Dates—Not a Love Story
by Daria Brown
He is seventeen going on eighteen and I’m sixteen going on seventeen, just like the young lovers who serenade each other in The Sound of Music, which happens to be my favorite movie at the time. The restaurant is very fancy, meaning they serve a variety of conventional meat dishes and a magician comes to your very own table to do tricks. My nose itches. I try to dab it delicately with the heavily starched white cloth napkin. It chafes. Ladylike, I lay it back across my lap. Blood! I have a bloody nose! “Would you excuse me please,” I say and without waiting for an answer cross the room, back straight, knowing he’s watching me every step of the way. I don’t want to have a bloody nose in this elegant place in front of these elegant people and not in front of him. The ladies in the Ladies Room, whom I now realize by their heavy veil of perfume and short skirts were probably call girls, tut tut with sympathy and press a cold knife to my forehead to stanch the bleeding. I hang my head between my knees, wad tissue into my nose, and feel decidedly unladylike. When I come back, the fat has congealed on my lamb chops and a pouty expression has congealed on his face.
I'm nineteen and it's my first trip to Washington, D.C. I'm going to stay with my friend Kitty Van Scotter who lives in Chevy Chase. Her father works for the president, the president my father can't stop cursing. Her mother teaches dancing school. Cherry blossoms coat the circular drive of their house and look like snow. Kitty shows me a snap of her friend Skip wearing a tuxedo. His last name is Caulfield, like Holden, and he wants to meet you, she says. I imagine meeting Skip Caulfield and drinking martinis like the college coeds in Salinger and feel terribly romantic though I've never had a martini in my life and only old people and kids in Salinger seem to drink them. Skip drives us in his jeep to see the Washington sights at night. He has seven sisters and knows all the characters in the soap operas. Skip takes us to a pub near Capitol Hill where we don't drink martinis, but beers, which doesn't bother me. Abba sings "Dancing Queen" from the jukebox and Skip kisses me when we're dancing. Kitty is in the Ladies fixing her lipstick.
"Have you ever seen the Jefferson Memorial at night?" Skip asks me.
I'm twenty-one and now live in Washington. At night after work I take a class with other young professionals who congregate in rows with their briefcases, gym bags, and school books heaped around them. "Let's have a drink next week after class," he suggests. His name is Carl Rodriguez. He has thick, dark hair and a dark suit. Why isn't he called Carlos Rodriguez? This bothers me. Why is he shorter than me? This bothers me more. We go to a pub on the Hill. It's two doors down from where Skip kissed me a few eons earlier. We drink beers (still not martinis) and establish the essentials about each other. "I work at Mofo," he says. I look blank. "Motherwell & Forster," he says as if it's something I should know. "It's a law firm. I'm a lawyer," he adds patiently. The bar empties out and we rise to go, gathering overcoats and briefcases. As I stand and straighten my dress, I feel a bit wobbly.
"Have you ever seen the Jefferson Memorial at night?" he asks me.
"We really should go out some time," Nate says.
He calls often just to see how I'm doing and says, "Is this a good time?" I'm usually on deadline and it's not a good time. He drinks a lot of coffee and smokes a lot of cigarettes. And by now, so do I. Somehow I find out he doesn't drive stick. This bothers me.
"We really should go out some time," Nate says again.
"When you figure out when that time is, give me a call."
I hang up.
I move to another city. It's New Year's Eve. The theme of the party is Prom Night and every one is in taffeta or a tuxedo and acting as if they were eighteen. I haven't seen so much PDA since high school. He's tall and handsome and has baby-fine, wispy hair. We're leaning opposite each other in a door frame, talking, and people are ducking between us on their way to refill champagne glasses. I notice he is wearing cowboy boots and I worry. He mentions he is from Wyoming. I'm relieved and stop worrying. We dance while Abba sings about the Dancing Queen, young and sweet and seventeen. Only seventeen. Only seventeen.
Suddenly I feel sad, sad and old. In the middle of the living room/dance floor Clay kisses me.
I no longer feel sad.
I also no longer feel old.
I feel juvenile.
But this doesn't bother me.
"Hi, this is Steve ... Steve Chapman ... trying to call up a face.... We met at the Channing Industries Christmas party.... My mind skims back to the evening ... vodka martini, up, slightly dirty, three olives, I told the waiter ... wondering if you would like to have lunch? ... That sounded like poetry, he had said, the way you ordered your drink ... a funky place. I hope you like ostrich burgers ... then we could watch the parade ... it's my third favorite parade...."
All I can think is: he ranks his parades?
It's a black-tie affair. I set my hair. Borrow a dress. Wax my legs. Buy a strapless bra. Wax my underarms. Find nail varnish to match my dress. Find lipstick to match my nail varnish. Dye my shoes that exact shade of burgundy. The shoe shop guy shakes his head. Re-dye shoes myself. It's a perfect match. So is my burgundy evening bag. I enjoy the preparation, like putting together a puzzle. That evening we drink vodka tonics and dance on a marble floor under an atrium. We drink more vodka tonics. We're a match. "Let's get out of here," he says, conspiratorially. Giggling, we sneak away and take a walk that ends up in front of his townhouse. This does and does not bother me.
One week later I still have burgundy stripes across my feet. People keep asking me if I got a sunburn while wearing sandals.
Two weeks later I call and talk to his machine. "Did you find my earrings?" (color: burgundy, perfectly coordinated to dress, evening bag, nail polish, lipstick, dyed-to-match shoes, and stripes on feet).
Four weeks later I get a package with the earrings and a letter.
I had baggage.
But I think you're beautiful.
I'm sure some day you'll win a Pulitzer.
Clay is in town on business. He's picking me up at eight for dinner. At 7:45 I race home from work, borrow a vacuum from the girls upstairs. I haven't vacuumed in two months. Vacuum in one hand, still in my work clothes and heels, briefcase in the other hand, I dash down the steps into my flat, lose my balance and fall. A sheering pain snaps through my ankle. I vacuum the flat anyway. By 8:15, I can no longer stand up. Clay mixes a pitcher of margaritas and I take codeine. By morning, my ankle resembles a grapefruit in size and consistency. Wounded in battle, I think. Clay wraps it in an ace bandage. My hero, I think. His plane leaves that morning. I'm on crutches for three weeks.
I move to another country. My friend Diana throws a dinner party to introduce me around. Seating is boy-girl, boy-girl. I'm between a Phillip and a Philipe. Philippe is tall, which I find attractive, and skinny and European, which I don't. Philipe's perfectly pressed buttoned-down shirt is tucked into his perfectly pressed jeans. What kind of guy wears ironed jeans? One of those expensive cashmere sweaters that skinny European men wear is tied casually over his shoulders. If I spotted him in an airport I could pin him for a European a mile away. I ignore him.
Phillip has dark rumpled hair. He's wearing a linen shirt that hangs out over his khakis and funky leather sandals. He's the perfect amount overweight, just a tad, which I find attractive. It's comforting when a man outweighs you. He just sold his first screenplay and is going to L.A. next week. He tells witty, frivolous stories and I am immediately charmed. The dinner party goes through a bottle of champagne and three bottles of red, two roast chickens, salad course, dessert and coffee and port. We leave at two.
Four days later a message is on my desk: "Phil called—are you free for dinner Tuesday?"
I find the receptionist in the smoking room.
"Sylvia, this is import," I state gravely. "Did he say PHIL-lip or Phil-LEEP?"
"I don't know but ee talked like thees wheen ee left the mah-sage," she says.
It's our sixth day of traveling. We eat lunch at three in the afternoon and dinner at ten. I'm too tired to read a menu in a foreign language. Phil orders for us. Rosé and the seafood platter for two. The waiter is back before it seems humanly possible to construct a seafood platter for two. It's two stories high on platforms; it's a wedding cake from the sea. It's on ice. It's raw. I studied these creatures in marine biology: barnacles that clamp on the bottoms of boats, sea snails that cling to the Santa Monica Pier. We're given a complicated set of tools with which to fight our supper: hammer, pliers, fork that looks like a miniature trident in keeping with the nautical theme. I resent the labor intensity of this meal. He squeezes some lemon. Some of the sea food platter for two moves. It's alive!
I use my tools to amputate a crab claw then dump the body in the bowl of detritus.
"What? That's the best part! You must eat it." He picks up the body and puts it back on my plate.
Au contraire, mon frère, I am not going to eat that. I toss it back in the bowl, indignant as Americans are when they feel their rights are threatened.
"I can't let you throw that away." He puts it back on my plate, indignant as the French are when the sanctity of their cuisine is threatened.
"Then you eat it!" I throw it at him, upsetting a collection of emptied crustacean carcasses.
Thinking he will probably need a drink, I set out a bottle of cabernet on the table, thinking this could be the last glass in a long while, and sit down to wait. He comes home from work. Raises his eyebrows and tilts his head inquiringly. I nod my head. He shakes his head. He unknots his tie and takes off his jacket. He laughs, I laugh. He goes into the bathroom. He comes out again. "What are we going to do?" We take a walk. We talk and think and wonder what to do. We consider names, we discuss living arrangements, we wonder about money. We think we're not ready, we contemplate destiny and try to imagine regret and wonder if this decision will destroy us. We talk all night until we've spun circles and still we wonder what to do.
He raises his eyebrows, questioning.
I riffle through my date book.
"The date when it happened was March 27, in case you were wondering," I say and I know that we'll never know what to do.
I move back to my country. I wait until the plane is beginning its descent before I begin to weep. I wonder why I'm weeping. I wonder how you ever really know if someone is the one. I wonder if we may meet that someone who is the one but because of the shoes they wear, or the fact that they're too skinny, or because they have a really annoying laugh that is unfortunately paired with a not-so-funny sense of humor, we write them off, and what if that someone is the one? I wonder if anyone could be the one if you just put enough effort into it. I notice I'm noticing cheap airfares across the Atlantic. I notice that I no longer notice men or men noticing me. I notice how many people are wearing wedding rings and how it no longer seems so odd. These thoughts bother me and keep me up at night and fill up pages in my journal.
And I begin to wonder if this is a love story.
Daria Brown has been a journalist, translator, speechwriter, and an aid worker. She is mesmerized by the sound of bagpipes and still believes in love stories.
Ed. note: this story first appeared in our summer 2001 issue.