Sandy (Sandra-Jane to her father when she was growing up and he was not pleased) was eating supper alone. She didn’t entirely mind being alone. Generally, men had been a disappointment in her life. Her mouth was full of the focaccia that had come with her salad course, but she smiled anyway as her active mind produced a triptych of association-memories. “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” [Irina Dunn/Gloria Steinem]; “Men are just carriers of bad jokes and flatulence.” [Scott Adams, Dilbert]; and “The odds are good, but the goods are odd.” [Robert Masello, Blood and Ice]. Yes, that was worth a grin. It was even worth the small snort that threatened to blow crumbs out her nose.
Speaking of men, there was an odd one right now, sitting in profile in her field of view. He was also having his salad. He was certainly taking his time. He would pick up his knife to slice things just so. Next, with a small frown of intense concentration, he would dip his fork into a side of dressing and impale first one item and then another in some kind of deliberate construction until it was just right. Finally, lifting his salad-kabob carefully past his lips he chewed in quiet contentment and distracted contemplation before resuming the ceremony.
Sandy experienced an old and not-unwelcome warming as she imagined him nibbling on her ear lobe and kissing the back of her neck with the same kind of intensity he was committing to his food.Her inner warmth spread into a cold chill of anticipation that climbed up her spine. She realized that she had been staring and quickly looked back at her plate. This can’t end well, she thought.
Sandra-Jane was not impulsive by nature. Well, she had been incredibly impulsive as a small girl. She had heard her mother complain to a neighbor that, “I just pray every night, “Please, Lord, don’t let me hurt her.” Sandra-Jane had gradually learned to restrain her exuberance, curiosity, and enthusiasm to meet the expectations of the majority of people around her who were less-alive. Sandy had developed into a bright and talented, but quirky young woman. Now, two careers to the wind and two husbands in her wake, she had resigned herself to a less-exasperating life of sailing in her own company. It was the right thing to do.
Well, maybe not. On an impulse, Sandy got one her business cards out of her purse and wrote on the back: “I’m dining alone to your right. Would you care to join me?” Her server paused to top off her glass of water. Sandy asked that the card be delivered to the gentleman, nodding her head at the fellow. Her waiter accepted the card, delivered it to the salad artist, said a few words and nodded sharply back at Sandy. Sandy had stopped breathing. “Oh my God, what am I doing?” There was nothing she could do now to take it back. She had cast the die and it was out of her hands. Sandy waited and watched.
The fellow put down his fork and picked up his napkin to dab at the corners of his mouth. With irritating deliberation, he read the front of the card. After a brief hesitation, he deftly flipped the card over and read the back as well. Sandy, imagining the probably-tragic humor of their mutual predicament, thought, “Well, the snowball is rolling, and for better or worse, it’s all downhill from here.” She smiled at the absurdity of her mixed metaphor, just in time to see him, finally, glance her way. It was the smile of a true gentlemen. There was no squint of suspicion; no lip-pursing of irritation; only the open pleasure of gentle anticipation.
He said a few words to the waiter, stood and came over to Sandy’s table. He didn’t even bring his napkin or fork. He didn’t seem to walk so much as glide. There was an unnatural smoothness. No, there was a very natural smoothness to his movement. Sandy stood to meet him. She couldn’t squeak a word. He saved her the awkwardness. “Thank you for your card. I would be pleased to join you. I’ve asked for my supper to be brought to your table. He smiled again. The smile seemed to expand out of his heart to embrace the world. No, Sandy’s world had contracted to just the space she could reach and he hadn’t hesitated to come into her space and embrace her with that smile. “Let’s sit down,” he said. And they did.
The corners of Sandy’s lips were probably twitching nervously. He had the grace to introduce himself and offer the briefest biography. He was a freelance commercial artist who took long-term assignments with book and magazine publishers. He was divorced and he and his ex shared custody of an impressively-intelligent Jack Russell Terrier. He asked Sandy to tell a bit about herself. This was comfortable ground and she shared some basics as his meal was transferred. He listened with rapt attention — honest-to-god real listening.
He asked Sandy what she had seen that moved her to invite him over. Her heart leapt; this was sudden, direct, and very personal, but she explained without being coy. It was the way he was eating his food. It was surprisingly deliberate, but with obvious pleasure and appreciation.
He smiled again and laughed easily. Yes, he enjoyed creating a “perfect bite” — a well-balanced selection sandwiched between perfectly-sized pieces of lettuce and graced with just the right amount of dressing. He didn’t think everybody needed to do it that way, and he didn’t feel like he needed to criticize more-casual eaters, but, for him, it was just a way to, sometimes, appreciate his meal more than just taking it for granted.
They chatted through their entrees and their dessert and a mild blended coffee. They discovered, in each other, interesting people, comfortable companions, potential friends, and a budding openness to future possibilities. Their checks had already been presented and they each paid their own bills without discussion or posturing. But, the unspoken expectation lingered between them that, somehow, something more was needed. It made it impossible to just stand up, shake hands and walk away.
He looked intensely into Sandy’s eyes and invited her to meet him at his place to extend their time together “for just a bit longer, but not too long,” because he was scheduled for an early presentation in the morning. Sandy hesitated. No, it was more like her heart came to a momentary stone-cold stop. Her face actually blanched a little before flushing. She had her own car, she had her wits, and she had a good feeling about this guy. A genuine grin graced her lips as her old impulsive self accepted and he jotted down his address for her.
He had a second-story two-bedroom apartment with the extra room dedicated as a combination office and studio. The French doors at the back overlooked a wooded hillside that rolled toward a small creek below. You could see across neighborhood rooftops to the panorama of the Plaza District. The interior was not immaculate, but it was clean and tidy with only the mild clutter of a comfortable home. He cleared a plate and glass to the sink, then got out two more glasses and suggested sharing a split of red wine on the balcony.
The night was clear and a little balmy, but a steady light breeze banished any sense of humidity. Sandy was fascinated. His auburn hair was thinning in the front but he was due for a haircut and his slightly over-long waves danced gently in the moving air. It was too dark to see details now, but she had already decided that she enjoyed the crinkles around his hazel eyes when he smiled. His voice was smooth and lilting as he moved easily between sincere exposition, delight, inquisitiveness, regret, and even silliness. Nobody could be this perfect. He was divorced; did he have a hidden side that expected perfection in others?
They talked somewhat more intimately now — about their work and their families — and their failures and their dreams. The conversation had found a natural lull when he interjected, “It’s almost time to say goodbye and I haven’t offered to show you my studio.” It was obvious that he was sensitive enough to layer an added intimacy with the promise of an uncomplicated exit. Sandy had been hoping to get a look at his work and accepted immediately.
He was talented, that was for sure. He didn’t strut and display, brag, or maneuver for praise. He let her look around carefully, then got down a favorite portfolio to show. Then, he suggested that she thumb through a collection of canvases stacked like dominoes against a wall.
Another section of wall was devoted to a synth keyboard, laptop computer, two guitars and a pair of studio-quality monitor speakers. Noticing them, Sandy only looked back, smiled again and said, “I hope that I can hear you play next time.” She hesitated and then added shyly, “I sing.” He was obviously pleased.
Sandy’s eyes fell on a small collection assembled on top of a low book case. It had an obvious purpose, but the purpose was not obvious. It included a medium-sized nail, a rock, a boxy camera, a bottle of booze, and a blue bra. Her eyes narrowed slightly but she had the courage to point and ask, with an inescapable hint of suspicion, “What is this about?”
He laughed. His laugh played across a range from gentle amusement to a joyful chuckle. Whatever was going on, it didn’t embarrass him. He explained: “These represent perfect things. You’ve already discovered that I like the idea of perfect things. The galvanized 8-penny nail is the perfect size for fastening two pieces of two-by-four lumber together. A skilled carpenter can set one with a single stroke. It will go in straight and stop just short of coming through the other side. He caressed its head with two fingers before sliding his fingers down the smoothness of its rigid galvanized length.
He picked up the rock and held it with firm confidence. He stroked its surface and let it fill his hand as he tested its weight with knowing familiarity. “Like a good friend, the round river rock is smoothed by years of tumbling against its neighbors. It is not perfectly smooth or perfectly round, but it feels just right in your hand. It has a satisfying heft. You know that you can throw it a little farther than anything lighter or heavier; you know that it will make a satisfying ‘plop’ when it lands in water.
“The camera is a Hasselblad 500 CM single lens reflex, which just means that you can view the actual scene before a mirror pops up to take the picture. Everything about it is top quality and very usable. It has Carl Zeiss lenses and takes remarkably clear and detailed exposures. You can hold it still right in front of your chest instead of letting it jiggle around in front of your face.” He demonstrated by holding it firmly in front of his heart. Then, with practiced deftness, he unlatched the viewer and snapped it open with one hand. “It is versatile, sturdy, reliable, and compact. For many years, it was the workhorse of fashion photography and portrait studios. The focus and aperture rings move with a feeling of smooth precision and, well, I love to hear the solid “clunk” of the mirror return.”
“You’re a sensuous and kinesthetic kind of guy,” I observed. One of his eyebrows flicked up. On an impulse, he cranked the film advance and handed the camera to me like he was letting a friend hold a newborn baby. He had me stand in front of a wall mirror, look down through the viewer at myself, adjust the focus, and trip the shutter. I’ll be damned if he wasn’t right.
“The bottle is Arbeg Uigeadall Single Malt Scotch Whiskey,” he said. “It’s amazing. I’m saving it for a special occasion.” He stroked some invisible dust off the label with his slender fingers. He just held it for a while longer, staring wistfully, seemingly lost in some memory or thought of an appropriate special occasion. He returned the bottle to its place of honor.
We both stared at the brassiere for several long moments. Its two cups were nested, pointed straight up, with the straps tucked neatly underneath. It still had the remains of a sales tag and had, evidently, never been worn. He hesitated a little awkwardly before plunging ahead. “The bra is size 36C which, shall we say, speaks for itself. The cups are round and smooth – neither too padded or too sheer. The bright blue color serves no function except to gratify the tastes of the owner or the libido of anyone for whom she might choose to model it.”
That appeared to be the end of the tour. There didn’t seem to be anything more for either of us to say. We just looked at each for an eternity within a few moments. He had the grace to not glance down to consider how I might look in blue. Suddenly, his face lit up with an epiphany. “Oh,” he said, “we’re not through. I have to show you one of my bananas!” He dashed off to the kitchen with no thought for what might be going through my mind.
He grabbed a banana off a hook on the counter. Somehow, I was not surprised that it was neither too green nor too ripe. He notched the peel with a small knife and stripped it off. With a studious look that included a squint and a slight grimace, he positioned his right forefinger at the center of one end and pushed. As he inserted his finger, the meat of the banana split into three perfectly equal pieces along the axis of its shaft. I had never seen anything like it. “What do you think?” he asked, grinning in satisfaction.
“I have never seen anything like it,” I answered truthfully. We both laughed… for different reasons.
I was feeling a little breathless and it was definitely time to go, but I couldn’t help asking a question that needed an answer. I took a breath and just blurted it out. “Tonight I’ve seen a lot of things that you like — that you think highly of — that you think of as perfect. Really. Frankly. Are you critical of things that don’t live up to your standards?”
He is about three inches taller than me and we were pretty close. He looked down to me and said, “You don’t have to demand perfection, especially of other people. That’s never going to happen. Besides, perfection is relative and subjective. Something can be perfect for its purpose or simply for qualities that you appreciate.” I hadn’t noticed it until that moment, but he had placed his hand on the middle of my back and had been guiding me gently toward the door like a (dare I say) perfect dance partner. Was he a gentleman or had he just completed his first-date evaluation and decided to send me away?
I had to have my full answer before it was too late. “Do you drive yourself crazy trying to be perfect?” It was a little too pointed and a little too crudely asked, but he didn’t blink and didn’t seem to notice.
“I’m not perfect and I don’t expect myself to be, just as I wouldn’t expect it of anyone or anything. But, when you notice something that is good, or even exceptional, it’s completely appropriate to take notice and express your appreciation.”
He had opened the door and was leaning casually on the jamb as he reflected on his answer. He took another swing at the subject of personal perfection. “Well, maybe I make myself a little crazy. I think that we should feel obliged to constantly — no, regularly — compare ourselves to our ideals and our behaviors to our values. Failing to pursue our aspirations is the road to decline and death.”
I was startled: “You’re kidding! Death?”
“Not necessarily imminent physical death,” he answered, “but, at least death of ambition; death of appreciation; death of gratitude; death of joy; death of the soul.”
This was all a little overwhelming and I needed some time to think about it. I turned toward the door and muttered, “I guess it’s time to say good night.”
“Okay,” he said, and leaned in for a kiss. I was frozen and didn’t move. He planted a nice soft one on my cheek. I hesitated a moment, imagining that our lips had connected like that. They were burning as if they had. I regretted not turning my head to feel and return the satisfaction.
“Oh, there’s one more thing I need to tell you,” he added with a hint of urgency. I hesitated while he grinned again and finished: “You should know, without hesitation or doubt, that I really think highly of you and appreciate the time we’ve shared together.” It wasn’t perfect, but it was good enough.
All I can say is that I felt happy. It was an elevating, satisfying, almost-contented kind of happy. I wasn’t entirely sure that my feet were touching the floor. This could do very well, I thought. As I glided through the door, I imagined an occasion with him special enough to share that Arberg Uigeadall. I imagined how amazing it would feel to explore together the ways this sensuous and kinesthetic kind of a guy could express his appreciation for how nicely I filled a 36C.
And, I’ll be damned if I wasn’t right.