Alex Pollack has a history of obsessively pursuing the girls and women he forms crushes on.
I chased Megan across a playground smelling of brown leaves, wet wood beams, and cold. I chased her through a sea of pebbles, our sneakers sloshing and crunching past swings she’d jangled by their chains to slow me down. Her stringy brown hair flounced in a Care Bears scrunchie, and her denim overalls flapped like sails in the wind. I wore a white turtleneck splotched pink by fruit punch. My hair was sprayed sticky into exclamation points. I ran after her; she ran away from me. We were playground warriors. We were six years old.
Miss Zeeman, blond hair falling in commas over a yellow-and-orange Thanksgiving turkey sweater, belted out a whistle like a birdcall. Megan mashed to a stop and fixed me with her sleepy gray know-it-all eyes. “If you keep bothering me,” she said, “I’m going to tell on you.” As Miss Zeeman straightened us into line, I didn’t say anything to Megan. Megan was smart, smart about addition, subtraction, and tying her own shoes, but she was wrong about me. I wasn’t bothering her; I was just being her boyfriend.
It’s an air-conditioned afternoon in a college bookstore in Orlando, Florida, the aroma of hazelnut coffee mixing with the glossy scent of hardcovers. After staring for several long, painful seconds from behind a row of vanilla pretzels, I finally inch up to a woman sitting on a stool at a long marble study bar, her skin a raw sienna, crescents of dark freckles on her nose and on her cheeks, her eyes a soft milk brown. She’s wearing clingy gray sweatpants and a mesh exercise shirt that, as she stretches, draws in her breasts like a wrapped surprise. Be cool Alex, I tell myself. Be. Cool.
“Can you settle a quick bet between a friend and me?” I squeak.
“Okay,” she says, her eye brows question marks.
I’m trying to look casual and confident but I’m already worried that my wordsarecomingouttoofast. “Would you ever date a guy named Christof?”
“Christof?” Her accent lies like maple syrup on her tongue. “What do you mean?”
“My friend Chris was thinking of changing his name,” I say. I scrape my knuckles against my red beard. “And we wanted a random female’s opinion.”
A line. I am using a line, a line I learned from a reality show about pick-up artists who teach women-wooing techniques to amateurs who can’t land a date. The line does have a kernel of truth: I do have a friend named Chris. He’s a pilot in North Dakota, but he’s not thinking of changing his name. (A Bismarck dive bar is probably not a haven for men named Christof, anyway.) Today, I am using Chris’s make-believe predicament as a verbal prop. I am twenty-four years old and single, a first-semester graduate student living in a new city with no ties, and it’s been months since I’ve touched a woman, let alone kissed one. I am not above using a strategy to ignite a conversation.
She smiles. Her teeth sparkle. “My cousin’s name is Christof,” she says.
Her cousin’s name is Christof. I no longer hear the clatter of laptop keys or the whirring of espresso machines around me. Christof. Her cousin’s name is Christof! Is this what they call kismet? A sign? A moment like the ones I’d seen in countless romantic movies where the shy male protagonist finally sees his opportunity and grabs it, spraying the object of his affection with Verbal Aphrodisiac?
Say something, I tell myself. Say something holy shit she’s beautiful say something smart or dumb or just say anything dammit!
“Is your name unusual, too?” I ask, my too strained voice like an off-tune trumpet.
“My name is Tatiana,” she says.
Tatiana. Her name is Tatiana. I slowly twist the shoulder straps of my backpack, a typically nervous twitch that, in the presence of this Perfect Female Specimen, A.D., has become an electric gesture full of promise. Tatiana sounds like a Russian name, I think. “Are you Russian?” I ask her.
I want Tatiana to be Russian. Why? Because my parents are from Belarus, otherwise known as White Russia. We’d have instant common ground, and we could do away with the Christof bet or line or whatever it was I had said. We could talk about Russian stuff: Vodka. Borscht. Babushkas—
“I am from Brazil,” she says.
Or we could dance the samba! And strip naked for Carnival! And … what else do I know about Brazil? Pelé. Was he from Brazil? Think, Alex. Think!
Tatiana looks down at her calculator. I’ve lost her eyes and it feels like a defeat. An excruciating second passes. And then another. And another. It feels like I’ve been unplugged.
“Nice to meet you,” I say, looking past her.
“You, too,” she says sweetly.
Outside the bookstore, the world opens up to me again, as if it’s pushing out of a pinhole. Palm trees are swaying under the setting sun. A skateboarder is clopping across the brick-lined breezeway. I feel something inside me pressing loud and hot like a car engine. I pull at the collar of my Willy’s Burritos t-shirt. My heart doesn’t beat; it jack-hammers. Tatiana, Tatiana, Tatiana.
Megan and I had a fight in the back of the first grade classroom under a laminated map of Tennessee. We were washing our hands in a giant faucet, letting rivers of pink soap douse our palms. From the sticky rack I peeled a brown paper towel, and then I stuck a finger into my right nostril. “Miss Zeeman,” Megan said. She tugged on the stitched snowflakes of our teacher’s Winter Wonderland sweater. “Alex is picking his nose.”
“Alex,” Miss Zeeman said. “Stop.”
I brushed my cruddy fingers against my nostrils and stared at Megan. She’d told on me. She’d told on me. In the cafeteria, I ate a pepperoni pizza square, a peanut butter marshmallow square, and a grape fruit roll-up. I mouthed the lyrics to MC Hammer’s “You Can’t Touch This.” And I did not talk to Megan.
If I have the wrong Tatiana, my mistake; if I have the one who I met briefly at the bookstore yesterday who settled the bet between my friend and I, I want to apologize for not properly introducing myself at the time: I'm Alex, and I'm at the University of Central Florida for graduate school for creative writing.
What are you studying?
Hopefully I have the right person If not, please let me know ...
It’s after three in the morning and I can’t fall asleep. I pick at the squiggles of my chest hair. I lean into the blue glow of my laptop. I want to find Tatiana; I want her to know my name. I’ve clicked through dozens and dozens of Tatianas on Facebook, most of them pictureless. I’ve sent messages like the one above to several of them, dropping are-you-her-like wishes into a digital well. I’ve Googled “Tatiana Brazil Florida.” Because I had seen her use a calculator, I even Bing “Tatiana math Orlando.”
A more rational man might say, “You talked for a minute to a pretty girl. So what? There are plenty of pretty girls. What makes her so special? Why chase her across the internet like a madman?” But sanity and reason are far less appealing to me than the fantasies unfolding before my eyes in Technicolor: the two of us in Rio de Janeiro, doing the samba through a thumping drum circle, catcalls from the locals and her in a black ruffled dress, sweaty as I dip her in the crescendo of the thumps, her mouth just open, our lips sticky and touching like peppermints. How pained my ex-girlfriends’ faces would be when they’d see Tatiana in my Facebook photo albums, a shy gaze over her cocoa shoulder, a pink flower in the curve of her ear. Even the way she’d look down at her calculator had turned me on. She was elegant, even in sweatpants. I’d dated girls, but Tatiana, with her milk brown eyes, her freckled skin … she was a woman.
Where are you, Tatiana? I promise you I’m not crazy. I just want to get to know you.
I celebrated my seventh birthday at Chuck E. Cheese, an indoor carnival of lights blinking gold, Street Fighter arcade games blaring ka-pows, and the smells of mozzarella and sweat swirling in a tethered ocean of rainbow-colored balls. Because I’d never seen Megan outside of school, I didn’t expect to find her at my birthday party, but there she was, in a bright red blouse and a spangled party hat, sitting across from me at a long table clotted with pepperoni bits. She was my only girl guest, and I was proud enough of her presence to forgive her for the picked-nose accusation.
On the concert stage beside our table, a ruby-red curtain unfurled to reveal a bow-tied robot gorilla jamming on a glow-in-the-dark keyboard and a suspenders-wearing grizzly bear strumming the banjo. My fourteen-year-old sister started the clapping floorside, and she was soon joined in song by my entourage: a group of boys who liked dinosaurs and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. “Happy, happy birthday, Alex! Happy, happy birthday!” Megan stared at me with her gray eyes. She was seeing me in the spotlight, me as the star of the show, me on my birthday.
Chuck E. Cheese, a giant mouse alive with saucer eyes, a black button nose, and buck teeth, waddled towards our table. I beamed, ready to soak in a birthday wish, when Chuck E. Cheese looped the corner, leaned into Megan, and smacked his gray mitts together. Chuck E. Cheese was wishing Megan a happy birthday, and she didn’t even flinch. She didn’t tell him he’d made a mistake. All she did was look at me, as if to say it might as well have been her birthday, too.
She had betrayed me. I would make her pay.
Your name is Tatiana.
I want to buy you a cup of coffee. This is a big campus with thousands of people, so this is my attempt. It works in the movies, and real life isn’t the movies … but still.
I will print this flyer. I will post it in the library, in the math lab, and of course, in the bookstore where we met. I’m sick of typing and clicking. That’s not the way I met you; that’s not the way I will find you. Put a thin mustache on me, call me a predator, I don’t care. I just want a chance.
I walk through that brick-lined breezeway in the late afternoon, the sun dipping in the clouds but still hot against my skin. The flyer is folded into my fist, and it’s ready to be copied and posted. I walk past the bookstore and the circular tables and that’s when my world stops.
I am a loon. I am a loony tune. I walk by your table. Past it. Towards a garbage can. I turn around. The engine in my chest shudders.
“Tatiana,” I say. You look up. Again in sweatpants, this time in glasses, iron-rimmed glasses, and those milk-brown eyes and I’m telling you, “I’m sorry, I forgot to introduce myself the other day.” You’re nodding, you’re smiling, you’re saying yes.
And we talk, me playing with my backpack straps again. I tell you I’m a graduate student, new to Orlando, and you tell me you like it here, that it’s quieter than São Paulo, your home. “Where are you from?” you ask me.
If you knew the words on the creased flyer I hold in my right hand, would you be flattered or would you want to call the FBI?
I tell you I’m from Memphis. And then I say, “We should grab a cup of coffee sometime.”
You motion towards the bookstore window. “Sure, I’m around.”
“I should get your number,” I say, finding assertiveness inside me I didn’t know I had.
And you nod.
My fingers are clumsy. They click Calendar, they click Recent Calls, they click all the buttons but the right one. I hand you the phone. “Can you?”
You laugh as you enter your number, for my screensaver is a close-up of me scowling with furrowed eyebrows and vampire teeth. “It’s to scare cell phone thieves away,” I say.
I have your number.
I’m smiling so hard I’m a caricature. I jump across the grass in front of the student union. I don’t care who watches me. I jump. I jump!
Back in my apartment, I run into my bedroom and turn on the fan. I jump so high the oncoming blades almost nick me in the head.
I chased Megan again, but the sloshing of pebbles under our feet made a harder, meaner sound—my velcro sneakers clopped against her heels and I almost pulled the Care Bears scrunchie out of her hair. I couldn’t believe she’d stolen my birthday; she’d never even apologized. And so I chased her, until the one afternoon she kicked into a beeline run towards Miss Zeeman, who was leaning against the swingset in her valentine hearts sweater.
I scampered across the pebbles and found a bunker in the far corner of the playground. Under a webbed platform, I curled into a ball. Through the sun-slit line between my knees I saw little rocks, lots of little rocks and no little shadows. I could hear my breath. I felt safe.
Safe until I looked up the peek-a-boo holes and saw her gray eyes peering down at mine. “Miss Zeeman wants to see you,” Megan said. I was found. I was caught. She had told on me. I stared at the pebbles, waiting for her to hop off the platform and leave me alone.
My shoes made only a light crunch as I walked towards Miss Zeeman. It was over. It was all over.
I called Tatiana on a Friday and left a voicemail asking her out for a Sunday night dinner. My sister told me I should have waited till Saturday; her fiancée suggested Sunday. I said I didn’t care about any three-day rule, that if Tatiana had found me intriguing, she’d get back to me. She has my number. She knows how to find me.
It’s Saturday afternoon now and I’m sitting in a leather chair, surrounded by shelves of the top twenty bestsellers in a chain bookstore off-campus. I’m trying to do my homework and trying not to look at my cell phone. It’s been twenty-three hours and forty-seven minutes since I called. Did I overstep? Should I have started with coffee?
My phone vibrates.
I don’t know what to think. I don’t know what to say. I—
“Is this Alex?”
I stand, almost tripping over my laptop’s wire. “How’s your weekend going, Tatiana?” I say, my voice threatening to break but staying steady.
She says it’s fine and asks me about mine.
“Oh, you know, doing homework, not so fun,” I say, laughing, as if I had just delivered a punchline.
There is apology in the way she says my name.
“Thank you so much for the dinner invitation—”
I shouldn’t have called so soon. I shouldn’t have left that voicemail. If only I’d started with coffee
“My husband, he is jealous,” she says with a light laugh, the same one she gave me when she saw the vampire face on my cell phone screen. “So, it would not be a good idea to go out.”
I hadn’t seen a wedding ring on her finger, but then again, I wasn’t looking for one. I’d never looked for wedding rings. I was used to dating girls.
“But thank you so much for invitation,” she says.
I wonder: Why did Tatiana even give me her phone number in the first place? Just because I’d flattered her? Just because I’d made her feel special by chasing her?
“I will see you around bookstore?” she asks.
“Yes,” I say.
I hang up the phone, and I stare at the glossy covers of the books in front of me. I am twenty-four years old. I know I will never talk to Tatiana again, but I am young and self-absorbed and I’m already waiting for the next Tatiana to come along and star in my love story.
It will take years until I learn to see an attractive woman as a real human being with her own needs and desires, and not as a mythical specimen sent by the Gods of Fate to make the engine in my chest shudder. It will take years to learn this. It will take years to educate this boy.
At recess I dribbled a soccer ball across uneven bumps of sunbaked dirt, crossing over second graders and kicking goals past the twin posts of orange cones. I still saw Megan, of course, but she was only a shadow jumping rope behind the jungle gym; she wasn’t my girlfriend anymore, that is, if she ever was.
I liked to think she was watching me, watching me every time I scored a goal. Watching me and wanting me and wondering about me. What I didn’t know then was that she had her own jump ropes to jump and jungle gyms to climb, and boys to meet that she hadn’t yet: on the playground by the slides, at summer camp near the tetherball pole, at the middle school dance under the sweat and strawberry perfume, on prom night in a cloud of Smirnoff Ice, maybe at a college bookstore on a sunny afternoon. “I’m next!” these boys would scream. “I’m next!”
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