Last Blind Date
SOME PERTINENT INFORMATION YOU SHOULD KNOW UP FRONT
When Randy Arthur of New York City separated from the first Mrs. Arthur, he left home with two suitcases, the stereo speakers, an agreement he’d get the children alternate weekends and every Tuesday and Thursday night, and a Five-Year Plan.
It broke his heart to leave the children, left him broke to leave Mrs. Arthur, but after years of feeling unappreciated by the woman he’d married twelve years earlier, it was a decision he felt compelled to make.
As Five-Year Plans go, Randy’s wasn’t up there with, say, Stalin’s Five-Year Plans to industrialize the Soviet Union, but still, he felt a strong commitment to it. He’d focus on work, the children, pay the bills—and have lots of short-term, noncommittal, no-strings-attached relationships with a variety of beautiful women.
He was honest with the women he dated; told them right up front that he didn’t want to get involved. But of course they
never believed him. He was too attentive, too affectionate; in lieu of their names he called them “sweetheart” and “beautiful,” leaving each woman under the impression that she was his beautiful sweetheart.
As soon as anyone got too close, attempted to buy theater tickets for shows months away, or suggested he redecorate the living room of his small one-bedroom apartment, maybe hang some pretty curtains, he said a gentle good-bye. His priority was the children, whom he never introduced to any of the beautiful sweethearts; he didn’t want eight-year-old Phoebe and five-year-old Benjamin growing attached to women who would soon be moving on. It was a good plan, and because of his up-frontness with each succeeding participant, arguably an honorable plan, and should have been reasonably successful if he hadn’t screwed it up in Year Two.
His best friend Dan who now lived in California suggested Randy call Linda who lived in Chicago and was the best friend of Dan’s girlfriend Lynn. And if you failed to track that, ignore it, continue on, and go with the flow.
“What do I need with calling some woman who lives seven hundred miles away?” Randy asked Dan. In the interest of male bonding they spoke on the phone almost every week.
“My gut says you’ll like her.” Dan had a large gut so Randy tended to trust it. “She was here last year right before you were. She’s tall. Dark hair. Decent body. She wrote a book. You should read her book. See what you think.”
“What’s her book about?”
“Her dead husband.”
“Great. Already she sounds like fun.”
“What have you got to lose?” Dan said.
“Airfare,” Randy said.
But after Randy’s current girlfriend started mumbling things about maybe leaving a toothbrush at his apartment, Randy began to think there might be certain advantages to dating someone out of town. Get together. Share a few laughs. Score some easy gratuitous sex, then escape on a plane. Talk about your no strings attached. The only thing better than a woman you don’t plan to see again is a woman you’ll never run into again.
So he called me.
Fifteen years ago I published a novel to no acclaim whatsoever. If by any chance you did happen to read it (and if you claim to have done so, I know you’re lying unless you’re my mother, one of my two sisters, or a handful of ex-boyfriends who were just making sure I didn’t slander them)—well, if you were
one of those six people, you’d already know the following:
Two weeks after college graduation I married a tall, handsome, damaged young man who’d spent three years in the Marines, one of them in Vietnam. He was sweet. He was confused. He was depressed. I was in over my head.
We had what was then called a whirlwind courtship, but I’d now call a what-the-hell-were-we-thinking courtship: engaged in six weeks. We met in college from different starting points. Small town—big city. Baptist—Jewish. He saw me as easygoing and uncomplicated. I saw him as strong and complex. The only other Vietnam vets I ever ran across were the ones I’d see on TV crime shows, their backgrounds always revealed during
the big finish, right after they were arrested for hacking off a little old lady’s head.
“Why did he do it?” someone would ask, and a detective with a somber voice and a bad brown suit would offer up the answer: “’Nam.”
I loved that Teddy was a former Marine. What’s sexier than a man who looks good in a uniform, fights for his country, and can wield an M16?
Okay, probably a lot of things. But when I was twenty-two years old, the Marine credential seemed like a good enough reason to get married. I just didn’t know how to convince my new husband to maybe get a job. Or go back to school. To not stay in bed all day tormented and despondent.
In time he did rouse himself. He left me to drive to Alaska in his powder blue Volkswagen Bug with its oil leaks and broken heater. His plan was to find a job working on the pipeline. Seven weeks later he returned and announced he wanted to be a banker.
By then I was confused. How’d he turn into a banker?
He was hired by the First National Bank of Chicago to sit behind a desk on the main floor of their Erie Street branch opening new accounts and helping senior citizens balance their checkbooks. I worked in an advertising agency writing headlines for shampoo, a job he considered shallow.
We stopped talking, afraid to acknowledge the mistake that was us. We took separate vacations. One year Teddy went fly-fishing with his high school buddies while I visited my college roommate in Washington, D.C. Another year he went camping in Wisconsin with some guys he met at the bank while I visited a girlfriend who had moved to Boston.
After ten years of marriage, without ever really being married,
we divorced. He moved to Oregon to learn carpentry and build furniture. I rearranged my closets and remained in Chicago. But we always stayed in touch, exchanging phone calls and letters.
He died of brain cancer four years later.
We were together his last nine months.
After the funeral I spent a year of sleepless nights blaming myself for every sad or lonely moment in his life—even the ones that took place before
we met. I know it’s self-centered to think I’d been the cause of someone else’s every misery, but that’s how bad off I was: too angry at myself to realize I was too involved with myself.
While the world slept, I agonized. Why’d I stay on the pill when he wanted a baby? Why’d I say no when he wanted to move to La Jolla and study oceanography? Why wasn’t I nicer to his mother?
I’d cry in the bathtub long past the water turning cold. I ignored my Bruce Springsteen tapes in favor of Billie Holiday. I felt so hopeless about the future that I didn’t contribute to my IRA. People who once desired my company were more likely having conversations like this:
“Let’s throw a party!”
“But do we have to invite you-know
No way!” “Ugh.” “She’s a bummer!” “Miserable woman.” “She’ll bring down the whole night.”
Even I wanted to avoid me.
I had always been one of those cheery, hopeful types. Half-full glasses. Silver linings. Lemonade out of lemons. Among my friends, I was considered the optimist. But for me, Teddy’s death was the first time the words everything will turn out fine
—turned out to be a lie.
At night I wrote in search of answers. During the day I dragged myself between my apartment and my job. Bus drivers admonished me, “Let’s see a smile!”—these were Midwestern bus drivers. The truly unaware and insensitive would ask, “Hey, lady—who died?”
Friends eager to fix me tried fixing me up. And sometimes, just to get everyone off my back—particularly the friends of my mother with eligible sons, nephews, or wards of the state—I’d say yes.
There was germ-phobic George, who invited me to his apartment for our first date. He was afraid to go outside and breathe the air. He sat behind his big mahogany desk and motioned me to the seat on the opposite side.
“Is this a date or an interview?” I asked.
“I’m waiting for a call from my lawyer,” he said, then proceeded to tell me about his previous home, the brownstone in the Gold Coast on State Street (which if you’ve never been to Chicago is code for: I’m rich) that turned out to be riddled with asbestos. Every nook. Every cranny. Just recounting the story was enough to make beads of sweat appear on George’s forehead.
Keeping his words measured and precise, apparently surmising that I could only understand if he spoke s-l-o-w-l-y, George explained that he had just upped and walked away,
leaving behind his Ralph Lauren Purple Label sport coats, his Thomasville furniture, his twenty-gallon freshwater fish tank built into the wall of his master bedroom—and moved to his current apartment with the excellent ventilation system.
I wasn’t sympathetic sitting there on my side of the desk. I suggested that if he was so worried about creepy crawlers, maybe he should get his white carpets cleaned.
My dating skills needed some fine-tuning.
One week later, my friend Barbara wanted to fix me up with her depressed cousin, whose mother had just died of cancer.
“What do we have in common?” I asked. “Cancer and depression?”
My cousin Dolores fixed me up with a businessman friend of her husband’s who cooked dinner for me: shrimp curry and something so exotic I still can’t pronounce the name. After the strawberry parfaits—“made with real
whipped cream, not Cool Whip,” he was quick to point out—he leaned back in his chair and smiled at me. “I have terrific hands,” he said. “Would you like me to crack your neck?”
Then there was Shish Ka-Bob, who took me to a Turkish restaurant and fancied himself a comedian. He’d say things like “May I be frank?” And when I said sure, he’d say: “Swell! Because my real name’s Bob!”
I feel sorry for myself just remembering these dates.
The low point came when I let my friend Liz talk me into attending a Jewish Singles Super Bowl Party. A theme party for lovers of football and Moses held in the paneled basement of a synagogue. The guests were more determined than the football players.
Or maybe it was the guy who left his dog in the car while he fed me, and then left me in the car while he walked his dog. This was a man I knew had dog hairs on his bed linens.
And why did I let my mother’s cleaning lady fix me up with one of her clients?
“I hear you’re really neat,” I said, when the client and I first spoke on the phone. His name was Martin. “I don’t mean as in really cool, but as in—you pick your socks up off the floor.”
There was a long pause.
“Well, I am rather tidy,” he said.
The conversation never got more heated than that.
I was angry at every man I met. In the back of my heart I felt disloyal to Teddy, like I was cheating on him by moving forward with my life, by being alive when he no longer was. At least I wasn’t cheating on him with anyone good.
I’d return home from dates and bury myself behind my computer.
Maybe my book didn’t sell because it had the all-time worst cover design in the history of, well . . . cover designs: a photo of a pathetic-looking girl with a Mamie Eisenhower hairdo making cow eyes and clinging to the arm of a young man clearly too good for her. A perfect cover if the book were a primer for low self-esteem.
But even if people have no intention of ever reading your book, they generally think it’s impressive that you’re published. Of all the monikers a person can slap on themselves—abolitionist, abortionist, arsonist (I’m starting with the A’s)—novelist is one of the better ones.
I was waiting for a box of free pencils at work one day when
the man in charge of the office supplies closet said: “So, I heard you wrote a book.”
“Uh, yeah. I did.”
“What’s the name of it?”
I told him, only to see his immediate disappointment when I didn’t answer Lonesome Dove
or War and Peace.
“Never heard of it,” he said, in an accusatory voice, like if he hadn’t heard of it, I wasn’t a real
writer. “But, hey, I think it’s cool.”
Strangers felt compelled to tell me their life stories so I could write about them. My landlord requested my autograph on something other than a rent check. While sharing an elevator, the stamp-collecting neighbor who lived next door said, “Gee, I’m afraid to say anything. It might end up in a book.” While I thought: You should only be so interesting.
No one was prouder than my mother. The only thing that could have made her happier was if I found a new husband. She hated seeing me unattached. She was embarrassed that I wasn’t married with three kids.
Five years after Teddy’s death, even I admitted I was lonely. Not alone. But achingly lonely. Falling in love again didn’t sound so terrible. I just didn’t want to have to date to get there. I longed to skip the getting-to-know-you part and immediately jump to the rent-a-movie-and-order-in-some-Chinese part.
Which, in a way, is how I met Randy.
I flew to California the week of Valentine’s Day to visit my friend Lynn and avoid Valentine’s Day. California’s an excellent place to ignore a holiday. Lynn was newly in love with
Dan, a Hollywood cameraman who once worked on a movie with Eddie Murphy.
“It’s a good thing you weren’t coming next week,” she told me while fluffing the pillows on the bed in her guest room. Lynn’s the nurturing type, a pillow fluffer and cookie baker. “Dan’s friend Randy is coming out from New York, so the guest room is booked.”
Months later I was home on a Sunday night watching a movie and eating Chinese when the phone rang.
“This is Randy Arthur,” the voice on the other end said. “Do you know who I am?”
“Sure,” I said. “You and I have slept in the same bed, only at different times.”
“Well,” he said, “timing is everything.”
We spoke for forty-five minutes. A record for me. But the guy lived out of town. What could be less threatening? And halfway through the Reader’s Digest
versions of our life stories, it turned out to be one of those conversations where whatever either of you says, the other’s responding: “Oh yeah? Me, too.” “Really? Me, too.”
We both loved Gilligan’s Island.
We both hated the musical Cats
. We both preferred Swiss cheese over American. I found myself thinking: At last, somebody understands me.
I asked if he liked his mother and he said yes, he loved his mother, passing my Do you have issues with women?
He asked if I liked snakes, and I didn’t exactly say I loved snakes or sought out their company, but told him, no, I’m not afraid of snakes and how in high school science class
I was the student who volunteered to wrap the visiting boa constrictor around my neck. Then he told me about Curly, his kids’ pet red-tail boa constrictor kept in a glass tank in the living room, passing his Do you have issues with cold-blooded animals?
test, while promptly flunking my Good Taste in Living Rooms
He said, “I read your book.”
“Really? Me, too. That makes two of us now. How’d you end up reading it?”
“I should hire him as my publicist. It’s interesting waking up every day knowing you can be purchased used and new on Amazon for thirty-three cents.”
“I liked you in it,” Randy said.
“It’s fiction,” I said.
“Yes, of course. Fiction.”
He kept calling. I wanted him to call. I know it sounds peculiar that I could break out of a depression after one good phone call, but by then I was looking for an excuse to be happy.
Leslie was a therapist and three-time divorcee. She tended to be a tad cynical about romance. “You should cut to the chase and go meet him,” she said. We were stretched out on lawn chairs in her backyard, tanning our arms and legs while wearing huge sun hats to avoid wrinkling our faces. “Otherwise you’ll start fantasizing about him, make him into some sort of Prince
Charming, and be disappointed when he turns out to be just another maniac who spent his childhood drowning kittens.”
“What if he really is Prince Charming?”
“See. You’re doing it already.” She let out a long sigh. Everything about Leslie was long. Her legs. Her arms. Her wild, frizzy red hair spitting out from beneath her hat. Even her gold hoop earrings were long, practically grazing her shoulders.
Leslie had mixed a large pitcher of margaritas and we were each polishing off our second glasses.
“Randy’s got a great voice,” I told her. “Authoritative but sexy.”
Leslie snorted. “Voices don’t predict shit about a person. Visualize a radio DJ based on his voice and then get ahold of his photograph. It’s always unbelievable—that smooth, sultry voice belongs to
” She refilled her glass, held the pitcher up at a slight tilt to offer me more; she looked like a mother in a Kool-Aid commercial. “Have you seen a photo?” she asked.
“Yes. He’s cute. Owns a suit and tie.”
“Cute doesn’t mean diddly,” she said. “The man could still have body odor. Meet him before you waste any more time.”
In bed that night, listening to Springsteen’s “Roll of the Dice,” I phoned my friend Annabelle. She was planning to be in New York the following month for almost two weeks, on expense account, in a midtown hotel. Annabelle runs stress reduction seminars for top executives of large corporations. It’s a lucrative profession because everybody has stress and nobody wants it. I asked Annabelle if I could stay with her, visit over
the weekend, so I could check out if Randy was a kitty-drowning maniac with body odor.
“Good plan,” she said. “The longer you wait to meet him, the more tension you may experience.”
Annabelle hated tension. Everything about Annabelle was relaxed. Her minimal makeup. Her flowing cotton dresses. Her languid hand gestures. Even her curls were relaxed.
“Start with dinner,” she advised. “Pay close attention to how he approaches dinner.” After extended personal research on her part, Annabelle believed that a man makes love the same way that he eats a meal. “If he dives in without paying any real attention to the experience, if he’s just focused on feeling full—he’ll be the same way in bed. A man who shoves his food around his plate, who’s not quite sure what to do with it, won’t know a vagina from a hole in the wall. But a man who savors each part of his meal, pausing to sniff, taste, and admire every course—well, then you’re heading toward dessert.”
After we hung up and I spent several minutes thinking I might never eat with Annabelle again, I called Randy.
“If I happen to be in New York Columbus Day weekend, will you buy me dinner?”
“Sure,” he said. “We can do more than dinner.” He must have paused to consult his calendar before he asked, “Would you like to go to a bar mitzvah?”
That I didn’t expect.
“For my friend’s son,” he added.
Okay. So it wasn’t the sexiest offer I ever got, but I said, sure, why not? If Randy turned out to be a disappointment, at least there’d be a sweet table.
Two weeks later Randy invited himself to Chicago. He said that waiting over a month to meet me was too long. I could picture him in New York surrounded by his guy friends all egging him on to find out sooner rather than later if I was a maniac.
We exchanged descriptions so we’d recognize each other at the airport.
“I have a hunchback, hairy legs, and two missing teeth,” I told him.
“My entire body’s tattooed with Grateful Dead lyrics,” he told me.
I wasn’t sure what first impression I wanted to convey. Sexy and mysterious? Happy-go-lucky? Maybe blasé and nonchalant—like those rock stars who show up on The Tonight Show
wearing old blue jeans and torn T-shirts. I opted for pert and optimistic: a yellow culottes dress with an orange belt, orange espadrilles, and L’Oréal Medium Ash Brown.
I borrowed my cousin Dolores’s Lexus to pick him up.
Waiting for Randy at the gate, I started to have second thoughts, followed by third and fourth thoughts. What if we hate
each other? This could be the longest, most painful blind date in history.
When the plane landed I watched the other passengers walk off and tried to guess which ones were the New Yorkers and which ones the Chicagoans. By the time a guy matching Randy’s photograph finally emerged, I was wondering if I’d been stood up. The only other people getting off the plane were crew members.
He waved at me as he approached. I waved back.
He wasn’t as tall as I expected, but tall enough; his hair more pepper than salt. The majority of the men I dated post-Teddy were bald, a circumstance I attributed to age and coincidence, not because I gravitated toward scalps. A head with hair earned definite brownie points along with the pressed khakis and the pin-striped shirt with the rolled sleeves. If I were writing a headline for his look, it would’ve been NATTY YET CLASSIC!
He walked closer with a big smile and an unzipped fly. I was too mortified for him to point it out.
He said, “Hello, sweetheart.”