Jessie, part 2

31 Jul

For our date, Jessie had worn a black, long-sleeved top beneath a short yellow knit sweater. It was knitted from some type of soft yarn. I know it was soft, because she invited me to touch it. I realized that my gaze had settled on her chest, where it always, always settles. Trying to recover, I leaned forward and took the fabric of her short sleeve between my fingers and rubbed it.

She told me that she made it herself. “Um,” I said. “That’s nice.” As far as I know, it was nice. I mean, it was soft. I began to notice the design of the sweater. It was plain, unadorned yellow, and it seemed like it was slowly constricting, drawing itself up her arms and belly as it shrank. I couldn’t decide whether or not it was really happening or whether that was in fact something that sweaters did, but it kept drawing my attention. I should mention that I don’t know anything about sweaters.

Something about her face continued to weird me out.

It’s impolite to stare. I can’t help it. It’s a tic that dominates my entire dating life. It’s like Tourette’s for my eyeballs. On dates, I persistently, unconsciously and involuntarily look at people’s salient features. Often, as I’ve mentioned, that means boobs. Inconveniently, they don’t even have to be the boobs of the person I’m with. Occasionally, however, I will also focus on other things of physical significance, like a prosthetic hand or an unusual birthmark. Or, say, a superfluity of lips dominating an otherwise normal face.

Sometimes this behavior leads to interpersonal discomfort.

My eyes jerked from her chest (her sweater) to her lips and back. I fished ineffectively for something to talk about. I could only proceed with caution; slowly, I began to realize that she had the political sensitivity of a particularly earnest freshman. Although she taught literature, she and I liked none of the same books. Although she called herself a film critic, she and I watched none of the same movies. Feeling the flushed pink edges of conversational panic, backed into the only topic of mutual interest, I asked about her job. She told me a story about her mentor, who had recently embarrassed her by throwing a weepy tantrum during a department meeting. I asked her about department meetings, and we fell further into the fractal geometry of dull conversation. It felt like a job interview, except there was no job, and I was boring the shit out of both of us.

Finally, the waiter arrived with the check. “So,” I asked her. “Can I buy you dinner?”

Of course this is not a neutral question; it is fraught with subtext. Fraught. Unfortunately, there is no cultural universal as to what this subtext signifies. Generally, I consider the gesture to mean that I like the other person, regardless of any lumpy discourse we might have engaged in over our meal, and I’d like our association to continue at least one date further. Others, however, use it as a declaration of intent to colonize their dates’ genitals, planting the check between them like a flag. For these latter, volunteering to pay is making a risky investment in sex futures. This is how Jessie read the situation. Her eyes narrowed and her face drew in on itself, closing off the conversation. But she didn’t say, “No thank you.” Neither did she say, “I’d rather we split this time, thanks.”

She said “No,” following the compact, leaden word up with nothing, letting it sink between us and pulling the rest of the conversation along with it. A moment passed.

“Oh.” My face felt hot. “Well, um, how do you want to split it? All I have is plastic.”


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