The Third Date

I’m in bed and waiting for Kim.  She’s not on her way to my bed as I would wish, but surely by now she is on her way to our apartment where we live as roommates.  I’ve been waiting for nearly two hours and tried all my usual tricks for falling asleep: I counted to one hundred several times, changed that up to counting to three over and over again, tightened and relaxed each muscle in my body moving from head to toe, and finally gripped each thought in my head as if it were a wet noodle and I could flick it out into a mental trash receptacle.

The weather isn’t helping my insomniac condition.  It’s a beautiful spring night here in New York and given where I live, across from Astoria Park in Queens and right along the East River, the weather is no good for my sleeping. Outside my bedroom window, which is cracked for air, motorcyclists gun their engines and send mechanical screams reverberating up off the underside of the Hell Gate Bridge.  The humps of blacktop do not encourage drivers to slow down, but instead the aggressive cyclists run the bumps as if they are the back stretch of a motor cross course.  Airplanes whistle up in the sky as they line up for landings at LaGuardia. Helicopters swoop around the Kennedy Bridge, their passengers reporting back on the traffic, and down below on the water, boats and barges churn away up and down the East River.  Bass music from Roosevelt Island thumps across the water.

It’s not the racket that is mostly responsible for keeping me awake.  Kim is on her third date with Tom, a sort of David Beckham wanna be, who gels his dark hair up into one of those Fohawks, works in finance, and has a thick New York Italian accent.  Tom certainly fits Kim’s profile for her ideal boyfriend.  I’ve heard the criterion ad nauseam.  Mostly, Tom is freakishly good looking and makes a lot of money.  When the weather is especially nice, Kim has this saying—it’s top down weather—and I’m sure she sees herself cruising along the water with Tom in his BMW convertible.

Sweaty, irritated, and anxious in my bed, what it is that particularly pecks at my thoughts the way a vulture dabs at a carcass, is what Kim has already told me about her guidelines for putting out.  Putting out, that’s her phrase, and here are the rules:  she’ll kiss on the first date, allow groping above the belt on the second, and then by the third, anything goes.  I’m of the opinion that somewhere between “groping above the belt” and “anything goes,” there ought to be another step of sexuality on which a person must pause.

It may come to you as a surprise that I am the one who introduced Tom and Kim solely for the purpose that they might go on a first date.  That’s what I had in mind: one date and no more.  I subscribe to the theory—it’s an old one—that love must be free.  By this, I don’t mean people in a relationship should sleep around whenever they feel the urge, but I do believe it’s a basic psychological rule that people resist what they are being pushed into.  People want what they aren’t sure they can have.  Ever think about breaking up with someone only to have them break up with you first?  Notice how much more attractive they become then?

I hear Kim’s key in the lock of our front door, and when she swings it open, the car and motorcycle traffic out on the street amplifies.  There’s Kim’s voice, a little on the deep and scratchy side, and also the sound of Tom laughing.  Although I can’t make out Kim’s exact words, I can tell she’s giving Tom the business.  By this, I don’t exactly mean sexy business, not the teasing flirty cracks of a sarcastic whip that some women are so adept with, but I mean that Kim is actually giving Tom a hard time, possibly telling him that he needs his neck hairs shaved or that he mustn’t go in public again without ironing his blue jeans.  Kim is very meticulous about wrinkles, against wrinkles of all kinds, and she is a virtual samurai with the sword of conversation.  When we make our weekly visit down to the Costco in Long Island City, she directs me right down to the last inch to where I should park.  I just let her hack away at me until she can hear herself, and then sometimes—on the best of days—the passion of her bossy attitude catalyzed an explosion of lightheartedness.  We laugh until we are both wiping away tears with the back of our hands.

I feel good when Kim laughs.  I feel as if there must be something about me that unbuckles the tension that squeezes her heart.  What I want to hear out in the kitchen between Tom and Kim are the sounds of a night coming to an end.  I’ll call you, I want to hear Tom say, and then possibly wet sound of a kiss.  I could endure a kiss, I think.  However, I’m sorry to report that the two of them are coming my way.

My room is first, smaller than Kim’s, and at the end of the hall is the bathroom.  Before the two of them turn the corner and get to me, I hurry from my bed and quietly push my door shut.  I don’t want either of them to know I’ve been up and waiting.  As I lean into the wall by the door, I slide down to a sitting position and hear Tom ask, “Cooksey didn’t go out tonight?”  Cooksey is what people call me.  Kim hates the nickname and insists to others that I be called Robert.

“He didn’t say,” Kim tells Tom.  “He was acting weird all day.”

“And you don’t think that’s because of us?”  Although I have reassured Tom several times that he has my blessing to date my roommate, he has never believed me.  This speaks to his intelligence.  I hate his use of the word us, and I hate it even more that I sense no objection on Kim’s part.  She seems to have conceded his choice of the collective pronoun, and Kim usually concedes nothing.  As they come to my door, the floorboard my hand is on wiggles a little under the weight of their steps.  Only two feet of air and a four inch door separate me from the two of them.  Because the streetlights out front of our building are bright and shining through the open door to the bathroom, our hallway is illuminated and Kim and Tom’s shadow—it’s one big shadow rather than two separate ones—passes over the crack of space under my door.  Had I thought to press my ear to the floor, I could have seen what shoes each of them were wearing.  I might have glimpsed Kim’s bare ankle, glimpsed the spot on her bone where she gets a little chafing from her favorite boots.

“You need to take a leak?” Kim asks.  She is no delicate lady, not in the way that she’d back into a euphemism for life’s business.  Kim would never say that someone had passed.  Tom declines her invitation, and so Kim sends him into the bedroom while she enters the bathroom and closes the door.  If only she and I were home, she would not have closed the door to use the restroom.  In fact, had Tom stayed outside, kissed her, and then gone on his merry way, Kim likely would have hauled me out of bed, and called me in to talk with her while she used the can.  This sort of casual behavior is—I know—maybe not the best of sign for me and my chances for romance.  I have always imagined that when men and women use the restroom in front of one another, it is a signal marking the end of passion and the start of something else.

While I listen to the trickle of Kim’s urine, I think back to the day I met her.  We were out with a big group of friends at a bar called The Linebacker.  This was in South Bend, where bars are decorated with artifacts from the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.  I had previously said to this married friend of mine, very off-handedly, in the sort of way that you might say you are considering a cruise or thinking about buying a new sofa, that it might be fun to move to New York City, an adventure for someone whose life was getting stale.  That night at The Linebacker, this married friend of mine, who was there with her husband and sitting at the other end of the table with Kim, learned that Kim had plans to move to New York.  Upon learning this, my friend immediately vacated her seat and urged me to come sit with Kim, who launched into a plan that we should be roommates.  Wouldn’t it be better, she reasoned, to show up to the largest city in the United States knowing at least one other person?

It so happened that Kim lived very close to The Linebacker, and when the bar closed, Kim told me that if I didn’t mind sleeping on the floor of her studio apartment, that I if I was interested in saving cab fare to my place and then back again to where my car was parked just down the street, I could crash at her place.  Kim didn’t mean for us to hook up, and although she is pretty good looking, with a compact little body, a clear and light complexion, blue eyes that matched the Cubs hat she wore on her head, I hadn’t exactly been picturing an end-of-the-night hook up either.  It was her attitude that got in the way. She’d complained incessantly to the waitresses, sent her salad back because the chicken was undercooked, and generally disagreed with whatever anyone said.  Why, is what I always ask, would anyone sign up for time with someone like that?  However, I consented to the sleep over thinking that would be it.  I think we even said we were going to have a slumber party.

At Kim’s apartment, on the floor next to her bed, I lay down on a thick royal-blue comforter and under a fuzzy pink blanket, while I listened to her talk about her life.  I recall that the room spun under the power of a Long Island Iced Tea haze.  Although I don’t quite remember what exactly it was that Kim was saying, it involved something about her father whom she didn’t know very well, and I do remember that my skin was prickling up to life at the intimacy of the moment.  It seemed that she was sharing something important.  There was something about me that she trusted even though she had just met me.  Sure, my married friend had probably vouched for me, but there seemed to be something more.  I felt the way I feel when people fall asleep in the car while I’m driving.  I don’t think I’ve ever trusted anyone enough to do that.

Before I really understood what was going on, Kim climbed out of her bed and took a cross-legged seat on the floor at my feet.  Without a word, she pushed the blanket up to my knees, peeled off my socks, and then did something totally unexpected:  gripping my big toe with her thumb and forefinger, Kim started in on an old nursery rhyme:  “This little piggy went to market,” she said, waggling from my big toe to the next in line.  “This little piggy stayed home.”  I  closed my eyes and listened to her voice.  I fell for her right then. People fall in love, as I’m sure you know, for all sorts of reasons.  I fell in love with Kim because of her toe-touching nursery rhymes.  As she did the story over and over, I came to believe that there was something about me which had cracked into her emotional armor, but everything was different in the morning.  When I woke, Kim was not on the floor there with me, nor was she up in her bed, but she was already awake out in the kitchen scrambling eggs and buttering toast.  Entering the kitchen, I expected to go to her as if we’d made love.  I thought we’d at least talk about what we were going to do with our empty Saturday.  I expected to give her a little kiss, perhaps half of a hug, but Kim had her grey mantle of emotional armor back on, and she acted as if her rhymes on my toes had never happened.  We ate breakfast and talked about Charlie Weiss, the Notre Dame football coach who was on his way to getting fired.  In the week that followed, I called her three times—that’s my limit for unreturned phone calls—and never heard from her, at least not for a month.  Then there was a brusk call from her during which she asked if I was still in for being her NYC roommate.  Although I suspected my answer should be no, I said that I was in, hustled for a teaching job, and here we are.

The toilet flushes, Kim comes out, and I hear her close the door as she goes into her room. This was not at all how everything was supposed to work when I set Tom and Kim up on the blind date.  When I met Tom on the basketball courts across the street at Astoria Park, and that led to a couple nights of going out for beers at a local bar, I started to think that maybe he was my way into Kim’s heart.  Yes, it was a risky idea.

There had been a couple weekends in a row where Kim complained that she was never going to meet anyone if all she did was hang out with me.  I could see that the magic moment where she fell in love with me was never going to happen given our current cycle of life.  I decided that Kim needed to go on a few dates, maybe with a couple different people, and then she’d come to realize what the two of us had.  Out with Tom, I saw Kim at dinner listening to whatever it was that he liked to talk about—hedge funds? short-sided trades? whether or not the interest rate would go back up?—and all of those conversational bullets that were on Tom’s talking docket would send Kim back to me faster than if she were a Serena Williams overhead slam at Flushing Meadows. No such luck.

Unable to hear anything from my room, I open my door slowly, taking great care not to make too much noise.  I don’t even stand, but instead bend my knees in a deep squat and waddle like a duck creeping over to her door, where I press my ear to the unfinished wood.  At first, there’s the trading of hushed voices, some giggling, and I imagine that there might be light kissing, the beginning of something that could prove devastating to me.  Tom is probably angling his hands for Kim’s body and perhaps, because the third date is the one where anything goes, Kim is accepting Tom’s touch.  For the two of them, this might be the night that sets off the rest of their life.  Suddenly, I wish that I’d have thought to check Kim’s room for contraceptive devices, possibly under her bed or in the folds of her underwear drawer.  I know that Kim is taking a break from the pill to see if her body will actually have a period.  Then I have a more positive thought: perhaps Tom will impregnate her, panic at the thought of a child, and then I will be there to swoop in and save the day. Once, I told Kim I wished she’d let herself go a little so that then maybe she’d become available to me.  That was back before I knew that dating and attraction worked according to the same principles of supply and demand economics.  Once you’ve established initial relationship contact, make yourself scarce and watch the price of your stock rise. My mistake had been making myself way too available to Kim.

All of the sudden, Tom’s voice rises above the sounds of Astoria, Queens at night, and he is laughing as he talks, as if he were pleading for someone to stop tickling him.  “What are you doing?” he asks, and what I hear next causes me to feel as if I’m one of those rusty shopping carts that wash up on the banks of the East River, discarded and useless.  I feel the way I felt when I thought that I was going to be hired to teach at Manhattan College, but instead ended up at a local high school where there aren’t enough desks for the kids and some of the students have to sit on the floor in the back of the room.  My once great hopes—Kim and a college teaching job—have been dashed.

“This little piggy went to market,” I hear Kim say. “This little piggy stayed home.”  I swallow hard and my eyes widen.  Kim says nursery rhymes to everyone.  Perhaps it is what she does when she gets drunk.  Perhaps it is alcohol that loosens the belt of anxiety that so frustrates her during the day.  It could be anything that has this affect on her, but it is clear that it wasn’t anything special about me.  I will never know the rest of that story, but Tom, who is not on the floor as I was but instead in Kim’s bed, may found out more tonight.

I fight the urge to enter Kim’s room and question her.  It is not my place, and I am a man who understands that he has lost, as least for now.  Maybe it will take six months for Kim to know that she belongs with me, or maybe it is that we will never be together.  I realize I am glad to have escaped the cycle that held us as friends, me wanting love, but being kept from that.  I am not Kim’s husband, not even her boyfriend, and so I slink away back to my room where I once again climb under my thin sheet and hope for sleep. I stare at the egg-white ceiling where webs of cracks spider out like black lightning.  I am determined to think of nothing, to fill my mind with counting until I fall asleep or else the sun comes up.  I wonder what the last number I remember will be? 

***

William Torgerson teaches in the Institute For Writing Studies at St. John’s University in New York.  His novel Love on the Big Screen tells the story of Zuke, a college freshman whose understanding of love has been shaped by late-eighties romantic comedies.  William’s adaptation of the novel was named as the Grand Prize Winner of the Flickers Rhode Island International Screenplay Competition and his work has appeared most recently in NYU’s interdisciplinary journal Anamesa, Barely South Review, and Sakura. You can contact William through his website at TheTorg.com where among other things, he writes about writing, teaching, and music and movie related topics from the decade of the eighties.

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