I told Mike that my fixation on cleavages and yoga pants around campus wasn’t healthy, that I needed some sort of solution. Mike posted an ad on Craigslist for a “strong, independent woman who don’t need no man to show my roommate some luvin.’” No one responded.
Dating at Penn is difficult. Meeting people, particularly girls, isn’t easy when you’re not involved in Greek life or a prominent organization. I don’t have mixers or date-nights to go to. I grab coffee with friends, but it’s just that – grabbing coffee with friends. The Pottruck basketball courts and the soccer field at Penn Park provide little female interaction. I do hit on Rachel, a bartender at City Tap House who works Wednesdays and Saturdays. She’s a linguistics and environmental science major who knows her beers. She puts up with my shtick because I tip well.
The last time I had sex was in August. A sloppy, drunken hanky-panky with a French girl in my German study abroad program took place in her room. A bottle of Jaegermeister stood a couple of feet away on the floor from the small, yellow bed. I forgot to grab it when I left her room. I wish I hadn’t.
I brought up dating and sex to my buddy Tim to take a break from my work. This was a month ago at the Capogiro on campus. Georges Perec’s W, or the Memory of Childhood laid open in front of me. Tim closed his MacBook Pro. It ran out of juice.
“So, would you be happy if you could get laid right now?” Tim waited for my response and tasted his Americano.
“Are you hitting on me?”
“Dingbat. I’m serious.” He put down his coffee.
“I’m not putting out.” I tried to keep a straight face. “Fine, fine. What was the question again?” Tim repeated his question. “Yes, yes, yes. Well, actually, I don’t know.” Tim stared out the window at a girl walking into the Radian. “I think I would,” I mumbled. A customer at the counter ordered chocolate and banana gelatos.
“If you could be with one person you know, right now, who would it be?” I asked.
“Hm. Give me a second; I need to take a piss.” I nodded. “I’ll give you an answer when I come back.” Tim downed his cup of Americano and got up. Music blared from the speakers. The workers at Capo have the worst taste in music, I thought. A minute later, Tim sat back down and gave me his answer. I told him it was unsatisfactory.
“Okay, jackass,” Tim responded, “right back at you: whom would you be with, right now, if you could? You have to know the person, of course.”
“Who the hell is Alba?”
“You know, man. Alba.”
“Alba” is Catalan for dawn, or light. Alba herself may have told me this. It’s also very likely that I just looked up the translation on Google.
I met Alba at my friend Hassan’s birthday dinner last March. It was at Salento, a well-known BYO for Penn students, located on 22nd and Walnut. One of its waiters, Tony, is a slimy sleaze-ball who hits on anything with a pulse and two breasts. I noticed Alba three seats to the right of me, past the five-dollar wine bottles and the red-and-yellow floral decorations on the table.
A tiny mole grazed the left side of her upper lip. She wore a small black dress. Her dark brown hair was down. When we started eating, she got a piece of food stuck between her left lateral incisor and canine that she didn’t notice for thirty minutes.
I approached her later that evening when a seat opened up next to her. I pointed at her empty wine glass and asked if I could fill it up for her.
“Of course—yes, please.” She rolled the r. I gave her the option of red or white.
“Oh, it doesn’t matter to me.” She had a foreign accent, and it killed me. I filled up her glass with the cheap, sweet white wine. I asked her for her name. “I’m Alba,” she said. “And yours?”
“I’m Hans. Um, what kind of name is Alba?”
It wasn’t supposed to come out like that. I felt the sweat forming in my butt crack. She laughed it off and told me it was Catalonian. The sweat subsided.
“The real question is, what kind of name is ‘Hans’? Hm? This is a German name, yes? Are you German?” I get this question often, and it’s a good question—my face and my name don’t make sense together. I explained to her that my dad named me after the main character of Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, hoping I would grow up to be like Hans. It’s implied at the end, though, that Hans goes off to war and gets killed.
“He did not have another idea for your name?” Actually, I explained again, the other option was “Wolfgang.” She began laughing at this, thinking it was a joke. It wasn’t. My mom’s death threats in mixed Japanese and broken English persuaded my dad to go with Hans instead.
I asked her how she knew Hassan. She said she was a friend of Hassan’s friend, some guy named Julius. I prayed that she wasn’t sitting on homeboy Julius’ face in her free time. I asked her if she was single. She said she was. So at least she wasn’t exclusively sitting on anyone’s face, I figured. My prayers were answered.
We went to Smoke’s after dinner, and I mustered the drunken courage to ask her if she wanted to grab coffee with me next week. She said yes. She gave me her number.
“Wait, you’re actually interested in getting coffee with me?” I asked.
“Que tonto. Yes, of course.” I asked again to make sure she wouldn’t blow me off once she sobered up. “’Blow you off’?” I explained.
“En serio? I told you I want to go.” The case was settled. I left Smoke’s happy, and I texted Hassan about it the next day.
“Dude, you know she’s an exchange student from Barcelona, right?” he replied. Alba was just a girl I had met who was attractive, who seemed fun, whom I could see myself hanging out with. Finding out she was going to be gone after the end of the spring semester sucked.
We got coffee next Monday at Green Line Café on the corner of 42nd and Baltimore. It’s a swanky place with tasty drinks and pastries. It was a beautiful spring day, so we sat outside. I sipped on my coffee while she sipped on her mocha. She told me how she had passed by it a couple of times before and even took a picture of it. She showed me the photo on her phone. Snow covered the green building in the picture, and light radiated from the other side of the glass windows.
“Do you come on this place often?” Alba wasn’t, and still isn’t, great with prepositions. She told me to correct her on her grammatical mistakes, but I understood what she said most of the time, so I let them slide. I told her this was actually my second time. The first time was on a failed date. The girl thought I was a joke.
“It’s nice, isn’t it?”
“I love this. At first I thought you were just going to take me somewhere far out in West Philly to some random place and it was going to be awful. Like a Starbucks.” I took that as a compliment.
I asked her what she was expecting from her foreign exchange experience. Something different, she replied. She asked me what I wanted to do. Get outta here, I replied.
“Oh? Like where?” A lot of places, I responded
“If you could be anywhere, one place, where would it be?” I told her I wanted to go to Brazil.
“You know, be there for the World Cup next year. That’s on my bucket list: to be at a host country of the World Cup.” I expected Alba to give me the standard answer, like “Cool!” or “Me, too!” She went for an audible.
“Where exactly in Brazil?”
“Which city specifically?”
I could have told anyone at any other time, Sau Paulo or Rio de Janeiro or Minas Gerais. At that moment, I brainfarted.
“Wait,” Alba giggled, “you tell me you want to go to Brazil and you don’t know the names of any of the cities?” She lets out everything when she laughs, with the first couple a-has being the loudest and most accentuated part of her laugh, and she let everything out. I laughed along with a red face. I think I made a fool out of myself the rest of the time there.
“I really enjoyed that,” she said on our way back. I thanked her for coming, and let her know that there really are idiots at Penn. Or an idiot, anyway.
“Quick, name a city in Brazil!” she joked. “No, really, I had the good time. It was refreshing. I know you’re not stupid, and you were being genuine the entire time.” Genuinely stupid, I corrected her. “The people I have met at Penn, they do this thing where it’s all about…” She started talking in Spanish to convey her point. I don’t speak Spanish. I suggested façade.
“Yes, yes. It is all about the looks? Or appearance—Is this the right word? ‘I am cool and great,’ and it is not very attractive. Almost sad, kind of.” I grumbled that it’s a big ol’ circle jerk, in my opinion.
“Circle jerk?” I clarified with hand movements. “Yes, it is definitely circle jerk. Circle jerking?”
We hung out after that, and she met my roommates. I raved about this foreign exchange student from Barcelona to all of them, and once they met her, they saw where I was coming from.
“She’s so sweet,” said Emma.
“She’s really funny,” said Mark.
“She’s smokin’ hot and she is way out of your league,” said Mike. Alba charmed all four residents of Harrison 309, and she wasn’t even aware of it. I asked her out to dinner about a month later.
I took her downtown for dinner since she hadn’t explored much of Philly outside of University City. I lifted weights beforehand so I’d look buff. We spent almost three hours at the Dandelion, and I wasn’t sure if I was tired from talking or from working out. Maybe it was both.
We left at around ten-thirty. We walked side by side. My dress shoes tapped the pavement and her dark boots click-clacked on the concrete. It was a cold Philadelphia evening in April, the kind of weather where people disappear into their wool shirts, thick sweaters, black jackets, beige scarves, and knit caps. Before long, we were on 22nd and Walnut. Probably for her, we were coming back from a lovely dinner. For me, we were coming back from a lovely date. The Sunoco on the corner of the street had a white, Toyota Corolla parked outside, its lights blinking on and off. A man and a woman yelled at each other.
I spat on the sidewalk.
“What was that!” I didn’t understand her question. “That!” She pointed at the wad of my saliva several feet behind us. I explained to her that it’s called “spit” in English.
“Que tonto. I know what that is. Do all the American people do this thing? It is disgusting.”
I told her that we do this all the time in the States because we are Americans, and Americans are disgusting like that. I added that it’s polite to spit in response.
“Come on.” I swore on a bunch of mothers and asked her if I ever lied to her.
“But you have lied already to me so many times just this evening.”
“Then another lie isn’t going to make a difference, is it?” She glared at me. “Okay, fine, fine. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have spat. It’s very unbecoming for a lady like me.”
“Idiota.” I shrugged it off. It’s not like she meant it; she was laughing. When we crossed the Walnut Street Bridge the Schuylkill looked black.
“What is your favorite book?” asked Alba. I couldn’t remember the last time someone asked me that. Crime and Punishment? Me Speak Pretty One Day? Catch-22? The Republic, I answered.
“Why is this so?” I said it made me think more than any other book.
“Think about what?”
“What I want to study. What the hell I’m doing with my life. Made me think what a “good” life was. Seriously, though—do you know what the hell that even means?” She said she didn’t. “Me neither. Maybe that was the point.” We passed the Singh Center for Nanotechnology, still under construction.
She asked me if I ever read Siddartha. I hadn’t. I didn’t read Hermann Hesse until the summer. I asked if that was her favorite book.
“No, that is Moon Palace, from Paul Auster. Siddartha—it is not that I loved the book itself. But it really moved me, and I don’t know if I can explain myself well, especially in English.” I asked if she recommended it. She did.
We were now on Locust Walk. Walking under the illuminated glass lights that hung on the trees, I thought about how those installations weren’t going to be there next semester. I burped the chocolate double stout I had with my dinner. According to Alba, that was the pinnacle of unacceptable behavior around a woman. I bowed and thanked her for her kind words. I burped again. She was more sober than I was.
Spring semester passed by. The last time I saw Alba in person was in May. I moved out of my dorm that day. She told me we might see each other again, and I said little. She wore a purple dress and flip-flops. I recognized the blue bra-strap peeping from underneath the dress. We said goodbye, hugged, and went our ways.
We’ve kept in touch. She hasn’t missed a beat. I’m sitting here writing a two thousand, three hundred-word piece.