The buzzer rang at 7:53. Jay was early. Illy had never pegged him as an early kind of guy. She made some quick mental readjustments to make room for this unexpected character trait while kissing a square of toilet paper. Wearing lipstick was always a tortuous affair. She was never quite willing to commit to the appearance of lipstick, but her lips were so pale and beige without it. So she’d apply and smear and blot and reapply until her lips looked blurry and swollen, at which point the buzzer would ring and she’d swear off lipstick forever. It was a tedious cycle.
The buzzer rang again. Early and a multiple buzzer—the myriad of things she was discovering about this man without even seeing him. She pushed the speaker button. “Hi. I’ll be down in just a sec.” Illy thought it was wise to make him wait on the sidewalk instead of inviting him up, which had the potential for so many disasters. Plus it allowed her to do a general appearance scope without anyone watching. No food in the teeth. Hair mostly normal. Pants zipper secure. She smacked her lips one last time then blew kisses to Fern and the girls. “Wish me luck. He might be my destiny!”
Jay was leaning against a tree with his arms crossed. Illy thought he looked like he might be pouting about having to wait outside, but when he saw her he grinned. “Hey, hey. Ready for a night with the beatniks?”
Illy wasn’t sure how to answer that. She noticed with some despair that Jay was wearing the kind of nylon sports pants that snapped up the sides and light-reflector runners. If it wasn’t for the beatnik comment she’d have wondered if he’d misunderstood the invitation.
“Um, yeah. How are you doing?”
“Awesome. I’ve got a hot date and I’m going to listen to some crazy poems. What could be better?”
Illy hated that any positive allusion to her appearance outweighed his other annoying comments, but it did. She couldn’t remember the last time someone had described her as hot, and it made her feel buoyant and brave. “Lucky guy. Let’s go.”
The coffee house was getting full. There were a lot of black clothes and scarves and laughter over the general din of the espresso machine and jazz music. Illy loved this kind of evening. The people, the coffee, the poetry. She almost never understood a word of the poems, but the whole place had such a creative and friendly energy to it that she kept showing up and letting the poetry absorb through her skin. A few people that she recognized from other poetry nights smiled and waved, but with a few friendly nods, Illy headed straight for an empty table in the back corner. She realized with a pang of guilt that she was nervous about what sort of comments Jay might make, though he seemed more subdued in the coffee shop, which was a relief.
They sat down at the table and looked at each other. Illy relaxed her shoulders. She was on a date at a poetry event with a good-looking guy, one who actually did write poetry himself, a fact that she kept forgetting. This was exactly what she’d been dreaming of for months.
Jay, on the other hand, seemed to be tensing up. He was drumming the table with his fingers and staring up to the left, a sure sign, June had once informed her, that a person was lying. Illy didn’t know if it counted as an ominous sign when the person wasn’t saying anything, but he definitely seemed uncomfortable.
“So, do you want a coffee? Their lattes are great. And their espressos are supposedly excellent, if you’re an espresso drinker. They always make my heart start palpitating, or at least I imagine they might, so I try to avoid them.” He was still looking at the ceiling behind her. She kept going. “I do love the little mugs though, so I’m trying to find a socially acceptable drink alternative that still uses espresso mugs.” She paused. This was going to be a really long night if he never spoke or looked at her. There was only so much meaningless coffee chatter she could generate.
“I’ll just have a Coke. Thanks.”
Illy’s moment of relief that Jay was speaking was soon overshadowed by distress at what he’d said. A Coke? Did that mean he didn’t drink coffee? But what about the mochas? Illy wasn’t prepared for this kind of crisis so early in their relationship. Coffee drinking—no, deep coffee appreciation—was right up there with sense of humour and trimmed toenails on her list of non-negotiable partner traits. You couldn’t get up to watch the sunrise or make quiet eye contact over the morning newspaper with Coke. She couldn’t imagine you could enjoy an evening of poetry reading very well either, if it wasn’t with coffee.
Before Illy could interrogate Jay on his caffeinated drink preferences, thus determining if the relationship should be severed immediately, the server showed up to take their order.
“Coke please. Extra ice.” Jay was still tapping his fingers. Illy winced.
“I’ll have a triple latte, please.” She tried to overcompensate for Jay’s order, although she already regretted the trips she’d have to make to the bathroom that night. Thankfully, the server didn’t display any signs of overt disdain for Jay’s order as he walked away. “So. Here we are.” Illy looked across the table at Jay, the handsome man she’d daydreamed about for so many hours, the inspiration for her romantic, though literarily disastrous, character Dylan., the ultimate goal of OGJAC. So much time and mental energy had been invested in this person whom she suddenly realized with a wave of panic, she didn’t know a single thing about. The one fact she’d been secure in was his love of coffee, and now even that surety had evaporated before her eyes. She couldn’t think of anything to say to him since she had no idea who he was or what he was interested in. She tried to buy herself some time. “Who would have thought?” Illy winced again. Rhetorical questions were never the best time buyers.
Jay nodded and looked grim. “Who would’ve thought.”
Oh no. He was a repeater. They were going to get caught in a conversational vortex with no means of escape. Illy tried to channel Margaret’s great questioning skills. “So, tell me about yourself. What do you do? What are your interests? Who exactly is Jay…”
“James. Jay James.”
Illy didn’t know if he was clarifying his full first name or if James was his last name. Or the second part of a compound first name. How was it possible that even his name was an awkward moment? Illy could feel herself getting sleepy, which was a bad sign. She had the terrible habit of avoiding tense or awkward situations by falling asleep and often found herself leaning her head back and closing her eyes while her mother confronted her or she watched embarrassing scenes in romantic comedies. Her eyes were feeling very droopy.
“Well, I work for my brother doing large-scale plumbing. I play racquetball. I like to play around with some small investments.” No response at all registered on Illy’s face. “Like stock trading kind of stuff. Nothing huge.”
Plumbing. Racquetball. Stocks. Illy knew on a logical level those were all reasonable and honourable interests, but she couldn’t imagine a more boring list. She felt trapped in a terrible game show where you had to talk for a minute—no, three hours—about the topics that bored you the most. Thankfully her latte arrived at that moment so she could regroup and get a caffeine boost. She gave her sugar scooping the attention of a Masonic ritual.
The problem was that when Jay had mentioned his list of interests, his eyes had actually lit up. His fingers relaxed, he looked directly across the table, and he seemed ready to engage on a lively and personal level. She couldn’t let him down.
“Racquetball?” Illy forced her eyes to widen a little like she’d just discovered she and Jay had gone to the same elementary school. “Is that the one with the net?”
Continue Reading: Chapter Twenty-Eight