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Pictures of Cats

All I want is a new name for myself.  I want a name that I can use on a dating site.  I don’t mean some creative name that people use to identify themselves in a profile like Firemanguy.  I mean a name I can use for when I go out on a date, or create a new email account. A name that is the new “me.”  A name I would have to remember as me when a date speaks it in Starbucks.

            I can’t think of a name but I am confident that the perfect name for me is going to be easy to find in cyberspace. I ask Siri, but she is no help in finding a name for me. My hope of a personal connection with Siri is fading. Interesting question, Gary, she says when I ask her what new name I should take. She has also tired of my constant questions about sex. I don’t know how to reply to that, she says again and again. She’s not the companion I thought she would be.

            I begin my search on Bing.  The information is almost as disorganized as my life after divorce.   Advertising comes up in the first results. There’s a site that wants me to become a member. I just have to give my email and credit card number and then I could have a list of 200,000 baby names.  I didn’t know there were that many names in the whole world.  Once I get past the ads without clicking I find a list of names according to their popularity. They’re listed by popularity and in alphabetical order. Mohammad is the most used name in the world.  There’s some appeal in taking the name of someone so universally recognized by billions as the only real prophet. Why doesn’t anyone call their kid God? Now that would be a lot to live up to. But would other kids mercilessly ridicule God? I don’t feel like a Mohammad.

            My olive toned skin gives me some flexibility in my choices, though a very odd foreign name might be suspicious on someone with an American accent. But I can have a story about how my father was some rich Brazilian oil tycoon who got my mother pregnant on vacation.  I wonder if people vacationed in Brazil 50 years ago like they do now.  They must have.  I could ask Siri.

The top names from the Americas by country begin like this:


            I want a name that will represent a totally different me. I have failed to cultivate any kind of meaningful relationship after nearly 60 internet dates.  At first, I was sure that it was the women.  How could there be anything wrong with me?

            I had decided to take the opposite strategy. I change myself. I want to be the kind of man that no woman could resist. I think of Don Juan and Casanova. Casanova was jailed for attacking the church, but escaped. I can see myself in a similar predicament had I lived then. People who think differently seem to end up in jail. He was a charmer, womanizer but not necessarily handsome. Did he find love? Looks like another biography to read. The only thing I’ve been reading lately are self-help books.

            I gave up tennis to play racquetball instead. I sweat a lot and bruise even more.  I took ballroom dancing even though most of my partners were 20 years older. I learned to charm them with kind talk about their attractive and youthful looks.  I took up the piano and learned I’m Your Man by Leonard Cohen and now have the sheet music ready to play on command. I gave up bowling and eating at places like McDonalds. Now I eat mostly vegetarian with an occasional piece of salmon.

            I had gotten my teeth whitened, and used a personal trainer to get in shape.  I have pecs, abs, and buttocks. I converted my balding head into a flowing mop of envious strands without any gray. I got a nose job form a plastic surgeon who claimed under my insurance that I had a deviated septum.   I want to be a man who attracts women like a magnet attracts bright steel nails.  I want to be that envied man in the beer commercials, surrounded by beautiful women, but longing for just one.

            I pick Miguel. It’s clearly the sexiest name, but I’m going to have to come up with a story to match it. I’ll learn some Spanish on cd’s in the car from the library or from one of those programs.  I felt no connection to the other choices. Miguel is a women’s man all the way.

            I have a whole persona prepared. I have empathy towards animals, and want a rescue dog. I memorized facts about methane pollution. I only drink single malt Scotch and order imported beers. I did not want to be associated with any activities that would make me look like a loser.  I have been lacking confidence and identity, but I’m convinced that Miguel will carry no such uncertainty.

            I’ve changed my photos, name and profile on the dating site.  I am now Miguel O’Brien. The inquiries start to roll in and I’m getting interest from women like I’ve never gotten before. Miguel has more appeal than Gary. After a pleasant phone conversation, I plan to meet Carol for dinner. We set a time at a diner that is not too far for either of us.

            I just want three things for the date: I want to touch her hair, touch her hand and kiss her. And maybe touch the back of her neck while trying to accomplish one of the other three.

            I sit in the booth that the hostess gives me and I tell her that I’m waiting for someone and she acts like she knows. She sees from my smile that it’s a woman and that it’s a date for us. It’s our first one together after a week of brief telephone conversations.

            There are couples all over this place with a family here and there and senior citizens with their AARP cards ready so they can order more than they can possibly eat at 15% off and then bring the rest home to eat later, or feed it to the cat, depending on how long it sits in the Styrofoam box. I start to think about bringing my own recycled, reusable box for leftover food next time because of my hatred for plastic and Styrofoam.  Like those people who bring their own bags to shop at the grocery store.  I’m thinking of starting a business and selling those containers especially made for taking home diner food that are re-usable and it will be a new social behavior and the way I get rich. It’s never too late to be rich.  No Footprint will be my domain name. It’s my brand. It’s either something like that or the lottery. Ending up with half the wealth that you built in your life is a side effect of a failed relationship that is never something you plan on.

            The hostess puts me in a place where I catch a glimpse of everything. There’s the mirror behind the counter, the register, the people coming in, most of the booths, the parking lot, and the waitresses who walk down the aisles. I’m out there in the open for everyone to watch. When I walked in I thought I was the one watching but now it seems like it has all turned around.  What I like about mirrors is that you can see people without them knowing until that awkward moment where your eyes meet in the reflection.  If I catch a woman who smiles back, it makes my heart race; an imaginary parallel life frozen for a second in the reflection.

            I see someone I may know, maybe an ex-student, or a sister of an ex-student. I decide then that if someone recognizes me I’m going to pretend that they have the wrong person, and tell them my name is Miguel and wish them luck in finding that person who they thought I was. I practice my puzzled look in the mirror just to be sure I have it right. I don’t want any memories of this night except for what happens between Carol and me. I want to slowly erase the life that I’m leaving behind and build a new one that is filled with joy.

            There’s lots of attractive women in the place. I have an uncontrollable urge to flirt and maybe even take some phone numbers because that’s what I’ve turned into. That waitress serving the senior couple two booths away looks just a little younger than me and she’s not wearing a ring.  She’s slim and attractive and I’m sure I could convince her to go out with me. What if she’s our waitress? Getting her number becomes a bad idea, and I’m not always that good at telling a bad idea from a good one.  I remind myself that I’m here to create memories with Carol. The waitress drops two menus on our table and I’m grateful that she can’t read my mind. A closer look makes me feel differently though. She calls me “Honey” and asks if I want a coffee while I’m waiting.

            “Sure. Milk but no sugar.”  She doesn’t ask if I want decaf. She knows things.

            The couple in the booth next to me is young and have that far-away look of dreaminess when you are so filled with lust but still call it love. I say that because we all know that love is a fantasy that needs to be called by its correct name.  I feel like I should warn them of what’s ahead: the unmet expectations, disappointments and failures of communication. The disharmony and dwindling lust that doesn’t turn into empathy and love.

            Instead, I start to notice some of the things the owner has decided to hang on the walls.  There’s a painting of a seashore that could be anywhere, but I’m convinced it’s Greece. I don’t understand those kinds of paintings or why you would put one in your diner. They don’t make me hungry, and they don’t comfort me.  They make me want to pack up and leave the country and live somewhere peaceful without cars, traffic or dating. A place where you sit on a beach looking at rowboats tied up on the shore all day. You make all your decisions based on the wind and tide.  There’s many a good book to read, and attractive women to look at.  The ease and tranquility of it makes me start to rethink the whole dating process and whether or not I want to continue to put myself under these conditions for whatever it is I get out of it.  I yearn for a picture of the Beatles, a garden, something familiar like a baseball stadium.  Something that would spark a memory or make me feel that I’m at my own table at home. A picture that would make me smell the honeysuckle, hot dogs and chestnuts just by looking at it.

            I see a car that looks the one that Carol described pull into the lot. I plan on showing her the kind of guy that I am, a romantic guy who can be trusted.  I’ve brought my camera because I like taking pictures and it gives me a prop to work with.  I almost always have a camera ready for picture taking. I just never made the switch to using my phone for pictures. I like to adjust the aperture and love the feel of an Olympus in my hand.  When I was 10 years old I’d always carry around my fishing pole at the beach because I’d never know when the fish could be biting, or maybe even schooling up and jumping out of the water after baitfish.

She walks up to the hostess and I give a smile and a wave at her as she’s looking around.

The hostess brings her to our booth. “Miguel?” she says.

“Yes, it’s me, Carol,” I say. I get up from my bench in the booth and greet her with a hug, and lightly touch the side of my face against hers.  I tell her how great she looks. She’s a little shorter than I prefer but attractive and slim which is good enough. I don’t have a checklist where all the requirements must be met. We sit down and I push a menu in front of her.  She looks at the bag on my seat.

She sits down and then there’s the small talk. The traffic and the weather. How many times we’ve eaten at this diner. I can see her looking at my camera bag that sits next to me on my seat.

“So, what kind of pictures do you like to take?” she asks.

“What do you mean?” I say.

“With the camera. That’s a camera bag isn’t it?”

She looks into my face, checking me out as carefully as I’m checking her.

OK. Pictures. I feel her eyes on me. There must be perfect answer that she is waiting for.  Just then I become the sum of all the things that I learned in the dating books I’ve read, not thinking of my answer but rather what the books are telling me to say. I need the answer that says I’m an exceptionally interesting guy who she’d want to kiss and hold hands with while I stroke her hair and breathe it in. I need to be Miguel. Be confident.  It’s not so much what you say, but how you say it.  I feel the lights at the diner getting dimmer. Or is that just my imagination?  I have hundreds of pictures of women. But I take lots of pictures of all kinds of things. Sunsets? Skylines? Cliché. I can’t think of an answer and time is flying by and I could be blowing this date and all future dates with Carol right here. I could reach into my bag and start taking pictures of her. Show her how much I think of her.  No, no, first rule of photography is to make the model comfortable, and there’s no way that’s going to make her comfortable. I start to believe that she’s never going to like me anyway and I don’t have to put myself through this question and answer period after all. I flinch ever so slightly as if I’m going to just get up and leave. Then I stop all in the same motion. How much time has passed?

I’m getting cold hands and even though I realize just a few seconds pass while I’m thinking, I know it has to be good right here or it’s over.  I can just fold my arms across my chest and forget that she even asked it. No, not again. This time I’m going to do it right. This time I’m not giving up and I’m going to hang in there. I thought of Facebook, something that she could relate to.

“Cats,” I say with utter confidence. “I like to take pictures of cats.”

            After I reply, I lose sense of myself. I’m actually Icarus, and I’m flying way too high and my wings are going to melt and I’m going to crash to earth as an utter failure, and there is nothing I can do. The sun is too hot and I’ve realized it too late, and all I can do is wait until my lifeless body lies flat on the earth.

            “Cats?” she says. “That’s funny! Or do you really mean it?”

            Funny? I decide that I was just kidding and that I prefer dogs over cats and isn’t that something- she does, too. I tell her about other things like the zoo and pictures on the water, and sunsets and that I love to take pictures of beautiful things so that’s why I’d really like to take a picture of her when she’s ready. That makes her smile.

            The waitress comes over and asks for our order. Carol orders a salad and now I can’t help but wonder if she’s a vegetarian. If I order an omelet she may think I’m eating little aborted baby chicks. Or meat. I could be a vicious animal killer.

            “I’ll have a glass of water,” I say.

            “A glass of water?” the waitress says. “Would you like anything else?”

            “Make sure the water does not come from a plastic bottle,” I add.

            “OK. One non-plastic water. Is that all?

            “Hmmm, no. I’ll also have a salad.” Should I ask if they are organic? I quit while I’m ahead. “And you can put the dressing on it,” I say. “No little plastic cup. Oil and vinegar will be fine.”
“Ok, got it,” she says.

            I need to use the bathroom. There’s always that ‘how long can I hold it’ question that comes up. I decide to go right away I don’t want to end up making the faces I might make if I hold it for too long.

            “Uhm, excuse me, I say, “I’ll be right back. I just have a quick bathroom trip.” I want to tell her that it will be quick so she’s sure that I’m just going to pee and nothing else.  You can’t take more than a pee on an important date. It could create all kinds of uncertainties.

            “OK, sure,” she says.

            I use the urinal quickly and wash my hands thoroughly and push the dryer button in case she can hear it. It’s a bad idea to create the impression that you are anything but the cleanest man to ever walk the earth.

            On the way out, I see a woman that I dated months ago. She’s a medical assistant with photography as a hobby. I thought that we were going to hit it off. I thought my search for the perfect partner was over.  Now she’s with some guy who is a good six inches shorter than her, has no hair, and a scar across the front of his face. She has long gray hair and a gap in her front teeth.  She didn’t want to keep going out with me, for reasons she didn’t explain. She doesn’t recognize me, or pretends not to.  I rub my arms like I learned in therapy to get myself back in the present.

            I sit carefully back at the table, sliding carefully along the vinyl bench making sure that my body rubbing on the seat doesn’t make any suspicious noises. She smiles as I return. My plan is to get her to talk about herself.

            “Do you have any children?” I ask.

            “Well, it’s a long story,” she says. “I have two children, but my husband kidnapped them and took them to Brazil. I have no idea where they are. They would be 16 and 14 years old now.”

            Right away I wonder how this can be true. Maybe she’s a writer and just likes to make this stuff up. Or maybe she’s crazy and the husband had no choice but to make a clean exit. Or could she just have poor judgement when it comes to picking a partner?

            “Oh, I’m sorry,” I say. “Was that very long ago?”

            “It’s been nearly 5 years now. It’s OK,” she says. “None of them were very nice to me. Good riddance,” she says. “After the divorcee, he taught them to hate me.”

            “Yes,” I say. “It’s never too late to start fresh.”
“Only this time I’m too old to have any children,” she says. “And now I’m free. No college debt. No weddings to pay for. What’s the downside? Children are nothing but trouble.”

            I want to tell her how great it is to have kids who love you that you can love back but I decide to skip it. The waitress is quick to come with the salads. She puts them down in front of us.

            “Nice looking salad,” I say. Carol smiles. I wait for her to eat first.

            “It’s good,” she says. “There’s some Romaine and Buttercrunch. It’s not just Iceberg.”

            “Yes,” I say. “Nice flavor to the dressing also.”

            We continue to talk. I find out that she’s a therapist, but right now she only has a few patients. She has to build her practice. She has a small apartment, but she never really makes clear how she is making money to pay for it. It’s just a detail that doesn’t concern me now. We finish up, and we both order rice pudding. There’s more talk over dessert.

            “Thanks, Miguel,” she says. “This was a great date.”

“I think so, too,” I say. As I touch her hand, I’ve met one of my goals.

            I take the check and make sure to leave a really good tip. I want her to know that Miguel is a generous man.

            I walk her to her car.  As we get to the door, she unlocks it and I open it for her. I’m thinking of my goals as it seems she wants to end the date, and there are still two left.

            Before she gets in, I ask her, “Would you like a kiss before you go?

            She stops for a moment. “I don’t think I’m ready for a kiss,” she says.

            My heart does a nosedive. “That’s OK,” I say. “I understand.”

            She gets in the car and gives me a smile as she backs out of her space and pulls away.

            I drive home disappointed, but not defeated. Maybe I was too forward. I don’t know. It was just a kiss. Gary had sex on first dates. Maybe Miguel is not the charmer that I had hoped he would be. Besides, how much did I really like her?

            At  home I sit down and pour a single malt over an ice cube.  I put on my favorite movie, African Queen. I get a kick out of Rosie and Charlie. They’re the perfect couple. A great team who decide that their differences don’t matter as long as they are in love. All the same story really, Cinderella.

            I’m getting ready for bed when my phone rings around 11 p.m. It’s Carol.

            “I think I’m ready for that kiss now,” she says.

            “Great,” I say. “Can’t wait for our next date, then.”

            “No. I’m ready now. Why don’t you come over?”

            “It’s after 11 p.m. Carol.” This would have been so much easier a few hours ago.

            “You don’t think I’m worth it, Miguel?” she says.

            She expects me to just come over. Drive about 20 miles. Show devotion and love for her, right now.  Start something we call love. My choice to stay home means that my relationship with Carol may be over. I have no energy to meet her expectations. To love her on her terms. To drive 20 miles for a kiss.

            “My name is Gary, not Miguel,” I say. “I just thought that you should know that.”

Barry is a teacher and writer who has recently became a grandfather. He writes short stories and poetry and is completing a book on Hydroponic Gardening. His writing is based on personal experience and covers topics from relationships to parent alienation.

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