First-Date Fridays: The Bank Robber

Digital StillCamera

It’s been a few weeks since my last First-Date Friday essay, and several weeks since I last discussed my 15-month litany of online dates. (If you’re thinking those dates are going to culminate in me finding romantic bliss, you are confusing my life with a Meg Ryan movie.) Next on the list, from March 2015, is The Bank Robber. Technically, we never had a first date, but I really, really wanted to!

I met The Bank Robber on Tinder. Of course, I didn’t know he was a bank robber at the time. Though, to be fair, he hadn’t robbed a bank in years. On his profile, he cited music and “crafting” among his hobbies, which in his case meant making art out of found objects. Very cool! He described himself as a punk, and he meant it, in an old-school, 1980s UK sort of way. (One parent was Irish, the other English, and despite being a US citizen, he spent a lot of time in the UK as a child.) He had a full sleeve of tattoos on each arm, and more across his torso, he wore a thick leather belt fastened high on his waist to hold up baggy trousers, and his boots looked like they were made for kicking shit. He was older–my age, mid-40s–but still handsome, though the years seem to have wearied him. From his photos, it was apparent that he slicked his hair up in a dashing yet irreverent pompadour on special occasions. It wasn’t until I did some sleuthing that I figured out, one of those special occasions was his release from federal prison.

I learned about his criminal past pretty quickly, not because he told me but because I think he was bad at the Internet. He went to prison in his late 20s, effectively missing much of the digital revolution. He had only been out a few months when we both swiped right, and he seemed not to understand the basics of protecting one’s privacy online. Or perhaps he just didn’t care. He asked if we could exchange email addresses and I agreed, answering at length his query about the type of music I liked. I was listening obsessively to the Pogue’s “Broad Majestic Shannon” at the time, and my interest in Celtic punk seemed to resonate with him. He wrote me back right away, revealing his full name in the automated signature. As a professional researcher, I couldn’t help myself: I googled him.

My search quickly went from bad to worse. The first hit that popped up was a website of prison inmates seeking pen pals. The second hit was a website that posted letters from people in prison. And the third was a guest post on a blog dedicated to reporting about life on the inside. There were photos, including his mugshot, that demonstrated unimpeachably that it was him. And then there was his Facebook.

I clicked on the Facebook link to discover that his profile was wide open–timeline, photos, friend list, everything was public. He had very few Facebook friends, because he had only been released from prison a few months prior. I guess 15 years up river tends to limit one’s social circle. But he did have a girlfriend! She was/is an adorable, tattooed, rockabilly massage therapist 8 years his junior. She wore cute-girl nerd glasses and seemed to have a bunch of elderly pets. It was clear from his Facebook page (and hers; yes, I am a stalker!) that they met while he was in prison. They were living together as a couple since his release from a halfway house, and they had purchased an adorable pirate-themed shower curtain right around the time we met on Tinder. What a prince!

Of the two revelations–that he had recently been released from federal prison after serving time for bank robbery, and that he had a live-in girlfriend–only the second was a deal breaker for me. Even so, I didn’t know definitively what the deal was. I decided to continue the correspondence. And, ok, I really wanted to meet him so I could ask him about prison!

I read everything by and about him that I could find online. I really am a professional researcher, so I have very good skills in that regard. And he was quite prolific, even writing–by hand–a newsletter from prison that included original articles, cartoons, opinion pieces by fellow inmates, and descriptions of prison daily life. He published several issues by mailing them to someone on the outside who would post them online. The newsletters were fascinating to me–a glimpse at another world, about which I know nothing. As a professional humanities scholar in possession of an amazing trove of texts, I immediately started drafting a conference proposal in my head. But as a lonely, single woman interested in meeting someone who could hold my interest, I was also drawn to him emotionally. His writings suggested a smart, kind, funny man who had endured serious trauma. Indeed, one issue of the newsletter was drafted from a hospital bed. According to the essay he wrote, he drew the ire of the prison’s skinheads for refusing to choose sides in a racially divisive conflict. They beat him unconscious, and he was hospitalized for three months.

I liked his politics, and his commitment to social justice came through in many places. But I was troubled by how The Bank Robber discussed his crimes. He admitted to robbing banks, and he framed the robberies as politically motivated attacks on the government and the nation’s exploitative banking system. Perhaps that really was his motivation at the time, and he was not just robbing banks as an easy means of supporting himself. But it does seem like a convenient, ex post facto way of justifying behavior that was incomprehensibly cruel–not to the banks, but to the people inside them.

He used a gun. And in that moment when he pointed his gun at the teller, the world froze. That person, and anyone who was aware the crime was taking place, instantly realized that they were powerless over this angry young man who was threatening their very lives for a sack of cash. Confronting the random brutality of the universe–“Why my bank? Why my shift? Why my window?”–and realizing in a heart-stopping instant that all of the control we exert over our lives–the makeup we apply to accentuate our features, the choices we make to save and spend, the ability to drive our cars where and when we want to, the laws that we endow with meaning so that the universe might be rendered orderly… it is all illusion. Confronting that fact changes people. And it changes them forever.

It requires callous indifference to other people’s feelings, to threaten violence like that. And I suspect it requires a conscious refusal to take responsibility for terrorizing actual people, in order to frame it–even long after the fact–as a benign assault on institutions. There is no way those tendencies do not leech into his relationships. Even so, curiosity and my irritating propensity for optimism got the better of my revulsion. Perhaps he did feel genuine remorse, I wondered, but he found it too painful to express publicly. I continued to write to him.

I concede, I am drawn to broken men. They are interesting, and I find their jagged edges sexy as hell. I admire broken people in general, because (to quote Hemingway), they tend to be “strong at the broken places.” Then again, if you’ve ever glued pottery back together, you know that Hemingway is full of shit. Structures tend to be weak at the broken places, and they tend to break there again and again. As a broken person myself, I know. Strength doesn’t reside in the broken places; it resides in the mending process, and the ability to do so over and over.

I never got to find out whether The Bank Robber was broken or strong, defeated or resilient, empathetic or sociopathic, or some combination of all of these. He stopped writing back right after I disclosed what I do for a living. He is a fry cook at a local diner, and I am a university professor. It wouldn’t have bothered me, but it might have bothered him. Or perhaps I was just too square, too bourgeois, too–well, really I have no idea why he stopped writing to me. At the time, it stung, and I framed his rejection as evidence that even the lowest members of society don’t want me. “Barrel bottom, scraped,” I sulked on Facebook.

But that was a low blow, rooted in my own hurt feelings. I am no better or worse than anyone, incarcerated, paroled, or free. And in a world rife with exploitation and suffering, I suspect we are all criminals in some way or other.

I still look The Bank Robber up online from time-to-time. After breaking up with his girl–Gee, I wonder why!–they appear to have reconciled. I am happy for them. He remains fascinating to me, and she seems like a genuinely good soul and someone I would like. I hope they are at peace. I hope, if he does recognize the horror of what he did years ago, that he finds the strength to forgive himself, and that he can channel his regret into service for others. I want to believe that people can change, that forgiveness is possible, that life works out for everyone in the end.

Maybe that’s what Shane MacGowan was talking about, as he recalled those golden days on the banks of the broad, majestic River Shannon.

Take my hand, and dry your tears babe
Take my hand, forget your fears babe
There’s no pain, there’s no more sorrow
They’re all gone, gone in the years babe

We are all part of the same search–for love, forgiveness, and redemption. And we are all just doing time, trying to figure it out.

Advertisements

The Garden of Love

Every garden tells a story. Many stories, in fact.

There is the story of conditions: too much rain, not enough rain, too much sun, not enough sun, too much clay, not enough sand, too close, too deep, too early, too late, too tempting for the squirrels. Some plants thrive, others struggle. You tweak the variables–water, nutrition, pest control, even location–but the outcome is beyond anyone’s control. In the end, every garden story is a parable about patience and humility.

There is the story of the work: The bulbs I got as a party favor at my friends’ gorgeous May wedding that I forgot to plant and then secretly discarded with tremendous guilt. That time I waited too long to treat my Dwarf Hinoki Cyprus for parasites, and now it looks like Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree. When my friend died, and for days all I could do was garden. “Too many weeds,” I thought as I pulled them. “And somehow not enough.”

And then there is the story of origin: Those hasta came from my friend Liz’s old apartment. My boyfriend and I drove 100 miles out of state to buy the Weeping Blue Atlas Cedar out back. That Christmas Rose and those other hasta came from my mother’s garden. That Live Forever came from my mom’s garden, along with the Snow on the Mountain in the back, and she took them from my grandmother’s garden maybe ten years before that. Some of the plants came from my great grandmother’s garden, which ones, we’re not sure.

A garden story can go on like that forever.

In my family, touring the garden is a tradition. Whenever my mother comes over, she checks out the plants in the front yard, commenting enthusiastically about whatever is in bloom. I inevitably start pointing things out: This came from your house. That Andromeda is really struggling, can’t figure out why. Yes, that Live Forever will need to be divided soon. Before long my dad has disappeared inside to check sportz on his tablet, and my mom and I are wandering through the backyard too. It’s true, her memory problems ensure that the legacy plants always come as a revelation, but the ups and downs of weather and season ensure that there will forever be new news to report. “I really need to get out here and        ” is usually the final word.

Because the work is unceasing.  A garden is a process, not a finished product. Gardening is a journey, not a destination. A garden story never ends.

282249_10151008315552915_1594415123_n
Strong man, stronger back. I took this photo when I went to visit him in Guatemala a few years ago. More on that later!

But it does have a beginning. My garden began as a rectangle of grass with a single, tidy bed that hugged the porch. Then I met Marcos, a neighbor and professional landscaper. Gardener, actually. He was an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala. He was also the most beautiful man I ever dated–black hair, mocha-colored skin, dark eyes rimmed with lustrous lashes, thick lips like a Mayan god, and a gorgeous torso sculpted by honest work. He loved plants more than he loved women, and he loved women a lot–the curve of their hips, the mysterious depth of their bellies, the way they moved and smelled. I should know–I was one of them. “Beauty,” he called me softly.

Marcos never told me he loved me. Instead, he said, “We should do your yard.” And he did. One morning I awoke to a chopping sound. I looked out my bedroom window and saw him working out front, wearing nothing but white cotton pajama bottoms that he quickly sweated through. He had borrowed a pickax from the golf course where he worked, and he swung it like John Henry digging tunnels through solid rock.

“THWACK. THWACK. THWACK.” Over and over, never stopping, he dug up six pernicious Rose of Sharon that threatened to devour the whole house, Sleeping Beauty-style.

“THWACK. THWACK. THWACK.” Gone went the sucker trees that proliferated behind the neighbor’s crumbling shed, preventing my plants from thriving in their shade.

“THWACK. THWACK. THWACK.” Out of the ground came tap roots five inches in diameter that denied water to the tender plants I was trying to nurture.

After two hours, his brown skin was slick with sweat, and his soaked pajamas concealed pretty much nothing from the neighbor’s prying eyes. I brought him ice water and strawberries, and he kissed me sweetly. I am sure the neighbors who saw us together, then and later, told themselves a nasty little story, of a middle-aged white lady who hired a Latino gardener to redo her yard and then ended up sleeping with him. Over the next several months, we did little to dispel that rumor, in part because the myth that he was my gardener (and not my boyfriend) helped him get side jobs in the neighborhood, in part because we found the narrative titillating, and mostly because it was none of their fucking business. What actually happened was, I dated a talented man who loved me, and he gave me the most gorgeous yard in the zip code as a symbol of his affection.

When Marcos was done with the pickax that first morning, he pointed at the epic piles of debris and angry roots still protruding from the ground. “The rest is yours,” he commanded. “I’m going back to bed.”

Yes, he could be blunt and patriarchal, and he had some retrograde opinions about gender. But this aging feminist found it hilarious, endearing, and sexy as hell.

Over the next few months, Marcos terraced my front yard and built two patios and paths out of Pennsylvania field stone. He meticulously worked the soil to create flawless drainage and maximize the plants’ growing potential. We worked together to weed and sew. He called the final result “The Garden of Love.”

Every garden is a labor of love, but from the very beginning, my garden was made of it. Some of the plants Marcos chose did not do so well when the winters turned cold again. The neighbors drastically pruned their tree, and a few shade-loving plants withered from exposure. After Marcos returned home to Guatemala, I lamented about how much work (and life) he left me to do alone. But I take comfort that many of the plants we chose together are thriving, some so well that they need to be divided and shared with friends and family. And of course, the stones he laid in the ground will be here forever.

Like our love for each other, like the story itself.

 

First Date Friday: General Longing

walk-in-the-meadows-at-argenteuil.jpg!Blog

We were just two friends having a friendly drink at the bar. At the time, I did not understand what was happening: I was with a man looking to cheat on his wife.

We met at a conference a few weeks prior. I was in my third year on the tenure track and still in that hopeful, terrified stage of a young academic’s career. A dear colleague of mine was very ill. He was a mentor, a kind and encouraging dad-like presence at my job, who also happened to be nationally known in our profession. We knew he was in the hospital, and we were on tenterhooks awaiting word. His prognosis was not good, and yet we were hopeful. No matter how cynical, how cerebral we are, hope stirs us. But often we only realize its supreme presence in our lives when it is finally gone.

I was in the airport waiting to board a flight to a conference when I got the email. My colleague was dead. I was sick at heart and considered hopping in a cab and going home. But then I thought about what he would want for me, about how much he believed in me, and how foolish he would regard any maudlin displays of grief. I got on the plane.

This was one of those conferences that’s by invitation only, there were fancy people there, and it was all paid for–a real boon to the CV for a junior scholar trying to make her name. When my flight landed, there was a guy with a sign with my name on it waiting for me, just like in the movies. We were ferried around like that for a couple of days, staying in a nice hotel, then being driven to various sites for tours and talks and dinners. It was, professionally speaking, a Big Deal.

Unfortunately, I was not in quite the right frame of mind to capitalize on the opportunity, which began with cocktails and dinner in an upscale steakhouse, the kind whose bar is filled with leather chairs with brass studs and oil paintings of cowboys. I am shy and introverted by nature, so a party at which I don’t know anyone is challenging. Make it a party that’s 90 percent men, most of whom are middle-aged or older, in a professional context, and you’ve created my nightmare scenario. Normally I handle such situations by clinging to a wall, carefully observing, and spending lots of time in the ladies’ room. It gets you nothing, but it costs nothing too. In this case, though, I was still in shock over the death of my friend, so I tried a different coping strategy: booze.

I am a lightweight, and it only takes two drinks on an empty stomach to get me drunk. By dinner, I was pretty toasted. I barely spoke to my table mates and focused instead on the many challenges of not looking drunk. I struggled to stab those pesky cherry tomatoes, chasing them across my salad plate with my fork as the guest speaker droned on. The little tabs of butter in foil wrappers likewise befuddled me. It’s a wonder I didn’t require stitches from trying to cut my steak.

Eventually they herded us back onto the shuttle bus for the return to the hotel. I was so eager to leave, and so disinterested in talking to anyone, that I was first to board. I took the front row, the one with an expansive view of the road, and rested my head against the window as the other conference goers filed past the empty seat beside me. Despite myriad alternatives for seating, a man sat down next to me. I stirred from my reverie to acknowledge him.

I don’t recall if there was an opening line, but I do recall a moment where I felt like I was standing at the edge of a canyon and thinking, “What the fuck do I care? I’m gonna see if I can make it across.”

He was an officer in the Air Force, about 50 but fit as hell, handsome, and clean cut, like he had been poured into a mold labeled “ideal white masculinity circa 1960.” He was wearing a natty suit and projecting just the slightest air of nonchalance. I could smell it.

“I’m not really into this conference,” I said. “I feel like I am somewhere else.”

It was an enormously risky thing for me to say, because no one was wearing name tags. I did not know who was who at the conference, meaning I had no awareness of who could help–or jettison–my career. Showing human frailty in that situation was an invitation to judgment, not just of me as an individual but of all women in my field, who labor against the usual offensive stereotype that emotions cloud our reason. And it was personally risky, to display that kind of vulnerability. Rejection, even from a total stranger, only serves to deepen the well of loneliness we are drowning in.

On the other hand, I am also aware that when you are brave enough to reach out, fate often provides a person willing to reach back. I learned that lesson in the most powerful way years before, when I was in graduate school. I was going through a horrific breakup that taxed my ability just to breathe, let alone keep my teaching job. One day I taught my class, returned to my department for office hours, and found my recent ex–the one I had been living with after four years together–and his new girlfriend–the one he had cheated on me with–flirting loudly in another office two doors down. I shut my door so I would not have to hear their voices and promptly dissolved into sobs. Just then, in the midst of a silent hyperventilation, there was a knock at the door. Delusional in thinking that my ex had come to comfort me, I opened it with a rush. Instead, it was one of my undergraduates. He looked shocked to see the person he regarded as his “professor” standing there with hands full of Kleenex and a face wet with tears, smudged mascara, and snot. I was horrified. I tried to compose myself and do the right, professional thing.

“Um, I was just… Come in!” I opened the door wider and stepped aside so he could enter, but he didn’t move. “Please,” I coaxed. “Come in.”

“No,” he said. “It’s…ok.”

There was an awkward pause while he stared at me and I stared at a spot on the wall somewhere behind him. Mortified and beyond recovery, tears continued to pool in my eyes and trickle down my cheeks. I don’t remember much about this kid, other than that he was Joe Average Undergrad, a white, middle class boy of privilege who, from my vantage point at the podium, was no different than the rest of his peers–that is, totally preoccupied with binge-drinking and shirtless volleyball. (This sounds a little like I went to grad school at Top Gun University. I assure you, it was just a regular university.) But then he said something that made me think, “My god, out of all the kids that could have been standing there when I opened this door on my actual, crumbling, embarrassingly broken state of mind, it can NOT be an accident that it was him.”

“No, really, it’s ok,” he explained. “My sister died last year. She had cancer. And it was really hard. Sometimes I would just fall apart…” His voice trailed off. I don’t remember all of what he said, but I know he said, “So I understand,” even though he never asked why I was crying. After what he had been through, he was wise enough to know that it didn’t matter. Before he left, he also said, “Don’t worry, I won’t say anything about this to the other students.” Which was exactly the fear that shook me when I opened the door and saw him standing there–that I would return to a classroom full of sniggers and undermining comments. Such is the workplace dynamic of the young female instructor when students equate authority with age and masculinity. Instead, his words freed me to focus on caring for myself, and they showed me that there are decent people in this world, at precisely the moment when I was losing faith.

Now, a few years later, grieving the death of my colleague and feeling overwhelmed by my precarious professional situation, I was sitting on a bus revealing my vulnerabilities to a total stranger.

“A friend, a colleague of mine, he died today. I found out right before I got on the plane,” I explained. “So I’m not really feeling  present at this thing.” I gave a halfhearted wave at all the suited people nattering enthusiastically behind us.

“I understand where you’re coming from,” he said. “My daughter died last year. I know that feeling, of not really being where you are.”

I offered my condolences and asked what happened. His daughter was in her early twenties when she was killed. She was embarking on a career in the Air Force, following in her father’s footsteps, and learning to fly. There was a training accident, a crash. She survived, but with horrible burns. She spent several months in a burn unit at a VA hospital, disfigured and in agony, alternating between hope for recovery and for relief from the pain of this world. During that time, her dad–this gentle gentleman sitting next to me–took leave from his duties to tend to her. He told me about how close they got, and how it changed him. He was politically and socially conservative, with a strong religious upbringing that he had conferred on his children. His daughter was a good girl, he told me, but she was also an empowered young woman who had boyfriends and adventures that were supposed to be just part of the catalog of experimentation we all acquire before we settle into ourselves. Instead, they were all the life she had to reflect on at the end, and so she shared it with her dad–all of it. He said it was uncomfortable at times, that dads don’t want to know all the risks and sadnesses and illicit triumphs their daughters experience, but that he felt privileged to learn about her true life and to be there with her at its end. She died while he was holding her hand.

He conveyed all of this to me, and I listed intently, over the course of a thirty minute ride back to the hotel. His grief was towering, and mine so small in comparison, just like the kid outside my office back in graduate school. But, just like that kid, he never made me feel diminished, which is the mark of a kind and knowing person. Instead, he made me feel understood. And I think he liked being around me, because I reminded him not so much of his daughter–she was about a decade younger than me when she died–but of the freshness young women exude, like a warm breeze scented with flowers and watermelon. Young women are unaware of it, of course, because they are usually conditioned to criticize and hate themselves. But men–especially older men, especially men with daughters, especially older men with daughters they will never see again–are absolutely intoxicated by it.

usaf uniform
What else can you say, if you see a man you’ve been laughing with wearing this suit with a doofy blue captain’s hat, and he’s standing next to a bus, besides, “Will you be driving?”

The mood lightened as we debarked from the bus back at the hotel, and we settled into a pattern of wry banter that carried us through the rest of the conference. He asked me to join him for a nightcap at the hotel bar, but I demurred. The next morning, he was waiting for me at the door of the bus as we boarded yet again. This time, he was in his Air Force uniform, a blue suit with lots of embellishments that made him look like a 1950s bus driver. I made a joke to that effect, totally unaware that this is a common dig made so frequently at Air Force officers’ expense that it is effectively a cliché. But come on–they really do dress like bus drivers from the 1950s! It wasn’t until later, when we received the program and everyone at the conference was seated in front of their fancy place cards, that I realized he was a general in the United States Air Force, and a multi-star general at that. Looking back, my youth, my vulnerability, and my lack of deference to his rank were probably an alluring combination. (I also had a bangin’ body back then.) But at the time, I was totally oblivious.

The conference finished with little of note, but the general and I did exchange phone numbers to keep in touch. Work periodically brought him to my city, and he said he would give me a call the next time he was in town.

He did, a few weeks later, and we met–just two friends having a friendly drink at a friendly bar. At the time, I did not realize that he wanted to sleep with me, and perhaps neither did he. It was all very chaste. There were some hints in his compliments to me, of course, but most of the evidence lies in the negative space of what didn’t happen after. He never called again.

We met, I thought as friends, and I reiterated that on the date. Over a drink, just one, we chatted about how “totally normal it is,” to have friends of the opposite gender, with a big age difference, who live in different cities and meet quietly from time to time. Totally normal. I was wary enough to ask pointedly about his wife, and he told me a little about her. They sounded like a great couple, I said, and it would be nice to meet her next time.

Had I flirted, had I been silent about his family life, had I put words to the unspoken chemistry between us, I think it might have gone differently. But in terms of what did happen, there was really, truly, nothing untoward. We stood together at the precipice of an affair, and then we went our separate ways.

I suspect he didn’t really know why he was there either, though the crisis within his family had clearly led him to me. I suspect he realized, when he saw me for that second and final time, that we would never quite be able to recapture the simple elegance of our original connection–two strangers sitting quiet and still, alone but together with their grief, while the world spins on and on around them. I suspect he realized, as we talked, that the fresh breezes that waft from young women are best appreciated at a distance.

 

 

 

First Date Friday: Shaft

maxresdefault

You know the old saw: sometimes you get the elevator, sometimes you get Shaft.

Shaft seemed great on Tinder–funny, smart, attractive in an accessible way. He played guitar in a band, he liked my sassy mouth, and he owned his baldness in his profile pictures. All in all, I was psyched to meet him… not so much because he was relationship material (which I would not recognize if it bit me on the leg), but because I figured he would be fun. New people, new adventures, a reason to put on big-girl clothes and leave the house. I count those as successful relationships too!

We made a plan to meet for dinner in his neighborhood a few days hence. I had bronchitis, though, and was feeling pretty bad as I was getting ready for the date. Just taking a shower had exhausted me. How was I ever going to get myself together, drive to the train, ride the train, walk to the restaurant, be all sparkly for dinner, and then make the long trek home? As I was drip-drying on the toilet trying to muster the strength to straighten my hair (that ship has now sailed), he texted.

“I’m not feeling well,” he wrote. “Can we reschedule?”

Periodically I would cough so hard I would pee myself, which really puts a crimp in your date-night underwear options. I realized that rescheduling was probably best for me too. Plus, I thought he meant it.

I’ve mentioned that I’m pretty dumb about dating. In fact, I’m pretty dumb about people in general, because my cabbage-headed, Midwestern sincerity means that I take it for granted that people are telling me the truth. Turns out, people lie all the time! Despite my hard-nosed cynicism in other areas, this still catches me by surprise.

I took Shaft at his word that he was sick, because, Hey! was sick. It happens. If he didn’t want to meet me, he would just find a nice way to say that, right?

With that sad set of assumptions in mind, I reached out a week later and suggested we try again. I was going to be in the city near his work getting my ‘do done. Maybe we could meet for lunch? He wrote back enthusiastically that he was game for meeting me. I took that to mean, “I would like to meet you.” I left the house correct: ass jeans, no food stains on my sweater, full yet light makeup, and shitty hair–because soon it was going to be Salon Hair. It was on. 

While I was sitting in my stylist’s chair, less than an hour from date-time, Shaft texted to tell me that he had to cancel…

Because he had dropped his wallet down an elevator shaft.

“Gee, that sucks,” I thought, as I texted him with sincere concern.

“God this woman is dumb,” he thought, as he deflected me once again.

He said he didn’t have any means of paying for lunch.

I said it didn’t matter, I’d be happy to spot him.

He said he didn’t want to be “vexed” (full disclosure: I still like that he used that word!) and ruin our date. So he just cancelled it forever instead.

Part of me knew he didn’t want to meet me. But the hopeful part of me would not be silenced. For all the sturm und drang surrounding my fraught relationships, my low self-esteem, and my professional dissatisfaction, I am at times a ridiculously optimistic person. Hope rises in me like a buoy, ever springing back to the surface no matter how hard life tries to push it down. And when my dark humors seek to drown it–you will look foolish, you will be hurt, just let it go–I settle the debate with this:

I have to do me.

And doing me means erring on the side of other people’s sincerity and decency. Someday this annoying tendency is going to pay off.

Someday! But not that particular day.

I wrote Shaft a day or two later, asking whether the wallet ever turned up. I have a hard time crawling into the mind of person who can’t muster a simple sentence like, “You seem like a lovely woman, but I’m not interested in meeting you after all” to extricate himself from an unwanted engagement. What was he thinking when I wrote to him yet again? If I were such a person, someone incapable of being forthright, whose default mode is to dissemble, and who lacks the moral courage to be unliked–even by someone he never planned to see again–I might think that this lady asking about my lost wallet was trolling me.

She wasn’t. Part of me really thought, “Maybe it turned up, and we can go out now.”

He never wrote back.

Buoy_in_Gottskär,_Sweden copy

 

First-Date Friday: When Your Date Likes Little Girls

10625127_10152707755132915_203752591806476169_n

Can you imagine? Your date states openly and without shame that they like little girls?! So creepy! What must he have thought of me when I said it!

Yeah, that’s right. When said it.

My next Tinder date was with an English professor at a nearby community college. We met on a rainy Sunday afternoon at a coffeeshop that was mutually inconvenient for both of us. He was very, very late due to much of the city being cordoned off for a marathon. I was ok by myself, though, because I had papers to grade, free wireless, and a delicious breakfast sandwich. “Like a pig in shit,” I texted him. “No worries. Take your time.”

I liked him. He was decent looking and fit (a distance, open-water swimmer), he was smart, and he seemed nice. We didn’t have super sparkly chemistry, but talking to him was pleasant enough. He came alive when talking about his daughter, who was 7 or 8 years old.

“Such a fun age,” I said. “What’s she in to?”

It wasn’t the first time I noticed that my interests tend to align with those of girls ages 5 through 15. They like cake, candies, and cookies. I like cake, candy, and cookies! They like animals. I like animals! They like craft projects. I like craft projects! And so on.

I really do like little girls. I used to be one, I had lots of friends who were little girls when I was one, and my 13 year old niece is one of the lights of my life. Also, perhaps unusually for a middle-aged woman with no children, I have friends who are little girls.

My neighborhood is a collection of townhouses with tiny front yards separated by picket and chain-link fences. The neighborhood is gentrifying fast, but it retains some of the ethnic, racial, and economic diversity that I have prized since I bought my house six years ago. I’ve noticed that the white parents maintain chain-of-custody control of their children so tightly, you’d think the kids were FBI evidence in a presidential assassination. In contrast, the black and Latino working-class parents are too tired or too poor to schedule their children’s every waking minute, or perhaps they just believe in letting kids have freedom. There are a lot of unattended kids, mostly girls, playing together on the sidewalks, is what I’m saying. And for about 9 months of the year, I’m out there too, tending to my high-maintenance front yard that is entirely covered with flower beds, a charming patio of Pennsylvania field stone, and a collection of reclaimed sheet-metal lawn ornaments named for various neighbors (Moses the Turtle, Marcos the Squirrel, Hector Bunny, and Iris Byrd Bird). Ever since I moved in, my constant presence in the front yard has drawn the kids’ interest, especially the girls.

“What are you doing?” they would ask me, when I was new to the neighborhood and they were new to gardening. I would explain whatever the day’s project was, and invariably they would ask if they could help. Over the years, they’ve ranged in age from 2 to 13, with the older ones moving on to boys and cheerleading and fussing with their phones. The younger ones find me and my house and the garden fascinating. (I’m glad someone does!) Sometimes I would have five girls “helping” me in a yard that is just 15 feet wide. Watering is always the favorite project, but they have also learned to weed, mulch, fertilize, and plant. Over time, some of them became quite skilled, and the help they provided was real. I keep several pairs of garden gloves of various sizes in my storage bench, and I have extra tools, including the coveted Pink Trowel. I also keep colored chalk on my porch, because if there’s no work to do in the garden, the sidewalks could always use some fresh illustration.

Other shared activities have included long walks with the dog, visits to the playground, gardening in their yards, caroling in the neighborhood, and participation in a PTA cleanup at their school. I have also had the girls over to my house to make Christmas ornaments or work on sewing projects, and for hot chocolate and cookies after fun in the snow. I had an ice cream party once, and I hosted a dance party to celebrate the success of our summer reading club. My favorite thing is when one of the girls reads to me while I pull weeds.

Much of the above list reads like the grooming tactics of a child molester! Well, ok, a child molester who really believes in the importance of reading, sewing, and applied math and science. Why do their parents let them come with me? It blows me away that adults who don’t know my name, don’t have my phone number, and barely speak English are willing to let me walk away with their daughters. But it really is innocent! We all just like to do the same stuff–grow flowers, eat cookies, and sew animal-shaped pillows out of felt. Or, more likely, they like the extra attention, and over the years their interests have been shaped by mine. Either way, we both benefit.

After I told my date that I like little girls, I tried to explain what I meant–that I tend to have a lot in common with them, that I find them interesting as people, that I have friends who are little girls. No matter what I said, though, the hole I was in just seemed to get deeper.

I have talked about my little friends on Facebook and to my adult friends, and it never seems sketchy. But with my date, we just couldn’t escape the shadow cast by his daughter, who seemed far more interesting to me than her dad. Even my tortured explanations left open the possibility that I was using interest in her to ingratiate myself to him or, worse, that I was insinuating myself in his life to get to his daughter.

“Just stop talking,” said the voice in my head.

When we parted, he initiated a goodbye hug and said he would like to see me again. I enthusiastically agreed, mindful not to say anything about his kid. “Whew,” I thought. “A reprieve.”

He must have thought about the date differently in retrospect, though, because he went silent after a couple of texts. Maybe he decided I was a little too into little girls. Another possibility is that, as an academic who tried and failed to get a tenure-track job at a research university, he felt threatened or otherwise put off by my professional success. A third possibility is that he just wasn’t in to me.

It’s too bad. His daughter sounded really cool.

 

First-Date Friday: Hefty Hiker

10556537_10152652162147915_3422040435065309706_n

After the assault by my neighbor and the disastrous encounter with Libertarian Yoga Instructor, I took about a month off from dating. The next guy was very sweet and easy to talk to, but I wasn’t attracted to him. I tried to be, but I wasn’t.

Hefty positioned himself on Tinder as a well-traveled photojournalist, with a sweaty but sexy profile picture that I quickly identified as having been taken in Vietnam. We chatted about travel, taking pictures, and I’m sure other stuff that I can’t remember, and then he asked me to meet him for a drink. Just as with Tom Tiny Horse, Hefty sent me a picture en route to the date, in this case a selfie he took in the car. He was much heavier than his profile pictures, his hair was thinner, and he was older that I was expecting. I think the Vietnam photo was about five years out of date.

We met at a busy restaurant, ordered drinks, and eventually settled in for dinner at the bar. It was pretty uneventful. I learned that photojournalism was long in the past for him. At present, he managed a hotel restaurant for a nationwide chain, he was starting an import business and had several hundred bottles of fancy olive oil in his living room, and there was a lovely story about a painting his parents had bought that turned out to be valuable. When the check came, he offered to pay it, but I suggested we go Dutch, and he didn’t give me any grief about that. It was clear that he was a nice man.

120210-heisman
The Heisman Trophy

The thing that made the greatest impression on me was the end of the evening. The most awkward part of a first date is the goodbye. Some people never kiss on first dates, some people do, some people hug, some people want no physical contact, and of course someone has to initiate, but no one wants to get the Heisman. I’m up for pretty much anything if the chemistry is there, but I wasn’t sure how I felt about him. Plus, I was still squicky about strangers touching me in the wake of the thing with my neighbor. I was apprehensive that Hefty might make a move in the parking lot, and I would have to rebuff him. Instead, he walked with me until we got to his car, where he said, “This is me.” He did not offer to walk me to my car, which was a relief. And, he found a charming way to call attention to the awkwardness of first date goodnights, then he concluded by saying something like, “I don’t want to make you uncomfortable by going in for a hug, so I just want you to know that I had a great time and would like to see you again.” I thanked him and offered him a fist bump.

There was a second date a few weeks later, not so much because I was eager to see him again, but because I liked him well enough and wanted to see if I could be attracted to him. On the first date, we had met in a dimly lit restaurant bar and immediately sat down. He kept his leather jacket on the whole time, so I couldn’t tell how big a person he was. I don’t demand absolute fitness in a partner, and am rather zaftig myself. But I am not attracted to very heavy men, and an inability to do fun, outdoorsy things is a real turnoff for me. In retrospect, the second date was kind of a fitness test, and Hefty didn’t do so well.

He told me he liked to hike, and he said he did it often in our area, so we agreed to meet up at a nearby park. Hefty showed up wearing a billowing t-shirt and enormous cargo shorts, which is often the uniform of people who are uncomfortable with their bodies. He was a much bigger guy than I remembered, and it seemed like he might have gained twenty pounds since we first met. He was also wearing hiking boots that looked fresh out of the box. There’s no need for a serious boot like that on local trails, and I was in tennis shoes. I got the impression he had never been hiking before. I also realized, with genuine concern, that I was about to take an obese man on a four-mile walk.

It took a long time. A trail that I usually finish in about an hour took almost three. There was a steep climb down some stairs to the river at the start, but the rest of it was flat–an easy out-and-back. Even so, Hefty struggled the whole time and got very winded. Despite temperatures in the 60s, he was soaked with sweat. I felt bad for him. I worried about him. At the end of the hike, you have to climb back up the stairs, and I was concerned he wouldn’t make it. We had to stop and rest twice. It was nice talking with him during those interludes, and I remember that he was especially kind when I told him about my mom’s illness. But it was also clear that we enjoyed very different levels of activity, that an unhealthy combo of rich food and sedentary dates were in store for me if I continued to see him. There was also the not-small matter of sexual attraction. I could tell he was into me, but I… well, I walked behind him most of the way, and I can still picture his massive calves tapering into those brand new hiking boots. So much person balanced atop those poor little feet!

Hefty was a nice man, and even today I feel bad that basically I didn’t go out with him a third time because of his weight and degree of fitness. I recognize the irony, that I struggle with shame and low self-esteem due to my own weight, yet I pathologize fatness in other people. But I wasn’t physically attracted to him, and I can’t change that. On the other hand, it’s not as though I felt a strong connection with him either, so my reticence wasn’t just due to his size.

Still, I liked him well enough. He was nice to me. And at that time, I really needed someone to be nice to me.

I considered getting in touch with him after a few months, thinking, “Maybe the hike woke him up and he’s lost a bunch of weight since then.” But meeting him on that basis would have been selfish and cruel. I did the fade away instead.

First-Date Friday: Libertarian Yoga Instructor

I wouldn’t say there was much online chemistry between Libertarian Yoga Instructor (LYI, so we’ll call him “Lee”) and I. And if I had already known he was a libertarian, I probably wouldn’t have agreed to meet him, because libertarianism is an infantile ideology that usually plagues people who are unaware of their privilege, self-entitled, ignorant of history, devoid of common sense, and really, really dumb.

What I did know about Lee was that he was decent looking, polite, an “advertising executive,” and a yoga instructor–an intriguing combination. His photos included several of him in various advanced yoga poses, demonstrating impressive balance and flexibility. In retrospect, I should have noticed that none of his photos depicted him looking anything like an advertising executive.

We agreed to meet for a late afternoon drink in a trendy neighborhood that would put me in reasonable proximity to my evening plans. In person, he looked like an older, more fragile version of his photos, and he projected an air of sadness, confusion, and eagerness bordering on desperation. After about two minutes, I was crafting my exit strategy.

Lee’s first misstep was telling me, in the opening moments of the date, about his ex-wife. According to him, she had ruined his life for several years and was now in a mental institution, a story he asserted without concern or compassion, as though the “fact” (and who knows if it’s true) of her illness legitimized his victimhood in their marriage.

Over the next hour–it would have been much less if it had not taken over twenty minutes to get the check–I learned a lot of unsavory details, at least from my perspective. While he was in fact a yoga instructor who taught a couple of classes per week on the side, Lee was only an “advertising executive” in the sense that he owned and operated a one-man direct-mail business. I asked for clarification of what that meant, and he explained that he produced advertising materials for businesses and mailed them to people on purchased lists. His business is sending what the rest of us would call “junk mail” and what environmentalists would regard as “a paper holocaust.”

Proudly, Lee told me he had just completed a mailing of one-million postcards for a firm that helps the environment by installing solar panels.

“Um,” I said slowly, “my understanding is that, in your industry, a response rate of 2 percent is regarded as a success.”

“Yes,” he replied, excited at my knowledge of and seeming interest in his work.

“So, basically, you just sent 980,000 pieces of paper to the landfill?”

His face fell, then he got defensive. “Yeah, but they were for solar panels,” he asserted, as though a little renewable energy would balance the ledger of his environmental trespass.

It went on like that, because besides the concrete under the patio table at which we both sat, there was no common ground between us. When I offered that I thought his industry should be regulated to prevent waste, I learned about his antipathy for government regulation and his belief that the “invisible hand” of the market would create social and economic equality and solve environmental problems. I tried to be gentle as I exposed his vast ignorance of history, politics, and The Way Things Work (and by “things,” I mean basic concepts like the merits of public education and pot hole repair), but I suppose I probably just seemed like a bemused, smirking bitch. The conversation went so badly that a guy at the table next to us interjected, “Dude, I agree with you. I’m on your side,” offering solidarity but no argument to counter my positions.

Lee’s worldview was rooted firmly in his own victimhood, that as a white man “the government” and “feminists” had rigged the game to deny him the money and status to which he felt entitled. His endorsement of the Men’s Rights Movement was what ultimately extended the date to an hour. Once I realized that my hasty departure would result in one more bitter dude loudly declaiming to all who would listen that “women pretend to like men in order to get free drinks,” I silently vowed that there was no way in hell I was letting him pick up my check. (Unfortunately, I also had no cash.) Indeed, when the check finally, mercifully, arrived and I insisted on paying it, he claimed that I was the first woman he ever met who wanted to buy her own drink. I paid for his too.

The funny thing is, he still wanted to see me again. In his mind, I guess we were having witty repartee? I was trying to be kind, and perhaps I succeeded. He seemed disappointed when I declined his invitation.

“It was really interesting meeting you, and I appreciate your time, but this is gonna be it for me,” I offered cheerfully. I shook his hand and bolted. When I got back to my car, I tried calling my friend several times until she finally picked up. Then I dissolved into hysterics.

Why? Because I had been assaulted by my neighbor six hours earlier.

To all the people who saw me that day–Lee and the other restaurant patrons and the friends I dined with later that night–I was a normal, cheerful woman having a normal, cheerful day. But for me, I was indulging in an alternate reality where what had just happened to me had not actually happened to me. It makes you wonder: What secret wounds is the stranger hiding? What story are they actually in–yours? The story of drinks on a patio on an unseasonably warm February day? Or the story of fleeing a home that no longer feels safe, because a man with a delusional dream is willing to break the laws of civility and decency–not to mention the regular law–in order to satisfy his interest in you?

I still marvel at how that day unfolded, how it exists on parallel planes, one of trauma and the other as-per-usual. You never know what is really going on with another person, unless they tell you. It’s a good reminder to be compassionate, always, even (especially?) to your ridiculous date.

And Lee was ridiculous, to my great relief. Because I was completely out of my fucking mind that day, and if he had been The One or anything resembling a person I wanted to spend time with, I would have felt terrible about ruining it. But he wasn’t. He couldn’t have been more unpleasant and unsuitable, and for that I am also grateful.

Libertarianism is still dumb.