The First Night Out

The First Night Out

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Sharon Wahl is a writer and documentary film producer living in Tucson, AZ. Her publications include stories in The Iowa Review (Tim McGinnis Award); the Chicago Tribune (Nelson Algren Award Finalist); Harvard Review; Literal Latte (Fiction Contest Winner); StoryQuarterly; The Minnesota Review; and Pleiades (Editors’ Prize for Poetry).She has received five Pushcart Prize nominations. Other encouragements include awards from Villa Montalvo, the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, Sewanee Writers’ Conference, Arizona Commission on the Arts, Tucson/Pima Arts Council, and Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation. Her most recent documentary film, Almost an Island, is airing on public television.

Everything Flirts

From WTP Vol. X #3

Warm moonlit nights are a chemical assault on celibacy.  

I’m cruising Grizzly Peak Road with the windows down and one arm outside. Medium twilight, clear dry indigo air. The radio switches from Marley’s No Woman No Cry to U2, Mysterious Ways, music to match the curves in the road, curves I lean into like the car is dancing with me, swaying left, swaying right. The moon rises like a slow bubble through branches of eucalyptus and live oak. A breeze gusts through, smelling sharply of eucalyptus and much warmer than the surrounding air, like something freshly baked. My heart is swelling. For the first time since Alex left, I would like to go out and find another man.  

Are you relieved? I think to Alex. After four months apart—after ten years together—I still want to tell him everything. My instincts are terrible. But yes, he would be relieved. You’re missing an Eleusis game tonight. At Jacob’s house, the usual crowd, Jacob, Anna, Rajiv…

Actually, I hope it’s not the usual crowd. I hope Jacob has invited some men I haven’t met before, men I would like to meet.  

The invitation was for dinner. Jacob doesn’t cook, so dinner will be take-out, but good take-out, sophisticated pizza or Thai. The important thing is the game. We’ve been meeting to play this game twice a year for ten years now, since we were grad students and roommates at MIT. It’s a card game in which one player, God, invents a rule. God doesn’t tell the other players the rule, only whether the cards they attempt to play are right or wrong. Jacob, Rajiv, and most of the others are physicists, who are by training and inclination excellent players. That other god doesn’t reveal his rules, either; physicists take this game very seriously.  

None of them know yet that Alex has left me. I’ve only recently started to tell people. I’ve only recently started to believe it. I always tell the story of our breakup in exactly the same way, a condensed account that emphasizes the dramatic elements of that night while avoiding genuine explanation of our problems. How Alex called from a conference in Toronto and said he was flying back early. At the baggage claim he hugged me urgently. He was drunk. He never drank, but he was drunk. Walking to the car he gripped my hand too tightly. He wouldn’t talk, shook his head in answer to my questions.  

When we got home, Alex went to the kitchen, still without talking, and poured another sweet drink, a glass of sherry. He asked what I wanted to drink. Nothing yet, I said. He sat down at the kitchen table. I sat down, facing him. He took both my hands. Squeezed too hard. “Tess, I’ve realized that I must leave you,” he said. Just like that, that suddenly. He had met someone else.  


The drive to Jacob’s house is all downhill, and tonight, much too short. I pass his house and recognize the cars gathered there, which has always, before tonight, made me smile. I find a lucky parking space only two houses down, pull in, turn off the car. The radio cuts out mid-song. Mid-syllable. It doesn’t feel right. My fingers are still gripping the key. They turn it again, and the car and radio come back to life. I phone Jacob: I’ll be late, eat without me, I’ll come for the game.  

The gas tank is full. The car chooses narrow winding streets into the Berkeley hills, back to the wide sky and distant lights. But this feels too much like going home. So it starts down again, not to Jacob’s but closer to campus, streets with shops, cafes, crowded sidewalks. My windows are open, radio off. On Telegraph, which I choose for its stalled traffic, its smells of pizza and coffee, its human noise, someone leans down to the window and makes eye contact. He startles back—“I thought. Sorry! My girlfriend has this car.”  

Then his face is back in the open window. “Hey, I know you. My friend was in your class, she told me about you. Emily Nagada.”  

“Sure, I remember her.” He has a bright-eyed expression and clean-shaven cheeks; shoulder-length hair, blond and curly. He looks almost exactly like the young Robert Plant, confident and rock-star pretty.  

“Emily liked that class a lot. It had a funny name….” 

“Artificial Intelligence is Real.”  

“You should write a book like that.”  

“Thanks, I might.”  

As we chat, I keep the car moving slowly forward with the traffic while the student, Eric, walks or trots alongside. An escort, one hand placed on the window frame while moving, both hands when he leans down to talk. He has such an innocent manner that this is not intrusive but companionable. Emily has told him that I work on robots, and he’s curious to hear more. I wonder what would happen if I asked him to go for a drink. I can’t believe I’m thinking this. At least I’m just thinking it. Would he? Or maybe he’ll ask me. I would say no, but it would make me happy. There isn’t much time: the traffic ahead is opening up, I’m about to lose him.  He’s looking down the street with the intent, slightly anxious expression of wanting to speak but not knowing what to say.  

“Well,” I try.  

“Yeah,” he says, nodding in agreement. “See ya.”  

My heart is pounding. The car rolls another half block and dozens of faces stream by, young and lovely to watch. Dreadlocks, gypsy clothes, nose rings, black leather, blue hair, cut-off jeans, tattoos. Half my age, and a different species.  


At Jacob’s, dinner is just ending, various pizzas. I choose leftover slices of pesto-red onion-blue cheese and olive-artichoke-sundried tomato-goat cheese. I’m relieved to have arrived late enough to avoid questions about Alex. He is in Italy and I was supposed to be with him, I’m on leave this semester. But no one seems to remember this.   

Jacob’s living room is large and bare, with white walls and polished wood floors, a heavy beamed ceiling. Instead of couches and chairs there are richly colored old rugs and dozens of pillows made from scraps of carpet. Jacob’s family lived in Afghanistan when he was a boy, and he has kept their habit of sitting on the floor.  

The conversation, as I join the others, is on the mating habits of apes. Dan, a mathematician, has been reading a book on this. His claim is that the sexual development and behavior of certain populations of great apes are far more complex than previously understood, perhaps even as sophisticated as those of humans. Dan says this earnestly, citing facts from the book about the onset of menses and gaps in fertility. He is tall but with shoulders so slumped from shyness that he gives the impression of peering up rather than down at the others. It is odd to hear this shy man talk so matter-of-factly about sex.  

No one has accepted his argument, for reasons that seem too obvious to elaborate. This further frustrates Dan, that he is losing the argument though no one has offered a better defense of the other side. When Anna insists that the love lives of humans are immensely complicated, Dan asks, in all seriousness, “How?  What do you mean?”  

Romeo and Juliet,” Anna says. (Jacob interrupts, “Bonzo and Juliet!”) “Gone with the Wind. Anna Karenina. Right? But for apes, it’s the same story over and over, essentially.” 

Dan remains stubbornly serious. “But wouldn’t it be interesting to know what a love story was for an ape? If you think about it…”  

“Only humans talk about sex.”  

“Only humans tell stories.”  

“Is that true?”  

Bees give directions to flowering meadows. Are directions stories? And then there are whale songs. Koko the chimp… 

The issue remains undecided. I have some sympathy for Dan, though I won’t defend him. I would want to hear an ape’s love story. But defending Dan, I know from experience, causes him to believe you understand him, which in turn causes him to issue invitations to dinner.

“Apes flirt,” Dan insists, a parting shot. And that, I can believe. Everything flirts.  

We play the game sitting in a large circle on the floor. There are eight of us, and as always, more men than women. Three tonight, Anna, a biologist who was once Jacob’s girlfriend; Greta, a German grad student working in Jacob’s lab; and me. Greta is here with a boyfriend, Fritz, a computer science grad student I somehow haven’t met.  

Rajiv, a physicist and the best player—impossibly good, he will win, the rest of us merely try for second place—is God first. God has mismatched socks. As always. Rajiv’s wardrobe is made up of tee shirts collected at physics conferences over the years. His socks always match some of the colors in his shirt, but never each other. The background of tonight’s shirt is blue, and his socks are a garish pink and orange picking up on the colors of cartoon quarks labeled, in lime green, Strangeness and Beauty.  

Rajiv will think of a rule, but won’t say what it is, and the rest of us will take turns attempting to place cards that fit the sequence he has in mind. A simple rule, too simple for a good game, would be red black red black. Rules can be based on obvious properties such as a card’s color, number, suit, or any combination of these, or on more subtle properties such as mirror symmetry of the card’s design. There is too much potential information to take in all at once, and that’s what makes the game interesting.  

Jacob is the official keeper of our huge Eleusis deck, six decks of cards all mixed together in a box. He counts out ten cards for each of us. Rajiv doesn’t take a card at random from the box—our first clue—but looks for one, selecting a two of hearts. He puts this face up on the floor. Correct plays will go to the right of the last card played, making a line across the floor, while incorrect plays go below it.  

The seating arrangement is also not random. (Is it ever, in a self-seated group of eight humans?) I was a bit rude to Jacob, I had to be somewhat pushy to squeeze between him and the man to my left, Terry, the man I am trying not to stare at. Jacob looked pointedly at wide gaps in the rest of the circle. I smiled and asked him to scoot over a bit. In retrospect this wasn’t such a clever move on my part. If Terry were across the circle from me I could watch him more easily; staring at close quarters is difficult, too conspicuous. But as always, I have gone for the possibility of accidental touch. It’s what I have for a sex life these days, an eroticism of highly magnified brief contacts: rubbing elbows at talks and in theaters, brushing hands while passing books or papers or plates of food, pressing thighs if I squeeze onto a bench where there is not quite room.  

It seems there is a list in the back of my mind, a list of men who might have been, men I might have dated, had I been single. I don’t always know who is on it. Then suddenly, like tonight, I am reminded: yes, him. I met Terry once before, about a year ago. We ran into him and Jacob at a movie; the four of us had coffee after. He didn’t say much, nothing I now remember, though I remember a resonant voice and a British accent. He hasn’t said much tonight, in fact he may not have spoken since I arrived. But surely he will answer direct questions.  

Terry’s most noticeable trait, and the reason I recognized him so easily, is his long hair: truly long, mid-back, dark and slightly wavy. A bit tangled, not recently brushed or trimmed. He also has extremely thin fingers. As I stare at his hands I realize they are quite beautiful, so well-shaped that simply holding his fan of cards they are graceful, all tapers and fine bones.  

The skin on Alex’s hands was so tough he could handle dishes straight from the oven.  I sometimes accused him of not feeling what he touched. And his fingers were thick, too thick for mine. Should one be methodical about this? Decide there are certain traits one will have in the next lover?  

The cards so far: the two of hearts, and under it, some wrong plays: six of clubs, ten of spades, and ace of diamonds. Then two correct plays: four of hearts, six of hearts. Under the six, another four of hearts. This ruled out only hearts are correct, and moving by twos, both of which were too simple. This early in the game, most patterns are deceptive.  

Just to my left, slightly behind me, is my paper plate, the pizza gone but with a few carrot sticks and slices of baguette. I am still slowly eating these. Terry reaches over and picks up a half-eaten piece of bread. Without even a glance at me for permission, concentrating on the row of cards, he eats it. He doesn’t seem to notice the bites missing from the bread, the tooth scrapes in the butter marking this food as mine. I feel briefly possessive of the plate, think of moving it away from him. But I don’t. I’m curious: what does he mean by this? Will he do it again?  

The seven of diamonds has been played, correctly, then the nine. The only pattern left to me is red cards in increasing value, but no, Fritz plays the seven of clubs. Jacob says no way, but God insists this is correct. “Aha,” Anna says, and tries another seven of clubs. Jacob calls this a cowardly move but Rajiv declares it wrong, placing it under the correct seven, and Jacob apologizes. “You don’t know everything,” Anna says. “I don’t know this rule,” Jacob says. Dan plays another nine of diamonds, correct, which meets with groans. “I don’t know this rule because there are no clues!” Jacob says. It is his turn. There’s a long wait while he ponders a move that tests a worthy hypothesis. He pulls out a card face down, purses his lips, wobbles his head, hmms a bit, and finally reveals yet another seven, this time hearts. “No!” Anna says, while Jacob protests, “It had to be tested!” Rajiv moves the seven under the nine of diamonds. “You see? Now we know the move isn’t determined by the number of the last card played!” Anna rolls her eyes in mock disgust.  

It’s my turn next and I have no idea what to play. A fresh start is needed. There are no sevens in my hand, no nine of diamonds, so it’s safe to pick a card at random. I pull out a queen of spades, which I’m convinced is wrong. It’s right. We are all confused.  

Jacob and Anna, across from each other in the circle, continue their mock debate on the necessity of repeating experiments. Rajiv smiles mysteriously. Fritz rubs Greta’s feet through her socks. Terry eats all the food on my plate without once looking at me. I am shocked by this. At one point I pick up a carrot stick, bite it, and put it down again, to see if he will take it. He does. Never noticing a thing. He locates the plate by peripheral vision and touch. With each raid on my food his fingers brush the floor, slide to the rim of the plate, pick up something, and raise it to his lips. He touches each piece of food lightly with his tongue before biting.  

When all the food is gone, his hand comes again. I put a card on the edge of the plate. Terry’s fingers tap and lift. The card is almost to his open mouth when his expression changes. He stares at his hand, at the plate, at me. This is hopeless, I think, how embarrassing. Then he redeems himself. He looks around, sees no one else has noticed, and whispers, “Sorry. Have I been eating your cards?” The British accent is perfect for this line.  

“Yes, but don’t tell anyone, now I’m winning,” I whisper back.  

“Shall I eat this one, too?”  

I pretend to consider this. It’s Jacob’s turn; mine is next. “No, that one’s correct.  I’ll play it.” I haven’t a clue whether this or any other play is correct, but by the grace of Rajiv it is, and Terry, who also hasn’t a clue, is impressed.  

“Ah, Tess knows the rule,” Rajiv says. “See, someone got it, you guys are just novices.”  

This forces me to pay some attention to the cards. Everyone is eager now, one of us has it, the others don’t want to lose face. Especially me. Come on, brain, we are all thinking, giddyap, get to it. You can almost hear the snapping of whips. To my great excitement I discover a nice pattern: the numbers on red cards increase, while blacks descend. When it’s my turn I place the card so confidently that Rajiv almost doesn’t look at it. It’s wrong.  

Jacob immediately challenges my brief reign of superiority, asking what my rule was, if I had one. In anyone else this would be unbearably obnoxious, but as an ex-roommate he has earned some of the privileges of siblings, we insult each other at will. I point out my pattern, only now proved wrong, and ask if he has seen it. He hasn’t. Anna is smug, Rajiv pleased, Terry more impressed. “Nice,” Jacob says. “It’s a better rule than yours, Rajiv.”

“Now, now, Jacob…”  

The rule, which in the end no one gets, turns out to use only the numbers of the cards. It is a sliding window of opportunity: two though five, three through six, four through seven, cycling around. “We should have gotten that,” Jacob says. “Wouldn’t we have gotten that before? We’re getting stupid.”  


During a break between gods, the topic of Alex comes up. There have, not surprisingly, been rumors among the physicists. Jacob hasn’t after all forgotten that I was supposed to be in Europe. He tries to draw me discreetly aside to talk, but I don’t cooperate: I find I want to tell my story where Terry can hear it. In the end, everyone gathers round. Those who were casually eavesdropping stop pretending to study Jacob’s bookshelves. Anna, in the kitchen getting drinks, comes running out to hug me. I tell her I am fine and give my easy summary of events, the flipping of Alex’s heart due to that classic human complication, the other woman. “He’ll be back,” Jacob says confidently. That’s what everyone says, and I believed it for the first month.  

“No, this is it, it’s over,” I say sadly but with conviction. For Terry’s sake, I realize even as I say this.  

“Tess, that’s crazy. The guy’s gone temporarily insane. He’ll get tired of her and then he’ll be back.” It is mildly flattering that so many people believe only insanity could account for Alex’s leaving me.  

Anna is more perceptive. “Don’t you want him back?” She has me cornered. I can’t say, even in front of Terry, that I don’t.  

“It isn’t up to me,” I say. Which is true.  

The game continues, with a different seating arrangement. Jacob and Anna sit together, occasionally touching. I wonder if they are seeing each other again. I smile a little and look across the circle for Alex, to catch his eye, see if he’s noticed. He’s never missed a game before. Greta and Fritz continue to rub socks. Terry concentrates fixedly on the cards and almost outscores Rajiv. Rajiv sits next to me; my good showing during his rule has caught his attention. But for the rest of the game I am distracted: by Terry, by wondering about Anna and Jacob, by a sudden fit of specific loneliness, lock and key, the key lost. I don’t guess any of the other rules, and Rajiv gradually
loses interest.  


After the game, I make plans with Jacob and Anna to meet for dinner soon, tell them everything. It’s one a.m. when I get home. Ten a.m. in Italy. That’s when Alex usually gets to his office. And usually, within his first hour there, he writes to me. Alex has rented an apartment with no internet. On purpose. He wants to work undisturbed, he doesn’t want his two women competing for his attention. Though that’s not what he says; he says he needs time to think.  

I check, but no message yet. It’s a bit early. I pour a glass of wine, then go back to the computer and finger Alex to see if he’s arrived at his office. He has, and from the monitor idle times I get as I finger him again, ranging from zero to three seconds, I assume he is typing.  

Alex has the habit of logging in to check for mail first thing. And he always has it. There is always something from me, and always at least one other message, which I suspect to be Maria’s. I log in through an old Unix system so I can watch them. The finger doesn’t tell me how many messages there are, or from whom, only when he last opened his mail file and when the last piece of unread mail arrived. Maria, or the Maria-suspect, nearly always writes between midnight and one, west coast time. In Toronto, where she lives, that is three hours later, which shows her dedication. Most nights there is a flurry of messages during Alex’s first hour at work. I imagine they are trading her long day’s news, his night’s thoughts.  And then, I imagine, still basking in the glow of connection, nearly at dawn, she goes peacefully to sleep.  

My night’s message arrives five minutes later.  


Hello, Tess. How are you? Yesterday I learned that Sonia’s apartment is directly across the street from the church with Leonardo’s painting of The Last Supper. Isn’t that incredible? Italy is full of places and things that once seemed legendary. But here they are, like The Last Supper, just casually existing. Take of yourself. Alex.  


An electronic postcard. It’s not enough. But I leave it on the screen and read it again and again. Not just the message but the header, which has his name on it, and the time he wrote, and the place in which he casually exists. Right now he is sitting at a desk in Milan.  Drinking his second cup of tea. I could write to him and ask questions, he would write back and tell me more. But I can see, fingering him again, that Maria is already doing this. New mail arrives while he types; he reads it, types again, and more mail arrives. This is what I log in to see, more than his message. I need the opposite of reassurance. I need to see them together. If Maria lived in Berkeley, I would have met her, she’d be real. I’ve seen photos, but that doesn’t tell me how Alex looks at her. The Alex in my head, my Alex, isn’t this Alex, her Alex. I need to be reminded, every day, that Alex has been re-programmed.  

I clear the screen but am reluctant to log off, to lose all connection. I have other messages to reply to, from friends and colleagues, but am not in the mood for any of these. I try to think of someone I want to write to. Finally what comes to mind is, Terry. But it’s too soon. What would I say? Oddly enough, Dan, nerd though he is, writes to near-strangers without hesitation. Sometimes he asks these strangers for dates. Maybe he really does believe human sex lives are simple: he asks a question, not even in person but in writing, planning exactly what to say. And the woman says yes or no. Mostly no. And no is very simple.  

After the Eleusis game ended, I went to the bathroom to wash my hands. In the bathroom, I thought of parting lines for Terry, perhaps an exchange of email addresses. But when I came out, Terry was gone. He’d driven back to Stanford with Rajiv. Jacob and Anna noticed nothing strange in Terry’s failure to bid me a special good night. I found myself asking roundabout questions to see if he had an excuse: “Was Rajiv in a hurry?” Embarrassing now, too obvious. I try to remember any sign of interest from him, but come up blank. We didn’t talk after he ate my cards. Rajiv took his place. Did Terry notice, and defer?  

The parting from the blond boy, Eric of Telegraph Avenue, makes me laugh. I’m happy about Eric. It’s easy to be happy, there’s nothing else I want from him. Maybe another look. A head in my window, a backlit blond halo.   

I feel I must do something about Terry, but refuse to let myself log in again. In this mood I am bound to say something I’ll regret. What do I know about him? He might have a girlfriend. Or a boyfriend.  Jacob will tell me. I remember clearly Terry’s hands, but his face has sweetened in Eric’s direction. It is an odd habit of mine that fantasizing involves remembering accurately, detail on detail, every last thing said and how, every look. Fantasy is analysis. Not the best habit, I think now that I think of it. Let Terry slip toward Eric. Why not? They would make a lovely creature.  

I’m drunk, but I’ve forgotten to water the plants along the deck. It must be done. When Alex left I starting growing things: lobelia, poppies, cilantro and mint. Tomatoes have ripened since he left. I pick a couple. The balls are tender, taut with juice. While fog drifts in to cover the Bay Bridge, then the Berkeley flats, I hold and polish them, taking off with my fingers a dusty coating on the surface to make their flesh perfectly smooth. The moon has crossed more than half the sky. The fog is bluish on top from moonlight, dotted from below with yellow street lamps. I want to stay out longer, but it’s cooled off, my arms have goosebumps. 

Most nights this semester, with no teaching, I’ve stayed in my lab until about this time. The peaceful thinking hours after midnight, airwaves cleared of other brains. All last week I studied the motion of a robot arm, trying to mimic exactly the hand gestures of a person giving directions, then waving good-bye. That careless loose pointing, that half-turn of the palm and fingers we never think about because the dozens of muscles, tendons, nerves engaged to pull off this movement are so effortlessly, elegantly under our unconsciousness control.  

I recall the conversation with Eric, Eric & Terry (another glass of wine), Eric’s halo and Terry’s long fingers on my car window. “What about the robots?” Eric had asked. What can they do, what are they for? “Well, they would make great movie extras,” I had said. Eric laughed. And they would make great other-extras. I didn’t tell him this. Around the house.  

I pretend he’s sitting in the overstuffed chair in the living room, which I can see through the door to my study, with a book propped in his lap, looking up at me from time to time with a slight, familiar smile. He has Alex’s dark-lashed eyes, Terry’s long fingers, Eric’s halo. My man du jour. 

Alex and I were together for ten years, and I never knew, until he left, what an elusive concept loneliness is. It tore through me, something had to be done. Science is not an impersonal force: knowledge is yearning. Some nights, an impossible, almost unbearable yearning. Someone will make these things. Maybe it will be me. 

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