28, a stockbroker and quintessential yuppie, concerned about Jake, a salesman from the other side of town. He makes Muffy "feel more cherished than any man I've ever known." But Jake orders beer instead of white wine, and Muffy's friends disapprove. "They want someone who comes with a tux," she writes, "like a Ken doll."

Or consider Paul, 26, whose fiancée recently split. "If one more person tells me it's time for a fresh beginning and to let go," he says, "I'm going to gouge his eyes out."

Sally, 37, is a seamstress and a repeat contributor. She debuted when her beau pleaded seven-year itch. Sally took scissors and, in shear revenge, shredded the wardrobe she'd sewn for him in more temperate times. She announced thereafter that she was taking the summer off from love. The hiatus helped. Last winter Sally wrote in to announce her engagement to a man she'd met on a blind date: "I always knew I just had to meet the right person."

Other "Tales" contributors over the past 20 months have included lovesick teenagers, a 36-year-old businessman who gives first dates a questionnaire and a 75-year-old woman asking how to flirt. The stories appear as submitted (although the names are changed) or fleshed out with information Kavesh and Lavin garner from follow-up phone calls.

"People think that other people have a secret they haven't figured out yet," Kavesh says of the column's popularity. "They think if they gather enough information about how other people do it, they can put it together in a system." Lavin confirms the dazed daters theory. "Everybody's ideas about dating are set in Archie-and-Veronica-land," she says. "In high school you could walk down the hall and everybody was available, but in adult dating nobody knows if they're doing it right or wrong."

Lavin grew up in Chicago. She married 10 days after graduating from the University of Wisconsin with a B.A. in English in 1968. Divorced nine years ago, Lavin has a 16-year-old daughter and says she meets men as others do, "by bumping into them." Kavesh, who was raised in Upper Montclair, N.J., has never been married and has a masters in journalism from the University of Missouri. While Lavin continues to write feature stories for the Tribune, Kavesh has stopped in order to go for a Ph.D. in clinical psychology at the University of Illinois in Chicago. She says she meets men through friends, but neither columnist is seeing "anybody special" right now.

With reports that women of a certain age—theirs—stand a better chance of being hit by a terrorist bomb than a Cupidian arrow, Kavesh and Lavin have taken it upon themselves to check out possible hunting grounds for their readers. One recent field trip to an electronics store short-circuited. An excursion to Lincoln Park Zoo to stalk the Homo sapiens subspecies known as divorced fathers yielded some promising sightings, but they found that even this potentially fertile ground is fraught with danger. "Make sure you're not lingering anywhere near the lavatories," warned a subsequent column. "They may look like single fathers, but their wives come out of the ladies room to retrieve them."

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