A boy and a girl.
You know where this is going, right?
Well, first, the boy. In truth, he is not a boy at all but a man who has just entered his fortieth year, that sudden precipice of middle age. Still, when he manages to shave and style his hair, he can pass for much younger. His online dating profiles all say he’s in his late twenties.
You look so young, people often marvel. What’s your secret?
Avoid physical activity of any kind, he’ll say, deadpan.
Or, My physical age remained stagnant along with my emotional age.
He’s witty and self-deprecating, and usually has a smart remark at the ready — and people laugh. People always laugh, even if they don’t include him or otherwise pay him any attention.
When the boy was younger, an actual boy, he was taken to a fancy office and told to sit in front of a scowling old man. The man asked him questions and he answered at length, rambling at times. He was given a battery of tests while the man wrote furiously, still scowling.
A week later he returned, and the man gave him a detailed report, all typed up and official, on professional letterhead. The report said the way the boy moved was Wrong; the way he spoke was Wrong; the way he related to others, especially — avoiding their gaze, missing their subtext, seemingly oblivious to their idle chatter… Wrong, all Wrong.
(Of course, no one actually used that word.)
The boy meets the girl on a site for Wrong people. Where people say they aren’t Wrong but gifted. Their Wrongness is a superpower.
Some of the girl’s photos are filtered through soft lights and effects that give her skin a shimmering sheen, an animal button nose, sad saucer Bambi eyes. Cartoon borders and stylized fonts extol positive affirmations: Believe in Yourself! Follow your dreams! Stuff a boy could never get away with.
But she’s cute, even in the plain unfiltered pics.
He contacts her, and they connect. Almost immediately, she says she wants to meet him but doesn’t feel ready yet.
I’m broken, she tells him. I’m going through a lot right now.
I’m really fucked up. You don’t really want to know me.
He doesn’t quite know how to respond to this, so he just says, Of course I do.
I’m kind of going through the same things.
Because it’s true, but also, what else is there to say?
Then, finally, at long last…
They agree on Italian, but nothing fancy, so they settle for a mid-priced chain restaurant with mediocre food and no real ambiance to speak of.
It’s awkward when he first sees her in the parking lot, because, well…he thinks she looks like the girl in the pictures, but he can’t be sure.
He walks up to her and at first says nothing. The pregnant pause seems to last forever, swollen with inaudible dread.
And you are?
He tells her his name. Twice. He has to repeat himself because the first time she doesn’t hear.
She confirms her identity, reaches out to him to shake his hand, and they stare at each other for a beat that goes on way too long.
There is more silence at the table. In the background, soft jazz smooths the clatter all around them.
Eventually, they speak of their families, their dead-end jobs and shitty apartments, their hopes and aspirations.
The girl says she loves animals and wants to be a wildlife biologist. The boy says he always wanted to be a writer but hates everything he writes. She assures him it’s probably good.
More silence. He tries to address it, bring it into the room. Awkward silence, he says aloud, feigning a smile.
Her face twitches, a nervous tick. He slowly rocks back and forth but tries to keep it under control.
He walks her to her car. Should he lean in for a kiss, a brief peck even? No, he settles for another handshake, limp and tentative.
She accepts the gesture and, stone-faced, mumbles a half-hearted goodbye, turning away.
But just as he is about to leave, she turns back, calling out to him, Wait.
Do you want to come back to my place?
He shrugs. Yeah, he says, I guess that should come next.
Brian Theobald is a Long Island-based freelance writer/reporter, and has been published in EDGE Publications, Slant Magazine, Film Forward, and Times Beacon-Record Newspapers, among others.
If you enjoyed this story, show your support on Patreon.