Look!

By Colleen McGrath

Humor

That people don’t look at each other here may account for the otherwise inexplicable disinterest in personal appearance in Berlin. That or city-wide depression. Nobody’s looking so who cares? Granted, in New York people look way too much. Gone are the days (and by days I mean the 80’s), when a woman can walk up Madison Avenue in sneakers and slide on pumps at her desk, oh no. You ride the subway and walk the whole distance in those puppies, no matter how far or you’re excommunicated from the club. Did you know you had to walk fifty blocks in stilettos to be considered a true New York Woman? You do. Do you see men coming to work in shorts and a t-shirt carrying a suit bag and changing in the men’s room before the big meeting? No, you don’t. That their shoes are generally not torture chambers doesn’t enter into the matter; you come dressed for your day. People are looking. From the minute you leave your house to the moment you get home, people are looking.

Not in Berlin. I have never been looked at so little in my life. Okay look, it’s not like I’m some raving beauty draped in men and chased by paparazzi, God no. But there is a lid for every pot and New Yorkers aren’t shy about letting you know when they like your pot.

Fashion is at the root of it all, of that I’m certain. Whether it’s the chicken or the egg, I have no idea but it’s involved somehow. Never before have I been in a city where the dress code rarely requires more than a nice pair of jeans and often much less. Grunge is the mode du jour, I’m assuming because it goes nicely with graffiti of which there is a plethora. Not that grunge can’t be done well, it can. It’s just that come on, aren’t there moments in your life when you long to take out most of your earrings and put on a tie?

People have either created the non-looking or responded to it, I’m not sure which, by wearing comfortable shoes. Shoes make or break an outfit, as I’m sure you know, and most often Birkenstocks are a breaker. If you start with a Birk what more can you do but put on some khaki pants and a cotton top? Maybe a skirt but you’re really pushing the boundaries there and it can really only be done if there is tie-dye involved somehow. Once in an outfit like that how much more make-up can you slap on than maybe a sheer gloss? That I own some knock off Birks may tell you a little about how far I have fallen.

At first I was relieved. Living in a huge city among people without filters made me long for a quieter, less appearance-minded place. One where I could leave the house with out make-up and not feel naked. One where clients didn’t comment on my weight gain or loss on a daily basis. Now though, if I “put on my face” as my grandmother used to say, it’s remarked on by colleagues all day long as an anomaly.

“Wow, you’re wearing make-up today. Are you going somewhere after work?”, as if there’s no other reason on the planet to use mascara.

“Um no, just thought I’d try not to look like a refugee, haha!”

They’re right of course. What for? If nobody looks, then why bother? But I sometimes don’t recognize myself anymore so maybe that’s why. Where I was maybe too focused on such things before, it’s becoming the reverse and I’m starting to miss the part of my morning that included choosing clothes and watching Charmed reruns for make-up tips.

Something in the middle is ideal, I think. I long to be accepted as I come, who doesn’t? I come with many flaws and you don’t need a microscope to find them. In a city that lives under one, it’s a rarity to meet a New Yorker who doesn’t see them. On the other hand, to not care so much that you become wallpaper can’t be the answer either. So how to go forward? Do people start looking or do we start giving them a reason to? It’s a question for the experts. Gloria Steinem! Candace Bushnell! Help! In the meantime, I’m going to dig out my heels and see how far I can still get in three inches and red lipstick.

SACRAMENTO, CA

It’s been a week since I last saw you. Almost two months since we stopped sleeping together. Four months since you started dating someone new. Seven months since you moved out. Eight months since you shattered my picture of our future. One year since we moved into our new apartment together. Sixteen months since you photographed my sister’s wedding. Eighteen months since we returned from France. Nearly two years since I greeted you at the airport in Paris. Three years since we first moved in together. Three years and some months since you first told me you loved me. It was during the same trip when I took you to meet my parents. It had already been two months since I had first met yours. Further back in our history was our first fight: three and a half years ago (still one of my most memorable St. Patrick’s Days).  It was more than three and a half years ago that we first had sex. Almost four years since we began hanging out. And, it was nearly five years ago when we first met.

These are the events by which I have been marking my time – something I have been doing for far too long.

And well past when it should have ended. Yet I find myself sitting here at this computer with tears falling fast because I know that this is the true end of the era of you in my life. I first noticed it last week when person after person asked me when I am leaving. It is no longer the question of how long it has been since us. It is now only a question of me and what I am doing. And I realized that for a number of weeks now I have ceased to mark my time by you and have begun to mark it for the future instead.

It is less than one week until I board a plane to Frankfurt. One month from now I will be arriving in Istanbul and meeting my future roommate. Six weeks until my orientation. Two months until school begins. Six months until my return to Sacramento. From there on out it gets a little bit hazy. The one thing of which I am certain, however, is that I will be coming back to this place with all new experiences, none of which will contain any memory of you.

And when I return, my time will only be marked by when it was that I left.

My first kiss tasted like red wine and cigarettes. These are not completely unexpected flavors in someone’s mouth.   

He was 28, I was 16. He was French, a saxophone player with long hair and an earring. We spent almost every evening together that summer, holding hands, talking, eating dinner, drinking wine. He loved to use the salt and pepper shakers on the table to demonstrate situations. As in:  “this is you” – holding up the salt shaker – and “this is me” – holding up the pepper shaker. Then the shakers were off, moving around the table, doing whatever it was he was talking about.

I am not sure what made him want to kiss me that night. We were sitting on some stairs leading to the waters of the Danube. I swear there were shooting stars in the sky, but I could have been imagining things. I didn’t know how to kiss. I was OK with our lips touching, but once his tongue entered my mouth, I wasn’t sure what to do with it.  I pulled away a bit, mostly to giggle, but he interpreted it as reluctance.

He had to pee.  He walked down a couple of steps to the water and did just that. Then he hailed a cab for me and said good night. The next time I saw him, there was no more talk of kissing, even though I spent the previous week listening to my more experienced cousin explain what exactly I had to do in case kissing turned into something more. She described a man’s penis as a wooden stick in a soft, leather case. This, as I later found out, turned out to be quite accurate.

But not with the French guy. Because he explained that he was a butterfly, flying from flower to flower, and he didn’t want to hurt me. That was sort of decent of him.

My first, real boyfriend kissed me while we were sitting at the same spot, along the Danube. I think I took him there, because I felt like it was a good make out spot. He sat behind me, a step up, and leaned in.  He told me he loved me. I didn’t need to hear that, but it was nice. We kissed for a long time, his hard-on stabbing me in the back.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and other kisses, too.

Like the German guy. He was mixing the fuzzy navels at a college party all night, then took me back to his room and showed me card tricks. We sat on the floor of the tiny room, Indian style, and all I could think about was wrapping my legs around him.  I looked at his ring that had his initials on it, and for a split second I realized that I didn’t know what the “D” stood for.

But it didn’t matter. He kissed me, like he was about to swallow my face, holding my head in his hands, stroking my hair. He was delicious.

Years later a good friend and I found ourselves at my apartment, on my brand new love seat, watching late night TV. Very late night TV – past SNL, and the late news, and the infomercials. We drank vodka and grapefruit juice and his left hand drew circles on my shoulder.  “So, we are making out now,” he said after the first peck.  Well yes, we were. And it was wild, dizzying, tender, and incredibly hot. Hours later, when I regained my senses, I was sitting on the floor, with parched lips, panting, wondering if my eyes will ever focus again.  Some days, when I need something to smile about, I still think about that night and his kiss.

My last first kiss happened nine years ago on that same love seat, after a dish of Dairy Queen vanilla soft serve. There was a bowl of apricots in the kitchen, and he cut one up and fed it to me, slowly, slice by slice. My eyes were closed, but I heard the soft clink as he put his glasses on the coffee table and I knew that the next bite will not be an apricot. We now buy apricots frequently every summer, commemorating the event.

So, I’ve been thinking about these kisses, because I’ve been also thinking about the many, many kisses that have not happened before and since then, and the ones that never will.

There was the guy who flew from California to meet me and left me with a partial kiss on the corner of my mouth because, as he later explained, his feelings for me were more like what he felt for his little sister. Or the kiss on the forehead I got from the Germany guy when he came to say good bye before my wedding. Or the embrace and kiss on the cheek from a married friend that burned on my skin for weeks. I thought that surely everyone can see the red outline where his lips have been.

So many possibilities, so many roads not taken, so many mistakes averted, lives changed or left undisturbed. A small turn of the head, or a hug that’s just one short moment longer than necessary, and that’s it. You are not who you are and your life is suddenly off in a whole new direction. And all because of – what? I mean, kissing is like sticking your nose in someone’s ear. Or sticking your finger up someone’s nose.  It’s totally ridiculous.

If I am lucky, I will never have a first kiss again. This makes me sad. I used to enjoy the butterflies, and the bumping noses, and the clinking teeth, and all the weird, slobbery awkwardness. And no matter how hot your marriage happens to be, there is just no way to recreate the Danube, and the shooting stars, and the taste of wine, or the card tricks, or the grapefruit with vodka.

This all sounds melancholy and sentimental, I realize. But these things have been on my mind lately. And while I generally manage to control the kissing, controlling my mind is another story.

Dating’s a bitch.

And this is the time of year when it’s easier to plop in front of the TV with a bottle of Veuve and watch a House marathon rather than suffer through, as the only single person* in the room, the forced jollity of holiday events.  You start to miss the days when your mother pestered you about your dating life. Anymore, she just slaps on her Colorform smile, tells hyper-enthusiastic tales of others – who got married even older than you – and passes the twice-baked potatoes with a heavy sigh; resigned to the fact that the children born to your siblings are going to be the only grands she’s going to get.

(*For the record, no, my widowed grandmother does NOT count, thank you very much and besides, evenshe has a boyfriend, so suck it!)

But it hasn’t been easy. I’ve been “out there”.  I’ve tried.  Honest I have.  I’ve just gotten the fuzzy end of the lollipop more times than I care to count.

For example:

An Evangelical jazz drummer proposed marriage twice, only to break off the engagement. Twice. Both times as dictated by God who audibly spoke to him on the bank of a lake in Texas. A scientist told me the morning after our first night spent together, that, while I looked ‘just fine’, my BMI still indicated that I was technically obese. There was a chef who would only have outercourse, even though the relationship had progressed to the apartment-shopping phase. And let’s not forget the lawyer whose break-up speech proclaimed that I was comfortable to be around, and made every event an adventure, but I just wasn’t ‘thunderbolts and lightening’.

Ahem.

Despite all of that, I persist. I am a hopeful romantic. I cling desperately to the knowledge that, in the words of Fivel Mousekewitz, “Somewhere, out there … someone’s thinking of me and loving me tonight”.

Bolstered by this ridiculous ongoing fantasy, I recently joined an internet dating website.

(I know… Please don’t judge me.)

Truth be told, however, that lawyer was wrong. am ‘thunderbolts and lightening’. I’m no gentle summer shower – I’m a torrential downpour.  I’m outspoken. Bossy. Tact isn’t always my forté. I’m a career gal. A broad. I’m definitely more Yentl and less Hadass.  Fanny Brice. K-k-k-k-k-katie. (Pick a Streisand character… any Streisand character…)

But knowing that Barbra, for all her chutzpah, is a certifiable bitch, I got to thinking maybe this time around, I should soften things a little.  Resolve to e-volve and use the internet for its Powers of Good: To help me finally find my Avigdor.

In order to do so though, I would need to get back to some basics. Take a refresher course and revisit some fundamental Junior League principles.  Try and be a lady

… for once.

So I turned to one of the classics:

Let’s see what advice Betty has that can help me in 2009…

1. Shut up and dance. Got it.  Moving on…

2. Note to self:  Wait 24 hours (or until sober) to e-mail, text or tweet.

3. The girl should make the move??? What??? Clearly Betty’s never read The Rules.

4. Good plan. Don’t let the guys know that you’re seeing more than one at a time. That’ll be our little secret…

5. If I don’t speak to men I’ve never met, how the hell is this internet dating thing going to work???  I think Betty needs to rethink things for the next edition.

6. Call me a cynic, but I think I’m going to be hard-pressed to find a Yankee who will perform his ‘manly chore’ for this nice Southern transplant…

7. So I suppose I shouldn’t keep ruling out those guys from Staten Island, eh?  You never know. Underneath those velour tracksuits, they might be swell.

8. Listen, Betty. If the guy doesn’t like me for who I am, then he can go fuc— (Deep breath…) Manners… manners…

9. Then how is he going to know I like him???

10. See #9.

Thank you for reading. I had a lovely time. So glad you came. I do hope you’ll call again soon!

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Images (used without permission) from Your Manners Are Showing © 1946