by ALEXANDRA KIMBALL
In the spring, I moved out of the house I was sharing with my boyfriend and reunited with a longed-for ex. But that, too, was falling apart for all the reasons it had the first time, only much more quickly. I hadn’t just pressed rewind on the relationship; I’d pushed rewind and then 4X FF.
Writing marketing copy from home meant that I had all the time in the world and no money at all. In my city’s Gay Village, I signed a lease on a cheap apartment the super informed me had previously housed a family of junkies. When I moved in, I found broken glass in the kitchen sink, pink stuff around the caulking (blood?) and a bra hanging from the living room ceiling fan. It was wedged in so deep between the blades, I couldn’t dig it out even with a broom handle. Tattered, the bra swung down the center of the apartment, like a flag from some torn, but undefeated, civilization.
I had ordered a bed — my first piece of brand-new, grownup furniture — but for some reason, the delivery service was delaying. Same with the cleaning service I convinced my landlord to hire to tackle the kitchen, which still scared me. I ate Cheetos and slept wrapped in a sheet on my living room floor, like a kid at a sleepover. At 32, the last few years of my life had been a crash course in impermanence. Love, money, self-regard: I knew now that all of these were things that could be abruptly withdrawn. But closing my eyes against the hard floor, I felt the whiplash of adulthood in sudden reverse. I didn’t know maturity was fragile, too.
I wondered what, if anything, could be salvaged. On the first warm day of May, I took a break from waiting for my bed and met with Robert+ — the ex-boyfriend of ill-advised reunion fame — at a pub. “OK, let’s do it,” I said. “Let’s move in together and pick up where we left off before.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea”, he said through his pint glass. “But maybe we’ll see. I don’t know.” He shrugged — like a little boy, I thought.
I remembered the night we’d met: at a party, the same way I met everyone I wound up with. For me, love had always been the result of drunken collisions; social happenstance. Hanging out. Suddenly, it struck me as important that I’d never been on a date. Even the word “date” suggested an adult world that was alien to me as a layabout copyeditor, one of calendars and schedules; things happening at specific and prearranged times. It was a small project I felt I could handle in my disoriented state. The backwards lurch of my life — the breakups, the bra — seemed unalterable. But I wondered if changed the visuals of that life, the lingo, it could, like some optical trick, quell my vertigo.
A week later, I sat across from David at a cheap Cambodian restaurant on a busy street in the West End, trying to relate a nutshell version of my life history while figuring out why I felt so fake and nervous.
On his online dating profile, David had listed his profession as “club managor/painter” — a double violation of my stated rule against poor spelling and backslashed occupations. But in the swamp of goatees and disappointment that is Internet dating, David had stood out. His username was Important_earnest — an Oscar Wilde reference. With his dark, direct gaze and big scythe of a jaw, Important_earnest didn’t look like the good spellers I knew. Around his planar cheekbones, hair twisted in distinct black coils, like the foliage on an Art Nouveau woodcut. If he were around at the time of his namesake, the right word for him would have been “rake”. Looking at his profile, a fizzy feeling rose in my ribs. In the name of adult dating, I had been prepared to reject clever guys, funny guys, “cool” guys — anyone who reminded me of my childish exes. What I hadn’t steeled myself against were good looks.
In person, though, the fizz had gone flat. When I imagined dating, I’d pictured flirting, a slingback heel dangling from a flexed toebed; “touche”. But with David, I could barely look up from my noodles. It was amazingly awkward. I asked him things he’d already answered; he started anecdotes only to stop abruptly in mid-sentence, transfixed by some movement outside the window or something on his plate.
“I’m sorry,” he said at one point. “I still live with my ex-girlfriend.” He said this as if to explain the odd lapses in his speech. And I guess it did.
“I had a really nice time,” I said when the bill came. What I was thinking was, “that was fucking awful.”
David’s well-shaped eyebrows inverted, turning his brow into a dark, pleading wave. “Did you?” he asked. His voice was quavering. “Because I really like you. I really, really want to go on another date with you. Did you know I’ve never been on a real date?”
The carbonated feeling returned. Maybe, I thought, I didn’t need someone more mature than me, to show me how adulthood was supposed to be done. Maybe what what was called for was not tutelage, but partnership; not a guided tour, but a buddy system. Maybe growing up was something David and I could figure out together, date by uncomfortable date.
Dating David was difficult, not least because he lived with his ex-girlfriend, worked most nights at a hellish thumping club, and, like me, had no money. But over the next two weeks, we found our way into our own weird, broke version of the montage in a romantic comedy. We met at Canadian Tire before his noon shift and picked out a recycling bin for my apartment. At midnight, we shared a pitcher of beer on a bar patio up the street from his club. That these meetups were always at weird times, and never lasted more than a couple of hours, seemed less relevant to me than the fact that I got to call them dates.
How different the pomp and ritual of dating was from the hangouts of my past! With hanging out, love could slip out of ordinary moments without logic or warning. Dating, on the other hand, was a defined happening, a place so distinct from regular, ungrownup life it had its own language; its own rhythm and economics. To date is to give and receive clear signs: to understand that “I like you” is a heartfelt confession while “you’re pretty cool” means it’s over. It is letting him pay on the first date, but splitting the bill on the second and treating him on the third. With my exes, something like the wording of a compliment or who winds up getting the bill was ripe for misinterpretation; usually, these were signs of nothing at all. But when David told me he liked me, I knew that it meant we were moving along — or, in the patois of dateland, “connecting”. After years of ambiguous encounters, it was comforting to enter a world in which nothing could come as a real surprise. Every moment with David came pre-stamped with importance.
David liked dating too, or so he said, sitting across from me at an all-night Greek bakery, just a block down from the apartment he still shared with his ex. It was a dirty little room with metal chairs, and we were the only people in there. Still, he had ironed his t-shirt, and between us — beside the plate of baklava we were sharing — was his offering: a pretty clump of carnations in a plastic sleeve.
“This is the only thing I’ve got going on besides work,” David said, gesturing vaguely in my direction. He poked at the baklava and sighed. He told me that he’d moved and switched relationships so many times he often woke up misremembering where he was or who was sleeping beside him. “You feel like you’re moving backwards; I feel more like I’m in a Mobius strip.”
Across the table, David passed me his iPhone. A black-and-white painting of a bald woman, naked but for a black garter belt and stockings, filled the small screen.
“Just so you know, this is my real work,” he said. “Feel free to scroll through.”
I flicked through the slideshow of images with my thumb. All paintings of naked women, seen from behind or below, through parted curtains or keyholes or open doors. All in moments of undress, their heads turned; unaware they were being watched by someone just out of sight.
“They’re great,” I said, absorbed. I meant it.
“My thing is fantasy,” he said, shrugging.
“My real work is writing stories,” I confessed. It wasn’t something I liked to say out loud. “I guess my thing is fantasy, too.”
We smiled at each other — a rare moment of eye contact. Our forks hit one another as we poked at the honeyed square. With every small ding, I felt some layer — between me and David, between me and the life I wanted — flake away.
To date is to not only know what is going to happen, but how to feel about it when it does. Installed on my living room floor that night, I looked up at the ceiling and thought, “I am elated.”
To go from hanging out to dating at 32 was to enter a world that was both completely alien and completely familiar. It was the same slightly dissociative experience I had visiting Paris after years of seeing stock Paris visits on TV.: here I am at the Eiffel tower, this is me avec baguette. “I can’t, I have a date,” I’d tell people breezily, hearing myself saying it as I said it. I welcomed the feeling. This was something that might have said by a sleek, joyful woman in a razor commercial, not by a 32-year-old girl-child who couldn’t handle a simple furniture delivery. In the hours before I was due to meet David, I would comb my hair in my bedroom mirror and watched myself watching myself, getting ready for a date, infinite refractions of Woman Before Date that pushed the actual me temporarily, but blissfully, out of frame.
Spring went on, each day a little sunnier, a little more temperate, than the last, mirroring my brightening mood, making me feel buoyant and almost carefree. I got a long-overdue check for a website I’d written for a juice box company. Just back from a date with David, feeling bold, I called the line for the delivery service that had my bed.
“Twelve to fourteen business days, miss,” said the guy on the other line. He had a thick Northern Ontario accent: furteen. “Just like I told you last week.”
“Well, I just got paid, and I if you rush it, there is a cool sum of forty dollars in it for you,” I said.
He chuckled. “Yeah, it doesn’t really work like that.”
“What will make it work like that?” I asked.
“Look, miss, we’ve been back and forth about this bed for weeks now. And I’m not going to lie: I feel sorry for you. I know you want it, bad. So I’ll tell you what — I’m going to make sure your item gets out of the warehouse and on the Toronto delivery truck on Wednesday. That’s two days from now. So that would put it at your door between nine and eleven AM on Friday.”
“I can’t!” I said. “I can’t then. I have a date.” Even now, I got a thrill from saying that.
“You have a date from nine to eleven a.m. on Friday?”
“He works a night shift,” I explained.
The voice exhaled. “All right,” he said. “I’ll have the driver loop back to your neighborhood between three and five. Good?”
“Yeah,” I said, relieved. “Thank you.”
“This must be some guy you’re dating, meeting him at 9 a.m.,” he said. “Now I understand why you want this bed so bad.”
I hung up in a daze, wondering how I could have missed this. David and I had met in coffee shops and on park benches, we were dating like crazy, but not once had we even come close to having sex. Other than a few dry, on-cue goodnight kisses, our time together had been completely chaste.
In dateland, the consensus is that you should wait three dates before having sex. This is supposed to be a long, torturous delay, but David and I hadn’t even noticed. By the usual standard, we were three dates overdue.
I picked up my phone to text him, but he’d beaten me to the punch.
“Why dont we hang out @ yr place tmw?” he wrote. “I can cook.”
An uneasy feeling squirreled around inside me. “My kitchen is covered in junkie blood/glass,” I replied.
“I work @ club,” he texted back. “If I can do anything its clean up blood/brkn glass.”
The bed didn’t come, of course, but I refused to take that as a sign. Grownups had sex on couches, right? It was more spontaneous that way; more passionate. But that evening, as I leaned against the doorjamb of my kitchen, I watched David’s hipbones shift around the waistband of his jeans and realized I felt nothing. He was crouching over my stove, turning the knobs this way and that. The glass on the floor didn’t bother him as much as my ancient stove, he said, so he’d cleaned the burnt-up gunk out of the burner holes with a dental pick. The igniter clicked and stopped as he turned it on and off, testing the flame. I kept my eyes on his hips, trying to feel more than abstract appreciation. David was a gorgeous guy; he’d worked as a model. He’d fixed my stove, and now he was going to make me dinner. But determined as I was to sleep with him, there was nothing in the fact of him — nothing in his gestures or the way he talked, no detail in his face or physique — that made me want his body against mine.
“Well,” David said, turning to face me. He leaned back against the stove and glanced at me, bashful but expectant.
“Yeah,” I replied. I thought of our first date, the awkwardness. We’d gotten past that — could this be a first-time nervousness, too? Outside the kitchen window, the sun had become a low, orange stripe.
“We should get to the supermarket,” I said. “If we want to cook dinner.”
“For sure,” David said. “But would you mind if maybe we first smoked a joint?”
I expelled a long, grateful breath. Weed: it was a perfect idea. I’d bought wine, but this was better: it would take the edge off the nervousness, but not mess up the mechanics. It wasn’t exactly an adult move — there was nothing about cannabis in the dating lexicon — but if it would help me relax, who was counting?
David and I went into my living room, where, on my third-hand IKEA sofa (Ektorp), I watched him unpack his drugs and rolling papers and spread them out on my coffee table. He took out a shot glass and scissors and cut up the weed. Bending over the glass, he snipped away for what seemed like forever, the only noise in the room the sound of the scissors and some guys laughing on the patio of the gay bar next door. I couldn’t think of anything to say that wasn’t about the very meticulous way he was cutting up the weed, so I just watched the scissors open and close against the sides of the shot glass. Music, I thought. I should have put on music. Or would music just draw attention to the fact we weren’t talking?
At some point in this self-questioning, I realized I was holding the joint, and sometime either before or after that, I understood that I was high.
“Hey,” David said, turning to me. “So.”
“This is really good weed,” I giggled, but he kissed me anyway.
Around this time, it struck me that we were making out, and that his hand was under my dress, and my leg was over his knee. It was good, if only because it meant I no longer had to find things to say.
In my preparation for the date sex, I had bought wine and put on a black lace bralette and matching panties. But, because I was out of practice and also, I thought now, because I was an adolescent in all the ways that mattered, I had forgotten entirely about condoms. Sitting naked on my couch, I tried to figure out our options. We could go out and buy them, but that might ruin our momentum. There was no way I could do it without one (or could I?). Of course, we could not do it all, but we’d come this far, and to end a date like this would be a dramatic failure: a kid-like chickening-out. None of the options seemed to jive with my fantasy of mature grownup dating.
“There’s a drugstore across from the subway,” I said, finally.
David stood up and stretched, oblivious to the fact he was standing naked in front of an open window. “Oh,” he said dazily, “I think that one closes at 7.”
The room was dark now, and I went back and forth about whether or not it was weirder to turn on the light or to continue the conversation in blackness. There was more laughter coming from the patio up the street; vague dispatches from the world I’d left behind: hanging out, hooking up; fun. I decided we should stay in the dark.
“Do convenience stores have them?” I wondered.
“Yeah, probably,” David affirmed. “But — this is embarrassing — I haven’t gotten paid this week yet? Condoms are like, twelve dollars.”
Don’t do this, I thought, but then I was walking over to the dresser where I’d slung my purse and then I was counting a twenty out of my wallet — the juice box money I’d set aside for the groceries I’d planned to buy with David. And then I was at my living room window in the dark, watching David enter, and then exit, the yellow-awninged HastyMart across the street.
When David came back, he produced a 3-pack of “Pride Edition” Trojans: yellow, purple and green. I looked up at him, disbelieving.
“The yellow’s almost clear,” he shrugged.
“Alright,” I said, but I didn’t really care anymore. Whatever pretense of maturity David and I had been keeping up was gone; a distant mirage — as remote and fantastical as a condom box rainbow. I had almost called off the sex, but now my determination was redoubled: the damage was done, I’d be a kid forever; so I may as well get some action. Even if it was teenager style: on a couch, high, and in total silence.
The first time I hung out with Marcus, the guy I had been living with, we talked in a bar for four hours straight, a conversation that unfolded like the best kind of road trip, great, distance-traversing stretches that gave way to sudden, exhilarating turns and poignant moments of rest. The conversation was so absorbing we missed last call; the bartender had to kick us out. Outside, we made out in the middle of the sidewalk with such open abandon we drew honks and cheers from passing cars.
In my hurry to transcend the laissez-faire patterns of my past, I’d forgotten that I had endured them for good reasons. Excitement; vulnerability; the seismic thrill of meeting someone who, within a few moments, could crack my life in two. When my relationships were good, I didn’t get caught up on surfaces, on how things looked, because I was in the core of the things themselves. I asked myself now: what was more childish than trying to be grown-up?
Afterwards, David and I sat facing each other at opposite ends of the Ektorp and smoked another joint.
“Do you want to stay over?” I asked. “I have no bed.”
“I dunno,” David replied. “My ex was pretty upset last time we went out and I didn’t come back until late.”
“So you have a curfew,” I said. “Perfect.”
“Yeah,” he said neutrally.
“You know,” I remarked, “I’m starting to think this woman isn’t an ex at all.”
“I dunno,” David conceded, shrugging. “It is what it is.”
I should be outraged, I thought, I should scream and cry. But I was high, and I couldn’t get a grip on the anger. Was it even David I was upset with? I thought about my bed and the delivery guy on the phone. I thought about the fact that the next week, I’d have to write a website for a company that made instant macaroni-and-cheese. I thought about Robert breaking up with me through the bottom of a pint glass. Vaguely, and then with tremendous volume, I again heard laughter from the patio of the gay bar. Before, the voices had seemed to be making a point of everything I was missing, but now, I knew, they were laughing directly at me.
“Do you ever feel like people are laughing at you?” I heard myself say softly.
David sighed, a whorl of smoke curling around his face. “Oh man,” he said. “All the time.”
He hugged me goodbye and promised to call, though I knew we’d never talk to each other again. It was as positive a way to end things as we could have managed, I thought. There were no hard feelings. But when I turned the light on in my living room, I noticed that David hadn’t left the change from the twenty I’d given him, and he’d also pocketed the purple and green condoms.
Spring became summer, and the sun in my windows was bright as bleach. My mind, too, seemed clear and empty. After the drama of the spring, it wasn’t a bad feeling. I wrote the website for the macaroni and cheese company, plus some others. I understood why people talk about taking refuge in work. I stacked one dumb task on top of the previous until they became a wall around me, something through which I could see neither present nor future, forward nor back.
On the first day of the first hot week of the season, my bed arrived, a great foamy square that the big-shouldered delivery guy said couldn’t fit into my tiny bedroom.
“It’ll fit,” I urged. “Just try.” It did fit, but barely. Still, when I threw myself down on its crisscrossed surface, I realized that it didn’t matter that my bedroom was cramped. Only I had to see it, and I didn’t care.
“It’s getting hot in here,” the guy said as he left, and reached up to yank the chain on my ceiling fan, the one with the bra permanently wedged between the blades. It turned for days, maybe a week — I forget how long. But at some point, I came home and the bra was on the floor. It had come down on its own. It had needed a push, I guessed, but mostly, it had just needed time.
Alexandra Kimball is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Toronto.