Supporting Characters

I like to play a “looks like” game when I meet people for the first time. Don’t judge me, because I know you do it as well. You may not be conscious of it all the time, but all of us have a voice somewhere inside that in a blink of an eye, warns or encourages us. I especially like to do this when I meet a date, unfiltered, for the first time. This one time, I swear my first thought was I bet you are the kind of guy who has a grandfather who had a wife before his grandma that he locked in the attic because she was crazy. And then married the housekeeper without telling her about the crazy wife in the attic. I can’t help it. I am an avid reader and like many readers, lines from books bounce around my skull and sometimes escape.

If I were a character in the classics I read in high school and college, I’d be teetering perilously close to the precipice of spinsterhood. Unmarried with no real hope, or desire, of getting hitched. I’m at that age where I can rent a car without getting gouged with extra fees but no one in my family relies on me to bring anything complex to family dinners.
I like to pick the locations of dates. One, it’s a safety thing. And two, it’s a control thing. If I’m meeting someone, especially a new someone, I want the night to be on my terms, not theirs. Tonight, I’m meeting Paul. We’ve completed the preliminary texting-before-meeting routine to make sure we aren’t completely incompatible. I like to drop a few leading questions, like: “How do you feel about the black little mermaid?” or “Joe Rogan said something interesting on his podcast last week, didn’t he?” I’m here. He’s here. So far he’s passed the test.

He shows up to the restaurant on time, which is a green flag in my book, unlike Trent, my most recent mistake. What an asshat. Trent had a sleeve of tattoos but had the look of someone who wore a promise ring in high school. He showed up to our first date 30 minutes late. And yes, I stuck around. I’m not pathetic. At that point I was honestly curious if he would ever show up. He didn’t say he was sorry or come up with some lame excuse. He simply said: “I’m always late on principle. Punctuality is a thief of time.”

“You stole my time,” I quipped. I may have slurred this as I was into several glasses of wine by the time he laconically waltzed in.

“Oh, it’s my mantra,” he said. “I borrowed it from Oscar Wilde. He said that in The Portrait of Dorian Gray.”

Great. He’s late and he’s mansplaining literature to me. I hung out with him for a few more dates, but that level of condescension wears you down and we always missed the previews before a movie. Previews are sacrosanct. When we broke up, I finally told him it was “Picture” not “Portrait” of Dorian Gray and he might want to get the title right if he was trying to emulate the man. Reading and loving literature is spiritual. Don’t ruin that experience with faux pretentiousness. I think that broke his heart more than me leaving.

“Sorry, I’m not late, am I?” asks Paul.

“You most certainly are not,” I say leaning forward to get a good look at him. He’s not bad looking in person. Clean shaven, smells nice, and not married by the look of his finger. Not like Vanessa, who looked like the kind of customer who would refuse to say Tall, Venti, or Grande when ordering coffee.

On my first date with Vanessa, she wore this spaghetti strap top that revealed her sculpted shoulders.

“Nice tan,” I told her.

She was fidgety, but blushed at my compliment thinking it was about her lack of tan lines on her shoulders. No tan line on her shoulder but she had one hell of a noticeable tan line on her ring finger. Not the tan line from the recently divorced either. She was married. I had a good hunch about it. The way she kept unconsciously running her right index finger around her ring finger like she was playing with the wedding band. I guess her never inviting me to her place was also an indicator. She finally told me when she broke up with me, so I guess that’s something.

Since we texted a few times, I have all the exposition on Paul. He works at an insurance company in accounting. I had a sneaking suspicion he might be in the department that determines if the value of the person is worth the price of a procedure, but no, he says he works in the marketing side of the house and manages the advertising budgets.

I assume he’s telling the truth. He’s not showing any of the tells liars usually have. The biggest liar I went out with had to be Kurt. I could tell from the start. Kurt looked like how you’d imagine any of the unreliable narrators in British literature. Something about the eyes, maybe. He was so bad at it, too. He’d show up late and tell me he stopped for takeout on the way home and then had hit traffic on the 405 because there was an accident between a green Honda and a Tesla. Seriously? Stop embellishing the story with make-believe facts. I’ll believe you if you tell me one lie, but if you stack them one on top of another, no way. I’m not saying I’m honest and haven’t told a fib from time to time, but my theory is pick a story, stick to that story, and just don’t get to the point where you have to swear an oath to it. At that point, confession is good for the soul, or at least good for your dignity.

My roommate once asked me why I’d date someone with obvious flaws. She told me the fun and excitement won’t last and it’s just going to end with tears and a new level of bitterness and mistrust. I told her that’s the point. We know it will end but we live for the joys that make us feel alive and wanted. I told her I want to live, not exist. She asked if there are any red flags that will deter me. “Only one,” I said.

I think Paul might have potential. So far, he’s passed all my tests. Politically, socially, economically, he seems like a good catch.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m looking for a forever contract, but I’m willing to enter a probationary period of companionship. And, if I’m being honest, it’s been so long since I’d been intimate with anyone, I forgot who is supposed to bring the strap-on and who brings the fuzzy handcuffs.

He’s driving the conversation, but since that’s what I want, I don’t mind. I want to see if he can sell my on the idea of himself. He’s doing really well. I know because my side aches from laughing. If there is something I can relate to and appreciate, it’s self-deprecating humor.

“I don’t know why, but for some reason I completely blanked on a really basic accounting strategy,” he tells me, holding his hands in the air like he can’t believe it either. “So, my supervisor says, ‘I know you have a degree, but I’ve got questions. When you enrolled in the accounting college, did you forget to go inside?’”

“It’s a fair question,” I suggest, winking to show I’m being playful and not judgmental.

“I think it’s because I had just gotten back from a trip that, apparently, leached my brain of all useful job-related skills. I spent the weekend mountain biking with my sister. She lives year-round in Breckenridge. In the winter she works in the ski school and in the summer, she runs a mountain biking club for kids. I helped her run the club and we got to spend the free time being siblings again and playing.”

This better be real, because he’s checking a lot of green flag boxes. I decided to ratchet up the heat and suggest that if we want to be wild, we could roleplay as Scott and Zelda, down a few martinis, and dance in the courtyard fountains.

“Zelda? I loved that game when I was a kid. I don’t remember the fountain though. Was that on the Super Nintendo or the Cube?”

Uh oh.

“No, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. You know, like Bernice Bobs Her Hair? The Great Gatsby?

“Oh, I saw that movie. It was okay.”

“But the novel? You’ve read it, right?”

“Book? No, I haven’t read a book since middle school.”

“Not even in high school?”

“Yeah, nah. That’s what SparkNotes is for. I learned really quick how to not read anything longer than one screen. But you read? That’s hot. You like that nerd vibe? Are you into fairy porn or vampire stuff?”

I’m momentarily too stunned to speak, but if I could, I think I’d forget the Scott and Zelda role-play. No, I’d be George and he’ll play the part of Lenny. I will ask him if he wants to pet the soft bunnies while he stares off into the distance, then shoot him in the head and put him out of his misery. Alas, he wouldn’t get it, so that’s a waste.

“You intentionally don’t read? That’s like not wanting to feel, or laugh, or not wanting to live.”

“Me? You are talking about hiding in books,” he says crossing his arms. “I am living. I just don’t want to exist.” That’s my line!

“You’re an experience tourist.”

“And you only see people as reflections of the characters you read and can shelve when you get tired of them. You’re like a supporting character in your own story.”

Put a fork in it, the date was done. I could say we made amends. We didn’t. I could say I stormed out with him throwing his napkin in frustration. We didn’t. I could find a suitable scene from one of my favorite books. I don’t have the energy.

I can tolerate a lot in a partner for longer than I should.

You need to keep your left hand in your pocket so I can’t see the wedding ring tan line? That’s okay for a fling. Lying about irrelevant details? Annoying, but kind of comical at the same time. You want to impress me with your vast knowledge and teach me? I’ll play the student under you for a while and humor your fragile ego.

But a nonreader? And not just a nonreader.  A proud nonreader? How can a person be proud of willful ignorance? It’s the 21st century. He can fit a library of literature’s greatest hits on his phone but his answer to that is “sure I could, why would I want to?”  If anyone needed an editor to correct that flaw, it’s Paul.

I’m the main character. He’s the tourist.