Back in 2011 I took a research trip to Louisville, Kentucky, to do some writing and interview a friend who lived there. I’d lived in Louisville for a short but significant six months the year after I graduated from college, when I’d moved north to complete an internship with Actors Theatre, and I’d been back to visit a few times since. For the research trip I’d booked a room in a B&B in Old Louisville, just across from Central Park, around the corner from my former apartment, and—best of all—within walking distance of my favorite place in town: the neighborhood of St. James and Belgravia Courts, home to a plethora of grand old Victorian manses whose architecture I never tired of ogling.
I was glad to escape home, for a few days at least, and an on-again, off-again quasi-relationship I’d gotten myself involved in, which had been further complicated by a former boyfriend who’d also been calling. The first man wanted to be friends-with-benefits but remained emotionally distant, while the second pursued emotional intimacy but avoided sex. Both were dodging committing to a full-on relationship, and I was frustrated.
On my last evening in Louisville, I visited my houses one final time. St. James Court and Belgravia intersect in a T-shape, and I liked to trace the T, starting on the right of St. James (the base), stroll along Belgravia (the top), and finish my walk down the left side of St. James.
I’d photographed a gray and white cat in front of one of the Belgravia houses (cats abound on the pedestrian-only court) and tried to capture a beautiful library aglow through a window. All I was eyeing were shelves of books, but I felt like a peeping Tom, so I skulked, camera in hand, giddy with guilt.
A man approached from St. James, and I figured I was about to get scolded. I palmed my camera, but he just stopped and said, “Why does everyone have cameras? What’s everyone taking pictures of?”
Huh, so maybe he wasn’t part of the neighborhood watch. Forty-something, reasonably trim, close-cropped gray hair, regular features—he was handsome in an ordinary guy kind of way. He wore a plain t-shirt and shorts.
“I was wondering,” he replied, shoving his hands in his pockets. “I’m here from out of town, and I keep seeing all these people with cameras. I thought, well, the houses are pretty, but why so many cameras?” He paused. “Where did you move to? Where do you live now?”
“Roanoke, Virginia,” I said.
He looked surprised. “That’s quite a move.”
“Well, there’ve been a few in-between,” I said, not quite sure what to make of the whole conversation. I was wary—he seemed nice enough, but I’d forgotten to put my phone in my pocket. I hadn’t planned to stay out after dark, either, so I was minus a light source. No one else was out walking, though we were surrounded by homes. The man lingered, so I asked, “You said you’re here from out of town—where are you from?”
“Evanston, Illinois area,” he said. He traveled to set up new grocery store displays for organic frozen vegetables. “It’s not that exciting,” he said, “but it’s good money.”
“Well, any job in this economy is a good one,” I replied.
We introduced ourselves—his name was Tim—and he asked about my job. I told him I taught and wrote, that I was doing some research in town. He asked me if the area was safe, which was reassuring. I played tour guide, extolling the neighborhood and selling him on the charms of the historic downtown hotels; he was staying at a chain and thought it dull.
At some point, I mentioned I was leaving town the next day.
“Oh, that’s a shame,” he said, looking genuinely disappointed. “If you weren’t headed out tomorrow, maybe we could have had dinner.”
Oh. “Yes, that would have been nice, but I’m headed out at 8 AM.”
“Yes, that would have been nice. Unless—are you married?”
I laughed. No, not married.
“Because that might have made it a problem.” He peered at me intently in the dusk. “Have you ever been married?” I shook my head. “How come you’ve never been married? I mean, you’re so attractive, and your personality is, too.”
“Yeah, I’ve gotten that question before,” I said. “I don’t know.” Maybe if someone I’d dated had asked me to marry them, instead of asking why I wasn’t yet married?
Uh oh. Even in a strange city, out minding my own business taking pictures of gargoyles, I was a magnet for a man on the rebound.
“Recently” was about a year; Tim had been married for twenty. “And this dating thing, you know,” he said, “I tried to go to a bar and meet someone, and that’s just not for me. It’s hard.”
I’d been dating five years longer than Tim had been married. I suggested Match.com and told him about the Meetup outdoor club I’d joined.
Tim said he wasn’t ready for a relationship. I understood, given his circumstances, but the refrain was a little too familiar. Then he said, “When you’ve been married that long, it’s hard, you know.” He paused. “I mean, especially the sexual thing.”
“Yeah, dating is tough these days. Maybe you need a friend-with-benefits, something uncomplicated.” Right—because that was working out so well for me. “But if you’re looking to meet people, just make friends, Meetup really is great.”
Tim shoved his hands deeper in his pockets, saying, again, “Yeah, I’m not ready for a relationship, but after you’ve been married twenty years and then there’s no sex, that’s hard.” The light was slowly dawning. “It’s too bad you’re leaving tomorrow. It would be nice to have dinner.” He was definitely angling for a fling, but he’d prefer to buy me dinner before he propositioned me. That was nice.
“I guess it would be too forward to ask if you’d like company tonight?” Tim smiled hopefully.
Oh boy. “Oh, well, I’m flattered, but I don’t think that’s a good idea,” I said.
“No friends with benefits, huh?” Tim said wistfully. I wasn’t sure he understood the concept, as he and I weren’t friends. Perfect strangers with benefits was a one night stand.
“Well, it’s just—I’m flattered, but I don’t think so.” I pictured walking back into the bed and breakfast, passing the innkeepers as I headed upstairs with a strange man in tow: “Look what I found on my walk!”
“Well, it’s just that you’re so attractive, it couldn’t hurt to ask,” he said. Awkward silence. He looked so sad. If he was a serial killer, his was a really convincing shtick.
“I’d give you a card, but I don’t have any on me,” I added, hoping the “maybe someday” element of the gesture might take the sting out a bit.
Tim spread his arms wide, palms up. “Me either, I just threw this on, had to get out of the hotel room for a little while.”
We shook hands, said good night. I turned back toward the B&B, shaking my head at the absurdity of the evening: I go for a walk to take pictures of pretty doorways, and I get propositioned for sex by a stranger. There had to be a nice guy out there somewhere, healed and whole, who wanted an actual relationship—didn’t there? As I walked I toyed with the wording for a funny Facebook status, thinking I’d post something about the encounter for a laugh.
But it was too raw, too poignant. Tim was so lonely. His advances were clumsy, a little desperate. And not a little courageous. But mostly he was lonely. Lonely and horny and wondering how he got there and trying to figure out what to do to get somewhere else. Just like everyone else. Just like me.
Night had fallen. As I walked back down St. James, the manses lining the street blurred in the gathering darkness, their beauty no less for my not being able to see it, in that moment more remote and inaccessible than ever.