Early in the week I stop on my way home for something to eat after working late. About halfway through my meal a couple sits at a table nearby. They seem mismatched, both in size and style. I check myself for making this judgement; after all I’d like to think I’m deep enough to remember that human connections have nothing to do with size or style; that they’re made up of much more interesting and mysterious things than that.
Still, humour me. He looks younger than her, at least by way of style. He looks to be the kind of guy who shops at the mall for clothing and assorted electronica and other boy bling with his buddies. That kind of guy didn’t exist when I was his age, in my little world anyway. Boy bling was only popular among the white polyester pants and open shirt set of my parents’ generation; and electronic toys came in really large boxes with really large woofers and tweeters that took up whole corners of living rooms or was installed in the doors and rear windows of the shaggy-haired owners’ beat up Monte Carlos.
This guy has perfectly trimmed hair and a nice shirt and expensive looking jacket and has just set his expensive phone on the table after checking for messages. The gal is not the kind you’d imagine our guy and his buddies cruising at the mall. She doesn’t look like she goes to malls much. Her hair isn’t modern; neither are her clothes. She doesn’t set a phone on the table upon sitting down.
But it’s not the appearance of the two that gets my attention, it’s the expression on his face: a bland smile, which is not a smile; the kind of face you wear on a first date when you’re trying to hide your disappointment, trying to pretend you’re up for a good time when really you’re counting the minutes to the moment when you can call an end to the evening and chalk it up to experience. His eyes match the insipidness of that not-a-smile, trying to look at her as if she were somehow interesting but seeing through her instead.
I can’t see her face but I expect it is either (1) wearing the same bland mask of resignation, or (2) wearing a face of an eager, insecure not-a-smile, not quite covering a furious search for something clever to say.
She takes a long time to order a drink and the guy and his bland not-a-smile are patient as the gal discusses options with the server. I'm taken back to a time when I was about 15, sitting in the corner of a car with a bunch of kids having skipped school on a gorgeous June afternoon. We stopped at a drive-through window and I ordered a large pop because I was thirsty but was mortified to discover just how large the large pop was, and I spent the rest of the glorious June afternoon feeling miserable and embarrassed about having ordered a bucket of pop (no doubt puny by today’s standards) and thinking I must look so ridiculous. Of course the only thing that made me look ridiculous was the embarrassment over a stupid cup of pop which nobody noticed. That moment of insecurity ruined the experience of the afternoon which should have been fun, with boys and skipping school and early summer and all.
My mortification over that pop is probably the only thing that keeps that memory alive in me. And what gives me compassion for that girl who seems to be trying hard to order the right drink. After she finally makes her decision, he orders a craft beer in a fancy bottle without hesitation.
I can’t bear to watch as she considers the food menu and turn back to my book, ironically, 51/50: The Magical Adventures of a Single Life, a memoir by Kristen McGuiness who embarked on 51 dates in 50 weeks. Looking up now and then I see the couple’s conversation slipping in and out of the air between them. When it’s not sliding off to the floor in a heap, the talking is quiet, serious, polite. He nods kindly at something she says and then it slithers away again. Between bites she watches the filler content running on the hockey channel right above their table. He looks around for something to be interested in.
No doubt I’m in tune with the couple because of this book I’m reading which is all about a whole bunch of first dates. I’d heard the author interviewed on the radio a year or two ago, and quite possibly it was she who inspired me to embark on my own Year of Dating Fearlessly. Certainly I’ve had my share of bad first dates, more of them than good ones and like McGuinness I was searching for some kind of flaw in me that was hindering the success rate.
In the end, my year of dating was more successful than hers – on one level. What we both got was a little more self-understanding. For me, it was a reaffirming of my awareness in knowing what I want and what I don’t want and being secure with that. I’d venture to say that wouldn’t be far off from what I knew back when I was 15. At least when I wasn’t agonizing about what boys were thinking about my drink choices.
As I ask for my bill, things seem to be warming up, the conversation more animated and relaxed. Maybe it’s the drinks loosening them up a little. I’m hopeful for them.
But then as I walk past them to leave, she’s watching the hockey channel with a bland not-a-smile and he’s talking on his cell phone; and my hope for them slides to the floor along with their failed conversation.
This week I’m in Vancouver with my job. I’m feeling grateful that our office and my hotel are at the centre of the downtown core and, though I’m really busy with work, I get to look at some spectacular views even from the vantage point of the office. My workload should ease up a little as the week progresses and I will get out and explore the city on foot and take some proper pictures. In the meantime, despite the work, I’m enjoying the feeling of being out of my element – those large mountains being a rather imposing reminder.
Last night around eight o’clock I’ve had enough of the current proposal and go down to the hotel bar to have a glass of wine and order some takeout for my room. I’m distracted by some not-quite cringe-worthy lip smacking, and I turn to look at the man sitting next to me, and admire his impressive looking cheese plate.
The fellow, who looks to be in his late fifties, asks the bartender in an Italian accent what the soup of the day is.
“Fennel. It’s not one of our usual ones, I don’t know what it tastes like so I can’t give you a recommendation one way or another.” Then she says, “I’ll go back and taste it and give you a report.”
I joke that she’s going above and beyond the call of duty, mostly because I’m not a real fan of fennel soup. The bartender comes back saying she didn’t really like it, and gives the man a little taster sized dish of the stuff. He doesn’t like it either.
He says to me, “I love soup” and I tell him what a fan of it I am too, and we agree that we could both eat it every day. He says his wife makes great soup, even though she doesn’t like it as much as he does. He says he misses her (and her soup). I ask him where he’s from and he’s from the Toronto area too.
He’s been here for more than a week and will be until the second week in December, and he’s not enjoying being out of his element as I am. He pulls out an i-Pad and starts to scroll some pages and I sip my pinot noir and idly watch some hotdogging snowmobilers on the sports channel above the bar.
The man utters an audible sigh of pleasure and I turn to see him beaming at the little screen, on which is a tiny new baby with a tuft of black hair. His demeanour seems to indicate a welcome of eavesdropping, so I ask, “Is that your grandchild?”
Of course it is and she’s only two weeks old. He said he’d emailed his daughter asking for the photos, and she responded with some beautiful, quite artistic shots. He scrolls through them, sharing each with me; I “ooh and ahh” and he beams longingly.
Again the man complains about having to be out here, away from this new little queen adjusting to life on earth back home. After a moment it seems clear he’s forgotten I exist, and my food has arrived, so I finish my wine, thank him for sharing and turn to go back to my room.
As I glance back at the man gazing at the i-Pad propped in front of him on the bar, with the wide windows revealing the magnificent Rocky Mountains behind him, I’m thinking those mountains could be paltry anthills a million miles away for all he cares. But I’m sure those mountains are about as big as his heart is feeling.
On my way home last night I see this dad walking back and forth on the streetcar platform at Broadview Station having a debate with his three-ish year old daughter about whether he needs to hold her hand while they wait. I think he wins, but I forget about them while I look over messages on my phone. I notice them again as the car comes in and they say goodbye to an acquaintance.
“Bonsoir” says the man’s friend.
“Bonsoir” says the dad.
“Bonsoiiirrr” mocks the little girl. “Bonnnsooiiirrrr” she continues mocking to the amusement of her dad as they board the car.
I sit behind them, exchanging charmed smiles with the doting dad.
Over the course of the ride, dad tries to get the little girl to settle and rest. She concedes for a minute or two at a time, but the pops up back in her seat to watch out the window and ask all manner of questions about the goings on. She’s wearing a bright pink winter coat and wool hat – not really necessary for this unseasonably warm evening I think. Neither does the little girl because she keeps whipping off the hat. Dad keeps trying to get her to put it back on but she won’t have any of it.
At one point, when she relaxes, her cute little multi-braided head quiet against his arm, he starts to sing to her in rich, gentle tones – a bluesy sounding folk song of some sort. He’s a beautiful singer – no doubt this dad’s sung a song or two in his day. I stop paying attention to my phone just to enjoy it too.
Then we stop in front of the lit up Royal Alex Theatre and the little girl pops up wanting to know what all those lights are. Dad tries to explain what a theatre is, then in his “islandy-with-a-thick-dose-of-British” accent says, “it’s a picture house.” Little girl thinks the idea of a picture house is hilarious.
Dad hears me chuckle and turns to chat. He jokes about her age and the incessant questions, and that sometimes they are hard to manage, with minds of their own.
I say, “never mind, before you know it she’ll be in her twenties,” feeling, as I often do when I see little girls, a twinge of melancholy at the time passed so quickly from when my own girls were small.
He says he loves being a father and “Princess” is one of four, two boys and two girls. He hopes there will be four more to follow – “a large family is a blessing” he says.
He asks me if I have a family, and as I get up to get off at my stop, I tell him I have two grown up daughters. He tells Princess, who is resting against his arm again, to say goodbye to me, and she offers a sleepy wave and a cheeky grin.
When I got on the 510 headed south a few moments later I imagine Princess all grown up like my girls, and remembering how her father sung to her like that. And that she’ll be filled with gratitude and love when she does so.