Books

One Man’s Thoughts on Reading Thomas Mann While Waiting for a Date

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-70 minutes from appointed start time of date.

I know what I’m wearing for my date.

-68 minutes from appointed start time of date.

I don’t know what I’m wearing for my date.

-64 minutes from appointed start time of date.

I know what I’m wearing for my date. I grab Magic Mountain, stuff it into my jacket pocket, and sit by my front door doing nothing for a surprising amount of time.

-3 minutes from appointed start time of date.

I am three minutes early. Not wanting to seem over-eager, I walk around the block to de-frizz what my hat has wreaked. It’s unclear what direction she is coming from and I’ve only ever seen her at direct angles; the streets are fraught with possibility.

0 minutes from appointed start time of date.

I enter the restaurant and provide each blurred moon face with a personalized smile. The low-level prosopagnosia clears up. She is not here. I de-twinkle my eye and my shoulders re-acquire their natural hunch. The room is three quarters empty—it is always three quarters empty—but I’ve made a reservation to avoid standing by the door unsure of what to do with our hands. I ask the host if I can sit and incredulity flashes.

1 minutes from appointed start time of date.

Standard preliminary fiddling ensues. I (and this will be controversial) opt for the booth seat: the back of my head looks nice in mirrors; incipient fidgeting will be disguised; no watching myself chew. Also, I usually discover late in the game that I have been shredding paper napkins and leaving them clustered like new snow at my feet. The table provides a handy buffer. Bonus: my left profile is toward the door. Forget good side, we’re talking great side. Firm-jawed, my non-weird eye, the widow’s peak a gentle beginner’s slope. My right side has a mole and a twitch and I can’t even really smile with it, and it’s maybe a problem?

2 minutes from appointed start time of date.

Within five minutes is, of course, not even late, and if you throw in the 15-minute acceptability buffer, there will be time to kill. The key to waiting for a late date is to look like you don’t mind waiting. This rules out the phone. “I’m so desperate for contact that I’ve texted three friends” is no good. Unfortunately our contemporary attention span has made staring slackly into neutral space impossible and one should perhaps only strike up a running-joke series with a waiter if he/she is a member of your non-preferred gender who is at or below your own level of attractiveness. I pull out the now creased Magic Mountain.

3 minutes from appointed start time of date.

I’m not saying that there is any particular benefit to reading before dates. I usually have to re-read because the anticipatory tingles wreck my capacity for absorption, and it can seem pretentious (particularly when the novel in question is a post-modern-anticipating opus spanning six years in a sanatorium whose main action is inaction).

4 minutes from appointed start time of date.

The waiter eyes the book dubiously (the cover art has that self-help vibe). I want to order a drink to introduce a pleasant slow-paced rhythm to the evening (the dizzying possibility of bar after), but it can’t be something chuggable. Imagine if she walked in while I was 7/9ths of the way through a beer. It would scream problem child. I order a house whiskey neat; his reaction is akin to that which met the book cover.

5 minutes from appointed start time of date.

I peruse the menu. I will have to act like I’m deciding with her – that delicate dance of establishing the vegetarian/vegan axis and resolving questions of multiple courses (I once had a date order a shrimp cocktail appetizer and a second shrimp cocktail main), but knowing in advance takes the edge off. Exhausted, I pause at the five-minute mark. She will surely be showing up right about now.

6 minutes from appointed start time of date.

Another thing about reading is it creates the temptation to say something evocative. Magic Mountain has a moment so romantic that I missed my subway stop: Hans Catsorp asks the door-slamming, soft-veined Clavdia Chauchat for a pencil. In Magic Mountain, the mundane becomes exciting. The scene is a callback to Hans’s youth, when he asked a lovely boy (this sexual desire is, quite remarkably, taken as a matter of course) for a pencil. But I won’t share this; the amount of background draws dangerously close to mansplaining. Which no. Never that.

7 minutes from appointed start time of date.

I’m going to have a salad with grilled chicken. The potential issue is that when I order ruffage on dates, the busser will, oh, 70 percent of the time, place it in front of her and her plate (burger/calzone/shepard’s pie) in front of me, and the normalization of it will be uncomfortable for all involved. Do people order heavy food on dates to demonstrate avidness or nonchalance? I myself trend chalant.

8 minutes from appointed start time of date.

A problem with reading is that my eyes go lidded, my chin-scruff intensifies, and I just generally look like a penitent pre-meal Benedictine. I briefly consider holding the book vertically, but it feels ostentatious so I instead keep my face level and peer over my wonderful cheekbones.

9 minutes from appointed start time of date.

My adrenaline spikes every time the door opens. In the last nine minutes, I’ve beamed at one of those guys selling rave sparklers (What would you even do with one? Being on a date easily triples my charitable impulse, but there’s no end game.), an elderly couple, the hostess post-cigarette, a beautiful woman who I briefly hoped was my misremembered date, and four different men in glasses.

10 minutes from appointed start time of date.

With nothing to think about except Mann and the mysterious workings of my own body, I have become convinced that I need to use the restroom. I somehow decide that this would be unacceptable. Anyway, once she arrives, I’ll be a rock; an island.

11 minutes from appointed start time of date.

If only I was reading Magic Mountain’s ski sequence, the only time the book takes on a familiar bildungsroman feel (the book is the Mrs. Dalloway to Joyce’s Ulysses). Trapped in the snow, Hans hallucinates the novel’s thesis, but then, with 200 pages to go, forgets it. The actual ending is thus allowed to be fabulously abrupt. After all, in life truth rarely arrives at the denouement.

12 minutes from appointed start time of date.

A list of books that I would ideally read before dates, w/o explanation: Salinger’s Franny and Zooey; The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel; Denis Johnson’s Jesus’s Son; anything Frank O’Hara; Cortázar’s Hopscotch; Collected Lydia Davis; Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America; Justin Torres’s We the Animals; Siken’s Crush as a break-glass-in-case-of-poet emergency.

13 minutes from appointed start time of date.

Seriously though, where is she? If she texted, I could reply, “It’s okay I have a book.” That’s all the projected externality I need. It’s 2014, and her lack of contact is actually becoming problematic. She is either standing me up, on the subway, dead, or sitting in a similarly-named restaurant trying to avoid going to the bathroom and wondering why I haven’t texted.

14 minutes from appointed start time of date.

The biggest accomplishment of Magic Mountain is relative time. Of course, literature always works with a sort of odd exponential decay with regard to chronology, but in the novel the first week takes as long as the first year, and we somehow feel this passage (it’s somewhat related, I’d posit, to the phenomenon of time seeming to go faster as we age), so that the simplest acts, like pencil borrowing, become significant.

15 minutes from appointed start time of date.

The date buffer is up. She is not here. I will order for one, will feel the pitying glance of the waiter and the polite disappointment of the hostess. At some point in the 2050s, I’ll stand on some sort of dock in mid-continent America and will look at our ever surging ocean and realize that despite my life’s accomplishments (an essay on a website!; between four and seven friends!; the multiple times I passed the learner’s permit written exam!), it is all just empty, that no one will attend when my body is dropped into the ocean with the traditional chants of “Please stop, Poseidon.”

16 minutes from appointed start time of date.

She enters. I leap to my feet, all eagerness. She asks what I’m reading. I turn the cover toward her. She purses her lips and says, “huh.”

143 minutes from appointed start time of date.

We send each other guardedly optimistic text messages from our respective taxis.

604 minutes from appointed start time of date.

The texts have stopped. I realize I left Magic Mountain under the table and don’t retrieve it for four days.

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