Gregory was a perfect subject. I suspected this as I browsed his mobile dating app profile, skimming through the generic details about his personality and station in life, the kind of details that someone uses to describe themselves when they aren’t all that sure that anything that they’ve ever done truly mattered.
I swiped through his photos looking for clues in the wrinkles of his facial expressions. They weren’t posted chronologically; the album was a greatest hits of what he deemed to be decent pictures of himself from over the years, though even without timestamps, I could still assemble his story. The most recent pictures featured a shallower smile, the kind that happens from the cheeks down without making you squint or raise your eyebrows; subdued and unable to crack a lingering sadness in the eyes. To compensate, the mouth spreads wider, showing more teeth and screaming to the world: “I swear I’m happy! Just look at how happy I seem!” Before his face succumbed to this tendency, his smile was so much more natural, as if joy was his standard state of being. Half of them caught him in mid-laugh, his eyes so crinkled that I couldn’t differentiate what color they were in the shadow of a forehead wrinkled by raised eyebrows. I knew that inside those squinting eyes, I would see the ghost of a woman – the source of the joy that he could no longer fake in the later pictures.
Gregory had a story to tell, a sadness that he was desperate to suffocate and I aimed to unburden him from it.
Our date was going well enough. I was early to the restaurant, so I went to the bar and ordered a vodka martini, completely dry with a lemon peel. It was strong enough to tell Gregory that I’m not shy around alcohol, but the lightness of the vodka, the martini glass that it was served in and the subtle sweetness of the citrus combined to make the drink feminine in the eyes of an easily emasculated man. When Gregory arrived, he introduced himself and ordered a martini “The same as the lady, please.”
Soon we went to our table and had the kind of dinner typical of most people on first dates: Both of us too nervous to eat much, gravitating towards safe dishes that couldn’t possibly provoke indigestion, talking about surface level trivia about ourselves, never delving too deep lest we offend one another with our prying. I could tell that Gregory was so beaten down by whatever drained the happiness from his eyes that he viewed the date as a great success, but didn’t presume that I would want to sleep with him at its conclusion.
That’s when I took the lead: “Gregory.” I let his name in my voice sink in before I continued. “I’m having a really good time and it’s still early.”
“I’m having a good time too,” Gregory smirked in a way that made him look tired.
“I know a place we could go,” I offered before feigning shyness, “to get another drink maybe, or just talk some more, if you’re still having fun. If not, I understand.”
He reached towards me and grabbed my hand ever so slightly, not to hold it or claim possession, but to reassure me that our first date was going alright. “That sounds great.”
It was practically a wide-open, empty room. Sparse furnishings provided seating for the few people who could stand the isolation of the tall ceiling and bare walls. As a life-line, I encouraged Gregory to grab a drink from the bar nearby before we entered the space. Once inside, the room had no details for him to grab onto, no edges to grasp for small talk. It would be just the two of us and our drinks, all of the personal trivia included in our mobile dating app profiles exhausted by now. Nothing to talk about but things that really matter.
“I don’t usually do this well on first dates,” I said after a long silence where we both stare into our drinks and swirl them around. “Me neither,” Gregory smiled half-heartedly. It’s like no matter how hard he tried, he was never completely there. A part of him was always in some other moment, back before faking happiness became so labored.
Confession time. “It’s not that people dislike me. It’s just…” I pretended to hesitate, “It’s just…” again. Gregory looked me directly in the eyes and I had him in my web. “The only person who ever truly fell in love with me had no idea who I was. Instead of letting him see me for who I really am, I only told him lies and it was the lies that he loved, not me.”
Gregory looked away. On a first date where we kept reassuring each other that things were going well, I had dragged us to an empty room and filled it with the stifling discomfort of a conversation about an ex.
People have a tendency to reciprocate secrets. Sometimes out of some notion of fairness (“You shared something important with me, so now I’ll share something important with you”), or maybe guilt (“You’ve opened up to me, so I’ll feel bad if I don’t do the same”). Some people believe that it builds trust. If that’s true, it’s a forceful way to go about it. But it works.
“You’re an interesting woman. That makes some people uncomfortable, I guess,” was all that Gregory could offer in response, but it was an opening.
“You’re interesting too, Gregory.”
“Thanks,” he gave me a quarter smile before bringing his mouth down to meet his drink halfway.
“You’re so sad,” I inched closer to him and he drank more deeply from the glass until it was empty. “Who hurt you?” I contemplated touching his leg, or his arm or his hand, but his body language became rigid and closed and I knew that it wasn’t what he needed.
He rubbed his face and checked his watch and stared at every inch of the wall, as if searching for some way out of the conversation. I apologized and turned my back to him.
“No, Andrea, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to clam up. I just…”
I turned back to him, a sheen of tears glazing my eyes. “It’s alright. We can talk about something else,” but I didn’t offer anything else for us to talk about.
Gregory gave up his secret out of guilt. He did it to make me feel better. His eyes fixed to the ceiling, he said, “I had a bad break up that I didn’t see coming.” I moved closer to him, ready to provide comfort.
“I was with her for a long time, so many years. I thought we were doing fine.” He seemed unsure what to do with his hands. He reached for his drink before abandoning the motion halfway as he remembered that it was empty. “The passion had faded. It always does. That’s normal, I thought. We still loved each other though. We were still happy.”
Gregory brought his elbows up and laced his fingers together behind his head, forming a sort of headrest for himself; a pointy barricade to keep me from coming any closer. I leaned away and draped my arm across the couch, bringing my forearm back towards me to hold up my own head, doing all I could to not meet Gregory’s eyes until he was ready to look at me again.
“One day, she snapped.” He was staring at the ceiling, at nothing that I could see. “We had just finished dinner and she was washing a wineglass when the stem broke and she started crying. I was in the other room and I ran over to her, thinking that she was hurt. She held up the two broken pieces and I searched her palms for cuts but found nothing. ‘It’s alright,’ I reassured her.”
We sat in silence long enough that I began contemplating ways to get him to continue the story, but then he started again. “She said that she was so unhappy with me, that I made her miserable and that she felt like every moment that we had spent together was a waste of her life. She said she wanted out, but we had built a life together and to walk away from that was to admit that all of those years meant nothing to her, but she couldn’t live with me another second and as I stood there, trying to figure out what to say to that, trying to wrap my head around the fact that she saw our life together that way when I thought we were fine, she threw the broken glass into the trash can and walked out the front door. I never saw her again.”
I thought he might want a pat on the back or an embrace, but he didn’t adjust his posture and neither did I. That’s when I knew that this first date would be our last date, that he could never see me again after what he had just said, that this was the first time he had told anyone this story. He fixated on he ceiling even harder.
“I see it all above me sometimes.” I looked at the ceiling with him. “It hangs over me, the way a dark cloud would, but it doesn’t look like that. It looks like something that refuses to become a shape, some ghost that won’t form hard enough edges for me to grab hold of and crush. It’s something that I can’t look at, only through, and it distorts everything that I see on the other side.” I pictured it in my head, sprawling, shifting, ever changing and infuriatingly mystifying. I willed myself to see it above us in the empty room.
“I was so wrong about her, about us, our entire lives. If I couldn’t see it, then how can I trust any of my perceptions?”
The happiest he ever was and maybe ever will be, was because he was blind. How can you trust anything good in the world after something like that?
I didn’t comfort him and for that, he gave me a glance of gratitude before standing up and walking away without saying goodbye or even looking back at me.
I stayed in that spot for another hour, just staring at the ceiling, imagining his ghost as it changed shapes above me.
And I never saw him again.