A Short Story
The dating coach found an open chair at the back of the café. A miracle, but finding the spare was her specialty, and she was good enough to make money at it. The café was crowded even on the second floor. Uncovered lightbulbs hung from the ceiling, the retro kind, a riff on Edison’s invention popular with hipsters these days. The late October sky fell from pale white to dark blue against the empty trees outside. Chatter bounced off the tiled walls, lending the feeling of a warm party in a friend’s kitchen.
A forest-green business jacket hung off her shoulders, making her look sturdier than she was. The cuffs of the white collared shirt folded the jacket halfway up her forearm. Everything about her was pristine; her face was pale and smooth, the black lines winged on the edge of her eyes clean. Her long blond hair hung in wide curls with not a strand trailing free of their rivulets. The earrings were perhaps too chunky for her, thick gold triangles with blunted edges, but like the jacket, she carried it off with the sheer force of her self-possession.
Margaret always arrived early to these; it gave her a moment to settle in, claim the space as her own, center herself, and make the surroundings her office. She had just taken her first sip of the latte the waiter delivered when she made eye contact with the woman next to her. Margaret cast a glance at the women’s hands. No ring.
“Job interview?” her neighbor asked, nodding at the laptop open on her tiny coffee table. She looked late twenties.
“You could say that,” Margaret said.
The woman frowned. “Date?”
“You could say that, too. It’s more something in between.”
Her gaze lifted from her now confused neighbor to the young man weaving his way through the crowd. He was tall, with messy dark brown hair that edged towards red where the light hit it. He kept his beard trimmed to a scruff, and his tan coat was practical, made of sturdy material appropriate for Massachusetts weather. It was somewhat frumpy but, unlike her, his shoulders filled it out. She gave him a wave and a professional smile. He came forward and she rose, offering her hand.
“Josh Jones,” he said shaking her hand. They took their seats. “This is probably a mistake,” he told her without preamble.
“You said on the phone you were looking for some help?”
“No, that was my friend, Ricard.”
Ah yes, she remembered now. A client must have passed her card along.
“I don’t really see the point, I’ve had plenty of dates, and girlfriends,” he said. He wanted to make it clear he was not some poor sop. He did not need her help.
“Then what seems to be the problem?” Margaret asked. There was no point forcing her services on someone who didn’t want it. This kind of thing only worked when the client worked with her.
“How does the song go? ‘I can’t make ‘em stay’?” he mocked.
“I believe Ricard said you have a type?” Margaret inquired, careful to keep her tone neutral. She poised her fingers over the laptop. Josh shook his head.
“I don’t want you to pay attention to that, I want to get out of my typical venue.”
The waiter delivered a mug filled with green foamed milk. Margaret considered Josh as he took a sip of his matcha latte.
“Let’s start with what your type has been. Who have you dated in the past?”
“I don’t know why that should matter,” he said.
Even in the midst of the bright and cheerful café, the air around him felt dark. Heavy. She gave him one of her polite business smiles. He sighed. “I’ve dated a dancer, the lead singer of a band, a playwright, and a poet most recently.”
“So, creative types.”
“Yes, but I don’t want to date artists anymore,” he said quickly, leaning in. She blinked at him, keeping her surprise firmly locked behind the wall of foundation and concealer.
“Because when I start dating them, they lose their creative fire. They turn into tortured souls: they can’t find the passion for dance, can’t sing a decent song, can’t write a line of verse or even a mildly engaging scene, and when they break up with me—”
“Hang on, they break up with you?” she interrupted and then kicked herself, but she was genuinely surprised. Josh was not bad looking, despite being a little onerous on first encounter (and she assumed that was down to the embarrassment of consulting a dating coach). She had assumed at first that the girls he dated just weren’t right for him.
“Yes.” He glared at her.
She re-locked her business expression.
“And then shortly after we break up, all of a sudden, they’re creative geniuses. The singer made a hit single that shot her band to the top of the charts. The playwright wrote a show that ran on Broadway for a solid year. The poet — well let’s just say her career is back on track. The dancer switched genres and, according to The New Yorker, is making leaping innovations in her field. ‘Whatever drove Virginia Sinclair to sidestep from ballet to hip-hop deserves a big “thank you” to future generations of dancers’.” Josh sounded like he was quoting an article. “Apparently, all constipated artists have to do is date me and they’ll get exactly the material they need to launch their career. You’ve heard of the butterfly effect? My friends call it The Joshua Effect.”
Margaret snorted, smothered it with a cough, and turned her attention back to the screen.
“Can you give me some names?” she inquired.
“How could that possibly be relevant?”
“It’s research,” she said. He glared at her, mouth shut tight.
“Look,” Margaret sighed, “if someone keeps making the same mistake over and over again, it’s probably because they don’t see what they’re doing wrong. Wouldn’t you agree?”
“I’m not going to make the same mistake: I’m not going to date any more artists.”
“Assuming the problem lies with the other person when you’re the only true common denominator in multiple failed relationships, is another possible sign you don’t see what’s wrong.”
Coaches weren’t paid to be nice; they were paid to be truthful. Margaret met his gaze and didn’t back down. If he couldn’t handle it, then he wasn’t ready to work with someone like her. He sighed and started giving her names.
“You dated Olivia Mangan?” she asked, open-mouthed. He glared at her. She cleared her throat. “Yes, thank you, this is enough to go on. I will do some research and get back to you when I have some candidates lined up.”
“Remember, no artists. Just boring professions from here on out,” he said.
She asked a few other questions: was there anything he absolutely couldn’t stand (other than artists)? Sometimes smoking was a no-go for people. What kind of personality types was he interested in? Would he want to stay in this area for the rest of his life? What did he do to relax? Was he typically the talker? What was an ideal night out? Where did he see himself in five years? It turned out he was a software engineer, and he didn’t blink when she told him her rates.
“I function like an agent. Dating is very much a numbers game. I offer a trial period for clients who want to test it out first, but my method relies on evidence gathering, trial and error. We will debrief your dates so I can hear what’s working and what’s not working.”
“So pretty much like regular dating, except I have to tell you about it,” Josh said. She saw the question on his face. What am I paying you for then?
“Like an agent, I provide external insights and make use of my network of contacts.”
She let that sink in: a network of contacts. People she had access to whom he might never meet. He was a software engineer and made a fairly good salary from how he reacted, so it wasn’t the money holding him back. His eyes read of hopelessness, humiliation. Was it even worth it? Well, she wasn’t going to persuade him, either he was in, or he wasn’t. He would have to decide if his discouragement in the dating sphere meant he would give up or seek professional help.
“Sign me up for the trial period.”
Josh sighed as he waited in the street, scuffing leaves as they blew past him. A part of him hoped his decision to consult a dating coach had been a bad dream. But no, a week later Margaret had called him to set up his first date. Verity worked for a telemarketing firm, so she was safely outside the usual “type” he ended up making mistakes with. But then Margaret had even gone so far as to set up their meeting.
“I know how to plan dates,” Josh had snapped at her.
“I’m the coach, I insist,” she said. “Besides, I’m the only one that knows both of you, so I stand a better chance of picking something you both might like for a first date.”
Though that logic was loose at best (she barely knew him), Margaret had also secured that he and his date would be paying for themselves, which he supposed was something.
Pedestrians passed on the sidewalk, shoulders hunched and bundled in coats, scarves piled in winding mounds around their faces. He was thus stuck looking for someone he didn’t know, and looking like he was looking for someone, without looking like a stalker. Should he try and make eye contact with every woman walking by herself? What resulted was an interesting blend of ignoring people, and covertly gaging if someone was walking towards the shop behind him. He decided to hang back by the door, not too intense, but also not look too closed off. His date was looking for him too, he reminded himself.
A woman walked along the sidewalk almost hidden by the other pedestrians. Indeed, Josh didn’t actually see her until she took a few tentative steps toward the shop. He glanced up, not wanting to stare and give off that “stocker vibe.”
“Josh?” she asked, pointing a questioning finger. The tip of her nose was red in the cold.
“Verity?” he asked, extending a hand. She shook it. He opened the door for her and the two of them hurried out of the cold into the bright atmosphere of the shop.
Wide ceramic bowls in glossy glazes of extraordinary colors sat atop pedestals. Thick mugs of the same sheen dotted the walls, and other furnishing decorated the shop walls. Studio lamps filled the space with a cheery light that was also, blessedly, warm. Josh pulled his gloved off as Verity unwound her scarf and pulled off her hat, revealing long wavey hair the reddish-yellow color of changing leaves.
“Coat room is around the corner, and the studio is just beyond that,” said a young woman from behind a counter.
“I hope I didn’t keep you waiting long,” Verity said as they hung their jackets. Polite.
“No, not at all, you’re right on time,” he said. Polite.
“So have you done this before?” she asked, pulling the tan sleeves of her shirt over her fingers.
“Blind date or a lesson in ceramics?”
She looked taken aback. “Oh, um, ceramics.”
“Not outside of high school, but it was fun.”
He nodded and they made their way into the studio. White walls were lined with grey metal racks and wooden shelves. Serious equipment dominated the corners. If not for the series of mugs and bowls in front, and attempts at artistic constructions stored on racks, Josh would have thought he was in a hardware shop. Long rectangular tables wrapped in canvas stood in rows throughout the room. Other couples and friends sat at these.
Verity and Josh took two stools at the only open table at the back. The chairs screeched as they sat and Josh winced. He went to lean on his forearms but thought better of it when he looked down. The dust would cling to his collared shirt, and they were going for drinks afterward.
Quiet talking filled the room, but Verity and he were saved from awkward small talk by the appearance of a woman at the front of the studio. She wore a smock covered in violent clay smudges, at odds with the neatly tucked edges. Her long hair was twisted behind her head, loose wisps framing a lined face and sharp eyes.
“Alright, thank you for visiting with us for the evening. This is an introductory class to pot throwing. Some of you are hobbyists who simply want a refresher, and some of you have never touched clay before. All levels are welcome, and I recommend being patient with yourself. Throwing takes years of practice to obtain consistently satisfactory results. Don’t worry when you spoil a pot. You’ll notice I said when.”
That got a few chuckles.
Throwing? Are we going to throw clay? Josh began considering his alternatives. He was wearing a nice shirt after all, and nice pants. But Verity leaned in, interested, and he didn’t think he could talk her away, especially since he had no backup plan. He cursed Margaret; who set up a blind date that was guaranteed to get messy? Dates were where you put your best foot forward.
He lost the last part of what she said and was startled when everyone got up, but he followed them. It turned out they had been instructed to get smocks, so he sighed, put the cleanest side over his clothing, and rolled his sleeves up past the elbows. When he sat, a new teacher had joined them. He was taller than Josh, who raised his eyebrows at the man’s unprofessional appearance. His pants were rough, the kind worn around construction sites, he wore a black t-shirt over a long-sleeved shirt of a different shade of black, and all of him was covered in dust. But then, Josh conceded, why bother looking professional when you worked in a place where it would be destroyed in two seconds?
His thick beard hid a third of his face, a beanie covered the top third, and what was left was obscured by a pair of circular glasses. Through these, he regarded the class with a placid expression attained only by Buddhist monks and dead people. Josh felt the corner of his mouth twitching up as he struggled to take the man seriously: he was tossing a hunk of clay between his hands, pounding it. Apparently, this was part of the “process.”
“This part is really important,” Verity leaned over and whispered to him. Josh nearly jumped: he had forgotten her. She took his surprised look for curiosity.
“I made this thing, a sculpture, spent forever on it in junior high. It was a totem pole, really just a glorified vase with symbol I put on it. Anyway, I didn’t wedge the clay enough and there were still bubbles, air pockets, in the clay. It exploded in the kiln. I was so disappointed,” she smiled at herself.
Master Clay (or was his name Bryan? Joshua had missed it.) was now pushing the clay on the table like a baker. Josh frowned and tried to take the instructions more seriously, for his date’s benefit if nothing else. Bryan made several of these balls, put them on a disk plate, and had the class follow him to another room. At first glance, it looked like the room was filled with small foot tubs. Master Hipster took a seat at one of these and put his plate of clay on a ledge in front of him. He took a sponge from a bucket to his right and squeezed it over a disk in the tub.
Josh flinched back as the plate spun with seemingly no other provocation than a sponge dripping over it. Then he noticed Hipster Bryan’s knee bobbing up and down and spied a peddle, like sewing machines had. Bryan kept the pressure on the wheel as he soaked it with the sponge, running it along the plate until it was pristine, clear of little bits of clay and dust, gleaming like stainless steel. Watching the wheel spin as the sponge swept and soaked up the water was mesmerizing, like watching a fire.
The plate stopped. Bryan lifted a ball of pre-pounded clay from in front of him and — with surprising force — threw the ball on the center of the pate. He gave it a firm push, securing it.
“Make sure it’s solidly on there. It has to be centered on the wheel. If it’s not, the pot will either be lopsided, or you will spend all your time trying to re-center it.”
Bryan mimed cupping his hands around the clay and pushing it the right direction.
“If you fight what’s happening on the wheel, the pot will spoil.”
Bryan checked again that the pot was on center, picked up his now soaking sponge from the bucket, and dripped some water on the clay. He eased down on the peddle and the clay spun. Bryan cupped his hands around the lump, thumbs tucked in the center, and pressed down using the strength in his arms though his body remained still, as though trying to trap a mouse between his hands. Josh caught a whiff of Verity’s hair and he realized he was leaning in, watching to be sure he saw what was happening. She smelled like oranges.
“Your arm needs to be at a right angle to your body, keep your palm flat. You tell the clay what direction it’s going. Don’t let it push you. Your arm stays in this ridged angle.”
He lifted his arm as though it was a single appendage and not multiple parts.
“You don’t push with your arm, the strength comes from the weight of your body against the arm in one stationary place. The pot is moving, so you can’t be. Compress the pot, get it centered, and then pull it up.”
Bryan’s hands opened and he guided the clay upwards, applying pressure at all times. He stopped and pushed the clay back down. He repeated this several more times.
“As you go through this process, you’re building strength and elasticity, homogenizing the clay so that it has the strength to hold the shape you want later on, so it doesn’t collapse,” Bryan explained. He added water with the sponge a little at a time, explaining the balance needed; too much and the clay would fall apart, but too little and it would rip. Eventually, at some unspoken sign that only Bryan noticed (learned from years of practice, no doubt) he brought the spinning clay to a cone of a certain height, and then made a small depression with his thumb.
The clay looked completely different now from when he had tossed it around at the beginning. He deepened the opening with two fingers. The clay spun on its center, following the guidance of his fingers, making a bowl opening until he eased off.
“The temptation of beginners is to go straight to the bottom, they lose track of the depth, but remember you have to stop with enough clay to form the foot of your pot, at least in the beginning. The more you work with it, slowly, the thinner you may be able to get the bottom.”
He took both hands, one on the inside of the pot, one cupping the outside, and ran his fingers down the wall, explaining it helped the structural integrity before trying to pull the walls up higher or wider. He lay his fingertips along the rim and traced down as it spun, “compressing” the clay so it didn’t rip. Starting at the base, still cupping the wall on the outside and with two fingers on the inside, he applied pressure, pulling the wall taller and wider.
When the demonstration came to a close, Josh blinked.
The woman with sharp eyes and the neatly tucked apron passed them blocks of clay. It was colder than Josh expected, and damp, which was strange because it was still solid. Heavy too, for such a small object. The texture of the clay gave easily in his hand, and amid the soft mush, he felt specks of sand scattered throughout. Normally that would have bothered him. But the sand was reassuring, something tactile to hold onto within the squishiness. Josh began pounding the clay. Had it been this spongy when Bryan worked with his clay? Verity pounded her own clay, shirt sleeves rolled up to the elbows.
The clay’s consistency changed beneath his hands, holding onto the warmth he had built up between his fingers and the energy he put into it. It became tougher, like gum once you’ve chewed for a while: resistant.
Feeling victorious, Josh set it aside and repeated the process several more times. The conversation flowed easily between him and Verity, part of his attention focused on the work of his hands. Once they both had several wedged pieces of clay, they organized them on plates and went into the room with the wheels. Everyone else had already taken one, leaving two that were not next to each other.
“Oh well,” she sighed looking disappointed. “I’ll see you after. Happy throwing.”
Josh took the table at the far end, near the back racks. He put his plate of clay on the ledge in front of him, as Bryan had done, and took a seat on the low stool. He found the switch to turn the machine on and the power gave a low hum. Dust covered the metal plate, grey clay trapped in the circular grooves. Mashed-up bits of slop curdled in the dull yellow bowel around the base. Josh fished out the sponge floating in the bucket of water at his knee and squeezed it over the plate. He eased his foot onto the peddle.
The wheel lurched. He coaxed it into a spin and pressed the sponge to the metal surface. Expecting the first bit of dried clay to yank the sponge out of his grasp, he held on tight. But the dried clay was only a bump, and it melted away as he applied more water. He ran the sponge towards the center and out, mesmerized by the swirling pattern the water created as the clay disappeared.
He dropped the sponge into the bucket and picked up the waiting ball of clay. Trepidation seized him. Who was he kidding? The second he tapped the wheel, this hunk of mud and sand would come flying off. He froze, and then became aware of the noises which had faded in the background for him; the quiet talk of the other students, the hum of the motors in the other wheels, the gentle whisked sound of clay made malleable between hands and water.
He took a deep breath. How had Sir Hipster done it? It had to be solid. He took the clay and chucked it with a controlled movement onto the center of the plate. Throwing, he realized. He checked to make sure it was secure and applied water. His hand hovered above the clay, feeling foolish. What did he hope to get out of this blob of mud, regardless of how much he pounded it? Then he remembered the huge bowls in the front of the shop, glazed with all manner of glorious colors. What kind of alchemy must he perform on this dirt to achieve that? It seemed a lot to ask of mud, no matter what kind of pressure he applied. He looked at the lump rotating in a lazy asymmetrical circle, wondering who he felt sorrier for at this moment: the clay or himself.
He regarded the blob, and then his fingers twitch, a curiosity, a yearning, to see what would happen if he touched it. Steeling himself, he leaned in and captured the clay between his hands. He mirrored the image from his memory from when Bryan compressed the clay. The glob pushed back but he didn’t let off. The clay began to see things his way. Then Josh realized the clay wasn’t in disagreement with him, but it took up a certain amount of space and needed the pushback, the boundary lines of his hands, to become what it could.
He let off and found the ball turned into a small symmetrical dome. It had started to pull at his hands. He dosed it with water from the sponge, and then watched it spin, before getting back to work, walking through Bryan’s steps.
Several minutes later he watched with satisfaction as a hollow cone spun on its axis. It was like a cup with very thick sides, but it resembled something usable. Triumph radiated through him. Could he get the walls thinner and lower, closer to a bowl? He raised his hands, feeling like a master potter. He knew this was easier than Hipster Man lead him to believe. All it took was careful attention to the wall of the clay, doing what it wanted, not what he was forcing it to do. With this understanding, he paid close attention, following the wall.
Something felt off, like the pot was going off-center. The circle spinning before him was now asymmetrical. He frowned. Well, that was easy to fix; all he needed to do was help the wall up a little bit, give it some encouragement in the right direction, then it would sort itself out. He applied and applied as the pot spun and spun. Impossibly, the wall seemed to grow thicker and heavier in his hand, until the distortion, originally only a minor a-symmetry, was now a major lip, like the edge of a urinal. No, no, no!
He stopped, understanding now he was only making it worse. He scrapped the muck off and placed the disfigured bowl on the plate next to his other clay spheres, which looked positively regal in comparison to the watery grey mess. He picked another one up, determined this time. He went through all of the motions, keeping the walls low this time. Maybe if height wasn’t an issue he could create a passable bowl. He held his breath as he coaxed the walls outward and outward, anxiously looking out for unevenness.
It happened faster this time; the wall spilled over, and a massive hole ripped in the side. He cursed and took his foot off the peddle, staring at the heap.
“You’re chasing the pot.”
Josh looked up, startled, to find a man leaning against the back rack, watching him. It took him a moment to recognize the black-on-black shirt combo (which now seemed surprisingly clean), and the circular glasses tucked between the beanie and full beard.
“You’ve got to ground your arm against your leg.” Bryan placed a seat next to him and demonstrated, turning his arm and angled palm into a single object. “This doesn’t move,” he pointed to his own arm. “If you’re chasing the pot, there’s no point of reference. You’re creating a right angle to sculpt the pot against.”
Josh tried to mimic Bryan’s stance, anchoring his elbow against his leg.
“Your leg shouldn’t move either. Apply pressure from your shoulder, not your arm.”
Bryan watched as Josh attempted another pot, giving minor corrections as he went until a fairly respectable small bowl spun contentedly on the wheel, only a smidge asymmetrical. Josh sat back, looking at it with exhaustion, satisfaction, and self-amusement.
“Eventually, the basics become intuitive. Then you can bend all the rules and listen to the pot, working out your vision for it and what it can achieve.”
Bryan got up and walked away to help other students. Josh cut his beautiful bowl of the wheel and placed it on the plate with the same reverence a curate would use at the Louvre. He started on the next ball.
“Hey,” a voice called near him, several pots later. He didn’t look up, but finished what he was doing, putting the final touch on the rim. The wheel whispered to a halt.
“You’re getting really good at that.”
Josh looked up. Verity stood grinning at him. Her smock was gone, the sleaves unfolded and back in place, and her coat draped over her arms. He looked around. The wheels were empty. Conversations drifted back from the front of the shop.
“Wow, you were in the zone huh?” she asked. Josh looked down. Grey water splattered his pants and collared shirt, thick smudges of clay along the exposed skin of his arms and (if the itchiness on his cheek were any indication) his face as well.
“Why don’t you go clean up? I can put your pots on the rack to dry, and I’ll get your name on them too. They promised to fire them for us. You can pick them up another time.”
Josh nodded, embarrassed. He had forgotten about Verity completely. He scraped the two failed pots and put them in the clay recycle bin. After washing up and removing his smock, he grabbed his coat and met Verity in the main shop. He stopped to speak to Bryan first.
“Thank you for the help.”
“Sure thing man. You’ve got a knack. Hey, if you’re interested, I teach a course. This has all the times and class offerings,” he said, passing over a glossy advertisement page. Josh took it and offered his hand.
“I’m Josh by the way.”
“Benjamin,” he said with a firm shake.
He joined Verity at the door.
“I’m sorry I’m a mess, I know we’re going for drinks,” he apologized, wondering if he should stop by a store and buy some new clothes. She slid her arm into his as they walked along the sidewalk, hunching her shoulders against the cold. She flashed him a smile.
“No, it’s cool. I like artistic types.”
S. C. Durbois Newsletter
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