Here was there and there was Aberdeen, Scotland. I lived in New York City, USA. Surely he was kidding, just proffering the beginning of a joke in which I ran off to Scotland with a man I met on a dating app. At that point, our relationship consisted of ten days of texting, a few international calls, and a meeting of the minds on nearly every relationship issue there was. Connection aside, what kind of woman heads across the world to be with someone she barely knows?
“I’m very serious.”
His name was Henry and he was “very serious” about me visiting him while in Scotland on business. It wasn’t like he wouldn’t be returning to New York in little more than a week. Maybe his trip was getting a little boring and he needed some company after hours. Perhaps he was just that impetuous and prone to grand romantic gestures. I puzzled over my situation as Henry sent his next missive.
“I’ll fly you over here. I just really want to meet you.”
Part of me was flattered. Wasn’t it a big deal, finding someone who’d shell out some dough for the pleasure of your company? Henry was turning out to be the romantic he claimed to be, and I was definitely smitten. But I also wondered how sane it was to want to spend a week with a near-stranger. And whether he could be a serial killer.
If you believe the police procedurals on TV, serial killers have a type. All the victims share commonalities. Maybe it’s hair color or age. Maybe it’s gender or socioeconomic status. Serial killers search for the victims that they want, monitor their behavior, then lie in wait until they get their opportunity. They’re often sociopaths who woo their victims with charm and sass. And they are mostly men who mostly kill women. Aside from the eventual murder, how, then are we to distinguish a serial killer from a serial internet dater?
The next time we spoke, I told Henry that I couldn’t possibly meet him in Scotland. True, I was swept up in the intrigue of it all. He’d professed his romantic nature and the desire to sweep me off my feet. He talked about his relationship with God and we shared aspects of our faith. He professed his desire to marry a woman like me, a good woman from a good family who was funny and caring and pretty. It all sounded great, and I thought I deserved it. Henry was the first man I told about my mental illness and he accepted it. When he read my published work, he was full of compliments. After dating my share of disinterested losers, I was relieved to be talking to someone who paid such careful attention to me. But still I couldn’t make up my mind about going to Scotland. Even when he started sending me love songs that reminded him of me. It all just seemed too good.
After all, serial killers have a tendency to have dazzling personalities. Ted Bundy was always described as charming and handsome. Charles Manson had a coterie, a “family” of followers mesmerized by his speeches and theories enough to kill for him. Glen Rogers, “The Cassanova Killer” used his charisma to pick up victims at singles bars. These men are probably the reason that women are taught not to go to a second location with a man we don’t know. Or to be alone with a man we don’t know. I was starting to wonder if Henry was one of these magnetic sociopaths, trying to seduce me to my death with kind words and wonderful fantasies.
No matter how wonderful a man seems, we think a private location could be where he maims, rapes and murders us. So we date like we’re dealing with serial killers. We meet in public places. We give our friends the names and phone numbers of our dates in case anything happens. We Google and background-check to ward off the possibility of criminals in our dating pool. We’re distrustful of men who seem too nice, or too charming, or too much like what we want because it could be a trap. But isn’t nice, charming, and appropriate exactly what we want?
For days, Henry pushed the issue of my impending trip. I reiterated that I couldn’t go because a trip overseas wasn’t in my budget at that moment. He rejoined by offering to pay for the trip and for the hotel where we’d stay. I’d heard about men who fly women to exotic locations. I knew some of these women, beautiful, vivacious women who’d been treated to vacations. With Henry’s invitation, I was becoming one of those women. Someone to be desired, whose worth was seemingly more than the cost of a transatlantic plane ticket.
But I started to wonder, as you do, if Henry was too good to be true. I decided to tell my girlfriends the whole story, about meeting a man online and having him invite me out of the country only two weeks later. They, too, were taken by the romance, thinking about the interesting stories I’d be able to tell about my trip. We fantasized until my friend Nira realized a critical piece of information. She’d been approached online by Henry as well.
Now, the world is incredibly small and the chances of two women being approached by the same man are pretty high, especially if the women live in the same city. But this was an eerie occurrence because Nira and I have so many things in common. We went to the same college. We’re both curvy in stature—in fact, we wear the same clothing size. We’re both Black women who wear their hair natural. We’re the same age. At first, I thought that it was funny. Henry had a type, and it was clear what that was. Then I thought that the similarity was strange.
Presumably, men looking for women online have a type. A set of characteristics that they look for time and time again. Tall women. Women without children. No fatties or crazies. These male daters comb through dozens of internet profiles to find a woman who meets their standards. In my experience, I’m rarely anyone’s type. I’d been languishing on the proverbial vine for so long that my grapes, it seems, are no longer good for wine. My vintage has passed, or never was. My category was closed for business. Or so I thought until I realized that maybe Henry had targeted me—and my friend Nira—as a particular variety of woman.
I started to feel like a mark, a type of woman that Henry had chosen for other than romantic purposes. I asked him if he’d ever dated Black women before. He said no, that I was the first. That didn’t sit well with me, considering that he’d approached my nearly identical friend. I shouldn’t have been that suspicious. After all, Nira had shared with me her exchanges with Henry and all of the details checked out. Still, I was beginning to think that all of Henry’s kind words were just a ploy to woo a seemingly desperate middle-aged, overweight Black woman into some subterfuge. A type of woman who was among the least desirable groups on dating sites. A type of woman who might start to question her desirability after thirty years of dating without so much as a marriage proposal. Maybe Henry was manipulating me into a situation of his own creation. Like maybe a trip to the U.K. with a tragic end.
Listening to my intuition, I started to act on my suspicions. I tried to Google Henry, but no results came up. Sure, I found other men who shared his name but none who bore any resemblance to him. I reverse-searched his phone number. I did a Google image search on his profile pictures. I tried to do a background check. No results from any state that he claimed to have lived in. One day Henry told me that he had to call me from a pay phone, and the caller ID read “Nigeria.” Not Scotland. Not even close.
When I confronted Henry about not being able to find him online, he started to give me excuses about being a private person. He explained away the Nigerian pay phone call, saying that payphones often had out-of-country numbers. Was I supposed to believe that? I asked him to prove that he was who he said he was by sending me a photo of himself or talking to me via Face Time. He refused, saying that he still used a flip phone (really?) and that his tablet didn’t have photo capability. Convenient excuses they were, even if they were lies.
It turns out that Henry wasn’t a serial killer, if Henry was his real name. He was a catfish, and he baited me with a hook of sweet-sounding lies of love and forever. Shortly after I confronted him, he asked me for $1500. Apparently he needed the money to close a financial deal that would net him a five million dollar million payday which we would use to begin our life together. Just like the rest of Henry’s promises, this sounded too good to be true.
Of course I didn’t give him the money—how could I give a significant sum of money to a man who couldn’t even prove his identity? I held fast to my position and, like a true sociopath, Henry tried to make me feel guilty for not helping him, turning on me for rejecting his affection, claiming that he was heartbroken. I deleted all of his contact information, wondering who I would’ve met had I accepted the trip to Scotland.
Dating can be a minefield of emotional pitfalls and fears of danger. If only we could skip past the uncertainty of meeting someone new and get to the meat of having a relationship. But then we wouldn’t experience the rush of new love or the excitement of new possibilities. And there are only a few serial killers lurking among the honest dating profiles. So I’ll make another go of using Hinge or Bumble or another dating app. I’ve probably depleted my share of fake suitors with Henry, so I’m due my happy ending.
TRACEY LYNN LLOYD has been a marketer, a writer, a mental health advocate, and a sarcastic smartypants. She lives in New York City where she drinks lots of coffee and fights her cat for access to the laptop. Her essays have appeared in the Washington Post, The Establishment and xoJane.
They say the first year after you lose your husband is the hardest. Ironically, it even has a cute name: The Year of Firsts. The first wedding anniversary, the first Christmas, the first baseball season—everything is the first time without him. The first birthday without Alan brings a picture to my mind of the candle-less pile of his favorite donuts that I strategically arranged on a plate into a circular cake shape. (Even as I write this I know memory deceives me. If I dig back hard enough, I remember our friend Grace made Alan’s cake that year. Carrot, his favorite. I was too numb to have been so thoughtful.) Then there was the first time I went in for a teeth cleaning that fall: the way the entire staff looked at me, how certain I was they all already knew without my saying a word, how I couldn’t bring myself to meet their gaze, how I was grateful for each scrape of the dentist’s scaler to distract me from the weight that pressed into my sternum. And there was the first time I tried and failed to talk about Alan using past-tense verbs, the sound of them ringing too final in my ears.
What no one tells you, though, is that the firsts don’t end after those twelve months. In terms of frequency, they start loosening their grip, but still they come, slow and steady. Sometimes when you least expect it.
I should have known another first was happening when something I saw on Instagram made me cry. A man I’d never met before was getting married. He had kind brown eyes and she had a wonderfully proportioned face. They could have been in a teeth-whitening ad. They were young, around thirty, and from the looks of his Instagram feed, did your typical around-thirty-year-old things. Except they seemed to do it better. There were pictures of her twirling in the sunlight in front of a vintage car and drinking a milkshake alluringly at one of those diners that are so old they’ve become hip again. I saw him, too, on the other side of the camera, laughing because he’d been too caught up watching her, missing the moment, and accidentally taking a picture of the table. Of course, I didn’t know if that’s what actually happened. I didn’t know him, and he didn’t know me. But we did share something. I saw it in his profile. One word that didn’t match the happiness I saw in his face: widower.
I clicked on the link in his profile, searching his personal blog for clues. How did he get his eyes to twinkle like that? Over the course of two hours, my phone casting a glow in the otherwise dark room, I uncovered the life-bones of the brown-eyed man, using them to build a person with a past, a present, and a future. He’d been married to his best friend and the love of his life for close to eight years. She was an artist with curly brown hair and a ready smile. Her funeral was standing-room only. Everybody who met her loved her. Reading about her and looking at her pictures, I loved her, too. She looked like the type of person I’d want to share my fries with. She’d been sick, though, and then suddenly, as it sometimes happens with sickness and young people, she was gone. Four months later, her husband started dating. Soon after, he met his current fiancée, and their smiles have been gracing dental-office posters ever since. Somehow Brown Eyes had managed to hit the jackpot. He had found not just one true love, but two. And he was marrying the second in a month.
For having never met the guy, I didn’t know why I cared. All I know is that I did. I pictured Alan in Brown Eyes’s shoes and me in the role of the artist wife. I imagined him going on dates a few months after I’d died: him wearing his favorite button-down shirt, her in form-fitting jeans. Dim lighting. Sangria. Furtive thoughts and shy glances. My face felt hot. If Brown Eyes had really loved his wife, how could he move on so quickly? He was wheeling past, rushing to forget. I felt betrayed by a man I didn’t know, on behalf of a woman I’d never met.
But I knew that wasn’t all. Reaching that conclusion did nothing to quell the spring of emotions welling up in my chest. I turned my phone off and lay back in bed, letting the darkness of the room seep in and swirl inside me. And then, before I could stop it, it happened. It was just for an instant, but it was enough.
I am Brown Eyes out on a date. Feeling not-Alan’s arm around me. Letting myself be drawn in closer.
The guilt sliced me in half. I shook the image from my head, and hot tears slipped down my cheeks. Of all the things I’d felt in the past year and a half since Alan had died, I’d never felt anything like this. It was a string waiting to be pulled. Thinking about finding the loose end made me feel sick, so instead I climbed a mountain and looked down at Brown Eyes from my perch. What kind of widower wanted to find someone new to share his milkshakes with? To go on adventures with? Who wanted that? Not me. I didn’t want any of it. And neither should he. Clearly, he didn’t love his wife as much as I loved Alan. It was an awful thing to think but it was easy. He was a stranger who couldn’t tell me otherwise. But that’s what made Judgment Mountain so great. It was a place where I could focus on assessing other people’s lives so I didn’t have to think about my own.
I was still up on the mountain, deluding myself, when I met up with Eddie for dinner a few weeks later. He sat across from me, smiling. I tried to read his eyes to determine if it was a real smile or the kind that hid things that hurt too much to think about. We most often exchanged the latter in the short time we’d known each other. We had met at a now defunct Kaiser bereavement group for young spouses. Most of the people in the group, including Eddie and me, had partners who’d been on hospice. Alan and Eddie’s wife Jeannie had had cancer. Paul Kalanithi described it best when he wrote, “Yes, all cancer patients are unlucky, but there’s cancer, and then there’s CANCER, and you have to be really unlucky to have the latter.” They both had the all-caps kind, one of the main commonalities in the intersection of the Sobrina-Eddie Venn Diagram.
“So how was your holiday?” I asked reflexively. I kicked myself as soon as I said it. Holidays sucked. “Sorry, dumb question.”
“You know, it was surprisingly good. I spent it with my friend and his family. His little girl made it her mission to make me smile. She even waited for me to get there to open her presents. It was really, really sweet. How was yours?”
“I visited the park where we scattered Alan’s ashes. I hiked up to the bench at the top of the hill, and it hit me for the first time how nice it was that he chose that spot. I never realized until then that he probably did that on purpose so I wouldn’t have to go visit some sad arbitrary plot somewhere.” My words caught slightly in my throat. Then I realized that Eddie might visit Jeannie at a cemetery, and I kicked myself again.
“I still don’t know what to do with Jeannie’s ashes,” he said. His eyes misted over, and I could tell he wanted to say something. A moment passed and he shook his head, changing his mind. “Leave it to you to make me cry.”
I laughed. We both cried at every single meeting.
We studied our menus in silence, and I debated between my usual chicken biryani and trying a new fish dish.
“I decided to make some changes,” Eddie said, smiling. It lingered in the corners of his lips, revealing a side of Eddie I’d never seen before. So it was a real one. “I’ve been exercising more. I’m up to doing an hour and a half on the elliptical machine every day at max resistance. And next week, I’m playing Ultimate Frisbee with people a lot younger than me. I hope I don’t break anything.” He laughed.
“Wow, that’s great.” When I first met him, he couldn’t walk or do the elliptical for more than ten minutes. I closed my menu but not before silently picking something to order for Alan: the lamb shank. He would like that. Another reflex.
“Oh, and I asked a woman out.”
“You did?” I put my menu down. Now this was news. “Who?”
“A woman from my sci-fi book club.”
“Wow.” My vocabulary was very impressive tonight.
“She said ‘no,’ but that’s okay.”
“Still, that’s huge. And you felt okay doing it?”
“I did,” he said. “I mean I did then, at the time. I might not the next time. Who knows.”
He looked back down at his menu, while I did the math. Jeannie had died in January. It was less than a year later. If it had been anyone else, I would have thrown him down the mountain already, but Eddie was different. I knew for a fact how much he loved Jeannie. I could see it in him, full, whole, and remarkably intact. And I realized, after the initial shock faded, that his asking another woman out did nothing to change that.
Dinner with Eddie gave me hope. I thought about coming down from the mountain, even if just a little. But when I told my sister about Eddie starting to date again, she texted back, “Whattt!!! Do people just not fall deep in love anymore?!?!?!?” And it put me right back up on the summit. It seemed that’s where everyone else thought I should be. I didn’t dare tell her how I’d found him brave.
It took a while before I found the courage to tell anyone else, until one day it came up in conversation with my friend Angela. We’d met at the same grief group that I knew Eddie from. Her husband Raymond didn’t have cancer; he had died suddenly in June from a blood clot after surviving a stroke the previous month. We were both in our early thirties, and I knew she knew what it was like to walk around in the world like a ghost, only to have that feeling subside and be replaced with the sensation that your skin is turned inside out. She texted to ask how dinner was with Eddie, and I texted back about how he’d started dating again.
“I swear men move on so much faster than women,” I said, dipping a toe in to test the water. I hoped I sounded nonchalant.
“Who did he ask out?” she asked.
“A woman from his book club,” I said.
I waited for her to blast him, but all she said was, “I’m glad he’s doing well.”
Her reaction emboldened me. I ventured further out up to my knees.
“Are you surprised about Eddie asking someone out already? It hasn’t even been a year yet,” I said, holding my breath.
“I used to be surprised by it, that people find other people so quickly. But everyone deserves to be happy.”
And then she told me she had started dating, too: a really great guy who made her happy. He was a friend with whom she had lost touch over the years and recently reconnected with.
In true Angela fashion, she worried immediately after telling me that she had hurt me.
“No, you didn’t at all. I’m truly happy for you.” And I really meant it. I expected to feel the surge of emotions as I had with Brown Eyes, but all I felt was relief. She loved and missed Raymond deeply. We talked about it all the time. And now she was seeing someone new. She was proof those two things could coexist. The realization radiated through me.
Judgment Mountain began to crumble, and as it did, I recognized it for what it was: a place where I judged myself. I judged people for moving on too quickly because the truth was I was afraid I was moving on too fast. I wanted things to stay the same for as long as possible, to live in the world that Alan still lived in. But that world didn’t exist anymore. Could I still love Alan forever and simultaneously want to find someone new to share my life with? I hated myself for even wanting to ask. As if asking was somehow an admission that Alan’s love wasn’t enough. That I was replacing him. That he was even replaceable. It was out of the question.
But Eddie, Angela, and Brown Eyes helped me understand that it wasn’t the question that I had wrong—it was the answer. I wasn’t asking because Alan’s love hadn’t been enough. I was asking because it had been more than enough. It had lifted me and filled me and carried me gently when I didn’t even know I needed it. I could feel it when he watched me sleep in the morning, by the patient way he answered my questions on everything from foreign policy to the way last night’s movie had ended after I inevitably knocked out.
I miss the blond hairs on his arms. I miss his smell. I miss sharing life with him. The yearning to find someone new isn’t a way of replacing him as I’d feared. It’s a testament to how wonderful I know life can be with someone. And it’s because Alan showed me that that kind of love exists that I want to find it again. I don’t fully know what that means, but I’m ready to let myself find out.
SOBRINA TUNG PIES is a writer and tech marketer living in the Silicon Valley.
His one-inch thumbnail picture was cute, but that wasn’t why I stopped on the online profile of “Another John” that Saturday morning in 2003. It was his profile header that grabbed my attention, proclaiming, “You will never be a guest on the Jerry Springer Show because of me.”
Visions sprang to mind of a curly-haired woman in a red tube-top, flinging fistfuls of deli meats at her boyfriend. A bald guy in a tight t-shirt chomping on another guy’s bare calf. I remembered a woman’s tearful confession to her outraged spouse, who then stormed backstage and punched a hole in a wall. One thing was clear. The guy who’d written that headline was funny.
Though I’d spent most of my adult life in a series of long-term relationships, I always felt like it was a fluke, like I was an impostor. The real me had no idea how to date. Maybe my ineptitude had taken root in elementary school where the nuns punished the whole class whenever boys and girls bucked the rules and played together during recess. Or maybe it was due to my love of sports; I’d been outdoors playing baseball with my brother’s friends the summer my female classmates were indoors teaching themselves to dance, apply make-up, and shave their legs. Perhaps it was what I’d noticed from a young age: girls who were little and cute got more practice talking to boys. Whatever the origins of my discomfort, when I imagined dating, I felt as graceful as a linebacker doing ballet.
Thankfully, I’d managed to sidestep true “dating,” since most of my love relationships had grown out of friendships. Only rarely had I gone out with strangers. But things felt different now. I was single, finally emerging from months of hibernation after the excruciating breakup of a six-year relationship. Now forty-four, I was past the age of having lots of single male friends.
So I thought about how I could meet someone. I taught elementary school; 98% of my colleagues were women. Bars and nightclubs wouldn’t work; I didn’t drink, and only my dog was allowed to see my dance moves. Though I started reading personals ads, I never made a conscious decision to try online dating, still not widespread in 2003. Reading the ads on Craigslist reminded me that if other people were out looking, too, maybe I wasn’t such a freak.
But entries like “52-year-old married man seeks slender woman, 20-25, for discreet affair” only reinforced my feeling that I was an awkward alien, lost on a planet of dating-proficient people. Eventually, I decided that it might be less depressing if I went to a website that was solely for dating, rather than one that also told me where to recycle my scrap metal.
I’d been window-shopping on Match.com for six weeks. Following my instructions, the website was showing me single men in their forties who lived within five miles of me. If anyone’s intro paragraph passed my test for “smart” and “funny,” I’d read the rest of his profile and hunt for shared values and interests. So far, I’d granted a few men ratings of “mildly interesting,” but no one had intrigued me enough to make me break out the credit card and pay for the privilege of contacting him. The Jerry Springer guy had my attention, though. I read on.
Then I saw them, my magic words, standing tall and proud in the second sentence: “friends,” “committed,” “monogamous,” and “very long-term.” I felt a little flutter inside from a part of me that had long been paralyzed. I had wondered if my last relationship had killed it, but as I continued reading, I could feel that hope had survived.
Another John sounded like he knew what he wanted. I knew what I didn’t want—another six years with a man who ultimately didn’t want to commit. With each sentence, though, I got a sense of someone who knew himself, someone who wanted a true partner. I scanned the rest, waiting for the one-liner that would stop my forward motion.
But it didn’t come. He wasn’t a rock-climbing, parachute-jumping super-stud longing for a woman who could comfortably strut the red carpet as well as stroll the beach. Neither was he looking for a supermodel fifteen years younger than he.
Instead, he hoped for someone who could watch films with subtitles, who would never cross a picket line, and whose stance toward religion was one of tolerance. If he needed a weekly bungee-jumping fix, he didn’t mention it. He liked having dinner with friends, eating M&Ms in movie theaters, and camping in the mountains.
He was open to a rainbow of ethnicities, and under “you could be,” this agnostic man, Another John, had marked everything from Taoist to Muslim to Jewish to atheist. He didn’t require a younger woman, and he’d even marked that he was open to someone several years older than he. In online dating, that was a rarity.
That was it. It was time to pay up.
I felt a ridiculous sense of urgency as I ran to grab my credit card. After all, Another John had been out there for the entire forty-four years I’d been alive. But now that I’d found him, I didn’t want anyone else to snag him before I’d had my chance. Hurriedly, I re-entered my username and password.
Then I had to decide the length of my pay-in-advance membership. Even though the monthly price would be cheaper if I went long term, wasn’t it pessimistic to assume that I’d need a whole year to find someone? And anyway, hadn’t I already found him? He just didn’t know it yet. So I chose the bare minimum, the one-month plan.
I was dismayed to discover next that I’d have to create a profile before I could contact him. As precious minutes ticked by, I typed sentences about myself that I hoped would appeal to Another John. Would it seem too scary if I used the word “crazed” in my headline? And if I said “Baseball-Crazed Hiking Teacher,” did that make it sound like I taught hiking or like I was a teacher who liked to hike? Was it too much too soon if I wrote that I ultimately wanted to get married? Oh, man. Why hadn’t I thought about this stuff beforehand? My hands trembled as the panic raced through me.
After whipping out a paragraph that I hoped was both funny and substantive, I reached the step where I got to specify the traits I was looking for in a partner. It was like building my own omelet at Denny’s. And in selecting the ingredients that were exactly to my tastes, I found that the omelet-person I was creating sounded an awful lot like Another John.
Finally, I clicked on the “contact” link, and it was done. Feeling giddy, I closed the laptop. All I could do now was wait.
That evening, while congratulating myself for my boldness, I reread his profile. Suddenly, my eyes widened, and I scanned the list of religions that Another John had deemed acceptable. It wasn’t there!
Distracted by my pleasure at how open-minded A.J. was, I’d failed to notice that the one religion missing from his “approved” list was the one that was in my bones. I’d attended Catholic school for twelve plaid-skirt-wearing years and had gone to daily Mass for nearly a decade of my adulthood. I’d been courted by hopeful nuns who’d recognized my potential as a future convent-dweller, and I’d worked for Catholic organizations. Though I hadn’t attended Mass or believed in most Catholic teachings for many years, I couldn’t deny who I was. I was pretty damned Catholic.
Another John hadn’t listed “Christianity” in his comprehensive “Muslims and Taoists are fine” list. And since Catholicism came under the Christian umbrella, I’d contacted him under false pretenses, the internet-dating equivalent of a sin.
So I dashed off an, “Oh, no! You didn’t want to meet Christians! I didn’t ignore that on purpose!” email to him.
The next day, I received a very polite response. Another John apologized for the delay, explaining that he was being very conscientious about sending a response to every single person who’d contacted him.
Well, now. It certainly sounded like he’d been very busy. I pictured his frenzied fingers typing wildly in an effort to keep up with the hordes of single women in their forties who, like I, had recognized his potential. I read on.
He gracefully accepted my unveiling of the Catholicism, explaining that he’d left “Christian” off in case he attracted someone who might want to convert his agnostic self. My profile must have communicated, “I do not need to drag you to church”; he assured me that he wasn’t worried about my Catholicism.
The one point on which he did want clarification was my long-time vegetarianism. Fascinating! He was okay with my religious upbringing that believed that dry bread could be turned into Jesus, but he was cautious about my love of garbanzos and cauliflower?
His earnest questions were endearing:
Do you avoid meat on moral grounds? Does it bother you if your dinner partner eats meat? Can you tolerate meat in your house?
The answers were easy. I’d stopped eating meat decades earlier when I’d been a camp counselor and could think of no other way to stop gorging myself at the buffet. After that summer, I’d just let the meat habit die. There was no moral ground; I was simply a recovering glutton.
The rest of my email continued:
“I hope your fingers are okay. Sounds like they’re getting worn down to nubs, what with all the emails you’re sending to interested women.”
We continued back and forth for a few days, lighthearted jokes sprinkled in among the “So what kind of person are you?” questions. Then we decided we didn’t need the website to be our chaperone anymore and exchanged email addresses.
My heart would happily skip a beat when I’d see Another John’s name in my inbox. I thought of him as “The Serious One,” even though it was his humor that had attracted me immediately. In his profile photos, he looked intent and businesslike. Me? Digital cameras were still uncommon in 2003, so I had only one digital picture to post, a shot of me wearing a shiny gold crown. John’s emails were brief and politely inquisitive, usually including a line that made me chuckle. My emails to him were newsy and energetic.
“Hey, John. So my city-kid third-graders are on a field trip in the forest, and the naturalist does a ‘notice what’s around you’ activity. She gathers the kids, then tells them to sit down and listen to the sounds of nature. Kenneth turns to me and whispers, ‘Does she mean sit in the dirt?’ I roll my eyes, nod, and point to the ground. Kenneth looks appalled, and says, ‘But won’t that be—dirty?’ Sheesh. Hope your day was okay. Sue”
“Hi, Sue. I got home early, so it’s all good. Do you think you’d feel comfortable exchanging phone numbers? I would if you would. Then we can figure out a time to talk. John. P.S. Hope Kenneth cleaned up okay.”
We agreed to talk the next night, a Tuesday, after he got home from work. At six-thirty, the phone rang, and I ran toward the bedroom, my collie-mix dog Cody bounding after me.
“Hi, it’s John.”
His voice startled me. I’d been imagining it as deep and maybe slow. Instead, his pitch had a lighthearted, smooth energy that attracted me instantly. Not that anything would have been wrong with deep but hearing his voice was like biting into a cookie with my eyes closed, expecting a ginger snap. Instead, it was chocolate chip, fresh-baked, with the chocolate all warm and swirled and melty.
I didn’t tell him that I’d expected his voice to be deeper. Instead, I told him how funny I’d thought his Jerry Springer headline was. He said he’d figured it would be a humorous way to convey that he wasn’t into crazy drama.
“Yeah, looking for someone is pretty nerve-wracking, so ‘no crazy drama’ sounds excellent,” I said. “It’s been six years since I’ve gone out with anyone new. And I’ve usually only dated people I already knew. I don’t know what I’m doing.” There. I’d confessed to being a dating neophyte. It was a relief.
John topped me, though. “I know what you mean. My last relationship ended two years ago. And we’d been together for thirteen years. So… it’s been a long time.”
I had not considered this possibility. He was even more unaccustomed to the dating world than I was! And yet, he seemed so … so normal. I instantly felt less alone, less like the awkward alien on a planet of dating-proficient people. There was another alien inhabiting my planet. I liked having company.
We talked for half an hour. John made it clear that he wasn’t around on Wednesdays, so we agreed that I’d call him on Thursday. I hung up, and floated from room to room of my little Craftsman bungalow, filled with a sense of accomplishment. I was thinking more about myself than I was about John. “I did it! I did it!” The words sounded loud in my head.
Over the next two weeks, we spoke most evenings. I assumed my position: lying on the floor, feet up on the bed, Cody at my side. Sometimes we’d talk for an hour or more. As our familiarity grew, we experimented both with kidding each other and with sharing parts of our past. And we talked about this experience of seeking a connection with an unseen stranger.
“One thing I liked about your profile is that you were willing to consider women who are a little older than you,” I told him. “So many men only want someone who’s way younger than they are! What is that?” That trend in men’s profiles had infuriated me.
John knew I was a teacher, and his deadpan reply was, “Well, sure, I could try to find someone who’s twenty. But then when I’d ask how her day at school had been, it would mean something very different from when I ask you.”
My laugh rang out. That was happening often. John’s humor would come at me from surprising angles, and I’d laugh from sheer delight.
Another Wednesday was rolling around, and so on Tuesday evening, John reminded me that he wouldn’t be available the following night. Over the past two weeks, I’d been curious about his regularly scheduled Wednesday activity but knew it wasn’t my business to ask. I couldn’t help wondering though.
One thought I had was that maybe he’d not been truthful on his profile when he said that he didn’t have kids. Maybe he had a couple of kids, and maybe his custody agreement was that he got them every Wednesday. I decided that would be okay. After all, I liked kids. And wouldn’t I rather he be a dedicated parent than some deadbeat dad who disregarded his responsibilities, responsibilities who, after all, were little human beings? Yes, I would. Sure, John hadn’t been totally upfront with me about his kids, but at least he was doing right by them. Good for him.
But then I wondered if maybe rather than being a secret parent, he instead was an alcoholic who faithfully attended AA every Wednesday. That seemed more plausible. Respondents were asked about their parental status on the dating profile, but there wasn’t a single question about one’s substance-abuse status. So John could have filled out his profile with total honesty while still being an alcoholic. And I understood that at first he’d hide something so personal. I mean, why should he tell me that right off? No sense in scaring me away. He’d confide in me if we ever got close enough. I decided I would be okay if he were an alcoholic, given that he was an AA regular and all. That way he was a recovering alcoholic, instead of a still-raging alcoholic.
These thoughts were in the back of my mind until that Tuesday night. John brought them racing to the front when he said, slowly, “Well—I guess it’s about time that I tell you what I do on Wednesdays.”
I wasn’t prepared. “Okay,” I said, trying to sound casual. I felt my heart speed up, and I took a big breath. I reminded myself that at least he was a responsible parent/alcoholic.
The silence ticked on. I waited in what I hoped would be perceived as a supportive silence.
John took a breath, and slowly, the truth came out. “On Wednesdays—I bowl.”
My sudden burst of laughter was a cross between a bark and a scream. That innocent little word struck me so funny that I could barely suck in air. “Bowl” was evocative of the wholesomeness of the 1950s, completely undeserving of its role in a shameful confession.
I choked out, “Why do you say it like it’s such an awful thing?” I imagined him in his house, grinning broadly at his success in reducing me to gasps and sputters.
“Well, you have to admit—‘I bowl’ isn’t something you lead with. A person needs time to build up to it. Expecting someone else to accept that right off? It’s too much.” I could practically hear him smiling.
Still giggling, I said, “Well, if it makes you feel any better, I play an instrument that’s the musical equivalent of ‘bowling.’ Want to guess?”
We laughed some more after I said, “Accordion.” I decided not to tell him that I’d already decided to embrace him despite his being a lying alcoholic parent who denied the existence of his two children.
It was that night that we discussed meeting in person. We liked the idea but wanted to make sure neither of us would feel pressured. John already had a little experience with online dates and offered some guidelines.
“They say it should be a neutral meeting place, out in public but not right near one person’s house. And we should also set a time limit the first time, so no one feels trapped.”
“That sounds good. Anything else?”
We agreed to meet during the day, for no more than an hour. We decided on ten-thirty that upcoming Saturday morning at a coffee house equidistant from our homes.
In addition to the guidelines, we agreed on something else—our feelings about the experimental process we’d undertaken, this method of looking for love. We both were finding it liberating. There was something deliciously freeing about starting off already knowing what the other person wanted. There was much less guessing. And the invisibility of the other person only enhanced that sense of freedom. When we dated someone who was already in our everyday life, there was a risk of losing a friend if it didn’t work out. So maybe we’d compromise what we wanted, trying to avoid awkwardness.
But for both John and me, starting with a total stranger helped us commit to being our most honest selves. We each had already found ourselves thinking, If this doesn’t work, I’ve lost nothing because I don’t even know this person. I’m just going to be myself, and if myself doesn’t work, then this wouldn’t work. I can’t try to shape myself into someone else.
I’d entered into the process of online dating because I’d felt so inept at meeting men. Now that I was on the threshold of meeting someone in person, I couldn’t remember ever having felt more clear and free about the prospect of a date. I knew that I’d like to find a partner, but that I didn’t have to find one. I knew I’d be okay. I had good friends, a job that I loved, and a heart that was healing.
I couldn’t have known at the start where things would lead with Another John. I couldn’t know that I’d feel daring enough on the first date to confess my scary health secret to him, or that I’d have trouble falling asleep after our three-hour dinner on the second date because I hadn’t known I could be that happy with someone. I couldn’t know that for him, the decision point would come when we saw Bad Santa two weeks later, when he heard me crying with laughter at the twisted, offensive humor and he realized that we belonged together.
All I knew then was that I was looking forward to that Saturday morning with more excitement than I’d felt in a long time.
SUE GRANZELLA has won awards from MemoirsInk and in the Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition. Her writing appears or is forthcoming in Punchnel’s, Gravel, Citron Review, Hippocampus, Lowestoft Chronicle, Ascent, Crunchable, and Prick of the Spindle, among others. Sue teaches third grade in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she lives with her no-longer-bowling husband, John. She loves baseball, stand-up comedy, road trips, and reading the writing of eight- and nine-year-olds. Find more of Sue’s writing at www.suegranzella.com.
It was my mother’s heart attack that brought us together. I’ll always see him sitting on that hard chair outside the intensive care unit, looking down, like if he could only pray hard enough, she’d be his again.
They’d been eating barbecue sandwiches at the now-defunct Golden Rule in Bessemer, a new location for an old Birmingham chain.
“Your mother was complaining of indigestion, but we thought it was just her acid reflux again,” he told me later. “But, you know, the pain kept getting worse.”
He drove her to Bessemer Carraway hospital, and then when the support staff determined that she had severe blockage, they transferred her to St. Vincent’s in Birmingham to insert a stent. She had given birth to me in St. Vincent’s all those decades ago, but now I lived two states away from my mother. She doesn’t have a living will, and I suppose that in many ways we were lucky that no life-threatening operation had to be performed, because this man who accompanied her and stayed with her, and who was now waiting for her to regain consciousness, was not her family. He was her new boyfriend, John.
I received the call the previous night, at the college where I teach, where I had been the invited guest of a Presbyterian youth group, talking to them about my faith. My father was Jewish, and I had been identifying with him, and explaining my choice to twenty earnest students. I remember vividly when my colleague entered:
“You need to call home immediately. It’s an emergency.”
My heart almost stopped, a fitting experience, for when I got my wife on the phone, she told me, “Jo Ann’s had a heart attack.”
Somehow I drove the forty-five miles home, and we booked a flight for early the next morning. A good family friend met me at the airport and drove me to my mother’s house so I could pick up her car and drive to the hospital. I remember looking down at the general area of the hospital from my plane, and then passing the turn to it on the drive to my mother’s house. I remember wondering if I’d get there before anything worse happened, and even if it didn’t, I wondered what I’d find in her room. What state she’d be in?
Draped across the top of the recliner in her den was the beige sweater she’d been wearing, and on the seat of her chair was her matching brown purse. In my mother’s world, purses have to match the basic color scheme, and I could have cried at that thought. I could also see the spot on the floor where she must have thrown up. Someone had cleaned it already, most likely John at my mother’s direction, for she’s the kind of woman who never leaves her house a mess. I grabbed her purse, her vitals and drove. When I got to the intensive care unit, there he was:
“Buddy, I know we haven’t met, but I’m John Vines, your mother’s friend. She’s all right. They say she’s going to recover fully. You know, I care so much for your mother.”
I had no doubt. I could see it in his eyes.
Words you never want to hear your mother utter:
“Well, I’ve gotten myself in a sure-nuff fix this time…”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you know that I was supposed to go to a concert last night with ‘the little family’: Susie, Virginia, and John Vines. It turned out, though, that Susie and Virginia couldn’t go. So John and I went. Anyway, after the concert, he drove me home, and when we pulled up in the driveway, he kept the car running, turned to me, and said, ‘I want to say something now. I’m glad that the others couldn’t go. I’m glad it was just us. I’d like to continue seeing you.’”
My mother paused, and I felt sure she was about to ask me how to extricate herself from yet another man’s unwanted overtures. (This had happened twice before in her short widowhood with very different men). It’s not as if I didn’t believe my mother would date again after my father’s death; it was more that such thoughts left me as queasy as I normally get spending too much time in the summer Carolina sun. Or like that day my wife informed me that our oldest daughter was now “a woman,” an experience that left me reaching for the nearest door jamb. I even survived the special ceremony my wife planned for her new womanhood. We have pictures of our daughter then, at thirteen, with flowers in her hair. So queasiness can also feel sweet.
It can also unnerve a son.
“What did you say Mom,” I breathed.
“Well,” and then she laughed in a way that warned me that, unlike those previous occasions with those other men, this time she saw different stars:
“I told him I’d love to. He’s such a gentleman, the last of the old time Southern gentlemen. He even buckled my seatbelt for me!”
That might not sound like much unless you know my independent mother. But at least I was already sitting down.
“He buckled your seat belt for you? Did you want him to? Do you really like a man to buckle you in?”
Notice how I asked these questions instead of the other ones: “Are you in love? Are you ready to get married? Where will y’all live, and oh my God, will you be having sex now?”
Fortunately, I’m not a stupid man.
“Oh, I didn’t mind at all. It was such a sweet thing to do! But what do you think?”
So I told her. “Mom, all I want is for you to be happy. If you want to go out with John, that’s fine. And if you decide you want to marry him, that’s fine too.”
She laughed off the marriage part and instead uttered a few clichéd phrases about her time of life and having fun. Honestly, I don’t remember exactly what she said, because another thought had invaded me, concerning my father. Having his wife remarry, I don’t think, would have alarmed my dad. My alien thought, however, would surely have killed him again. While my mother rambled on across our long distance phone lines I silently protested.
“But John’s a Georgia Tech man, a Yellow Jacket! He played for and adored Coach Dodd, a man my Alabama Crimson Tide-loving father detested. A man my father referred to often as ‘Cry-Baby Dodd.’”
I can honestly say that my father disrespected only two of Alabama’s football foes: Notre Dame and Georgia Tech. Not even Tennessee or Auburn roused Dad’s hatred like the Irish and the Yellow Jackets. Alabama and Georgia Tech no longer played each other, though, and while the former’s star continues to blaze, the latter’s has fallen mightily.
Besides, my poor father was gone and my mother was very much here.
“He’ll take me places, anywhere I want to go! And you know I always had to drag your daddy everywhere we went. Except to his mother’s, that is, and to the Alabama football game!”
As the weeks passed, it seemed my mother had found the antithesis of my dad: John drove a Lincoln, and my dad hated Fords. John was a gentile, my Dad a Jew. John played high school and college football. My dad, the clarinet and tennis.
Yet they were each loyal Americans, served their country proudly, and were hard-working providers for their families. They were both quiet, gentle men. And my mother, somewhat reluctantly, provided one other similarity.
“John and I went to the Bright Star the other night [Bessemer’s finest restaurant and the oldest continuous-serving restaurant in Alabama]. You know how good the seafood and steaks are there. They had stuffed snapper on the menu, so after I ordered, I looked over at John. And do you know what he ordered?”
I could hear it coming, This seemingly perfect man did the unthinkable:
“He ordered the hamburger steak, just like your daddy used to!”
Though I wouldn’t order it, because I’m no idiot, I have to admit the hamburger steak at the Bright Star does look good. Dad always smothered his in ketchup.
“Did he add ketchup?” I asked Mom.
“Of course! I just don’t understand men. All that good food and no matter what, they just want hamburger! And when it arrived, all he could say was ‘Oh yeah!’”
I wanted to pronounce an “Amen” on that, but decided that enough bland sauce had been poured already.
Though she was still in intensive care, the doctors had successfully placed a stent in my mother’s damaged artery and declared her out of danger. John left me soon after I arrived at the hospital, and I’ve always wondered whether in his place I would have done the same; whether I would have ceded space to my steady companion’s son. He had been the one to accompany her through this trauma, and now his actions said, “I know my place.” I didn’t know his place, though, and even as I write this, I look at the phrase I used for John: my mother’s “steady companion.” It’s a true statement because they did go everywhere together, including church on Sunday, a church John didn’t belong to. Can seventy-somethings be described as boyfriend and girlfriend? As “special friends?” Even today, when I describe John, I call him “Mom’s friend, you know….”
Except that we really don’t know. I could never use the term “lovers” to describe John and Mom, even if I did think it described them accurately. Years into their relationship and while he was lying in his own hospital bed awaiting exploratory kidney surgery, John made the mistake of referring to another mutual female friend of theirs as his “other lady friend.” This so incensed my mother, who by that point had decided that she’d never marry John, that she left him in his room for a couple of days. That same lady friend, one of my former Sunday school teachers, fueled my mother’s ire some time later by wondering aloud whether John had spent the night at my mother’s because she saw him wearing the same clothes on that day as he had worn the day before, and the last she knew, he had been seen entering my mother’s house in the early evening.
Why my mother felt the need to report this to me during our weekly Sunday morning phone chat, I can’t say. Was she just passing the gossip before I could hear it from other mouths?
“I just couldn’t believe she would say that about me. She knows me better than that!”
But my mother has reported other strange information over the years, like the time she told me that a new, and newly-drunken, neighbor made a pass at her in her own house during a barbecue that she and my dad were holding for this new neighbor and his wife. My mother was in her late sixties at the time.
“Your daddy never knew, and I didn’t tell him. He would have been furious.”
Yet she told me long distance. Was I supposed to be furious too? Or appalled? Disgusted? Nauseous? My daughters have always laughed at me, saying I never know when someone is flirting with me. If I ever did know, though, I wouldn’t be calling them on the phone to report it.
Of course I didn’t think of these awkward moments while my mother was lying in the hospital. Part of me wished that John hadn’t left us alone because I wasn’t used to seeing my mother in such a vulnerable state.
She was alert when I walked in, though, saying “Hey darlin’” before I could get to her bed. I sat with her through the evening and offered to spend the night by her.
“Oh, you don’t need to do that, I’m fine. You just go home and get a good night’s rest.”
She was in no danger, according to all the nurses, and selfishly, I thought a bed at home sounded so much better than the pullout cot available there. However, when I reached home, I realized the strangeness of sleeping in my mother’s house alone, seeing but not seeing her flitting from room to room picking up stray items or straightening yet another decorous object. Hearing but not hearing her habitual smoker’s cough lapsing into such a choking fit that I’d wonder if this was the end.
When I returned to the hospital the next morning, she volunteered the information that she was determined to quit smoking. “I decided last night that that was it!”
I rejoiced. Her health, finally, seemed to mean more to her than her Virginia Slims Menthol Lights. That night when I returned to her house, I threw out the remainder of her carton, and the open pack in her purse. I remembered then the time in fourth grade when, after viewing an anti-smoking film in school, I played hooky and waited till she was out running errands then flushed an entire carton, bit by nasty bit, into the back bathroom toilet. When she asked that night what happened to her cigarettes, I confessed. Though upset at the loss of good money, she didn’t punish me.
“I don’t want you to get cancer,” I managed in the face of her initial fury.
She understood, and I know that despite her habit and need for a cigarette then, she forgave me. She loved me.
The next day when I returned to school, she ran to the store and bought a new carton. So we lived with her habit for another forty-five years. But now, after a serious heart attack, we were done.
My mother was released from the hospital on Thanksgiving Day, and our beloved family friends, the Mulkins, invited us all—my brother, my wife, our two daughters, and John—for Thanksgiving lunch. We drove straight to their house from the hospital, and so Thanksgiving seemed restored, except that this combination of families had never spent any holiday together before. Not long after the meal, John made a suggestion. “Let’s get your mother back home. She’s still pretty weak.”
On that Sunday after Thanksgiving, Mom suggested that we let her rest while we went to a movie or something.
“You all don’t need to be sitting in this house watching me. I’ll be okay.”
After we returned, my wife walked past my mother’s bathroom and over to me.
“I think I smell cigarettes.”
I smelled them too, but only faintly, and then after a few moments I convinced myself that I had smelled nothing out of the ordinary, except, that is, the scent of my mother’s lemon body oil.
The next morning, I found a cigarette butt that hadn’t fully flushed, floating in her bathroom toilet.
She hadn’t left the house the entire weekend, and I was certain that I had purged her place of all offending smokes. So how had she procured these new heart-killers? When I confronted her, all she said was, “You just don’t understand. Only a smoker understands how hard it is to quit.”
I never asked, but I was sure that in the couple of hours we had spent at the movies she had persuaded John to buy her a new carton of smokes. After all, he had told me, “I would do anything for your mother.”
And so my mother continued smoking for another ten years until she finally gave up her habit after successfully undergoing radiation treatment for a small but malignant lung tumor. I suppose John stood by her through these trials, but she said it was the e-cigarette that really helped.
“I remember I cried when my father died/Never wishing to hide the tears
And at sixty-five years old/My mother, God rest her soul…”
My mother isn’t dead, and she wasn’t sixty-five when my father died. She was sixty-seven, and I was forty-four. While it’s true that I did not wish to hide my tears, my mother told me to stop crying. “I need you to be strong now.”
I tried to stop; truly, I did. Fortunately, I was already in therapy, so I dealt with the grief. I don’t know how my mother wrestled with hers, but I suspect she did what she’s always done: pushed it back inside and moved on with her life. She jumped back into her civic and social clubs; she repainted the bedroom and ordered new furniture. She got a new mattress for the back bedroom where my father spent his last year because he’d been unable to control his bladder, and despite the bed-pads and adult diapers, the mattress was ruined.
She began getting offers from men. She seemed ready to enter that world again: of dating, of potential husbands. And so, it seemed, I had to get ready within myself to understand and accept the difference between “your father” and “your mother’s husband.”
I am unlike my father in these ways:
I drink: Beer (now gluten-free), red wine, and bourbon, especially bourbon. Four Roses, small batch.
I read novels instead of the newspaper, and I write. A lot.
I am a political liberal. I never thought Rush was right.
I eat seafood of all types including anchovies.
I wear a beard and hate mowing the lawn.
I am like my father in these ways:
I cherish my home and the older I get, the less keen I am on leaving it.
I am loyal to my job, my family, and even my country.
I like meatloaf with ketchup.
I cherish the University of Alabama football team, recently buying a 55” TV just to get a bigger picture for this season’s games.
I try to stay fit, walking my dog for an hour each day and supplementing that with thirty minutes on the elliptical. I use free weights, calculated repetitions, though the calculations are often, if not always, based on some OCD number in my head.
The irony of this obsessive number is that it’s 64, taken from a framed Alabama football jersey mounted on the wall near my weights. When I lift weights I have to make sixty-four reps. Have to. That jersey is 1940s vintage, crimson wool with a wraparound crotch button. I received it in one of those be-careful-you’ll-smother-in-this-thing dry cleaners wrapping bag. My father gave me many Bama jerseys: numbers 22, 25, 38, but he didn’t give me this one.
John Vines did. John played on the 1951-2 National Championship Georgia Tech teams. He never pulled for Alabama, or Auburn either, his home state teams.
But not even John could remember where he got it or even how long he had had it. I wish I had my other jerseys. My mother junked them went I went off to college. But I’ll never lose or give up this one.
I tried researching to see whose jersey my number 64 could have been, but no luck, or at least there were too many possibilities and no winnowing down. John didn’t know either, but it didn’t matter to him.
“I want you to have it. I know how much it will mean to you.”
If I could have worn it, I would have right then. Players back then were smaller, even those on the offensive line. I weigh in the mid 190s, just too big to want to try stretching this precious wool. Besides, wearing it isn’t the point. The point is that a Tech man gave a Bama man, a man young enough to be his son, a Bama jersey, a precious keepsake, on a cold and cloudy Christmas season night. And when he left our house that night, for the first time, I hugged this man, my mother’s boyfriend, instead of merely shaking his hand as acquaintances do.
It was my wife, not a football fan of any sort, who suggested framing the jersey, because she understands what gifts mean and how to honor them and those who give them. She understands the texture of human hands and shoulders and hearts.
Though 64 is an easy number to reach with arm weights, and I still feel sufficient after achieving it, I go beyond it usually, and every time I do, I think of John and how pleased he’d be. Not always, but more times than not, I think of my father, too.
During the year after Mom and John began dating, I would have bet anyone that they were headed toward marriage. I waited for the news.
But it never came.
John had moved to a new house, just a block above where we used to live.
“I don’t know why he moved up there,” Mom complained. “That neighborhood is going down,” which was true enough, though very sad given the decades we all had spent there.
My mother helped John decorate it though, as if someone might soon be moving in with him. And someone did: the stray dog that showed up in John’s alley one day; a beautiful shepherd mix about the size of a young horse. John named him J.V., after himself.
The beautiful house that Mom helped John decorate stayed that way for almost a year. And then…
“You won’t believe that house! He’s just wrecked it. He is without a doubt the messiest man I’ve ever seen. One thing I’ll say about your daddy, he was neat.”
Yes he was, OCD neat, just like my mother is OCD neat. Shoes in proper order, beds made within five minutes of getting up, dishes washed, dried, and put up immediately after a meal. I could go on, but the funny thing is that despite knowing how she was, John went on doing what he wanted, “messing up” his house. I always wondered if what he did was just him, or some subconscious method of insuring that marriage with my mother, despite what he said, would never happen.
“You know, Bud,” he said to me once, “your mother is mighty particular.”
Oh yes, for who else would demand her own vomit be cleaned up while she is undergoing a heart attack?
Eventually, John bought another house in the same area and on the same street where my mother lives. My mother is a stubborn woman, and so once again, she helped John “fix up” his new home. And once again, just months after he moved in and staged an open house to show it off, my mother began complaining:
“I just wish you could see that house! All that work I did and for what? For nothing! He leaves stuff where he found it and never throws anything away. He’s just a pack rat!”
This coming from a woman who eventually throws everything away: my jerseys, my old comic books, my old journals, and if I let myself, I might remember other things I can’t find and don’t know what happened to. So it came to this: an OCD woman just couldn’t marry an extremely relaxed man. Still, my mother put her refusal to marry in her own inimitable way: “I just decided that I didn’t want to wash another old man’s dirty underwear.”
What could anyone, especially her son, say to that?
Though my mother and John never married, they remained close friends, and Mom reported their adventures together. She even dragged him to see her favorite rock band, Chicago, once. When I’d come to town, she’d have John over for supper, and we’d both relish her roast beef, new potatoes, fresh lima beans, and creamed corn. Often, on the day I’d be leaving for home, John would drop by to say so long. More often, he’d give me a card, and in that card would be a twenty-dollar bill.
“That’s to get you a Coca-Cola on the way home,” he’d say.
As if Cokes cost twenty dollars. As if he were my dad or something.
Last month I went back to Bessemer.
John was dying.
I thought about so many things as I drove, but the one thought I couldn’t put down occurred the previous summer when I was there: when John wanted to take me to a hamburger joint for lunch, just him and me. But I was too busy. I had overcommitted myself with other friends. At the time I knew I would live to regret turning him down, so why didn’t I do anything about it?
That following fall I called John to tell him I’d be coming down for a visit and that I wanted to take him out.
“Okay, Bud,” he said. John was never much for phone calls, especially from other men who were trying to take care of him, who were making him feel too much of what he had become: dependent.
Mom and I did take him to The Bright Star on that visit. He ate well—this time, the liver and onions—but in many ways it was a futile endeavor. His cancer was too far-gone, and he had chosen not to undergo surgery. He was eighty-eight years old, and people that age, surely, should get to choose how they approach their end. I remember how thin he’d gotten, this former lineman for the city. He still had his friendly manner, but it didn’t take a genius to tell that he was slowly moving on.
And so he did this summer, June tenth.
Mom and I went to visit him that day. His daughter Sallie had brought him to her house where she, her husband Noah, their children and grandchildren, and even John’s beloved J.V. could be near. Sallie recounted on that day a memory from her childhood: how her daddy would carry her on his shoulders to the Highland Bakery on summer nights after he got off work.
“I’d be in my nighties, ready for bed, but he’d walk us the two blocks to get ice cream. Cherry Vanilla or Lemon, my favorites. It’s just so hard. I’m gonna miss him so.”
That’s the way it is with people we love. Our fathers, and even those who never quite were, but could have been, and whom we loved anyway.
As I did with my own father on his deathbed, I told Sallie to speak to John. To tell him that he had been a good father and that it was okay to go now. I watched her lean into him and speak those very words.
She called a few hours later to say he was gone.
I couldn’t be at the funeral, but I heard that hundreds of his friends and family attended. A fire truck—he so loved fire trucks—led the procession to the cemetery, and there everyone gathered to honor this very gentle, very Southern man.
In his will, he left my mother one hundred dollars.
“Just a little Coca-Cola money,” he wrote.
TERRY BARR is the author of the essay collection, Don’t Date Baptists and Other Warnings From My Alabama Mother. His work has appeared in South Writ Large, Steel Toe Review, Eclectica Magazine, Blue Lyra Review, The Bitter Southerner, The Dead Mule School of Southern Lit, and of course, Full Grown People. He lives in Greenville, SC, with his family.
In the later half of my twenties, I went on upwards of fifty dates, mostly firsts with no encore, thanks to everyone’s favorite exercise in social humiliation: online dating. Of the limitless options, three platforms emerged as major resources. E-Harmony, perfect for serious, generally religious, mid-thirties marriage hunters; Match, for a subset of the same not willing to pay as much because the guy from the bar around the corner might still turn into something; and most often, OK Cupid, the web version of a hipster bar, packed to the gills with tattooed Peter Pans in tight pants just waiting to quote obscure Neutral Milk Hotel lyrics to a knitter/baker/anarchist/novelist with a body like a Victoria’s Secret model and a genuine interest in brewing her own kombucha.
I’ve paid for three-month subscriptions and then renewed. I’ve paid for one-month trials and then cancelled inside of a week. I’ve been honest and succinct; I’ve lied and been verbose. I’ve posted artsy, moody pictures, smiling pictures, and full-body pictures with my hips turned so my belly pooch didn’t show. I’ve left a trail of carefully chosen breadcrumbs behind me with no guarantee that they would lead to who I was.
I’ve met men in bars, in restaurants, in parks, at the movies, and coffee shops. I’ve kissed them full on the mouth before we even decided whether or not to split the check. I’ve faked explosive diarrhea and left before the waiter could take our second drink order. I’ve told darling little lies, like I’m just getting over someone, or You remind me of my ex–fiancé. I’ve told awful truths, like I feel as much chemistry with you as I do a Brill-o pad, or We have so little in common that I’m amazed we made it past the half-hour mark. I’ve been compared to someone’s mother, my hips a mirror to her own childbearing ones (and it was meant as a compliment).
Before almost every single one of my numerous first dates, I have made myself sick. I have doubled over with awful stomach cramps and gone to the bathroom six times in an hour. I’ve eaten, then thrown up, then eaten again so I could drink on the date without passing out plastered on the sidewalk. I’ve taken herbal sedatives, shots of whiskey, and tiny pills etched with Valium Vs. I’ve meditated and done yoga and chanted. Legs up the wall, mind clear. Nothing worked.
Sometimes just getting in front of another person made the anxiety disappear. I could ask questions and focus on the answers instead of the awful ticker tape in my head. “Where did you go to school?” Get out before he realizes you’re so messed up. “Wow, the youngest of six kids?” God, why do you even bother?
Thoughts like that, and worse, have been running through me since childhood. Within the codependent universe of an alcoholic household, I grew up believing that something as insignificant as a drink or two could turn my biggest fan into my worst enemy. In middle school, after years of navigating my father’s volatile but high-functioning alcoholism and its effect on my family, I was diagnosed with panic disorder, a form of anxiety that catapults mere thoughts into inescapable physicality. One troubling feeling can snowball into a full-blown attack in minutes, and once it has landed in the body, reason is a pitiful remedy. Meeting new people was tremendously challenging, and I was relentlessly worried about falling for a duplicitous charmer like Dad. The question was not if every man I met would devastate me—it was when. Better to beat them to the punch.
Sometimes, within minutes, I knew the person I was with wouldn’t be enough to distract me, and the pain and sickness would escalate to the point where the date would end and I’d smile blankly, knowing I hadn’t heard a single word he said. I’ve sent myself home claiming I suffered from migraines, stomach viruses, a sprained ankle, a sore throat, and once or twice, in moments of breathless, sweaty desperation, I’ve admitted to ailing from the only thing I ever actually had: panic attacks.
Sometimes I hurled myself into the next passing cab, only peering out the slammed door to wave apologetically. Sometimes they insisted on walking me home, and I would want to scream, Leave me here! Turn back now! They would lean in near my front step to kiss me, smelling of too much Aqua Velva and a stealthily chewed piece of gum, and if the date had been awful, I’d dodge their eager mouths and hug them, hips held far back, before bolting up the stairs. If it were merely unfortunate or strange, I’d think the kiss could save things, maybe just a little, and I’d make out with a stranger while the neighbors watched from suspiciously parted mini-blinds.
Those kisses never saved anything. They didn’t save the Republican cook who fried tater tots in the back of a topless go-go bar when he lit up a bowl of weed in his living room, never bothering to ask me if I minded. They didn’t save the overzealous and surprisingly effeminate dancer/photographer who placed his hands on my hips and complimented the fashionable details of my dress like a jealous girlfriend on a shopping trip, instead of sending lightning bolts down my thighs. They didn’t save the milquetoast retail worker who had no professional aspirations or genuine taste in music, beer, or movies, or the tattooed music teacher who wrote manifestos on cocktail napkins and was ceaselessly “just about done” his novel, or the sensitive Jewish middle school teacher who harbored badly hidden desires for unprotected sex and hand-jobs given in public.
They didn’t save Jon, a beer brewer who looked more like a pen salesman—mousy and unassuming in his photos, but I was taking my best friend’s advice to heart and giving anyone with half a personality a chance. “Shots on goal,” she’d say to me when I slumped home from another disappointing rendezvous. “Even if you shoot and miss every time, you’re upping your average.” My analytical brain leapt with deranged joy at the chance of standardizing and measuring a process that felt completely unpredictable and random. It became my new mantra, the thing I mumbled when I responded affirmatively to dates I had no interest in attending.
Jon and I met at a whiskey bar, lit low with mason jar candles and old-fashioned yellow-stained pendants. He was nice enough. He looked fine. He made me laugh once or twice, and when he kissed me on a busy street corner at the end of the night, I didn’t stop him. A homeless man told us to get a room, and in response, Jon placed his hand respectfully on my right ass cheek, as carefully as he would on a Bible while taking an oath.
I saw him twice more, simply because I didn’t have a good enough reason to stop. There was nothing wrong with Jon, but nothing quite right, either. Where I looked for sex appeal, magnetism, and a slanted take on the world, I found only politeness, consistency, and a rut right down the middle of the road, where he and his views so comfortably walked. On our third and final date, we had weak drinks, pleasant conversation, an uneventful walk up Walnut Street, and a boring stroll through Rittenhouse Square. We sat on a bench and the moment his arm reached up, over, and around my shoulder, it started.
The sweating, the heart palpitations, and terrible shortness of breath. Suddenly, his arm weighed a ton and I was being pushed under the bench, into the ground. I felt suffocated. “What do you want to do?” he asked courteously.
I want to run, I thought. I want to throw up right here on the ground and then run home. “I dunno,” I mumbled, trying to smile. I hid it for as long as I could, licking my lips, wiping the sweat from the back of my neck. I had all the composure of Tammy Faye Bakker in the last hour of a telethon. Before I knew it, I was yelling something about the stomach flu to him as I ran across 18th Street, ignoring the red light, waving my arm desperately for the five occupied cabs hurling down the lane towards me. I wheezed and shook the whole way home, and ignored his text messages: R U OK? When can I see U again? I knew the answer was never. He couldn’t see me—nobody could.
Those kisses, they didn’t save me, either. Each subscription lapsed, and I dejectedly read each vaguely threatening auto-response email from behind my brick wall. If you don’t act now, we will take down your photo and profile. You will not be able to see your match. He’s out there. We’ve got him right here, in fact. He can’t wait to meet you. Just update your credit card information. That’s how they get us, the hopeful and desperate. This site is the one place we haven’t looked. His profile is the one we haven’t yet clicked on. Signing up for these websites feels like gambling through a losing streak. If you pull the lever enough times, you’re bound to get a cherry or two. The cocktails, the small-talk, the hundred different ways I came up with to describe my favorite foods, my aspirations in life, the places I’d vacation if I had a million dollars—I wonder if it all brought me closer to the final goal, The Guy, or if it just kept me distracted during the inevitable wait.
That’s the thing about fate. Those of us who keep a white-knuckled chokehold on reality want to believe that things happen because we work for them. The idea that it all occurs the way it’s meant to, no matter what we do, is dizzying and takes the ground from under our feet. So whether it’s true or not, whether it’s a lie I tell myself or the God’s honest truth, I’m grateful to E-Harmony, to OK Cupid, to whiskey in dark bars and coffee on Sundays, to panic attacks and stomach cramps, to lies told to strangers and truths admitted over the phone after midnight. I’m thankful I didn’t give up even though I wanted to a million times.
It feels cheap to admit that after all that, it actually worked once—that I met someone on OK Cupid who, for some reason, never made me want to throw up or run away. He was the last person I messaged before I decided to deactivate my profile for the last time, after a particularly rough streak. Feeling an uncharacteristic surge of hope, I took a final shot towards the goal, writing a curt but cute message to him around dinnertime, and issued an unspoken deadline of midnight for a response before I clicked the “Delete My Account” button with an outstretched middle finger. Twenty minutes later, we had made plans to meet. Why did he lock into place so effortlessly when so many others felt around in the dark for a connection? It could have been instinct, his deep-set blue eyes, the cosmos, the wrinkle along his left ear, or maybe my tired, agitated soul felt the same fidgety weariness in him. But I think I’m okay with not knowing for sure. It’s not my job to understand why some things crash and burn while others flourish. It’s my job to tell the story when it all shakes out.
RAE PAGLIARULO is an MFA Creative Writing Candidate at Rosemont College. Her work has been featured in West Chester University’s Daedalus Magazine of the Arts and Philadelphia Stories, and is anthologized in The Best of Philadelphia Stories: 10th Anniversary Edition. She is also the 2014 recipient of the Sandy Crimmins National Poetry Prize. She works and lives (and dates) in Philadelphia.
When I was fourteen, I was what guys now call “thick.” In 1979 terms, though, I was just “fat.” I developed early and had boobs and butt galore, but I also had linebacker arms and thighs to go along with them.
In my family, my sisters were the beauties. My oldest sister Cheryl was fair-skinned with deep green eyes. My second oldest sister Caroletta had naturally wavy hair that required no heat straightening to cascade over her shoulders and down her back. I had neither. My eyes were hazel, more brown than green, and my hair, according to my mother, was “nappy” and had to be pressed. Both my sisters were slimmer than me: my oldest sister was short and curvy, and my second oldest sister was thin and muscular, with a tiny waist and large breasts. With my brown hair, brown skin, brown eyes and thick thighs, I most closely resembled a piece of well-done fried chicken.
Since I wasn’t considered a beauty in my family, I tried to content myself with being the smart girl, the good girl, the girl who never got into trouble, and I told on my siblings who did. When I reached my teens, I didn’t just want to be smart anymore—I wanted to be cute, too. But my weight kept getting in the way.
At Precious Blood, the small Catholic school I attended for eighth grade, the fine boys in my class either ignored me or teased me. It was always good sport to make fun of the fat girl. The only other male attention that I regularly received was the street harassment that I endured nearly every day as I walked home after school. Men would drive slowly alongside me, shouting, “Hey baby, can I talk to you?” I would ignore them and continue walking, acting if I didn’t hear the comments they made about my ass and what they’d like to do with it. Eventually, they would scream, “Fuck you then, you fat bitch!” when I kept my eyes focused ahead and refused to acknowledge them.
All throughout eighth grade, I had watched couples sneak across the parking lot at recess and go behind the nursing home adjacent to Precious Blood to make out. High school, I hoped, would mean a wider variety of boys, some of whom might appreciate my ass like the men who followed me in cars, but hopefully without the “fuck you, fat bitch” part. Unlike all the schools I’d gone to before, my high school—Cass Technical High School, Detroit’s largest and most prestigious high school—was huge. With over five thousand students, the school was filled with good-looking boys everywhere I turned. My second oldest sister, a senior, was friends with all the hot senior guys, but to them, I was just her little freshman sis.
Along with the multitude of hot guys, there were girls at my school who were bona fide glamour queens. Every day, these daughters of doctors, lawyers, and judges came to school with their slim bodies dressed in the latest fashions. I envied their tight Calvin Klein jeans, their fresh-from-the-salon hairstyles, their Fashion Fair and Clinique makeup, and their Coach purses. With so many beautiful girls around, no matter how many boys I had crushes on—and the crushes felt like legion at that point—the guys I wanted to notice me were paying no attention to the shy nerdy fat girl.
A few other boys took notice. There was the senior boy at my school who, one day during swim class, took me down to the deep end of the pool—I couldn’t swim—and stuck his tongue in my mouth and his fingers in my vagina. I hadn’t much cared for either intrusion, but I held onto him for dear life so that I wouldn’t drown. He was a senior, and he was light-skinned with curly hair, so I was even momentarily excited that I’d been singled out to be assaulted by him. One day, I asked Caroletta, as casually as I could, if she knew him.
“Ugh,” she responded. “He’s a creep. How do you know him?”
“He’s on the swim team, and they practice in the deep end during my swim class.”
She frowned in disgust. “Stay away from him. He’s a weirdo.”
Caroletta didn’t elaborate, and I didn’t ask what that statement meant. But her words forced me to stop thinking of what that guy had done to me in the terms of the romance novels I loved—as a seduction. I began to see what he had done to me as something that was wrong and that shouldn’t have happened. I didn’t tell my sister or anybody else what he had done to me, but I avoided him after that.
There was the boy I met at a football game—a boy from one of our rival schools, King High School. He wasn’t even remotely cute, but he approached me like I was, and convinced me to go over to his house one day after school. As we lay on his sofa that day—him on top of me, his enormous lips completely encircling mine, covering the lower half of my face with spit—I could only think about washing my face and getting home. Fortunately, he was as afraid of his mother as I was of mine, so he hustled me out before his mama got home from work, and I managed to get home early enough to avoid getting in trouble with my own mother. I had no desire to repeat the experience, so although I made the mistake of giving him my phone number, I luckily answered the phone every time he called, and each time, I would hang up like it was a wrong number. Soon afterwards, he took the hint and stopped calling.
And then there was the boy I liked the most at the time, a sophomore who was friends with my best friend Melinda’s boyfriend. He kissed me once during study hall, apparently out of boredom, and then forgot I was alive. Even though my crush ignored me afterwards, I replayed that kiss over and over in my head every day, multiple times each day, each time daydreaming that the kiss led him to realize that I was The One.
Since the boys I liked showed no real interest in me, and the ones who did show interest were creeps, I turned to the worlds of sports and entertainment for fantasy boyfriends. I had crushes on both of the Brothers Johnson, Prince, Paul Newman, Billy Dee Williams, Bjorn Borg, Detroit Tigers right-fielder Ron LeFlore, and NFL quarterbacks Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw, just to name a few. I had so many celebrity crushes, I could have founded a fantasy boyfriend league.
I also lived vicariously through the exploits of my best friend Melinda. Melinda was dating the boy of her choice, a cute guy on the football team. Melinda was in love, and her stories of skipping school to spend afternoons at her boyfriend’s house while his mom was at work sounded like true romance to my virgin ears. Since I couldn’t have a boyfriend of my own, I lived for her stories about hers. When Melinda wasn’t skipping class with her boyfriend, we would skip class and walk downtown to Hart Plaza, sit by the Detroit River, and talk about her real love and my imagined ones.
Most of what I knew about boys, men, and sex came from reading my three older brothers’ porn books and magazines, along with Harlequin, Silhouette, Harold Robbins, and Jackie Collins novels. I had been reading my brothers’ porn since I was eight, and racy romance novels since I was ten. From time to time, Planned Parenthood pamphlets would appear, randomly and without explanation, on our dining room table. This was my mother’s way of giving us sex ed information without actually having to talk about sex. I read those, too, under my mother’s watchful, approving eye. Reading about sex was fine, as long as I didn’t ask my mother any questions.
Between the porn and Planned Parenthood, I felt pretty well-informed. But I was still missing the one thing I wanted most—a boyfriend. Of course, I wasn’t allowed to have a boyfriend, but that detail didn’t much matter. I’d never had a boy ask me to be his girlfriend. I’d never even had an in-school-only relationship, the kind of boyfriend who was only your boyfriend during school hours because you couldn’t see or talk to him any other time.
So when Melinda told me she knew a boy who liked me, I was excited to hear more.
“My cousin Rob thinks you’re cute,” she said.
Melinda’s cousin Rob was gorgeous. His neatly groomed Afro, velvet-smooth caramel skin, and faint mustache over full, lush lips reminded me of my fantasy celebrity boyfriends, like Prince. I was sure he would know how to kiss a girl without putting her whole face in his mouth.
Melinda’s cousin wasn’t a boy, though. He was twenty-eight.
“He wants me to give him your number,” Melinda told me.
“You know I’m not supposed to have boys calling me,” I told her. “What if he calls and my mother answers the phone?”
Melinda shrugged. “Have him call when you know she’s not going to answer.”
On one level, I knew to avoid older men. There was one teacher at Cass who grossed us all out. He would leer at the attractive girls in his class and tell them he would give them a higher grade if they would set him up with an older sister, cousin, or aunt. To us, he was one step away from being a pedophile, and everyone knew to stay away from him.
But at fourteen, I didn’t put Melinda’s twenty-eight-year-old cousin in that same creeper category. He was about the same age as some of the R&B and sports stars I dreamed about. I’d met him a few times at Melinda’s house and was flattered by the way he talked to us like we were people, not just kids. I had never noticed him paying particular attention to me at all, so to hear that he thought I was cute and wanted my number was both surprising and thrilling. Having a handsome, adult man I knew—not some random dude in a car—ask for my number made me feel attractive, desired and valued.
“I don’t know how I’m going to manage it, but give him my number,” I told Melinda.
We had one house phone—the heavy, indestructible black rotary dial phone that was Ma Bell’s trademark. The phone sat on the buffet that separated our living room and dining rooms, and although my mother eventually relented and allowed us to buy a longer phone cord from Radio Shack, we weren’t allowed to move the phone too far off the buffet. The phone’s location ensured that my mother heard the phone every time it rang, heard one of us answer it, and could detect from our response whether the caller was appropriate or inappropriate.
Melinda acted as the go-between for that first call. I told her exactly what time Rob had to call so that I could be right there to answer when the phone rang. I had to position myself by the phone, yet act as if I wasn’t standing by the phone because I was expecting a call. When the phone rang, I had to move quickly to answer it but not leap to answer on the first ring. My mother saw and picked up on everything, and she would have definitely noticed that. When I answered, I had to move far enough away from her so that she couldn’t hear a male voice coming through the handset, but I had to stay close enough to her that it didn’t look like I was trying to have a conversation that was so private that I couldn’t have it in front of her.
The actual call was even trickier to manage than I’d anticipated. Rob had one of those panty-dropper phone voices, sonorous and bass-filled, the kind of voice that teenage boys, no matter how cute, just don’t have. As he spoke, I imagined his lips brushing my earlobe.
“Who was that?” my mother said when I got off the phone.
“Melinda,” I lied.
“Hmmph. That didn’t sound like no Melinda.”
“She has a cold.”
I told Rob—through Melinda—that calling on school days wouldn’t work because my mother was watching too hard. We settled on Saturday mornings as a good time for us to talk without interruption. My mother slept late, my father would be out grocery shopping, and no one else would be awake, either.
During our conversations, Rob told me I was beautiful. He said I was mature beyond my age. He told me I was too smart and too good for those boys who didn’t want me. He never said, “If only you were eighteen, I’d love to date you.” He said he wanted to take me out—now.
I protested. “I told you: I can’t go out with you. I can’t go out with anybody.”
“We can pick a place to meet.”
“Nope. My mother would never go for that. The only place I can go is to school and over Melinda’s house.”
“Then I’ll come pick you up.”
“You can’t come to my house!”
“What if I shave?”
“Then you’ll look like a grown man without facial hair. You don’t understand, I can’t go out with boys until I’m sixteen. And even if I were sixteen, I couldn’t go out with you, because you would have to pick me up at my front door, and there’s no way my mother would let me leave the house with some man.”
He would laugh and offer up other schemes. He suggested picking me up from school, but I knew Caroletta would eventually get wind of that. I had gotten away once with sneaking off after school with the boy from King, but there was little chance I’d ever get away with that again. I wondered to myself—never suggesting it—why he couldn’t meet me at Melinda’s house. It never occurred to me that his aunt, Melinda’s mom, wouldn’t stand for it if her adult nephew started being too obvious in his attentions towards her teenage daughter’s best friend.
Still, I was pleased with my little secret rebellion. Rob and I had found a sliver of time on Saturday mornings where I could consistently talk to him on the phone without being bothered by anyone. We never used the words “boyfriend” or “girlfriend,” but those phone conversations—even if they were only once weekly—felt special. In my head, he was my boyfriend for fifteen minutes every Saturday morning. Talking to him on the phone was enough for me.
But it wasn’t enough for him.
During one of those Saturday morning conversations, things changed. Rob’s voice acquired more bass than usual, and he became insistent that I find a way for us to meet. He was so determined that I was nearly ready to agree—until he said something that startled me. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but it was sexual, in tone if not in content; the kind of ridiculous bullshit a man says to clarify that his intentions are not platonic.
I knew something had changed, but in my inexperience, I couldn’t fully process what happened. So I asked:
“What are you doing?”
Rob chuckled. “I’m making love to your mind.”
In one of my brothers’ porn magazines—Penthouse or Hustler, I can’t be certain—there was a cartoon that fascinated and horrified me. It was a drawing of a girl with crossed eyes and a stupid grin. A guy had his penis shoved in her ear, his balls squished against the side of her face. The tip of his penis extended out her other ear and dripped with cum. The caption was equally crude and extremely offensive: “How to Fuck a Retarded Girl.”
When Rob told me he was making love to my mind, I immediately recalled that image. My still-kid brain took the words “making love to your mind” literally. And although, intellectually, I knew he didn’t mean he wanted to stick it in my ear—and that if he did, it wouldn’t penetrate my ear canal and come out the other side—emotionally, I blanched. What I fully understood in that moment was that nice Rob, who said I was smart and pretty and mature for my age, wasn’t my Saturday morning fantasy phone boyfriend. He was a grown, adult man who wanted to fuck fourteen-year-old me.
And just as my sister’s calling the guy on the swim team a creep had stopped me from romanticizing his sexual assault, Rob’s claim that he was “making love to my mind” didn’t feel sexy and romantic, but icky and wrong.
I didn’t know what to say, so I laughed.
“What’s funny?” he said.
“Oh, is that what that was?” I replied, buying myself time.
“Yes. How do you feel?”
I guess this was the point where I was supposed to tell him he was making me wet and I wanted to kiss him and, yes, I would find a way to sneak out of my mother’s house and see him. But I could only think about getting off the phone before anyone caught me, and telling him I couldn’t ever talk to him again.
“I have to go,” I said. “My mom is going to get up soon.” And I hung up.
I don’t remember if I told Melinda to tell Rob he couldn’t call me anymore or if I told him myself. However the message was conveyed, he obliged. And when I saw him at Melinda’s house, he stayed away from me.
Although Melinda and I remained friends throughout high school, Rob showed no further interest in me once I reached the age of consent. He came by Melinda’s house less and less often when I was there. Melinda would casually mention, “Oh, my cousin Rob asked about you,” but with no indication that he wanted any further contact. That was a relief, because I didn’t want any further contact with him, either.
Over the years, I told my story about Rob, to different audiences and for various purposes. In my late teens and early twenties, it was almost a point of honor to show that, like other girls, I’d had grown men chasing after when I was very young, despite my weight. Sometimes, I told the story as part of a longer narrative about the benefits of having strict parents who kept me from doing stupid things I wasn’t smart enough to keep myself from doing.
But it wasn’t until I told the Rob story to one of my law school friends that I understood its true significance.
As I described the compliments Rob bestowed upon me—that I was beautiful, smart, and mature beyond my years—my law school friend shook her head.
“He was grooming you,” she said.
Grooming? Until then, I’d never heard that term. I hadn’t realized that what happened to me was a thing that adults who prey on children do as part of their twisted seduction game. I’d been groomed by a pedophile—and I had no idea. Technically, the term for a man like Rob who desires to have sex with teens is ephebophile, not pedophile—but to me, that’s a distinction without a difference. No matter what term you choose, it means a grown man who wants to have sex with a child—and at fourteen, I was definitely still a child.
Rob had other issues and later wound up in prison for murder. He asked Melinda to ask me to write to him in prison. I told her I would think about it, but I never did write to him, because I had nothing to say to him.
I am thankful for my mother and her strict rules, because they helped prevent me from putting myself into an untenable situation with Rob. But now that I’m a mom, I wish I could have gone to my mother and talked to her about what was happening. I wish I’d had not just rules to keep me safe, but guidance on how to deal with sex and my burgeoning sexuality. If I’d gone to my mother, she would have forbidden me from going to Melinda’s house ever again, and that would have been devastating. I needed an adult to talk to about Rob—and I didn’t have one. My own daughter is now seventeen, which is the age of consent in New York State—but even now, I hope she would come talk to me if she found herself being pressured into a sexual relationship that she wasn’t ready for, something I was unable to do with my own mother.
As I learned from being groomed by Rob, an adult need not be in a position of authority over a child to wield unequal power. Rob preyed on my teenage insecurities, and were it not for that gross porn magazine cartoon, I might have allowed him to “make love” to more than just my mind. I wasn’t mature enough to handle a telephone relationship with a twenty-eight-year-old man that turned overtly sexual only once. I certainly wasn’t mature enough to handle an actual physical relationship with him. While I’m sure exceptional cases do exist, my experience with Rob taught me that the idea of a teenager under the age of seventeen truly consenting to sex with an adult is nothing more than a dangerous illusion. When I think about Rob, those weeks I spent as his Saturday morning telephone girlfriend feels less like a sweet young romance, and more like a near miss. I was lucky to escape unharmed.
A couple of names have been changed. —ed.
CAROLYN EDGAR is an attorney and writer who lives in New York City. She is a regular contributor to Salon and on her own blog, Carolyn Edgar – Notes of a Writer, Lawyer and Single Mom (www.carolynedgar.com).
On a February night in 2012, there was a knock at my door. When I looked through my door’s peephole, I saw a young man in my hallway. My neighbor’s son from upstairs. I figured that he was going to ask if I had heat or hot water or to borrow something, so when I opened the door and heard him say, “I’ve been wanting to talk to you for a long time. Are you seeing anyone?” I put my hand up for him to stop talking and told him I’d get my keys and come out into the hall.
JR stood on the second step of the landing between our floors. He was built like the high-school football player he’d been—thick neck, broad shoulders, muscular legs. By the way his eyes, the color of wet soil, drifted up into a corner of the ceiling like a student remembering what the textbook said, I could tell that he’d rehearsed this in his head until he’d finally built up the nerve to do it. I knew what I should say. Point out our age difference—he was twenty-three, I was thirty-three. Point out how different we were as people—he wore his pants three sizes too big and I’d once heard him have a yelling match in the front of our building with his ex-girlfriend, while I stopped liking guys who wore baggy jeans in ’96 and kicked my previous boyfriend out for being too chaotic.
It would have been easy, too; it would’ve taken me all of a minute to say, This is sweet but no thanks. Instead, I gave him my phone number.
Breaking both cardinal rules I’d laid down the next day in his bedroom—this is not a relationship and discretion was required—JR and I went on dates, he met some of my friends, and we held hands in public. I played Otis Redding songs for him, introduced him to Carlos the Jackal via a mini-series, and read him Thich Nhat Hahn. He’d drive me to work and pick me up almost every day and make me tea in the evenings.
To see myself through his eyes was to witness feats of sorcery. The thrill was in coming up with more and more things to expand and amaze him with. All random things that I was into that he’d never been exposed to or never had the freedom to express interest in because of the street life he was drawn to. If I stopped too long to think about it, I knew I would find my relationship with JR to be unsustainable, but I swatted the thought away in exchange for how good the attention felt.
One evening, detectives knocked on JR’s door. I lied and said he wasn’t in. They left their card, saying they just wanted to ask him a few questions. JR admitted he’d committed a robbery. There was a good possibility it was caught on video. A week later, he decided to turn himself in.
We spent that evening sitting on the steps of the elementary school that we’d attended, across the street from our building. We had started out the same—two kids with cartoon backpacks and fresh pencils. As much as I joked that my School of Making Better Men was closed, I believed that boy could reemerge, the boy that went to the same gifted junior high school I did and earned a college football scholarship. From the corner at the top of the hill our building sat on, I watched him walk away until he disappeared into the precinct. He was sentenced to five years.
We wrote each other almost every week, at first. JR’s first letter began, “I miss and love you so much. I wish and pray I can go home to see, hold, and sleep with you again.” Another letter continued, “I also find myself trying to ascertain how or why you love a monster like myself. I know I haven’t shown you that side of me, but based on my way of living alone, it should’ve kept you at a distance from me.”
In another letter, “I still can’t believe I’m so lucky to have a woman like you on my side. My shrink tells me that I should call it a blessing, but I call it luck, because blessings have nothing to do with love. Luck has everything to do with it. Then he asked me how do I figure that and I explained, love is luck because not everyone in this world will ever know what love is, nor will they ever experience it. It’s like stumbling upon money in the street. That’s not a blessing, you was hit with enough luck to find that money.”
He closed another letter with, “please don’t leave me alone because without you, I’m just the same old monster I’m known to be.”
After a few months, I stopped writing back.
First letter from John (April 2013)
One afternoon, I checked my OK Cupid account to find a message from JLRodriguez. “Had I recognized you for you I never woulda stopped, but I did, and you probably already got a message that I did…so I will play this however you want me to,” it read. I had randomly popped up on his matches, and he didn’t recognize me until he was already in my profile.
I recognized JLRodriguez as John, a poet I met at a reading in the lower east side two years prior. We’d already been connected on social media, but the reading was our first interaction in real life. He leaned in conspiratorially and asked what happened between me and a publisher that caused the short-story anthology I was editing—that included one of John’s stories—to come to an abrupt halt. Wary, I gave John a diplomatic answer, something about my sense of timing with the publisher’s not being compatible. We didn’t speak again until a year later when we were reading at the same event. We were cordial, nothing more.
In his message, John closed with, “I’m looking like you are, and you look good. At any case, I do hope you find whomever you are looking for.”
I got called out on something I thought I’d hidden well. I was looking. I had been tirelessly looking since I was a child: for answers, love, approval, freedom, happiness. When I found some form of these things—in a conversation with my father, in a new love interest, in an acceptance letter—I sought it out in another way—spirituality, a new love interest, an acceptance letter to something else. Contentment is only a plateau, never a permanent state.
I liked that John offered to meet me on this plateau, as a fellow seeker, but with the openness to know that we might not remain there. If, scrolling through online profiles, I would’ve seen and recognized him, I also would’ve passed, but there was some significance to my appearing on his feed. One that was worth exploring.
Love letter from John (June 24, 2013)
On our first date, John and I had lunch at a Mexican restaurant that had a photograph of Marilyn Monroe on the bathroom wall. I told John I had been reading about the siren archetype and Marilyn Monroe, the prime example. I didn’t tell him that I took a photo of the picture thinking it was a good omen. We talked about Mourid Barghouti’s memoir and Rita Moreno’s autobiography in the park across the street from the restaurant. He gave me a tour of the college campus where he taught freshman English composition courses. It was one of the best dates I ever had.
John was the type of guy to listen to me over the phone so intently, I would ask if he was still there. One day, when I was marooned on my couch with a fever, he brought over tea, Gatorade, and croissants. We often spent time wandering through museums or at readings. He’d send me YouTube links to Wu-tang mashups and I’d send him Robi Rosa or Florence and The Machine songs. He introduced me to Vampire Hunter D and Dungeons and Dragons alignments. I was on equal footing with him intellectually and emotionally, standing on that plateau of contentment. If there was a right way to do a relationship, this was the one I’d gotten the most right. JR was the last page of Act I and John was the first page of Act II.
John was also the type of guy who when I ran out of toilet paper or Brillo pads, brought it up constantly as something that should never happen to an adult. In his thirty-nine years, he’d never once let that happen. The first time I made a meal for him—vegetable lasagna—he said that it was almost, but not quite, as good as his mom’s. In social situations, things could go either way: he was sweet and inquisitive or visibly uncomfortable until he was a block of ice. I wrestled with these pros and cons, but the pros still far outweighed cons.
When I was accepted into a week-long writing workshop in Berkeley, John dropped me off at the Airtran at JFK Airport. We hugged and kissed. “It’s just a week. I’ll see you Monday,” he said. A couple of days later I received a letter via email.
We are far now, so very, and I want you to know how wonderful you make everything.
More than that day, when I saw that picture and wondered who was that beautiful woman; more than when I knew who she was; more than the red-cheeked rush of wonderment in writing you; more than reading your acceptance; it was your willing hand in mine.
You made me feel worthy of love. No one else ever has. It was always me dreaming, forcing the clichéd longing of pseudo-romance. You welcomed me and accepted me and for that, more than anything else that I have experienced, I love you.
You make loving so easy. My time, my concern, and even my Gmail password— it comes as no surprise that I share these things with you, that you find me good at sharing, at noticing, and that you are great at reading me, that you understand, and are willing to deal with the strange seeds watered around me.
With all my love,
I called to tell him he was the absolute best for sending me a love letter. We talked for about an hour. I can’t remember about what exactly, mostly about how things were going for me in the workshop. It was the last time that I ever heard his voice.
When my week in Berkeley was drawing to a close, my instructor pulled me aside during a break from our workshop and told me John was dead. His mother’s body was found earlier in the week, in her apartment, a hammer next to her bed. John was found a couple of days later when he never checked out of a hotel room where he slit his wrists in the bathtub. When I received his letter, he had already killed his mother and I imagine he had already decided he was going to kill himself.
That OK Cupid message, at first so ripe with fate, now seemed like nothing more than a cosmic joke, a lesson sent by a god in a Greek tragedy to humble me. I reread his letters daily. So many things had to align for John and me to meaningfully cross paths: algorithms, previous break-ups, the science behind what we found attractive. I kept regressing down that line of thinking until it seemed possible that even our parents leaving their respective homelands were part of this enormous web that extended further and further into history itself. If this wasn’t an aleph, it was the closest I ever came to a moment where every thing was visible at once, and painfully so. It was overwhelming to grapple with thoughts of chance, fate, and the way time moves more like nesting dolls rather than in any linear fashion, all while crying, making John’s final arrangements, and trying to meet the daily demands of work and parenting.
I did, however, begin to feel that there was still significance in joining John on that little ledge of contentment, beyond notions of good or bad. There is a quote by the sorcerer Don Juan Matus, from Carlos Castaneda’s books, that says, “The basic difference between an ordinary man and a warrior is that a warrior takes everything as a challenge while an ordinary man takes everything as a blessing or a curse.” The challenge for me was to hold on to goodness and mercy, and the world as a place where these things still existed.
Something in John’s letter prodded me. “My time, my concern, and even my Gmail password.” A list of things he’d given me, except for the password. Yet, here he was saying I had it. John was a poet and he had established a rhythm here, then disrupted it. One night, I was up with newly acquired insomnia when I remembered that he’d once asked me for a favor. He’d given me his Submittable password and asked me to send his manuscript to a publisher. I typed that password into his email and it worked.
John had emailed himself a letter and addressed it to me. The subject line was “just in case,” but I think that he knew I would find it because he counted on my looking. He apologized if I was hurting. His use of the word “if” was grating, as if there was any way I couldn’t be hurting. He said his favorite times were with me. The last five lines read:
You made me a believer in love.
You made me believe.
You did that.
Letter to John. (June 24, 2014)
On the morning of the one-year anniversary of John’s death, I wrote to him.
We haven’t spoken in a minute, I know. You’re certainly making up for that. This morning, I hear you everywhere. And I know there are things we still won’t talk about.
I workshopped an essay about you last week. My group critiquing it said they couldn’t see my love for you. They felt distance there. And they were right. It’s because I still feel shame for having loved you. You left me with a lot of shame, John. To be ashamed of good memories is a fucked up thing.
Anyway, it made me think well, how to do I revise this? What were the things that made me feel love for you? And I keep coming back to that morning we wrote together. You, working on that sci-fi novel. Me, on a short story. That morning, I looked over at you and thought this could be a lot of Sunday mornings. Our equivalent of reading the Sunday Times or going to farmer’s markets or whatever couples do on Sundays. It was symbiotic. It wasn’t that aficiamiento where you’re half-crazed over someone, and I think you knew that. It was the sense of partnership, of working, creating, side by side. Harmony. That’s what I didn’t say in my essay. That this part was so stellar that I was more than willing to work with the more jodon parts of you. Yes, jodon.
People ask me if I think we’d still be together. I always say no, without missing a beat. I don’t know whose benefit that is for. I say the critical, unbending parts of you would’ve swelled like a supernova to overshadow everything.
You know, eventually, I don’t want to remember this date. You, of course, I’d like to remember random things and laugh, but this date, no. I won’t mark it forever so maybe I will talk to you next year. Maybe I won’t. In any case, I’ll see you around, John.
Last letter to JR. (September 2014)
I intended to write to JR because I was working on this essay. I didn’t. It’s been about a year since I’ve written to him. I know that the last time was after John died because I have a letter from him that says, “I won’t lie, I’m glad you’re still single but I’m very sorry about your friend.” I didn’t see the point of getting into details.
I save his letters, the first ones still bound with white ribbon as if I would be able to keep everything that neat for the duration of JR’s incarceration. The ones that came after, the ones I had time to read, but never got around to answering, are piled haphazardly on top. Maybe I’ll still receive the sporadic letter from JR, but one day the letters will stop completely because he will be home, a twenty-eight-year-old man who may not see love, or perhaps me, in the same fortuitous light as before.
I used to wonder if JR grasped the nuance between the terms “luck” and “blessing” when I reread his letters, but it was I that had been using them interchangeably, like shrimp and crab in the same chowder, close enough that I couldn’t be bothered to distinguish between them. Blessings elicit gratitude because of their benefit, suggest having taken action to achieve or suffering to earn. Only good people are blessed. Luck, on the other hand is as transitory and undiscerning as love itself. A spin on a wheel. But lucky or unlucky, blessed or cursed, none of those words really seem to be a good fit for the magnitude or complexity of loving or being loved by JR or John. It was both and neither and all.
GLENDALIZ CAMACHO was born and raised in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City. Her writing has appeared in All About Skin: Short Fiction by Women of Color (University of Wisconsin Press, 2014), Southern Pacific Review, and The Acentos Review, among others. She was a 2013 Pushcart Prize nominee and is currently working on a short story collection.
I remembered that voice. Cool, soft, diffuse: the kind of voice that you’d have to strain to hear over the noise in a loud restaurant. A voice that rocked you along in its low, gentle waves. I’d always loved the way he seemed to listen more than he spoke. We’d never gone to a restaurant together, anyway.
“I want to know what you remember about me.” I held the phone close to my mouth and watched the curve of my lips in the rear view mirror as I spoke. With the pad of my index finger, I traced the dark circles under my eyes.
“Well, you were a gifted writer.” I flinched at his use of the past tense. I wrote rarely now, if ever. Caring for two children left little time for intellectual endeavors. At times, the contrast between my life now and the way it used to be was overwhelming.
“I have an image of you then.” He paused. “Do you want to hear this?”
I did, absolutely. This was why I’d called him.
“Sometimes, when you would wait outside my office, I’d find you sitting on the floor in the hallway, reading a book. It was very endearing. Most students would just stand there, waiting.”
Sunlight reflected off the windows of the building across the parking lot. I pulled down the sun visor to shield my eyes. This was what I wanted to hear, that I was noticed, remembered for an unstudied pose. Did anyone still see me that way? I closed my eyes, remembering that moment. How was it possible that he remembered it, too?
“Why do you want to know this?” he asked.
I paused, thinking. I was a thirty-four-year-old woman reaching back for my twenty-two-year-old self, speaking to someone who remembered the world in which she existed.
“Because you knew me when I still had choices to make about the kind of life I would have,” I said. “I don’t feel like that person anymore and maybe I want you to tell me that I still am, which is crazy, since you don’t even know me anymore.”
“I still know you,” he said. “You were then what you are now: eloquent, serious, thoughtful. I sense no diminishment in you even though we haven’t spoken in ten years. What made you so compelling then is what makes you that way now—you ask hard questions of life, and you expect hard answers. Most people are not that way.”
I leaned my head against the steering wheel and allowed his words to wash over me. I was twenty-two again, self-conscious and bold, fearful and fearless. I saw my future unspooling before me, full of hope and danger.
Twelve years earlier, he had singled me out. I was getting ready to graduate from college, slim and sarcastic and completely terrified. He was filling in for a professor on leave, and so we found each other stumbling around our distinguished college, both of us feeling more than a bit like frauds. I noticed right away how his eyes would linger on me a beat too long after I had finished speaking. I could feel him watching me as I stood up from the seminar table and wrapped a long woolen scarf around my neck. I was young, but not naive; something about me had attracted his attention, and I liked it.
I was taking his class—an intro writing seminar—on a whim. I had a vague notion that I wanted to be a writer and during the semester, I discovered the power that writing had to reveal my inner self. When I wrote, I imagined the professor reading my words as I typed them. He responded to my writing as well as to my presence in the sun-filled classroom. Our connection was palpable and strong.
A few weeks into the semester, we arranged to meet in his office so he could help me with my post-graduation job hunt. While other students pursued corporate recruiting or worked alumni connections in the career center, I scaled the stairs, two at a time, to his office, my long and billowing wool coat, a 1970s hand-me-down from my mother, trailing behind me. When I arrived, he was still meeting with another student, so I sat down on the worn carpet outside his office, my back pressed against the wall, my knees tucked under my chin. A few minutes later, he came out and looked down at me. There was something about his gaze, steady and intense, that emboldened me. I stood up, teetering a bit in my high-heeled boots.
Inside his office, the radiators clanked and hissed. The sun, low in the winter sky, shone through the tall windows, casting everything in pale grey. I could feel his eyes on me as I pulled back the fur-lined hood and undid the toggle buttons of my coat. I slid a yellow folder toward him, and he gently removed the papers that were inside.
I watched him as he read, his dark head bent down toward his desk. He was young, as professors went, although like most college students, I couldn’t have said how old he was, only somewhere between thirty and dead. He had curly hair and a mustache and wore a rumpled writer’s wardrobe: wool sweaters, soft jackets. On his left hand was a gleaming wedding band that I couldn’t help but notice, although it didn’t mean much to me. What attracted me more than his physical appearance was his voice, which was quiet and soothing, and the power of his gaze. When he looked at me, he seemed to see something I only suspected was there.
“These are good,” he said. “You write well, with humor and clarity.”
“Thanks,” I said, looking down. The whites of my knees shone through the smooth material of my tights.
I looked around his office, taking in the high ceilings and sparse furnishings. On the shelf behind him was a photo of two children dressed in colorful bathing suits, the bright blue ocean glistening in the background. I twisted my long hair into a knot, aware suddenly of the curve of my neck.
“So, city girl,” he said, leaning back in his chair, “how did you end up here?” He gestured at the snow-covered quad outside the window.
“Well, not many people from my high school wanted to come here, so I thought I might have an edge.”
He laughed. “Aren’t there other kids from New York here?”
“Yes,” I said, “but not from my high school.” I began to describe my high school, full of brilliant, quirky kids, the kind of school with a Japanese Animation Appreciation Society but no football team. Few of my classmates had chosen the kind of college I had—a politically conservative campus in a one traffic light-town—and now, as the end of college approached, I often wondered what I had been thinking. He listened, his chin resting in his hands, his eyes soft and heavy lidded.
After that day, I looked for more reasons to visit him, to envelop myself in the still quiet of his office and the heat of his gaze. After discussing my job search, I told him about frat parties, late night swims in the river, my hunt for a graduation dress that wouldn’t be seen beneath my robe and a pair of funky shoes that I hoped would be. I told him how my friends roused me from bed at night shouting, “You sleep when you die!” and I would dress myself quickly in layers of flannel and denim and head out to another party. When I spoke, I could feel the way that my youth and energy intoxicated him. I was a femme fatale in duck boots.
I was the one who had rekindled our connection, Googling him one afternoon while my kids napped. He had appeared, suddenly, in a dream several nights earlier in which whatever barrier that had once stood between us was inexplicably gone. The connection between us was magnetic and erotic, and I woke up with the memory of him clinging to me like a wet bathing suit.
I quickly found his email address beneath a recent photo. He looked much the same, grayer perhaps, but his eyes had the same intensity. Was it melancholy? I wondered now. I typed what I thought was a casual note and quickly clicked send. A few hours later, he wrote back: I won’t lie and say your email brought back fond memories of our time together. The truth is, I haven’t stopped thinking about you since.
I was stunned by the intensity of his words. Was he serious? Did he really still think about me? The thought thrilled me, a dollop of intrigue mixed into my domestic routine. We emailed each other a few more times and then set a time to speak on the phone. I didn’t want to call him from my house so I left my kids at home with a babysitter and parked my car in the parking lot of a nearby nursery school.
What was I doing? I asked myself as I dialed his number. This was dangerous territory. I was married now, the mother of young children. I had no intention of leaving my family, and yet I couldn’t stop myself. The young girl I had once been—the one he had known—beckoned me, and her pull felt like gravity. Besides, wasn’t this what he had always done, spoken to me in privacy, out of earshot of his wife and children? I had always assumed that I was a secret he kept from his family, although I had never asked. So maybe it was okay, I reasoned. I wiped my damp hands on my jeans.
He answered after the first ring.
“I think I know why I started thinking about you,” I told him, the words rushing forth. “I’m in the same place now that you were in then—married with two kids. And it’s so hard, harder than anyone ever tells you. So I think I get it now, what you might have been looking for in me. Do you know what I mean?”
“I do,” he said. “You brought conversation back into my life, the kind that disappears when you’re married and raising small children. I didn’t know how much I missed it until I found it with you.”
I thought about the kinds of conversations I had now with my husband and friends: whose turn was it to take out the trash, please could I drop off the dry cleaning, what was I going to do about summer camp?
“Why didn’t you run away with me?” I asked him, shocking myself with the boldness of the question. “It would have been easier then than it is now.”
“Well, there was a bit of a stigma, don’t you think? The professor running off with his much younger student? Our age difference was a bit more to overcome back then.” He paused. “You also told me you didn’t want that.”
“I did? When?”
“One day in my office. I remember I moved too close to you and you pointed your finger at me and told me to step back. You said, ‘There are lines for a reason.’”
I dug around in my memory like an overstuffed purse. I couldn’t remember this at all.
“Well, you could have fought for me.”
“I suppose so,” he said. “But you’re the one who didn’t meet me in Boston that day, remember?”
I watched a squirrel dart across the parking lot, jerking his head back and forth as he ran. Mothers were walking kids back to their cars, buckling them into brightly patterned car seats, doling out snacks and reprimands and kisses. I wondered what my kids were doing at home. Waking up from their naps, probably, their hair fuzzy, their skin pink.
“Well, we could have tried,” I told him, watching the women ease their cars slowly out of the parking lot, returning to their appropriate lives of duty and routine.
After I graduated from college, our conversations continued. And perhaps because we were no longer face-to-face, they became more intimate. Freed from the boundaries of our teacher-student relationship, we called each other almost daily. I talked about my new life in the city of my youth: entry-level jobs, late nights in smoky bars, the men who came and went. He shared few details about his life with me, and I never asked. I didn’t know the names or ages of his children or what he did after he hung up the phone. I knew he spoke to me from an office with a phone that only he answered, but I didn’t know where it was or what he did there. In my mind, it was tucked in the corner of a clapboard house with a large wooden desk by a window overlooking a leafy backyard. It was always quiet and remote and bathed in a soft green light.
I came to crave these long conversations, the way they removed me from the life around me, a life I wasn’t sure how to become a part of. When we spoke, I heard only his voice soothing me, building me up. My power over him continued to thrill me and could, I discovered, be as erotic as touch. I was as lonely and lost as ever, but on the phone, my life was full of possibility and ever-changing. I wasn’t writing anymore but, in a way, I was, telling him the stories I wasn’t writing down. And he was my most avid reader.
I never stopped to question the propriety of a married man and father speaking on the phone with a woman almost half his age. That it made me feel good was all I cared about, and so I used him and his affirmation of me as material to fill the gaping maw that was my burgeoning self.
After about a year, something happened that pushed us beyond the safe borders that we had established for our relationship, if that’s what it could be called. One day on the phone, I mentioned that my friend Molly and I were planning a trip to Boston to visit our mutual friend Janine.
“Funny,” he said. “I’m going to be in Boston that same weekend. Maybe we can meet up.”
He sounded casual, and I tried to meet his tone. A face-to-face meeting would signify a shift in our relationship from the emotional and intellectual affair we’d been having to something very different. The thought both excited and terrified me. After some discussion, we made arrangements to meet on Saturday afternoon. From my desk in a towering New York office building, Saturday seemed very far away.
When Molly and I arrived at Janine’s apartment, he had already called looking for me there.
“Who is this man calling you?” Janine asked me as soon as I walked in the door. I had never told anyone about the professor, but now it all came out: the phone calls, the wife and kids, our proposed meeting. They remembered him vaguely from school and were appropriately scandalized.
“Holy shit!” Janine said. “I can’t believe you never told us!” Molly raised a pierced eyebrow at me. I laughed and tried to siphon off some of their exuberance for myself. After settling in, I called him from Janine’s phone and we firmed up our plans for the next day. I would meet him in a park on the far side of town. What would happen next, I did not know.
Molly, Janine, and I drank cheap wine from plastic cups and prepped for a night on the town. I wore a short floral dress and chunky Doc Martens, a poor man’s Winona Ryder. “Where’s my Ethan Hawke?” I shouted at my reflection as Molly and I primped in Janine’s tiny bathroom. I put on my best smoky eye and red lipstick while Molly slicked back her cropped hair. Janine slithered into a pair of tight black pants, teased her brown hair high and painted her delicate eyelashes with mascara. She was ready to leave Boston, she told us. “I’m too much woman for this one-horse town.”
At the nightclub, I tried to lose myself in the heat and sound. As I danced, I imagined the professor watching me. I swung my hair around, my neck loose and long. I imagined his hands on me, sliding around my waist and pulling me toward him, the space between us narrowing as we swayed in time to the music, the throbbing bass notes coursing up through the floor and our bodies. I slept fitfully on Janine’s futon that night, Molly’s lanky frame stretched out beside me.
The next day, Molly and I sat together in the front seat of her car sipping coffee out of paper cups and puzzling over a map of the city. She had agreed to drive me to the park where I was meeting the professor and, I suppose, pick me up a few hours later. The details were vague.
“What are you thinking, Daisy?” she asked after a few moments. I kept my head down, unable to meet her gaze.
“I don’t know,” I said, looking down at the map. The brightly colored roads blended together into an unnavigable tangle. “Do you think I should go?”
“Well, what do you think is going to happen if you meet him? What do you want to happen?”
I tried to conjure up a physical image of the professor, but he was hazy. All I remembered was his voice and the way he made me feel. I was chasing a ghost.
“You’re right,” I said. “Let’s forget it.”
We tossed the crumpled map into the backseat and Molly cranked up the radio. Liz Phair’s voice blasted through the speakers of the Honda Accord, foul-mouthed anthems of female empowerment pulsing through the car. We sang along until we were hoarse.
As the hour of our meeting came and went, I tried not to think about the professor waiting for me. A few hours later, the phone rang at Janine’s apartment. She handed it to me.
“Where were you?” he said when I answered the phone. His voice was louder than I’d ever heard it before. “I was really worried about you.”
“I decided not to come,” I said.
“Why not?” he said. “You could have let me know. This is a big city. Anything could have happened to you.”
“Oh, so you were worried about me? That’s why you’re calling, to make sure I’m okay?”
I pulled the phone down the hallway, the curly cord stretching behind me.
“Don’t you think this is a little weird? I mean, what are you doing?” I stretched the words out. “Did you really have plans to come to Boston this weekend?”
He said nothing. I felt the outline of everything we had left unsaid pushing against me until I could barely breathe. I wondered where he was calling me from.
“Do you have feelings for me?” I asked quietly. “Do you love me?”
“I think you know I do.”
I exhaled slowly, my heart pounding in my ears.
“Well, that’s why I didn’t come,” I said. And then, after several beats, “I think I have to go.”
“If that’s what you think is best,” he said.
“I do,” I said and hung up.
I stumbled back into the living room where Molly and Janine were sprawled out listening to the Indigo Girls.
“What happened?” Janine asked, sitting up. Molly watched me expectantly.
“He was kind of pissed but, whatever,” I said. And with that, I was swept back into their world, leaving the intensity of the phone call, and whatever it had meant, behind.
And that was how it ended, on the phone, our relationship remaining emotionally charged but physically chaste. I went back to my life in New York and rarely thought about the professor after that day. He remained firmly in my memory, as a part of my past encased in amber. I’d met and married my husband and started my own family without ever thinking of the impact I might have had on his. And yet here I was now, back on the phone with him, listening to the same, soft voice speaking to me in a very different life.
We had never had a physical affair, but did that make what we had done all right? Our relationship existed in a kind of gray area, and I wondered if what we had done was outside the boundaries of acceptable behavior in a marriage. If he had felt bored, stifled by routine, burden and obligation, was it okay for him to seek a kind of comfort elsewhere? Was it okay for me to do the same?
“Were you happy?” I asked him, gazing out at the parking lot. The sun shone through the trees, sprinkling drops of light on the pavement. “I mean, back when we knew each other, were you happy?”
“I suppose I was,” he said. “Meeting you made me happy.”
“No, I mean with your wife and kids. Did they make you happy? You never spoke about them, and I think I understand why, but looking back, it seems significant to me now.”
I could hear him breathing on the other end of the line. “Marriage is complicated, Daisy,” he said. “We do love our spouses and children no matter how disinclined we may be to discuss them.” He was drifting into his cool, detached professor-ese. It pissed me off.
“Give me a break,” I said. “I’m a grown-up now, just like you. You don’t need to protect me. You don’t need to be my mentor. Here I am, asking you the hard questions and I want the hard answers.”
“Okay, Daisy, you want the truth?” he said. His voice turned to glass. “Today is my twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. In a happy marriage, today would be a moment to celebrate but, in mine, the day has gone by unnoticed, unacknowledged. Not even a verbal exchange of ‘Happy Anniversary.’ My twentieth was the same, as were many before that. I believe I’ve just given you a ‘hard answer.’ I’d be happy to give you more. I’d be happy to not be mentor-ly toward you, but I’d need to know what you want. And I’d need to know I can trust you.”
The sun beat down on the windshield of the car. Tiny pinpricks of sweat rose along the flat of my lip and quickly turned cold. The parking lot was empty, marked only by the regular grid of white lines. See, they seemed to be saying, there are rules we follow, unquestioning.
“Can I call you again?” he asked.
There it was, the invitation to a life of danger, the one I’d declined many years before in Boston but had asked for again. Did I want it now?
“No,” I said.
“Okay,” he said. “Whatever you want. But if you ever change your mind, you know where to find me.”
I hung up the phone and drove slowly down the street toward home, to my children fresh from sleep, to the trash that needed to be taken out, to the dishwasher that needed to be emptied. It was not a life my twenty-two-year-old self would have recognized, but it was certainly one she would have envied. My world came into focus again, its colors bright and vibrant, technicolor. I felt clean, like crisp white linen drying in the sun. As I moved through the streets of my quiet suburban town, past the familiar houses and trees, I knew that I would not call him again. I’d learned all that I needed to know from the professor.
DAISY ALPERT FLORIN is the staff editor at Brain, Child. A native New Yorker, she lives in Connecticut with her family.
A couple of weeks ago, I was at a concert in a bookstore in Hudson, New York, when some hipster put his nearly empty pint glass right on the bookshelf next to him. (This is a bookstore so hip that it has live music and serves beer.) And noticing the glass’s precarious placement next to the James Joyce books (of all things!), I waited a few minutes until I could no longer stand it and then grabbed the glass and put it on my table. A guy closer to my age than the hipster’s sitting near me immediately said, “Thank you! That was bothering me too!” And then, “Are you a Virgo?” What I said was no, but what I thought a few days later (when I accused my own ten-year-old daughter of being a Virgo) is that what I am is … a grown-up.
This realization had been a long time coming.
Just a few years ago, when I was forty years old and my twelve-year marriage had completely unraveled, I dated a guy who was ten years younger than me. It started out as you might expect, but it turned out that we had many things in common: favorite authors, movies, music. Remarkably, we even shared a love of certain television shows, ones that he had watched in reruns growing up and I had watched in real time.
One of the thrills of dating a thirty-year-old was living the life of a thirty-year-old, but as a forty-year-old. On the weekends, while my daughters were with their father, I would step back into another world. My young boyfriend and I would go to parties at his friends’ houses. Sometimes that meant sitting around a fire pit in a backyard, smoking way too much weed, and watching a girl dressed in a cape spinning around in a hula hoop, and sometimes it meant sitting on a zebra-print couch, in a black light-lit room decorated with black light posters, again smoking way too much weed, and wondering briefly why I had ever left my dorm. Going out with friends meant first going to someone’s house and getting sufficiently drunk before heading out into the world. Going out period actually meant staying out until two a.m. and sleeping until noon the next day.
I had done all of these things before. And in actuality it had been many years before. Somehow all these people I met in their late twenties and early thirties were living a kind of delayed life, the one I had gone through in my early- to mid-twenties until I ended up settling down with the man I eventually married, and we went to, for example, readings at the 92nd Street Y. But here they were in their extended youth, with their comic book hero costume parties, and my young boyfriend firmly in favor of staying that way for as long as possible.
And here I was, astonishingly getting to do the whole thing all over again. “You’ve found a time machine!” exclaimed my friend Susan when I told her about my weekend life. And that’s just what it felt like. A time machine that actually worked the way it was supposed to instead of the way it works in nearly all science fiction shows, with devastating results. Because honestly who wouldn’t want to return to the hedonistic days of their youth but without all that youthful insecurity and doubt? For a while there, I will admit, it really was thrilling.
I was always the oldest person wherever we went. Strangely, it didn’t bother me at all. I sometimes found myself an amused observer, smiling to myself with some inner knowledge that I knew it would take these people years to figure out. Although there were times when I saw girls, say, dressed in shorts with tights, a look I could no longer pull off, and the realization that they were just at the beginning of something made me feel envious. I was getting to experience youth, it was true, and there were times, dancing at some club in the way early hours of the morning, that I felt truly alive as I hadn’t in years, but I would have never done these things at forty were it not for my young boyfriend. And that was when I realized that my actual youth was truly over.
I liked to imagine that my boyfriend’s friends saw me as a cool, possibly striking, older woman, but I honestly have no idea. When I was about twenty-two, a friend of mine was dating (and eventually living with) a thirty-year-old woman. A bunch of us would go over to their apartment and the only thing that struck me were the lines on his girlfriend’s face, something that I hadn’t really ever noticed on anyone before. She looked older, but we all got along just fine. This seemed to be the way things went with my young boyfriend’s friends, too.
Things went on like this for about a year, but my relationship with my young boyfriend evolved into nights at his apartment cooking together and then watching a movie or some TV show like Mad Men, which was perfectly fine with me. It turned out that my young boyfriend, lost, trying to get his career started, was going through a kind of depression, but it also meant that I wasn’t staggering around exhausted at one a.m., dying to leave the bar and just get to sleep.
And then one night when I came over, wearing an old blue hoodie and expecting a night of homemade dinner and TV as usual, my young boyfriend mentioned going to a party and I actually protested. We hadn’t gone out into the real world in a long time, and I found that I had preferred it that way. But I agreed to go along.
It was on the way to the party that I had a revelation, the kind of thing that could only come to a forty-something grown-up: I did not care what anyone thought of me. I was going to go to this party and if no one liked me, it completely didn’t matter. I didn’t even have to talk to anyone if I didn’t want to! Who cared! Thus freed from the usual party anxiety, I had a rather enjoyable time, snacking on the plentiful Trader Joe party snacks, drinking beer, and standing in the corner of the kitchen in my hoodie, observing the young people around me with a permanent smirk on my face. At a certain point, my young boyfriend tried to include me in the conversation he was having with some couple, and I made just the slightest effort at being friendly. But mostly I just didn’t care.
I realized that I no longer envied these young people, with their whole lives ahead of them. I realized that they would be making the same decisions I had: they would marry or not, they would have children or not, and every decision they made would make them regret others they did not make. They were just at the beginning of this stage and I was, I realized thrillingly, relieved to be on the other side. As a seventy-year-old woman once said to me, “We are all young for the same amount of time.”
So let’s leave that party for now and return to the empty pint glass. One way to think about it is this: a twenty-something puts the glass on the bookshelf (next to the James Joyce books, for chrissakes!) and turns away from it without a second glance. The thirty-something sees the glass, feels worried and perhaps a little responsible, but ultimately turns away and hopes for the best. The forty-something sees the glass, and having seen dozens of nearly empty pint glasses spill or crash, grabs it from the bookshelf and sets it down. The glass is no longer precarious. It is exactly where it should be.
“Tell me about your girlfriends,” I ask the man I’ve been seeing for the last few months, my bare leg sprawled over his, my fingers grazing the graying hair of his chest. He holds me closer and begins to talk.
My relationship with Jeff was young, but we weren’t. At the time, I was in my late thirties, a single mom a year removed from the end of an eighteen-year relationship.
He’s ten years older, tall and fit, with silver curly hair and Delft blue eyes.
I want to hear about Jeff’s girlfriends not for the intimate details about those relationships (he’s not the type who would ever kiss and tell, anyway) but because learning about his past makes me feel closer to him. Plus, I’m nosy—although I like to think of it as “being curious.”
Dating in midlife is quite different from the last time I dated, in college. Then, there was still a shiny newness to it; everyone I met had only recently shed the protective wrappers of childhood. We each had fewer years of relationship experience than fingers on one hand. My college boyfriend and I had had other lovers before we got together during our sophomore year. But those early forays into sexual relationships were far more sexual than relationship; with inept fumbling in assorted cars and dorm rooms, it was mutual lust rather than lasting love. Youth may be exuberant, but it often doesn’t know what the hell it’s doing.
Jeff had dated for far longer than I had. With decades of dating backstory, he was a bit like a book I’d been dying to read but one that started at chapter ten. I wanted to find out what happened in the previous chapters. It was, after all, the prologue to our relationship.
When my ex and I had met, we were essentially children. At nineteen, I was still a teenager. And like kids on a really great play date, we didn’t want the fun to end. We quickly became close, spending all our time outside of our classes together. We slouched on the grass of the quad, grabbed (too many) post-study drinks at an off-campus bar and, a few hours after that, huddled in a diner’s red vinyl booth, feeding each other greasy scrambled eggs and bacon. We skipped classes far too often, instead spending the day naked on his futon under the navy polyester-and-cotton blend comforter he’d brought from home, the one that made me itch and sweat in New Orleans’s humidity. When we graduated, we didn’t really discuss our future—we both just assumed that we’d stay together. And we did, for almost two decades. Then it was over, a twisted Theory of Relativity, parts of our universe expanding and each of us moving away from the other seemingly faster than the speed of light. For a year, I focused all my energy on our young daughter and surrounded myself with friends. It was more than enough until one day it suddenly wasn’t.
I was determined to meet someone—or someones—but, because of the large gap in my dating resume, I wasn’t quite sure how. In college, everyone wanted to connect with someone, for a night or for far longer. Now the only men I met were married to my mom friends. I saw other men, lurking in my favorite cafe and at the local food co-op, so I knew they existed, but they seemed strange and exotic and as approachable as the Yeti. So how did a middle-aged single mom of a young child meet men?
I asked my ex-sister-in-law (with whom I’d remained close) when we got together at a cafe for drinks. She suggested I give online dating a try—she’d met her husband that way. Sipping a glass of sauvignon blanc, she leaned closer on the edge of her chair and reminded me to practice safe sex. (I was actually going to have sex! … if I met someone). She plonked her glass on the table and warned me that some men actually lie and say they’re not married when they really are. I suddenly felt gullible and incredibly naive. The last time I dated, no one was married and cordless phones were the size of cereal boxes. Forewarned and forearmed (she’d given me a couple condoms), I joined a dating website, threw together a profile, and uploaded a digital photo.
Jeff quickly responded, sending me a thoughtful letter, and I immediately wrote him back. It was like a game of tag by email. As soon as one of us received a note, the other would reciprocate. Neither of us wanted to be the first one to stop writing. Email led to phone calls that led to a real-life meeting that led—eventually—to me snuggled into him, asking about his ex-girlfriends.
Jeff had an entire life before we met which, to me, sounded terribly fascinating and glamorous. He was a writer in New York City, and he’d met and dated a slew of interesting, talented women: dancers and writers, actresses, social workers and businesswomen. I moved closer and asked about the other women, the earlier ones. What were they like? Why had the relationship ended?
“So what happened with Anna?” I asked. (Anna isn’t her real name.)
“We were just at different places in our lives,” Jeff said, slowly. “She’d married young and divorced right before we met. She wanted to see what was out there.”
I was recently separated and Jeff was the first man I’d dated in almost twenty years. I told him that.
“Uh oh,” he said, raising an eyebrow. He brushed a strand of hair out of my face and smiled. “I guess I should ask where you are in your life, right?”
“I’m right here, right now,” I said, laughing, as I rubbed his arm. “And I sort of like this place. A lot.”
There were other questions that I didn’t ask: Would I have liked them? Would they like me? And why did this matter to me? As Jeff and I lay together and talked, my mind wandered. Thinking about his exes, I imagined how my life could have gone differently. I wondered what it would be like to try on an alternative life (and the men that might possibly have gone with it), like a pair of Levis. What if I hadn’t married my college boyfriend? What if I’d done something other than teach? What would my entire life had been like if I’d chosen a different path? I shut my eyes and pictured alternatives:
Me as a successful businesswoman, focused on my career in banking—no, corporate law!—meeting a series of businessmen for a quick wine spritzer after work. The men I date—power brokers in their fields!—have to have a greater net worth than me, and I’m very successful. (I’d tried dating a Ph.D. student once—a nice guy and extremely attentive in bed—but I’d had to pay for almost everything.) After yet another drink and scintillating talk of mergers, I catch a cab to my prewar classic six on the Upper East Side, stash my imaginary briefcase under the mahogany desk in the home office, and … I feel a very real nausea wash over me. Even in my imagination, I dislike Business Sue.
Instead, I pull on a black beret, tuck a cigarette behind my ear and move into a small walk-up studio in the East Village. (In my dream life, it’s 1986, and the East Village is still affordable.) I paint tiny canvasses with an eyelash brush or make jewelry from gold macaroni. (I relax a bit; this fits better.) I only date men like me, men who understand the creative process. We talk a lot about the creative process as we drink cheap red wine from chipped stoop sale teacups on my fire escape, dangling our legs over the edge. My love life is complicated. I immediately shoo away the man with the heroin habit. I get into heated arguments with another. We scream, break dishes, and make love amid the shards. Rubbing my backside, the fantasy dissolves as quickly as the imaginary relationships do with East Village Sue. She’s simply too unstable.
As Jeff reminisces about his earlier life and girlfriends, I wonder if I should’ve kept my mouth shut instead of asking about them—I’m jabbed by what I think are pinpricks of jealousy. How could I, a single mom pushing forty, a preschool teacher for goodness sakes, compete with the accomplished, interesting women of his past?
I weave the threads of my self-doubt into an insecurity blanket, pull it tightly over my shoulders, and say, “I’ve got to tell you, I’m a bit anxious. You’ve dated all these amazing women. I guess I’m feeling a little afraid.”
Jeff held me, looked into my eyes, and said, quietly, “Why? Dating was fun, but lonely. I spent an awful lot of time wishing I’d found someone who made me happy, who made me laugh, and kept me interested.” He laughed. “I wish I’d met you all those years ago.”
Real Sue smiled.
A year or so later, we got married. And now, closing in on fifty, I find there’s a comfort in knowing so much about the years before we met. But there’s also the small thrill of learning something new about Jeff (like, as a child, he never had a stuffed animal or that Frank Rich once sent him a fan letter) that keeps the relationship fresh. It’s newness and comfort rolled into one. And I still love hearing about his girlfriends.
SUE SANDERS alternatively fights and embraces her neuroses and very much enjoys being Real Sue. Her essays have appeared in the New York Times, Real Simple, Brain, Child, Salon, and others. Her first book, Mom, I’m Not a Kid Anymore, was published in the spring.