I posted an online personals ad. My friends make fun of me, point and laugh, dig for the ribs, but I just smile and nod. I know I’m free, the universe is my playground, and I do as I please.

It’s Sunday night, the end of the weekend and the end of a pseudo-romantic marathon. It’s Date Number Four. I’m at Hazelwood, sitting on a velvet bench waiting for a girl named Kimberly.

At eight o clock sharp, the empty doorway fills with the shape of a woman. I take a sip of my whiskey-ginger and stand up. She steps out of the winter chill and puffs out her rosy cheeks, rubbing warmth into her hands. Is this Kimberly? This is Kimberly, right? All I’ve seen of Number Four is a few heavily stylized photos snapped at dreamy abstract angles. This date isn’t quite blind, but it’s definitely near-sighted.

Maybe-Kimberly stands in the middle of the crowded room looking around. I lean towards her and catch her eye. She cocks her head. I raise my eyebrows.

Is that…?

Are you…?

She starts working her way toward me. She is tall, slender, with wavy brown hair flowing down her back. Her blue eyes contrast nicely with her blood-red jacket and pale skin, a patriotic palette of American spirit, or, I suppose, French.

“Are you…?” I start to say when she’s close enough.

“Tyler…?” she says.

I frown. “No…”

She stops in front of me, examining my face. “You’re not Tyler?”

“No. You’re not Kimberly?”

“No, thank God.”

“Why thank God?”

“Never liked that name.”

“Really?”

“It kinda sticks in your throat don’t you think? Saying it feels like swallowing food.”

I smile, looking at her sideways, puzzled. “Are you meeting someone here?”

“Yeah, at Eight.”

“But his name’s Tyler?”

“Yeah. Are you sure you’re not him?”

“Pretty sure.”

“And you’re here to meet Kimberly?”

“I guess so.”

She pauses, then laughs. Her laugh has an honesty to it, unforced, unrestrained. It sounds like it comes from her, nowhere else. “What are the odds?” she says.

I shake my head and take a sip of my drink. “Small.”

“What are you drinking?”

“Whiskey-ginger.”

“That’s my drink. Can I borrow a sip?”

I hesitate, a little caught off guard. “Sure.”

I hand it to her and she takes a drink, dodging the little black straw and leaving a pink smudge on the glass. We share brief, silent eye contact and I decide to do something.

“Since Tyler and Kimberly are running late, would you like to borrow Kimberly’s seat for a minute?”

She smiles and does a bouncy little shrug. “Sure.”

We sit down. The server appears and Not-Kimberly orders a whiskey-ginger, shaming my well drink with an upgrade to Maker’s Mark.

“So,” I begin, spreading my palms out.

“So,” she agrees.

“Since we’re not Tyler and Kimberly, who are we?”

She smiles. “Upgrades?”

“Oh really?”

“From where I sit.” She winks.

I laugh again. “Well that’s very flattering, but a little presumptuous, isn’t it? How do you know Kimberly isn’t hundred-year-old Scotch?”

“Come on. I saw your face while you were waiting. Kimberly is definitely a well.”

I give a concessionary shrug. “Ok.”

“Online personals?”

“Alas.”

She nods ruefully. “Facebook.”

“Someday maybe we’ll be able to skip the whole dating ordeal and just have computers fall in love for us.”

“A live, two-player dating simulator.”

“It could crunch the numbers and calculate everything from our first date to our divorce, then spit it all out in a ten-page transcript.”

She nods. “That would sure save some time.”

“Freeing us up to work more and watch TV.”

“The future will be so efficient!”

“I’m sure this already exists in Japan.”

Her drink arrives. She sets the straw on the table and sinks her red lips into the icy liquor. We are sitting on a bench in a small circle of benches in Hazelwood’s mezzanine, looking down on the crowd crammed against the bar. The lights are dim, the walls are dark, there are purple curtains and a lot of antique velvet.

“Ever been here before?” I ask her.

“Nope. You?”

“I live nearby.”

“Let me guess, this is your official first-date lair.”

“You’re sharp. It’s getting a little embarrassing, actually. The bartender must think I’m quite the playboy.”

“You’re not?”

“No.”

“But you play the part?”

“Only when my friends bully me into posting personal ads.”

“Getting a lot of bites?”

“You mean dates or what happens at the end of dates?”

“Either.”

I shake my head. “Neither. They haven’t been going well.”

“How many?”

“Well, Kimberly’s Number Four.”

“And when did you post the ad?”

“Thursday.”

She pauses to count. “Four days in a row? Or multiples?”

“There’s no way I could handle more than one of these in a day.”

“All wells, huh?”

“All…waters.”

She cringes.

“Yeah. What about you?”

“Online dates?”

“Yeah.”

“Tonight’s my first.”

“Ever?”

“Yeah. Not really my thing.”

“Admirable.”

She shrugs and takes a drink.

I take a drink. Mine is almost gone but I’m not feeling anything yet. “So how’s your first online date going so far?”

“Well it hasn’t started yet, now has it?”

“I guess not.”

“What time is it?”

“Eight fifteen. Maybe you’ll get out of this unscathed.”

She nods. “Maybe I should hold onto my online virginity.”

“It is a precious gift.”

She glances down toward the bar and sighs. “Oh God. I think that’s him.”

I look down through the wrought-iron railing and notice a guy standing conspicuously in the entry hall, looking around like a hayseed tourist in Manhattan.

“Here, I’ll help you hide.” I stand up and touch her shoulder. “Let me show you something.” We move to the darkest corner of the room, where a small eyepiece protrudes from the wall. “Have a look.”

“What is it?”

“It’s sexy.”

She puts her eye to the viewer and smiles. She’s looking at an illuminated photo of Lee Hazelwood, surrounded by naked women wearing mustaches. “Hot,” she says, pulling away. “Is that your apartment on a typical Sunday night?”

“The mustaches are voluntary. I don’t force my fetishes on other people.”

She starts to glance toward the bar then quickly turns away. “Is he still there?”

“Yeah. He’s looking pretty uncomfortable. Should I let you go down there and do your duty?”

“Please don’t.”

I watch him for a moment while his date hides. I tap her shoulder. “Hey, he just started talking to a girl. Are you jealous?”

She risks a glance. “So jealous.”

I look back, and my eyes widen. “Oh my God.”

“What?”

“I think that’s her.”

No.”

“Yeah—that’s definitely Kimberly. Your date is totally hitting on my date.”

She turns around and looks. “Incredible,” she laughs.

“I know. This could get awkward.” I set my drink down and look at her. Her blue eyes are round and wet like ripe fruit. I want to taste them. “Would you like to go for a walk?” I ask her.

She does that bouncy shrug again. “Sure.”

We set our drinks down and slip out of the establishment, leaving our credit cards with the bartender. Tyler and Kimberly glance at us as we push out through the door, but there’s no spark of recognition.

Outside, the air is aggressively cold, slapping us in the face and reddening our cheeks. I pull up the collar of my pea-coat and cinch my scarf tight. She doesn’t seem bothered by it, even though underneath her short black skirt she has only thin cotton leggings between her and the elements.

“You’re not cold?” I ask her.

“Not when I don’t want to be.”

“Well that must be nice.”

She looks at me and smiles. Her smile is very warm.

“Where are you from?” I ask.

“You mean where do I live?”

“Yeah.”

“Capitol Hill.”

“Big surprise. I think I’m the only person in Seattle under forty who thinks Ballard is cool.”

“I like Ballard. It’s not so coked out and hyperactive. It’s serene.”

“Move here.”

“Sure, maybe. I’ve only been on the Hill for a month. Not too attached to anywhere.”

“Where’d you come from?”

“Most recently? Berlin.”

“Are you serious?”

“Sure.”

“How long did you live there?”

“A month.”

“You lived in Berlin for one month? Where were you before that?”

“Shanghai. For a month.”

I hesitate, then chuckle. “Ok. Nevermind.”

“What?”

“Not even going to ask.”

She laughs. “Well where’d you live before Ballard?”

“Jupiter.”

She laughs again. Clouds of steam billow out of our mouths like comic book thought bubbles. I’d like to read hers but someone has whited-out the words. I wonder if she can read mine.

“Want to see something?” I ask her.

“Is it more mustache porn?”

“No, watch this.” I do a backflip and land on one hand with my legs pointing straight up, like Superman lifting the earth. I grin at her upside-down.

She smiles and nods. “Not bad.”

Facing me, she leaps backward and lands on top of a stop-sign pole, balanced on the points of her toes in her red ballet flats, her other leg thrust out behind her.

“Very nice,” I say. “Are you a dancer?”

“Are you a gymnast?”

We grin at each other. She hops down, I right myself, and we keep walking. I see the final bar on this street approaching ahead and I turn to look at her. “Another drink?”

“Sure. I didn’t feel that last one at all.”

I start to open the door for her and then sigh. “I left my card at Hazelwood.”

“Shit, me too. Got any cash?”

“No.”

“Is there a bank around here?”

“Across the street.”

The sky is clear and the stars glitter hard and bright in the cold. We cross the street and walk half a block to the bank.

 “How did it get so late already?” she says, glancing at the bank clock. “It’s midnight.”

“The morning’s still young.” I open the bank’s door for her with a chivalrous little bow and she walks in.

“Why thank you sir.”

The lobby is dark, but enough light to see by pours in through the windows. We hop over the counter and approach the safe. I kneel down and put my ear against the lock wheel, squinting in concentration. She raises an eyebrow  at me and I grin. “Just kidding.” I stand up and give the wheel a gameshow spin. The massive steel door slowly creaks open, and we walk inside.

“Just enough for a few drinks, ok?” she says, idly popping open a few safety deposit boxes.

“Hey,” I say, giving her a look. “Do I look like a greedy man?”

She laughs suddenly, not at me. “Look at this. Who puts shit like this in a safety deposit box?” She reaches in and pulls out an autographed glossy of Jim Varney. “Ooooh, please nobody steal my Jim Varney autograph!”

I pull two bundles of cash out of a vault. “Here.” I hand her one of the bundles. She flips through it and gives me a dubious look.

“This will buy more than a few. Are you trying to get me drunk, Mister?”

I grin. “No more wells.”

The bar at the end of the street is far less classy than Hazelwood, full of flatscreen TVs, goatees and backwards hats, but they have the goods. We order a bottle of Remy Martin.

“Is Remy Martin considered a thug drink?” I ask her as the bartender fills our glasses and sets the bottle on the bar. “I’m pretty sure I’ve heard it mentioned in at least one rap song.”

“What if it is?” she says.

“Just making sure.” I clink my glass against hers and we drink. The aged cognac tastes like time. Like history.

 “Big football fan?” she asks with a small smile, looking around at the wall to wall flatscreens.

“I’d say it’s about on par with watching cows graze.”

“But cows don’t tackle each other.”

“They do in mating season.”

She points at the screen as a Raider and a Seahawk press spandex to spandex in the soggy grass. “Like that?”

“Exactly like that, actually.”

“See, football has its romantic side.”

“John Madden and Jane Austen.”

A guy that looks a lot like a young John Madden walks up and plants a ham-sized palm on the bar next to my date. “You’re sexy does anyone ever told you you’re sexy,” he slurs, leaning his round face too close to hers. “What’s your name?”

“Her name is Fuck Off,” I tell him cheerfully.

She smiles up at him. “Nice to meet you.”

He wobbles a little and turns to me. “What’re you her fuckin’ boyfriend?”

I reach out to shake his hand. “My name’s Fuck Off too. It’s a common name where we’re from.”

His thick face bunches into rolls and he grabs the Remy Martin bottle, turning it upside down to use as a club. Before more than one glug can spill out I snatch his wrist and twist it back upright. “We’re drinking that,” I say, and use my free hand to quietly break his jaw. I’m still holding his wrist as he slumps to the ground, so I remove the bottle from his slackening grip and hoist his limp hand. “We have a champion!”

My date claps politely and takes another drink. As the bartender and another staff member haul the unconscious hulk away, a Playboy blonde in a belly shirt approaches me with wide eyes. “Wow,” she says in a high, pubescent squeak. “That was amazing.”

I shrug, and smile at my date. She waves at the bunny. “Hi.”

The bunny ignores her and inches closer to me. “I’m Jessica.”

I look at my date. My date looks at the bunny, frowns a little, and the bunny collapses in a heap of glossy limbs, a little trickle of drool glistening down her mouth. My date and I look at each other, stifle it for a moment, then burst into laughter.

“What a night,” I say.

“We should probably go now.”

I pull out my wad of hundred dollar bills and pay for our drinks. We step out into the frosty air and shove our hands into our coat pockets. I look at her, only slightly shorter than me. “How tall are you?” I ask.

“Five ten.”

“It’s a rare treat for me to be able to look a girl in the eyes without getting a neck cramp.”

She stands on her tip toes, rising slightly above my height. “Hello little man.” She drops back down, and darts a quick peck on my lips. I don’t really have time to kiss back. I grin helplessly.

“That was for being taller than me,” she says.

We look up at the stars, the waxing moon just a silver sliver. “Do you work tomorrow?” I ask her.

“Not early.”

“Shall we walk?” I extend my arm. She curls hers around my elbow and squeezes against me. We walk past the bar into a darker, quieter stretch of street.

“Do you hang out in Ballard much?” I ask her.

“Not a lot.”

“Ever been down this street?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Look at this place coming up. I can’t figure it out.”

I stop in front of a white-painted shop. Inside, the tiny white room is completely empty except for a change machine, a 1st-place ribbon stuck to the ceiling, and a row of small, framed photos of women’s crotches clothed in lingerie. A single bare lightbulb hangs from the ceiling down to eye level, lighting the space with a dim orange glow. There is no name on the storefront except an old, mildewy plastic sign that says “Laundromat”.

“This place has been exactly like this since I moved here a year ago. I’ve never seen anyone come in or out of it, that light’s always on, and the door’s always locked.”

“Very weird,” she says, peering against the glass. “Want to take a look?”

“Now that I have an exploring partner, absolutely.”

She opens the door and we step inside. In the center of the wall is a white door with a peephole in it much like the one at Hazelwood, except a faint red glow emanates from this one. “Ballard loves its creepy peepholes doesn’t it?” she says.

I put my eye to the viewer but it’s too dark on the other side to make anything out. “Well?” I say with a little shrug.

“Since we’re here…”

I open the door and we walk into a dark hallway. The hallway extends improbably far back, maybe three hundred feet, where it ends in a wooden staircase. I don’t know where the red glow was coming from; there is no light in here except one dim bulb hanging above the staircase.

“Wow. Eerie enough for you?” I ask.

“Not yet. I only have goosebumps on one arm.”

She heads toward the staircase and I follow her. We go down the creaky oak steps into near total darkness. I pull out my cell phone to provide some pale illumination.

“Now’s not really the time for texting,” she says.

“Just telling a friend where we are in case we never come back.”

“Omg going down spooky staircase, ttyl,” she whispers. We reach the bottom and find another door with another peephole, this one glowing yellow. I open it and we step into a small round chamber lined with doors. Each one has a peephole, all glowing different colors.

“And you thought Ballard wasn’t coked out,” I say.

She goes to a peephole and I go to another one. Through the fisheye lens I can make out a big room full of trees, a trail leading off into what appears to be a dense jungle. Is that sunlight?

“This is pretty wild,” she says with her eye against the peephole. “Just a bunch of colors in this one.”

“There’s a jungle in mine.”

She walks to the next door, looks in the peephole. “This one’s too dark to see.” She opens the door. The room inside is vast, cathedral arches stretching into shadows ten or fifteen stories up. If visible from outside, this would be the tallest building in Ballard. The floor of the room is water, a gently rippling lake of unknown depths.

“Let’s not go in there,” I say, patting her on the shoulder.

“Yeah ok.” She shuts the door.

We open the one door without a peephole, and it takes us onto the sidewalk a few blocks down from the Laundromat storefront.

“That’s convenient,” she says.

“Look, we’re almost to Golden Gardens. Walk to the beach with me?”

“Sure.”

We stroll toward the salty air. An old woman walking a dachshund is approaching us.

“Excuse me,” my date says as we’re about to pass the woman. “Do you have the time?”

The woman checks her watch. “Midnight.”

My date looks at me. “Still midnight, huh. Did you do that?”

I grin and shrug innocently. She chuckles. She ruffles the dachshund’s head and we keep walking.

“So you’re quite the world traveler,” I say, thrusting my cold hands into my coat pockets.

“I guess I am.”

“Where are you from originally?”

“You mean where was I born?”

“Yeah.”

She shrugs. “I don’t know. A lot of places.” She sucks in a deep breath and blows out a thick cloud of steam. She puffs her lips and makes smoke rings.

“What brought you to Seattle?”

“An airplane?” She smiles at me.

I sigh. “Ok, ok.”

“More importantly,” she says, “why have you been here so long?”

“You mean more than a month?”

“Sure.”

“Why haven’t I been out roaming the world?”

“Sure.”

I sigh again, looking at the sharp, icy sky. “I don’t know. I guess I’ve been waiting.”

“For what?” She smiles. “Don’t say me.”

“You’re awfully sure of yourself, Miss Upgrade!”

She laughs. She bobs up and gives me another peck on the lips. I try to chase the kiss but my reflexes are too slow.

“I like doing that,” she says. “Thanks for being tall.”

“Hey. Any time.”

Two blocks away I see a group of five or six young people shuffling toward us, filling the sidewalk, stumbling into the street and hollering drunkenly at each other.

“Want me to take ‘em out?” she giggles.

“Be nice.”

“Why? It’s fun!”

“Let’s not have a police chase tonight. I have work in the morning.”

“Fine.” Spreading her arms out at her sides, she runs up a telephone pole grounding cable and hops onto the top of the pole. She waves down at me, her hair fluttering out in the breeze.

“I can see up your skirt,” I call up to her.

She hikes her skirt all the way up and snake-rolls her body. “Ooh la la! Are you coming up?”

I shake my head, laughing. “Fine.” I run sideways up the pole itself and join her. We walk on the powerlines, ambling down toward the beach. Sometimes she holds her arms out and steps like a tightrope walker, but mostly we just stroll.

“Hey guys,” she calls down to the drunk group when we pass over them. “How’s your night?”

We hear mumblings of “What the hell?”, “What the fuck?”, and so on, and we keep walking. It’s nice, being up here. We’re above all the trees, closer to the stars. I look at her and she looks at me. Throughout the whole night, this tiny smile has barely left our faces. The undercurrents. The secret knowledge. Things we know that no one else knows. The smile of a shared universe that only we can ever understand or inhabit, though the rest of the world pounds on the door for a thousand years. It’s been so long since someone has joined me here.

“So,” I say to her as the distant sidewalk scrolls by under our feet. “You name isn’t Kimberly. Thank God. May I ask what it is?”

She gives me a strange little look, disappointed.

“What? Am I too forward?”

“I don’t think you want my name yet,” she says, looking ahead toward the moon.

“Yes I do.”

“But I’m not really here. At least not yet.”

“Of course you’re here.”

“I’m leaving.”

I pause. “ Where?”

She shrugs. “Mumbai? Athens? Somewhere.”

“When?”

“Tomorrow. Maybe tonight.”

I stop looking at her and watch the pavement below. “I wish you’d stay put for once.”

She looks at me sadly. “It’s not time yet.”

“Who says it’s not?”

She shrugs. “No one. It’s just not. I haven’t landed yet.”

I try not to let what I’m feeling show, but my vocal cords betray me. “You never land.”

“I will.”

“When?”

“Someday.”

“I want you to stay this time. It’s been so long.”

“I know. I’m sorry. I love being with you, but I can’t stay yet. You know I can’t.”

I stop walking and she stops too. Crows perching on the lines up ahead eye us warily, little black spirits in the pale moonlight. I look at her, hating that my eyes are moist “But look at us,” I say, gesturing toward the distant ground. “We can do amazing things when we’re together.”

She smiles. “It’s fun, isn’t it?”

“Please don’t leave.”

She bunches her lips together. “I’m sorry.” She suddenly brightens. “You could follow me…”

“To Athens?”

“Or wherever I land. You know I’m alive, I mean you’re looking at me right now. So wherever I end up, you’ll know I’m out there somewhere. You could try to track me down if you want.”

“In Athens? Or Mumbai?”

“Anywhere in the world. I could end up anywhere.”

“There are seven billion people in the world.”

She grins. “You seem like a smart guy. Just try to find me. It might take a while, my face might change a few times, but you’ll find me.”

“But I like this face.”

“You’ll like my new ones too. Trust me.”

She starts walking again and I follow her. The water opens out ahead of us, refracting the moon into a thousand tiny moons jostling for position. We reach the end of the powerlines and stop there, balancing. She hops onto the pole and does a pirouette on a transistor.

“You are a dancer, aren’t you,” I say.

“When I want to be.”

“It’s nice, being free, isn’t it?”

She pokes the air with her finger and draws her name in neon light, then wipes it away before I can read it. “It’s wonderful.”

“But there are downsides.”

“We live outside the framework. Rent here isn’t going to be cheap.”

I reach out and stroke her hair. “Please stay.”

She squeezes my hand. “I should probably get home now. It’s getting late.”

I shake my head and hold out my watch. “It’s still midnight.”

“Cheater.”

I sink my hand into the warm nest of her hair and pull her mouth close. I kiss her, slowly and reverently, savoring every quarter-second. When I release her, she smiles up at me. “Mmm.”

“Can I walk you to your car?”

“I didn’t drive.”

“Can I walk you home?”

“What about Kimberly?”

“What about Tyler?”

She smiles. “No more wells, right?”

With great effort, I force a weak smile in return. “No more wells.”

“Goodnight,” she says. “See you soon.” And she vanishes.

I cautiously climb down the spike steps in the telephone pole, scraping my ankle as I hop to the pavement. I wrap my coat collar tight and cinch my scarf. My breath makes clouds in the cold, and the breeze whisks them away.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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