When I first saw what Al wrote on his Internet profile for his profession, I laughed.
But ten minutes into our phone conversation, when he said he'd just gotten off his all-night welding shift, I realized he wasn't kidding. He really was a welder. Thankfully, I had the good sense to stifle a chuckle.
"A welder?" I asked. "What do you do exactly?"
He worked all night on an oil rig. He wanted to meet for breakfast the next morning, when he finished work. Would I?
I was certainly picky about guys' professions. I found accountants boring, lawyers argumentative and businessmen — especially high-powered finance types — seemed to have different values than I did. They were into money; I was into the arts. I'd always hoped to be with someone in the creative field, whether it was another writer or an artist or even a professor.
But maybe a welder would qualify. I'd never been out with anyone who worked with his hands: not a mechanic, construction worker or someone in the food -service industry — fields which, I later discovered, Al had worked in at one time before he'd committed to becoming a professional welder.
So I met him for brunch the next day. His loose white T-shirt was dirty, as were his rough hands — fingernails caked with black. He apologized with a shrug. "Part of the job, doesn't really come off," he said. I didn't care. I thought he was super sexy. There was something about the quiet, intense way he listened to my first-date material that pulled me in. Or maybe it was the mimosas. Whatever it was, breakfast turned into brunch and it was nearly lunchtime before we said goodbye.
With chemistry like that, it only took a short time for us to become an item. After going to restaurants and movies and dates and steamy nights, we started meeting each other's friends. I didn't have much to say to his work buddies, who sat around drinking beer and talking about a profession I knew nothing about. But his friends didn't seem that interested in what I did, either.
When I told them I was a journalist, they nodded. And that was it. They didn't ask the follow-up questions most people I knew did: "What do you write about? Who do you write for? Have I read anything you've written?" My job was as exciting to them as an accountant's was to me.
Not that my friends were any better. I noticed something funny that kept happening. Every time Al would say, "I'm a welder," they would ask follow-up questions like, "Oh, you're an artist? Do you make jewelry?"
When he told them he worked on oil rigs, they'd nod, but then say, "But you have a studio on the side, right, for your own stuff?" as if they couldn't handle that my adorable boyfriend was simply just a blue-collar boy. We were all so liberal, my middle-class artist friends and I, volunteering for important causes, voting for the right candidates who supported the poor and economic equity, but we didn't really know too many people who were different from us. (Well, maybe on the upper rungs of society, but not the lower ones).
Not that Al was poor. Not by a long shot. He made more than triple what most of my struggling screenwriter friends did. But it wasn't about money. It was about class.
In America, we talk about so many private subjects: our sex lives, our politics, our money. But we never mention class. That's because we believe it doesn't exist. We think that in the U.S., everyone can slide seamlessly from one segment of society to another — that is, if we even bother to admit segments of society exist.
Dating Al, I found out they do. It wasn't just about Al's job. Yeah, in his downtime he liked to hang out with his buddies and drink beer. I didn't drink beer and had nothing much to say to them. But he didn't have much to say to mine at wine bars: he didn't read books or follow the news and he didn't watch the same films or TV shows we did.
"Your friends are intellectual masturbators," he said one night.
"What are you talking about?" I'd never heard the expression — and was surprised because usually I was the one saying things that he didn't understand.
"They just talk about nothing. They say stuff, but it doesn't mean anything." Suddenly, I understood what was going on. My friends and I were like the cast of "Seinfeld," but his were from "The King of Queens." Two different stations. Two different audiences.
Al and I lasted a year, which was a testament to our attraction, since, over time, it was becoming more and more clear how little we had in common. It was definitely an experience visiting his world — but in the end, it was time to return to mine.