Monday, January 3, 2011

Robert Frost May Have Been Right When He Said "Earth's the Right Place for Love," But Then Again He Wasn't Around to See Such Times as These

I: The place is always different. It's always the same place.

Depending on the day of the week, there may be a crowd--groups of one or two sitting lonely in their space at the bar, not saying much to one another, or larger groups and families sitting around tables, with laughter and loud talk, and with platters of appetizers and desserts and plates of food and drinks and coffee and french fries grown cold scattered in front of them. Or there may be no crowd at all. Just a TV or an iPod's eclectic playlist playing over the loudspeakers.

Of course it all depends on the day of the week.

Regardless, though, one thing is certain since the ban on public smoking went into effect just a few short years ago: there is no more cigarette smoke in the air--no more ridiculous designation of "Smoking" and "Non-Smoking" areas in restaurants and in bars, as if the smoke from someone's burning cigarette had somehow been able to recognize, all along, the invisible barrier between the two halves of a room and to hover in the air in its rightful place.

He is glad that he listed on his profile the fact that he is unwilling to accept a smoker. Not these days anyway. He believes he even checked the box next to "Dealbreaker" about this very thing, but he's not quite sure. (And he wonders, too, if this somehow makes him a hypocrite, since every now and again he enjoys a petit cigar himself. What will happen when she finds this out? Will this in fact be a "Dealbreaker" for her? Is he a liar? Will she accept it, only after he's gargled with mouthwash, and brushed his teeth, and gargled once more for good measure? Is this the sort of thing she can find herself getting used to, long after dating him, and getting to know his jokes, and his sexual technique, and the way he...?)

He could use a smoke right about now, he figures, as he pulls into the parking lot, checks his cellphone for the time--satisfied that he is conveniently late by only a few minutes, thereby making himself look not-too-serious and not-too-overeager--and then moves as if to slip his phone in his pocket, until he thinks better of it and pushes the buttons for silence so it won't ring in the middle of things.

"Which car is hers," he wonders? Walking slowly through the parking lot to the restaurant's front doors, taking his time, not wanting to rush anything, he checks out the rows of cars parked in their spaces and wonders what kind of car she drives. "What does that say about someone, after all? What does it say about her? And what does it say about me, that I should wonder about such a thing?"

Life is too short to worry about such things. Life is so damned long at times. He opens the doors to the restaurant with a sigh, unsure if that was himself sighing or the hinges of the door in the cool, wet air. He is aware, and he is not aware. His senses are firing. He feels blood rushing to his face, to his fingers, to his limbs, and to every part of his body. And yet he is numb. And he is unfeeling, except for the feeling deep in his stomach that this is the last time he is doing this.

II: The way things used to be.

He hangs up his coat in the hall closet, adjusts the heat in his small apartment, and moves into the kitchen--in the cupboard below, where his liquor bottles are--to fix himself another drink. Another one won't hurt, he knows, if only to join the ranks of the two he drank earlier in the evening with her. It's always a tricky thing, particularly on first dates like that--like the ones he's getting used to (or not, as the case may be)--knowing whether to order a drink, and then, having ordered one, knowing how many to follow it with. He finds that two drinks, usually, are acceptable. Two smaller ones. And it is always a good idea, of course, to wait to order only after she has made up her mind on what it is she is going to drink. That always helps to set the tone of the evening, he finds.

Like tonight, for instance. She ordered a margarita. "Not bad," he thought. So he ordered a Crown and Coke. A short one. Two of them, as it turned out. And she didn't seem to mind. Which was good. He drops ice in his glass, pours Crown Royal over the cubes, and watches and listens as the amber liquid glistens down and into the ice's narrow crevices. The ice crackles, instantly beginning to melt under the alcohol's smooth heat. Maybe he'll mix it with Coke. And maybe he won't this time. Not now, when it's just him, by himself, fixing a drink at home. And not at this time of night anyway. Probably not.

He sets the glass atop a coaster on the table next to his couch, grabbing his laptop as he sits down and powers it up. He'll log on--only briefly--to check his email and to possibly see who else might be online this hour on a Saturday night. It's not as if he doesn't have other things he could be doing at the moment, he knows that. Why, if he wanted to he could very easily grab his keys and his coat--which he just put away--and head out again to join some friends at their favorite place downtown. It's only a ten-minute drive, from door to door. He's timed it before, and besides his car is still warm. The thought is admittedly inviting.

But his laptop computer is warm, too, he also has to admit. And this is also, in its own way, somewhat inviting. And this thought makes him smile and almost laugh, if only to himself.

He'll be online only for a moment or two. Just to check his email. And to see if there are any new matches. There might be, after all. Sometimes there are new matches sent to his profile at the oddest of hours. Like now for instance. There could be. You never know. Most of them aren't worth the time, really. Some nice pictures on occasion, but almost always--predictably--the same tired, worn-out phrases used as profile headings ("LiveLaughLove," "Trying This For The First Time," "Trying This For The Last Time," "Tired Of Kissing Frogs," "Looking For My Prince Charming," "Dreaming Of My Last First Kiss," and so on....)

He thinks about his sons, and he wonders if they are up at this time of night on a weekend. It's possible, he supposes, and in fact even probable. The boys only recently got their own cellphones, an idea his ex-wife decided would be a good one, even though he initially had to disagree (his argument being that their sons would have the rest of their adult lives to be tied to technology and to the weight of adult responsibility that comes with it). He was afraid that perhaps the boys would unwittingly either lose or misuse the phones, a fear which his youngest is wont to actualilze by often misplacing his phone and sending everyone--for at least a day--in a paroxysm of worry and disruption until the damned thing is found.

He glances once more at the time and decides against calling. Not at this hour, he figures. He'll do it in the morning. Maybe make some plans to take his two sons out to lunch. It would all depend, of course, on what their mother had planned for them, but never hurt to ask.

Not much, anyway.

He sets his computer off to the side for the moment. No emails, as it turns out, and no one of much interest online at this time anyway. He sighs and looks at his cellphone again. Maybe he should send her a quick text? Would that be inappropriate after a first date? What are the rules these days, he wonders? How long should he wait before calling or texting or emailing or communicating with her? What sort of message does he want to send her, anyway?

"Thank you for a lovely evening."
"Had a great time. Look forward to seeing you again."
"Have to admit, I find myself thinking of you."
"Sorry, but I don't think we're a good fit. Good luck in your search."
"Good riddance."
"Good Lord you smelled nice tonight. What was that perfume?"
"Hope you don't mind, but I thought I should inform you that later tonight I'll probably be replaying over and over in my mind images of your sweet ass..."

Always leave them laughing. That was the way. Put them at their ease, possibly, while at the same time putting them off their guard just a little. Is that a serious "Laughing Out Loud," or is it just more of your sarcasm? Are you a gentleman or an asshole? Or both? Who could tell these days? Who could really tell? No one. Not now, not ever. Leave them wondering.

Laughing. Out. Loud.

He types in a quick text on his phone. Maybe she'll be home tonight, too, he thinks. She said she was going straight home--something about a headache and about being tired--but maybe she left him at the restaurant and drove to her favorite spot downtown to join up with some of her girlfriends, to share a drink or two with them and to talk about her date earlier in the evening and this new guy she met for the very first time. Her "Prince Charming." Her "Last First Kiss" (even though--technically--what they did at the end of their date tonight, that tentative noncommittal hug and goodnight kiss on the cheek--the awkard coming together of strangers, which was becoming sadly too familiar at this point in his life--could not now or ever be qualified as a "kiss" outright, he laughs quietly to himself. Again.)

It could be, too, that perhaps she went right home like she said she was going to, tired as she said she claimed to be. To nurse her headache, as she had said. Or maybe there was another scheduled date after the one she spent with him. Maybe there was another guy she had met online who she was planning to meet up with as soon as she left the restaurant. Maybe that was why she had seemed a little too distracted toward the end, a little out of place and with her mind on other things. Or was that all in his imagination? Did he know? Did he want to know?

"Maybe she'll text me," he thinks to himself, not for the first time. "Maybe I should just wait to see if she texts me. But maybe she's waiting for me to be the first, to 'break the ice,' as they say, and to open the door. Maybe she's waiting right now, asking herself the same questions that are going through my mind. Maybe."

He pushes SEND on his phone and then lays it down on the table next to his drink and next to his laptop. "So many ways these days to talk to someone who isn't even in the same room with you," he muses. Louis Armstrong's lovely gravel-voiced "What a Wonderful World" comes to mind for some reason, and he has to admit that, yes, while he probably is a gentleman--or at least would like to think so anyway--he is also, undoubtedly, an asshole. He knows that much at least.

He reaches into his hall closet and grabs a coat, a different one from the one he wore only a short while ago on the date. This coat is the one he likes to jokingly refer to as his "smoking jacket," for reasons which were soon to become apparent to no one but himself. Again. He grabs his glass from the table, and a cigar, and steps out onto his back deck to enjoy a quick smoke by himself.

The air is cool, but it will soon be colder. So he's going to enjoy a cigar out here on his deck while he still can. Winter is on its way. The trees are empty of leaves, and those old trees that aren't completely empty are emptying fast. The last of the brown leaves clinging desperately to their limbs--their old ways of life--must know (deep inside their "leaf consciousness") that their days, as they used to know them, were ending. Had ended, in fact. And those stubborn leaves were simply fooling themselves, thinking they could hold on much longer. Soon enough the wind and the rain and the coming snow would prove them wrong. It wasn't long. It never was.

But for now, at least, he can stand outside--with the leaves that still made music softly in the branches above--and smoke one of his petit cigars. He doesn't actually smoke them (truth be told), he only likes the smell of them, and he refuses to actually inhale the smoke into his throat or lungs. He puffs on them, feeling the smoke curl about his face and nose, breathing in the aroma of the tobacco without breathing it deeply inside where it could do the most damage.

He's good at not lettting anything in that he doesn't want to let in. It's all a state of mind, really. Power of will. Focus and attention. Breathing in and out. As simple as that. The smell of the cigar smoke. Knowing that it's just him tonight. Standing alone outside. Smoking, like he does every now and again. And he knows that it's just him tonight, as well, when he goes back inside after enjoying his cigar. He knows that he won't have to gargle with mouthwash, and to brush his teeth, and to gargle once more for good measure.

Because it's just him.

He takes a good, long drink from his glass. The ice cubes rattle, reluctant to let go of the whiskey, which he can understand. He feels the alcohol burn all the way down inside as he takes the last remaining puffs on his small cigar and then flicks it out into the yard, where it will burn and smolder for only a moment, until the wind takes the flame away.

He stands a moment in the cool, damp air. Inside it's warmer. He hopes his sons are asleep at this time of night, warm in their own beds. This makes him think of the night he first moved out of his old house, his old life, telling his wife that he had decided to leave and then hearing her say, "Good." The boys were younger then, and he had read to them that night from their favorite storybooks, rocking them quietly on his lap until they had fallen asleep. He tucked them in their beds--softly, gently kissing them in their sleep, and telling them that he loved them very much, and that he was sorry. He told them goodbye, then, even though they were not awake to hear him. And he cried that night, standing there at the foot of their beds. And he was glad, in one way at least, that they weren't awake to see and hear him.

Inside, his computer screen has gone black, resorting to its Sleep mode. He wonders if there are any emails awaiting him. "Maybe there are some by now," he thinks. And he also wonders if his phone has beeped with an incoming call or an incoming text message. The plate glass on the sliding door that leads to his back deck is thick enough to have muffled any such alerts. He'll have to check. She may have called, after all. Or maybe responded to his text. Or maybe not. He doesn't know. He doesn't want to know. He wants to know.

He looks out at the dark of his back yard one last time before turning to go inside. He looks into the darkness and sees nothing there. But he hears the soft moan of the wind and the leaves somewhere high above in the distance singing the only song that leaves know how to sing when they are dying.

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