One night, after my teenage daughter Delaney kissed me and shut her bedroom door, I paid for a toe-in-the-water membership to a heavily populated dating website. Even as I clicked “subscribe,” I shook my head, put down the laptop, and went to do something less bacterial, like sift the cat litter. I took my aging border collie, Casey, outside to let her nose along the shadows. Standing under the Florida palms as they hissed in the night breeze off the Gulf of Mexico, I thought about the last man in my life, an Italian from New Jersey who’d lasted five years. All the evidence had proven him a chronic runaway. Despite the decades I’d spent teaching the art of logical argument, I believed the Disappearing Docelino when he promised he’d stay.
He’d been gone about six months. This dog at my feet—I’d taken my time choosing her. I interviewed breeders, I met the bitch and sire, I tested each puppy for temperament, and here she was, still a good dog after a decade and more. She’d outlasted all the men. Before I bought a toaster, I read Consumer Reports. Before I went to a movie, I read The New Yorker reviews. Before I took a walk, I Googled the parks and packed field guides for birds, trees, reptiles, fish, clouds, lichen, the better to understand the beasts, plants, plankton along the way. Why were there no classes on how to choose a mate? You should have to sit for relationship board exams. Was there no temperament test for men? We should only go out with nationally licensed, Obedience Trial Champion, Certified Angus, Double-Gold Decanter, organic, free-range men.
Over the previous six months, whenever a stray man swaggered up and made it clear he considered himself a potential mate for me, I’d tell him I’d been declared incompetent to stand romance. “Now I’m just Crazy Spinster Aunt Lisa. The dotty dog lady.”
During one of the Docelino’s disappearances, I’d gone on a speed date.
“When you’re not ready for love,” a speeder said. “That’s when it strikes.” He had a handle-bar moustache and five minutes to woo me.
“I don’t even want a man to help me hurricane-proof my second-story windows,” I said. “I have my own twenty-foot articulating ladder and a circular saw.”
He leaned forward and winked. “Men have one tool that you don’t.”
“That may be, but with a pack of double-D batteries, I can take care of that too.” I looked at my watch.
“Why are you here?”
I didn’t know. And I didn’t know why I was wading into the online dating swill.
When the dog and I went up to my bedroom, I cracked open the laptop to find eight new messages from fellows like docluv4u, bfcake69, and TampaNudist202. There they were, hopeful in their suits and ties or suntans and sunglasses, sporting biceps and power boats and Mustangs and golden retrievers. “Look, Casey,” I said. “This one has a Lhasa Apso.” She thumped her tail; I rolled my eyes.
“Either this guy’s posing with his daughter or I’m on the wrong website.” I no sooner scanned the page than a chat window burst open with “hi sexy!” from Xnavyhero.
“Are you an ex-sailor or an ex-hero?” I asked.
He looked to be about eighteen. “lol ill come to youre rascue”
I clicked on his profile. Xnavyhero was twenty-two. Not only was I forty-something, but I was an English professor; my screen name was Swannsway. “Didn’t you read my profile?”
“how far r u from charlies sportsbar im off soon”
“Call your mother.”
“i don’t want her i want u”
Casey and I looked at each other. I bit my lip and frowned. Finally, I typed, “You seem really good at this, so maybe you can help me?”
“yes im vry huge”
“How do I block chat?”
Xnavyhero would not help me block chat. I had to click on “help” and read the directions. Another chat window popped open. Golfbum99 shouted, “How are you!!!”
As fast as I could, I typed, “I’m fine, how are you?” Suddenly, I was swinging my cursor and swatting responses to four different men. It was like summer in New Jersey without bug spray. “Darn it, Casey!” I said.
Casey broke off mid-snore and flickered her eyelids.
When I figured out how to block chat and wished my new suitors goodnight, I discovered the In-Box, an email service of the dating site. There I found that Ilikemike10 had written what in another era would have been called “a letter.” He not only recognized Swannsway, he knew it for a litmus test. He pronounced my profile “fresh water for a thirsty mind,” hoped I’d write back, and signed off, “Mike.”
Nearly bald, Mike had deep hangdog lines down his cheeks. His jowls swung low, and his flesh looked as yummy as wet bread dough. If his profile were credible, he stood nine years older and two inches taller than I at five-foot-nine, so I was disappointed; men subtract years and add inches everywhere. The Disappearing Docelino had been eight years older and a clean six feet, but there were times when I felt he was too old and short for me.
I reread Mike’s letter. I softened. Years as the lone adult in the family and the lone writer in the neighborhood had rendered me defenseless against a man who could wield the word “quotidian.” I hit “reply,” polished my paragraphs, and went to sleep smiling.
The next couple of evenings I looked forward to the hour when Delaney loaded the dishwasher and left me alone with my laptop long enough to peek into the In-box. Among a dozen greetings from would-be beaus, like tommyknocker12, were_wolf_howl, crackerking, and brewmasterdave, I’d have a letter from Ilikemike10. “Email is cheap,” he wrote on the third day. “It all comes down to chemistry. Name the time and place.”
I shut the laptop.
“We should get another Rasputina album,” Delaney said. She turned off the water and slammed the dishwasher door.
“Stay away from LimeWire.”
She closed her eyes and drew a long, cleansing breath.
“Isn’t the dishwasher full?”
She ducked below the counter and came up carrying a box of detergent. I heard the dishwasher door bounce open. “I’m being careful,” she said before I could remind her of the loose hinge. “I just think we’d like it. It’s called Frustration Plantation.”
I laughed, but my eyes were brimming. Ever since she was born, she and I were the nucleus around which dogs and cats and friends and birds and fish circled in ever-widening rings, but every man that entered our orbit, including her own father, sooner or later went spinning away. The Disappearing Docelino managed to stay five years by drifting along the outer ring, the friend of a friend who started calling me for phone chats and films and music festivals and feasts at restaurants I couldn’t afford. He’d bide for weeks on the fringe until Delaney had a sleepover at a friend’s house and we could have our own. When my father was dying, the Docelino took the dog and cat so I could tend my father, then stood beside me at the funeral. When my Toyota blew out its head gasket or my cat filled the litter pan with his own blood, the Docelino did not begrudge me money for the mechanics of cars and cats. After a year, we had keys to each other’s homes. As dissimilar as Clarissa Dalloway and The Green Lantern, we needed and expected little of each other. The stakes were so low, we could say anything. As I maneuvered in his kitchen, he’d scold me for slamming some doors and leaving others open. I just laughed.
“You’re un-naggable,” he complained. It was true.
I loved that about us.
One time, he left me by clapping my house key on the counter and walking out. Another time, after a meal at our favorite restaurant, he refused me a goodnight kiss. One night in the midst of a cheerful phone chat, he blurted, “This doesn’t work,” and hung up. I never got explanations and didn’t ask. There was an ex he longed for. He had a thing for strippers and nurses, I knew. Still, when he left, I’d lie down and cry.
Delaney would say, “I’ll get the ice cream.”
When my eyes dried, she’d put Must Love Dogs in the DVD player. I’d say, in my huskiest Japanese accent, “Welcome to Toshibaaaaaa!” We’d share a blanket and shiver as we spooned New York Super Fudge Chunk ice cream over our tongues. “Oila!” I’d say. “My teeth are frothen. You can ecthract my molarth now.” And then I was better.
After a few months, he’d phone about a new movie or restaurant. Upon each return, he’d had more trouble convincing me. Once, he rang my doorbell wearing a tuxedo. The last time he brought a diamond. When I announced our engagement, friends gave me thin smiles. He lived in the next town, so I put on the bling and led my life as before. Students beamed, and the girls went giddy to have a bride for a teacher, then forgot about it. When he left me the final time, there wasn’t more than a ring to miss. But an engagement is public. He didn’t break my heart—he shattered my pride.
He’d wanted me back the next day. We were standing in my front yard, and I was staring over his shoulder. I felt like a mare in a pasture who’d noticed someone had left the gate open. I trembled all over. “Why’d you do it?”
He said, “I want fizz.”
“So, I’m flat beer.” I wanted to say, I mistook you for my best friend. The imaginary gate swung wide and the palm trees moved in the night breeze. “This leaving game of yours. It hurts Delaney too.” He had no children of his own, so maybe he didn’t get it.
“This isn’t about Delaney.”
A scoff escaped me. “There’s no talking yourself back this time.” The wind stirred the live oaks, which rained down brown leaves. The Docelino stared at me, but I gazed over his shoulder, at an open gate. He was waiting for me to say something, but I couldn’t think what. I chose the truest thing. “I’m tired of grieving.”
Now he scoffed. “You don’t talk like a wife.”
“I talk like a woman.”
By the time he backed his black Infiniti out of the driveway, I’d galloped through the gate. I didn’t look back.
Delaney turned on the dishwasher and dropped on the couch beside me. I opened a new window on my laptop. “Frustration Plantation, huh?” I paid for a legal download, and we burned a disk for the car. Delaney went up to bed, and I took the dog out. I went upstairs humming “Wicked Dickie” and decided that I would not give Ilikemike10 my address or my phone number or any other access to the safe and sunny clearing I had found for Delaney, Casey, and our only household male, a cat named Haku. I would date men for my own amusement, but would remain unreachable, untraceable. I knocked on Delaney’s door. “Is it Friday you’re spending the night at Marla’s?”
“She’s coming here. You want to go on a date? Go on a date.”
Cross-legged in the middle of my bed, I logged into the dating website, hit “reply” to Ilikemike10’s email, and wrote, “Friday, six o’clock, Kobeya Sushi, Clearwater.”
Friday at quarter to six, Delaney and Marla sat cross-legged on the couch, hunched over a laptop. As I strode into the room, they didn’t look up. I said, “I’ll be back by eight.”
“Cool. Let’s watch Reservoir Dogs,” Delaney said.
“I thought it was Fight Club night.”
“Triple-feature. All of the above, plus Memento.”
Marla gave me a proud smile and held up a stack of DVD’s she’d brought.
“Wall-to-wall levity. I’m so there. I won’t even be an hour.” I fluffed my hair in the dining room mirror. “House rules: don’t leave the bong out where the dog can knock it over.”
Delaney rolled her eyes. “Mom. We don’t have a bong.”
Marla grinned. “I brought my own flask,” she said, her big, black eyes framed by black corkscrew curls. She reached behind the coffee table and lifted a liter of generic cherry soda by the neck. “Family heirloom.”
“We’re just fooling with MySpace and baking brownies.” Delaney wagged a finger at me. “Without hashish.”
“No fun! Hurry up and hit your self-destructive adolescent phase already.” I grabbed my leather jacket and opened the front door. I called over my shoulder, “There are extra condoms in my bedside drawer.”
I heard “Mom!” as I shut the door behind me.
I arrived at Kobeya early, having belted out “Possum of the Grotto” three times along the way. I chose a booth from where I could watch for Mr. Pillsbury in the doorway. Golden light glowed from sconces along the walls, golden wood paneled the walls, and golden thread glittered in the waitress’ stiff kimono. “I’ll wait,” I told her as she poured my water. Still early for a Friday, there were few other patrons. Brass bells on the door handle jingled when new diners entered. Their gaze always lingered as they noticed me sitting alone, but I felt no discomfort. Dining alone, I had always found the initial embarrassment quickly quelled by pride of purpose—I was traveling abroad, or to a conference, a job interview, a research location for work. If strangers were curious to see a tall, slender, curly-haired woman dining alone, let them wonder whether I was a prostitute, a mistress, a spy. I bantered with waiters and bartenders, eavesdropped on other patrons, and dawdled over the menu. Years before, Delaney and I lived in South Tampa and made ourselves regulars at the neighborhood sushi bar. The luxury had cost us twelve dollars, with tip, almost fifty dollars a month, an extravagance. The waitresses there knew our names.
Not so here. “Excuse me,” my waitress said. “Would you like to order now?”
“Is my date late?” I fumbled for my cell phone. Mike was fifteen minutes past due. Only then did I realize what a bad idea it was not to give him a way to contact me. If he had sent me his cell number, I hadn’t bothered to copy it down. I had, however, thought to send my best friend and my mother enough information to give to the police should my body roll out of a dumpster somewhere.
The waitress smiled, a twinkle of pity in her eye.
I felt neither stood up nor let down. Giving her my order was like drawing myself a bubble bath in a solid gold hot tub. “What is this music?”
“Minyo.” She gushed about the Yoshido brothers, then remembered. “Oh! I’ll take your order to the chef!”
“Wait!” I held up a finger and thumb. “Sake?”
We shared a naughty smile. A moment later I was sipping sake and crunching on wakame seaweed salad. The chopsticks felt like extensions of my own fingers; I wondered why I couldn’t remember learning to use them. No sooner had I swept the tips of the chopsticks around the salad bowl than my sushi arrived, a wooden platter of spicy hamachi temaki. I separated a slice of pickled ginger from its mates, ran it through the wasabi, and lifted and dipped a roll into a pool of soy sauce. The last six months, Delaney and I had rarely eaten out, and when we did, we got masaman curry from a nearby Thai place, where they knew our faces, if not our names. I leaned back against the booth cushion, closed my eyes, and let the wasabi burst against the ginger, the collision muffled by the yellow tail, the discord resolving within the spicy sauce. The Disappearing Docelino worked from his home and ate dinner out each night. He frequented every type of restaurant, except sushi bars. Sushi was mine—mine and Delaney’s. I rested the chopsticks on the plate, swallowed, and breathed so that the ginger quenched the wasabi after-burn. Brass bells on the door jingled; a white-haired couple took their seats.
I dabbed my eyes, sipped the sake, and planned the rest of my evening—I’d rock out to Rasputina on the way home, then suggest to Delaney and Marla that we all put on our pajamas. I’d download some Yoshido brothers while Delaney lined up our triple feature. We both knew I would sleep through it. She would tease me about that to amuse Marla. We three would load the freshly baked brownie barges with Chunky Monkey ice cream, chopped peanut butter cups, pretzels, and caramel sauce, then sit down to Tarantino and tuck in.
The waitress cleared my empty dishes and brought me the check. As I watched her walk on her wooden geta, I remembered myself as a waitress twenty years before, bustling in black leather nurse’s shoes. I’d bought them at a medical store. Our uniform was black shoes, black pants, a white shirt, and a black bow tie. I wore my light brown curls pulled back in a bouncing ponytail. I brandished a pepper mill and a smile. I carried trays weighed down by stacks of dirty dishes and rows of sloshing water glasses. I tucked dollar bills in my black apron, walked and talked past exhaustion. When I finally slid into bed, I dreamed all night that I’d forgotten to bring coffee to table five. I’d wake up, afraid I’d never be loved, never get married, never have children, ever wander the planet like a ghost blown from home.
I’d leave a good tip.
The brass bells went ding-a-ling and a breathless man burst in. He saw me, elbowed past the hostess, and dropped himself on the bench across from me. “I went to every sushi restaurant from here to Largo. I thought it was the other one, and I waited, and then realized I had it wrong.” He was sweating in short sleeves despite the chilly night. “I can’t believe you waited! That is so great! Should we order?”
The waitress handed me my change and turned to him. “Would you like a menu?”
“You’re finished? You ate alone?” His face went blank, except for deep furrows in his doughy brow. “I’m such an idiot! I’m so sorry.”
“It’s okay. They’re quick here. Go ahead.”
My white knight listed the highways he’d braved and the sushi restaurants he’d conquered. “I’d go in and ask, ‘Have you seen a tall, beautiful, curly-haired woman?’ You should know, there’s not a woman like you eating sushi anywhere in the county.”
“I’ll come back when you’re ready to order,” the waitress said.
His face reddened. “You’ve already eaten . . . if you want . . . You probably think I’m an idiot.” He ran his palm over his wet brow. “I can’t believe it. The first woman in years who can navigate nonrestrictive adjectival clauses, and I botch our first date. I would have called if I’d had your number.”
“Order your food and forget about it,” I said. I smiled. “It’s okay. Really.”
He picked up the pencil stub and the slip of paper that served as menu and checklist. “The traffic at this hour, as you know, I mean, you were out in it too. I had no idea there were so many sushi restaurants. Did you?” His eyes scanned the menu and darted to my face. “I’ve really been looking forward to meeting you. This isn’t how I wanted it to be.” His hand darted and grabbed mine.
I froze. “The spicy hamachi’s good.”
He searched the slip of paper, and, although he continued to recount the Seven Labors of Finding Lisa, he made tick-marks on the checklist. The waitress appeared, and he handed up his choices. “And a Kirin. You sure you don’t want a beer?”
I wanted him to stop apologizing. “I’m thirsty, actually. A water?”
“Oh, have something else! There’s beer. There’s tea. Did you have dessert? You can’t just have water! Have dessert. I’m starving. I must’ve stopped at ten restaurants.” He wiped his hand over the top of his head. “Who knew there were more sushi spots than Burger Kings?”
As Mike ate, he told me about his divorce six years before. They never had children. He put one elbow on the table and propped the folds of his cheek against his fist. “You’re much prettier than your photos, and that’s saying something. Why am I so nervous?” He tipped a swig of Kirin. “I wish I’d been on time. I’m so sorry.” He had written for the local newspaper most of his career, and now freelanced for advertising firms and publishing houses. “I should stop talking. What about you?”
What could I say? I never ate in a sushi restaurant with the Disappearing Docelino, but when we ate dinner together, we ate in restaurants—Italian, Greek, Korean, German, Cuban, Vietnamese, and New Jersey-style diners, pizzerias, burger joints. Although he could be witty in a crowd, the Docelino and I had so little in common that our meals passed in silence. When I dined with him, I eavesdropped on other tables for company. Once, I brought a book to read and was astonished that I’d hurt his feelings. I was sometimes screamingly bored. But the Docelino knew that I had spent part of my childhood in West Africa, part in Indonesia, and the rest “down the shore” in New Jersey. He knew I had one sibling, a younger sister, and that I’d helped save her and my family from a house fire one Christmas Eve. He knew I grew up with cats, dogs, and parrots, that I’d converted to Catholicism in college, that my college sweetheart had cheated on me, that I had married on the rebound and regretted it, that I would have done anything to have more children rather than write more books. He knew that my sister and I tended our father while he was dying, and that when we helped our father use the toilet, he wept with shame. He knew that I longed to live near my mother and sister in northern California. He knew that I still hadn’t forgiven myself for losing one of my dogs in my divorce. He knew that Delaney and I sang in the car, had tickle fights that made Casey bark, watched movie marathons, ate ice cream topped with chopped cookies and candy, and went to every new stop-motion film as soon as it came out. He knew that Delaney liked me to drive her around the city of Tampa at night to look at the lighted empty buildings and how Hillsborough Bay rippled gold and black around the stick-legs of the night herons that waded there. He knew that coarse food sometimes made me cough. He knew my favorite beverage was water. “What do you want to know?”
After the meal, Mike escorted me to my car. “I really am sorry I got the restaurant wrong. I sat there for fifteen minutes before I realized.”
“Oh? Were you late?” We walked. I felt uncomfortably tall. I stopped next to the rear fender of my car.
“Listen,” Mike said. “I’ve been on a lot of first dates.” His Shar Pei brow puckered. “You don’t want to see me again.”
“I don’t?” He was sweet and clever, just . . . abject. Maybe if we’d talked on the phone first. Maybe if we’d met for coffee during the day. “You’re a great—”
“I am.” He shrugged. “And you’re . . . I’m not likely to have another chance to botch a date with a woman like you.”
“Mike, don’t think like that. You’ll botch plenty of dates.”
“You’ve been gracious all evening. Why stop now? Grant me one more tiresome request. May I have a kiss goodnight?”
Before I could agree, he stole the kiss like an incredulous schoolboy taking a peck from Marilyn Monroe herself.
A moment later I was swaddled in the dark rumble of my car, rolling along the back road home, checking my rearview to make sure no headlights followed. I lifted my hand to play Rasputina, then put it back on the steering wheel. I drove home in silence, except for some sniffles and the small gasps my breath made.