Our first date was a Sunday brunch, and we were best friends before the waiter could take our order. The talk was bite sized at first - pleasant and not in the least bit intrusive or substantial. But at some point in time, without any real definitive moment to specify, he wasn't just the guy I had that one date with- Bob or John or Tommy or something; He was Sean, from Salisbury, who hates broccoli, loves football, has a twin brother, owns a pet toad, loves strawberry flavored everything. The waiter, a wide-eyed, red headed, country-twanged, pink freckled slip of a girl named Robin had called us an adorable couple with a sincere smile and a hushed tone so the people around us couldn't hear that we weren't just "buddies" or "pals" or "bros."
Sean ordered first, asking for warmed blueberry syrup on his eggs, apple juice instead of orange juice, bacon instead of sausage, wheat toast with strawberry jam, and coffee, no cream, with lots of sugar. I had wanted to order the same thing, but doing that on a date is such a clear, desperate attempt to be liked, a begging whine to be accepted and thought of as a soul mate, giving him the impression I'm already, in my mind, picking out a California king bed for "our" place together, looking for a yard big enough for "our" English bulldogs, furnishing a living room large enough to house our mutual friends we invite over. We talk to them holding each other by the hip, none of us wearing cologne, preferring beer to $13 vodka and cranberry juice, happy we don't have to "hook up" with random guys we met in some bar that we'll never see again, those Bobs and Johns and Tommies out there.
One of the tables, a family of 3, dad, mom, and daughter, stopped in front of our table before leaving, making Sean pause midsentence. They had been staring at the pair of us through the only thing separating their table from ours, a diamond woven wooden divider covered in framed pictures of old country singers, antique ads with women holding bottles of Clorox or boxes of Tide, movie posters for Rock Hudson's "Giant," Randolph Scott's "Ride the High Country," and guys in big hats riding bulls.
The dad, all torso, shoulders and gut, dressed for spring in the middle of autumn with his t-shirt tucked into his shorts, cleared his throat and stuck out his hand for Sean, recognizing him as one of the mechanics from the place up the street that fixes his Buick. Sean, without a smirk or smile, shook the stranger's hand with a firm affirmation of recognition, an acknowledgment of their mutual respect for lug nuts, or gauges, or shock absorbers, for knowing why this type of oil is bad for that type of engine, for being able to describe, in detail, the difference between the octane ratings of 87, 89, and 91 for gasoline.
Sean was proud of his work, and happy to talk about it, as long as he was at work when talking about it, like the first time I'd met him when I'd brought my car to his garage for an oil change. I'd asked just enough questions about car upkeep to bide my time in figuring out if he'd be offended or flattered if I asked him out. At that time, he was eager to talk about cars, never once breaking eye contact or losing his half smile. But every time I asked a question over our brunch about fixing cars, he'd change the subject, clearly wanting to keep the two, his personal life and his career, separate from one another.
"Did you know Randolph Scott was gay?" Sean asked me while I watched the family as they walked out the restaurant, the daughter at just the right age to make the way her dad was carrying her inappropriate. I looked at him, brow furrowed, confused.
"Randolph Scott." He pointed to the picture of the man in the movie poster, holding a pistol at his hip. "He was from here in Charlotte, too" he said, stressing "too" so I would understand that Randolph would be a friend of Sean's because they were so alike, and that if given the chance, Sean would have had sex with him.
We sat on the rocking chairs on the wooden front porch of the restaurant while Sean showed me his pet toad he'd found while fishing, and I didn't have the heart to tell him it was a frog.
The subject of go-karts came up while discussing how competitive we both are.
Growing up, a neighbor that had lived down the street had built a go-kart and drove it all the time. We had nothing else in common except for that little candy-red, white racing-stripped speed demon, but it was enough for me to fake a love for hockey so he'd let me drive his go-kart. When I told Sean this as a way to warn him about my expert handling of go-karts, his laugh was full of indignation and mean spirit. So I challenged him, betting I'd win.
"I'm a betting man," he said, chest out. "What do I get when I win?"
"Sex. I'll bottom."
"No, not that." he said, looking away, suddenly uncomfortable, even ashamed. "If you win," he stated in a rush, "You get Fred, my toad" lifting him up.
"If you win, you get my watch," I said, trying not to be offended, wondering if he thinks less of me for bringing up sex already. We hugged, just long enough to be intimate, but too short to be romantic, and I left him that afternoon stooping over his frog as it hopped in a spit of grass next to the parking lot.
The following week, we met outside the arcade on a cool, bright Saturday afternoon. I walked over to his truck and asked to hold his frog, sitting in a plastic box in the passenger seat.
"I've already made him a space. He's going to like living with me," I joked.
Sean just asked for him back, told me to wait for him inside, not amused.
We smiled and nodded children away from our knees as they begged for money to play more games, their eyes wide, wired with the whirl of colors and sounds.
Our strides were purposeful and long because the race had already begun. Sean turned his ballcap on backwards to avoid headwind. I'd zipped my windbreaker to do the same.
Some teenage girl in a black and white referee jersey read the rules in gibberish over the microphone.
I took note of the drivers, mostly teens, a few kids, a couple of parents with their son or daughter in a side car with a fake steering wheel to turn for fun. When I looked over to Sean, I tried not to be disappointed at the clenched jaw, the hard grip he knuckled his steering wheel with, the determined stare he gave the track.
"Chill," I tried, but he just shook his head.
"If this is about the frog, I don't actually want him," I tried again.
"He's a toad," was all Sean said as the whistle blew and he barreled out of the tunnel.
By lap three Sean's go-kart started to sputter, slowing him down, not enough to ever be passed by any of the other teens, the guys bumping into the girls, making them scream and laugh, but always a distant second to me. He'd take the lead, sputter, I'd pass, and he'd spit some curse at me like I was his enemy.
On the last lap, I started tapping on my break, feigning frustration, remembering the way my dad would fake losing at checkers to me, or the way my first boyfriend would fake his moans of ecstasy and passion when I had sex with him, because the truth mattered to me, and I wanted to be the best, and those are things a man should be able to do well. Unfortunately the truth was that I wasn't the best at that time, I didn't do those things well, and they knew I wasn't ready to hear that from them, not yet.
I rolled into the tunnel, firmly in 2nd place, got out of the go-kart and started to give Sean my watch. But he just shook his head with a smile that made me feel slightly disgusted with him.
"Don't feel bad. My job is cars," he said, full of placative sympathy and woe, and a pit of hatred for him dropped to the bottom of my stomach.
We had agreed to meet at his place the next week, and with every passing day that hatred sprouted and coiled around my feelings for him. I realized I was being ridiculous in my anger: I let him win. But I had let him win, and he bragged about my loss every day: "Maybe you're a better cook than you are a racer," "I'm as great at dancing as I am at beating your butt in a race," "I could put Fred behind a wheel and you'd even eat his dust."
By Saturday evening, while we drank and watched his TV, I recoiled at his every touch. In certain light, his face was more cherub like, in a permanent pout, on the verge of a tantrum– a child without a toy or a baby without their bottle. When he moved to kiss me while we sat on his couch, I turned away, so desperately wanting to be able to admit to him how I let him win. If I could admit that to him, it would make me want him again, would make me think of him as more than a child, and would prove that I'm more than a child myself.
Instead, I just made out with him. When
Sean left to cook dinner, I took Fred the toad/frog from his cage and threw him
off the balcony. When Sean realized Fred was missing, I wanted so badly to feel
guilty for finding such joy in listening to him whine in sorrow.
BIO: Anthony Feggans is an MFA fiction student at The University of South Carolina in Columbia, SC. He instructs college freshman-level English courses at USC and is an aspiring copywriter. He plays the trombone, pretends to enjoy running, and eats his weight in breakfast food.