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On Love and the Universe

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I’m out to dinner at a downtown bar with Micah and Sam. We’ve just come from work, and Sam, in her scrubs, hasn’t eaten and the kitchen is taking forever, so the pink-drink she’s drinking is going straight to her head. She’s a lightweight. Micah, who spent the afternoon reading the New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (the entries on deconstruction — he swears, he’s gonna rip them out), is on his third. Not his final. He has capacity.

“If you saw these slides, you’d never have sex again,” says Sam. “You’d never touch anyone again. And forget about kissing.”

She’s talking about work, her class on infectious disease, which leads to the three of us discussing STDs and oral sex. Sam says she saw a Howard Stern show that featured a panel of prostitutes.

“All Howard Stern shows have prostitutes.” It’s Micah.

“Anyway, they were talking about–“

“When was this?” Micah, again.

“About ten years ago. Anyway, they say you can use Saran Wrap….”

“Really?” It’s me. I’m thinking about the size of molecules and barriers and the new guy I’ve been seeing.

“Yes. Saran Wrap!” Sam giggles as she starts to pantomime–

“Stop right there,” Micah interrupts. “Don’t come in here wearing your scrubs and looking all official and tell us that we can use plastic for oral sex based on a ten-year old episode of Howard Stern. Just don’t.”

Sam laughs. I laugh. We all laugh.

But for them, it’s academic. They’re both faithfully married for years. For the rest of us, well, who hasn’t been tempted to use kitchen supplies in the heat of the moment?

***

I don’t want to scare you, Brigham writes in chat. But what he means is scar. Oops, total typo, he says as he corrects himself.

Scare or scar, it’s the accidental truth.

Brigham has a job offer, one he knew about shortly after we met. It’s a really good offer, a job that will make him feel real again. It’s a startup doing something cool like inventing world peace or curing cancer. He’s been at his current job faithfully for ten years with no time off for good behavior or creative endeavors. Don’t misunderstand: His current job is great, with challenges and perks, but the new one would be like a mistress at midlife. (As one married man said in a pitch to me, after twenty years of faithful, it’s great to feel alive again. Men say shit like this. No kidding.)

The catch with Brigham’s job? It’s 3000 miles away. We both know this means the end. Or the beginning of the end. (What a fucking cliché.) But we go through the motions.

Brigham thinks leaving will scar me. (And I note here that he’s doing it anyway.)

I have to make this decision, he says (as though there’s really something to decide), based on what I’ll be doing with my life. I spend more time working in a given week than I do eating, exercising, driving, listening to music, or having sex.

How much time do you spend having sex in a week? I ask. I can’t resist the joke.

As much as you do, he says.

But we haven’t had this conversation.

***

Would you date someone just for the sex? What’s a fling?

***

Star and I are watching football at her house. I’ve been inculcating her to the pleasures of the game. Hey, that’s holding, she yells, or maybe, great pass!, as she is beginning to pay attention to the game in a meaningful way, while we both nosh on guac and lamb chops in an even more meaningful way. As usual, she is multitasking – on the sofa wrapping presents or sorting mail – while I am in the Barcalounger with my laptop surfing OkCupid.

And that’s when Coop writes. He’s just left New Orleans and is at a cool bar in St. Louis and is headed back to Massachusetts. Within minutes, I’m laughing.

What? Star wants to know.

This guy is funny. He’s smart, too. And good-looking.

It goes from there. By the time he gets back from his road trip – to buy a refurbished collectable car –– we have a date to meet.

And by the time we meet, I feel like I know him.

He is as advertised. With one exception: he’s not relationship guy. Despite all the wooing, all the focus on getting to know me, during the long evening of conversation, food, and drinks, at one point he says, I usually go on a few dates and then stop. It’s a toss-off comment but it can only mean one thing: he’s a casual sex guy.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but truth in advertising, ya know?

While I don’t always hear what you say, I listen to what you say. I’m trained in close-reading. As much as Coop liked me, and I liked him, Coop was Fling Guy, or would have been.

And when the wanting on both sides doesn’t match the having, hearts are hurt, or can be. In that I’m in charge of my heart, I had a decision to make with Coop: Was he fling-worthy?

Same with Parker. When Parker wrote me, nothing in particular stood out about him, but his profile matched what I look for demographically in terms of age, intelligence, attractiveness, and geography. (I know! It’s like I have a rubric or something.) I wrote back and we corresponded.

After I was pretty sure I would meet him, he revealed that he was in Boston from Australia for academic work, and would be leaving at the end of the semester. So I crossed him off my list. Nothing wrong with a fling, but as I told him later, I have a waiting list for casual sex. When he persisted in asking me to meet for the dammed, elusive drink, I figured there was no harm, and perhaps there could be some cross-cultural good will, in having a libation with a guy who can say with a straight face, I prefer down under.

I chose a place on my route home. One drink, I swore to myself, and then back on the T.

One drink turned into two, two into a third at a second place followed by food, which turned into specialty cocktails at a five star bar, which turned into whiskey and pool at a dive. By the time we got to the hotel bar, we we’re having such a good time that I almost forgot to catch the last T home. When the clocks tolled for midnight, I ran in my pea coat and black boots like a citified Cinderella down the steps into the station.

The next Tuesday, when he suggested drinks at a bar near where I work, I knew I had a decision to make.

Listen up, I said to him. I got two things to tell you, in no particular order. One, you’re a fling, by definition. I gotta decide if I want to fling with you.

And he made it sound good. Over the sofa, the dorm bed, tossed around the room with pleasure, a man who knew what he was doing both in the details and the grand sweeping drama of sex and satisfaction, not to mention food and drink and fun. He wasn’t, he assured me, a novice.

But he’d be a guy who’s in town and then out, never to return. Not that that’s much different than dating a local guy, but at least with the local guy, if I like him, and he me, there’s the possibility of something longer term, even if longer term is just sex. Or just friends. Or total sworn enemies.

And therein lies the hope. And the quandary. Knowing it would end before it began fueled my hesitation. Call me a fucking romantic.

Two, I said to him, I already have a Regular Guy, and Regular Guy and I have an agreement. If I find someone new, I’ll let him know. It’s only reasonable to communicate openly and honestly about these things. If Regular Guy wants to double up, that’s a possibility. There are risks involved, real risks. And he has a right to know that he’s doing so. I shouldn’t be making the decisions for him.

Just as Parker and Coop shouldn’t be making the decision for me of whether or not to have a fling. I’m capable of flinging if that’s what I want.

Coop swept me off my feet. Well, not literally, but certainly verbally.

Parker did, too.

Brigham, on the other hand, just fucked me. Literally. Not metaphorically, although there’s still time.

In order to fuck a woman, some men tell her whatever they think she wants to hear. They’ll couch whatever it is they say so that if she says she wants long term, they’ll make it sound like they do, too, like they’ve been searching god’s green earth for a soul mate, even if, like Coop and Parker, they have no intention or ability to be long term. They’ll say whatever they have to say in order to fuck her.

(To guys like this I say, fuck you.)

(Or I would have, until I met Brigham.)

Brigham means bridge. He kissed me on a Tuesday evening while we were standing on a bridge in Boston. And in order to get to his house, or he to mine, we both have to cross several bridges because he lives two hours away.

We met on line. He wrote me a long funny smart modest opening salvo. I don’t know how I found your profile, he said.

But I know. He found it because I found him. Using the search function on the dating site, I input my super-secret super-select parameters and set the distance at “anywhere.” Because the site is run by robots, every so often I try different sorts of searches in order to reset the algorithms. Sorta like closing all the windows and opening them back up. Or clearing the cache.

And once I looked at his profile, he looked back. And then he wrote to me. And we did a truncated version of the pen-pal dance, which I let languish because he still lived two hours away, but it was good anyway, or at least fine, because in dating as in life every interaction doesn’t need to accomplish something. There’s the guy in Iceland. And the guys in D.C., Canada, North Carolina, Arizona. They’re all over, hungry, thoughtful, funny, smart, sexy. Sometimes a word across the universe is just the thing.

But no matter what, Brigham still lives two hours away. I stopped writing.

But he wasn’t done.

Where’d you go? He pursued.

Dude, I said, you live two hours away.

I work once a week in Cambridge, he said, before the job offer, or so he says.

I’m not easily swayed, or wasn’t going to be. I’m idiosyncratic. Sometimes I’ll write, sometimes I won’t. But I distrust when a man (or woman) dangles the prospect of a date in order to maintain the flow of conversation. Either meet me or don’t but don’t use the prospect of meeting as a means to sate your needs at my expense.

It makes me wonder, is he lonely? In prison? Married? Five hundred pounds? An axe murderer? (If the latter, at least he’d want to see me in person, right?)

Don’t string me along.

When? I wrote a one-word email to Brigham, unwilling to participate in anything further that didn’t lead to a date, and just like that, we were sitting across from each other at a funky little Japanese place.

They say there’s a moment when you decide you want to fuck someone. Brigham said it was ten minutes into that dinner.

For me, it took longer. I didn’t know I wanted to fuck him until we were fucking.

***

Would you date someone just for the sex? Yes.

But there’s a qualifier. Your answer isn’t allowed to be yes. You have to date me for my sparkling personality. It’s a double standard, I know.

***

Brigham and I have been dating, or as I like to say so as to resist the classification, “going on dates.” It feels like a whirlwind, food, books, museums, pool, sex. We touch each other with newness, like a sprout of crocus after the winter or an orchid in the kitchen window. It’s fragrant and satisfying, an ordinary miracle.

When I ask him how much sex he has in a week – a joke — he says, as much as you do.

But we haven’t had this conversation. The exclusive one. Brigham hasn’t asked. And I haven’t said. What I don’t say is that I’m not asking for it. I’m not sure I want it. Maybe I am scared.

I know that he’s leaving. Not like “everything comes to an end” leaving, but “getting on a plane, his household goods to follow” leaving.

We haven’t had this conversation, I say to Brigham.

I’m exclusive with you, he says, but I don’t expect you to be exclusive with me.

****

He thinks you’re a slut, Micah says. I’m not even finished telling the story, but it’s what I thought, too. Bingham thinks I’m a slut.

They both might be right. But there’s the problem of words used to pejoratize women where there aren’t equal words for men. Why is slut feminine?

Or maybe Brigham is naive, a pure soul who wants a woman besides his ex-wife to love him, if she ever did, or at least to provide sexual favors that can be construed as love, that elusive thing.

There’s Kai, a guy who makes it clear that he’s not monogamous. He likes women. He doesn’t couch it in neologisms such as poly or open. He’s too simple and straightforward for that. He plays in a band, hangs at his local bar, participates in a local sports league, and fucks women he finds attractive. He finds many women attractive. He likes to hang with them, too, especially in hot tubs or on sailboats or beaches, but he’s clear that the sex is the same as the hanging, neither more or less than it is.

When Kai propositioned me – and I mean that in the nicest possible way – I declined. No hard feelings, of course, on either side, but I wasn’t in the mood to be as memorable as the cheeseburger or the beer, which is to say, not very.

And then one day, he declared himself monogamous, madly in love, meeting the mother of a woman he’d just met a few weeks before. What happened to Ladies Like Lunch? Or Suzie for Supper? It turns out, he was biding his time, waiting for the right woman, wanting love. It wasn’t philosophical, and in fact, he probably didn’t even know that he had it in him.

Or maybe he did?

And there is Hot Guy, with whom I formed a longstanding long distance friendship based on mutual respect and attraction. When we finally met in person years ago, the mutual respect and attraction were affirmed. We liked each other. Nothing happened that night – I was staying with family – but we still talk about that missed opportunity. But I admit I wasn’t interested in a one-night long-distance stand, which is what it would have been. I also knew that he was – and never would be – the monogamous relationship guy. Over the years we have talked about all his lovers, his flings, his FWBs, past and ongoing, and many of mine, but every so often one of us would drop out of email with the business of real life. And so when he moved – even further away from me – I wasn’t surprised that we had another lull, what with his new job, finding a new home, all of that. But I was surprised when he eventually wrote to say I’ve fallen madly in love, head over heels – not with me, of course. And that he was commuting long distances to see her, a distance that makes me look local.

***

I wonder if I’m biding my time, waiting for love. I wonder if love is real. Kai eventually stopped dating the Love of His Life. He went back to drinking beer and eating cheeseburgers and pursuing women with the same urgency and thoughtfulness as he does a meal. Which, you know, isn’t such a bad thing, if everybody knows what’s what. But when Kai and I had a catch-up dinner – real food, not metaphor – he talked about what she wasn’t, what he wanted, and I wonder, do we really know what we want? Is this thing an illusion?

With Hot Guy, the jury is out, just like he’s three states away, sucking the succor out of this thing he’s discovered, intrigue, affection, love, whatever we call it, all of it mutual.

Hot Guy’s dating profile is still active, though, so I’m not deleting his email address just yet.

***

I tell Brigham what Micah says.

Micha says you think I’m a slut. It’s what I thought, too. You’re exclusive but I’m not equals slut.

No, no, no, he says,

“That is not what I meant at all;
That is not it, at all.”

That’s T.S. Eliot, not Brigham, but it would have been cool if Brigham had denied thinking me a slut in the words of a poet, but he didn’t. He did, however, deny it.

I’m leaving, he said, and it might be the stupidest thing I’ve ever done, leaving a woman who… blah, blah, blah, insert nice things about me. He went on to say I wouldn’t blame you for lining up my replacement, if you haven’t already.

It’s a quandary, love while you have it, let the future take care of itself.

Brigham’s pragmatism suggests that people are replaceable, interchangeable, much the way every year the Red Sox have a new center fielder, the class is full of new freshmen, someone is being born. And in one sense, they are. We lose a sister, we gain a friend. We fall out of love, we fall in again.

***

I am at a traffic light, the coldest motherfucking day in spring, but sunny like mad. I glance at the car to my right, and there she is, an octogenarian, white hair, a tiny granny wearing tweed, slumped lower than the steering wheel, and licking the living daylights out of a soft serve vanilla swirl ice cream cone. Licking it like mad, big strong happy strokes with her tongue. And I’m thinking, she’s probably lost husbands, lovers, siblings, children, friends. She’s probably lost jobs, games, jewelry, sunglasses, houses, continents, and keys. But she’s happy.

I can’t take my eyes off her, and then, as if she knows, she turns to me, her eyes dazzling, a big smile on her face, and tips the cone to me, as if in salute, like love and happiness, a shared thing.

It’s a sign: the universe has a crush on me. It’s not unrequited.

Fucking Books

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If you go home with a guy and he doesn’t have books, don’t fuck him.

That’s the meme, anyway, attributed to John Waters and vectored by Roger Ebert via Twitter and passed along again by some guy you met once who friended you on Facebook. Like most things, the truth is reduced to a platitude.

***

I’m smitten with my Kindle app, the free books, the portability, the readability. Without ever stepping foot into a building, I can download ebooks from the Boston Public Library. There are no overdue fines. Or parking tickets. When the books are due, they disappear. If I want to keep reading, I simply download them again.

It’s like Amazon without a credit card. Almost.

***

In his profile photo, he’s standing in front of a bookshelf full of beautiful books, most of them hardcover, histories, biographies, non-fiction, but also a few novels, D.H. Lawrence and James, not Henry, but P.D. And not one of her oh-so-eligible Adam Dalgliesh tales (imagine HIS OkCupid profile!) but rather her post-apocalyptic cultural critique. This is one serious dude!

And there, right behind his head, only visible in the enlarged version of his photo, is the book I’m currently reading. The book that makes me laugh out loud on the train. The book that sends me to the dictionary. The book that makes me re-read sections for the pure pleasure of hearing the voice on the page, of enjoying the syntax, the tango of words and ideas. The author is dead, recently passed, so I want to reach out to the guy on the profile, if only to talk about the book.

(I wrote him, of course. Never heard back.)

His profile says he travels frequently: Venezuela, Vietnam, Vesuvius, a whole alphabet of NPR vacation spots, places to which he says he brought clean water, justice, and poetry. Okay, I’m just kidding about that last because in the Maslow scheme of things, poetry’s just not that urgent. It makes me wonder if I’ve wasted my life. It’s tough to say, yeah, I brought art to the starving. I healed the sick with words. I’m no Jesus but, in a way, I’m jealous. While I’ve been writing, making art for a teeny tiny sliver of the masses, he’s been giving himself to the less fortunate, saving small nations one free election at a time.

Could I have done more with my life?

Yes.

What was it Stephen Dunn wrote about enlarging his life through literature? Something about Liza Minnelli and basketball? Something about the truth?

What was it?

***

That Facebook meme begins with “we need to make books cool again,” as if that’s possible. If you think books are cool, nothing I say is going to change your mind. If you don’t, nothing can undo stupid. But if books become an accoutrement, like Buddy Holly glasses or skinny jeans, what does that say about ideas?

Hey, cool, you’re wearing Hawthorne today: “Evil is the nature of mankind. Evil must be your only happiness.”

***

I’ve had it as long as I can remember and kept it through 22 moves. It’s called a lawyer’s bookcase. Dark wood, glass doors that open and close, old. It comes apart in six sections: a top, a bottom, and four shelves. Between California and grad school, I set it up in an antique New Englander (where the radiators made music) and filled it with Russian novels, histories, American literatures heavy on Hawthorne and Faulkner, but also philosophies and religions, Nietzsches and a single church hymnal. There was Swift and Shelley and Shakespeare, and, yes, Chaucer, for the bawdy. The selections have expanded since then, way more poetry and essays, but I can still remember the tone of her voice.

“These are from college? Are you ever going to read them again?”

Her house was bigger than mine. Cleaner. Her education better, if you put any stock in the Ivy League. She didn’t have a job but she had a rich husband. She was at my house while our children played blocks on the linoleum floor.

Yes, of course I’m going to read them again. I didn’t say it but I should have shouted it. I should have said I’ve been collecting these since I was eleven years old but instead I was stunned into silence by my first brush with technological utilitarianism, the arrogance of banality.

I’ve searched that bookcase countless times over the years. I’ve reread books. Consulted them. Given them to friends and children, who then assume they own the books. (It is a certain sort of inheritance.) There are times when I see the books across the room and feel warm and comforted just looking them, the patterns the spines make, the colors, and I’m reminded of the move when I was pregnant, where my mother, thinking she was helping, arranged all my carefully sorted books by color, thereby making any particular book almost impossible to find. But the shelves represent the eclectic expression of what it means to be a book, and what it means to own books. I’ve felt comfort in their presence. But even if I hadn’t, I could have done all those things. The books are there. They are mine with no question of copyright or data corruption.

For me, that’s enough.

I’d estimate that I own 3,000 books. I could be off by a large number because I counted the books on one average shelf and then multiplied. But, like people, books come in all sizes and characters. Even so, I started getting rid of them. The life of Teddy Kennedy. A Dominick Dunne tale…

(Whew. That’s enough for one day.)

***

It was during halftime of a Patriots game. Billie, Hef, Star, and I were talking when Billie said that her daughter wants a library. A dark room with bookcases filled with old books, like something out of Jane Austen. Hef, who was in charge of the clicker from the sofa, flat on his back with vodka in hand, held up his iPhone, as though pointing at a platonic ideal.

Here’s your effing library, he said, and went back to watching the commercials.

***

Another guy writes. His email, like his profile, is one jumble of fused sentences interspersed with inane lols. It looks like those old computer readouts, no white space, no distinction between address, paragraphs, sentences. He barely brakes for words, and when he does, he capitalizes the ones he Deems Important, the rules of standard written English be damned. But he says he used to play professional football, or as he calls it, Professional Athletics, and who doesn’t like to talk football?, so I write him back.

Thanks for writing. We’re probably not a match. What position did you play? What teams? I’m aiming for chatty and friendly without insult.

Well, turns out, there’s no way to say no to a man without insult.

He writes me back immediately and attacks my attitude and my boobs, which is, presumably, the reason he wrote me in the first place. He defends his looks (about which I’ve said nothing). So I write him back again – sometimes a girl can’t resist, ya know? – and say, honey, your looks ain’t the problem. It’s the fact that you can’t manage the English language.

He writes again to tell me that he was top 30 in his class at his Big NFL Feeder School, where he majored in English, of all things. I bet youd be surprised, he mangles, but I’m not. I’m saddened. This is more evidence that my beloved sportsindustrial complex has cheapened the ideal of a liberal education. So much for intellectual adventures.

But I’m still thinking about Stephen Dunn, and I want that quote. The exact quote. And although the Google machine yields some cool stuff (try the Dunn quotes at Goodreads), they’re like potato chips compared to real food. As it turns out, this book of Dunn’s isn’t available electronically. And it is out of print. If I didn’t own it – somewhere – I’d be out of luck.

After a doing a mental inventory of places where I might have shelved it, and a quick perusal of the actual shelves (where’d all this dust come from?), I find Walking Light on the third bookcase I check, the one in my bedroom. And the quote is there, upper right corner of a page in the chapter about truth in fiction, just the way I remember it. Dunn asserts that he has “always desired to enlarge [his] life…, only occasionally through deed.” He is expanded by what he reads and writes. I, too, am enlarged.

It feels really good to find his words as expected, unadulterated by the internet.

In hardcopy I trust.

***

I think of the dark ages, of monks transcribing books, of knowledge kept safe in monasteries. Forgive me if my thoughts drift toward apocalypse but what happens when everything is digitized and the system is corrupted? What about when governments not only read what you wrote but control what you read? What about a personal disaster? A power outage? A blip in the router? A momentary lapse of concentration that ends with a Nexus left on the Red Line train?

And even with all electronics intact, not all books are available digitally. And certainly not all the books I read and want to read. As much as I love them, I’d rather not entrust my access to knowledge to the same people responsible for icanhazcheezeburger. I’d rather not be beholden to Professional Content Producers of the Internet for my intellectual life.
There was that winter I was without power for a week. I stoked the wood stove while reading a year’s worth of New Yorkers. The print version.

***

Relationships are like this. I trust the people in my life who are there when there are storms, outages, people I can find on a Friday afternoon when the internet is down. They’re the people whose pages I want to touch, whose histories I want to know. They’re the people who surprise me anew with their wit and cleverness, the depth of their wisdom, the way their corners are turned up, their pages worn and torn.

Call me an imperfectionist.

I’m a sucker for the real thing. I love reading a book or two electronically. I’m halfway through Moby-Dick on the Kindle app. I love downloading my favorites, old and new, The Scarlet Letter, Beyond Good and Evil, even Hitch-22, but give me the warmth of a fire, the comfort and reliability of a real book.

And if we ever end up back at your place, don’t show me your Kindle app, no matter how big it is.

Hurts So Good

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My guy texts me the next morning:

I’m on my way to work. My brain hurts.

***

“Can I get you a coffee?” It’s Ricky, a lazy boy with high social IQ.

It’s almost five o’clock on a Thursday, the last day of the semester. This is the beginning of my last class. I get no sympathy from the real working stiffs (you know who you are), but I’ve been going all day, five and half hours of students begging me to somehow change the inevitable, the grade that I’ll assign for the work they’ve done this semester. Or not.

“Is that a bribe, Ricky?”

He grins, as usual. Charming. A tall mixed Asian boy from Los Angeles.

He must be irresistible to the girls, exotic and funny, oh so confident, and I’ve wondered about Jenny, the sweet ingénue from Maine. Mid-semester, they started leaving together at the end of class – to dinner, perhaps — and then they didn’t. She missed class. Emailed to say she was sick. Lot’s of absences and trips home.

And there she was, the last day, sitting just beyond him while he charmed me. She looked brave, determined, heartsick.

***

How does one fall into love? Out of it?

***

The plan was brazen. Reckless, almost. My guy and I agreed to pretend to run into each other at a local pub. He was going to be there with friends and I would show up later, as if by happenstance.

The worst thing about it?

It worked.

His best friend, who knows nothing about us (or so he says), invited me to sit next to him at the bar. My guy came over. We chatted. Next thing you know, my guy and I are hanging at the bar together, just like ordinary people.

As far as anybody knows, we’re just acquaintances. I know his wife through our children. I know him very casually, by extension. But somehow, that night, as we have on many nights, we managed to figure out an assignation.

***

A hot tub, a pool, a lawn, a cabana. The bathroom, the stairs, a basement. His truck, my car, the hood of my car, a driveway. The beach at night with the moon making like noon. The beach at night with the waves pounding, late-night walkers ignoring our lovemaking. His truck, jutted up against the dunes. My guest bedroom. My bed.

***

A man I met on a dating website writes me. He writes again and again. Each time, he’s thoughtful and intelligent, so I respond. But he never asks me out.

I say to him, I’m not in this for a pen pal. I’m looking for someone to date, a serious relationship.

Oh, he says, as though a hundred watt bulb going dim. I would like to take you out.

So we go on a date. And then another. And two more.

But he never kisses me. He awkwardly hugs me, and I wonder, what does this man want?

He writes me thoughtful missives about the minutia of his daily life. He sends me poems.

***

How do people fall into intimacy? Out of it?

***

My guy stops by my house after work. He’s been by his brother’s place and wants to talk about it. An hour, maybe two, of talking. And then he looks at his watch and says, “I’d better get lucky soon.”

And we both get lucky. Again. And again and again.

***

When this is over, I say to him, I still want to be the woman you flirt with at parties. I want us to laugh. No hard feelings, I say.

I was hoping you’d feel that way, he says, and at one point, we attempt a cease-fire. We see each other socially and chat about football.

It worked, I think to myself. We’ve survived.

And then it happens again. A late night, a text, and there we are, somewhere, the parking lot by the train station, the cemetery, wearing pajamas, the windows wet, the occupants hot, even in winter.

***

While Ricky and Jenny are trying not to look at each other, my phone buzzes a little whistle.

Are you free tonight? Let’s get a drink.

It’s my guy.

We’ve never done this before but I suggest a place near where he works. I have my car – which is both unusual and fortuitous, as it turns out – and so I drive to meet him. I park on a side street, one of a handful of free parking spaces in downtown Boston, adjacent historic buildings and high-rises.

I find a seat at the bar. I order a bourbon, but the bartender doesn’t know it.

Jameson, I revise in a series of revisions, Neat.

***

Fiction writers say only trouble is interesting. Ants at a picnic. Lightning.
If you agree, you might want to stop reading.

***

My guy arrived shortly and scooted up next to me wearing a gorgeous sweater, the kind that makes a woman want to fondle a man. Soft and grey and handsome.

Black and tan, he says to the bartender. No hesitation.

I like a man who knows what he wants. And risks something to get it.

And then he gives me his full attention. We talk about work and health and happiness. We talk about kids and money. Real stuff.

But we’re here to have fun. When a man sits to our right, my guy introduces us, and by the end of the night, we have six new friends, a posse that includes a physics professor from Germany, two hefty guys from Ireland who tell us that they’re “in town for the Weight Watchers convention,” a stray engineer named Mark, and a couple of bankers, a man and a woman so obviously enamored of one another that I’m only slightly surprised to find out that she’s his boss and they’re “just co-workers,” the bejeweled wedding rings notwithstanding.

The physicist is laughing and the bankers are buying us shots and the yoga instructors – oh, wait, was it weight watchers? Doesn’t matter. We’re like a family.

When “Folsom Prison” starts, we’re the first couple on the dance floor. We’re the only dancers for a few songs but we’ve inspired others. Soon the floor is full. An hour or so later, a man and woman approach us.

“How long have you been together?” they ask.

“Six years,” I say.

It seems like a good number.

And it dates from the first time I met him, next to his wife, at a pool party.

We’re sweating; we’re happy. When we take a breather, we stand on the stoop outside in the balmy air and kiss. Coming and going, everyone greets us.

And then we walk to my car, hidden amidst gleaming buildings, the damp mustiness of an unseasonably warm December.

My guy kisses me some more and then reaches for the latch that reclines the seat. We laugh in unison.

***

How do people fall in love? How do they fall out?

I might need to know.

Oops

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It was a blind date, although I’d seen photos. A guy from out-of-state who insisted that he wanted to meet me, distance be damned. I named the place and he named the time. I walked in five minutes early and there he was at the bar. Early. Wow. That bodes well. I walked up to him.

“Hey.”

He turned to me but he didn’t react.

I smiled. “Hi. Uh. Are you expecting me?”

“No.”

“Mike?” I tried again.

“No.”

I wanted to ask him if he was sure. He looked exactly like the guy I was meeting.

“Blue shirt?” There’s something in me that had to ask again, as though this guy didn’t know who he was. A man should know himself. Besides, Mike said he’d be wearing a blue shirt and jeans.

He looked at his shirt, amused, surprised.

“Never mind,” I said, realizing my folly, and I walked past him down the bar.

But I started to wonder if Mike was ditching me before the date even started. A friend told me about a date he had where the woman came in the front door, said hello, and left by the back (ostensibly on her way to the ladies’ room). He never saw her again.

Hmm. I sat at the bar two down from him, with a seat between us and two seats on my right. I figured I’d better save a space for my real date, should he show.

Mistaken Mike and I chatted briefly. It was awkward. We laughed. But what to say after that? In another universe, we probably would have talked. He turned to the menu and I to my book.

Then, another guy walked in. Older, dumpy, clearly yeeech. My would-be date looked at him, turned to me and gave me the OMG look.

OMG is right.

The guy walked past us both and sat two seats to my right, leaving an empty seat between us. Okay, whew.

“Is this seat taken?” He asked. Uh oh.

“No,” I said.

“Good,” he said. “My wife is on her way.”

Big whew.

And thank god for love, for this awkward man who has a woman who loves him.

I decided to text the guy I was expecting. I told him that I was at the bar and that I’d already hit on the wrong guy. He texted back “classic” and then “parking.” Ten or so minutes later he showed up.

The guys could be brothers. Twins. Grey hair, dress blue buttondowns, jeans. Same features, angular and white. Nearly the same age. I had to look long for differences, and in that moment, I wondered if perhaps they were brothers, one sent ahead to scope out the chick for the other.

But, no.

They both knew that I’d mistaken one for the other. And so tentatively at first but then blatantly, they looked at each other in a way men don’t often do. Long and frank. They both acknowledged that it was totally understandable but their faces said So, this is what I look like? Okay, okay. Not bad, but still….

Accurate self-perception, the ability to see oneself as others do, objectively, clearly, is a mature attribute. It’s aided by love, for better or worse, with equal doses reality and affection. One of my closest friends is also my biggest critic. But she gets away with it, telling me that I’m full of shit with such clarity that I laugh, and am grateful for her love, her truth. Friendship can be like a mirror, allowing us to see ourselves as other do.

It’s also uncommon. There’s the guy who wants to be so clever that he trips over himself with clichés, trying to woo with words and ideas when he’s good at neither. Has anyone ever told him? Has he ever listened? They say that people often attempt to excel at the thing they’re not good at, and he’s a case in point, wanting to be urbane, sophisticated when he’s really a double-cheeseburger-and-potato-salad guy, not that there’s anything wrong with that, but if he majored in ordinary, he’d be extraordinary. Instead, he goes for the unattainable, attempting to force a pas de duex in tights at 230 pounds. Not a pretty sight.

And there’s another guy, married multiple times, back on the market in his fifties after ending a two-year relationship with a woman half his age, a woman the same age as his daughter, a woman he deflowered before she could order a whiskey sour in a bar. He maintained that while she was “pretty,” that it wasn’t just the hotness of youth that drew him to her. It was other things, he insisted (and I believe him), things such as their shared sensibilities, intelligences, passions, overlaps that kept him moored to her, “my best friend,” he called her. But yes, he declared, it was the best sex of my life, the best relationship of my life.

As an objective observer, an understudy in the role of friend, I listened with affection and kindness, but I’m also trained in close reading and critical thinking, and I have to wonder about a guy well past middle age whose most substantial emotional and sexual relationship was with woman whose only sexual experience is with him, a woman just old enough to have an undergraduate degree, a woman whose life experience is limited, necessarily, understandably, by her years.

When I think about the first guy at the bar, then the second. And the third, my date (who was charming, of course), I think about what we want. How we see ourselves. The lies we believe, the lies we want to believe. The lies we tell ourselves, the truths we ignore. I think about the ways we manipulate sex, words, images, all of it in order to gratify the urge to fuck. Or the urge to have someone sitting next to us at the bar.

So the date with Mike went well – we ate, drank, laughed, swapped stories – until he wanted sex in the back seat of his car in a lot on Beacon Hill at ten o’clock on a Wednesday night. I’m totally a sex-in-the-car girl but he was aggressive, like a manipulated truth, part lie, part lay, party badly orchestrated roll in the hay.

All Bets Are Off

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I met Orion on a dating site. His profile was a sleeper, a cross between a badly written Proust and a programmer’s self-aggrandizing patter. A classic tl;dr.

But somehow he convinced me to meet him for a drink. He didn’t know it but he lived close to me – closer than I was comfortable with if he turned out to be as crazy as I suspected – so I suggested a bar a long way from home. We met. We had a good time and exchanged a few tepid emails but then nothing. We were both traveling after – he for two weeks, me for a week — so I chalked it up to dating ADHD. Even nice dates don’t always turn into anything, especially when real life intervenes.

But, like the planets and a bad dollar bill, some things circulate. Orion came back to my profile.

At first I ignored him – I mean, after all, he’d had his chance – but when he was too funny to resist – the class clown, wherever he is, I’m sure – we engaged in banter. And then, somehow, we started talking, real conversations, and then, when, over the ensuing months, he begged for a meet, I reminded him that we’d already met.

“Oh, shit. You’re right. I should have remembered.”

****

It was probably invented out of necessity. A way for guys to pass the time. Something engaging and rewarding, even if the stakes are small.

No, not casual sex.

I’m talking about poker played with dollar bills. Liar’s Poker.

A guy I know used to caulk dams in the nether regions of Pennsylvania. His Boston engineering firm flew him down there for eight days at a time, or maybe it was ten? Who’s counting when days are nights lit by Klieg lights? There were no woman. The food was bad. Except for a few engineers, they were all low-skilled day laborers, making a buck to pay the man. They passed the nights playing Liar’s Poker.

The game is a simplified version of poker. Instead of cards, players bet on the number of multiples contained in the serial numbers on dollar bills. There are no full houses or runs or flushes, which somehow makes it pure, a game of simple accretion, repeats and bluster. Players bid on what they think might be the highest cumulative possible on the bills in play, positing first high single digits, then pairs, then three of a kind, and so on, up to nine of a kind or more. Or on what they think they can get away with. Besides the number of digits in play, the only limit is the ability to bullshit. Winner takes all.

Somewhat like navigating the yes and no of sex.

When my guy got back to Boston for his five days off, nothing made sense. Sleep, sex, money, food. There were no rules, just like the game he’d been playing every night for the previous ten.

***

It was almost eleven at night when they showed up all sweaty and buzzed, talking money and risk, making it and losing it. They’d been golfing, eating, drinking, not in that order.

“Get out a dollar,” Harry commanded while Hef mixed himself a drink. “We’re gonna play Liar’s Poker.”

Star and I had been out for the evening but were back at her place. They knew we’d be here. Or rather, since Hef and Star are married, Harry knew I’d be here with Star. Did he text?

We all laid out singles, serials down, and then Harry made us choose one blind.

(In retrospect, I wonder if Harry thought we kept stacked bills tucked in our bras for just such an occasion? Like mad money, a bill with seven sevens saved, hidden in my thong on the off-chance that someone might suggest a game of poker on a broken down T car or in a coffee shop during a thunderstorm?)

(But Harry likes fun – elaborate fun — and rules of engagement can be fun.)

The first two rounds were understated, as they walked us through the game. After that, there was stealing, cheating, eating, grabbing (money and parts), more grabbing, more drinks, a toke or two, and somewhere in there, while I was reveling in a fist full of singles, and when Hef and Star turned around to pour more drinks, Harry leaned over and kissed me full on the mouth, no hesitation.

A surprise, too. Like Hef and Star, he’s married — to someone else.

But no one saw him kiss me, or if they did, they ignored it.

And then Hef turned around. He looked directly at me.

“We played with twenties at the Club,” he said.

Harry looked at Hef. And then back at me. They both laughed, adrenaline and sweat like a marriage of desire and fulfillment, like a fond memory.

“That’s a lot of cash for a single hand of bluff,” Harry said.

***

But Orion.

A truncated meet, the failure to follow-up, a perceived slight. There are a lot of reasons people don’t pursue a second date, even if they seem to get along. But in Orion’s case, the fact that I’d already met him months ago and nothing happened would have been enough to never see him again. To hide his profile. To delete all connection. No hard feelings but why bother? Why continue?

I hadn’t intended to but he was persistent and funny and smart. He made me laugh. He is quicker than almost any guy I’ve met on-line, intelligent and versatile. (He still is.) After our renewed exchange, we were becoming friends, and because we’d met in person, we knew we had chemistry. It wasn’t a faux friendship. We both knew we’d probably meet again.

And we did. A pub on a rainy night. Sports on the telly. Comfortable and friendly. We drank bourbon and talked for hours, his knee touching mine. Kids, work, hobbies, pleasure, and then, inexplicably, his “clean” STD status. Why was he telling me? Was he asking for sex? Hoping?

But somehow, that detail got lost in the evening. I only remembered it later, perhaps because, in person, the banter was as easy as it had been on-line.

Or perhaps it was the parking lot, in the rain, the kiss.

***

Liar’s poker? Is there any other kind?

***

Part of the reason we never connected after the first date is that we both went out-of-town immediately following. This time, as if fate is a tease, a Cupid with a heart as hard as gold, we were both leaving town. He was headed to Vegas. I was going to Kentucky. We’d be out of touch for a week or two, but, when he resumed communication, chatting, emailing, being funny and present, it didn’t seem to change anything. Our schedules seemed to overlap, or his did with mine. Whenever I was on-line, there he was. The talk was just as fun but somehow easier since we’d established unequivocally that we had physical chemistry.

As much as I enjoyed his patter, there was something missing, a seriousness, an aesthetic ability to desire substance, the ability to translate fun in to affection. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I knew he wasn’t a relationship guy. At least for me. He’d always be Drink Guy, One Kiss Guy, Baseball and Swimming Pool Guy, something very casual.

Why? We were great at being friends. The chatter. The laughter. The whiskey sipping. And all signs were pointing to the physical being just as easy and rewarding. According to Investopedia, Liar’s poker is “often associated with Wall Street traders who use statistical reasoning and behavioral psychology tactics to gamble.” Are affairs of the heart reducible to a spread sheet? Can we calculate attraction? The possibility that we’ll copulate? Can we manipulate others through numbers and names? Words?

One day, as usual, he found me on-line and started the banter. His openings were irresistible. And then he turned serious.

“Do you think it’s possible to have sex with two people at the same time. Not as a threesome but coincidentally,” he asked. “Not a bunch of people. But two distinct people.”

Theoretically, of course. He didn’t say the word, but I assumed it. I had to. He’s asking in theory. Of course. I didn’t know where he was going, but –

Truth be told, I’d begun wondering about casual sex with him. I wasn’t dating anyone in particular. Even if he wasn’t Relationship Guy, he could be Fun Sex Guy. I could almost hear myself saying it. While we’re both finding whatever else it is we are looking for. How does a woman suggest FWB to a guy? How does a woman say it and still maintain that air of mystery and propriety? I was in the conceptual stage. I hadn’t even articulated it to myself yet..

But here he was asking about sex with two people. What did he mean? Like a practiced poker player, I held my cards close to my, uh, chest.

“Well, there’s the math of it,” I said. “How to be safe. If you sleep with two, and they both sleep with two, it gets exponentially more difficult to calculate who’s been where with what disease.”

“I’m seeing someone,” he said. “She lives….” Blahblahblah. He gave me details. Everything but her name. He probably gave me that, too.

One of the benefits of chat is that I had time to compose my poker face. This was it, the thing that I couldn’t put my finger on. The reason we had such a cool connection but that he wasn’t ever going to be Relationship Guy.

He was already Relationship Guy.

“What I really want to know,” he concluded, “is if there’s any way you and I can fuck.”

“Uh.” I don’t remember what I said, but being a piece on the side isn’t the same as being a FWB. Where both people are essentially in the same boat, restless for sex without a steady romantic relationship.

Later, I asked more questions. She was unaware of his pursuit of me. It’s pretty safe to say she’s unaware that he doesn’t consider them monogamous. Or doesn’t want to. But that was later. That day he had to go abruptly, a work thing.

“Oh, damn, bad timing, I know, but I have to run,” he said.

He knew how to start a conversation. And, so it seems, he knew how to end one.

***

I stuffed my bra with ones. Ones I won. And ones I stole. As it turns out, I’m pretty good at Liar’s Poker.

Harry walked me to my car that night. I can’t say he didn’t kiss me again. Or that I didn’t encourage him. I can’t say that the night didn’t reverberate with our laughter, our sighs, then or later.

I can say that we wanted the same thing.

And that, beginning that night, I started saving bills with stacked serials. Don’t ask me how many or the exact digits.

I’ll lie.

Distance: A Rubric

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I’m in a hotel in Texas, he wrote, but I can’t resist your profile.

He’d seen my photos, all six of them. He’d read my prose. He’d gone through my questions and answers. He was halfway to smitten, or bored, he couldn’t tell, but….

***

Distance is a physical phenomenon. We can measure the miles between my town and yours. The height of my heels. The length of my arm. We can measure almost anything.

But we can’t measure the distance of one heart from the other. We can’t measure attraction. Or desire.

A guy I know says that a woman has the advantage when the interaction is at a distance, but that a man has the advantage in person, when the distance is contracted. A woman can keep a man at arm’s length – metaphorically – via desire and imagination, but a man can commute that distance by physically touching her when they’re across a table, or next to each other on a sidewalk. Or in bed. He has a physical advantage.

We started talking about it in terms of geography. How far would you go to date? On the dating site I’ve set my preference at 25 miles. Occasionally, to search, I’ll extend that to 50 or maybe 100 miles, but I’ll always put it back. Meanwhile, with a hard 25 mile search parameter, the dating site is showing me guys who live 70 or more miles away, in another state. Or another continent.

The geography thing is a problem, both in the seeking and the wooing. Men from Vermont and Connecticut and Virginia and Maine and Egypt have begged me for a visit. More than one guy has crossed state lines to visit me. Stayed in a hotel. Bought me dinner. Brought me books and flowers. Men from Spain, Greece, Canada, Alaska have attempted to woo me with words and images. To what end? I don’t know. It’s not like we’ll start dating at 500 miles.

But guys from Boston – before we’ve even met, before even our first volley of emails – want to know where exactly in the city I live. It’s like they won’t date you if you’re on the Green Line. One guy, new to Boston, said he wanted a woman within walking distance. And after I stopped laughing – I mean, god, yes, she should be rich, and young, and hot, and stupid, too, I kinda felt sorry for him. His neighborhood is notorious for being a staid elderly community. (Good luck with that nightlife, dude!) Another guy put mileage on it. He would only date women who lived within 25 miles of Faneuil Hall.

I’m 25.1 miles. Would you please make an exception for me?

I’m 5’2” but your cutoff is 5’3”. Maybe I can wear heels?

***

(What’s the odometer reading on love?)

***

The further a person is from internet dating – or any dating at all – the more likely that person is to be an expert on dating. On profiles. On what men or women want. On anything at all while they go back to fighting about the grocery list, not enough sex, or too much, taxes, weight gain, hair on the soap.

I was out with friends the other night – all of them safely removed from internet dating – one could even say, a safe distance from dating in any form – and of course they started in on it. On me. Everyone of them has an opinion of what I’m doing wrong or what I should be doing and how they’d do it if they were in my, uh, stilettos.

And that’s when I came up with it. A rubric.

Math is nature’s language; its method of communicating directly with us. Everything is numbers.

That’s Charlie Epps, my new obsession, the sweet young mathematician from that old show Numb3rs. He teaches at Cal Sci – actually, Cal Tech, the west coast MIT (although they’d like to think it works the other way around. Not all things are reciprocal, as those of us actively dating know….)

***

Do not contact me, BadBaldGuy’s profile insisted. It was cranky. Deeply flawed, he described himself. According to his last girlfriend, or perhaps it was the ex-wife, or maybe a conflation of the two, he’s particularly skilled at not listening, at arguing, at assigning insufficient priority to spending time with his significant other. He ended the sad (but also funny, smart, clever, witty and fairly complete) profile by saying message me if you’re insane.

Unlike Charlie Epps, BadBaldguy was a Cal Tech alum. (How could I resist?)

No photo, either, so no goods on the table. It was like a drunken barroom confession. The story told the concierge. The taxi driver. The priest on holiday.

Of course I wrote to him.

***

And somewhere in here, I’m aware of my complicity. My fatal flaw. A man with a mind will blur me to the Swiss cheese of emotional engagement. It’s like emotional Alzheimer’s. A blind spot. But the thing about blind spots is that we don’t see them. If we did, they wouldn’t be blind.

***

He didn’t have a photo, and neither did I.

I have one profile with just a body shot, no face, and one with six recent photos, all the requisites to recognize me in a police line-up, should that be necessary. For a guy who says “don’t write me,” I had no qualms about shooting him an email from my blind account. I have a way of writing low-cost emails. Short. Pithy. Teasing. Nothing that requires an investment, just one line about the car he mentioned, a sixties classic. But he took it from there and the next thing you know, we were engaged in a leisurely but intellectually erotic exchange that we took us off the dating site and into real email.

And then he wanted to meet – with trepidation. With caution. But, hell, he was wildly curious.

As was I.

We made plans. A certain restaurant. The next night.

Meanwhile, neither of us had seen a photo of the other. But I am wise to the world. If I know anything, it’s that men are visual. All men. And that even if one guy thinks I’m hot, the next guy not-so-much. I insisted on a photo exchange so he sent me a stock photo, fuzzy and generic. I sent him one, too, and he wrote back and said, “you’re not my type. But let’s meet anyway.”

Is this sympathy? What is it that makes a guy say, nah, not my type, but let’s meet?

No, I said. No way.

It’s not that I can’t meet men for friendship. Or that it always has to be for dating. I’ve met plenty of people where going into it the goal wasn’t dating. And it’s fine. But there was something about his backpedaling that made me wary. An unwillingness to engage, perhaps. A fear?

No, I said. No way.

***

Around the time Texas-traveling-guy emailed my six-photo profile, I was setting up the algorithm (as they say on Numb3rs). A dating rubric. I assigned numerical value to the intangibles of love, the kind of stuff that gets muddled in the dating mess. Each category – looks, age, smarts, humor, etc. – is scored anywhere from zero to 3 based on the profile and whatever on-line interaction we have. Ten categories. Three points each. I’m a tough grader. Anyone who scores above twenty is worth a look-see in person.

My rubric (patent pending!) includes the following categories:

1. looks (which includes things like height and weight and photo quality. It’s counter-intuitive but it’s true that most men are either way better looking than their photos would suggest, or way worse. And the guys who have fuzzy photos? Or stupid ones? Enough said. That’s why there’s a range from zero to 3);
2. education (a flat score of 1 for undergrad, 2 for grad, and 3 for terminal);
3. humor (totally subjective!);
4. writing (I’ve never seen a profile without a mechanical error — it’s my curse. So this is my thing. We all have our idiosyncrasies);
5. mental flexibility (This is how I have it in Excel, but I mean a flexibility of mind, an ability to adapt and flow, the kind of thing that is most obvious in emails, but sometimes evident in the profile);
6. kids/visitation (Because I have older kids, I always search for men with kids, or last resort, a guy who doesn’t want kids. If a guy has older kids, it’s a 3. Younger kids or visitation or other issues, 2. Doesn’t want kids, 1. No kids, zero);
7. location (close to me is a three!);
8. seriousness (there’s a range here, all the way from the guy who wants casual or poly sex or a liaison while his wife is at the grocery store to the guy who wants a long-term monogamous relationship. That last is a 3, although if he starts talking about soul mates….);
9. age (near me is a 3; a bit older or younger by say 6 or so years is a 2; really young is a 1; a zero if they show up in my classroom);
10. smarts (totally subjective according to my mood).

My last steady scored a 21.5, although I calculated it retroactively. My “bad” dates – not really bad, just a lovely waste of time – have been in the mid-teens.

Again, a retroactive assessment, but still….

Texas-guy scored a 23.5 on the rubric even with his generic fuzzy photo, the middle-age-bald-guy-wearing-a-suit-at-a-wedding. Nothing memorable.

But beginning in that hotel in Texas, we started a long exchange of emails. A lot of people say, No pen pals. No long email exchanges. And I tend to agree – let’s meet sooner rather than later – but in his case, with him traveling, a meeting wasn’t urgent. In fact, a meeting seemed so inevitable that it was more a question of when, and how to enjoy getting there. The writing was a pleasure. It was one of the easiest things I’ve ever done, like skinny dipping in a hot tub, being swept by the current in a kayak, letting the waves take me to shore in one fast furious skim, my body half in the water and half out, the sun in my eyes, the shore in sight.

But the distance. We’d both approximated our locations, and as it turned out, we were over an hour apart.

(What’s an hour? What’s an hour and a quarter?)

The optimist in me wishes a guy would damn the torpedoes and say distance ain’t nothing, honey.

My high school boyfriend timed the trip from my backdoor to his — 26 seconds running through the woods.

Another lover drove all night just to kiss me and fall asleep in my bed, his arms tangled around me.

But I’m a realist. Most of the time.

***

We set up a meet anyway. I was reluctant. Not to meet him – we’d had such a cool exchange – but because I felt the misgiving on his end. No woman – wait, I can’t speak for other women. I can’t even speak for other people. But even if other people can cajole or persuade or manipulate dates, I’d rather not. I don’t want a tepid date. At all. I’d rather not meet you if you’re feeling wishy-washy about me. I’d rather be alone than go on a date with a guy who’s not all-in. Call me an idealist. But if you don’t have passion early on, what happens when the shit gets real?

And then, after we’d made plans but before we met, Texas-traveler-guy sent another email, one that I didn’t expect. Something in our email exchange tipped him off. He was my earlier correspondent, the same guy who ended our exchange by saying I wasn’t his type, but with a new profile, a new name. He was both BadBaldGuy and Texas-Guy. And he figured out that I was both of me.

There’s that old song about the lovers breaking up and finding each other without knowing it. Do you like walks in the rain? Like a Shakespearean comedy where the estranged lovers wear masks and fall in love with each other over and over again.

But what was this?

Twice we’d met on-line and pursued each other and twice came to the point of meeting.

But this wasn’t love.

They say, No second chances.

But what was this? I don’t know, but I knew it needed expiation. Reluctantly, I agreed to meet him anyway.

***

There’s a distance the heart travels. It’s a metaphor, except when it’s not.

I’ve been told that 90% of men my age who are dating are broken. Perhaps he’s one of the broken ones. Coming to the edge of the thing he wants. The thing he says he wants. The wave about to break over him. The wave about to carry him. He could surf to shore, feel the exhilaration of salt and wet and acceleration and lift — feel the movement – he’s on the cusp of feeling it – but he can’t bring himself to surrender to the wave. To let the distance commute itself…

***

After he told me he was the same guy as before, I noted that during the first exchange, BadBaldGuy had never seen my photo. And then he nixed the possibility of a relationship based on my photo. The second exchange – half a year later, or more – Texas-Guy came to my profile based on my photos. Six photos of me. He knew what I looked like. Was he honest before? If he was willing to pursue me the second time – I look the same – but not the first, was he honest the first time? Was I really not “his type”?

We met for dinner at one of my favorite places. We had drinks. We talked. We laughed. We ordered food — me, the lobster risotto; he, the fish. We we’re comfortable like old friends. It was easy, like the emails. Easier than meeting a stranger should be.

But I had no illusions. We stayed a few hours and then left. The food was good. I was going home alone, as expected. And then I got the email from him, the one I expected.

I had a lovely time. The distance is too much for me.

Yes, he’s that kind of man.

Rejection

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It’s 7:30 on a frozen Tuesday night on the E spur of the Green Line. I have a seat, though, so I’m grateful, even as I’m facing the rear of the train. This used to make me nauseous, the riding backwards, always reviewing the past, but I’ve grown accustomed to it, and so while I wait for the train to move, I’m inattentive, gazing at the girl with the red boots, the backpacks and North Face jackets, the names of the stops, the sidewalk beyond the tracks. I’m thinking about the man I just left, the guy who said “happy Halloween” even though it is Valentine’s Day, that day that belongs to lovers, when a man about my age sits in the single seat in front of me. I’m middle-age, divorced, on my way home after a solace date with a single man, a friend. At first I don’t notice the man in front of me, as mass transit is an exercise in isolation while in anonymous proximity, yet I can feel his presence when he turns to look at me. It feels like touching, the way he wants to see me, his eyes tethered to me by nascent desire, the hungry linger.

Another evening, a girlfriend and I are at a cool new burger place. It’s cozy and crowded, quirky and fun. A guy is playing 70s songs on an acoustic guitar. He catches my eye and when I smile at him, he smiles back, his wedding ring working a slide on the frets. Everything he plays sounds the same but it’s still sweet, this live sound. Two seats down the bar from where I’m sitting, another guy looks at me. I smile. His food looks great. What is it? I ask. He stabs a piece with his fork, leans across the space between us and holds it to my mouth, as though we’re already lovers. It’s unexpected, this intimacy, but it’s definitely invitation, to food and more. He’s with his friends, I’m with mine, but we weave connection throughout the evening. As I get up to leave, he turns to say goodbye. He touches my arm.

Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do, I say. That’s a range, of course.

And another. In the aftermath of our professional conference, there are hundreds of us in the hotel bar. He’s sitting adjacent to me. It’s late, but somehow the buzz of the day settles into our conversation, blue crab and poetry, the yearning to create, the stage. As they last-call the bar and boot the bunch of us out, he follows me to the lobby, as I’m hoping he will, and we continue talking. But I’m tied to another crowd, headed to another hotel, someone’s room, a joint with a password, and he has his people, two women sitting on the far side of the lobby, eyeing us, waiting for him, patiently, one presumes, and so he gives me his business card which I tuck into my bra, suggestive on purpose.

This is attraction, chemistry, the look across a room, a conversation, a laugh. It is pheromones, like honeybees or cats.

He found me via my on-line profile and asked me on a date. He’s seen my photos – at least five of them, close ups, full body, all the requisites. When I’ve gone on dates in the past, guys say, “You look just like your photos.” As I expect, he recognizes me as soon as I arrive. He’s saved us two seats at the bar – well, sort of. We have to squeeze in after he asks the guy to his right to move down. Did he think I wasn’t coming? Why didn’t he do this before I got there? I am feeling self-conscious for having worn my puffy down parka, but upon arriving, I feel justified: the weather’s so raw.

“It’s chilly out there,” I say as I’m unzipping, revealing a black skirt, black sweater, high heel boots. It’s a good outfit, but he doesn’t notice. A woman knows when a man notices.

“It is shitty in here,” he says.

“Huh?”

“I’m agreeing with you. It is shitty.”

“No, I said ‘chilly.’”

“Oh,” he says, “I thought you said ‘shitty.’”

But the place is anything but shitty. It’s a magical old Boston establishment, but not one resting on reputation. It’s clean. The food is clever and fresh, always good, and the drinks are (for the most part) produced flawlessly with charm. The décor is hip art deco, with black and white tile floors, marble bar tops. While it might not be five stars, it’s certainly not a dive bar.

This miscue could have been my first clue. Taste varies. But there’s so much that wants romance, enchantment, connection. There’s so much that wants to believe that a look on the T or at a bar or across the conference table can be something more, something meaningful. When I embarked on the date, I wanted to believe that because our on-line interaction was perfect, or nearly so, and funny and fun that the man behind the words would find me fetching, especially since, at least on a demographic level, he’s what I find attractive. In fact, and this is one of my many flaws, the urge to make something work is so strong that I ignore my initial misgivings, in his case, the ones I noted the first time I read his profile, even before he initiated contact. He seemed unsure of what he wanted, for one, and while I don’t invest a lot in the idea of relationship with a man I’ve never met, I wouldn’t meet a man if I didn’t have some hope for, at least, a second date.

Not even ten minutes in, before we’ve ordered drinks, he says, “I have an important call to make at 6:30,” an appointment he’d neglected to mention while we were negotiating the terms of the date.

Uh oh, I think. He’s already decided. But the words aren’t formulating that clearly, even though I know what it means. He’s already decided that this will go nowhere. Is it my looks? My coat? My outfit? My choice in restaurant? The fact that I didn’t think the place was shitty? We hardly had time to talk about anything else. His decision was based – presumably – on my appearance. A quick glance and nothing more. I say “presumably,” though, because there’s always all the things I have no way of knowing. Marital status. Personal disaster. Professional disaster. In other words, in dating – especially first dates – not everything is personal.

I should have left then. In hindsight, I think about what it would have meant had I left then, if it would have been better, or worse. If I lost anything by staying. Or gained anything. But in that moment, my mind wasn’t working that precisely, that philosophically, that practically. I had absorbed the rejection emotionally, but it takes awhile to process the fact that he’d ended the date as soon as he saw me, even before we’d even spoken, which means, pretty unequivocally, that he ended it based on my looks.

We order drinks. We talk about a lot of things, and laugh a lot, and all the while I know that – best case scenario – I am already disqualified, on trial, the chance of anything happening with this guy about the same as winning the lottery, but worse, because I haven’t bought a ticket. I already know he doesn’t find me attractive. I am not even under consideration; this is a gross pantomime, like being stuck next to someone on a flight, but one where conversation is required. It reminds me of a job interview I’d been on, one that I’d secured through connections – it’s not what you know, but who you know. As soon as the first question was asked, I knew that they had no intention of hiring me, no matter what I said, or did, or didn’t do. They had never had any intention of hiring me. I was there as a courtesy, but it wasn’t courtesy to me. It was a waste of my time, and in fact, an insult.

I’ve had internet dates where I knew in the first minutes that I’d never have sex with the man I was meeting. (And isn’t sex what this is all about?) But I consider open-mindedness crucial to the process. I often think that I can change my mind, that I can be coaxed or charmed, that everything is under consideration – until it isn’t. In only one case did I begin planning my escape as soon as we met. But he was a really bad case, and as I think of that man now, his crazed look, his fuzzy aspect like a bad Xerox copy, his shabby odor, the weakest part of me wonders if I was the female version of that man to my date.

The better part of me acknowledges that, perhaps, my date is just better than I am at making and implementing decisions. (Who knows, if given the choice, if I would have accepted a second date?) My pride insists on the latter. My brain, too – he’s very successful in business. But, honestly, my pride battles my brain, for better or worse.

The parallel with the job interview is limited. My internet date didn’t mean the invitation as a courtesy, or an insult. On-line and in writing, he found me funny and appealing. He even found me attractive. It’s not his fault that he didn’t like me. But my rational side says that perhaps – like many middle-aged guys – he doesn’t know what he wants. He’s still married, only recently separated, so I grant him the just-single-not-sure-what-the-fuck blues, which suggests (here’s my pride again, with a dash of rationality) that maybe it really is him. Along with the things about him that caused my initial misgivings, there were, perhaps, his things about me, our inherent incompatibilities.

But without the rationalizations, even if he was nixing me based on looks alone, I don’t fault him. Taste varies.

Which goes to the heart of this. Rejection sucks.

But rejection means almost nothing, especially on-line. Some people like one thing, some another. And there’s no telling – based on photos and words – whether there’s physical attraction, the kind of thing that compels a stranger to offer me a bite of his food, or to turn his head to look at me, or to give me his card in a busy hotel with little practical hope of ever seeing me again. People who attract with words and images might not attract in person. And vice versa. While self-reflection is good – important, even, to healthy interpersonal relationships – this kind of dating – any kind, really – allows little time for blanket self-doubt. As much as I want to be wanted, it doesn’t mean much that this one guy this one night didn’t want me.

We left together. But I’d already planned my route so as to avoid an even more awkward second goodbye on the T platform. In the opposite direction from where I knew he’d be going, there’s a cozy hotel bar with wireless where I could wait until it was time to meet my next date, a date that went really well. We stopped together at the corner and paused to say goodbye. This wouldn’t be physical – no kiss, not even on the cheek – but he was still congenial. We both were. Well, so long.

But then, unexpectedly, he asked for my number. What was I to do? Giving it to him offered the quickest escape, so in the cold rain on a dark street corner in Boston, he put my number into his phone and then called me.

“There,” he said. “We can get off that site.”

As I turned to walk away, I touched his elbow in a way that felt oddly solicitous, like helping the elderly, or the confused, and headed down the street.

I don’t know why he asked for my number. But I often don’t know why men do what they do. Perhaps he isn’t as savvy or brave or decisive as I assumed. Perhaps he’s insecure, unsure, bumbling.

Perhaps he’s the kind of guy who mistakes charming for shitty on a cold rainy night in Boston.

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