On a first date, Jamie is learning the thing to say, and it isn’t the truth; it isn’t the story of redemption, his own, or the difficulty of childhood, he is 58, or the way that prison teaches a man something about living that nothing else does, no. On a first date, Jamie is supposed to be attentive, is supposed to let them see the gentle meat of his grey eyes and the lines in his face that they can trace with a finger, later, when they know him, later that night or in a few weeks or months, but just later, when they know that he is the kind of guy they could love, that they could trust, that would give anything, yeah, anything, for their affection.
And, of course, when they meet him, they should feel safe. They are safe, anyway, so it is just a matter of them knowing it. Them, the girls, no, the women. They should feel safe with Jamie, they have every reason to feel safe. But, and yet, the murder has a way of looming. The thing you did when you were an idiot kid that every day since you regret, but it’s there, in the news, on the internet. In your heart. In the meteor of shame and guilt inside your belly. The act is there, is never not going to be there.
The homicide of his father is never meant to be first date conversation. Still, it is the kind of thing Jamie can’t not say for too long because then the women feel baited when, eventually, they figure it out. How can you be a person first though, without the blood ruining it all? It is the kind of thing that almost makes a guy not want to try, but then the drawer at home with the only two forks in it, and the way the moon hits the wall by his bed where there isn’t any kind of poster up, and the carpet by the door where his brown work boots sit alone, and he will always feel worse in the end not at least trying. Because at least with Jamie, the mess is already out on the table. At least, with him, the scars are there, are right there waiting, no needing, to be known, to be dealt some love, just anything, just a chance.
Doreen is the latest woman to have responded to his messages online. She is 52, divorced, and has two children, both in high school, both boys, and she works as a paralegal and has dark, curly hair that, from the pictures in her profile, seems to nest nicely around the round cheeks of her face. They messaged back and forth for a few days and then she had put a winking smiley which Jamie knows to interpret as an okay, let’s try this in the real live world. So, he asked, and she said, yeah, all right, let’s meet for a coffee or maybe a wine.
This is in Maine. In the state where Jamie had been sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after twenty-five years for the murder of his father, and where he had been, somewhat miraculously, paroled after serving a total of forty-two years. It is the kind of thing that could also not have happened, and he could have continued to be a person who lived his life in prison until the life was all used up, like one of those yogurts that you squeeze from the bottom that he hadn’t known existed until two months after his release, back when he was staying with his elderly aunt who was kind, so kind to him, it hurts, even now, to think of what she’s done for him.
But Doreen. Even the prospect of Doreen would not have been possible if it wasn’t for Selma and Markus and Dwayne and all the good, kind folks who helped guys like him who got out and didn’t even really know what the internet was, except it was this all-powerful force that had swallowed up the world, when they, the guys like him, were being preserved in a vat of brine, just pickling in those walls, each day even more obsolete and useless and shrunken, and then you get out, and thank god there’s a place like the place he went where they teach you how to be a person in the modern world, so you don’t just end up on the street. But, no. None of this is what he can say to Doreen. Not at first.
Doreen knows what, after all. He is 58, he has no kids, he has short hair that is greying here and there, but he still has hair, which is another miraculous thing. And he has a steady job doing maintenance work for the hospital, and he has most of his college degree, and he likes fishing, taking long walks through the woods, and seeing all the colors, there are so many colors, and his dog, Albert, the Rhodesian ridgeback, and, of course, that he likes to read poetry, which is true it is good stuff that gets in your bones and almost, maybe almost, can make you feel like there is a woman beside you, but no, maybe not tell Doreen that part.
In the small space of the kitchen of his one-room apartment off Williams Avenue in Bar Harbor, Maine, Jamie prepares himself for the evening ahead. It is a Friday night, so he had gotten off work at 4:30pm, and he had come home, taken Albert for a long walk, and then microwaved a frozen burrito, eaten it standing up in the kitchen as he poured tabasco on each bite, and then showered for the second time that day, shaved his stubble only cutting himself in one tiny spot because he was nervous, and then sat on his bed, staring at the clothes in his closet and jamming his tongue nervously against his bottom row of teeth before finally picking out a white undershirt, a pair of boxer shorts, a pair of dark blue jeans and a red and yellow flannel shirt that he had bought at Goodwill. Sitting on his bed, Jamie had found it hard not to recall the sensation of getting ready for a date in high school, but back then his nervousness was overwhelmed by a false cockiness, an innate knowledge that the girl, his high school girlfriend, Karen, wanted him so badly that whatever he wore was beside the point. Back then they were in love. Back then he was a normal guy. There was an innocence, back then, they could both believe in.
He and Doreen are meeting at the Bean, a coffee house that also serves wine and beer, so that if the night takes that course they can take it. They are meeting there at 7:30pm, and Jamie figures he will need to be there at 7:20pm so that he is early, but not too early, but maybe politely early. He had tried to read some articles online using the library’s computer about how to handle a blind date, but most of the advice he found was for women and how to protect themselves against a potential creep, and Jamie couldn’t help but know that he was maybe the creep that they were describing. A polite creep. A creep only in the sense of omission, but it isn’t even a permanent omission. It is—it is something he has to wait to say.
Jamie has now been out of prison for one year and it was six months into that year that he started trying to date. When he first had gotten out it was all so blinding, that the basic normalcy of adulthood, each moment of it, was like some kind of unknown jewel fallen in his hands that needed to be held and admired and saved. He had seen a prostitute, two different ones, twice, in the first month, mostly to be sure that everything still worked, but the act had made his heart hurt, and, besides, risking his parole seemed like a terrible idea, and mostly, the girls, these were girls, didn’t like him and he knew it. He was a chore to them. An old, sad guy with grey hair and a lined face and muscles where the skin overtop was just beginning to sag here and there.
But now in his kitchen, Jamie pours himself a glass of water from the tap and drinks it slowly, his left hand reaching down to rub Albert’s forehead and ears. He hasn’t yet told Doreen about his time served, which is intentional, only because the last few first dates he had found himself blurting it out as if to warn them about his inner violence. But he isn’t violent, no, he isn’t violent, even though, yes, he has done a violent thing. The blurting out, the redness in his face when he said something like, I have to tell you something, and they would ask, what, and he’d say, well I spent a lot of my life in prison, and, for what, they’d say, and, for murder, he’d say, and, oh, they would say, and then a pause and then, of who, they’d say, and, of my father, Jamie would say, and then there wasn’t much left to do but pay for the coffee or the beer or the frozen yogurt and say his goodbyes.
So, with Doreen it will be different. He will wait with this one. Because saying it on the first date, or in the online message before the date, or even saying it in his profile hasn’t seemed to work, has only seemed to scare the women away and for good reason.
“Hi Doreen, I’m Jamie.” These words, said aloud in the small kitchen, feel small, but feel right. When you spend decades without a space to talk aloud, the inside of your head becomes a well-groomed chamber, a place to place your thoughts, organize them, keep yourself sane. But it is just now seven which means it is time to go. So, Jamie glances at himself in the mirror, combs his right hand through his hair, gives Albert a milk bone and leaves the apartment, locking the door behind him and placing the key gently in his jean pocket.
Jamie arrives ten minutes early as planned, waits to order and sits nervously at the small two-top. He counts the sugars in the sugar caddy twice and then five minutes past 7:30, Doreen enters the coffee shop. He can tell it is her because of her hair and because she had told him she’d wear a red shirt. Her face is prettier, softer than what he’d expected from the photos, and her lipstick is red like her blouse, with just the smallest dab of it on the corner of her slightly yellow left front tooth, a fact which Jamie only notices later in the evening when she smiles with full teeth for the first time.
He rises to meet her and extends a hand which she takes limply in her own.
She nods and then motions toward the counter. “Should we order drinks?”
Jamie smiles and follows her to the register to place their order. Doreen orders a chai and so Jamie orders himself a cappuccino, something he has learned to do in previous moments like this one. When Doreen starts to open her purse, Jamie lightly puts his hand on her arm while simultaneously pulling out his own wallet, and she half-smiles, but he can’t help but feel her slight recoil beneath his touch.
When they are resettled at the table with their drinks, Jamie smiles broadly, inwardly imagining the creases in his face like so much drop cloth piled on a worksite.
“So you’re a paralegal? Was that something you always wanted to do?”
Doreen shakes her head and again half smiles. “To be honest, not entirely. It was more like something I fell into before I had kids, and then when I knew the father and I weren’t working out, something I could return to. Pretty romantic.” She pauses to blow on her chai and Jamie nods.
He can feel his chest tensing. He tries to ignore the feeling and the thought that silence could at any moment spread.
“What about you? You do maintenance work, right? How’d you get into that?” Doreen asks without meeting his eyes.
“I do—It was just something I got training for so I guess I picked up the skills and all.” Jamie can feel his feet inside his boots and concentrates on the feeling of his toe against the tiny hole in his sock. “Still, working with the law, that must be interesting stuff?”
“It can be.”
Jamie can smell her perfume and it smells like lavender. He opens his mouth to comment on it, but then closes it as he watches Doreen press her fingers into the sides of her ceramic cup.
“I’m sorry, I’m low energy tonight.” Doreen shakes her head and then sighs and Jamie hears the sigh, can almost see it in the track-lit room.
Doreen raises her eyes from the mug and looks at him and Jamie can see that her eyes, unexpectedly, are green.
“Long day?” He is still looking at the greenness, like a small meadow in the white pouches of her eye sockets.
“You could say that.” She swallows another small sip of the drink and Jamie notices the red smudge of her lipstick on the rim.
“You can be honest.”
Doreen raises her eyebrows just barely. “What’s that?”
“It’s okay, I know I’m not as tall as you would have liked.” Jamie glances back to see her reaction and she smiles now, the slightest pursing of her lips.
“Yeah, you might be a little shorter than I normally do.”
“But it’s rare you get a guy over seven feet in Maine.”
Jamie nods, biting the insides of his cheeks slightly to stop himself from smiling and looks at her to see her looking at him. “So why the long day?”
“You don’t want to hear about that.”
“It’s not the best first date chit chat is all.”
“Then what are we supposed to talk about?”
“Huh. Pets? Jobs? The basics.”