Avery Brocus should’ve used his real photo. He shouldn’t have used his real name.
His fingers tapped the screen of his smartphone, lying flat on the table. A nervous tic. He wanted badly to text a buddy, asking him to run down and meet him at the wine bar. He needed a friend sitting at a nearby table, observing silently and ready to jump in if, instead of a young woman, some big bruiser showed up to blackmail or rob him.
Many thoughts breezed through as he waited for his kinda-sorta blind date to arrive, but the thought that he was being set up was like a tornado in his mind. He was almost dizzy with dread.
Avery wasn’t entirely clear on what pushed him to set up a profile on the Freakfinder site. Curiosity was certainly a factor. He’d been hearing about hook-up websites for years, and Freakfinder was the one that promised the most success (or your money back). Loneliness wasn’t the issue. Sober or tipsy he always swore he was—and felt he was—happy living alone with two cats. While setting up his profile, he’d muttered something to himself about satisfying an urge, scratching an itch that was more irritating than mere curiosity.
In seventeen years of legal adulthood, he’d never had a relationship last more than six weeks. He never found his dates wholly appealing. Oftentimes the feeling was more than mutual. Sometimes he’d try to stick with a woman that shared similar interests since, the older he got, the more uncomfortable he felt going to dinner or attending a show alone. But no matter how many shared interests, after a while the woman’s presence began to grate, the phone calls and texting became a nuisance, and the meet-ups a chore akin to cleaning the bathroom after a week of neglect. He went on hiatus to concentrate on his job and to figure himself out. After about a year, he had an epiphany: he wasn’t attracted to women his own age. He just plain didn’t like what his generation was into, what they talked about, their hang-outs or their hang-ups. He wasn’t a man of his time. He wanted difference. He wanted exoticism. He had a fetish.
In second grade, he once had a substitute teacher named Ms. Lovelace. Blonde, blue eyes, long legs, and curvy in all the right places. He couldn’t believe her name or her looks, but he believed that’s when it all started, his yearning for older women—women at least fifteen years older than he. Beyond taboo, he’d more than an inkling that this was perverse. He tried to suppress it, but the inclination stayed with him through high school and college. Older women turned his head and held his attention several seconds longer than the women in his peer group.
In his early thirties, when he was finally ready to give up and admit it to himself (if no one else), he started to indulge a little. He began scouring the web and watching MILF porn at midnight before crawling into bed at two a.m. A month later he graduated to hot-and-frisky granny porn. After two years of watching this stuff almost every night, he couldn’t take it anymore. He wanted the real thing.
One night, after two glasses of Pinot, rather than clicking on his favorite porn site, he searched for hook-up sites catering to those who wanted to explore beyond their own age range. His profile was nothing special, though he made sure the first sentence highlighted the fact he was drug-, disease-, and drama-free. His username was PurplePet8er—a twist on a second-grader’s joke. He posted pictures of a physique sculpted by five hundred push-ups a day. The pics were all nude, but they didn’t venture below the waist or higher than the chin.
Over the course of two months, he clicked “like” on several dozen profiles, received one half-hearted response for every eight emails he sent, and added about a dozen reasonably attractive divorcees and attached-but-looking cougars to his hotlist. Then, he saw her profile. She wasn’t in his preferred range, but those eyes . . . that face . . . Both seemed to glow. She was twenty-two, thirteen years his junior, and judging by her detailed profile, she seemed far more sexually experienced than he was sure he ever wanted to be. But he sent her a “wink.” The next night he added her to his hotlist. The following night, an email: You’re beautiful. I’d wish I’d met you in another life. The following night, he received an email: What’s wrong with this one?
A conversation started. Sentences were volleyed before paragraphs were carefully composed and exchanged. One night, after four glasses of Pinot, when he was about to hit “send” on a 3,000 word email, he deleted it and sent two words instead. Wanna meet?
Yes, of course. But send me a face pic first, and tell me your name 🙂
He’d panicked. His body reflected the efforts of a gym rat, while his face looked like it had been bitten by rats. Blemishes from mild but incurable acne and unhealed scars resulting from one too many shaving cuts didn’t make for a pretty picture. He wasn’t about to run out and buy a makeup kit; at the time it made far more sense to send her someone else’s face. He found something suitable on an obscure site showcasing the photos of young and obscure literary authors. He was so giddy with the find that he didn’t think to make up a name. It was only when sobriety kicked in the next morning that he realized he’d gotten it backward. She was going to see exactly what he looked like when they met, but he could’ve kept his real name hidden for weeks, months, or even longer. Just stupid.
And now he was stuck—stuck in a cozy wine bar. It had the capacity to seat twenty-five in the main area. It was currently seating fifteen. Avery had arrived at 3:00, thirty minutes earlier than the agreed upon meeting time, and certainly early enough to get a choice seat in the dimly lit back, facing the front door, blinking at the sunlight each time someone entered in silhouette.
Then she entered. He didn’t blink. The sunlight that had shadowed all other entrants seemed to clothe her. The normally banal pink tank top and blue jeans shone like the raiment of a fairy tale princess on her. Her face glowed like a vanilla sun, just like in her picture. And her smile was straight out of a toothpaste commercial. He must’ve been drunk on wine fumes.
She made eye contact the moment she stepped over the threshold. Hers—implausibly—twinkled. The smile neither left her face nor changed its contours as she made her way to the table.
He stood, knees wobbling as much as the three-legged table. “Charity?”
She nodded. Beauty and brains. Not only was she a five-foot-five bundle of hotness, she was also smart enough not to give her real name.
Avery extended his hand. She waved it away and moved in for a hug.
Disengaging from the tangle, she said, “Never worry, it is my real name.” She winked, then took her seat and picked up the menu. “So what should we wet our tongues with first?”
Avery remained standing, unsteady. This girl, this beautiful girl, had eased into his presence as comfortably as if she’d been dating him for a year.
“Uh, there’s an Oregon Pinot that’s good,” he said, finding his seat, not once taking his eyes off her. “It’s from the Willamette Valley. Best Pinot in the New World.”
“Well, far be it from me to resist the best of anything, from any world.”
She peered at him over the menu. Avery was half expecting her to wink again—wink one of those twinkling eyes—but instead hers simply met his, unblinking, warming him. He flinched and looked away, resting his eyes on the table as she laid the menu down.
“You looking to call for backup?” she asked.
Avery met her eyes again, only to see hers focused on the screen of his cell. While waiting for her arrival, he’d pulled up the Freakfinder site, intending to locate and re-read her profile before meeting her. But his phone displayed the site’s homepage, with its dozen squares of x-rated photos posted by shameless women.
Avery snatched the phone and jammed it into his jeans pocket. “I just wanted to remember what you looked like, so I could recognize you when you walked in.”
“Well, I don’t look like a vagina. And that’s all I saw on your screen.”
She grinned as she said it. Avery tried to chuckle in response, but it sounded more as if he were coming down with a cold than sharing a laugh.
“Besides,” she said, “all I have on my profile are head shots. The number of times we’ve communicated, I would hope you’d have me memorized by now. You, on the other hand, were a mystery—until the last minute.”
“Yeah,” Avery shrugged and signaled for the waiter, “about my face pic—”
“I knew it was a fake the second I got it. Figured the body photos were, too—our little hug just now told me that they weren’t. Honestly, before I came through the door, I was fully expecting to meet a woman. I just knew the name wasn’t fake.”
She’d said it all with a smile, not a smirk. Nevertheless, Avery couldn’t help but feel embarrassed. His eyes began to drift toward the tabletop again . . . He had to shake it off. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. He had to choke back his nervousness and exude confidence. Not fake it—believe it.
His eyes met hers as he straightened his back. “Avery is a fake name. My real one is Chastity.”
Her expression twitched as the aura around her face seemed to flicker. Avery sensed she didn’t immediately get the joke. He was relieved enough when she laughed seconds later, though he was still questioning his eyesight.
They ordered their wine, and then Charity said, “Well, whoever said anyone on the net has to be who they say they are? The unwritten law is to be something completely different from reality.”
“Funny thing that your name really is Charity . . . Right?”
She gave him a slow nod.
“Because, you agreeing to meet me,” he said, “meet me openly and honestly, seems to be an act of kindness. We’re from such different worlds.”
“In a manner of speaking, yes. But we’re not totally different. Trying to live up to the name my makers gave me, I use my spare time trying to help the unfortunate. Not too different from the volunteer work you said you do with children . . . but, then, most men on those sites claim they’re athletic, kind, and attentive, with a generous sense of humor and an inclination to help others.”
“Guilty of the same,” Avery said, giving her his first broad smile. “And I have the evidence to prove it.”
They drank, traded anecdotes, alternated bathroom breaks, and shared laughs for two hours. Avery then paid the check and escorted Charity outside.
“Can I see you again?” he asked.
“If you remember to call me, you can.”
They hugged less awkwardly than before and went their separate ways. Avery walked five blocks, sobering slightly, before reaching his Honda. It had a yellow slip of paper under the wiper. He’d only put enough money in the meter for one hour, the limit. If he’d known he and Charity would hit it off so well, he would’ve parked in a garage.
He put the ticket in his pocket and sped home, not even caring if he was pulled over and slapped with a DUI. This had been one of the best afternoons of his life, and there was little he could think of that would ruin it.
He parked on the street, a block away from his apartment building’s lot. He wanted to walk a bit more to clear his head, still in a haze from wine and thoughts of a long-term future with Charity.
He reached into his pocket for the receipt, wanting to look at the number she had scribbled on the back of it, just to make sure it was real. The receipt was there; the parking ticket was there; his smartphone was gone. He must’ve left it back at the bar. As fortune would have it, he’d gotten rid of his landline a year ago, so he had no way to call and ask. He decided to feed the cats, have a big glass of water, then head on back.
He pushed the button on his key to shut off the apartment’s alarm. Opening the door, he almost fell backward when a pungent odor plugged his nostrils.