Shopping for Romance

literary, short story
Shopping for Romance header image

“So William, I just like to jump right into it when I’m on one of these things, how about you?” Tessa’s face is an orchestra of controlled nerves: her smile a little too tight in the corners, eyes trained on me with unnatural intensity. She hasn’t even touched her moscow mule yet, which sits off to the left of her clasped hands. This already feels like a job interview.

I’m terrified.

“Sure, why not?” I say. Her dating profile said she’s thirty one—that’s only two years older than me—but she’s got a confidence and poise that places her vibes well into the forties. Her strong jawline and acrylic nails don’t help the situation. This is a mature woman, the type of lady I’d have to clean my house for whenever she comes over.

I take a large gulp from my gin and soda. “I can jump in,” I say. In the dim light of the bar she looks good, very good: blue irises twinkling behind streaks of bleached hair; perfectly shaped teeth so white they seem to glow in the dark.

“So, tell me, what are people looking for in San Francisco?” She leans forward, her posture angled yet relaxed—the poise of a successful business woman.

“You mean with dating?” I say. Her gaze is hard to read.

“Yeah, like, what are you looking for?” she says.

I blow a long sigh through my cheeks and rub my forehead. I’m not sure about her. Fear can be as intoxicating as love in the right circumstances—it’s damned confusing. “Man, I don’t know. A relationship, I guess, eventually. But I’m open.”

“I see.” She spreads her hands over the table. “But what do you think of the dating scene here, what’s your experience been?” Her stare is inquisitive and unwavering. She’s trying hard to play something close to her chest, and she’s good enough at it to where I’m thrown off the scent, but there’s still a smell in the air.

“It’s hard. Something I’ve struggled with, for sure.” Do I jump into my diatribe on dating in the 21st century? “Gender roles are poorly defined. The script is broken. Community is hard to come by. No one knows what to do anymore. Everyone is on these dating apps…” I guess I’m going there. “It seems like it’s all about volume now, if you’re in demand. Otherwise it’s hard to connect.”

-1-

“Right?” She shifts in her chair. “I’m definitely going for volume; just run through em until I find a match.” Tessa’s on a mission. “My friend says she can never match with anyone, but I’m not having that problem.”

“Well, you’re quite pretty.” I say, shifting uncomfortably as I deliver the compliment.

“Oh, thank you. You’re so sweet!” She’s genuinely moved.

I stare at my lap, abashed. “It’s just the truth.”

“Well, to give you some backstory, I grew up in the midwest, and moved to the south after college. So my cultural experience is very… different.”

“I see.” Images of southern bells kick around in my head as I try to wrangle my knowledge on the subject—it’s mostly stereotypes. “So what are you looking for in a man, then?”

Her eyes light up. “I want a leader. Someone who’s confident, strong, masculine. I want him to make me feel like a lady.” It’s quite a laundry list.

I let a wry smile creep across my face. “You’re a traditionalist,” I say. I feel a weight lifting; the list of demands is so far off from how I perceive myself that the pressure of the interaction evaporates.

“Yes, I am.” she speaks resolutely, her expression simultaneously signaling discovery and commitment in one stroke.

“But you don’t seem very traditional,” I say, gaining confidence. “You’re an independent woman, right? You have a career. I get the impression that you’re intelligent.” I saw the career bit on her profile.

-2-

She snorts. “I will never make as much as a man.”

I shrug; there are a lot of implications in that statement. “If you say so.” I divert my eyes for a moment, preparing to charge the bull. “So why did you move to San Francisco?” I think she understands why I’m asking—not many traditionalists in the Bay Area.

Her face shrivels. “People here are intelligent, educated, have careers. It was either San Francisco or New York, for me,” she says. “And I chose here. I think it makes sense for my needs and what I want out of life.”

I nod, humming to myself. I’m starting to develop a picture of Tessa’s dream man, now. He is a middle manager on the rise; chivalrous, masculine but in a sort of silver fox way; intelligent and in command. He dresses sharply—wears business casual clothing when not in a full suit, drives a BMW that he services regularly. He’s a successful man, a respected man… But maybe I’m using too much creative license. She hasn’t said as much, though the implications are there.

“Makes sense,” I say. “I mean San Francisco definitely has a lot to offer. I guess you just have to keep looking around until you find someone who fits your standards. But you work in tech? How is it finding a manly leader in those circles?” I’m disqualifying myself as best I can. It’s a funny thing, too; for a long time, I’d been chasing the image of Tessa’s dream man myself, but now I want nothing to do with it.

“I usually date product managers,” she says in an excited tone.

“I guess that works. Maybe you’ll have luck with that strategy.” I finish my gin and soda in a few gulps.

“But William,” she says, clasping my hand across the table. “I’m here with you tonight. Don’t sell yourself short! Tell me, what do you like to do on weekends?”

I smile in spite of myself. Does she see a man in me? Is there a leader left in here, after being emotionally suffocated by trading my happiness for security for the past five years?

“It depends. If the weather’s nice, I like to go on motorcycle rides up north. I’ll also go bouldering, go drinking with friends on occasion. How about you?” I say.

-3-

“Very cool—motorcycling, rock climbing; so adventurous.”

I mentally snort. It’s all compartmentalized and calculated risk.

She continues. “I like to go cycling, and I volunteer at a charity that helps underprivileged kids learn to code. The charity is a bit boogie, sort of a sorority girl vibe.” She rolls her eyes.

“That’s cool, I used to cycle on a team in high school. What got you into it?” Yada yada yada.

We go back and forth like this for a bit, exchanging information about ourselves in list format until we’ve expunged things to talk about. I’ve done this many times before, but never before has dating culture in America felt so clearly on display for me to examine. It’s no wonder the divorce rate in this country is sky high, we engage in our romantic relationships like they’re vehicle purchases. Commodification is the word, and is the game being played just about everywhere.

“So,” says Tessa, clasping her hands in front of her once more. “What are you thinking?”

Despite reservations, my ego is eager. She is beautiful, she is high status, and she still wants me at the end of our conversation. “I think you’re beautiful,” I say. “And I like you, but I’m intimidated.” Best to just own it, and see what happens.

“What? Why be intimidated?”

“Just insecurity, I guess,” I say. That’s part of it, at least.

She’s staring into my eyes with a look I can only describe as hunger. “But you should be confident! Especially when you have so much to offer.”

-4-

“I’m working on it,” I say.

She clasps my hand again. “We’ll get through this, Will.”

I smile and blush, simultaneously grateful for the support, and terrified by the use of ‘we’ in that context on a first date.

“Oh, look at the time,” she says. “It’s already ten! Don’t you have to work tomorrow?”

“Yeah, I do.”

“Shall we head out?”

“Sure.”

She leads me through the bar. In my head, the other patrons are staring at us as we leave. I feel proud to have this beautiful woman on my arm. I’ve forgotten all the red flags, forgotten what I want my life to be, how I know status is a trap—my ego is too delighted.

Once outside, she turns to face me with expectant blue eyes that twinkle in the night air. I go in for a hug and peck her on the cheek, tasting the bitter flavor of makeup as her foundation coats my lips. I pull away and she keeps staring at me with that same look. She’s holding my hand.

“I’m sorry,” I say, bashful and hesitant.

-5-

“Why are you apologizing?” she says. She continues staring, her mouth barely parted in a soft invitation.

I don’t know if I do it out of attraction or obligation, or if I’m only hesitant because I am afraid. Whatever the reason, my pallet of emotions is complex as I lean in to kiss her, slowly pressing my lips against hers and stroking the side of her chin with my thumb. I want to be tender and nurturing but she has other ideas, and engulfs me like a carnivorous flower. Her mouth pushes mine wide open as she darts her tongue inside rhythmically; it’s sensual, it’s aggressive.

After a few moments of this, she pulls away, letting my hand linger in hers as she stares at me coyly. “Night, Will,” she says, delivering the words with the practiced drama of a stage actor.

“Good night,” I say with a shy grin on my face as she turns to go.

I don’t linger, and as soon as her back faces me I turn the other way, heading in the opposite direction down silent city blocks. The night air is cool and refreshing, and the street lights buzz with the intangible energy of possibility as they illuminate my way. My mind is racing. I just kissed a bonafide woman, a high status woman. This feels like victory and conquest… But I also want to wash my mouth out.

I gather a wad of spittle on my tongue and eject it onto the pavement of the sidewalk, but I can still taste the makeup. It’s artificial tang is like a smelling salt for my sentimentality, and the brittle filter that plasters my vision starts to crumble. The world changes colors; now I feel as free as a candy wrapper fluttering in an urban gust, feel as dirty as a metropolitan gutter flowing with discarded booze. My heart races and my armpits perspire in a nervous drip.

“What am I thinking?” I say to myself, shaking my head. “What am I thinking?”

-6-

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