He waits on the corner of Mission and 21st. Their third date. He wears a black shirt, blousy around his paunch. He mentioned in a text that he had ten pounds to lose, though his online profile stated he couldn’t date anyone who was even a little overweight. Well, she wrote the same thing–that she couldn’t date anyone even slightly overweight. But here she is, picking him up.

She is relieved that she still finds him attractive. Dark hair, mischievous smile. She perceives a strong masculine energy that she will later wonder is something else.

“Hey there,” he says, opening the passenger side door and sliding in. He kisses her cheek. “Beautiful day today.”

The Beastie Boys’ ”Sabotage”comes on,  so they share memories of when they first heard it, compelling more conversation about music. He prefers acoustic guitar and used to sing in an acapella group. He directs her to a parking spot a few blocks away. She is relieved she still remembers how to parallel park with efficiency, even though she has not lived in San Francisco for 15 years.

*****

            “So I know you like burgers. I want you to try this place. It’s a bowling alley, but the burgers are really good.” he says once she’s parked. As they walk, she is conscious that she is taller than him and then feels ashamed of the observation. Always, she is aware of two gazes happening within her, a gaze inward and a gaze from outside. She often wishes she could close both sets of eyes.

At the bowling alley, they sit at an outdoor table. He orders a burger and a salad from the pretty blue-haired server wearing cat’s eye glasses and a silver piercing in her tongue.

She is always anxious with men on these early dates, like listening to a song for the first time and waiting to find the part she can hum. His clothes smell mildewy, and she tries not to imagine his little studio apartment in the Mission, how he probably hangs wet clothes over the furniture to dry. Mildew and studio apartments don’t matter, she reminds herself.

But the odor suggests capitulation.

He studied science illustration in college. She asks many questions about this. This is the best part about dating, an ingress into worlds she knows nothing about.

“It’s very precise. Like, I have to count all the scales on a fish before I draw it.”

“I didn’t realize you have to be so exacting.”

“Oh yeah, it’s all about details.”

He tells her about a shark necroscopy he once observed, the creature’s collapsible teeth and immense liver. She explains the adaptation of vultures, the reason behind their featherless, naked necks. Because the feathers get too dirty from the blood.

“You didn’t tell me you were interested in science.” He is impressed.

“I’m interested in everything. There’s a gobi fish in Hawaii that can climb a waterfall using its mouth,” she recalls from an issue of National Geographic.

“Wow.”

“Exaptation. An animal adapts a mechanism used for one thing to allow for some other purpose later. The fish developed a strong sucking mouth to suck algae off rocks and then adapted its use for scaling rock walls.”

“Adaptive behavior is so fascinating.” He is smiling, that unpredicted recognition that she is more than she appears, which makes her feel both triumphant and annoyed. Yes, she wants to say, I am more.

“I wonder what they’ll use those suckers for in a million years,” she says instead.

“I don’t know if it works like that.” He takes one of her fries, a gesture of intimacy. “Like there’s a point to all of it.”

They finish their burger. She wipes a smear of her lipstick off his mouth with her thumb after they kiss. A gesture in reply to his own.

*****

            After their meal, they walk to Dolores Park and climb a hill away from the drum circles and clouds of cannabis smoke. He pulls a soft, faux-fur blanket and two bottles of water from his backpack. They lay out the blanket and lean back on their elbows in the dusk.

“What do you like most about being a mother?” He asks as they watch the darkening sky, the hills toothed with townhouses becoming silhouettes.

She thinks a moment. “That I learned I could love unconditionally.” She is surprised that she feels comfortable enough to disclose this.

He looks at her, pauses. “I read your profile carefully, you know. And my sense was that you’ve haven’t been really seen or valued.”

She has no reply. Thinks instead of her old boss when she worked at a law firm. He would bound into her office without knocking as she typed away on a deadlined brief and put his feet up on her desk to chat. All that white male privilege like old gum stuck to the bottom of his Rockports.

But he interrupts her thoughts. “Do you want closeness? Because I’m not sure with you.”

Her heart beats faster. She looks away at the townhouses and their freshly lit windows. Stories she doesn’t know.

“What are you looking at?” he asks.

“The windows. Wondering about the people inside.”

He laughs but asks again. This befuddling question concerning closeness.

“What do you think?” he asks.

“I don’t know. Do we ever really know what we want? The reality of it is only good when it’s still an abstraction, you know?”

He listens. A directness in his gaze that unnerves her.

“Can we just kiss for awhile?”  she asks, seeking an exit.

*****

            When they come up for air she tells him about her work representing battered women. She describes a recent client whose ribs were broken by her boyfriend, a hulking, tattooed man who stared at his handcuffs during the TRO hearing. She had to keep reminding herself that the boyfriend was undoubtedly broken, too.

“My mom was abused all the time when I was growing up,” he says. “My dad was a real prick. He abused me, too. I don’t talk to him anymore.”

She tries not to take it too seriously, aware of the stigma presented by abuse but not seeking to diminish his past, either. “Yeah, it’s pretty commonplace. The more I do this work, the less things surprise me.”

“Why do you think you do that work? I couldn’t.” He strokes the top of her hands. His touch both excites and repels.

“My mother used to tell me stories about my grandmother when I was little. She grew up in a village in India. Never learned how to read. She was married off at fourteen and had seven kids. Three died. And I guess I thought of her a lot growing up. Her story just felt embedded in me somehow.”

She curls her fingers around his and he responds with a kiss on her cheek.

She continues. “When I was a kid, and I read a book I loved–like A Wrinkle in Time or The Dark Is Rising–I would think about her and feel sad that she didn’t get to read them. And then in law school I felt a different kind of sadness, that here I was shaping an entire life and a career around reading and writing and my grandma never had that possibility. She died young, before I was born.”

“That’s pretty heavy. I do my work mostly because I like animals and drawing.” He laughs.

“I guess the work feels like bringing things full circle. Or a way to alleviate the guilt of my advantage.” It sounds so neatly packaged when she describes her life this way. As though the narrative can pierce through all that rage. She has dreams sometimes that she is her grandmother, that she wakes up with some man’s strange, hairy arm flung across her chest, impeding her breath. When she was last in India, a man groped her breast as she walked home from the beach and even as she screeched with the shock of it, she immediately thought of her grandmother. A sudden, visceral understanding of how her grandmother’s body rarely belonged to itself.

“You do important work,” he says.

“Maybe.”

He laughs. “You are terrible at taking compliments.” He rolls on top of her. She enjoys the weight of his body on hers. His tongue strong and insistent in her mouth. His hand just under her breast, almost-cupping but not quite, which she finds generous of him since it is dark now and they are kissing hard and she could imagine having sex with him tonight, on date number three.

“Do you live close by?” she whispers into his neck.

He laughs. “I do. But I don’t want to do that yet.”

“Yeah, you’re probably right.” She nods in the darkness. Wishes to change the subject. “Hey, can you sing something for me?”

“I don’t really do that.”

“Anything. A line from your favorite Beatles track. Please?”

He rolls off, thinks for a moment. “I have something on my phone that I recorded.” He pulls his phone out of his backpack.

His voice is clear and melodic. Professional-sounding, like one of those slick American rock vocalists. The Goo-goo Dolls or something.

“Wow. This is good!”

“I never play for anyone. It’s too personal.” Subtext: I am building intimacy with you. The realization makes her nervous.

“Thank you,” she says and means it. “Let’s go back to kissing.”

*****

            It is dark when she decides she should head home. 10:30.

“Can you give me a ride?” he asks.

“Sure.” But she always wishes to be alone after long moments of closeness. A desire to find herself again after being so enmeshed with another. Maybe the “one” (if he exists, if she even wants that) is someone who will not leave her feeling like she misses herself afterward.

She drops him off in front of his building.

His tongue in her mouth, searching and possessive, one last time.

*****

            They text throughout the next few days, in the early morning, mutual Good mornings. In one text, he tells her he once made a man cry in the middle of a store after the man intentionally bumped into him. He does not take well to bullying. In another text, he compliments her colorful mind and her beauty, which he insists does not require the excesses of make-up. I’ll bet men fall for your physical beauty but not for who you really are.

He tells her he would do many naughty things to her naked body.

A snaking feeling of desire.

Let’s see each other Friday.

*****

“Hey there,” he says when she walks into the bar that Friday. The bartender is Desi. Tattoos up and down his arms and she wonders, absurdly, what his mother thinks of them. Toto’s “Africa” plays in the background.

He buys her a drink, takes the first sip. She is annoyed by his presumption.

He is wearing khakis. A crewneck sweater. That mildew odor. She leans against him, hoping for desire to return. Beside them a couple talks too loudly and she is cold because the window is open.

“I once stopped a rape,” he tells her after they rehash their respective days. “Right around here. It was at night.”

“That must have been scary.”

“I sort of got a charge from it. That I wasn’t afraid.”

“You’re like that guy in those old Deathwish movies. Those movies scared the shit out of me. I was a kid when I saw one. My uncle was visiting from India so he watched them all the time.”

“Those aren’t for little kids to see.”

“No. I still can’t believe I saw it.”

He kisses the top of her head now. “The worst thing you can do if you’re a woman is wear headphones while walking. That’s really dangerous.”

But that is a singular joy. Walking in the Mission, observing the flight of pigeons and the tumult of hipsters and homeless all in one place.

They finish their drinks and she tells him she needs to get home, an 8:30 hearing tomorrow morning. She is anxious to be alone in her house, to watch another episode of Game of Thrones or Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. On stressful days, she regards the prospect of a TV show as a bedouin would regard a desert spring. Everything safely packed in a story with some defined conclusion.

They walk to her car.

“You’re so pretty.” He kisses her. The mildew of his sweater comes closer. His tongue in her mouth feels abrasive. She recoils without thinking.

“What’s wrong?” he asks.

“Nothing. Just getting late.”

“Ok.” He steps away.

“Do you want a ride?” she asks, wanting to mend things but also hoping he’ll decline.

“It’s ok. It’s a nice night. I’m gonna walk.”

Once inside her car, she watches as he crosses the street.

His ill-fitting khakis an ochre flash in the night.

*****

            On her drive back, she listens to a podcast about child sex workers. The stories these girls tell themselves to feel that their lives are not awful and hopeless. One girl, Tiffany (not her real name), remarks that at 14, most girls are too old, but she’s still popular. Special. That’s what her last pimp told her. And anyway, it’s not like she was gonna end up in college.

She thinks of the gobi fish. Adaptive behaviors.

When she arrives home, she sits in her Honda SUV enjoying the heater, the darkness, the familiarity of the Trident gum wrappers in the cupholder, the unread paperback book on meditation she keeps in the driver side door compartment. As she unplugs her cell phone from the car charger, he has texted her.

You were different tonight.

She feels exposed that he noticed.

You care too much about what people think of you. You’re incapable of recognizing the quality man right in front of you.

            She watches the blinking ellipses. Her stomach turns with dread but she isn’t sure why. His second message flashes onto her phone.

I could f*** you so hard you wouldn’t walk straight for days. You’ll end up old and alone and you’ll wish you hadn’t made this mistake.

Goodbye.

She slows down her breathing. A buzzing sound in her ear. She should have seen this coming. She berates herself for her poor judgment.

She wonders if he saw her license plate number or her last name on the credit card she used to pay for a second round of drinks. If he can somehow find her street address, conduct an Internet search to find out where she works.

She exits her car. Unlocks the two locks on the door to her house. She’s left the lights on, slightly dimmed. She thinks of possibilities on Netflix or HBO–perhaps a new episode of Girls or Broad City?

Once inside, she removes her coat. Unzips the convenient side zippers of her on-trend lace-up combat boots. Wonders if freedom will always be like this. Provisional and inadequate, and, at times, nothing like freedom at all.

*****

Samantha Rajaram is a former attorney and English professor living in the Silicon Valley. She has previously been published in India Currents and was published in the South Asian anthology Our Feet Walk the Sky.

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