Sunday, February 21, 2010

HItting Below the Belt

Back in the 80s, my brother Garrett played guitar in a punk band in La Crosse, Wisconsin called The Mall Weirdos. On the 8X10 glossy black and white, promo pic he sent home to Albuquerque, the drummer’s autograph read, “Just Plain Ward.”

I’ve known a few like that. I seem to attract them like a rare earth super magnet. You know, the kind that can rip pacemakers out of people's chests or make fillings fly out of your mouth?

Arnie the prep cook is a case in point. He was the timid salad and dessert guy at the Pirate’s Cove, a cute little seafood place on the Chesapeake Bay where I was a waitress in college. Arnie had a wandering eye, not as in one who cheats, but as in one who looks like Igor, in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN. A tall, skinny guy, with horn rimmed glasses, Arnie wore his curly blond locks pulled back in a pony tail, tucked inside his hair net. He wore corduroy pants and Birkenstocks, long before they were trendy, just the kind of hippie who normally made my heart go pitter-pat, if it weren't for that thing with his eyes, and oh yeah, I was married. At the ripe old age of 20, I’d already been married for a year. I did not flirt with Arnie. Really. I didn’t flirt with anybody, especially not the incommunicative, frequently grouchy, reclusive salad guy. All I did was be nice to him. That was my first mistake. The other was letting my guard down.

One night, we ran out of cole slaw in the middle of the dinner rush. One can not have fried flounder and hush puppies with no slaw. Arnie was cussing like a mad man, chopping and tossing cabbage into a five gallon plastic tub, back at the salad station when, of course, he sliced off a chunk of his finger. He was bleeding like a son of a bitch. Ralph the manager, ran in the kitchen, with a cigarette pursed between his lips, the long ash dangling precariously over the open wound, wrapped up the hand, sorted through the bloody cabbage on the cutting board in search of the divet, and rushed Arnie to the emergency room. They had to throw out the whole damn bucket of slaw. A couple of hours later, in walks Arnie, his hand wrapped in a giant bandage, and God love him, he continued to make salads for the rest of the night with his good hand. What Ralph thought was flesh, turned out to be a piece of onion.

To show our support for our cranky cook, we took Arnie out for drinks after work. I had to slip in unnoticed, since I was underage, Arnie and I took a booth in the back, while the older waitresses fetched the drinks. After a few, as the conversation got louder and looser, and folks had spanned out to dance or shoot pool, Arnie and I found ourselves alone in the booth, sitting next to each other.

“I want to tell you something," he said.

“Okay...” I figured he was going to apologize for being such as asshole when he was dragging on a Crab Louie.

“I uh...I really like you,” the words in his throat probably throbbed more than his finger did. “And, I think about you. You know?" he looked down at his hand in the sling, so I had no problem knowing which eye to look into. “Like, I think about you. A lot. ”

I didn’t know what to say. It felt really strange and I was a little drunk. I recall cocking my head, slightly to the side, the way one does when they’re admiring a puppy or a newborn baby, as in, “Awwww...isn't that cute?”

And he kissed me. He placed one very tender, scared, heartfelt kiss on my lips. And I let him.

Then, within seconds, I snapped, “OH SHIT!!!!” and said something really lame like, “I have to go now....” making a bee line out of the restaurant, carefully crawling along Shore Drive in my orange, Chevy Vega, to the cheatin’ side of life. Where, when I reached the apartment, I threw up and then I fessed up that Arnie the salad chef had laid a big ol’ kiss on me, to which my husband replied, “I’m gonna kick his ass.” But I prevailed upon him not to engage in any ass kickin' since Arnie was about six inches taller, and there might have been a teeny bit of confusion in the exchange, since I didn’t exactly fight him off....instead, simply making a clean get away and I promised him I’d handle it the next day at work, which I did, by telling Arnie that he simply could not think about me and that he was drunk and his finger was throbbing and we were just going to pretend the whole thing never happened. And I subsequently went to confession and spent the next five years trying to prove to myself, that at least in that one respect, I was not my mother’s daughter, seeing how she’d already been divorced, twice, by the time she was twenty one. I swear to God.

As things turned out, I did indeed do my penance a few years later; having to move back in with my parents, with a newborn baby, when my sailor husband was shipped overseas for 12 months, for what the Navy blandly calls an "unaccompanied tour." That year of him on Midway Island and me in Desperation Gulch, me and my darling baby and my crazy mom, and my sick step-dad and a budding alcoholic, juvenile delinquent little brother, well, Humpty Dumpty never got put back together again, it was the undoing of our young marriage.

And none of that was Arnie's fault. He was just a shy, misguided, pony-tailed, harmless recluse who was a little odd, who took me by surprise in a moment of weakness when I was very young. I should be old enough by now, however, to have seen this most recent mystifying male encounter coming. It was really strange.

And downright hateful.

I fessed up to my girlfriends about this bizarre kiss-and-tell tale at one of our recent wine and soup gabfests. This ain’t your mama’s coffee klatch. We do this in the winter -- a bunch of single gals, divorced, widowed, two dating, two just dabbling and an occasional married chick stops by, just to keep us honest about what can be. We take turns hosting, hot soup, red wine and sympathy. It’s a great way to beat the winter blahs and talk about men.

There was a new face in the mix at our last get together, at least new to me. And after a few glasses of pinot noir, she spilled about her 30-something cougar cub.

“I mean, I just gotta tell you, the sex is incredible. I can’t see this going anywhere, but, can I just tell you ? The sex is great.”

Well, good for her. Friends with benefits apparently isn’t just limited to high school. We discussed our various comfort levels with that kind of arrangement, and she, for one, is pretty darn comfortable with it, for now.

“After 25 years with one man, I just needed to know that I was capable of doing it, well not capable of doing it, you know...”

And we did. Everybody’s entitled to a “get back out there” guy.

Since we were being so honest, I felt the need to share, and receive, some sisterhood sanity. I confided, that, against my better judgement, I had sent one more email to hot-to-trot,, “Plays Guitar” dude. After I’d told folks (and wrote in my blog) that I had promptly kicked him to the curb after he whispered to me in my girlfriend’s family room that he wanted to rip my clothes off on our second date, (which I thought that was a bit much, a bit premature, a bit juvenile....albeit a tad bit flattering) I had to own up that I had not dismissed him quite as immediately as I had implied.

Truth is, in an after-the-party, lingering buzz, thinking, (how can one still be this naive?) that maybe the champagne had just gone to his head a bit much, and maybe when he isn't drinking champagne on New Year's Eve, (a.k.a. Amateur Night), he might be more acceptable, and maybe it was worth a daytime date to see if he could behave, (or not!) I sent him an email before I went to bed.

Do not EVER do this.

“Thanks for a fun evening. Perhaps we should test the chemistry under the harsh light of day? Maybe go for a walk or check out the Japanese exhibit at the art museum, go for coffee, (do you drink coffee ?) or something like this in the coming days, sans alcohol and dimly lit rooms? And speaking of alcohol, thanks for bringing the lovely bottle of champagne.”

Here is what he wrote back. This is precisely what I reported to the girls that night:

“Most all women I've known love me and hate me, sooner or later...In your case, the hate will probably happen sooner vs. right now...I find you to be an interesting and intelligent gal and a great conversationalist. So what's the problem? I'm not sure how to tell you this without hurting your feelings, but, only when I'm drunk do I want to rip your clothes off...”

The soup ladies screeched in horror !

“Oh my God, what a dick!"

"I can’t believe he said that! ”

“Who says something like that ?”

“That’s hitting below the belt, that’s just uncalled for.”

“I know” I said, feeling vindicated and not quite as embarrassed as I was when I brought it up. "The kicker is, I got another email from him the very next day, apologizing for his brutally honest email from the night before, saying he was drunk, but that didn’t change the fact that he still was not attracted to me! And then he asked if we could just be friends? ”

They howled this time, with the moral outrage of a woman who’s just been told her baby is ugly. They railed against this idiot, saying that nobody in their right mind would say something like that to a perfectly sweet, non-grotesque, great conversationalist.

“Don't even pay attention to him, he’s crazy!”

“What in the hell did you say back?”

I told them that I exercised GREAT restraint in not replying for days. And then finally, after days of contemplation, (nah, it didn’t get to me one little bit) I took the high road:

David, David, David, (how I'd love to insert your last name here...)

You give yourself airs. You haven't hurt my feelings. Honestly, I was extending the invitation to give you the benefit of the doubt. Thanks for letting me off the hook. I tend to be too nice, it's a character flaw."

Moral indignation or not, it makes me question why I'd even be willing to do that, give this idiot the benefit of the doubt? There's a great scene in the movie, YOU CAN COUNT ON ME, where Mark Ruffalo asks his sister, Laura Linney why she had sex with her boss?

"Because I felt sorry for him," she replied.

I got that. I completely understood where she was coming from, sympathizing with these loner, losers. Whereas some or most women would just flick them off like a piece of lent, I ridiculously try to salvage one grain of decency or worthiness out of them. (I do not have sex with them, as a general rule.) But what is it that makes me want to adopt them as a cause? Why? Why do I do this? How is it that some women, from the time they're six years old, are wired to step over men like dirty clothes on the floor and some of us go around picking up the smelly socks? I must have been absent from school on the day they taught, "How to Not Be a Putz With Guys."

The good news is, I've learned, sister! I took the remedial course through the school of hard knocks and I've learned to quickly (albeit sometimes after one more email) cast them off. I'm getting better at not being nice to them, not feeling sorry for them and being able to discern between those who are harmless and those who are toxic.

Arnie, was just a love-struck, shy, moody, salad chef, who just happened to have impeccable taste in women.

Plays Guitar” on the other hand, was just plain ward.