Chapter Six: The Date
Love is only the dirty trick played on us to achieve continuation of the species.
W. Somerset Maugham
The most cynical thing I have ever heard is that what we call love is really our own need to feel loved. That the love we feel for a person is self-love, base ego-stroking, a solipsistic self-indulgence.
That idea has haunted me because part of me suspected my former relationships were like that. I didn’t fall in love with those women and then set out to have a relationship with them. They just sort of happened and I simply went along.
My high school girlfriend was Kate. We hung out as friends then hooked up one Friday night. When we held hands the next day in school that meant we were going out. College girlfriend Denise was a similar situation. I would never have pursued such a woman. She went for an edgy look: short, bleached, spiky hair, brow and nose piercings before they became passe; on each ear a row of earrings like chain mail. I could deal with her outbreaks of bacne and her sitcom addiction, but she smoked and was hopelessly into astrology. When we finally broke up she told me as a kind of parting shot that she thought she was gay anyway, as if to say going out with me only confirmed her dislike of my gender.
After her came LeAnne with whom I went out the longest. She was going through medical school, interning at Graduate Hospital where I had gotten a job temping in an office. Our initial dating was facilitated by the women in the office. While I filed and tapped in data they were scheming, playing matchmaker, sending clueless me to help LeAnne with basic computer issues or getting us all together for lunch. Before you knew it we were screwing on her couch.
Within weeks I had moved in with her, into her parent-subsidized Center City apartment. Most of the time she was at the hospital or sleeping. I had then entered upon the nascent stages of my unending All But Dissertation. I liked her apartment and being with LeAnne. She was really smart, well-educated. She had high intellectual standards: something that’s important to me. Unfortunately, as I got to know her I found LeAnne was afflicted with “mood swings” and was on certain medications. Turned out she was pretty much nuts, but hid it well. I was pretty clueless at the time, didn’t see the signs, the patterns.
First she’d lapse into a funk. I’d come upon her curled up in a blanket on the love seat at the window, looking out upon the cityscape, but at nothing specific. Her face would melt into a mask of banal madness: eyes unfocused, head tilted, a weak lopsided smile I read as stunned dread mixed with bemusement at the bleak Munchian scenes of hopelessness that were her mind.
Next phase would be a mercurial fight. It was always over some trifling, but she knew how to press my buttons and soon it escalated until she was throwing things at me, had become unhinged, nonsensical. And then it got worse, scary worse. She would pull out her hair, punch herself, go fetal in primal screaming and crying. In the aftermath of the fight when I would come to her apologetically she would mumble from the blankets that it was PMS. I had no reason to doubt her; it wasn’t like I was keeping track of things on a calendar.
The fights prefigured her descent into immobilizing depression. She lay catatonic like a corpse, eyes sometimes partially open. After a couple of days it would wear off and she’d stir and say a few words. Soon she’d be responding to the obligations of hygiene, work, life, showering off the caked-on misery and facing the sunny street like a drunk coming off a bender. She could be fine for weeks, maybe a couple months.
Then one day she sat me down and told me she had gotten pregnant and had an abortion the previous week. I said I thought she was on the pill. She flipped and told me to get my shit and get out and she never wanted to see me again. I did as she told me and I never saw her again. By that point I was beyond caring.
To this day I’m not sure what the truth was, but looking back, lots of things about LeAnne didn’t add up. There were curious gaps in her biography, shady incidents from her past that were alluded to but never talked about. There was a litany of former therapists, mention of a hospital. I kept track of her over the years from afar via social media and gathered that she had gotten married, had a kid, and then gotten a divorce. I don’t think she ever finished her medical degree.
Hence the grievous sum of my relationships. All of those women were really into me and I weakly reciprocated. I even convinced myself that I loved them, said the words back when they said them to me. So yeah, maybe it was just flattery—that I loved them for saying they loved me.
After the LeAnne situation crashed and burned I was determined to not get in another situation like that. I was going to do it like it was supposed to be done: find the right woman, ask her out and grow into a mature, mutually edifying relationship.
I had absolutely no luck. I had failed dates, catastrophic online dating match-ups, and of course flat-out rejections when I finally psyched myself up to ask out that cute grad student or the hot novel-reader at the Laundromat. It seemed my fate to be found by women who liked me, but never could I succeed with the ones I was attracted to. I had started to believe that horrible maxim was true: you loved only because the person loved you.
But not with Rayne. I loved Rayne from afar for a long time. Unrequited love cannot be self-serving, it disproves the cynic and his depressing assertion.
We’d left the bookstore after she bought a book, French Paintings, out of sympathy. To my relief she didn’t bring up the purchase of the man’s business.
“Where to for dinner?” I asked when we were out on the sidewalk.
She blew the dust and fly dirt off the book, “You tell me Mr. Tour Guide.”
“That new brewery place is neat.”
She crinkled her nose a little. “Been there. Let’s do something in,” she put on a haughty voice, “Fowl’s Point Proper.”
In my tour I had explained the difference between Fowl’s Point Proper versus South Fowl’s Point, over the creek where I lived near the restaurant. She thought the term ‘Proper’ was funny.
I suggested Lavar’s Crab House.
“Great. How ‘bout six? I’m going to take a bath, do some things.”
I agreed. We kissed warmly and walked away in opposite directions.
Back at my place I cleaned up, tried to read Melville, ate a small lunch. I was trying to keep my mind off of the Rayne situation, not wanting to get overly excited and lose perspective, make a fool out of myself somehow. But I kept looking at the clock, not able to wait until I could get ready for the big date and walk over. Thought of going on a bike ride, but I cleaned the bathroom instead. Finally got in the shower at 4:30.
In the shower I tend to think a lot. I thought about the contradictions and absurdities of the human condition. How we desire things, we feel they will complete us and without them we will never be whole. But then we get something and we still aren’t happy, worried about losing it and it’s never as fulfilling as we thought it would be. And the craziest part is that we never learn; we keep going through the same cycles again and again. I had entered into a romance with Rayne Gavarrete, the object of all my yearnings, the reason I’d toss and turn at night. Now I was supposed to be content, right? ‘Happy’? I wasn’t. I was consumed with the feeling that only something bad could happen. Was this because I couldn’t believe she could actually like me? But then I thought: this all clearly goes back to orphan stuff, the ingrained feeling that I’m going to be abandoned and there’s nothing that I can do about it or see it coming.
I got dressed and groomed myself as best I could—tried to not put too much gel in my hair—the whole time psyching myself up for what should have been a peak experience of my life, telling myself that this was awesome, look how lucky I am, I’m about to spend the evening with Rayne Gavarrete. I talked and cajoled myself, sang little songs substituting words in the lyrics with Rayne’s name. I checked myself out in the mirror one last time before leaving. I looked presentable enough, but not very happy. I put on a smile but it was hollow, unconvincing; I could detect a withering in my eyes, a dread that knew it was all too good to be true and things could not end well.
Rayne was standing outside of Lavar’s Crab House looking at first like the Rayne I knew from school. She stood with her back upright, holding her purse in front of her, a blank expression on her face. She could have been waiting at her door for class to start. But as I approached I saw the skirt she wore was tighter and shorter than her schoolmarm outfit, sexy without being tasteless. Heels higher than anything she wore to work. Her blouse was stylish and its cut revealed a bit of cleavage. When I got up close I saw she had put on more makeup than usual and she had worked on her hair. She looked better than I had ever seen her.
In contrast I was in khaki shorts and a wrinkled collared polo shirt, the best I could find in my house down there, never having expected to end up on a date.
When I explained as much she laughed a little, “Well, these are my sister’s clothes. She’s traveling heavy.”
She took hold of my arm and I leaned over and kissed her cheek.
She smiled, “I would kiss you but I just put on lipstick.”
We went in the restaurant and were seated. I had eaten at the bar a couple of times so I knew it was as good as could be expected from a bay town. It couldn’t compete with more urban places, but it did its best to be gourmet for the yachters. Turned out the menu for dinner was different than the one at the bar. I perused it: wow, they certainly charged gourmet prices. Rayne too looked at the menu in silence. Daters on teacher salaries mulling the sticker shock.
I said, “Just so you know, this is on me.”
Her smile revealed she knew we both had been thinking the same thing. “I asked you out to dinner, remember?”
“Yes, but I’m still paying.”
“Okay. I’ll get next time.”
Next time? That sounds promising, sounds long term. I was so overjoyed I couldn’t focus on the menu. I took a breath and cleared my head, narrowed down my options, then looked up to ask her what she was getting. She wasn’t even looking at the menu, she was looking at me with that same amorous, almost groggy look in her eyes.
“You’re so cute.”
I could feel my blushing. She laughed at me, at my cute blushing.
“Well,” I locked eyes with her, “You are… damn gorgeous.”
Right then the waitress came and took our order. I ordered us a decent bottle of red wine with our meal. When the waitress left, Rayne arranged her face to be more serious, looked down coyly, then up again, “I’ve always thought you were cute.”
I sensed she was fishing, trying to get out of me what I’ve been thinking about her all these years. I wasn’t going to gush about my heart aching for her, how she was my dream girl. I did want to be honest though.
“I’ve always wanted to ask you out, but didn’t want it to be weird at work.”
She shrugged, “Plenty of people are going out. Doug and Katie. Abby and Vince before he left.”
“The Thompsons went out, then got married.”
“And now there’s Monica and John McWilliams.”
I jutted my head forward, “Monica and John McWilliams are going out? Get out.”
She nodded, “You didn’t know?”
“Nope. Missed that one.”
John McWilliams was the absolutely huge, out-of-breath librarian, who was barely able to get up out of his seat . Monica Boone was a tiny foods teacher. The ironies were abundant, so were the possible jokes, but they wouldn’t be appropriate then and there. I only said, “That’s crazy.”
Rayne raised her eyebrows and nodded, chewed a piece of bread. After a minute she said, “But I know what you mean. What if I said no? We’d have these awkward encounters at the microwave.”
“Right. I guess the Thompsons and the others weren’t worried about it?”
“I suppose not.”
I started talking about one of the old teachers in our hallway and she held up a hand, “You know what? No talking about work. We have to stop. It’s summer. I don’t want to think about that place.”
I was thinking of what to say when she said, “Any big plans for this summer?”
“I’m determined to read Moby Dick. Work on my Leuschner research.”
“That’s the guy you were doing your dissertation on?”
My eternal All But Dissertation status had become a topic of embarrassment for me so I said nothing else about it.
She asked, “No traveling?”
“Not other than here. You?”
She curled the corner of her mouth down and shook her head a little, “Don’t know what’s going on this summer. My sister has this thing going on and… well, I don’t want to talk about it.”
Silence until I thought of a change of topic, “So where would you want to travel to if you could go anywhere?”
“Tough question. There are so many. Paris. Rome. What about you?”
“I have these ideas of going to certain historical landmarks. Like the rock in Switzerland where Nietzsche supposedly came up with the idea for the Eternal Recurrence. Or the Maulbronn monastery that you find in Hesse novels. I have a whole list of these places.”
“Cool. I can see the selfies on Facebook now.”
We spent the rest of the dinner talking about places we’d go, ideas and dreams we had. By the time dessert came we were planning half-seriously to go somewhere exotic that summer. The check came and I paid it. Then we were back out in the warm evening, in the rose-colored light of a late summer sunset.
She turned to me and we embraced and kissed slowly.
She said, “Bring me back to your place.”
“Okay, but we’ll have to walk.”
“You didn’t drive?”
“Well…I don’t have a car down here.”
She frowned, blinked her eyes trying to fathom it. “How…”
“I can’t walk in these,” she pointed to her heels. “Can we Uber?”
“Do you think…?”
She was already on her phone. Sure enough, Uber actually exists in Fowl’s Point. In minutes a retiree pulled up in a Toyota and drove us to my place.
“Wow, you’re right down the street from the Hairpin Brewery,” she said when she saw it pass.
Inside Rayne took off her heels and looked around. She went into the kitchen, didn’t seem to be too surprised or disappointed by anything. Then she stood in the middle of the kitchen, said nothing, just watched me.
I nervously talked about the place, how it’s nothing much, but it suits…then she was all over me, kissing me, pressing me against her, pulling off my shirt. She moved us back and we ended up perched on the kitchen counter, her skirt pulled up, legs open, her bare feet clasped around me. I had trouble unbuttoning her blouse so she did it while kissing me. I lifted her and shuffled across the linoleum. We were topless, fully aroused, heading to the bedroom, pin-balling up the stairway, leaving the rest of our clothes behind like breadcrumbs.
A half hour later we lay in our sweaty post-coital silence.
After a while she said, “It’s hot.”
That meant I was supposed to get up and turn on the air conditioner.
“Okay air conditioner.”
“What are you doing.”
Louder this time, “Okay air conditioner.”
“You’re not serious.”
“Who knows. There could be some app, some latent technology activated. Is it really that strange today to expect an air conditioner would respond to voice command? If this town has Uber nothing can surprise me now. In fact, I’m surprised it doesn’t work. Okay air conditioner. Alexa?”
She was laughing, then stopped and said, “Come here,” reaching for my shoulder and pulling me atop her.
I considered telling her that fallen monuments do not rise again so fast.
She kissed me and said, “We’re going to play guidance counselor.”
“Really. Is this about to get weird?”
She smiled, “Cliff Chambers, please report to guidance.”
“Does this have to do with getting my college applications in?”
“Don’t be late or…” She flashed me a severe look.
“Or you’ll be sent to the office,” she smiled.
We couldn’t get closer but she was pressing her breasts up against me, writhing her body around, pushing up with her midsection. At that any resistance I would have had melted away. (I hadn’t the slightest resistance.)
She said, “You’re required to take a class with Mr. Lambert. Do you know what that would be?”
“Um…he also teaches…mechanical drawing.”
“Wrong again.” She gyrated her crotch against me.
I felt she wasn’t going to stop asking until I cracked the answer to her riddle so I racked my brain.
“Come on,” she kissed my neck, my ear, “What does he teach?”
I was dizzy, kissed the cavity below her ear, breathed out, “Wood shop.”
“And the name of the class?”
“Very good, Cliff. That might get you in a state school. We’re looking for a more competitive upper level class.”
“Can I pass this class with an oral report?”
“I’m sorry Cliff, this is performance assessment only. What class do I want you to take?”
I was getting frustrated. Teased. “I…I don’t know what that is.”
“What comes after basic wood?”
She smiled devilishly, “Very good.”
“I think I’m already taking advanced wood.”
“You sure are. But…”
“You still have to turn on the air conditioner.”
“Do you think I can accomplish that with my advanced wood?”
“You're not that advanced.”
Not only did we go at it for a second time but, breaking any records I previously held, a third time. Sometime after midnight we fell asleep.
When I woke up the sun was up and coming in the window, effulgent in the still, white curtains. Rayne’s bare back was facing me, her brown hair settled on the pillow. I stared at her for a long time. She hardly moved. I put my hand out and touched her shoulder and her reaction was to reach down and pull the blanket over her. I lay for a while longer unable to sleep.
Finally she stirred and I watched her open her eyes and take in her surroundings, fix her position in time and space. She looked over at me as if half expecting me to not be there.
I said, “Good morning.”
“Hi.” She seemed concerned about something.
“How are you?”
“I’m okay, just feeling weird.”
My stomach dropped. Was this whole thing a big mistake? She had maybe two glasses of wine, so it wasn’t like she drank too much to make her sick or impair her judgment.
She got out of the bed and swung her head about looking for her clothes, put on what she could find. I jumped up and did the same.
We were going down the stairs picking up and putting on our clothes.
“It’s not you,” she said in the kitchen with some compassion. “It’s me. It’s this medication I’m on. Sometimes I feel sick in the morning. I’m sorry.”
At the front door she made herself stop and come over to me, kiss me quickly on the lips. “Really. Don’t worry. I’ll call you later.”
Then with her heels in her hand, she went barefoot out the front door, down my short sidewalk and turned up the street toward the Hairpin.
I realized I had never given her my phone number.