The blackberries were way past ripe. August came reckoning early that year with a heat wave that threatened to melt everything it touched. I learned the word ‘deliquesce’ that summer. The humidity hovered low and heavy, rotted the bulging berries right off the vines, obsidian black staining darker and deeper than puddled blood, (so I’ve seen on TV), everywhere they landed — sidewalks and driveways, cars and windshields, porches and fences — the wild gleaming gems of summer. As much as we hate the invasive vines, their destruction, we’ll always take the fruit. It was my first summer being truly single since I was a teenager. And I was so excited.
Unlike my first few dates, Pradeep did not lie about his height. When I first walked in he was already standing at the bar, leaning against it with an easy elegance. He was tall. Refined. And wearing head-to-toe linen — a loose-fitting white linen button-up and cream-colored linen trousers. I was taken by how simultaneously casual and formal he looked. This was definitely a first. There was a pedigree to the way he carried himself. And a watchful bird-of-prey patience to the way he perched in one place without moving until he ran one hand through his thick hair, inky black as a java plum, feathered with ashy wisps at the temples. He was so polished, so self-assured a vampire bat of self-doubt immediately woke and swooped low over my eleven-dollar sundress from Ross, the Kate Spade bag I was no longer proud of. I realized all at once that I could not possibly be Louis Vuitton or Prada or foreign boarding school or multilingual enough for him. I suddenly felt not enough about everything. Not just insecure about my body or my appearance but now even my upbringing was making me self-conscious, self-doubting. My education, my career, my income level. I only had one stamp in my passport. I worried that he would be able to tell. But maybe he wasn’t looking for that. Maybe, just maybe, he was looking for someone like me.
No one thinks of themselves as a basic bitch. Nor had that term been coined yet. But in retrospect I wonder if I seemed like every other unexceptional American mutt to him. Too suburban. Too middle class. In a word, that I wasn’t worldly enough for him. This was shaping up to be my most class-conscious date yet but I glided toward him with all of the well-heeled confidence I could fake. And he smiled at me.
He had just lost a cricket match and was ruefully disappointed. I was surprised there was enough cricket to be had in this country that there were both teams and matches. But I was charmed that he led with a failure, however inconsequential.
We sat outside at the first bar. The heatwave was roiling every cement surface in the city like a mirage. I was uncomfortable and sweating on the wooden benches with no backs but was grateful at least for the shade. “Outdoor seating” at this bar was just two picnic tables on a sidewalk squished between a retaining wall and colonnades of parked cars that seemed to tower taller than they really were. But the distinguished gentleman didn’t seem to notice.
After a bloated awkward silence he spontaneously asked me what my type was. It just burst out of his mouth like an atlas moth, like the idea had been trapped in his mind and suddenly escaped, finally free to fly from its cage and spin broken strands of silk. I was so surprised I started stammering, staring at his toothpaste commercial teeth. I hadn’t expected such a personal, and direct, question. I rambled on about how physically different all my exes were from each other. I struggled to find a common thread, sloppily circled in on the fact that no matter how phenotypically different they all were each had some level of alpha-male charisma without machismo that I was drawn too. Intelligence. Self-confidence. Stability. Reliability.
Silence bloated the air again, stared back at me, an unblinking pufferfish.
I meant — he sternly, and finally, responded — physically. Do you have a “type”? He overemphasized his words like the stereotype of the ugly American tourist presuming an English deficiency, slowly shouting each syllable they assumed would otherwise go misunderstood.
Laughing with self-conscious amusement I chided him for letting me run my mouth for so long with so many unsolicited details. I tried to playfully admonish him for not stopping me from divulging so much but he didn’t apologize. He didn’t say anything actually. Like a wall that I thought might move for some reason, he was patiently but expectantly waiting for my answer. Despite my better judgment I caved and told him the truth.
I admitted it to a 6’2” man. He was visibly pleased, immediately animated and friendly, ready to ease into a more comfortable conversation. So I asked him what his type was.
White, he smiled, seeming proud. And some Latinas.
I soured with irritation, realizing this was his idea of flirting. Such a base answer. Refined as my date may have appeared he was crude and simple at his core.
I had read about a man named Larry in the Darwin awards. He had wanted to be a pilot but his vision was too poor. So he decided to fly his own aircraft and jury-rigged weather balloons to a lawn chair. He also brought beer and sandwiches for his inaugural flight — and a pellet gun to shoot the balloons one by one to gradually drift himself back down to terra firma, all while enjoying lunch in his lawn chair. I never imagined that story would resurface from the deep recesses of my memory as the perfect metaphor for a date with such a seemingly cosmopolitan man. Whatever expectations I had had of this man would burst one by one that night, deflating and sinking like a redneck in a lawn chair.
I looked down, busied my bright white hands with squeezing more lime into my first Sapphire and tonic so I didn’t sink into the bitumen black of his eyes, now wet and deep, staring at me, waiting for me to smile, to be flattered that he preferred white women, and maybe even to flirt back. He leaned back comfortably against the outside wall of the bar. Folded his long arms behind his head, unfazed by the heat. Stretched his long trousered legs out in front of him and crossed them at the ankles like the whole city was his.
You’re the first girl who hasn’t asked me if I have an arranged marriage back home, he mused out loud, almost conspiratorially.
He slid this sort-of compliment toward me like a sealed envelope under a locked door. A secret message that could start an important conversation. A faint British accent still gilded the porcelain teacups of his delicately shaped words. It curled and faded around the scalloped edges. But I’m no anglophile. He sounded more like Judy Dench than James Bond anyway. And I wasn’t about to wag my tail at such reductive flattery no matter what accent seasoned this disdain for American ignorance. It was clearly not a true compliment of me for being the exception, the last humble little building still standing amidst nothing but rubble.
Besides, the truth was that I’d actually never given a single thought to the fact that any of these men had parents unless they mentioned them specifically. There was something about reading the carefully created and packaged online profiles that made men seem like characters without an origin story, some kind of abiogenesis. They were just spores blown forth from detritus or gill-less tetrapods emerging from water, vertebrates with fully functioning limbs and opposable thumbs, with ideas and thoughts and lives, defined only by their favorite books and music, the languages they speak and the photos they thought made themselves look the most fuckable.
This attractive man was one of the few who didn’t prominently feature a photo of himself holding a fish on his profile. I doubt each @DudeHoldingFish realized what a trope this profile pic was in online dating. No matter what they looked like they all look the same when wearing a faded ball cap and holding a dead fish. Sockeye salmon caught on their green mile or sturgeon or trout, it didn’t matter.
But I had thought (hoped) this elegant man would be different. And not because he was an Indian expat, an engineer planning to bring his parents to the US once he had established himself here. But because he was a polyglot whose first message was longer than “hey”. And thus far, hadn’t sent me any dickpics.
In response, I was deliberate in my word choice, my topics. I didn’t say Huh? I said mother and father instead of mom and dad, yes instead of yeah. I did not start any stories with “this one time, I was so wasted.” I looked for ways to showcase my education, AP classes, Honor Society, anything. I tried to inadvertently mention what little traveling I had done in a way that sounded frequent, normal. I wanted to offhandedly say something, anything, about the Lucretius and Erasmus I read in high school, tell him that we had to memorize Hamlet’s soliloquy senior year. That almost twenty years later I went to the Krongberg Castle in Helsingør. I spent a windswept afternoon there, remembering my cliched schoolgirl crush on my English teacher. I wanted him to imagine me staring out at Sweden in front of me, the strait between the Baltic and the Atlantic seas sharp and gray. A smart girl who loved literature.
But I couldn’t figure out how to bring up anything that mattered to me. And I was starting to suspect that he wasn’t interested anyway. I wanted to tell him that I thought Milosz’s Book of Luminous Things was the only poetry anthology that didn’t let the reader take the easy way out. It wasn’t just a mainstream best-of that really just meant most recognizable. I wanted to tell him I had a soft spot in my heart for apex predators, the role they played in their respective ecosystems. But I couldn’t find a way to say anything that wouldn’t reek of effort. There was no natural opening for any mutual conversation as simple as favorite books or favorite music or movies.
I realized it was because he didn’t ask me about me and his only questions were to get me to talk about him.
He concentrated on talking about himself and getting me to talk about what I thought of him. Maybe he’s nervous, I thought, even though he didn’t seem anything less than completely comfortable and self-assured.
I concentrated on keeping my posture architecturally beautiful, strong and straight but still feminine, head up and shoulders rounded back like small cupolas. I spoke the way I imagined any well-educated woman would. Clear diction. Full sentences. I tried to channel my better-bred friends. I needed their poise and their grace to keep me from swearing and sounding like Beavis and Butthead. How does an Argentine expat sound after studying at the Sorbonne? My friend Alessandra never swore. She was fluent in six languages and spoke English with a Hollywood neutral accent. She only watched BBC shows and loved tennis. I tried to balance her mellow loveliness with the contagious irreverence of my Norwegian friend, an archaeologist who worked in Syria for many years before leading digs all over the fertile crescent. She was tongue-in-cheek funny and did educational advocacy for Greenlandic Inuit children when she wasn’t working. She was an exceptional cook who made everything from scratch. Like jam and chutneys from rose hips she picked on the beach by her house. Surely she would be as charismatic on a first date as she was at her uproarious dinner parties. She would turn off all the lights and make flaming Greenlandic coffees for everyone in the dark. She would tell the story of how the black coffee represented the long dark nights. The whiskey represented the formidable strength of the men and the Kahlua the sweetness of the women. Then she would swirl in a cap of hand-whipped cream to represent the icebergs. And finally she would light the Cointreau on fire to represent the Northern lights.
My date would have no patience for a story that long that didn’t involve him. And so he continued talking about himself. Unsolicited, he told me about a terrible first date he went on. He told me a volatile and racist woman had unexpectedly escalated from first-date pleasantries to screaming something along the lines of WELL IF YOU DON’T LIKE IT THEN YOU SHOULD GO BACK WHERE YOU CAME FROM in the middle of a restaurant. I couldn’t put my finger on it but something about his retelling of this rang false. It was like the faintest flint spark in the corners of his eyes that seemed to glitter with fiction. A slow smirk turned up the corners of his mouth, an arrogant anchor sneering at me, almost expectantly. This time I took the bait even though I bore no responsibility for whoever this woman was even if it did happen.
Was she white? I asked with dread.
Was she American?
I don’t know why but I compulsively apologized. And not just a compassionate passive-voiced “I’m so sorry that happened to you” but a self-flagellating liberal-guilt apology on behalf of all white American women who would be horrified by such ignorant hatred. As though I had done it.
And even though he seemed to be expecting it, like he told me that story just to put me in a position of indebtedness, he didn’t acknowledge my apology.
And you? Your worst date?
Generally speaking, I told him, I think it’s poor form to gossip about bad dates on your current date.
You’re a lot more prim and proper than I was expecting, he said, almost musing. It wasn’t quite a compliment but I think it was pleasantly surprised approval. I ran with it. There was an implicit insult in that my profile led him to believe I was something else, something simple, maybe someone vulgar. Like someone who would use ain’t and not ironically. I scoffed as though I couldn’t have been born to be anything but prim and proper. I told him my mother raised me with the requisite decorum any woman should have. And my parents did value education above all else. It was written into their will. I shared that fact to imply that we had whatever amount of money he would find respectable.
But whatever well-bred debutante I was trying to convince him I might be would dissipate as I kept drinking on an empty stomach in the summer heat. I tried to convince myself that I wasn’t getting dizzy, that the heat searing through the night was balmy and not swampy. I tried to be charming and funny and lovely even though my legs were sweating as much as my face. I ate the seasoned peanuts at the table but we didn’t talk about dinner.
At the second bar he leaned across the uncomfortable filigree of the small wrought-iron bistro table and ran his thumb down my left forearm. What happened here? He asked with a put-on but intimate concern.
It took me just a second to remember my scar. The long jagged zig-zag biting down the underside of my arm. Seven broken bones. Two surgeries. A year of physical therapy and months of occupational therapy just so I could use my hands again. I love this scar because I survived. I beamed and told him I’m a lucky girl. But I was annoyed that he was obviously, and not subtly, capitalizing on a perceived opportunity to breach polite stranger etiquette and touch my body. He didn’t notice that I didn’t answer. He was not interested in the story. He wanted to explore the egret white skin of my naked body. He wanted to curve my small breasts like small birds in his hands to see if they might feel bigger than they look.
There is an iris called the Velvet Elvis. More of a salubrious purple than a deep pink. Scalloped hems. He wanted to reach between my legs no matter what flower a better man might use to metaphor the color, the texture, the shape before he described the taste. He would not be thinking phalaenopsis or parrot tulip. He just wanted to get his dick wet. He didn’t care what my nicknames were, who I was to the people that loved me. He wasn’t curious about my earliest memories or my favorite music. He wanted praise and he wanted pussy.
Are you even attracted to me? The papery wings of another atlas moth rustled suddenly. But this one didn’t want to be free. It needed to be caught and kept, reassured that it’s beautiful. Its snake-tipped wings, the detailed powder maps flap open slowly, fanned wide and waiting for appraisal.
It was pouty. Overtly immature and I refused to indulge him without qualification. I still hadn’t told him about my scar.
What do you mean? I asked him humorlessly. I tried not to roll my eyes.
Well. The disappointed discipline was syrup-thick in his voice. We’ve been sitting here for a couple of hours and I can’t even tell if you like me or not. I was definitely in trouble, as far as he was concerned. Normally I can tell. I was wasting his time.
He declined a third drink with some authority I noted but didn’t match. But he seemed indifferent when I ordered my third Sapphire and tonic. It was my drink of choice back then. I was pleased that I could ask for it without pretense and I hoped he was impressed. Or at least pleased it wasn’t an Irish car bomb or Jack and coke. Or whatever trashy girls drink. Vodka crans? Years later it occurred to me that this was possibly the most imperialist cocktail I could have ordered. But I’m fairly certain I could’ve ordered a drink called the British Mandate of Palestine or a Belgian Congo and he would have just as eagerly fucked me.
Would you like to see the view from my balcony? I chuckled at the obvious ploy and his obvious smirk. Sure, I shrugged. Why not, I thought.
The night lights of the city were becoming a wobbly mosaic swirling around my head by the time we left the last bar and started walking. I was a rolling boil drunk. Misshapen squares of yellow and white from office buildings orbited around me like I was inside a disco ball. Maybe reds or greens?
We walked along the waterfront, the grass pockmarked with divots and littered with water bottles. The city lights checkered the dark river. Dragon boats and kayaks colored the banks like a floating market that had spontaneously been abandoned, the empty vessels, their bright colors bobbing on the currents but tethered to each other.
There had been a concert in the park and there was still temporary stadium seating set up. He was not wearing heels and hopped over and under the metal bars with ease, looked back at me in my ankle-length dress with mild irritation. Like he couldn’t understand how I had fallen behind, like I wasn’t athletic enough or was too much of a diva. Apparently he was not well-bred enough to be a gentleman and help a lady in heels through a torn-up lawn and a grown-up jungle gym. Once I’d cleared this unexpected obstacle course the park opened up onto cobbled circles with brick benches and bronze sculptures. Lavender in full bloom exploded outward, each poised to launch like arrows. My vision had already started to swim. The light buzz was quickly plummeting in and soaring out of swales of dark drunkenness. The lavender looked suddenly more illustrated than real, like a graphic novel, each spiked stem of flowers was really an arrow. Each shrub really was a ball of arrows exploding in slow motion toward its enemies. Silvered purples paused in flight.
Want to play flag Jeopardy? He asked with an excited but smug smile. I turned from the lavender to try to figure out what he was talking about. He pointed up, to his left, still smiling. We were at some large government-looking building, its rotunda ringed entirely with world flags. The fully lit building was like a shoal of glass and chrome rising up out of water, like one enormous blue-white light beaming through the dark.
He took my hand with genuine excitement, pulled me toward them, pointed as a question at the first one that caught his attention. I had absolutely no idea. I couldn’t even venture an educated guess. He pointed to another one. Again, I had no idea. A third, a fourth, maybe a sixth before I finally got one right. The blur of colors was just as indistinguishable as the city lights on the river, chunks and blurs of Kandisnky and Rothko I couldn’t name spiraling around me. He corrected me on each one I got wrong. And it became clear that it was not a childlike joy at a fun game. It was an opportunity to show off his knowledge. He probably walked this way on purpose. I was deeply disappointed in myself. I had played a flag recognition game on facebook for weeks a few years prior. Apparently the rapid-fire app didn’t engender long-term learning.
His building was all glass. No doorman at the entrance of the towering locked building. I don’t remember an elevator but his condo overlooked a demolition site, the entire debris of which had settled into the caldera that used to be an underground parking lot. It reminded me of the opening scene in The Terminator. Or any post-apocalyptic movie really. That cracked me up because I knew the location still cost him a fortune. The view was unimpressive but that, of course, was not why we were really sitting on this stoop-sized balcony. His warm hand on my thigh was the point.
He wasted no time in trying to inch the damp fabric up my leg, prattled on about the neighbor’s corgis and their high-anxiety barking. I looked over to the neighbor’s balcony where both dogs sat staring at us, not three feet away. It took effort to move my head without getting dizzier. She even had a stone statue of a corgi. It was an affable little gargoyle and I was certain that anyone who spent money on this was probably very lonely. I wasn’t lonely yet. Not in my bones. But it was starting to creep in like a suspicion and I felt sorry for the neighbor. But then again I was falling down drunk and suddenly kissing a stranger on a first date, his hand farther up my dress, the other on my waist and creeping upward. I didn’t even remember getting to his place. Time had started to move in both directions.
I remember the rest of the night only in peripatetic images, an unfinished quilt. The living room with one mostly empty bookshelf. Black leather couch. His hands pushing my dress up. Dry skin on my bare legs. Want to get more comfortable? Bobby pins on his bedroom floor, tangled in the shag carpet against the wall. His voice from somewhere I can’t see saying they belonged to his mother. His framed photography on the bedroom wall. Black and white. Visceral abstracts that weren’t quite Escher, not quite Picasso. But he had found the poetry of geometry in architecture. I remember thinking his photography was vibrant even without color. It was the only life in the Fifty Shades of Beige that was his apartment. Bleached bone walls. Taupe couch. Eggshell Berber carpet in the living room. Ivory shag in the bedroom. There were dull cream sheets. Maybe polka dots? Maybe stripes? But it was too hot for covers. Black chest hair glossy and grassy like pampas. The strong curve of muscles. Boxers. A hard dick I tried and failed to pull through the fly like a dog with a stick stuck sideways in a doorway. It felt arthritic. Kind of skinny and knuckled. I was disappointed. I kept trying. His frustrated suggestion to just take his boxers off.
Under no circumstances did I think I would be taking my clothes off for a stranger that night. I was wearing enormously sagging boyshorts. They were still in decent shape but the elastic was shot and they were admittedly droopy. But I was not expecting his hands like branches under the canopy of my dress. What … ARE these … ? Like he had gotten tangled in a massive fishing net and only a reasonable explanation could free him. I was mortified.
Blackness. Kissing. His tongue in my ear and down my neck. I tried to take my bra off with a dancer’s grace but couldn’t. His eager hands helping me. More darkness.
I came to and slurred something about being a good girl. Told him that I wouldn’t sleep with him. I don’t remember if I had my dress on or not. I don’t remember if he was a good kisser. If I was. I could tell he didn’t believe I wasn’t going to sleep with him. I remember saying it again. His voice went hollow. Hostile almost. The playfulness evaporated like a backdraft, like a dragon inhaling sharply, suddenly. I could feel it dry up and leave an arid silence in its wake. He rolled over and was snoring within minutes.
We lied next to each other, parallel train tracks not touching. The air was as heavy as the lead blanket/apron thing they put on you when you get x-rays. I couldn’t fall asleep but started to feel the high tide of the drunkenness ebb. I lied there until I noticed the sun coming in and realized I could just get up and leave. I was under no obligation to stay. This man would not be suggesting breakfast together. He would not be asking me for a second date.
I thought about leaving without a word. Like an apparition he may or may not have seen the night before. An ephemeral vision that may or may not be an actual memory. But I begrudgingly tried to say goodbye, my hand lightly on his shoulder. I was a good girl after all. Polite. Good manners. I may have been a drunken disaster but I had still been raised right. Whatever the fuck that actually meant.
He mumbled something in a language I didn’t understand, a low swirl of sounds whorled in his mouth.
I tried to tell him again, Um. So I’m gonna head out. He mumbled again, another language I didn’t understand. A different language altogether I thought.
I didn’t actually want him to wake up. Okay, I’m gonna go, I said again gently.
He didn’t open his eyes, didn’t stir, sprawled still on his side just as he slept. One word rose up from the bed, clear as a bell.
I realized, not with any particular surprise, that spending the night with a first date was nothing new for this man. He was not startled by a stranger’s voice in his bed. I felt like a basic bitch all over again. It was just after 6am and I realized I had no idea where I was in the city or where I had left my car. I made sure I had my keys and my dead phone and slipped out the front door not realizing I’d lost one pearl earring in his sweaty sheets where who knows how many women had regretted lying with him.