Authors: Steve Almond
BY STEVE ALMOND
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
To Dr. Barbara Almond,
who taught me to love people,
to love words, to love.
I promise to write if I get work, Ma.
delivery guy comes to my office with roses in a terra-cotta bowl. Everyone is dying of curiosity, which, of course, so am I. It's not that there aren't men who would send me flowers. There just aren't any men right now.
The card says, “Looking forward to meeting you, MaureenâWarm regards, B.B. Chow.”
Marco, my Chief Gay Underling, appears on the other side of my desk. He glances at the flowers.
“A friend,” I say.
“Does this friend have a name?”
I hand him the card.
Marco runs his fingernail along the rim of the bowl. “Correct me if I'm wrong, but we don't know any B.B. Chows. Do we?”
“No,” I say. “I don't believe we do.”
“He sounds like the villain in a Bruce Lee picture,” Marco decides. “Like, the Evil B.B. Chow.” He does this lame little
chop-socky sequence that culminates in him banging his shin against my glass coffee table.
I sit there for a puzzled little moment, listening to Marco yelp and watching the sun bling off this ridiculous desk they gave me when I became Creative Director of
. It's covered with transparencies of young mothers paring ink stamps from potatoes and oven-roasting their own potpourri. There's always some kid close at hand, gazing at the proceedings in that eerie modulated child model fashion. The moms exude a
wholesome yet edgy
energy that's almost (but not quite) lascivious.
Then it hits me: B stands for Brock. Brock Chow. The man my dear aunt Bev has assured me is an
handsome doctor. Did I make a date with this man? I check my daily calendar. There, in nonphoto blue, are the words “Bev date.”
“Wait a sec,” Marco says suddenly. “You didn't send yourself these flowers. We're not there yet, are we boss?”
“Be gone,” I tell him. “Go forth to spread malicious gossip.”
This is what authority has granted me.
not mention the flowers. When I thank him, he blushes, says he hopes they weren't too elaborate. He's about my height, five-seven. A couple of inches shorter, given these absurd mules I tromp around in. A
slim guy, narrow through the shoulders and hips. He's got these big, trustworthy features and black hair that falls across his brow like a crow's wing. I can't quite tell if I'm attracted to him or not.
We do one of these new Belgian bistros for dinner and it's clear right away that he's not too familiar with the protocol. When the sommelier comes by he gets confused and orders an appetizer. The whole dual-fork scenario spooks him. I seem to be a slob magnet. In most cases it's these guys who came from money and can't find a more productive way to express self-loathing. But there's nothing practiced to B.B.'s dishevelment. He looks genuinely befuddled, sitting there with his napkin jammed into his sweater collar like a bib.
B.B. is unlike most of the guys I end up dating in one other way: he's not a loudmouth. He speaks so softly I have to lean forward to catch what he's saying. It turns out he's a resident, training to become a pediatric surgeon.
“That must be pretty intense,” I say.
“I guess. You know, most of the cases aren't that serious. It maybe sounds more dramatic than it is.”
B.B. is obviously more comfortable asking questions, so I lead him through the little tap dance of my life: the condo I just bought in the South End, my new job, my fierce and inexplicable crush on Pedro Martinez. I also tell him that I'm divorced. I've learned not to hold that in reserve,
because it generally freaks the single guys out. They either relegate me to this suspect category of fallen woman (Hester Prynne, J.Lo) or they assume I was somehow abused, and it's now incumbent upon them to rescue me. I'm not sure which is worse.
“You look pretty young to be divorced,” B.B. says.
“I was only married four years,” I say.
I pause for a moment. “It was kind of a complicated situation.”
B.B. nods in such a way that he might actually be bowing. “I'm sorry,” he says. “That's probably none of my business, huh? I only meant that it must have been a real disappointment.”
I'm not sure what to say. We're lodged in one of those moments of intimacy that's come a bit too quick. B.B. peers at me, in an effort to convey that he
my disappointment. I don't feel especially disappointed, though. I was married to a man who couldn't operate a washing machine. I got out. The end. “I'll tell you what,” I say, “I could go for some dessert. Something involving chocolate.”
I've invited B.B. to a play out in Jamaica Plain, at this collective art space full of collective art space people. My date looks like a total square. He seems to be making people nervous, which I somewhat enjoy. You can see them
squirming in their torn batik. B.B. thinks the whole thing is aces. Loves the play, which is a version of
done in the soap opera medium. Loves the after party, which is in the condemned loft next door. He asks the cast members all sorts of sweet, dorky questions. (Example: “Did Beckett have all that nudity in the original version?”)
What I like about B.B. is this unchecked enthusiasm. It's a relief, frankly, to hang out with someone who plunges through life without the almighty force field of irony.
to kiss me on the cheek. I've been involved with men who don't even ask permission to come in my mouth.”
“Tell me about it,” Marco says.
The latest crop of candidates for our “Mad About Mom” section lies between us. There's Sharon Stone (and bodyguard) walking little Roan through Piccadilly Circus, Catherine Zeta-Jones looking lumpy and blissed-out with her diaper bag. “Demi Moore is so
,” Marco says. “Everything she touches is over.”
The truth is she looks radiant. They all look radiant, as if they've drifted into this universe for a single incandescent moment, only long enough to be captured on film. This is what we sell our readers, this illusion of you-
-have-it-allness. And we're successful precisely because, beyond all the aspirational blather, back in the drab
universe of the day to day, you can't have it all. Not if you want sleep.
The phone rings and Marco snatches it. “Maureen Fleming's office. May I ask who's calling? I'm sorry. She's in a meeting. Yes, I'll let her know. No. No. Good-bye.” He shrugs. “Do we know a Mr. Bok Choy?”
As gay underlings go, Marco is unacceptably cheeky. But he's also a decent listener when he wants to be, and he's nursed me through the entire history of my recent romantic pratfalls.
Man (who quoted from the program verbatim). The Incredible Rowing Man (he seemed to confuse my body with an oar). The Sperminator (let's just not discuss this one). Marco coins these sobriquets to keep the lineup straight, and I adopt them to remind myself that these men are only temporary decisions, which can be rescinded.
The phone rings again. “She's busy at the moment, Mr. Choy,” Marco says.
“Give me that,” I tell him. “Try to remember that I rule you.”
B.B. sounds flustered. “I thought you were in a meeting.”
“It's over,” I say, and motion for Marco to scram.
“I just wanted to say what a nice time I had Friday.”
“Yeah. It was nice.”
“Can I see you again?”
“Well,” I say. “I'm kind of booked this weekend.”
“Yeah, I am too. This weekend, I mean. I didn't mean this weekend or anything. I meant, like . . .” I can hear him breathing, this sort of wounded rasp.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” he says. “A little nervous, I guess. Not sure, you know, if you like me.”
“I'm still getting to know you.”
“Yeah,” B.B. says. “Yeah. Right. I'm sorry. No big deal. Maybe next week. I'm pretty busy anyway, you know, at the hospital. Maybe next week.” He's speaking too quickly, too loud. It's always been a weakness of mine: I can't stand to see others in pain. You want an executive summary of the last two years of my marriage?
“Wait a sec,” I say. “What about an early dinner on Sunday?”
, at the Au Bon Pain in Cambridge, on Sunday at five, face-to-face with a focaccia that looks like a giant, cancerous crouton. B.B. is wearing a Harvard Medical School polo shirt, his skinny arms poking out, the same shirt he wore under his sweater last time. It strikes me as odd that this eager beaver is wearing the same shirt. (I know he went to Harvard.) So I sort of make a joke.
“Hey, I've seen that shirt somewhere before.”
B.B. looks like I just punched him in the mouth. “Sorry,” he says. “These shirts come from the vending machines in the lobby. Sometimes, when you've been on the same rotation for a while, you need a fresh shirt.”
And now I see the situation: he's come straight from the hospital, probably left right in the middle of his shift, which would explain why his fingers are stained the color of earwax (Betadine), why he looks frazzled and drawn, why he keeps glancing at his pager.
“You shouldn't be apologizing,” I say. “I'm the one who was just an asshole.”
“I must look like shit,” he says.
“You don't look like shit.”
He plucks at his shirt and forces out a laugh. “You should see my closet.”
“Look,” I say, “you didn't have to cut out on work to see me.”
“I wanted to,” B.B. says.
There's his face, propped up on his palms like an eager little display.
“I'm flattered,” I say. “But there are other times. I mean, I'm not going anywhere.”
B.B. takes a deep breath. “I should chill out a little, huh?”
“Maybe a little,” I say, and smile. “Hey, I've got a question. What's the second B stand for?”
“Blaine,” he says.
“Brock Blaine Chow?”
“Yeah, you know, that was my parents. They wanted to find these super-American-sounding names. The Brock part comes from Lou Brock. My dad was a baseball fan. That was his big thing, you know, the American pastime.”
“What about Blaine?”
“Yeah, I think the idea there was Paine. Like Thomas Paine. Give me liberty and all. That was kind of a spelling error.”
And now for some reason this annoying little Post-it comes tearing out of my wonkbrain and it says:
. Thomas Paine wrote
. Patrick Henry is the guy who said, “Give me liberty or give me death.” But I'm not about to correct B.B., because he's already blushing so fiercely his cheeks are maroon.
“Would you like to get an ice cream?” he asks.
I know I should be scooting along. I've got my own rounds to make, the event schedule I keep overbooked to stamp out any late-weekend embers of anguish. And here's this guy who's obviously, at the very least, neurotic. At the same time, I'm touched by his candor, his overwrought confessions.
It's the first day of spring and the streets finally smell again: tar and garbage, sesame oil, a sweet old perfume. Everywhere, the righteous folk of Cambridge are strolling the polleny avenues, letting the breeze sift their hair. Not
even the punks around the T can muster a decent rage, just bits of loud theater, and Harvard Yard seems almost bearable in this mood, rid of its suicide. Students are draped across one another, unbearably young, auditioning for sex in chunky shoes. “B.B.” I say, taking his arm, “I like you.”
to my place for the next date. I've decided to revive an old recipe (baked salmon with crumbled gorgonzola, on a bed of orzo) and sconced the lights with colored paper and done all the other inane shit my own magazine recommends in its “Kindling the Flame” column. B.B. buzzes and all I can think is: I hope he doesn't wear the same shirt.