by: Dana Norris
Dana Norris is the founder and host of Story Club. She once went on 120 dates. This was date number 12.
I decide to find a dating site that caters to men with actual personalities. I make a profile on The Onion Personals and I find that most guys on it do have strong personalities and several also mention suicide in their “about me” section. But this one guy, Benji, seems to want to live. He reads books, makes a few jokes, and might be cute. I can’t tell if he’s cute or not because his profile picture was taken from far away – he’s standing behind a bar, holding a beer, wearing sunglasses. So, either:
a) He’s an alcoholic with two black eyes
b) No one in his life cares enough about him to take a decent picture of his face.
But I reason “whatever” and email him anyway. He emails back and wants to meet for coffee. It’s mid-February and I’m tempted to maintain my streak of going on first dates on inappropriate occasions by setting this one up for Valentine’s Day, which is a Saturday. In what turns out to be probably for the best, Benji is only free to meet on Sunday.
On Sunday I have to work in the morning and perform in an improv show in the evening. I already know I’m going to spend most of the day in a state of controlled panic. I’ve been taking improv classes for over a year but I still find myself terrified of walking out onto an empty stage and freezing. However, when I think about it, I’m also terrified of meeting internet strangers, so the nerves of the date may combine with the nerves of the show to the point that it’s just so nerve-wracking that my sympathetic nervous system says “fuck it” and I’m suddenly not afraid of anything, even death. I schedule the date with Benji for Sunday, in the hours in between work and the show. I am a genius.
The day of the date I am so nervous that I can’t find the coffee shop where we’re supposed to meet. I have the address and a smartphone, but I’m still completely lost because it turns out that scheduling two nerve-blistering events back-to-back is a terrible idea. I am double nervous, to the point that addresses no longer make sense. Do the numbers go up or down? There’s no way to know.
The hidden coffee shop is on Wells St, in one of those store fronts that’s below the sidewalk. I climb down the stairs to find what appears to be in someone’s living room – couches and stuffed chairs everywhere. I know that Benji has brown hair. I look around and see four guys, each with brown hair, each sitting by himself. Oh, crap. Maybe he’ll recognize me? I stand there, right in the doorway, making large “looking for someone” movements with my head. But none of the four look up.
I go up to the counter. There’s a woman sitting behind it on a stool, reading.
“I’d like a coffee.”
“Sure,” she says. She turns the page of the book and continues reading.
And without looking up, “Help yourself to whatever. Cups are over there. Pay when you’re done.” Maybe this is literally someone’s living room? I get to the business of pouring myself a cup of coffee, and take a croissant that’s just sitting there while I’m at it.
I sit down at a table by myself to wait. I look up to find an attractive, dark-haired, blue-eyed man staring at me. Hey, now. Maybe if my date doesn’t show up I can just stare/flirt with this guy for a while. But, no, he’s looking at me…expectantly. Because he’s Benji.
I stand up and move to join him at his table, which is right next to a large cork board. The cork board is covered with pictures of babies. Benji is nice, but he doesn’t smile when I sit down so I’m immediately ill-at-ease. He’s soft spoken and his eyes are very intense. I try to maintain eye contact like all the dating advice columns tell me, but I find it to be too much (The eyes! So blue!) and instead end up staring at the various babies.
The eye contact is weird, the conversation is stilted, and so I resort to asking interview questions: “Where did you grow up?” “What college did you go to?” I won’t remember of Benji’s answers, but I ask these questions anyway in the hope that somehow, someway, we’ll stumble upon some shred of a common experience and we’ll be able to start talking about things that are actually interesting. Except when Benji’s done answering one question, he just stops talking. Silence falls. I ask a new question. We repeat this cycle a few times until I decide to just let the silence sit. If he wants to be quiet and weird, let him be quiet and weird; I can sit here in silence and occupy myself by naming these babies. I’m calling that one Sean.
Benji appears to be getting more and more nervous as the silence goes on, until he finally breaks it with his own interview question: “What’d you study in school?” I tell him that I studied religion, and he mentions that he took some religion classes too, which gets us on comparative religion, which gets us on Joseph Campbell, which gets us on Greek myths and science fiction and Ender’s Game and brain chemistry and suddenly two hours have passed and I am still sitting there, heavy in conversation, staring directly into those blue eyes, about to be late for my improv show that I’ve forgotten to be nervous about.
“I have to go,” I say. We both stand up, gather our things, and walk to the door. We stand in the doorway and I’m not sure what to do with my hands. “Well, it was nice meeting you,” Benji says. I look at him. We just talked about brain chemistry. I like this guy. I reach out to hug him goodbye, but mid-movement I realize that a man this awkward probably isn’t a hugger. I try to pull back, but by then he’s moving towards me a hug, so we manage to hug while also stepping away from each other. Benji laughs and I laugh and then we stop and I wait for him to ask me for my number.
He blinks a few times and says, “OK. Well, bye.”
So that’s it. Maybe he’ll email me again, maybe he won’t, and I’ll just have to be patient and wait. Except that I have an improv show in ten minutes and I won’t be able to focus at all because I’ll be replying this moment in my head over and over again, wondering: Does he like me? Does he want to see me again? Why didn’t I do anything? Fuck that noise.
I put down my purse and announce, “I’m giving you my number.”
Benji’s a bit startled and extra blinky. “Oh. OK.”
“Do you have paper?”
I have a pen and he has a napkin. I write down my number; he puts it in his jacket pocket and thanks me, but I feel my face growing red. We walk outside together and, once on the sidewalk, I realize that I never paid for my coffee. I go back down inside to pay while Benji heads off down the street.
The improv show goes well, I think. It’s hard to tell because between each scene I find myself backstage, checking my phone, hoping that maybe he’s already called.
Dana Norris is the founder and host of Story Club, a monthly show for stories. She has served as the Nonfiction Editor and Managing Editor of TriQuarterly Online. She performs around Chicago with Mortified!, The Kates, Essay Fiesta, Stories at the Store, This Much is True, Beast Women, Waiting for the Bus and Cafe Cabaret. Her stories have been published in Tampa Review, Partner Dance Press, and been featured on Vocalo.org (89.5 FM). Dana received a Bachelors in Creative Writing and Religion and from Wittenberg University and a Masters in Religious Studies from The University of Chicago. She has a Certificate in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Chicago and is currently pursuing her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Northwestern University.