MARY FRANCES POTTER
Freelancing in the Land of Gentry
She swings around the baluster like a pole dancer, trying hard not to touch her toes to the floor. Her married friends, Didi and Mac, have just had the hardwood floors in their Lower Pacific Heights flat refinished, and she is not to touch it on the way to her room.
“This is your room,” Didi had said, excited. “This will be so fun, you staying here with us. It will be just like boarding school.”
So she sways and dips into her room. She is staying in San Francisco because several weeks ago, she drove away from Fresno in her Camry, packed with her computer and clothes, and her husband stood at the upstairs bedroom window watching her behind factory-stitched curtains, the microwave in the kitchen with its frustrating buttons.
The MacCormicks give her a full-sized bed, and Buddy, the black Lab, wanders in and sleeps on her floor some nights. She sets up her computer on the desk in the corner and leaves her books in banker’s boxes, hangs her clothes in the closet that are filled with Didi’s Italian shoes.
“Mo, are you cooking tonight?” Mac calls from his home office down the hall.
She, Maureen, “Mo,” to her friends from high school and college, knows the recipe by heart. Didi put the three of them on a schedule, Mac, Didi, Maureen, so each of them cooks every third night, and each of them does the dishes every third night. They clean every third week. It’s not bad, and Didi thinks it’s going to work. What Didi really thinks is that it’s not going to work, and Mac will agree to her hiring a cleaning lady. But Maureen doesn’t know this.
She answers ads, writes three-paragraph cover letters in the two-flat the MacCormicks are renovating. They allude to her finances. Didi says that they can shop in Laurel Heights on her husband Kyle’s checking account. But Maureen set up her own bank account in San Francisco. She won’t spend his money.
“So, yoga tomorrow night?” Didi asks over a forkful of food. Below her blue eyes, her freckles grow into dark splotches with age.
Didi snorts. “It’s an early class, so it’ll be okay,” she says.
“I don’t really see you two as urbanistas,” Mac says.
“We’ll get in, and get out,” Didi says. “The teacher is supposed to be really good. She used to teach at Lotus.”
“Park in a lot if you can,” Mac says on his way to the home theater.
They try the new studio. Didi likes it. She is into her finding her center again, which she has lost recently, and she has been going to a lot of different teachers. It is important for Didi to find her center, she is a life coach. This teacher, Janelle, speaks the Hindi positions and explains in English only when necessary. The lights are low, Janelle does not wear a headset, and Didi feels that she will be able to go to her special place soon.
On the way home, Didi explains that the “Tender Nob” is not really a neighborhood, it’s just a dirty joke. “It’s between Nob Hill and the Tenderloin,” she says, “so Mac and his buddies came up with `Tender Nob.’” Phallic, Maureen gets the joke. She sees saris and tunics on Asian women, a man with one leg on a crutch panhandling for change, thinks she spots a tranny as Didi commandeers the Saab up the streets out of the Tender Nob into Pacific Heights. They race through dazzling fall that is like dazzling spring in San Francisco, the seasons sliding over each other, flowers bursting into fog, one year slipping over another.
“What did you think, Moron?” Didi uses Maureen’s nickname from boarding school.
In the class Maureen couldn’t stand on one leg at all. Holding the standing positions was extremely painful. “I liked everything we did on the floor,” she answers. Rolling around on her hips brought a certain comfort at the end of the hour and fifteen minutes. I made it, she thinks.
At three-fifteen Maureen wakes, a fist in her stomach, her mind swimming. She turns her computer on, shuttles to the kitchen for wine, reads new emails. One is from Wine Zone, an online wine magazine. They will pay seventy-five dollars for a one-hundred word review. That is seventy-five cents per word, but a dollar or a dollar-twenty-five is the going rate, isn’t it? She has to call for a phone interview. No other replies to her applications, only ads. She sips. The check her sister sent her will run out soon. She needs a paycheck by the first of next month.
She scans the ads. “20 Dates with 20 Special Friends.” If she writes about twenty dates, Maureen will be paid at least $2,000, and her articles will be taken on a virtual road show by SpecialFriends.com, a new online dating start-up.
On these dates, she could drink, write about both, and no one would know. She tailors her cover letter for the job and adds the posting she would use to attract men:
Buxom Brunette Looking for Love and Fun—36
I am a freelance writer and wine reviewer with many interests we can share. I love to travel when the season’s right, cook when it’s not right, hike, do yoga, cycle, explore your passions and mine. I am thinking of adopting a puppy and a kitty. And I am planning to build an eco-friendly house.
If interested, reply with a photo and a brief description of what you are looking for.
Thanks for reading, Maureen
She knows she is stretching the truth about her profession and yoga, but Maureen does want a kitty and a puppy. With Kyle, she wanted a baby, but he stopped having sex with her when she went off the pill. She sends her application to SpecialFriends.com and finishes her glass of wine before she falls asleep in her clothes.
In the morning, a male voice from Wine Zone interviews her over the phone. She alternates her own voice between chirpy and serious. He says that they will get back to her. She asks when. They say by the end of the following week. So for quicker cash, she decides to interview for the NIH study at Berkeley on Smoking in Bars, rather, Non-smoking in Bars. If she’ll visit certain bars all over San Francisco, she’ll be paid fifty dollars per bar for her reports to the NIH measuring the success of the San Francisco City Ordinance that stopped smoking in bars and restaurants. If it works out, she can also drink wine in these bars for Wine Zone, and get paid by the NIH.
She arrives promptly at ten a.m. She knows that she has recently picked up smoking again, but it’s a temporary thing, probably a result of her situation, so she checks “non-smoker” on the application. She’s not really a smoker. She and Didi smoked like factories in boarding school, she quit in college, and Kyle wouldn’t have tolerated it. So smoking is temporary. In the interview with a graduate student, however, she is able to name Vic’s in Chinatown where patrons smoke freely.
“It’s like smoking in the bathroom in high school in there,” she jokes with the graduate student, who wears a soft sweater, no hair products, and faded corduroy pants with a studied casualness. “The bad kids smoking, you know.” She waits for the NIH interviewer to laugh. They say they will be contacting her. She asks when. They say by the end of the week. Great, Maureen thinks in the elevator, sniffing her coat for stale smoke.
She hurries home to check her email again. Mac and Buddy intercept her in the stairway.
“You can walk on the floor in your socks now,” Mac says, smiling, his lankiness animating the stairwell.
“Hey,” he says, turning on his way out, “you look busy. Where’ve you been?”
“Cool.” He pauses, his fingers flipping through his keys, “Watch out for that internet spam, spoofs and scams.” He squints at her, at the top of the stairs. “I’ve noticed you’ve been on your computer. Some of that work-from-home stuff can be crap. Part of scams from Nigeria, I’ve heard.”
“And if someone asks me your status, what should I tell them?” He squints into the distance, and Buddy whines. “What I mean--if someone were to come up to me and ask me what you were doing here, what would I say to that person?”
She takes a couple of steps down to talk to him.
“Your status, what is it. That’s what I mean. Are you--?”
Maureen focuses on his words, exhales. I’m relieved. I’ve been relieved of my duties.
“I’m separated, is that what you mean?”
“Yeah, just checking.” Mac flips Buddy’s leash, he grabs the door. “Catch you later!”
SpecialFriends.com calls for an in-person interview. Maureen tells herself not to make any jokes about dating or wine.
The interviewer is Maureen’s stunt double but with horn-rimmed glasses. Brown hair cut below the ear, ice blue eyes, pellucid skin, and a small pug nose greet Maureen when she enters the room. This should be easy. Maureen will answer questions from her mirror image.
“We liked your sample posting,” the hiring manager says. “It’s what we’re looking for. I’m Christa, and I just need to ask you a few questions.”
Have you dated a lot? Yes. Do you enjoy dating? Yes. Do you like sex? Yes. Do you have hang-ups about sex? I guess not, since the words have never entered my mind. Then Christa intones about Maureen’s mission as a faux-dater. “You are the quintessential Special Friends.com online dating female. Feel free to punch up your profile, be fun, be the cool girl. Guys love the cool girl. Don’t have a lot of issues. Don’t post a list of requirements of what you’re looking for in a man; that is, income, neighborhood, marital status, etc. And don’t, don’t post that you are looking for an L.T.R.., long-term relationship. Big red flag for men.”
“I’m hired?” Maureen asks.
Christa nods. “We’d like to try you. We’ll email you logon credentials and you’re underway.” She stands and shakes Maureen’s hand.
“Great, I can’t wait to get started,” Maureen says.
“I got a job!”
“Really? Oh my god, where?”
“A new website, a start-up!” Maureen calls as she runs up the stairs. “It’s freelance.”
“Woo-hoo for yoo-hoo!” Didi hugs her. “Hey, check out Buddy’s hairballs.”
“Buddy. His hairballs, you know, he sheds.” Didi leads her to the dining room and around the walls. She points to the floorboards. “See?”
Maureen looks. Buddy’s black hair is sewn across the floorboards.
“Mac didn’t vacuum this week,” Didi says. “He didn’t clean at all.”
“Hm-mm. I’ll do it,” Maureen says.
“No, it’s his turn,” Didi says. She marches toward the kitchen. “And what about this?
Look at this!” She points to the dishwasher, to the knives and forks.
Maureen glances around, she focuses on points of stainless steel.
“They’re fucking pointing up like some medieval torture! What is Mac doing? Trying to kill us?”
Maureen says, “I did that.”
“What?” Didi says.
“I’m sorry, I put the silverware in the dishwasher that way.”
“Well, the knives could cut us when we put our hands in the dishwasher!”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t know.”
Didi is aghast. She grabs the silverware and shoves all of it, points downward, into the silverware bin. “That’s how you do it!”
“Okay, sorry,” Maureen says, and after a moment, walks to her bedroom.
She wakes too early again, resists the urge to work. She can’t call anyone at this hour, her sister in Illinois, her friends in Fresno. She should think about tomorrow, stay positive about what happened today, work through some problems. The interview at SpecialFriends.com went well. They want to use her. This was the high point of her day. Maybe the guy from Wine Zone will call. Maybe she could be fed on dates for Special Friends, too. Christa said, be fun. Easy, she thinks. I’ve always been fun.
She logs on to her email anyway. Christa writes, “Keep your writing light and airy, walks on the beach and hikes to Land’s End. Remember, our research has found that men love ‘the cool girl.’ Don’t talk about your problems on dates, and don’t have a lot of `issues.’” Christa repeats that they liked her posting, to make whatever revisions she thinks will make her seem more fun. “You have no longer than 20 days to fulfill your end of the contract.” She thinks about Special Friends.com with its cute name. Why are they paying her to date? Can she date twenty men in thirty days? With no changes at all, Maureen lists her posting on SpecialFriends.com.
Maureen wakes at eight. She listens to the flat. Mac and Didi must be out. She checks her new SpecialFriends.com account. She laughs, there are at least thirty responses to her posting. By noon an attorney, a construction foreman, a real estate entrepreneur, and a manager at a natural grocery all want to meet or call her. She chooses meeting for lunch or dinner. This isn’t high school. To improve her odds, she replies to several more with her phone number. Her cell phone rings, but she screens the calls. At ten she checks her messages.
“Have you heard the one about the Chinese couple trying to improve their sex life? She says, `I want sixty-nine, sixty-nine!’ And he says, `Beef with Broccoli?’ Hi, I’m Dale from Special Friends, and you answered my email. Do I win the banana split?” Maureen deletes this and lines up lunch with Krystoff, an attorney in a black turtleneck sweater and slacks.
“So Saturday, dinner party at our dinner table. You’re invited, of course,” Didi says as they recline on their yoga mats.
Janelle announces that she has cancelled her yoga retreat and will be teaching next week. “My yogi’s grandfather died,” she says softly. “Family extends to grandparents in India, so he will be in mourning for two years.” Sighs exude from the room. Janelle nods. “Yes, all major events are cancelled after a death in the family, weddings, travel--even if it’s a grandparent.”
Maureen thinks this could be taking grief too far. Holding the Downward Dog position, she remembers that she couldn’t go to her father’s orchards for a long time after he died. Two years? She breathes, folds into the Child’s Pose, curling into a ball. By the end of the class, she considers the names of the poses, and still likes rolling like an egg on her mat. The Tree, Eagle’s Pose, Table Pose, Warrior Position, they must have lost something in the translation. The Rabbit, she doesn’t want to be a rabbit. But isn’t this what yoga is about, being, becoming one with nature?
That night she reads a long, witty reply to her reply to the real estate entrepreneur, David. He is fourth-generation farm worker, like her. She laughs. Going through a divorce, he wants to drive up from the Peninsula, take in the sunset, and have dinner in the Marina. But he warns her, he is liberal, very liberal. He sounds fun, Special Friend Number Two, this new job could be fun.
From a booth on the Embarcadero, Maureen orders a glass of wine from Umbria, just in case Wine Zone needs Italian wine reviews. Maybe they’re sick of California grapes. Krystoff, diminutive and ten years older than his photo, places his mobile device on the table and orders an Arnold Palmer.
“What’s an Arnold Palmer?” she asks.
He explains that the golfer invented ice tea-and-lemonade for après-golf. The waiter brings her white table wine.
“Going to drink the whole bottle?” Krystoff asks.
“I’m sorry?” she asks, sipping.
“You’re Irish,” he grunts, “right?”
She nods. Does he think that’s funny? It makes her wonder what ethnicity Krystoff is.
She’s hungry, so she orders a salad. They chat about his new venture into software when he asks, “Has anyone ever told you, you look like Elizabeth Taylor?” he asks.
“My father told me I looked like the young Elizabeth Taylor, you know, Auntie Mame.”
“Elizabeth Taylor wasn’t in Auntie Mame.”
“Oh. Cleopatra, I mean.” Shit, she thinks, I never saw Cleopatra. Krystoff is too smart for her. “The varietals in this chardonnay are delightful,” she says. She’s not sure what varietals are.
To escape awkward meetings, Didi says she abandons lunch guests all the time with bogus life coach emergencies. “Excuse me, do you mind if I step outside for a moment?” she asks Krystoff. When she returns, she tells him that her editor has called and she is behind on a deadline. Not a complete lie. She thanks him for lunch, and he gives her his card.
Look up “varietal,” she thinks as she clips sales tags from the dress she bought for dinner in the Marina. She didn’t want to, but she charged the dress. By six she is ready for David. He wanted to pick her up, but it’s safer to meet in a public place on a first internet date, according to what she’s been reading, so she left a message saying to meet at a bar along the beach to watch the sunset.
At the Beach Chalet, she drinks slowly. Feeling pleasantly fuzzy, she realizes that it is past six-thirty. Didn’t David say six-thirty? Should she wait? Maybe traffic is bad. She calls his cell phone. It goes to his voicemail. She decides to wait a little while longer. By seven-fifteen, umbrage at being stood up sets in. Maybe this is what David meant by being “very liberal.”
She slides into the kitchen when she spots Mac cooking. “What are you so dressed up for?” he asks, dropping slabs of beef into marinade.
“I had something for work that fell through.”
Didi pops into the kitchen. “Your new job? What happened?”
“I—“ she pauses, “I was supposed to meet someone for dinner, but he didn’t show.”
“So what’s going to happen?” Didi asks. “Will you still have the job?”
“I just have to make up the work next week,” she says.
Mac laughs nervously. “What’s the new gig?”
She exhales. “I’m writing for Special Friends.com, a new online dating site.”
“What are you writing?” Didi asks, chopping and throwing lettuce into large stainless steel bowls.
“I’m writing about dating, how to date on the internet.”
“You’re doing what?” she shrieks. “You mean, you’re dating on the internet!”
“Basically, yeah, that’s what I’m doing.”
“You’re getting paid to date?” Mac asks. “Is that even ethical?”
“It’s for a road show,” Maureen says.
“Moron, what are you doing?” Didi’s tone deepens. “Should you even be dating right now? You’re separated, for god’s sake.”
“I’m not dating.”
Mac sing-songs, “Yes, you are, you are dating men, and men are dating you.”
Maureen takes her wine and starts walking. “I’m writing tips about how to date on the internet.”
“But what if one of these men is really interested in you?” he asks.
“Does Kyle know?” Didi throws a steel bowl into the steel sink.
Maureen leaves, closes the door to her bedroom and begins writing. Kyle has not contacted her since she left. She doesn’t know what Kyle knows. Her breathing calms. As far as she knows, she has been relieved of her duties.
Ten sit at the MacCormick’s dinner table, Didi and Mac having engineered kitchen production, with Maureen and Didi’s cousin Caitlin working on assigned tasks like hired help.
Mac’s brother, Evan, sits across the table from Maureen. He comments on Didi’s great-grandmother’s gold-leaf wine glasses. Maureen cuts her squash and squints at Evan. In a plaid shirt, khakis and sandals, he’s a tech writer, but she is not sure what this means.
“Freelancing,” she says.
“Freelancing at what?” he asks, suddenly serious.
“Right now I’m writing for a start-up,” she says, “and I’m hoping to start writing wine reviews. Where do you work?”
She remembers the Norton anthologies of literature in college.
“Anti-virus security.” He stares at her through small black glasses.
She nods. She is very hungry. The kitchen was hot, but Caitlin was fun. Caitlin hates yoga. “It’s boring!” she said loudly to irk Didi. Maureen smiles, chewing, as Mac gesticulates about the series of articles he has been following in the Chronicle.
“Yeah, listen up! Most teenagers identify themselves as bisexual these days! Whoa!” He smiles as he cuts his beef tip.
Didi says, “Oh, they ‘explore’ their sexuality in class, apparently.”
“On our tax dollars!”
“Statistics prove!” someone yells.
“It’s inconceivable to me,” Evan says, “that these teenagers can say to reporters that they are homosexual.”
“Didn’t you know?” Maureen asks him. “I mean, didn’t you know who you liked in high school?”
“Maureen Keane speaks,” Didi says, “and she’s deranged enough to date on the internet!”
Maureen hears a gasp. She stares at Evan. Boy or girl? It’s simple, she is thinking as she scrapes her chair along the refinished floors, turns for the kitchen, pours herself selzer. She doesn’t say a word through dessert.
She writes till two a.m., eighty men have written. The NIH didn’t call, shit. She wants to arrange eight dates for this week. A stock analyst with a cute upper lip writes late Saturday night. So does a piano tuner named Andres.
In his photo, Andres stands next to sailboats and two friends, and he looks like a fantasy of buff Euro-chic. Sunday morning at six Andres writes again. She sends her number, and he calls while she is cleaning up the dishes from last night. “What are you doing later on?” Andres asks. She chats with his thick voice. She agrees to meet him at Yancy’s near Golden Gate Park.
She is running late, but she meets Andres outside the bar. He’s in a leather jacket, smaller than in his photo. His face is smaller, too. They find a table away from the dartboards and the bar, order, and he talks first, then she talks. She doesn’t care what they talk about. After a couple of drinks, they talk about dinner. They decide on an Italian place across the street. They hate the food. “I hate mussels!” “So do I!” “I hate Republicans!” “So do I!” They try sharing food. They both like cheese. “I love mozzarella,” Andres says. “So do I,” she says. “But you don’t like me.” “Yes, I do,” he says. “But you don’t want to sleep with me,” she says. “Yes, I do,” he says, slamming his hands on the table, coughs and wheezes. “You do?” “Yes, I do,” he says, slamming his hands on the table again.
They kiss in the car, on the way to her bedroom, strip once inside. She sucks him, he is thick, with a large vein. “Do you like my big breasts?” she asks while he is sucking her nipples. He nods. “Show me how much,” she says, and he laughs, and sucks harder. She screams, remembers Mac and Didi down the hall. “I have to be quiet,” she says. They rock and suck, until they roll off each other and she is half off the bed. He pulls her up, and she grabs him, laughing. He immediately wants to smoke.
“But I want to kiss,” she says, her arm across his chest. “We can’t smoke in here. My housemates.”
He pulls on his jeans. There is a thick scar splitting his chest in half from clavicle to navel. She leads him to the fire escape. Even though he has a cough, she gives him a cigarette from her pack.
“Where did you get that scar?” she asks.
“Open heart surgery,” he says, looking past her. “My third. I have a congenital defect.” He exhales. “I just started back to work, this week.” Their gazes meet. She nods. “This was fun,” he says, and kisses her. He begins to dress.
On Monday morning the stock analyst calls. He says that he worked all weekend. “You have a nice voice,” he says. She thanks him, wondering how long Andres would live, smoking and wheezing after open-heart surgery. “Why did you write me back?” the stock analyst, Christian, asks. She says that he sounds nice and is attractive.
“I’m glad to hear you say that, Maureen,” he says. “How tall are you?” She answers five, five.
“How much do you weigh?” he asks. How much do I weigh? Well, how much money do you make? she thinks.
She says, “If you can get me on the scales, you can weigh me.”
“Are you shaved, or Brazilian?” Christian asks. Maureen says that she is getting another call, and Christian says truth or dare, to tell him about her waxing, and not to wear underwear to lunch.
He writes her again in the morning, how buxom are you? he wants to know.
Christian is as tall as the NBA. He doesn’t look like his picture, but he is dusted with a tan, his hair sandy, his eyes limpid gray. They squint at each other in the sun through their chatter on the sidewalk outside the Royal Grove and have coffee out of bowl-sized cups.
“Why are you on Special Friends?” he asks.
“What do you mean?”
“It’s like a blind date,” he says, rolling his eyes. “I’ve never done this before.”
Maureen offers him her hand. “It’s nice to meet you. It’s not quite like a blind date.”
“Yeah, let’s walk.” He swaggers away and smiles into the sun. She joins him, and he says, “Well, truth or dare,” and winks.
“Did you?” she asks. “You’re the one who made the dare.”
He laughs. “No, I didn’t.”
Maureen is looking for lunch. “Where did you park?” Christian asks.
“Illegally,” she quips. “I’d better feed my meter.”
“We can take my car.”
“Why don’t we eat some place around here?”
“Why don’t we go to my place? My cleaning lady should be gone by now,” Christian says, facing her.
“I’m looking for lunch, and you’re looking for a nooner,” she says.
“A nooner, you know, instead of lunch, people have sex.”
“You mean a hook-up.” He nods, ambling along boutiques and cafés.
“There’s a restaurant in my hometown Fresno called Nooner’s. So people can have lunch first. But we’re not in Fresno, are we?”
“I’m not looking for lunch,” he says.
“Then I guess I was looking for coffee,” she says, turns around, and walks the other way. It used to be called a nooner, she thinks as looks for change for the meter.
The volume of responses to her fun, cool posting is overwhelming. She writes Christa at Special Friends about this, who replies that it is up to her as to how to revise her posting to attract dates. That’s right, she is only freelance. She has drafts of wine reviews to finish for Wine Zone tonight, too. So she revises her posting, keeping the fun, cool and hassle-free part, but adding “professional writer” with details to weed out men who might not want a professional woman.
This strategy does not work. She is deluged with responses again, numbering close to one hundred. She ponders the phenomenon of the internet. Men must like her photo, some don’t even seem to have read her posting when they reply. She screens from among the new replies, lining up dates for this week. The faster she dates, the sooner she will get her paycheck.
To begin yoga class, Janelle reads a poem, dimming the lights. Didi has brought a client of hers, Lauren, so after class, they share stories about where their life paths have run in parallel universes after the class.
Maureen doesn’t talk to Didi. She touches her toes in Triangle pose, grabs and holds her ankles in deep stretches where her torso hangs upside-down.
In her room, she writes to Seth, her next new Special Friend. He calls, he is the eldest of five Baptist brothers. “Is it okay that I’m going through a divorce?” he asks.
“How recently?” she asks.
“It was over a year ago,” Seth answers, “but I just haven’t gotten around to doing anything about it till now.”
“Of course, no problem.”
“420, are you 420-friendly?” he asks.
“Marijuana. I smoke pot.”
“Not a lot. Just in the evenings.”
Maureen drinks wine not a lot, in the evenings. “No problem,” she says. She doesn’t want to eat an Italian meal, family style, with this man. She doesn’t want to meet this man, but she needs a fifth Special Friend to fulfill her contract, so she agrees to meet him in the bar of a retro-diner the next day.
There is a knock, it’s Mac. “What are you doing tomorrow night?” he asks.
Maureen looks up from her email. “I have a deadline this weekend.”
“Do you want to see the new IMAX movie? Didi has to work.”
“What is it?”’
“It’s the U2 movie. They don’t stay at the Metreon very long,” he says.
“I could see a late show,” she says.
“Cool, let’s meet there. There’s a ten o’clock show.”
Maureen can meet Seth at six, kill time at the Mall of the Metreon, then meet Mac.
She sits at Little Joe’s bar for almost a half hour, sampling a local cabernet, taking notes on a cocktail napkin, when she spots someone who might be Seth, but with shoulder-length hair. He is stoned and, proudly, shows her a montage of his rare breed of cats, which he got in the divorce, and is stored on his cell phone. She wonders if he has pictures of any people. She begins scratching her forearms.
“Stupid allergy,” she says. “One of the downsides of being a wine reviewer. I’ve become allergic to the sulfites in red wine. I really should stick to organic wines.” She tells him that she is afraid she is going to have to leave and points to what could be a welt rising on her forearm.
She calls Mac from the parking lot, under lights unflinching as a prison yard’s, but gets his voicemail. She wishes she could spend the evening alone, prepare coq au vin slowly and gently, and eat it alone, or eat it with anyone. She stays in her car, scribbles notes on her cocktail napkin. “Beware the Seth-ually Ambiguous,” she dubs her date number five for her road show article number five. What about “Men with Cats?” She can’t write either.
Maureen wanders the chic Metreon, palm devices in yellow and pink gyrating in shop windows like enameled tulips. Past twin revolving doors to the street, gusts of wind lift trench coats, batting the squints of passersby. She pushes out onto Fifth Street. On the corner of Mission and Fifth, a street person with open sores on his feet and legs lifts his eyes to her. Head down, she steps past his cardboard mat.
“A little change?” he calls.
She has less than ten dollars in her purse, enough for a burger and fries later with Mac.
“I’m sorry, I don’t have any,” she says.
Her phone beeps. “Hey, where are you?” It’s Mac.
“Wandering the Mall of the Future, where are you?”
“I got our tickets. Meet me upstairs.”
Maureen and Mac sit in their IMAX seats tilted like a pair of astronauts. Bono and the band fly past, chords and lyrics purge their senses. Mac stomps whenever he hears the first notes of his favorite songs. Two hours later, they emerge from the theatre, and Mac says, “I feel like a pint.”
“I feel like a drive-through.”
“You got it,” Mac says, and they swing by the Edinburgh Castle for a couple of pints of ale, swing through Jack-in-the-Box on the way home. In the flat Mac torques the volume in his sound system with more U2. They hop around the living room in their socks to “Sunday, Bloody Sunday.”
“A package from Kyle came today!” Mac shouts over the music. He disappears into his office and returns with a box and places it at her feet. “Go ahead! Open it!”
Maureen sees her name in Kyle’s familiar hand. Mac disappears again, returns with an exact-o knife. She takes it and slits the package open. Some of her books, a sweater, and a stuffed teddy bear are inside, no letter. A stuffed animal from her husband?
She punches Mac on the shoulder. “How about a game of darts?”
They retreat to the garage with beer, where the dartboard hangs. They set up, Mac hits twenty-five points, and she launches a dart from the Warrior pose when the garage door opens, the headlights of Didi’s Saab blanching their bodies. Didi stops the car. Mac waves to her.
“Hey, hey,” she calls. “I’m not interrupting a tournament or anything, am I?”
“No, we were just getting started.”
She walks toward them with shopping bags. “Looks like beer. Smells like beer,” she says. “What have you two been up to?”
“Beer and more beer!” Mac laughs, aims and throws a dart. “We saw the U2 movie. IMAX, Didi! Fucking awesome! Wasn’t it, Mo?”
Maureen smiles. “Unbelievable!”
Didi reels, heels clicking away, shopping bags crunching at her side.
Mac shouts after her, “Sorry you had to work, babe!”
Maureen detects a theme emerging for her articles when her sixth Special Friend meets her on Market Street for drinks and dinner and is ten years older than his internet photo. She should write about first impressions being important, but aren’t illusion and appearances being deceiving a more relevant topic? She has a mild hangover, so she orders a coke. She hears this James talking about his job at the utility company while she thinks of Andres, Christian, of David and Krystoff.
“Do you think this is going to go anywhere?” James asks suddenly.
“I beg your pardon?”
“I mean, is this the way you have fun? You’re not talking.”
“I’m sorry. I’ve been working a lot lately. I’m just relaxing for a minute.”
“Because if you don’t think this is going anywhere, then I’m out of here.” James has drunk half his beer. He’s aggressive, no doubt. “We don’t seem to be hitting it off.” He throws down a ten-dollar bill.
“We’re all so fragile,” she murmurs.
“What? What did you say?”
“I said, `No one looks like their internet photo.’”
“What about you, huh? When was yours taken?”
“I don’t remember, a party a few years ago. The other one, two weeks ago.” She studies the wine list. When she looks up, he is gone.
She’s glad she has some time to work on her articles when she arrives at Mac and Didi’s and the flat is empty and dark. She writes, looks up, dark is still dark, writes until she’s tired. Krystoff wants to see her again. Does she want to see any of her Special Friends again?
Didi knocks and enters. “Hey girl, you up? Hey, Lauren, you remember my client, she wants us to try this new class tomorrow. It’s called Touch Yoga! You want to go? It sounds crazy!”
“Touch yoga. What is it?”
“She gave me the DVD. Come on, let’s check it out.”
They watch in the home theater, and Touch Yoga reminds Maureen of the Twister game from the 1960s. People try not to touch.
“It’s a combination of yoga and dance,” Didi says. “See, you touch without touching. You feel the vibrations of the other person, see whom you resonate with.”
In the DVD, people appear vibrate. “Looks pretty lame to me,” Maureen says. “They’re not vibrating. Those are special effects.”
“They say sometimes you can actually see another person’s aura.”
“I’m having enough trouble with standing up and bending over. I don’t think I could do Touch Yoga. Looks hard.”
“What’s the matter with you?” Didi snaps.“You’ll play Russian Roulette with your life on the streets of San Francisco, but you won’t try spiritual touching.”
“I think I’ll pass,” Maureen says.
“Oh, the sweet ironies of life.” Didi yanks the DVD out of the drawer. “I know why `conundrum’ is my favorite word. Life is a conundrum, every day.” She stomps into the bedroom.
Maureen has thirteen dates to go, in six days. Number Seven, Graham, is tall and looks strong in his photo, but she ignores all expectations. They meet at a Starbuck’s. Over mochaccino, he reaches across the table, stroking her fingers with his.
“Hey,” he says, “I just want to be open with you. I have herpes, but I don’t have an outbreak right now.”
She begins to mentally compose a paragraph about STDs, using the proper acronyms for online daters. She holds his hand. He tells her about his time in the Gulf War, that he’s lived in Turkey, Alaska, and briefly, Kuwait. They leave the café.
Graham is nice, and she wishes that he didn’t have herpes. “Maybe we should be Special Friends who can’t really touch,” she whispers. They find a place under a pepper tree and kiss among branches tangled deep like damask, and they kiss for a long time good-night.
Mac is strewn over the sectional couch, watching reruns, when Maureen returns to the flat. “You there, how goes it in the trenches?” he calls to her. A sitcom laugh track screeches, halts.
“Hard to describe. It’s like a day riding mass transportation.”
Didi tromps across the living room with a basket full of clean laundry and plops it in front of Mac. “Your turn this week. You missed last week,” she says.
The actor on the sitcom brags about his manhood. The actress tops him with a multiple orgasm joke. Mac howls.
“So-rry, guys!” Maureen laughs at the joke. Mac winks at her.
“You—“ Didi jeers at Maureen. “You, out there working for an internet website, which is basically prostitution but nobody pays. Why don’t you go back to your husband?” she hisses.
Maureen retreats to her room. While she writes emails, she can hear Mac’s low voice punctuated by short bursts from Didi coming from their room. Buddy wanders in and settles to sleep on her floor.
In the morning, Didi reads the paper with coffee. Maureen pours herself a cup. Her voice sweet, Didi says, “Last night, Mac and I were talking, and I couldn’t remember how long it’s been that you’ve been staying here.”
“Since Labor Day,” she says. “Remember?”
“Oh, that’s right. I do.”
“Do you want me to pay rent now? Because I want to.”
“No, that’s fine.” Didi looks at her directly. “I need a lot of space. Mac respects my need for space in our home, do you know what I mean? I need to find my center, do you know what I mean?”
Maureen assures Didi that yes, she does know what she means. But Maureen has to go or she will be late for a meeting and a date. Before she leaves, she clicks on local housing ads, scans the rents for studio apartments for rent. There is a message from James: “You again! Still on Special Friends? That photo has to be at least 5 years old!”
Christa looks over her glasses at Maureen when she enters the office. “Well, how goes the dating?” she asks.
“Good, I’m on Number Eight.”
“Have you come up with any catch phrases for our members?”
Random. Deceptive. Crass. But Maureen says, “It’s hard to describe after only seven dates. I don’t think it’s realistic to give anything but first-timer dating tips. And I don’t think twenty men in twenty days are realistic either. I have all that I can handle right now.”
Christa agrees tips would be more helpful for their members and tells Maureen to date at least ten men and up to twenty by the end of the contract.
She has to meet Nils at the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. Maureen has never been, so she arrives early. Each gallery is uniquely designed, each uniquely appointed with art, and the windows afford provocative vistas of the park. From the observation tower, the hills and the Bay and the blue peace of the Pacific ripple westward.
It’s four-ten. Maureen hurries to the elevator. She takes a seat on the patio in the sun and orders a glass of local chardonnay. Momentarily a man speaks to her.
“Yes,” she says.
“I’m Nils,” he says, shaking her hand, looming above her.
She can’t recall his occupation. They begin to talk. They talk about art. They also talk about the Park and where they parked. She suggests an exhibit.
As they wander gallery by gallery, oak tempering every wall and window, he talks easily about the Chinese and African collections, he says that he saw a leather headrest for a pharaoh when he was in Egypt on business. They rest on an oak bench in a gallery overlooking a palm grove, where an artist has dropped balls of emerald glass beneath the trees. They decide to leave the Park.
At the stoplight there are many restaurants and shops, and they want to eat. Maureen remembers the name of a restaurant Didi likes on Ninth and Irving. Nils agrees. While they are waiting for a table, he talks languidly. He asks her if she has been married. She says that she is still married. And you? she asks. He says that he is widowed.
“She died?” Maureen asks, holding her glass of pinot grigio.
“Eighteen months ago.”
She remembers the Indian custom of mourning. “What did she die of? Should you even be dating?” she asks, then quickly adds, “I am really sorry. About your wife.”
He says she died of a sports aneurysm. Ordering shark, she has never heard of a sports aneurysm, and he finds what he loves on the menu, pork, and he’ll have a tall microbrew.
“I’m really up after all that art,” she says while they dine. He nods, wipes his mouth, and pays the bill.
They walk, and nearby is Shaughnessey’s. “Let’s go here!” Nils says as if he has never seen an Irish pub before. She is trying to pinpoint his last name. They stroll in, he orders two shots of Jameson. She says no, they will share, that she outgrew her pirate days after college. They sip out of the same shot glass as she spots the sofa.
“This is so lame!” she shouts, bouncing on the springs protruding from the sofa. “Boing! Boing!” she shouts.
He laughs, sitting next to her. He hooks her head with his arm. They laugh on the sagging Victorian couch, toasting each other, and he kisses her. He buys another round and she says no while she is laughing and smiling, and they find each other, thighs and jeans, until he says, “Let’s go,” and everyone in the pub stands and claps while they leave.
“My car is too far from here. I need a cab.”
“I’ll give you a ride,” Nils says. His kiss stuns her.
“Where did you park?”
“The tennis courts.”
She follows, she needs to get home to her bed. She has to find a new place to live.
The tennis courts are close, and Nils’s silver Mazda lies under a trailing oak. He kisses her at every red light, fingers her along the way. She tries to find her cell phone.
“You’re too drunk to drive,” he says in a driveway. He parks the car in the garage. He takes her by the hand, and she follows him upstairs. He deadbolts the door when they’re inside. They pull each other’s clothes off and stumble into the bathroom. She falls into a tiled corner where he rips her bra and panties off, and she sucks him, his thrusts hurt her, her shoulders against the tub and tiles.
They are still fucking, now on his bed, and during he says, “We have chemistry.”
“What do you want for breakfast?” he asks. She has barely slept, spinning from wine.
“Coffee,” she answers. “A bagel.”
“I’ll be back,” he shouts.
Mac and Didi would say that the floor plan of Nils’s apartment was sub-standard. Maureen finds it angular and odd. Nils’s body is gargantuan, his long thighs strapping her last night, stalking a shirt this morning in his closet. He returns, gives her coffee and has today’s racing forms in one hand. He marks the page with numbers, circles them in pencil. Wearing one of his shirts, Maureen eats her bagel, scans the racing form with its circled numbers and surmises they are bets.
“Was your wife doing sports when she died?” Maureen asks.
“No, she was gardening. I found her in the garden,” Nils says. “She was doing something she loved.” He takes the paper and walks to the bedroom. She follows him, shucks his shirt, sidles alongside his body on the bed, and they fuck again, twice. His phallus lying along her thighs, she bends her knees to her shoulders the way she did last night against his weight in the bathroom, and he rolls off her. He reaches for the racing page, shaking.
She could form the Table Pose for him, like a bookend for him to lean on. She breathes deeply. She’ll need to buy a new bed soon. What pose could she make up so that he would at least calm down? She drops her legs and plants her feet on the mattress and looks at him, scribbling. “Here,” she says, “You’re shaking. Use my legs. Write on me.”
Copyright © 2009 Mary Frances Potter
Mary Frances Potter’s “Low Res,” the first chapter of her novel-in-progress, was a finalist in Barrelhouse Magazine’s “Office Life” short fiction contest in 2009. Her story, “Warm Hands” appeared in Grub Street in 1995; “Cualquiera,” in The Rambler , 2005. Her feature-length script, Under the Burqa, was a quarter-finalist in Chicago’s Cinestory competition in 1999, and her story “Come Get Your Elk,” a semi-finalist in the William Faulkner/ Pirate’s Alley Fiction Competition in 1994.