Red Flags: a series of anecdon’ts–stories, both nonfictional and fictional, about the ways that relationships can NOT come to fruition. Each story is a collection of moments that exist at the meeting point of ‘sweet’ and ‘sour’.
“What was that look?”
Conversations that take this turn rarely end well. Looking back, I should have known the relationship would ultimately end at the foot of the Springfield escalator to nowhere.
It was the first of few lunch-date thingies. We sat next to a bone-dry fountain in the Chicago Place food court, downtown. As she spoke, I had a mouthful of food — chicken tenders, probably. She’d been telling me about her stint as a bartender and that her high cheekbones and generous bustline helped her take home addictive amounts of cash in tips. Apparently, I made a face. She thought I had a problem with this; that I thought she was vain. The only problem was, I’d made no face. Not on purpose, anyway. Why would I? What she said made sense: (pretty smile) + (ample bosom) x (often) = attention at bars. In fact, the next ten minutes that followed were her trying to convince me of how I felt about her based on a face she thought she saw me make. She spent most of that time arguing with herself, and when it was said and done, I’m pretty sure I’d lost the argument.
We worked together. She — I’ll call her Nadine — was in a different department so we had very little work-related interaction. We eventually became friendly, but lunch plans turned into a weekly dance. Schedules were tough to sync because she was helping catch up on accounts of the payable type; my personal accounts, of the receivable type, limited my participation in the lunch-date thingies, for I was but a lowly intern. And perhaps a fitting title. I pitched my decision to pursue a relationship, right past ‘unwise’ and over the plate into the catcher’s mitt of ‘stupid’. A true professional would have known better than dating someone at the office, especially an office of less than 20 employees, where gossip is a second language. It became theater. We had next to no chance in such an unforgiving environment: a PR and advertising firm where everything and everyone is judged quickly and harshly. Coworkers told Shakespearean stories about other coworkers bustin’ down interns of varying age differences on grossly stained couches and how it ends well for no one, but my stubbornness made me push past all of the signs that read, “Ixnay on the upidstay!” I was determined to find lunch-hour love, so I put myself out there. I would either find myself a girlfriend, make a new friend, or be no worse off than when I first saw her. Oh, if it were only that simple.
Nadine became neither a girlfriend nor a friend.
There was definitely potential for a relationship, be it friend or more, however, I think she just wasn’t digging me, when it got right down to it. Her initial interest in me came in the form of curiosity. I was told she thought I was “mysterious.” Believe me; mysterious I am not. It wasn’t until Nadine and I were able to spend some real time together that I learned what she really wanted. Unfortunately, it wasn’t me. The mystery became the mundane. She came to my house and lay on my couch while I told her stories of my childhood. We talked for hours. We walked to the chicken joint down the block (wings this time) where, along the way, an older guy complimented me on how happy my “wife” and I looked together. We ate and I took her home. No kiss, no cuddle, just a hug goodbye. But at that point I thought we’d slid into the first level of courtship. It was maybe a week before she dropped that other shoe: she had an ex. I mean, people have exes, but he was in and out of her life in a way that I didn’t think was healthy and he was working his way back in. Sure we could have had fun just dating, but she would have bounced as soon as dude pulled up outside, Keyser Soze style.
She really wanted things to work out with the ex. She even told me this on one of our lunch-date thingies. The news prompted me to write her a letter expressing my intentions to not come between her and what she really wants. I stated this explicitly in the letter. The next day at work, I dropped it in her purse expecting her to read it on the way home or something. She came to me later that day and thanked me for being so forthcoming. Essentially, we decided we would keep it platonic. They got back together. Not long (maybe a few days?) after that she called me crying. The ex found my letter. He called the whole thing off. I didn’t understand why she still had the letter, nor did I get why he broke up with her. He couldn’t have read it. Not one word. Unless he was just pissed that she entertained the idea of spending time with another guy, he totally missed that I knew she wanted him and thought they should be together. But I guess he couldn’t see past the letter’s existence.
I vowed to stay away from Nadine after that. No lunch. No nothing. Nothing more than hellos and goodbyes. That lasted for a while — I’m not sure of this timeline, either. Then one day she comes to me and asks me to lunch. Really? Yes, really. She insisted. Even offered to pay (remember: lowly intern). I figured there was some explanation she wanted to give me, or maybe that’s just what I wanted. I didn’t like that things ended sourly, even though I was fine with not dating. If nothing else, we could clear the air. As it turned out, her morning got busy and she couldn’t make it to lunch, but as I got ready to head out, she came up behind me and slid a ten-dollar bill in my pocket. I felt uncomfortable with the gesture. I was Marcus the morning after Jacqueline stood him up for the play, pulling the sheets up to my chin. (cue Ertha Kit’s gravelly voice calling out to me from a distance) It may have been a sign that she wanted to be forward and honest with me. She said she’d pay for lunch; even if she wasn’t there. I thanked her and got me some food — chicken tenders, probably.
When I left the office that day (or some day…Valentine’s Day, maybe?), I saw Nadine standing with a bouquet of flowers and a card. He no longer held the title of “ex.” We chatted as she waited for her boyfriend to pick her up. I wished Nadine luck. She seemed happy with her decision and that’s all I could ask for. No joke. But I made sure to skidaddle before he pulled up. You know…what with her being Keyser Soze, and all.
Although there were other elements that helped stifle this almost-but-never-was relationship, there was a part of me that was disappointed. I’d had my heart broken a few years before, but I thought I was ready to date. Legitimately date. That just-want-to-meet-new-folks-and-have-a-good-time kind of dating. Apparently, I would need to search outside the convenience of the workplace to find love…
…but not before spending a little time with a fellow intern.
I know. I know. Stubbornness is a dish best served twice.