His name was Michael and he was looking up at something outside of the frame of the picture and his grinning white teeth were visible through the darkness of his beard. She scrolled down.
Body type: Athletic.
Occupation: Field of Education.
Political leanings: I’ll tell you once I know you.
Well, that wasn’t very helpful. She opened the messenger function, clicked on the text box and watched the cursor blink on and off under the message he had sent:
Hey, you seem like a nice person. It’s hard to find good people nowadays. Meet up to see if you feel the same?
This seemed very quick. She had read that you were supposed to have four distinct exchanges before planning to meet. She looked over the top of her monitor at the counter with the spider plant spilling over it and the bank of computers beyond.
Sure, why not? Name the place and the time.
She was taking a risk. She could now be described as a “risk-taker.”
At the coffee shop Michael was indeed athletic, bearded, and seemed like a nice person.
“Why didn’t you put your political leanings up? Were you afraid to drive people away?”
He ran his hand thoughtfully through his beard.
“I guess I just think that politics divides people. You put something like that up and then people put you in a box.”
“But, wouldn’t that happen anyway, I mean, wouldn’t your date put you in a box once you told them on a date?”
“Yes, but then you can engage in a conversaaation.”
“Ah,” she said.
Luckily, their political views were aligned, and didn’t necessitate much conversaaation, except to gripe and commiserate about the current state of things.
They spent more time on each other’s occupations, his as a special ed teacher (he was currently working to get his hours so he could apply for licensure), which he was doing to affect positive change, since his parents had, in his words, “done enough damage to the world through all their corporate racketeering.”
She told him about her work as an administrative assistant in charge of a student success center. It was her job to put together a variety of events for the director of the center for student success, and to follow up with student concerns, and to make sure that the director’s correspondences and scheduling needs were all attended to. She liked the work. It was, for the most part, precise. “After all, I like to be organized. Clarity and cleanliness are important to me.”
“Yes, cleanliness,” he said, though there was something dirty in his voice, as if he was imagining her body.
She changed the subject back to his work and learned how he had sat with one boy for over an hour and had tried to get him to thread beads onto a string to work on fine motor skills. It had not been very successful, and the boy had again and again covered his hand in drool.
“By the end though, we had three beads on that string, and I have to tell you, it just, it felt like the biggest accomplishment of my life. It was amazing. How relative success is, right?”
At the end of their date, they hugged, but did not kiss, and because it was the afternoon, Diana still went to her tennis lesson, where she worked with her coach on her backhand swing. Her mother had told her it was important to maintain healthy habits.
When she got home that evening, she put together a survey and sent Michael the link. The questions were as follows:
1. How attractive did you find your date? Rate 1-10:
2. How compelling did you find the conversation? Rate 1-10:
3. What is the likelihood of a second date? Rate 1-10:
The answers were returned the following morning: 10, 8, 9.
Good, she thought. Her first date had been a success.
She opened the text messaging app and wrote:
Looks like we could improve on #2. Meet up this Wednesday night for dinner?
Two hours later her phone buzzed with a response:
You are too funny!
Yes, Wednesday sounds lovely.
La Fogata on ninth? 8 oclock?
She didn’t understand why she was too funny, or how someone could be too funny. Was there any such thing as being too funny? Like having too much fun? Or too much candy? Maybe she was making him sick.
I don’t want you to get sick of me though, she wrote.
Impossible, he wrote back.
But hadn’t he just said? She let it rest.
Wednesday night was wonderful. They both ate spaghetti Bolognese and drank red wine that left many little pieces of itself at the bottom of their glasses. They talked about political developments and he told her stories about the children, how sometimes it took more time to prepare for the day’s classroom activity than the actual activity. He told her how important it was to get the children involved. How it mattered that they not only get a classmate’s coloring book out of the bin, but that they actually deliver that book to the appropriate classmate. “Think what that means, to actually recognize and deliver a book to one of your classmates. And of course, to be recognized!”
This idea made her flush with such happiness that she reached across the table, took his hand, pulled him toward her, and they kissed over a bouquet of red silk roses.
They made plans to meet again, the following Saturday, and he helped her into an Uber.
The next morning she sent him another survey. It had only one question:
1. How much did you like our first kiss? Rate 1-10:
He did not fill out the survey as instructed, but instead texted her the number 10, with four exclamation points. While she was initially upset that he hadn’t used the survey app, she happily filled in the answer for him, to keep the data intact.
The next Saturday, after they saw a play, he invited her back to his place. He made food in his kitchen, and they talked about the dating experiences both had had. He told her that he had been using the app for the past six months, and had somehow never managed to get past a fourth date with someone. “Maybe I’m picky,” he said.
“Or maybe you just haven’t found the right woman.”
They smiled at each other, and then he came and gave her a long kiss, leaning over the counter. They had started kissing a lot that day, because they had kissed the last time over dinner, and so now it was allowed.
“I’ve only been on the app for a month,” she told him. “No one answered the surveys as well as you.”
He turned from the stove and said, “I thought the surveys were just a special thing between us.”
She looked at him a bit bewildered.
“I’m joking,” he said. “I used the same first line with you that I used with all my dates.”
This didn’t help to clear up her bewilderment very much. Why would he use the same first line? Why would he think surveys were special?
That night they kissed on his couch, and she allowed his hands to unclasp her bra. Later, she took him into her mouth, and when he came, she swallowed it without hesitation. She did not allow him to take off her underwear.
As they lay together he told her a story about the smallest boy in the class named Grant who was deaf, and was learning sign language (which was difficult because of his poor motor functioning) and who used the PECS card exchange communication method. “He’s a loner,” Michael said, “and he goes off during recess and lies on the middle post of a fence and leans into the chicken wire they put up for backing. But I think he wants attention too. You know what he does? While he’s lying there he takes his shoes off and throws them over the fence. Yeah! And that way, someone has to go get them. They have to bring them back to him, and put them on his feet.”
After he told her this story he looked into her eyes for a long time, his mouth in a mysterious smile. “Isn’t that a wonderful strategy?”
She nodded. She imagined Michael gently putting shoes on the boy’s feet, and then she imagined him putting them on her feet, and then she curled into his large warm chest.
The next day, she sent him two links. The first was to a survey, which asked the following questions:
1. Level of satisfaction with breast size? Rate 1-10:
2. Level of satisfaction with sexual activities? Rate 1-10:
3. Desire for date to swallow semen in the future? Rate 1-10:
The answers came back in somewhat predictable form, except for the last one: 10, 10, 11.
He was breaking the rules. Frustrated, she erased the number 11, which he had written in the field marked “other,” and clicked the bubble with the number 10 above it. But now she felt that perhaps her data was no longer accurate. Again, she rubbed her temples in frustration.
Plus, he seemed to answer 10 a lot. She surmised that this was because he wanted to please her, which was skewing the results. Maybe she could add an honesty clause, or a terms of agreement.
But it was better than nothing. She had gotten used to working with what she had. Many of her students didn’t even bother filling out the surveys she sent after orientation, or when there had been a workshop on using their online LMS. This had also been the case with two of her dates, Craig and Daniel, both of whom had opted not to fill out the survey. Craig had also opted not to return any of her messages. Daniel on the other hand, had written back that she was a “Crazy bitch. Who the fuck sends out a satisfaction survey after a date?”
She had written back that she couldn’t speak for others, but “obviously the answer is that I do.”
“Obviously,” he had written back. She hadn’t known what to respond to that, and so she hadn’t said anything at all, and neither had he. They had never seen each other again.
The second link she sent Michael was to a Google form, with the following event description and fields:
Diana will be holding a private dinner for two at her apartment this coming Tuesday evening. The night will include dinner, a movie, and sexual activity. Please fill out the fields below:
Full Name (optional)
*Will you attend? Yes/No
If no, disregard the rest of the form. If yes, please keep reading.
*Please choose one of the following food choices:
1. Pasta Bolognese (our favorite?)
2. Tuna Casserole
3. Steak and Beans
4. Pesto Pasta with green beans
*Please list any dietary restrictions
Please choose from a movie below:
1. Spiderman: Homecoming
2. Dirty Dancing
3. 500 Days of Summer
4. Roman Holiday
Please choose from favorite sexual positions (select just one, or any of the preferred listed)
2. Doggy style
5. Suggested positions
6. All of the above
She waited for many hours, and didn’t get his response until late that night. Why had it taken so long between the first and second links? She looked at his readout full of anticipation: Michael Listringer. Yes, Steak and Beans, no dietary restrictions, Spiderman: Homecoming, All of the above.
“Yes!” She said, and clenched her fist.
Her phone dinged and a link came through. It was a Google form from Michael. Nobody had ever sent her one back. The only thing she had gotten was from her third date, Nicholas, who had texted her the following message: Maybe this is a joke or something, but here’s a little survey: Are you crazy, delusional, incapable of normal human interaction, or just super clueless?
She had pondered that list of questions for a long time. She did not think she was crazy, though it seemed like other people, Craig and Daniel, for example, thought she was, and wasn’t a sign of being crazy that you didn’t know you were? Still, she felt very sane and in control of her thoughts and feelings. So, she didn’t think she was crazy, and because she didn’t think she was crazy, she also didn’t think she was delusional, though she may have been a bit delusional to think that her dates would respond, since it hadn’t gone that well. But of course, she was realistic, her students only had a 57% response rate, so she knew what was what. Incapable of normal human interaction. The word “normal” was tricky, but there too, she felt that actually, yes, she was quite capable. No one had ever mentioned anything at work, and she had lunch every day down in the staff cafeteria where a group of her colleagues gathered at a long table and shared stories. So, she didn’t think she was incapable. Clueless? Well, yes, maybe she was clueless. It was difficult to find any clues at all, especially with men. Before she had begun online dating she had met a man named Chris, who was introduced to her through her mother. During dinner she had tried to find things out about him, which is what people did, but by the end of the dinner he had said, “What is this, some kind of interrogation?” Another man, Martin, whom she had met at a bar while she was playing wingman for her suitemates at school, had suddenly kissed her right at the bar, without barely talking to her at all. She hadn’t understood why he would do that, and he gave almost no indication that he would, except that he had asked her name, and what she was drinking. A third man, Ricky, whom she had met while working at a soup kitchen, had told her that she was very polite, and had invited her to tea at his house, and after they had talked for a while, and had a nice time, he had asked her to have sex with him, which was clear and direct, and which she had done, because she thought he was very nice. But then, when he didn’t talk to her the following day, or answer her calls, or when he told her not to come back to the soup kitchen, she didn’t understand. She had asked for an explanation but he had not given her one. “Just let it rest,” was all he had said. And so, at the end of all that, she had been, yes, clueless.
When she had written back to Nicholas to inform him that she was, indeed, clueless, he had written back the words, “No shit.”
When she responded and said that, with the aid of some clues, she could be a very good detective, he had said the following: “Here’s a clue: why don’t you fuck off?”
She had wanted to tell him that this was technically a question, but at that point she was no longer clueless. Nicholas was what her mother called, “A fucking ding-dong.”
She had begun to suspect that most men fit that description. But she was not without faith, and she was also what they had called at work, “A problem solver.” So, if the problem was being clueless, the solution was to gather clues, data, actionable items. She wouldn’t stop.
And so far, with Michael, it was working. She clicked on the link he sent, full of a nervous bubbly feeling in her torso.
It was a very short form, with just one item:
*Preferred methods of foreplay:
1. Romantic music
3. Prolonged eye contact
4. Meaningful conversation
5. Light touching
7. A bubble bath
9. All of the above
Her nervousness dissipated into a wave of pleasure that swelled through her body. She responded immediately. 1,2,5,6, *light spanking.
When Michael arrived he was beautiful in a long blue shirt and a big grin that became laughter when she flung herself around his neck. While she plated their food he told her more about the children, how today the teacher he was training under had drawn figure eights and ovals and triangles on the pavement outside of the classroom, and how each child had gotten a piece of chalk and had traced the lines themselves, first walking over the forms, and then crouching down to draw them. “That way they get used to the forms before they have to draw them on their own. They already have the schema,” he said. “Of course, the hardest part is getting them to move beyond the schema.”
But she was barely listening. She was staring at his hands, which were perfect, and she was imaging them guiding children along a figure eight made of chalk. His hands with their large visible veins, veins she stared at almost the whole night, as they ate their steak and beans, and watched Spiderman: Homecoming, and as the romantic music started, and as the candles were lit, and as his hands found her shirt, and slipped off her underwear, and his head disappeared between her legs so his tongue could caress her outside, and then her inside. How he almost forgot the spanking, and she had to remind him that there was an order to things as she raised her butt in the air. How he lay on top of her after that, flipped her over, and how she rode him as he slapped her behind, and then, how he turned her around when he wasn’t supposed to, so that she was in reverse cowgirl, and she said, “This isn’t part of the plan,” and he laughed, and slapped her again, and she said, “Stop, wait, this isn’t in the order, it’s not one of the positions,” and he slapped her a little harder this time, and said, “I didn’t think you were naughty like this. I didn’t think you’d want slapping. I’ve never known a girl as funny as you.” And when she tried to twist off him he grabbed her hands and said “Wait, wait, I’m almost there.”
She didn’t let him finish. She wrestled free and crouched at the far corner of the bed, staring at him with eyes full of hurt. “You broke the rules!”
“Wait, come back. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
She studied him for a long moment, her panic high in the air, as if she’d just been thrown up into it like a baby.
“I was almost there. Stop joking around.”
“I’m not joking around. Why did you do that? We had everything laid out perfectly. I liked our plan.”
“Fine, fine, come here, I could finish in your mouth.”
“No, the plan is already broken.”
“Okay, ha ha, that’s really funny.”
“What’s really funny?”
“The—.” He considered her for a long moment, something awakening in his eyes. “Wait, you’re not serious, are you?”
“I am serious,” she said, her voice in a straight line.
“This wasn’t a joke?”
“A joke? What would be a joke? We made an agreement. We had a clear plan.”
“The surveys, and all that, they weren’t a joke? Some kind of weird flirting?”
“No, they were data.”
“Data,” he said. He sighed, and looked down at his hands for a very long time. They formed a set of binoculars in his lap, and his fingernails were playing with each other. He had gone flaccid, and it lay along his thigh.
Her heart was pumping and angry.
“Why can’t things ever just go the way they’re supposed to?” she asked.
“That’s not how it works,” he said to the binoculars in his lap.
“It should,” she said. “It would be much easier.”
“It’s not supposed to be easy.”
“Why would it be hard on purpose? That’s just stupid.”
“No, that’s exciting.”
“Anticipation is exciting. Knowing what to expect is exciting. Having no idea is not exciting. Being clueless is not exciting.”
“How else are we supposed to learn then?”
Her eyes were bright and she was bent toward him, ready to answer, to rebut, her fists tight at her sides, her mouth thinking hard through the words.
Matthew Zanoni Müller was born in Bochum, Germany and grew up in Eugene, Oregon and Upstate New York. He received his BA from Emerson College in Creative Writing and Literature, and his MFA in Fiction from Warren Wilson’s MFA Program for Writers. He is an Associate Professor of English at Berkshire Community College and currently lives in Western Massachusetts. He has co-written a memoir with his father entitled Drops on the Water: Stories about Growing Up from a father and Son published by Loyola University’s Apprentice House press. He has also published in various literary magazines, such as NANO Fiction, DecomP MagazinE, The Boiler Journal, Hippocampus, and Halfway Down the Stairs. He is a nonfiction reader at Pithead Chapel. To learn more about his writing, please visit: www.matthewzanonimuller.com