by J.D. Tuccille
Some would say that true safe love is all in the wrist, but that's not what poor Johnny had in store for him when he made his move.
Johnny got his license when he was sixteen. It was a traditional rite of passage, eagerly anticipated by him and his buddies through long afternoons spent in a sweltering, gray-walled classroom or out on the practice course with the foul-tempered duo of Mr. O'Neill and Ms. Kurlo fellating their whistles at every false move. Later, Johnny had held the thought of the final goal in a mental death-grip on the seemingly endless trip to the Registry for the exam. His family had wished him well, in their own ways -- sisters teasing and forecasting doom, parents clearly nervous as they sent him off. Dad had given him a last minute shoulder-squeeze out of sight of the others.
The written test was, as expected, a breeze. He got nineteen out of twenty, blowing the one only because he'd overconfidently passed through the test so swiftly that he missed the trick twist in the last question.
Of course, it was the practical exam that counted the most. The run-through of all the skills he had -- supposedly -- acquired under the tender mercies of two school district employees scrabbling for over-time pay. Under the dull, civil-service eyes of a uniformed examiner, Johnny ran through his paces, sweating every misstep and hesitation.
"Not bad," the examiner muttered as she signed a green slip of official paper imprisoned under the stiff, plastic clamp on her clipboard. "But watch your hands on the goodnight kiss. You pass."
Johnny had his license to date.
A Few Years Later
"So Johnny, you gonna ask her out?"
Bill leaned over Johnny's desk, coughing out a poor imitation of a whisper "That Jennifer gi--." He caught himself, and leaned closer to speak, his voice barely audible. "That Jennifer girl you met at the mixer."
"Jesus, Bill," Johnny hissed. "Watch your mouth. You wanna get us stuck in sensitivity training?" Standing to peer over the edge of his cubicle, he shuffled a stack of papers from one end of a shelf to the other, then back again, as he checked for eavesdroppers.
Bill snickered. "So, you gonna ask her out?"
Johnny simultaneously nodded and grinned. "Yeah, I got it all planned. Tomorrow at lunch."
The line stuttered forward another two steps, bringing Johnny within one person of Window G, right behind a carefully combed and poised fellow in an expensive-looking business suit. To the right of the window was a faded poster, curling at the corners, that, for want of anything better to do, Johnny had read a dozen times. "Remember," the poster urged. "The Registry of Social Relations is helping you to Love Safely." The two stylized figures walking hand-in-hand looked happy enough, and he was pretty sure he'd finally figured out the cartoon couple's sexes. As he looked, though, he reversed his guess once again.
Bored, Johnny raised his wrist in an action echoed across a room lined with scuffed fake-wood panelling, and redolent with the distinctive old-man smell of human bodies and damp, ancient carpet. Quickly, he glanced at his watch. Again, in near synchronicity with others across the cramped room, he shuffled, cursed, and looked back at his watch.
"Unbelievable. My lunch hour is almost gone."
"No shit," said a tired-looking middle-aged woman of about second-divorce age standing behind him. "It'd be nice if they'd open the Registry when people could actually get down here." She sighed. "Maybe at about 2 a.m. when the whole thing seems like a better idea."
The well-groomed man at the window in front of Johnny had his own complaints. "Look, I have all the paperwork. Just process my application."
"I'm not sure I should," the clerk answered. She bore the unmistakable badge of job security. "This is your third application this month, each time with a different woman." She peered closely, then hissed. "I think you might be a womanizer."
A dozen bored ears leaned forward to listen as the well-groomed man hissed back, "I'm not a womanizer, just picky." His right hand slapped down on the paperwork and pushed it across the narrow counter.
The tapping sound of a keyboard rose from the other side of the window, then a grunt of surprise. "These two women have the same name." Indignantly: "Are you applying to date the last one's sister?"
More bored ears joined the surrounding pack.
"Same name?" The well groomed man climbed half-way through the window to see the hidden computer screen. A button from his suit jacket snagged on the counter and popped loose, clattering lightly across the original-issue gray linoleum on the floor. "No, you idiot. That's her first name and her street address."
Finally, it was Johnny's turn.
"I can't help you," the clerk muttered automatically, pushing Johnny's application back into his hands. "You need an availability stamp showing that your party is accepting applications."
"I already know that she is," Johnny answered, keeping his voice calm. He pushed his papers, damp and rumpled from his hands, back across the scuffed counter. His eye passed over a small graffito etched into the ancient faux-wood. "Tony loves Lisa," it read in a crude scrawl within a cruder heart. "Void where prohibited."
The clerk glared. "You didn't already ask her out, did you? That's a very serious offense."
"No, no. I just asked if she was currently dating."
"Well . . . ," the clerk muttered noncommitally, then, with more conviction, "but you still need a stamp. You can get one at the convenient computer terminals by the entrance. Just look up your party by name or Social Security number."
Johnny glance in the indicated direction at a row of greasy plastic consoles, all but one with dark screens. The one live terminal was being rhythmically pummelled by a dishevelled scarecrow of a figure wielding a rolled-up newspaper.
"They're all broken, or about to be."
"Then you'll have to fill out a request form and bring it to Window A. Come back here afterwards." Dismissively: "Next!"
Seventeen minutes later, Johnny stepped back up to Window G.
"Uh-huh," the clerk muttered, tapping away at the invisible keyboard. "You haven't been here in a while."
Johnny sighed. "Just not feeling sociable, I guess."
The clerk glanced out in apparent disbelief. "You know, we now handle homosexual relationships, too. And the fees are lower."
Johnny spoke through smiling, gritted teeth--an effect more like the ritual lower-primate grimace than any human social expression. "That's very thoughtful, but I'm not gay. I've just been letting women take the initiative."
"Very egalitarian of you."
"And a hell of a lot easier," added a voice from the next line.
"Hmmm. Ms. Schneider is behind on her Equal Opportunity obligations." More tapping then a strained beep. "There's a Brazilian refugee and a social worker with MS on the list ahead of you."
"She hasn't, by any chance, used up all of this month's rejections already?" Johnny asked.
"Good guess," the clerk admitted. "So I can give you next Saturday evening." The chatter of a computer printer burst from behind the window. A tearing sound followed, then the clerk proffered a form with all the necessary information printed in nearly-legible ink exactly three-quarters of an inch from the designated lines.
"Oooh, Saturday," commented the voice from the next line, this time laden with envy. "I keep getting stuck with weeknights."
Nervously, Johnny waited for Jennifer to finish dressing for their date. In an unconscious repetition of the ancient mating shuffle, he tapped his foot, he whistled, and he did his best to look nonchalant.
"No, no, your belt is on backwards," came a voice through the door to the next room.
Johnny did his best imitation of deafness, whistling off-tune and gazing at the spotty, long-unpainted civil-service ceiling. He averted his gaze from the eyes of the other ceiling gazers in the large fluorescently-lit communal waiting room.
A brief rustling of clothes could be heard, along with a sharp discussion. "There, the mace goes on the right hip, and the stun gun on the left."
Johnny turned as Jennifer emerged from the Registry outfitting room. Just a step behind, fiddling with the straps of her flak jacket came an enormous, gray-haired woman in the pink-and-blue uniform of a Registry Monitor.
"Sorry," Jennifer said with a sheepish grin. "I missed the inspection date on my mace, so they made me take Registry equipment."
"You should pay more attention," the monitor muttered, fussing with a frayed velcro strap that refused to show any enthusiasm for its job. "Dating is a serious business."
"I know," Jennifer answered.
The monitor sighed and tugged at a wrinkle in the shiny fibers of her tent-like jacket.
"Tough day?" Johnny asked, hoping to take the heat off Jennifer and get the evening off to a decent start.
"You know it. Every Spring we get swamped, but they never give us the money to hire new staff. Honestly, how are young couples supposed to meet if we're kept on a bare-bones budget." She sighed again, deeply and forlornly, with all of her two-hundred-plus pounds.
Jennifer looked visibly embarassed.
"Well," Johnny said, trying to save the moment. "Are we all ready?"
"Did you file your indemnity form and pay your bond?"
"Filed your itinerary with the office?"
Johnny and Jennifer both nodded.
The Monitor tilted her body forward at a precarious angle, holding her bulk parallel to the scuffed floor, and tugged sharply at Johnny's wrist restraints, then the ankle cuffs.
"Then we're ready."
The space was a little too loud, clearly expensive, and apparently decorated on a dare. Contemporary Asian art poked and prowled amidst an orchard of Greek columns, reflecting private conversations on unpredictable voyages around the room. The combined whole was an immensely popular restaurant.
"Ugh, Thai food. That spicy stu . . ." The monitor's voice trailed off as Johnny and Jennifer both glared at her.
"Don't mind me. This is your date. You do as you like. Do you think they have any vegetarian dishes?"
Whistling softly, Johnny hauled his tri-fold, looks-almost-like-leather wallet from its customary home in his right-front pocket. As quickly as he peeled out a twenty, it disappeared into the monitor's sweaty fist.
"I'll just grab a seat at the bar," she said.
"Well, I love Thai food," Jennifer offered. "Let's get a table with a good view."
The maitre d' strolled over with a practiced aloofness that had endeared the establishment to its many regular patrons. "Welcome, could I just ask to see . . .," his voice trailed off on a customarily apologetic note.
The couple produced their dating licenses and social engagement registration form.
"I see we have a first date."
"Yes," Jennifer interjected quickly. "Our Monitor is at the bar."
The maitre d' nodded in resignation. "Aren't they all?"
In fact, on closer inspection, the thick cluster at the bar was a bit heavy on taxpayer-issued pink and blue. Taser holsters and billy clubs lined the length of the ornately-decorated dark wood.
The maitre d' gave a strained little smile. "Well, since this is your first date, I think we can find you a nice table by the window."
"That's very kind of you," Johnny commented, impressed by the maitre d's generosity with the restaurant's most desirable tables.
"Not at all. It's a new regulation. Do you prefer the meat or non-meat section?"
They left the taxi at the curb, and, basking in the glow of a successful evening, Johnny walked Jennifer to the door of her apartment building, hand-in-hand, with the Monitor a few discreet steps behind. Climbing to the top of a short flight of concrete steps--a task impeded by the strong plastic cuffs that hobbled his legs, Johnny turned to speak to Jennifer, standing close in the narrow confines of the entry way.
"Hey, you two," the Monitor bellowed from below, her hands in the vicinity of a roll in her uniform that may have covered hips. "Leave space between you for sun . . .," she paused to furrow her brow, and glanced upwards in brief confusion, " . . . moonlight."
Embarassed, the pair jumped back away from each other, Jennifer's lurch creating an unfortunate collision course between the panic button on her belt and the wrought-iron stair railing. The resulting electronic alarm screech, scientifically calculated to batter any higher mammal into instant submission, proved its abilities on the surprised couple, who froze in place like marble statues, as well as on several neighbors who, unseen by the trio on the street, groaned and buried themselves deeply in their beds.
The Monitor, reacting with a speed and ferocity that belied her girth, tore her Taser gun from its holster and aimed at the presumed transgressor. In the blink of an eye, twin metal darts spat from the Taser and snagged in the folds of Johnny's clothing. A moment later, the darts' trailing wires carried sixty thousand volts directly into muscle and nervous tissue.
"I knew he was trouble when I saw 'im," the Monitor howled, as Johnny jerked like a puppet, convulsed, then backflipped artfully over the iron railing to the pavement below. The impact resounded with a combination of dull thuds and sharp cracking noises as flesh and bone simultaneously introduced themselves to the concrete.
"Oh Johnny," Jennifer yelled, leaping down the stairs. She paused to silence the alarm by gently whacking it against the building's brick wall until small pieces fell away.
"I think you're going to have to pay for that," the Monitor commented.
"Jennifer," Johnny called in a warbling voice from a huddled, twisted heap of limbs.
"Yes, yes, talk to me," Jennifer answered, groping for an intact piece of her date to comfort.
"Can I see you again?"
Awww. Now wasn't that sweet?