Jackie was a recent transplant from Philadelphia, a mid-Atlantic city of sufficient age to have pretensions of being East Coast, never mind that all of New Jersey lies between it and the ocean. I’ve been to Philadelphia. It’s nice. However, it’s not New York. Neither is it Boston.
I mention these things not out of some need to diminish Philadelphia, but rather to obviate the whole émigré pissing-contest instinct that impels recent arrivals to extol the superior virtues of their former cities vis-à-vis wherever they happen to have landed while also skirting the observation that those virtues, virtuous though they might be, proved insufficient to inspire them to stay. This phenomenon happens with particular frequency when someone moves from the coasts toward the Midwest, which, as far as the coasts are concerned, perverts the apparent natural order of things. Cheesesteaks from Philly taste good, it’s true. But cheese sauce, steaks, onions, and grease taste good pretty much anywhere. GPS coordinates do not appear as ingredients in cheesesteaks. That’s all I’m saying.
I suggested we meet at Sitwell’s. The most tired ideas seem fresh to someone unfamiliar with them. I go there often, but not so often that it becomes unignorably obvious the staff or the regulars that it’s where I take first dates. The principle is similar to crop rotation or sustainable fishing; you don’t want to exhaust any one area, particularly if it’s a good spot.
Jackie had a wide mouth and she laughed a lot. She smiled widely also. She had high cheekbones, pixie cut hair, and a long face of the sort that cruel internet people sometimes describe as “horsey.” Which is not to say that she was unattractive. Probably I ought to establish that. Certainly she was attractive; not necessarily in a head-turning way, but in a notice-you-across-the-bar way. Somehow, though, her attractiveness added to less than the sum of its parts. Her eyes, hair, mouth, and cheekbones, all striking as individuals, seemed to have been pulled from other bodies and then aggregated without considering their effect as a gestalt.
I sort of expected all that. The full effect rarely comes through still photographs, but she’d sent me a wide variety from a number of angles. One was of her dressed in a sailor costume and striking a costume-suggestive pose. Another was of her dressed as a schoolgirl with knee socks, a plaid skirt, and a blouse unbuttoned to her sternum. She sat on the edge of a bed and bit her lip, sincerely suggestive.
Judging by the picture’s proportions, she’d cropped out the side of the mattress, stage left, along with whoever happened to occupy it. I opted not to bring it up.
I don’t really remember our first date. That might seem callous, but it’s just how my life works. I don’t really remember my sixteenth birthday, or my twenty-first, or my thirtieth. I don’t really remember my first kiss or the first time I drove a car. But I remember what it’s like to do these things. Jackie laughed at my jokes, I think. People who choose to go on more than one date with me typically do. Quite soon, she developed a habit of describing things I did or said as “precious,” with heavy emphasis on the initial plosive. I tolerated that with easy indifference. Sometimes I’ll come up with a few seconds of memory that deliver the experience’s full semantic weight. After Jackie and I left the coffee shop, she walked south on Ludlow with an aggressive Philadelphian gait indicative of her tribe. It seems to me that she wore some sort of black shirt beneath a dark jacket complemented with leg-hugging jeans. I recall with moderate assurance that I admired the decisive scissoring of her legs as she walked with apparent purpose ahead of me, although we did not know where we were going. She wore suede high heels with the sort of folded-down top that reminded me of Robin or maybe Peter Pan. I remember that.
For our second date, she invited me back to her apartment to watch It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, which she admired with the same home-team possessiveness that people from my city used to hold for WKRP in Cincinnati. I dislike It’s Always Sunny for the same reason that I dislike Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm: If I want to watch irredeemable people behave horribly to one another, I can just go outside. This, I sensed, was a strike against me. Instead, we ignored the television and began to have an actual conversation.
She pressed her thigh to mine and began to tell me about her live-in boyfriend who’d just moved out.