“Well, would you say you have had a torrid past?”
“A what? Torrid? I guess I’m not quite sure what you are asking but, I think probably not. Just about in any way, actually?”
“You sound pensive, almost sad about that?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Well, do you think you would like to have a torrid future?”
“Huh. Why are you asking me that? You know, ‘torrid’ is such an open-ended word. It makes me uncomfortable, to tell you the truth. Are asking, like, in a sexual way? Is that what you are getting at?”
She drew in from her cigarette, slow and deep, and released the cloud between them, a momentary thick haze creating welcome disconnect. But then of course it was gone.
“You think I am propositioning you, is that what you think?” Delivered with a disarming, ‘what, me?’ smile. He looked down, in self-deprecation.
She did not accept the implicit dis-avowal. “This is a funny thing, you know,” she said. “Do you know what I miss right now?” she asked?
He drew on his pipe, leaned towards her but diverted his exhalation to the side. His knees came up, he was seated but on the balls of his feet as if expecting an epiphany, or at least a revelation of significant moment. “No, what do you miss right now?”
“I miss having met you on line.”
“Really? That’s not what I thought you’d say. Not that I had an idea of what you might say, but what you just said? I wouldn’t have guessed that a million years.”
Now she smiled. “Let me tell you why. If we met on line we would know something about each other. I would have a better idea where you are coming from. If we met on line and then this was our first meeting for real, I would know if you were serious, or if you were flip or funny or, well something else.”
“You mean, like if I were weird or something?”
“Not that, no. Because if you were weird we would not be meeting in person, even in a place like this. She tilted her head towards the woods behind their bench. “Not that this isn’t public and all, but it’s sort of– remote if you know what I mean.”
His brow knit in either interest or mock consternation, she could not tell which. That being her very point. “Go on,” he said.
“Well we met at Jill’s party. That should have been better than on-line, ya know?”
“Sure, I agree. People lie like a rug when they are typing an answer into a machine at 11 pm and no one can even edit it for fantasy, or stuff you make up, or your being a real creep.” There he was, she thought, deflecting the label from himself by invoking it with approbation.
“Not quite what I was saying. What I am saying,” [slight emphasis on the ‘am’] “is that you usually tell if someone is, maybe not lying which is important, but how they see themselves, or how they want you to see them. You get clues about their personality. You can usually check up on some of the facts which may be exaggerated or even made up, but if you feel creepy about the facts you just drop the whole thing, it’s easy. But you do learn something about how people think, where they’re coming from, if you spend a couple of weeks emailing, texting, ya know?”
“Well, let’s say you’re right. I actually think that you aren’t right usually, but I bet you are right some of the time, okay. So let’s say, instead of the great talk we had at Jill’s about the wine, the food, our jobs, Jill’s current asshole live-in – let’s say instead of actually talking to each other for what, an hour before we exchanged our phone numbers – you could have learned more about me after four weeks on line. Then you wouldn’t be surprised by what I just said. Okay, let’s talk about the fact we didn’t have the email thing, the text thing, we only had that in-person thing, right? So what about what I was saying that was so upsetting? You think I turned out to be a creep, or I’m just trying to hook up? Maybe I’m just not very good at second meetings, or first dates or whatever this is? Maybe I tried for a flowery word and got the wrong word? Or maybe you’re just nervous and misread what I said? You’d give me space if we were texting on our cells and I was fifteen miles away in the West city, so do I get another chance now, in person, when I was attracted enough to call you and invite you for a walk? It’s a beautiful day, right? I called and asked, right? Public place, right?”
He leaned back and squared his shoulders, proud of his rebuttal. The wronged man keeping control of his hurt. Telling it like it is.
She let the silence sit for a while, defusing the defense by not jumping forward to reassure. She was too smart for that, too assured to fall for the “wronged guy” gambit, she thought. She drew on her cigarette, then realized it was down to the filter and she stepped it out on the paving stone. The she smiled.
“What’s funny,” he asked with some diffidence.
“No, I was just thinking, no one smokes any more, unless it’s grass, and here we are, two people who happen to smoke.”.” She paused to give the irony a chance to sink in, and a chance to defuse the moment.
He glanced down at his burned-out pipe and tapped its bowl gently to empty it into the center of the path before them, which annoyed her for a reason she could not identify. They sat for a minute, perhaps more. She took a thin silver cigarette case from her fanny pack; she had debated with herself and decided carrying a purse to walk in the park was not the right touch; she was, after all, well into her thirties but still quite young, as these things go. She offered him a smoke which he took, and he reached into his pocket and offered her a light. The torch from his lighter made her tilt her head upward to avoid the heat of its long flame. She exhaled and smiled.
“In the old days, we would have said. ‘that’s a good sign, two on a match.’”
He went with it. “Yeah, guess so. No more matches,” he shrugged with a version of an affable grin. They sat and smoked.
“Can we start again,” he finally asked.
“Sure,” she said, mustering a smile, perhaps over-broad but no harm to it. She was a nice person, and not so certain but that she had not over-reacted. She thought, ‘it isn’t like he leaned over to me and the first thing out of his mouth was “let’s screw, whaddaya say?”
She smiled again.
‘Yesterday I was reading the New Yorker. Do you get the New Yorker?” He didn’t wait long enough to see her slight shake of her head. “SO there was this article about this ancient sect, in Iraq? They are persecuted by everyone, but some are in the States so the ones in the US, from all over, they organized and they do a march? On Washington?”
He paused for reaction. ‘He has that Millennial habit of turning statements into questions, she thought. She was careful about not doing that. She was careful not to use the word ‘like’ as a connective. She was careful in her spoken word. In fact, she realized, she was careful about just about everything, not that that related to the moment. Perhaps.
“No, no, I don’t know anything about that,” she said. “What are they called again?”
“The yatzics or something. Sorta like Yahtze, the game? Not that of course….”
“So what happened?”
He paused and laughed and looked straight at her. “I don’t know. I realized just now that I didn’t finish the article yet.” He looked down and shook his head slowly. “Shit, I did it again! I’m just not very good at this, am I?” He looked up again. “You must think I’m a moron who can’t talk without three glasses of wine in him at someone’s party….”
She felt now she should save him from the hole into which he had purposely jumped. The expected ritual, in person at least and as she understood it, was that when someone showed you their soft underbelly, when they in fact said to you “look at my soft stupid underbelly,” you were expected to jump in and say “oh not a problem” or “we all have our own soft underbellies” or even “oh now, I love how your underbelly is so soft, so human, let’s run with your soft underbelly, let me share it, embrace it, confess to you I have one or three of my own.”
“No, I’m interested,” she said. “Maybe you can read the rest of the article and email me how it all came out.”
No, no she thought, not enough. “Or,” her eyebrows up now with a slight coquette-ishness in her aspect and voice, “you can tell me all about it at our second date, and we could see if you are better the second time around.”
She knew she had played that moment expertly, according to Hoyle, but then was not sure she had wanted in fact to play another deal; ‘be careful what you wish for,’ she thought but did not say.
He stood. “Let’s take a walk,” he said, holding out his hand. Then, “if that’s okay. We can stay on the path around the park, no need to go into the deep dark woods,” he said with a self-deprecating lilt as he held his smile.
“Why don’t you just lead the way,” she said lightly.
“My pleasure,” he replied.
“Gotcha!,” he thought.