Swaying the Mob
In November of 2013 I received a postcard in the mail. On one side was a photograph of the west, either Los Angeles or San Francisco, I don't remember now.
The message read: "Ariel, I wish you were here. I truly believe we have the potential to build a real love relationship."
I grew lightheaded as I ascended the stairs to my sixth floor apartment. "What timing!" I thought as I opened my front door and put the postcard in the trash.
Dating Leon was like stepping in to a play in-progress. The characters already poised, a swirling world of parties and new places, never seeing the same face twice.
Leon was not like this at the beginning of our first date. We met at a table at the Stone Rose Lounge, he was 6-foot-something, dressed in a suit and pointy shoes. He was in some post-work malaise, despite it being Friday. I even remember him putting his head lazily on his arm at the bar, like a surrender, when he spoke. I asked him questions, which he deflected until the liquor had done its job.
He worked in finance, and had the opportunity to relocate soon to Toronto. He lived in Midtown, he partied but didn't let on to it yet. He was from a small town in France. The only thing we had in common was that we both had other-worldly experiences at Versailles. He boated on the canal and found it idyllic. I biked along it's paths instead, and also found it beautiful.
In the second half of the date, he took me dancing to Red Rooster. With his accent, came out like "Red Roos-tah". Two friends from Africa met him there, also bankers.
"When Ariel dances she brings the fie-yahh!" Leon exclaimed outside of Red Rooster, as we all recounted the evening as if it just hadn't happened five minutes prior.
We shared a cab ride home that night, since we were only twenty blocks apart (this was in 2012, when I was living on the Upper East Side). He layed his drunken head on my shoulder.
"This is different than it is in France. Usually on a first date, you go out dancing and you kiss," he said. He sounded disappointed but I only laughed.
"Well," I scoffed.
We had another date midweek in between, and then we planned dinner that Friday and a party afterward. I showed up Friday evening to Gyu Kaku, a Japenese barbecue. I expected it would be just us. He was there with a co-worker.
Alain was blonde, short, talkative. His English was far better than Leon's. Every other word was a loud joke. He was leaving in a month to move to Hong Kong, and in the middle of a week-long going-away celebration.
"She speaks a little French," Leon warned him. "So we cannot say things we don't want others to hear in front of her."
His girlfriend Alice arrived, a 40-year-old Japanese woman, all done up in high heels and a dress with lots of lace and ribbons. Her shoulder-length black hair was in perfect ringlets. She walked in knocking over the crowds at the door, and without acknowledging me, immediately smacked Alain on the arm.
"I went to the wrong restaurant," she said with an accent. "I had to take two cabs." She crossed her arms comically, and pouted.
"I am always in trouble. How was I to know you'd go to the wrong one?" he exclaimed.
"I waited for you," she said. "I had to take a cab!"
Alain introduced her. I watched the banter between all three -- a slew of alcohol and work references that I didn't know at all. Leon and Alain worked on the same department and floor. They were adverse to the American co-workers and tried to introduce French traditions as much as possible at the office.
"Every week someone brings doughnuts to the morning meeting, but in France we do croissants. When it was my day, I brought croissants," Leon said. He crossed his arms over his chest, and nodded with a smile. "We do not have to do everything the American way."
"But then everyone complained," said Alain. He faked an English accent. "'Where are the doughnuts? Who brought this crap?'"
They were waging an invisible war. I wondered then, if I just seemed slovenly and American in their opinion.
The hostess interrupted and we got a table with a grill in the middle, and a bunch of vegetables and raw meat brought to us.
"Ladies do the cooking," said Leon.
"It is nice to see," Alice said looking at Leon and I. "He is always alone, it is nice to see him with someone."
"We have only been dating two weeks," I said sheepishly. Their confidence in a relationship that I hadn't believed in from the start was a little overwhelming.
"Relationships have to start somewhere," Alain said.
"Will you move to Toronto?" Alice asked. If I could blush, I would have. Leon shrugged.
"It's close," I said, aiming at diplomacy.
"Where was your last date?" asked Alain.
"I cooked her dinner," Leon said proudly.
"Not the pasta..." Alice started to whisper. She had a grave look on her face, as if this dish was the cock-blocker of date dishes. It was a dry bow-tie pasta with chicken and tomatoes.
"Yes, the pasta," Leon said. "The dish I made for you and Alain once."
"Was there sauce?" Alice asked. I attributed her tactlessness to her limited English, but later wondered if she actually was using that as an excuse to say what she pleased. I was immediately jealous that she had that freedom. I was always apologizing, tip-toeing, being passive.
"No sauce," Leon asked. "It is good without it."
"It needs sauce," Alice said.
We left dinner and walked drunkenly down Eighth Avenue to the party. The woman hosting was a French expat with the VIE program. Her sprawling apartment with a balcony overlooking Time Square was also given to her as part of the program. With the exception of Alice and me, everyone attending was either French or Russian or a banker.
We put our coats in her room and our drinks on the table. She encouraged us to try the expensive vodka and to see the view from the window. Alain and Alice went first, and Leon leaned in to me.
"She is twenty years older than him," he whispered. "She doesn't work. She is wealthy. From some small town in Japan sent here to 'improve her English.'" I looked at him, he was rolling his eyes. Alice was reprimanding Alain on the balcony.
"They are such a joke," he said.
I shook a few hands and did a little eavesdropping. The French idioms used by some made Leon sad. "I need to get back," he said. He'd been away from home for two years.
"All the slang everyone is using, I do not recognize it." It was like his French-ness was slipping out his hands. He feared going native.
"Americans know nothing about France," one of the guests said.
"I know lots about France," I interjected.
"You couldn't name five French towns," the guest said.
"I can. Paris. Nice. Strasbourg. Marseilles. Lyon." I said. Everyone applauded.
"How long have you been dating," the host asked Leon and I.
"Two weeks," we said.
"Dating in America is so slow," Leon whined.
"All I know is that the number three is important," said Alain.
"In France, it doesn't matter," said the host. "It could be the first date, or the second date." Everyone laughed. "I hope to see you again with Leon," she smiled.
We skipped the after party, but I heard it went on until the next day.
The next weekend was Halloween. Leon wanted to attend a pre-game at Alice and Alain's high-rise apartment. I had been wrestling with the idea of him for a week. He was nice, balanced, but didn't thrill me. I didn't want the absence of a spark to be the only reason not to continue dating him. I didn't believe in spark.
What really kept me going was the rallying of all his friends. It was textbook "too much too soon." I remembered all of their smiles when they saw me, "Finally he's dating someone!" they seemed to say as they shook my hand. I felt like some kind of savior. And they were entertaining. If I'd dumped him now, I'd be dumping the whole slew of them. Was I prepared for that kind of angry mob? Not yet.
Reluctantly, I told him I'd go. After, he was going with Alain and Alice on vacation to California for two weeks. His absence would give me time to think more.
"But I'm not wearing a costume," I texted. "I hate holidays."
We met at a wine shop, spoke French the entire time, and walked to Alice's apartment on east 86th Street. She answered the door dressed as a French maid.
"Pink champagne!" she exclaimed when she saw what we'd purchased. "Pink! Pink! Pink!" She Instagramed the bottle.
There was a guest, another Japanese girl who's job was as an official Kimono dresser for weddings. She was in a "Black Swan" costume. Alain came home from work and put on his "Hugh Hefner" costume, a smoking jacket decorated with Playboy logos. He was handsy with Alice -- for character purposes.
"I like this costume," he said. Alice only slapped him and reprimanded him.
"You made the shower curtain rod fall today!" she yelled, remembering.
"She was cursing in the bathroom in Japanese, that's how I know she was angry, so I fled the apartment," giggled Alain.
They all had plans to attend a party in Queens. I put my foot down, and suggested that Leon and I relocate to a nearby bar. I was too tired to go that far. Leon and I walked and I realized that we hadn't had but two dates alone. I suggested my favorite hidden bar on the UES.
We sat and I was about to relish in our solitude when two of his friends appeared.
"Leon!" they exclaimed.
"I called them to come over," he said. "They live around here."
"When you called us, we were naked," the guy laughed. "But I wanted to meet you, I had heard about you." His name was Paul and his girlfriend was Maddie. They were in a long distance relationship, Maddie took a train from college every weekend to see him. He was a high school teacher.
The questions from them came in a fury -- where I was from, what I did, what I was looking for in a partner, what I think of Manhattan, how good my French was, if I had a little dog and did yoga on the weekends since I lived in the East 60s, and did I consider moving to Toronto with Leon?
I answered every question and Paul and Maddie looked at each other and exchanged an approving nod.
We went to another bar for darts, and Maddie pulled me aside. "How is it going with Leon?" she asked. They were out of earshot ordering drinks.
"Good," I said. "It has only been two weeks." My mantra now, around his crowd.
"Oh right, right." She was much younger than I was, but offered romantic advice. "You will take it slow and see how it goes. Leon is very sweet and kind. He hasn't dated much that I know of. What do you think of him?"
The perils of diplomacy! It was exhausting in practice, always suppressing for the benefit of someone else. I wanted to blurt out to her: "Who are you pushy people with no sense of tact! Can't you stop crashing dates and let us date in peace!"
Instead I smiled and gritted my teeth. "It's only been two weeks."
That night my cab dropped me off and I hugged Leon goodbye and wished him well on his trip to California.
Before the postcard, I sent him a cowardly text message ending it when he touched down in New York saying that I didn't feel we were a good match.
"What is the REAL reason?" he wrote back. I knew that answering would lead to an all-out text messaging war.
A week later the postcard from him arrived declaring his love and how far he believed our relationship would go. I could even stomach reading it.
I was Facebook friends with the some of his friends, I waited for them to message me pleading, or to unfriend me, or to tell me how evil I was.
None came. Sometimes I get the rare Instagram like from the Kimono dresser. But that's all.