It was almost time to meet Ian. It was clear I’d be ten minutes late. I was my most optimistic self in these small windows of impending lateness. I never let people know, for some reason holding out for the chance – no matter how impossible – that I could make up ten minutes in the seven minutes remaining.
I arrived twelve minutes late.
Most women are masters of the first date. All you need is the ability to make other people feel comfortable. I was great at them, but still, they were agonizing. There were a few times, though, when it was actually fun and I’d start to see someone regularly. We’d have some basic interest in common so we could easily think of things to do, like watch dramatic television and eat Indian food.
For weeks, sometimes months, I would feel the kind of joy that I couldn’t experience on my own. Not because I cared about this person, but because, for some reason, it was easier to appreciate laziness when I was with them. With someone else, being lazy felt less like an indulgence and more like progress. I wasn’t just binging on Netflix and getting fat, I was building a relationship.
But after a season or two of whatever series we were watching, the comfort of companionship would wear off, replaced by the judgment that lingered in the back of our minds, looking for an excuse to start the browsing all over again, this time with a slightly more accurate filter selection. One of us would chalk it up to something just not feeling right – communicated through a text or an email or silence – and the other would be heartbroken for a day or two.
Ian sat at the bar.
“I’m so sorry I’m late. It’s great to meet you.” There was never a good option here – shaking hands was too formal, hugging too intimate. I offered a friendly smile and left it at that. We’d get there.
He asked how my day was and I was grateful. I wanted to feel someone’s interactions out gradually before I started poking and prying at their history like an emotional surgeon.
“Eh, fine,” I said, knowing there was no reason not to be honest. “I’m just tired of my job.”
His lips turned downwards and his whole face crinkled into an apology. I wanted to slap him. I had a job most people would kill for. I worked my whole life to get it. I didn’t need his pity.
“I mean it’s a great job, and a great place to work. I just want something new.” I hated the words that were coming out of my mouth, but his sincerity was upsetting. What did he do again? Not only upsetting, it was creepy. Weren’t we all dissatisfied with something?
His pants fit perfectly. His hair was thick like a child model. Every possible button on his plaid shirt was done up. The thought of waking up next to that kind of perfection made my stomach hurt.
“What don’t you like about it?” he asked, looking surprisingly interested.
Whether he was actually interested or just really good at pretending, I didn’t care. In the four minutes we’d known each other I knew it wouldn’t work.
“There’s no creativity to it. And everyone just seems so normal. I feel like I’m becoming a machine.” I paused to gauge his reaction.
“Yeah being around fun people is really important. I’m lucky I love the guys I work with.”
We were talking about two different things but it didn’t matter, I would never see him again.
“Yeah, I mean they’re fine.” I tried to tie our trains of thought together before jumping off my next cliff. “It just all feels very pointless.” I caught his facial expression – a slight squint of confusion, or maybe regret – I couldn’t tell but it wasn’t encouraging.
“Anyway, just something I’ve been thinking about.” I tied my thoughts in a bow and moved on. “How was your day?”
He jumped into a story about his dog, gladly accepting my invitation to change the subject. I stared at his arms and thought about having sex as he continued on about his dog who I now knew was named Ralph. I stared at his long thin fingers, clutching the glass of beer that was shockingly still full as I took the last gulp of my vodka. His eyes were eager and cheerful.
I imagined one of those games in the grocery store for a quarter, with the big claw that you controlled, positioned, and lowered to grab a stuffed animal and wished I were controlling one of them now, but in this game I could grab any one of the kind, clear eyed girls with perfectly pressed powder and carefully applied eye makeup from the street, and place them in this seat instead of me. They would appreciate this successful, kind man, willing to listen despite his immense disinterest, with perfectly fine forearms and a perfectly buttoned shirt.
“It’s just so funny, the way animals blindly listen to the dumbest things.” Ian seemed to have concluded his story, chuckling at himself and, finally, allowing for a sip of beer. I was surprised at how grateful I was for his small progress on this front.
Of course animals blindly listened, they were animals. I laughed, selfishly, so I could keep his interest and take the next turn to speak.
Before I could start he went to the bathroom. I felt around my bag for my phone. I hated myself for this reflexive reaction and justified that if I were enjoying myself, even a little, I would not have grabbed it. But this date was already sacrificial so I felt no guilt turning to the device, which had absolutely zero things waiting for me.
“Want another drink?” Ian asked sliding back into his stool.