I am wearing my Don’t Leave Me t-shirt to my blind date. We have 250 of them. Red background. Black writing, in big block letters across the front. Mel and I came up with the idea one night on the phone. She used to date a silk screener and as soon as we thought of it, she hung up with me, called him, called me back and said, It’s a go. We can do 250 for under a grand. Mel’s ex-boyfriends always stay in love with her. That’s how we got the t-shirts for less than four bucks a piece. Red is not so cheap. It’s not so common a color. Garish, some might say. We can sell them, Mel said. We can sell them for at least ten dollars, I said. Fifteen, Mel said. Twenty five, I said. We’re like that with each other, Mel and I, not the best of influences, no one to tether the other to the ground. We could have a talk show, we always say to each other. We would be so funny. We would make people laugh, Mel says. We would make each other laugh, I say, fuck the other people. It’s easy, second nature, to get carried away with Mel.
The best part about the shirts, she said the next day, is that either people will get it or they won’t, either people will love it or they’ll just stare at us like we’re nuts. And the people willing to shell out thirty bucks for one of these, the people willing to parade down the street in one of these, we’ll know, they’re one of us. We’ll know, Mel said, us or them, us or them, and she was bouncing up and down, twirling her hair in her finger the way she does when she gets excited, the way that’s girlish and flirty and keeps men in love with her long after she dumps them and makes me think, it would be so much easier if we were lesbians.
When the t-shirts were ready, the silk screener brought them to my house. Two hundred and fifty t-shirts makes for some big boxes. Four of them. The silk screener and I dragged them across my hardwood floors to my back closet, bending the cardboard flaps as we tugged. He broke open the top of one box; it was so red inside, blood red, the color shocking even to me who is not easily shocked—and he pulled one out and held it to his chest and smiled. The silk screener always had a half- grown mustache, just like a pubescent boy. And the t-shirt seemed just perfect there, below his grin, below his terrible mustache and his ruddy cheeks, and right then I knew we were onto something big, Mel and I.
The boxes sat in my closet. We hadn’t thought of exactly how to sell them. Each of us had visions of a street corner stand, like newspapers or cigarettes or lemonade, but no real plan. And then we got busy with other things. I fell in love and Mel got a new temp placement in the US Bank building, alphabetizing mostly. Even the simplest of tasks, she would say, becomes taxing after eight hours. She would ask me, What comes first M or O? V or S? J or H? and when I paused, she would yell, See! See! See! The guys I fell in love with were a spastic, then a cripple. I didn’t call them that at the time. Except with Mel, to make her laugh. How’s what’s his name? she’d say about the first one, and I would tell her something he’d done that day like whip his arm to his side or yell Fargut when we were in line at the bank.What’s fargut? she’d ask and I’d say, Nothing, it’s imaginary, it’s just some made-up thing he had to scream because he’s a spastic. And she would laugh, which was good to hear, because mostly she was angry with her stupid job and with me, the way we always got angry if the other fell in love, full of the quiet brooding of the one left behind.
The blind date is in a fancy restaurant. The maître d’ cocks his head when he sees me, arching one brow and twisting his mouth into a strained smile. I’m sorry, ma’am, he says, you need reservations here. I give him my blind date’s name. He runs his manicured finger along the list, getting a look of pinched surprise when he finds it. Well, what do you know? he says, looking at my blood red chest. What are you staring at? I want to say. I am a warrior. I am a warrior for love.
Satchel—that was the spastic’s name—had stood in the lobby of a movie theater, grimacing, grunting and needing to shake every person’s hand as they streamed past him to the exit. I had gone to see something scary, about zombies, some terrible virus, and the end of the world, and I had gone during the day on purpose to make it less frightening. And because during the day it felt more acceptable to be there by myself. Whimsical, even. Satchel had stood just inside the outer doors, facing the wrong direction, the rest of us blinking into the sudden light, edgy and suspicious after two hours of gore. And there was Satchel, with his politician’s handshake. Using both hands, gripping people’s palms with one, clasping their elbow with the other. Running, blindingly, a marathoner’s determination, to each person. It’s an illness, he explained to me later. Uncontrollable impulses. Noises, movements. His mother had gone to the bathroom, left him alone in the lobby for just that one moment. I never told him I had at first thought he was retarded. That I was scared and the small part of me that wasn’t scared was disgusted. How I’d slowed as everyone tried to get away from him, tried to make a wide berth, a sea of people separated by poor Satchel. He followed all of them, hands outstretched, the grunting noise truly alarming. Guttural. Wet. Ragged. And finally it was my turn. Satchel took my hand and looked at me with his dopey, desperate eyes, the kind that can’t sit still, the kind that twitch back and forth in the socket, and I saw his panic and his helplessness, and I knew that this was a man who would never, ever, as hard as he tried, be able to hide anything. Uncontrollable urges, I said to him a few days later, running my hand down his sweaty chest, my tongue on his nipple, I know a little something about those. It was a joke, a private joke, the first in a string of them between Satchel and I, who in the end, turned out to be a good man.
When I wasn’t with Satchel, I was with Mel. She and I sat on her couch, me flipping through TV stations, Mel painting her toenails. She only had four channels and they came in snowy. There was a painting show on PBS. The man was making a seascape with mountains and cliffs and wind-blown trees. That’s a terrible painting, Mel said. Then:Why are you dating a spastic? as if the two thoughts were related. I like him, I said. And he’s only spastic some of the time; you can never really predict. That makes it kind of fun. Mel said, Well, I liked the real estate agent. She always liked guys once I was done dating them. He had a lisp, I said. Mel laughed and started talking like Elmer Fudd: I wuv you Noh-wah. Wiw you mawwy me? I laughed too, even though that was nothing like the real estate agent’s lisp; he had a slight raspy sound to his th’s. I wuv you too, Meh-wah-nee, I said. I made her do my nails when she was done with hers. Besides, I said, the real estate agent dumped me, remember? She held my toes in her hand. What a dumbass, she said, blowing gently to make them dry.
I get seated all the way in the back of the restaurant, at a table against the far wall. I am the only one wearing a t-shirt. Everyone else is in a suit coat or a silk blouse or a sweater-jacket with a faux fur collar. Maybe it’s real fur; I can’t tell. Steak, they serve steak here, and the air smells charred and bloody. The waiter introduces himself as Hank and hovers, hawk-like and questioning. Would you like a menu to peruse? Perhaps an appetizer? Some more water? He sounds amused.
Satchel and his mother each had their own La-Z-Boy. His was blue, hers purple. Their living room smelled of plug-in air freshener; I sat on the couch while Satchel hiccupped softly in his La-Z-Boy and his mother asked me questions from hers. What kind of work do you do? Where does your family live? How many siblings do you have? How long have you been in Portland? A plate of graham crackers and lemonade sat on the coffee table, just out of my reach. There was an oddly quaint quality to the scene, boy bringing girl home to Mom, except that Satchel had gray sideburns and a bit of a paunch and he sat strumming his fingers over his lips and clicking his tongue. I found a perverse pleasure in being the first one; at least I assumed I was the first, surely the first in a long time. Satchel was home schooled, his mother told me. Satchel has many talents, she said. I walked to the coffee table for a graham cracker. Satchel used to play the flute, she said. I started laughing. I didn’t mean to. Tiny bits of cracker flew out of my mouth and I had to brush them off of the couch. That’s wonderful, I said, and she showed me pictures, a whole album full, this skinny little Satchel with stooped shoulders and a full head of tangled hair. Every few pages, there was one with his face contorted or his arm jutting from his body at a bizarre angle. She didn’t seem to notice. See here? See here? she said, pointing to each one, leaving fingerprints on the plastic coating. Yip, it sounded like he was saying from his La-Z-Boy, yip yip yip yip yip.
And I could see—with him and then later with Russ—that I was safe from harm, clearly the one with the upper hand. It was a nice feeling, not unlike ice cream melting slowly on my tongue. I savored it.
I met Russ on Tri-Met. Russ on the Bus. There was a new driver that day, a shiny-faced woman with incorrigible hair. A frizzy mop, the color of dirt. I thought, as I handed her my transfer and stared at the blister-like red blemishes on both cheeks and one side of her nose, that I was glad not to be her. I thought, what kind of a life is that? Russ was at a stop halfway down Hawthorne, waiting near the curb in his wheelchair. He wore black racing gloves, the kind with the tips of the fingers cut out. He had a briefcase in his lap, and wore a not-so-shabby suit. A nice pinstripe. It seemed like a surprise, the suit and the briefcase and the chair together like that. Russ was causing a commotion, because the new driver, she couldn’t get the lift to work. She was worriedly pressing buttons, pulling on an antique-looking crank in the dashboard. The bus creaked and sighed, but it wouldn’t turn its stairs into a ramp and lower smoothly to the ground, the way it was supposed to. You could see the people waiting at the stop behind Russ growing impatient, smirking at each other, scowling at the driver or at the back of Russ’ head, which even at the time I thought was unfair, because he was only waist high.
It ended up that Russ had to be carried. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, the driver kept repeating, which, as the rest of us could see, was only making it worse. She folded Russ’ chair and carried it up; a young woman took the briefcase, two men carried Russ, his arms draped over each of their shoulders, his legs hanging noodley and askew in the pinstripe. But his face was the remarkable part. It was red, fire engine red, full of cartoon-like rage where the steam comes out of the ears and the far-off train engine makes a two-note whistle. His jaw was clenched, his lips pursed. He squinted, focusing far away. When they sat him back in his chair, he thanked no one, looked at no one, even though people were craning their necks to stare at him. He grabbed his briefcase back from the girl. His hands worked just fine. When he rang the bell for his stop (I had been watching him the whole time; what else could anyone be expected to do?), I ran down the aisle and took the briefcase from him, following the clumsy parade of helpers down the stairs, standing next to Russ on the sidewalk as folks got him adjusted in his chair. The cords of his neck were so tight, he looked like a tortoise. The rain was starting to come, light as spittle. You want this? I held the briefcase in front of me, not letting go. I had meant it to be flirty and playful. He stared at me. This? I giggled, shaking it a little.How 'bout I push you? I said. He stared. I handed him the briefcase. It’s electric, he said and started down the sidewalk. The chair made a low buzzing noise as I walked beside him, having to jog a little to keep up. Neither of us talked for a while, until I said, Nice suit, and he stared at me again like he had forgotten I was there. Russ shook his head and we were all the way across town from where I was supposed to be, past Powell into subdivisions of dingy apartment complexes and junk shops. The rain was starting to come down a little heavier and the sun was already sinking behind buildings and there was a voice like a hammer, pounding in my head—do this now or you will be cold and empty and all by yourself. I stopped walking. I think you’re sexy, I said. At least you can give me your phone number, I said.
It was a bike accident, Russ told me later. Motorcycle? I’d said, feeling prickles of excitement. 10-speed, he said. He’d been fifteen years old and lost control going down a hill, veered into a parked car, flipped over and landed on his head. Snapped some vertebrae. A tenth grader in a wheelchair. I used to play soccer, he said, which was the closest he came to sentimentality. Mostly he talked about it in a flat, far-away voice, like it was boring. Which for him, I guess it was. He couldn’t sit still. That was the funny part. He had to keep his hands moving all the time. Sometimes he lifted free-weights. Sometimes he folded pieces of paper or napkins into these little boxes, his one origami trick. Sometimes he drew funny caricatures, like the one of me with my nose too big and my chin too long that hurt my feelings even though I didn’t say so. Mostly he knitted.
I couldn’t stand the knitting. There was something so disconcerting about the skeins of yarn and the bobbing needles and the half-finished scarf or sweater or afghan trailing off of Russ’ lap down the side of his chair. It made him look dainty. Feminine. He didn’t care. It’s relaxing, he said. It’s Zen. I started making jokes. Granny, how’s the sweater going? I would say. I could get you a subscription to Ladies’ Home Journal; I hear they have some lovely patterns in there. He ignored me mostly, his fingers moving so quickly, like he was playing a piano concerto in his lap. He made me a hat with a pompom and ear flaps. It was a ridiculous hat; the pompom was orange. He laughed when he handed it to me and I tried to find it amusing, but the whole thing was getting to me. He was at it all the time, unless we were eating or sleeping or having sex. And yes, we could have sex. That still worked, though he insisted I cover his legs with blankets, saying he didn’t want to get cold, but I knew it was that he was embarrassed by the atrophied muscles, the shriveled skin against his child-like stick figure limbs, which I stared at while he slept, poking lightly with my fingernails, finding myself fascinated, in the way I used to be fascinated by centipedes or slugs, equal parts revulsion and interest.
He started a quilt, each square a pink and purple flower. Whenever I saw him pulling the yarn from his yarn box, a big plastic storage crate with a rainbow assortment of skeins, my stomach knotted. The clack clack of the needles made my jaw clench and I found myself wanting to grab something and shake it mercilessly. I asked him how many squares total. He said 64 and I laughed out loud and said, No way, no way, and he just stared at me. I told him he needed to quit the knitting while I was over. He asked why. I told him it bothered me. He told me I was being crazy. I told him he was being stubborn. He said, I’m not some gimp you can order around. I knew the argument had gone bad, but I didn’t know how to find a way back and looking at his mouth, the tight line of his lips, the quiver of his jaw, I knew he didn’t either. And it was almost funny, except not really, so I said, It’s me or the quilt, and even then, I thought somehow we’d be able to get out of this, one of us saying uncle or chicken or sorry.
I am watching the front of the restaurant now, following the path of the maître d’ as he seats a young couple, then a trio of women in black knitted dresses. He returns each time to his podium by the front door, pulling on the back of his suit coat, straightening his shoulders and leaning slightly forward whenever he has a new patron to greet. From where I sit, I can’t see past his podium to whoever he’s talking to. He seats a middle-aged couple and their two children, staring at me with his curled lip each time he comes into the dining room, as if he is surprised I am still here, surprised I haven’t stolen the silver napkin ring and the salad fork and escaped through the kitchen.
Good riddance to bad rubbish, Mel said about Russ. She was sitting on my bed, flicking my nose, trying to make me laugh. Quit it, I said. She pretended to poke me in the eye. Doink, she said, as she brought her finger to my eyeball, stopping just short. Her breath smelled like pepperoni from the pizza she’d brought me. I’d eaten half a slice. She’d had four. Doink, she kept saying, pointing at my eye. Doink. Doink. Shut up, I finally said, then: Tickle my arm. She ran her fingernails up and down my skin. I’m sad, I said. I know, she said. We were quiet for a while until she said, He was a dick. I laughed. How would you know? I said. You never even met him. One of her nails was torn and it was scratchier than the rest. I watched the thin white trail that it scraped into my skin. She said, I’m assuming he’s a dick if he dumped you. I told her to shut up, because I didn’t want to start crying. I’d liked the way Russ would cook me stir-fried vegetables, and read me articles from The Economist about arcane countries I’d barely heard of, and wake me in the mornings by tickling me lightly between the shoulder blades. Doink, doink, doink, Mel said. It was so stupid; I tried not to laugh, but I couldn’t help it. You are fucking annoying, I said. Doink, doink, doink, she said, bobbing her head up and down, grinning idiotically, sticking her tongue out of the side of her mouth. Keep tickling, I said. She did.
With Satchel, the problem hadn’t been me so much as my friends, the loose knot of people Mel and I had known since college. We are a stoic, ironic, mean bunch, not spiteful as much as lazy, finding a certain comfort in our well-worn cruelty—making fun of Don’s beer belly or Lois’ tiny breasts and nasal voice, Mel’s perpetual unemployment, my sluttiness. Satchel sat next to me at the end of the horseshoe booth, making barking noises, whistling, whipping his arm to his side every so often. We were on our second or third round and Don was talking about his bitch of a boss, giving him the shittiest of the projects and calling him at home on weekends to ask why he wasn’t working to meet the latest deadline. Every time Satchel made noise, Don would stop and stare, an evil eye really, and Satchel would look at his gin and tonic, rolling the glass between his palms, trying to sit still. I could feel his leg against mine, shaking with the effort. The longer Don stared, the worse it got, and Satchel would end up yelling something like Cripenut orSunburn, which would make everyone laugh, which would make Satchel whip his arm out to his side. It was ugly. And no one did anything about it, including me. I couldn’t pick a side. I was embarrassed for Satchel. Embarrassed for my friends. Again and again, I made Satchel go back, hoping things would straighten themselves out, that he would stop twitching or they would be nice or both, because I felt entitled to this much at least, to be out with my boyfriend and my friends having some drinks, having some fun. During the ride home every time, Satchel was silent, as silent as he could be. That was nice when Lois asked you about your job, I would say. That was good when Mel shared her mozzarella sticks. Are you okay? I would say. Are you okay? Are you okay? all the way home. Sure, he would finally say when he dropped me at my apartment, What could be wrong? Great. Peachy. Peachy fucking keen. And when he was angry, he was still, no movement at all, his fists clenched at his temples and his eyes wide and accusing, staring right at me, waiting for me to apologize or explain or do something other than just sit there, or open the car door and leave, which is what I eventually did.
I didn’t even think about the t-shirts until it fell apart with both of them. Two hundred and fifty, ready to wear. It was convenient; I could just throw the dirty one on the floor at the end of the day, pick out a clean one in the morning. The first time, I left my house, no sweater, no jacket, even though it was cool out, and I walked. People stared. A woman in a business suit looked at my chest and then my face, her eyes beady and humorless. I held my shoulders back, chin forward, remembering those commercials from when we were younger, with the girl and the book on her head, walking in trance-like lines, back and forth along her carpeting. You too can be a model. I was cold; my nipples poked against the shirt, the material itchy and stiff. I felt bold, walking around like that, and mostly unashamed. I crossed the Morrison Bridge, the wind in my face, the river choppy and gray. A barge moved slowly through the water, barely looking like it was moving. Downtown, I marched through the bus mall, looking full of purpose with my quick strides and my eyes focused in the distance. By the time I made it to Mel’s apartment—a one-bedroom above a cigar bar, her place always smelling smoky and ashen—my nose was running and I couldn’t warm my hands, even in my pockets. She screamed when she opened the door and saw me there, in my red and black shirt. Jumped up and down and pointed, laughing, laughing, laughing. Holy shit holy shit holy motherfucking shit, she said. And I could see from her face that she’d forgotten all about this, that in the months since the boxes were delivered, the whole thing had flitted out of her head, and now I was a revelation, a birthday present, a girl jumping out of a cake. It’s brilliant, she said. We’re brilliant. Her hands were over her mouth. It was her Miss-America-just-been-crowned look. How many months is 250 days? I asked. More than eight, she said. I don’t have to do wash for eight months, I said. Except for your pants, Mel said, still laughing. Except for my pants.
Hank has filled my water glass three times and brought me a vodka martini with a lemon twist. Thin trails of perspiration roll down the sides of the glass. We had agreed on seven, my blind date and I. It is seven fifteen. Seven sixteen now.
Mel met someone at the alphabetizing job. A suit, she said, and she tried to be dismissive, telling me about his pointy nose and the slightly sour smell of his breath. But his name kept coming up in conversation. Mitch. He was a banker of some sort. She wasn’t sure exactly what he did, but his office was in the corner, with windows on both walls and a secretary who sat at a desk outside his door. He has a goddamned secretary all for himself, she said. How many people can you name with a secretary all to himself? I couldn’t name one. Soon they were having lunch a few times a week and then every day and then one afternoon he met her for her break and they slipped down into the underground parking garage and had sex in the back seat of his Beemer. That’s what she called it, a Beemer. She said the smell of sex and sweat and leather made her realize why so many people were into bondage. He took her places like a spoken word concert at the Schnitz and a benefit dinner for the Portland symphony and a lecture at PSU on the Global Economy and Central America. I said, Was it as boring as it sounds? And she said, No, quickly and loudly, like she was surprised I’d even asked, and I knew then that she’d slipped to the other side. And I found it suspect that a banker with a corner office was dating a temp alphabetizer, but I didn’t mention that to Mel, because there’s no talking to her when she’s in love.
I saw Russ on the #14 bus twice. The first time, I watched him from my seat in the back, waiting for him to leave before I rang the bell, missing my stop by half a mile. The second time I said, Hello, and he said, Hello, and we were strangers again and I thought how time doesn’t heal all wounds, time is more like a Vicodin or a Percoset where you can still feel the pain but you don’t care so much anymore because it’s shoved somewhere beneath a hazy layer of numbness and exhaustion.
I took to wearing the stupid earflap hat to bed. It was scratchy and too tight around my forehead but I liked how it muffled noise just the tiniest bit and how it made the part of me that stuck out from the blanket feel slightly less exposed.
Mel started saying de facto. She called Lois and Bob our de facto friends. She referred to her TV as a de facto means of diversion.What? I said. She repeated it, de facto means of diversion. I told her she got that from Mitch and she told me I was being stupid. Either you got it from him or it’s a strange sort of coincidence, I said. A de facto coincidence.
I called Satchel; his mother answered. When I said, This is Nora, she didn’t respond, as if she had no recollection of me. Nora Stone, I said. Satchel is not home, she said and I didn’t believe her but I didn’t fight it either.
I called Satchel, I told Mel while I was flipping through her channels. She sighed and didn’t answer. She was laying on the couch, her arm draped over her face, like she was sick or dying or something.What’s wrong? I said. Nothing, she said. I found ice skating on one channel, the picture distorting into jagged zigzags every couple of seconds. That guy looks so gay, I said. He was wearing a fringe shirt and tight pants with more fringes around his ankles. Mel looked at the screen. Yeah, she said, but without any interest. When her phone rang, she ran to get it and it was obvious who it was from the way she was giggling and the way she went into the bedroom and closed the door behind her. Mitchell, I heard her call him. And Mr. Man. And even once,Lovey.
I started having lunch dates with Lois, where she would smack her lips on the pad thai and bitch a lot about her neighbor’s dog. One night I made Betty Crocker cake for dinner just because I could. I called Mel while I was whipping up the soupy batter—it was pink cake with confetti frosting; I knew she’d appreciate that—but she wasn’t home.
I need to pee, but I don’t want to get up to use the rest room. The woman at the next table is sawing through her steak, the knife screeching against her plate, the meat bleeding in oily pinkish ribbons. The man chews loudly and with his mouth open, the beef fleshy and glistening as it bounces between his teeth. They don’t speak—they’re both concentrating—but beneath the table, his legs are stretched toward hers and their feet—her suede pumps, his black dress shoes—look like shoes thrown onto the floor of the closet, lazily intertwined.
Mitch has a friend, Mel said one night on the phone. He’s a real nice guy who just got divorced. A tax attorney. And he’s ambulatory. She laughed. I didn’t. Maybe you want to meet him, she said, maybe go for drinks. I told her I didn’t think so. She sighed loudly and said, I liked it when you dated regular guys. Like the one studying to be a chiropractor, she said, remember him? Of course I remembered him.Well, how about it, then? Mel said. I didn’t answer, and I could hear her breath getting raspy and loud, the way it does when she’s annoyed. I remember when you weren’t so cynical, she finally said. What happened to you? she said. Mel never talked to me like this. My cheeks burned and my breath was hot and chalky against the phone. This was the worst part of Mel in love—high, mighty, holier than. You’re such a fucking skeptic, she said and then started laughing like this was all a joke. I thought about when I was little, standing on my front lawn and looking at the sky, knowing it was a force field, a protective dome. I used to dance in circles on the grass until my legs gave out, and then I’d lay there, staring at the blue, believing I could have what I wanted, that I was deserving. The chiropractor, I wanted to tell Mel, he didn’t love me. He wouldn’t kiss during sex. When he talked to me, he looked at my chin, not my eyes. There is no force field, I wanted to say to her. No protective fucking dome.
Please, she said to me one night, her fingertips pressed to her lips in a prayer position. Just one date. She looked like she could cry, honest to god. We were sitting on my bed and it had been so long since she’d been over to my place, I just wanted to do something like braid her hair. Can I braid your hair? I said. Only if you answer me first, she said. Okay, I said. Okay, okay, okay. Lay off already. I’ll go. I’ll meet him, and she bounced up and down on her knees, like my bed was a trampoline, clapping her hands and saying, Yay! Yay! Yay! It was depressing, how excited she was. Stop it, I said. Stop it. But she wouldn’t stop jumping and, to be honest, it made her look foolish, made her look almost like a monkey.
She finally brought Mitch to drinks. M and M, I said when he sat down and introduced himself, a handshake for everyone, one at a time around the circle, as if this were a job interview. Heard a lot about you, he said to me. His handshake was firm, vigorous, embarrassing. M and M, I said again because no one had responded the first time. Mel turned sideways in the booth so her whole body was facing Mitch, her hand resting on his shoulder the entire time. Whenever the conversation veered into one of our stupid, familiar places (Lois’ neighbor veered off their shared driveway onto Lois’ lawn, leaving a deep muddy rut in her grass. Was it an accident? A spiteful act?), Mel would chirp up with a fact about Mitch. Did you know he was the cockswain on his crew team in college? That he ran the Portland Marathon last year? I made a cockswain joke. Mel ignored me. Everyone was charmed by Mitch, because he wore Armani suits and made allusions to Marx and Hegel which no one expected and no one really understood. I saw the sheen of dandruff on his shoulders, though. I heard the way he added extra letters to words, like heighth and acrosst. Are you married? I said. He stared at me. Mel stared at me. No, Mitch said. Have you ever been married? I asked. Yes, Mitch said. I thought so, I said. You thought so? he said. He was smiling. Mel was not. Sure, I said, and I ran my hand across the top of my own head, in the exact spot where his hair was thinning. What happened? I said and he laughed. That’s a long story, he said. We have time, I said, looking to Lois and Don for encouragement. Lois was stirring her drink. Don was smiling, open mouthed, staring from Mitch to Mel to me and then back again. Well? I said. We’re among friends here, Mitch. Mel’s hand squeezed his shoulder, wrinkling his fine suit. Once or more than once? I said. I mean, have you been married a couple of times? When he didn’t answer, I said, More than a couple? Three? Four? Don held his hand over my beer glass. Maybe you’ve had enough there, kiddo, he said. Mel was shaking her head, stroking Mitch’s arm. Maybe, I said. Maybe not. I was incapable of quiet. Lois asked Mitch how long he’d been at the bank. He answered. I wasn’t listening. She complained to him that she thought the new checking account fees were too high. He laughed and said that wasn’t his department but he’d see what he could do. Mel wouldn’t look at me, even when we all stood to leave and Mitch shook my hand again and lied and lied and lied, saying it was nice to meet me, we’d have to do it again, and the pleasure was all his.
Mel didn’t call. I got it. On day one and day two, I understood. She was wronged; I was wrong. But then it grew irritating, unnerving, unforeseen. How many days would stretch between us? Was she lying pretzeled with Mitch, making careless jokes at my expense? Did her phone still work? Did mine? Where did she get this self-control, this determination? What was she doing right this minute? This minute? This? Thi-?
Another drink? Hank asks. The only thing left in my martini glass is a dime sized ring of vodka. No thanks, I say. Sure you don’t need anything to tide you over? Hank asks. A bread basket? Even a small appetizer? No, Hank, no. For the love of God, Hank.
When I finally called Mel—day eight—she was short with me.What? she said when she heard my voice. Stop it, I said. I was drunk and stupid. When she stayed quiet, I told her about my phone call with the tax attorney, how we were going out this Friday, how he had suggested the Chart House. What’s he thinking? I said. The Chart House is scary shi-shi. Mel said: What do you mean, scary shi-shi? She said it like she had no idea how I’d learned to talk that way. I mean, I said, who goes to the Chart House? She told me: Decent people do. Professionals. Her voice was slick and assured, full of confidence.
I was laughing the next time I called her, laughing already when she picked up the phone, so she’d know all was well. I’m gonna wear the shirt, I said. I’m gonna wear it to the date. Mel was quiet. I was tired of Mel being quiet. Don’t, she finally said. Why not? I said.Because he’s a good guy, she said. You love the shirt, I said. The joke is old, Mel said. I’ll wear the shirt if I want to, I said. It’s a mistake, she said. Oh, you’re all of a sudden the expert in the rules of courtship, I said. And Mel took a breath into the phone. Suit yourself, she said and hung up first. I listened to the dead air, not sure what to do next. Meh-wah-nee, I said quietly. Meh-wah-nee, again, knowing it would only be a matter of seconds before the silence turned to dial tone and I would have to hang up too.
The maître d’ seats two women who both wear muted turtlenecks and strings of pearls. He returns to his podium. He seats an old couple who walk with a slow, hunched shuffle. He returns to his podium. Then nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Finally, he pulls on the back of his jacket and leans forward, speaking to someone new. I can not see past the maître d’ to figure out who it is. But the maître d’ turns slowly and smiles at me. It is not a nice smile. His lip is curled, making him look almost vicious. He says something in my direction. It looks like, She’s been waiting. But maybe it’s, She’s no lady. I can’t read lips. He turns back around and leans far over the podium. He is stalling now. I can feel it. Come on. Come on come on come on. He finally picks up one menu and begins his march towards my table. He seems proud, like a bandleader, a sneering, smirking bandleader. The tax attorney has to be right behind him now, and I am looking, I am looking, I am waiting to see.