DENNY’S by HOLLY PAINTER

Very first date I ever went on was first year. Last year. He was a boy from American Lit class. Josh. A white boy in the same blue cardy day after day. He reminded me of a ship at sea, with a flap of white-blond hair across his forehead that might have been a sail and knobby ears that stuck out like oars. And his eyes, too, were the color of sky that you only find miles offshore, where the only pollution left is the captain’s pipe puffing smoke signals like wisps of aspiring clouds.

We met in tutorial, and he gave me that cabin boy’s grin, that smile that says, ‘I’ve been lost in a world of men these many months, amidst cannonballs and hardtack. Civilize me. Be my girl and my solid ground.’ We were reading Billy Budd at the time. I was swept up by the storybook sea. Not the one that stole away my mum. I never connected the two. It was the old-time nautical romance of scurvy and stowaways that I loved.

Josh proposed a sort of half-date. His band was playing a gig. A chance to meet his mates and then venture off on our own.

On Saturday afternoon, I sifted through the op shops, found skinny black jeans and a bright red cardy. Twenty-first century gigging attire for the girl in every port. I bobby-pinned a flower in my hair, played up the Islander, the native, the exotic. It was all a game.

His gig was at a café, a dive really, in Lyttelton, a farewell gig for a mate who was leaving for Auckland, city of sails. The theme was yacht rock. Half the band dressed as sailors, with lopsided white caps and Vivid anchors leaking poison into their biceps. Josh wore a red wooly hat, Jacques Cousteau by way of The Life Aquatic. He grinned at me while he thrashed the drum set and the lead singer in his Viking beard strummed along with fussy fingers and claimed he’d lived his whole life underwater.

After the gig, three or four drinks deep and still in matching red, we headed out for alone time. Without the clinking bottles, self-deaf drunks, and rattle-smack drumbeats. Where to find this afterhours haven of tranquility? Denny’s. He took me to Denny’s.

Over Grand Slams and other wasted namesakes of Americana, we talked about ourselves. What else? A roiling underground of self-absorption coated in a pimpled skin of attentive listening. The classic first date. Tell me about yourself. Oh, that reminds me of me. Come on now, take a breath. I’m waiting to impress you with something marginally related.

Until he said something nutty. Really nutty. And I forget all about what I’d been waiting to say. I’d been biding my time, listening, studying his stuck together eyelashes and his thick drummer’s forearms that flexed above the knife and fork pair when, out of nowhere, he said, ‘You know, I smell pheromones. Not many people can. But I can. I can smell them right now.’

And he looked around. A truckie in one booth, grizzled, mesh hat full of dandruff head smell sitting in his lap, mingling with dirty jean crotch smell. A sitcom family in the next booth, mum and dad in solid color polo shirts while junior sculpts Egg Mountain and his sister texts and scowls, texts and scowls. Across the counter, a pair of fifty-plus servers, grey locks fourteen hours removed from the curling iron and starting to flag as the women clarify sloppy handwriting with the cooks taking their orders.

Josh smelled pheromones. Somebody there was turned on. I looked around, too, then back at Josh. He was grinning again, and I realized he meant me. I felt the red from my cardy cross a material divide and invade my neck, my throat, my cheeks. I panicked. Could he really smell that? Smell me? With a startling range of emotions competing for control of my facial features, I opted for studied nonchalance and hoped my voice would follow suit. ‘Oh yeah?’ I said. ‘Weird.’

I plunged back into my too early too late breakfast. Gone was the urge to talk about myself, what I thought, what I liked, how I smelled. I wanted to go home. To sea. To space. Away. So I stuffed myself, mopped up the last of the egg yolk with toast, and hailed the server with debit card in hand. ASB Tertiary. Yellow plastic rectangle with a splotch of black. At sea, it means, ‘I am altering my course to port.’

In the carpark, though, things seemed to improve. Josh was impish and nonthreatening against the night sky. I imagined him again on board a ship under a cloudless night, Orion balanced like an acrobat on his shoulders, rocking but never wavering as the boards creaked in the water.

He leaned in, slowly, as if waiting for the order to proceed. I felt his fringe brush against my cheek and I froze, a sailor at attention, waiting. But he didn’t move in for a kiss. Instead, he whispered in my ear, ‘I can still smell them. Don’t worry. You probably don’t even realize you’re doing it.’

On land, it’s a red flag. At sea, it has red and white cheques: ‘You are running into danger.’

I told Josh I’d left something inside. An important something. I couldn’t think of what. Inside, I texted Julian, ‘Ring me in five.’ Back outside, a call on my mobile. My best worried face. Eyebrows scrunched and a corner bit lip. ‘Oh no! Dear me! My auntie, she’s ill! I must get home right away.’

So we motored back to campus. Fifteen minutes of empathetic fretting: ‘Your auntie on which side? How old? How ill?’ And inventing: ‘My mum’s side. Quite old. Quite ill. Nervous kidneys. Oh yes, a very troubled set of organs.’ Finally, he screeched to a halt on Waimairi Rd. I clasped his hand in breathless thanks and scrambled out the car and across the grounds into the hall in a riot of giggles.

Next week, I switched tutorials, and slipped into lecture late. Josh still sat up the front in his blue cardy and probably smelled me when I came in.

::

About the Author: Holly Painter lives all over the place: Michigan, New Zealand, Singapore. In college, she made a list of all the skills she’d have to learn to be a cultured person. Of those, she only really learned juggling.

Story Song: “Southern Cross” by Crosby, Stills and Nash