SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
December 15, 2013

Mr. Romance

 

Grinch and I were leaving one of Madison’s tinier and dingier punk rock clubs after a record release party for our favorite locals, Killdozer, when he turned on me.

            “What the fuck was that?” he asked.

            I was still half deaf from the show, but I’d heard what he said. “What the fuck was what?” The show seemed perfectly fine, the band was loud and growly and funny as ever, no skinheads had jumped us this time, so I wasn’t sure what the hell he was talking about.

            “That little blond chick,” he said. “She comes up to you with this come hither blowjob smile, and you just ignored her. What the fuck?”

            I thought back a moment, then it hit me. “Oh, christ, is that what that was?”

            Grinch and I had been sitting at a small wobbly table having a few beers. On the stage, Killdozer was grinding away sloppily. Apart from a couple of small spotlights illuminating the stage, the club was black, it was dangerously crowded with punk rock types, and I was drowned in a tsunami of deafening noise. I felt someone touch my shoulder. I turned and saw the smallest glint of blond hair. Whomever or whatever it belonged to seemed to be trying to communicate with me. Unable to hear or see anything at that point that wasn’t the band, I knew it was hopeless and, finding myself in a hopeless situation I did what I always do—I ignored it.

            “Well, shit,” I said only half to Grinch as we walked away from the club.

            “After you ignored her, she split,” he said. “You gotta start grabbing these things when you can.”

            I had the noise and the darkness for cover that night, but the sad truth was even if she’d approached in a coffee shop or a classroom or on the street, I likely would’ve blown it anyway. In fact I had blown it in coffee shops and classrooms and on the street. I was fucking hopeless. I’ve no doubt mentioned this before, but I’ve never been really good at that whole “dating” business. My entire high school career, I had one date. Forget about all that rampant teen carnality you hear about (at least in my case)—I had a single, solitary date. Steadfastly refusing to drive may have had something to do with it, but a much bigger factor was that I was a nervous, depressive little freak. Oh, there were girls I liked and talked to regularly, but that’s as far as it went. When I finally did have that one date with a thin, serious math genius who’d recently rediscovered Catholicism, what the hell did we do? We went to see Gandhi. Jesus I still can’t get over that one, and to this day I’ve refused to see that film ever again. When it was over and she dropped me off at my house, I think we shook hands, if that much.

            Sadder still, my no-holds-barred freewheeling footloose college years were just as humiliating. During my time in Chicago and Madison and, for that matter even grad school in Minneapolis, I talked to a number of women who seemed to respond, but again nothing ever came of it. A few even seemed to drop some serious hints but I was untrained and unequipped to pick up on the signals.

            Wait. Christ, though, now that I think back on it—this literally just came back to me now as I type this—I did have four and a half actual dates in Madison. That shocks me. I mean, nothing came of any of them, but they were dates, or at least date-like in nature.

            There was Diane, a small, round-faced woman with a pageboy haircut who was extremely active in assorted Jewish organizations. She was very well-read, liked arty foreign films, lived in some kind of Jewish community house, and talked about little else apart from her activism. She’d recently returned from the kibbutz and was deeply concerned about the Arab-Israeli question. Why she’d approach a German is beyond me, but there you go. I forget exactly what it was we did when we went out—there was a coffee shop or something involved first, and later we ended up at a bar where we ran into a friend of hers. We had a drink or two, then she abruptly split with no explanation (maybe she’d just figured out I was a German), leaving me alone with the friend, whose name was Michelle. She was an actress.

            Now, the actress was cute if a little loud and self-absorbed. She was thin, had long, straight, dark blond hair, large eyes, talked incessantly and gestured theatrically and I listened politely and drank. I was happy to listen, and we ended up closing the bar. While walking her back to her building’s front door, she promised to make me a stylized gas mask out of latex for some reason.

            After that evening I never heard from either of them ever again, and I never got that gas mask.

            Then there was Katherine, the opera singer. Being a budding opera singer, she was on the largish side, but had lovely, delicate, and deeply sad features. She was a customer at a video store where I was working and we got to talking about movies, I guess. She liked thirties melodramas especially. At the time she was in rehearsals for a new campus production of Cinderella (she was singing the role of one of the stepsisters). We went out to dinner one night and when I picked her up I should’ve taken a hint from the poster for Woody Allen’s Interiors taped to the wall above her bed.

            After dinner (she did like to eat, boy) I, shockingly enough, brought her back to my tiny and grimy apartment to watch a film. I think it was Night at the Opera, as she’d never seen the Marx Brothers. I should’ve taken that as another sign. She had a little trouble lowering herself to the filthy carpet (I had no chairs), and once the film got underway she pulled some knitting out of her bag.

            Halfway through the film she promptly stood up and left. I wasn’t sure why. It wasn’t like I’d made a cheap move on her, as I was too absorbed in the picture to bother with distractions like that. Maybe she didn’t care much for the Marx Brothers, and if she didn’t, well, good riddance, then. After she left, I watched the rest of the movie. I never heard from her again either.

            Then there was Janet. She was another large woman, this one with red hair, freckles and roller skates. She was quite proud of her wild, frizzy red hair and was always flopping it around. She also sweated a lot. When she donned her roller skates, she immediately resembled a James Thurber cartoon. She was another one who wanted to be an actress, and had all the annoying flamboyance that seemed by nature to come with the profession. We met in a T.S. Eliot class, and one night I took her out vandalizing with me. That was fine and best of all extremely cheap, but then she invited herself back to my apartment. If I’d really been desperate to get laid I suppose I could have that night. She made it more than obvious. Come three a.m. when I still hadn’t made anything resembling a move, well, she gave up and I walked her home and the next day she asked if I was gay. Any number of possible responses came to mind, most including the word “taste” (both good and bad), but I remained polite.

            When I told Grinch about the whole thing he just said, “Yeah, you can do better.”

            Sadly, of that tiny handful of women I dated while at Madison, she’s the only one I ever saw again, if only by accident. I kept running into her everywhere I went. She was almost always on roller skates, which made escape difficult. Even after moving away from Madison, I still ran into her every time I popped back into town for a day or two to see Grinch. And every time I did, she took on this supercilious air when talking to me, which is a strange and difficult thing to pull off when you’re wearing roller skates.

            Ah, but then there was Olga. I may not know what I did or said that prompted those others (well, most of them anyway) to get up and walk out, but in Olga’s case I’m pretty sure I do know, and it’s a shame. She was a beautiful girl, free spirited, funny, athletic and smart. I met her in German class one spring semester and when I learned she was from Green Bay I knotted up the nerve to ask if she wanted to do something sometime over the summer. Much to my shock she agreed.

            Sure enough, one summer night we went to a little jazz club downtown. I had no idea Green Bay even had a jazz club. We talked about music mostly, but I also learned quite a bit about her. She was working as a lifeguard over the summer, her family life wasn’t all that happy, she was studying botany, she’d had her share of adventures. All in all, we seemed to have a mighty fine, low-key time, I thought. For a while there, anyway. Unfortunately, I was what you might call extremely unstable at the time, I had a bit of a Travis Bickle mindset, and as the evening wore on my behavior grew more erratic. Not dangerous or threatening so much as annoying and plain strange, and by the time we got back to my place (she was driving), that was pretty much that. I suspect I was in self-destruct mode, that I couldn’t accept why anyone like this would want to date me so I made sure she regretted it.

            This may help explain why it was probably for the best I ignored that girl at the Killdozer show.

            There are two really amazing things, though, considering the above. First, I actually did get a first kiss somewhere along the line, but that’s a long and ugly story I’ll have to tell some other time. The other amazing thing is I ended up engaged about two years after leaving Madison. But I guess that became an unpleasant story in its own right, dragging on until I met Morgan a few days before my thirtieth birthday. Maybe that was the key—I had to slog through my twenties before I figured out what the hell I was doing.

 

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