Once upon a time everyone got together and agreed to be really cool about one thing. Everyone. I mean everyone. They all agreed that there was nothing better than true love.
Warlords put down their rifles and met with doctors trying to cure cancer, who all admitted that love stories, somewhere deep down, appealed to everyone. Maybe they were cheesy and predictable. Maybe some were too sappy. But there was something real underneath all the cliches and tropes. Serial killers and young children dressed as superheroes, secretaries and beekeepers, school nurses and landscapers, they could all agree that there was nothing objectionable about true love. No one had anything bad to say about it. There were bad things about breakups, or heartbreak, or infidelity, but not true love itself.
They held a big conference.
Everyone went. Everyone.
And everyone on Earth put it to a vote and agreed that it was only fair that everyone got to have true love at least once in their life.
There were, understandably, quite a few disputes involved. They recognized it was impossible to guarantee true love for everyone. After all, some people just didn’t put themselves out there, and all the village matchmakers and dating site investors in the room objected to organizing a worldwide matchmaking service. So, everyone agreed that everyone should instead have the chance for true love. That seemed fair. No one could say for sure you’d make the most of your chance, or that it would go well, but just to have the chance was reasonable. Imams and rabbis and priests were in accordance, as were separated spouses and artists who’d plagiarized from one another, and rival politicians and mercenaries and people who don’t use turn signals. This was all just common sense.
So, everyone went back home with a few things established: firstly, the conference had been lovely, and it was going to be quite a bummer to go back to all the wars and such.
But secondly, everyone went home with a voucher, redeemable for one free pass. They had all agreed this was the most reasonable system of handling things. Everyone, at one point in their life, got one free chance to pursue true love. Just one. After all, if you needed more than one chance, it must not have been true love every time. And part of true love, someone–an old, old woman, blind in both eyes with a scratched and worn ring glinting on her hand–was not knowing if it was the right thing when you went for it or not.
Of course, they realized, there had to be someone to handle all those vouchers. Surely some people would lose theirs and need to reclaim a new one. They weren’t worried about anyone counterfeiting vouchers, because all the counterfeiters were there in the room, and they all recalled the dates they’d been on where they wished they’d kissed the girl and hadn’t, and so they agreed that it would be really cool of them to not counterfeit this one thing this one time. Everyone put one person in charge of handling all the vouchers and gave him a nice office in Switzerland. The Swiss had loved this whole deal (well, everyone had) as the only stocks going higher than Swiss chocolates were condoms. So, they put the Voucher Man in charge of things, and everyone went back to work.
The voucher system went into effect immediately and things went off without a hitch. Everyone had suspected that things would just fall apart, that they would be the only ones who adhered to the system: but it worked. Everyone–even when the wars resumed, even when the burglaries started back, even when the screaming and fighting picked up where it’d left off–held true to their word.
The first person realized she’d met the love of her life at the conference. She was leaving the airport to catch a train and knew she, a bartender in Buenos Aires, was never again going to cross paths with the Hong Kong insurance salesman who’d been seated next to her. She fumbled through her purse as she ran to the customer assistance desk, flashing her voucher at the service representatives. They printed off a boarding pass and threw her the keys to one of those obnoxiously loud airport golf carts. She blitzed past security, who let her through without so much as a pat-down. The terrorists in line cheered happily for her as she went.
The woman sprinted to the final kiosk, where she handed over her voucher and they opened the airplane door that they normally tell people who were running late they can’t open. They rolled the little staircase over for her across the tarmac and she ran to seat 27B, where she kissed a man from Hong Kong and led him back to the airport food court. They ate soft pretzels and overpriced pastries and giggled in broken French–their only mutual language–and got married a year later. The flight attendants, happy to have a break in the mundanity, filled out the voucher with the appropriate documentation and sent it off to the Voucher Man to be archived.
At first the world was full of stories like that one. A ninety-year-old woman used her voucher to commission the FBI to track down a Navy sailor she’d met when he was on shore leave back in World War Two. A teenage boy exchanged a voucher for a diamond ring to give to his first kiss. Some, however, were more perplexing to the Voucher Man. One girl traded her voucher to have a metal band help her propose. Someone else needed just the exact right shade of roses for their wedding, and their voucher involved organizing a group of florists for several months in this endeavor. One man used his to get a DJ to play one more song. He could not understand, the Voucher Man thought, spending your only voucher on three minutes of a song. The man had not even specified the song. But true to his word, he had turned in his voucher after getting one more dance.
For the most part the Voucher Man liked his job. However, it was not all archiving the voucher uses. There were disputes. The Voucher Man would take home mountains of papers on the disputes and work through them while the TV ran news stories on the ongoing successes of the voucher program.
One man demanded a refund for his voucher, which he had used to buy his wife a weeklong stay in Hawaii for their fourth anniversary. He walked in, plane tickets in hand, to see her straddling his best friend.
The Voucher Man had to think these situations over carefully, for he knew he set important precedents with every case. No, he decided at long last. It was an act of true love. It was used fairly. Those were the saddest: the penniless girls who paid with their one-time ticket to be left at the altar, the starry-eyed boys who threw away vouchers for girls who never knew their names.
Others were more complicated. One man wanted to use his to get the restraining order against him removed. The Voucher Man decided that was unacceptable because true love couldn’t hurt someone. And yet, he seemed to hear whispers of doubt with every REJECTION stamp. He could not understand. He was helping people find true love. He had been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, numerous government offices, and even prominent positions in several monastic orders. He had turned them all down to remain neutral. And yet The Voucher Man slept less and less. Everyone was holding true to their agreement at the conference, he realized. It was just still not working. Or maybe it was, and a mountain of cold rejected requests was what everyone believing in true love looked like. The Voucher Man didn’t know which was harder to grasp. Everyone was sticking true to their promises and honoring all their vouchers, never once using them in bad faith, but there were still a great many sad endings.
Occasionally the United Nations would ask for reports, and he told them there were absolutely no problems whatsoever.
Most of the disputes and appeals the Voucher Man could figure out well enough. Sooner or later, the right–or maybe just the best–choice for estranged wives seeking to see their husbands again became clear. But one day the Voucher Man received a voucher he could not figure out.
He opened the package. It was addressed to the Voucher Man in Geneva, Switzerland. It came from a city of middling size and middling appeal. It contained a voucher. The voucher had not been used. With it was a torn-out scrap of paper.
Now, the Voucher Man had become something of an expert at puzzling out personality from people’s penmanship (even in the languages he had to have translated, he felt he could discern a great deal of character in the writing). This was a young woman’s handwriting, he thought, the sort of handwriting that was phenomenal in grade school, a point of well-ordered pride, but as the years had gone on, she’d realized it was hardly nicer than that of the average person, and that maybe that cool thing about her was just because her competition for penmanship was a bunch of second-graders.
The writing, cursive with brutally dotted i’s and distinctly crossed t’s, read:
“I voluntarily give up my voucher. Give it to someone else.”
The Voucher Man stared.
He got up and walked out his office, giving himself his first afternoon off since he’d began. The Voucher Man went home and ate dinner in front of the TV. The news had picked up one of his reports about a four-year-old boy who used his voucher to get crayons to make a valentine. He put the story on mute.
He went to bed and did not sleep. He got up and walked around the city. He drank coffee. Then a scotch. He smoked a cigarette. He took a long bath.
The Voucher Man returned to work the next day. He attempted to search the name of the girl on the letter but had no avail. He tried to use some of his many, many contacts to find out more, but even for the bureaucrat with all the power of institutionalized true love, this was a monumental task. The appeals and forms grew higher on his desk. He had over a thousand requests for replacement vouchers, people claiming their voucher usage was not valid, the loveless disputing the results. This girl had turned hers back in.
One night the Voucher Man had a moment of clarity. He slept easily for the first time in many weeks.
The next day he sat down at his desk, which was always overflowing with paperwork (this always made him sigh, but it always made him smile, too). He took out the fountain pen he reserved for signing confirmations on voucher paperwork. He took out his stationery. He got the young girl’s address. He wrote in methodical, thoughtful pen strokes.
What the fuck is wrong with you?
The Voucher Man went on to emphasize that she had thrown away her one voucher, her one tool to enable true love. What was she thinking? What could possibly have driven her to this? What could she not understand? Did she not know how many people would’ve loved another voucher? He signed it,
At your disposal,
The Voucher Man
The Voucher Man went back to work. He felt at peace.
After three weeks, he supposed, the letter could be assumed to have reached its destination. The Voucher Man allowed her a week to contemplate her answer, and three more for her reply to reach him. In the meantime, he worked.
It was the eighth week since he sent the letter. No matter. International mail was tricky. Then nine. Then ten. Slowly, the thoughts crept back in, towering over his mind like the papers upon his desk. Every appeal he read was a reminder someone threw this away. Someone threw true love away. She never left his mind. Was she beautiful? Hideous? Did she write sonnets to her husband off at war? Did she think love was stupid? We all agreed, the Voucher Man thought, staring at the ink, the letters curled curtly and cleanly, the paper yellowed from days of scrutiny under lamplight. We all agreed this was worth coming together over. But no amount of analysis changed the words on the page.
The twelfth week, the Voucher Man didn’t sleep. She was not going to write back, he now knew. He could do no work. Before, his vocation had been so clear. He was a tool with a singular purpose, holding together a cause that had brought everyone in the world together. Almost everyone.
The Secretary General called sometime later, and the Voucher Man let it go to the answering machine. The Voucher Man gathered his things and booked a flight for the city of middling size and appeal that the girl hailed from. He packed his things and locked his cell phone behind him in his office.
The Voucher Man traveled to the city the next day, taking a taxi to the address he had found. It was an apartment complex of, unsurprisingly, middling reputation. He had no idea what room belonged to her, or what she looked like. The Voucher Man found a bench across the street and waited.
He waited longer.
There are two things left about the Voucher Man to tell you. The first is this: in handling all the world’s love stories, he had learned to trust that feeling of just knowing when things are right. He saw a woman walk out the building and turn down the street.
And the Voucher Man just knew.
The Voucher Man followed her, trying to divine some meaning from her appearance. Did she look heartbroken? Did she wear a wedding ring? Did she have a limp, or fancy clothes, or did she wear any clue about her at all? She remained as inscrutable as her letter.
She walked into a coffee shop and the Voucher Man stopped on the street outside, panting from the exertion of lugging his suitcase so far and so fast. The barista greeted her with a smile, which the woman returned, glowing and genuine, and then took her order.
The Voucher Man stared. He thought about the little boy who’d traded his voucher for crayons. He thought about the old woman at the conference who had said you knew when to risk it all for true love. He thought about every dream stamped dead by REJECTION. He thought about the panic in Geneva from the janitor finding his office empty, his phone locked within, and all the world’s desperate requests left unanswered. He thought about using a voucher to play just one more song.
The second thing left to tell you about the Voucher Man is this: when they had all decided to appoint him to his position, he had agreed to forfeit his own claim to a voucher. There was a clear potential of corruption, a clear risk of his nudging appeals in his own self-interest.
In that moment, the Voucher Man wished only that he had a voucher of his own, even as he stared and watched her smile. He watched her sit down across from a boy, handsome and young, who smiled wide when he saw her. The Voucher Man watched them chat, her eyes alight, hands cupped around her coffee. She had thrown away her voucher. He would have given it back if she had asked, the Voucher Man thought, something she certainly would have known. That was what the whole appeals process was for. Yet here she was.
He thought about what that meant. He stood there until her coffee went cold. She never once took a sip.
Then the Voucher Man turned and walked away.
He went back to the airport and booked a return flight. The Voucher Man returned to Geneva. He handed in his resignation to the United Nations Secretary General. The Voucher program was shut down thereafter at the behest of the Voucher Man. The Voucher Man refused all requests to be seen by the paparazzi and declined all interviews. Many tried to start up their own services, but they failed.
There was more hate mail than he could ever read. There were hundreds of letters, but all the same message, which was this: “How are we supposed to find love now? We don’t have our vouchers.”
The Voucher Man stopped reading long before he reached the end. For a moment, he considered that maybe that woman had sent him one. Only a moment. The Voucher Man put all the letters in the trash, turned off the lights in his office, and locked it behind him. He took nothing with him.
Later that day, he went to a coffee shop, and smiled at the barista.