[I can’t promise I won’t want to sleep with you, but I would like to buy you dinner.]
The message arrived to your OK Cupid inbox in early April. You couldn’t help but smile. The messenger, a gentle looking fellow approaching his sixties, had a warm, innocent smile and a profile that spoke of his love for his children and the desire to be the best father that he could be. He had taken the time to read your profile in it’s entirety–an Homeric Odyssey of rules and regulations for how to manage ones expectations if sex were his or her primary incentive.
You responded to him and said that dinner was entirely unnecessary but that you would glady meet him. You were impressed that he had reached out to you at all through your gauntlet of filters, and you couldn’t help but wonder what kind of man he was.
The restaurant he’d suggested was Zagat-rated, on The Embarcadero, and pricey. You felt obliged to dress up like a girl–walk the one mile from your apartment in your new girly leather ballet flats, feet barking, pre-bunions forming. March had been a fascinating month for such girly enterprise. You’d returned from India and Nepal a full 25 lbs lighter than you had been when you’d embarked your trip. Weight loss plus sever dehydration and a lack of appetite rendered you a shocking 170.5 lbs at one point. You’d joked and said that if your saw the 160s, you’d check yourself into the hospital. You were tired, weak, breathless, and sick. Your external appearance to others, however, did not betray your gut-wrenching condition; to them, you appeared a tall, lean, lovely, and feminine creature. You thought, however, that were it not for the bronze of Indian and Himalayan sun, you would have appeared consumptive. Regardless, your online dating profile did not betray your illness; only your first impression did that.
“You’ll have to excuse me,” you began. “I’ve just returned from Nepal and I think I may have a parasite, so if I suddenly start making faces at you while you’re speaking–” you demonstrated for effect “–don’t take it personally. It’s just my gastric distress and it usually passes in a minute or so.”
Nice first impression. It’s a tactic: gross them out of the prospect of sex with you.
Apparently the disclosure of sever diarrhea is not enough to dissuade hopeful men from a sexual prospect.
Robert, your gentle older date, was a fine fellow. He was your average guy in most respects, save his insatiable desire for life. He’s just emerged from a second marriage and was enjoying the freedoms that came with being unattached. He felt like he’d missed out on a lot–like he’d spent his whole life working and supporting his family and being the good husband that he’d let life pass him by. But he was not discouraged. He felt he had ample time to begin experiencing the world anew. He’d been raised very conservative and religious; it was a life that didn’t suit him at all. He’d felt the need to break free from his family’s religious norms. He’d felt the need to break free from a lot and challenge conventional expectations. He was, you might say, a diet-hard relativist.
You weren’t drinking, but were glad to sit at the bar and sip a lemon water as he ordered cocktails. Naturally the conversation turned to sex. You were under no illusions that Robert had wanted to meet you purely for your fine personality or conversation. By virtue of your having agreed to meet him, he’d managed to get his foot in the door. The next step would have been to get you a little drunk and let the conversation become flirtatious. And then… maybe after another cocktail, you might change your mind.
This didn’t happen, of course. You were very clear about being queer. You were also very clear about being somewhat smitten with a woman you’d recently begun seeing. Sex was completely off the table, but you were happy to indulge him by talking very openly about the subject–a thing older men just love about you. By the end of the night, Robert had begun to speak to you in lurid promises. You listened to his declarations patiently, with amusement.
With your eyebrows lifted, “You’re going to dominate me? Tell me more. Are you going to gag me, beat me, strangle me?”
He seemed momentarily shocked. “Well, no…” and then followed with a PG-13-rated threat.
The two of you laughed together over the conversation. He was drunk and delighted to have the freedom to speak so freely; you were sober and simply amused.
When you left him at the bar, you doubted that the two of you would meet again.
* * *
But Robert was persistent.
Were it not for the fact that he traveled to San Francisco almost weekly for work and had been staying in hotels that were 15 minutes walking from your front door, you probably wouldn’t have agreed to another dinner with him. But you have great difficultly ignoring earnest people. Robert, furthermore, had offered to receive a massage. You were still unemployed, very poor, and struggling to make 300 bucks a month stretch in San Francisco.
You met Robert for dinner (comped by his company), and told him what you’d been up to lately. A lot of dates–or as you like to call them, “conversational adventures.” A lot a walking around. A lot of gut episodes.
“This weekend I’m hitch hiking to Seattle,” you mentioned.
Robert’s eyes flew wide open. “Seattle? I wish I’d known. I could have driven you there. We could have taken a road trip!”
It seemed a bit eager on his part, but you went with it. “Hey, no reason we can’t take a road trip in the future.”
“I’ve got a bunch of time off, too. Vacation days I’ve been saving. Hell, we don’t need to go to Seattle. We could just get in the car and go anywhere. I love the idea of just getting in the car and going with you. Have an adventure!”
“I’m good for that kind of thing.”
“Hell, we could go to Arizona, or Texas, or New Orleans!”
You chirped. Or yelped. Or some combination of the two. The noise–of girlish surprise–startled you. The noise indicated your realization that he was dead serious.
“Oh my goodness, this isn’t just mental masturbation, is it?”
Robert shook his head. He was dead serious.
You told him your reservations about a road trip. It’s expensive. The cost of fuel. The hotels. You had nothing to contribute. He didn’t care. “I want to have an adventure.”
“Okay, listen,” you began. “When you sober up you have the chance to back out. But if you don’t, and you really are serious about taking this road trip, then I will keep my word and come with you. And I promise to do everything possible to keep your costs low.” You began to hammer out logistics. Possible routes. Time frame. Budget. And more.
All on the second date.
* * *
You may have been less than forthcoming about the details of how you met Robert when you announced that you would be going on a road trip with a “friend.” Yes, you met him under the most lurid of hopeful circumstances. So what if he PG-13-promised you? What did it matter if he probably harbored sexual fantasies? Maybe had some hope that you would change your mind during the trip… These things you considered, but you failed to muster feelings of concern for your safety. Maybe you understand men too well by now. Maybe you’re too lenient and should be enforcing the “oughts” of behavioral expectations on them; slap the backs of their wrists when they objectify you. But you don’t. You can’t fault men for being men. You’re extremely liberal on this subject. As long as people are polite and honest, what’s the harm? (How one succeeds in politely PG-13ing a liberal lesbian is beyond the scope of this entry).
Men have their motivations, be it for sex or for company–for adventure or spontaneity. Whatever Robet’s reasons were (you decided he needed to do something radical with a partner in crime), you felt no judgement. As for you, you would get to travel through the southwest United States; it was a small goal you’d off-handedly made for yourself while still in Nepal, which you never suspected would be accomplished. So the official version of the story goes: two people met; each stated his or her conditions; the other agreed to the terms and a road trip ensued.
If there’s one thing you’ve learned about people since beginning your travels, it’s that if you treat them kindly and are honest and genuine with them, you can cut through the majority of sexual tension and potential for exploitation pretty quickly. You showed Robert your hand: you were enamored with a woman, had no desire to be experimental with men, intended to come back from the trip and immediately start school, a job, and an internship all in the same week. You would be studying biology and chemistry (and Swedish) while on the road. You would talk to him, help him find hotels, be a good navigator, suggest an itinerary, and make sure he got on his feet and saw things he might otherwise pass up. You would happily sit with him in bars and objectify waitresses, offer him moral support, and talk about sex and porn and music and movies and everything else. Bar none.
“This is really great, Maria. You’re like a guy, but much cuter.”
So you’ve been told. You have a monopoly on friendships with older, single men who want to talk about things they can’t normally talk about with their guy friends. Not without judgement; you had none to offer.
In your days of preparation, you idly wondered if you daft for saying yes. You barely knew the guy! Maybe your character assessment had been all wrong and it was a ploy? What if…? What if…? Cue some modest level of pre-trip paranoia.
While travel has gotten you accustomed to trusting people and believing that their intentions are usually good, you do not trust people perfectly. You later told Robert that, no offense, you had a sleeping bag and a camping tent with you and could easily hitchhike your way back to the Bay Area if something untoward occurred. Maybe this hurt his feelings; maybe he accepted it at face value. You didn’t ask. He didn’t seem bothered.
Well, it turned out that you and Robert got along like fish in water. He was a most excellent travel partner, despite your differences in age, energy, and experience. The trip began on your birthday, May 23rd, which you spent sitting at the bar of Red Robin. You ordered a veggie burger and a devilishly “modest” ice cream sundae. It was then four hours to San Luis Obispo, where Robert lived when he wasn’t traveling to San Francisco. You spent the weekend lying about, eating your hormones, and watching hours and hours of The Walking Dead. Turned out you and Robert shared a passion for zombies. All was off to a great start.
You practically had to kick him out of his front door on Monday when he suggested not leaving for another day (he didn’t want to leave his daughter alone in her mother’s house in SLO.) It was endearing but frustrating. The delay made you nervous because if you lost another day you wouldn’t have time to get to Austen and back before your job started. You were ready to throw in the towel on the entire trip, nervous about your time line as well as frustrated by the voluntary separation from the new lady you were dating (yeah, you were pretty into her).
You packed a box of snacks and made Robert get his shit together, which took him all of twenty minutes because he was, after all, a seasoned traveler for work. He later thanked you for spurring him into action. “If you weren’t here, I probably wouldn’t have gotten out the door at all.”
But you did! And the two of you drove from San Luis Obispo, CA to Austen, TX and back in fewer than ten days.
You learned that you and Robert were extremely travel compatible. He was a chilled out, easy-going guy. Always happy to check something out at random. You were appalled by the price of the petrol (turns out it is cheaper to fly and rent a car than for two people to drive). You did everything you could to keep his costs low, first by scavenging coupons and local deals on dive motels, then keeping your entrees under ten bucks whenever possible–sometimes under five (a baked potato in the southwest is not only the cheapest option, but the healthiest!). You split coffees with him, never ordered alcohol, and was simply content to be along for the ride. Robert often laughed at your impromptu lunches out of the car boot–the way you could chow down through pounds of raw vegetables. He was, like everyone else, impressed by the amount of food you can eat. You encouraged him to join you in your tail gate lunches–to shop from supermarkets for fresh fruit and veg and make sandwiches. He liked the savings and the added perk of knowing he’d made a healthy choice, but it didn’t keep him from caving to the temptation of a hot evening meal.
It was a standard American road trip. Nothing crazy happened. Everything went off without a hitch. You rolled though the desert on cruise control, took turns reading out loud to each other (A Billion Wicked Little Thoughts–a book about what pornographic web searches say about human sexual desire; and the autobiography of Rita Moreno, of all things!). The trip unfolded with no plan other than to head east. One night you were crashed out in a dimly lit motel, the next you were wined and dined at a Kimpton resort hotel! And then everything in between.
But the pictures tell the story better.