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Steven McBrearty

A Certain Type 

The first time I saw Kimberly Ryan I knew she was the right type for me, my standard for type at age 18 being basically a Playboy bunny with brains, a political conscience, and a taste for early 19th Century British poets. OK, so she didn't have precisely all of these attributes, but her figure covered up, so to speak, for minor deficiencies in the other areas. It's amazing the rationalizations an 18-year-old male with a reasonably healthy libido (or a 40-year-old, for that matter) will make in the presence of feminine pulchritude.

I met Kimberly on the campus of San Antonio College, the local two-year community college where I had "matriculated" after high school. Matriculated approximately three miles. Rah rah--SAC!

Have you ever noticed that community college students seem sometimes unfinished, incomplete? I felt incomplete, a work-in-progress with rough edges as jagged as an abandoned, armless sculpture. There was no sense of allegiance, no shared purpose, no, well--community. And I remained living at home, while most of my erstwhile classmates had moved on to real campuses where they could engage in maturing, manly activities such as panty raids and political riots. As the oldest of five children, and the first to ply these treacherous waters of early adulthood, my fantasies were filled with dreams of escape. I dreamed always of escape.

My classmate in a freshman English literature survey course, Kim was one of those rare feminine commodities--a knockout. She had peroxide blond hair with brown roots, ice blue lips, a slight bump in an otherwise perfect nose, a starlet's smile, and the body of a California sun goddess. In her presence, vulnerable men walked about stunned and stupefied, victims of hormonal overload. I had worshipped her, on looks alone, for weeks.

Then, one morning after class, Kim dropped her backpack on the linoleum-tile floor in the dingy hallway of the English Building and I lunged like a football linebacker to retrieve it. She thanked me and we exchanged far-reaching remarks regarding world geo-political-ecological conditions. Then she said, "Hey, want to join me in the SUB?"

I felt surprised and flattered, trembling slightly behind a delicate facade of stolid manhood. My libido was unreeling like kite string on a windy day. Me? Her?

"Sure," I said, hiding my exhilaration with a hip, blasť indifference. "That would be fine." "Yes!" my mind shouted. "Oh, God, yes!"

SUB meant the Student Union Building, a kind of cafeteria/activity center/den of thieves situated in a vast, warehouse-like structure permeated by the smell of whatever luncheon items were on the daily menu. We filled Styrofoam cups with coffee from a spigot in a cafeteria-style line and paid a cashier whose hair-do dated from the Eisenhower administration.

I followed her to a square, white-topped formica table, where I discovered myself in a conversation of intense hyperbole. Floating on a dangerous, potentially-toxic mix of adrenaline, hormones, and thick black coffee, I felt flushed and fluttery as we proceeded. We began with Elizabethan poets and moved right on into Keats, Coleridge, T. S. Eliot, and Wallace Stevens, in language lifted almost verbatim from the instructor's lectures. Then the topic shifted suddenly, to sex. Though I knew virtually nothing first-hand about this department, I spoke as an expert and an authority.

"For a woman," Kim said importantly, "the spiritual component of sexual behavior is extremely important."

"Oh, for men, too," I said. "The spiritual component of sex is critically important."

"If two people really love each other, I don't see why it's wrong," she said.

"Me, neither," I concurred, enthusiastically. "For two people in love--why not?" Kim nodded, leaning forward on her elbows, apparently rapt. Fear and excitement both reared up inside me, like wild horses.

"Tell me something about yourself," Kim said, then. I delayed, attempting to convey an attitude of practiced nonchalance. What could I say? My life was inherently uninteresting, a turn-off, a narrative as long and as dull as a third-rate Russian novel. But under these conditions of high-level stress, I delivered what was arguably one of the most significant lines of b.s. in my entire life.

"I'll level with you," I said. "I'm prince of a small, little known South American potentate. I inherit the throne when I turn 21." Kim laughed, a rich, powerful baritone that thrilled me with its implied affirmation.

'"A prince!" she exclaimed. "I knew there was something different about you. So they speak English there?"
"The educated classes do," I proclaimed. "We've always spoken English. But with a French accent, sometimes." I spoke with a French accent, then. Kim laughed again, clapping her hands together.

"Do you find we Americans to be greedy capitalistic pigs?" she said.

"Most Americans, yes. You, no."

When the buzzer for the next class period sounded, Kim shocked me again, taking my hand in hers. My hand was like a lump of clay, my autonomic nervous system pleading for directions.

"Would you like to take me out?" she asked, without previously consulting my physician. I feel fairly certain I blacked out briefly, but no reliable witness has stepped forward to verify this.

'"Take you out?" I blundered.

"You've heard of that, I think, in your home country," she said, slapping my wrist and laughing. "You know--a date." I laughed, too--I sensed that's what I did, anyway. I couldn't be entirely certain what was happening to my physical being.

"Sure," I said. But then I developed a fast-acting degenerative nerve disorder which, as I lifted my coffee cup, caused me to inhale the steaming liquid directly into my nostrils. "I'll take you out."

'"You're not already taken, then?" Kim said. "I thought you prince-types were usually fixed up with somebody by age ten."

"Taken?" I said faintly, clinically comatose, almost. Sadly, I had never considered myself "taken." Oh, how I longed to be taken. I thought fast. "Well, I was scheduled to be married back home next weekend, but decided to call it off." Kim laughed again. I found it marvelous that I could make her laugh. Then I watched fascinated as she moved her hand onto my wrist to begin a slow, sensuous massage.

"Since you're calling it off, then, fine," Kim said. "I wouldn't want to interfere." I waved my hand in wild entreaty.

"I was heading over to call her just this minute," I said.

"Your princess-bride will be terribly disappointed."
"She's not really suited for me anyway. She throws the discus for our national team."
"In that, case, then. . . " she said. We stared into each other's eyes, formulating our future.

"Do I make you nervous?" Kim asked, unexpectedly. Another of those dreaded questions, hitting at my weak spots like poison-tipped darts. I was loaded with weak spots. I could picture a diagram of myself with weak spots highlighted in red magic marker.

"N-nervous," I said, nervously. "Of course not. Not at all." She stared in at me, eyes shining with amusement.

"Good," she said then. "I'm so glad I don't. Take me away, then--Prince!"

A big plop of perspiration fell onto the table top, and I smudged it casually away with an elbow. Kim pursed her lips with an air of mock petulance that seemed somehow intensely intimate. In a sense, it seemed as though our relationship were going through an incredible fast-forward cycle--before we even went out, we would be ready to break up.

'"You know, I think I'm going to like you," Kim said. She leaned forward to touch my face, her fingertips lingering on the trembling, vulnerable edge of my chin. "I think I'm going to like you a lot."

I was helpless. When she left for class, waving coquettishly, I remained festooned to my molded-plastic sling chair, drained and drenched. I felt that I needed a professional quality debriefing--somebody from NASA or the CIA--or a squeegee to remove the moisture from my clothing.

I drove home in a trance, sidestepped my mother, and retreated to my bedroom to begin a regimen of heavy daydreaming. I lay flat on my back, staring up at a revolving ceiling fan.

I was faking everything, of course--my air of sophistication, a sense of savvy, even my knowledge of literature, all surface. As for females, any meaningful experience was woefully lacking, as I had attended a Catholic high school with an all-male student body and a straight-laced faculty which insisted on a pre-Middle Ages definition of sin. (A companion girl's school was located nearby, but a difficult hike through mountain terrain, and guarded heavily.) My infrequent interludes with members of the opposite sex had all ended badly, with me making desperate and plaintive phone calls long after any even faintly-cognizant person would understand the relationship was dead and over.

Recently, just after high school graduation, there was a faint, narrowly-pinpointed, ray of hope. This consisted of an ego-building summertime fling with a coed from the girl's school I just mentioned. She was far more than I deserved, really. She was pretty but relentlessly sarcastic, she looked marvelous in a swimsuit, she operated with a sense of hard-nosed self-assurance that made me feel happily, and surprisingly, accepted. Her parents had a house with a swimming pool! In my short-sighed immaturity, my life seemed complete, my future assured. I made dreamy plans for a long, comfortable career with children and grandchildren and numerous labor-saving devices. But, in the end, it was just another chaste and innocent relationship, and after one hot and hectic six-week period involving a rather intense meeting of the lips, and nothing much else, Jane Marie abruptly, unfathomably, lost interest. It all came crashing down, leaving me empty, my future wide open.

Wide open and insecure, the story of my life.

To prepare for Friday night's date, I put on a pair of dark glasses and practiced a confident, persuasive walk. I reviewed various topics of discussion in my mind. In the bathroom mirror, I practiced both fundamental and advanced kissing techniques. I even prepared several separate personalities, responses to situations. Kim was no sweet, innocent Catholic school girl with their sexual hang-ups and their scrupulous life plans, she was a real modern woman. This was a whole new ballgame.

By the time I arrived to pick Kim up, in the parking lot of the Handy-Andy Supermarket where she worked, part-time, I was cool, in charge, completely in control--like a dog is in control when it spies a chunk of red meat. I greeted her with an almost hysterical good humor.

'"Hi, Prince!" Kim said, striking a seductive, alluring pose. She wore a stunning little leather miniskirt, a silky white blouse with a glimpse of undergarment beneath, and a red cap, a sort of beret, worn at an angle on her head, giving her a certain, ineffably European, ambiance.

She smiled significantly and snuggled up beside me in the front seat, the way girls did before bucket seats became standard and safety belts mandatory. She placed her hand foursquare on my thigh.

"Plenty of gas?" she asked. The question seemed intensely personal, vaguely erotic.

"Sure," I said, checking the fuel gauge discreetly. I turned the ignition key with a hand that seemed disembodied, and my 1967 Ford Mustang roared up like the main engine on the Battleship Saratoga. My foot seemed suddenly to develop a mind of its own, performing a snappy little tap dance number on the accelerator. I drove with Kim hanging on my shoulder, her perfume drifting up into my besieged nostrils like a divine elixir.

"So where are we going?" Kim said. My Big Moment.

"How does Luigi's sound?" I said, with more pluck than bravado. Luigi's was an Italian restaurant with a romantic view of the jagged, art-deco skyline of downtown San Antonio. After our previous conversation, I had decided finally that an elegant dinner with subdued lighting, classical music, and deferential waiters would set the tone for a relationship both physically and intellectually satisfying. Afterwards--the world would be our oyster! A little Shakespeare, a little vixen in heat.

But Kim's glance was coy and cool. She stretched over into my driving space to breath sweetly into an unguarded ear. The sensation was like igniting 40 million tons of TNT directly beneath my posterior.

"I've got a better idea," she cooed, squeezing my hand.

The history of mankind must be glutted with the sad if gallant tales of gullible young men who followed women with a "better idea." Followed them over a precipice. Followed them straight to hell. Followed them into unhappy relationships marked by years of quiet daily suffering, sometimes genuine martyrdom. Whatever you say, Dear!

"What would you like to do?" I said, in a wan, muted, voice, choked with anxiety. Kim smiled dreamily. Yes! Yes! We were going to dispense with all the foolish preliminaries and check directly into a Motel Six.

"Let's go dancing!" Kim said.

"Dancing!" I said. My disappointment registered on the Richter Scale.

"Yeah, you know--where you move your legs and your arms and sometimes you shake your butt a little."

"Oh, yeah," I said. "Dancing." She shot me her first dubious look.

"You don't like to dance?" she said.

"No, no!" I protested vigorously. "I love to dance! I just--"

"Let's go, then!" she said.

"Let's go!" I said.

I hated dancing.

I hated dancing because I disliked being on display, I guess. I hated dancing because everybody else looked like they were having a marvelous time, and I was having a miserable time. I hated dancing due to a bad body image engendered by my mother's overprotectiveness. Or because I was overweight as a child. Or negative feedback in my crucial, early-dancing years. Perhaps I was merely afraid. Afraid to open myself up for failure, afraid of embarrassment, afraid that my past would come back to haunt me. In a larger context, afraid that I would run out of things to say and I would be revealed as a hopeless fraud, without a past or a future. No--not dancing!

The Crystal Pistol Dance Palace was a dark, drafty cave in a strip center storefront, its walls plastered with advertising posters from recent rock concerts. Strobe lights blinked with psychotic regularity. A disc jockey, Luciferish with his long, slender face and pointed black goatee, spun records from a throne suspended by the stage. Bar maids in cowgirl miniskirts and sequined boots swished through, holding plastic trays one-handed high above their heads. In shadowy corners, long-haired young men stood smoking in poses of hip grandeur. Romantic, it was not. It was harsh, hectic, hellish.

Kim took my hand and led me onto the dance floor, ringed with throbbing lights. She smiled, and I smiled back, desperately debonair. But I could see the whole night, the whole relationship slipping away now into oblivion. The process had started. The process, which I understood thoroughly, had started.

Kim was, of course, an expert dancer, sleek, fluid, self-assured. She moved confidently, without self-consciousness or inhibitions, twirling, thrusting, waving her hands over her head. Alongside, I was a big, slow-geared machine, lifting my legs and flailing my legs in some ill-conceived emulation of flight. I caught a horrifying glance of myself in the floor-to-ceiling mirror behind the stage--and almost shrieked. The disc jockey and I exchanged looks, and his clearly said, "What a nerd!"

Forty-five minutes later I slumped back to our table, fighting to maintain dignity. All of my energy seemed to have drained away. I focused desperately on a far wall, eyes glassy, pulse approaching zero, praying that I could somehow reactivate the sector of my brain that controlled social functioning. With uncanny feminine insight, Kim noted my change in behavior. I knew precisely what was coming next.

"'What's wrong, Prince?" she said. Another of those dreaded questions, unanswerable but unavoidable.

"Nothing," I said, smiling valiantly. Hey, let's party! But my hopes drooped with her dark, pensive look. She understood then what was happening. She knew what kind of person I was.

"Nothing?" she said. "You're so quiet, now."

"I know," I said, weakly. I racked my brain for some feasible explanation. I couldn't think of a joke to tell. "It's just--I don't know--the music's so loud." She nodded, avoiding my eyes.

"Let's get out of here, then," she said.

"No, no, I'm enjoying myself. I just can't think."

"Come on, then--let's go."

"Well--"

"Let's go."

But it was already too late, then--my fragile equilibrium had been shattered. My personality was all stoppered up, my ego throttled, my ability to reach out to this other human being squashed like a bug on a sidewalk. We drove in strained silence to a Sonic Drive-In restaurant, where adolescent girls in orthodontic braces and hot pants delivered orders through the driver's side window. After a fast, greasy meal, we discovered ourselves in North Star Mall, the newest and grandest shopping emporium in the city, walking aimlessly, walking separately, the gap between us inches that could have been miles. Finally, exhausted from dealing with my balky personality, I am sure, she checked her wristwatch and announced that she needed to go home. We both stared straight ahead as I drove resolutely in the direction of her residence.

Several blocks away, I gambled wildly, parking the car at curbside on a deep-shadowed suburban street. I turned to face her. My strategy was one I had never tried before--total, terrible, gut-wrenching honesty.

"I am an idiot," I pronounced.

"What are you talking about?" she said.

"I'm an idiot," I reiterated. "I have this terrible problem. I don't know how to talk to girls."

"You were talking to me okay, earlier."

"Earlier, yeah," I said. I waved my hand excitedly. "I can usually psyche myself into a few minutes of pre-planned patter. But when it comes to really talking, I freeze up. When it comes to a simple mutual exchange of ideas and information, I turn into a zombie."

"Why?" she said.

"I don't know why, exactly," I said. But I did know. And I knew I must tell her. I sighed. "Do you ever feel embarrassed about yourself?" She made a small motion of concurrence, mostly with her head.

"I guess so," she said. "Sure." I drew in a deep, hopeful breath. I was shooting for it all.

"Well," I said, "I feel embarrassed about myself all the time. I'm embarrassed by my parents. I'm embarrassed that I have to live at home. People always tease me about having a big nose. I want to be this really cool character with important things to say that people will want to listen to, but nobody really cares what I have to say. I'm afraid to open my mouth even sometimes because I think people are going to be bored. I say things to make people laugh sometimes so they won't laugh at me. I have this feeling that my entire life hasn't really meant anything, that nothing I've ever done has been interesting to anybody, that nobody really cares about anything I've done. I'm an idiot."

Kim nodded, after a moment. But uneasily, I thought, insincerely, self-servingly, as a way of channeling the conversation back into something more palatable to the mind of a normal, healthy 18-year-old girl. She touched me lightly on the wrist.

"That's okay," she said. "I don't really care about any of that."

"I'm glad," I said. "I glad you don't." But she did care, I knew. They all did. They all wanted their guy to be smart and cool and experienced. They wanted hot-shot guys who knew just what to say and when to say it, guys who were polished, pressure-proof, and panic-free. Guys not like me--nervous, scared, uncertain, easily swayed.

Resigned to my fate, I turned the ignition key, ready to drive off, having said my piece, having achieved a kind of peace. This was better than I had usually done. Perhaps, I thought fancifully, this would somehow pave the way for the next relationship. If there ever was one. If I could extricate myself from this miasma called my life.

But just as I moved my foot from the brake pedal to the accelerator, Kim seized my arm. I glanced first at the arm, then at her face, bewildered.

"Prince," she said.

"Yes?" I said.

"You know what? I'm embarrassed about myself, too. Do you know why I had you pick me up at the grocery store?"

"Because you were just getting off work?"

"Not really. It was because I didn't want you to see my house. I'm sure you have a nice, big, split-level, suburban house, with huge bedrooms and a wide lawn with an underground sprinkler system and a den plus living room. I live with my sister and her husband and their three bratty kids in a little shack over by Delwood Shopping Center. My parents divorced a long time ago. My mother's an alcoholic and my father remarried a stupid nagging bitch with a smoker's cough who calls me 'Honey' all the time."

"That doesn't matter to me."

"Good," she said. "I'm glad it doesn't. I just wanted you to know."

"Thank you for telling me." She sat breathing hard, decompressing after her speech.

"Why do you think I dropped my backpack that day?" she said.

"I thought it was an accident," I said. She smiled, shaking her head "no."

"I wanted you to talk to me," she said. "I thought you would be fun. I could see things in you."

"Really?" I said. "What kind of things?"

"I could see honesty, and sincerity, and intelligence. I could see humor. I could see a good upbringing in a good family. I could see a good companion. I knew you were probably shy. But I didn't care about that. I could see so much more in you than I could see in 99% of the boys I've ever gone out with."

"Wow," I said. "That makes me sound pretty good."

"You are pretty good," she said.

"I can't dance."

"I don't care."

Then suddenly she was against me, all over me, pressing me against the driver's side window. Her hands she placed on my chest; one leg she wrapped around one of mine. And then her mouth found my mouth, her lips my lips, her tongue my tongue. It was heaven. It was very close to heaven.

An hour later, more or less, when I dropped her off finally, at her peeling screen door, one last time we kissed, a long, lingering preview of the future. I was fulfilled. My life was complete. Others, sure, they could brag about their sexual conquests, their active dating lives, the millions they had made in business, empires built and crumbled, wars fought, enemies vanquished, college entrance exams aced, courtroom dramas enacted, but I had kissed Kimberly Ryan, class beauty. I could bear anything, now. I could live without fear. I was accepted.

I drove home in a trance of happiness, roared into the familiar driveway, pulled open the door. Inside, when my mother, groggy from sleep, blocked my path, I embraced her, kissing her on top of her see-through hairnet. Nothing would ever be the same. I could go to SAC for the next ten years and it wouldn't matter to me anymore. I could go to SAC forever.


Steven McBrearty recently sold a short story to the American Airlines in-flight magazine. He served as ghostwriter for the time management and study skills how-to book The College Time Tracker published by Simon & Schuster. He was a finalist in the Austin Chronicle short story contest. He has been writing for publication for more than 20 years.

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