Thursday night, Robert leaves a message with his sister's phone number; I copy it down and pick up the phone to call him back.
"Not yet," Faith says. "Make him wonder a little."
"Isn't that rude?" I say.
"No," Faith says, "rude is not writing that thank-you note to the gay couple who had you out to Connecticut three weeks ago."
"I don't know why you hang out with them anyway!" Bonnie says, looking up from a big bowl of popcorn. "Gay men hate women."
"Excuse me?" I say.
"It's true," Faith says.
"Why am I listening to you?" I ask.
Faith says, "Because you don't want to sleep with Edith Wharton for the rest of your life?"
I call Robert back from work.
"Eight o'clock okay?" he says.
I agree, barely able to keep the thrill out of my voice.
Bonnie points to her little watch and in a singsongy voice says, "Hang up!"
I say, "Look, I have to go."
After I hang up, Bonnie says, "Short conversations! And you be the one who gets off the phone first!"
Faith nods. "Make him long for you."
The square dance is way on the East Side, in the Twenties, just a gym with a caller in braids. I spot Liz, adorable in overalls, and Henry, still in his suit.
"Howdy-do," I say.
I stand with my brother and Liz. Here I am at a party on a Friday night and I have a date tomorrow. I think, I am a dater; I am a snorkeler in the social swim.
Faith says, "Feels good, doesn't it?"
Much clapping and stamping and yee-hawing. I can't clap, of course, but I'm about to let out a yee-haw when Faith shakes her head.
"I was just having a good time," I say.
Faith reminds me that that's not what I'm here for.
"This is a singles dance!" Bonnie says, clapping right in time.
Liz says that we should be dancing, and when I agree, she takes it upon herself to find a partner for me.
The guy she brings back is Gus, the stage manager, a big teddy bear with a fuzzy face and teeth so tiny they make him appear not to have any.
He's aware of performing a kindness; he seems to regard me as poor, plain Catherine from Washington Square or poor, sick Laura from The Glass Menagerie.
He takes my hand and leads me danceward.
"Bow to your partner," Braidy says. "Ladies, curtsy."
When Gus and I promenade, he smiles encouragement at me, like I'm Clara from Heidi and he's teaching me how to walk. But I suddenly remember square dancing in gym circa third grade, and it's the nine year old in me swinging my partner and do-si-doing.
"Great!" Bonnie says.
Faith offers up a restrained, "Yee-haw."
After dancing, I'm about to say I'm parched as a possum, but Faith interrupts: "Say, `Let's get something cold to drink,'" and those are the words I say.
"Sure," Gus says.
We go to the beer-sticky bar, and Faith says, "Ask him what a stage manager does."
"Men love to talk about themselves!" Bonnie says.
So I ask, and he says, "I do what no one else wants to do."
I'm told to smile as though captivated.
Sipping a beer herself, Faith says, "Now let him do the work."
I am only too happy to oblige.
Bonnie says, "Let your eyes wander around the dance floor!" But this seems unkind.
"He's a prospect," Faith says, "not a charity."
I look around, and Gus, trying to regain my attention, asks me if I'd like to dance again.
Bonnie says, "One dance per customer."
Instead of saying a jokey Much obliged, but I should join my kin, I anticipate Faith and say, "It was nice meeting you, Gus."
Like a caller herself, Bonnie says, "Circulate!" And I do.
Faith says, "Do not establish eye contact."
"Really?" I ask.
"You think that's the only way to get a man to notice you, don't you?" she says.
"You poor lamb!" Bonnie says.
I've never acknowledged this even to myself. I sound pathetic.
"Yes," Faith says, "especially because nothing is more compelling to a man than a lack of interest."
To my astonishment, she's right. Men appear out of nowhere and glom on to me. Bonnie and Faith tell me what to do, and I obey: I refuse a second dance with a man I'm actually attracted to; I don't enter the pie-eating contest; I ask questions like "What kind of law do you practice?"
By the end of the night, my phone number is in a half-dozen pockets. "This never happened to me before," I tell Faith.
She says, "I know I should feign surprise."
When my brother and Liz walk me to my bike, he says, "Who were those guys you were talking to?"
"Who knows?" I say, giddy with the freedom to make jokes. "I feel like the belle of the ball."
He says, "The ho of the hoedown."
"You know what just occurred to me?" I say, laughing. "I went to a singles square dance in a gym, to meet men."
When Liz says, "You can't think that way," I'm reminded of Faith in personnel saying, "Just do the best you can."
I wonder if my brother is going to marry her.
Right before Robert arrives, Bonnie says, "Don't be too eager!" When I look in the mirror, my smile is huge and my eyes bugged out with anticipation. I tell myself to think of death. When that doesn't work, I think of yesterday's brainstorming session to name a new auto club for frequent drivers.
Robert buzzes. I open the door and he looks as excited as I did a moment before. He sees Jezebel and gets on his knees and rubs her haunches. "Jezzie," he says.
"Do you want a glass of wine?" I ask.
He follows me into the kitchen. He's still in apartment-hunting mode, he says, and do I mind if he looks around?
"Go ahead," I say, and he goes.
He asks if I've had a chance to check on vacancies in my building, and I'm reminded of Erich von Stroheim in Sunset Boulevard saying, "It wasn't Madame he wanted, it was her car."
"I'm sorry--I haven't," I say, and if I were in one of his cartoons, there would be icicles hanging from my balloon.
Maybe he hears it, because he's quiet a moment. He walks around my living room and stops at the table with my little cardboard barnyard animals on their wooden stands. He picks up each one--the bull, the lamb, the pig, the cow--and reads the breed information on the back. I say that I found them at a flea market in upstate New York; I pictured little farm kids coming in from their chores to play with their cardboard cows and lambs. I'm about to explain what I find moving and also funny, but I see that I don't have to.
He goes to my bookshelves and notices my portable typewriters from the fifties. He whispers their names, SILENT and QUIET DELUXE, which is what I did when I first saw them.
Over dinner, at a goofy little French place in the neighborhood, he asks how I got into advertising.
Bonnie says, "Don't be negative!"
"It started as a day job," I say. I tell him that I thought I'd write plays or novels or appliance manuals at night. But advertising made my I.Q. go down; every night I had to work just to get it back up to regular.
"What did you do?" he asks.
I got rid of my TV, I tell him, and read classics.
"Like which ones?"
"Middlemarch was the first," I say.
He laughs. "You say it like you're not sure I've heard of it."
We keep talking books, and when I tell him that Anna Karenina is my favorite, it seems to have the effect "I'm not wearing any underwear" has on other men.
I say, "The good thing about reading is that you never get blocked--and every page is really well written." He smiles, but seriously, and I can tell he hears what I'm not saying.
I ask about his work, and he says that it's hard to describe cartoons--you wind up just saying the plot, and his cartoons never have one. "I'll show them to you," he says.
When I ask him why he left L.A., he tells me that it was the loneliest place on earth. "Especially when you're hanging out with people," he says. "Everybody smiles at your jokes."
He loves New York, he says. "It's like Oberlin--it's where people who don't belong anywhere belong."
Only when Faith tells me to stop gazing do I realize that I am. I look down at his hand on the table. I see the indent where he holds his pen, which is slightly darkened from ink he couldn't wash off.
Bonnie says, "Ask if he uses a computer."
"You don't use a computer?" I say, which seems like the most mundane question I could ask.
"Just for the animation," he says. "I'm a Luddite, like you on your--" he whispers, "--QUIET DELUXE."
I don't know what a Luddite is, but Bonnie won't let me ask.
When the check comes, Faith says, "Don't even look at it."
"Let him pay!" Bonnie says.
"What are you thinking about?" Robert asks, putting his credit card in the leatherette folder. "$87.50 for your thoughts."
"Be mysterious!" Bonnie says.
"Excuse me," I say, and go to the ladies' room.
"The red wine stained your teeth a little," Bonnie says, handing me a tissue. "Just rub the front ones."
"Listen," I say to them, "I appreciate what you're trying to do for me, but I think I'm better off on my own with Robert."
"Last night wasn't a fluke," Faith says.
"But Robert's different," I say.
"The only difference is that you want him," Faith says.
Bonnie says, "Which is why you need us more than ever!"
On the way home, Robert takes my hand in his, not lacing our fingers, but really taking ownership of my whole hand.
"Let go of his hand first," Faith says.
I love holding hands. In my entire dating life I have never let go first.
"You can do it," Faith says, and I make myself.
At my door, instead of asking if he can come in, Robert asks if he can take Jezebel out with me.
"On our first date?" I say.
"If you let me," he says, "I'll respect you even more."
Outside, he meets the neighborhood dogs--and says what I always do: "Can I say hello to your dog?" His favorites are my favorites--Flora, the huge bulldog; Atlas, the harlequin Great Dane.
I think, You love dogs as much as I do.
Back at my apartment, I take Jezebel off her leash, and in my mini-vestibule, he leans toward me and we kiss.
"The date ends now," Faith says. "It's not going to get better."
"Okay," I say in my love daze. "Good night, Robert."
His eyes look disappointed, and I want to touch his hand or pull him toward me, but Bonnie says, "Keep him guessing!" And I do.
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