Third place winner of Bookshop's annual short story contest, 2015.
"Five Mile Radius" by Jeff Masuda
The small hurts compounded, like the wrinkles on his aging face, although he tried not to take things personally. His friend, more versed and wise on all things related to the internet, said, “...sometimes you hear something, sometimes you don’t. Don’t worry, you’ll never know why.”
He sat in a dimly lit hotel ballroom staring at his smartphone as hip-hop music boomed, but the volume was not deafening. He had inserted foam ear plugs. They protruded slightly and he consciously touched them, a sign of age, as the glow of the smartphone’s screen illuminated his face.
“Hi, Mr. K!” a student said, “Having fun?”
He smiled and nodded his head and said, “Of course! I look forward to this every year.”
It was a small lie, but he winced as the words exited. He smiled at these young people wearing formal attire for the first time in their lives. They looked fresh, this young man as excited to be dressed up as his female date. He saw the tuxedoed male steal a glance at himself in a mirror and then quickly look around to see if anyone saw this preening behavior.
He returned to his smartphone screen and read: “I am looking for an emotionally available man, one who knows who he is and is comfortable in his own skin. Communication is key! I want someone to travel with and expect that exercise be as important to him as me. No couch potatoes! I do enjoy a Giants’ or Warriors’ game at times. I love the outdoors, camping, cycling through the Santa Cruz hills, but feel as comfortable sipping wine in my little black dress. Do you dance? I recently learned to tango. Please, no players need apply. Life is too short for lying!” Under “Political Views” she listed: “Liberal.” He scrolled further and read: “Body type: Athletic and Toned.” Under the section titled “Sports and Exercise” she wrote: “3-4 times a week.” The heading of“Have kids” read: “Yes, and they live away from home (2).” He reread the section titled, “In her own words.” These parts of the profiles inevitably sounded similar--do we really differ that much?--but he searched for keys that might unlock the genuine person.
Words--the starkness of marks on a screen--could lead to misinterpretation, but that was all one could go on. Well, there were pictures, too. She had ten. He clicked through them and she appeared very different in each--a sign they were not all recent, therefore chosen from times that portrayed her in the best light. At least they were not pictures of animals, or sunsets, or inanimate objects. He longed to see the person. A warm confidence washed over him. Maybe.
He skipped down to the “What she is looking for” section and read: “Income: $150K+.” He sighed in defeat. Like a boxer, he shook his head and rose from the canvas.
The entire heterosexual female universe was seemingly ready to hit the gym or dance floor, loved nature, hiked, kayaked, loved jeans but felt equally comfortable in a gown at the symphony, wanted an emotionally healthy man who could laugh at himself and, of course, was financially secure… He watched the teenagers massed together on the dance floor moving together to the beat as if one large organism.
This group activity seemed somehow positive and yet--robbed them of painful lessons learned in the mating rituals of his day.
There were no long walks across a gym floor to ask a girl to dance because they danced together in a group; there were no long walks back to a wall to lean against again when she said “no”; the girls didn’t have to wait for boys to screw up the courage to ask; there was no waiting and hoping, no longing for a chance; this was replaced with action in this generation, yet the healthier behaviors lacked something. Mystery? Joy?
He closed the dating app and brought up a nature website to stop thinking.
“Because of the encroachment of man, the roads he paves, the homes he builds, the walls he erects to shield vehicles from the edges of cliffs...the animals die without ever reproducing or being able to live in a larger, natural environment...many deer live the majority of their lives confined within a five mile radius of their birthplace, cut off from contact with possible mates or even many other species of animal…”
He frowned, read the article again, and a student said, “Mr. K, going to dance out there? I bet the ladies would love it!” He winked and said, “Maybe if they play a slow one so I can hold onto something.” She waved goodbye and joined the pulsating hive of the dance floor.
He recalled a time riding his bike along the wetlands of an East Bay trail and a magnificent buck had run alongside for a long time. The buck looked at him as if in a race, and never broke stride. He appeared almost airborne, his legs as much in the air as on the ground with his powerful bounds. He was strong and free and could run all the way to the bay. He could run forever.
His mind flipped back to images of deer that could not live naturally and how the animals would stop, confused, in front of retaining walls, or concrete freeway barriers...he imagined them running and smashing into unnatural, man-made structures that dazed and bloodied them from the impact...it would be worse when they tried to leap over walls and their legs were cut from under them and they spilled out onto a roadway where they met oblivion. Would the animals have any last thoughts? Would they possess some primitive regret that flooded them with sorrow?
Maybe if I rewrite some of my profile? Maybe it’s too boring. Maybe I’m not clear on who I am, what I want? Maybe I should change my pictures? I do still have my hair!
The music and the young people starting their symbolic adult lives receded to form a stage-like background to his musings. He thought about the profile he should write, but never would:
When we seek a romantic relationship it is not just to avoid a terrible loneliness; it is not just to avoid ourselves or recreate a familiar couple’s status; we do not just want to revisit a memory of someone through a new lover, any lover. What we look for are those invisible fabrics and threads that formed a blanket of intimacy. We look for the blanket that once covered us in warmth, but it was so sheer and light we did not realize its existence. We didn’t feel its comfort and strength until gone. But what we really desire is to once more share a common culture with a special person, some shared origin of desire. The blankets of our youth are long since shredded and threadbare. It is a futile task perhaps to be these tailors of intimacy, but we cannot stop...