A Real Man

Marian was already waiting for me at the coffee shop. There were two cups of coffee and a piece of chocolate cake in front of her and she waved me over to her, a huge smile across her lips. "Kate!" she screamed, standing up and pulling me into a tight embrace. "It's been too long!"

"It's been two weeks, Marian," I said unable to suppress a giggle at her infectious good mood.

"Too long," she said firmly, sitting back down and gesturing for me to do the same. "So how's things!" she asked as soon as I had sat.

I shrugged, I knew that would be her first question, it was also the one that I least wanted to answer. I picked up my coffee trying to keep my face straight and conversation light, "Oh just fine," I lied. But Marian was not to be fooled. She was my best friend and had been for years, she saw through me right away.

"What's wrong?"

I shook my head but could not stop a sob escaping me as tears started forming in my eyes. She was across the table in an instant, she sat in the empty chair next to me and wrapped her arms around me. "Is it Craig again?" she asked. I nodded into her shoulder and her grip tightened. She let me cry for a few moments longer before I pulled away,

"Sorry," I whispered, wiping my face. "We broke up yesterday." That was it. A whole two months of petty arguments over stupid things condensed into one small sentence, 'we broke up yesterday.' Marian rubbed my back in an attempt to comfort me. She let us sit in silence for a while longer, instead we both sipped on coffee and nibbled on the cake she had ordered.

"What are you going to do now?" she asked me. I loved Marian for that. She didn't want to know what had gone wrong, she wasn't interested in why we had finally decided to go our separate ways after three long, almost blissful years all she cared about was where I was going.

I joked, "got any single friends?"

We laughed but Marian had that glint in her eye. It usually meant she had an idea. "Maybe you should try the Shop?"

I rolled my eyes. Marian swore by the Shop. It was where she had met her husband, Andreas, a Greek Adonis by all accounts and since then she had insisted that everyone should go there. She never understood why I bothered with Craig. To be honest after a break up most people went to the Shop, others didn't even put themselves in a situation where they would break up before they found themselves browsing.

"I thought I might just call Craig in the morning, see if he wants to start again?" I suggested. The argument hadn't been that bad, just the usual. We had bills to pay, money stretched tight trying to save for a wedding we kept delaying and both of us working heinous amounts of overtime to pull in enough to cover everything. Any time we managed to spend together should have been spent cuddling up on the sofa or sharing a meal, instead all we could do was bicker about silly things that didn't even matter. Surely we could work through that? Marian didn't seem to think so. After a string of broken relationships she had been one of the Shop's first customers and subsequently one of their greatest success stories. She had met Andreas there, left with him, married him and ten years on had three beautiful children with him. The perfect love story. Most of my friends went there now but for some reason I'd never gotten around to it. When the Shop opened I wasn't that interested in men, then I'd met someone, we broke up of course but not badly enough to destroy my life. I'd gone off men for a while and focused instead on my career. Then I met Craig and everything seemed to go fine until now.

Marian was shaking her head, "you could start again but how many times have we met like this in the last three years? I'm not saying you and Craig had a bad relationship but look at Andreas and I. When have you ever had to be a shoulder for me in the entire time we've been married?"

She had a point.

I shook my head, "I could never afford it," I reasoned. It was only a half truth, the Shop was expensive and I had just lost the love of my life because we didn't have enough money.

Marian reached into her purse, "I have a coupon," she said, "50% off your first purchase and that's only if you decide to buy! The consultation and first date is all free! You only pay if you want to take him home with you," she winked slipping the coupon across the table. "You get 50% off your first purchase I get a free upgrade next time I'm there. It's one of those 'introduce your friends and reap the benefits' malarkey."

The coupon smiled up at me, a picture of a happy couple (naturally) on the front. Maybe Marian was right. I had broken my heart over Craig, spent the last few months worrying about where we going, treading on eggshells around each other in case the other snapped. Marion had never suffered anything of the sort. At least not since she'd met Andreas.

"Go on," she said, "You're young, free and single. Why not treat yourself? You could find the man of your dreams there!"

I stared at the coupon and deftly slipped it into my purse, Marian turned a triumphant smile on me. "I'll take a look," I said quickly, not wanting to think less of me for thinking about men so soon after Craig, "I probably won't buy anything."

We both knew that was a lie. Even the coupon I had just taken took the time to say 95% of people don't leave empty handed. You went to the Shop knowing you were going to buy. They probably didn't get many people like me through the doors. The people who shopped there knew that they want and intended to have it. Marian had turned away and signalled for another coffee and changed the subject to lighter things, delicately avoiding any more mention of Craig, money, men and of course the implications of the coupon she had just given me.

Three days later I made the long journey to the Shop. I'd thought that after coffee I would forget about Marian's conversation and the coupon in my purse. But returning to an oddly empty house and having to face Craig's now empty wardrobes and drawers had made me long for him. I knew that I couldn't have him and for some reason the idea of having any man in the house seemed preferable to this cold emptiness that lurked in every room.

I parked the car and for a moment wondered if I'd made the right decision. But I had driven for over an hour and the car park was pretty empty. I'd probably never get an opportunity like this again. "I'm just browsing," I said to myself stepping out of the car, it was becoming something like a mantra. There were three entrances; it looked a lot like a public toilet. The first had a man symbol on it, the second a woman but the third was sealed with a 'Coming soon' banner across it and a poster of a boy and a girl smiling excessively at the camera. I went in through the woman's entrance and found the distinct entrances were only there for discretion's sake so that nobody ever actually had to admit why they were there in the first place to the smiling sales assistant on the other side.

It was like stepping into a doctor's waiting room. Not at all what I'd expected. There were rows of plush looking seats with coffee tables scattered with various women's interest magazines and leaflets advertising Shop products. At the far end of the relatively small room was a desk where two women in smart, magenta uniforms had been gossiping but stopped as soon as they saw me and with no hint of annoyance turned brilliant smiles in my direction.

"Hi there!" one of them called as I approached. "Are you here for a service, an upgrade or just browsing?"

They were both perfectly pleasant, but I still found myself nervously stuttering my answer, "Browsing...it's my first time," I added.

The one who had talked to me pressed a button in front of her, "ok then. If you'd just like to take a seat," she gestured to the empty room, "one of our personal shoppers will be right with you. You're quite lucky, Monday mornings are our quietest times, usually you have to fight for a seat," she grinned.

I appreciated her attempt at small talk but I was too nervous to reply. Instead I turned and picked a seat not too far from the desk but far away that I could be left alone and I started flicking through some nameless magazine in an attempt to look distracted.

I was not kept waiting long. A side door opened and a tall, young, blonde woman came out to meet me. She too was dressed immaculately in the magenta uniform of a Shop worker and I found myself vaguely wondering what the men who worked here wore. Magenta isn't exactly the most manly colour out there. "Hi," she said brightly, extending her hand, "My name's Deborah, I'll be your personal shopper today. And your name is?" she prompted.

"Kate," I said taking her hand and shaking it.

"Hi Kate," she said. She gestured to the door she had just come from, "We're going to go to one of the private rooms and we can have a little chat about what type of thing you're looking for. I should warn you the first time can take a very long time, especially if you have no idea what you want yet."

"That's fine."

She breathed a sigh of relief, "thank goodness," she said gently taking my arm and steering me towards the door, "you would not believe the amount of customers who come in here completely clueless and then go completely nuts when they find they've spent half the day just trying to figure something like hair colour! As if it's our fault!" she laughed and I joined in. She was very friendly, I supposed she had to be. If I was supposed to open up to her about what I wanted, honestly wanted, she would have to be friendly. But it was all very natural and that helped. The desk girls waved as I passed them and one of them said, "Have fun," by way of farewell.

Deborah beckoned me into a side room out of the waiting room. Another small room this time with a comfortable looking sofa with another coffee table and tea making facilities in a corner. "Have a seat," Deborah said, "would you like some tea or coffee? I can get you some fruit juice or a coke if you prefer, whatever you like."

"Tea will be fine," I said, taking a seat on one end of the sofa.

Deborah started making two cups of tea and carried on talking in her friendly manner, "I know the first time can be a bit daunting for some people, but really there's no need to be nervous. Some people don't like being completely honest and frank but I assure you I've had some pretty weird requests in my time so please don't think that you're asking for anything out of the ordinary. We're here to cater to your every need and desire so it's important we know what they are." She brought the tea over and set it on the table, "Pep talk over," she laughed, "Let's get down to business."

Business was a clipboard with a hundred questions about my perfect man. The first few pages were trivial things like hair colour, eye colour, height, age, it even wanted to know if I had a preference for his birthday. Deborah talked me through it adding witty anecdotes about people she had served and funny things they had chosen. It made the process easier and most of all I didn't feel like she was judging me. I started ticking off boxes, thinking about things I had never considered before. There was a box for my interests and what I'd like him to be interested in. It was funny how when prompted my mind always went blank on what I was interested in. Deborah assured me it was usually the same for everyone. I jotted down a few things, what kind of things I'd like to be able to talk about with my perfect man and what kind of things he would be able to bring to conversations. They truly had left no stone unturned. I wrote down what kind of music I liked and what kind of music I would loathe him to enjoy. An hour later and I was finishing my notes with a painful case of writer's cramp.

"All done?" Deborah asked as I handed her the papers back. She scanned them quickly, "Excellent, we'll just find someone who matches your needs and then you can have lunch."

"Lunch?"

"After we've found someone who matches your description you have a free lunch with them to iron out any kinks and then if you like what you see then we'll sort out a payment scheme."

I hadn't expected it to happen so quickly. I didn't think that I could actually be leaving with someone that very day. Deborah excused herself while she went to find someone who suited my tastes, leaving me with yet another cup of tea and some more leaflets. I browsed a few of them, I couldn't help but notice that one of them had the same smiling children and the 'Coming Soon' banner splashed across it. It didn't take long to figure out that soon enough people would be shopping for children not just partners.

Deborah wasn't gone long before she returned. "Lunch time," she announced with a triumphant smile. She took me to what she said was their canteen but it was a lot more like a restaurant. They had dressed it up to look like a five star hotel on Valentine's Day, no doubt to set the mood. There were few other couples there, each with their own personal shopper. But, there was only one man alone there, I recognised him immediately. Dark hair, grey eyes and he was standing up to meet me, he was the exact personification of all those ticked boxes. Deborah sat herself down on the table nearest to us, she had a small, handheld computer pad next to her.

"If there's anything, anything you don't like just let me know and we'll change it for you," Deborah assured me, "don't be embarrassed, anything at all." She turned to the man, "Jon this is Kate, Kate meet Jon."

He lifted my hand to his lips and kissed it, "Hello babe," he said, smiling over my hand.

Deborah noticed my flinch, "not a fan of 'babe'?" she asked. I looked at Jon, I didn't want to offend him but she was already tapping some keys on the pad. Jon kissed my hand again, "hello darling." I smiled but couldn't help but feel a bit weird that he could be changed at the push of a button, literally. We both sat and ordered our food. I ordered a light salad, I wasn't in the mood to eat. He ordered the steak, what I would have ordered if I didn't have butterflies gnawing at my insides.

"I love steak," he said, "how about you?"

I nodded, I wasn't sure what to say to someone who knew my every like and dislike. I tried to make small talk, every time he said something that jarred me Deborah noticed and deleted it. They were right though, he was perfect. He was the most gorgeous man I had ever seen, he was witty and intelligent and knew everything I wanted him to know. As we talked I came out of my nervous shell and by the time we started dessert we were talking about my favourite book, something Craig always insisted was rubbish, but Jon thought was fantastic. "You are so beautiful," he said suddenly during a pause in the conversation. A reluctant smile crept across my lips, I had always wanted someone to pay me random compliments. I caught Deborah's eye, she grinned at me. I was starting to see why everyone always left with a purchase.

He was perfect.

Jon signalled to the waiter to bring us some coffees and then sat back. "What do you do?"

"I'm a secretary," I said, "how about you?"

"Well I'll probably look for a job as a teacher." I knew he was going to say that, I had wanted him to have something stable, something that would bring in some money, and above all something that showed he liked kids, "I just love kids," he said in line with my thoughts.

We carried on talking for a little while longer before Deborah gestured that it was time to leave. Jon kissed me gently on the cheek and whispered, almost seductively, "I hope I'll see you soon." I didn't want to leave him there, he seemed so upset to see me go, exactly as I had wanted him to feel.

"So what do you think?" Deborah asked as we moved out of earshot.

"Just perfect," I replied honestly.

She led me back to the room I had filled out the form in the first place talking about the types of upgrades I can get. If Jon didn't turn out to be as perfect as I thought I could bring him back and they would make the necessary changes. We would never argue, unless I wanted to. He wouldn't even disagree with me. He was fully capable of getting a job and teachers were in high demand at the moment so he would support me fully. No more petty arguments about money for me. He was everything I could ever want in a man and I knew that if I were to get the coupon out of my purse with my credit card I would be making the best purchase of my life.

So it took me completely by surprise when Deborah asked me if I wanted to buy I found myself standing up, shaking her hand and thanking her for her time and enthusiasm but it just wasn't for me. I passed the girls in the reception area who could hardly contain their surprise that someone was leaving, actually leaving without buying something. I returned to the parking lot, already filling up with people as evening drew in, mostly people bringing back their partners for a service or an upgrade. I got into my car and drove home. I tried not to think about Jon, I feared I would turn around if I did. Deborah had said he would be waiting for me for the next month or so if I changed my mind. I was afraid I probably would.

But as I drew my car into my street and went to park in my driveway, I noticed it blocked by the familiar sight of Craig's taxi. The door was unlocked and Craig was waiting for me in the living room. The sight of him wanted to make me turn and run, the painful feelings were too much to bear and if he hadn't have caught my arm and pulled me close I would have probably driven right back to the Shop and paid for Jon to come home with me. Anything rather than deal with the agony of having to see Craig again.

"I'm sorry," he said quietly, "I'm sorry for everything. I shouldn't have left when I did." He looked me right in my tearful eyes and asked, "do you think we can try again?"

I hesitated for a moment. If I said yes I was opening myself up to all the hurt and pain of the last few days, what if it happened again and again and again? The alternative was so appealing, the blissful years I could have with Jon, without any of this pain. "Alright," I said quietly and felt nothing but relief as Craig's arms tightened around me and he kissed my forehead. He wasn't the most gorgeous man on the planet, he hated my taste in literature, he barely earned enough to cover expenses and in a few months time if we argued I could well find myself wishing I had ended it when I had the chance.

But at least it was real.