I wonder if monkeys get nervous when they first meet other monkeys. To a certain degree, I imagine – a primal response, nothing near what we go through. Only a human can be so neurotic about it: brushing three times to scrub that annoying coffee stain off the two front teeth, changing a shirt from a polo to a button-up and back to a polo again, using the warped reflection of a wine glass to position that one piece of hair just right, waiting at a strange Korean restaurant for a woman I met on the internet. Only a human could be so complicated.
“You order now,” the waitress says in her sharp accent. I’m not sure if she’s asking me or commanding me.
My smile is painted on. “I’m waiting for my date.”
It’s strange to hear myself say my date. I haven’t been on a date since before I was married. Thirteen years is a long time.
“You order spring roll.”
Before I can answer she zips away. I guess she wasn’t asking, she was telling me. Oddly, I’m comforted by that. Spring rolls could be good.
Forty-five minutes and five glasses of wine later, she walks in. The woman in blue. She’s better looking than I imagined, with strawberry blonde hair, a nice body for a woman past her prime, and she’s tall. Although she seems bogged down by all her jewelrypearl necklace, pearl earrings, pearl bracelet. I can’t help but think of New Year’s Eve and how my grandmother would smear on bright red lipstick and pile on all that garish costume jewelry. Her treasure she had called it.
Ignoring the pounding in my chest, I wave to the woman in blue. I try to read her face to see what she thinks of this overworked, over-the-hill, neurotic excuse of a man in front of her. She must play poker. If she approves, I can’t tell. Her face stays sculpted, forever tired, yet hopeful.
“You must be Bill,” she says.
I stand up and offer my hand. “Karen, I presume. Or, the woman in blue.” I laugh. She doesn’t. Air quotes probably didn’t help. I pull out her chair to distract from the blood rushing to my face. We sit down, and I feel as if I am interviewing for a job. I should have padded my resume.
“Sorry I’m late. Traffic was bald,” Her eyes grow two sizes, “Bad. Traffic was really bad.” It’s her turn to laugh, a forced water-from-the-spigot sound.
Despite the fact that she Freudian-slipped on the smooth surface of my forehead, I manage a feeble smile. She asks if I have eaten. I tell her no, but that I had decided on some spring rolls. She says that spring rolls could be good. As we wait for the food, an uncomfortable silence squeezes in. It’s like we’re both wondering the same thing.
I gather what little courage I have left and ask her, “Do you do this often?”
She blushes, and I feel my ears burning.
“You mean go to Korean restaurants?” she says.
“No, I mean – ”
“I know what you meant. Do I always troll the internet and look for random men to date?”
I go to adjust my tie, then remember I wore the polo. “It’s just that you’re so pretty. I can’t imagine you having trouble finding a date.”
She stares at me. My stomach eats itself.
“You’d be surprised,” she smiles. “How about you? You do this often?”
I hesitate. I couldn’t tell her no, that I have never been on a blind date, and that, as a matter of fact, I have a wife at home, glued to the TV, watching Seinfeld reruns. “Once or twice,” I lie.
“Would you like to have sex tonight?” she says, her voice light and casual, like she’s asking if I want to go for ice cream afterwards.
“Yes,” my mouth replies.
“Good. Let’s eat and get the small talk out of the way.”
The spring rolls arrive. She tells me that she sells makeup, and I tell her I work at the University. Explaining that I search the human genome for specific markers that relate to language and learning would probably put her to sleep. We talk about different things, though I’m not really paying attention because I’m so nervous. I guess it does come down to the primal
in the end. All the brushing and changing and second-guessing are no more than bells and whistles we hang on our baser nature. Across the table sits some beautiful stranger (and she is somehow more beautiful now) who wants to have sex with me. I twist a napkin around my finger, listening to her story, nodding in all the right places.
But my thoughts turn to my wife.
Jillian – it’s worse when I think her name. We had been in love once. That love had slowly evolved into this ugly beast that each of us refused to claim. I had my part in it, she had hers. The more time I spent at work, the more she shut me out. Ironically, as my knowledge of humanity grew at the molecular level, my understanding of the woman I married eluded me on the macro level. I thought that if I could just figure out what makes us tick, then maybe I would learn how to save our marriage. It seems some answers are beyond learning. I used to believe it would get better, but it hasn’t. I have stopped believing. It has been six months since we last slept together. Six months. I need this. I deserve this. I
Karen interrupts my thoughts. “What do you believe in?”
“Like what religion am I,” I ask.
“I was brought up Baptist,” I say.
“You’re not anymore?”
I think for a moment. “I don’t really believe in anything.”
“That’s impossible. You have to have some opinion on where we came from.”
This conversation has taken a huge detour, and I’m not one for scenery. “I guess I believe in evolution.”
“So, you think we’re a bunch of mutated monkeys?”
I laugh. It feels good to laugh. “Funny you should mention that. I was thinking about monkeys earlier tonight.”
The way she looks at me makes me feel that I might very well be a mutated monkey. “You don’t think there is more out there?”
“Not until I collect sufficient data.”
“Oh,” she looks at her plate. “How is that going for you?”
“What do you believe in?” I say, offering her the hot seat.
“Love,” she says.
It takes everything I have to hold back a fit of laughter.
She continues, “It’s what makes us special, makes life worth living.”
“That’s why you want to have sex with me?” I say it a bit too loud. The woman next to us pins me with her eyes as she turns her little boy’s face back to his dinner. Karen shakes her head. “That’s not love. That’s what we do to bide time until we find it. Love is more than sex. It’s sticking it out through thick and thin.”
All of a sudden I feel very alone. I take a bite of my spring roll, but it’s gone cold. All around me the restaurant is alive with laughter, with the waitress chastising the cook, a woman touching a man’s elbow and him favoring her with a smile a thousand genomes could never explain. I realize something: perhaps there is some unknown force that governs our existence, but if not, if we are just primates, then only a human can be in a room full of people and be completely, utterly alone. I believe, if nothing else, that makes us special.
“I have to go,” I apologize and fish out money for the bill. I leave without saying goodbye.
My house is dark, except for the occasional flash from the TV that lights up the windows. A thunderstorm awaits inside. When I open the front door, Jillian is right where I left her. She doesn’t look up. I stand next to the couch with the keys in my hand.
“How was work?”
“You want to see a movie?” I ask, “With me?” I feel like it’s Junior Prom all over again.
She looks up, confused, then turns back to the TV. “Maybe later. My show’s not over.”
I sit on the couch next to her. “We’ve seen this one already.”
“Yeah, but it’s a good one.”
I want to put my arm around her, but I don’t. I know that I have to take it slow.
“Yeah,” I say, “This is a good one.”