The other day, I found myself on the edge of yet another Twitter discussion, this one about pick-up lines and the success, or lack of same, thereof. To put it mildly, this is not my area of expertise, but I did have an anecdote to relate, and after a brief period of agonizing whether I wanted this known in the first place, I decided that if I err, I err on the side of greater information density, and over a period of three tweets, I recounted a shorter version of this tale.

We're talking early to middle 1980s here, after the separation, before the divorce, and from the sound of it, before I devolved into some sort of self-obsessed asshat. I'm standing in front of something you young folks have never seen before: the catalog desk at JCPenney. I had ordered something, had asked for delivery to the store, and inevitably wound up standing in line at the end of the day. For reasons I didn't want to contemplate, there was only a single clerk; the lot of us could have rushed the joint, were we so inclined. We weren't, though patience was conspicuous by its thinness. By my calculations, I was second in line, a comely miss in a sundress owning the first position. For some reason, the clerk addressed herself to me.

I gestured toward the young lady in the sundress. "I believe she's first."

The clerk didn't miss a beat. "I'm sorry. I thought you two were together."

Putting on my best hangdog look, I said sadly: "I'm not that lucky."

I got the briefest possible look at what I imagined to be a smile, and then went back to counting the floor tiles.

What was most perturbing about this incident, other than the fact that it did not proceed directly into a romance story, was its sheer distance, and I don't mean in terms of geography: not only had this happened thirty years ago, but I had no more recent story to recount. Fortunately, no one in the discussion seemed to pick up on that angle, and I was able to retreat to the sidelines, whatever embarrassment I felt lost in the noise.

Of course, I hadn't been expecting anything to come of that little incident; I don't remember if she had been wearing a ring, but there was no reason for me to think she'd be receptive if she hadn't. I vowed to myself to check that little detail before the next time I shot my mouth off like that; I had no way of knowing that there wouldn't be a next time. Then again, I had more than enough reason to suspect so: I had grudgingly accepted Forever Alone before I ever got out of second grade, and I would be halfway through my teens before there was even the slightest suggestion that I might be wrong.

I've explained this mindset before:

Take one individual with more than his share of deep, disturbing doubts. Add a tendency to suppress those doubts, and extend the suppression to cover a wide range of human emotions. Place inside unattractive container, shake vigorously, stir hardly at all. The result is discomfiting, even discouraging: sometimes I want to gawk as shamelessly as the next guy (and believe me, the next guy loves to look), but the moment I let myself do that, the brain's delivery service hands me an unpaid shame bill, and I have to turn away. Which explains much about the darty eye movements I seem to exhibit under these conditions: I'm trying to commit as much as I can to memory before the system shuts down entirely.

And fortunately for me, I have a ready-made excuse for not participating: I've already contributed my fair share to the propagation of the species — before the marriage dissolved in a solution one part bitterness, two parts immaturity, and just a splash of acid, I spawned two children, each of whom has already demonstrated more than adequate fecundity — and therefore I can safely ignore all of that biological-destiny crap; I've done my part, now leave me alone.

To some extent, I have been successful at shunting those occasional urges off to an entirely different universe. Visitors to this universe seem perplexed that I would describe myself as romantic as a soap dish, and an empty soap dish at that; but I figure this is just a variation on an ancient adage: "Those who can, do; those who can't, write about it at tedious length." Feel free to consider this Exhibit A W.

The Vent

  19 April 2014

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