Last First Date
by Pam Asberry
Sometimes you have to give up on love before it can find you.
It was the worst date of my entire life.
The tires of his pearly white Lexus convertible squeal as he backs out of my suburban Atlanta driveway and speeds away down the street. I want to scrub that new-car smell off my skin and out of my hair. Yes, I need a shower.
I shut the door and step out of the metallic silver high-heeled sandals I splurged on, just for tonight. Stupid, stupid. Buying silly shoes I don’t need and couldn’t afford to impress an oversexed jerk I’m never going to see again. I turn the lock and trudge up the stairs to my bedroom.
I pull the black silk knit dress off my shoulders and let it shimmy to the floor. I reach behind my back, unfasten my Victoria’s Secret push-up bra, swing it over my head, let it go and watch it fly across the room. My date would have enjoyed seeing that, I am guessing. Finally, I peel off my Spanx—I don’t care what they say, it’s not much of an improvement over the girdles of my grandmother’s generation—and toss it ceremoniously into the wastebasket next to my desk. I am done with trying to be things I am not. Young. Flat-bellied. Busty.
Normally, I wouldn’t let a guy come to my house and pick me up for a first date. But this wasn’t exactly a stranger. He was a friend of a friend—well, a friend of a friend’s husband—and he came very highly recommended. And he sounded so nice on the phone. So when he invited me out to dinner and told me he would pick me up at seven, it seemed perfectly safe. Goes to show that things aren’t always what they seem.
I step into the bathroom, turn on the water, and wait for it to warm. Rocking back and forth, heel to toe, I review the evening. Where did I go wrong? Dinner was lovely. So was dancing afterwards. I thought we might really be onto something. But then there was the scene in the driveway, starting with what I thought was just a sweet goodnight kiss. The next thing I knew, his hands were all over me and thank God my next-door neighbor suddenly flipped on her porch light and stepped outside with her dog. I was out of that car before my date could blink twice. Hot tears sting my eyes as I remember the names he flung at me as I ran up the front porch steps.
I refuse to give in to them. He simply isn’t worth it. Instead, I step into the stall and let the warm water splash over my face. I squeeze a generous dollop of honeysuckle-scented body wash onto my pink scrubba-doo and focus on how soft it feels and how good it smells. I shampoo and condition my hair—for the second time that night—then stand under the showerhead until my skin is soggy and wrinkled and the hot water begins to run out.
A brisk towel-dry later, I am dressed in an oversized gray T-shirt left behind by my ex-fiance, the baggy pink sweatpants I bought at a scrap booking retreat last fall, and my fuzzy purple and white striped socks. I pad over to my bed, climb in and pull the sheet and quilt over my lap, and grab my computer.
A few keystrokes and I am onto the dating site. I click “Edit Profile” and “Delete My Account.”
Are you sure you want to delete your profile?
“Quite sure,” I say out loud to the popup on the screen.
But it isn’t easy as I thought it would be. I have been divorced ten years now—ten years!—and it has taken me all this time to get my page just the way I want it to be, as true and honest a representation of myself as words and pictures on a page can be. Not that I have been just dating for ten solid years. There have been a handful of serious relationships. I was even engaged for a few months. The point is I poured myself into every word of every sentence in my biography, every single photograph (face and full body, of course), every “personality match question” I answered—all nine hundred and sixty-seven of them. Won’t destroying this profile be like throwing a fine painting into the fireplace?
Ha, I laugh. This isn’t art. And it isn’t me. What do I really have to show for all this time I have invested in seeking Mr. Right? A string of disappointments, a battered heart, and now a physical assault.
With a flourish, I click the word YES. The immediate sense of relief I experience tells me I gave the right answer.
I just went on my very last first date.
Three weeks later, I am walking up the gangplank onto the ship that will be my home for the next seven days. A cruise to French Polynesia has been on my bucket list for as long as I can remember, and this seems like the perfect time to go. Granted, it took every penny in my savings account (and then some) to book this trip, and my boss at the discount store threw a fit when I asked for a week off. I don’t care. It’s only money. I will earn some more. Or maybe I will just stay in Tahiti and never come home.
After I complete the boarding process, glass of champagne in hand, a beautiful native women presents me with a single white flower, a tiare, she calls it, explaining that it is a type of gardenia, the national flower of the islands. I follow her to my stateroom, the flower to my nose the whole way, intoxicated by the scent. The woman’s shiny black waist-length hair swishes to and fro across the back of her ankle-length pink and brown floral cotton dress as she walks. She uses my key card to open the door and beckons me inside.
The spacious stateroom, with its fluffy bed and all the amenities, looks just like the one in the travel brochure. Truth in advertising. A bouquet of fresh flowers adorns the night stand. A bowl of tropical fruit rests on the writing table. The glass door to the balcony frames the village of Papeete, the capital city of Tahiti, where the ship is docked. “Lunch will be served until four o’clock,” my guide says as she hands me my key and prepares to leave. “Enjoy your cruise.”
Miraculously, my luggage has already arrived. I dig around until I find my swimsuit and cover-up and put them on. Pinching the lumps on my thighs as I look in the mirror, I decide to skip the meal and head straight to the pool.
A live band is playing. A uniformed waiter appears the moment I am settled in my chair and offers me a drink. I order a glass of white wine, pull one of the paperback novels I bought just for this trip out of my tote bag, and open it to the first chapter.
A shadow creeps up behind me. I glance up to find an elderly woman peering at the lounge chair next to mine. Her face is thin and kind. A floppy straw hat sits on top of her head. “Is this seat taken?” she asks, pointing.
“It is now,” I say with a smile, quickly returning my attention to my book, hoping to discourage her from pursuing a conversation with me.
“Chardonnay, ma’am.” The waiter is back with my ice-cold beverage. “Can I bring you anything?” he asks my companion.
“I’ll have what she’s having,” she replies.
“Yes, ma’am.” He bows and walks away.
“It makes sense that we would have the same taste in refreshments,” she says, pulling something out of her beach bag.
I look over to see her holding up a current New York Times bestseller , the same novel I am already engrossed in.
“What a coincidence,” I say. Except I don’t believe in coincidences. Clearly, I am meant to have a conversation with this woman. I lay my book face down across my lap. “My name is Ronnie.” I offer her my hand.
“Glad to meet you, Ronnie,” she says, squeezing my fingertips gently. “I’m Eliza.”
“Beautiful name,” I say. “What brings you to Tahiti?”
“This cruise is a birthday present from my son,” she replies.
“Nice,” I say. I can’t remember the last time my son gave me a birthday present. Of course, he is a struggling college student and can barely afford to keep gas in his car. But still.
“I think he feels sorry for me,” she continues. “I’ve had quite a year.”
“Oh?” I am curious, but I don’t want to pry.
“His dad left me last fourth of July,” she says cheerfully. “For a man.”
I don’t know what to say.
“And two weeks later I was diagnosed with breast cancer. But now the husband is gone, ‘the girls’ are gone and I am cancer-free. I have never been happier.”
I look over at her, stretched out on her chaise lounge with her paperback book in her hand. Now I understand why her dyed red hair is so short and why her legs and arms don’t have an ounce of fat on them. But she is positively glowing.
The waiter returns with her drink. We sip our wine and talk and talk. She tells me more about her son, a widowed attorney who lives in Charleston. I tell her about my very last first date. She listens well. At seventy-two, she is twenty years my senior but it doesn’t seem to matter. She is suddenly the big sister I never had.
The blaring of a horn and a voice over the loudspeaker announcing the lifeboat drill interrupts our conversation.
“Mercy me,” Eliza says. “I guess we’d better follow the captain’s orders so we don’t end up walking the plank.”
“Good point.” I laugh. “I don’t even know how to swim.”
“Neither do I.” Eliza tosses her book into her bag. “Maybe I’ll see you at dinner?”
I am having the time of my life. Yesterday I went on shore for the excursion tour of the beautiful island of Raiatea. I explored the nooks and crannies of the Faaroa River by boat and visited some of the more remote sections of the island by jeep. This morning I toured a black pearl farm in Taha’a. Afterwards, I gorged myself at the Polynesian barbecue on the ship’s private motu and spent the afternoon sleeping it off on one of the most beautiful beaches I have ever seen. It is against the law to remove coral or seashells from the beach, but I couldn’t resist slipping one tiny sun bleached mollusk into the pocket of my beach cover-up. The shell is tucked inside my evening bag now. Now and forever, it is my good luck charm.
Last night I dined on escargots and vichyssoise and lobster and watched the natives singing and dancing in the lounge afterwards. I considered going to the disco—I do love dancing—but there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of single men on this ship and the last thing I want to experience is rejection. I am sleeping like a baby, drinking mimosas for breakfast every morning, enjoying tea and live music before dinner every evening.
Men? Who needs ‘em? I ask myself, as I sit at the piano bar waiting for the dining room to open, listening to an arrangement of my favorite song the ship pianist, Adolfo, created upon my request. I am a little tipsy after too much sun at the beach and the two glasses of wine I have drunk on an empty stomach. I flash a grateful smile at Adolfo and flirt shamelessly with Carlos, the bartender. They are crew and I am a passenger so nothing will come of it. I am sure I am not the first middle-aged woman to behave this way.
“I would like a gin and tonic and a Cosmopolitan.”
I twist my head in the direction of the deep, radio deejay voice and discover a man standing next to me. He appears to be about my age, give or take a year or two, at least six foot two, tanned, silver hair, blue eyes, navy suit, red tie. I guess that the gin and tonic is for him but I know that a Cosmopolitan is a woman’s drink.
“Do you need another glass of wine, Miss Ronnie?” Carlos asks before he begins working on Mr. Sexy’s drink order.
The man looks down at me as if he is surprised to find someone sitting there. That’s okay. I never have been the kind of woman a man would pick out of a crowd.“Not just yet,” I say, sipping slowly.
Carlos nods and walks away.
I decide it won’t hurt anything to be friendly. “Having a good cruise?” I ask.
“Yes, very.” His blue eyes light up and his face relaxes into a dazzling smile. “What did you do today?”
“Pearl farm. Private motu. You?”
“Scuba diving.” He picks up the drinks Carlos has just placed on the bar and raises his gin and tonic into the air to me as he steps away from the bar. “Cheers. Enjoy your dinner.”
Glimpsing the wedding ring on his left hand, I polish off the rest of my chardonnay and hold my empty glass up until it catches Carlos’ attention. “One more, please.”
I reach inside my bag and rub the tiny shell between my fingers.
The following morning, as I walk from my cabin to the ferry that will take me to a private beach on the island of Bora Bora, I am struck by a sudden sadness. My cruise is half over, and while it has been the trip of a lifetime, I already dread going back home to my empty house, my dead-end job, and my financial situation, which is more precarious than ever since I emptied my savings account. Stop it, I tell myself. Don’t ruin today worrying about tomorrow. As I stand in line to get off the ship, I remind myself to breathe.
“Ronnie?” a familiar voice beckons.
I turn around and almost bump into Eliza. Today she is wearing a flowing leopard print cover-up with matching flip-flops and a pair of large designer sunglasses. She looks like she just stepped off the pages of a Neiman Marcus ad. I am grateful to see a familiar face.
“I wondered where you had disappeared to.” It is a small ship. I am surprised I haven’t run into her again before now.
“Likewise,” she says. “I guess we just haven’t been going to the same places.”
“Where are you headed this morning?”
“I booked the shore excursion to the beach at the resort.”
“Me too.” I grin. “Did you bring your book?”
Just like our afternoon poolside, this idyllic day passes quickly. Eliza and I bake in the sun, wade out into the crystal clear ocean to cool off. Then we toss on our cover-ups and mosey on over to the beachside restaurantwith its panoramic view of the picture postcard perfect beach just a few footsteps from our table. We order a bottle of wine to accompany our gourmet lunch of lagoon fish topped with coconut vanilla sauce, pureed vegetables, and rice fritters, laughing at the tiny pigeons poking about the empty tables nearby.
I want this day to last forever.
I am about to dig into my dessert, a pudding-like concoction loaded with fresh raspberries, when Eliza gives me a look. I put down my spoon and wait.
“I have been thinking about what you said the other day,” she begins.
“Oh?” I rack my brain to remember what on earth I said that might have been worth remembering.
“About your last first date.”
“What about it?” Dreading the lecture that is sure to follow, you are much too young to give up on love so easily, I swipe my finger through the whipped cream on top of my dish and pop it into my mouth.
“I think you are on the right track.” She balls her hands into fists and punches them in the air simultaneously, emphasizing certain words as she speaks. “I believe that there is someone special out there for each one of us. For forty years, I thought I was married to my soul mate. It turns out I was living a lie.” She slams the table as she says this last word, causing our dishes to rattle and the bird pecking at crumbs underneath our table to take flight. “But I believe the love of my life is still out there. And it doesn’t matter what I do or don’t do. We will find each other, regardless.” She smiles and pours herself another glass of wine.
“Wow.” I dig down under the whipped cream and take a large bite of my dessert, closing my eyes as I savor the sweet deliciousness and consider how to answer her. “If that’s true, then I really have wasted the last ten years of my life.”
“Nonsense.” She appears to be looking at me, but she is really looking past me. “Have you ever thought about what you really want from a man? Believed you deserved it? And then come out and asked for it?”
No, no, and no. “I guess I’ve always just tried to make the best of what’s around.”
“Exactly. And that’s how Bobby’s dad and I ended up married for forty years.” She pours cream into her coffee and stirs it slowly. “And even though it hurt me deeply, I understand now that it took a lot of courage for him to admit that he had made a mistake and choose to be with the person who makes him truly happy. Now I am ready to do the same. And I think you are, too.”
I scrape the bottom of my dessert glass with my spoon, wishing my tongue would reach all the way down to the bottom so I could lick it clean. “I am. I am,” I say, more than a little bit excited about the possibilities. “But I don’t have a clue how to get started.”
“Make a list,” she says. “A hundred things. Believe you deserve to have every single one of them. And trust that the man with those very qualities is out there.” Her eyes sparkle with mischief. “With a list of his own. Of your top one hundred qualities.”
As I lay on my beach chair that afternoon, alternately reading and dozing, I begin to compose a list in my head. Tall. Well, taller than I am, anyway. College educated. Appreciates music and art. Likes to hold hands. Great kisser. I wish I had a pen and some paper with me. I really want to write these things down before I forget them.
During the ferry ride back to the ship, Eliza closes her eyes and rubs her temples with the first two fingers of each hand.
“Are you okay?” I ask.
“I am afraid I might be coming down with a migraine.” Her eyes are closed. Her forehead is twisted with pain. “A lingering side effect of the chemotherapy, I’m afraid. But I’ll take a headache over dying any day.”
“Is there anything I can do?” I ask.
“I have medication in my cabin,” she says. “A cold washrag, a soft bed, a dark room, and I should be fine.”
The ferry reaches the side of the ship. “I hope you feel better soon,” I say as we rise and gather our belongings. “Maybe I’ll see you at dinner?”
But when six o’clock rolls around I am still full from lunch and decide to stay in my cabin and work on that list. I find my seashell and lay it on the table in front of me, hoping it will inspire me. Two hours and a hundred and one items later, I am satisfied. I rip the pages from my notebook, fold the pages into thirds, and kiss them. Then I tuck them under my pillow, like a little girl waiting for the tooth fairy to come. I fall asleep immediately.
The next day, following a bumpy bus tour of the island of Bora Bora, I am sitting in a lounge in the back of the ship. I am freshly showered, wearing a white sundress that might serve as a bridal gown in this tropical paradise. Metallic pewter sandals with a silver bow complete the ensemble. My long auburn hair likes the salt air and frames my face with soft curls. My skin is tanned and lightly freckled. I almost feel pretty.
I know I shouldn’t, but I am eating my second helping of fresh pineapple flambé over vanilla ice cream when someone taps my shoulder. I look up and there is Eliza. Her face is drawn and dark circles cloud her eyes. But she looks peaceful.
“Are you feeling better this afternoon?” I ask.
“Much. Better living through pharmaceuticals. Mind if I join you?”
I pull out the seat next to me and motion her into it. “Did you get off the ship today?”
“I’m afraid not. What did I miss?”
I describe some of the wonders of the island to her. She listens intently, nodding as I describe my favorite places.
“Ah,” she says when I am finished. “I will have to make up for lost time tomorrow. What are your plans?”
“I haven’t decided yet.” I don’t want to admit I can’t afford to pay for any more shore excursions. “I might just get off the ship and wander around on my own.”
“Be a traveler, not a tourist,” she quotes. “I am going to play golf myself.”
“Is that a hobby of yours?” I have never golfed in my life.
“You could say that.” She has the mischievous look of a small child about to grab a cookie out of the jar without permission. “Our house—my house now—is on a golf course in southern California. But I have heard the Green Pearl in Moorea is splendid.” She clasps her hands together and flashes a wicked smile. “I am looking forward to telling my ex all about it.”
“Good for you.”
She glances at her watch and pops up out of her chair. “I’m sorry, but I’ve got to go. I have a five o’clock appointment for a massage. It’s just what I need to work out the last of the kinks from the migraine.”
“Enjoy. I’m headed to the piano bar myself. I am going to ask Adolfo to marry me.”
“Go for it,” she smiles. “If you need a matron of honor, I’m available.”
Carlos sees me coming and has a glass of chardonnay waiting for me by the time I am situated on the barstool. “Are you having a good day, Miss Ronnie?”
“Oh, yes.” I pick up my wine glass and tip it in Carlos’ direction.
“Nice to see you again,” says a voice from the other end of the bar.
I look that way and see the tall man from the other night. He is wearing khaki shorts, a crisp white shirt, and a pair of leather flip-flops. His skin is darker and his eyes are bluer than I remember. I nod and take a deep drink of my chardonnay.
He gets out of his chair and sits down next to me. “I apologize if I was rude the other night.”
“Not at all.” I shrug my shoulders. “You had a drink to deliver.” I offer him my hand. “I’m Ronnie, by the way.”
“Ronnie?” He raises his eyebrows and looks away, as if he just now remembers something. “I’m Kieran.”
“It’s short for Veronica,” I say, inanely. “I was something of a tomboy when I was a kid. Ronnie suited me better. I guess it stuck.”
“Funny. I would have guessed you for a girly girl,” he finally says.
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” I say, a rush of warmth flaming my cheeks.
“Exactly as it was intended.” He reaches into the bowl on the counter, grabs a handful of peanuts and pops them into his mouth. “Where are you from, Ronnie?”
“Atlanta,” I say.
“Interesting. I have business in the big city next month. Maybe we could meet for a cocktail. Share cruise memories.”
And your wife wouldn’t have any problem with that? I wonder. “Big plans tomorrow?” I ask instead.
He shifts his weight and pauses with something like caution before he answers. “My mother is dragging me off to the golf course, I’m afraid.”
Suddenly, the light bulbs go off. “Is your mother’s name…”
He watches my face.
“You must be…”
“Eliza’s son.” He smiles. “My mother has done nothing but talk about you since the day we got on this ship. I’m glad to finally meet you.”
“She may have said a word or two about you,” I say, smoothing my skirt, trying to regain my composure as I recall Eliza saying her son was a widower. “She just didn’t mention that you were on board.”
“I’m afraid she is a bit of a matchmaker.” He ruffles his hair with his fingers. “I may have asked her to leave that part out.”
“I see.” I pick up my wine glass and napkin, trying to come up with a good reason to leave the bar. I can take a hint. I know when I am not wanted.
Besides, Adolfo has just sat down behind the piano. I am grateful when the music starts. At least now I have an excuse not to talk.
“But I can admit when I have made a mistake,” Kieran continues. “Sometimes it pays to listen to one’s mother.”
“I didn’t think I would live long enough to hear you say that, son.”
Kieran and I swivel in our bar stools.
Eliza has snuck up behind us, hands on her hips, a sly smile on her face. “Ronnie, I see you have met my son, Kieran.”
Carlos appears with a Cosmopolitan. He sets it down on the bar in front of Eliza.
“Another Scotch and soda, sir?” he asks, nodding at Kieran’s empty glass.
“No, thanks.” The corners of Kieran’s eyes crinkle around his beautiful blue eyes when he smiles. “I think I have everything I need.”
I have to remind myself to breathe.
“To new friends.” Eliza tips her glass in my direction.
“Here, here,” Kieran agrees.
“Would you mind if Ronnie joins us for dinner?” Kieran asks his mother.
“I can’t think of anything I would enjoy more.” Eliza leans over whispers her next sentence into my ear. “It won’t be like a date at all.”
I can admit it when I’ve made a mistake, too. And before I can even say yes, Adolfo starts playing “my” song.
Pam Asberry is an eclectic writer who also teaches piano and crafts homemade jewelry. Her personal motto: Going boldly in the direction of my dreams. Find out more about Pam on her blog.