"Hello," a pleasant voice answers.
"Hi, I'm Nicki. You left me a message."
Silence. "Nicki," I chuckle, nervously. "The Bohemian goddess," I add, grandly.
"Ohh." More silence.
I feel kind of silly "dating." My gal pals, though, eventually convinced me to run a personals ad after taunting, scheming and teaming up against me. Apparently I relented (while boozed up), which led to a whirl of job interview-style first dates with men whose initial conversational hurdle seems merely to convince me over the phone that they weren't freaks or killers.
I'm too tired to carry the weight of yet another introductory conversation. A frenzy of 16 blind dates over the last two and a half weeks has made fatigue a palpable, annoying constant in my life. But I figured I'd get my money's worth for this ad. I've always been a bargain hunter.
"I remember," he says. "'Single, black female. 30. Bohemian slash professional goddess.'" I hear the pages of the newspaper rustle, and I'm happy because I'd begun to think he'd memorized the ad, which would instantly cast him in the freak category. "'Seeking a modern day man,'" he continues, "'with the ability to love deeply and viscerally.' Oh yeah, and, 'odd looks o.k. weirdness a plus,'" he snorts, more breath than contempt.
I try to snap myself out of the bored affect that I took on somewhere around the beginning of week two. It's pretty clear, I think, that I don't care all that much any more. I'm almost ready to call the whole experiment quits. What with letters from jail birds (unanswered), spankers (group derision by lots of women friends in the cafeteria, also unanswered) and ancient, retired farmers whose main activity is golf and who "really, really want to get to 'love' a black girl" (needless to say, unanswered). But part of me feels like an adventurer, like Margaret Leaky, charting the last frontier. So I plod on, no longer thinking this can be the answer for the void in my life. But it fills at least the time.
"How odd do you look?" I asked, having learned that this was a fairly innocuous ice-breaker. Late in the process, I also know that my line, "odd looks o.k. weirdness a plus," meant to show my sophisticated sense of humor, had been read as an invitation by all the city's chronically ugly and sexually experimental people to get in touch with me. I'm pretty sure that my ad got more responses than anyone's. The operator can barely repress a stream of bubbly giggles when she recognizes me calling in to clear my voice mailbox.
"Well, I don't think I look odd. My hair is purple, though, and I guess most people think so. Almost everyone who sees me stops to gawk."
"Purple?" I pause. As a new Buddhist, I am trying to learn to see past the surface of people. I also remember that the pre-law school me had my own hair rebellions. I recall a certain George Michael haircut, pumpkin-orange on the top and black on the sides, that I fancied made my café au lait face look faddishly androgynous. But that was at 20.
"How old are you?"
A bit old for rebellion. It's a tossup now, and only the fact that otherwise I'd be sitting here sautéing in my own boredom is keeping me on the line.
"Your whole head?"
"No. Not just. The hair all over my body ..."
"When you say, 'all over,' you mean ..."
"I mean, all over."
"How did it get that way?" A stupid question. I hear it after it slips through my lips. "I mean, why?" I'm painting a scene of the different punks I've seen walking around town and I'm undressing them in my mind -- walking up to them on the street, unbuckling their studded belts and wresting their tight leather pants past their hips. As the nondyed pass us on the street, they cast curious eyes below the belt. I strip one and another and another, dipping my hands into their fur, surprised to find that the hair on their groins matches their head hair. I smile.
"I've always felt different," he continues, "and so, one day, when I found myself experimenting with hair color, it didn't surprise me much. I went for about a year just working my way through Miss Clairol shades, then one day I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror when the sun hit my face a funny way and made my head look green. I liked it. So I went green."
His voice is engaging and matter-of-fact. Categories, categories. Where to go with this one? He is not one of the boring-though-well-heeled types capable of hearing nothing but their own dull chatter. Nor does he seem to be the poor as a church mouse, dreamy poet/painter/musician type. I've started taking pride in telling friends that I decide within the first two minutes or so whether to invest in further conversation. A quick glance at the clock radio shows I've been on for five.
"How long have you been purple?"
"Eight years now. I thought it was just accidental that I landed on purple. But I've thought about it and think that purple has always had some special meaning for me, since I was a kid."
"Uhm," I grunt, hoping it sounds something like the expression of interest that I intend and almost feel. But my brain cells feel fuzzy and I know I'm not shooting on all pistons so I listen cautiously.
"When I was about 10, I was vacationing with my family in Spain and we'd hiked up some mountain. About halfway up clouds were threatening but Dad pushed us on. We'd only been on top a few minutes before an earthshaking thunderstorm crashed in. Lightning started striking all around us."
Oh my. He's going to tell me about himself, I thought. How novel. No one ever really talks about themselves in these first phone chats. Not even on the first date. Not their real selves. Maybe the characters they've drummed up for this almost-theatrical experience. Here, in Seattle, that usually means the "me" that: likes outdoor activities, hiking, et cetera, et cetera. Long moonlight strolls ... This guy obviously doesn't understand the game. I think a second and realize: I like that.
I met my husband through the personals and should know better than to be searching here again for Mr. Right. Is that what I'm doing? Nah. Just trying to distract myself. Maybe even thumb my nose at my ex who lives half a block away, in my house. Maybe I'm doing this so that he can see I'm not sitting at home thinking about him.
"It must have been scary for a little kid," I say.
"Yeah. My mom, dad and sister got downhill as fast as possible, leaving me behind, and since we'd just reached the peak, I was the highest point on the hill."
"Oh, no ..."
"The next thing I saw was lightning strike, and I knew that I wasn't seeing it with my eyes but that it was in the middle of my head." I listen. Stretching, I pull my shoulder blades together to get comfortable on the couch and can't help but sigh, apparently audibly.
"Are you tired?" he asks. What a question. How to answer? Somewhere toward the end of the first harried week of this stuff, a simple, confidential system developed. The "date du jour," the guy I've picked out of the masses of letters and phone messages as appealing on some level, has to bump the "high man" -- the highest man on my list -- off of his throne. I've been keeping this list on a ruled yellow legal pad. After each date I decide whether I like him more than "high man" (and, therefore, better than all those before him). If not, I cross out his name and sift my hand through the bag of letters to start again. I shared this process with Stephanie, a friend who met her husband through the personals. She says this is more of a system than she ever had and gave me the thumbs up for organization.
At this point, there have been no second dates. Sometimes I luxuriate in just not calling back the truly creepy, like Mr. "Oh, I live with my girlfriend but I only told you at the end of an hour-long phone call." No call to him. After all, as the weeks progress the more business-like it all seems and the shorter the necessity of the encounters. Experience is teaching me the correct questions, which lead to succinct, fact-finding sorts of dates.
I wake up in the mornings, roll into my car half-awake and auto-pilot to work. Thank goodness my son is gone for the summer and I'm not entrenched in any big trials. I haven't looked this ragged in the mornings since college. It's noon time before I start to get any real work done at the office. Home in the evenings again, I'm often preparing to do the whole thing over.
"A little tired," I lie. "Go on, though. I think we're trying to get you from lightning in your head to why your hair is purple."
"The thing that I remember clearest is seeing the lightning running up the hill, not down from the sky, like I expected, and the fact that it was purple. Purple streaks of light running up the rocky incline and then the flash in my head."
I stretch again, hoping not to betray myself this time. Rolling over I prop up on my left elbow to squint at the clock. It's 11:30 and the first night I've been in before midnight in four days.
"I've never met a guy with purple hair before. Can I come and meet you for coffee or late dessert?" I've always been a night owl and curiosity has overcome my weariness. I just have to see it. Anyway, all alternative lifestylers keep late hours.
"Well ... I'm due at my paying job at 5 a.m. Maybe on Saturday."
Of course, how politically incorrect of me. We can't assume things, can we? Nothing remains in the realm of assumption in the '90s.
"Cafe Paradiso," I confirm. "I'll be there at 10. Bring some pubes. I'd like to see for myself."