My roommate Mik kept referring to my date as “Daddy.” Despite his age, and his insistence on taking me to dinner before we had sex in his hotel room, I was unconvinced I’d assumed the role of “boy.”
His profile labeled him a doctor; exactly what type of doctor, however, remained a mystery. He could be anything; a brain surgeon, a rocket scientist, the nation’s leading expert on babies with pierced ears or celebrities charged with vehicular manslaughter, and the fact would remain that he was, officially, a doctor. Surgeons and cardiologists might carry more prestige, but I would be better suited to hold conversations with the others. I crossed my fingers, hoping for a Paris Hilton scholar.
His photograph depicted a man languorously reclined in the back seat of a car, as though he’d been exhausted by his own sexiness. In a black suit jacket and white oxford buttoned low to reveal bristles of chest hair, the doctor pouted into the lens of the camera like a horny baby. I wondered who had taken the picture. I imagined a friend volunteering to play the role of sex app photographer, guiding him through a dewy meadow at sunset, dragging a bag of props behind him. No, sexier! Sniff that lavender like you want to fuck it! You’re not handling that blood pressure cuff sensually enough! The thought of doing this myself, of posing in earnest like a centerfold for a camera belonging to someone I wasn’t sleeping with, filled me with a sense of unspeakable dread. Yet somehow the doctor’s sleepy eyes and peeking chest hair allowed me to move past my projected embarrassment.
Pacing the halls of my house in a pair of penny loafers so dusty they might have been robbed from a grave, I counted on trembling fingers all the ways my night could unfold. It had been years since my last traditional date, for a number of reasons: fear of intimacy, residual heartbreak from a failed relationship, low self-esteem and an even lower bank balance. I had spent the last handful of months sleeping with men I knew nothing about. I sated myself with quick hook-ups, darting from address to address like a courier with a cooler full of freshly harvested organs. I hadn’t considered that some men might want to talk first, to share a meal before jumping into the nearest bed or brush clearing. Anonymous sex is simple; a date brings with it the daunting task of conversation, of feigning amiability.
Armed with a cache of easy questions and conversation topics, I pictured myself as the scrappy hero of a romantic comedy. I wanted to be the down on his luck news reporter or the beautiful and haunting mute librarian, the hilariously out of touch yet startlingly functional man with amnesia and so, so much love to give. I wanted to be anything other than what I was: a waiter at a Mexican restaurant with student loan debt and trust issues.
When the SUV arrived to pick me up, I imagined myself as Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. I was a good-hearted sex worker tapping my patent-leather heels down the sidewalk toward my future. A tapping that was inaudible in competition with the raucous clucking of the feral chickens that nested beneath my house. The windows were tinted a deep black, and upon opening the passenger door I found a stranger sitting in the driver’s seat. A blond man in a suit with a Bluetooth device latched to his ear greeted me in a heavy accent, another voice called my name from deeper within the darkness of the vehicle.
The rear door clicked and shuddered, sliding open on its own and revealing an empty seat beside the vague outline of a man. Had he not called my name, I would be left with the mere hope I had climbed into the right car. Beside me there seemed only to be a floating white dress shirt, and in the front seat, our driver, illuminated by the nuclear glow of a digital speedometer.“Hi, Alex,” the shirt said. “This is Lars, our driver for the evening.” I traced the sparkle of a glass hovering toward Lars, then closer to me. “Do you like bourbon?”
“Yes, thank you,” I said, grasping at the sound of clinking ice, feeling for the glass’s rim. I wondered then if he might find it funny if I asked to feel his face. Oh, I imagined myself saying as I flapped his lips and pinched the bridge of his nose, you’re even more handsome in real life! I decided against humor; a serious dinner called for a serious date. I believe when a man hands you a glass filled with what seems to be expensive whiskey, the custom is to savor it. You take appreciative little hummingbird sips and swish it around in your mouth, contemplating the warmth and sweetness. In my humorless, nerve-ridden daze, I opened wide, all but unhinging my jaw like a python and pouring it down my throat, sputtering as it burned its way down.
“Thank you, that was good,” I said hoarsely, handing back a glass of ice. Desperate for my eyes to adjust, I abandoned small talk in favor of squinting into the darkness, waiting for the man beside me to take full shape. His palm found its way to the small of my back as we climbed out of the car. I felt fragile, delicate, and in need of his guidance. As though concussed, I might suddenly lose my way in the eight feet that stood between the car and the restaurant entrance.
The host, a sprite in a floral oxford, pranced through the restaurant and led us to our table.Separated then by only the short distance of a white tablecloth, I finally took sight of my date: nearly identical to his picture, slimmer in real life, but there in the candlelight sat the same freshly shaved head and crooked nose, the same heavy-lipped smirk. Upon further examination, it became apparent that his lips were not actually pouting, but rather being forced away from his face by something behind them.
“I requested a spot close to the bathroom,” he said. “I have to excuse myself a lot to keep these clean.” He opened his mouth, trilling a finger along a full set of shimmering silver brackets and wires stretched across his teeth. There in all his glory, my knight in shining adult braces.
My tongue ran along the bare teeth in my mouth, investigating the spaces between them. I felt a phantom ache in my jaw, remembering years of lying in an orthodontist’s chair, looking up at a masked face as wires were replaced and secured with colored rubber bands. Teeth bedazzled orange and black for Halloween, each summer I flashed a patriotic smile of red, white, and blue. I had received a retainer, which I wore religiously until I woke one morning and sneezed it onto the floor, seconds before stumbling and crushing it beneath my heel. As post-retainer years added up, so did the millimeters between my two front teeth. My date looked me in the eye and covered his mouth with his hand. “I guess it’s obvious now why I don’t smile with teeth in my picture.”
“Hmmm?” I asked, pretending I hadn’t heard him, stalling until I could drum up a satisfactory response. How would Julia Roberts react in this scene? I wondered. Braces? What braces? I thought, Oh, I didn’t even notice! I have face blindness! Do you have a moment to talk about face blindness? I imagined the scene in Pretty Woman where Richard Gere snaps the lid of a velvet jewelry case down on Julia Roberts’s hand as she reaches for the necklace inside. I imagined myself doing this: my nervous fingers touching a strand of diamonds resting in the satin lining of case transformed to include a massive set of orthodontically corrected teeth, the lid chomping down and taking my fingers. In the end, I just smiled and told him, “I used to have braces too.”
I believed “ghoulish” was the word that best described our server. He was a floating wraith with sunken eyes and a hairstyle I might call precarious at best. His head was topped with a nest of spun sugar wafting forward and back as he moved. If another server passed him a little too briskly, it seemed he ran the risk of watching it take sail like an empty plastic bag in the wake of a speeding car. He introduced himself as something elaborate and French, like Francois, or Pamplemousse.
“Anything to drink, gentlemen?”
Surveying the wine list, I entertained a brief inner dialogue. I drink the red box, I thought. Remembering my days working at The Olive Garden, I attempted to conjure the names of wines regular customers would order. But in that moment, I could only think of a woman named Shelly who came in on Sundays to eat baskets of breadsticks dipped in ranch dressing, always pairing her dinner with “a nice cheap blush.”
I’ll have a large glass of nice cheap blush, please, I could say. Ice on the side? Does this five-star restaurant just bring out the never-ending pasta bowl? Or do we request it? I second-guessed myself, considering instead claiming wine blindness. I’ll drink anything you put in front of me seemed too desperate.
“No preference,” I said, proud of myself.
I had no clue what it was like to be as rich as the doctor, but it was fun to pretend. Picture me diving into a vault full of rubies and gold doubloons.
“So what kind of doctor are you?” I asked, imagining him taking me into designer clothing stores where previously I might have been refused to-go boxes at an Olive Garden never-ending pasta bowl promotion. He could be my golden ticket—to what exactly, I couldn’t say. An elaborate ball, or a polo game where we let out classy hoots and use our expensive leather shoes to stomp down divots in the grass kicked up by hooves.
“I’m an orthodontist,” he said. With him, I could be so rich and snobby that people would call me sir, and not follow it with “the restroom is for paying customers only.” With him, I could pretend to understand the cartoons in The New Yorker, and no one would guess otherwise. With each mouthful of expensive French-sounding Le petit cabbage roll and expensive French-sounding Le salad-with-a-tiny-egg-on-it, I could more easily picture myself as a man of means, the husband of an orthodontist.
“An orthodontist!” I cheerfully exclaimed, for a moment forgetting where I was. “I bet you got a great deal on your own braces.”
“I did,” he said.
“So is it like when you know a plumber or a mechanic and they just charge you for parts?” I asked.
“I guess it’s a bit like that,” he said. “Kind of.”
“That’s cool,” I said, embarrassed. “Thanks for taking me out tonight. I’ve heard a lot about this restaurant.”
“My pleasure,” he said, covering his mouth. “I was really excited when you messaged me, you’re nothing like the guys in Georgia.”
“Oh yeah?” I asked, “How so?”
“You know, they’re all just really overly worked out, big white porcelain teeth. Not to say that your teeth aren’t white!” he quickly added.
“Most of them at least,” I said, “not Brownie.” I lowered my bottom lip and ticked my fingernail against the dead, chipped tooth in the center of my jaw. Why are you like this? I asked myself as I pulled my hand from my mouth.
“I should go powder my nose before dessert comes,” he said with a tight smile. While he flossed in the bathroom, I messaged my roommate in silent panic.
“This was a mistake.”
“How? How are you texting me at dinner?”
“He’s in the bathroom. I made poor person conversation and then started talking about my dead tooth.”
“You told him about Brownie?!”
When Pamplemousse brought us our bill, I was drunk and fully prepared to perform my duties as an expensive date. I cupped the doctor’s ass in my palm as we exited the restaurant.
“Wait ’til we get back to the hotel,” he whispered, nudging me away. I feigned classy stoicism as we stood outside, waiting for Lars to return.
I’ve been told rich people don’t use the word “fancy,” because, to rich people, nothing is fancy, it is just acceptable. The Queen of England doesn’t look at expensive sheets and think ooh, fancy! She observes, approves, and moves along. I clenched my teeth in the elevator and attempted a look of quiet approval while fancyfancyfancy rang in my ears like a banshee’s scream. I estimated the shape and size of the mint that would undoubtedly grace the fine silk of my pillow.
Despite belonging to one of the nicest hotels in the city of New Orleans, I found myself disappointed by the spartan state of our room. I expected to be carried to bed on the wings of baroque cherubs, blanketed in gold leaf and frescoes so vibrant I would be rendered temporarily blind. Upon entry, I found two starkly decorated king-size beds and a TV the size of a large fish tank resting on an otherwise empty wooden console. It was certainly nice, but devoid of fluttering angel wings, gold was reserved for fixtures in the bathroom, no mints were found.Playfully, the doctor pushed me onto the bed. He restrained me with his tie, knotted in a bow similar to one you might find on a toddler’s shoe or decorating an easter basket.
“I’ll be right back,” he said, climbing off the bed and shutting the bathroom door behind him. I heard the faucet run as I stared up at the blank ceiling, wondering how his teeth had not been worn down to chalky nubs from excessive brushing. He emerged from the bathroom naked, cloaked only in the scent of electric blue mouthwash.
“I have a confession to make.” He breathed into my ear. “I’m a really light sleeper, and I was nervous about missing my flight in the morning, so I did a few Ambien in the bathroom.”
“You did Ambien?” I asked. “Aren’t you supposed to like, just take one? And then immediately get in bed?”
“We should have plenty of time.”
I know a girl who took Ambien in middle school and stayed up late in her bed watching TV. She saw the disembodied head of the cartoon fox version of Robin Hood floating around her bedroom singing to her, and then thought there were pods of dolphins swimming through her carpet. So, lying there beneath a man who just “did” an unknown amount of Ambien in the hotel bathroom, I couldn’t help but wonder what he might see.
To the doctor’s credit, he remained lucid for a good half-hour, tossing me around the bed from position to position, repurposing the tie from restraints to a blindfold, then eventually abandoning it all together. His eyelids drooped, he began to let spit slip from his mouth onto places that didn't require spit on them. His expression shifted between a stoned teenager at a laser show (the braces helped) and that of a fussy toddler fighting a nap. Ultimately, he cupped his hand over his yawning mouth and rolled flat onto his stomach.
“I’ll wake you up in the morning when I’m leaving, or if you need cab fare, my wallet’s in my pants.” Without another word, he clicked off the bedside lamp and fell asleep on top of the covers beside me. I slipped back into my underwear and crossed the room, stopping before the panoramic window that overlooked the French Quarter. Watching groups of gleeful, drunk tourists stumble along the cobblestone streets and wander between shitty bars and hotdog stands, I found myself filled with a sense of envy. It was lonely in the dark room with the sleeping doctor. This must be part of the authentic wealthy experience, I thought, elaborate dinners and early nights on Ambien.
I spread out on the neighboring bed, shifting beneath the sheets and tossing pillows onto the floor. What the hotel lacked in frescoes, it made up for tenfold in pillows. I have never understood why anyone would need more than three pillows on a bed. One for your head, maybe two, and maybe one for you to wrap your arm around in the absence of a pile of money. Where the hell do rich people put all these extra pillows? Are they for elevating broken limbs after Ambien-related spills? Are they decorative? And if so, why do they look like all the other pillows? Aren't the fancy pillows supposed to stand out? Where are all the budding roses and embroidered hunting dogs? The Queen disapproves.
The doctor continued to sleep silently across the room. I stood from my bed and struggled to pull the duvet out from beneath him. In attempting to shift his dead weight, it dawned on me that I had discovered the perfect time to begin a life of crime. Nothing would stop me from taking his wallet, unfastening his watch, and leaving him there in that hotel room. But no, such actions are beneath people like Julia Roberts and myself.
Instead, I lifted the covers over his bare lower half and surrounded him with the extra pillows, building a barrier to prevent him from rolling out of bed. Replace the bed and pillows with a massive white orchid or a picnic basket, the doctor would have resembled a giant, hairy Anne Geddes baby. The clock on the nightstand read 1:30AM. Mik would have already returned home from work. If I left then, I could be home in time to debrief before she too crawled into bed. I folded the doctor’s pants and hung them over a chair, remembering his offer of cab fare.
The scene could play out identically to one in Pretty Woman. I could leave him alone in his hotel room without taking his money, proving to him that my pride was more valuable to me than all the wine pairings and pillow mints in the world. Keep your money, I thought with a scoff, before almost immediately changing my mind. Maybe just a twenty.
I was relieved to climb into the back seat of a cab and find it invaded with the neon of the streets outside. I clicked off the flashing TV screen on the headrest of the driver’s seat and marveled at the way houses seemed to shrink as we moved farther into the outskirts of town, the lawns growing sparse and less impressive. I revisited the image I had created of the doctor’s house. I pictured the glimmering water of a pool illuminated at night, a stone fountain running in the distance. I pictured the ivory and emerald doors of his jewel vault swinging widely on their polished gold hinges, welcoming him home from dinner each night.
At the end of Pretty Woman, Julia Roberts’ character leaves the hotel penthouse and returns to her run-down, messy apartment only to be rescued once more by prince charming, whisked away forever to a luxury high rise. At times, I’ve imagined what it might be like to live such a charmed life, sipping drinks with paper umbrellas somewhere in the endless expanse of a perfectly manicured lawn, ringing bells to beckon butlers. Playing house as a kid, I plotted my future with wooden dishes and plastic food, but I’m not sure, either then or now, if I ever imagined I would end up in anything other than what I had already grown familiar with: A single-story house with a modest porch and a chain-link fence surrounding the yard, plastic lawn furniture. I imagined myself walking barefoot along oily, lacquered floors stained with wood soap. I thought about movie nights on a shared couch, over-salted popcorn eaten out of a chipped bowl.
The filaments in the electric lanterns dotting my block had all burned out into lifeless black curls. Our houses sat in darkness as the cab pulled onto the corner of my street. I could hear cars on the nearby overpass, my drunk neighbors grumbling on their stoops. The driver cautiously slowed and looked back at me. In the frame of our four-paned front window, past the shriveled pots of dying plants and splitting concrete steps, I saw Mik’s outline move past the threadbare sheets we had hung as curtains in our little rented house. The sound of the engine running outside brought her silhouette closer, and as the porch light clicked on I cleared my throat.
“You can stop here,” I said to the driver. “This is me.”