When he arrived she was already there. Kelvin hadn’t been sure she’d show, but here she was, sitting at the table, wearing a sweater over a cami, not showing too much skin, her hair twisted into some kind of brown knot. It’s not what she’d looked like when they’d met.
They’d met rock climbing. Not really, but that’s what he’d told his Mom when she’d asked. Kelvin told her he’d been tagging along with his climbing buddy Russell when he’d met the woman in question, and Kelvin’s mom said that sounded wonderful.
“I don’t really know how to climb,” he’d told his mom, “but by trying to copy Russ I could kinda fake it.”
He’d gotten the reaction he’d wanted from his mom, her retroactive concern at his bold recklessness.
“Oh, Kelvin. You could have been hurt…”
“She’d come along with a group of her friends. They’d scored some kind of group rate, and by the end of the day Russ was colluding with the non-single women in their group to pair me up with Jill—that’s what she said her name was—their only single friend.”
His mom had been appeased, titillated by the story, hopeful it would turn into some kind of long term relationship that would involve her in some tangential, yet meaningful way; she wanted to smile knowingly at this Jill and they could share something true and unspoken and rare.
Kelvin and Jill had not actually met rock climbing. Kelvin wished their first encounter had been some kind of meet cute where they’d played idealized versions of themselves and told each other white lies that later came out as such but were quickly forgiven. Instead it was a typical bar type of hookup where alcohol and sexual urges led them to admit their base and carnal attractions toward one another. That method had been pretty common throughout Kelvin’s adolescence, but it was becoming more rare as everyone he knew had started meeting people with apps that seemed to indiscriminately pair people together. Kelvin, suspicious of and overwhelmed by that proposition, had refrained from that method.
They’d both, Jill and Kelvin, went out with friends and as the bar started to empty their two groups gravitated toward one another. They hadn’t decided to approach each other, nor did they have designs on one another. They were drunk and looking for something and their nights had crashed and sunk and they had all ended up in the same life boat.
She would look different with her makeup done, he was sure. He wondered if he’d recognize her. He knew she was tall. Of that he was sure. He remembered noticing that she was a little taller than him while they’d talked in the parking lot. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to show up places with her if he was going to be a head shorter than her, but he decided to make a decision about that at a later date.
At the restaurant, she sat alone at a small table. She drank a water, having waited for him to arrive to order. Ellie had already dropped off a complimentary appetizer.
“Compliments of the chef,” she’d told her.
Ellie was Kelvin’s secret weapon. After Kelvin arrived he would kiss Jill on her cheek and then casually say hello to Ellie and ask about her if she was still looking for a new car. He liked to surprise his dates by being on a first name basis with her, a young woman, slightly more attractive than the woman he was on a date with, who acted like Kelvin was a super-guy to know. It wasn’t the first time he had used the maneuver.
“I know the guy who owns this place,” Kelvin would explain. “I know the whole wait staff.”
“Home field advantage,” Jill stated.
He liked her skepticism. He felt like he could tell her father had ignored her as a girl and then not ignored her at all. He liked that she knew to be skeptical of men. She was cold and precise. Her eyes were mean.
They made small talk and then he confessed he hadn’t been sure she would come.
“I guess I just lack trust?” He said as if it were a question, as if it weren’t a melodramatic thing to say to a person you hardly know.
“I know how that goes,” she said. “I’m just getting over a bad break up too.”
“I could tell,” he said.
“Are you a Gemini?” she asked. “Never mind. I told myself I wouldn’t bring up astrology.”
“No. In your breakup.”
“The only thing worse to talk about on a date than astrology is your ex.”
“And yet here we are.”
“And here we are,” she agreed.
They ordered and smiled at each other, drank their drinks and talked about their exes. He noticed that she had a little blemish under her chin. He found it human and sweet and charming.
“So what happened?” he asked as they sipped their beverages. “With the ex?”
“Oh,” she said, wiping lipstick from the corners of her mouth and slipping her fingers into the plump of her hair. “You know how it goes. We just woke up one day and we were completely different people.”
“I know all about that.”
“It’s gonna sound weird, but I wasn’t always like this. Like, how I am.”
“How were you?” He asked
“I used to drive a truck.”
“You don’t look like a truck driver.”
“Well I did. And I did that for years. For fifteen years, actually.”
“You don’t look old enough to have done anything for fifteen years.”
She blushed and took a sip of her wine. “Now you are just flattering me.”
“No. Really. You must have started driving when you were ten.”
“And then I wanted to get into publishing but then I accidentally became an account executive for an online resume company. Now I’m in grad school.”
“That is change at a breakneck pace,” he said, slitting his eyes and trying to detect any sarcasm in her voice, reviewing the conversation for insight into her age. “I got the bends just listening to you.”
She waved his comment away and sipped her wine.
“Were you married?” he asked. “To your ex?”
“No. We never got around to it, but we were together for a long time. I met him not long after I started driving. I started driving right after I turned twenty and I left it all behind at thirty-five.”
He looked at her, trying to find the signs of middle age. She wasn’t beautiful, but she certainly wasn’t older than him.
“Don’t worry. I’m not thirty-five anymore. I’m in my twenties now.”
“You didn’t really drive a truck did you?”
“And my ex started out as this real intellectual. He was one of these math guys who is so smart that a University made him a professor, but didn’t give him any classes. Just put him in a room and made him do proofs all day. He listened to symphonic music, got me onto Debussy and Milton Babbit. He was into the so-called ‘math guys’ like Bach and Bela Bartok. Do you know Bela Bartok?”
“I know Bach.”
“All that stuff is far out. And, of course, Jon Cage. Anyway, he stopped listening to all that. Became all outdoorsy. Got into fishing. Bought a boat and spent all his time out there. Grew a beard.”
“I see. Completely different people.”
“Yes. We just grew apart, as they say.”
“I still can’t tell if you are the best looking thirty-five year old in the world, or if you are just teasing me.”
“Wouldn’t you like to know,” she said and wiped her mouth.
She stood and excused herself to the bathroom and her light, curly hair bounced behind her. He sipped his beer and checked his pocket to make sure the condoms hadn’t fallen out. He had heard keeping them in your wallet could crush and tear them, but he was worried he’d drop them if they were in his pocket all night. However old she was, he still planned to have sex with her. She was good enough and he was still trying to put some distance between him and Dawn. He wanted some experiences to reckon with so that the things that had happened with Dawn wouldn’t loom so large.
When Jill returned from the restroom she was no longer taller than Kelvin. She was a small Asian woman with tasteful shoes and a smart blazer.
She sat down across from Kelvin and told him she was a paralegal for one of the bigger law firms in town.
“Did that happen to you in the bathroom?” Kelvin asked.
“Now you are Asian?”
“My mother is Chinese and my father is Korean.”
“Oh my God. Now I’ll never be able to figure out how old you are.”
Jill nodded her head, pursed her lips, and returned to her salad. She uncrossed her legs and re-crossed them the opposite way.
“I was just trying to break the ice,” he said. “With a joke.”
“I know,” she told him and waved at the waiter to bring her more wine.
“The truth is,” Kelvin said, relieved to find this new person before him, “that I know exactly what you are going through. I’ve been through it too. I’ve never turned into a well-dressed Asian woman, but my ex turned into a completely different person on me as well. I loved her. She had this little cluster of freckles on her neck that just drove me crazy, but… she changed on me. She went from being this little sports freak to becoming Holly Homemaker and wanting kids and watching HGTV all the time. What happened to my beer-drinking Cubs fan, ya know? Where’d that girl go?”
“Maybe that’s who she was all the time. Little Holly Homemaker pretending to be a Cubs fan.”
“Maybe, he said. But she was such a huge Kyle Schwarber fan. Like insanely huge. But maybe it was all fake. Who knows.”
“It’s hard to fake that kind of dedication. People, really do change, you know.”
“I’ve never been with an Asian woman,” he said and bounced his eyebrows.
“Neither have I,” she said. “But who knows who we’ll be by the end of the night.”
The waiter brought their entrees, two different ones than they had ordered, but neither complained nor sent them back. Kelvin liked that Jill was able to deal with things changing. But then he wondered if she’d had their order changed when she’d left the table. If she was somehow manipulating him, seeing how he deals with change.
“The truth is,” he said, cutting into his steak, “is that I’m not really this guy either. I’m not this fit, alpha male guy. The guy you met at the bar the other night.”
“Who even was that guy?” Jill asked, using her finger with precision to slip her straight, dark hair, cinching it behind her ear like she was opening a curtain in a dark room.
“The reality is that it’s all just a front and Dawn probably came to realize that eventually.”
“Happens to us all eventually.”
“The truth is that I’ve had these tendencies to be with a man for a long time. I think, at heart, I’m this kind of queer homebody who just wants to stay in his bathrobe all day and build model ships or something else fastidious and quaint. I know I shouldn’t bring that up here, now, on this date, but …”
“But here we are,” Jill said.
“It’s not even that I am afraid to come out of the closet, it’s just that I think my mother’s expectations are that I will live a particular type of life. A sort of standard, white-picket fence kind of existence and I don’t even really know how to mention any of this to her without it being super-awkward. I guess I just don’t want either of us to deal with it.”
“And why are we even talking about your mother?”
“I don’t know,” Kelvin said.
“I’ve always wanted to be a gay man who could keep a secret,” Jill said.
They paid the check after Kelvin made a joke about how, now that Jill was a man, that maybe she should pay the check, but they were both in such a rush to get back to Jill’s place that Kelvin wasn’t even sure who paid what in the end.
By the time they got to Jill’s, Kelvin was feeling self-conscious. He’d retreated into a shell and felt nervous.
“Don’t worry about it,” Jill said. “How do you think I feel? I’ve only been a man for a half an hour.”
They laughed, like they were both in on the joke and they recaptured some of the light jokiness that they had felt when they’d been paying the bill.
Jill’s apartment was not huge, but it was appointed in such a way that their voices seemed to escape up to the ceiling and bounce there like lost balloons.
“I like your place,” Kelvin said of the small, neat apartment with dark curtains and a rich and masculine smell.
“I’ve never been here before,” Jill said and smiled.
Jill tried to offer Kelvin a drink, but Kelvin refused. She offered again and Kelvin accepted the glass of scotch, but did not drink it. Handing a man a scotch was something she had seen someone do in a movie and thought she wanted to do so as well. Her shirt was off and her pectoral muscles were defined and tan. Her chest was waxed, her cologne smelled like sandalwood. Kelvin could tell she had shaved before their date, but the whiskers on her face still scraped against Kelvin’s face. He’d never kissed a man before and he felt like he was getting away with something.
There was a mirror against the wall and Kelvin looked at his hands wrap around Jill’s strong back, the muscles piled up beneath her shoulder blades, a small cluster of freckles emerging by her collar bone. He could taste Jill’s tongue and his own and he knew how they were different, like a writhing caduceus alive and tangled.
The drinks he’d had were making him slow and he could feel his mouth twist into a grin even as they kissed.
Jill became forceful and pushed Kelvin backwards, wrapped her wide hands around his wrists and pushed him back against the bed.
After they were done fucking they crumbled onto the mattress, breathing heavy into each other, having gotten something neither realized they needed. They were exhausted and wet with each other’s sweat. Jill reached for Kelvin, but Kelvin rolled to the side of the bed. They fell asleep with Jill’s arm over Kelvin and neither one dreamed of anything strange or sad.
When they woke up the next day, Kelvin was a woman with large breasts and Jill was a black man, married to and cheating on a thin Indian woman. Jill kissed Kelvin on the cheek and smiled. I can’t see you anymore, Jill said to Kelvin. Jill’s penis throbbed even as she kissed, even as she smelled Kelvin’s perfume, glanced down at his breasts, spilling out to the side.
“I just can’t do this to my wife anymore.”
Kelvin nodded, pulling a shirt on and he left as a thirty something systems operator, twice divorced with three kids who wished he’d never let his first wife get away.
He called his mother and asked if she wanted to meet for lunch. He told her his relationship with Jill had not worked out. He said he was thinking about getting back together with Dawn, or possibly his wife.
His mother was incensed.
“When will you meet someone nice? I never liked Dawn and I never liked your wife.”
“You never even met my wife,” Kelvin argued. “This current identity just manifested itself this morning. As a matter of fact, I don’t think I’ve ever met my wife.”
“Still,” his mother responded, drinking her coffee. “It’s true that I never liked her. How could I have?”
“You always hate whoever I’m with,” Kelvin accused before storming out of the restaurant. It was the first time he’d ever stood up to her.
When Kelvin and Jill met again one day later, Kelvin was nearing retirement as one of the only female self-made billionaires in the country and Jill was a male underwear model with a thing for mommy-types. Kelvin made Jill smirk at a dumb joke that always worked and Jill scooted closer on the ferry they rode together out to the island at sunset, the myth of the moment ossified into permanence. Kelvin’s mom learned to love Jill, even when Jill was a gruff, cold contract lawyer who reminded her of her deceased husband.
Jill and Kelvin bought a house they could afford on their retail associate and receptionist salaries and they moved everything in. They sometimes had pets, sometimes did not. Sometimes had children, sometimes did not. They sometimes loved each other, sometimes did not. And they lived that way for a long time. Despite the temporal contortions inherent in their changing personhoods, the decay of the world occurred without consulting them. They were beholden to it the way a bird is not free from the wind.
Candace did not change. Kelvin met her on the subway platform where he was a track operator. She had spilled her shopping bags on the tracks near the third rail and Kelvin sent out an emergency stoppage to keep the trains from running while he retrieved her dropped items, dirtied, but returned. Candace was looking for a simple man, ruddy, who wanted to solve problems in a straight-forward manner. Kelvin wanted to think of himself this way, so he became that kind of person. He left Jill, left her the house, left everything behind. Kelvin’s mother was long dead by this point and Candace was his chance to try to achieve some kind of order. Some kind of consistency. It didn’t work, of course. Kelvin tried to maintain the persona Candace had been attracted to, but being that it was a façade, the act spun out of control, a too-wet vessel spun into a heap on a potter’s wheel. Kelvin could come home as a man drunk and needy, a woman furious and jealous, a person bitter and mean having failed to deliver on their promise. There Kelvin was, in the back seat of a car with one of his students at the university, there Kelvin was in an expensive hotel with several men, some wearing shirts and none wearing pants, there Kelvin was high and lonely at a sporting event, getting arrested. Candace never changed. She was always that woman who had dropped her shopping bags on the tracks of the subway and she could not, like Jill had, understand the vicissitude. It ruins them, of course, (when hasn’t it?), but can you even blame them for trying?