A few days back, I found myself driving down Route 36, from Red Bank into Eatontown. I was heading into Eatontown in order to meet with Danielle Kramer. In order to go on a date.
She told me she was an investment banker, working for Goldman Sachs. A few days after meeting Danielle at the Dublin House, I called her at the work number she gave me.
"Mr. Atwan's office," she answered.
"Excuse me?" I sputtered.
"Mr. Atwan's office," she repeated.
"Umm," I said, looking at a note card on which Danielle wrote her number. "Is there a Danielle Kramer there?"
"TPB?" The voice on the other end of the line sounded excited.
"Danielle?" I cringed.
"Oh, hey," she said, "I didn't think you'd call."
"No, of course I would," I reassured her.
"Well, how are you?" Danielle asked. As she did, my secretary came into my office with papers for me to sign. I held up one finger as a sign to wait a minute.
"Oh, fine, fine," I said, "Who is Mr. Atwan?"
"My boss. Why?"
"Oh," I said as I motioned for my secretary to sit down. She rested in one of the cushioned chairs I set out for clients and put her feet up on my desk. She was smirking. "Why did I think that you were an investment banker, then?"
Danielle laughed. "No, that's silly! I'm his assistant."
"Oh, his assistant," I said, aping her emphasis on the last word. I made an obscene gesture to my secretary to indicate that Danielle was jerking me around. My secretary snorted. I pointed to the papers she held and motioned to have her bring them to me.
"Well, assistant to the investment banker," I said, "What are you doing on Friday?"
"I'm going out to dinner with you," Danielle answered.
"Are you, now? Well I'll have to make sure I wear my good suit to work that day." And pack my lie detector, I thought. I was certain that Danielle told me that she was an investment banker.
My secretary took her feet off of my desk and brought the papers I needed to sign to me. I swiveled left and right in my desk chair, looking for a pen. My secretary handed me one, and I set down the documents.
"… and then we could go and enjoy the decorations and the lights and get cocoa."
"Indeed we could," I said, picking up on the tail end of what Danielle was saying, "so where would you like to go to dinner? Wait," I reconsidered, "You're not vegetarian, are you?"
"Well," Danielle said, "I am, but I eat fish."
She's a vegetarian. But she eats fish. I shook my head and dropped the issue. "Okay, then, well, I guess the steakhouse is out of the question. How about Windansea?" I suggested, naming an oceanfront restaurant that had seafood and beef. I didn't eat much seafood. I was allergic to shellfish, and had reactions, in the past, to lobster that were akin to the symptoms of certain tropical diseases.
"Well, that could be okay, you know," Danielle said, "It could be okay. But sushi could be orgasmic."
I raised my eyebrows. "Orgasmic, eh? Well that's always something to consider. However, I'm actually kind of allergic to seafood. I don't know if I could eat there."
"Oh, I'm sure I can find something for you to eat there."
I considered whether this was an implicitly dirty statement. "Oh, I don't know…." I said.
"No, I'm sure it will be fine. You can have dragon rolls," Danielle said.
Damn, I thought. No innuendo was meant. "Well, okay. I know there's a place in Red Bank - um, um, The Downtown - that serves sushi," I said. My secretary, well aware of my allergies - perhaps more cognizant of my habits than I - gave me a "what the hell are you doing" look.
"No," Danielle protested with a long whine, "let's go to Sawa."
Sawa was a new restaurant in Eatontown. It was known as a place where the customers sat under paper lanterns and the staff all wore kimonos or karate outfits. A goddamned theme restaurant. I wasn't going to belabor the argument any longer, though. I agreed to meet Danielle at 7:30 on Friday and ended the call.
"Fresh meat?" My secretary asked with a smirk.
"Me or her?" I said. I began to sign the documents. T.P. Squiggle. T. P. Squiggle. T.P. … I looked again at the letter I had begun to sign.
"What the hell is this?" I asked my secretary. I held up a letter I did not recall dictating.
"Oh that," my secretary said. "Benjamin gave me that for you to sign."
I looked at the letter my boss had written under my name. It was an acknowledgement to a client that I had originated that I did not intend to charge him the full fee. I shook my head and tore the letter into quarters. I stapled the quarters together and wrote "NOT A CHANCE" on the top quarter. I handed it back to my secretary. The client was too difficult a person to cut a break.
"I, my dear, am clearly the fresh meat around here. Please deliver that to Benjamin with my regards," I said.
I arrived on time at Sawa. A small Japanese woman in kabuki white face greeted me with a bow. I sighed. If this were a restaurant that served southern cuisine, it would have been "Sambo" costumes and a lawsuit by the ACLU.
I waited in the front atrium for a few minutes, watching women pad around on wooden sandals in the recessed dining area. After ten minutes, I walked over to the bar in the corner and ordered some sake.
I had finished half of the small carafe of the burning rice liquor when Danielle arrived. We made our way halfway to the dining room when I ran back to the bar and grabbed the carafe with the remains of the sake in it. I needed ammunition.
We sat down and ordered miso soup. After half an hour of waiting, I was debating lighting up a cigarette, but decided to be good.
"…Wasn't it funny, in the Dublin House," Danielle asked, "when I said that she puts the lotion in the basket, and you got it, and you knew that it was from The Silence of the Lambs."
Why is she reminding me of this? I was there. "I, um, yes. That was, indeed, funny," I said. "Silence of the Lambs is always funny. All that skinnin' and, um, well. Oh Christ, I'm going nowhere with this joke."
"Yes," she giggled, "it's funny. And remember how, um, last week, I thought you and Hugh were brothers? That was funny."
I looked at Danielle blankly. Hugh was thin; a runner, he had no bulk to him. I was built more like a boxer. Stout, to put it politely.
"So…" I said.
Danielle looked at me and shrugged her shoulders and smiled. I tried to think about how she would look in lingerie. I smiled back as innocently as possible.
"So, what are you getting?" I asked, looking down at the menu. It was in Japanese and English, with stock photos of sushi on, for some reason, a gingham pattern. Perhaps the photographer always took sushi with him or her on down home picnics.
"I'm getting two orders of Dragon Rolls - which you should get - and a side of edamame," Danielle told me.
I looked at the menu. Dragon rolls had lobster meat and peppers in it. I knew what that would do to me given my allergies. "Sounds tasty," I lied. I continued looking at the menu until I realized that I had no idea what to get. Everything seemed to have potential landmines in it. Shrimp, lobster, crab, and prawns - which I thought were shrimp - dotted the menu. I couldn't even find a vegetarian section. Oh Christ, I thought, I am going to be paying for this in so many ways. I smiled at Danielle. No, I thought, we couldn't go to someplace with something besides food that was, effectively, poisonous to me.
"What are you getting?" Danielle asked.
A protein bar that I hid in my suit jacket, I thought. "I'm not sure yet. Let's see what the specials are." A fucking steak, I hope.
The waitress hobbled to our table. Like the hostess, she was in kabuki white face, kimono, and wooden sandals. I ordered one of the specials, something involving tuna, mango, kiwi, and sesame seeds. The waitress said it was a "specialty of the house" when she suggested it to me.
Danielle and I chatted. It was like fencing. I probed. I explored openings. I parried away discussions I did not want to address. "So do you ever want to get married?" "How much money do you make?" "Are you ever going to get a fancy car, you know, like on L.A. Law?" "Is being a lawyer like it is on television?"
"Yes. Yes it is," I said, answering her last question.
The food arrived. Danielle dug in. I reconsidered my meal. It was a garish car crash, a "you got your fishmonger in my fruit stand; no, you got your fruit stand in my fishmonger" moment. God hates a coward, I thought, and tried a piece.
Tropical fruit, I learned, does not go well with raw tuna. And - dear God no! - there isn't just tuna in here! Some other aquatic life form - not tuna, I could tell - was buried underneath the mango and kiwi fruit. I hoped that it was not a crustacean of sorts, and trudged on with the meal.
The waitress came by again just before I finished my third piece of sushi. I tried to coach myself: only five more to go. I had finished the sake by then, so I ordered a Japanese beer.
"And you like the special?" The waitress asked.
"Yes," I lied. "It's very… well, it's very… yes. I like it."
"Good," the waitress said, "we have been wondering if people would like that. New on the menu."
I looked at her, a piece of sushi hanging in the air between chopsticks. "I thought you said it was a specialty," I said.
"Oh yes sir. It's very special. Go on," the waitress indicated, pointing toward the sushi I held captive in the air.
I put the sushi in my mouth and chewed, desperate to make the piece ready for swallowing as quickly as possible. I gagged for a second, my chest muscles pulling down and then jerking up suddenly, recovered, and then swallowed.
The waitress nodded, waiting for me to complement the food. "Lovely," I said with a hoarse voice, "Please bring me that beer."
I looked at Danielle who had a huge smile on her face. I was tearing up, still struggling with my gag reflex. Somewhere, in my sushi, was a damned crustacean. Danielle said nothing to me for a second, and just continued her smile for a moment, before snorting and exclaiming "You got fucking shanghaied."
"Indeed. I think I did," I said, nodding and smiling sheepishly.
"That was funny," Danielle said, laughing and snorting (again), "She told you it was a specialty, and you ordered it, and no one ever ate it before, and you hate it."
"Yes, that just about sums it up, now doesn't it?"
"Yeah, that was so funny."
Kill me. Kill me now, I thought.
After dinner, I took Danielle to Moonstruck, an upscale café and bar of sorts. We had port wine, and Danielle reminisced again - fondly, I noted with rue - about my bad dinner.
I was tempted to state, "Yes, yes, I know it was bad. I was there goddamn it. Stop bringing it up," but instead asked "so where do you see yourself in ten years?"
It was a bad sign. I was asking questions I normally used on summer intern candidates.
"Well, I want a house," she said, "A big house, somewhere, you know, like, in the country. And I want a motorcycle."
"A motorcycle?" I asked with a smile.
"Very nice," I said.
"Yeah, and I also want a dojo. For my kung fu."
I almost choked on my port. "I'm sorry. What?"
"Kung fu. I want to become a Shaolin priestess."
"A Shaolin priestess." My God, I was becoming a parrot.
"Yeah. I want to, you know, fight with swords and be able to stand on tree branches and stuff. Oh, and cure people with herbs, too." She said this in one breath, a veritable broadside of words.
"Wow. Well, that's, well, um, that's, um, I don't know. I guess I don't know where I see myself in ten years. Well, probably doing the same thing I'm doing now, I guess," I said.
We didn't say anything for a long minute.
"Unless, of course," I continued, "I get disbarred, or, you teach me how to be a ninja or something."
"Right," Danielle said.
"So do you really want to fight people with swords?" I asked, hoping this was all a joke.
"Yep," Danielle said eagerly. "I read all about it in The Utne Reader."
"Hmm," I nodded, "that's cool." Inwardly, I groaned.
"Yeah, it was a big thing on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."
"Well, of course it was," I said. I had reconciled myself to acknowledging the utter absurdity of anything that came out of Danielle's mouth.
"So, do you want to be, like, a New York attorney?" Danielle asked.
"You mean for the big firms?"
"Not really," I answered. "It's not worth it. The pay is good - really good - but you have no life. I think I'd like to be a judge, though, someday."
"Yeah, but how could it not be worth it? Don't the lawyers in the city make all sorts of money? I mean, with that you could, like, do whatever you want," Danielle objected.
"Nah. Not really. You spend all of your time in the office, working on shit you don't really like. After a while, you're so busy that your friends forget you. Eventually, your wife - if you ever have time to find a wife - begins to think you're cheating on her. Not worth it," I said before finishing off my glass of port. I looked around for a waitress (they were hard to find in Moonstruck, as they weren't dressed in ethnically-themed costumes).
Danielle smiled slyly. "It's funny you said that. About the wife thing. I used to think my ex-boyfriend was cheating on me."
"Why?" I asked, suddenly interested. "Was he disappearing all the time? Were you getting strange phone calls in the middle of the night or was he hiding the phone bill?"
"Well, no. No, no, but, after we broke up," Danielle said, smirking and squirming in her seat as she told me the story, "I used to call him. I was all 'so, who's the whore? Who are you fucking now?'"
"Wait," I said, puzzled, "You did this after you two stopped dating?"
"Well, yeah," Danielle said, "but it was so funny. I'd come home from the bars and call him up. He used to beg me to stop." Danielle giggled. "He was such an asshole."
"What?" I was horrified.
"I said he was an asshole."
I wanted to escape any way I could. I couldn't even think of any distracting conversation.
"Excuse me one second," I said, getting up from my seat. "I need to use the facilities."
I walked back through Moonstruck, past the stone fireplace and the jazz trio setting up. I swung the men's room door open, walked to the sink, and leaned my head against the mirror.
"Never. Never, never, never, never, ever, again," I whispered.
I pulled the protein bar from my suit jacket pocket and ate it quietly in the bathroom to make up for my three-piece sushi combo. In the other room, the jazz trio was warming up. Eventually, as I finished the protein bar, the band launched into Dear Prudence. I slipped a smoke out of the pack in my shirt pocket. I paused, looked at myself in the mirror, and unbuttoned my shirt's top button. I ratcheted down my tie to a sufficiently jaunty angle, and lit the cigarette.
I walked out of the bathroom and paused by the jazz band.
"Fuck the Beatles," I hissed at the saxophone player. He lost track of his music and stared at me. I smiled, waggled my eyebrows, and moved on.
Back at the table, Danielle was going through the pockets of my topcoat.
"What are you looking for?" I smiled.
"Oh," she said, startled. "I was just looking for a cigarette."
I fished one out of my pocket and handed it to Danielle. "Here you go," I said. I was trying, with all my will, to sound pleasant. Not unnerved. Not on the verge of a fight or flight response. I lit Danielle's cigarette and sat down.
"I didn't know you smoked," I said.
"Only around boys," she said.
"Ah, well, I suppose we boys should come with warning labels," I said. God, how fucking cliché can this conversation get?
"So, are you up for anything else?" Danielle asked.
"Yes. You know. If you want."
"Oh, sure, sure. That would be great. What did you have in mind?" Guilt had interfered again, and I was reluctant to hurt Danielle's feelings.
"Well, I live over on the other side of the lake," Danielle said. Asbury Park had a small lake just inland from the ocean. Moonstruck was on one side of it, stable in its three-story Victorian home. "We could walk over. Maybe check out my place."
Terribly subtle, I thought. "Sure. Sounds good," I said.
We walked around the lake in near silence. Danielle leaned against me, the rough wool of her pea coat rubbing against the cashmere of my topcoat. I furrowed my brow, despite trying not to do so. I knew I could walk Danielle back to her apartment and work my way into her bedroom. Into her bed. I knew I could have whatever I wanted.
It was my base nature thinking this, though. It was my root, greedy for pleasure. I felt split in two. As much as I knew what I could obtain, I was becoming asphyxiated with doubt. I knew I didn't feel any emotional connection to Danielle. The way she took pleasure in her ex-boyfriend's plea that she stop calling him, about the way she snickered and exclaimed "You got shanghaied!" as I gagged on food she sought out in spite of my allergies. What was I doing here? Was it right to want more, or should I just commit to my base hungers? Should I say "fuck all" to this notion of love and relationships that I once had?
We made our way to a small stone bridge built at the turn of the Twentieth Century. It arched up gracefully and looked out upon the rough winter ocean and the empty Convention Hall. When I was a kid, my father and I used to park on this side of the lake - the safe side, before Asbury Park began to clean up its act - and walk over to the Convention Hall for the boat show.
Danielle rested her head on my shoulder as we walked. She was so small. A petite yet buxom Italian girl - she told me about her family as we walked - Danielle was the sort of girl to whom I always felt a physical attraction.
When my father and I would go to the boat show, he would tell me, each time, about the Victory Ship. The merchant marines refitted freighters and turned them into ersatz battleships so that they could protect convoys during World War II. They called them Victory Ships. When my father was a child, one of the Victory Ships was being towed up to the Brooklyn shipyards for decommissioning.
Danielle and I circled around to the other side of the lake. "That's my apartment," she said, pointing to a tall Spanish-style building.
"That looks nice," I whispered.
Danielle leaned back against me and continued talking about her family. For some reason, I felt guilt when she explained that her parents were divorced. She pulled close to me when I told her I was sorry about that, and she buried her hand next to mine in my coat pocket. I gave it a reassuring squeeze, even though I was still thinking of the Victory Ship.
During the night of a particularly bad nor'easter, my father told me, the Victory Ship broke free of the tow line and drifted away from its tugboat. The wind and the waves caught the side of the Victory Ship, which was pointed north to the shipyards. In the morning, when the people of Asbury Park awoke, they found the ship leaning against the beach like a drunk asleep on a bench.
Danielle walked me up to her apartment. It was on the third floor, and its bay window looked back out upon the lake and the ocean.
"Wow," I said. "Hell of a view."
The kitchen and the living room were in shambles. Cups and plates rested all over the kitchen counter and table. "When I finish paying my student loans," I said, laughing a bit inside, "I'd love to live in a place like this."
"Thanks," Danielle said. "Want the grand tour?"
"Absolutely," I said, bearing my teeth. "That would be lovely."
"Well," Danielle said with nervous anticipation, "this is the kitchen. It's a bit of a mess."
"Oh, don't worry about it," I said. I enjoyed the sort of flirtatious way that I was making her nervous.
"And this is the living room," she pointed at a couch facing the television. It had a white knit blanket draped half over it, half on the floor. An icon depicting the Virgin Mary sat incongruously in the corner next to the television stand. "I spend most of my time in here."
I nodded, looking at the icon.
"Do you like Friends" Danielle asked as she flipped on the television set.
"Sure. It's cool. I mean, I don't get a chance to watch much television," I said.
Danielle dropped down onto the couch. "Oh, and that's the bedroom," she said, pointing to a closed door in between the television and the kitchen. "I'll have to show you that later. It's a mess."
I envisioned a room where the walls were covered with dog pictures and the floor had dirty laundry strewn upon it. "No worries," I said and sat down on the couch.
We watched Friends quietly. Danielle laughed along with the studio audience. I sat there, staring at the icon next to the television. I couldn't remember the name of the Victory Ship that beached itself by the Convention Hall and I felt that I needed its name before I could make a decision. Before I could tell right from wrong.
I checked my watch. It was nearly midnight. From behind me, I could hear the wind rattle against the bay window. It was coming off of the ocean again. Danielle leaned in against me and inhaled deeply. "You smell nice."
"Um, thank you," I said.
Danielle leaned further in and took several deep sniffs by my neck. "What cologne is that?"
Definitely has walls full of dog pictures, I thought. "It's um, uh, it's… Ralph Lauren." I stared straight ahead, my eyes fixed on the portrait of the Virgin Mary.
When the sitcom ended, I stood up slowly. "I better get going," I said.
"You sure?" Danielle asked. She had a hopeful look on her face.
"Yeah, I have to. I have an early morning tomorrow."
I threw my topcoat back on and flipped the collar up against the coming wind. "I had a wonderful time," I said. "Thank you."
Danielle stood up and embraced me. "Thank you," she said. I smiled awkwardly as we hugged.
"My pleasure, my pleasure."
I made my way down the apartment steps and onto the sidewalk. I walked around the lake again, back up to the small stone bridge. I stopped there and pulled a cigarette out. The wind was strong, and I cupped my hands to light up. With wind like that, I could picture the Victory ship sliding until it hit the shoreline and rolled onto its side. I could picture that, drifting in until the nearest point of land arrested my motion. I could also picture drifting out, out into the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, with nothing to stop me, adrift in the waves and the night.