How did I get here?
Obviously I drove. He walked from wherever he lived but the place we agreed to meet was on the opposite side of the city from my house so walking was out of the question.
But more importantly, how did I get here? To this little cafe on a Saturday afternoon ready to meet a man with whom I’d been texting for the better part of a week?
Is it out of a sense of obligation? Is it to check a box? One of those “must-accomplish-all-of-these-tasks-to-be-considered-a-complete-person” lists that I subscribe to unconsciously? Do I believe that I am only whole if a man finds me worthy of taking up his free time?
Is it out of loneliness? Curiosity, maybe?
However I ended up here, here I sit waiting for the stranger to walk in as anxiety makes waves in my stomach. My expectations are moderate to low; I hope he looks enough like his photos that I recognize him when he arrives.
I do. I smile and stand up. We share a brief hug. He speaks and his voice is nothing like how I imagined or hoped it might be. It lifts slightly as he says my name like he’s also nervous which should be endearing but for whatever reason just makes me more uncomfortable. We go up to the counter to order coffee and as I place my order he pulls a money clip out of his coat pocket. In his hand is at least $1,000 and I’m confused and amused by this bizarre flex. I giggle to myself out of surprise, which I assume he hears, and then I offer to pay, but he lifts his eyebrows and insists. The total came to $8.
It’s taken seven minutes for me to know there will be no second date but I’m here now for at least an hour. I have a coffee in front of me and it’s in a ceramic cup rather than a portable paper one. Forever an optimist, I’m determined to at least get a story from this experience. The money clip was a great start. I wonder what else he’s got up his sleeve?
He’s relaxing into his seat and has taken off his wool toque, his vest, and has unwound a scarf. The third chair at our table is piled high with his extra layers. Under the vest is a thick grey cardigan with big brown buttons–the kind you’d imagine an emotionally detached grandfather wearing while sitting alone in his study smoking a pipe, sipping whiskey and imploring you with his steely eyes to get to the damn point, which I never seem to.
He’s tall, this man across from me. But I watch his hands as he settles into his chair and holds the tiny cappuccino cup between his fingers. I always watch hands. I didn’t know hands were important to me, or when they became important to me, but they are. His nails are clean and trimmed, but I know I don’t want those hands in my hair, on my face, or anywhere else.
As I watch his perfectly fine fingers that he’ll be keeping to himself move his cup up to his bearded face and back down to the bright red saucer on which it’s nested, he gifts me with his story.
I may never find out why I’m here but I do learn how he arrived in this place, what his childhood was like, and how much he hates the city I call home. I find out how he spends his days, which are mostly devoid of obligation thanks to a sudden mid-life, pandemic-fuelled decision to quit his successful career, sell his business and embark on the second half of his life by pursuing his passions, which include a return to school and a focus on his writing. I learn of his bouts with depression and marvel inwardly at how much this man appears to have, and yet how empty and alone he still feels on the inside.
In listening to his story I swell with gratitude for my own general sense of lightheartedness; depression is such a heavy load to carry and those who carry it without being crushed have a strength I admire.
I both love and hate this part of dating, how it both fascinates and exhausts me. It reminds me of what I enjoyed the most about being a journalist, about how I could show up with a notebook and a pen and ask people what I really want to know:
“And what happens next?”
As he talks his shoulders relax and he gains a lightness. Meanwhile, as I absorb his story I become heavier. Perhaps I’ve gifted him a little bit of optimism. I hope so.
By the time he pauses and asks for my story my coffee is gone and I am depleted. I’ve got a headache. I need a nap. I want to go home and sink into a hot bath with a good book. I look down at my watch and tell him how glad I am to have met him, which is true, and how grateful I am for his story, which I am.
And so we stand and walk toward the door. This time there’s no hug, only a wave and a “thanks again” before a cold gust of wind pushes me toward my car, toward its heated seats and its silence and away from what is not meant to be.