The Blind Date
Fiction Contest Winner
By Elizabeth Savage Aibel '04
I know you are the one because everyone else is thinking of ordering, or in the middle of ordering, or waiting for his or her order. Families sit at booths — mothers unwrap straws and fathers pick at kids' leftovers, couples hold hands over half-eaten plates, and threesomes dot the tables in the center of the room. Singles perch at the counter — knees hitting the Formica, clenching purses and briefcases in between stocking legs and pressed pants. You are alone at a table for two, flapping your sandal against your heel. It makes a slapping noise that doesn't seem to bother you.You are lovely. You are sitting with your back to the wall, near the bathroom. Your brown hair — shiny and long — is pressed against the wood behind you. It makes a soft peak above your head. You have long legs. You shaved them this morning. You cut yourself on your left ankle; the flesh there is raised and pinkish. You look up from your book every third sentence or so. You stare out the glass window and watch people pass by holding shopping bags, hotdogs with dripping ketchup, small dogs, umbrellas, bouquets of flowers, CD players and headphones, and small children. Your head snaps up when you hear the bell ring above the door. The doorknob is a wide brass rectangle, greasy with french fries and grilled cheese fingerprints. When you don't see me, you duck your head down again, reading, or maybe not really reading the words. You stick your pinky finger into the corner of your mouth and keep it there.
You have dressed conservatively. Your jeans — rolled casually at the leg — are not too tight and your shirt is not too low. But you have unbelievable breasts and a tight stomach. I can see the fabric — nice, not cheap — stretching across your chest, faintly outlining a lace bra that you wear underneath. I wonder if your underwear matches.
You hit the empty chair across from you with the toe of your shoe. By accident. But the wooden legs scratch against the tiled floor, and to you, the sound is flagrant. An empty chair. So you hover over your own chair — all your weight resting on your thighs — your left hand gripping the place in your book, as you swing the bag that sits by your foot over and across the table. You release the bag once you are certain it will not fall off the seat. Now the chair looks taken, in use, and busy. You now no longer look like you are waiting for someone.
The waitress comes by for the third time and you finally succumb. You smile and point to your empty cup. You order coffee so she doesn't think you are just wasting the table. You order it also because an empty tabletop in a coffee shop is almost as flagrant as an empty chair in a coffee shop. The waitress in a pie-stained apron nods and then brings over the steaming pot. You drink it black. I think that your breath must smell nice — like smooth, slit, oval-shaped coffee beans, undiluted by sugar or cream. When you take a sip, you hold it lingering in your mouth, not because it is hot but because you like the taste. Or maybe just because you are nervous and the hot liquid gives you something to focus on.
You are lovely and nervous, which makes me feel relieved to know that beautiful girls like you can feel anxious. Even though you have clear skin — rosy in all the right places — bright, expressive eyes, and an intelligent-looking mouth, you continue to wiggle your foot as you shift in your seat from left to right. Your nervousness makes you even lovelier.
You would not find me lovely. You would think my eyes were endearing, but you would note the unevenness in my features and my shoddy-looking sneakers. You would glance at my belly, expanding daily from eating standing up and no exercise. And you would undoubtedly notice the sweat that gathers under my arms and above my lip. You would notice that my sweat doesn't smell tangy and sweet, like the kind of sweat women like. You would think my sweat smells like what I had for lunch.
By now, I am so late you are beginning to become annoyed. You have put your book down and are staring around the room, no longer pretending to be captivated by your novel. No one pays any attention to you — or notices that you are agitated — because no one in the coffee shop is supposed to be meeting you. Everyone in the room is eating off of cracked white plates and sipping not-quite-hot-enough coffee. You see open mouths receiving forks piled with fluffy eggs, palms smacking the side of ketchup bottles, children sorting piles of sugar packets, and old women cutting their quartered club sandwiches into eighths. You hear a couple arguing about the cost of a love seat, mothers commanding children to sit on their bottoms, and businessmen wielding deals. You watch a waitress drop a fork behind the counter, wipe it off on her apron, and walk it over to a table in the corner where a well-dressed salesman stares down at his forkless pie, drumming his fingers on top of his sticky tabletop. You realize that you are hungry and that I am beyond late. You push the sleeve of your shirt over and past your watch and you know that I am not coming.
You take out your wallet, put down four dollars — a big tip because you are embarrassed about the thirty-five minutes you spent waiting, the coffee you didn't even dent, and the empty chair that was never filled — and snatch your book and your bag and walk out the door. You are standing outside and you look pissed and slightly defeated as you stuff your book into your bag. It doesn't fit easily, and as you cram it in against your wallet and water bottle, and on top of your makeup bag and your house keys, you look left and then right, deciding which way to walk. You grunt softly, but I can see the grunt on your puckered and strained face as you swing your bag over your shoulder — a corner of the book peeking out of the side — and walk left. Past me. Standing in the phone booth. You don't even look at me, probably because even though I am staring right at you from my little metal cave, I am holding the phone to my ear and my mouth is hanging open, feigning mid-sentence. You probably think I am just a sweaty, balding guy talking on a phone — placing a bet, calling my mother, figuring out a bus schedule. You probably don't think anything actually. I am unnoticeable. You wait for the light and I smack the phone down on the receiver so loudly that I think even though you have crossed the street you will look back to see what the noise was.
Because you don't know me, and because I watched you sit in the coffee shop, and because I technically "stood you up," and because I am now following you — if you knew all this — you would probably be scared of me.
I want you to know that I am not scary. My brother has two little girls. And I am their favorite uncle. I have a dog that wags his tail for twenty minutes straight every time I come home. I let old women have my seat on the subway. I can cook great omelets and I give great back scratches. I am also smart and I also can be funny.
There is, however, nothing funny about how fast you are walking. Because you are moving so quickly, I must dodge through other pedestrians and I bump a few people along the way. I say excuse me, of course, but people still squint at me as I dart past, probably wondering where exactly I am going, and why exactly I need to get there so quickly. Or then again, maybe they don't wonder at all. The pace makes me feel like a stalker in a movie, with a bomb in my pocket.
After a few blocks you slow down. You walked the first few blocks fast because you were angry and because you felt foolish. You walked so fast that you developed some drops of perspiration between your breasts. You notice the wetness and press your shirt down to blot them away. You run though a gamut of possibilities in your head. You give me the benefit of the doubt — I didn't show up because of a terrible accident. I was probably stuck in a broken-down subway, unreachable and nearly suffocating; or I was pick-pocketed on a street corner 40 blocks away without even a quarter to call and explain my absence; or I was delayed helping a small child crushed under the wheel of a garbage truck, half-mauled when he reached for his baseball — there was no way to call because I was holding his dislocated shoulder with both hands. And then you begin to doubt yourself and you wonder whether I saw you and didn't like what I saw. Regardless of your chosen scenario, you are annoyed and you feel dumb, and now you are hot from walking so fast and you still have no resolution even though you are blocks away from the coffee shop.
In your wildest imagination, in the nooks and crannies of your mind, in the churning hamster wheels of your brain, you did not consider the scenario of me standing in a phone booth for thirty-five minutes watching you though the grimy glass window of the coffee shop. You would have never guessed that I liked what I saw so much that I couldn't bear to go in. I couldn't go in under the ringing bell and have you look up and gasp ever so quietly when you saw me come toward your table. Scraping your chair against the floor and standing up as you clutch your book against your hip, you would move your bag off the empty seat, and not meet my eyes because you would be looking directly at my belly and up at my sweaty lip and down at my dirty sneakers.
You are lovely, and people have told you so, but you would have never thought that you could be too lovely to be approachable.
You have slowed down considerably and stop suddenly to fan your shaving cut. In the heat, your legs have become itchy and the area around your cut is throbbing. Your rapid halt has caused the couple walking behind you to jerk to a stop. They are forced to unlink their hands and each one walks around your side. You do not notice them until they pass in front of you, reaching again for one another. Your shoulders move up and then down slightly, and you sigh as you walk on again.
I am breathing hard. My shirt is really wet now, and the damp line above my lip lets drops of sweat drip into the corners of my mouth. I would scare you with my dampness and my noises. If you heard me, you would think I am having some sort of attack. But I am not, just asthmatic. You are an athlete. If you are not a runner then you must do yoga — splayed out, spandex-clad, and downward dogged on a purple mat. I would never be able to keep up with you in bed. Your long legs and long hair would encircle and cocoon me. I would like it, of course, just watching you do all the work. But you would never agree to that.
We are 15 blocks from the coffee shop. This is the most active date I have ever been on. You power ahead, stopping only at red lights, and sometimes not even waiting for the change to green. I hope that I do not get hit by a car.
We pass Korean markets, drug stores, chocolate shops and restaurants with outside seating. You turn your head to look at the sea of white linen, penguin waiters, perspiring water pitchers, dipping and twirling forks, and heads thrown back in laughter. We walk by a yarn store whose window is filled with brightly colored fabric, vibrantly twisted into square swatches. A small dog pees on shredded paper in the corner of the window of a pet store. Outside a candy shop, a Jamaican nanny struggles to strap a squirmy little white boy into his stroller. When he begins to wail, she plucks a green lollypop into his open mouth and rolls her eyes as she pushes him down the street.
You turn right and walk down a tree-lined side street. You step over cracks and you admire the brownstones, with their elaborate ironwork and flowering window boxes. I slow down because we are no longer on a main street, and there are fewer people and more parked cars. You step around a pile of dog poo. I avoid it too, and quicken my pace when we reach the next main avenue where I see you turn left.
I am feeling lightheaded because I have never walked this far before, because I did not eat lunch, and because I have no idea where you live or exactly to where you are walking. I mop my forehead that is also sweating, preparing myself for another brisk pace, when I see you stop at the corner newsstand. You stand in front of the candy case, stocked with brightly colored candy bar wrappers, pocket-sized mint containers, and thin and thick packets of gum. You run your fingertips over the flavors of Trident and then you suddenly reach for a packet of Big Red. Through the bulletproof clear encasement, the Indian owner tells you 35 cents for the pack that you have placed on the little plastic tray separating you from him. You reach into your bag and pull out your book, because you never properly put it away. Then you pull out your water bottle, warm and half empty. You are searching for your wallet when a man comes up to stand behind you. You have raised a knee and are hobbling on one foot like a pink flamingo, balancing your bag on the flat of your knee, while your armpit clamps onto your book, and your left hand grips your water bottle. The man reaches for a paper off a pile directly in front of you. He glances at you, admiring your one-legged struggle, and smiles. Outwardly, he smiles because he thinks you are very talented to be doing so many things at once. Inwardly, he is watching your breasts sway and bounce as you lean over your knee. He opens his wallet and finds he only has a fifty-dollar bill and 30 cents that he digs out of his pants pocket. The Indian man is shaking his head: a 60-cent newspaper is not worth making change out of a fifty.
You finally pull out your wallet. You are flushed and accomplished looking. You look over at the man — who is, of course, tall and handsome, with an angular jaw and rolled sleeves and his jacket flattened over his arm. You flick your hair. Quickly but maybe seductively, you weave the brown strands through your fingers to throw quickly over your shoulder. You hand him your water bottle, book, and makeup bag to hold while you right your bag over your shoulder and take the paper out of his hands. You pick up the pack of gum, and place it on top of the newspaper and nod to the Indian man.
This man, holding the items of your bag in his tan hands, is watching you. He watches you slide your dollar on the plastic tray, and he notices the thinness of your arm and the deep line of your collarbone. He doesn't know about your shaving cut or your lace bra yet, but he tells you that he has read the book he holds in his hands. You smile and your cheeks flush again, and you tuck the paper under his arm, and he helps you put back the contents of your bag. He fit the book solidly in, so no corners peek out. You are standing facing one another, with the rack of candy behind you, and he asks which way you are walking. You point left and he nods and asks if he may walk with you. You look down at the sparkly sidewalk and notice a piece of dried bubblegum only a few inches away from your sandal. You look to your right and then to your left. Your mouth is curled into an almost smile and you nod your head.
The two of you walk past me, standing at the corner, leaning — feigning concentration elsewhere — on the blue, paint-chipped, and graffitied mailbox. You cross the street.
Read the honorable mention submission, "Isabelle Loses Her Mind For a Short Time" by Britt Freitag '08.
The Alumni Review thanks author Peter Cameron '82, who graciously accepted our invitation to serve as judge. Cameron sold his first story to The New Yorker the year after graduation, and has published four novels and two collections of stories since then. At Hamilton, he majored in English and studied writing with David Lehman, John O'Neill, Bill Rosenfeld and Fred Wagner. He received the Wallace Bradley Johnson Playwrighting Prize in his sophomore and junior years, and in his senior year he edited Red Weather, Hamilton's literary magazine.
In addition to writing, Cameron has worked for St. Martin's Press, The Trust for Public Land and Lambda Legal Defense & Education Fund. He has taught writing at Oberlin College, Columbia University, Bryn Mawr College, Sarah Lawrence College and Yale University. His most recent novel, The City of Your Final Destination, was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Prize and will be adapted for the screen by Merchant Ivory Productions. His new novel will be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in fall 2007.
Regarding our winning entry, Cameron notes: "What I liked most about ‘The Blind Date' was the overall high quality of the writing. The sentences are nicely cadenced, the language is exact and vividly descriptive, and the author makes fine use of the tricky second-person voice, which can often seem awkward or gimmicky. This is a story about perceptions (and misperceptions), and its unique ping-pongy structure, which constantly shifts between subject and object, allows the narrator to reveal himself as dexterously as he observes (and objectifies) his would-be date. ‘Blind Date' is written with confidence, elegance and a sly humor. Its remarkable attention to sensual and psychological detail gives the story that elusive fictional quality: life. I congratulate Elizabeth Aibel for a job well done."