The routine was familiar by now, a series of words and phrases mixing in his head on shuffle.
Walk up to her. “What’s your name?” Listen. Smile. Proffer hand. “Jacob. Can I buy you a drink?” Smile. Wave. Order. “Tell me about yourself.” Listen. Nod. Don’t talk. Smile. Ask another question. “What do you do?” Listen. Smile. Nod. Don’t talk. Nod. Divert questions. “Interesting.” Ask another question. Listen. Smile. Nod. Don’t talk. Smile. Ask another question. Listen. Nod. Don’t talk. Smile. “Wanna get out of here?” Smile. Stand. Offer arm. Hold door. Guide to car. Drive home. Slip in “Dirty Dancing”. “You know that lift at the end?”
He wasn’t stupid; he knew it’d never actually mean anything. It was easy and simple and uncomplicated, something he’d done enough that he didn’t need to think about it any longer. A long list of meaningless hook-ups with the random women trawling the bar. On any given date, it meant nothing to either of them, and they both knew it.
He knew why they liked him. He was good for a select few things -- his looks, his affected mystery, the part he knew to play -- but they weren’t anything real. They chose him because he bowed to them , let them dictate the conversation, let them play out whatever fantasy they wished. It wasn’t about him.
And he was happy to oblige. He’d always been good at reading people, ever since he was a kid. It came naturally to him, knowing what people wanted and being willing to give it to them. It was his responsibility, his one good quality, his one gift.
Growing up, he’d been fascinated with the idea of love. Something about the joy he could read on people’s faces, the sheer happiness pouring from them with the clasping of hands or the tapping of feet under a table was beautiful. He’d do what he could do to produce the same effect, not romantically so much as platonically. Apples for his teachers, extra tips for service workers, flowers for his mother… Anything to spark that tiny bit of joy.
He’d lost that particular appreciation quickly. He’d been about six when he first noticed his parents fighting, when he finally recognized the tension between them. He couldn’t remember what had happened, but he remembered the way the laughter had evaporated, the room draining of anything but the cold, harsh tone of his mother as she spoke quiet, vituperative words. He remembered his father offering a feeble rejoinder, trying to fight back for mere moments before falling silent and nodding, apologies dripping from his lips.
He’d always thought his parents were in love. He’d heard his father say it over and over again, had heard his mother utter quiet “Me, too”s that suddenly seemed fake. With that one argument, his world was turned on its head. Suddenly, he recognized that the words had always been empty, the silences oppressive, the chatter always tense and brittle.
The argument was one of many. He barely remembered the time before it, could barely recall his naive innocence of youth. Instead, when he thought of his childhood, it was his mother’s stony face, eyes blinking at his father in quiet disapproval. It was his father’s sycophantic face, desperate and apologetic. It was the way he finally realized that none of his floral gifts ever found their way into a vase, the way he eventually noticed the bright yellows and pinks of petals discarded in the trash, the way his school papers and drawings never ended up on display.
It was the way he suddenly realized that love -- that happy, freeing feeling of being completely and utterly lost in another person -- didn’t exist. As he got older, still paying attention to those happy couples holding each other’s hands and playing footsie under the table, he realized just how false it was. He began seeing what the earlier joy had hidden: the way one couple stood just a hair too far apart, the way the male kept his hand around her shoulder and not her waist, the way the woman looked bored as the male talked about himself.
He started cataloguing, then, remembering what he saw. Part of him still wished for love, still wished to find the rumored “the One”, and he wanted to remember the basics of how to treat her. Don’t talk about yourself. Drape your arm gently around her waist, not confining yet not distancing. Make her feel interesting, beautiful, alluring. Talk about her interests; deflect questions about your own. Bring gifts. Make eye contact. Be confident. Look good.
He’d invested a lot of time in the last one. When he’d told his mother that he’d been going to the gym, she’d looked at him from where she sat at her dressing table, hands frozen mid-carding through her hair, empty green eyes looking him up and down before saying, “It’s about time.”
The next time he’d seen her, he’d gone back to the house -- it wasn’t a home, never really had been -- right after his father died. He’d been there to check on his mother, to make sure she was doing okay. Working out had been a long, hard slog, but, by then, he had a result in the form of tanned skin and muscles. Her reaction hadn’t been much out of the usual. She hadn’t even smiled, had barely even acknowledged him. She’d just flicked her eyes up and down, had looked him over and given a single nod. Then, she turned back to her mirror, silver hairbrush sparkling more merrily than she ever had as it combed through her brown locks.
Yes, part of him wished for love, but, deep down, he knew it’d never actually happen. He couldn’t even make his mother smile despite trying for all his life, much less some random woman that might be his soulmate . The fact of the matter was that he simply wasn’t good enough to merit a true relationship with a woman of any caliber, and he’d accepted that.
No, he was much more the type to have one-night stands. Sure, he’d pick up women, but it wasn’t something that was going to last. He knew it wouldn’t, expected it. He grew used to never sharing his personal story, to playing the mysterious stranger. Even as he’d ask someone their backstory or their hobbies or their interests, he’d felt some small part of himself wish that -- just once -- someone would care enough to ask him the same questions, to push for the answer and ignore his mild attempts at deflection. It never happened, so it took on the same mythological status as finding the One and being happy; it wasn’t going to happen, so he stopped hoping it would.
Every time he went to the bar, he stood outside, contemplating the swinging doors and the decadent exterior, half wondering if he could just… stop. Resign himself to a useless life in a cold house without anyone to share it other than some boxes of meaningless stuff. A few times he’d almost walked away, almost decided not to go in.
Eventually, though, it became clear that this was his lot. He was the womanizer, exciting and dirty and amoral, lurking at the bar and picking up the women who responded to his advances. He was the one no one knew anything about, who people liked without truly knowing him because they never even bothered to ask him. One day, he might stop, but, until then…
Walk up to her. “What’s your name?” Listen. Smile. Proffer hand. “Jacob. Can I buy you a drink?”