This short story appeared in the book, “The Final Days of Great American Shopping,” by Gilbert Allen. It is reprinted with the permission of the author.
By Gilbert Allen
We’re in the biggest conference room of the best hotel in Charleston, South Carolina—the one named after the Revolutionary War hero who’s recently served as a positive role model for Yasir Arafat and the PLO. The chandeliers are rheostated to moonlight level. The air conditioning gently ruffles the valances of dark, substantial curtains that render unwanted curiosity unimaginable. Kenny G’s Concerto for Polyester and Elevator is coming down from some of the holes in the acoustical-tile ceiling—I can’t tell which ones, not for sure, and I’ve been looking.
I check my watch. I’ve been looking for the past four minutes and thirty-five seconds. The woman on the other side of the tiny café table has her elbows at the base of an isosceles triangle—a triangle that has, unfortunately, her mouth perched on top. It is moving.
“I think of myself as a Ford Explorer.” This is the fourth Revealing Metaphor she has provided me with tonight, so she must at least suspect she’s overdoing a good thing. “Strong. Assertive. Aggressive, even. Willing to try anything. Go anywhere.”
“The road not taken,” I offer.
“I don’t think you’ve been listening,” she says. “I’m totally off-road. Full-time four-wheel drive. I mean, if you’re a pavement kind of person, I don’t think we’ll have much in common.”
“Yes.” I stare deep into the openings beneath her tattooed eyeliner. “I can see you’re a real SUV.”
When the session ends, she stands up briskly and shoves in her wrought-iron chair like a grappling hook. When the flukes hit the edge of the table, the obligatory Candle of Romance wobbles in its puddle of wax. “I like meeting people in bite-size pieces,” she tells me. “Don’t you?”
Speed Dating was invented in Los Angeles by Rabbi Yaacov Deyo in the 1990s. It was expressly designed to help young Jewish singles overcome the awkwardness of blind dates orchestrated by overzealous Bubbies who were often half-blind themselves and, shall we say, oblivious to the vagaries of the human heart. Even now, I can almost hear them shouting into the shell-shocked ears of beautiful young women—“Mein Gott! He’s a dentist already! What from me do you want, George Clooney with a mezuzah maybe?” So it took a Tinseltown rabbi to figure out that America was full of twenty-, thirty-, and even forty-somethings who longed to meet eight persons in a fifty-six-minute hour on Friday nights. And, if nothing else, cut their losses.
As my limited imagination might suggest, I am not Jewish. Although I’ve gotten a late start—the idea only went mainstream a few years ago—I honestly believe I am the Undefeated Speed Dating Champion of the World. I’ve gone to seventy-three sessions, in thirty-nine different cities, and spoken to five hundred and sixty-two women in my Preferred Thirty to Forty Age Group. I’ve also taken twenty-two bathroom breaks—all of which, I’m proud to say, I’ve signed up for in advance. I’ve never dodged anybody.
For Date Number Two, I’ve drawn a frizzy blond with a blue parakeet on the shoulder of her blouse. I’ve never even heard of a session that allows pets, so I figure she’s smuggled it past the sign-up table in her handbag. The bird is untethered, but extraordinarily well behaved. It doesn’t squawk. Or talk. When it raises its tail, there are no visible droppings. It preens quietly, while the woman talks about hummingbirds.
She wants, she reassures me, to be totally honest about her ornithological interests. They reflect her truest feelings, her deepest self. Her yard is full of hummingbird feeders, and she’s named every visitor. Some of them have been coming to her property for years. “There’s Humdinger,” she says. “The big male. He’ll chase everyone away from every feeder if you don’t stop him.” I don’t ask how she stops him. “Then there’s Humbelina.” Her sigh is worthy of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. “My little princess. She nested in the cedar tree this year. I saw her babies while they were still in their shells. Not much bigger than peas. Humlet and Humdrum.”
I’m thinking Humquat? Humbug? Humbugger? Humunculus? But what I ask her is how much they weigh.
“Full grown? About half an ounce. Maybe three-quarters for a Humdinger.”
Time, ladies and gentlemen. The referee for tonight is British, so he makes it sound like a changeover at Wimbledon. New balls, please. I’m relieved, until the bird screeches that he loves me.
She shakes my hand politely. “He doesn’t say that to just anyone, you know.”
Time, ladies and gentlemen. Time.
I’ve done sports-oriented Speed Dates in Buffalo, Cleveland, Sacramento, Charlotte, and Tampa Bay. You find them mostly in markets just big enough to have a major-league franchise. Everybody wears caps from their favorite teams. A good ice-breaker. A lot of the bald guys love the caps, because they figure it puts them on the same playing field with those of us who still have hair. And you can read the women better—she’s really desperate if she’s bought the home-team facsimile jersey from Starter or from some knockoff dot-com. In Buffalo I sat down for my third session with a woman who looked like she’d broken into Doug Flutie’s locker. Helmet, shoulder pads, non-reflective greasepaint under both eyes—the whole ten yards. “Life,” she said. “It’s not what most women think. You watch baseball. You watch football. You watch NASCAR. And then you die.” Well, it needed a little work before it’d be ready for The Journal of Feminist Teleology, but it was a start. That night was one of those rare occasions on which I was tempted to expound upon my own considerable experience with the self-help publishing industry. But since my divorce correlated directly with my eight-figure entrepreneurial adventure, I spent the last of our seven minutes in silence.
Tonight’s Number Three reminds me of my ex-wife. I mean this as a compliment, I tell her. And it is, but she isn’t buying. So I fib a little, and tell her I’m a widower, and vow to keep my mouth shut for a while.
Keeping my mouth shut isn’t difficult, though, because she’s beautiful in that pale, porcelain, pre-Raphaelite way that drives me nuts. Auburn hair, disheveled to perfection, green eyes that you can envision in an R-rated fairy tale. She’s in Therapy, of course. She pronounces the word as if it deserves a capital letter. She’s learning how not to be taken advantage of, and she’s starting tonight.
“I know the feeling,” I say. “I used to be a teacher. I ended up taking an unpaid leave of absence.”
“That sounds familiar,” she says.
“A student threatened to kill me. After I phoned his parents and told them he wasn’t doing his homework.” I laugh, and continue telling the truth. “When I asked the principal when I could come back to work, he told me, ‘Whenever the kid changes his mind.’ I swear to God.”
“You’re asking the wrong person,” she says. “My Therapist tells me I have to get in touch with my Validated Siren.”
“How much is your therapist?”
“Two hundred an hour.” She seems to find this a depressing thought.
“Have you ever considered him as two words? It might help validate your siren.”
She starts whispering Therapist, Therapist, over and over, until she gets it right. The Rapist. “I’m warning you,” she says.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I used to teach English.”
Now I’m in the men’s room, at a urinal next to a guy who’s relieving himself and talking on his cell phone at the same time. He’s one of those geezers who does a few hundred sit-ups every morning to make himself look like a skinny, overcooked chicken. I think he’s Goodnighting his grandkids on the phone, cooing and babytalking in front of the porcelain, until he says, “Sleep tight, Adolph. Sleep tight, Eva.”
I must look surprised, because after he zips himself he tells me, “It’s a joke, for God’s sake. They’re German shepherds.”
“That explains it,” I say.
Now he’s rubbing his hands under the spout of the marble lavatory. “You still want to be here when you’re my age? Have a prostate exam. Every month.”
I’ve dressed down tonight—an old Golden Bear golf shirt, faded Dockers slacks, cheap shoes. Your regular Knight in Shining Loafers. My next date is explaining to me how she usually relies upon escort services for her company functions.
“I call it masterdating,” she giggles—which surprises me, because I wouldn’t have guessed a woman wearing a CEO necklace could giggle. “One and done. Use ’em and lose ’em.”
“Sounds pretty homophobic to me,” I say.
She says, “I don’t stick with women, either.” She hasn’t told me the name of her company, or even her line of work, and I haven’t asked. From the way she’s sizing me up, though, I figure she’s either in fashion design or liability insurance. Someone who’s gone through the Five Stages of Greed and made it all the way to Acceptance.
“You’d clean up pretty well,” she squints. “Would you like to go on a corporate retreat next month? As my tax deduction?”
I don’t tell her I could probably buy her corporation. “I’m sorry,” I squint back. “I don’t stick with women, either.”
Which is, more or less, the case. I’ve never filled out a Follow-Up Card for any of my seventy-three sessions. I regard Speed Dating as a hobby—at two hundred dollars a hit, plus transportation, it’s less expensive than golf. Or yachting. Or thoroughbred racing.
My wife and I were happily married for eleven years. But after my enforced leave of absence, after adolescent-proofing the locks on our condominium’s exterior doors, after getting tired of asking Joy about her day as the executive assistant to the bachelor president of Up And Coming University, I felt like a mental defective.
That was the beginning. And, alas, the end.
I trademarked the Mental Defectives series of self-help books, starting with computers, opera, and (of course) grammar. I wrote the first few myself, set up an independent division within a major publishing firm, and then started farming out projects by the dozen. Within five years, I was worth eight figures, I was working eighty hours a week, and I supposed I was supremely happy. That’s when Joy left me. For Guess Who. I got him back, though, in the second edition of Higher Education for Mental Defectives.
Joy was maddeningly dignified. She wouldn’t even accept my alimony. “Time wounds all heels,” she calmly announced, looking up from the half-packed suitcase on our bed. “Some day, you’ll get yours. But it won’t be from me.”
Number Six (“a stylish widow with a special child”) never shows. My seventh date is a ruddy, round-faced Assistant Professor of Ancient History. I talk about my previous incarnation as a public-school teacher as if it were still the Real Me. I tell her that it’s dignified work, that I believe in it, that without decent public education our military personnel would be pushing LAUNCH buttons to order pastrami on rye. “Think about it,” I say.
She’s looking at me strangely. “Did you ever teach in Columbia?”
“No,” I lie. I have come to lie very well.
“You bear an astonishing resemblance to my ninth-grade English teacher. Mister Dickey.” She snickers. “A total jerk. He acted like he was forcing himself to read our papers. Like he already knew everything. Like it wasn’t any fun to learn about what we thought.”
“I guess that’s why they call it a job.” I try to remember her, but I can’t. Three minutes and twenty-two seconds. I say, “But I taught Latin.”
“No way!” She tries staring me down. “Fiat Lux. What does that mean?”
“An Italian subcompact with leather seats?”
“Try again, jerk. You don’t know Latin.”
I pick up the Candle of Romance and hold it just beneath her decidedly un-Roman nose. “Let there be light.” Embarrassing her, I happily decide, has just become morally defensible. “In the original text, I believe it was a demonstration rather than a lecture.”
I look for flaws. Usually, I don’t have to look very hard. Date Eight is one of those women who could pass for a teenager across a crowded room, but across a twenty-four-inch café table looks like she’s in the first stages of progeria. The forehead visible through her wispy bangs is lined like notebook paper. Eyelids sagging with two sleepless nights, maybe three. Her bracelet tells me her name is Jackie.
“Hi Jackie,” I say, determined to trash every rule of Speed Dating. “I’m Ted. Ted Dickey.”
She smiles, and it’s the saddest smile I’ve ever seen, sadder even than Joy’s. “Hi Ted.”
Then I tell her I’m broke, I’m desperate, I’ve driven away the only woman I’ve ever loved, and I want to die. As I look at her, I realize that most of what I’ve said is the truth, even if the truth can’t be what she’s hearing.
“My name’s not Jackie.” Then she steals a glance at her cheap plastic watch and says, “Quick, listen up, because this is going to happen fast. She tells me that each one of us is hopeless, but when God or whatever it is up there bumps some of us together, those bruises are the only things that can tell us we’re still alive. “I’m thirty-five years old, and I wear this bracelet to remind me what I am,” she says. “I’m sorry. You don’t deserve this.” Jackie is the name of her daughter, and as I listen to the urgency in her voice, I still hear words: leukemia, agony, hopelessness, applesauce, morphine. Because, after all, I am a man of words. “Six months. I killed my own baby, and they sent me to jail for six months. What kind of justice is that?”
I can’t help it, I’m thinking of a new title, Justice for Mental Defectives, one copy, just for me.
For the last session, they ring a bell. But I stay in my chair and fill out my Follow-Up Card—Table Seventeen, Date Eight, along with my own name and telephone number, for verification by the proper authorities.
I look for her in the lobby, outside the rest rooms, by the water fountain, alongside the drop box—but she’s gone, of course. I think of my new home in Columbia, with its digital hearth—a flat screen TV in a stone mantel, with a default DVD setting of the crackle and flicker of burning pine. She’s right. I don’t deserve this. But as I hear my card, my very first card, come to rest at the bottom of my future with its hushed whisper, I see her there with me. Inside that box. In front of that hopeless fire. And what I’m wondering is not if, but how.