" SpiritofSaltSpring:BC:Canada:GulfIslands:SaltSpring:Salt Spring:

December 16, 2007

Closest Thing I've Got to a Christmas Story

Some time in the late 90s I went through an Internet dating phase except the original point of contact wasn't via the Internet as much as it was over the phone.

I went through so many meetings that after their names were long gone from memory, I'd latch on to some attribute about them to label them. I'd catch myself describing them like: The native carver who almost drove me insane. The chanting Buddhist who took me to that temple where we chanted for an entire hour in unison with hundreds of others. The Japanese gardener who kissed me in the elevator at Chapters. The freelance phone psychic. The golfer. The 'Born Again' palliative care-giving, philandering Philippino. The Italian father of five grow-op king. The lover of masochistic films who declared I was exactly the type of person he was looking for 5 minutes after meeting me. No whips required. The polish poet I met at Kinkos. That American whom I was crazy enough to go on a train trip with that required us to be really close together for almost 18 hours when we'd never previously met. Before the train had made it out of West Van, I was looking to get off. The train that is.

I've blocked the majority of meetings from memory the way a survivor of post traumatic stress syndrome surely blocks the original trauma.

The meeting that left the most bittersweet memory however was the one with the biker. I mean the former biker. I had to meet him. I had spoken to him more than once and I jokingly asked him if he had tattoos. When he told me he had 10 I tried to imagine where 10 tattoos would fit on one body then quickly put those thoughts out of my mind.

I pictured this beer-gutted, black-vested, bushy bearded polar bear of a guy scuffing his way towards the nearest coffee shop.

"Make that a double Latte!" Is that what he'd say in a gruff sort of way? Maybe he'd add "on the rocks" just to be safe.

Would his butt crack hang out of his faded blue jeans? Would women's names and arrows shoot from the skin on his forearms and other places I'd rather not imagine. I really didn't know. I was however intrigued at the thought of finding out. His face staring at mine over a coffee was something I felt the need to experience. I wanted to see at least one of those tattoos.

I arrived at the coffee shop. I did the cursory glancing around and spotted him right away. He was on a bar stool staring out the window.He was sipping an orange juice with extra pulp. Don't ask! He as wearing a cracked, brown leather bomber jacket, blue jeans, black and white runners, wide-framed Tortoise shell glasses. His sandy brown hair, tied back in a pony tail, hung a little string-like down his back. He was chewing gum. He looked like a movie star on one of the film sets where I would discover he actually worked as a grip. Danish he was and those Danish genes were present.

"Mark?" I asked.
He stared at me in response.
"You don't look so intimidating," I said a little too loudly, a combination of nerves and relief at his appearance amplifying my voice.
An ever so slight smile crossed his face then changed its mind. I couldn't tell whether he wanted to kiss me or smack me.

We talked. No. Actually. He talked. He told me all about his son, his therapy, and making a lot of changes in the past few years. He kept alluding to us - him and I - being the kind of people who would never have known each other then.
"You're not the kind of woman I'm used to," he said.

Visions of myself as a librarian or kindergarten teacher danced across my mind.

I tried to envision myself clinging to a fat beast of a bike burning rubber down the highway outside of 100 Mile House or Clinton. I really liked the idea. It's never going to happen.

I believed him. I wouldn't ever be the kind of woman he had been used to. I did, however, sometimes have fantasies wishing I could be more like those women.

It was a few days before Christmas. At the time, I was getting ready to go to Mexico so had no intention of staying long. But, we were getting along so famously which in hindsight should be read as: I was doing a good job lisening ad nauseum that he invited me to have lunch and I accepted.

We wandered down the street to a tiny diner where the tables were mere centimetres apart.

He opened the door and just barely across the threshold his big voice boomed, "Excuse me" with such command that I actually jumped a little. So did the rather short guy standing with his back to us in the entrance. I had visions of my biker picking him up by the scruff of his jacket and depositing him behind us. Instead, in complete contrast, my biker simply asked, "Have you been waiting long?"

Now you would have thought based on the way he made the enquiry that he was the minister's wife greeting a young couple on the afternoon of their wedding rehearsal. That's how soft his voice was. I was really beginning to enjoy this. A biker. Sure. Why not? Why not a biker, I said to myself. We squeezed our way into our tiny table.

He pushed his sleeves up a little. I finally caught a peek at one of his tattoos. I tried not to stare. He pushed his sleeves up a little more. A guy on a Harley had left no skid marks on his right forearm. An American flag and a bald eagle perched comfortably on the underside of that same arm. The colour of the flag had faded so that where there had once been stars and stripes, there was now only skin.

"Is that you?" I asked, pointing to his right arm and the guy on the Harley.
I could feel the couple at the next table move in unison, a little to their right, a little closer to us. We all wanted a good look. Step right up.

"Where didcha get those done?" I asked.
"You know," he said.
I was silent. Why in the world would he think I would know I wondered.
"I don't know," I said, like the naive little librarian I was beginning to resemble even more.
"Mac's leathers?" I guessed taking a stab at it.
"No" he said beginning to realize just how far removed we were from each other's realities.
"You know" he said even more quietly as my mind swirled no closer than before to the correct answer.
I really didn't know. In fact, I didn't have a clue.
He paused a bit longer as if trying to decide how to tell me the obvious before he just blurted it out.
"The Joint. In The Joint!" he said as if I was the stupidest person on the planet.
Like two sharp slaps across my face that word - "the Joint" - hit me.
Do people actually use that word in real life? The Joint? I felt like I'd been transported into that old Paul Newman Movie: Cool Hand Luke!

"You get a number 6 guitar string and you heat it up..."

"What are you going to have?" I interrupted him knowing there was no possibility of my appetite remaining if I let him go there.
"I think I'm going to have an omelette," I said. With mushrooms.
The waitress had just arrived.
"I'll have the special," he said. "And, make sure there's no cheese in it!"
No cheese? she asked as if to suggest that there really wasn't much point in making an omelette without cheese.
"That's right. No cheese." he repeated.
I ordered as well. Everything seemed to be going relatively smoothly. I let slow silent breath seep out.
He talked about his work. Some little rich kid protege actor was terrorizing the set. One day he'd had just about enough of him, cornered him in the back all alone, held him by the arm and said, "Look everybody else might be letting you get away with your game but I'm onto you. I'm onto you and I want you to sit down and shut up and stay out of my way."
"Does that look like cheese to you? he asked moments after the waitress had deposited our orders.
I was enjoying a mouthful of fluffiness not overly concerned with his question now that my food had arrived.
"It's cheese!" he said, really quickly, exasperated as if he'd been betrayed during a drug deal.
"Can't they ever get it right?" he asked me, himself, everyone who had ever lived and nobody really.
"Didn't I say it twice?" he asked me, shaking his head with disgust.
I stared at him in silence wondering where this little impromptu performance was going.
His face was beginning to get red. In fact, it was doing what I believe is called a slow burn. The flow of blood boiling just underneath the surface was rising and leaving streaky patterns on the neck and face the same way a jet leaves its zippered incision on a summer's blue sky.
I was noting that fact. Red face? Check! Anger? Check! Me getting extremely anxious? Check!
Don't sweat the small stuff. That's what my voice mail ad had said. I was looking for someone who didn't sweat the small stuff.
Cheese in omelette. MMMMMM? Not exactly another species gone extinct by my standards.
In as contained a manner as his emotions would allow he caught the attention of the waitress.
I was beginning to hold my breath.
"Miss" he said loudly, with authority, but containing himself just a little in honour of my embarrassment.
Thank God he refrained from snapping his fingers I thought.
I was beginning to slump a little in the booth.
He articulated every word.
"I asked not once but twice for no cheese! This has cheese. I can't EAT cheese," he said.
We were both staring at him now, the waitress and I. Like two parents staring at their eldest who was acting like king of the castle but whom we had deemed a little pain in the ass.

"I'm sorry," she said, whisking the plate from under his nose leaving a faint cheesy smell hanging in the air between us.

I could almost feel the vibrations of barely contained anger levitating.

Not really believing the spectacle that was occurring before me and realizing I'd seen this type of behaviour way too many times before as a child coming from my own father over something equally inane, my own anger molecules began to bubble just below the surface.

I looked him straight in the eyes. With great authority, picking my words in the same manner that he had picked at the cheese, I said ever so slowly, "You can handle it!" I enunciated every word. My tone was low and steady. Each of those words. You. Can. Handle. It. were said as if they were, individually, a complete sentence.
He stopped. His eyes bore into mine. I held my ground. My gaze did not waiver from his but I felt as if I might just wet my pants.

We stayed that way, locked onto each other's willful stares for a second or two and then we were silent.

It was one of those really awkward moments. The kind of moment that makes you wish you were actually just editing a film from the privacy of an editing suite. You would have cut this scene out. Rewound. Start again.

I didn't look to my right. I looked at my plate. The couple who had been so interested in free viewing earlier on had their eyes forward front as well.

I was beginning to wish I could leave. He noticed my fidgeting. "What's wrong?" he asked. "You want to leave?" he asked, reading my body language and my thoughts, neither of which I've ever been good at hiding.

"Well, it's just that I usually don't spend this much time with someone when I first meet them," I said, lying, not wanting to say what could not be said.

More silence.

By this time his cheese-free omelette had arrived. He gingerly lifted one of its mottled corners with the prongs of his fork. Cheese check! Cheese alert! Please don't find any I thought. Please. Please. Pretty Please.
He dug in.

I felt relieved he was feeling a little better. I took the opportunity to inhale. He seemed to be a little less angry. I began to wonder what it must be like to be him. What would it be like to feel so betrayed throughout one's life that even a rather typical error, especially when it comes to service in Canada, like having a waitress get your order wrong - again - could set off paranoia, the betrayal bells, the sense of not being important enough for someone to get it right.

I felt sad for him. I felt sad for myself. He wasn't going to work out. I wouldn't be his dream girl either.

He finished eating and we made small talk. The excitement was over. It was the Boxing Day of our short aquaintance. We were on the other side of a crescendo. It was the week after starting a new job. It was the last day of a vacation. It was Sunday evening. You know what I mean. Something anticipated, now fully experienced and ready to be let go. Move on. Next! The 21st Century's version of hunting and gathering.

We left the restaurant and walked towards my car parked farther down the street.
I had brought him some shortbread that I'd made. It was wrapped in cellophane inside my purse. I hoped I hadn't squished the cookies into crumbly bits. I didn't want to set him off. We stopped beside the curb at my car.

He smiled one of the most genuine smiles I'd seen in a while. It surprised me. He took my hand in his large palm, the same palm that had bolted sets together, hammered stages in place and grabbed at the sleeve of a tiny, whiny movie star.

"It was nice to meet you," he said.

I pulled the shortbread from out of my purse and felt happy that I was going to give him something that I suspected no one else would. In fact, I suspected he was unlikely to get much of anything for Christmas or any gifts on any other days.

"That's a really nice gesture," he said. "Thank you!"

"Well, you know, I hardly every bake. I only bake short bread and only at Christmas," I said catching myself, realizing he wouldn't care when I baked. My babbling was diminishing the moment.

"I thought so too," I added, quickly, as an afterthought, shyly, feeling the creeping flush of embarrassment cross my cheeks.

We stood there for a second each trying to decide whether hugging would be an option or even a good idea.

Apparently, we each decided against it. He would realize not to go there. Afterall, he was an expert in reading body language like everyone who has ever lived with the kind of uncertainty and negativity he must have, in that place, and every place he had been before, emotionally, to lead him there.

You know the place I mean. In the Joint!

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