NOTE: This part of the story took place over a month ago. I’m catching you up as fast as I can. All names have been changed, except for mine.
“I decided a long time ago that I could choose to date a woman,” my roommate said one night as she filled two mason jars with cheap red wine. “I’ve been attracted to women. I understand our bodies. I find it easier to connect with women emotionally.” She took a seat at the kitchen table and handed me a glass.
“I could choose that,” she said, gazing into her wine with a frown. “And in a lot of ways, it would make more sense.” I nodded, trying to imagine her with a woman. I could, I suppose. We took thoughtful first sips of our wine, letting the thought sit for a moment between us.
Sppffff. In chorus, we spit back into our cups, surprised. The wine had turned. Lena stood and took my glass with a sigh.
“I know I could,” she went on, dumping the wine unceremoniously into the sink, “but that’s not a can of worms I’m ready to open.”
It was a Saturday night in late February and Lena wasn’t home. As a matter of fact, by some accident of grace, all four of my housemates were either out of town or otherwise indisposed. I had the place to myself and, like a grand-slam hair day on a cold and rainy night, I wasn’t so much taking advantage of the opportunity as the opportunity was taking advantage of me.
It was a funny night to start with, depending on how loose you are with the term. I’d invited Alex to watch a movie– a perhaps overeager second date, rife with quotation marks and assumed innuendos. And I don’t recall how this came to pass, but an hour before our prospective date, the date’s existence still hadn’t precisely been confirmed.
As a matter of fact, at t minus one hour, I was eating store-bought cookies in a fluorescent-lit lunchroom, applauding winners of a raffle I hadn’t thought to enter. It was an Irish dance recital, the folk dance debut of a friend’s charming eleven-year-old. I managed to go a full hour of children dancing a jig without checking my phone for a text, but by the time we were drinking punch in the lunchroom, I was peeking in my purse every three to five minutes. I hoped no one noticed.
“Did she text you?” Margo asked, shaking the crumbs from her napkin onto her paper plate. I shook my head and nibbled my Chips Ahoy.
I know The Rules. If a man left me hanging like this on our second date, I’d be running for the hills faster than you can say ‘he’s just not that into you’. But this wasn’t a man. Our emails had been a bit confusing and maybe she misunderstood. Or maybe I misunderstood. Or maybe she was just playing it cool– she’s a woman, after all; pursuing isn’t her job anymore than it’s mine.
At eight-thirty, I finally gave in.
“Hey, Alex,” I texted her from a bathroom stall. “We on for nine? I’m hanging with friends and wonder if I should stay out or have them drop me home.”
The response was almost immediate. “What can I bring?”
The lighting in our house is unfortunate to say the least.
The electrical wiring may have been installed by Thomas Edison himself– a comment on the age of the wires, not the skill with which they were strung. Most rooms are lit by a single bare bulb hung from the ceiling, and at any given time a good number of lights aren’t working at all.
The house itself is a hundred years old and it looks every year of it– stained floorboards, cobwebbed corners– in a house like that, there’s something to be said for keeping the lights low. By the time Margo and Dan dropped me at my door, I had twenty minutes to set the mood.
It turned out that “setting the mood” involved running through the house, flipping light switches on and off in various combinations, shielding lamps behind closet doors, and digging through bathroom cabinets to find and collect every candle in the house. Nothing worked. The house had two settings: ‘mid-day supermarket’ and ‘haunted bat cave’.
I went with bat cave.
Twenty minutes later, I was perched on the edge of the couch in a too-dark room, surrounded by mismatched candles, cell phone gripped between both hands. I reached out and adjusted a candle two inches to the right. I glanced at the time. I wondered if I should put on music. Will that seem like I’m trying too hard? I eyed the candle warily and moved it back again.
I stood and paced the floor. I turned on the lamp. I turned it off. I turned it on again. I suddenly panicked that Alex might be coming up the sidewalk, watching through the window as I manically adjusted the lighting. I turned it off. I decided to pour myself a drink.
Knock, knock, knock.
I jumped, dropping my phone with a clatter. “Coming!” I called as I rushed to the front hall, tripping over a coffee table in the dark.
The hall was dark as a tomb. I could barely find my way to the door, but couldn’t bear to turn on the overhead light, an especially harsh affair designed to cast its subject a shade somewhere between jaundiced and seasick. I opened the door to find the entryway even darker than the house. It could have been an axe-wielding murderer at the door for all I knew.
“A bit dark out here,” came a decidedly non-murderous voice. Alex stepped into the faint glow of the kitchen light and smiled. She was wearing vintage cat-eye glasses and a blue winter coat.
“It isn’t much better in here,” I admitted. I stepped back to let her in. “Welcome to my creepy lair.”
“I wasn’t sure what to bring,” she said, hoisting her backpack onto the kitchen table. She unloaded an arsenal of treats: a package of orange-chocolate cookies, a bag of peanut butter cups, a box of organic red wine. “So I just brought everything.”
When one invites a date to one’s house to watch a movie, the movie one selects is generally not of great importance. This night was no different. A documentary from Netflix had been gathering dust on my bedside table since mid-December and Alex’s visit seemed like as good a time as any to finally pop it in.
It’s supposed to be a real tour de force of a film, this documentary– unfortunately, it served mainly as background noise. We talked the whole way through the movie, discussing everything from Buddhism to skydiving, from love to death. She was endearingly neurotic– a sexier Woody Allen, taller and with better hair. We laughed almost constantly.
Hours passed like minutes until, suddenly, I noticed the movie was nearing its end. I’d forgotten that would eventually happen. I felt my pulse quickening. I found it hard to concentrate. I became increasingly aware of the dark, of how close we were sitting on the couch, of the fact that this was a date. Suddenly, I didn’t feel so well.
“ACHOO!” I sneezed loudly enough to wake the bats in the walls.
“Gesundheit?” She looked startled.
I’d been feeling the first twinges of a cold throughout the day, but as the conversation flowed, my sniffles had surreptitiously exited stage left. But now they were back, and with a vengeance.
I grabbed a roll of toilet paper from the bathroom and huddled on my corner of the couch, blowing my nose furiously. I tried to keep chatting naturally, but my nerves were on edge and the nose-blowing didn’t help.
Tender montages, final thoughts from talking heads– I could tell the movie was wrapping up and with every moment that passed, my blood pressure was elevating. I couldn’t invite someone over for a date to “watch a movie” and not make out with her. She might think I didn’t like her. Or that I was weird.
Suddenly, the screen went to black– credits. The movie was over.
We sat for a moment in awkward silence. Her knee knocked into mine and I jumped.
“ACHOO!” I was out of tissues.
“Excuse me,” I said, hurrying from the room, hand over my nose. I locked the bathroom door and sank onto the edge of the bathtub, head between my knees. I took a deep breath and let it out.
I didn’t have my first kiss until I was twenty-years-old. I went on plenty of dates before then, even had a boyfriend or two, but whenever the lights got too low and the boys got too close, I’d find myself overcome with the urge to make a joke. Or do a tap dance. Or, you know, sneeze.
It wasn’t for lack of interest– I’d daydreamed about kissing boys since Kevin B.* on the kindergarten playground. My first boy-girl party was in seventh grade, and my best friend’s mom made us bring saran wrap in case a boy tried to kiss us. No such preventative was necessary. At every party from then on, I prayed for a round of spin the bottle, but such things seemed relegated to Judy Blume books and the kinds of parties to which I wasn’t invited. The one time the game was suggested, the bottle fell from the table on the first spin and shattered into pieces on the floor.
I wanted to kiss someone alright; I was just very, very afraid.
I stood and leaned over the sink, glaring at myself in the mirror. Get out of your head, Laurie. It’s just a kiss. What’s wrong with you? I splashed water on my face. I took a deep breath and a new roll of toilet paper and made my way back to the living room.
Alex was getting to her feet as I entered the room. “I should get going,” she said apologetically. “It’s late and you’re sick. You should rest.”
I nodded. “Ok.”
I insisted she take the wine and treats she brought. I felt guilty keeping anything after my poor date performance. After several rounds of protests, she reluctantly refilled her bag. She stood awkwardly by the door, pulling on her boots as I manically scrubbed dishes, straightened towels, adjusted candles– anything to keep from walking her to the door.
“Well, goodnight,” she said finally, shifting her weight uncertainly in the dark.
I dried my hands and turned to her. “Thanks for coming,” I said brightly, leaning too-casually against the kitchen sink, a full ten feet from where she stood, a doorway parked between us. The awkwardness of the scene hadn’t escaped me, but I couldn’t bring myself to move. There was an interminable pause. She turned to go.
“Thanks for coming,” I said again, this time softer. I stepped forward to the kitchen doorway, hands in my pockets. “Next time I won’t be sick.”
“Ok,” she said with a smile. “I’ll hold you to that.”
The door closed behind her and I stood for a moment in the dark. I wandered back to the living room, footsteps too loud in the silent house. I was relieved she was gone and sorry all at once.
I flopped back on the couch and gazed up into the dark. I could see the outline of the faded glow-in-the-dark stars Brad and I glued to the ceiling last summer. Orion, Pisces, the Big Dipper. I bought the box at a thrift store for ninety-nine cents and we’d spent all afternoon gluing them to the ceiling, one-by-one. There were hundreds of them. We blasted Tom Waits and stood on bar stools, examined diagrams and argued what went where. And when we were done, we turned off the lights.
And nothing happened.
The stars had turned, I suppose.
“Oof,” I said out loud. The TV was still flickering silently across the room. I picked up the remote and turned it off.
* who, according to a quick Google search, reached a grand height of 5’1″, has a semi-lengthy arrest record, and is colloquially known as ‘K-Dog’– even at five, I knew how to pick ’em.