Smoking in the girls’ room, sneaking a drink, napping
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When I return naked to the stone porch,
there is no one to see me glistening.
— Linda Gregg
A man I like is coming for dinner tonight. This means I don’t sleep very much, and I wake disoriented in the half light of dawn, wondering where I am. I look at my naked body stretched diagonally across the bed; I look at the untouched breasts, the white belly, and I wonder. I don’t know if this man will ever touch me, but I wonder.
I get up and make coffee. While I wait for the water to boil, I study the pictures and poems and quotes held in place by magnets on my refrigerator. I haven’t really looked at them in a long time, my gaze usually blank as I reach for the refrigerator door. But this morning I try to see these objects clearly, objectively, as if I were a stranger. I try to figure what this man will make of them, and so, by extension, what he will make of me.
He’ll see pictures of my three nieces, my nephew, my godson. He’ll see my six women friends hiking in a slot canyon of the San Rafael swell, straddling the narrow gap with their strong, muscular legs. He’ll see the astrological forecast for Pisces and a Joseph Campbell quote that tells me if I’m to live like a hero I must be ready at any moment, for “there is no other way.” He’ll see Rumi: “Let the Beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.” He’ll see me kayaking with my friend Kathy in the San Juan Islands; me sitting with my parents in the Oasis Cafe in Salt Lake City, the three of us straining to smile as the waitress snaps the photo; me standing on the grounds of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s estate, my arms around my fellow artist-colonists, grinning as if I were genuinely happy.
Who is this person on my refrigerator door? I try to form these bits and pieces into a coherent image, a picture for me to navigate by as I move through my solitary morning routine of coffee, juice, cereal, a few moments of rumination before the stained-glass kitchen window. But I’ve seen these fragments so often they’ve come to mean nothing to me; this collage exists only for others, a persona constructed for the few people who make it this far into my house — into my life. “Look,” it says, “look how athletic, spiritual, creative, loved I am.” And my impulse, though I stifle it, is to rearrange all these items, deleting some, adding others, to create a picture I think this man will like.
But how can I know? How can I keep from making a mistake? Besides, I tell myself, a mature woman would never perform such a silly and demeaning act. So I turn away from the fridge, leave things the way they are, drink my coffee, and gaze out the window. It’s February and the elm trees are bare, the grass brown between patches of snow. Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, a fact I’ve been avoiding. I think about the blue tulips I planted in the fall, still hunkered underground, and the thought of them down there in the darkness, their pale shoots nudging the hard-packed soil, makes me a little afraid.
I’m afraid because I’m thirty-eight years old, and I’ve been alone for almost three years now, have dated no one since leaving my last boyfriend, who is now in California marrying someone else. Sometimes I like to be alone; I lie on my bed at odd hours of the day with a small lavender-filled pillow over my eyes, like the old woman I think I’m becoming. At times like these, the polish of light through the half-closed Venetian blinds seems a human thing, kind and forgiving, and my solitude a condition to be guarded, even if it means remaining unpartnered for life.
But other times I gaze into my bedroom and see no comforting light, smell no lavender. Instead, the empty room feels like a reproach — dark, unyielding. Unable to move beyond the threshold, I stand there paralyzed, panic gnawing beneath my skin. I try to breathe deeply, try to remember the smiling self on my refrigerator door, but that person seems all surface, a lie rehearsed so many times it bears a faint semblance to truth, but not the core. I cry as if every love I’ve ever known has been false somehow, a trick. This loneliness seems more real, more true than any transient moment of happiness.
At these times I want only to be coupled, to be magnified in a world which too often renders me invisible. In my parents’ house, an entire wall is devoted to formal family photographs, arranged in neat symmetry: my parents in the middle; my older brother, his wife, and their two children on one side; my younger brother, his wife, and their two children on the other. When I lived with my boyfriend Keith for five years, my parents insisted we have a portrait taken as well, and we did: me in a green T-shirt and multicolored beads, Keith in jeans and a denim shirt, the two of us standing with our arms entwined. So for a while my photo, and my life, fit neatly into the family constellation.
Then Keith and I split up, but the photograph remained on the wall another year, staring down at me when I came home to visit for Hanukah. I know my parents kept it up out of nostalgic fondness for Keith. “You have to take that down,” I finally told them, and they nodded sadly. Now a portrait of myself, alone, hangs in its spot — a nice photograph, flattering, but still out of place amid the growing and changing families that surround it. Whenever I visit, my eight-year-old nephew asks me, “Why aren’t you married?” and gazes at me with a mixture of wonder and alarm.
A man I like is coming to dinner, so I get out all my cookbooks and choose and discard recipes as if trying on dresses. I want something savory yet subtle, not too messy, and not too garlicky, just in case we kiss. I don’t know if we will kiss, but just in case.
I don’t know much about this man. He has two young daughters, an ex-wife, a hundred high-school students to teach every day. He writes poetry. His hair is the same length as mine, curling just below the chin. I don’t know how old he is, but I suspect he’s younger than I am, so I need to be careful not to reveal too much too fast.
It will be our third date, this dinner. From what I’ve heard, the third date’s either the charm or the poison. I have a friend who, in the last five years, has never gotten past the third date. She calls me at 10:30 on a Friday night. “Third-date syndrome,” she sighs. She describes the sheepish look on her date’s face as he delivers the “let’s just be friends” speech, which by now she has memorized: “You’re great. I enjoy your company, but (a) I don’t have a lot of time right now; (b) I’m not looking for a relationship; or (c) I’m going to be out of town a lot in the next couple of months.” My friend tells me, “I just wish one of them would come right out and say, ‘Look, I don’t really like you. Let’s just forget it.’ It would be a relief, in a way.”
I listen to her stories with a morbid fascination, as if she were a traveler returned from some foreign land to which I, thankfully, have been denied a visa. But then we hang up, and I turn back to my empty house: the bed whose wide expanse looks accusatory; the pile of books that has grown lopsided and dangerous. I stare at my fish, a fighting fish named Betty, who flares his gills at me and swims in vicious circles around his plastic hexagon, whipping his iridescent body back and forth. My friend Connie tells me this behavior indicates love, that my fish is expressing his masculinity so that I might want to mate with him. In my desperation, I take this as a compliment.
A man I like is coming to dinner, which means I need to do the laundry and wash the sheets, just in case. How long has it been since I washed the sheets? There’s been no need to keep track. It’s just me here, after all, and I’m always clean when I go to bed, fresh from the bath; nothing happens in that bed to soil it. When I lived with Keith, or Seth, or Francisco, I washed the sheets every week, but then I had someone in the laundromat to help me fold them when they were dry.
Today, as I dangle the dry sheets over the laundromat’s metal table, I realize that I’ve never really dated before. I’ve always been transparent as a door made of rice paper: approach me and you can see inside; touch me and I open, light and careless. It’s difficult to remember the beginnings of things; was there always this dithering back and forth, this wondering, this not knowing? My first boyfriend and I took LSD and sat in a tree for five hours on our first date. We communicated telepathically, keeping our legs intertwined, sinewy as the branches of a madrone. We were eighteen years old.
Such a date, now that I’m thirty-eight, seems foolish, ridiculous. Now I have to weigh everything: to call or not to call; whether to wait three days, or five, or six; whether to ask everyone who might know this man for information, then form a strategic plan. I shave my legs and underarms, make appointments for a haircut and a manicure, all of which will make no difference if nothing happens. I think about condoms and blush and wonder if he will buy any, wonder where they are in the store, how much they cost these days. I wonder about the weight of a man’s hands on my shoulders, on my hair. Marilynne Robinson, in Housekeeping, writes that “need can blossom into all the compensations it requires. . . . To wish for a hand on one’s hair is all but to feel it.”
I want to believe her, so I wish for the hand. I close my eyes and try to picture this man’s hands, to feel the soft underside of his wrist against my mouth. A man’s wrists have always been the key to my lust; something rouses me in the power of a hand concentrated in that hinge. And yes, I feel it. Yes, my breath catches in my throat, as if he has stroked his thumb against the edge of my jaw. My body’s been so long without desire that I’ve almost forgotten what it means to be a sexual being, what it’s like to feel this quickening in my groin. It’s all I need for now: this moment of desire unencumbered by the complications of fulfillment. Because craving only gives rise to more craving; desire feeds on itself and cannot be appeased. It is my desire, after all, my longing, more delicious than fulfillment, because over this longing I retain complete control. This arousal, breathless as it is, lets me know I’m alive. That’s all I really wanted in the first place.
A date. The word still brings up visions of Solvang, California, and the date orchards on the outskirts of town, the sticky sweetness of the dark fruit. My family drove through the orchards on summer car trips, hot and irritable in the blue station wagon. But when we stopped at the stores with giant dates painted on their awnings, we grew excited, our misery forgotten. My mother doled out the fruit to us from the front seat, her eyes already half closed in pleasure. The dates — heavy, cloying, dark as dried blood — always made the roof of my mouth itch, but I ate them anyway because they came in a white box like candy. I ate them because I was told they were precious, the food of the gods.
I lied. I changed everything on my refrigerator, my bulletin board, my mantelpiece; I put up a letter announcing a prize, took down my nephew’s drawing because it ruined the aesthetics. I casually added a picture of myself on a good day, my long legs tan, my skin flawless as I pose in front of a blazing maple bush on Mill Creek. I try to suppress an unbidden fantasy: a photograph of me and this man and his two daughters filling the requisite place on my parents’ wall. I know this is a dangerous and futile image, but it lodges stubbornly in my head.
I call my friend every half-hour or so with updates on my frame of mind, asking for reassurance that I am not a terrible person, asking questions as if she were a representative of the dating board: “On which date does one start holding hands? Kissing? If I ask him out again and he says yes, how do I know he’s not just being polite?” If there were a guidebook, I would buy it; a class, I would take it.
Yesterday, I discussed this imminent dinner with my hairstylist, Tony, as he bobbed my hair. Tony and his boyfriend are essentially married, but he’s had his share of dates, and he gave me both sides: “Well, on the one hand, you’ve got to play the game,” he said, turning the blow-dryer away from my hair, “but, on the other hand, you need to show some honesty, some of the real you. You don’t want to scare him off. This is a good lesson for you: balance, balance, balance.”
Tony is my guru. When I came to him the first time, I told him my hair was in transition: not long, not short, just annoying. “You can’t think of it as a transition,” said Tony, cupping my unwanted flip. “This is what your hair wants to be right now. There are no transitions. Right now, this is it.”
Yesterday, Tony cradled my newly coiffed hair in his slender fingers, gazed at me somberly in the mirror. I smiled uncertainly, cocked my head. “Good?” he asked. “Good,” I replied. Satisfied, he whisked bits of hair off my shoulders with a brush. “Don’t worry,” he said. “Play it cool.” I nodded, gazing at myself in the mirror, which always makes my cheeks look a little too pudgy, my lips a little too pale. Whenever I look at my reflection too long, I become unrecognizable, my mouth slightly askew, a mouth I can’t imagine kissing, or being kissed. I paid Tony, then walked carefully out of the salon, my head level, a breeze cold against my bare neck. In the car, I did not resist the urge to tilt down the rearview mirror and look at myself again. I touched my new hair. I touched those lips, softly, with the very tips of my fingers.
A man I like is coming to dinner. In two hours. The chicken is marinating and the house is clean. If I take a shower and get dressed right now, I’ll have an hour and a half to sit fidgeting in my living-room chair, talking to myself and to the fish, whose water of course I’ve changed. “Make a good impression,” I plead with Betty. “Mellow out.” He swims back and forth, avoiding my eyes, butting his head against the plastic hexagon. I call my friend: Do I light candles? A fire in the fireplace? Use the cloth napkins? She says yes to the napkins, nix to everything else. I must walk the line between casual and formal, cool and aflame. Perfume? Yes. Eyeliner? No. I remake the bed, realizing only now how misshapen my down comforter is, all the feathers bunched at one end. The cover, yellow at the edges, lies forlornly against my pillows, and my pillowcases don’t match. Skirt or pants? I ask my friend. Wine or beer? My friend, a saint, listens then finally says, “Why are you asking me? I never get past the third date!” I freeze. Suddenly, I want to get off the phone as quickly as possible, as if her bad luck might be contagious.
A man I like is coming to dinner. He’s late. I sit on the edge of my bed, unwilling to stand near the front windows, where he might see me waiting. My stomach hurts and is not soothed by the smell of tandoori chicken overcooking in the oven. Like a cliché, my hands are sweating. I lie back on the bed, not caring at this point if I mess up my hair or wrinkle my green dress, chosen for its apparent lack of effort. Pale light sifts through the Venetian blinds at an angle just right for napping or making love. If I had to choose right now, I’d choose a nap, the kind that keeps me hovering on the edge of a consciousness so sweet it would seem ridiculous to ever resurface. My lavender eye pillow is within reach. My house is so small; how could it possibly accommodate a man, filling my kitchen, peering at my refrigerator door?
On my bedside table is the Pillow Book of Sei Shonagan, a tenth-century Japanese courtesan, a woman whose career consisted of waiting. In that expectant state, she observed everything around her in great detail, finding some of it to her liking and some not. I idly pick up the book, allow it to fall open, and read, “When a woman lives alone, her house should be extremely dilapidated, the mud wall should be falling to pieces, and if there is a pond, it should be overgrown with water plants. It is not essential that the garden be covered with sagebrush; but weeds should be growing through the sand in patches, for this gives the place a poignantly desolate look.”
I close the book. I look around this apartment, this house where I live alone. My room feels clean, new, expectant. Right now I want nothing more than to stay alone, to hold myself here in a state of controlled desire. But if this man doesn’t show, I know my house will quickly settle into the dilapidation Sei Shonagan saw as fit for a single woman; the line between repose and chaos is thinner than I once thought. Despite all I’ve tried to learn in these years alone — about my worthiness as an independent woman; about the intrinsic value of the present moment; about defining myself by my own terms, not by someone else’s — despite all this, I know that my well-being this moment depends on a man’s hand knocking on my door.
The doorbell rings, startling me into a sitting position. I clear my throat, which suddenly seems ready to close altogether, to keep me mute and safe. I briefly consider leaving the door unanswered: I imagine my date waiting, looking through the kitchen window, then backing away, shaking his head, wondering. Perhaps he would think me crazy, or dead. Perhaps he would call the police, tell them there’s a woman he’s worried about, a woman who lives alone. Or, more likely, he would drive to a bar, have a beer, and forget about me. The thought of his absence momentarily pleases me, bathes me with relief. But of course I stand up and glance in the mirror, rake my hands through my hair to see it feather into place, then casually walk out to greet this man I like, this man who’s coming to dinner.