He’s invited me to a heathenistic, nondenominational solstice party with friends, but has also presented some harmless convenience store larceny as a tongue-in-cheek alternative. Basically, he’s up for whatever, and so am I. I spend at least two hours getting ready, curling my hair and cramming myself into my brand-new pair of tailored jeans, lip syncing to a motivational soundtrack headlined by Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky.”
At the last minute, we decide to eschew the party and meet up for drinks in Durham, more or less halfway between our houses. The place isn’t far from where I did a contract stint at Blue Cross earlier in the year, but it’s off an access road I can’t for the life of me find actual access to. I’m about five minutes late when I finally pull into the gravel parking lot in front of the bar, frazzled and abashed and fully aware that I am not off to a great start. His truck is nowhere in sight. Am I in the wrong place?
I’m perched on a curb, frantically texting him for answers, when I hear footfall. As I turn, he steps from the shadowed side lot into a wan amber column of street light, his stride easy and confident, his hands in his pockets. He is smiling beautifully, mocking me.
The moment takes me by the shoulders and rattles me where I stand. A year later, ten years later, I couldn’t hope to tell you why.
This place is a weirdly charming little warren—a small bar and then, out a back door and down a flight of stairs, through a bamboo-lined path, a conglomeration of wood-paneled rooms full of hodge-podge furniture. We nurse a couple of Duck Rabbit Milk Stouts as we search for a modicum of privacy, settling at last on a wobbly two-person table adjacent to some sort of bridal shower.
(“I think they’re a bunch of nurses,” Dustin later confides. “And all they’ve been talking about is weed—no, don’t look.“)
We talk for two hours, a natural continuation of the previous night’s whiplash syllabus. It’s a little forced at first, as one might expect—general pleasantries and the standard questions about work and so forth. But, maybe with a little help from the Milk Stouts, it doesn’t take long to lighten the fuck up. Conversation flows. He is well-read but not pretentious, witty but not condescending. He is curious about the world.
And funny as shit.
And damn good-looking.
The beer is good, but this place doesn’t have any food. I feel free to chow down on the granola bar I had the unusual presence of mind to put in my purse, and Dustin feels free to tease me about it. But after hours of talking and nothing in my stomach but a few brews, I’m legit hungry and options are limited.
Following Google Map’s somewhat dubious directions, we hoof it across the street to a strip mall Chinese place. I order General Tso’s chicken and ask Dustin if he’d like anything; he politely declines. It’s late, and the restaurant is closing soon, so we take my food out to the parking lot and perch on a cinderblock retaining wall. Conversation flows out of us, even as the restaurant lights cascade, one by one, into darkness, and the proprietors pitch the garbage, and lock the door, and drive away.
Around 11 o’clock, perilously full of beer and passable Chinese food, I close up my take-out foam clamshell and lean back on the grassy bank. “So like, I know it’s late,” I venture, “and you have the dog and stuff.”
“Yeah,” he says, pretending not to know where this is going. “Gotta get back to him pretty soon.”
“But I’m, you know, I’m really enjoying this. I’m not really ready to call it a night.”
He peers at me sideways, smiling indulgently. “What would you like to do?”
HEY. HEART. KEEP IT DOWN IN THERE. “Well,” I say, idly scratching doodles into the box lid, “is your place very far?”
I follow his beloved ’91 F-150 down dark roads, and then darker roads, skirting Chapel Hill, plunging us into some ante-Carrbororan semi-wilderness. My sense of recklessness ricochets off every surface; my nervous yammering yo-yos between incredulity and self-affirmation. I inflect “What am I DOING?” six different ways. I text my sister the address of my destination. “OMG,” she texts back, “I looked it up on trulia and it’s just darkness.”
Cheerfully, I tell Siri to tell Fletcher to avenge me in death.
Finally, a gravel driveway ends at the foot of a rustic split-level, ensconced in friendly, deciduous sprawl. I hop out of my car, breath misting.
“I’ve seen this movie,” I quip. “This ends in axe murder.”
“Obviously,” he rejoins, rattling his keys in the front door. “But first, you get to meet the Brutus.”
Brutus, with or without the definite article, greets us just inside the door, a solid wall of affable. Though I have no fear of pit bulls, and have received every assurance of Brutus’ abiding pacifism, I am taken aback by his dramatic brindled coloration, his sheer density. I find myself hesitating to pet him.
“He loves everyone. You’re fine. Seriously.”
As if to make the point, Brutus drives his formidable snout into my knees, whuffing and snorting enthusiastically, tail whipping into the walls. If not for the closed door behind me, I’d go sprawling. I am smitten, and feel as though I have passed an important first test.
Before me are two sets of stairs, one descending and one ascending. Dustin has already disappeared downstairs, and as I follow he calls from the kitchen, “Can I get you a drink? I usually have beer, but right now all I have is wine.”
“Wine is great.” Brutus trots after me, gamely accepting these odd new circumstances. Dustin emerges from the kitchen with two glasses of red. “This place is great,” I say, truthfully. “Give me the tour.”
“Okay. Though… I probably shouldn’t show you my skulls.”
I stare at him. “Uh, you completely should show me your skulls. Have you met me?”
I follow him up the front landing, and then up the second flight of stairs, to a small brown study full of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. I make a show of perusing his books, hmmming and nodding approvingly for each one I also own. There are many of those, but also many I don’t, covering areas of interest in which I am woefully deficient. Ancient Egypt, biochemistry, foraging, botany, fungus. Tons of books on fungus. “I love fungi,” he gushes, pronouncing a soft “g.” “I’ve got a whole photo album of pictures I’ve taken of all kinds of mushrooms.” Here he seems embarrassed, an emotion I can tell he doesn’t wear often. “I won’t bore you with that.”
“Stop apologizing for awesome shit. I totally want to see your mushroom pictures. But first, skulls.”
One shelf has been set aside for a row of toothy animal skulls—mostly found in the woods, he says, though he’s been given a few. A cat, a raccoon, a fox, a dog, a peccary, a deer. A few others. I ask about where and how he found them, and we speculate about how they died, and look at pictures of wild mushrooms, and recommend books, and our glasses contain less and less wine.
Eventually, we drift back downstairs. The living room is edged by floor-to-ceiling windows on two sides, with one side opening onto the deck Dustin is about 90% finished building. A fireplace, a proper wood fireplace, is built into the wall adjacent to the stairs; I envy it as I drop onto a well-worn corduroy couch. Dustin takes a seat next to me, at a respectful distance, and after a few minutes our companionable banter trails off into loaded silence.
“So,” I say, lamely, “what do you want to do?”
“Well, we could watch a movie or something. Or”—and he looks me straight in the eye—”I could pounce on you like a puma.”
I could pounce on you like a puma.
I could pounce. On you. Like a puma.
WHO EVEN SAYS “PUMA.”
For the barest instant, I am stunned. Everything was going so well. This can’t be right. He can’t be this incompetent. What the hell do I do?
And yet, it’s a line delivered so effortlessly, so shamelessly, with so little regard for its undeniable terribleness, that somewhere behind my shock I register that he is deliberately attempting to awful me into bed.
That’s some next-level shit right there.
I admire his strategy, his pure fucking gumption. Despite myself, I burst out laughing, and am rewarded to see his fabricated earnestness resolve into a classic shit-eating grin.
I return it, and set my empty wine glass on the table.