Against my better judgment, I accepted the offer of a date from a guy called Shane. I simply did not want to go.
I’d known him since I was six and he was eight. Our mothers were best friends, our parents socialized. Well, as much as my parents did so with other couples. They both worked very hard, and of an evening it was all they could manage to come home, have dinner, and collapse onto the sofa or into a recliner and watch a cop show flit by on the television.
I went through school with Shane, and witnessed him go from a nerdy kid who liked comic books, to a borderline scary redneck who had a rifle rack in his jacked up pick up truck. He dated girls with big hair and even bigger mouths, the kind who smoked in the high school’s basement bathroom and called me a dweeb out of the corners of their frosty lipsticked mouths.
“Why does he want to go out with me?” I asked my mom. I had a feeling, deep down, that it wasn’t going to go well.
“I don’t know, but he does, so just go.” She was annoyed with me, so I agreed, not wanting to mar her relationship with her best friend. I wanted his mom to still like me, too, because she was a nice lady who acted like I was someone special.
Shane and I talked on the phone briefly before the big night. “Do I dress up or is this casual?” I asked.
“Casual, wear whatever you want,” he assured me. I took him at his word, wearing my favorite green shirt, jeans, and a pair of Van’s. He, of course, comes to the door dressed like he’s going to the opera. He told me I didn’t have time to change.
I somehow got into his gigantic truck without the use of mountain climbing equipment or a Sherpa guide, and we set off for the closest “big city,” Fort Wayne.
“Here,” he said, turning on the radio and pushing the scan button over and over, each station emitting a brief blip before he moved on again, “let me find something you like. Orchestra music, right?”
“Huh?” I managed, confused.
“Classical music,” he answered. “I figured that’s what you like.” Why would he think that?
“No, put it on 92.3, that’s the alternative station. They play the good stuff. Classical music makes me sleepy.”
He did as I requested, and made it halfway through a Smashing Pumpkins song before he turned the radio off completely. “I like country,” he muttered.
I never realized how far the 35 miles between my house and Fort Wayne could be until that night, riding in a vehicle with another person that kept yawning, who then only spoke to apologize for doing so. I tried chatting about TV. He doesn’t watch much. Books? No time to read. The only sport he liked was racing, which to me only rivals golf on the boredom spectrum. Soon I was out-yawning him 3 to 1.
We exited I-69 and swooped into the middle of a three-laned, gasoline-scented, white-knuckled hell ride, also known as the Summit City on a Saturday night. He swerved clear over to the right and flipped on the blinker because the seafood joint he was taking me to was basically under the very bridge we just crossed. I rubbed my poor stomach with trepidation. A restaurant. Under a bridge.
Getting out of the truck was even scarier than getting in, and I jumped, at first fearing a broken ankle, then realizing it might instead be a good excuse to go home. With nothing fractured, we walked into the place, and everyone inside craned their necks to see how dressed up I wasn’t. I made my way past the other diners and saw lobsters, dismembered and scraped hollow on their plates, and appealed to the gastronomical gods that there might be a cheeseburger somewhere on the menu.
No such luck. I ordered fettuccine alfredo and he ordered, what else, lobster.
“Why didn’t you order lobster?” he asked, on the verge of offense.
“I’m not really into seafood.”
He laughed derisively. “You coulda told me that-“
“You didn’t tell me where we were going.”
After a long silence I decided to display my casual knowledge of forensics. “You know, if a corpse is dumped in the ocean, lobsters will attach themselves to it and strip it of all soft tissue in a matter of hours.”
The woman behind me must’ve been eavesdropping as I then heard a muffled, “Oh my God,” and a clank as her fork hit her plate. I allowed myself a twinge of guilt, but realized listening in is rude, and I felt like I was fighting for my life here amongst the overdressed boomers and red gingham tablecloths.
“Yeah, that’s gross,” he said as he wiped his brow and looked around the room.
I stared at him for a moment and realized he wasn’t a bad looking guy. He had glossy black hair, and a nice complexion. His eyes weren’t quite right though. Almost everyone goes crazy over blue eyes, but his were an eerie, pale shade, and stopped just this side of crazed.
Our orders arrived, and much to my disgust, they had inserted shrimp into my supposedly seafood-free meal. “Sea bugs,” I whispered as I worked to remove them from the pasta and cheese.
“What’d you say?” he asked between ear-splitting shell cracks.
“Sea bugs,” I repeated. “You know when you step on a big icky bug and goop comes out? This,” I said, stabbing a shrimp with my fork and holding it aloft, “looks like that goop.”
“Oh, that’s it,” the woman behind me said. She got up to leave, swung her giant Vera Bradley bag onto her shoulder, and gave me a dirty look as she departed.
We were done soon as well, and I asked, “What’s next?”
“I’ve got to find a way to salvage the evening,” he said under his breath as I tried to hoist myself up in his truck for the second time, only making it halfway on the first attempt, hanging there like Hans Gruber for a few moments. Another attempt and I was in the seat next to my companion for the evening, who had resumed his bad habit of yawning.
We hung a right onto Washington Center and wended our way down to one of the seediest places in the city, and that’s saying something. It was an Off Track Betting Center, housed in what was once a cafeteria-style restaurant. The lot was littered with bottles, smashed cigarette packs, and old cars, some held together with duct tape, Bondo, or both.
If the outside was bad, the inside was worse. It was sparsely furnished with a few sets of long tables and chairs, the walls were painted a dismal mauve, and somehow the stench of poorly prepared food still hung in the dank air. Maybe enough of it had spilled onto the hideous blue and green swirl patterned carpet. There was a counter where bets were placed, and a bank of televisions on the opposite wall, showing races and sporting events of every kind on dusty screens.
Shane went up to bet on something. To this day I’m not sure what. I didn’t ask. He came back with a couple of watered down sodas. I sipped mine, watched the other occupants of the hall, and heard him bitch about losing a lot of money for a good solid hour.
The only people having any luck at all were a group of Amish. There were four couples and their driver, a droopy little man with messy white hair, huge aviator glasses, dressed head to toe in blue fleece.
The Amish men would go up, bet, win, and apply their new loot to rolls of money as big as Christmas oranges. They then would return to their wives, who offered encouragement or even advice to their husbands, and the cycle would start all over again. While the men were away, one of the wives noticed me staring. I waved, and then they all waved back. They were lovely, cool and calm, their dresses in crisp shades of mint, periwinkle, coral, and shell pink. Something clean for my eyes to rest on in such a grubby setting.
After yet another loss of funds, my escort proclaimed that we were leaving. Walking out into the pitch black night, in that neighborhood, I wondered what he would do if we were suddenly beset by ne’er do wells. I sized him up as he strode angrily to his truck and figured I was probably on my own, which was not a pleasant feeling.
I scaled back into the truck, realizing I was actually getting better at it by now, closed the door, and waited for the right moment to say something. He turned on the heater full blast so I practically had to shout, “Now I get to pick something to do.”
He frowned at me and asked, “Like what?”
“It’s a big city. Drive around. I’ll know it when I see it.”
We drove up Coliseum, and turned into the mall. No, I said, not it. Drove around by the cheapo movie theater. Definitely no. But there, across a rough, overlooked parking lot just across from Target, was a little white house with purple neon sign in the front window - PALM READER.
“That’s it! Stop!”
We inched across the lot, which was more pothole than pavement, and parked right in front. Still open, no wait, my luck was about to change.
We walked in, and it was a home, the front door opening directly on the living room, which doubled as the waiting area. A disinterested teenage girl went to get her mom, who then beckoned us into her dining room. The violet hue of the sign permeated both spaces, lending an air of mystery to an otherwise very domestic scene.
She had me sit at the head of the table and Shane to my right. She sat on my left, and took my left hand in both of hers. She leaned down, studying each line carefully, as I examined the hutch across from me, filled not with plates, but statues of the Virgin Mary and several tall candles of varying colors. Some were lit, some were not, and the wavering flames began to lull me into a sort of hypnotic state. I tore my eyes away to study the palmist herself; petite, mid fifties, her hair dyed black, with grays just beginning to peep through at the part.
“Ok,” she began, patting my hand as a signal that I could withdraw it. “You recently lost your father. Right?”
I could only nod. “He says you were with him at the end. What you said helped him cross, and he’s very grateful.”
True, all true. I sat there with my mouth hanging open, still unable to speak.
“He wants to remind you of the promise you made to him. This one,” she warned, pointing at my date, “can’t help you with it.”
Her eyes went from him to me. “You will get married, but not to each other. You,” again directing her attention back to Shane, “will marry twice. You, honey, will only marry once, but it will be for life.”
For life? Almost sounded like a prison sentence.
“You’re a writer, and I see you surrounded by the things you’ve written. Write every day, it brings you joy.”
Joy, great, I thought. I need it to bring me money.
She stopped abruptly and I knew the reading was over because she then extended her own palm. I paid her the $20 fee and we walked out into the cold night air. I realized I was shaking and sweating.
On our way home, between yawns, Shane remarked on her accuracy. “How’d she know that about your dad? And why’d she say that to me, about getting married twice? She never even looked at my hand.”
“The palm reading is a cover,” I reasoned. “She’s really some sort of mind reader, that’s all I can figure.”
“What’d you promise your dad, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“Uh, you know, you’ll promise anything to someone when they’re sick. To make them happy, keep them calm.”
“What was it?” he insisted.
I was suddenly very embarrassed, and hesitant to share, but I figured he wouldn’t let it go. I sighed, and spit it out. “I promised him that I would get married and find a guy to take care of me, so he wouldn’t have to worry about once he was gone.”
“Sounds like he is worried.”
“I hope not, because it’s certainly not going to be easy,” I said, almost to myself.
“Well, from what I’ve seen tonight, it’s probably going to be impossible,” he grumbled.
I felt completely defeated. All I tried to do was make everyone happy by going on this ill-considered date, and then when it went pear shaped, I resolved to rescue the evening by adding a little lighthearted fun to the entire ordeal. I expected the palm reader to be an old fraud, and make wildly amusing and horribly inaccurate predictions about us both. What she did instead was draw the curtain back on a painful memory, and open it up to commentary from someone whose opinion I didn’t care about one iota. There was nothing of that nerdy, nice kid left in him.
Now he would tell his mother he had a rotten time, his mother would tell my mom, and in turn she would be disappointed in me for being such a social nightmare.
I needn’t have drawn such a gloomy portrait of things to come. I’d underestimated Shane’s willingness and ability to fib, and his reluctance to disappoint people he actually cared about. He eventually told both his mother and mine that he had a “glorious” time.
I’ll always remember it as miserable.