Isobel went to Max's house early one evening. They'd met each other a month ago, a fix-up conspired by Isobel's hair colorist and Max's roommate. After each date, I'd get a thorough report from her, and I could see from the outset that her heart just wasn't in it. It was clear to me that Max was what we call in the dating world, filler.
Isobel, a sous chef, was between relationships, just like the way people can be between jobs. You take that job selling hot dogs at a corner cart because you can't land a catering gig. It's still in your field -- hot dogs, making hors d'oeuvres, it's all food, right? You're bored, you're anxious, and you need to pay the rent. Max was Isobel's hot dog.
Distinguishing a filler relationship from a real one is key. Most likely, you must depend upon your friends to do this for you, since by definition you will be unable to. One of the crucial characteristics of a filler is the suspension of disbelief, so when your filler starts playing air guitar in front of your friends, you pretend that it's just not happening. You turn away and wait for the song to be over.
When Isobel arrived at Max's apartment, the TV was on low in the background. Nick at Nite. His guitar case was open and notebooks were spread on the floor. A purple candle burned brightly from its position on top of the giant speaker.
"I've been working on a new song," Max said, as if that weren't clear. "It's called 'Mannequin.'" Isobel smiled, frozen. Sure enough, he pulled her down to the floor while he sat cross-legged, guitar on his lap, and began strumming and singing in his Brooklyn accent:
"Mannequin, Mannequin, what a perfect face/ Mannequin, Mannequin, please tell me what's my place/ You stare and stare and seem to see/
Mannequin, mannequin, please see me...
"That's as far as I've gotten," Max said, strumming his guitar with a flourish. Yeah, in more ways than one, thought Isobel. She smiled tightly. Another filler bites the dust.
Fillers can never shout that they are fillers. In order for them to succeed on any level, they have to suck you in just enough that you can close your eyes. It's the same blindness that lets you cry freely at "E.T."
Nigel was my classic filler. An Australian film producer, he'd just landed a major picture deal from Warner's, his first feature. He was suave and charming, but just a little too suave, a little too charming, to the point of being slick. I knew that he was living with his girlfriend in Melbourne; I had also been told through friends that she'd just been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
Nigel rewarded his brush with success by following around World Cup soccer, and on a hot July day, we drove down to Stanford to watch Colombia play Mexico. I'd met him three days ago; we'd already slept together, and while I knew he wasn't Mr. Long Term, he played the game well enough. Until...
"Pull over here," he directed me. We were driving alongside an industrial park. "You are so hot. So sexy. Let me just..."
Reluctantly, I parked under a tree. We kissed, beads of sweat rolling down our faces in the 98-degree heat. He slid his hand under my T-shirt, and I responded by grasping his shorts. He moved one of his hands behind my neck, he began to gently, gently push my head down.
"Uh," I said. "I don't think this is such a good place..."
"Come on, baby."
"No, really. We're in the middle of an open air parking lot."
"You are so hot, baby."
"Yeah, I am," I said, trying to move my head out from under his hand. "Don't tell me you don't want to."
I looked up. He was frowning. And I knew, in that split second, just looking at those furrows between his bushy eyebrows, the slight coldness that had crept into his blue stare, that the bubble had been popped. I sighed loudly.
"You know what?" I said, sitting up, straightening my t-shirt. "I could really go for a sandwich. Something really, really big. Roast beef, with lots of lettuce, and tomato, maybe even a club sandwich." I pulled out of the parking lot and merged into the traffic. "Tell me about the symptoms of multiple sclerosis. It must be really hard on you. When's your flight, again?"