He Never Wore Khaki in My Fantasies
Brenda rolled her window halfway down, keeping one hand on the wheel while the other fished in her purse for a smoke. I picked the lighter up from the dashboard and held it out to her, hoping she would look back up before we drove off the freeway.
“Bloody car lighter doesn’t work,” she said. She leaned over and I lit her cigarette myself, wishing I could make “bloody” anything sound that hip and natural.
Brenda had spent a semester in London when we were juniors in college, and she came back with the greatest pseudo-English accent. It was nothing obvious, but every so often you could detect an inflection change in her sentences, or a softening of her “a” sounds. If I were talking instead of writing, I could demonstrate, but I can’t on paper, even though my writing teacher says I should be able to. She said that’s what good writers can do, make you hear things and see things, just by writing a few words. But I’m not that good yet.
I write sports articles for the local paper, and only joined the writing class because Brenda wanted me to. She wanted to impress an author she met when covering a fashion show, and thought he would take notice of her if she said she was writing a novel. He turned out to be gay, which gave her some good material. I told her people have been writing about unrequited love for centuries. She got through half of it, but then turned her attention toward a local musician on the verge of making it big, so she stopped the first novel and began work on a new one, the one she calls her “masterpiece.”
We worked for the same paper, but her assignments were a lot more glamorous than mine. She was the “Style and Fashion” reporter and I was a tomboy fighting for word space on a man’s page. I enjoyed the challenge, and sometimes, I knew that my low cut shirts got me access that those overweight, balding reporters could never get. Sexism did have its benefits. I was a good reporter. I knew sports, and grew up watching football religiously every Sunday, the only child of a father who had pro linebacker dreams himself, but settled for a job as executive sales manager instead.
He didn’t want a boy. He was content raising a rough and tumble girl who could hold her own against any man. I guess that’s what he got. I enjoyed a challenge and could talk football statistics with the best of them. The contradiction was amusing, even though it confused a lot of men. I didn’t look like a tomboy. I had long, curly black hair and brown eyes, with long lashes. I liked getting dressed up every once in awhile and enjoyed listening to classical music and reading poetry. Brenda told me once that I scared men away because I was intimidating.
“Face it darling,” she said, “You aren’t exactly easy to categorize and that sometimes scares men. You just need to find someone who respects that and isn’t afraid that you know more than he does.”
I knew she was right, but I didn’t think that sort of man existed. He was a fantasy, a figment of our female imagination: someone who was caring and considerate, sexy yet gentle, and focused always on us. I didn’t like reality most of the time. It was boring and repressive. I preferred to live in fantasies.
It was dark on the freeway and the lights of Sacramento faded in the distance, as the early fall chill blew through the car window. It was midnight and we were driving back to San Jose from a party Brenda’s new boyfriend Eric had invited us to. Brenda was holding her cigarette in the same hand that held the wheel. She was pushing buttons on the radio with the other. Her bracelets tinkled when she stuck her cigarette out to ash it, and her rings tapped the glass. Everything about Brenda was melodic and graceful, sophisticated and elegant; everything except her name: Brenda. It had all the delicate conjurings of a scowling librarian in a mumu. She was tall and willowy, with long blond hair and high cheekbones. She deserved a more elegant name. Her parents might as well have named her “Ruth” or “Alice.”
I studied her out of the corner of my eye. In my novel she would be called Ivy or Lauren, something classy. No wait, Ivy sounded too much like a stripper. Cicily. In my novel she would be named Cicily and would be a fashion designer in Paris.
“So, what did you think of Eric?” she asked, as she threw the cigarette out the window.
Smoking fit Brenda because women who smoked in their 20s and 30s still looked sexy doing it. It was ethereal. Exactly when did it start looking pathetic? When did you go from ethereal beauty to crouping old lady playing the nickel-slot machines in Reno? It was a long way to fall and it happened so quickly.
“I like him,” I said. “But you don’t.”
She laughed. “OK. I know he’s a Republican, but he’s cute isn’t he? He’s really smart and always wears Polo shirts.” She paused and rolled the window back up. “Conservative but cute. He reminds me of Alex P. Keaton in those old ‘Family Ties’ episodes.”
I laughed. “I haven’t thought about that show in years. My cousin used to think Alex P. Keaton was cute, but I always thought the dad was better.”
“God, Danielle,” she said. “You and that father figure thing. Why do you always go for older men? You know, the trend these days is older women and younger men.”
“Who cares what the trend is. I think for myself, thank you very much.”
Brenda shook her head. “So, tell me about this hot football coach, Mark Quaid. Have you shagged him yet?”
I felt a familiar giddiness rise up in my stomach. It was the same feeling I used to get in tenth grade watching Corey Sherman in his navy blue Speedos, diving at the swim meet.
Corey never liked me. Said we were better off as friends. “It’s not you, it’s me.” And then he stared straight into my eyes, creased his brow, and said, “I just don’t want to ruin our friendship.” Friendship? We didn’t have a friendship. We had two classes together and my friends used to dedicate songs to him from me at the dances, when they knew he liked Carla, a senior, on the swim team.
I was obsessed with Corey for the good part of two years. I tore his picture out of the yearbook and hung it above my bed, right there in between Johnny Depp and Joe Montana. There was Corey, with his goofy gap-toothed grin and blond hair hanging down one side of his forehead, wearing a striped shirt.
“Oh I get it,” Brenda said. “You love talking about my sex life, but you won’t tell me about yours now? Come on Danni, we’ve never kept secrets from each other before.”
I stared out the window, into the darkness on the side of the road and thought about what I wanted to tell Brenda; something so good and sexy that she would be impressed with me for a change. I pictured it in my head. Mark was sitting there staring at me, his deep blue eyes lowered, with a look that suggested he wanted to do a lot more than talk about football. He was wearing a black hooded sweatshirt with the team logo on the pocket, a pair of faded jeans, and black leather boots.
Where were we? A quaint French café? A downtown coffee shop?
No, we were at an expensive restaurant, with the lights dimmed and one red rose in a vase on the table.
“I’ve been expecting you,” he said, standing up to greet me. He put his arm on my shoulder and guided me to the chair.
“You look beautiful,” he whispered. His lips brushed my ear and I could smell him: that mixture of fresh aftershave and smoky cologne.
“So, is it true about football players?” Brenda asked, oblivious to my silence. “Are they great in bed? Someone told me that once, but I’m not sure I believe it. Aren’t they all on steroids?”
“They’re not all on steroids,” I said reproachfully. “Why would the coach be on steroids? That’s just stupid.”
“God,” she said. “Sorry. Don’t get so defensive.”
A brief silence followed as I tried to resume my fantasy. Why would Mark be wearing his team sweatshirt out to dinner? He should be wearing a blue suit with a green silk tie. Green? Too flashy. Mark wasn’t the flashy type. He would prefer a blue tie, or no tie at all. The only times I ever saw him he wore jeans and one of those team sweatshirts, hanging loose around the chest.
One day he was talking about special teams and I just melted into that shirt, right through the fabric and onto his chest. He worked out with the players everyday, and had that one vein traversing his arm the way so many bodybuilders do. It wasn’t bulging out, but merely suggesting itself there on his upper arms, a quiet suggestion of his strength. He liked to pull up the sleeves of the sweatshirt and you could see his muscular arms, with a small shamrock tattoo on his left bicep. What would he look like without that bulky pullover? With nothing on but a pair of skimpy white briefs? I must have thought about those questions more than I ever did about football.
“Danni?” Brenda said. “Why aren’t you talking to me? OK, forget Mark. Obviously you don’t want to talk about him. Are you going to the work party next weekend?”
“Yes, of course,” I said, watching the sea of car lights passing us on the other side of the freeway. There was something calming about all of that movement. “You are, aren’t you?”
“I guess. I’m trying to get Eric to go. That will be our first formal date.”
“You put too much emphasis on all of that, Bren,” I said. “Just relax and enjoy it. Trust me, you won’t be together for that long. Don’t stress.”
“Oh, that’s nice,” she snapped. “Why are you trying to sabotage my relationship? You just want to set me up with some football player, don’t you? So we can double date?”
“No,” I said. “I don’t care who you go out with, but I know he’s not your type. What is he? The State Senator’s aide? Come on, Bren. You need the Senator himself, not the peon at the bottom.”
She turned to me in the darkness and then looked back at the road. I could tell that she had flashed me one of her signature condescending looks, with squinted eyes and pouting lips, but I was being honest. Brenda and I had known each other too long to hide the truth. It wasn’t that I didn’t like Eric, it was just that he was content meeting the needs of others and not becoming someone himself.
Brenda was a climber. Everyone she had ever dated since college was an upwardly mobile person, a person who had goals. She needed someone to satisfy her expensive tastes. Just to go to the party that night, she wore a Hermes scarf, a silk blouse, and wool skirt. True, she could afford it with her own salary, but she didn’t want to buy it. She wanted someone to give it to her, to lavish her with gifts and treat her like a queen, the way her father did.
Brenda sighed as if thinking it over. “I know. You could fix me up with one of those cute little rookies, straight out of college: a twenty year old with not much to say but a whole lot of money. Fabulous!”
I nodded. “I’ll see what I can do. You should come to practice with me one day. Tell your editor you’re doing a piece on gridiron fashion. I’m sure you could make something out of it. The team is hot. You should come take a look.”
“God, I feel old,” she said. We’re already almost thirty and those guys are babies compared to us. Isn’t that sad?”
“I always feel like a kid next to Mark. He just turned forty, but he always calls me a kid for some reason.”
“Oh that’s sexy,” she sneered.
“Well, in a way it is,” I said, feeling giddy again. “He’s like the wizened mentor.”
“Danni, this guy could call you a stupid bitch and you would think it’s sexy. You are so far gone.”
“I am not,” I said.
“Yes you are. You were making judgments about my man, so I can do it about yours too.”
“Yeah,” I said, “But there’s one difference. I’ve met Eric and I’ve seen you two together. There’s no chemistry between you. I can tell. You’ve never met Mark.”
“I don’t think I ever will,” she said. “Isn’t he married?”
“He’s getting divorced.”
She chuckled. “Yeah, likely story.”
“He is! They’re already separated. He moved out two months ago.”
“Were you shagging him two months ago?”
I loved the way Brenda said “shagging” and was tempted not to answer her just so she would have to repeat it.
I hesitated, lost somewhere between my fantasy dinner with Mark and the answer to Brenda’s question. The wind hummed outside the car and the sea of lights moved steadily along the other side of the freeway.
“We haven’t done anything yet,” I said, blushing. I was glad she couldn’t see me in the dark.
“Oh my God!” she said, banging her hand on the steering wheel. “You haven’t done anything? You mean you’re wasting all this time on someone who hasn’t even asked you out? Are you crazy?”
“I don’t care if he asks me out or not, Bren,” I said, trying to sound nonchalant, but instead sounding flat and monotone, like a robot. “We have a good relationship and get along well. That’s all I ever said. I never said I wanted him to ask me out.”
She spoke slowly, dragging out each word. “You… are…such…a…liar.”
I started laughing. “Well, OK. I want him to ask me out, badly. He has become my absolute number one fantasy, and I think about him every waking minute. Is it that obvious?”
“Yeah, I thought it was. It’s just that I see him all the time, and I have to interview him all the time. He’s so cute. He’s got this little boy quality to him, and he always looks like he has been caught doing something naughty. You know what I mean?”
“Yeah!” Brenda’s voice became louder. “Now it’s getting good.” She grabbed her purse from the floor and fished around for another cigarette. “I know what you should do,” she said, before she put the cigarette to her lips. “You should write a story about him. You know, something really romantic, and then give it to him as a present. That way you never have to tell him how you feel. He can just read it and guess what you’re saying. I’m always trying to do that with men I like. It’s really quite cute.”
“I can’t do that,” I said. “I write articles about him for a living. That would look so unprofessional and stupid. And I’m such a dork compared to those cute cheerleaders he sees at all the games. Why would he care about what I have to say?”
“You are so lame!” Brenda squealed. “I can’t believe you are too chicken to do this. You know Danni, this is why you never get the guy you want. You are too scared to make the first move.”
I thought again of Corey Sherman and the way I used to watch him diving from the corner of the bleachers where he wouldn’t see me. I would sit there for the entire swim meet, just watching his every nuance, and he would never know. I studied the way he shook his head back and forth three times when he got out of the pool; and the way he would take the little blue hand towel and rub it up and down his legs, leaving his arms to dry in the sun. He liked to go over and talk to his brother in the stands and high-five his dad. In my fantasy I was sitting there beside his family and they loved me. They wanted us to marry right after graduation. He would come up to me after he got out of the pool and kiss me after every dive.
“Leave me alone Bren,” I said. “I don’t think Mark Quaid would be flattered by some weak attempt at romance writing.”
“Alright,” she said, sighing. “I tried to help you.”