Author: John Hearn
He hadn’t mentioned the Cavalier, the fact that it was a station wagon, a sixteen year old station wagon, with rusted-out lower door panels and a discolored hood. Now worried that it could be a deal-breaker, he wished he had. She wanted to know what he drove but didn’t want to come right out and ask. Instead, she told him about her just purchased Camry and how much she loved it but wondered still if she should have bought a four-wheel drive vehicle, what with Buffalo’s challenging winters. Everyone she knows drives a Jeep or a truck, she added, pausing to give him the opportunity to say whether or not he did too. He said nothing. And now he was driving to her house –her house, not her apartment. Her house, not her parents’. In the Cavalier. She’ll secretly watch from a window as he pulls into her driveway, per her instructions. She’ll hear the engine knock and rattle itself off as he walks toward the house. She’ll wonder what she’s gotten herself into this time.
As they sit and eat the lasagna she spent the afternoon making, he’ll use the setting to distance himself from the vehicle, making sure his back is straight, his elbows far from the table top, his chewing patient and quiet, his napkin flat on his lap. He’ll mention his college days, his English degree, the deliberate choice he made to not go into teaching. He’ll be middle-class. When she asks about his work with the Environmental Protection Agency, he’ll try his best to not admit that his employer is actually Buffalo’s Lead Remediation Cooperative, and that his position is funded through a time-limited EPA grant. He won’t say that he makes slightly more than twelve dollars an hour. At thirty-two years of age.
Once the narrow, ice-rutted side streets that feed Electric Avenue are behind him, he sighs as he settles onto Ridge Road and cruises past the cold stone Basilica. Minutes later, he tenses again, grabbing the steering wheel tightly, as the Cavalier whistles and sways in the raging winds gusting across the rising, curling Skyway. Below, empty grain elevators and the shells of dead steel plants litter the gray, lake-side lowland; but there’s hope spinning on the wings of a line of wind turbines.
She’ll be polite. They’ll drink the wine he brought. They’ll stare into each other’s phone, the images appearing and disappearing dizzyingly, pictures meant to convince the stranger that they embody the biography and character of their owner, that viewer and photographer now know each other, that a year or more has been compressed into a handful of minutes, that the long road to intimacy has been by-passed. When she submits to the tempting call of her buzzing cell, he’ll notice she’s received a “wink,” an expression of interest by another man, the owner of a new, safe Honda or a large, intimidating Silverado.
There may be a kiss and a shared declaration of a good time.
The roads are wide and bare now, the houses single-family, and the concrete driveway winds in a half circle to a yellow two car garage. The light over the front door shines just for him, popping on as he approaches. He hears the bell ring and the footsteps approach, feels the warmth of a fireplace, smells the aroma of garlic and oregano, hands her the wine.
As he eats a chocolate cupcake she herself baked, he understands that the forty-eight hour flurry of texts is history, the optimism it stirred is gone. Tomorrow morning there’ll be no response to his, “Thank you, I had fun.” Tomorrow evening they’ll be no reply after he writes, “I had a good time and hope you did as well.” The following day there’ll be no answer to his question, “Is everything okay?”
On Monday, in a small second floor Lackawanna apartment bursting with young children, he’ll wipe down a painted-shut window frame, slice out a decades-old white chip, squeeze the yellow liquid onto the exposed area, and wait for it to turn red. Which it will do. He’ll explain to the pregnant mother that the paint must be removed, that it’s too dangerous for her and her kids to stay, that temporary living quarters must be found. That they must once again move on. In her eyes he’ll recognize the fear and frustration that signals a lack of control over one’s life.
“I am sorry,” he’ll say.
The headful of thick, brown hair was a bonus, but the real importance of the images was that they were family pictures: standing between his two sisters, an arm around each; sitting by his niece, behind a cake, on her eighth birthday; surrounded by his five nieces and nephews at his mother’s house, their heads touching like a bunch of carnival balloons. They weren’t posed and they were taken on different days and at various locations, suggesting an ongoing pattern of family interaction. Also, he indicated he would like children of his own one day. Exactly what she hoped. She was done with the men who wanted to have “fun,” whose postings were of chiseled torsos – the result of hundreds of hours at the gym – or of expensive cars or boats – a testament to sixty-hour work weeks. An attentive partner, a protective father, needed the time and the focus that the self-centered and the materialistic lacked. By now, she knew whom to avoid in love. So she promised that this go-round would be her last, the final time she would circle this ever-thirsty drain.
She left work two hours early but didn’t say why. She knew that doing so would reveal the source of her enthusiasm, and on Monday morning her predictable disappointment would show as clearly. She would retain her status as the office’s reluctant singleton, the woman nobody wanted. Or that nobody wanted more than once. There was lasagna to make and cupcakes to bake, last-minute house cleaning, fireplace logs to arrange, a shower to take. Nerves to settle. Despite the number of men she’s met under these circumstances, she can’t believe that a stranger, a person she didn’t know of two days earlier, was coming to her house, into her house, her otherwise empty house, and, maybe, though she hoped not, into her bedroom. She asked her sister to call during the evening, to plead for emergency baby-sitting help in the event the guy seemed a threat. She would leave her phone on vibrate. Apprehensive, yet confident that this one would be the one.
The doorbell rang as she was finishing changing the sheets. She hurried down the stairs into the comforting warmth of the fire, the nostalgic aroma of the meal. She opened the door and saw what she seen had online: the same thick hair, straight white teeth, and slender frame – all on a man who appeared the 32 years he claimed to be. But…was he really 5’ 10”? It was difficult to gauge as he was on the doorstep still, having not yet crossed the threshold and up into the living room.
After dinner they moved close to the fire to chat, sat together on the sofa, shared their phone pictures. She tied each image to a promise. She’s sunning on the sailboat he’ll get to experience this summer; drinking beer with two best friends he’ll come to like very much. She waited for him to unbutton her blouse and the waistband of her jeans, to hint that the bed may be more comfortable, to talk as though they had a shared past and could assume a combined future, to hold her, proclaim her beauty, pledge his love. When he leaned forward to kiss her, he seemed to stretch upward to meet her lips with his, and as he did so, he lifted one foot from the floor. She noticed he was wearing cowboy boots! How had she missed them earlier? What man wears cowboy boots? Other than an actual cowboy? Or are they back in style, in some place other than Buffalo? She wondered how tall the guy actually was, and worried what the two of them would look like together in a venue where cowboy boots are inappropriate… a friend’s pool or…just about anywhere else. Is she taller than he is? What would their wedding photos look like?
Her phone buzzed. She was sorry but she had to take it. It may be her sister, home with a sick child, she said. But it wasn’t. It was a message from another guy, Jake, handsome and well-built; six feet tall, he says. He was sending her a “wink,” an expression of interest.
Thank you for coming by. It was fun, she added. She gave a good-bye kiss that she thought he may have mistaken for a good-night kiss. But he hadn’t.
She heard the old car ping and knock and die and ping and knock and rumble, its tires finally crunching softly across the newly fallen snow. As its taillights disappeared into the dark mouth of the driveway, she was on her phone, searching for a profile, certain that Jake was the one.
On Monday morning she’ll infuse the office with the ebullience she had left it with on Friday afternoon, but it’ll be less intense, perceptively less hopeful.
She’s decided that on her drive to the restaurant to meet Jake, she’ll stop at the nearby animal shelter to see what’s available.
John Hearn lives in Jamestown and is an aspiring writer. He has authored (or co-authored) a couple of books, short stories, op-eds (including in the Buffalo News and Washington Post).