The Date I Sort of Remember

My mind has a way of keeping good track of events that fit into my own narrative. My best memories are the ones I considered to have shaped who I am now. I do remember the other stuff, but it’s like books in a box vs. the ones on the shelf I want other people to see when they come over.

I seem to have about half my memories accessible of a guy I dated in college. The other half aren’t even in a basement box, I donated them to a thrift store to clear up space. This post is my attempt to drive around and find them again. Unfortunately, I’ve forgotten his name. I’ll call him Josh.

Either Josh or I or both of us were feeding the ducks on our college campus. I prefer the version where we’re both feeding the ducks, so let’s go with that. We kept making eye contact. Bread between our fingers and surrounded by students loafing on the banks of the spring-thawed Red Cedar River, we inched closer to each other. No one else had come to feed the ducks that day — those fat ducks that never even had to fly south for the winter because of all the bread-toting dopes on campus like me and Josh.

One of us talked to the other first. I prefer to believe it was him-to-me, but I’d put more money on the me-to-him option.

The weather was perfect. A Simpsons sky and budding trees swaying in the kind of breeze that brings so much hope of warmth that your brain fills with the best and strongest moments of every other spring you’ve seen. It was legit weather for falling in love.

Josh wasn’t as tall as my every-changing ideal, but he had auburnish-brown hair that might have qualified him as an attractive and elusive redhead. He had just the right amount of eyebrows too, which is key. We got to chatting about usual college things. I was a freshman, he was a junior. I studied Communication, he studied….mmm….let’s say Engineering. Sure. Something different and harder and more specialized than what I was doing.

He offered me a ride to my dorm which was — and I’m looking this up — 0.7 miles away in his pine green convertible. A convertible! The type of car I’d never ridden in despite spending TWO SEPARATE SUMMERS counting all the red convertibles I’d seen until I hit 100 in hopes of finding true love shortly after. Neither time really panned out, but I got good at keeping a running tally in my head.

My hair was down and we were going about 30 miles per hour and I had on a cool jacket that I would later lose and that I still miss. Life seemed, as it so often does in the first breaths of romance, perfect.

We exchanged AIM screen names on a piece of torn notebook paper. We agreed to plan a date. I felt like I was a shoo-in to get kissed. Not today, but later. Definitely later.

The date day came. I chose the Potter Park Zoo, having had some minor boyfriend successes there in high school. We drove the five miles there with the top up because it was dreary and a little cold outside. Our conversation was slow-starting and awkward. The weather didn’t seem to be rooting for us the way it had been a few days earlier.

But I enjoyed the drive and knew the magic of the zoo would smooth things out. Having spent most of my life to that point in East Lansing, I could find nice memories all over the place. I babysat two boys for seven years, and they usually had a zoo membership. Me and the younger boy zoo-adopted an African Spur-Thighed Tortoise because of how triumphantly he would march around whenever his sprinkler was turned on. Just one of the many creatures I wanted to show Josh.

Upon entering the Potter Park Zoo, the immediate view is a large encasement of spider monkeys. These majestic, hilarious buddies draw you right into the heart of the zoo. They’re a perfect welcoming committee. I can’t say enough good things about the spider monkeys. I scampered over, assuming Josh would be only too happy to join me.

He arrived placidly at my side — in pretty stupid khakis I’m recalling now — and made some vague agreement noises on my thesis of ‘monkeys are awesome.’

Then, an incredible and magical occurrence took place. One of the monkeys approached me — right up to the criss-crossing thin bars and extended his hand through them. His hand reached right toward me and no one else. Our eyes locked. I was in utter awe. A MONKEY and I were sharing a MOMENT.

But it wasn’t enough for that monkey! He poked his tail through some of the lower bars straight at me as well, mirroring his still-outstretched hand. I may have forgotten everything I learned from a whole semester of World Religion, but I will never forget the way that monkey looked at me as he made an attempt to Connect.

After a moment (in which I lived a thousand lives and experienced existence on all planes), the monkey returned to his life in the cage leaving me to pick up the pieces of my own.

My pupils felt enormous. I turned to Josh with the wonder of a chorus of schoolboys arriving in space, fingers pressed to the rocket ship glass, singing together in awe. I was speechless, but needed to confirm the miracle that had just taken place.

Josh glanced at me, looked away, and muttered, “You wanna go over there?”

Over there! He vaguely pointed toward the petting zoo. Over there!! Like a monkey hadn’t just assumed the role of Ambassador to Humans and selected ME as his liaison! Over there — like nothing was different. Worse, like nothing had even happened.

I had gone from Mt. Everest to the DMV. I couldn’t even form the words to press the monkey issue. In one awkward glance, he revealed himself to me as a Boring. Maybe that’s unfair. But he was definitely unlike me.

I can pretend here in the safety of this post that I should have demanded he take me home then and there. Truly though, I’d never do that. I’m nice and we were at the zoo for heaven’s sake! But it did lose a big chunk of joy for me. Like trying to drink Capri Sun as an adult, I suffered through something I thought I loved but now didn’t want to finish.

Here’s where the date gets confusing. We spent the next four and a half hours continuing along together through the zoo and to two additional locations. And things were not going great! I resented him for the monkey incident and he seemed to experience some change in his feelings for me too.

He stopped seeming into my jokes. Not that he was crazy into them before, but I’d gotten the sense of some reciprocity or soft laughter before the Monkey Crossed the Barrier. He seemed tired of me. I was exhausted.

We went out to eat anyway. I don’t know whose idea it was. I didn’t even like going to restaurants that much back then. Years of a childhood desire to “get our money’s worth” often caused me to lose my appetite whenever I looked at a menu. Suffice it to say, I would have preferred not to go.

It was one of those sit-down places with busy wall-paper and knick-knacks like a grandma’s house. I ordered a hot dog. I don’t know what the heck I was doing. They brought out a swollen, boiled monstrosity that represented everything I hate about hot dogs. Too pink, too much weird meat, didn’t fit in its bun. I’m pretty sure I got ketchup and/or mustard on my nose when I bit into it.

And all the while we talked and talked and suffered mutually in each other’s company. I resented him for not being impressed with me. I’m pretty sure he felt the same way about me. We both had a lot to offer, just not stuff the other person wanted.

He paid the check. Or I did. I might have paid for the zoo? Or vice versa. But we finished the meal. Time to go home? No. There was still the aforementioned final destination. We decided, for some unknown reason, to go to the MSU gardens and just…walk around and talk some more.

It was like neither one of us could give up the notion that our spring meet-cute feeding ducks was a sign we should be together. Or maybe he was just bored. I know where I stood.

The sky was suffocatingly grey. The ground sunk mushy beneath our feet as we plodded toward the gardens. The cold, non-blooming early spring gardens. Thankfully, it began to rain. Big thick drops that aim straight for your eyes. It gave us our final excuse to end this miserable display of modern romance.

He drove me home. We didn’t even try to kiss. No one wanted to.

In the weeks that followed, there were a few more lackluster attempts at chatting together on AIM. I remember feeling frustrated that Josh wasn’t into me. But I wasn’t into him either, so I’m not sure what I really wanted. I’m grateful to have learned since then that wishing for someone else’s (ultimate) disappointment never leads to satisfaction.

We’d given it our all. We spend five hours together. We meandered through every path of small talk, never once finding a place to dig deeper. He straight up ignored one of my Life Significant Moments, and he was the only other person who saw it! How can you come back from that as a couple?

For all our efforts and all our trying, the best part of our relationship had ended when he dropped me off at my dorm on that perfect spring day. All the hope of imagination, the build up between our meeting and our date, none of it was real. I wasn’t all that disappointed, more baffled that two people with the best of intentions could be so unfit for one another.

The last time I ever saw Josh was a year or so later, as I pulled out of the same parking lot where I’d once climbed into his convertible. He was the booth attendant.

“Oh, hi,” we said, or something like that. We had long ago stopped talking online. He waved me out amiably without charging. I thanked him with a smile and meant it. It was a fitting end to the whole thing — a moment of few words that made both of us feel good after hours of many words that made us feel tired and weirded out.

But hey, without Josh, I never would have had my Monkey Moment, and for that, I’m still grateful. Because that’s something to remember.

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