Must Love Dogs

I decided to listen to my family and get back out there. “There’s life after divorce, Sarah,” my father proclaimed, not that he’d ever been divorced.

“The longer you wait, the harder it’ll be” was my sister Carol’s little gem, as if she had some way of knowing whether or not that was true

After months of ignoring them, responding to a personal ad in the newspaper seemed the most detached way to give in. I wouldn’t have to sit in a restaurant with a friend of a friend of one of my brothers, probably Michael’s, but maybe Johnny’s or Billy Jr.’s, pretending to enjoy a meal I was too nervous to taste. I needn’t endure even a phone conversation with someone my sister Christine had talked into calling me. My prospect and I would quietly connect on paper or we wouldn’t.

HONEST, HOPELESSLY ROMANTIC, old-fashioned gentleman seeks lady friend who enjoys elegant dining, dancing and the slow bloom of affection. WM, n/s, young 50s, widower, loves dogs, children and long meandering bicycle rides.

The ad jumped out at me the first time I looked. There wasn’t much competition. Rather than risk a geographic jump to one of the Boston newspapers, I’d decided it was safer and less of an effort to confine my search to the single page of classifieds in the local weekly. Seven towns halfway between Boston and Cape Cod were clumped together in one edition. Four columns of “Women Seeking Men.” A quarter of a column of “Men Seeking Women,” two entries of “Women Seeking Women,” and what was left of that column was “Men Seeking Men.”

I certainly had no intention of adding to the disheartening surplus of heterosexual women placing ads, so I turned my attention to the second category. It was comprised of more than its share of control freaks, like this guy-Seeking attractive woman between 5’4″ and 5’6″, 120-135 lbs., soft-spoken, no bad habits, financially secure, for possible relationship. I could picture this dreamboat making his potential relationships step on the scale and show their bank statements before he penciled them in for a look-see.

And then this one. Quaint, charming, almost familiar somehow. When I got to the slow bloom of affection, it just did me in. Made me remember how lonely I was.

I circled the ad in red pen, then tore it out of the paper in a jagged rectangle. I carried it over to my computer and typed a response quickly, before I could change my mind:

Dear Sir:
You sound too good to be true, but perhaps we could have a cup of coffee together anywayóat a public place. I am a WF, divorced, young 40, who loves dogs and children, but doesn’t happen to have either.
Cautiously Optimistic

I mailed my letter to a Box 308P at the County Connections offices, which would, in turn, forward it. I enclosed a small check to secure my own box number for responses. Less than a week later I had my answer:

Dear Madam,

Might I have the privilege of buying you coffee at Morning Glories in Marshbury at 10 AM this coming Saturday? I’ll be carrying a single yellow rose.
-Awaiting Your Response

The invitation was typed on thick ivory paper with an actual typewriter, the letters O and E forming solid dots of black ink, just like the old manual of my childhood. I wrote back simply, Time and place convenient. Looking forward to it.

I didn’t mention my almost-date to anyone, barely even allowed myself to think about its possibilities. There was simply no sense in getting my hopes up, no need to position myself for a fall.

I woke up a few times Friday night, but it wasn’t too bad. It’s not as if I stayed up all night tossing and turning. And I tried on just a couple of different outfits on Saturday morning, finally settling on a yellow sweater and a long skirt with an old-fashioned floral print. I fluffed my hair, threw on some mascara and brushed my teeth a second time before heading out the door.

Morning Glories is just short of trendy, a delightfully overgrown hodgepodge of sun-streaked greenery, white lattice and round button tables with mismatched iron chairs. The coffee is strong and the baked goods homemade and delicious. You could sit at a table for hours without getting dirty looks from the people who work there.

The long Saturday-morning take-out line backed up to the door, and it took me a minute to maneuver my way over to the tables. I scanned quickly, my senses on overload, trying to pick out the rose draped across the table, to remember the opening line I had rehearsed on the drive over.

“Sarah, my darlin’ girl. What a lovely surprise. Come here and give your dear old daddy a hug.”

“Dad? What are you doing here?”

“Well, that’s a fine how-do-you-do. And from one of my very favorite daughters at that.”

“Where’d you get the rose, Dad?”

“Picked it this morning from your dear mother’s rose garden. God rest her soul.”

“Uh, who’s it for?”

“A lady friend, honey. It’s the natural course of this life that your dad would have lady friends now, Sarry. I feel your sainted mother whispering her approval to me every day.”

“So, um, you’re planning to meet this lady friend here, Dad?”

“That I am, God willing.”

Somewhere in the dusty corners of my brain, synapses were connecting. “Oh my God. Dad. I’m your date. I answered your personal ad. I answered my own father’s personal ad.” I mean, of all the personal ads in all the world I had to pick this one?

My father looked at me blankly, then lifted his shaggy white eyebrows in surprise. His eyes moved skyward as he cocked his head to one side. He turned his palms up in resignation. “Well, now, there’s one for the supermarket papers. Honey, it’s okay, no need to turn white like you’ve seen a ghost. Here. This only proves I brought you up to know the diamond from the riffraff.”

Faking a quick recovery is a Hurlihy family tradition, so I squelched the image of a single yellow rose in a hand other than my father’s. I took a slow breath, assessing the damage to my heart. “Not only that, Dad, but maybe you and I can do a Jerry Springer show together. How ’bout ëFathers Who Date Daughters’? I mean, this is big, Dad. The Oedipal implications aloneó”
“Oedipal, smedipal. Don’t be getting all college on me now, Sarry girl.” My father peered out from under his eyebrows. “And lovely as you are, you’re even lovelier when you’re a smidgen less flip.”

I swallowed back the tears that seemed to be my only choice besides flip, and sat down in the chair across from my father. Our waitress came by and I managed to order a coffee. “Wait a minute. You’re not a young fifty, Dad. You’re sixty-six. And when was the last time you rode a bike? You don’t own a bike. And you hate dogs.”

“Honey, don’t be so literal. Think of it as poetry, as who I am in the bottom of my soul. And, Sarah, I’m glad you’ve started dating again. Kevin was not on his best day good enough for you, sweetie.”

“I answered my own father’s personal ad. That’s not dating. That’s sick.”

My father watched as a pretty waitress leaned across the table next to ours. His eyes stayed on her as he patted my hand and said, “You’ll do better next time, honey. Just keep up the hard work.” I watched as my father raked a clump of thick white hair away from his watery brown eyes. The guy could find a lesson in…Jesus, a date with his daughter.

“Oh, Dad, I forgot all about you. You got the wrong date, too. You must be lonely without Mom, huh?”

The waitress stood up, caught my father’s eye and smiled. She walked away, and he turned his gaze back to me. “I think about her every day, all day. And will for the rest of my natural life. But don’t worry about me. I have a four o’clock.”
“What do you mean, a four o’clock? Four o’clock Mass?”

“No, darlin’. A wee glass of wine at four o’clock with another lovely lady. Who couldn’t possibly hold a candle to you, my sweet.”
I supposed that having a date with a close blood relative was far less traumatic if it was only one of the day’s two dates. I debated whether to file that tidbit away for future reference, or to plunge into deep and immediate denial that the incident had ever happened. I lifted my coffee mug to my lips. My father smiled encouragingly.

Perhaps the lack of control was in my wrist. Maybe I merely forgot to swallow. But as my father reached across the table with a pile of paper napkins to mop the burning coffee from my chin, I thought it even more likely that I had simply never learned to be a grown-up.

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