map Wallflower

by Stuart Mark

Published in Issue No. 189 ~ February, 2013

Photo by Christian Guthier (Oxford, UK)

I’m dated, meaning that I have dated a lot, not that I’m old, which I’m not.

I never suggest the location for a first date. I did once and took my potential long-term partner (LTP) to a trade show. It was a drywall trade show because I put up drywall for a living. The show wasn’t because of me or for me or anything, it’s just that I put up drywall, and it was a drywall show. I took my date there because my boss gave me a couple of tickets, but that’s not the only reason because that would be no kind of a date, just going and looking at drywall, but it wasn’t just a drywall show, there was paint as well and electrical and plumbing gear, but I was mostly interested in the drywall, but not that interested that I wanted to have a first date there, I just thought it might be fun because there was a free bar, and they were supposed to have a band. So, anyway, I made my date just have a quick look at the drywall exhibitors. He’d never put up drywall, so I told him about the dangers of twisted studs and the best way to tape and mud and the differences between plasterboard and cementboard as we strolled past the stands, and he nodded a lot and said, “Hmmm,” but using a range of notes, up and then down, which requires more effort than just a flat hmmm, so I really thought that was a good sign.

Then we started holding hands as we walked past Wild Rose Drywall Supply who just happened to be selling off drywall stilts cheap because it was the last night of the show, so I splashed out because I’d been looking for a new pair, and as I was now part of a couple, it just felt like the right time because spending money is always easier in a relationship. After that, we hit the free bar, but I got a bit drunk on red wine and hand-holding and decided to try out my new stilts. I’d never worn stilts while drunk before, and it is just as difficult as you might imagine, especially when you dance. So I made my date dance with me, him holding both my hands and looking up into my eyes like a little boy dancing with his mom. I thought it was the most romantic moment of my life as we tottered around the little space in front of the band, not exactly a dance floor as we were the only ones dancing. The other show-goers, mostly guys still in their work clothes, folded their arms, held their drinks close and cowered every time I almost lost my balance. Some of them shook their heads, and I remember thinking they were probably jealous.

My date didn’t call back and when I told my mum about dancing in the stilts, she said, “A few inches taller for a girl is okay, but two feet is just bullying,” so I didn’t call him either, and the relationship kind of drained away.

So tonight, I’m at the movies with another potential LTP, another first date. He suggested a movie and asked what I’d like to see, but I left it up to him. You can tell a lot about a person by the kind of movie they suggest.

When you’ve dated as much as me, you get to the point when you are able to divine the real meanings of movie poster tag lines:

“Visually stunning” means the movie has no story and the characters are as deep as quarter inch board, which is about a quarter of an inch deep.

“Best romantic comedy since When Harry Met Sally” means that the movie isn’t as good as When Harry met Sally.

“Best thriller of the year” means it’s January.

I’m running late. My boss got a job drywalling a new school in Tuscany. The school isn’t Italian in the least, more neo than neoclassic, which makes sense given that it’s in a romantically named area of northwest Calgary. As there are only two of us in the company, my boss had to subcontract the job to some Russians my mom has known for years, and we’re all working twelve-hour days to get it finished.

I push the door with both hands and run into the movie theater. The potential LTP is standing under a poster for what I assume is the movie he’s picked for us. He seems short under the poster, but I remember he’s taller than me, but when I join him he is actually about the same height as me. Maybe he shrank. His shoulders are as wide as the frame but so is his stomach.

I say, “Hi,” and, “Sorry.” I grasp his shoulders, like Igor the Russian does every morning, and kiss him on the cheek. There’s a little bit of hardened drywall dust under my thumbnail that I missed in the world’s shortest shower. “Is this what we’re seeing?”

He puts his hands on my waist as I kiss then takes them off as I talk. He says, “I thought it looked interesting.”

The movie has no tag line. The poster is a picture of a window. Outside the window, a sheet of rain moves across a dark landscape of rolling hills and clumps of trees but, where the rain falls, fire burns so that the land is black and smoking where the rain has passed over it. In the bottom right corner of the poster, a little green house stands bravely alone in the path of the rain. The title of the movie is, in unapologetic green letters, ‘Greenhouse’. Not a romantic comedy, then.

“Hmmmm,” I say.

My date’s name is Grant. He says, “No?” so I say, “Hmmmmmmmm.” with even more inflection. I have to take a deep breath afterwards. “It does looks interesting.”

“I wasn’t sure what you’d like. I think this is about an Eco-disaster or saving the world or something.”

“Hm,” I say.

We have a friendly argument about who is paying for what and come to an agreement that he will buy the tickets, and I’ll get the popcorn and other assorted snacks/drinks.

Another poster has a picture of a cartoon tiger winking like he’s just taken two Viagra.

“Family event of the year” means that the movie volume will be louder in the theater to drown out all the kids.

My feet stick to the carpet, and the boy scooping the popcorn refuses to make eye contact as he takes my debit card. I pass a medium Fruitopia to Grant and follow him, via the straws, napkins and cheddar popcorn shaker, to theater number four where we sit one empty seat away from the wall, about three quarters of the way up.

We’ve just made it, and I sneak looks at Grant before the lights go down. He doesn’t slouch into his seat and spread his knees wide like a lot of my other dates, he actually crosses his legs and lays his hand in his lap, curled gently over his thigh. His foot sways and bobs as if it has its own Ipod or it’s conducting an orchestra.

A movie is a good place for a first date as long as both parties respect the boundaries marked by the cup holders. I’ve been wrapped in arms, had my knees squeezed, my neck massaged, my thigh stroked, even my hair playfully tugged and once a finger seductively pushed – accidentally, I’m pretty sure – up my nose. Thankfully, Grant seems content with his own thigh.

The lights dim and the pre-movie advertising begins. I let my hand droop onto my jacket on the empty chair between me and the dark wall and trace the outline of my phone in a pocket. Every so often, the soft leather vibrates like a chilly cow, my mother tweeting updates and reminders and the odd question to my brother and I. She prefers this method of broadcasting her instructions over texting. She’s like that, my mother, efficient.

My mother has three followers, me, my little brother and her sister Ruby. She had eight but the other five were people like @GoldenFinancial or @MatureLife, so I made her account private.

She doesn’t know I’m on a date, I keep romantic updates for Sunday lunches, but she’s been on at me to find a partner for my brother’s wedding or, failing that, just someone I can stand beside for pictures. ‘Only 2 wks 2 go’ or ‘U need 2 get a move on’. Between her texts and the way she insists on wearing high-heels in the house, it’s like having Prince as your mother.

Grant leans across our shared armrest, which he’s surrendered to my elbow, and whispers, “Do you mind?” His breath gushes warm over my ear and smells like flowers although I don’t know what kind. Maybe he eats his flowers when he’s alone in the shop. I look down at his hand hovering over the popcorn in my lap.

I lean in a little closer to his mouth and say, “Help yourself.” I hold the bucket still on my thighs as he delves.

Then he’s back across the boundary, and I sip my Coke through a straw which screeches when I push it through the plastic lid.

A movie is a good introductory experience for a first date, a time when you can sit in the dark beside someone but not feel any obligation to converse. It’s all about gesture and smell and eating noise-level and nose-pick frequency and laugh volume and self control. I’m aware of every little shift Grant makes, every time he reaches into the tub of popcorn, every time he uncrosses his legs and how long he takes to recross them.

I missed dinner, so I attack the popcorn. I enforce pauses on myself to give Grant a chance, and we fall into a nice rhythm. I don’t let my hand linger in the bucket for an accidental brush against his because I’ve suffered too many first-date cliches but, when the popcorn level becomes suitably low, I loosen my grip so that Grant’s hand slides the bucket around my lap as he rummages.

The movie booms at us for about an hour and forty, and the world is destroyed, but thankfully the heroes make it underground along with a bunch of extras and, together, they discover that the subterranean lifestyle has problems that can only be overcome by a sequel.

We shuffle down and out of the theater and walk to a coffee shop. As we walk, I can’t help thinking that if I were wearing the faux-snakeskin pumps I bought at the Chinook Mall during my last failed date I’d be taller than Grant.

The coffee shop is full of LTPs, it hums with their comfort, their conversation, their silence. While Grant gets a Cappuccino for me and an I’ve no idea what for him, I read Mom’s tweets.

My mom painted before she retired, not landscapes or still life or frown-inducing abstractions but walls inside houses that her friends, the Russians, erected. She worked at something tangible while my dad huddled in a cubicle of temporary walls and tapped a computer and made enough money for all of us. He still does, and he has an office now, but Mom’s years got the better of her, although she’s still strong and wearing high-heels, the open-toed, strapless kind, maybe because she couldn’t when she was working, wear high-heels I mean, not be strong, which she was, is.

My mom used to smell of turpentine and sweat when she got home from work, a safe smell. The Sunday lunch smells of roast beef and cooked apples and her chemical air freshener (Begonia Breeze) just aren’t the same. Mom’s smell made me distrust university and religious cults and the Tories, so I learned drywalling from the Russians because I liked the idea of walling people in and giving painters work all at the same time. I carry an inkling that Mom wanted me to paint, just like her, although the closest she ever got to saying so was, “Watch out for the hands on that Igor.” Igor was in his sixties when she said this, so his hands were easy to watch because they didn’t move very quickly at all.

The coffee shop is full, so we take our drinks to the baseball diamond across the road and sit on the pitcher’s mound. The light is dusky and exciting, and our shadows reach all the way to first base.

We interrogate each other for common interests and compatible opinions. I met Grant when I went into his store to buy flowers for Mom. It was no special occasion or anything, I just get these kindness attacks every now and then. He recommended daisies, and I said I didn’t want to give my mom a bunch of weeds, and he said that it’s only a weed if you don’t want it, and anyway weeds get a bad name, and I said so do daughters, and he guaranteed that my mother would truly love her daisies and her daughter. He made a beautiful bouquet, and Mom cried when she saw it, so I guess he was right. As I was just about to leave his store, he asked if I would like to do something later. He caught me off guard because I was thinking about the best way to get the bouquet out through the shop door without knocking off petals, so I gave him my number because I was impressed by his timing and his faith in daisies, and he seemed taller then, so I guess he has a platform in his shop, behind the counter, because I don’t really think he’s shrinking.

I’ve always dated guys who are taller than me. They were always older than me as well because I was one of these women who believe that same age doesn’t equal same level of maturity.

That was in my twenties, my older and taller decade. I graduated my LTP requirements to younger and taller when I hit thirty. Men in their thirties suddenly lost all their allure when I could relate to them. My job keeps me pretty fit, and I think I look okay apart from the saddlebags, so finding these younger men has never been much of a problem. It’s just that, after a while, they all blend into one big hockey-obsessed overly-tactile test of endurance.

My drywall expo date was just last year, after my thirty-fourth birthday. He was twenty-three and he looked really uncomfortable when I made him dance with me. With the help of Mom and sobriety, I’d assumed his embarrassment was because of my stilts but, just this last year, whenever I look at myself in the mirror, I’ve begun to suspect that perhaps it was my age.

“How old are you?” I say in the weak light.

“Thirty seven,” says Grant.

“How come you’re single.”

He shrugs. “Just picky I suppose. What about you?”

“What do you mean?”

“Nothing,” he says and takes cover behind his brown cardboard cup. “Did you like the movie?”

“Best eco-guilt movie since The Pelican Brief.”

He smiles at his knees and says, “That’s not saying much.” When he looks at me, all I see are his eyes and his mouth, both very pleasing in an aesthetic manner, by which I mean they are very nice to look at, not that I want to get any closer or exchange fluids or anything like that, I just notice them in a different way, i.e. as separate from Grant’s stomach which, now that I think about it, isn’t actually even that big.

He doesn’t look outside our intimate space once, the whole time we’re sitting together. When a date looks at the ceiling/sky or past me or behind him, I have learned that he most likely doesn’t like me. As we sit here on the mound, Grant either glances into his cup or examines his knees or looks at me. As our conversation progresses, he looks at me more and more.

My phone buzzes in my pocket, and I wonder if anyone has ordered the flowers for my brother’s wedding. I consider asking Grant if he does wedding flowers. I’m sure he does, but I don’t want to turn this into a business meeting.

“My mom loved your daisies,” I say. “She cried, but in a good way like you do when a laugh just won’t cut it.”

“Told you. Always trust your florist.”

“No one ever cries about my work.”

“You’re a comedian?”

“No, I put up drywall.”

He freezes, just for a moment, perfectly still, and then he says, “So, just the opposite, really.” He puts his cup on the ground between his raised knees and leans back on his arms.

I cross my legs, and my knees look like wingtips. “You should see me mud and tape.”

“I’ll bet it’s a sight. Do you nail or screw?”

His face is so serious, I don’t know if this is the moment, that moment when our bodies get in the way. “Screw,” I say. “Always.” I don’t want to seem seductive, so I make a really exaggerated screw-driving motion with my hand.

“Knew it,” he says. “My friend is building and his builder is nailing.”

“He’ll have cracks one day,” I say. I take my little mirror out of my bag and examine my face. Really narrow eyes look back at me.

When we’ve finished our coffees, Grant stands and offers me a hand, which I accept and pull.

“I’m really glad you came out with me,” he says.

I back away from him a little, so he’s taller on the mound. He is definitely not “visually stunning”.

“It’s nice to finally date someone with some depth,” he says.

I don’t think he means fat by that, but I rub my palms over my saddlebags without meaning to. He smiles again, so I forgive him before I’ve blamed him for anything and walk back up the mound until our faces are level and highly intimate. I think it’s begonias I smell on his breath. I widen my eyes, one of my little tricks, and he kisses me. I make a “Mmmm” sound without meaning to, it just comes out. His hair is thin, but soft like a medium-sized short-haired dog. The kiss continues, and I taste petals but don’t feel his stomach so maybe he’s holding it in which is sweet of him, and he puts his hands on my waist, with meaning this time, and breathes noisily through his nose, and I burn and gasp and shiver until he pulls his head back. He looks surprised, like gun-in-his-back surprised.

“I don’t live far from here,” I whisper. “Within running distance.”

He takes his hands off my waist and steps back off the mound into shortness. He rubs his thin hair with the palm of one hand, like he’s patting himself. “I have a really early start in the morning.”

Ah. I see. This must be the point in his dates when he gets “picky”.

I back away to my side of the mound. “No problem,” I say, but he smiles at me.

“You think I don’t want to see you again.”

“Do I?”

He nods.

“Don’t you?”

“I really do have an early start in the morning, but how about Sunday? We could have lunch?”

“I need to check if I’m free,” I say. ”And I love pasta.”

“Okay, it’s a date, hopefully.” He checks his watch. “I do have time to walk you home.”

“Oh, I have my truck. I was just saying. About running. You know. Romantic and that.”

He walks me to the parking lot and holds the door open for me like an old-fashioned gentleman. Before I go, I say, “Would you like to go to a wedding with me?”

He doesn’t hesitate, doesn’t ask any questions, he just says, “Yes. I would love that.”

I leave him standing in the parking lot like a lost pudgy kid and when I get home, I succumb to accelerating pacing so, to slow myself down, I open my work bag, pull out the stilts, put them on and call Mom to get the latest on the wedding. I have to use my cell because I can’t reach down to the phone on the table. She asks if I have a date yet, and I wonder if he’ll send me flowers, and the stilts leave little rectangular plaster dust footprints on the carpet where I’ve walked, but I don’t care, and I rub my fingers along the smooth ceiling as I listen to her news about the wedding and Dad’s job and, when she asks me again, I let myself fall backwards onto the couch because that’s easier than answering, but I scream a tiny scream when I think I’m going to miss, and the air cools and rushes around my head just for an instant. When I land, the couch sighs like the intolerant teenage girl I used to be, and the fall takes my breath away, and when Mum asks what’s wrong I tell her, between gasps, that I won’t make it for lunch on Sunday, and she must remember to water her daisies. Her heels click through the phone as she tells me that there will be too much food if I don’t come, and I look down the length of my legs, stretched out in front of me, and tap the silvery toes of my aluminum stilts.

My mom’s pumps date her. She calls them Mules. Some of her pairs even have blue or pink fur around the toes, like the kind of slippers that come into your head whenever someone mentions Lucille Ball. I have my faux-snakeskin heels and my stilts, but my stilts have their place, which is at work putting up walls for the Russians to paint and other people to hide behind and not at every moment of change in my life. I pull the Velcro straps loose and they chirp, the stilts fall on the carpet with a dull clang, and, when Mom’s heels stop clacking, and she waits for me to speak, I make kissy noises, tell her to keep wearing the pumps and say goodnight.

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Stuart Mark was driven out of Scotland because he doesn't like football (soccer). How now lives in Okotoks, Alberta where his family and a love of writing help to keep him a sane citizen of the corporate world. He has written numerous articles for IT Week magazine in the UK but now devotes all his literary efforts to fiction. Stuart has been published in fillingStation magazine and was shortlisted for the 2010 Freefall magazine short story contest. Most people call him Mark, so he should probably write under a pseudonym.