Bryce arrives at the café with a little bit of a jump in his stomach. You couldn't call it nervousness, not after the dozens of blind dates he has been on, but there's always that nice rush of adrenalin before the meet, the thrill of possibility. At forty-five he's doing better than a man with his modest resources should expect. He drives a Honda and rents. These are not stats that score highly with LA women. Yet by his last informal tabulation, he has had some measure of intimate physical contact with eleven per cent of the viable single women in his demographic age group, counting the Lerner Twins as one.
And these are not rejects from the dog pound, not the lame or the bitter dredged from the slag heaps of self-help groups. No, these are attractive professional women, therapists and real estate agents who had been 9's and 10's in high school and would not have given Bryce the time of day, had married the alpha males that these girls knew it was their destiny to marry, been given the lives they felt entitled to live, and then been cast aside for younger versions of themselves.
The Personals have changed everything. Once a woman has placed an ad or has responded to one, she can no longer pretend the haughty disinterest that she would at a bus stop or in the produce section at the supermarket. She's a product. She advertises. Melanie, the woman Bryce is meeting tonight has sent a spark through him. She sounded bright and unpretentious in their phone conversations, she is interested in unusual topics (a one-day Learning Annex class in Newtonian physics,) and in the picture she had sent him, playing beach volleyball at Malibu in a two-piece yellow bikini, her body is lean and toned. She easily could have lied about being forty-three without raising any suspicion. For the first time in months Bryce is eager and even yes, a little nervous. He believes in his heart that if she is "the one," he will put to rest the accusation handed down by his friends' wives that the only woman he's interested in is the next one.
He arrives at Café Mirth a few minutes early and takes it as a good sign that he gets a parking spot directly across the street. The scene at night is trendier than he had anticipated. Somehow all the women seem to know how to dress. Not that he minds all the boots and halters and silky things they wear that look like slips. He likes shoulders and exposed straps. He likes soft flesh with bones underneath. But he worries that if Melanie comes here underdressed she will be disappointed at his not alerting her and that her level of expectation of the evening's potential will depreciate down to ordinary.
A few stone steps tastefully enclosed by a wrought iron railing brings him up to the café patio. Four tables have been shoved together and are populated by a boisterous contingent of Russians; a long-limbed, sexy, post-post-revolutionary generation that Lenin never would have foreseen. Watching what their mouths do with cigarettes, Bryce understands why the warnings about lung cancer go unheeded.
The plan is to meet Melanie inside. As he glides through the clotches of people his radar senses a head turning toward him. She sees him coming toward her and smiles. He looks accusingly at his watch as if it has betrayed him. But no, it is only ten of. It throws his rhythm off for a moment that she has arrived before he has, but he reads something cool into her approving smile, that she has come here deliberately early to see how early he would get here. He likes that she would do that. And that she sees he is serious.
"Dr. Livingstone, I presume." There is a smile in her voice.
"I believe you are awaiting my presence," he bows.
"All my life," she curtsies back.
"Don't make me like you too much right away. I don't want to peak too early."
"We hate it when you boys peak too early." She represses a smile and just barely touches the hairlines behind his ear. "I love the silver gray." Her touch goes up against the grain. His heart is pounding. She is wearing a yellowish orange sleeveless top with an open back and neck. Her arms are not absolutely as svelte and toned as they looked in the picture, but he doesn't mind.
"You're good," she says. "You're very subtle."
"What do you mean?"
"They way you're checking my body out. Quick glances when I look away. Nothing creepy. You earn one free revolution." She stands facing him, then closes her eyes and turns a slow three-sixty. At the end of the circuit she stops and opens her eyes and sees him smiling at the whole thing, the idea, the display.
"That was wonderful," he says.
"What about a little reciprocity?"
It takes him a moment to get her meaning. "You want to check out my buns?"
"One good turn deserves another."
He looks at her like he has found the Holy Grail "I have only one question," he says. "Should we get married right away or first live together?"
"Oh you boys all want to just settle down with one person," she chides. "Let's just have gratuitous sex for two or three weeks and then see if we're still interested."
He touches her shoulder as they laugh. Her skin feels cool and soft. "Mel," he says, "I'm about to have a heart attack or fall in love with you." She examines his face quizzically. Not the way somebody looks who didn't get the joke, but somebody who got it and didn't like it much.
"I'm not really having a heart attack," he backtracks. "And I didn't meant to scare you about the love."
"Why did you call me Mel?"
"I'm sorry. Do you prefer Melanie? I guess there are still a few things I don't know about you."
"I prefer Janet," she says.
"How is Janet short for Melanie?"
A whole other set of light bulbs flashes across her face. She draws back a full step. "Are you here to meet a girl named Melanie?"
He clutches his chest.
"Are you not Paul Livingstone?" she says.
"Oh Jesus. You weren't kidding about the Doctor Livingstone? I presumed you were—"
"This is awkward."
They look furtively around, feeling they had been caught naked in Eden. Bryce jumps in. "Ok, here's what we do. We run off and hope that Paul and Melanie find each other." He is kidding but only sort of. She smiles a rueful regret. "All right," he says," but you've got to give me your phone number."
"I don't know."
"You don't know??? Of course you know."
"I'd feel like I was being unfaithful."
"To someone you haven't met?"
"It's his night."
"It could be our life."
She rummages in her purse for a pen. He already has one, and a cocktail napkin.
He watches the numbers flow from the porous tip onto the small square textured paper. He likes her handwriting. He folds the napkin into his breast pocket and steps a respectable distance away from her.
Dr. Livingstone arrives first and Bryce watches her smile as she greets him, assaying its luminance against the smile she had given him. Paul is taller than Bryce, more polished and better dressed. He looks like the Vice-President of a European bank recently returned from Acapulco where he has a time-share condo. He guides Melanie, no Janet toward an empty table. His hand at her waist is practiced, proprietary. She smiles, and with subtlety expands the glance back to Bryce before being seated. Bryce can read no useful information from her eyes. Nothing that says, relax I'm doing my obligatory hour with him. We'll meet back at our spot after it's over.
A spirited voice invades his reverie and a woman strides toward him who looks a good deal more like the picture. "Please tell me you're Bryce. I've already said hello to four people who could be you." He smiles yes and she says, "I'm Melanie."
Bryce glances around. But mostly toward Janet's table to witness her impression of her competition. He is bemused to notice that there are indeed several men in his general age group and body type. "It looks like they put out a casting call for ageing astronauts," he says to Melanie.
"I'm sorry if I kept you waiting. Parking around here is murder and I refuse to valet."
"A woman after my own heart."
She orders chamomile tea and eats her croissant with a knife and fork. She believes in rehabilitation for drug addicts and harbors no bitterness toward her ex-husband. She doesn't really know yet about this whole dating business, it feels a little bit like auditioning for a role she isn't sure yet that she wants, which is the reason she has gotten out of the actress thing and opened her own business, which has become, knock on wood, quite successful. But whether her business was beekeeping or bordellos, Bryce could not have answered for all the money on Final Jeopardy. He has been listening on autopilot, keeping just conscious enough not to crash, but unable to break the connection to the table two rows behind Melanie's left shoulder and one row over. A chess knight's move away.
Melanie is no idiot. Success in business has made her accustomed to being paid attention. "Is there someone behind me you know," she asks with some irritation. The great skill Bryce has learned about dealing with women is never to argue with them, but to use the force of their intuition against them in a kind of verbal jiu jitsu.
"There's a guy there who looks so much like me I was freaked for a second. I had this sudden thought that he was like an alternate me. Do you ever think what other possible yous there might be if you made other choices?"
Melanie peers over at the man Bryce referred to and turns around swings back around disappointed. "He's got grey hair," she concedes.
"You didn't think he looks like me?"
She contemplates him for a moment, and in a move that takes Bryce by surprise, opens her purse and places a ten-dollar bill on the table. "You're a fine man," she says not uncordially, "I'm sure you'll find the right person."
"You're not leaving?"
"We both have more important things to do than waste time."
He starts to stand, to accompany her, but she places a fingertip on his shoulder, which is all that is necessary to have its desired effect. This is precisely what Bryce wants to happen and yet he feels strangely rejected or worse, that he has been seen through. He doesn't like the sensation that he always has something to hide, something concealed at the bottom of the pond that he does not want reflected.
He knows without turning around to look, that Janet has observed the encounter intently. He wants her to see that he has been faithful to her, that he has comported himself honorably, cleanly, without veering into the temptation of easy opportunity. He keeps his eyes scrupulously averted from Paul and Janet's table while he scans the rest of the room for his waitress. Once his bill is signed for he takes the long arc out of the room. Only when he gets to the patio does he stop, seemingly trying to remember where he has parked his car, and look back into the café. He is startled to see their table is unoccupied. They have gone.
He waits in his car for her return, again thanking his infallible parking karma for the perfect spot. Melanie, (the real Melanie but for him the imposter Melanie) had mentioned that parking was horrible so Janet may have had to walk two or three blocks to her car, and then, depending on how vigilant Dr. Paul was, make it appear that she was driving away, which could mean actually vacating that parking place, driving around to find another. (How long would that take and how far away would she would have to walk/run to get back to the café). She might have figured that by then he would no longer be waiting for her, and was now driving home to await his phone call.
Traffic is light going over the hill into the valley, and it doesn't take Bryce long to get home. The burning question facing him, as he takes the napkin out of his pocket that contains Janet's phone number, is whether to call her right now or to wait until tomorrow. The numbers, written in their odd and perky backward left slant, remind him of the click of the pen and watching her fingers move and the scent coming off her neck. His mind goes through painful contortions. If she expects him to call, if she is waiting for his call, perched on the edge of her bathtub wearing only a black satin slip cut dangerously low in front, and if he does not call tonight but waits for the morning or even tomorrow night, would that not evaporate the magic glow and downgrade the entire encounter to Ordinary? On the other hand, if she were ready to go to sleep, would she not consider his calling to be possessive and presumptuous?
And then of course there is the unthinkable, which is what Bryce cannot stop himself from thinking: That Doctor Livingstone has suggested they take a ride out to the Marina to see his yacht. He is urbane and persuasive. The sole reason she has placed herself into the singles scene is to experience other worlds. There is no legitimate reason for her to decline his invitation. Despite herself she is impressed with the rich oaky interior, the manly testosteronial feeling of it. Bryce sees her body yield and Paul's body sink into the gushing mango juices of her wide-open body.
Bryce's sixteen year-old daughter Abby is at a party tonight and staying over at Ellen's. Their deal is that she must check in by phone at her midnight curfew on pain of being grounded if she does not. He dreads the day he may have to enforce that rule. Suppose she refused to recognize his authority and challenged his physical presence? How could he actually stop her from leaving? If it came to an actual wrestling match, what would happen? She had the fluid muscular strength of a panther. She might be able to dispatch him, toss him aside, shove the door open and stride out with remorseless defiance. Like the summer he was a camp counselor in the Berkshires and his job one night was to keep the camper-waiters out of the Rec hall until the girls were through watching the movie. Six of them had massed in front of him. Bryce (still Bryce then) was nineteen. The boys were three and four years younger. Their leader, whose name was Stewart, and who did not dislike Bryce but who was just stronger bodied and stronger willed, said they were coming through anyway so would he please step aside. When Bryce said you know I can't let you do that, Stewart wrenched Bryce's neck into a vicious headlock, grabbing the wrist of his arm that had Bryce's throat locked in the crook of its elbow and locking it so Bryce could barely breathe. As he flailed to escape, Bryce's head was forced down lower and lower until his nose was at the level of Stewart's knee. The others stampeded in and when they were all through Stewart released him. Bryce's face was deep pink with the exertion and the embarrassment of being taken by a boy, and he knew he'd be fired for letting them in, which would be better than staying there and everyone knowing what happened.
Bryce glances up at the clock. There are forty-five minutes before Abby has to call. He plunks himself down at his desk. The Free press is folded open to the Personals section. Thirteen ads have been circled with a marking pen. Alongside each there are status notations to indicate whether he's called, has she called back, whether they've spoken, if there are plans to meet, if they have met and what happened. The paper had been draped over his answering machine. He sees that the red message light is flashing. His first dread is that it is from Abby and something horrible has happened.
The call is from a woman named Kathleen. She says she has read his profile and finds it interesting. She likes his nickname, Aging Astronaut and says she'd like to find out what galaxies he's visited. He likes the energetic sound of her voice. He feels like she has saved his life. He balls up the napkin from Mirth café with what's-her-name's phone number and arcs in a long three pointer from behind the rocking chair. He dials Kathleen's number.
"Hello?" the voice inquires suspiciously.
Bryce has been told he has a good phone voice, and he uses it. "This is "Aging Astronaut," he says. " I hope I haven't called too late." Her voice is welcoming. He eases back and puts one leg up on the desk. "The time zones here on the dark side of the moon, you know."