On the phone, things with Ed were going well, which was why I went out with him despite his having what my friend Erica identified as a case of “Jersey face.” His corporate headshot, which he’d sent me upon answering my (totally benign/wholesome) Craigslist ad, featured a slight downward tip of the head, pursed thin lips, jowls pushed up and almost over his collar thanks to the tie, and the brown hair and eyes of a Jewish man with a smidge of Italian.
Before we met, we had two epic phone conversations that made me think we connected. He said we were “cut from the same cloth”: both of us nonreligious animal rescuers whose parents were teachers. I was so encouraged, I even started telling friends who were not Erica about him—something I never do with the online dating. “This could really be something,” I said in hushed tones to too many people.
He looked great on paper, too, if I’d bothered to print out the e-mails he sent me. His résumé, findable online because he was a big shot in commercial real estate, was further evidence. Of course, a person can look great on paper, but that doesn’t mean you have all the pages.
In the five telephone hours we’d logged before we met, Ed confessed that as a kid, he got beat up a lot just for being Jewish. Once, his brother came home from school with an anti-Semitic slur stapled to his cheek. So Ed learned aikido and practiced it until he got good enough to use it on one of his tormenters—and the tormenter’s father. At 16, he spent six months in juvenile detention for the dad’s fractured skull and the kid’s broken ribs. He told me he wasn’t sorry, and I wasn’t sure he should be. After all, he explained, aikido is a method of self-defense based on the principle of nonresistance: The attacker’s own momentum ends up working against him.
Now in his 40s, Ed competes internationally in mixed martial arts. He also speaks five languages and is a scuba diver, a philanthropist, and an entrepreneur starting a green-energy venture. All of this information seemed to trickle out naturally, and his humility impressed me. So when he told me at the end of our second phone conversation that he thought I would approve of some “borderline illegal” things he did, I believed him. I figured he was talking about one of those no-real-right-answer questions that came up for discussion in my college philosophy classes: Do you break into the pharmacy in the middle of the night to steal life-saving drugs for your dying spouse? That sort of thing.
We met at El Quijote, the restaurant next to the Chelsea Hotel, probably because he knew everyone who worked there. It came with the job, he said, chest puffed, priming for a swagger, and I was surprised. The posturing seemed uncharacteristic of the guy I’d been talking to on the phone. About eight people came by the table, and he chatted with them all in Spanish while I sat there with only my high school French and a strained smile.
He complimented me on my earrings, my rings, my necklace. Did I wear those all the time? Because his Harley Davidson ring and his aikido-sword pendant never came off. Did I know that if my earrings—a pair of silver lightning bolts—laid a certain way, they’d be a symbol of white supremacy? Metallica had changed their insignia because of it. He was assessing, comparing, finally finishing each time with “I like it, though.”
My entrée was a skillet of paella large enough to feed my entire family, so I had most of it packed to go. “I can’t believe how big the portions are in this place,” I said.
“You could just give it to a homeless person,” he replied.
I told him I’d see, but it was delicious and would be nice alternative to the Trader Joe’s burrito that was nestled between the ice trays in my freezer. I went for my wallet when the bill came, but he insisted on paying. I prefer to pay for myself on first dates because I don’t want to feel indebted; if things go sour, I can leave with a clear conscience. And the mood was really starting to turn here, in part because of what he had just said about Natalee Holloway.
Natalee Holloway was vacationing in Aruba with friends in 2005, celebrating their high school graduation, when she disappeared. Ed has a house in Aruba. He told me that at the height of the search, a few years prior, he went on TV to be interviewed by Larry King: “The Aruban government asked me to, since I’m a U.S. citizen and own property there,” he explained. He told Larry that Holloway’s parents, who had come to comb the island for clues, were gold diggers, living it up in the most expensive restaurants, which surely they could not afford because they were “Alabama trailer trash,” and that they didn’t seem to be looking all that hard for their daughter.
I kept quiet because this was his opinion—perhaps based on facts I was unaware of—but he was talking about a young woman who was presumed dead, and his tone was not one of respect. I didn’t like it. I liked it significantly less when he added that Holloway’s boyfriend had gone home early because she was “slutting around, doing coke, and giving blow jobs in Carlos ’n Charlie’s,” the restaurant where she was last seen. Now I took offense. Ed said the prime suspect in her disappearance, Joran van der Sloot, had given her drugs, which she’d overdosed on, which equates to a murder charge, which is why van der Sloot called his father, a judge, to help him arrange for a boat so he could take her body out to sea and dump it.
Meanwhile, no part of Ed’s version of the story has been confirmed, and what happened to Holloway remains a mystery. One thing I can confirm is that my regard for this man, who’d snookered me into using the word “humility” a few paragraphs ago, was dwindling fast, stealing the straightness from my spine.
For dessert, Ed educated me about cuarenta y tres (“43” en español), the supposedly hard-to-find digestif that tastes of banana and vanilla but will set your nose hairs aflame if you take a whiff. Hold a gulp in your mouth for a solid minute (the watch came off to time it) and all traces of garlic on your breath will disappear, he insisted. He scolded me with narrowed eyes when the burning made me swallow a little. Then he told me to guess how the liqueur got its name. Losing patience, I told him that I’m not a big game player, but he didn’t relent. Instead, he hinted that it had to do with the proof, which I knew would require some mathematical calculation, which I always resent. And rightly so, in this case: The official website of Licor 43 states it is so named for the number of ingredients.
As we left the restaurant, I mentioned that the paella was actually kind of heavy. Without a word, Ed took it from my hands and gave it to a homeless man.
Stationary from shock, I was now several steps behind Ed, who was off to hail a taxi. The paella comment was my attempt at small talk. It did not occur to me that it could fail, and so spectacularly. He waved me over, and like a zombie, I got in the car with him. On the way to the bar, he told me how “pissed” he was that the former owners didn’t tell him they were selling it because they “knew” he and his friends would’ve been interested in buying it, and now the place never had beer because the new Albanian owners couldn’t get anything right.
To prove his point, he ordered a beer as soon as we walked in, and when the bartender told him there wasn’t any, he responded with an audible sigh and an eye roll. Then he informed the bartender that it was time the owners got their shit together, and that certainly, if he’d owned the establishment, conditions would be vastly different. Satisfied with himself, he brushed past me with a “Let’s go.”
I followed him. I was wedged between outrage, disbelief, and—the crutch of every single girl—hope. Hope of sudden redemption, of salvaging the evening, hope that maybe I’d misinterpreted something, and so I should let the date play out.
Soon we were sitting down at an outdoor bar a few blocks away. The place was out of the English ale I’d ordered, and rather than make a crack about a beer drought in Greenwich Village, I decided that in fact Irish whiskey might be just the thing to jolt me out of my trance. It turns out it also helps to have something strong in front of you when your date sticks a pin in your hope balloon.
I’d never heard of the Jewish Defense League. “It doesn’t have the best reputation,” he said. “You know, there are a lot of Jewish pussies out there, and I wasn’t going to be a pussy, so…” I winced. First of all, I can’t deal with the P word. My own mother calls me “pussycat” with the greatest affection and doesn’t seem to notice when I cringe. Second: Yes, I am aware that some Jewish men look to their mothers before answering any question, just as I am aware that they are more likely to become CPAs than members of the NFL, so maybe that combo isn’t particularly testosterone-y. But when you’re telling me that you belonged to an organization classified by the FBI as a right-wing terrorist group, that’s not going to make me want to get horizontal with you.
One night when Ed was in his 20s, he and his JDL cohorts lay in wait for the anti-Semites who had been vandalizing tombstones in Jewish cemeteries with swastikas. They caught them, “beat the shit out of them,” as he put it, and then ran over their legs with trucks.
“Is this the ‘borderline illegal’ thing you mentioned on the phone you thought I’d approve of?” I hesitated to ask.
“Yes,” he said proudly, leaning across the table.
“Well, I’m sorry, but I’m not cool with it. At all.”
He sat back, surprised. “I feel like you’re condemning me.”
“I’m not condemning you, I’m saying I’m not okay with violence.”
He moved from defense to offense in the time it takes to knock an opponent on his ass with the aikido heaven-and-earth throw. “Well, I hardly think that cursing out a police officer who was just doing his job was….”
About that: I once cursed out a police officer. I was very drunk. Then I was very sorry.
“Don’t turn this back on me,” I said. “I’m not saying what I did was right, but you could’ve killed those people.”
Without so much as a pause, he said, “You know, this has been an uncomfortable moment for me, so I think I’m just going to ask for the check and call it a night.”
I didn’t need to pause either. “You know what…” I muttered, as I looked down to unzip my purse.
“Hey,” he said, showing me his palms, “at least it was only the last five minutes that sucked.” He put on a smile that gave me a clearer vision of how rage might escalate into brutality.
I took out a $20 and threw it on the table. I took out another $20 and threw it on the table. I stood up, looked at him, and quietly walked to the nearest subway station. His driver would be picking him up soon, taking him to his waterside condo in Riverdale in the comfort of leather seats, and I’d be sitting on orange and yellow plastic with a hundred strangers, without any paella, but I was independent and a peacenik, practicing self-defense my way, and that was how it was going to stay. –Leah Zibulsky
Leah Zibulsky is a writer in Brooklyn who goes on a lot of bad dates.
Photo via When Harry Met Sally.