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Blind Date with the Invisible Man

a short story
by Leslie What

Friday the Thirteenth progressed like any other day until early evening, when Jaclyn began to feel spooked. She was about to meet the invisible man for a blind date; until now, they knew each other only from the Internet. Jaclyn hoped their encounter would go well, perhaps lead to an extramarital affair. While her husband Barry had had numerous affairs, if it happened, this would be her first. Unlike Barry, she would not confess her sins to him, knowing all too well that bragging didn't absolve one of wrongdoing.

Max had recommended the restaurant, "Africaux", a trendy Ethiopian place with bad lighting and finger food, a combination he hoped would create an atmosphere in which he felt less conspicuous. She arrived early, gave her name to the hostess, then staked out the perfect barstool. She was perspiring, not enough to leave a stain, but enough to be embarrassed if he shook her hand.

She and Max had been corresponding for three months. The two had originally met in a chatroom, with the relationship quickly progressing into private mode. The two had instant messaged, flirted, lied, exaggerated, shared, bonded, and lusted, not in any given order. They had played out their keyboard affair to its fullest; it was time for the relationship either to deepen or end.

Jaclyn was dressed in an attractive but not-too-sexy black jersey dress. The dress, still in great condition because she had only washed it twice, was one of her favorites. It hid her flaws, allowing the possibility of perfection. The dress symbolized hope.

Two weeks ago, the invisible man had suggested they follow netiquette by trading pixel pictures, but, since he was invisible, Max's picture hadn't provided a clue about what he looked like. His picture had revealed only a wavy gray background; in the center, a crease that could have been the outline of a man's head, or just her imagination connecting the dots.

She had photographed herself and doctored the image, smoothed away the suggestion of wrinkles, choosing to blur reality, not erase it. Wasn't it always the case that people looked better when you couldn't quite see everything.

The small television perched atop a shelf in the corner interrupted a baseball game for a special announcement. As the news guy moved his lips; the picture broke away to scenes of a riot-in-progress in downtown Seattle.

Her interest piqued. Barry, her husband, and his anarchist friends were there, protesting the WTO summit. She watched a building burn, watched a man jump from a window and a crowd roll him on the ground to put out the flames. She squinted, trying to see if anyone in the background looked familiar. I don't believe in fire, Jaclyn thought. Fire wasn't solid -- it had no substance. A thing could not be real without this quality.

"Excuse me," she said to get the bartender's attention.

He was preoccupied crushing ice for margaritas, and did not hear her request above the blender.

She wanted to be the kind of woman who could make more noise than a small machine. If Barry were there, they would already have been seated at a table. Barry was the Alpha male, something she had once appreciated. "Excuse me," she said again, and this time, the bartender gave her a wait-a-second signal.

Jaclyn was used to waiting. She stared into the mirror and watched newcomers check their reservations with a hostess who used a penlight to see the register. The mirror distorted the reflection: the center was clear, the edges increasingly fuzzy. Perhaps the glass was coming unglued from the wall.

The main thing was, she looked good. She fixated on the usual doubts about revealing herself to a stranger, picturing an escaped serial killer, or a compulsive liar, or the kind of man who would be called a dog if he were a woman.

The bartender finally walked her way. "What's your pleasure?" he asked. He was a young man, good looking enough that she imagined he was gay, or already taken.

"I'd like a glass of California Chardonnay," Jaclyn said. Chardonnay was the white bread of wine, an invisible wine that didn't call attention to itself. She preferred the reds, a burgundy or Merlot, but it seemed unwise to make a statement with her wine this early in the relationship.

"Good choice," said the bartender with a practiced smile that let her know it was his standard line. He made a great show of teasing out the wine cork and twisting the bottle to pour without spilling a drop. "Cheers," he said.

"Thank you," Jaclyn said. She sipped from the goblet. A little sweet, but all things considered, a pretty good five-dollar wine. She watched her reflection in the mirror as her lips closed around the delicate goblet. The tip of her tongue lingered like a shadow on the rim. There was something arousing about watching herself drink, but then nearly every action had sexual connotations when observed by someone desperate.

At this moment, the invisible man might well be checking her out. He might be watching, undetected, deciding if he wanted to go through with this or not, while all she could do was wait, nurse her Napa Chardonnay, and try to look as if she felt laissez-faire about what she hoped would become her first adulterous affair.

If Max didn't like her, she'd be back at square one. Unless Max was the type of guy willing to sleep with someone he didn't like, not because of compassion for her situation, but because he'd already blocked out the time, and what the hell?

At this stage in the game, there were plenty of things that could go wrong. She wasn't sure what to expect; she envisioned the scene from The Invisible Man, the one in which Claude Rains wound a bandage tightly around his face to prove to Gloria Stuart that he was a man of substance.

Her standards, this early into the night, were high enough to hope for a man of substance. She knew that after a couple of drinks, a little more time spent in anxious waiting, she would be happy with a good lay but would settle for a bad one. She wanted to leave Barry, but she needed some pretense, some excuse. If you didn't tell the lawyers something, they made you go through mediation. If she had to tell the truth, Barry could go to jail for his underground activities. She hated him, just not enough to lock him away.

"All alone?" asked the bartender. He refilled her goblet, waving away her hand when she reached for her wallet.

"I'm meeting someone," she said and the bartender nodded.

The invisible man was easy enough to spot in a crowd, but only because he must have recognized Jaclyn from her photograph and sneaked up to sit on her lap.

"Oh," she said, excited, secretly pleased that he had seen through her disguise and appreciated the real her. His clothing rustled and he was wearing after-shave with the sweet scent of purple grape juice. "I'm Jaclyn -- how do you do," she said in haste.

Apparently he felt no need for introductions. The invisible man whispered, "I do fine," in her ear, which might have, given another scenario, turned her off. But she had no experience beginning an affair, and an invisible man seemed like a safe bet, and she wasn't about to let a slight faux pas turn her off when she had come this far. She hoped he wasn't too unattractive, not that she would ever find out, but just, well, because she deserved that. Barry had bragged that his latest lover was eighteen.

"Shall I order a drink, or might I have a sip of yours?" Max whispered. His icy breath against her earlobe triggered a shudder.

"Be my guest," she said. She gestured toward the bar. On his way to the glass, some part of him brushed one of her nipples. That caused a slight tremor. Butterflies, she remembered. The excitement of a new relationship, when lust was so powerful that nothing else mattered.

The invisible man had mentioned in passing that he wrote speeches for politicians. It pleased her, knowing he had deep and important thoughts. She had always been attracted to intelligent men. She wanted this to work into more than a one night stand. She felt Max's lips explore her neck. It had been a long time since she had been seduced; one almost forgot the excitement of the game. "Wow," Jaclyn said. "Nice."

The invisible man whispered, "Thanks," and used his tongue like a feather to tickle her ear.

She drained the glass and signaled for another. "Is it your habit to sit in your date's lap and whisper?" Jaclyn asked.

"Don't like to draw attention," he said.

"I understand," she told him.

So, he wasn't exactly a brilliant conversationalist. That made sense, in a way, that he saved the important words for his speeches. No doubt the spoken word was too ephemeral for a guy like him. In any event, his discretion was a plus, just one more reason to go for an invisible man. If any of the truth about her life came to light, especially Barry's illegal activities, she might have to find another job. Which would be difficult, as Barry had recently pissed off the guy who had manufactured her technical school diploma.

Max slid his arms around her waist. He seemed to be about the same size as she, a good quality for a lover. She dreaded the thought of sleeping with a man with a smaller butt. Trying not to be too obvious, she ran her fingers through his hair, to see if he had hair, which he did.

"Nice," he said, so she tried it once more.

Thank God he wasn't bald or covered with keratinous skin growths. Max was clean-shaven, another plus. Her husband grew hairier by the year. She ran her fingers along Max's chin, trying to imagine his face. When she touched his mouth his lips parted and he circled her knuckles with his tongue.

Ohmygod! she thought. This is really going to happen!

The hostess signaled that their table was ready.

The bartender worked his way over to refill her goblet. "Enjoy your evening," he said.

"Thanks," Jaclyn answered.

"Allow me," Max whispered as he slipped from her lap to stand behind her. He slid one hand beneath her buttocks and gave it a little squeeze.

Not being invisible, Jaclyn blushed, certain that despite the dim light, the bartender had noticed her rising color. She picked up her wine and took a hasty sip. They followed the hostess to a low table near the back; Jaclyn's walk degraded into wobble. They removed their shoes; Max took his seat on the cushions facing her as she took hers. She hoped her descent to the floor was not without grace. Wildly ethnic fabric, so bright it glowed in the dark, hung like mosquito netting around each table and provided privacy screens. It was very romantic.

The hostess lit a floating candle that smelled like pine-scented Sterno, yet gave off no perceptible light, then handed Jaclyn a menu. Jaclyn did not ask for another. After the hostess left, Jaclyn pushed the menu across the table and said, "Just tell me what's good."

"Everything," said Max. "It's that kind of restaurant, as long as you like spicy."

"Great," she said. She disliked spicy food, which always seemed like it was trying to cover up something rotten with an unnatural heat.

"How's your job?" Max asked.

"Okay," she said. "Nothing special." She was a medical transcriptionist and had just transcribed the notes on three barium enemas. She didn't want to talk about it. "How about you?"

"You know," he said. "Politics." Max had once owned a seat on the Chicago stock exchange, trading futures. He gave the air of being independently wealthy, something difficult to confirm just by looking at him. He could have been wearing a Timex and claimed it was a Movado. His leather goods could have been Mexican, not Italian, and she would never know.

She worked to keep her suspicious inclinations from getting the better of her, easier to do when she felt his barefoot toes curl around her calves. She twitched, excited. He was like electroshock therapy, but in a nice way. An odd vision passed on its way to another table. It looked like a time-release photograph of a city of night, but was probably some flaming dish or another about to be served. The scent of chili peppers made her eyes itch. She pushed back the crushing feeling hit that something was wrong with a gulp of wine. It was too late to get cold feet. She didn't want to screw things up. "It's nice, taking off your shoes," she said.

"Mine are slip-ons," Max said. "Bruno Magli."

"Italian," she said.

The waiter poked his head through the curtain to ask, "Are you ready to order, or do you need another minute?"

"Another minute," Jaclyn said.

The waiter said, "Of course." With a great flourish, he handed Jaclyn her oversized multi-colored napkin and instructed her to tuck it into her neckline.

"Thanks," Jaclyn said, thankful he did not appreciate the awkwardness of her situation. Max ignored the napkin on his side of the table, and why not? Who would know if he wiped his hands on his shirt?

When the waiter had left them alone, she whispered across the table, "I don't know what to do. Should we order two dinners? Or do you want to split?"

"The portions are huge," Max said. "We can split and leave room for dessert."

She looked at the menu and hoped her disgust didn't show. The desserts were made from cottage cheese.

"Order a Number Three and a side of flat bread. It comes with salad," Max said.

It had been a long time since she gone on a date and she wondered if the prevailing mores still prevailed. They hadn't made clear beforehand who would pay for dinner. What if his money was invisible? This was all so new, so strange.

No one had bought her dinner in years. Barry couldn't hold a steady job, so her income not only paid for all household expenses, but the bomb supplies. Stop, she told herself -- I'm here to have fun, not to feel bad about her life.

"Give me your hand," Max said.

She reached across the table and accidentally knocked over his water glass.

"Oh God! I'm sorry," she said.

"Don't worry," Max said. "Happens all the time."

She righted the glass and dabbed at the tablecloth with her napkin. "Did I. . .? Are you wet?"

"I could ask you the very same thing," said Max.

She could feel heat again flood her cheeks. Were all invisible men this brazen? A stranger had groped her ass and was now working his foot up her calves toward her inner thighs.

She had passed the point of no return.

Barry was gone and the house was empty. She was a bowl-of-cottage-cheese away from bringing Max home and fucking the pants off of him, assuming he kept his pants on until then. For all she knew, he had left them on the barstool. This was everything she wanted. So why did it all feel so wrong?

The waiter brought out a new table cover and expertly replaced things.

"We're ready to order," Jaclyn said.

"What would you like?" he asked.

"We'll have a Number Three and an order of the flat bread," she said.

"Excellent choice," said the waiter. "It comes with salad."

"Could we have extra napkins?" Jaclyn asked, and the waiter nodded. Given better light, grease stains would show, and she might need to use this dress again, just in case things didn't work out tonight. The napkin fabric was the kind of pattern that would hide all stains, a thoughtful touch. The waiter returned with napkins and a salad and hovered over her with the pepper mill.

"Please," she said, followed by a quick, "Thank you," which he ignored. It was dark enough here that he couldn't possibly see how much pepper he was grinding, but she didn't want to make a scene, or look like she was a whiner. A waiter holding a pepper mill was all about control. He asked you what you wanted, then decided on his own how much spice you needed. The feeling that she lived in a world others dominated was sometimes overwhelming.

The waiter grinned and said, "I think that's enough."

"How do you know?" she asked.

He left them alone.

She pushed the plate toward Max. "I'm not hungry," she said.

"I don't eat vegetables," said Max. "Or red meat."

"Oh," she said.

More food arrived.

She stared at the small mound of solid food that swam like an exclamation point in black sauce. It was a drumstick. They must have ordered chicken.

"You're very attractive," Max said.

She managed to sputter a thank-you. A minute of uncomfortable silence followed. "How did it happen," she asked. "I hope I'm not prying."

"No," he said. "Everyone asks. It was so weird. One day, I was at the Exchange, just like always. I was working the floor, placing orders. I had my hand up and was screaming for attention but nobody saw me. At first it was just a feeling, you know, the kind everyone gets where they imagine they are anonymous. Then I looked down, and I couldn't see my own feet. Or my legs. Or anything else." He laughed self-consciously. "I don't know why, but I grabbed my penis. It was slightly reassuring that my dick hadn't disappeared, even if it was invisible like the rest of me."

Though his story made no sense, she was intrigued. "Are there others like you?" she asked.

"Yes," he said. "We live underground."

Now was when she wished she could read his facial expressions, to see if he was ribbing her. Instead, she forced her mouth into a weak smile, like she understood yet was above all jokes. She was used to playing this role; she'd had lots of practice around Barry's snotty intellectual anarchist friends.

Dinner was uneventful, if highly spiced, and difficult to wipe from her hands. Everything was covered in sauce that looked like it was made from tar. She wasn't a cultural snob, but familiarity would have been so much easier to tolerate.

The waiter popped into the curtain to ask, "Dessert?"

Jaclyn waited for Max's cue and when he volunteered nothing, said, "No thanks."

The waiter cleared away their stained napkins and dishes and left a bill.

"Let me get this," Max said.

Her relief was an audible sigh. She finished her third glass of wine. "Will you excuse me for a moment?" she asked. "I've got to go 'straighten my seams'."

"Of course," said Max. "I could use some fresh air. Shall we meet right out front?"

"Sure," she said. It took a bit of maneuvering to get up from the table. She used the facilities and fluffed her hair with a little bit of water, hair gel, and the electric hand dryer. She retouched her lips and stared down every other woman in the bathroom to build up her confidence. There were at least four who were uglier, and/or fatter than she.

Finally, she left. As she strode toward the door, Jaclyn had a fleeting fear that Max hadn't really paid the bill, that any second the waiter would run after her and drag her back to settle accounts. She rushed out and looked around, unsure if she could count on him.

"Looking for someone?" Max asked, sweeping his arm through hers.

Thank God he hadn't dumped her.

Max bent down to nibble on her neck. "What's your pleasure?" he asked.

That was the second time a man had asked that very thing.

Wasn't it obvious? A light evening rain had left a thin coating on the sidewalk, capturing shadows and reflections like a runny watercolor. She cleared her throat. "Would you like to come over for a drink?" she said, noticing her words were slurred.

"I'd love that," he said. "Are you sure you're ready?"

"Sure!" she said, her voice high and tight. Mickey on helium.

"Do you have your car?" Max asked.

She nodded and led him toward the lot behind the restaurant.

"I don't mean to pry, but you're a bit tipsy," said Max. "Would you like me to drive?"

She imagined the scene as it would appear to the police, and sobered up quite quickly. "I'm okay," she said. "Really."

"I believe you," he said. "But I'm here if you need me to take over."

She managed to get them safely home. She unlocked the door. Because of Barry's paranoia, the house looked like she lived alone. Worried about the FBI finding incriminating evidence, Barry had long ago destroyed family photographs and official records. He owned one change of clothes, which he carried in his backpack. He was not an easy man to love.

Max was all over her the second they walked across the threshold. His soft hands swept across her shoulders and unzipped her dress. The fabric fell like a puddle of water to her feet; she kicked it out of the way. They tumbled to the couch. He unhooked her bra without fumbling, and lunged for her breasts.

"Ohmygod," she said. This was it. This was sex, the way she remembered things from her years in the cult. This next part felt uncomfortable. "Um, do you have a condom?" Having planned this out, she did. In her wallet beside her fake ID.

"It's okay," he said. "I'm safe."

She didn't know him well enough to trust this. "I have one right here," she said, and grabbed for her purse.

"No," he said with a hint of a snarl. "I've had a vasectomy and I've tested negative. It's okay."

She tried another tactic. "What about me?" she said. "How do you know I'm safe?"

He laughed. "I'll take my chances. It's just that I hate using a rubber," he said.

She'd heard this trope so many times before and still didn't believe it. "I have some ultra-thins," she said. "Cherry flavored."

His hand parted her thighs and he breathed in her ear. "No," he said, begging. "I couldn't feel a thing. I'm already invisible -- how much punishment do I deserve?" He touched her like he knew what he was doing.

Ah well, she thought. It was early enough in her cycle and she had always been reliable. She had suggested safe sex; clearly her obligation had ended. The way she felt, what difference did it make if she got HIV? At least there would be drugs, and sympathy, and maybe, especially if Barry ended up killing anyone during the protest, she could write a book.

She heard him unzipping his pants.

She slid her hands down his belly and fondled his glass-smooth erection. "Oh my," she said. He felt ... different! Sex was marvelous, incredible, and unreal. She enjoyed doing things to Max that she'd stopped doing to Barry after he became an anarchist who never washed. They were at it for an hour.

After, Max asked, "Was it okay?"

Jaclyn gasped. "Well, yeah!"

Max felt warm as a breath, soft as a puppy's belly, crisis line-sensitive, wrestler strong, and so very thorough, the way an accountant might be if there were any accounting for sex. He was the perfect lover. She couldn't find words, and simply hugged him tight. Contentment felt nice for a change.

"The bedroom's upstairs," she said after a while. "I can loan you a toothbrush."

"Great," he said, and followed her up.

She washed and brushed and wound herself into a black silk negligee that was mostly shiny string. They slipped into bed and were soon at it again. They had S-E-X, with all the hyphens, and in ALL CAPS, at least twice more that night, an experience she had thought was all but over for her. Unlike Barry who always turned away once he was finished, Max spooned against her back and gently set his hand upon her rump.

She slept, dreaming of smiles and more sex and more smiles. She dreamt of remembered excitement at seeing her lover's face for the first time each day.

In the morning she woke up and turned to ask Max what he wanted for breakfast. "Max," she called, thinking him in the bathroom. "Max!" she called, a little louder. She trudged downstairs and started the coffee. She turned on the radio to listen to the news.

"More on our continuing coverage of the riot in Seattle," said the announcer, and she hurried into the living room to turn on the television. Every channel showed another face of the riot, all footage from the previous day.

"It isn't real," Jaclyn said. She closed her eyes and lifted up her hands as if warming them over the television set -- they never used their fireplace, which Barry thought was too polluting.

From the TV speaker, sirens blared, people screamed, static buzzed. She shivered. If fire was real, Jaclyn thought, I could feel its burn all the way from there to here. She flipped off the television and listened as the house quieted down and the coffeemaker stopped dripping. "Ma-ax!" she called. "Want some coffee?"

She realized, then, that he was gone. Next, she saw the note. It wasn't exactly a note, just a piece of blank white paper taped to the front door. She looked closer. Silly man must have used invisible ink.

She needed lemon juice. Or vinegar. That was how you read invisible notes. Then she recalled Barry had used up all their acidic liquids to make explosives. Typical, she thought, folding the note into fourths. Her fingers closed around the edges and a sudden pain gripped her tummy. Her first thought was appendicitis, but she grasped, immediately, that this was not the case. Jaclyn was ovulating. Miss Regularity was being irregular. She touched her belly, now worried she would have Max's child. Would she be able to see it? How could you prevent an invisible toddler from running into the street and being run over by a car?

Stop! she told herself. I'm fixating about an egg cluster. Besides, just because she had had unprotected sex more times than she could count with an invisible man, just because she was unexpectedly ovulating -- these facts didn't mean that she'd get pregnant with an invisible baby.

Or did it?

"What's your pleasure?" Max had asked. She unclenched her palm, smoothed out the paper, and tried to imagine what Max had written. Maybe it was better, just imagining what he might have said. Maybe it was better, never being disappointed by truth. She stared at eight by eleven-inch whiteness. I've got it! she told herself. She closed her eyes and traced invisible lines, as if she were reading Braille.

"I'll call you," it said. Or something simpler, more like, "Call you."

After a cup of herbal tea, she logged in to check for messages from Max. After all, that was the real test of affection: whether a man you had slept with still liked you enough to talk to you by email.

There were three new letters from him, all from this morning, all sweet variations of Thinking of You. He was online now, so she instant messaged him. There seemed no point in beating around the bush. "I'm pregnant," she wrote; his response came quickly.

"Wow," he said. "What do you want to do?"

"I want to keep it," she answered.

"I'm glad," he said.

They arranged to meet for tea.

"You shouldn't have to do this alone. Maybe you should move in with me," he said.

"We'll talk," she said, but decided to bring her suitcase, just in case.

Motherhood was an occupation for which she felt utterly unprepared. Being pregnant was like watching something on television: you knew it was happening but it didn't seem real. She imagined her invisible infant and pictured him -- of course it would be a boy -- without shape, rather like beach sand. She would drip water over the sand, use a spoon to sculpt a form, create a substantial, ornate castle that would inspire others to imitate her style.

No, Jaclyn thought, that's not right. The next time the tide came in, the wash of the waves would dent the fortress, the moat would flood, or some thoughtless bully would step upon the tower. Everything she'd worked so hard to create would collapse. She patted her belly. Not like sand, she decided. Her child would be sculpted of something hard, something like marble. The Venus of Milo, capable of withstanding all ravages of time, waves, and bullies. She could hardly wait to see Barry's expression when he came home from his weekend of in-your-face demonstrations, his weekend of tormenting others who got in his way. "What's up?" he would ask.

"My pleasure," she would answer, leading him to suspect her of engaging in activities while he was away. Maybe he would worry. It didn't matter. She felt strong enough not to care if he noticed how everything had changed.

© Leslie What 2002, 2004.
This story first appeared in Polyphony 1.

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