My friend Harriet scans the personals each week and cuts out the ones she thinks I should be interested in. A few weeks ago she gives me one and says, "This guy's ad's really funny--and I called and his message is funny too. Check it out."
I do. She's right, but there's something about the guy's voice that puts me off. I mention this to her. "God, you're so judgmental!" she says. "No wonder you're still alone. Give the guy a chance."
I call again and leave a message. On Saturday he calls me back, and we talk for about 20 minutes. The conversation goes well enough, and we make plans to meet for coffee at Kopi on Wednesday night.
"How will we know each other?" he asks.
"Trust me, Joe, we'll know."
"No, wait a minute. What do you look like?"
"I'm short, bald, and have a mustache."
"What will you be wearing?"
"What will I be wearing? I don't know. Why don't you wear a red carnation?"
"A red carnation?"
"It's a joke, Joe."
"Oh. Well, I always wear jeans and cowboy boots." I hate cowboy boots.
I complain to Harriet, and she says, "If you've got this horrible attitude already, why don't you just spare the poor guy some public humiliation and cancel?"
Unfortunately I've lost the guy's number. I could leave him another message on his 900 number, but I don't think of that until Wednesday afternoon. So I show up.
At 8:20 the place is three-quarters full. A waiter is blocking the aisle taking an order, so I just stand there and scope things out. I spot a guy sitting by himself. John Bradshaw type--bushy hair, salt-and-pepper beard, more fuzz than flesh. I know he spends his weekends drumming in the woods. We make eye contact for a split second. I break it immediately. "Shit," I say under my breath. The waiter looks at me and moves out of the way. I head toward the table. My eyes dart to his feet--pointy toes sticking out of blue jeans. I walk up to him. "Joe?"
"Pardon me?" he says.
"Is your name Joe?" I ask.
"No, I'm Jack," he says, and smiles invitingly.
"Oh, you look just like Joe," I say, and continue fast past his table to the john. I piss, collect myself, come back out, and sit down with my back to Jack. I notice another guy sitting by himself against the wall near my table, reading some pamphlet. But he's way too young to be Joe.
Service being what it is at Kopi, I wait forever to order. In the meantime I feel the wall guy looking at me intermittently. My waitress finally surfaces, and I order a cappuccino. I look over at the guy, and we smile at each other. "What are you reading?" I ask.
"Oh. This is from People Like Us."
I nod. "What is it?"
"It's a bookstore. A specialty bookstore."
"I know what People Like Us is. What is it you're reading? Is that a listing of upcoming events?"
"Oh, oh. No. This is the summer catalogue."
For a minute I don't say anything. "Kind of late to be reading the summer catalogue, isn't it?"
He laughs. My cappuccino arrives. He continues to thumb through the pamphlet, and I busy myself with my coffee. The sugar container is almost full, but the pour spout is caked with crystals and what's inside is stone. I shake the thing violently. It starts flowing, but then I think, Do I really want to put this in my coffee? I opt for the pink stuff. But where to dump the spoonful of sugar? I feel the wall guy watching, so I look up, roll my eyes, and dump the sugar in the ashtray.
He leans forward. "Are you David?"
I lean forward and whisper, "No, I'm Mike." I point a thumb over my shoulder. "And that's not Dave either. That's Jack. I thought Jack was Joe." We laugh. "On a personals date?" I ask.
"Not yet," he says. We laugh again.
"Likewise," I say. "Did you place an ad or are you responding to one?" I pull my chair closer.
"I placed one."
"I'm responding. What did your ad say?"
"I'll show it to you," he says, and goes for his bag.
"You keep a copy of it with you?" I say, laughing.
That embarrasses him, and he puts his bag down. "No. I thought I had a copy of the paper with me, but I don't."
"You're lying. Open your bag."
I back off.
He looks at his watch. "I think I'm getting stood up."
"Story of my life. What time was your date?"
"Mine too!" We laugh again. "So what's the deal? Is Wednesday night queer night at Kopi? Is there some two-for-one special for homos I don't know about?" I look at my watch--8:40. "I say we give these two losers five more minutes, and then we blow them off. Hey, I forgot your name already. What was it again?"
"Actually you didn't give me a chance to tell you."
"No wonder I can't remember it. And to think I was worried about early-onset Alzheimer's."
"Brandon," he says. We shake hands. Brandon is young. Very young. Young enough to get me in a lot of trouble with my therapist.
Just then I notice a guy walk in the door with the tentative look of somebody on a blind date. "Uh-oh, Brandon. Don't look now, but one of them's here." We're sitting at separate tables so it's not obvious that we're engaged in conversation. I shift away from Brandon, but continue to talk to him in a low tone. The guy at the door scopes out the three possibilities. "Don't turn around," I say. "He's pretty cute. And he's headed this way."
Of course it's Brandon's date. And now it's weird. I'm spitting distance from the two of them, and I suddenly feel like a voyeur. I get up and walk over to the counter to order another cappuccino, but of course my waitress has disappeared. I grab a paper instead and come back to the table, positioning myself so that I'm no longer directly facing Brandon. It's still weird, but better. A few minutes go by and another guy walks in. I know it's Joe. Tall, light hair, fairly good shape for a guy in his 40s, but he's wearing a pink cowboy shirt with silver snaps and jeans a size too tight. On a younger, thinner man this would be a plus.
He stops just inside the door and peers into the room. Now, the room's not that big, and at this point there are only two possibilities--me and Jack, the human hair ball. But he just stands where he is, squinting and rotating his head. I raise my hand in greeting. He misses that on the next rotation, so I wave. He misses that too, so I stand up and point to myself. This he sees. He walks over tentatively. It doesn't occur to me that he might be having a reaction similar to mine when I saw the pink shirt.
"Are you, perchance, Mike?" he says.
Perchance? But I say, "Yes. And you must be Joe."
"Why, yes! Yes, I am," he says, as if astounded by my keen powers of deduction.
"Well, have a seat, Joe. Would you like a cup of coffee?"
"Oh, no, no, no. I never drink coffee this late in the evening. Keeps me up."
Then why in the world would you agree to meet at a coffeehouse? Ever heard of decaf, Joe? "Feel like something to eat?"
"Oh, no, no, no. I never eat this late in the evening either. Watching my weight."
This is gonna be fun. Suddenly I just want to get out of there, away from Brandon and his beau. It's become competitive in some twisted way, and I've already lost. I'm jealous of Brandon's beau. I don't want to watch them have a good time. They aren't laughing yet, but their conversation is fluid. Laughter is imminent.
"Well, I'm ravished," I say to Joe. Ravished? Did I just hear myself say "ravished"? I'm not even sure what it means. Why didn't I just say "hungry" or "starved" as I normally would? "I haven't eaten all day, but I don't think I'm in the mood for this stuff. Would you mind if we went somewhere else?"
"Not at all," he says.
Rather than wait the usual 30 minutes for a check, I throw a five on the table and say, "Let's go." I'm about to put my wallet back into my pocket, but I stop. It's now or never. I pull a business card out, walk over to Brandon's table, and say, "Hey Brandon, it was nice to see you again. Here's my card. Give me a call at the office." He just looks at me and says nothing. As I walk away I add, "Say hi to your folks for me."
"I will," he says, and smiles.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.