Don’t puke. Don’t puke. Don’t puke.
“Why the hell am I doing this?” I say to my nurse Sarah as she drives us into the city. “Who decided this was a good idea?”
“All will be fine,” Sarah says, patient as a preschool teacher dealing with the meltdown of a four year old. I suspect nursing school did not prepare her for this. There likely was not a course called How to Calm Your Irrational Home Care Client Before Her First OkCupid Date.
“I fucking hate cupcakes. Why am I even here?” I say as we drive up a hill into the parking lot.
I look at the door of the cupcake shop and think about the hill we just drove up.
“Wait. The restaurant is down there and we are up here. Shit. Is there a flight of stairs to get into this place?”
Sarah—blond, 20-something, and clothed in pink—bounces out of the van to check things out.
My first OkCupid date and he picks an inaccessible location? Seriously? Online dating is going great so far, I think to myself. After convincing him that the wheelchair is no big deal and that I’m perfectly normal aside from the constant sitting down, I have to call him and say, ‘Hey, I can’t meet you here because: wheelchair.’ Perfect.
“Yep. There’s a flight of stairs inside the door.”
“But there’s another entrance on the other side of the building.”
I perk up, relieved, but only for a second. Crap. Now I have to go through with this. I don’t have butterflies in my stomach. I have whole goddamn marching band, with clanging cymbals and tubas and trombones and a piccolo, all playing a John Philip Sousa march as though John himself is going to come back from the dead and eat their brains if they don’t play loud enough.
We head down the hill to the parking lot by the accessible door. I whine again as I drive my power wheelchair down the van ramp. Sarah—who, to her credit hasn’t slapped me—assures me that I will not die, that I will get through it, that it is just a date.
The door jingles as we go inside. As instructed, Sarah becomes invisible at a table in the opposite corner of the shop while my eyes dart from table to table looking for a face I will (hopefully) recognize. Scanning the room, I go over the Shit You Should Remember About Your Date mental spreadsheet.
Status: Recently divorced.
Age: Early 30s
Appearance: Dark hair. Bowl cut. Short. Possibly pudgy.
Likes: Dave Matthews Band. Electronic dance music.
Quirks: Aforementioned bowl cut.
Short. Dark hair. Bowl cut. Short. Dark hair. Bowl cut. Nope, not here.
I have time to kill so I stare at the cupcakes in the display case. Dave Matthews and EDM? Really? I think, as I pretend to decide between lemon or red velvet. Why did I say yes to this guy? Cats. Cats will be the only thing we have in common. How long can two people talk about cats?
I don’t want to turn around. Turning around means I will be on this date and will have to converse with this stranger with whom I now realize I have nothing in common. I close my eyes, give myself a two second pep talk amounting to “you-got-yourself-into-this-now-suck-it-up” and turn around with a smile.
“Glenn? Hi! So great to meet you!”
I assess the situation as we exchange pleasantries. Is this what 5 foot 6 looks like? Really? He doesn’t seem much taller than my 5 foot 3 sister. His head is different. What’s different? I think it’s his hair. Yes! His hair is spiked and decidedly not in the shape of a bowl. He’s discovered hair gel! Yay, him! But now he reminds me of someone.
Chastising myself for being a shallow bitch, I maneuver through the crowded shop to the open table in the corner. I clumsily ram into a chair and elicit side-eyes from the cupcake connoisseurs at a nearby table. Smooth. I’m always so smooth and cool, I think, refusing to acknowledge the discomfort in the eyes of my smiling date as he moves the chair out of the way and glances down at my ventilator tubing.
“What would you like?” he asks.
To go home, I think.
“Iced mocha, please,” I say with a grin, trying to place his familiar face.
“I’ll be right back.”
Alone at the table, I think about that uncomfortable look he tried to hide. He knew about the disability, the wheelchair, the ventilator. He was warned. But he hadn’t seen them until today. They were there, in my OkCupid profile and in my messages, but only in words. I loved that my profile captured the essence of me. Loved that my straight-and-married-with-a-son-on-the-way friend wanted to date me after reading it. Loved that my sister read it and said, “Yep, that’s you.” It was me. It was my dorkiness, my intelligence, my sense of humor; it was the truth of who I am. But the photos? They were a lie. They captured my eyes and my smile—head shots and nothing more. I wanted men to get to know me first. To read that profile that I loved so much. To see and understand me before hitting “NEXT!” So I cropped out my truth. Looking around at the happy couples in the shop, I recognize my mistake.
Burying my thoughts under a smile, I brace myself for chit chat as Glenn returns with our drinks.
“Here you go.”
“Thank you, sir.” Sir? Really?
“Just want to give you a heads up right away that I need to leave by 6:30. I have a potluck dinner with my church group tonight. We meet every Monday.” Hmm. So he’s into Jesus. Can I say ‘fuck’ around him? I probably shouldn’t. Note to self: don’t say ‘fuck.’
My permanently-bent-at-the-elbows Tyrannosaurus Rexy disabled arms can’t reach my glass. I nudge my wheelchair closer to the table—delicately, so as to avoid another ramming incident—and put my fingertip on the rim to wriggle it closer. It starts to tip. Fuck! Glenn’s hand flies up and grabs the glass before I’m bathed in icy mocha. Noticing my lack-of-reach, he slides it closer to me.
I ignore another uncomfortable smile.
“Yes, thank you.”
“So, how was your day?” he asks.
I focus on the grad school projects I’m working on instead of the nervous nausea, the sweat that collected in my armpits as 5pm approached, or the Foolproof First Date Questions website I memorized.
I throw the question back at him and he describes his job. He’s in IT—programming or coding or software engineering or some computer-ish thing I know nothing about. Despite really not giving a shit, I smile. I nod. I ask relevant questions. The conversation is at once easy and tedious. I maintain friendly and engaged levels of eye contact but steal glances at the pastry chef meticulously constructing delicate flowers in the bakery window just over Glenn’s shoulder.
Ooooh that’s so pretty! She made that so fast! I wonder how long it took to learn how to do that? Shit. He’s still talking about work. Focus. Software. Network. Codes. Computers. Yawn.
“So what would your ideal job be?” I snap myself back into the conversation with another Foolproof First Date Question.
“I want to design video games.”
“What type?” Smile and stay engaged. Smile and stay engaged.
“A fantasy realm kind of like Lord of the Rings—it would be filled with riddles and quests and eccentric characters.”
“Sounds cool,” I lie. “Admittedly, my gaming experiences revolve around Pac-Man on the Atari 2600.” His slight chuckle feels like a victory.
After an awkward pause, I bust out another Foolproof First Date Question and we settle into a groove, talking about our favorite cities, where we’d like to live, and our money-is-no-object dream vacations. As our chat slows down, Glenn looks around and decides it’s time for a cupcake.
“Would you like anything?” he asks.
“No, I’m fine. But thanks.”
I gulp down more coffee and people watch as he goes up to the counter. OK, this isn’t so bad. We’re talking. We’re (almost) laughing. We haven’t resorted to cat talk. Yes, he’s boring and bland and seems to lack a sense of humor, but still. Kind. Polite. Smart. Could be worse. But why does he look so familiar?
The couple across the aisle from us is playing footsie and holding hands. They have no idea the rest of us exist, so enraptured they are with each other. The woman tosses back her long auburn hair as she laughs at his witticisms. Sigh. I want that. My mind drifts as I put myself there—Glenn and I holding hands, making other people want to vomit at the sweetness of our love. I imagine our wedding—Glenn insists we have a Star Trek theme and of course I acquiesce, knowing how much it means to his tender geek heart. We are deliriously happy as we make our mutual adoration official.
The screech of Glenn’s chair sliding across the floor pulls me out of my daydream. “I went with the red velvet. Are you sure you don’t want any?” he asks, sitting back down. I shake my head and swallow more coffee. It goes down the wrong pipe, triggering a fit of super sexy coughs and snorts and sputters and sneezes.
“Are you OK?” he asks.
I choke out an “I’m fine” in between machine-assisted breaths. Don’t die on this date. It’s not polite to die on dates. The force of my coughs causes my ventilator tubing to pop off, which in turn causes Glenn’s eyes to pop out of his face. Now I’m coughing and trying to stifle a laugh as I put the tubing back on. “Sorry about that. Happens sometimes. All is fine.” I say when I finally regain my composure. I give him a reassuring smile. Smooth. Always so smooth and cool.
We sit in silence, surrounded by the cacophony of conversations, coffee grinders, and cappuccino machines. Glenn looks at me, then his cupcake. I watch as he peels the paper off the cupcake and prepares to take a bite. Do I look at him while he’s eating? Should I look away? Should I ask another question? I look down at my glass as he inelegantly stuffs his face, crumbs scattering everywhere. Nope. Don’t ask a question. Bad time for questions.
With the nearly dying and now this, the date is now firmly immersed in Phase Two: The Awkwarding. Out of the corner of my eye I see cupcake bits flying out of his mouth. Seriously. Where am I supposed to look? WHY IS THIS HAPPENING? I concentrate on my coffee. Just my coffee. Not the chewing or the crumbs or the spittle. Coffee. Glass. Head down. Do not look at your neighbor. Keep your eyes on your own paper.
Mercifully, he eats quickly, cleans up all the errant crumbs—from his face, the table, somehow his shoulder?—and we both make it through that traumatic event.
“This is a really cool place,” I say, forgetting every back-pocket Foolproof First Date Question I had memorized.
“Yeah, it is,” he says as he looks around.
Silence. Crickets chirping. Awkward smiles.
Uh oh. It’s about to happen. Here it comes. I can’t stop myself.
“So, you have a cat, right?” I ask, cringing inside. Damn it. There it is. Cats. We’re going to talk about cats now. Fan-fucking-tastic.
His eyes brighten.
“Fred is my best friend.”
“What kind of cat is he?” I ask, studying Glenn’s face.
“A long hair ginger tabby. He’s quite comical. He’ll drink water straight from the faucet. He’s also fond of going for walks in the backyard. I put him on a leash and he actually tolerates it for a while…”
Glasses. Round face. Spiked hair. This is driving me nuts. Who does he remind me of?
“…Then when he’s had enough he simply drops to the ground as if he’s giving up on life…”
Wait. That kid from Jerry Maguire. YES. That kid with glasses and spiked hair! What was his damn name? JONATHAN LIPNICKI! HE’S A DARK HAIRED GROWN-UP JONATHAN LIPNICKI!
“…It’s really rather funny. I should capture a video sometime.”
Outwardly I grin at the silliness of Fred the Cat. Inwardly I’m jumping up and down at my Lipnicki revelation.
“I have a tabby as well—short hair, black and tan. Her name is Skittles,” I say, fully accepting we’re in the cat segment of our date. “She loves the news, especially the weather.” Glenn looks confused so I go on. “If she catches a glimpse of the weather segment she’ll gallop into the room, jump up on the TV stand, and paw at the meteorologist. Happens every single time.”
“Oh my goodness, that’s so funny!” he says while taking a quick peek at his watch. “Oh no, it’s already 6:50. I’m supposed to be at the potluck in ten minutes.” Time flies when you’re talking about cats. “I’m sorry, but I really have to be going.”
“No problem!” Thank God.
“I had a very nice time chatting with you,” he says.
“Me, too! Thank you so much for the coffee.”
“You’re welcome. Can I give you a hug?” he asks. Oh no.
“Of course!” This is going to be weird.
I dread hugs with strangers. My arms don’t go where I want them to, they’re scared of hurting me, and neither of us ever knows exactly what to do to make it work. I can see the “Oh-no-what-do-I-do?” look on his face as he bends down with his arms out. I lift an arm and awkwardly lean into the hug as best as I can. He taps my back and quickly stands back up. Phew, that’s over.
“Again, it was really great to meet you, Carrie. Have a wonderful evening!”
“Thanks, you too!” I turn toward the exit to watch him leave before heading over to Sarah. And with the jingle of the door, Jonathan Lipnicki is gone.