Feature this: I'm about 23 or 24 years old, going through a divorce, and living back at home with my mother. Since my return, I've made friends with a woman whose son is only a few weeks older than mine. My new friend's name is Jody and Jody enjoys the dating world; but since she's married, dating must occur vicariously through friends and acquaintances. Thus, I am bombarded with invitations to meet this person or that person.
I decline the first prospective date simply on the basis that blind dates are necessarily bad. This doesn't dissuade Jody from trying to match me up, and one evening after work I get a phone call from her with another man in the lineup. She stresses to me that this is a guy who just wants to make friends with someone he can take out once in a while; he doesn't want a serious relationship.
I'm far from naive, but shock from the dissolution of my marriage has led me to long for the old days, when people didn't have a dark private face to contrast the happy public visage. In other words, I believe the 'he just wants to be friends' line.
Some of the other factors in my agreeing to write down this man's name and phone number include his professed knowledge of sign language and the fact that he is 6' 4" tall. I am currently studying American Sign Language to improve my communication with a couple of my developmentally disabled clients at work, and I'm well aware of the lack of hearing men who can sign.
As for the height, it reminds me of a cute, but emotionally detached boyfriend in high school. I know, I know, everybody's cute and emotionally detached in high school. All I can remember about that high school beau is his height, hair, and a few facial features; his name is lost to me forever.
The other details about the man Jody has actually described as "tall, dark and handsome" are okay (self-employed, early 40's, salt-and-pepper hair), but not particularly important when I agree to try this out. Jody brings him up as her friend, but in fact, she is his financial advisor, so she also throws in some interesting financial figures. In all seriousness, I couldn't care less about any money he might have. I am looking for maturity. I married very young, divorced not much older, and although I dated before marriage, I never had the going-out-with-a-guy-as-friends experience -- except with my best friend Norm, and he doesn't count because he's like my brother.
Giddily, and with a pounding heart and flushed skin, I dial the number that I carelessly wrote on an old phone book cover. This man with a pleasant voice and calm demeanor answers the phone and we talk for a very short time. Unless I have something in mind, he has already planned out the date for Sunday and would like to wait until then to find out much about one another so that we have virtually guaranteed ourselves a conversation. I'm pretty nervous and can't get my tongue off the roof of my mouth, so this seems like a good idea to me. He is very respectful, including of my privacy; we'll meet at a local shopping center and ride together to the multiple destinations he has selected. I have about four days to get ready, and by Sunday I'm not nearly as nervous as I had expected. My mantra is "He just wants someone to hang out with, this guy could end up being a friend, this is so grown up." Yeah, it's a long mantra, but it's working.
Nonetheless, I am a young woman who still dreams of the fairy tale ending that has already passed me by, so I also wonder if this man might end up being The One.
The day has come, I put on something that is suitable for a variety of activities, including the brunch I was told to expect, and get to the shopping center parking lot as agreed. I'm there a few minutes early and the parking lot is almost empty. Not long after, a little Datsun pickup truck (didn't Datsun become Nissan when I was a little kid?) with what appears to be the original camper shell pulls up and parks next to me. I presume this is my date, but I can't see anything of the person inside. I wrestle with important decisions like "Do I get out now or wait another five seconds so I don't seem too anxious?"
Quasi-courage is quickly found and I exit my car with a smile, but with my eyes cast downward from double-checking the lock on my car because I'm still trying not to seem too interested. As I turn around, the first thing I notice is a pair of gray, old-man Dr. Scholl's (I am grateful they have laces instead of Velcro). My eyes move up a set of long legs and temporarily settle on the Hawaiian print shirt. As I struggle to make eye contact, I am surprised at the snow white beard and matching hair on the head of the man with 1970s aviator sunglasses complete with reflective lenses. The potential fairy tale ending is quickly dropped from the list of possibilities and the only voice I hear now is steadily repeating my mantra, "He just wants someone to hang out with, this guy could end up being a friend, this is so grown up."
We confirm to one another that we, at least for the next few hours, belong together. He opens his passenger door and holds it while I am seated and buckled. After carefully ensuring that I'm not hanging out of the vehicle, the door is closed and he takes the seat at the wheel. As we drive away, this pleasant old man tells me how glad he is that I was available and willing to go out with him. "I told Jody that I'm looking for a sweet, caring young lady and she thought of you," he says. This brings two thoughts to my mind: Old men always call girls "lady" with the hope of making the young woman believe that the man sees her as more mature than others her age; and Jody lied to me! I smile blandly and nod while looking out the window, grateful that he is driving and unable to see the disgust in my eyes.
We travel down the 10 freeway and I remember that this pleasant, but misguided old man knows sign language. I bring up my studies and quickly learn that he has, indeed, taken lessons from a friend who knows sign language. Even though I couldn't be attracted to this man if I were a bee and he a flower, I am thinking that we might still be friends. After all, men who take the time to learn sign language are rare. Despite the fact that he is driving, his idea is to sign a phrase to me, probably so that I will be impressed. Instead, I find that he knows Signed Exact English (this is how d/Deaf people are taught to read and write English; it has very little to do with American Sign Language, the true language of the Deaf), and that what he does know is quite limited. My mantra changes and grows quite a bit shorter, "It's grown-up to be polite and make the best of a blind date."
Our conversation doesn't really lag because this pleasant, but misguided and somewhat uninformed old man brings up a topic that is apparently close to his heart: Computers, or more specifically, the Internet. He talks about all of the information one can learn online and how it's a great way to meet others from all over. To keep me involved in the conversation, he tells of chat rooms where Deaf people meet. I find this pretty interesting, so he suggests we stop at his place before heading to brunch. I cautiously agree.
We head to an old part of Covina and pull into the driveway of a smallish yellow stucco house. The garage is behind the house, and we park next to it. There are two doors on this garage, the typical large door for the vehicle and also a regular door for a person to walk through. We use the smaller door and I quickly discover that this garage is actually home to my date. His belongings line the walls and his computer is set up in front of the large door. I avoid sitting down while he does all the clicking to find a chat room that is empty most of the time we are online. Without a total stranger to add to our date I am able to check out the surroundings, which include unfinished walls bearing black tar paper and chicken wire, and my sense of discomfort begins to grow. Still, I am treated respectfully and we are soon back on the road to brunch.
The restaurant is up on a hill, so the potential for a pretty, eye contact-saving view is good, and the place has a good reputation for their champagne brunch buffet. Upon arrival at our table (next to a window with a view of the parking lot), my date -- the heretofore pleasant, misguided, slightly uninformed, but respectful man -- rests his elbows on the table and his chin on his hands, smiles and says, "I have really got to pee."
I think of "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," where Steve Martin's character says he has to pee and then does it in his seat at the dinner table, so I point over my shoulder and reply, "The bathroom's that way. Please go there first."
Before seeking relief he asks me to order "iced tea and just a little bit of champagne" for him and "all the champagne" I want. I quote his request to our server and ask for iced tea for myself. My date returns, plops down, spreads his arms out on the table and loudly sighs, "Aaaahhh."
It turns out that "a little bit of champagne" equals four glasses, coincidentally the same amount offered as part of our brunch. If any more is ordered he'll have to pay extra. I wonder if he will ask me to request my limit, too, but he does not; he has already had my two glasses along with his.
As I am being led quickly back to the table from the buffet line, he looks back over his shoulder and says, "Did anyone ever tell you how beautiful you are?" I want to be honest, but "Yes, of course, I think it's something men are trained to say" seems rude, so I just smile and nod. The delightful pitter patter of my heart may be the reaction he is hoping for, but I think about how unromantic it is to have someone toss such a question at them while racing to the table to eat from a buffet. My mantra remains, "It's grown-up to be polite and make the best of a bad date."
Throughout our meal I learn about the trouble this tipsy, misguided, uninformed old man has with his siblings. Apparently his mother recently passed away and there is a quarrel about the rather sizable inheritance. One brother wants to exclude another who is suffering from HIV, and there is a feud over who has how much control over the estate.
While I ponder the type of people who would argue over something so pointless my mind looks to the future, where I see a wedding and a large home and a... Yeah, right. I'm getting worried about riding in this guy's truck, which has a stick shift I'm not sure I can operate. I recall Norm's efforts at teaching me to drive his truck and wish he would have realized I didn't hit that bush before he pulled the emergency brake. Then I might have learned enough to drive my date and myself safely back to my car.
Instead I start calculating the risks I might be taking and compare those to the risks I have already taken in my life. What seems like eons ago, I was occasionally known to ride with people who had imbibed more than they should have. I lived then, right? Chances are good I'll survive this, too. On the other hand, I have a son to think about now, and we haven't heard from his dad since that mess about a year ago, so it's not like he'll be taking over if I'm scraped up from the highway.
You might be thinking, "Hey, stupid... call a friend for a ride!" Yeah, good idea. To bad you're not here to straighten me out.
So I get into the truck with Dr. Jekyll, who has magically returned and wants to take a leisurely drive and continue our conversation. I watch for any signs of impaired driving and consider that it's probably better to be on a slower road rather than the freeway. We go through hilly green countryside, but it soon becomes clear that I won't be seeing my son or my home again until we make it through Carbon Canyon.
Carbon Canyon, the place where Norm has gotten permanent road rash -- not once, but twice. Granted, he was on rollerblades one time and a bike the other and I'm in a truck. Nevertheless, I think of those hairpin turns with loose gravel in the corners and my palms begin to sweat. The ride is smooth so far, but I look for any opportunity to jump from the truck before we get there, because if I'm going down, it won't be at the hands of some crazed, drunken old madman!
We make it safely through to the other side. I'm pale and shaky, but haven't soiled myself yet and have been very grown-up and polite, so I'm pretty happy. I start to think of my son and all the kisses I'm going to give him as soon as I get my arms around him.
My reverie is broken by a man's voice telling me he just has to make a quick stop at his mom's house, which is in nearby Via Verde. I smile and nod as the cloudy image of my son disintegrates into air. We arrive at another yellow house, only this one is as bright as the crayoned suns I made when I was a small child. It's too bright, almost nauseating. I must have just mumbled something about the color, because my date smiles broadly, happy that I've noticed the job he apparently did just before Mom died; she had loved it.
I am struck by the careful decorating inside this uninhabited home. It was high fashion in 1968 and hasn't been changed much since. The pictures on the wall are faded and yellowish-brown like everything else. Mama must have been a smoker. I can now see what my companion looked like when he was my age. There is nothing in that living room to suggest that the seventies have ended.
Just before excusing himself to take a really loud pee (did he close the door?) followed by a long, quiet time, Santa's younger, thinner brother opens the heavy once-white drapes and reveals a beautifully landscaped backyard. It's not large, but it's so green and filled with plants and a huge tree. He thinks he senses my thoughts and wants me to know, so he says, "Isn't that a great backyard?" I nod. "Wouldn't that be a great place for a little boy to grow up?" he asks. I nod again while silently screaming Not my little boy!
We leave as soon as he finishes in the powder room and are now heading toward the freeway. We should turn left onto the freeway right after the overpass, but instead he turns right and heads about a quarter mile uphill. This is not just any hill. This is the entrance to Forest Lawn Cemetery. He wants to stop and place flowers on his mother's grave since we're in the area. I think it would be bad form to deny a grieving man this chance, even though he lives less than ten miles away, so I acquiesce.
We stop at the flower shop at the top of the hill. The walls are filled with refrigerators full of beautiful flowers. I admire the roses and other bouquets while he looks around. In this flower shop full of mourners he cracks jokes about it being quiet as a tomb. I hope nobody knows I came in with him. This is made impossible when he points at all of the five gallon buckets holding eighty-nine cent painted carnations and tells me to "pick one out to remember our date by." It's not exactly Mr. Hyde that I'm with, more like Lounge Singer Larry. He's cheap, tacky, and ought to be wearing leisure suit and a large pewter eagle pendant over his exposed hairy chest.
I pick up a blue carnation that I plan to give to my son and we get back in the truck. Lounge Singer Larry is carrying the red and white carnations he selected for Mom. He asks me to accompany him to the grave site. I am so creeped out at this point by the whole date thus far, by his behavior in the flower shop, and especially by the thought that I'll have to walk on grass that is laying over dead bodies. Guh! The long stem of my carnation is in three pieces by the time he stops the truck.
My obsession with being polite is foreign to me. The childhood I had involved basic lessons in manners, but also included the importance of standing up for oneself and not "taking any crap from anybody." I am inexplicably filled with a desire to just smile and nod my way through whatever other tortures are left before I can get home, so I get out to visit Mama.
I turn away when he seems to be getting emotional. Since I fail to offer comfort, he takes the opportunity to come over and put his arm around me. I stand still, hands flatly at my side. He points out the valley below and says, "Isn't this a romantic view?" I'm stunned, but not by the view. I look up at him with an expression that must be clear, even to this guy. While staring up at him in disbelief I do have one clear thought that is untroubled by my situation: 6' 4" is the perfect height! Not this guy, of course, but someone sane and from my generation who is this height would be a very good thing.
I am brought back to reality when he changes the subject, but not the location of his arm. Since I am unaffected by the view, he switches to a brief history lesson. I learn about a relative who crashed a small plane into that hill right over there. More death does not open my lines of communication and we are soon back in the truck.
Another brief stop is necessary, he says, because he's recently bought Windows 95 and is unhappy with it. I am trying to decide if it's worth the hassle of insisting that he take me directly to my car. I think of my relatively young friendship with Jody and how she would be disappointed so I go along. We enter Computer City - a wonderful example of a multicultural workplace -- and look for a clerk to help with some advice and/or an exchange. The cretin I'm with refuses to be helped by any person who is not white, and makes quiet remarks about those who are not. I am embarrassed and head toward the front of the store to separate myself from him.
Back at the truck, he again holds my door for me. This clueless, racist old man gets in, sits down and says, "I could really use a hug." I reach over and pat his back twice, like I'm burping a baby that somebody else is holding. Then he says, "I would really like to kiss you." My brain is racing, the mantra is short and super fast now, "Bepolitebepolitebepolite."
I just shout, "NO!" and look away.
He drives me to my car at last and quietly tells me that he will leave the ball in my court. If I want to go out again, I should call him. I smile and nod as I exit, thinking how grown-up he is to say that so I won't have to worry about screening my calls for the next week or two.
Later that week I get a call from Jody, asking about my date. I tell her all about it, laughing and being dramatic at the same time. Finally I ask her what the heck she was thinking, setting me up with that guy. As I listen to her response it occurs to me that she knows me not at all, and that I know her as much. Jody is a little surprised at her "friend's" behavior, but tells me that he had a great time. "He really respected that you wouldn't kiss on a first date. He's offered to rent a limo so we can go see the live production of Beauty and the Beast," she says.
I wonder if our friendship will survive this date. I can no longer just smile and nod, and my desire to be polite has practically disappeared. Now I'm not taking any crap from anybody.