The DATING GAME
When it came to dating, my mantra used to be “Everything’s what you make it.” In my estimation, there was no need to have a bad date. My policy on dating was similar to my policy on movie going: you could always find something to enjoy for your nine-fifty, be it the production design, the score, or the guilty pleasure of watching a bunch of Spartans running around in kilts decapitating one another, in the case of 300. On a date, whether it resulted in a second one or not, you could always enjoy a nice dinner, a movie, stimulating conversation—something—if you had the right mindset. Like so many things, it was all about perspective and expectations.
So when I found myself sitting across a Naugahyde booth from the pretty mess I would later call ‘the Axe Murderer,’ I had an okay time. If nothing else, I had something pleasant to look at. Never mind that something could not put a lid on his record even for one evening—couldn’t resist rattling off the string of dead people littering his past (prematurely dead, mind you…) and the various friends and family members in the witness protection program. Most people’s skeletons popped out of the closet uninvited, over time. His busted down the door and marched into the spotlight like drag queens at a gay pride parade. With most people, a red flag is understood to be the tip of the iceberg. If this guy couldn’t put on a good face for one evening, I, for one, did not care to see the iceberg.
I briefly considered changing my number after politely declining a second date. It had been an entertaining evening, like a car-wreck or an episode of America’s Most Wanted. But self-preservation compelled me to, well, run in the opposite direction, lest I wind up living in a cornfield in Iowa with a face transplant. Though our date may not have been a love connection, I continued to pride myself on my ability to have a good time, even while sitting across the table from Charles Manson.
A few months later I met him. The man who would singlehandedly force me to retire my mantra, who’d convert me and make me just like everyone else who dreads the dating game. His name was Elan Waine. Or I think that was his name; it had been Anglicized—spruced up to sound sexier. He was a Palestinian ‘hair designer’ working for Jose Eber, which we all know is the next most fabulous thing to being an A-list movie star. I met him at The Abbey, a West Hollywood coffee shop that had acquired a liquor license and become an overnight circuit party.
I’d excused myself from present company and headed out to the patio for a smoke, a pretext to escape the cattiness of my friend Mark’s entourage. I surveyed the patio, swiftly reminded why I shied away from such venues. A group of seeming twelve-year olds flitted in from the sidewalk, having migrated from the underground club across the street. Surely they were of drinking age, but to me drinking age was looking more prepubescent everyday. The leader of the pretentious pack was squeezed into an ensemble made head to toe of green plastic. He pushed through the crowd, imaginary cigarette holder raised high above his head, like an eccentric Ziploc mascot, or the lovechild of David Bowie and Gumbie. One person laughed, then another. With mob-mentality vehemence, the entire patio burst into peals of laughter.
The drag queen to my left blew out a hit of smoke and said to me without turning, “Honey, you just know she left the house tonight thinkin’ she was all that and a bag o’ chips. Tisk…tisk…”
She was shaking her head in shame.
I breathed a small sigh of relief when she extinguished her cigarette beneath a spiked heel and exited the patio. My relationship with drag queens is complicated at best. Simply put, it involves fear. Still, I almost missed this one the moment she was gone. Mainly because I was then left to the overstimulation I often experience when out in Boystown. The patio was like a Mr. Universe contest, each physique more Adonis-like than the last. Sure, it’s fun to look at, but ultimately frustrating. If I want to be over-stimulated I’ll snort crank in the bathroom. It’s been said that West Hollywood is a city of sevens looking for tens. And I’ve found it to be true; after hours of looking and posing, posing and looking, no one ever acts on their impulses. Until last call that is, when the diehards choose a Latino bar hand or wander off to the local bathhouse for some anonymous gratification.
So it was refreshing and unexpected when I found my eyes locked in an intense gaze with a handsome stranger. He was planted directly across the patio from where I stood, leaning against a banister not unlike mine, cigarette smoke curling from his lips. One knee was raised, foot propped against the wall. Leather pants, black motorcycle boots, shirt torn open to the navel. Chin lowered to chest, brooding eyes beneath heavy brows—eyes that said ‘you are mine now—I dare you to extricate yourself from the tractor beam of my hypnotic gaze...’ He’d clearly stepped from the pages of an ethnic Danielle Steele novel—the middle-eastern Fabio. His moves came from a Don Juan manual—the slow, calculated dropping of the cigarette butt—never once shifting his gaze from mine, the slow, sensual grinding of heel on flagstone.
The man planted himself before me, looked me up and down, allowing his eyes to wander ever so slowly for my benefit.
“I think I like the eyes the best,” he said. “Do you want to know why?”
I had a feeling he was going to tell me even if I objected.
“Because they’re on me.”
I tried not to look as perplexed as I was, not so much by the arrogance of the statement as the lack of poetry. Slightly disarming was the way he objectified my sense organs—the eyes… I chalked it up to a language barrier, and smiled.
“Do they like what they see?” He then asked.
Things weren’t getting any better. The problem is, I did like what the eyes saw. The leather pants were formfitting, and his form was well worth fitting. I hadn’t been out in a while. A long while. And did I mention he was middle-eastern? Though I didn’t really have a type, Middle Eastern was it. Unfortunately the deal was effectively sealed. Somehow, in seconds, I knew this was his power in the world—the joy of watching others lower their standards. But it was just the beginning.
“Not bad,” I said as coolly as possible, blowing a hit nonchalantly into the air. He was not fooled by my aloofness.
“So why out here all alone?” He wanted to know. Everything his raspy voice uttered sounded like an invitation to jump in the sac. I imagined bringing him home for Thanksgiving and being asked to leave after an inappropriate delivery of “pass the salt.”
“Such shame,” he continued, “Good-looking guy like yourself all alone in place like this…”
“I came with friends,” I said, nodding toward the back bar. “Just came out for a smoke.” I could have tried to explain my need to duck out and escape Mark’s entourage, but thought better of it. Still, my look said there was a story there.
“Ah,” he rasped, with a smolder that was meant to say, ‘I know you better than you know yourself…’ He looked me up and down again, this time from a closer range so his eyes wandered from hairline to collarbone. I knew what came next—some keen insight meant to reveal his astute and perceptive nature, his X-ray vision.
“You’re a thinker,” he crooned. “You’re much too deep for them.”
I stifled a laugh. “Very intuitive.”
“I am very intuitive,” he confirmed. “I’m also very spiritual. So…are you a top or a bottom?”
Yet again, I was speechless. “I don’t like labels,” I said at last.
“I knew that,” he said, “Because I am intuitive.”
“Psychic, one might say.”
“Yes. And anyway, we can work out details later. So… you came with friends?”
“Did you drive separately or together?”
I knew where he was headed. “I have my own car.”
“Perfect,” he smiled. Then his expression became insistent, as if casting a spell. “Say goodbye to your friends and follow me. I live around the corner.”
Here he laid a kiss on me. Then he touched a finger to my lower lip. I tried to participate, to somehow make the exchange sexy. But he was already backing up slowly, brooding eyes riveted under those heavy brows, pointing at me.
I knew instantly no matter what he said during our relationship, whether it turned out to last five minutes or five years, my reaction would be that of shock. Not because what he said or did was shocking—the exact opposite. It would be a guaranteed cliché. The shock lay in the fact that despite his psychic nature, he could not smell a mile away that I was smarter than all this and choosing to put up with it for the sex. But then a small part of me would wonder if he knew something about the human sexual psyche that I did not—something he’d read in that manual. Because five minutes later I was following him down La Cienega Boulevard toward his apartment.
It was tiny and over-decorated, like the bachelor pad of a sultan who’d been disowned and fled to L.A. To say simply that it was overstuffed with kitsch would be an injustice to the tiger skin rug (head still attached) that was the centerpiece, to the various exotic game mounted on the walls. For a moment, I was unsure if I was turning a trick, or had mistakenly wandered into a taxidermist’s office.
He took my hand, leading me toward a leather chair in the corner. I stepped over the tiger’s head, careful not to snag an incisor.
“You would like some water,” He both asked and informed me. “Allow me.” His every action said, “I will serve your every need. But I will also be very controlling.”
When he disappeared into the kitchen I was given time to take in my surroundings, and this was not a good thing. I trained my eyes on the magazine on the end table before me—Cosmetology Today. But I could feel their prying eyes—the desperate, dewy, terror-filled eyes of every phylum known to Darwin, and then some. I was in a lost episode of The Twilight Zone or The Most Dangerous Game.
Keep your eyes on the magazine, I thought. I had to remain focused, keep my wits about me. If I looked around I might judge. Spiritually it seemed like a bad idea. But more importantly, it was all a potential turnoff. I can work with this, I told myself. Embrace the cheese factor.
It was then that I heard it.
The frenzied scuffle of canine toenails on whitewashed hardwood. The manic ankle-biter rounded the corner from the bedroom, banked off the living room wall and in seconds was staring up at me, slobbering on my shoe. A million thoughts occurred to me in a single moment. Firstly the fact that the poodle was neatly groomed in a way that suited it to accessorize the handbag of a Parisian socialite—what did this say about its master? My eyes went to the magazine—Cosmetology Today—the Sultan was a hairdresser. Suddenly it all made sense. The incongruity of it all. The mounted heads were a gross, masculine overcompensation for the stigma of his profession. He was a hairdresser but also a hunter. The fact that the poodle had become his own personal experiment—his canvas—that he’d subjected it to such humiliation because he could, was just sinister. I imagined for a moment I saw terror in the poodle’s eyes, in the slobbering, jittery expression. It looked to the terror-filled eyes of the water buffalo suspended above, then back to me.
“Help me,” it panted.
Just then, the Sultan returned. He presented my glass of ice water with a look of scrutiny, as if sensing that in the few minutes he’d been out of the room I’d found him out. To cover up, I pounced and kissed him on a dead tiger. It wasn’t just the need to create a diversion that compelled me to initiate foreplay in the company of taxidermy; I just didn’t want to hear him speak any more for the moment. We stumbled into the bedroom. The make-out session that followed was worthy of the Danielle Steele novel we were living, but I was distracted. After a moment, I stood.
“Can I do one thing?” I asked. The poodle was watching us from the doorway. Without waiting for an answer, I got up. Despair return to its weepy eyes as I shut the prying fur ball out. I’d been its only hope of escape. And now I too was in the Master’s clutches. The staccato toenails wandered off, clicking with disappointment.
Some time later the Sultan and I were smoking in bed, spent. In the tradition of putting formalities after the deed, we exchanged names. Then we moved on to other vitals: backgrounds, ethnic and otherwise. Occupations. Turns out he’d studied cosmetology in Israel.
“Oh, really? So you’re a hairdresser?” I did my best to sound as if this was new information.
“Hair designer,” he corrected me. “For Jose¢ Eber.” This was enunciated with great importance, as if it elevated the first part of the sentence. I raised my eyebrows, but my well-crafted expression was wasted in the dim light. It may have been that the pressure of the chase was off, but he proved less of a caricature there in the dark. I’m not saying there wasn’t a jeweled turban stashed in a hall closet, but the Sultan seemed more dimensional. More human.
This glimpse of the man beneath the turban may be why after a few more rolls in the hay we decided to make it legal and go on a real date. I suppose part of me felt for the fallen prince, banished from his kingdom and cut off from the infinite riches of his inheritance, exiled to a tiny West Hollywood apartment stuffed with taxidermy. That first night I’d stood in his bathroom drying my hands on an embroidered towel. My attention was drawn to the wall-sized portrait I’d noticed peripherally but dismissed as a print from a travel brochure. I now saw that it was a portrait of the Sultan himself, nude on an Israeli beach. He stood back to the camera, stance wide and glutes clenched, looking out across the turquoise water of the Dead Sea. Though I found it curious one would hang a life-sized portrait of himself and nude to boot, there was something lonely about it that tugged at me.
Our first date took place at a restaurant of his choosing—the French Marketplace. I knew it well—charming and relatively harmless, situated in an open space surrounded by tiny shops modeled after New Orleans’ French Quarter. We were seated in the main section, overlooked by a balcony of French provincial facades.
The Sultan made it clear within seconds that he knew the owner. I took the opportunity to reprise my “impressed” expression, this time under decent lighting conditions. Still, I wasn’t sure if it was I who was being shown off or the company he kept. The waiter informed us the owner was not in, and the Sultan looked disappointed. But knowing there was a VIP in the house was enough to put the waiter on his best behavior. His posture improved, and “dude,” became “sir.” He was twenty-one at best, probably attending junior college in the area. He was handsome enough, fresh faced and well scrubbed. There was a nice sheen to his complexion, likely enhanced by performance anxiety.
The date started out uneventfully enough. Divulging more about himself was no longer a liability for the Sultan. But things quickly became touch-and-go, and I learned this is why people dislike dating—every utterance, every gesture, look or mannerism is a potential deal-breaker. I cannot count the times I divorced him and took him back mentally during the course of our dinner. The question became, “How many second chances can a person give in his head?”
We’d driven together in his jeep, and I got the feeling he rarely had passengers, or at least any with a lunch to lose. When I stumbled from the vehicle, blue in the face, I didn’t think to grab my jacket. There was an insistence in the Sultan’s grip as he clutched my neck while walking from car to restaurant. What was next, a pat on the ass?
At dinner he turned to me, caressed my check gently and assured me “of all of them, you are my favorite.”
Great. I was the first wife in the harem. I couldn’t help noting his strategy: using jealousy to keep each member of his harem in a constant state of insecurity. I could picture the handbook, began to imagine its title: From Arrogance to Zodiac: A Sultans’ Guide to Training Your Bitches.
His tactics were not reserved for me, but extended to the young waiter accomplishing his every whim. He had the poor kid bending over backward, and found pleasure in it. And yet I knew it was all for my benefit. When the mixed vegetables were not to the Sultan’s liking, they were sent back, to be replaced by a different assortment. Then they were too soft, but this could be overlooked.
And to every command, a blush and a “Yes, sir.”
When dessert arrived, the boy waited while the Sultan stared at his plate with distaste. The zucchini bread that normally came as dessert with his entrée had been replaced by a muffin instead.
“But what you don’t understand,” my date proceeded to condescend, “is that the zucchini bread is precisely why I come here. The owner knows that.”
The boy’s face flushed for the hundredth time. “I’m terribly sorry, sir. If it’s any consolation, the batter is the same. We simply ran out of zucchini bread. This is a zucchini muffin.”
“Aha,” the Sultan exclaimed, cogs turning. “Then you know what you are going to do for me? You are going to take the muffin to the kitchen and slice it in pieces. Then it will be zucchini bread.”
If I’d had a shell to crawl into at that moment, I would have chosen still to slit my wrists.
When dessert returned, it was accompanied by the hot beverages we’d ordered. The waiter’s hands trembled as he placed them before us and turned to leave. But before he could make his escape, the Sultan snapped his fingers. The boy grimaced, turned back with a nervous smile.
The Sultan was suddenly syrupy sweet, as though extending benevolence before ordering an execution.
“It’s terrible of me—just terrible—but my friend here is drinking cappuccino. I, on the other hand, have made the mistake of ordering regular coffee. Now, looking at my friend’s beverage, I have had a change of heart. I, too, would like a cappuccino like my friend.”
The cappuccino appeared a moment later, along with the check, and it was then that the Sultan placed a firm hand on the waiter’s arm.
“You must hate me—truly hate me, after all I’ve put you through.”
Incredibly the kid blushed, flashed a look in my direction, and replied, “On the contrary.”
The Sultan smiled, activating the tractor beams. “Surely there is something I can do to make up for it …”
Not even a look in my direction this time; I was invisible. “I can think of a few things…”
A wad of cash had been thrown on the table; theoretically I could ditch at any moment. I stood and headed for the door. The Sultan made sure I caught him exchanging numbers with the masochistic boy, smiled as he took his time folding the napkin on which the boy’s number was scrawled. Only when I glanced back did he place it in his wallet.
At the door I remembered that we’d ridden in his jeep. I slowed as my date from hell strolled leisurely to my side, smiling as if to say: “you see how easy it is? A little abuse and they’re hooked…” I rolled my eyes and proceeded to the sidewalk. The Sultan caught up with me.
“What is it? Does it bother you that the boy insisted I take his number?”
“Do you want it to bother me?” I was too old for this shit.
“Well, something is bothering you.”
What’s bothering me is that you WANT it to bother me. That you’re even asking. What bothers me is that you REALLY think this is how the world works, that this is what a boy wants, what it takes to snag one and keep him around. On some very base level, this may be true, but until you unravel the web of pain and cultural fucked-upness that is your twisted psyche, you’ll never know true intimacy—you’ll forever be limited to relationships that operate on that one primitive level. What bothers me is that you’ll never know anything different and that you’re too stupid to realize others do—that they’re more evolved. What bothers me is that even with your psychic ability you can’t see that I see right through you and still I’ve chosen to be here—what bothers me is that I’m even standing here having this fucking conversation…
Of course I didn’t say any of this. What came out instead was the Reader’s Digest version: “If you don’t know then there’s no point in telling you. Because you’re hopeless.”
I turned with finality. I’d leave him standing there on the sidewalk, like in a movie or a Danielle Steele novel. I’d disappear down the sidewalk leaving him in a swirling tempest of his own regret—opportunities missed and choices made, wondering if he had bypassed his one chance at true love.
“Your jacket is in my car,” he said flatly.
Shit. That’s a three hundred dollar leather jacket.
We rode the seven minutes back to his apartment in complete silence, save the grinding of gears and the squeal of tire rubber on asphalt. There was no long, tearful goodbye when I got to my car, which was parked in front of his apartment. No Hollywood ending. Joan Collins would have written, “…and so the Sultan was left to live out the rest of his days seducing strangers in smoke filled bars, serving their every need while controlling their every move.”
As I unlocked my car door, I glanced up at the tiny kingdom that was his apartment. Warm light poured out into the night from an overdressed window. And there, in the lower left corner, was the shivering silhouette of a tiny poodle. I could see, even in shadow at several hundred yards, that its eyes were dewy moist, pupils dilated to garner sympathy.
“I’m sorry,” I said solemnly. “I’m sorry I couldn’t save you. Godspeed…”