A little over a year ago, shortly after I moved to New York and was half-heartedly looking for a job, I got an email from my friend Ben asking, "Want to pretend to be engaged?" along with an link to a Craigslist ad offering $400 for "recently married or engaged couples" to participate in a focus group about relationships. Not only was I hard up for cash, but I also knew that this was my only chance to be in a relationship with Ben unless he someday decides to run for office and needs a beard.
I responded to the ad immediately and to a subsequent questionnaire about our "relationship." After five years of close friendship, it was easy to translate our platonic relationship into engaged-couple-speak ("friends" became "significant others" and "fights" became "tiffs"). Several months later, I received an email notifying me that Ben and I had been selected to participate in the focus group. And what's more, they would be filming the discussion to use on a self-help DVD for struggling couples. Oh, and slated to facilitate the discussion was none other than Charlie's washed-up Angel, Ms. Cheryl Ladd!
By that time, Ben was out of town and would not be back by the filming date. Not being one to give up easily when fame and fortune are on the line, I looked to my other best friend, Dan. He was game, but I wasn't sure if we could pull it off, since I had already given Ben's full name and described him as a musician from Ohio. In an extremely awkward conversation with the DVD producer (also named Dan), I gauged the likelihood of them performing any sort of identity verification by asking, "Will I need to provide identification to get paid?" and claiming that I just moved, and probably would not be able to find the requisite IDs in time for the shoot. Producer Dan, understandably confused by my question, told me that we would be paid under-the-table and that IDs were not necessary since they trusted that everybody was who they said they were. I laughed nervously and made a weak joke about "Beth" being a witness-protection assigned alias.
Ben/Dan and I (complete with an "engagement ring" purchased at Claire's Boutique the day before) arrived at the studio the morning of the big day repeating our mantra, "Your/my name is Ben. Not Dan." We met Producer Dan, a number of other production assistants named Dan (just to complicate things), and the other couples participating in the discussion. As we had our hair and makeup done, we quietly speculated as to whether or not the other couples were faking it. Our guts told us that we were the only lying sleaze balls involved in the project.
Once we were ushered onto the set, pretending to be engaged to Ben/Dan was one of my easiest acting gigs ever. The discussion consisted of us watching video clips of couples that had been married for 50 years or more and then comparing our relationship to theirs. We were also able to play off the other couples' struggles and make them our own. Can you believe that Karen and I had such similar reactions to Brian and Ben/Dan's desire for a big-screen TV? Women are so predictable these days! Once we got into specifics about Ben/Dan's music and he convincingly explained that writing songs for me was too sappy for his taste, I knew we were home free. He probably shared my fear that they would ask him to sing something he wrote for me, which would inevitably have blown our cover, considering that he has the singing voice of a tone-deaf Elaine Stritch.
Never mind our painfully obvious hesitance to actually "touch," or the looks of terror we exchanged when one couple kissed and we thought we might be expected to do the same. Forget Ben/Dan's tendency to turn his head any time someone said the name "Dan." We pulled it off without a hitch and skipped home $400 richer.
A few months later, I received a marriage proposal from a friend-of-a-friend looking to gain U.S. citizenship, but I had a job by then and the price wasn't right, so I ultimately declined. Not only was the hourly pay significantly lower than my first fake marriage gig, but the undocumented fellow couldn't even promise that I'd be featured on a website or a DVD. As a young woman in the big city, though, it's comforting to know that if the egg-donation gig falls through, I can always get married for a living. Take that, Craigslist sugar daddies looking to subsidize my life in exchange for the privilege of sitting in the dressing room with me during my shopping trips.