Believe it or not, my first date was not the little kid kind when you take the girl down the street to a movie, or ask a classmate to the school prom and she dances with everyone except you and you go to the bathroom and sit in a stall with your head in your hands completely miserable and wishing that someone would blow up the school gym while other boys come in and out bragging and laughing and pissing and shitting. That is in everyone’s history and memory to one degree or another at least in this country. When memories tend to become something other than smoke in the wind we have grown up, at least I had. No flaming romance in my adolescent years. Lots of imagination, hard dick in hand but nothing that would, looking back on it, push my life in one direction or another so that I could say yes if I had not done that something different would have taken place and my life would be different. So it was with my first date for it forced me to recognize how fragile was all that I held as a part of my character and person.
Parents are good and parents are bad, sometimes simultaneously. I realize that now with the weight of time and a child, but it was as if my parents took lessons in alienating their child that single day. I tried so hard and failed so miserably. Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, The Keystone Cops, Abbott and Costello and Carol Burnett combined could not have come up with anything better or worse, depending on your point of view. My first job on my own, my first apartment and then my first date.
I remember waking up to a popping noise. I sit up in a panic thinking that someone has fired a gun in my tiny closet of an apartment but it is only the radiator beneath the bedroom window. The room is like a furnace for I had forgotten to turn the radiator off before falling on the bed. My head feels as if it will shatter with the slightest movement. My mouth is full of cotton balls that taste like shit. My bladder is set to burst and I have a piss hard-on that will not subside. Amazingly, I can still remember the day before when I asked Sara Miles for a date and she agreed. She was easily the most vivacious woman that I knew. Long wavy brunette curls that bounced on her shoulders and framed an angular but pretty face, dark almost purple eyes on either side of a button nose that wiggled slightly when she laughed. She laughed a great deal and it sounded like tiny bells at a distant church. I had spent weeks of torment trying to decide when and how I should do this. A note on her desk? ‘Bump’ into her in the corridor? Ask if she wanted to walk down to the café with me? Ask her opinion of the project we were working on and ease into it that way. I spent at least a week imagining all the ways she could say no: softly with a dismissive glance, joyfully as if the word “no” was a diamond, sadly but regretfully, sadly but with no regrets, emotionless, desperately, agonizingly, with sophisticated languor by wagging her fingers as you see people do at an auction who have lots of money but don’t want to show off, wearing a sign saying NO in twenty-four point Arial, covertly by wearing a magnetic bra that kept her glued to the prison-like metal door of the Ladies Room, sitting at her desk with her back turned and calling Human Resources to report sexual harassment by a monstrous predator (this one made me feel cold and sweaty), on the way past me in the hall, on the way towards me as we approached our respective pissoirs or by simply screaming at me “Not a chance in hell you fat, nerdy loser (this last though caused me to sit on the john for thirty minutes in an agony of self appraisal). I questioned why I should ask at all. I was, I decided, just fine doing my job in my work cubicle and then taking the bus back to my apartment that wasn’t much larger. If I got thirsty there was a bar right down the street and no one to tell me I couldn’t go there. If I suffered from aggravated horniness there were plenty of girls in the world and if I could not attract one there was the always-available five finger exercise, one at which I had become both adept and, I thought, inventive. I had considered writing a short, educational tome entitled One Hundred Ways to Flog The Dog. I actually started it but quickly decided that I needed more research.
At the end of the day, though, I made my way past all doubts and fears and disabled all my redoubts and safeguards. I walked upon the earth a living time bomb set to blow up in a cloud of embarrassment at the slightest provocation. How did I appear that day? She never said and, after all that subsequently happened, I suppose that lacked a degree of importance. Did I have the look of a person who enters his cellar on Thanksgiving morning to find himself ankle deep in warm water and the water heater staring at him malevolently from across the room? Deer in the headlight? Burglar stuck halfway through a window? A priest who can’t find his sermon? I felt like that. Maybe worse.
We were walking together from the café holding our coffee cups and weaving in and out groups of cube rats walking in the opposite direction. The company was too cheap to keep all its elevators operating and Number Four was down for service as usual. A crowd had built up around the doors to the remaining five. The door in front of which we were standing finally opened and Sara inched her way in with seven or eight other people. As she turned to face the front of the elevator, someone jostled her from behind and her coffee went all over the front of my shirt as I followed her onto the elevator.
“Oh, my God. Oh my God,” Sara used the napkin she had wrapped around the coffee cup to dab at the brown stain down my front. “I’m so sorry, John.” Her face flushed a bright red as she looked at me and covered her mouth with one hand.
Alerted by an animal instinct older than man, and supported by innumerable harmonic secretions and testosterone build-up I sensed an opening in the target’s defenses and mounted a charge. “Oh, hey. I’m okay. Don’t worry.” My chest and belly tingled.
“But your shirt.”
“It will dry.” I patted futilely at the brown stain on my shirt with a tiny square of napkin. The elevator stopped and I backed out still patting myself and found that we had arrived on our floor. Now some interior voice urged me. Disarm yourself completely. Throw yourself on her mercy. Do it now “How about joining me for dinner tomorrow?” I smiled at her at least I hope that is what it looked like. “I’ll even wear a clean shirt.”
Her laughter tinkled through the years of my ears and echoes inside of me even now remembering that moment. “How can I refuse such an offer,” she told me, and bounced away towards her desk leaving me with a stained shirt and a shit-eating grin on my face.
Everything echoes inside of me now like buckshot in a trashcan. Last night’s meal, whatever it was, is moving uneasily in my stomach and threatening to come up the same way it went down. I try to sit up; five minutes later when I realize that my head has not exploded, I finally make it. I look across the room and hazily plan on getting to the bathroom with its life-saving aspirin and face-saving toilet that would quietly accept any donation that I had to make. I try to think positive thoughts about my upcoming date, but I am not sure I will be able to take anyone anywhere again let alone a beautiful woman who puts me in a state of high anxiety with an incipient erection.
An hour later, I am still alive and feeling that death might be put off for another day. The aspirin has masked the worst of the signals being sent to my brain. I remember the upcoming date with Sarah and start to wonder how best to bring it off. Sure, you idiot. Instead of celebrating last night, you should have come home and used the money for tonight. You stupid, childish asshole. You screwed the proverbial pooch yet again. I heat water for coffee, and worry. Payday is still a whole week away. I check my wallet for the emergency stash I keep folded up underneath my driver’s license. Gone. Last night probably. I feel my teeth grinding in frustration. Some emergency. Stupid idiot, moronic dipstick, whaleshit, dick wad, road kill, oil slick, street turd, Money suddenly jumps up on my priority list right next to overcoming my hangover and nausea. Hmmmm. I paw through a pile of dirty clothes where my little desk used to be. Ahh. Checkbook. No good. El zippo in the old account as usual. Probably overdrawn as well. Haven’t balanced it since the Goths sacked Rome. Maybe I left money around in the bedroom. I turn from the desk and check the rest of the room. Dresser yields zilch. There’s nothing on the bed. I try looking under the mattress (shit I think I strained something). NADA NIENTE, NOTHING. I would scream but my body probably could not withstand the shock. Under the bed I find just dust bunnies and something green and crusty that makes my stomach knot up again. Clothes on the floor? Yep. A whole fifty cents left over from the past night’s celebration. Credit card? Maxed out, baby. The credit cops probably had me on their list of people to exterminate. I had sent them ten bucks on a fifty dollar minimum. Now I wished I had the ten spot back. Why can’t I ever plan ahead, I moaned, or is it plant a head or maybe give head? Hustle it on the street? Christ, it would probably take me far longer than I had to pan handle even the cost of a Mickey D’s burger.
I flop back onto my bed and close my eyes. Blessed relief. Sweet darkness. Maybe when I wake up I’ll feel better and find myself transformed into handsome, rich and witty. Right, I tell myself sarcastically. I’ll wake up and still be the same old pea-shaped, financially broken Walker. Deep down in that dark place where the pain monsters are born and swim around creating chaos, I know the answer and it fills me with despair. I who would be on my own, beholden to no one, would have to seek help from my parents. I had, in fact, sworn never to stand again in that doorway or walk through the corridors listening to the sterile warnings of certain doom and descriptions of all the possible things that had probably gone wrong that resulted in my birth and subsequent misspent life.
Sarah, meanwhile, is not privy to my hangover and financial debacle. She would be still asleep or maybe checking her watch to ensure that she arrives at the hairdresser precisely when she is supposed to. At work she is so anal that the smallest detail does not go unnoticed. She will work on a problem until everything is right and will not let anything or anyone rest until it is. She may even have sat in a car borrowed from her parents for several minutes so that she could walk through the door of the hairdresser at the correct moment. After the hair was how she wanted it, she probably went shopping for a new dress (I would never have known the difference so such a task would have been strictly for her feeling of well being and not mine). She was always dressed as if she were about to undergo a job interview. I admired her ability to live that way and thought it part of her beauty and appeal.
I knew that I would not only have to phone and make sure my parents were home but then I would have to actually go out to Broken Oaks and, figuratively speaking, get my knees dirty yet again. Sighing, I reach for the phone reminding myself that this is for Sara and Sara is definitely worth the emotional price that I will be paying.
An hour later, fortified by two cups of coffee, two more Advil and Visine, I drive through the imposing brick columns and up the semicircular driveway to the big, yellow colonial with the hunter green shutters. The massive dark oak double doors in front reminded me of temple doors I had seen in the old movies when a mob was attacking the cathedral. I turned the handle of the left-hand one and it opened silently. I pushed into the vast hall beyond.
“Good afternoon, John. How good to see you.” Sylvia, the maid, bustled down the hall from the kitchen in the rear smiling a welcome. She is a trim, graying black woman uniformed in green and black. My childhood memories of her are those of a woman who acted as if she were a drill sergeant on parade, back stiff, mouth drawn down into a perpetual frown of discontent walking around dusting and vacuuming, making beds and all the hundreds of menial chores that keep a house that size going. When I was young I had taken her presence for granted. Sylvia had been part of the house like the gardener or the man who delivered the groceries or the milkman. Someone whom I saw every day, who occasionally smiled but most of the time huffed off to herself in a severe mumble that I could never understand.
“Hi, Sylvie. Are my folks home?”
“Your mother’s in the living room. I think your dad’s in his study. Leastwise, he was on hour ago. The smile disappeared and she turned on her heel and vanished towards the back of the house as quickly as she appeared.
I decide to tackle my mother first though she could make Torquemada seem like the Jolly Green Giant. I turn left, crossing the hall and through the big double doors that are partly open and walk through into a living room that ran the entire width of the house and into which I could have easily fit my apartment with room left over for the hallway outside of it. There are several furniture arrangements within. The walls are yellow flocked wallpaper with subtle gray striping. The trim is something like sea foam. Very light grayish green. The couches and chairs that made up the sit-down-and-have-a-drink areas were various neutral shades of tan and green, pinks and browns. It was a room out of Architectural Digest and about as inviting. At the far end along the wall was a Louis XIV writing desk. Very ornate and fragile, it looked as if the slightest breeze would turn it to dust, but my mother sits there to write her letters of invitation, thank-you, and business correspondence, and there she sits, bent over the surface as if the sight of her son after nearly a year away is of little consequence.
She continues to write as if I had never spoken.
“Hello. Earth to Mom. Come in.” I try again, venturing a little humor, trying to keep myself in check.
“I am not deaf, John,” she continues to write for a few more seconds just to make sure I know my place in her universe. She lays her Mont Blanc down as if it were in danger of shattering and turns slightly to look in my direction. “I see you haven’t changed much. Still overweight and sloppy.”
I tell myself that this is something I can ignore and should ignore and after a breath or two I do ignore. “Hi, mom. Nice to see you too.”
“Well?” She stares at me over the top of her reading glasses looking very much like the headmistress of some posh school for girls buried out in the country in a pile of Gothic stone.
“Well what?” I counter knowing what she means but wanting her to come out and say it for some perverse reason I cannot understand.
“What is it you want?” she returns curtly. “You don’t just show up here after a year to say how much you love us and miss us and are sorry for the way you treated us.”
“I’m doing okay on my own,” I tell her, wishing for the umpteenth time that I
didn’t have to go through this. Sarah, I tell myself, think of a nice dinner and what might happen afterwards.
“Still in that silly little job?”
“It’s not a silly little job, Mom. I help people. That’s not silly.”
“So you say.” My mother got out of her chair and stalked across the room to where I was standing and offered a powdered cheek for the obligatory kiss. Smack smack. At my age my mother was probably concerned with learning the art of being beautiful when she felt ugly, of being a considerate hostess for casual get-togethers where no detail was missed and the casual invitees were carefully culled and selected from the available gene pool of the upper crusty society spawn of which I was one. My mother knew how to keep the family out of the gossip columns, how to chair committees for worthwhile charities, appear at the right dinner parties with clothes that other women could admire without being jealous and other men could remember late at night when they lay awake with the old midnight boner. She exercised regularly and ate like a pigeon, a few pecks here, a few pecks there, here a peck, there a peck, everywhere a peck, peck. She was in her fifties then and looked ten years younger though I often wondered if the illusion would be broken had she smiled and disturbed all that carefully pampered and groomed flesh. The formality of the prodigal kiss disposed with, she stepped back and I was surrounded by a faint but undeniable scent of expensive perfume. It did my hangover little good and I swallowed hard and tried not to think of my stomach and its contents swishing around in restless irritation.
“So I say.” We looked at each other, two people who had turned into intimate strangers. “You look wonderful as usual.”
“Thank you, dear. Find a seat and I’ll get your father. He’s around here somewhere, probably in his study.” She turned and strode across the room towards the rear of the house.
I sat down on a couch sinking into the gold and Chinese red brocade like some ancient pasha in Arabie, closed my eyes and tried to think good thoughts about the coming evening. We would dine in comfort and fine surroundings as befits lovers of all descriptions and sizes (for even then I was expanding in spite of feeling guilty every time I stared at a plate of food). The beef would be as butter on the tongue. She would sip at her Chardonnay and smile at me across the candlelit table. Later, surfeit and full of warmth and good feeling, she would slip into my bathroom to freshen up. I would heat up coffee on the stove and slice pieces of a somewhat stale coffee cake and finish off the last piece there in the kitchen. Sara would come out of the bathroom snuggled into that old terry cloth robe I left hanging on the back of the bathroom door. She would obviously have left her bra behind for the robe would strain and jiggle slightly as she moved. I would almost hear her nipples, pointed with excitement, rubbing against the inside of the robe and carry the coffee cups out of the kitchen alcove to meet her in the living room. And then we would…
“Well, look what the wind blew in the door.” my father boomed. I felt the nausea return with a vengeance as he came into the living room with my mother pacing in stately array behind. Physically at least, he was the opposite of my mother. Of medium height he sported a large gut and his fleshy face and florid features made him look older than his years. Only his eyes, blue and piercing beneath bushy brown brows showed the man beneath the fleshly mantle.
“Hi, Dad. How are you?”
“Good. Good.” He strode across the room, a captain on his quarterdeck, and I rose to shake his hand, a supplicant robed and tonsured, scrubbed and rubbed awaiting the press of flesh from he who was anointed by he who needed no anointing. Dominus, Dominus porkus detestus now lettuce pray oh God wherefore art thou? “Changed your mind, have you?” He gripped my hand as if it were a washcloth he wanted to wring out and stared at me for a moment as if trying to fathom my purpose of being in his domain. I swallowed back my stomach and tried to remember how he had made me feel growing up.
“About what?” I met him stare for stare and would probably remember that moment in Latin if I knew any.
“Oh John really.” Never one to be second fiddle in any conversation, my mother had to put in her piece. I remember wishing that something would explode in the kitchen.
“Still working that little job of yours?”
“I see.” My father sat down in the chair across from me sitting bent forward with his hands interlaced across his knees. “Well it’s good to see you.” He tried a smile and failed miserably but probably thought that he’d brought it off with style. “You could have stayed in touch, you know. Come by more often or just called. Your mother was worried.”
My mother worried? Maybe over the annual campaign drive or whether so-and-so had enjoyed the evening and would be favorably disposed for some future favor. I know. I know. Very cynical but I had grown up in this house and this was the truth according to Walker. “Sure she was.” I told him, letting some sarcasm slip through.
“Oh John,” she said. “How could you doubt that? We have always wanted nothing but the best for you and have given you everything you ever needed or wanted.” She stared at me as if I had made a bad bid at Bridge. Five hearts? For shame.
“I see you haven’t lost any weight,” my Dad said, launching this particular attack for the umpteenth time. I resigned myself to having to sit through it again. “Bad for your health, you know. When you get older, you’ll regret all those extra pounds.” He was a fine one to talk. He wasn’t exactly Charles Atlas himself.
“Look who’s talking,” I pointed out.
“I was sick for a while. Got a little out of shape. If you’d kept in touch, you would have known.”
“Sorry,” I told him, not a little sullenly. “I’ve been trying to get my life going just as you did back when the Ozarks were anthills.”
“You need medical school or law school or architecture. Some good solid profession,” my father told me pompously. “Training you can build on and make a good living from. Why with my contacts,” he started and I was quick to head off that long speech.
“See that’s the problem. I wanted to do whatever I could do without your contacts” and the thought of more years of school bored me to tears. I sighed and made a stab at getting the hell out of there. “Look. I have a date tonight and find myself a little short. I wondered if I could borrow a little cash. You want to see me more often? I’ll come by in a couple of weeks and repay you. How’s that?”
“A date?” I could almost hear my mother’s mandibles clicking open.
Because I had never been one of the boys. My childhood was spent dodging the blows and pranks of those whose parents thought only the strongest would survive and taught their children not to take shit from anyone and dole it out generously to those who were seemingly weaker. I was fat, weak and shy. To make it worse, I could not even claim to be a nerd. Science confused me. Math left me in tears. In short, I was a perfect target. My peers delighted in stuffing turds into my book bag. Girls, even after I was old enough to take an interest in them, would not be caught within fifty feet of me. I was adolescent poison ivy so I had grown up in the company of babysitters and nannies and the occasional parent drifting in and out of my field of vision. Sure, I adapted or thought I had. I never brought friends home, never went to anyone’s house, could not even remember mentioning the name of someone I liked for I liked only my room and my books. My father, man among men, probably thought I was gay. God knows what my mother thought and I hoped she kept that knowledge to herself.
I’m sure my father was shocked as well, therefore, though he did his best not to show it except to raise one eyebrow in an expression of disbelief. “A girl?”
“You know. Built like Mom only younger.” Not to mention a thousand times more friendly. The last thing I wanted to do was to spend a lot of time describing Sarah. I needed to get back to my apartment and get ready. I was not prepared to go through all the time I had spent or the emotional trauma I had endured simply to take advantage of an accident engendered by my own clumsiness. I smile at my parents and hope to avoid trying to describe such imponderables.
“Well that’s wonderful, dear. Tell us all about her.” My mother walked over, sat down on the sofa next to me and stared at me soulfully.
I sighed. “Her name is Sarah Jeanville and she started work in my unit some weeks ago.”
“She actually agreed to go out on a date with you?” My father tapped his fingers on the coffee table. One part of him cannot believe the beauty-and-beast scenario. He undoubtedly thought she must be the world’s biggest dog while another part of him enjoyed sticking it to me.
“Yeah, but she was in a dark room when I asked her,” I replied and immediately regretted it. I needed a loan and pissing off my father would not help my cause.
“George, stop teasing him.” My mother, obviously bent upon learning something of interest, glared over at him. “What does she look like, John?”
“About my height, black hair, brown eyes, good figure.” I felt as if I had just placed her in a police lineup. Yes officer. She agreed to a date. No, she did not say anything about mental illness. No, I don’t know what she was thinking. Yes. It could be that she was embarrassed by the accident and agreed out of regret. Not a chance. I’m delighted regardless of the motive. Please don’t arrest me until tomorrow. Truthfully, if I had tried to describe her as I saw Sarah in my mind, I would have run out of words and simply sat there looking dumb and with a raging erection to boot.
“Jeanville,” my mother repeated. “George, I wonder if she is related to the Boston Jeanvilles?”
Jesus H. Christ, I thought. Robbing a fucking bank would be easier than this. Yes she’s related to anyone who might impress you and get this over with. I had kind thoughts for Bonnie and Clyde and Al Capone. Had they known my parents, they would have surrendered without a fight. I wondered what Sarah was doing during this time. Taking a nap? At the beauty parlor getting a ‘do’? I had no idea what she did in her free time. That thought made me a little more tense than I already was. Maybe she was out shopping for some sexy outfit. My ego was running wild at that moment along with my hormones. Maybe she was stepping out of the shower, her flesh heated and pink and smelling of flowers and her hair of African orchids and wrapping it and herself into several, huge, fluffy towels as the steam slowly dissipates into her bedroom or maybe she was lying on her bed cursing herself for neglecting to get my phone number so she could call the whole thing off. Migraine or something like that.
My father goes through his wallet as if he is destitute and counting out his last few dollars and then hands me three twenties as if he were lending me a million. My mother smiles stiffly. “Come by more often, John. You really should you know.” We all get to our feet and my parents turn and head back to their respective pursuits leaving me to find the front door.
As I drive back to my apartment I hope desperately that Sara is indeed looking forward to our date and is in the midst of preparations for it. A big snowflake drifts aimlessly past the windshield and I notice suddenly how dark it is getting and put on my headlights. I feel almost human. I have money in my pocket and a beautiful woman awaiting my attention. Damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead as an admiral once said; I start to whistle softly as more flakes come down.
Collapsing into the old, yellow chair with its blue flowers and stuffing popping out like cotton bolls, I flick through the television channels on my little Panasonic set and settle for football. Miami still searching for a five hundred team and Indianapolis is in the process of handing them their ass. I wonder if there might still be a beer left in the fridge but feel too tired to get up and check. A quick nap before the evening begins seems to be in order and I close my eyes as Miami takes over on their own five and imagine Sara nude in various positions. Reality bites but imagination has larger teeth.
HOLY FUCKING SHIT. My eyes pop open and I bolt upright in the chair. Five o’clock and I am to pick Sara up at six. I must get my ass in gear if I am going to be on time. I lunge out of the chair shedding clothes as I do so. I trot into the bathroom cursing my stupidity. That’s why they invented the alarm clock you asshole. By the time I am bathed and dressed, I realize that I will have to really push it to be on time. I look out the window and see nothing but white. The whole godamned world has turned white. Shit. I will have to shovel the car before I can get going. Cursing, I throw on some old clothes and rush down to the tiny parking lot in back of the building. A stiff wind is piling the snow up in huge mounds that looked several feet deep in spots. I lean into the wind and walk to a particularly big mound that was my car a few short hours before. It’s my car alright. I begin to brush the snow off and find the headlights still on and glowing merrily beneath the drift. Hoping for the best, I get the door open, fold myself inside and try to start it. Nothing. The battery is dead and the engine won’t even turn over. I sit there banging my head against the steering wheel and wishing I were dead.
Two hours late, I finally pick Sara up dressed in jeans and an old shirt in place of jacket and tie and take her to Friendly’s that is all I can afford after paying the local garage to venture out into the storm in order to give my car a jump. Still, we did make it out and managed to smile and laugh about the whole thing in between burger bites and salty fries with plenty of ketchup squirted over them. She talked of her ambitions and her life, her dreams realized and unrealized. I talked of mine and then found I was talking just to be able to see her mouth move in all the right ways and her eyes sparkle and suddenly became tongue tied and we sat sipping our cokes as the storm slowly passed overhead.
Afterwards, I had tried to get her to come to my place for a cup of coffee but it was not to be. Very tired, she told me. Long day. Enjoyed our evening though. Thank you so much for asking me. I think things work out for the best, don’t you? Not if you won’t come home with me I don’t. I ended up dropping her off at her place. Thanks again. Looks like the storm is over. Yes indeed. Well, see you at work. Good night. I drove home so depressed I could not even bother turning on the lights but simply threw myself onto my bed in a blind rage at the bad luck and stupidity that had totally screwed up the entire day. Not only am I broke once again but I am still a virgin. What woman in her right mind would want to come back to this tiny room with me after hanging around for two hours and then eating a meal of hamburger and fries. I tossed and turned, finally got up and removed my clothes, fell back onto the bed and into a sleep where Sara came and made all well again.