'I Saw Her First'

Lukas Sherman

      Nobody was sure who saw Austin first. Jon Sellers, who sang alto in the choir, claimed he saw her halfway through hymn 365 (“Shall We Gather at the River”), while Steve Alexis swore he saw her walk in and sit at the back just before the passing of the peace. They all agreed on what she had been wearing: black boots, houndstooth skirt, black leather jacket, and a scarf that Jon called “silk.” Steve thought it more “shimmery.”
      There had not been a new, eligible female member of Grace Episcopal Church in well over a year, not since Steve moved back to Portland and started attending with his mother, though he did have to beat back a newly divorced, 37-year-old mother of two. To do so he claimed he didn't like coffee (“too hot”) or tea (“ditto”) or parks (“too, um, leafy”) or movies (“too fake”).
       Only Joshua Park stayed out of it. “I didn't notice her until coffee hour,” he said, taking a sip of his Black and Tan. It was a muggy July night and the three men were sitting on the patio of the Moon and Sixpence. They had just seen the re-released Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom across the street at the Hollywood theater. White outdoor lights were on and two guys with scraggly facial hair and denim shorts were earnestly mutilating classics by Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, and others.
       Jon picked at a vinegar soaked fry and sighed. “It doesn't matter now.”
      At 27 (Joshua), 33 (Jon), and 32 (Steve), the three made up their demographic group at Grace and had forged a friendship more out of necessity than common ground or even much affection. At times, it felt more like some uneasy Cold War alliance with Joshua usually acting as a milder buffer state between Steve and Jon's hot war inclinations.
      The first week they spotted her, she didn't attend the post-service coffee hour. And she wasn't there the next two weeks.
      “She's like some rare animal. Like a peacock,” Steve commented one afternoon at brunch.
      “Peacocks aren't that rare,” Jon countered. “They have them at the zoo. And they're kinda mean. One pecked a kid.”
      “Fine, zoo boy. How ‘bout a friggin' unicorn then?”
      She did return the next week and wandered over to coffee hour. The three stood watching her sip coffee and nibble on a piece of bunt cake.
      “I don't think we should all go,” Steve said after a minute of careful strategizing.
      “I'll go,” Jon offered.
      “I saw her first.” Steve said automatically.
      “No, you didn't.”
      “I've been here longer.”
      “When was your last girlfriend again?”
      “How's that relevant?” Jon asked with irritation.
      “Listen, we don't want to scare her.”
      “Hey, I think my Grandpa had that same cardigan.”
      “I'll go,” Joshua offered.
      Steve looked him over and said, “Well, you are non-threatening”
      They all went.
      Steve talked, as he often did, first. “So, hi. Are you new here?”
      “I'm Jon. Maybe you saw me in the choir?”
      She smiled warmly and shook all their hands. “I'm Austin.”
      “Hey, that's a boy's name,” Steve said jovially.
      She rolled her eyes. “It can be both. So, are you guys some kind of welcoming committee?”
      “That's funny,” Steve said. “You're funny.”
      Joshua asked if it were her first time.
      “No, I came one other time. I'm just checking it out. I haven't been to church for a while.”
      “You should totally come here,” Steve said. “The rector's from England. He calls elevators ‘lifts.'”
      “What do you do?” Jon asked.
      “I'm a grad student. In film studies.”
      “Really? You must be smart.” Steve said, crossing his arms. “That's interesting. I just saw Crash the other night.”
      “I didn't really like that movie, though I think racism is bad too. But so are contrived, preachy storylines awkwardly jammed together.”
      Steve was briefly silenced and Joshua, the group's resident cinephile asked, “What are you studying?”
      “I'm writing about masculine codes and existential fatalism in French crime films, especially in Jean-Pierre Melville.”
      None of them knew who that was and nodded politely.
      “We usually go out to brunch,” Steve said. “Do you want to join us? Unless it'd be awkward. You know, you and three guys. I don't want you to think we're desperate or anything.” He forced a laugh.
      “That's sweet of you to ask. I have something today, but maybe next week?” She zipped up her jacket and started to move towards the door. “Nice to meet you guys.”
      “See you next week,” Jon said, waving. The door shut.
      “That was real smooth guys,” Steve said. “We'll be lucky to see her again.”

      Two nights later, they were drinking beer and waiting for trivia to start at Beulahland. They were all thinking the same thing.
      Jon broke the ice. “Austin seems nice.”
      “I saw her first,” Steve said.
      “It doesn't matter. Besides, this isn't junior high. It doesn't work that way.”
      “Maybe you should rock paper scissor for her,” suggested Joshua.
      “That's not a bad idea. We...”
      Jon cut him off. “That's a stupid idea. She's not a prize to be fought over. We're not knights.”
      Steve stroked his unshaven chin and said, “Speak for yourself. What do you think Josh?”
      “I'm staying out of this,” he replied, shaking his head like a grade school teacher who found his students eating paste.
      “Right. How'd that craigslist girl work out?”
      Joshua blushed. “Other than some undisclosed mental problems, fine.”
      “Hmm. I like ‘em a little crazy.” Steve bugged his eyes out for effect.
      “They'd have to be,” Jon mumbled.
      “Oh, the cat has claws! Hey, when was the last time you got some?”
      “Don't be vulgar.” Jon finished his beer. “None of your business anyway.”
      Steve gave him a nasty smile. He had a particular gift for needling. “I bet it's been a while. No wonder you're always grumpy.” He started to lift his glass then stopped suddenly. “Wait. You're not saving yourself for marriage are you?”
      “How ‘bout you Josh?” He nudged him. “Any action lately?”
      “No, but thanks for prying.”
      “Does the Episcopal Church have an officially policy on sex?” Steve asked with some degree of sincerity.
      “I don't think so,” Jon answered.
      “Episcopals rock. Unlike those pesky evangelicals. ‘Blah blah blah. Pre-marital sex is bad. Blah blah blah. Go virginity.'   Life's entirely too short.” He raised his glass as if to cheer, but no one took him up on it.
      “I do think that Episcopal Church has a policy on being an arrogant hipster douche bag.” Jon said with sudden anger.
      “Really? Is it next to the policy about shutting the hell up, choir boy?”
      “This is juvenile,” Joshua said quietly. “Do you ever wonder why we hang out?”
      “We do have to be nice to people who piss us off, right?” asked Steve.
      “Jesus said so,” Jon answered, somewhat grudgingly.
      Steve got up to get to the bathroom. When he came back, he looked thoughtfully at Jon. “You know, you're right. It doesn't matter who saw her first. It matters who asks her out first. What's that on the table? It looks like a glove. Maybe a gauntlet?” He grinned.
      Jon shook his head and threw a couple bucks on the table. “I think there's enough trivia in my life. Good luck.”
      “Wait,” Steve said. “Don't be like that. Sac up, we need your geography knowledge! Where's the Khyber Pass? I've got a great team name: Desperate Christian Singles!”
      Jon put on his hat. “See you Sunday.”

      Over the course of the next month, Austin continued to come to church and the three guys continued to talk with her, en masse, at coffee hour. And she did join them for brunch one week. Jon cut his thinning hair into a more flattering style and got new frames for his glasses. Joshua put a bunch of Melville films on hold at the library. Steve felt he was fine, but did buy some new sheets from Target.
      And he was the first to get her number. Jon had meant to, but thought his soft sell approach would ultimately pay off. Steve walked past him one Sunday, gloating, and said, “To the victor, chump.”
      Despite his wall of vanity and self-promotion, Steve hadn't been on a date in a while.   Unless one could count helping his co-worker, Jen, organize the new age section of the independent bookstore where he worked. Steve decided on the tried and true dinner and movie for his date with Austin. He picked the restaurant, a Cuban place called Pambiche; she picked the movie, Melville's Army of Shadows .
      “It's about the French resistance,” she told him over their beers and Cubanos. “It's never been released here. Melville was actually in the resistance.”
      “Really? That's interesting.” Steve stuffed some plantain chips in his mouth while he thought of something intelligent to say. “So is he like related to that guy who wrote Moby Dick ?”
      Austin nodded and smiled. “His real name was Grumbach, which is Jewish. He changed it to Melville as an homage to the author. He really liked American culture and used to wear a Stetson and sunglasses.”
      “Cool. Maybe I'll start doing that.”
      The film was playing at Cinema 21, where Steve had never been, as his tastes ran more to mallplex fare. He was hoping the movie would be like The Great Escape except with French guys.
      After it was over, they strolled down 21st. Steve took her hand.
      “That was great,” she said. “I hope it comes to DVD. There's a lot I can use in it. Did you like it?”
      “Um, yeah, it was really good. Lots of grey, very shadowy. Those Nazis sure are jerks.”
      “Right. You didn't like it, did you?”
      Steve shrugged. “Listen, I'm not the most complicated guy, Austin. I mean, I like movies were shit blows up or people walk into doors. The last thing I saw was Indiana Jones . He knew how to handle Nazis!”
      She laughed. “Well, you can pick next time.”

      They went out three more times. Steve didn't see Joshua or Jon much during this period. Jon missed church two weeks in a row, which was unusual. One Sunday in August, all three guys found themselves together at coffee hour.
      “Hey Steve, how've you been?” Joshua asked.
      “Fine. Good. How about you guys?”
      “All right,” Joshua replied. Jon didn't say anything, just stirred his paper cup of coffee.
      “What? Oh…great. Real busy at work.”
      “Where's Austin?” Joshua asked.
      Steve licked his lips. “Um, I'm not sure. Well, I'll see you guys.”

      Three weeks later, they went to brunch. Steve shifted nervously.
      Jon glared at him like a judge. “Something happened didn't it? She's not coming back.   I just wanted to be friends,” Jon said, trying to get the waitress's attention. The earnest musical duo finished up a song and said they were taking a break.
      “Bullshit,” Steve said, mouth full of breaded fish.
      “I did, jack-rod. Don't see everything through your twisted mind.”
      Steve swallowed and washed it down with cider. “Whatever. You can't be friends with a pretty girl. You're just hating because I made out with her.”
      “Swell pants, Romeo,” Jon said indifferently. “Where'd it get you?”
      “I haven't had a genuinely good female friend since college,” Joshua added. “It's hard.”
      “Maybe you can try that Christian date site. What's it called?” Steve asked.
      “E-harmony,” Jon said. “Those are all like super Christians who vote Republican and want to get married and raise three kids.”
      Steve leaned forward. “Oh, speaking of kids, did you see that article about the woman who didn't want her kids' school to show An Inconvenient Truth ? She said it was unfairly slanted because it didn't show that according to the Bible things will heat up in the end times. Why do some Christians have to be so dumb and say dumb things? It's like a hidden commandment.”
      Joshua laughed. “I was trying to write something about this, after I saw religious groups protesting The Da Vinci Code . So Catholics have their pedophiles; Moslems have their extremists; Scientologists have, well, Scientology, and we Christians have our idiots. It's like every religion has to have some bad faction.”
      “I'm going,” Jon said, standing up. “You can cover my beer.”
      “Don't be mad, Jon,” Steve said. “Maybe Grace just wasn't the right church for her.”
      “Maybe. Regardless, you drove her off. You queered it all for of us.” Jon put on his hat.
      “See you at trivia?”
      Jon shook his head and walked out.