Like most Saturday nights, in the warmer weather this year, Harold sits reading in the outdoor plaza bounded on one side by the Princeton Library and on the adjacent side by the Witherspoon Grille — a rather chic restaurant and bar that attracts the more sophisticated, and if appearance be the judge, the more prosperous.
He always sits at a table that is close to the upscale establishment to take advantage of the outdoor lighting. However, tonight he finds himself distracted — his eyes frequently leaving his book and staring through the Witherspoon’s plate glass window, his concentration constantly usurped by the blonde and brunette women sitting at the bar. He cannot see their faces — his view is from an angle that only reveals their sides and part of their backs. It is the blonde, in particular, sitting at the end of the bar — her legs covered only to mid-thigh — who is the center of his preoccupation. The thin, delicate fabric of her black skirt hugs the upper parts of her legs, her white silk blouse clings close to the shape of her breasts, and from Harold’s line of sight, looks like a flag proudly extended in an even, continuous wind.
Harold has been in the Witherspoon only once — when he had to use the men’s room and the library was closed. He’s too shy to sit at the bar — partially due to the fact he doesn’t drink— too self-conscious to dine at a table by himself, and gets too nervous to attempt dating. But, at the age of fifty-seven, he feels time grows short and he’s tired of just reading about adventure and romance, he wants to make his move.
Harold works as an accountant in a large office building on the outskirts of Princeton and lives in a nearby community where at ten p.m. they roll up the center of town — that is, if they had a center of town. So he goes to the library plaza to feel the vibe, to listen to the hum of activity, and to witness the adventurous lives — he imagines — of the people he sees milling about. Not to mention the secret dalliances, he fantasizes, of some of the couples who pass by.
Meeting and flirting with women are not activities Harold knows much about. It’s not that he doesn’t know any single women. At the office he is on a friendly basis with several of them. There’s Cynthia, the accountant, two cubicles away, whose hair is always in a bun, and wears glasses with lens so thick that they protrude from the frame. She rarely leaves her desk — even for lunch she brings an apple every day.
Of course, there’s Lydia, Carmen, and Margaret who work in the cafeteria — two divorced, one never married. He always forgets which one was never married — not that it matters to him — he’s just curious if it is something that shows like age or mood.
Margaret is the most talkative; he figures she’s probably divorced. She always has something to say. “Harold, did you know that Susan, in marketing, had a face-lift on her vacation — a good week’s rest in a pig’s eye”; “Harold, you know that fried food clogs your arteries?” She usually sits at his table for ten or fifteen minutes — her hair packed into a net and some stain from the day’s menu on her uniform.
Lydia and Carmen work as cooks, but always give Harold a smile through the windows of the kitchen doors, and one of them always mouths, “How are you?” Margaret told him neither of them are married, but he can’t remember if both of them are divorced. Carmen has more lines in her face, so maybe she’s divorced. On the other hand, a lifetime of being single is no picnic, as he can assuredly attest.
However, none of these women is what he is looking for — they offer no mystery or promise of excitement. He feels no chemistry — no attraction. Harold doesn’t doubt their sincere and honest intentions, but they don’t offer him the allure of the new and exciting. He dreams of women who appreciate clandestine assignations in Rome and Paris, late dinners in some of Manhattan’s better-known after-hours spots, and impromptu flights for an overnight in the Caribbean. Harold has the means for such endeavors, and, for the first time in his life, the desire and the will to make it all come true.
The blonde swivels her body on the bar stool away from Harold’s view — her skirt rises a bit farther as her high-heel shoes descend to the floor. She walks toward the restrooms. Harold is mesmerized by the attractiveness of her svelte body, womanly figure, and shoulder length hair. He is possessed by his determination to see her face which he imagines to be equally stunning. He must speak to her. If ever an opportunity has arisen for him to make his move, this is surely it.
The blonde woman starts walking back from the restroom. Harold doesn’t want her to catch him looking, so he buries his head in his book. After a safe interim, he lifts his eyes and again sees her sitting at the end of the bar. He tries to continue reading, but it’s useless. He is distracted to obsession. He must go into the Witherspoon and speak to this woman, otherwise, he never will sleep another night.
The problem is: what should he say to her. He wonders what do women like that want to hear? He hasn’t a clue. The entire situation seems futile. But his determination won’t let go. With his age whispering in his ear, Harold slams his book close, gets up, and heads to the door of the restaurant. His body tingles all over, his muscles are tense, and his mouth is dry. He still has no clue what he will say. He’s been an honest guy his entire life, why stop now, he thinks. He reasons he’ll just tell her the truth: he finds her attractive and feels compelled to speak to her.
The risk makes sense to him. The humiliation he will suffer from her possible rejection will be far less painful than the despair he will feel if he again fails to try to grab the brass ring.
As he walks across the floor toward the bar, his heart beats faster, he feels light-headed, and a numbing daze comes over him acting like a protective shield from the reality of what he is about to do. He approaches the two women from behind. With a “damn it all” attitude and a mouth so dry that he feels like he’s trying to speak a foreign language, he directs his attention to the blonde and says, “excuse me, I couldn’t help notice how attractive you are and I just wanted to…” At that moment the women turn toward him. He pauses, his face wrinkles with astonishment, his mouth silent but still hanging open, he mutters with utter disbelief, “Lydia! … Carmen!”
“We were ready to give up and go home; we started to think you’d never come in,” Lydia says.
Harold takes her by the hand and asks Carmen, “if you don’t mind I would like to take a short walk with Lydia?”
As they make their way across the floor, Harold can be overheard saying, “do you like the Caribbean?”
The author is a general dentist and mentor for the pre-dental students at Princeton University. He previously published two memoirs: “When the Leaves Fall” in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society and “The Growth of a Diagnosis” in Focus. He is an avid reader and audits courses at Princeton. Philosophy is the center of his focus.