In the fifteen minutes Dan Murray has been on hold with Second Chances, he has verified his account number, date of birth, password, and zip code. He has also reread his confirmation email four times, committing its text to memory, right down to the name of his blind date—Aretha Jackson. As he waits for a human voice, Dan remembers the look on his daughter Kelsey’s face at Christmas when she gave him a year’s membership to the over-fifty dating club. Dan didn’t really know what to say. He hadn’t thought about dating since his wife died, certainly not something as elaborate as a club. But the earnest look on Kelsey’s face as she said, “It’s time to move on,” gave Dan no choice but to try the group.
“Second Chances, this is Gary speaking.”
“Hi, Gary, I think there is some type of mix-up with my date today.”
“I’ll be happy to help you with that,” Gary says, typing as he speaks. “I see we have you signed up for a date with Ms. Jackson at the Starbucks in Columbia.”
“Is today a bad day for you?”
“No, the day’s fine.”
“Will you have trouble getting to Starbucks by five thirty?”
Dan’s watch reads quarter until five, more than enough time to make the date. But he wishes he had made this call at three, or better still at nine a.m. when he first got the email with the date details.
“No, no. The day’s fine, the time’s fine. It’s just – Is there anyone else you can fix me up with? I mean, this is my first date since my wife died.”
“Someone else?” Gary asks.
“I just never—” Dan tries to think of the tactful way to explain his hesitation about the unknown Aretha Jackson, settling on the words, “I just don’t think we’re compatible.”
“Have you been on a date with Ms. Jackson before?” Gary asks, still typing as he speaks. “Our computers normally catch things like that.”
“No we haven’t been out before. I just—” Dan knows what is wrong, but doesn’t want to say the words aloud; he doesn’t even like thinking them. To avoid the embarrassment he hangs up the phone and stares at the email. The letters of Aretha Jackson’s name, typed in bold letters and in a larger font, stand out against the white background of the email.
Dan wonders what is ruder: going on a date with someone you can’t imagine actually dating or not showing up for the date at all. He wishes he had just said the time was bad; maybe then the company would have rescheduled someone more compatible. But the longer Dan sits the less comfortable he is with that plan too. You’re no better than anybody, Dan thinks as he looks at his shadow along the wall.
In the living room, Kelsey, his youngest at twenty-five, lies on the sofa, her legs hanging over the armrest. She visits almost every week to do laundry, eat, and grab her mail. For some reason she has never changed her permanent address, so even her Cosmo and Glamour magazines come to Dan’s house instead of her own apartment. Dan gives her foot a light squeeze when he enters.
“Why are you here?” Kelsey asks without turning.
“I live here.”
“I mean, why aren’t you at work?”
“I took a half day.” Dan sits in the adjacent chair.
“There’s nothing on,” Kelsey says, flipping through the television channels at a ferocious pace. “They used to show old sitcoms before dinner, now it’s all talk shows and fake court bullshit. You really should get satellite, Daddy.”
“Says the girl without a washing machine,” Dan replies, pointing to her overflowing hamper in the corner.
Kelsey turns off the TV.
“Seriously,” Kelsey says, sitting up, “why are you home?”
“I’ve got a meeting tonight.”
“Second Chances,” Dan admits, almost under his breath.
“Daddy, that’s great! What are you going to wear?”
Dan is in a business suit, a gray checkered pattern with a solid white shirt and a blue tie.
“I thought these things were for coffee.”
“You can’t wear a tie for coffee,” Kelsey says.
“I was going to lose the tie.”
“You need to go a little more casual. Change into a polo shirt.”
Within minutes Dan finds himself in the bedroom with his daughter. Six pairs of pants have been brought out for her approval and three shirts, all of which have been rejected as too formal, too businessy. Dan rather enjoys the excitement in his daughter’s face, though he still dreads the date he will have to go on.
“Here,” Kelsey says, handing him a pair of khakis and a dark blue short-sleeved shirt. “This is a first date outfit.”
She leaves the room, not waiting for Dan’s reaction. He changes into the newly designated appropriate outfit as if he were the child and she the parent. Just before leaving, Kelsey furthers the role reversal by asking where he is going and when he will be back. Dan laughs at the comment; it is the type of question his own father would have asked, though his father would have been more interested in where the girl lived. In the seventies, Baltimore was still fairly divided, and Dan knew without ever being explicitly told there were neighborhoods he was to avoid, girls he wasn’t to date.
The Columbia Starbucks is empty, save for some college students on their laptops. Dan orders a regular coffee because the caramel coffee he wants might appear too feminine. He is very aware that he is being judged on this date and wants to look and act right. Not because he expects to fall in love but because he wants future Second Chances dates to go well. Tonight will be a success if Dan is less nervous on his next date. As he grabs a table near the front door, he tries to decide how he will know when his date has arrived. There were no designated outfits to wear or a specified place to sit. All he knows about his date is that she is over fifty, professionally employed, and has the name Aretha Jackson.
A few minutes after five thirty a middle aged woman walks into the shop. Her skin is a copper color, brown but not exactly dark. She is dressed in a purple business suit with a magenta scarf draped over her shoulder. At first, Dan thinks she is too young to be his date. She doesn’t have gray hair or wrinkles. Her body is a little wide, but more from muscle than fat. She gives Dan a big wave from the line, perhaps because he is the only man over fifty in the shop, and therefore must be her date. Dan isn’t quite sure if he should wait in line with her or save the table. He would like to buy her coffee. It feels like the man’s duty. But the website said that first dates should be strictly Dutch, so Dan remains at the table and watches the woman, trying to picture the two of them together. Her hair is too short to run his fingers through and her facial features: big eyes, crooked nose, are less than endearing. He likes a slender woman, which Aretha isn’t. She is pretty, for her age, but not overly so.
With a tall cup in hand, Aretha joins Dan at the table. She introduces herself in a way that suggests this is not her first blind date. She is confident and smiles with ease. This coffee is just an appointment to her, and she begins talking as if she were addressing employees or children, some audience whose attention she knew she had. For the first few minutes the conversation is pretty basic; they talk about their jobs and their lives. She is an insurance adjuster, divorced with one son. She has been on about fifteen dates through Second Chances; only twice has she given the Second Chance date a second date. He tells her that he is widowed with three kids, all grown. He hasn’t dated in the two years since his wife died, mostly because he didn’t really know where to start. It is an honesty he hadn’t expected to show. But there is something to the softness of Aretha’s face and the easy way she smiles that makes him feel like he can be open.
“You’re married for so long it’s hard to imagine meeting another person you click with and then there’s the question of where.”
“I hope you never went to a bar looking to meet a girl,” Aretha says, “you’ll only find children there.”
“I guess I had it lucky,” Aretha continues. “I was only forty when I became single again. I still knew how to turn some heads.”
“Anything serious?” Dan asks.
“No one I would marry.” Aretha takes a long sip of coffee. “And after a while you start getting more picky about who you date.”
“My father used to say you need to find someone who can make you laugh. Funny is the only trait that never changes.”
“That’s true, but I’ll also take a Billy Dee smile like yours.”
They go back and forth with the ease of old friends, Aretha particularly enjoying Dan’s description of Kelsey’s lack of career motivation. Her son, Dontell, works as a street artist and moves in with her for about a month every year or so. Before Dan knows it, his coffee is empty, and he wonders if he should order a second cup. He enjoys talking with Aretha, but it has the prevailing feeling of friendship. On his first date with his deceased wife, every pause in the conversation was spent wondering if he was going to kiss her. Tonight, Dan doesn’t wonder about a kiss, he merely wonders if he should wonder about a kiss. So while the conversation is pleasant, it lacks the excitement of curiosity, the spark that comes from wanting more from a person.
When Aretha finishes her coffee she says, “This was nice,” a line Dan takes as the professional dater’s cue to leave. He walks Aretha to her car, sad for the date to end, but not so sad that he wants another. She feels like a college friend, someone easy to talk with, but not someone you need to see regularly. They stand next to each other for a few seconds and then Aretha gently pulls him toward her and gives him a full deep kiss, the type he hasn’t had in over twenty years, the type only new couples have.
Dan is conscious of the kiss. His mouth opens out of instinct, which he is sure is different than desire. And while his tongue does enter her mouth its movement is only in reaction to hers. More than anything else Dan is aware of his hands. They are decidedly at his sides. In his youth, his hands would always grab hold of a woman, trying to touch as much of her as he could— a waist, a thigh, an ass, maybe even a breast. The fact that Dan doesn’t move his hands, that he is aware that he isn’t moving them bothers him. He should want more.
Aretha pulls away from Dan and opens her eyes. “What’s with that face?” she says.
“Face?” Dan repeats.
“You look like you just seen a ghost.”
“I’ve never kissed on a first date before,” Dan says.
“At our age, honey, it don’t make any sense to wait.” She is smiling when she gets in the car and gives Dan a flirty wave as she drives off.
As he gets into his own car, Dan knows that Aretha will agree to see him again. So the second date will be his decision. At sixty-two Dan thinks dating should be about conversation. He wants to be that type of enlightened person, but he is too aware of chemistry. He can’t imagine cuddling with Aretha or bringing her to his bed. He can’t imagine any type of intimacy with her. Though given the ease of the conversation, he thinks he should.
Kelsey is still on the sofa when Dan returns. She sits up as he comes in, her smile a little too big, as if she were the one who went on the date and had her first first-kiss in years.
“So, how was it?”
“It was fine,” Dan says, hanging his jacket.
“Will you see her again?”
“I don’t know. I’m supposed to email the company tomorrow. And if we both like each other the company exchanges our information.”
“Well, do you want to see her again?”
“I don’t know,” Dan says, with a laugh. “It was nice. But not exactly magical.”
“Well, would you do another blind date?”
“We’ll see,” Dan says, taking a seat in the chair.
Kelsey had muted the television when Dan returned, and now that she knows she won’t get any real details about the date she unmutes it and lays her head on the armrest. She is watching an old episode of All in the Family, the one where Sammy Davis Jr. leaves a briefcase in Archie’s cab. Though Sammy hasn’t come on screen yet, Edith and Archie are talking about him, Edith frantically running around in preparation, as Archie smokes a cigar while sitting in his chair. Dan hasn’t seen the episode in ten years but remembers the ending. Sammy will pose for a picture with Archie and at the last second will turn and kiss him on the cheek. The camera will zoom to Archie’s face, which has a look of both horror and grief, as if Archie he has just seen a ghost.
“You ever date a black guy?” Dan asks during the commercial break.
“I went out with a boy from my dorm freshmen year.”
“How was it?”
“You mean size?”
“No,” Dan says, shaking his head, “I will never mean size.”
Kelsey laughs. After a few seconds Dan tries again, “So the race thing, was that a problem?”
“I don’t know. I guess I never really thought about it.”
“He was attractive, though?”
“He was cute; a really nice smile.”
Dan nods to himself.
“I’ve never been attracted to black women. Not even Lesley Uggams.”
“Who’s Lesley Uggams?” Kelsey asks.
“An actress. In the seventies, everyone knew her.”
“Well, what about Halle Berry?” Kelsey asks, still looking at the TV.
“She’s pretty. A little young.”
“Wait, was this woman tonight black?” Kelsey simultaneously mutes the television and sits up, giving her father her full attention.
“Oh that’s too perfect,” Kelsey says curling her left leg under her right. “Your first date in thirty years is a black woman.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Dan asks.
“Daddy, you’re not exactly multi-cultural.”
“Yes I am,” Dan says, shifting his weight.
“White and off-white are not different cultures.”
“I have a lot of friends,” Dan says.
“Really? I bet you don’t have five non-white phone numbers in your cell phone.”
Dan knows this is true. He counted the number when he was on hold with Second Chances. He has the number of three black men and one black woman. Dan could only remember calling one of the four in the last year—James Turner, Dan’s plumber.
“I’m open-minded,” Dan says.
“Okay,” Kelsey agrees with a small smile.
The commercial break ends, and Kelsey unmutes the TV again. After a few minutes, she slides to the side of the couch near her father’s chair. “It’s not a big deal if you want to date a white woman. It doesn’t mean anything.”
“It’s just,” Dan pauses for a second, rubs his brow, “I wish I wasn’t so predictable.”
“You went on the date. You tried. If you’re not attracted you’re not attracted.”
“I guess so,” Dan says, thinking about the purple business suit and how it might look on another woman.
“It’s okay not to see her again.”
“I just don’t know how I’m supposed to explain it,” Dan says.
“You don’t have to explain, I’m sure Second Chances doesn’t care why you weren’t a match.”
“Well, I have to tell her something.”
“The whole point of Internet dating is that you don’t have to say anything after a bad date.”
Dan wants to say something. There’s something wrong about kissing a woman and then not seeing her again without a word. But he doesn’t want to tell Kelsey he kissed Aretha. And he certainly doesn’t want to know how often she kisses boys she has no intention of talking to again.
“Why didn’t you tell me about the boy from your dorm?” Dan asks.
“We went on like three dates. It’s not like we were a couple.”
“So it wasn’t a secret?”
“Daddy, you’re being ridiculous,” Kelsey says.
Dan thinks back to his half effort to cancel the date. The name Aretha was his only reason. He doesn’t know what he was afraid of, or maybe he knows too well.
“Do you think I’m—”
“You’re not racist,” Kelsey interrupts.
“Just not multi-cultural.”
“You’re a good man,” Kelsey says, patting her father on the leg, “you don’t owe anyone a second date.”
Kelsey stays for the end of the show. She laughs a little harder at Archie than Dan does. She even snorts when Archie is kissed, which makes Dan smile more than the actual show does. Dan knows he is more like Archie than he’d like to be, but also knows Kelsey is nothing like him. When he logs on to Second Chances after Kelsey leaves, he’ll feel bad about rejecting Aretha, but will feel good about feeling bad. And for tonight, that’s good enough.
Mike Koenig, a Maryland native, writes screenplays, teleplays, and fiction. He received his MFA in Creative Writing & Publishing Arts from the University of Baltimore and currently works at Discovery Communications. This is his first published short story.