The men I dated when I was 19 and 20 have no names. They used to have faces, but I’m losing them. I can no longer remember lips, hands, chests. I have no pictures, no court-admissible evidence they existed. These men have blurred into one foggy presence, one whose dating routine was shared across the board.
He, the man I dated my first years of college, met me on Match.com. I was looking for him: 34-39 years old, living in Portland, no kids. He was training for the Hood to Coast relay marathon. He just learned how to make chicken in wine sauce. He only drank room-temperature water, because his sister told him that water cold from ice wasn’t absorbed fast enough by the body. He took me to the Alberta Street Last Thursday art night, and asked a gallerista two thousand questions about a papier mache sculpture he wasn’t interested in purchasing. He worked in sustainable energy. He worked at his buddy’s internet start-up. He was a classically-trained singer who collaborated with the Portland Symphony Orchestra. He insisted we eat at The Old Spaghetti Factory because he had a two-for-one coupon, but the waiter wouldn’t take it because he ordered water instead of a soda. He’d been to Africa. His fiancée left him and the house he built for the life they were going to share. I told him I’ve been listening to a lot of Pink Floyd lately, and he reminisced about seeing them in concert when that shit wasn’t classic rock, and suddenly he looked as though he’d lost something forever.
I told him that I worked at a lingerie store. I laughed when he asked about the employee discount. He always asks about the employee discount. I told him I was trying to learn Japanese, and I went over the three phrases I knew. We keep the conversation rolling around him, though. I read in Allure that this was a wise tactic: make him think he’s interesting.
We meet in public. Safety first. You choose the place, I would inisist. The Pied Cow cafe on Hawthorne with the flavored tobacco hookahs and Turkish coffees. Peet’s Coffee next to Powell’s on Couch Street. Mio Gelato on Burnside. When he proves that he’s not a serial killer, or is at least really good at hiding it, I invite him back to my dorm room. It’s not far, I promise. Worth the trip.
But who was she, this girl tugging at him by the wrist? She is a husk of a human being, but does not recognize the void in her substance yet. Not until she truly grows up, loves and loses fully enough to see the world in depths beyond its gilded surface, she’ll turn back and see her younger self as a fragment. The girl watching her phone after he leaves her dorm room, willing him to illuminate her world back up, is a collection of Things. She is the red satin bra with tags that promise she’d be Very Sexy. She is the Cosmopolitan she orders when the bartender is too lazy to check her I.D., because a make-believe successful writer in New York, animated by Sarah Jessica Parker in vintage couture, orders them too. She is the Las Vegas burlesque poster taped to her wall, because she’s been on a plane y’know, and she thinks this is important. She is the cat she keeps hidden in her dorm because she feels so fucking alone. She is the riding crop she bought at Spartacus Leathers because she wants to be Fun and Fearless; if he believes her, she thinks he might remember her.
And it’s not his job to color in her blank lines. She is not his responsibility. This is a first date, for god’s sake. She needs to sort out her own shit. He’s not a muckraker. She might be okay to be around if she didn’t need every damn facet of herself built up: esteem. Identity. Experience. Opinion. How much more of a virgin can a person be? Suddenly he realizes that seeing a 20-year-old might be a mistake. The canyon between 20 and 35 takes up an entire horizon. The difference isn’t his fault, and she’s too small to understand. Someday she will, and by that time, she’ll be too full of worth she’s earned to care what he might possibly have assigned her.
But she’s there, right there, on her knees and she’ll do anything he asks. He knows, because he is full in who he is, and he can spot the empty. Well if this is what she wants, why say no? So he holds her head as her lips wrap around him, snug and warm, and her hair is so soft and she is so eager to please him—is there anything better than this? All the way down, farther for him than any woman has gone, ever. He is sure to tell her so, he cheerleads: you’re the best! And she believes him. She carries this trophy in her mind longer than she should. I was the best he ever had.
She wants him inside of her. She drapes her legs open, beckons. Here you remember; the wits kick in. Down between those legs lays a whole mess of intimacy: that was just a blow job. But not calling after truly sleeping together? That’s some guilty territory. Or maybe she has misjudged him, maybe he don’t sleep with people he introduced himself to three hours before. The implications that she escapes with youthful, immortal idiocy—I’ll never get sick, I’ll bet on 99.9% effective—he may register the risk she ignores. He says, not tonight. He says, I’m sorta tired after all that. I’m hungry, he says. Let’s go get some dinner.
He takes her out for barbecue. To the 50’s-style diner. The Thai place in Old Town Portland with the fried rice served in a hollowed-out pineapple. She’s easily amused, this kid. Then he leaves on the Max train, or on his bike, or his beat-up Toyota pickup. He says he’ll call but he doesn’t. Blow, Thai, Bye. Occasionally he emails. So much easier to say no in type.
He probably has a myriad of scripts to talk him out of guilt, just like she has her own stock excuses to convince herself not to care about him. I’m helping her grow up, after all. We all need to get dumped a few times. It builds character. She’ll be fine.
And maybe you wonder, man I dated when I was 19 and 20, as we dance this same fox-trot over and over, why does this girl keep opening wide? Why does she keep taking the routine and rejection again and again? Will she ever grow into giving up?
I would say, maybe it was my optimism that made me think that one of those times I went down, something good will come up. I might say that you were a building block in my eventual full, thriving sexuality—and you poor fool, how sad you’re not around to enjoy it nowadays. I could tell you that I was so lonely in those first years without friends and family close, I would have bled for comfort. If you have ever felt adrift, you understand our common ugliness. I may apologize for tangling you into the mess of my nobody. I know you’re not a bad person really. Neither am I. I would thank you for the rice.
Blow Thai Bye
About The Writer
Tabitha Blankenbiller is a graduate of Pacific University’s MFA in creative nonfiction program, and a staff writer at Spectrum Culture and PDXX Collective. Her column The Wordstalker is a regular feature in Barrelhouse magazine, and her personal essays have been published in Brevity, Sliver of Stone, Misfit Lit, Run to the Roundhouse Nellie and Owl Eye Review. One of her pieces will be featured in the upcoming "All That Glitters" essay anthology, a collection of Sliver of Stone's best nonfiction work. She also serve as Senior Nonfiction Editor at Silk Road Review and as a Staff Editor at Spilt Infinitive. A longtime resident of Portland, Oregon, she recently moved to Tucson, Arizona with her husband and two cats.