When I met Harley, I was in love with someone else. I was always in love with someone else; a guy who made poor life choices and strung me along like a loose thread begging to be pulled. Names would change, but scenarios remained the same. This was what I was into. Needless to say, unrequited loving wasn’t exactly productive or beneficial in any way that mattered (read: between the sheets) so I took to online dating for more substance – if you can believe that.
At the time, there weren’t all the articles that are available today about online dating and what to look out for, or what to be careful of when browsing profiles. I was also perennially naïve, which didn’t help. The first time I logged into my Plenty of Fish account I began direct messaging a guy while I was at work at a front desk. He suggested we play truth or dare. I found this hilarious, and a great way to avoid doing any actual work, so I agreed and he dared me to take my underwear off at my desk. I thought we were getting to know each other in a cute g-rated way, but no, he was just horny. All they wanted was sex. Sex now, or soon, or as soon as possible, or just a quickie, or a hand job, or fine just some sexy talk to jerk off to, or perhaps a naked picture or, oh, this is taking too long so they’ve moved on to find someone up for anything.
I thought we were getting to know each other in a cute g-rated way, but no, he was just horny.
Being in my early 20s, with a predisposition towards unattainable men, I was torn between my physical needs and unrealistic romantic tendencies. Back in high school, I wrote in my diary about my crush on Bryon. As in, George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron, FRS, aka. Lord Byron, the early 19th Century English poet who swam the English Channel with a clubfoot. He was my dream guy. He had it all! Romance, heroinism, a disability that he’d overcome, a strong jaw line according to the pictures in my English Lit textbooks, a chin dimple, and one-liners like, “She walks in beauty like the night, of cloudless climes and starry skies.”
I mean come on. I was gone on Byron.
After eventually growing out of my crushes-on-dead-guys phase and into my alive-men-who-don’t-know-I’m-alive phase, I began the slow slog through profiles on Plenty of Fish in search of something actually real. When I came across Harley, I was intrigued. He had several photos; though many of them appeared to be staged with a professional photographer. One showed him resting his chin on his fist in thought, in another he was sprawled casually across a couch, and then there was a sort of blurry far away shot that was probably meant to be artistic. He was a performer, it said in his profile, so that made more sense. There was no way I was going to date a guy who paid for professional head shots on his Plenty of Fish profile. It was hard to gauge his age. I settled on a fairly confident assessment that he was in his late 20s, maybe early 30s at most. While the age range was a bit wider than ideal, I could see no reason not to date this guy, and so I responded politely to the “hi, you have nice eyes, hope you’re having a great day,” message in my inbox.
We emailed back and forth a few times. He was polite, he could spell, and he understood the basics of grammar. These seemed like decent building blocks for a future together. It turned out that “performer” meant musician, which made him all the more appealing to me as a part-time groupie. During those years, if you were a cute singer in Vancouver I would hunt you down and dance at the front of your stage in drunken lustiness.
“It’s so shallow that I like him more knowing he’s in a band,” I emailed Drea at work.
“I don’t think so,” she emailed back. “Music is really important to you, it’s a huge part of your life. It makes total sense that someone with a music background would be of interest.”
“True,” I mused, impressed with her efficient rationality and support of my nuanced emotional needs.
“So,” she asked, “do you think I should email Steve the knitter from Jamaica on his personal email? Is it too early to be like ‘meh. not so interested’? I mean, he does seem nice but I’m not that engaged.”
Drea was also searching for Mr. Right. So far, she’d gone on a date with a German fellow. They’d gotten wasted and returned to her place at the end of the night where he promptly took off his pants and said to her, “You show me you are good friend, yes?” Drea said she didn’t really feel any need to prove herself, or their drunk-date friendship with a celebratory blow-job, so she cast him back into the sea. The catch-and-release method.
I checked my POF inbox for the 16th time that morning, waiting to hear back from Harley even though I didn’t care. Drea emailed me back after lunch with: “Big Bambino just messaged me. Do you know what bambino means? Baby. Big Baby. Do you know how old he is? Forty-five!”
“I just threw up in the back of my throat,” I wrote.
When Harley suggested coffee I agreed to meet on my next day off. I spent a good deal of time picking out the perfect blind date outfit, which was an attempt to look as though ‘I just woke up like this,’ so that took three plus hours to perfect. I rode the bus down to the Blenz, on Hastings, and arrived early. Typically. I ordered an ice-coffee and took it to a small round table on the sidewalk under the shade of an awning. It was a sunny, summer day in July. The kind of day that made me want to be outside, despite my bat-like inclinations. I sat sipping, feeling extremely nervous. What were we going to talk about? Would I find him good looking in real life? Were we going to have anything in common other than the fact he played music and I liked listening to music?
I kept peeking into the coffee shop, looking around for him. There were a few cute strangers, but none of them remotely glanced in my direction and I began to wonder if I’d gone overboard on my “just got out of bed” look. Then an older man with frizzy hair entered the coffee shop and gazed around, narrowly missing eye contact as I swiveled in my seat. Was that him? It looked like him. But he was old. I glanced inside again to get a better look and watched him ordering a coffee and casing the joint. That was definitely him. It was now confirmed that his profile pictures were out of date. Perhaps even long expired. I guessed he was easily in his 40s. This was awkward. I could just get up and start running down the sidewalk in the direction of the nearest bus stop, and no one would know. But, I reasoned, I’d spent two hours perfecting bed-head, and was it worth wasting? Even though clearly he was much too old for me, I could at least see the date through. It could be interesting. It could be something to write about.
“Are you Emily?” came a deep voice, and I glanced up into the haggard face of my date. I smiled tightly.
“I’m Harley,” he said, holding out an object in one hand.
It took me a second to focus on what he was offering; a dirty, busted-up pigeon feather. I took it from him gingerly, trying not to get any Cryptococcal Meningitis on me. “What’s this for?”
“I saw it and thought of you.”
“Okay,” I said, trying to make the bizarre connection. He pointed to the ink quill that I had tattooed on my lower right arm. He explained that he’d seen it in my profile pictures.
“Oh, I see,” I said, not wanting to thank him for comparing my pristine, detailed feather tattoo to this mangled wreck of street crime that he’d handed to me but politeness won out. “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome,” he said, with a smile that was really too smug, considering.
I had no idea what to do with the gift, and gingerly put it on the edge of the table as far away from my coffee as possible. I looked into his face, taking in the grey stubble, the crow’s feet, the hair that looked like a dye-job.
He stared back at me and said with relief, “You’re even better looking in person.”
I felt that this was the Universe forcing me to be honest. “You look older than I thought, based on your pictures.”
He made a face that indicated surprise. “I’m 42.”
“I’m 24,” I told him, pointedly.
“You seem mature for your age,” he answered.
I was not impressed, but because of my need to make everyone feel comfortable all the time, even at the expense of my own comfort, I pursued conversation with him as I quickly sipped my coffee. He continued to shock when he started talking about his ten-year-old kid. He talked a lot, I actually tuned him out and people watched, checking out the lawyers, emos, and hobos. I tuned back in to hear him discussing his past acting career, mostly stage, some commercials.
“What do you do now?” I interjected, encouraging him to keep speaking so that I could go back to minding my own business.
“I’m a singer.”
I glanced across at him, disappointed with myself for being so interested by this. He caught my eye and raised his eyebrows. “Well, I’m an impersonator, actually. A Neil Diamond impersonator.”
I let this sink in, unsure I knew who Neil Diamond was, other than someone famous. “That’s unique,” I offered.
His whole body changed, and his language opened up; sitting back and stretching out his arms, gut bumping out like a spare bike tire. I could see, then, that somewhere there was a woman who was crushing on him. One girl’s impersonator was another girl’s frontman. This guy, despite his age, had a certain confidence that was appealing on a very base level. “I’m playing tonight, at the Penthouse,” he told me. “You should come.”
The Penthouse was the most epically classic definition of seedy dive I’d ever known. Who was this guy? I wondered, part mystified, part disgusted, part curious. I told him I would think about it and he offered to put me on the guest list. Embarrassed by just the idea, I insisted I’d be fine to pay if I ended up going. “I’ve got some writing to do,” I said. This was my go-to phrase, and foolproof escape. The consequence being that it forced me to actually write a lot.
He nodded. “What are you working on?”
“A book,” I said. “I’m actually in the process of self-publishing.”
“Where?” he asked.
I shrugged, unsure what he meant. “At ABC printing, on Clark St.”
He side-smiled, which indicated I’d inadvertently been funny, but I didn’t point it out for fear of encouraging conversation. “Good for you,” he said. “That takes guts.”
“So does singing on stage,” I told him, with grudging respect.
He shrugged, rubbing his stubble. “I’ve been doing it a long time. It might not get any easier but it will get more habitual.”
I took this as some straight-forward life advice, and mentally pocketed it for later, moving the ice-cubes in my cup around with my straw. “I should probably get going,” I said, after a silence.
He seemed to wake in the moment. Sort of a “how did I get here,” expression took hold and he bumbled to his feet. Our chairs scraped across the cement, and I was about to pretend to forget the feather when he pointed to it and said, “Don’t forget the feather.”
We headed down the sidewalk in the same direction and I asked where he was going. He pointed to the bus stop in front of us, and I stopped alongside him, glancing down the street hopefully. There wasn’t a bus in sight. “Well, thanks,” I said, confused about how to be polite and brush someone off at the same time.
He jammed his hands in his pockets. “Maybe I’ll see you tonight,” he said. I waved a quick goodbye and turned away. Around the corner I chucked the feather, wiping my hand across my jeans aggressively. I couldn’t wait to fill Drea in on the strange encounter. But by the time I arrived back at my apartment, I was starting to seriously consider going to his show. Not because I was attracted to him – gross – but because I kind of wanted to see what a Neil Diamond impersonator looked like. On the job.
Drea, of course, was in. “Is he Nearly Neil?”
“What?” I asked, not understanding the question.
“Is he Nearly Neil?” she repeated. “The famous Neil Diamond impersonator from Vancouver.”
“There’s a famous Neil Diamond impersonator from Vancouver?” I asked, dumbfounded.
“He might be really famous, Emily,” she said, and looked at me in a way that suggested she was waiting for me to swoon.
“I’m not that star struck,” I said, defensively and then added, “Putting the gift of Cryptococcal Meningitis aside, he’s way too old. He has a ten-year-old son.”
“You’ll be a step-MILF!” she offered, helpfully.
“That’s not okay,” I muttered. I had enough of a conscience to know that I was being ageist, but not enough to stop being one. He did, after all, think it was legit to date a 24-year-old girl. I was closer in age with his kid.
We spent time figuring out what to wear. She picked out a black dress for me, with tights and boots. I told her to wear her turquoise scarf, which she paired with her wire rims. “Did you ever get back to Steve the knitter from Jamaica?” I asked her, as we grabbed and double checked the contents of our purses before leaving the apartment.
She answered in the negative. “I just can’t get into anyone who signs off every email with ‘huggggz!’”
On the bus, we discussed what we knew of the Penthouse, which amounted to 1) Frank Sinatra once sang there or drank there we weren’t sure which and 2) It was a strip joint. When we disembarked in front of the green neon entrance, several older women were grouped together smoking, cackling with a sort of carefree bravado, and looking pretty good despite the mom jeans. Music blasted through the open doors as we handed over our ID and took turns glancing inside with an unfamiliar trepidation. I wasn’t sure how I was going to handle the possibility of naked women dancing around poles. Drea too looked a bit fazed by the unusual atmosphere. The drummer on stage let rip with a dizzying solo and then came a burst of applause. When the first few notes of the next song kicked in, the group of women let out a series of shrieks before trampling us at the ticket booth on their way back to the stage. “This is my favourite song!” one of them shrieked in the wake.
We were finally ushered in, and in a daze we entered to a dim and smoky bar, full of brocade, velvet and leather, with giant framed photographs of famous patrons and performers. There were no strippers, or stripper poles in sight, probably because on the stage this evening was a full piece band and a man that looked as though he’d stepped off the cover of Playgirl circa 1970s. There was Harley, strutting the catwalk in a great wide-collared polyester shirt that was unbuttoned to his navel and revealed a welcome mat of salt-and-pepper hair that was at odds with the black mane on his head. Stretched in front of him was a small sea of women. The odd man in the crowd was dancing with exaggerated hip movements that whispered of their own desires. But it was the women who were really going nuts, throwing their arms in the air, yelling and hollering, dancing like they’d all been dickmatized by the wild stallion bucking on stage. Harley/Neil grabbed a guitar and belted out the lyrics to Sweet Caroline through the microphone as crazed women grabbed at his feet from the stripper runway.
Hands, touching hands
Reaching out, touching me, touching you…
Drea was laughing so hard tears were forming in the corners of her eyes. “This is so awesome,” she wheezed.
I didn’t know what to think, but the music was grooving and I had a joint in my coat pocket. It felt good not to know what to think, and not to care. Sometimes you just had to let go and live in the moment. I added this thought to the list of things to think about later. “Let’s get some shots,” I suggested.
A waiter in a t-shirt that was so tight it made his abs look like little pillows poured us four shots, which we knocked back in quick succession. Then we moved into the crowd until we were part of it, and we danced as I pushed our way up to the front of the stage.