Day 22 in my novel-in-a-month effort:

Chapter 20: Art Detour

The Congress finds and declares the following:

(1) The arts and the humanities belong to all the people of the United States.

(3) An advanced civilization must not limit its efforts to science and technology alone, but must give full value and support to the other great branches of scholarly and cultural activity in order to achieve a better understanding of the past, a better analysis of the present, and a better view of the future.

(4) Democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens. It must therefore foster and support a form of education, and access to the arts and the humanities, designed to make people of all backgrounds and wherever located masters of their technology and not its unthinking servants.

—Title 20, United States Code, Education, Support and Scholarship in Humanities and Arts; Museum Services; National Foundation of the Arts and the humanities

The broad and brightly lit store front beckoned passing cars and pedestrians as they made their way up and down the more than slightly seedy but increasingly cool Grand Avenue. Behind the parade of plate glass windows, one could see crowds engaged in conversation or examining the art on display.

The site was Flagg’s Cake Factory, so named for the business that once occupied the ancient building. Transformed in recent years by an artist entrepreneur, Flagg’s was the center of Grand Avenue’s renaissance. Its massive volume contained a tremendous gallery space, almost three stories high, and numerous smaller artist’s studios honeycombed behind. What once had been a dreary and quiet stretch of road way was now vibrant and worth seeing. Even the remaining homeless and prostitutes had to agree, this was a pretty cool joint.

Because of Flagg’s central location and recently allowed street parking, Sam and Sarah had agreed to meet there, thinking it would be easy to spot each other. The volume of the crowds on this sweltering Friday night surprised them, though, and it took each a good twenty minutes of strolling the gallery and sidewalks outside before they stumbled upon each other.

Secretly, both Sarah and Sam had their misgivings about the wisdom of tonight’s outing. They would have laughed to know just how much the other’s worries mirrored their own.

First, they thought, what the hell were they doing? They still worked together, after all. Neither had been born yesterday, and each had seen the negative results that could flow from mixing the sweet with the suite.

Second, neither had dated in quite some time and, frankly, they felt exhausted before they even began. Both Sarah and Sam believed themselves to be pretty difficult to get along with – for Sam, it was largely true – and their previous relationships had been an ongoing negotiation and accommodation to adjust to competing needs, desires, and quirks.

In that, they were like most everyone. But they each suffered more than most from a sense that making a new start with someone else might just be too much work.

How much did Sarah really want to nod with interest as Sam described where he was raised?

Would Sam be able to focus his gaze sufficiently as Sarah described where she had worked in the past, and what brought her to their current law firm?

Was Sarah prepared to feign interest as Sam parsed the difference between a puppet and a marionette, or the relative benefits and challenges of bait fishing versus fly fishing?

Could they really bear to engage in a discussion of whether each had gone out on First Fridays before, and the relative merits of strolling on Roosevelt or Grand Avenue?

For these and many more are the topics that sustain or more often drown a first date conversation. If we were honest with ourselves, all of us also would hesitate to plunge into that maddening endeavor.

For you readers of tender years, this may be a paradox that is completely foreign to you, but Sam and Sarah knew the truth:

Many, many, many people are simply boring. For reals: Boring.

Unlike the teenage years and even the twenties, when all seems new and bright and shiny and full of possibility, both Sam and Sarah knew that the truth was a little gray around the edges. Sure, everyone’s story may be somewhat unique, but how far beneath the surface do we have to mine to reach a glimmer of ore? And how many of us have the energy and bravery to once more don that ridiculous head gear with built-in flashlight to rumble beneath the surface, hoping to find gold?

“So, what kind of music do you like?” Sarah and Sam thought they’d rather throw themselves under a train.

(In fact, this “suicide over dating” impetus had long roots. For example, the history of attempts to legalize prostitution wrongly focuses on the proponents’ sense that adults should be allowed to do what they want. That was a factor, but closer examination shows that in every case of legalization efforts, from 1800 to the present, the proponent had been divorced or separated and was now being urged by his cohorts to “get back into the pool.” So distasteful and exhausting was the prospect that these men and women pioneers simply sighed, “Can’t I just pay for it?” and launched a reform effort – still largely unsuccessful).

Like most people, though, Sarah and Sam found a way to overcome their distaste for dating and showed up for the event. And that reason was the oldest one in the world: their ability to overlook their own knowledge and experience and to yield to their inner child-like interest and optimism. (There was a second reason, of course, but because this is a family friendly narrative, we’ll simply say it was “attraction.”)

To raise their courage sufficiently to allow them to arrive, though, they had to overcome something else related to children: Their own kids, Olive and Mia.

Because they were decent people, both Sarah and Sam had a concern that they were requiring their children to accompany them, not because the kids might love First Fridays, but because the kids’ presence would take some pressure off the adults.

But because they hadn’t dated in awhile – and because both had thought more than once that afternoon about their close proximity and rising temperature as they had lay entangled together on the deck of the Michael Brag – they dispensed with that concern without much effort: “Come on, come on, are you ready to go?” each had urged their daughters. The time for saint like niceties was passed. It was time to get out and ask those inane dating questions, and Sam and Sarah were surprised at how much they looked forward to it.

Like reluctant daters since recorded history began, many – though not all – of their concerns evaporated when they saw each other.

Sarah was pleased by Sam’s appearance, and she was a little embarrassed that she was so surprised that he presented pretty well.

That, of course, has to do with the work place, especially a law office. After all, who does not look good in a suit? Or, at least, whose appearance is not aided by the presence of a suit? It could be said that men are uniformly benefited by being able to wear a uniform.

Sarah, like all women, had come to understand that you have to view a man in various other guises before you can really make a determination about his eye and his judgment. And in this regard, things looked good.

Sam was wearing jeans, dark ones, but not leather or pleather or anything of that sort. They were fitted, but didn’t go overboard, and they were topped by a handsome leather belt with silver grommets.

But it was Sam’s shirt that impressed her most. A collared and buttoned garment, it was dark blue with black stripes. It was buttoned properly, the chest not demanding the viewer’s attention. And, most important, it was not simply a shirt he wore to work during the day with a suit; it was entirely different, clearly bought and used for different occasions. The “repurposed” shirt never worked, she thought, because it hollered “I have too little self respect and imagination to own a non-work shirt.”

His shoes, too, were ones she had never seen in the office. Black leather and coming to gentle points, they were not his grandfather’s shoes, but they didn’t better belong on a teenager. They fit him and who he was.

Sam had done well.

And “Sarah,” Sam thought. “Sarah, Sarah, Sarah.” He could see that she was going to make it extremely difficult for him to feign interest in the art work and to act as though their first date was a casual walk with two families.

She had thought a lot about what to wear, but had opted for something nice that was comfortable. Fortunately for Sam, “nice” and “comfortable” translated to “head turning” and “wow inducing.”

Her black leather jacket said “Saks” more than “Hells Angels,” and that was fine with him (“Target,” she would reveal later). Her dress, which considered going south of mid thigh but wisely stopped where it was, was black with randomly sized gold stars. It was made of a material he couldn’t place, but that he suspected would be soft to the touch. The portion of her legs that was visible were sheathed in black leggings. And reaching up from the ground toward a place Sam tried not to stare were two high-calf boots. The heels were modest height, but entirely befitting a woman who had lifted him from death’s door this very morning. Sam found himself more interested in the stars than he ever had been before.

“Wow, hi, you look great,” Sam said. Once again, the typically glib Sam Adams found himself tripping over his words.

“You, too,” said Sarah. “Nice shirt.”

“Thanks, I bought it this afternoon.”

Sam visibly winced, remembering too late that he had specifically instructed himself not to reveal that fact.

But Sarah smiled, which immediately turned his idiocy into a strength.

“Well, you chose very well,” she said, touching him on the arm softly. Her touch thrilled him but made him mourn the fact that she would likely withdraw her hand soon, which she did in just a moment.

“Actually,” he said, “Mia helped me.” With that, he stepped half a foot to the right, revealing a young girl.

“But you can call me Mum, if you’d like,” said Mia. “I don’t mind.”

The girl’s voice could barely be heard over the dull roar of conversation that filled the gallery in Flagg’s Cake Factory. But Sarah immediately knew that she liked this young girl, whose voice was soft but determined, and unafraid to chat with adults.

“Well, it’s terrific to finally meet you, Mum,” said Sarah. “This is my daughter Olive.”

Olive then stepped forward. She had been gazing about the gigantic room, her eyes taking in the masses of people and the odd art works, as well as the band in the corner moving through its set of original work as well as covers by Death Cab for Cutie, Paramore and Fall Out Boy.

Olive’s age – thirteen going on twenty – and her temperament demanded that she consume every bit of it. She was immediately fascinated by the space, the people and the constant motion around her. The adults in the room saw a large white walled space. She saw a rainbow of colors, each a different person in the room.

Sarah had been concerned that Olive would be indifferent to Sam and his young daughter. She knew that Olive was a very sweet kid, but her burgeoning teenage spirit meant that the sweetness was increasingly masked by a certain sourness. Sarah could never be sure if the tartness was affected and put on, or a part of her growing DNA. Like all parents, she had no way of knowing whether the self centeredness was more standard juvenile development or a sign that Juvie would be her future.

Also like most parents, Sarah worried too much about it. True to her essential nature, Olive stepped forward, extended her hand in greeting, and smiled a smile that added myriad new colors to the room around them.

“I’m Olive, Mia. It’s great to meet you.”

“You too,” replied Mia. “I like your blouse.”

And that was it. Except for the time it took Olive to shake Sam’s hand and say “It’s nice to see you again,” Olive and Mia hardly stopped holding hands the rest of the evening.

The two girls liked each other from the start. The pair of them – Olive in her combination of fashions from Wet Seal, a funky resale shop and Sarah’s own closet, and Mia, in anything that contained a skull or a monkey – looked immediately at home in the gallery. From the first, they laughed at each other’s jokes and gave each other a hard time. Olive, for instance, would never call Mia “Mum,” though she was later to enuniciate “Chrysanthemum” whenever she got annoyed. And Mia took great pleasure in mocking Olive’s interest in boys and featuring her own – Mia’s – superior spelling ability.

Maybe it was the speed with which Mia and Olive became fast friends, or maybe it was seeing them holding hands, but Sam took the initiative as their two daughters walked off, looking for adventure. Acting as if this was the most natural thing in the world, Sam took Sarah’s hand in his own and began walking next to her.

“Afraid of getting lost in the crowd?” Sarah asked with a  smile, not sure how firmly to return Sam’s squeeze.

“More afraid of losing you, Sarah,” Sam replied. “After all, if any boots were made for walkin’, those boots were.”

Sarah laughed, squeezed back, and didn’t mind – not at all, really – when the crush of the crowd forced them more closely together. Sarah could not have known it, but Olive was absolutely right: First Friday had never appeared so full of color.

CHAPTER 21 is next.