When James McClane and Betty went on their first date, they decided to take a walk around the square. They poked their noses in the pet store, shared a milkshake, and ended the day by the fountain that never ran. The still water was clear and rippled in the wind, making the bottom full of coins shiver.
James still hated the small town, but hated it less when Betty was around. She liked going to the places that faded into the background. She knew which waiter at the diner would give her a discounted root beer. She had secret rocks by the pond where she hid a pack of cigarettes and matches of different sizes that she took one-by-one out of her father’s study. She and James shared one on their first date, both trying not to cough more than the other.
Betty made their town seem big. James let her lead him all over the dirt roads, and he reciprocated her efforts by teaching her harmonica. She sewed holes in his pockets, he opened her jam jars, she assured him his moustache was even on both sides, he practiced on his sister’s old doll until he could French braid her hair. They were a single unit in a matter of weeks, an amalgamation of their strengths and weaknesses.
Their child, Michael, asked out Susie Q. his junior year of high school, and on their first date they decided to take a walk around the square. They landed at the diner, where they shared a basket of fries and talked about the cycle of human misunderstanding, the meaninglessness of waking up, their favorite places to be alone. They went to the fountain, and Susie Q. stole some coins when no one was looking. Michael thought she was dangerous, sexy, dark.
They drove to the middle of the cornfield and smoked a cigarette together. Michael breathed in lightly and held the smoke in his mouth. Susie Q. sucked on it like a straw, and Michael’s mouth went dry watching her.
She wore long sleeves every day, even in the summer heat, even with shorts so tiny they were closer in shape to a bathing suit, and halfway through their first date she told him why, unprompted. She rolled up her sleeves to show what she called her “battle scars,” her eyes flat and unwavering, her voice strangely proud as she described the sharp objects and excuses she used. Michael held her hand as she spoke, though it didn’t seem like she needed much comfort. He wondered what made her so sad. He wondered if he would ever be so sad as to follow her lead.
Years later, Michael asked out Bonnie after their first dance class. He was still technically dating Susie-Q.-turned-Sue-Anne, but their relationship was crumbling with time and distance and he didn’t want to miss his chance with the redhead who leaned into his nervous hands. On their first date, they took a walk around Central Park, ended up sitting by the pond and talking about their hopes for college, their majors, their roommates. She laughed like wind chimes.
Bonnie was easy, happy, bouncy. She missed home but loved New York. She missed her old friends, and talked far too much about a boy named Craig whom she swore she never dated. Michael bought her ice cream and pizza and candy, until she told him she wanted to pay for herself. They did the dance class for awhile, then pottery class, then poetry, Bonnie leading him from activity to activity with the attention span of a small dog. Michael let her lead him, captivated by her optimism, her love of folk music, her passion for Scrabble and her failed attempts to shuffle cards. She taught him the fun of watching muted horror movies while playing ill-fitting music, and he taught her how to cook everything from eggs to steak-tip salad. They ended their first year a Renaissance couple, jacks of all trades and masters of some.
Craig’s first date with Michelle actually went swimmingly. They went for a walk around their college campus and she gave him his first joint, which made him cough for five minutes straight and then get so dizzy they had to sit on a bench for awhile. Craig was sure he was blowing it. Michelle liked this new boy, she was already addicted to his innocence. She wanted to be his first everything. She was tired of being single, and she could tell Craig was, too.
They ate at the dining hall, since it was “fake money,” and then walked more in the quad as the sun set over the rolling hills. Michelle walked him to the soccer field as Craig’s woozy mind processed the feel of wet grass tickling his ankles. They chatted about the beauty of the sky, the loneliness of school, the fact that orientation had been rather over-the-top.
Michelle brought him under the bleachers and told him to lay down. There was already a blue tarp there, and a pillow, though both seemed years old. Michelle explained she knew about them from her older friends who also went to their college. Craig was having a hard time comprehending her words, as her voice had such an interesting texture to it he only wanted to listen to its rise and fall, its smooth rumble and its harsh whisper.
Michelle told him to lay still. She wanted to do all the work. Craig laid on the rustling tarp, his head on the dirt-caked pillow, and stared through the bleachers at the moon as Michelle made love to him. He held perfectly still, as she asked. Vaguely, he realized he should have told her he was a virgin. Vaguely, he realized he wasn’t wearing a condom and had no idea about Michelle’s history or chances of getting pregnant. But as she lifted his hands off the ground and placed them on her body, all thoughts were wiped clean from his mind. It felt nice, to not worry about anything. Craig decided he wanted to remain worriless as long as possible.
Years later, Michael woke up in Susie Q.’s home in Nahant to the sound of a giggling child. Susie Q. shushed her daughter, told her that their guest was still sleeping. After a breakfast spent bonding with the adorable girl, the three of them went for a walk. It was so easy to fall into this version of Susie Q. She was far less angry, and her arms, though peppered with faint scars, were whole and uncut. She still liked her screamy music, but was very careful which songs she played around her daughter.
She didn’t smoke at all anymore, and her little job paid for her little house and little girl. She said if Michael helped pay for bills and groceries he could stay as long as he like. Michael, who already loved her daughter, did.
Though it felt improvisational, they followed the usual script of a rekindled friendship. They would stay friends, they decided, both knowing that was temporary.
Bonnie and Craig decided that after both their marriages fell apart in various tragic ways to remain only friends, both knowing that was temporary. After quite some time both living in Craig’s small apartment, they went on a first date. A walk around Central Park.
They took a horse carriage, sipping at coffees, chatting about careers and tours and disasters and successes, how tired they were of New York City, Craig’s dance classes and Bonnie’s broken shoes. She insisted she didn’t need new shoes but it was decided—shoe shopping.
Bonnie giggled as Craig had her try on a set of ridiculously high heels and strangely-shaped sneakers with vibrant colored laces. He then pulled out a pair that she loved, that fit her perfectly. They laughed about how much it reminded them of Cinderella.
That night, laying side by side on Craig’s bed so close their noses touched when they smiled, they laughed about how after more than twenty-five years of friendship they were only now having their first date. Technically. Bonnie sighed about all the things they went to, adjacently. They went to prom together, but with different dates, for example.
Craig said that that was okay. That life isn’t a movie, and there are no finish lines. That prom is silly anyhow, and that they both wanted different things for a long time, until now, he hoped. Bonnie said that she had wanted to kiss him a million times in high school. Craig said that when he met her in first grade he thought he loved her for awhile. Bonnie lamented again the time they had lost.
Craig told her not to worry about the past. They were here now, however broken the paths were behind them. Bonnie asked if he would be angry if she was still sad about Michael. Craig said no, as long as she wasn’t angry if he was still sad about Michelle.
“Are we broken people?” Bonnie asked, scooting closer so she could hug Craig close.
“In a good way, yes.”
Craig held her for the last hours of their first date, remembering all that had led up to that moment, from their exes to their parents to their ancestors, back to the beginning of human history. The chances that they’d even know each other at all were so slim that they had to forgive the universe for not letting them be together until now.
Craig breathed in the scent of her hair and smiled, thankful that they had finally fallen in love with each other at the same time.