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September 20, 2003

This is an essay about the first man I dated (well, sort of) for several months after The Big Breakup. It was clearly not meant to be, as you will see.

Kayaking with John

It’s a beautiful day on the water as we paddle along companionably, our long, steady sea kayaks side by side. Every so often we stop for a break, rest our paddles on each other’s boat decks, and float together as one. We talk of nothing, we talk of everything. We are getting to know each other. John is the first man I’ve gone out with since my fiancé dumped me six months ago.

“When was your last serious relationship?” I ask him.

“Well, I almost got engaged when I was in college,” he says.

We are in our mid-forties. A big red warning flag pops up in my head. Oh God, he hasn’t had a serious relationship since he’s been a real grown-up. And he seemed so normal when we met.

I am attracted to him and am surprised and grateful to whatever cosmic force is in charge of such things. There was a time when I wondered if I would ever be attracted to anyone else again. This is a positive sign, I am thinking. Perhaps it means I’m on the road to recovery from the breakup.

Even more surprising, I am attracted to this man who is the complete physical opposite of my old beau. John is short and stocky; Antonio was tall and slender. John has piercing blue eyes to Antonio’s mischievous black ones. John has a beautiful aquiline nose, a full head of salt and pepper hair and a mustache and goatee. Antonio had a nose like an anteater and a low hairline. John is an engineer and makes a lot more money than Antonio ever did.

We paddle up the creek past blue heron and bald eagles perched on the chalky cliffs. I swallow my apprehension, push down the red flag, and continue the getting-to-know-you chatter.

“Are you hungry yet?” he asks. He has brought along lunch, and I didn’t even ask him to. He reaches into a sack and pulls out sodas and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I don’t even like peanut butter, but they taste pretty good and are even more delicious when I consider the fact that I didn’t have to make them. Maybe this guy is worth exploring further.

We spend a pleasant afternoon in the marsh. From time to time a fish jumps out of the water in front of us. Our boats move slowly, quietly up the creek. We watch as the sun starts to sink, then beach the kayaks, load them onto the car, and head for home.

This evening there is just a handshake as we part. But it’s only a first date. He seems like a decent man and I’m almost sure I will hear from him again.

He calls the next weekend. I suggest a Sunday evening concert at the park down the street from my house. Then I debate about whether to invite him for a cookout beforehand, maybe grill up a few burgers.

I ask my friend Nancy what she thinks.

“If you ask me, he’s not grill-worthy,” she says. “Why go to all that trouble for someone you’re not sure you like yet? I’d go for cold cuts and a picnic in the park if I were you.”

I take her advice. She’s my very own personal counselor, and her advice is free. It also comes with a 30-day guarantee, she says. How can I lose?

We eat our ham and cheese sandwiches on a picnic table under an enormous oak tree. The music is sweet, the weather fine. We lounge on a blanket on the lawn as the breeze ruffles our hair.

We do not touch, but we are close enough that I can feel his body heat. I like the solid mass of him next to me. He is compact; he doesn’t take up as much space as Antonio used to. Even his shoes are smaller. I think I like that.

After the show is over, he drives us home. As he walks me to the door I think maybe I’ll invite him to stay a little while and have a beer and sit on the front stoop and watch the fireflies with me. It is early summer and the light show on my lawn every evening is enchanting; I love to share it with friends.

I have to admit, part of me wants him to stay so we can sit on the front stoop and maybe kiss a little. “The fireflies should be out soon. Wanna stick around for a little while and watch?” I ask.

He hesitates. Then he says, “I can’t. I have to go home and iron a shirt for work tomorrow.”

I see another red flag. In fact I believe I hear the distant sound of alarm bells. I don’t think there’s much hope that this man will ever be grill-worthy.

He drives off. It is 8:30 on a beautiful summer evening.

I go inside the house, throw open all the windows, and put on an old Joni Mitchell album.

I get a beer from the fridge and perch on the front stoop, listening to the music and watching fireflies as they perform their funny little mating ritual. They flash and dive as I look on. I have just been part of a mating ritual myself. I’m hoping that the girl bugs get a little more action than I did.

Joni Mitchell’s sweet soprano drifts out the window. “Oh, I could drink a case of you, darling, and I would still be on my feet, still be on my feet…” I used to sing along to this song and think of Antonio. I wonder how long it will be before I feel that way about someone again. Maybe I never will, I think.

I take a long swallow of the beer. Still a couple more hours till I can think about going to bed.

Days later, I am in the middle of packing for vacation – a bicycle tour in Iowa. I am thinking about the last bike vacation I did. Antonio and I had just started dating, and I called him while I was on the road - because he asked me to. I am thinking about how nice it would be if I there were still someone who would miss me while I’m gone.

About an hour the phone rings and it is John. “Have a good time on vacation,” he says. “And try not to fall off your bike, will you?”

“Very funny,” I say. After I hang up I feel slightly better. Maybe someone will miss me after all, and maybe this man is not as lame as he seems.

Well, maybe he’s not lame, but by the time I come back from Iowa, I am lame. I fall off my bike during the ride, break my pelvis, and end up spending three days in a hospital in Des Moines. My convalescence continues at my folks’ house in Pennsylvania as I pop Vicodin and hobble around on crutches. I am grateful to my parents for taking care of me, but glad to be back in my own house a month later.

When I return, he keeps calling me, and I am so very bored I keep going out with him. After a month away, my social life has petered out temporarily and I can’t hike or bicycle either. After I recover completely I can jump start my normal activities, but for the moment I figure - what the heck? And besides, he always pays for dinner.

He never makes one move toward me, never even so much as holds my hand or gives me a goodnight peck.

I invite him to dinner to say thanks for all the times he’s taken me out. He accepts, but on the appointed day I arrive at work to find an email sent at 6:00 that morning. “I can’t come to dinner,” he writes, “I didn’t sleep well last night.” What? My guess is that he thinks I’m going to attack him and force him to have sex with me when he comes to my house. I have no such intention because any attraction I once felt for him is long gone. I am just being nice.

I don’t even bother calling him back. Enough already.

The next day I’m telling my friend Rob the Computer Guy all about it.

“So this guy’s a no-op, then,” he says.

“What are you talking about?” I say.

“You know, a person that takes up time and resources but doesn’t really serve any useful purpose.”

Curious, I look up “no-op” in an online dictionary of computerese and this is what I find:

no-op /noh'op/ n.,v. alt. NOP /nop/ [no operation] 1. A machine instruction that does nothing (sometimes used in assembler-level programming as filler for data or patch areas, or to overwrite code to be removed in binaries). 2. A person who contributes nothing to a project, or has nothing going on upstairs, or both. As in "He's a no-op."

Yes, he is a no-op, and he is contributing nothing to my project of “Finding a New Boyfriend.” In years past, I guess you would have referred to men like this who can’t or won’t have a relationship as “dysfunctional,” “emotional cripple,” or “confirmed bachelor.” “No-op” is probably less specific but sums up the situation neatly. This man is clearly not operational.

There are lots of men out there like him. Are they secretly gay, closeted even to themselves? Are they secretly impotent? Or are they just afraid? What are they afraid of, exactly?

In the interest of conserving good romantic energy, I think they should all have their foreheads stamped: N.O. for No-Op. If you encountered one of these guys, all you’d need to do is push his hair back and look for the message. A simple N.O. will tell you – don’t waste your time.

And still he keeps calling me.

I’d rather be home watching “Walker, Texas Ranger” and reading the back of the cereal box than go out with him again and I tell him so. I mean, I tell him I can’t go out with him anymore because I am still hung up on Antonio. Well, I am, actually.

“I feel I’m not being fair to you – I’m really not over my last relationship yet.”

“Can’t we still go out just as friends?” he asks.

The broken pelvis must have made me temporarily insane, because I say, “Okay.” And that evening, when he walks me back to my car after dinner, he says, “Can I kiss you goodnight?”

I am so startled by this request that I consent without thinking. He leans over to kiss me and what follows is the tiniest peck on the lips, dry as a slice of Ry-Krisp and about as interesting. It is the no-op of all kisses, taking up time and resources but serving no purpose.

Why do you want to kiss me now? The alarm bells in my brain are so loud and steady that I start to get a headache. I think my skull might explode.

After that, I screen all my calls and ignore his phone messages and emails. Finally around Halloween he gives up.

I am taking down the Christmas decorations the week after New Year’s when the phone rings on a Sunday afternoon.

“Kathy? This is John,” says the deep voice on the other end. Somehow I get talked into going to dinner with him. “I’d love to catch up with you,” he says.

We go to dinner. Somewhere in the middle of the pasta primavera and grilled trout, he puts down his fork and gives me a serious look.

“Last fall you quit answering my phone calls and replying to my emails. What was that all about?” he asks.

I look at him, speechless. For an engineer who made straight A’s in school, honey, you are one dumb guy.

What I want to say is, “I think you have some complex emotional problems that I am ill prepared and unequipped to handle. Perhaps you have no sex drive. Perhaps you have mother issues. Perhaps you are secretly homosexual. I don’t know what your problem is exactly, but I do know that I cannot fix it,” even though deep inside, I think he probably already knows this.

But what I actually say is, “It seemed clear that you were pretty halfhearted about going out with me. I decided to give us both an easy out. It’s just that simple. And you only started wanting to kiss me goodnight when I told you I wasn’t interested. What was that all about?”

He has no answer, no explanation. Clearly nothing we can say to each other will be helpful or completely honest. I think he is starting to realize he should have just let the whole thing go.

We finish our dinner and split the check.

Then he looks at me and says, “Well, I’m going home now.”

As we leave the restaurant I feel bad for him, but when I get home I breathe a great big sigh of relief.

He calls again in March and I manage to get off the phone without agreeing to see him. I hold my breath a little – April, May, June go by and I don’t hear from him. Along about 4th of July, I figure I’m finally safe and I thank whatever cosmic forces are in charge of such things.

I have a new rule: I never go out with someone just because I’m bored, because I know that I will pay for it in the end. So I read the latest Bill Bryson travelogue, make the new Thai noodle dish I’ve been wanting to try, go on a long bike ride, organize my pantry, redecorate my bedroom.

And the next time a man plants himself squarely in my path, I’m going to look closely for the N.O. on his forehead. If I see even a trace, a shadow, this is what I will say:

“Dude, get out of my way!”

Not in so many words, and of course I’ll be polite, but my meaning will be clear. Life is full of things to look forward to, and you, my sweet little no-op – you are not on my list.

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Kayaking with John - September 20, 2003

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