You might know Paul Shirley from his last book, Can I Keep My Jersey? 11 Teams, 5 Countries, and 4 Years in My Life as a Basketball Vagabond (with introduction by Chuck Klosterman), one of those SEO-friendly book subtitles that does most of the job of introducing him for me. Subtitles are hard, because the root of all memoir writing is an interesting writer telling the stories that matter to him or her. Everyone has stories, and if the writer is interesting, it’s a straightforward matter of choosing a few.
The hard part is finding the hook, the theme, a way of telling potential readers what they’re in for and what separates these particular stories from someone else’s. Shirley, a basketball star at Iowa State; end-of-the-bencher for the Phoenix Suns, LA Lakers, and others; and an expat pro athlete in Greece, Spain, Russia, and others, recently published his second book, Stories I Tell On Dates.
“I noticed that, when I was on dates, I often found myself falling into the same stories, almost like I was going into material,” Paul says. “At first, I was a little angry with myself, but then I noticed that everyone does this — that we all have pet stories that explain who we are, where we came from, and where we’re going. So I started writing my stories down. Four years later and, voila, a memoir!”
And no lengthy subtitle required. Paul’s first date happened to be a movie date, to the 1994 Nicolas Cage/Shirley McClaine vehicle Guarding Tess. Here, he shares an excerpt from the book and ponders the utility of the movie date in general. (Which is to say, these will be Paul’s words from here on out).
When I was young, going on a date meant going to the movies. I’m not entirely sure why this was the case, except that I’d seen people take dates to movies on TV and, well, in the movies. Oh, and going to the movies was cheap.
It’s not surprising, then, that my first date was with Kelly Stepka to see Guarding Tess, that forgettable sorta-comedy starring Nicolas Cage and Shirley MacLaine. I was 16, and it was the only PG-13 movie available at the West Ridge Six Theater in Topeka, Kansas.
There were more movies in high school; I took my senior-year girlfriend to see Heat because my uncle said it was good. It was good, but it was not a date movie. At least not a high-school-date movie.
In college, I met the girl I thought was the one of my dreams and took her to see The Game with Sean Penn. Before it started, I somehow dropped into conversation that I’d been born in Menlo Park, California, which I thought worth mentioning because we were in Iowa and California seemed way cooler than Iowa.
We did not go on any more dates, but the girl of my college dreams does now live a few miles from Menlo Park, California, so maybe my breath wasn’t entirely wasted.
As college became post-college, there were more movie-dates. The first movie I saw in a foreign country was Amelie. I was in Greece and it was in French… with Greek subtitles. In Barcelona, I took a Scottish girl to a movie at the theater complex where they showed movies accompanied by the magical acronym we searched for: V.O.S.E (version original, subtitulos Español). Afterward, when I went to kiss her, she “turned the cheek” — the first, although not last time that would happen.
I didn’t go to any movies when I lived in Russia.
But then, as my twenties became my thirties, I started thinking about movies, and about being an adult, and about “getting to know” my dates. And when I thought about it, I decided: movies were a pretty silly idea for dates.
I mean, there you were, staring at a screen not talking, not getting to know one another. And we needed to get to know one another! We needed to share our hopes and dreams and our carefully couched revelations about how we’re, like, so nerdy because we “read books” and tell stories about this one time we stood in line for Bush tickets, but we’d never listen to Bush now. (We’d totally listen to Bush now.)
So I started doing “adult” things on my dates: going to bars, or to coffee shops, or to the beach, or on hikes.
Sure enough: these situations did give us far more opportunities for discussion—chances to “get to know one another.”
And so that is that, right? Movies are bad first dates and I’ve learned my lesson and let’s get back to your regularly scheduled Instagram feed.
Not so fast. Because now I’m not so sure.
I don’t know about you, but I, for one, am pretty tired of my shit. I’m nearly 40 years old, which means I’ve had 40 years of telling people what it was like growing up in Kansas, or what it was like going to college in Iowa, or what it was like playing basketball (and seeing movies) in Greece.
That’s not the worst of it. I’m also tired of my views on just about everything, including, but not limited to:
demons, demographics, the Democratic party, Demetri Martin, dimmer switches, dimethyltryptamine, and the most underrated dinosaur of all: Dimetrodon
And if I’m honest, a movie sounds like a real treat. Two hours (or more, if it’s Heat, or Dunkirk) of blessed, necessary silence.
Afterward, we can talk about the movie. And, God willing, just the movie. Because, you see, not only am I tired of my shit; I’m tired of their shit, too. I have gone on very few dates with international correspondents for the Financial Times. But these days, it seems like everyone I meet thinks they’re an international correspondent for the Financial Times. Because everyone now knows everything. Nevermind that they don’t know everything, because:
A) no one knows everything. B) no one reads anything, let alone anything they disagree with.
But that’s a rant for another day. For now, let us return to the task at hand: me selling you on the idea that, in this ONE VERY SPECIFIC INSTANCE, my 16-year-old self was correct.
Movies are great for dates.
However, that doesn’t mean a date to the movies will go like you think.
Now, here’s a story about that—a story about that first date of mine, with me, Kelly Stepka, and a script I tried to follow.
Almost like I was in a movie.
When Jim Reese, the baldheaded proprietor of Skinner’s Nursery and Garden Store, first asked me if I was looking for a weekend job that might turn into a summer job, I responded just like my parents had taught me whenever I didn’t really want to do something: I said I’d think about it.
I was poor, but I was 16. My Saturday nights were not occupied by beer bashes at the lake. They were spent fighting with my father and brothers about whether we would watch Saturday Night Live, American Gladiators, or Star Trek: The Next Generation. (It was a marvelous era for late night television.)
In other words: I wasn’t finding my poverty particularly alarming.
That is, until a crisp spring day in Meriden when I asked Kelly Stepka if she’d come outside with me. After we were finished eating lunch, of course.
It’s getting nice, so it makes sense to go outside. Here, I would like to open this door for you.
These are all things I said out loud.
In front of the high school, with the flag’s rope banging against the pole every four seconds, Kelly must have been able to see what was coming like she was a highway worker and I was a big-rig driver barreling down the interstate at her with four shots of Five-Hour Energy in his stomach. But to her credit, she played along, saying nothing as I fidgeted, staring at the concrete for too long before finally looking her in her glasses-clad blue eyes and saying, “Um, so, I was just wondering… let’s say, that, you know, like, if I asked you on a date, would you say yes?”
We’d been doing a lot of SAT prep, so the analogy that came to mind for how I felt while I awaited her answer was:
my heart : my throat :: a goose : a garden hose
Kelly pushed her bangs out of her eyes and smiled in the way girls can do to let you know that even though you’re an idiot of the highest order, they’re letting you off with a slap on the wrist.
“I would say I would be delighted,” she said.
The goose dissolved into a warm, contented, terrified feeling in my stomach. I was going on a date!
That night, as I lay in bed, I conjured an image of Kelly’s strawberry-blonde hair and how it had that poof in front, like every girl had in 1994.
Kelly had had me vexed for months. This was her thing; she was a serial vexer. One month it was Max Phalen. The next, Darin Densmore. Now it was my turn, as evidenced by the tiny notes we exchanged in Geometry class—the precursor to texting. Sometimes, the precursor to sexting. She tossed them over her shoulder onto my desk when the teacher was at the board. I read them, wrote my response on the back, and tossed them into her lap. I had a collection of them in my sock drawer.
I imagined what it would be like, if Kelly were to pick me as hers, how that would feel. Then I went past imagination: I made it a reality. Kelly would be my girlfriend soon. We’d start hanging around at each other’s houses and going to things together and-
Wait, this could get expensive! And I didn’t have any money!
The next day, I called Jim Reese and asked if the job was still available.
He said it was.
I told him I was in.
He told me to come to work on Sunday.
On Saturday, I picked up Kelly at two in the afternoon. When we got to my house, I challenged her to a game of one-on-one on the concrete slab that my brothers and I had helped my father install three years before. Kelly had spent the season as the starting point guard on the varsity basketball team, so it was logical, I thought, to involve as much basketball as I could. During our game, which I engineered as both a win and a loss for me (no blocking shots, copious post-ups for the sake of body contact), I sweated through the T-shirt I’d picked out specifically for this event, a new one my mother let me get at JC Penney. Its back said something about fear and not having it: a philosophy I desperately wanted to make my own.
After I changed into my back-up outfit (likely something made by JC Penney’s store brand, Arizona Jeans Co.), I joined Kelly in front of the television and we watched the University of Kansas win a basketball game. At halftime, Kelly lay down on her stomach on the floor in front of me, her jean shorts riding up when she plopped down, and I visualized a day when I might be able to act on the impulses that flashed like lightning through my brain every time I saw the faint tan lines in front of me. Which wasn’t then, obviously. I mean, it’s not like I had the house to myself or anything. (I absolutely, positively had the house to myself.)
After the game, Kelly and I went into the kitchen to look at the day’s Topeka Capital-Journal to check the listings, and I acted like I hadn’t long since pored over our options, and like I didn’t know that we only had one, really, because A) we were only 16 and B) it was the spring. Summertime would’ve been easier; we wouldn’t have had to watch Guarding Tess starring Nicolas Cage and my inadvertent namesake, Shirley MacLaine.
Then, a drink of water and the walk downstairs after I checked to make sure the sliding door was shut and the dogs were inside. Next up, the passenger door, because that’s what a gentleman does, and then, as I walked from her door to mine, a sigh of relief.
So far, my plans had gone swimmingly. Basketball in vivo had kept us focused on a common activity, and basketball eminus had kept us focused on a common activity, and a movie would surely keep us focused on a yet another common activity.
We just had to get through the drive to the theater. No reason to worry about that, though. Because I had a plan for that, too.
I started the station wagon I was only allowed to borrow on special occasions, and we rode up the back driveway at my parents’ house, past the apricot tree, and left onto a gravel road that would one day be labeled 43rd Street but back then was just the one that ran along the north side of our property. I waited for the next left onto Detlor Road, and I began thinking back to the list I’d made up the day before: three questions I could ask. I’d even written them down, in the haphazard cursive I would employ until an engineering teacher taught me in college how to write in block letters.
“So, what’s your favorite movie?”
Relevant, I’d thought, when putting together the list. We were, in fact, driving to a movie.
“Hmmm,” Kelly said. Or intoned. Or something meant to indicate that she wasn’t all that interested in my line of questioning. “I don’t really think I have one; it’s so hard to pick, especially when you consider that there are all sorts of movies—comedies and dramas—and it’s really hard to compare them, don’t you think?”
Kelly, if I thought that, I wouldn’t have asked the question. But thank you for preparing me for the sort of bullshit answer that dull girls will give to that question for the upcoming two decades.
The real problem, though, was that Question One hadn’t even gotten us to K-4. We weren’t even out of the gravel. But No Fear! They call it a “list” for a reason.
“So, what do you think you’ll do after high school?”
“Probably go to KU.”
Wait, I didn’t mean, “What are you going to do for the four years immediately following high school?” I meant, “What are you going to do within the totality of your life? Your hopes, your dreams, your ambitions? Fill the air with your zany plans and wacky goals. Tell me everything!”
Or, answer this crafty follow-up question, which I just came up with:
“But, like, after that?”
“I don’t know, it’s a long way off.”
The good news was that we’d made it to Highway 24, so we had only ten miles to go to the West Ridge 6 Theater. The bad news: I only had one question left. I’d really thought these questions would inspire longer answers.
“Have you ever thought about who would come to your funeral?”
Her mouth twitched.
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know. Like, do you ever think about who would come, or who you would want to come?”
And by this, I wanted to broach—in a sixteen-year-old’s way—what it means to leave a legacy. Does it matter, really, what we do, or what people will think of us when we’re gone, if we can’t actually see who comes to our funerals? I wanted Kelly to imagine we could. Just for a little while, just to see where it took us.
She crossed her arms. “I don’t like to think about things like that.”
We rode the rest of the way to Topeka in an awkward, somewhat macabre silence.
Guarding Tess was mostly awful, but it did give us something to talk about on our walk through West Ridge Mall’s parking lot, en route to the station wagon. Then, for the trip home, quiet again. I told myself that silence was OK; I had on my side darkness and fatigue and the safest radio station I could think of: Magic 108, “Playing all your favorites from the 60s, 70s and 80s.”
At Kelly’s house, she reached across the seat and hugged me. I made no moves, no efforts at a first kiss. The crush of her chest against mine was plenty — a promise of things to come, on later dates. And anyway, I had to go to work in the morning.