by John McCaffrey

Ronald scanned the personals of an Internet-based dating service, sifting through photos of women ages 27-37, a decade he decided, as a 38 year old, he could date effectively. This is how he thought. An Engineer’s mind. Life decisions, including affairs of the heart, were approached with precise planning, sober preparation, logical thought.

He was dateless now for a year, but aware of being alone just recently. The remainder of time had been absorbed in a work project. From January to October, ten months, he had designed and overseen the installation of a new software system that enabled a well-known Fortune 500 company to make payroll with just one computer stroke. He had consulted on the project, and the check for his services made him blush more than the glowing compliments received from the company’s executives. He hadn’t though much of the 300 or so employees that lost their job due to the efficiency of his product.

In November and December, Ronald basked in the glow of his success, spending a little of the money on a two-week vacation to South America and buying a vintage Camaro which he kept under protective blanket in the garage of this three-bedroom condo. But the New Year came and he found himself a bit depressed with his idle status, being in between jobs and in no need financially to work for a while. This did not sit well with him and he began to drift into a languid anxiety that manifested itself in a sprinkle of adolescent acne across his forehead and a nervous tic where he would yawn and rub his eyes vigorously with the balls of his hands. He had already ruined two sets of contact lens in this fashion.

It was the winter’s first blizzard, a steady plop that whited the sky and blocked him inside for a day, when Ronald logged onto the computer, checked his e-mail, and opened the lone missive without looking at the sender’s name. It was a pornographic advertisement, slipped through his SPAM detector, promoting Russian women, of all sizes, shapes, ages. Amateurs, girls right off the boat, former Communists, now living it up in America, caught in compromising positions by their boyfriends, guys who obviously liked to wield video cameras around their homes and catch their Russian girlfriends in compromising positions. Ronald was not the type to view pornography or even masturbate, much, but the words bore into him and he found himself clicking onto the web site, ordering a free trial membership, and ogling the computer screen for hours while a foot of new snow blanketed the ground.

He decided, right away, that the Russian girls were not posing; they really were caught, quite literally, with their pants down: on the toilet, applying makeup, brewing coffee, watching television. It was their eyes, their obliviousness and absorption into something else, that aroused him. Looking elsewhere, intent, not aware of the camera, not aware of the boyfriend, not aware of him.

He downloaded one picture; a broad-shouldered woman, probably in her late 40’s. She had thick, short-cropped dark hair and a wide nose and was bending over and peering into a refrigerator. Her heavy left breast dangled like a ripe summer squash, her nipple discolored and erect, pointed. She was reaching for something, either a tomato or an orange or apple. Something round. Her lips were pursed. The muscles of her naked legs long and tight. Her red-painted toes sparkled on the linoleum floor. He took the picture and went to his room and imagined being the boyfriend. Her turning and catching him with the camera. She would pretend to be upset, maybe shoo him away, flip the fruit or vegetable at him, and then she would come to him, press the camera out of his hand, lay her lips on his neck, run them down his shoulder, to his chest, her hair tickling his nose, her smell, earthy, sweaty, soft, and then her hands, quick, clever, confident, finding their way.

* * *

Ronald had been married. Right out of college. Her name was Germaine. She was Scotch/Irish and plain faced and squatty with hips a bit too wide and thick chalk white legs that inspired field hockey opponents to give her a wide berth when she thundered toward the goal.

They made an odd couple, physically. Ronald was tall and reed thin with a mop of straight black hair that ended in a straight line over his eyebrows. When he sat down he was all elbows and knees and he was sitting when Germaine brushed by him in Freshmen Bio-Engineering Class. One of her muscled legs caught his thigh as she passed, but he didn’t feel it and it wasn’t until a month later, at a school football game, that she tapped on his shoulder as he was waiting to buy a hotdog and introduced herself and told him that she had been sitting behind him now for weeks in class. He hadn’t noticed. They started seeing each other soon after. And they had sex, after their fifth date, both losing their virginities, right before they were to go home for holiday break.

There was a pregnancy scare their junior year. A condom had burst and Germaine was late a week. Ronald prepared immediately for a baby. He drafted a letter to his parents, informing them of the pregnancy and his plans to marry Germaine and set up an apartment near school for the two of them. He would continue his education, and take on a part-time job at night. She would wait until he graduated, then would return and get her diploma. By the time he finished and spell-checked the letters, Germaine was at his dorm room, smiling and holding a box of Tampax. She wasn’t pregnant. A month after both graduating on the Dean’s List (she with a 3.9 gpa he with a 3.8), they married, moved to New York City, got jobs of equal pay at different engineering firms, and rode the subway uptown together to work each day from their one-bedroom apartment in the East Village. They lived this way for 10 years.

* * *

“You tell me about yourself. I’m tired of talking about me.” They were in a Starbucks drinking Chai Lattes. Ronald was facing her and the back of the room. She was facing him and the front of the room. Ronald looked up from his cup and blushed. It was his first date since joining the Internet service. Her name was Alice and, like him, was trying Internet dating for the first time. Because, as she said almost as soon as they sat down, “because she liked adventure.”

Alice spoke with a fast paced monotone and laid out her story in two breaths. She was 29, an Engineering Major, a graduate of North Carolina, who liked the south but didn’t want to live there. She liked sports, Carolina basketball, of course, and Nascar racing. She was looking for a serious man who was quiet but fun loving and liked to laugh and take walks on the beach. And what about Ronald?

Ronald coughed and sipped his coffee and winced at the heat. He had been boning up for the meeting for three nights. Reading “Dating for Dummies,” and pouring through back issues of Men’s Health and Maxim. The words and thoughts and tips streamed through him mind like data from a computer: Lean forward. Smile. Look her in the eye, but not too long. Keep your answers simple. Enjoy her. Don’t get complicated. Ask questions. Act confident, not smug. Don’t talk about your mother. Don’t talk about religion. Don’t talk about politics. Talk about goals. Have goals. Pay for the date, but don’t expect anything in return. Touch her on the arm when making a point. Don’t seam eager. Don’t seem needy. Lean forward. Smile.

Ronald leaned forward and smiled. It came out crooked and his top lip jammed on his front teeth. His right arm jostled the coffee and bits of whipped cream plopped onto his shirtsleeve. He wiped at it with a napkin and smiled again. This one was too big, like a maniacal clown.

“Me,” he stammered, “uh, well, I run a consulting company. I just finished a job, I mean, a consulting job, that was good, and, I guess, right now I’m, uh, working to make some goals, I have goals, I mean, but I’m working to reach them, or get to them.” He swallowed a few times to calm down. “But goals are important to me. So is simplifying. I’m not complicated. You know. I mean, I am with my goals, complicated, but simple with most things.” He reached over and tapped her wrist. “I’m not eager. Or needy. I mean. Except for my goals. I need my goals.”

Alice’s face blanched and Ronald recoiled and grabbed at the coffee. He took a long swig and felt his hear rate spike. His head tightened and he began to fantasize about being home, alone in his room, sitting at his desk, in front of the computer, viewing the Russian pornographic site, eating cold pizza and crawling under his comforter, listening to the wind and night settle in.

She smiled and then reached out and laid her hand atop his. She had long fingers and splayed nails. Her skin was soft and warm. “Goals are important to me, too,” she said. “Like right now, I’m training to run in the New York marathon. 24 miles. I’ve never done one.” She lifted her hand from Ronald’s and stretched her arms over her head. She was wearing a black turtleneck that accentuated long taught breasts. Her hair was blond and straight and ran to her shoulders. Her eyes were blue and oval and her eyelashes ticked at the fragile skin around her cheekbones. She had a long nose that flayed at the nostrils and gave her an athletic aura. Ronald found her very attractive.

“Running, yeah,” Ronald said, “that’s a good goal. I mean accomplishment. A marathon. That’s something.”

“Maybe we could do it together. Do you run?”

Ronald looked down at his hand and wanted more than anything for her hand to be atop his again. “Run. Yes. I like running. It’s one of my needs. Goals, I mean.”

“Running or the marathon?” she asked

“Um, the marathon. I mean, running first. Then the marathon. But you can’t do one without the other, right?”

She laughed. “I guess. Well, you can train with me, if you’d like. She lowered her eyes and took a napkin and wiped at the corners of her mouth. “I run three times a week, five miles, after work in the park. Start at 6:00 and end around 7:30. I don’t go too fast. Want to meet next week, start Monday?”

“Ok,” he said.

“Great,” she said.

“Good,” he said.

* * *

The Divorce. Ronald always said it in two words; the “the” like a Mr. or Ms. The Divorce. Saying it always preceded an involuntary shake of his head and a pucker of the mouth. The Divorce. The Divorce. It repulsed him.

Germaine and he were both 21 when they got married, and 31 when they split. The marriage ended precisely on the anniversary of their wedding: April 1st. It was Germaine’s idea, to be married on Fool’s Day. It had delighted their engineer friends. Befuddled them, for sure. But made their year. Their group was not a giddy crowd. Joking, humor, playfulness, was always more difficult than advanced trig or putting together a home radio. And not as interesting. Their Fool’s Day Wedding promised to everyone a new beginning, a post college metamorphis where they would shed cloaks of nerdiness and embrace a life of good jobs, affluence, respect, and, maybe, fun. But it was a disaster. Several friends and family members didn’t show up at all, thinking the whole thing a prank and the DJ they researched and hired, who promised a range of disco favorites that would have the crowd “boogying” all night, canceled at the last minute, sending a replacement whose music ranged from lurid hip hop to crushing heavy metal. The worst thing, however, was that Ronald was violently ill. Hung over and throwing up almost to the moment he said “I Do.” His best man, his lab partner in school, had taken him and the other men from the wedding party out the night before to a local Hooters Restaurant. Ronald had gorged on honey glazed ribs and onion rings and had opened his mouth wide, at the urging of their bottle blonde waitress whose breasts extended nearly arm length, to down five tequila shooters. He was not a practiced drinker and his friends had to carry him out soon after, a wet wipe stuck to his forehead, mangled pork dribbling from his lips.

Germaine had been absolutely thrilled at the idea that Ronald and the group of men were going to Hooters to celebrate the marriage. It fell into her idea that they were now “with it” people, not engineering geeks, but fun, rowdy folk who partied hard and got married on April Fool’s day. She stayed in, of course, in bed by 9:00 p.m. after a long talk with her grandmother, her mother’s mother, who leaned into her ear when she spoke and twice whispered over her gray whiskers: “Let Ronald be a man. That was my mistake with your grandfather, god rest his soul.” The fact that her grandfather was still alive, quite healthy in fact, and snoring in the next room, seemed a bit odd. But she took the advice with her to bed and only woke up twice during the night: once to go the bathroom; and once to eat a Twix bar.

She knew something was wrong as soon as she saw Ronald’s eyes. They were glassy and red and too far back in his head and he was moving, although his feet were still, listing side to side like a sinking ship. Germaine was steaming up the aisle, her father, her matching height and width, gripping her arm, the organist grinding out Here Comes the Bride, and her eyes just riveted on Ronald. As her father let go, and Ronald stepped over to take her hand, assume the reigns and lead this prize to the finish line, a wave of bile flooded his mouth, and he spat, right at the alter, tequila and barbeque sauce and stomach acid, that landed atop her white laced shoe and a gasp went up from the crowd and all Ronald could gurgle, as he gulped air and wiped sweat from his forehead, was “April Fool.”

* * *

When Ronald got to the park it was blustery and the sharp late January wind whisked against his newly shaven face. It was early evening and still light, but very cold, and his breath rose in clouds as he strode toward their arranged meeting place. Alice was there before him, in baggy gray sweat suit with a pulled down bullet shaped black wool hat.

Ronald came up to her as she tied a sneaker. Alice looked up and smiled and didn’t seem shocked or surprised or that thrilled to see him.

“Hey, you found me,” she said, returning attention to the sneaker. “Let me just tie this and we’ll stretch and get going. Ok?”

Ronald rubbed his shirtsleeves and grunted. “Sure.” He was decked out in a one-piece Lycra running suit, black with blue racing stripes that hugged his body like seal skin. The sales clerk at Speedo had given the gear a strong recommendation, telling Ronald that it was “aerodynamic and would cut precious seconds from his best time.” As an engineer who had made a career of developing computer systems that streamlined operations, lightened workloads, cut delay, he could not resist this sales pitch. He also purchased a pair of Nikes, silver tipped, and a black wristwatch with a face the size of a baseball that would tally the miles, yards, feet, inches he ran at any given time.

But now, standing in front of the looseness of Alice’s sweat suit, her body hidden somewhere inside the folds of soft cotton, he felt like an alien being, a black and blue string bean whose every bump and knob and dimple on his body was exposed in the lining. He didn’t dare think of what an erection would reveal, and he held his hands together over his crotch area and moved side to side to keep warm while waiting for Alice.

“Why don’t we warm up with some light jogging and sprints, and then we’ll do the long run. Ok?”

Ronald nodded and smiled. He liked her voice, which was a bit lethargic but hinted at hysteria.

“How far have you been running, lately?” she asked.

“Uh, about a mile or two,” he lied. “You know. Getting ready. Working toward the goal. Right.”

Alice wrinkled her forehead and pointed a finger at his sneakers. She had small hands and pudgy, wrinkled fingers that shone pink in the cold air. “New?”

Ronald blushed. “Uh, yeah, my old ones wore out. So I figure now’s a good time, right. To buy some new ones.”

“Do you like them?”

“Yeah, they feel good,” he hopped a few times and then looked down and wiggled his toes inside. “Feel good. Yep.”

“I have to admit, I don’t wear Nike.” She wiped a bit of snot from the end of her nose. “The whole slave labor thing.”

Ronald didn’t follow. This is what worried him. His inability to make small talk, converse about a myriad of topics. He was not well read. And his mind did not absorb facts and interesting tidbits of pop knowledge or current events. Although he read the paper daily, watched the news, rarely did anything seep in. Computer systems, physics, mechanical operations, his memory was like a steel trap. He could disassemble a complicated engine and return it whole, piece by piece, in an hour. But if you asked him who Shaquille O’Neil played for or how Princess Di died or who the star of the Sopranos was, he was a blank slate. Of all the things that terrified him after the divorce, the feeling of being out there single, exposed to pithy conversation with people who dealt in this foreign world, made him almost retch.

“But I don’t mean to get preachy,” Alice continued. “I mean, look at me, I don’t eat meat but I own a black leather coat. But Nike, you have to admit, is really bad. Did you see “Downsize This,” the Michael Moore movie about corporate layoffs? Great movie. He really made Phil Knight, the CEO of Nike, look like an asshole.”

Ronald swallowed and smiled and coughed into his hand. “No, I didn’t see it.” He swallowed again. “But I once developed a software system for Athlete’s Foot. Linking their stores by computer.”

“Cool,” Alice said.

“Yeah,” Ronald said.

“Well, let’s go.”

“Ok.”

* * *

Time heals and time wounds and then time decides what to do with you. Ronald’s time started after Germaine walked out the door. Left behind a gap so wide he shivered for days in the apartment, chilled to the bone even though it was late summer and still hot and humid enough to cause clothes to stick. Ronald’s hurt was equal to his relief, for her leaving seemed to unclog an artery in his soul, and all the emotions of his last ten years poured out.

First was anger. Fights were relived in his mind, arguments where he felt victimized, instances when he had compromised. Like the time he wanted to move cross country, to Sante Fe, to take a job that better suited his talents, interests, personality. The idea filled him with such excitement and renewal that he could hardly breathe. But she wouldn’t even discuss it. Became indignant that he would even consider such a big a move when they were both still getting established here. Her job was going well and her family was nearby and they were finally saving money and what about the house they had looked at in the New Jersey suburbs. He didn’t even put up a fight; somehow felt as if his desire for change was wrong. That he was ungrateful to her. And gave up. But now the anger, the rage, poured out and he walked around the apartment throwing pillows and cursing her indifference to his needs.

Then came sadness. A black cloud that just gripped him and shoved him under the covers. Shook him like a wet sock, wracked his body. She was gone. Forever. He sniffed their pillowcases for remnants of her smell. Tore through photo albums and sobbed at pictures of them together, on vacations, at parties, with friends, family, alone. The sadness lasted two weeks, and he didn’t shave, barely showered, and ate Pop Tarts and Macaroni and Cheese for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And then it was gone. Stopped like a cold wind when the door closes. Just like that.

Depression. That crept in next. Came while he was watching a movie. ‘High Plains Drifter’. Clint Eastwood. It was the tenth movie of An Eastwood Marathon on TNT. The day after Thanksgiving. Ronald came from a small family, mother, father and sister, and they had all gone on a cruise for the holiday. He had begged off and spent the day alone and walking, nearly 20 miles, across streets and avenues, passing hundreds of people going places fast. He had made it through unscathed, even proud, as he laid down that night in bed and realized he could be alone, even on a day that demanded company, and be at peace. But the next day, during the movie, right after ‘The Outlaw Josie Whales’ and ‘Magnum Force’, it took him. A thud that anchored his feet and twisted his stomach and then sapped him across the forehead. He couldn’t get up. Didn’t want to get up. And felt such hopelessness as to want to stick his head in the screen and let Clint blow it off with his pistol.

The depression also lasted two weeks and he came out of it with a call. From Germaine. He didn’t pick up the phone. Hadn’t in 14 days. And as he sat on his couch, wrapped in a blanket that stank of Cheetos and Mountain Dew, he listened to the message.

“Ronald, are you there. Hello. This is Germaine. Just wanted to see how you are. I have been thinking about you. Us.” And then she broke down, her voice shattered across the tape, wet tears pouring through the line. “I mean….I don’t know what I’m doing. Or who I am. I miss you. I was wrong. Give me a call.”

Ronald was stunned. His mouth open. His hair strung out and stiff from grease and sleeping all day. An energy, long deserted, came to his hands, tingled his fingers, his toes, like a dead car battery getting a jump, his lights came on and his eyes opened as wide and he stood and shook off the blanket and walked around in circles and then said: “shit,” to himself and then……………he did nothing. He sat back down. Wrapped himself in the blanket. And turned the volume up on the television.

* * *

“You run pretty good,” Alice huffed between strides. Ronald was dying trying to keep pace with her as they darted through the park, on a thin cement trail dotted with wet yellow leaves and new frost. His suit was riding up his ass and he was having difficulty breathing. The only good thing was he didn’t have to worry about getting an erection as it felt that all the blood below his waist had stopped moving.

Alice was an easy runner, long loping strides that contradicted her slight frame and diminutive stature. She barely came up to Ronald’s armpit and her baggy outfit made her look more like his daughter than date. But even though she was small, she was proportioned so it looked right, perfect, and that translated into stunning grace and balance as she turned on a dime and dodged oncoming bikers and other runners.

“We’re almost at 5k,” she belted out. “We can stop or go an extra mile, push it, if you’d like.”

Panic enveloped Ronald. His right side felt as if someone was jabbing him with a penknife and the soles of this feet ached. He didn’t know the right answer. Stop and she might think him weak and not goal oriented. Keep going and he risked vomiting and losing a bowel movement in the smothering suit. He decided to risk defecating on himself. “Keep going,” he spat out. “I feel great.”

“Cool,” her feet quickened and made him dizzy as she sped forward. “We’ll kick it up a notch.”

Ronald gulped air and expanded his chest against the gripping fabric. He had never been athletic and never had pushed his body. His mind, however, was taught and nimble and he could focus, could ruminate on a mathematical equation for days, scan systems book after systems book, follows transmitters and cues and wireless data and ion surges and analytic conversions. So he trained his mind now, to blot out the pain, to eliminate the searing in his legs, pinpoint everything to each step, to Alice in front of him, see at as a puzzle, the way her legs moved, his legs moved, could he get them in unison, draft against the breeze, minimize his gait, streamline his arm movements, stablize his neck, lower his head, cut off wind resistance, glide. When she slowed and stopped he kept going, oblivious and tuned in to his movements. He kept going a good 500 feet until he realized he was running alone. He blushed and jogged back, puzzled but somehow elated at this new discovery.

“Wow,” Alice huffed, she was pulling her hair back behind her ears. Sweat dripped from her nose and chin. “You were really cooking.”

Ronald smiled and looked down at sneaks. They were covered in mud. He felt for the first time like an athlete, a runner, a man who relied on his physique. Who challenged himself. He felt the rumblings of an erection in his tight pants. “Yeah,” he said, “caught my second wind.”

She smiled and he thought he saw her glance at his midsection and below. The wind was whipping now and it was getting dark. “Do you want to jog back to my apartment and get some water,” she asked. “I don’t live too far from here.”

Ronald wanted to blush but his face was already red and raw from the cold and the exertion. He nodded and then felt a drop of sweat roll of his nose. “Ok,” he said.

* * *

Germaine came into his dream that night. Alice was beside him. So was his running suit. He was naked and sleeping in her bed. Sex had come easy. Alice had led him to her room, glass of water in hand, and sat him down and unpeeled his layer of lycra and took him. But slow and steady. Like her voice, but limber and lithe like her running. He had come quickly. Too quickly, but she didn’t mind and they wrapped around each other and his arms didn’t feel thin or his chest small at all.

Germaine was playing field hockey in the dream. He was in goal. Wearing nothing but a chest protector and a Scottish kilt. She was weaving around the field, knocking teammates and foes to the ground, grunting and yelling his name and shaking her stick in the air, the hard ceramic ball stuck to the blade. She came at him with a fury, like a storm that rises over a hill and descends on a sleepy town, and he could not hold his balance. Could not defend the goal. And then she was inches away from him, towering over him, as he lay prostrate in front of the goal mouth, and she reared back her stick and sent the ball at his head, flying, it came fast and he closed his eyes and waited for impact…..

Alice’s lips woke him on his forehead. She was smiling and she kissed Ronald again, this time on the lips. “Good morning,” she said.

Ronald glanced around confused. He was erect and cold under the sheets. Goose pimples dotted his arms. “Good morning,” he returned.

Alice wrinkled her nose and wriggled her arm under the covers. Her fingers danced on Ronald’s penis and she raised her eyebrows. “Ok,” she said.

Ronald leaned over and took her in his arms. He rose from the sheets and looked down at their bodies under the blankets. Their skin seemed to taper together, perfect contrasts of white. He waited, above her, then set down and entered her, his head over her shoulder, sniffing at her pillow and hair, cascading into her sighs and cries, his eyes, far away, distant, oblivious, not feeling the thrust of his pelvis, the pleasure or the pain, just like his run, without extra waste, taking in images, letting light come to him, not seeking it out, and rising, deep in the iris, to stop the shot, with one hand, and throw it back with a laugh and move on, riding out of town, into a desert of warmth and water.