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51/50 The Magical Adventures of a Single Life
By Kristen McGuiness
Soft Skull Press Copyright © 2010 Kristen McGuiness
All right reserved.
Chapter One Date One: First Impressions
"Do you want a cookie?" Richard points to one of the delicious, decadent pieces of heaven sitting safely behind the glass case. I do want a cookie. Desperately. But I am playing someone else tonight. I am playing the girl who doesn't want a cookie, who doesn't gorge herself on sweets, who smiles instead, and says, "No, just tea for me, please."
Bullshit. I try to be normal. I try to be the type of woman I think Richard would like. And I have to say, I'm pretty good at it. I didn't think I was going to want Richard's attentions prior to going on the date with him. In fact, I had planned on getting a pretty massive piece of cake at the café where we had agreed to meet. It's outdoors. It serves coffee and wine. It also serves cakes, and cookies, and brownies, and I like those things. It's kind of romantic without being obtusely so. It's where white people with decent jobs and Priuses go on their first date.
Historically, I am not a dater. I went on my first date when I was twenty-six and only because my boss at the time set me up with a friend of hers, and I had no other choice. High-pitched Marcus was surprised by the fact that I had made it that long without a date, but I wasn't. At one point in my life, finding a boyfriend had been easy. I would just get drunk, have a one-night stand with one of my friends, and then never leave. In some instances, I would stay in their beds for a good year or two. Sure, there were fights and fun and family vacations, and all the conventional things that come with a relationship, but none of them had actually started conventionally. I took breaks in between, and though I worried about when the next guy would appear, within eighteen months, he invariably would. That is the beauty of one's early twenties. There are so many of us who are single and looking for the starter romance that it seems as though love is always around the corner. But then people start getting married, or they come out as gay, or they settle into a bachelorhood that becomes far more interesting than any relationship, and the numbers grow slimmer as the streets between this love and the next grow farther apart.
Richard came to me by way of former co-worker Katie, which takes us back to 2006. I relapsed in 2006. It was a short three-week jaunt into what I thought was my old party life, except the old life had once been kind of fun. Instead, my relapse felt more like a bunch of naps caught between boring lines of cocaine and me vomiting in a toilet. After three weeks I was done, and I went back to being sober, and looking for a new job. The temp agency called me with my first assignment on a Friday afternoon. It was one of those moments that never leave you. The sun burns brighter, sound becomes clearer, and everything slows down because life is about to change. I would be sent to a non profit downtown which, from what I could tell, helped low-income kids of Latino descent. I would be someone's secretary, and it would pay me enough to eat.
I met Katie on my first day. We were the same age, but Katie was a manager, and I was a temporary assistant. I normally would have hated her for this. But Katie was a good egg, which is why when we recently got together to catch up, and she asked me how the love life was going, I told her the truth.
Over the last year, I had gotten rather good at posturing to the question. Bragging about my adventures and experiences and all the things that filled my life because I didn't have a boyfriend. Generally, people ignored my buoyant optimism only to respond with a handful of platitudes that annoyed me. Things like, "All in good time," "The right man will come along," and my favorite, "It happens when you least expect it." This is why I had begun acting like I was choosing singlehood in the first place. I didn't want their condescension, their suggestions, their strange, sad smiles. Because really, I can't be told I should read The Secret one more time without wanting to hit someone. But Katie didn't respond with any such nonsense because Katie's a smart girl.
"I know the perfect man for you," she told me. Alas, Richard.
People should be more careful about the photos they use to introduce themselves. Because in the photo Richard sends me, he clearly has man boobs. This was disturbing. Enough so, that after showing it to a few friends in the office, his nickname became the incredibly original and possibly trademarked "Man boob." Not a good start.
So when I walk up to the Christmas light-strewn café, I'm not sure if the relatively good-looking guy waiting there is the man in question. I don't even move to say his name just in case.
"Kristen?" he asks. I quietly exhale my sigh of relief.
Richard looks nothing like his picture. With a decent head of brown hair, and the educated style of a Northeastern boy come west, he stands a strong few inches taller than me, and I like that. For some unexplained reason, and with great Napoleon effect, there are a lot of short guys who live in L.A. It's always nice when I meet someone with whom I can wear heels.
Richard and I get our respective teas, coffees, and sweet treats (for the sir, not the lady) and sit down. We talk about writing projects and poets and yoga and where we've lived and what we want to be. Richard is half Italian, half Irish. I'm half Italian, a quarter Irish, and a quarter Hungarian, which is where we differ. Because Gypsy blood is dangerous, and Irish/Italian just makes for a good appetite. I figure this is probably why he knows of the Hungarian restaurant in the Valley I have always wanted to try, and where he invites me for a second date. I say yes, and actually am beginning to feel like that normal woman I was trying so hard to be. The type who simply hungers and does not crave.
I feel quite comfortable sitting across from this man. It's been so long since I did this-since I got to know someone a bit, got to settle into the easy banter of a nice first date. I have only been on three dates since I first got sober, and all of them were with sober men who already knew my life story.
Recovered alcoholics are a funny bunch. We very rarely respond to the question "How are you?" with "Fine." It's more like a therapy session than small talk, which is why going out on dates with them isn't always this casual. There's a joke that we tell that goes, "How do you know when a first date between two alcoholics went well?" The punch line: "They move in with each other." I have barely even used a swear word, let alone told some dirty sex story, because Richard and I are keeping up our most honest, personable, and pleasant personas. Maybe that's all he has, but either way, I am appreciating it.
Our table is right next to the street, so we're in full view of the foot traffic. And then I see my friend Ward. I call him my friend only because I lack a better word. Ward and I have hung out several times, but he still calls me Blair. Ward and I go to meetings together for said sober people. Ward is twitchy and sort of looks like Dave Navarro, if Dave Navarro were homeless. I think Ward might have a real case of Tourettes because he has a tendency to shout things out and talk to himself, but then again, so do I. At the end of the day, he can also be a really sweet guy, which is why when he recognizes me, I wave and say hello. Ward weaves and bobs his way over to our table.
I introduce the two men and then tell Ward I'll see him on Tuesday because that's the night we both go to the same meeting. He just nods his head and walks off in mid-sentence, muttering to himself as he heads down the street. I get the feeling that the normal cover I was trying to front here just got blown. Because most upper-middle-class, private-school girls working in nonprofits with a Honda Civic don't hang out with men like Ward. I know this, and Richard knows this.
He turns to me and asks, "What's Tuesday?"
What's Tuesday, Richard? Oh, just the place where me and my other mutant sober-hero friends get together and talk about what it was like, what happened, and what it's like now. I am terrible with confidentiality clauses, and so I explain it to him in nice, friendly terms. But Richard does little more than shrug. And then it hits me. Maybe this means little to him. Maybe only I care about my past and my stories and my strange associates that I think would be such a flag to the different lives I am assuming Richard and I have led.
"Do you have a sponsor?" he asks.
I laugh, "Yes, I do. Everyone should."
I like him more for that. I see how he has the sleeves of his button-down rolled up just right-how his arms are respectable, covered with a healthy amount of Italian hair. He could probably manage a grill, keep up a good conversation with the parents, and be the type of man I could trust. And I wonder whether I am at the point yet where I can be attracted to that kind of guy; whether it isn't always me insisting I don't go for the wrong ones while I continually do. Or rather that Gypsy blood is too wild for barbeque arms and a compassionate responsibility. Whether I am trustworthy when I meet someone who is willing to trust.
But at that moment, I don't feel anything but happy sitting there in the light-strewn garden with all the other Prius- and Civic-driving liberals, sipping tea and laughing about the New Yorker, and beginning to think that this might be what I was missing. Richard and I walk to our cars and hug. We confirm the next date. And though there is no kiss, no major (or even minor) overture of romance, I am giddy. Because I met someone with whom I rather enjoyed sharing a table-someone I look forward to seeing again, and who looks forward to seeing me. Someone without man boobs.
Chapter Two Date Two: The Prince and the Talker
I fell in love with a prince when I was nineteen. This had been a dream of mine ever since I was five and read my first book, The Donkey Prince. Same story as the Frog Prince, except starring a donkey. I figured my chances were better with the ass because girls like me don't date real princes. Then again, my prince wasn't a real prince, but he was French royalty. Years after we dated, I Googled him, only to discover that he was in line to a number of long-dead titles and possibly even a throne. So I'm gonna say he was about as close to a prince as I'm ever going to get.
We called him "Frenchie" because that's what you call French people in college, and, I think, in general. I don't know what arrow struck him the day he hung out of his dorm room window and called down to me as though we were old friends. I had just become a nervous and regularly stoned sophomore at Hamilton College in upstate New York. I grew up in the better parts of Dallas, Texas, so wealth didn't necessarily intimidate me just because I didn't have it. But the wealth at Hamilton was different. There were last names that you found on buildings. And international kids with diplomatic immunity. And there was Frenchie. I met him the year before when he was dating a quiet and beautiful Turkish girl with a strange name and lots of cashmere. She graduated and upon the first week of our new year at school, I found myself looking up into the sun and seeing Frenchie calling down to me. I invited him to my birthday party that week, and we began a love affair reserved for handwritten love notes and first edition books of poetry and a relationship that ultimately took me to his family's castles in France and his mother's rather cold disapproval of the American commoner her son had dragged in.
But none of that mattered. All that mattered was that I had him. And for the first time, I understood why women take their partner's names because I wanted to be forever identified with him. I wanted to be wrapped in his orange wool turtleneck and his old French movies and the accordion he would play while riding through the hallways of his dorm on a unicycle. I loved being us. I loved being his.
Which is why when I met Phillipe on MySpace in 2004, I thought I might have found that same great French love again. From his photo, I could tell he had the same mess of curly hair as my first Frenchie, and the same big cow eyes, and that lovely pert nose that once had been such a seamless counterpart to my Italian boxer schnoz. Phillipe and I e-mailed for a bit, and then decided to take it to the phone. The conversation was the longest five minutes of my life. Phillipe had a tenuous grasp of the English language, and in the middle of the call he hurt his thumb so badly that the conversation went from awkward to irritated. I never spoke to him again, and we dropped whatever loose plans we had to meet.
When I decided to look Phillipe up again, I realized I had found myself in the Summer of Desperation 2007. After a very long and confusing volley about when and where we were going to meet, it was confirmed that we would get gelato together in the neighborhood. The phone call was no less irritating than the one we had years before, and so I quickly moved to be done with it, but Phillipe felt like talking. Phillipe liked to talk.
"So you are feeling better?" he asked.
I had been sick that week, so I replied, very slowly, because I remember in the conversation years prior, Phillipe commenting that I talk too fast.
"Yes ... I came home ... and went to ... bed ... early."
"Ah, yes, last night, I rejhnjkhf kjkheug f jkh iueyh (because I have no idea what was actually said), and I put zee key in zee door. With my backpack. And I zit down on zee couch. With my backpack, my pack is for my motorbike. And I close my eyes. And zee captain. You know, zee captain of zee sheep?"
I lay there on my bed wide-eyed. Did I miss something? Zee captain of what sheep? He lives on a sheep? Phillipe gets irritated that I am obviously not following his story. He can hear it in my silence.
"You know! Zee pirate. Zee pirate with zee sheep. Zee wheel, he stands, zee wheel, he drives zee sheep."
At this point, I am playing a silent game of charades in my head. Pirates of Penzanze! Pirates of the Caribbean! There's a pirate on TV! You're dreaming! There's a pirate in your house! But Phillipe has moved on.
"And zen, I open my eyes and it's 3:30. Zat doesn't always happen."
I don't know how to respond. I don't even know what's been said. I grasp, "You ... must ... have had ... a long ... day."
"Yes, a long day."
I hoped that it was just the phone. He is a French artist with a motorcycle and a cottage in Pasadena, and even beyond the Frenchie factor, man, do I want to be in that movie. Because ever since the Donkey Prince, even before the Donkey Prince, I have been addicted to romance. Romeo and Juliet. Tristan and Isolde. Frenchie and Kristen. These were stories I not only told myself, they were ones I was determined to live. I wanted to love at such an intensity it felt as though I might die because of it. I wanted Wagner in the background and rain on command. I wanted the great big handsome star to sweep me off my feet, to look deeply into my eyes, and tell me, "Get on zee back of my motorbike, and I will take you to zee cottage in zee woods."
After three years, and two horrible phone conversations, I show up for gelato, with my fair share of apprehension, and a little bit of hope. For the most part, Phillipe is what I expected. He is wearing a fleece because it's October now, which is kind of cold by Los Angeles standards. But under the fleece are a button-down and some sort of cravat, which looks like a bow tie meets an ascot. I dig that. I dig funky cravats, which is why I have the French fetish in the first place. Because the accent on its own can be a little annoying. We sit down, and Phillipe begins talking. Who knew someone with such a basic understanding of English could speak so much. Phillipe is probably strange even in his own country. He is obviously a bit of a loner and, admittedly, is "emancipated" from his family.
Excerpted from 51/50 by Kristen McGuiness Copyright © 2010 by Kristen McGuiness. Excerpted by permission.
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