I Google When to call back after you get a number and there are many options with an anxious cocksure air to it all and why the hell am I searching in the early morning of my room when I have been in two four-year relationships, was almost married, hoping that the woman I just met will somehow know I’m doing this, call me and get it over with, expediting what others call the best part of dating when it’s the truly sh-tty not fun part and why do we create algorithms and equations for love when we should be able to take x out, take ourselves out, and why isn’t everything laid out like a poem. That is not a question.
On my break I call her a few days after the VFW. I leave a voicemail. I want to talk since that’s real and genuine. I hear her voicemail voice, the high nice other voice, how people talk to machines that talk to people.
She texts me back a few hours later and says I would have called back but I am at work, maybe tomorrow or Saturday? I know she means Saturday. This gives her the most time. My default is always Never. It’s easier to rest on that day. She texts Yeah Saturday works.
This conservative wedding I attend on Saturday afternoon drags on, the woman should submit and all that, classical music not through instruments but speakers, ice cream instead of bartenders. We have the bar in the pocket of our pants. She texts me towards the end, Hey! Change of plans, going to see this show tonight, you are welcome to join. The you and are written in two single letters which should have been a sign but beauty usually trumps language. Only one of these is flawed. I turn to my roommate and say Oh sh-t this is going to be one of those nights. She will overwrite schedules to a vanishing point, she will text me until she is no longer texting. She does the girl thing and says you are welcome to join which means If you don’t show up you are not worth my time, this is over, do not even think about sex even in the fourth grade finding it in an encyclopedia sort of thinking about sex. A change of plans instead of the proposed dinner. So much for dating. So much for being adults.
I board the bus and stream the band we’re about to see, so we have something to talk about. I’m going to this outdoor mini-festival where I’ll hemorrhage money I don’t have. I will not know how to get it back. Don’t think about taxed fun and hourly rates that add to other predetermined rates. Don’t think about memories and details I won’t keep, kept in a top shelf vault next to the bottles somewhere above the mind. The music isn’t bad. It’s something I’d listen to even when not trying to impress someone.
She tells me she is by the motorcycle mural, you know, the painted thing that takes up half the venue’s space. I see her standing next to the mural. She is standing with a couple. She is the third wheel. This is good. Okay. This is going to be okay. They are her roommate and her roommate’s boyfriend. Hello. Where do you work, what do you do with your time. The only girl I’m seeing is wearing a grey motorcycle gang shirt. I buy her a beer. I buy her another beer. We are both wearing grey shirts. I wonder what she looks like naked in a sober dawn, the time when we dress ourselves back into life. Our skin shows too much when shown to someone else. Don’t think about that. Don’t ever think you have anything to shed.
A bro takes a picture of us. I see it out of my stake of vision. There is a weird documentation and infiltration that takes place among social groups. Maybe it was for school. Maybe it was nothing.
That guy just took a picture of us, I say.
Who? she says, looks around.
We both look good. There’s potential. I tell myself this every morning. I have drawn graphs for my psychiatrist before, illustrating the highest points of anxiety. It peaks in the morning and at the end of the day. He’s had so much education I don’t think he can learn anymore. I don’t want to talk about mornings.
I buy her another beer. Tonight I have money, bills that you could glue to expensive statues in a performance art stunt. It will still be here when you peel it off tomorrow. We bump into my friend from the VFW. The woman he hit on the other night isn’t here, she has dodged his messages. We avoid the topic. He knows that we know this. The band sets up. The band starts playing. The woman and I move through the crowd.
She says How old are you?
I say I was going to ask you the same thing.
We tell each other our ages. She is surprised that I am younger by three years, she doesn’t know how she feels about that but I tell her I have a lot of grey hair but don’t worry tonight I can act old. I can always act.
I don’t tell her that last part.
We hold each other, t-rex arms excavating a new body. You don’t know initially where they end and there’s the pawing around that comes with a new body, the new hand’s twine, the new hip’s notches. So we hold each other. Soft electronic music with ethereal female vocals plays in front of us. We close our eyes and banish our diurnal selves. Now we look at each other. This isn’t cliché fast or cliché slow. It is in time with whatever beat is happening. We kiss to the music in an apprehension that only comes with knowing unfamiliar lips and isn’t it funny how we forget anatomy and where do you place these things again? oh yeah, that’s right and you don’t know what lips do for a moment but you have them, yes, check, you want to know what they do with this person. We figure it out. We hold on.
She’s in the bathroom now. The music is over. I wait for her by the outside bar. A bar-goer is illustrating a story to a friend and pulls down the front of her shirt. I have seen nothing as bare even at music festival campsites. There is something overwhelming to the idea of skin here, that no one is initially ready for nakedness.
Now we’re out by the locked bikes against the fence when she says she will walk with me to the next bar, some DJs are there, we can dance and talk, we can dance again, we can replay the other night. She smiles. I say I don’t have my bike. She says she doesn’t care. She says she’ll walk with me.
At the next place we pay a cover to dance and drink on an empty floor. People are on the patio. I don’t care about money now. I’m excited to drink and money is something other people deal with in the towers ahead of us downtown. They will distract the lightning.
We talk about online dating, find out we were once on the same site. I tell her that dating is a sham, a game, people play so many games. We ask each other questions those sites ask. She says she has tattoos. I tell her about my eyebrow piercing that I removed. We agree on the same food. I learn things about her. She leaves to smoke pot with her coworker. She comes back.
What other questions, she says.
I’ll think, I say.
Somehow I know she’ll ask me the same question in the morning. As much as we try we can’t give up ourselves fully to any person. I’m afraid we’re always the etched inverse of others.
The roommate and her boyfriend are about to leave.
The roommate says Sorry he’s moody, he drinks a lot, he works a lot, he works on cars.
After they leave, she says I don’t like him that much. They met online. He’s okay. She likes him. Maybe I hate him. Let’s have a cigarette.
I call the taxi service. I have never called a taxi service. I tell the hotline guy big, van, bike, she has a bike. They ask is this a good number to call? I say I think so.
So I’m staying at your place? I say.
My room is kind of messy. Messy, she says.
Then she says something mumble-drunk, I just got out of this thing, I’m really drunk, I’m not ready for anything, new I work a lot, I have jobs.
She tells the driver her address. I live blocks from her.
I can go home, I say in that drunk-sincere voice that comes with six or eight drinks, the voice that can take you anywhere if you concentrate on the pronunciation of vowels.
No, she says. It’s too late to go anywhere.
It’s eleven dollars back to our neighborhood. She pulls out money like that table cloth/plate trick. I add a few. She throws her bike with the other bikes on her porch, a halfway house for parts.
She has been showing me pictures of her kitten all night. We see the kitten. It leaves. We form a drunken search party for it, calling out under sewing machines and wardrobes and stairwells, any place with holes.
In her room she tells me it’s messy, it is a mess, I hope you don’t mind.
I guess messy means seeing the floor, a clean folded stack of laundry on the chair, a bra hanging from a doorknob, who cares. She repairs and mends clothes for one of her jobs. I look for torn items. I might tell her about things I have in that condition. I don’t.
When I am on top of her I pretend I’m the first person seeing her tattoos, that I am her, that I drew them, that I made the decision. I designed everything. I want to touch and kiss them from the first one at eighteen to the last one whenever, remove them then paste them in my order. I do not ask to do this. I want to ask if I can keep her ink on my hands. I do not ask to do this. We’re the kind of drunk where it — we, the act — looks like a head on collision between two skin waterbeds. I try now to think in human metaphors, make this more concrete. I do things that women complain men don’t do. We place so much pressure on what other people might be and are surprised when they actually fulfill our thoughts. When it’s done the kitten nuzzles in the naked caves of me.
We went to bed fast she says after we f-ck again in the morning.
I’m looking for my dress boots.
I don’t usually do this, I say.
She says she’s joking, kind of. I think of Nate and Brenda from Six Feet Under.
Do you have any more questions? she says.
I tell her I’ll call her this week, we name a restaurant and she says Yes that would be fun. We should.
I walk an hour to my job. This is faster than buses and I have calluses in the shapes of fictional countries on my feet. Somehow I do not hurt.
I try to see her again. I do. I researched all the parts of dating, so this should work, we met randomly and the best things come from those things, right? I told my friend as fast as it happened it could go away. I guess I didn’t listen. I guess I am attached.
Almost a week passes. To fill the time I see an apartment in another city that my friends are looking to rent out, are interested in showing me. I could get away to write and be alone, a mini restart button. I could keep alcohol out of the house. Then she texts me at work, the long white bubble the longest thing she has ever sent me. It says I’m too busy to date, no time for you, need time for myself and you’re a great guy talented cute nice, I have three jobs, I am not ready, I need time don’t take it personally, I need to focus on my selfish self.
I say yes to the apartment.
Maybe I’m angry since I have given her excuse to so many women and that’s why I am upset. Fine. I get it. I’ve been there. It’s legitimate and honest but why the f-ck is it so hard to keep something when you’re healthy and ready? We’re all waiting around for a sign, a game show spinner, a fortune teller. I want to tell her to be ready but she won’t listen now. Perhaps we are all mouths.
And maybe we built ourselves on faulty plans. Okay, yes, probably, of course. That’s inherent in our story. But why can’t dating be like that high school abandon—not actually being there again, hell no, never again—but the let’s try and the why not and the who-the-hell-cares. Instead we are adult chemistry sets without goggles. We are so carelessly calculating we pour the white measurement lines into beakers.
And maybe I’m too angry to love, fine. Women have told me I think too much to love. Yes, I always want a way out but what if I’m done with running? And why am I attracted to all the hurt people, the unavailable, the busy, the checked out? I am the Ellis Island of broken relationships.
And maybe I want to be healthy and whole but the shards of broken people are easier to hold. There is no challenge in collecting something complete. You can squeeze these shattered pieces so tight until they become tendons, your tendons. When we hold tools the brain thinks they are a part of us. These people are a part of you now but they can’t teach you about love when they’re buried. We must exhume to learn. The process is destructive and restorative and human. So let them go.