I. The Italian
Paolo had a 1970s light pink vintage Mercedes Station Wagon, and when he talked of it (and he always talked of it) he called it “The Pig.”
“Only I could have a car like that,” he said to me with a thick Italian accent, “because I like old things that are different. I like fixing them up.” He suggested that we go for a ride out to Cedar Beach, somewhere in Long Island that I’d never been to. Paolo was keen on the beach at winter because it would be empty. He was the first introverted restaurateur I’d ever met.
“Why don’t we take a ride in The Pig, and you’ll see how you like it.”
“Well, I mean, how bad is this car?” I asked him. He was setting it up like we were going for a ride in a clunker. He just laughed.
“You will see, you will see,” he said.
Having friends with cars in New York is and rare hearing, Paolo say “I’ll pick you up in my car,” is like hearing him say we’re going on a ride in a hot air balloon. It just doesn’t happen.
But the next Saturday Paolo and I convened at his Greenpoint Restaurant. “We’ll have a coffee, first,” he says. So we each took espresso outside his restaurants garden. It was extremely cold out but nearly spring, the time when New Yorkers dress optimistically in hopes of changing the weather. I too was playing that game, jeans and a light coat even though the weather warranted more layers. Lots of people were also eating out in the sun, trying to convince themselves that warm weather was on the way.
Around 1 pm we took a flannel blanket and some water and snacks to his vintage car. We made a pit stop for gas then hit the road. The New York highways began to get less and less populated, until we were out in the middle of nowhere on two laned streets crossing over bodies of water. It was very beautiful and picturesque. Paolo managed to find a radio station that played jazz standards. I felt like we were going back in time.
We took a right turn and parked by Cedar Beach, a beautiful, white sand spot. Far off in the distance you can see a famous lighthouse and another beach. There were a few people there: a nuclear family flying kites, a man jogging, a man in a wet suit surfing (at 30 degrees) and others. We layed down our blanket and shivered and talked and listened to the surf.
“This is crazy,” I said.
“This is where I come to get away from everybody,” he said.
I started asking him questions about his life. He told me about Italy. I told him about Alabama. He had a knack for delivering sage, but saccharine, one liners. Being the jaded pessimist that I am, I puckered and squinted and disagreed sharply.
“Whatever you have, you should give away to make others feel good and yourself feel good, I do not care about money,” he said. And I, totally ungenerous, blushed in shame because I disagreed.
We talked about relationships.
“That’s an easy question,” I said to him. “I haven’t had many. Maybe only one or two only lasting a month.”
“I dated a girl once who was crazy. She didn’t even know if she liked men, then she changed her mind and she did, and we fought and we loved each other,” he said. Then he lifted his finger up in the air. “Everyone should have a relationship like that once in their lives.”
I still disagreed.
When we’d had enough of the cold we packed up and stumbled across the sand back to the car. Someone had taken a piece of wood and drawn a heart in the sand.
“It is for you!” he exclaimed. “You have to write something in it. Write something that you want.”
“I don’t know what I want,” I said. Paolo looked at me with a blank face.
“You can write something,” he said.
“I don’t know what I want, so we’ll leave it empty,” I said.
We packed our things in the trunk, and coincidentally Paolo noticed that there was another vintage car of the same make parked beside it. The driver and his wife got out, a tall man with a beard much like Paolo’s. They talked, and realized that they were both Italian, both named Paolo, both restaurant owners.
We drove back to the city. We hit traffic and took the long way, past Coney Island and up East River. The sun started to set and made Manhattan look very magical from my spot in the passenger’s seat.
Beaches in winter and vintage cars – Paolo saw value in things that I overlooked and believed were impractical. I felt like I didn’t have, and could never have, the appreciation for the same things. We had one more disastrous date at Bookcase and he invited me to Italy for three weeks and I declined.
II. The Rake
Professor Lovelace is a rake in poets clothing. He wears tea length coats in sturdy fabric and button down shirts with sweater vests. He puts tiny flowers in his button hole and combs his hair with gel and wears glasses. He has duels at literary salons with Heideggerian philosophers over lovers and empty insults. I am absolutely unable to resist his sort and even after learning my lesson with another British poet rake, saying his name out loud still makes me smile a bit.
He was puppies and daisies on our first date to the MET Museum. He even wore a suit and tie and took me to Bar Pleiades afterwards, my favorite spot. Then on the second date I obliged to meet him in New Jersey, where he lived and taught English at a university.
On a Saturday night I got off the Path train in Hoboken and walked into madness. It was the same night the city had their St. Patrick’s Day pub crawl (though it was a week or two before St. Patrick’s Day). I called him outside the station.
“What is going on?” I said. There were drunk revelers all around me, I was virtually screaming into the receiver.
“I am so, so, sorry,” Professor Lovelace said, “I didn’t know this was tonight.”
“Where are you?” I asked.
“I’m around the corner in my car,” he said.
“Car!?” I said.
“Yes, I drove here…you sound shocked,” he said.
“I just never thought we’d be in a car,” I said. I looked up and there he was, crossing through the crowd. He was wearing a “professor” outfit, a sweater, nice khaki pants with dress shoes and a perfectly tailored coat.
“Let’s go to Jersey City and get out of this,” he said.
We started driving. Being in a car made me feel like I was losing control – in a good way. Riding in cars with men was a big no-no on my mother’s list. Deep inside, this felt like a risk but we passed several streets with views of the Manhattan skyline, I realized the reward.
We got down to Jersey City and Lovelace devised Plan B, drinks at Barcade (a bar and an arcade).
“I wanted to do something as far off from the MET Museum as possible, because I’m not that guy,” he said.
“I can do casual -- nothing wrong with casual,” I said. We played Mortal Combat and Pac-Man (I told him about my mother having the highest score in her hometown for a year, her name in the machine and all). After losing bitterly we took a seat and talked. The root of my attraction was that he was always saying the right things, as if he were pulling the answers right out of my head . We looked at things with exactly the same angle. The only difference is that if I had a controversial opinion on something I never told a soul, and he let the idea right out of his mouth.
Lovelace told me about his alter-ego, a character named after his father.
“And what would your alter-ego be doing on a Saturday night?” I asked.
He laughed to himself. “I can’t say it.”
“Just say it,” I said.
“Doing champagne shooters balls in to Saturday night.”
I couldn’t stop laughing.
The Professor was also a writer and we discussed it heavily. We were both given awards by our universities, but yet to produce anything worth anything afterwards.
“A guy I used to date is supposedly getting published,” I said with an eye roll. “I hate that.”
“You know what to do: praise them publicly, scorn them privately,” he said. We shook our heads gravely in unison and took sips of our beer.
After leaving the bar we got ice cream and made our way back to the car. We got lost on our way among grid of houses and small residential streets. It was after midnight and it began to snow. Neither of us were ready to go home, so we kept talking inside the warmth of his car. I looked at my watch at 3 am.
“Can you believe we’ve been talking this long? I thought thirty minutes had passed,” I said. He nodded and we agreed it was time to go back.
“I’ll take the Path,” I said.
“I’m taking you home,” Lovelace said, “I already decided.” Mid-objection, a police car rolled up and turned on it siren.
My heart lept.
Professor rolled down the window and two female cops were sitting in a car.
“Do you live here?” one of them asked us. Professor said no.
“We just had dinner around the corner,” he said without hesitation.
“We got a couple ‘a calls about a car out here,” she said. “Can you move it along?” We nodded and he started up the engine.
“I’m freaking out, I’m freaking out!” I said over and over. Lovelace was strangely collected.
He reached across the car and took my hand and did not let it go the whole drive home. We kept talking. Every place we passed we told each other stories of memories we’d had there. At 5 am we landed on the Upper East side. I stood on my corner and waved him goodbye. That was the last time I saw him.
Beyond the essential things – a boy, a car, New Jersey – I don’t know what made that night so stellar compared to other dates I’ve had. But like any foolish girl, I spent the following week making dinner reservations and musing about future car rides with conversations that did not happen.