Chapter 4: The Pop Rocks and Coca Cola Fish - Part 1

What does it feel like to live to be 100? What does it feel like to still be with your beloved 72 years after saying “I do”? I’ve done an interview with a local centenarian and his 93 year old wife, and now I need to write it into a story for The River Fork Times’ “Weddings in June” special section.  This couple, though, has a commitment I can't even imagine.

I begin with the details that are in my head.  The memory of sitting in the retirement home’s sun room listening to the couple explain their lives to me is still fresh. I use those memories to fill in the parts that take the scribbles on my notepad - “Ithaca for 12 years; 3 kids – all sons – John, oldest, Tom, second, Mike, youngest” - to a sentence of “During the twelve years living in Ithaca, when Dr. George developed his interest in working with paraplegics, the Thompsens had three sons: John, Tom, and Mike.”  Even though Dr. George struggles with some senility, that day he was sharp and it was a joy to watch him and his wife together. The writing comes easily, and the story reads like a romance. When I had asked them about their ability to stay married for 72 years, they listed commitment, love, and perseverance.  But what didn't they list?  What bumps and gaps in the road do their memories ignore or have glossed over? I wonder what I would have done if John and I had stayed married for even 30 years.

I wonder what would happen if I have more than two dates with a man? Maybe I'll find out this time.

I am going to meet Harrison Allard later for a late afternoon coffee. He had been “suggested” to me by the mechanical Cupids on last week. After Stanley’s unceremonious text goodbye – which he maturely followed up with blocking me on Facebook – I considered just closing up shop and forgetting about dating for a while. I had a whole month paid on EMatch, though, and half a month left, so I decided to wait until the end of my subscription. The next day, Harrison’s GR8Authorolove came up on my daily suggestion list. I almost rejected him because of that creepy username, but I was attracted to the fact he's a writer. Maybe we'd have something in common.
“So what’s this one like?” Stacey asks as we jog through the nature reserve behind the university. I struggle with jogging, a fact that shows in Stacey’s ability to talk while we go at a moderate pace and my inability to answer in anything but panting monosyllables. Stacey has challenged me to run a 5K with her later this summer, though. I keep telling myself that I'll eventually like running, and at least this is one way to keep in shape.

“Well, he seems nice.” I take the opportunity to walk since she wants details. “Although he has questionable taste in usernames, it’s been easy to write to him and our phone calls have been enjoyable.”

“You sound overwhelmed with excitement!” Stacey laughs. “What did you say his name is?”

“It’s Harrison Allard. He’s a crime-thriller novelist and teaches over at the U.”

“Oh wow! He’s really well known. At least Dan loves his novels.” Stacey stops to tie her shoes. “I wonder why he’s on EMatchHarmonyDate?”

“Well I don't know. Maybe like some of us out here in the cold singles’ world, he’s desperate.”

“You know I didn't mean it that way. It’s just that he’s well known for his constant companionship, and I can't imagine that he doesn't have a string of young grad students falling all over to be his next.” Stacey starts to walk up the trail. I only have a few more moments before I have to start jogging again.

“Surprisingly, we haven't talked about that part of his life. Maybe I'll bring it up today and see what I can find out.” I can't decide if I'm a bit peeved from the jogging or because I am still thinking about the Thompsens and their happy marriage and feeling a bit envious. I take a deep breath as we both start jogging again. “Well, whatever his reason, I'm meeting him in a little over an hour and a half.”
Despite having to rush to get out the door, I'm a little early at The Cup o’ Java Spot, a very “hipster” coffee shop in the First Ward. The walls are covered in very free-style abstract art and cartoon drawings of different authors, the mismatched stuffed leather chairs and couches giving a casual atmosphere that somehow also feels very self-conscious. I find a high table with tall stools and as I wait for Mr. Allard, I wonder how much I stand out amongst the predominance of black clothes, bored looks, and concerted efforts to focus on laptops and smartphones while scoping the room. Despite my best attempts, I haven't lost my sour mood from the run with Stacey.

As soon as I sit down, my stomach growling reminds me I haven't have any lunch. Maybe low blood sugar as much as nerves is causing my jumpy, irritable mood, or as Kim and Ben say, my "hangriness." Whatever the reason, it can only help my mood and nerves to eat something.

These places have stuff like quiche, right? And surely I can eat a slice before this date starts, I reason while looking around to find the blackboard.  Although I use my bifocals at home, I still try to get by with contact lenses when I go out, which doesn't do any good if the lighting is too low. Like now. I find the board but even squinting doesn't really help me see details. I'm able to see there is some type of quiche, but the muffins are right in front of me.  “I'll have, umm, a blueberry muffin.”

The young man behind the register sighs with exaggerated fatigue when I say I don't want anything else.  “Do you want this to go too?” he asks as he leans into the pastry window and grabs the muffin.

“No, I'm staying here.  Sorry.”  I return to my table annoyed and rehearsing in my head other things I could have said.  I have got to shake this mood off, though, or I'll start this date on a wonderfully wrong foot.

I scoot myself up on the stool and then squirm back and forth to unwrap my skirt. I pull out of my oversized bag purse Iris Murdoch’s The Sacred and Profane Love Machine which I brought to give a good intellectual impression. I read it many years ago so I figure I can still keep an eye on the door.  I skim the opening chapter in case he asks questions or makes some observations, but I am quickly getting immersed and realize this book’s more suggestive than I remember.

Absorbed with the story and mid-way into the very crumbly muffin requiring me to hold it in my hand, bend over the table and sort of shove the pieces into my mouth, I hear a deep voice at my elbow.

“Hello Jacqueline,” and as I twist my head to the side, crumbs of muffin falling onto the table, there stands a quite nice-looking man at least 6’3” with a full head of dark hair streaked with gray, startling green eyes, and wearing dark pressed jeans and a well-cut tan leather jacket. He actually looks better than his photographs.  He bows slightly. “Harrison Allard at your service.”

“Yesh” I sputter through my mouthful.  Great first impression, Jackie.  I quickly swallow, set down my book and what’s left of the muffin and wipe my hands on a napkin.  “Sorry about this mess.  I was writing today and haven't really eaten yet,” I lamely explain. “It’s nice to actually meet you in person.”

“I did the same thing when I started writing,” Harrison answers, looking very comfortable and a bit smug with his hands in his pockets.
Seriously? I start to think that while he might be good looking, the person behind the emails and phone calls was a cover for a very pretentious personality.
Harrison pulls up the other stool. “You are lovely. Your photos didn’t do you justice.” This response seems to be a theme with guys and first meeting. He reaches over to kiss me on each cheek, and his eyes seem to warm in their color as he smiles back.  Maybe he’s more gracious than pretentious; I go back to focusing on the handsome outer self.
“Do you want any coffee or did you already finish that part?” he asks, glancing at my book and handing it to me.

“No, I haven't had any; I was waiting for you before I dove into the hard stuff.” Inside I cringe at this lame attempt to be witty but immediately he lets out a little chuckle and I relax.
“Well, what would you like?  I think I'm feeling more like having their iced Masala chai than coffee.” He doesn’t bother to look at the blackboard.
“Oh, I guess I'd just like simple café con leche.” Instead of trying once more to read from across the room, I attempt to seem equally cool, the Spanish feeling much more bohemian than café au lait or simple coffee and milk.

“I'll get it, then.”

At the counter a very perky woman has replaced the bored man, and she smiles eagerly when Harrison greets her. They talk longer than it takes for just an order.  I should have guessed that he’s one of the literati who frequent this place. I can't help but think about Stacey’s comment and wonder if this is one of the love-wannabes.  I realize how judgmental that is and try to settle down.  Still, if I'm not just swept away, maybe I'll be able to stick to my conviction I made to keep this date short and to the point.

Harrison comes back with the two mugs and takes off his jacket as he sits down. “I'm sorry that took longer than I planned.  That’s one of my students; she’s working on a master’s thesis collection of fiction at the moment.”
Of course she is.
He interrupts my internal sarcasm and asks me about my centenarian story.  I soften my critical, self-conscious attitude while I notice how his impeccable, custom shirt emphasizes a fairly well-muscled chest.  I'm also keenly aware of the unshapely fit of my purple and blue knit tank and yellow broomstick skirt.  Hopefully my hair falling about my shoulders in an unruly mess of dark curls has a semblance of intention.

While we talk, I can't help but feel a bit unsettled since Harrison is one of those men who never seem to look away and yet never quite stare. This gives him a permanent bemused look. I keep wondering if what I have said is funny or lame since his expression doesn't change. While I try to hold his gaze, my contacts begin drying out, and soon I'm blinking like I’m sending Morse code.

“Can you excuse me; I need to find the restroom.” I motion aimlessly off towards the back of the room.

I weave through the crowded room towards the door with a photo of Frida Kahlo next to the one with a photo of Hemingway. I return with newly wetted contacts and we pick up with our talk, and this time I try to remember to blink before the contacts go dry.

“Let’s go for a walk and leave this crowd.” Harrison comes around to my seat. I don't notice my purse has gotten caught on someone’s chair until I'm jerked backwards and nearly fall.  I unwind myself, apologize profusely to the bored looking woman in a well-cut black rough silk dress, and take Harrison’s hand.  I still notice even in the midst of my awkwardness the very polished, almost cliché, image this man carries off.
We walk along Main Street and through the neighborhoods to Recreation Park, my favorite park in Binghamton because of its merry-go-round. While not an overly ambitious walk, I’m glad that I'm wearing comfortable flats and not the heels I originally considered.  Harrison hasn't let go of my hand as the conversation turns to writing and divorces, marriages and challenges and new beginnings. Despite my reservations, I'm charmed. Having something in my stomach has helped my mood, and I consider that perhaps this evening will go into the column of “good” dates. I try to remember why I wasn't going to let this date go past dinner.

“Do you want to ride?” I ask as we approach the merry-go-round.

He looks down at me and laughs, “Sure, I want to ride.”

Oh wow, I hadn't thought about how that sounded. But then, his eyes are so green and they twinkle, and he’s obviously getting ready for a first kiss, and what the hell if that might have been more suggestive than I meant it to be. I start to lean in and half-close my eyes and nearly fall over when instead of holding me for a kiss he turns to pick up the piece of litter that’s the only payment needed for the ride.
“Hmm, this piece of paper has a ‘TRO’ on it. Wonder what that might mean,” he winks and turns towards the waiting wooden carousel.  He hasn't handed me a piece of trash, so I look around quickly and grab up some used paper napkin.

I choose a black horse with a flying black mane and Harrison climbs onto a lovely bay modestly bowing her head. The carousel and the recorded pipe organ music start.  I always have loved this part of the Binghamton area, these treasures given by the Johnson family as a gift that they dictated could never cost anyone to ride.  John and I often brought the kids when they were young. I break my thoughts and concentrate on looking at Harrison passing with each up and down.

Posted by Jackie Connolly

Chapter 4, Part 2

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