Dorene O’Brien

Fiction

“Eight Blind Dates Later” appears in Dorene O’Brien’s second fiction collection, What It Might Feel Like to Hope, which will be released by Baobab Press in 2018. O’Brien is an NEA and a Vermont Studio Center writing fellow whose stories have won the Red Rock Review Mark Twain Award for Short Fiction, the Chicago Tribune Nelson Algren Award, the New Millennium Writings Fiction Prize, and the international Bridport Prize. Her work has been nominated for two Pushcart prizes, has been published in special Kindle editions and has appeared in the Baltimore Review, Madison Review, Best of Carve Magazine, Short Story Review, Southern Humanities Review, Detroit Noir, Montreal Review, Passages North, and others. Voices of the Lost and Found, her first fiction collection, won the USA Best Book Award for Short Fiction. She is currently writing a literary/sci-fi hybrid novel.

 

Eight Blind Dates Later

I was drunk and lonely and tired of Googling my name only to find a high school drama teacher in the throes of a failing Pippin production, a fat bastard who brews his own beer and clearly hasn’t looked into a mirror in a while, and a host of other Johnny Danes who by comparison should have made me feel celebratory but instead only darkened my mood. I moved on, and that’s when I found her website, when I had exhausted myself with searches of football scores, ’62 Impalas and other Johnny Danes. She soared into my head the way she had soared into my dreams so many times before, uninvited and unwelcome. Of course she looked good. Who puts an ugly picture of herself on a website? She was now writing bodice rippers, their covers a lurid blur across my flickering screen, a collage of tint, lace and skin. There it was, another bullet on my growing list of frustrations: I had been dumped by a romance novelist.

So there I sat, reading about Cyril and Morgan, Devon and Lord Stoke. “His face hardened impossibly. ‘Aye, ye tempt me, Brianna. I think aboot succumbing tae ma lust an’ usin’ yer pretty body’.” This one had a Scottish vibe, women running across moors from supermen going commando in kilts. Closer inspection revealed that all her books, apparently written in a matter of months, had a theme. The cover of Matrimonial Merger features stock broker Jefferson Steele and his voluptuous bespectacled secretary Reena reaching toward each other across a mahogany desk, folders, pens and other office paraphernalia captured in mid-flight after having been pushed off by greedy, impatient hands. The excerpt read, “She touched his beefy chest, slid her hand down the front of his $300 Brooks Brothers dress trousers. ‘Looks like the stock market is up,’ she purred.”

Wild Card is about Jack, a handsome card sharp with unnaturally large biceps, and Keira, the casino owner’s daughter, a dark-eyed brunette who for some reason has playing cards spilling from her cleavage as she turns from his embrace. I tried to predict what the excerpt would say as I shuffled to the kitchen for another beer: “Jack stared at Keira’s bosom for a moment before saying, ‘That’s quite a pair’” or “Keira slid her tongue across Jack’s throbbing abs and said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll raise you’.”

~

I met Shelby when she brought her car into Merrick Chrysler where I manage the body shop. Normally I don’t pay much attention to traffic in the garage, but I heard her car before I even saw it. It was a new Sebring, its front and back so far out of alignment they should have been on separate vehicles. The metal, twisted beyond even my comprehension, groaned as she slowly wheeled into the fifth bay. Everyone in the shop turned and stared as she clacked toward the intake station in her too-tall heels, one of which promptly caught in a drainage grate, tipping her forward onto the oil-stained concrete.

“Easy,” I said, not to her but as a warning to the porters—a couple of high school punks who spent their lunch hours smoking weed out back—not to let her see them laughing. I helped her up, and what amazed me most was that she wasn’t the least bit embarrassed, a trait, I now realize, not uncommon in romance writers. She said that she had locked her brakes on the I-49 after looking up to see a jackknifed semi before her, sending her car into three spins before it slammed against the median.

She asked if I could fix the car and I scratched my head because I was confounded not only by the car—how had she driven it from the accident site to the dealership?—but by her.

“Well,” I said, “we’re gonna have to look at that frame, see if we can get it on a straightener—”

“Will it be done today?”

This was Shelby, a woman who could not see a crisis if it slammed her in the head and then rode over her. A fire in the kitchen? We’ll eat out! A sick friend? I’ll donate a kidney! An earthquake? I’ll get a broom! I was drawn to her immediately, her confidence, her cheerfulness, her limping around her mangled car with a broken heel, pointing out the obvious: This door won’t shut! This wheel is bent! It’s all crooked! She was unlike the other women I had dated, whose dispositions collectively suggested that the world had offended them in extreme and unforgivable ways. I offered to drive her home, made her vehicle a top priority, even gave her a box of tree-shaped car fresheners. Who had I become? For the first time in my life, an optimist. To the dismay of my mechanics, I demanded they put the lopsided Sebring on the straightener and pull that little car like taffy. This was no small task as the car seemed to have taken to its deformity and put up a damn good fight.

Shelby asked me to dinner that very night. Sure I thought she figured I would be her wheels since she had practically destroyed her own, but I didn’t care. What else was I doing? I’d just been dumped by the latest in a long line of gloomy women who had ultimately found that I was either too boring or too distant, which when you think about it is really the same thing. So we went to Joe’s Crab Shack and watched apathetic teens sing uninspired versions of “Happy Birthday”to tables of senior citizens who looked by turns confused and ecstatic. Then I drove her home to an apartment building about three miles from my house, the Garden Arms, which, from what I could tell, had neither.

“This was really nice of you,” she said.

“Maybe I could pick you up in the morning, drive you to work.”

“Oh,” she said before staring at me as if looking at my face long enough would help her determine whether I was a serial killer. Finally she asked for my number and said she’d let me know.

She did call that night, and the night after and the night after that. For the next week I drove her to At a Fast Clip where she bleached hair and cut bangs and generally made women happy for what remained of their day. When her car was ready I didn’t tell her, instead making up stories about a faulty part or a failed alignment test. Sure I was starting to like her; she was perky and sweet and consistently interested in everything I said.

Before long Shelby and I were inseparable, spurring each other on to new heights of buoyancy. The mechanics eyed me suspiciously as they chewed on the donuts I brought to work each morning, and my mother was convinced I’d been diagnosed with a terminal disease when I started calling her twice a week. My friends stopped inviting me for beers when I proved to be too cheerful in the face of their personal calamities: nagging wives, spiteful bosses, ungrateful kids. I didn’t care; I had Shelby, my mainline to euphoria. If someone had told me that I would one day be reading my ex-girlfriend’s romance trash on the Internet, I would have clapped him on the back and bet my life savings he was wrong.

But there I was, staring through the saloon doors spanning the cover of Three on a Stallion, which featured a bosomy, befeathered redhead posed between a half-dressed cowboy and a Boss Hogg type replete with bolo tie and gold-encrusted pinkie ring. Where’s the horse? I wondered.

~

When I went to my mother’s the next day she accosted me before I had even removed my jacket. “I have a thought,” she bellowed, overly ecstatic or keyed up on an accidental double dose of Xanax again.

“What’s up?” I asked as I plopped onto a kitchen chair, resigned to cold rigatoni and an unfailing exuberance that was hard to bear without Shelby beside me, smiling, encouraging my mother to share bodily emission updates, coupon savings totals, the escapades of Mr. Bojangles, a flea-bitten, imperious cat who seemed intent on disfiguring my face.

“You remember Mrs. Candello?”

I searched my memory banks knowing it was probable that she had never been deposited there. Lately my mother has grown forgetful, repeating the same stories, misplacing her thyroid pills, believing that our shared history is so complete that our list of acquaintances must be identical. “No,” I said, “can’t say that I do.”

“From the grocery store?”

I shook my head.

“Bingo?”

This went on for several minutes until I deduced that Mrs. Candello had a daughter who was in dire need of a date.

“Mom, I don’t want to go on a blind date.”

“Yes you do!”

“Give me one good reason.”

“I can give you plenty!”

I stared at the chipped plate on the table before me, the paper napkin folded neatly under a child sized fork, the paisley pattern in the plastic tablecloth. When our eyes met her look carried the weight of her disappointment in my selfishness and the gross injustice to poor Alice Candello, a nice girl with a tiny overbite who daily underwent the strain of fielding telephone complaints from angry AT&T customers.

“Do you know how difficult that is, dealing with irritated people? The woman’s a saint. You’re too good to have a cup of coffee with a saint?”

“I’m sure she’s great,” I said, exhausted before I put the first bite of cold, wet noodle into my mouth. “But I don’t want to start anything—”

“She’s not asking for a marriage proposal. Just a cup of coffee. Maybe she won’t even like you,” she said almost hopefully before placing a warm glass of RC Cola beside my hand and lowering herself onto the chair beside me.

“I’m sure she won’t.”

“Oh, Johnny, you’ve been so negative since—”

“Since what?”

She ignored my question, serving herself a congealed mass of pasta while patting Mr. Bojangles, who seemed to have materialized from her outstretched hand before regarding me with steely eyes.

“I’ve been so negative since what?”

She shook her head as if having a silent argument with an invisible antagonist. “Since you and Shelby broke up,” she blurted. “She was such a nice girl.”

“She was—is—a nice girl. I just wasn’t ready for, you know.” I swirled my fork in the air. “Anything.” I placed my hand over hers. “I appreciate that you’re doing something nice for me. I appreciate that you want me to be happy.”

“I don’t know why Shelby didn’t make you happy. She made me happy.”

After cleaning up the kitchen and locating my mother’s misplaced pills, I drove home through the snowbound streets and thought about Shelby, whose mother probably did not need to engage the heroic extremes mine did to launch her child on a date. I stared at the passenger seat from where Shelby had once snorted iced tea onto the windshield after I told a moderately funny joke, where she once winked so hard her contact lens sprung from her eye, where for weeks after our break up the indents of her butt cheeks remained outlined in the leather cushion.

It had been a year since I told Shelby that moving clothes into my closet without permission, choosing engagement rings without my knowledge and leaving copies of Brides magazine on my coffee table were undermining her desired outcome. She had started sleeping at my place more often than her own, cooking my favorite meals and asking how many kids I wanted. We were in our late 20s and had only been dating for six months. Six months! I told her that I wasn’t ready for that kind of commitment and she told me, ironically, that time didn’t matter when you were in love but that she was ready now. Why, Shelby, why did you have to ruin a good thing?

~

Painful though it may be, human nature drives us to tongue the crater left by a pulled tooth, save the collars of deceased pets, troll the websites of former lovers. When I clicked on her site the screen exploded in green and red, the cover of a holiday-themed book called He Was Naughty, She Was Nice featuring a teary-eyed, Christmas-sweater clad blond clinched in the embrace of a shirtless torso. They are outside in the snow. At night. Under a mistletoe-laden pine tree. Maybe this is brilliant. What do I know? But a Christmas sweater? Shirtless in freezing temps? Why so many mistletoes? The tagline: “This Christmas, Holly would not be the gift that kept on giving.” I tooled around the site until I located the Author Bio, which was a strange blend of personal and professional information: Originally from Boise, Idaho, Ms. Duchene now lives in a small town in the Midwest with her one-eyed dog Mabel. She has written six romance novels by night. By day she is a hair stylist. “Be careful,” she tells her customers, “or you’ll end up in my book!”

I clicked on the Contact Author link and stared at the online form, which of course required I leave an email address for her response. I left the site and then did what any normal, red-blooded American man would do: I paid $9.95 on Amazon for a paperback romance written by a former girlfriend now living with a one-eyed dog.

The next day I selected a small fir from the church parking lot where Ned Pearson had set up a miniature forest from his tree farm. Last Christmas Shelby insisted we buy the biggest pine on the lot only to come home and cut it practically in half to get it through the front door. Once it was vertical she shook out a tree skirt—where had that come from?—and hummed “Let It Snow” as she worked the quilted material around the metal stand. Under the tree the next morning were seven packages of various shapes and sizes, wrapped in shimmering paper and adorned with handmade paper bows, all addressed to me. Were they hidden in a closet? Had she snuck them from her car while I slept? I was simultaneously thrilled and annoyed, and I considered secretly opening them to determine her investment so I could reciprocate, but I knew I would never be able restore the presents to their pristine condition. Instead I asked what she would like for Christmas, and she cocked her head, smiled and said, “Oh, Johnny, you know what I want!”

I didn’t. I bought her a crock pot, a pair of Magic Scissors, a battery-operated candle, a bottle of White Diamonds, a digital pedometer, a Target gift card, and a fiber optic holiday sweater. She looked less than pleased with all of the gifts but the sweater, which she wore later that day to dinner at my mother’s. My presents included a pair of Hugo Boss leather gloves, a digital camera, an iPod docking station, a fist-sized chocolate heart, custom car mats, a hand-knit scarf and a ring.

~

I sat across the table from Alice Candello at Fin—dark wood, musty smell, overpriced seafood—and learned that she is, indeed, stressed, as evidenced by the crescent-shaped stains under the arms of her satin blouse and the speed with which she downed a $42 bottle of Merlot. She did not stop talking—about implacable telephone customers, her obstinate cockatiel, traffic on the I-49 where, I could not prevent the thought, Shelby had once spun her car like a carnival ride. The handcuff-sized bangles on her wrist clanked each time she lifted her glass or waved to the waiter to ask for more bread, to request a less tart salad dressing, to demand he open a window as she fanned herself with the cocktail menu. After her fourth glass of wine she’d thrown off any pretense of being on a first date, openly flirting while grinding what felt like a size 18 gumboot up and down my left shin and engaging in a strange dialect of drunken baby talk. I am not an easily embarrassed man, but she was making a Herculean effort, even if unconsciously. By the time the main course arrived I was mentally rehearsing what I would say to my crestfallen mother: I’m being transferred to Parma, I’m allergic to birds, I’m gay.

But the utter failure of my date with Alice Candello did not deter my perpetually upbeat mother, who apparently had a slew of friends with desperate, defective daughters: recently divorced Carmen Sanchez spent the evening discussing the myriad ways she’d like her ex to suffer (stoning, overpass collapse, shark attack), Stacy Kaminski barely spoke, instead giggling like a mental patient, and Renee Dubois anxiously glanced around the restaurant like a witness protection inductee on her first outing before admitting that her former boyfriend was a stalker but, really, she said, that did not stop him from loving her.

~

There’s no other way to say it: my mailman is an asshole. Two days after my ill-fated date with a woman who mistook tracking devices and night vision goggles for the accoutrements of love, I stood at the curb in a knee-high snowdrift left by the plow and worked a large, tightly fused clump of flyers, bills and a padded envelope from my mailbox. Shelby’s book. I threw a frozen pizza into the oven, cracked a beer and exhumed the paperback from its plastic sheath. The colors on its cover were even brighter, the sweater tackier and the scene more bizarre than they had appeared on her website, but that didn’t matter. I found myself attempting to satisfy a curiosity I could not name: did Shelby have literary talent? Had writing these novels changed her? Had I made a mistake in letting her go? As far as literary talent, how hard can it be to write a romance? But maybe spending time with desperate female characters had opened her eyes to their, well, desperation.

I smiled as I read about Holly, who could have been Shelby herself: selfless, positive, spirited. Holly even looked like Shelby: short, blond, freckle-faced, snub-nosed, cute. If you’re wondering, Nick looked nothing like me: square-jawed, muscled, stylish but with an incurable propensity for removing his shirt. I already hated him. Nick stood Holly up and flirted with other women while Holly made meals, scheduled events and booked trips for a man who cancelled or ignored her. Why? I wondered. Why did Holly put up with him? Maybe women did not give up on men as easily as men did women. Maybe women read romance novels because they understood the general hopelessness of men, commiserated with the dejected heroines. Maybe that’s why Carmen Sanchez imagined her ex plummeting to his death from a fiery helicopter or running headlong into razor wire. All that effort wasted. All that hope shattered. But I never did that to Shelby. Why had she given up on me?

I read well into the night. When Holly finally lets go of Nick—who actually runs off to Europe with Margeaux, leaving her no choice, really—she meets Kris, a kind, bespectacled, stable man who owns a toy factory. Her life is now “constant” and “content.” She wears her favorite Christmas sweater to a holiday dinner with Kris’s mother, who flits around the kitchen like an epileptic comet and squeals with delight when she opens a holiday sweater for her cat, Mr. Bojangles. I laughed aloud, imaging both the slashing I would face if I advanced on the real Mr. Bojangles with a sweater and Shelby including me—or something vaguely related to me—in her book. I put the book aside for a while to savor the warmth of being remembered, the memory of being happy.

Meanwhile my mother persisted in battling my resolve, determined to whittle her list of prospective daughters-in-law to zero; when she engaged her exaggerated limp, clutched Mr. Bojangles to her bosom and claimed that she was not long for this world, I acquiesced. While Mona Lambers rambled on about cross stitch patterns I wondered if Holly would take Nick back; when Loreen Womack ran to the ladies room for the fifth time—Bladder infection? Coke addiction?—I wondered if Nick would or could change. As Patrice Dombrowski chucked oysters into her mouth like an eating contest contender I hoped that, ultimately, Holly/Shelby would be happy.

The book sat, untouched, on the coffee table like a talisman, like a spell, like an unfulfilled wish. Finally, after a particularly loathsome day at work—the porters never returned from lunch, one of my mechanics cracked the windshield on a year-old Town & Country with a dropped wrench, an unsatisfied customer threatened to shove his boot so far up my ass I’d taste leather—I decided to re-embark on my reading odyssey in an effort to mine some sort of inexplicable hope from He Was Naughty, She Was Nice. The next scene described a holiday party—five pages of partridge-adorned wreaths, candle-laden mantels, the aromatic properties of pine—after which Holly and Heylei engage in a three-page discussion of the gifts they received from their boyfriends: Tiffany earrings, Gucci clutches, spa days, engagement rings. I did not take this personally.

Apparently no romance would be complete without revenge; the cad must not only lose the girl but must be made the fool, for the woman he is now determined to win back has found happiness in the arms of a man who is both lesser and greater, paunchy and cerebral but also generous and kind. By the time Nick bursts through the garland-strangled front door wearing the green and red sequined sweater Holly had made for him, the reader not only anticipates but savors the knowledge that his punishment will be both severe and deserved. The room collectively sniggers as Nick approaches Holly, shyly proffering a basket of unwrapped gifts, which include a crock pot, a pair of Magic Scissors, a battery-operated candle, a bottle of White Diamonds, a digital pedometer, and a Target gift card. That I took personally.

I picked up Sheila Kravitz with a newfound will to see the best in people. I ignored Sheila’s eye tic. I overlooked the force with which her man hands clutched the fork and knife, sawing like a primate into the bloody steak on her plate. I even managed a smile when she made it clear that she was an old-fashioned girl not amenable to “grab hands.” Then I went home and finished Shelby’s book, though of course the ending was predictable: the party guests openly mock Nick’s pathetic attempt at reconciliation, and after he is physically thrown from the house he stares through the front window as Kris bends to one knee, pulls a black velvet box from his pocket and gazes up at Shelby/Holly. I threw the book across the room while simultaneously wondering if Alice Candello might be more palatable if she laid off the wine.

The next day I decided that I would have dinner with my best girl: Mom. I bought the fixings for her favorite meal: crock pot cacciatore accompanied by baby potatoes smothered in butter and finished off with a dessert of chocolate ice cream. Though she had been the author of the torment I had endured on numerous blind dates, she’d always had the best intentions. When she arrived I greeted her at the front door and took her coat. “Right this way, Madam,” I said, offering my arm.

“My,” she exclaimed, “all those dates turned you into a gentleman!”

“I was always a gentleman,” I protested.

“Yes, but you’re nice again!”

I was trying. I seated her at the dining room table before I trotted to the kitchen to check on the potatoes and fetch the remainder of the wine I’d used in the recipe, and when I returned my mother was bent over, pulling something from under the sofa. Shelby’s book.

“What’s this?”

“A poorly written book,” I said.

“Shelby wrote a book?” She looked from me to the cover. “It’s so…bright.”

“Here.” I pried the paperback from her hand and ushered her to the table, where I would painstakingly steer us clear of anything resembling a serious conversation. After commenting on each element of the meal—the peppers were cut in perfect strips, the chicken was not at all dry, the potatoes were very white—my mother insisted on helping me clean up. When she entered the kitchen she stared at the counter, spellbound.

“Isn’t that the crock pot you gave Shelby?”

I trod lightly. “Yes. How about some chocolate ice cream?”

“Why is it here? Are you back together?” she asked hopefully. “Is that the reason for this special dinner?”

“No, Mom. She didn’t want it. She left it. That’s all.”

“Oh, dear. I’m sorry.” Then she considered for a moment. “Who wouldn’t want a crock pot?”

“Shelby, Mom. Shelby didn’t want a crock pot.”

Over dessert I caught my mother staring at me pityingly and in response I offered an almost manic performance to demonstrate that I was fine, just fine—happy, in fact—laughing like a maniac at her Reader’s Digest jokes, springing from the couch to refill her wine glass, saying that the blind dates had not really been so bad.

“I’m so glad,” she said. “Because Mrs. Donegan’s daughter Sally is lovely. She owns her own daycare center. Can you imagine?”

I could. A room full of diaper-clad, sticky-fingered puking machines.

“I think kids could cheer you up,” she stated as she patted my knee. “Bring you back to your old self.”

I wanted to ask about this alleged old self she clearly missed, but I understood what she meant: effortlessly positive, consistently engaged, much more tolerant with her and even Mr. Bojangles, who I suddenly recalled had urinated on my new leather gloves with impunity last Christmas. Even Shelby, who must have paid a hundred bucks for the now piss soaked clumps, patted the unapologetic cat on the head and tsked about aging and bladder control. Why couldn’t she have been more patient with me?

“I’m fine,” I said, though I wasn’t convinced myself.

“How about another date,” she said with a wink. “Get you right back in the saddle!”

When my mother left I spent the rest of the evening imagining what I would rather do than embark on another blind date: undergo a root canal, wrestle Lou Ferrigno, get thwacked in the ass with a cattle prod.

~

Sally Donegan was late, but that was all right with me, the new and improved, back-in-the-saddle, determined to be patient man. I tried not to think about my mother’s face and how it rose and fell with the tide of events: the successive failures of her matchmaking efforts, the discovery of Shelby’s book wedged under my sofa, the initial hope and subsequent disappointment triggered by her vision of the inadequate, offending crock pot. I had to hand it to her; she did not give up easily. Eight dates, each a mess in its own particular way, though of course I kept the gory details to myself. These were, after all, the daughters of her friends and I was the common denominator in an equation that persistently equaled disaster. My mother just wanted me to be happy. I sipped my beer. I cringed as I considered the type of woman who might own a daycare center: merry, serene, hearing impaired.

“Sorry I’m late!”

I looked up as the familiar voice registered, and there she was, all smiles and sequins, the fruit of my mother’s most recent effort: Shelby.

I have always been captivated—well, horrified—by the concept of the blind date. The only thing worse would be having one, or eight, orchestrated by your mother.