It's a cool foggy Friday night in the Bay Area, and, miraculously, I have a date.
I don't know if I should wear a skirt or pants. I'm leaning into the closet as my four-year-old daughter tries to put rainbow clips in my hair. Mae doesn't know what a "date" is. I've told her that "Momma is going to a big person movie." As long as it's not Alice in Wonderland, she's not disappointed.
My sister is on her way here from San Francisco to baby-sit. "Is this another Match boy?" she wants to know. She remembers the last guy I met on the Internet.
After three dates with G., I realized there were no goose bumps. Maybe he resembled my father too much. But I wasn't about to give up that easily.
A week later, Robby "winked" at me. That's when a guy sends you his photo and profile online. There's no note or greeting. (I prefer to get real notes -- winking is kind of cowardly, I think.) As soon as I saw Robby's photo, however, I forgot all about how much I dislike getting winked at. He looked like a Calvin Klein ad. He had a boyish smile, dirty blonde hair, straight white teeth.
Robby described himself by writing: "I'm sober and work on being unselfish, an ideal toward which I constantly strive and hope you might appreciate."
He seemed like the perfect match for me, a woman who wrote in her own headline, "Are you addiction-free?"
* * *
Robby is a 42-year-old waiter who says that he's "open to who God puts in my path as long as she doesn't need citizenship and speaks English." By e-mail, he's very straightforward, a trait I appreciate as I attempt to be direct in my own life.
In his profile, Robby writes, "I am here to be with one extremely focused communicative woman who wants to hang in there and reveal herself, not censure her thoughts and act strategically."
Yes, that's the kind of woman I want to be. My ideal relationship is one in which we are present for each other. We sit down and talk. We are vulnerable and open.
When my sister arrives, I let her take a peek at what Robby says in his profile. She's looking between every word. Her take is: "He's just trying to feed somebody a line."
Still, I point out to her how funny Robby is. Under "favorite hot spots," he wrote: "the sauna, the stove, the oven, the hot water heater, the sun, the equator, the tropics, Madagascar, LA's tar pits . . ." (I, on the other hand, had replied to the same category: "Loved visiting Hawaii, Mexico, and Turkey. Local hot spot: the playground.")
My sister isn't laughing.
In one moment, I trade in my enthusiasm for doubt. This is where I've often gone wrong: just because a guy expressed interest in me, I liked him right back. Already I'm fantasizing about this man I've never met. I've always had a hard time listening to myself. When given the choice between my loneliness and a boyfriend, I went with the latter. Even when he wasn't right.
Mae runs into the kitchen and pushes me towards the door: "Go, Mommy!" She's ready to have her aunt all to herself.
I take a deep breath and remember that when I gave birth to her, I also gave birth to a new part of me. My body told the truth. If I could just listen to myself tonight, I would know exactly what to do.
But right now, my body is fighting against me. My lips are broken out. It's that damn mango, the only allergy I have. Who would have known that mango skin is in the poison oak family? If I'm not really careful when I eat one, my lips break out overnight. Mangos are my daughter's favorite fruit. I wasn't careful enough. My lips are swollen, red and burning.
* * *
The sky is bluish-gray. My boots beat against the sidewalk. I'm wearing a tight sequined skirt. A dog barks from inside a parked car. I almost trip on my own anticipation.
I repeat the same line to myself: "This is just an interview. This is just an interview. This is just an interview."
I want to believe that I'm just going to meet this guy and see what he's like. But my heart is pounding. I've never done anything right when it comes to men.
My own sister just told me as I was walking out the door, "Be careful! He's the kind of guy who says what a woman wants to hear."
All of a sudden, I'm pissed off. My sister's track record with men hasn't exactly been admirable. This week, however, her boyfriend of eight months gave her an engagement ring. Yes, her confidence is high right now.
But I don't trust myself. I can't afford to take another wrong turn. Not now that I'm a mother. I'm trying so hard to do it right this time. At my desk, I've organized all these guys into a three-ring binder. I've written back to about 30 men in the past two months. Along the way, I've printed out their photos and profiles, hole-punched them, and filed them away. As we've communicated, I've taken notes. I feel like if I'm paying really close attention; I won't make any mistakes.
I smear another coat of Blistex on my lips. I'm glad that it's dark outside.
Robby is a movie buff, so we're going to see a film together. I peek at the people outside the ticket window; he's not here yet. I lean against the light post. My hands are in fists. I shouldn't have to wait like this. Maybe he's going to stand me up. I feel angry.
My cell phone buzzes in my pocket. It's Robby: "I'm looking for parking--"
Five minutes later, a tall and lean man strides towards me.
There is a quick embrace. I hardly feel it. I want to thank him for meeting me, for taking away some of my loneliness. Then again, maybe he should be thanking me. After all, he's the one on an interview, not me.
He buys popcorn to share. We both like butter. It feels forbidden to share popcorn with a man you've never met before. The salt stings my lips.
After the movie, we go to out for seafood pizza. We share a booth and our knees touch. I keep licking my lips. I want to tell him about my mango allergy. But I don't want to draw more attention to my mouth.
This is the place where we finally talk. He tells me about being in AA. He goes to meetings every morning. I see that he has suffered. I tell him about my Mae's father, who is an alcoholic. Somehow, this misfortune brings us closer. But when I begin to tell him about the Al-Anon meetings I went to in New York City, he interrupts me. I wish I had my notes right now. I shouldn't forget this.
At 11 p.m., Robby walks me to my car.
I'm thinking, "Please, don't kiss me." My lips are burning. But my body is burning in a different way. I feel confused. At my car, he bends over and plants his lips on mine.
I'm lighter as I drove home. He likes me, he likes me.
* * *
We talk the next day and the next night. Robby's deep voice on the phone makes me hold my breath. He wants to see me again. I push my sister's advice to the back of my mind.
But three days after our date, his phone is disconnected: "This number is no longer in service." This is not good.
I send him an e-mail: "Are you okay?"
He replies: "Got behind on my bills. Just got my car out of city tow, too. $234 plus the ticket on the window when they towed it out of the lot. I wish I could hear your sweet voice -- so soothing, so nurturing, so understanding."
I think, "Who cares how much money he has?" I'm not materialistic.
But it's more than that. When I re-read Robby's last line, I know that he's describing me perfectly. I've always been the soothing, nurturing, and understanding girlfriend. As a mother, those are my strengths. That's what my daughter has me for. But do I really want to be some man's Mommy? Maybe it's my turn to be understood, instead of just being understanding.
I scribble more notes. Then I make a list of the pros and cons of Robby. He's attractive . . . yet he has been pressuring me to spend the night at his place, after just one date. He's very open about his past . . . but when it's my turn to talk, his cell batteries often run out. My gut is telling me: this will not last.
I wish men came as easily for me as school or work do. I keep thinking that if I'm really conscious, I'll learn how to trust myself. After a lifetime of being nurturing, understanding, and sweet, I wish I just knew how to be.
Mae interrupts my thoughts: "Mommy, want to see how I draw a fairy?"
I nod my head. She gets down on the floor with a nub of a red crayon and a piece of paper. Carefully, she makes a set of curly wings. In the middle, she draws a happy face.
"Wow!" I exclaim. "She's beautiful! Who taught you how to draw a fairy?"
"I don't know, Mommy," she shrugs. "I just learned."
Mae has all the confidence in the world. When it's her turn to date, I hope she's this self-assured. She will simply know what she deserves. I realize that I will learn the same.