June was hot. After work I’d drive home, put on a swim suit, and then go to the beach that’s a few miles from my apartment. If I left work about 4:45 and hustled, I could make it to the beach by 5:30, which gave me a full two hours before the sun dipped behind the hill.
One day, though, I was stuck. I was trying to solve a problem at work, or finish a project. My bosses knocked off early to go watch the World Cup game and told me to go home. I nodded and told them I’d close up, and then kept banging my head against whatever thought-wall I was up against. The office got hotter—our windows faced west, and afternoons we roasted. I finally gave up and went next door to the pub, thinking my bosses might be watching the game there. They weren’t. I almost turned around and went home, and then I got stubborn. I wanted to be one of those people who has a drink after work in the air conditioning, and it was already too late to make it to the beach.
The thing is, I hate beer, so it was all pretense as I forced myself up to the one empty stool at the bar. I didn’t want to eat. Not being a beer drinker, beer menus fill me with dread—the embarrassment of not knowing!—and my one saving grace is that I know to ask for a schooner. I picked a label off the taps that I knew, and away we went.
There was a dark, curly-haired guy about my age sitting next to me with a plate of food and his eyes fixed on the tv. A few minutes after I got there, though, the game ended, leaving me stranded with a beer I didn’t like and an idea percolating in my head and no one to talk to about it.
So I asked the guy when the next game was. “Oh, I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t really follow soccer.”
“Oh no?” I said.
“No,” he said, and went back to his phone.
“I think it’s tomorrow!” the lady next to me piped up.
“Germany and Norway!” she said.
“No,” the guy said. “They already played.”
I looked at him. He looked at his phone.
“Oh,” said the lady. “I thought they were playing tomorrow.”
I sipped my beer that I didn’t like and dreamed of french fries.
After a long, painful pause, the guy said without looking up from his phone, “It’s Germany and France.”
“Oh! Germany and France,” she repeated. “It’s Germany and France,” she told me.
“Mmmm, that’ll be a good game.” I started really making an effort to drink my beer, alternating sips of it with sips of water.
We sat there. The lady left. Just drink half, I told myself, then you can leave.
The guy looked up suddenly. “I really don’t follow,” he said. “I had to look it up on my phone.”
“Ah,” I said, wishing I’d sat anywhere else. But I was in the middle of trying something that’s most easily explained as just stand still. The premise was simple: It’s easy to make eye contact. It’s easy to exchange a few sentences with a stranger at a bar. The hard part is standing still long enough to see what develops. People are slow. I am slow. You both have to sit there, stand there, make yourself available for what happens next for an excruciatingly long period of time. So I sipped my beer and said something else about the game. He murmured. I waited.
“What do you do?” he asked suddenly, awkwardly, aggressively.
“I’m a writer,” I said. “Work down the street. What do you do?”
“I work at the zoo,” he said.
And there it was. Our conversation arrived, whole and complete.
Or rather, our question-and-answer session arrived, because I asked all the questions as I tried very hard to work my way through my cup of cardboard.
But he thawed as we went, and I learned that penguins really are as fun to work with as you think they might be, and that there is a penguin in the world named Wingnut who has bitten a zoo educational assistant on the hand.
“Let me ask you a question,” I said. “Have you ever online dated?”
“Yes,” he said.
“Would you go to an event that was kind of a singles mixer, where people who were online dating could come and make art and talk about how weird online dating is, and have a dance party afterward?” My idea spilled out of me like jelly beans.
“Well, I only online dated once,” he said.
“What does that mean? One date? One month?”
“I signed up for OkCupid for free once because my friends made me and I never looked at it.”
“I guess I’m just too traditional for online dating,” he said, spinning his iPhone on the bar.
I went quiet for half a second, then blew past the stupidity of that. I’ve since figured out that when men say they’re “too traditional” or “too old-fashioned” for something regarding dating, it means it offends their sense of how women should behave, and I’m rarely if ever interested in men’s ideas of how women should behave.
“Ok, but would you think an event like that would be interesting? I mean, a dance party!” I accidentally gulped my beer in my excitement and had to wash it down with water.
“I don’t really like to dance,” he said.
My enthusiasm for him, my dance party, and the stool I was sitting on started to flag.
“What do you mean, art about online dating?” he asked.
“Ooooh! Well, it could be almost anything! I’m a writer, and I write about online dating. So I figure other artists have to be…” I chattered on. He might have listened. Hard to say. He continued to poo-poo the idea of online dating, at one point mentioning that he just likes to meet people in person.
“I met my (murmur) girlfriend through inter-mural volleyball,” he said.
I paused. Did he say last? ex? Did he just swallow? No way to know. Are you supposed to just exit a conversation you’re having with a stranger at a bar if they mention a current relationship, anyway? Aren’t we supposed to pretend to be interested in each other as people in that situation? Like any good idiot who has decided to become the sort of person who makes friends with people in bars without any real natural inclination to do so, I went for the jugular.
“Do you still play volleyball?”
Not long after, our conversation ended. Circled back to my event, his zoo, his commute, my plans for dinner. At some point he’d made a comment about how sometimes it takes a while to warm up, like when you’ve had a hard day at work and need to just sit quietly and eat some food before you can be friendly. It was close to an acknowledgment that he’d been uninterested when I sat down, and now he was in for the interaction. I gathered my things slowly. We’d be talking for an hour or so. I paused.
“Well, maybe I’ll see you at my event!”
“Yeah, maybe,” he said.
I smiled. “But how will you know when it is?” Ok, this is stupid, but so is 90% of flirting.
“I’m here most nights after work. I’m sure I’ll see you again.” He sounded sincere, or perhaps a cousin to it: polite. He turned back to his phone.
I looked at my empty beer glass—hateful thing—and nodded. Yeah, right. It was just as I reached my car that I remembered how people smoother than I handle these things—business cards.
And look, our conversation hadn’t been that fascinating, but he was good-looking, about my age, and friends with a penguin named Wingnut. I was curious about the prospect of meeting someone in the wild and I’d gone on dates for less and I’m stubborn as a dog with a bone once I get an idea in my head.
I got out of my car, told myself embarrassment is a temporary state of being, and went back into the bar. I slid my business card across the polished wood until it was near his hand. “In case,” I said. He took it, eyed it, lifted it in a little salute.
He never called.
I did, however, plan the event—see dog with bone—and a ridiculous number of people came—over 135—and there was a line out the door before it opened and we told stories about online dating and artists made paintings of cats they’d matched with on OkCupid and people still talk to me about it.
It wasn’t until two months later when I ran into him again while ordering pigs in blankets at the pub for our office party, invited him to come join, and he once again responded to all questions and jokes and banter with an outlook that was factual at best and a tone that edged on morose, that I figured out who he was: our old familiar friend Eeyore.