Seeing no signs of progress some five years after my divorce, and with my 42nd birthday rapidly approaching, my well-meaning but misguided friends chipped in together to buy me a membership in a single’s club called “Table for Six.”
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The format, as explained in a welcoming letter I received from the agency, seemed simple enough: you attend a dinner for three couples at a fancy restaurant; if you click with someone, you were free to arrange additional dates on your own, or by matchmaking through the agency. The members of the group seated at the table with me had been selected by the agency for compatibility: fortyish, well-to-do professionals all, and each of us divorced at least once. As luck would have it, the third man in the group had failed to show up, so distributed around the table with me were the other man, three women (all reasonably attractive specimens in my eyes), and a facilitator, whose role was to keep the conversation moving along amongst the group. “Remember, honesty is very important!” she chirped, managing to sound both serious and merry at the same time. “I encourage you all to consider it a rule, and not to embroider the truth!” I didn’t really want to be here to begin with – this being exactly the type of contrived social event I loathe – so being lectured to in this way was particularly irritating. I swirled a watery vodka and tonic and wondered why I had agreed to be here at all.
Having finished her lecture, the facilitator announced that everyone would be introducing themselves and giving a short biographical sketch, and gestured to me to begin. I gave everyone sixty seconds of whom I am, and then took inventory of my companions as they did the same.
Teresa, who was sitting closest to me, was smartly dressed in a black skirt and a white blazer. She smiled coyly beneath wavy blond hair and watery blue eyes, and her florid complexion suggested that she liked to pull a cork now and then.
Janet sat stiffly between Teresa and the facilitator. The cream turtleneck that rose out from her dark jacket fit her like a neck brace, and her expression gave me the feeling that she considered this get-together to be very serious business.
Hunched over to the right of the facilitator was the other man. He was already working on his second drink, and I had the urge to lean across the table and loosen the knot in his tie. He stammered his way through a short introduction and then looked to his right.
Slouched there, at the other end of the group, was Kaitlin, who was as relaxed as Janet was not. She seemed intelligent enough when she spoke, but somewhat lacking in self-confidence. The most casually dressed member of the group, and wore a minimum amount of makeup. Her peasant dress was simple and elegant; her chestnut-brown hair short and shapeless.
With the introductions completed, the facilitator asked if everyone was ready to order and waved at the waiter passing through the room. Kaitlin, I observed, ordered vegetarian. But it would hardly have mattered if she ordered the filet mignon and lobster platter; in the time-honoured feminine tradition of trying to make a good first impression on the first date, none of the women did more than pick at their food.
The conversation sputtered a few times in the beginning, but gradually took hold. Terrorism, the economy, the housing market…all the predictable topics were discussed in a predictably superficial, non-offensive manner. Unfortunately, the other man was not proving to be much of a conversationalist, and the burden fell to me to pick up the slack. Twice I deflected questions about my opinions on social topics, and twice the facilitator cheerily reminded me that honesty was very important, and that I should consider it a rule. The vodka I had consumed wanted to know if I was going to continue to put up with that shit, and I decided that I would not.
“Look, just because I don’t take you into my thoughts on every point we discuss doesn’t mean that I’m being less than honest.”
For a brief moment, the facilitator seemed nonplussed. Clearly, she was not accustomed to having her concept of honesty brought into question. Then the cheery smile she’d been sporting throughout the evening found its way back onto her face, and she smoothed it into place with a short laugh. “But Dan, we’re all trying to learn about each other tonight so that we can get acquainted. We can’t do that if you’re holding back things about yourself. We want to know the real Dan. Won’t you help us with that?”
I turned my palms toward the ceiling. “You’re talking about candor – or transparency if you prefer – which is not the same as honesty. Honesty is telling the truth about the things you choose to say, while providing enough detail to be representative of reality.” But the facilitator had decided to be preoccupied with trying to flag down a waiter, and she did not reply to this. I looked around the table, hoping that someone would argue with me, or agree with me, or tell me to take a flying leap – anything, in short, to escape the perfunctory conversation we’d been having for the past hour.
The waiter arrived and began clearing the table and taking drink orders. Teresa turned towards me and rested her hand on the back of her neck, leaning forward to pivot her elbow on the table. “So, Dan,” she said, smiling broadly, “When was your last long-term relationship?” I decided that I’d had enough of watery vodka and tonics and ordered a Remy Martin instead.
“A couple of years ago or so.” I wondered when we would start to discuss the weather, and whether I could escape to the men’s room after finishing the Remy for a leisurely, lengthily interlude, fake an upset stomach upon my return, and leave early.
“How did you meet her?” Teresa had taken a liking to me, or so it seemed to me.
Knowing the forsaken path ahead of us in this line of conversation, I paused and thought for a moment. Honesty is very important – we’re all trying to learn about each other tonight! So I shrugged, looked Teresa in the eye, and gave her honesty.
“I picked her up at a strip club. She was a dancer.”
Teresa laughed heartily. “Really!” she exclaimed a bit too loudly, and chuckled again.
“Really,” I replied quietly, not laughing or smiling.
Teresa fingered her drink, apparently trying to think of what to say next. “How long did you go out?” she finally asked.
“A little over a year. Maybe fifteen months.”
“Why did you break up, because she was a stripper?” Teresa had stopped laughing and now looked slightly concerned. Some of the other people at the table had stopped talking and were leaning in, trying to hear the conversation.
“No. She wanted to get married, and I didn't.”
“Oh,” said Teresa in a small voice. The waiter had come back, and she traded him her empty glass for a full one. A slice of pineapple hung from the rim. “You didn’t want to marry a stripper?”
“No, stripping had nothing to do with it.” I took my Remy from the waiter and nodded a thank you.
“Didn't it bother you?
I buried my nose in the snifter containing the Remy and inhaled deeply. My nostrils tingled. “Stripping? No.”
“Don't strippers also accept money for sex?”
The other man at the table was watching me now, and for the first time since the evening began, he seemed to be enjoying himself. I lowered my glass and swirled the cognac around. “You’re confusing stripping with hooking,” I replied.
“Same difference,” Teresa said evenly. Her lips had begun to tighten and disappear. I shrugged again and took a healthy swig from the snifter.
“Do you go to strip clubs often?” Teresa’s voice had sharpened, and she seemed much less interested in me now.
I puffed air from my mouth, feeling the Remy slide down to my stomach and igniting the flesh along the way. “How many times a week is often?”
Teresa’s mouth flapped open and closed a couple of times, and then she raised her own glass and sipped furiously at the straws.
Janet turned in my direction. “What is the attraction with strippers?” she asked stiffly.
I could see the facilitator trying to look at me around the curve of Janet’s turtleneck sweater. I looked back at Janet and said, “They generally have little problem with getting naked.”
“Do you pay them for sex?”
I raised my glass and took another large sip. “Sometimes. Sometimes not. Depends on the girl, the day, the mood.”
One of Teresa’s hands held her glass in the air, and the other was buried in her armpit. “Do you also see hookers?” she asked with sarcastic joviality.
I returned my gaze to Teresa. Her cheeks were much redder now. “Street girls, no. Escorts, yes.”
“Why?” asked Janet with feeling.
“Convenience, honesty, reliability. And they go home afterwards.”
By now everyone at the table had stopped talking and was listening to us. The facilitator gave me a furious look, then turned to the other man and asked him a question, but everyone ignored her.
I looked at the women one by one as I spoke. “Please don’t take this the wrong way, but have any of you ever engaged in physical activity with the idea that you would be compensated somehow, even if the compensation was not explicitly stated?”
“Define compensation.” Kaitlin sat up and joined the conversation.
“A place to spend the night, a ride, cash, a gift, a promotion, a plum work assignment.”
“By those definitions, yes. I slept with a partner once to get ahead. I was young, stupid, and it did not work. But yes, just the once.” I noticed that Kaitlin was drinking a pinkish concoction and that her glass was more than half full. Teresa and Janet traded glances and remained silent.
Janet took a long pull on her drink and set it back on the table. She folded her arms over her chest and looked over at me. “Convenience, reliability, and leaving afterwards I can comprehend. But you also said that you see hookers because of honesty. What did you mean by that? Obviously not that she is ‘transparent’ about herself, since you are seeing all you wish to see of her already.”
I looked in my glass at the last of the Remy. “I’m attracted to her physically, and that is what I want, a physical experience. She wants the cash. I know it. So we work out an agreeable price and enjoy each other. Then it is over. Besides, it costs not much more than dinner and a show.”
At this last, Teresa and Janet collectively made a noise somewhere between a groan and a yelp, rolled their eyes, and sat back in their seats, both of them now with their arms crossed over their chests. The other man was looking around for the waiter, and spotting him, made a tracing motion with his finger to order another round.
Kaitlin had pulled the straws out of her drink and was trying to fit the tip of one into the end of the other. “Have you ever slept with someone and promised them a promotion or a raise?” she asked, not looking up.
“Never,” I replied, shaking my head for emphasis even though I knew she wouldn’t see it.
Kaitlin pivoted in her seat to face the other man. “So, have you ever paid for sex?” she demanded.
“Uhm. Ahh.” The other man turned red and began to look around for the waiter. “Well. S-s-sort of,” he finally stammered.
“Are all men like this?” Teresa exploded. “Aren't there any decent men left? My ex used to get massages. It was a long time until I figured out why.”
I put my palms on the table and spread my fingers out over the tablecloth. “You asked a question, I answered honestly.” The waiter had returned with a tray full of drinks. “Now it’s your turn. Did you ever cheat on your husband? Be honest, now.” The facilitator looked sharply at me, her face ashen.
“Never,” Teresa said with more than a trace of smug superiority.
“Never kissed another man?”
“Of course, but that is not cheating.”
The waiter hesitated slightly, and then continued to distribute the drinks. He put the tray down, and slowly and carefully began to collect the old glasses and wipe the table.
“Did you ever kiss another man with intent?”
“’Intent’? What do you mean, ‘intent’?”
I downed the last of my Remy and handed the empty glass to the waiter. “Intent to excite physical passion.”
Teresa hesitated. “I’m…I’m not sure.”
“Has another man ever touched you in a sexual manner, not intercourse, just in a sexual manner?”
“I did not do anything like that.” Teresa had found her footing again.
“Never? I find it hard to believe that you have never been confronted with a sexual situation outside of your primary relationship.”
The facilitator tried to speak again, stopped, and buried her head in her hands.
Janet, who had been in the middle of another sip of her drink, hummed an assent as she swallowed. “I faced that once. We were all but naked. Except I could not go through with it. I stopped, and fortunately, he accepted the situation with good grace.”
The waiter had run out of things to do at the table, and seemed to be idly flipping through his notebook. I paused and looked at him, and he self-consciously collected his tray and wandered away. I turned back to Janet. “Did you ever discuss this with your Significant Other?”
“No. I couldn't.”
“Why did you stop?” I glanced over at Kaitlin, who was still fiddling with the straws.
“I don't know. I wanted it very much. But I could not go through with it. I just could not take the last step. I was actually crying with frustration.” Janet shook her head at the memory. “I think that is why my friend took it so well, because of the crying, that is.”
“I had an affair.” Kaitlin had come back to life, and everyone looked at her. “My ex was having one. I was lonely. I missed sex, and I missed feeling good after sex even more. It was fun in the beginning, but it quickly became just another chore. I think it lasted all of three weeks. But I could have stopped before it started, if I had wanted to, and almost did. So I know what you mean.” Kaitlin pulled the straws from her new drink and began inserting them into the others. “So, wise guy,” she said, eyeing me sardonically. “Did you ever have an affair?”
“No. I have dated two women at the same time. But not an ‘affair’.”
“Semantics. Two women at the same time is having an affair.” Teresa seemed pleased with her role as the moral arbiter of the group.
I took a sip of Remy and made a face. “I don't feel that way. I was not in a committed relationship, so it can’t be an affair.”
“Did you ever touch a woman with intent?” Teresa leaned on her forearms to bore in on me.
“Guilty. But nothing became of it. A little bit of flirting that got out of hand.”
“So when does it become an affair? When it is it just flirting?”
I sighed, thought for a moment, and then answered. “I’m not sure. But I would think that any oral/genital contact, penetration, or even mutual masturbation would qualify as an affair. A little touching and kissing would not cross the line. But others may disagree.” I looked over at Janet, but it was Teresa who spoke instead.
“Would hookers count?”
“Of course. Why do you even ask? Is a hooker somehow easier to take than an affair with the next door neighbor?”
“I thought you would say it doesn’t count.” Teresa looked disappointed.
“I think an affair is worse.” Janet had finished most of her drink and looked relaxed for the first time since the evening had started. “To know that my man was spending emotional energy on another person would be harder for me to tolerate. A hooker is money, and an affair is emotions. I think that is a big difference.” She poked at the ice in her glass with a straw, trying to tease out more liquid.
Teresa waved her hand dismissively. “It doesn't matter. Cheating is cheating…period. Besides,” she said, turning to me, “Hookers have diseases. How can you risk it?”
“Safe sex. Without exception. In fact…” I paused, considered what I was going to say for a moment, then continued. “I think girlfriends are a bigger risk, as one is tempted to engage in risky behavior – sex without condoms.”
The rest of the group fell silent as they considered this point of view. The facilitator, seeing an opening, tried to revive an earlier conversation during dinner about the war in Iraq, but Teresa interrupted as if she wasn’t there.
“Do you like hookers because you can get anal sex?”
The other man at the table grinned happily, looking back and forth between Teresa and me.
I inhaled deeply from the snifter before answering. “Sorry to disappoint you, but hookers are no different than regular folks. Some do it, many don't. But there is something liberating about not having to worry about your lover. One can concentrate on one’s own pleasure. One does not have to worry if she will respect you in the morning or think you are a pervert. With a lover, it is sometimes difficult to get to that level of intimacy and acceptance…at least for me. It seems odd, but one can be liberated with a hooker instantly in a way that takes great amount of time with a lover.”
Teresa was looking at me skeptically, and her arms remained folded across her chest. “Is that a nice way to say ‘yes’?”
I sipped cognac. “Alright. Yes, I have had anal sex with hookers. I have, for the record, had anal sex with several different lovers over the years. It is not something that I demand. But if the woman enjoys it, and I can pleasure her in that way, I will.”
“It is never pleasurable to a woman. That’s a male fantasy perpetuated by pornography.”
I glanced around the table. “Anyone else care to comment?”
There was another pause and another chance to redirect the conversation, but the facilitator had finally given up, and there was only silence.
Janet cleared her throat. “I tried it with my ex. It did not go so well. He was too big.”
“Apparently that is not one of my failings,” I said ruefully.
All eyes at the table turned towards Kaitlin.
She was slouching again and picking at the end of one of the straws. “Well, it can be fun, but only with someone that I trust and love deeply. I can enjoy that.”.
“I don't believe it,” Teresa huffed, and took refuge in her drink.
“Well, I’m not Wilt Chamberlain, but I have had lovers that really enjoyed anal sex.” I glanced at the facilitator, who was ignoring the conversation now, leaning back and looking at something on the ceiling “They are a minority, but they do exist,” I added.
Teresa wasn’t buying it. “You just said you aren’t an expert. How do you know they enjoyed it?”
“They said so. Have you ever tried it?”
“Never,” Teresa said. The smug tone had reappeared.
“You might try something before knocking it.”
Teresa gave me what she hoped was a withering look. “I know enough to know that is not something that I would like.”
In spite of the mellowing effects of the cognac, I found myself increasingly irritated with Teresa. “Good. A woman should know her limits.”
And with this last, the conversation faltered. As if on cue, the waiter approached the table and dropped off a leather booklet with the check; the facilitator caught it on the first bounce. Everyone took the hint and stood to leave. As they gathered up their coats, Kaitlin edged her way over to me. “That was the most fun I have ever had at one of these events.” I looked at her with surprise, and renewed optimism, but then she continued: “At first I thought you were a jerk. Now I don’t think you are a jerk anymore. I might not want to date you, but you do know how to keep a conversation interesting.”
For the first time all evening, I found myself at a loss for words. Kaitlin had been a possibility; this was indeed a shame.
Everyone shook hands and said goodbye and thanked each other for the pleasant evening. Then the facilitator drew me aside and offered to refund my money, suggesting that I not contact the agency again. I decided not to tell her that this would be easy, since I did not contact them in the first place.
I repaired to the restroom for much-needed relief. As I stood waiting for my bladder to empty, I mentally replayed the conversation with Teresa. The moral of the story, I decided, was this: Women demand honesty from a man because they associate honesty with respect; not because they want to talk about strippers, hookers, and anal sex at the dinner table.
I shook myself dry and washed my hands. I wondered how I would explain the evening to my friends, and hoped that they would get their money back. Pushing my way through the bathroom door, I turned and headed towards the lobby.
Teresa was standing there, holding her coat. She looked at me for a few moments, and I looked at her, and she didn’t look away.
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