The Medicine Man and the Phantom Milkshake
"Now usually I don’t do this but uh"
-R. Kelley, “Ignition (Remix)”
"I will not ask you
Why you were creeping
In some sad way I already know"
-Hozier, “Like Real People Do”
You glance at the sky from the on-ramp. Electric green and yellow lights rub against the pink clouds from the rides in the fairgrounds across the freeway. You reach over and program “Lovely Day” by Bill Withers to start looping. Take a deep breath. Start singing as you plunge into the city traffic. In half an hour, you will eat dinner with a man you’ve never met.
As you unstick your thighs from the leather seat, you tell yourself to imagine being one of those minor duchesses who ended up hooked up with some baller from another country, riding in a tricked out coach with hat boxes and puppies and footmen in procession on her way to meet him. A chipper attitude. Don’t pull that Marie Antoinette thing, you think, recalling the Sofia Coppola portrayal with Kirsten Dunst’s blatant disappointment upon meeting her pasty ass husband. Tell yourself, nobody needs that kind of reception. Be polite, motherfucker. You wonder briefly why you are thinking of this meet and greet in the same vein as an arranged feudal marriage.
You’ve told yourself you have new standards. He’s your age, almost done with med school. His Tinder pictures include a lab coat, a semi-automatic, a pull-over sweater, a rock wall showcasing toned calves, and a wee black fluff kitten with a blue belled collar. You squint your eyes up, pretty sure you’ve bought the same one at one point for one of your cats. None of them include his face, so you type his first name and school into Facebook. There are precisely two public pictures with the same lab coat and different variations of family members. Providing, precisely one occurrence of his face.
This, you deem, is enough.
In person, he either looks tanner or thinner than the stalker pictures you’ve scrounged up. No, don’t squint your eyes up at him. You aren’t exactly doing your Deer In The Headlights Sex Face, which is what your Tinder photos probably look like. You decide it doesn’t really matter. Either you’re both okay with the What Actually Is or Not. You look up at the man in front of you, who is patiently asking what you like to eat.
You've asked him to pick for both of you. Lift whatever he ordered onto your plate. Sitting across from him, you briefly consider taking his lead on the whole food distribution thing, but have the fear overcome you of automatically praying over it if you stare at it any longer without anybody doing anything.
Instead you blurt out, "You know you don’t have any full frontal pictures." You immediately realize these are the wrong words, but you can’t exactly tell why. Three days later, in .84 seconds, the Merriam-Webster byline that Google generates: “Full frontal - Words for Going Around Without Clothes.” So you’ve told the Medicine Man you haven’t seen him fully naked. Clutch.
You both have a dry sense of humor, pinballing back and forth so rapidly that either you've accomplished comradely to the point where he doesn't see you as a POTENTIAL SEX OBJECT, or he thinks your banter is sexy. You realize you can't tell the difference between the two.
Before you met up, you chose not to ask him where he lived or why he asked you out so quickly. Instead, you told him your big question was the story behind the black cat picture. Then you gave him your number before closing Tinder out.
You get a text with his name and a promise of the kitten story at dinner. You are a sucker for men who provide their own narrative arcs, considering much of your life has been spent trying to reconcile them into your own.
At dinner, you ask about the cat. He starts telling how him and some friends found it on the side of the road, initially thinking it was a rat. He uses the word “cat-napped” and his voice modulations are on point and you’re noticing the sweat on your elbows and trying to sneak wipe this off, wondering what you’ve done in your past life to be sitting in front of Science Dude Who Might Be A Better Storyteller Than You.
You’re wondering if he sees the noodle you dropped on the table. You leave it there, watching it not move. You decide this is the kind of shit that happens now that you’re older. You're no longer trying to be anything than you actually. So the noodle gets left on the table. The polyester work dress gets worn to dinner. You walk a mile to the restaurant because you'd rather have him witness your Wilted Flower Look than pay for parking. Post-college, first dates become more like reconciliations of your present life conditions to each other, instead of floating around in some cesspool of becoming.
You've moved on to wiping the sweat off your hairline with the back of your hand. Have you heard of Cat Scratch Disease, he’s saying. What. I started having night sweats, he’s saying. They didn’t know what was wrong with me, they thought it was MS at first. I go through about a month of this, before somebody asked if I had a pet.
In his third text to you, while you are both on lunch breaks, he asks you out to dinner. You laugh. Immediately agreeing. Time is of the essence, he says. I know I’m being forward, but I’m going away for a couple of weeks.
You had some quick exchange about who got off work when, he let you pick the category, he picked the place, you met up without calling or texting when either of you got there. You think about that one episode of Wishbone where a cabbage is being guillotined.
When you get to the cantina, sucking down ice waters, you ask him where he’s going on that out of town trip he mentioned, the one that merited this immediate dinner date. You find out it’s only the next city away. He’s going to get some sort of surgery and stay with his family. Laugh from your belly. Give him a hard time about this. You thought he was going somewhere big. Where did you think I was going, he asks.
When I was little, I had an accident, he says. I’m just getting scar tissue removed.
You keep eating whatever food you haven’t paid attention to. The shirt he’s wearing looks good on him. You choose not to gush over either his good food selections nor his well fitted shirt which he too, probably wore to work. The term “greenhorn” from either your fourth grade days of playing Oregon Trail, or your actual fourth grade California history class comes to mind.
In his story, he takes the kitten to an animal shelter. The shelter said because it was so young, they’d have to euthanize it.
This whole date, neither of you will remark on each other’s physicality. Perhaps, you think, this is what polite people do. Don’t go straight animal on each other right out the gates.
What Happens When You Go On A Tinder Date And Nobody Speaks About Appearance
As you make your way back through the shadows, from the ice cream parlor he had never been to, down the street where you once lived, you used some garbled phrasing telling him how it’s almost like making a lie, writing a story as it’s still happening. You may not know what I think, he says, but you can still write your story. Tell it, tell your own damn story, anyway. A med student has just told you the writing advice you spent six years in school unsure whether to believe.
Sometimes I wake up, still thinking of the cat.
Tonight you learn that scars can happen on the inside of your body. You’re sitting across a man studying to be a doctor who is getting scar tissue from inside him removed. And you’re sitting there, with scars on the outside healed over with extra skin.
You ask him what happened to the cat. They took the cat home after the shelter people told them they'd put it down. Fed it a bottle for a while. The cat lives with his friend now. He thinks the cat doesn’t really miss him, anyway. I was the bad cop, he’s saying.
You sit across from him, watching the people pour in, ordering their food, slotting their families into tables.
He asks if you’ve been to the fair.
You do not look at his shoulders, his hands, his lips. You do not take assessment of his ears or his nose or how his pants sit on his waist. When you’re driving in your car together, you wonder if you will know him long enough for you to know what it feels like to curl up against his chest. To feel the tips of his fingers on your face.
He is good at telling stories. His narrative arcs, precise, his rhythm intrinsic.
I went to the fair for the first time. And I got played, he says, laughing.
He tells the story of wanting to get a stuffed animal. Throwing darts and throwing darts and the weathered man at the booth and how little the prize was so how he had to keep playing how the man kept handing him more and more darts until the prize he had matched the one he had imagined and he’s smiling the whole time as he’s telling how he groaned on the inside when he realized how much it actually cost him.
You know how to make dreams come true. Do not, you repeat to yourself, say any of this chicken-brained shit out loud.
You witness yourself asking him if he wants to go to ice cream.
You don’t get a milkshake. You’re not sure about the rules of online dating. Are you actually supposed to execute the things people list out they like doing? Sketched out by this whole deal, you sidestep by suggesting ice cream. You don’t want to be that First Date Milkshake Byline Girl. You’d rather let him down gently than have a milk shake right in front of you when he realizes, no, you aren’t Shake Girl of His Dreams.
So you order scoops of strawberry and vanilla, piled too high by the tired teenaged cashier in tiny glass bowls. You laugh and say something about these being impossible to share. He walks over to the counter and gets a to-go tray which he dumps them in and you split up each a scoop of strawberry and vanilla to each of your sides and you both sit there holding the flimsy plastic every time either of you take a spoonful.
This is the gentlest way, you think, that you’ve eaten ice cream.
Do not, you repeat to yourself, say any of this chicken-brained shit out loud.
You realize later you’ve ended other first dates from Tinder here. Dinner or drinks or coffee ends and you want to have hope there’s still some humanity, so you walk into a 50s diner blasting Patsy Cline from the jukebox and there are teenage boys with their moms both wearing variations of cargo shorts and young couples wearing couch clothes are out on Established Dates having crawled out through the summer night just wanting to slip down something cold and there are people in the corner with that face you get when you’re almost about to be kissed and there are piles of teenage girls outside, their voices getting thicker and denser like birds of the night.
This, this weightlessness, and warm light flickering over his eyes floods through you.
You carry the bones of the ice cream excavation to the counter together.
You don’t know, as you’re walking to your car parked in front of your old home a couple blocks away from the ice cream shop which your cheap ass has parked next to since you Still Have The Parking Permit, what he thinks of you physically. Are you fatter than he thought? Are your lips less bright than they seemed in your pictures? Your bright blue designer dress has flamenco dancer sleeves which you thought looked feminine in the discount store but which you're starting to think might just look tacky. You also wore this to work. It hugs your hips and that spot where your stomach almost makes a roll, which may be sexy if you're into, like, ice cream bellies, but which you also looked at this morning in the mirror and made some I AM WHAT I AM Yahweh chant about.
At first you think about checking in with him on this physicality front. But how does this actually come out? "Do you think I’m beautiful IRL?" or "Are you repulsed by me now that I'm here?" Both of these, you realize, are pretty useless to actually articulate. All any of that really boils down to is, "do you want what you now see?" And that’s really not a way to position yourself. Dating doesn’t have to be a one player game of Sacrificial Offering. If he doesn’t think you’re what he thought you’d be, well, you are what you are and are going to be.
After the ice cream shop when you're driving him to his car, he does ask this question, except not in a complete sentence. "Expectations versus reality?" You both start laughing. You're silent as you pick your response. He starts apologizing, but also says something about you being one of the only people he knows to actually intelligently answer this question. I was wondering if you'd be as funny in person, you decide. I was wondering if you'd be as funny in person, you say. He says he was wondering the same thing. This is all that has been said before you reach his car. Then he tells you he felt comfortable with you and would like to see you again. Shutting the door, he tells you to text him when you get home.
This, you deem, is enough.
As you walked to the ice cream store, there were moments you let yourself stop your eyes on his. His hair is falling over his forehead a little, and him smiling.
Until this moment, you had thought you have discovered everything about your body.
There are things about the body you don’t know. Whenever you had thought about chemistry, you had thought of the word combust. You have forgotten there are other types of chemical reactions. Chemistry doesn’t have to be something that busts up, that burns.
And this, you deem, is enough.
You drive back through the night, looking for the onramp.
Like the first time at the fair, the lights are beautiful as they glow artificial through the twilight. The sky drops, the ride swings, and you’re swept up in some version of the American dream. Everything’s bright and fuzzy and the sky smells like hay and hot sugar.
You wonder if you’re going to see him again. If he’s going to ghost. If you’re going to text a lot, or not at all. You want to ask him what else he’s got on his lines. But this is Tinder. You don’t ask those questions. For ease of access, you’ve made a blood pact to play at Casual Encounters.
After all, you know what you’re paying. You’re mixing the incidental with the serendipitous. And for that, the price is written on the ride.