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Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Foreign
Frank Harkins never wore a coat, and after years of dodging the bullet that is the biting December cold of New England, today, he was paying for it. He lay in his bed, in the grips of the flu, covered with two blankets and a quilt, feverish, but still too cold to get out from under the covers. A half-consumed pitcher of water sat on the night table next to the bed to his left, an empty glass stationed in wait next to the pitcher. A bucket lay on the floor on the other side of the bed, awaiting any sudden emesis that may have appeared before Frank could reach the bathroom, which seemed like it lay one hundred yards down the hall.
He couldn't help thinking, as he lay in bed, with no energy at his immediate disposal, beads of sweat painting slow rivulets from his forehead to his temples, how much this felt like a hangover. Or did it feel like that time when he was playing basketball and he slammed the back of his skull against the concrete? Probably not, as his head didn't so much throb as feel extremely heavy.
Without the energy to accomplish anything else, he tried to think of the exact moment of where he caught the flu. Even through the fog of contagious illness, he knew the answer to that question. This past Friday; it must have been, he thought.
The party at Dave's place. Dave was a friend of his from college who happened to have settled in the same town as Frank a few years after they had both graduated. Several months ago, Dave had had another party at his place. He had invited many people to that one. It was the beginning of Spring, and everyone was getting used to going jacketless for the first time in months, New England winters being what they are. As he circulated from room to room at Dave's place, a woman caught his eye in one of those moments that all humans have.
Dave's basement had been converted into a comfortable party space, complete with full bar, pool table, dart board, a stereo system with a 100-CD changer and, as an inside joke, a portrait of those dogs playing poker. He first saw her in the basement. She was leaning up against a wall, her legs crossed one over the other, holding a drink in her left hand and playing with the ice cubes in her drink with her right index finger. She was dressed casually, with short blonde hair and what appeared to be blue eyes from across the room, but he couldn't be sure. She was talking to another woman, listening, sometimes laughing, at which point, at least to Henry, her entire face would radiate pure joy and beauty. For the rest of the night, Frank tried to be an undetected satellite of this woman, staying somewhere in her vicinity, doing his level best to avoid all eye contact, and ultimately, too shy to approach.
The following day, on the pretense of helping Dave clean up the house from the night before, he stopped by Dave's place for an after-hover scouting report. Yes, Dave knew her. Her name was Corinne. Immediately in his head, he began to pronounce her name with different overly romantic and breathy inflections, becoming his silent mantra. Corinne was a co-worker of Dave's. She had been there less than a year. She was single, but not necessarily looking. She liked to go out after work. Beyond that Dave knew only her age (twenty-six) and her obvious physical attributes.
For months, Frank asked about Corinne every time they met. He was a man obsessed. He hadn't been on a date since seeing her at the party. Every spare moment of time that his brain could muster was a chance for him to say her name to himself. As Spring turned to Summer, then Autumn, time gave way to a reality of the situation. He saw this woman once; more than likely she had to have been taken by now. The opportunity had come and gone and he was left with a positive memory.
And then, December. Dave was having a Christmas party at his house for selected guests. Dave made a point to to tell Frank that his once-and possibly future?-dream girl, Corinne, would be in attendance, and yes, she was still available. Frank's pupils dilated to the whites of his eyes with excitement and nervousness. Suddenly, on the brink of Winter, Frank had a goal.
The party at Dave's was on a Friday night, so Frank scheduled a haircut for himself after work, getting himself in the barber's chair right before closing. Next, he needed to impress his quarry with impeccable taste, so he went to the liquor store and, not knowing one wine from another, chose the most expensive white zinfandel on the shelf for purchase. Thank you Mastercard, he thought to himself. He passed by the local bakery for an impressive cookie tray. Thank you again Mastercard. When one is on the hunt, it is best to pay it forward.
Frank then went to his own home to spruce up a little with a fresh shirt and a change into casual shoes. He was now ready for sport.
He arrived at Dave's fashionably late, wearing no coat as usual, bringing with him the bottle of wine and the elaborate cookie tray. Dave thanked him for the gifts, and Frank proceeded inside. It took him all of 20 seconds to find her. Since the Spring, her hair had grown out a little. He could see her eyes now, and he had been right; blue, and an alluring blue at that, as if this beauty from beyond the pale had needed any final touches. Tonight was going to be the night. He was determined to be on the top of his social game, in case anyone-and by anyone he meant Corinne- see him falter. He decided that he would be the unofficial co-host of the party. He would greet everyone who came in with a joke, a handshake and a beaming, uplifting personality that would shoot light in all directions from him like a crystal chandelier in a ballroom.
Like a political candidate he began to work the room, conspicuously working around Corinne, in a desperate attempt to save the best for last. He made sure to leave them laughing as he went, so as to add "great sense of humor" to his dating resume.
The moment of truth had arrived. With a glass of wine in hand and his confidence restored, he approached.
"Hi. Frank Harkins", he said, smiling and knowing what was coming.
"Corinne Peters. Hiiii", drawing out the power word of greeting, "How do you know Daaave?"
A nasal, mallchick voice, he thought to himself, as he answered her question. Over the course of the next five minutes, his heart, which had risen and fallen for many months at the mere thought of who he was talking to, began to sink without chance of resurfacing. Beauty is one marker, and then comes personality. Not only did Frank and Corinne have no intersecting interests, but they actually diverged, and in some cases violently. There was absolutely no hint of compatability on any level that would make this work. For a brief second, it broke his heart that some man out there who he probably would ignore otherwise would someday land this beauty and win her heart. When the second passed, he thought about how that voice would be in someone else's ears in the future, and he was elated. He carried that elation away from Corinne and onto other conversations. He was struck as to how someone so native to the surroundings of his head for so long a period of time had suddenly become such a foreigner. He needed conversation, he needed cookies, but most of all, he needed that wine. Even the damned poker-playing dogs would be a welcome change from this.
All of this replayed in his head as he lay in his bed, sweating out the flu under a few inches of bed covers. As the foreigner that was Corinne left his head and heart for good, another foreign invader, this year's strain of flu, decided to set up shop in his body, reducing him and his bed into an island of sickness. His bed had all the telltale signs; balled up tissues stuffed underneath the pillows, a deepening dent in the mattress from his occupancy and the stain of prescribed cough syrup which he had spilled on the bed. This bedroom was now officially a sick ward.
He had shaken too many hands, been out in the world without a coat for far too long, wasted too much energy on something that produced energy in the wrong direction. Now was the time to convalesce. The myth of metaphysical perfection had claimed another victim, leaving him sweating and freezing, looking forward in time dazed and harshly repatriated into reality.

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