Rachel had told Loretta that her boyfriend Barry’s friend Arnold was tall and handsome and also nice, which was good enough for Loretta at the time of the telling, when she was lying prostrate on Rachel’s bed, kicking her mismatched socks in the air, tracing lazy rainbows over the algebra problems they’d solved incorrectly or not at all.
“He’s a wrestler,” Rachel added with a wink.
Loretta smiled at the innuendo she recognized but didn’t understand. “Oooh.” The smile collapsed into a grimace. “Does that mean he spits into a bottle?”
Rachel laughed at her mathematics. “What?”
“Wrestlers have to make weight, so they stop drinking water and then they spit in a bottle.”
Silence, broken only by the scrrchscrrchscrrch of martyred graphite, gripped Rachel’s bedroom. That’s when Loretta knew something was up. Rachel was a connoisseur of all things nasty; no way she’d hear about hunks dribbling into empty Gatorade bottles and not hypothesize what they do with it next.
Finally, Rachel laid her pencil gently onto her notebook, as though trying not to wake it. “Well,” she said, “do you want to ask him?”
“He’s a wrestler,” Loretta echoed with an absolute minimum of winking. Her tone contained a treatise on the social hierarchy of Herkimer Jr./Sr. High School, imparting knowledge gained through extensive experience and at great personal expense.
And so Rachel parried with a disquisition of her own, this one with an absolute minimum of subtext. Rachel’s boyfriend Barry’s friend Arnold was not only tall and handsome and also nice, but also also interested in Loretta, which is why Rachel mentioned him in the first place. If Loretta was interested in Arnold, Rachel could tell Barry to tell Arnold that Loretta told Rachel that she, being Loretta, was interested in him, i.e. Arnold. And then they would go on a date, and then maybe they would fall in love and be sexual and get a house and have kids and die in each other’s arms (Rachel and Arnold, not the kids).
The social anthropologist in Loretta swirled a glass of sherry and shook her head. No no, she scoffed, that simply isn’t possible. Arnold is popular and eighteen. You’re worse than unpopular, you’re un-popular, lacking the requisite distinction to be a true pariah. Swirl swirl. Not to mention, you’re sixteen.
So of course Loretta agreed immediately, not with reason but with fancy, and that agreement crackled its way along the twenty-first century grapevine, which was far less direct than the old zip through the phone line, but altogether quicker. Rachel pecked “Loretta says yes!!” into her phone, and hit send, at which point the message shot to the top of the antennae at the nearest cell site (which was over in Bucks county), where it was processed by some brilliant little robots and punted to a mobile switching center, where yet another battery of helpful automatons fell upon the announcement of assent with generous, inhuman ministrations, concluding by flinging the data to the IMS core of Rachel’s provider, where a machine that had been flirting with self-awareness for a frighteningly long period of time (but fortunately hadn’t found the right pick-up lines yet) assessed the message, found it pointless, and shot putted it back through the entire chain in reverse, except this time to Barry’s phone. All of this happened in an instant, which is how much time seemed to pass before Loretta was here, in the La Reudugier, trying to figure out which one was Arnold.
Tall, handsome and also nice. Yes, that had been sufficient in Rachel’s room, when it had just been two girls talking. But La Reudugier, one of those trendy coffee spots with an ostentatious exposed-wood façade and a sign that would spell Here Comes Gentrification if only they could afford enough Edison bulbs, seemed to be the favorite haunt for tall, handsome boys on their lonesome. They all looked nice, and none of them had bottles of spit on their repurposed driftwood tables. The place was large enough that it would be awkward for her to pace aimlessly between the tables like an SAT examiner, but it was also small enough that she’d look stupid if she asked an employee for help. Besides, what could they say? It wasn’t as though they…
Loretta sidled up to the barista, a college student who looked like a Mumford and Sons song brought to life, and leaned on the counter the way people did in movies when they were very casual and confident and definitely not so nervous that their insides felt like they could slide right out at the least disturbance, like if the sun came out from behind a cloud too quickly. “Did you make a drink for somebody named Arnold?”
“Today?” The barista asked as he made a show of fiddling with his big silver machine, pulling levers and pushing buttons, provoking it to hiss and whistle and leak like an over-the-hill New York construction worker when a pretty lady walks by.
“Oh, yeah, sorry,” Loretta replied, because she had a habit of living life as though her motto was Paeniteo Ergo Sum, “I meant today.”
“Probably.” Psssssh, said the big silver machine.
“Um…I’m here to meet him, but I actually haven’t met him before, so I was wondering if you c-“
“…could maybe po-“
“Marp!” the barista cried.
Shaken slightly, Loretta glanced down at the cup, which did indeed have the word ‘Marp’ scrawled on it. Recovering herself, she concluded her preamble and dove in to the body of her appeal: “…could point Arnold out to me?”
The barista sighed and wiggled his meticulously curled mustache. “I would if I could, but I honestly don’t put faces to these. I just call ‘em out and do the next. When Tyler’s working, that’s him there with the neck tattoo,” he indicated one of the cashiers with a tilt of his head, “he purposely puts down words that aren’t real names just to mess me up. Unless Marp is a name, which, I don’t know. Lelsie!”
Loretta noted that, yes, this cup said ‘Lelsie’, so at least the barista was paying attention to something.
“Ok, thank you. Sorry.”
Well, what was more embarrassing? Doing a lap around the café and potentially looking a bit silly, or standing here and raking her eyes around the room like a plainclothes cop? Without giving herself time to answer that question, Loretta waded into the pool of tall, handsome, and also nice boys clicking away at keyboards and scribbling away at moleskins. And just like a woman in a riddle, she emerged from the pool perfectly dry.
Okay, so now what was more embarrassing – the latter option in the first formulation, or texting Arnold and saying ‘hey which lonely boy in La Reudugier are you?’ Rachel had shown her a picture of Arnold! He’d looked so handsome and also nice (without reference, height was impossible to gauge)! It hadn’t even occurred to her to commit the photo to memory, until she found herself here, in a room full of boys all auditioning for the same role.
Her phone buzzed. She pulled it out and saw a message from Arnold, courtesy of a platoon of brilliant little robots: ‘hey did you just walk by me?’
Trying to hide her relief, she typed a reply (‘yea that was probably me haha didn’t see you though’) and shot it up into outer space where it bounced off of a satellite, circled the Earth three times and came roaring back down into a tiny computer a few yards away from where it originated.
‘hahaha’ came the response, which wasn’t especially helpful.
Loretta looked around the café. Nobody was looking up at her. All of them were looking at their phones. Perfect. ‘where are you sitting again? Haha’
At long last: the bray of a chair leg scooting across hardwood. Arnold rose to his full height, and favored Loretta with a big, dopey grin. “Loretta?”
“Yeah!” she confirmed a bit too enthusiastically. “Arnold?”
“Yes ma’am!” he reassured her, as though there were literally any chance that someone not-Arnold would have approached her here and asked her if she was named Loretta.
“Oh cool,” Loretta said, just before throwing open the hatch to the subbasements of her mind and falling down the stairs of rumination. She had arrived at a flashpoint – hug, handshake or hee hee? Whatever course of action she chose would set the tone for the rest of this conversation, which could in turn chart a path for whatever future they may or may not have together. If she stepped forward and embraced him, tastefully and cautiously, as a grown man would embrace his best friend’s adolescent daughter, might he misinterpret that? Not that Loretta even knew what would be meant by it. She wasn’t a big hugger – more due to lack of opportunity than interest – but hugging was the thing people did on those commercials for online dating websites. So it was definitely a thing. But would Arnold know it was a thing? Had he seen the same commercials for online dating websites? Or would he think she was coming on to him, that she was loose, that he could pork her without a pigskin, or whatever euphemism Rachel was taking out on the town this week, use her for her body and go have a real relationship with a girl who was smarter and thinner and bustier and wealthier? Would Arnold think her a slut if she hugged him?
But, what if he knew all about commercials for online dating websites, and knew when a hug was just two folks squishing their sternums together, hips pulled back to well outside their respective blast radii? And what if she rushed forward, hand extended, like she was eager to close a business deal before the markets closed? Might he think she was stiff and cold, an ice queen incapable of tenderness or feeling? Would his hand be stayed from the arch of her lower back as they walked down the street? Might he blanche from a romantic gesture, knowing that nothing blooms in the bosom of winter? Was there a chance he’d feel her limp, sweaty handshake and think at how little use he had for such a feeble grip?
Or would she do what she always did upon meeting someone new, which is to stand a safe distance away and go ‘hee, hee’ at regular intervals until they stopped staring at her?
Three options, each with pros and cons. Unfortunately, the entire deliberative process had a great big con, which was that she had no brilliant little robots to speed things along. She’d been standing here for a solid two seconds, which according to the laws of First Date Temporal Dilation, was actually a billion years.
“Um,” Arnold slipped through his melting smile, “would you like to sit down?”
“Yes, yes.” It took everything Loretta had to keep from smacking herself on the forehead.
“Did you want something to drink? My treat,” Arnold offered.
“Oh! Um…I think I’m ok,” Loretta replied, even though she actually did want something to drink. Due to a reflexive refusal of any proffered refreshment (perhaps subconsciously believing that the offer was pro forma, and/or that acceptance would inconvenience the profferer), she spent most of her social life being thirsty and hungry. It was really annoying.
Arnold waved the offer away like a fart. “Sure, no worries. Do you mind if I’m sipping this while we talk?” He wrapped his calloused fingers around the cup before him.
“As long as it’s not your own spit,” some passing demon forced her mouth to say. No! Bad demon! People don’t talk about their spit on the first date!
Somehow, Arnold was not completely incensed by this. He lifted the cup and held it just in front of his mouth. “What if it’s somebody else’s?”
He was bantering! That was something Loretta had heard about, on a podcast or something. She’d never bantered, but best as she could tell it was the more mature equivalent of pulling on pigtails. “Then that’s alright,” she bantered back.
Arnold took a sip and wiggled his eyebrows around. It would probably have absolutely killed at a seven-year-old’s birthday party.
“Whose spit is it?” Loretta bantered again.
“I was kidding. It is my spit.”
“Oh,” she continued to banter, “then that is not alright.”
Arnold’s face communicated that any given banter can only provide a certain amount of conversational propellant, and Loretta had tried to wring a bit too much from this banter. To extricate herself from the tailspin, she said “actually I think I will get something to drink. Not spit,” she bantered one last time, “but coffee.”
As Loretta rose to fetch herself a lovely cup of coffee, she finally decided that hugging is what she ought to have done upon first meeting Arnold.
The barista pronounced her name ‘Lortorto’, razzed her a bit about Arnold, and finally handed her a small latte. It was all so much white noise to her; she was focused on redemption. What could she say, upon retaking her seat, that would not only shrug off the dissonant overture so recently concluded, but set them on a more melodious path for the rest of the day? Boy, I’m always a bit loopy before I get my caffeine for the day. Gosh, I was just taken aback by how handsome you are. Gee, I spaced out a little, wondering how a just God could permit suffering.
So lost was she in her quest for exculpation, she walked right past Arnold again. Maybe? She scanned the café and saw a number of faces that all looked pretty much the same.
…which one was Arnold again? She’d just been talking to him! How could she have forgotten his face already? She’d found his smile to be so winning. And yet, all of these boys had winning smiles. At La Reudugier, everyone was a winner. Except Loretta.
She turned on her heel, wincing as a rogue wave of latte sloshed out through the sippyhole and scorched the lower knuckle of her thumb. Someday, when she and Arnold had been married long enough to have had a rough patch and gotten through it, she would tell this tale to their three children and they would all laugh. When Mommy first went out with Daddy, she kept fo-
Well, that was typical. Didn’t even know the guy and she was already making a life with him.
Finally, she saw him. Chuckling to herself and finding her trusty self-deprecating smile right where she left it, she reached for the chair and turned on a dime because goddamnit it wasn’t him.
Ah. Over there. There he was.
“Sorry,” Arnold mumbled to his phone as Loretta sat back down. “My fantasy team’s not doing so hot.” Inside of Loretta’s head, a choir sang hosannas to the predictability of jocks; Arnold had been staring at his phone, and so hadn’t seen her stumbling, roundabout return route.
“Not a problem,” said the outside of Loretta’s head. “I’m sorry, I came in a bit scatterbrained. Caffeine makes it all better.”
“Yes it does,” Arnold chuckled.
Loretta chuckled, sipped her drink, and despaired. This was small talk. Coffee is nice, isn’t it? Yes it is, ha ha ha. Next they would be telling each other that they liked to laugh. There wasn’t much Loretta hated more than small talk, s-
“Have you been here before?” Arnold asked.
No no no no no “No,” Loretta replied.
“It’s a nice place.”
“Yes,” Arnold agreed, “it is. I’m pretty sure the name doesn’t mean anything though. I looked it up online and couldn’t find anything other than this place’s Yelp.” She could see, from the look in his eye, that Arnold felt the room deflating just as much as she.
Loretta, who had never been one to read a room properly, said “I bet it’s just an excuse for hipsters to gargle their ‘r’s. I hate when people adopt accents for single words, you know?”
Arnold smiled and shrugged. “I guess it depends.”
They sat and sipped their drinks. The caffeine did not make it all better.
Things got better when Loretta forgot to be self-conscious and asked Arnold what the most dangerous thing he’d ever done was. Not an especially probing question, but one that elicited a functionally engaging answer about free climbing in Colorado. He volleyed back the same question, which Loretta could only blushingly answer with a tale about being in the ocean when lightning struck a half-mile or so off the coast. This segued into more anecdotes, the exchange of ambitions and hopes and dreams, and finally a brief detour into the valley of the shadow of death. Arnold said he didn’t want to know when he was going to expire, his preference being a death as swift as an oncoming train. Loretta, meanwhile, would much prefer a bit of forewarning, to get her affairs in order. That’s what she said, anyway, even if she really meant to use her last days on Earth to settle old scores, and say the things she’d always wanted to say to people but never had the courage. She didn’t say this to Arnold, though. She’d just remembered to be self-conscious.
Somehow, the scourge of small talk had burned itself out, giving an interesting conversation room to flourish. Loretta had seldom experienced such a natural progression. Unfortunately, it was cut short by another natural progression: the combination of her nerve-worried tummy and the caffeine.
“I’m actually gonna run to the restroom,” she informed him as she rose to her feet. “Do you want anything while I’m up?”
“Nah, I’m all set. I’ll just be here obsessing over my made up football team.”
Loretta chuckled and waddled to the restroom as quickly as she dared.
Gloriously divested of her breakfast, Loretta returned to La Reudugier proper. “Fuck me,” she said aloud as she realized that, once again, she could not remember which of the generically attractive boys in the room was Arnold. They were all kind of tall, they were all looking at screens…goddamnit, she’d had a wonderful conversation with him for two hours! How was this possible? She summoned up his face from memory, and saw it as though reflected in a dirty puddle.
Taking yet another lap around the café, she examined the bone structure of each of the handsome boys. You could cut a wedding cake on his jawline, she remembered that much. But all of these fit fellas had sharply tapering jowls.
This was stupid. She was panicking for no reason. It was a fairly small café, and Arnold was somewhere inside of it. Taking her time, she took a pre-emptive victory lap, until she finally found him, yet again. Jesus. It was like combing the beach for a specific seashell; once you found it the differences were obvious enough. But from a distance, it was indistinguishable from the rest.
“All good?” he asked, which seemed like a silly question because if the answer was no, would he expect her to tell him?
Resisting the urge to say the sort of gross thing she’d commonly deploy on Rachel, she smiled and said “yes.”
“So what were we talking about?”
“We were…” Loretta froze, halfway through a shuffling in her seat. What had they been talking about? It all seemed terribly interesting at the time, but here on the far side of the shithouse, she couldn’t recall a single thing.
In her mind there was a door, and from behind the door there came a knocking. It was a thought, a strange and unexpected one, a thought that despite being popular, despite being athletic, despite being tall and handsome and also nice…Arnold was boring. Loretta hadn’t yet opened the door, but she’d peeped through the keyhole, and rested her hand on the knob.
Feeling more and more hospitable by the moment, she ventured “I think we were talking about our ambitions.”
“Oh,” Arnold said, “right. I think I’d really love to be an airline pilot.”
“Really? You fly?”
“No. Just seems like it’d be interesting. Like the guy from Iron Maiden.”
“Oh. Are you gonna get a pilot license?”
“Probably not,” he said. And then he said a lot more things. Over the next few minutes, Loretta opened that door in her mind, invited that thought into her mind, told it to put its feet up and make itself at home, made it hot chocolate, and made up the pullout bed.
“Nice but boring,” she told Rachel that night.
Rachel nodded without taking her eyes from the dance video on her laptop. “I could have told you that.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“Shhh.” Rachel pointed to her laptop. “This is the best part. Just watch.”
Loretta just watched, and agreed that the part in question was indeed the best one. When it was over, she reiterated her question.
“Because, if I’d told you he was boring, you might not have gone. I wanted to get you a date. It’d been a while, right?”
“Right. I appreciate that.”
“I’ve dated a lot of assholes. Arnold’s not one of them. He’s just boring.”
Loretta nodded. This was all true.
Rachel’s eyes went wide. “Oooh, have you seen Alexis Floyd? She’s so good.” She clicked on the video, which they watched. It was indeed so good, and by the end of it, Loretta had already forgotten about Arnold yet again.
The next day, Arnold called her to remind her that he existed. He said he’d had a great time, and would love to hang out again. In a moment she would always consider to be a turning point in her relationship with herself, Loretta, the socially irrelevant dork, told the popular, handsome and also nice boy that she had also enjoyed their coffee date, and she’d absolutely love to continue hanging out with him, but only as friends. She just wasn’t looking for anything right now. None of this was a lie, but it was a glossy version of the truth. Fortunately, Arnold concurred.
This did not augur an epochal shift in Loretta’s life. She and Arnold hung out a few more times, Arnold going so far as to invite her to a party once. It had been a rather bro-y affair, but had been enjoyable nonetheless. Over time, they developed an honest (if not particularly robust) friendship. At the end of that year, Arnold graduated and went to college out of state. The brilliant little robots were busy with their correspondence for a few months, but gradually had less and less business to conduct on Loretta and Arnold’s behalf.
For the rest of her high school career, Loretta teetered right on the precipice of both popularity and unpopularity, but never overbalanced in either direction. This proved a stroke of luck; by the time she was flipping the tassel to the left side of her stupid square hat, she could consider herself on speaking terms with just about everybody in the school. To say she acquired any degree of comfort or facility with socialization would be to overshoot the mark. What she gained was the self-confidence to take her manifold embarrassments in stride.
Years later, after she and her husband and been married for long enough to have had a rough patch and gotten through it, she recalled the day unmemorable little Loretta had told the boring popular kid that she wasn’t interested in dating him. She didn’t share this with anyone – there was no question that, like any cherished keepsake, it would only reveal its significance to her – but it always made her laugh.
Jud Widing is a Brooklyn-based author whose work has appeared in Voices and Brokelyn. His second novel, Westmore and More!, will be released on October 13th.
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