Love Stories
Cupid Shrugged

[Times art: Teresanne Cossetta]

Russ Brantmyer is Greek-statue handsome, attentive and aching for a mate.
So how come love's arrow never seems to hit him?

Times Staff Writer

TAMPA -- His pants are jet black, his matching size-13 boots leather. His shirt is silk, a soft pink, and his watch says Rolex. But he's not sure about the shirt, so he disappears into his bedroom to change again, and soon emerges wearing another silk shirt, white and black. He has had a few Coors Lights.

"I'm just a regular, meat-and-potatoes and cream-corn kind of guy," says Russ Brantmyer, out on the town in Ybor City. But when it comes to women, this gentleman prefers blonds.
[Times photo: Jonathan Newton]
Tonight, for maybe the thousandth time, Russ Brantmyer is going on a quest.

"Young. Tight skin. Beautiful," is what he's after. Blond hair, too.

"When you first see someone, it's an animal instinct that kicks in," he says.

Like it or not, clinical assessment is how the ancient mating ritual begins. But Brantmyer says that's not where it ends.

"On the second date I get into the personal traits. You can't do that initially. If the attraction's not there, there's not going to be a second date."

Russ Brantmyer is 46 by day and 42 by night, when shaving off a few years might make the difference between a hit and a miss. At his age, the less left to chance, the better. It has been over two decades since he played tight end on the King High football team. The bright years of free love and college classes attended half-heartedly are long gone, too.

Now there are deepening crowsfeet, insistent gray hairs, a stack of disappointments: three ex-wives, live-in lovers who packed up and moved out, dates who never graduated past the first dinner.

But Brantmyer has goods that other middle-age men lack. Trim, tan, manicured and pressed, he stands 6-foot-4 with strong features and a low brow, like a rugged model in the J. Peterman catalog. He makes a woman feel interesting -- listens attentively, fixes his eyes on hers, notices when she needs another beer. He has owned a photography studio, managed health clubs and peddled building plans. These days, he's selling Internet Web sites.

His truest charm, though, is that the years of lusting and courting and losing haven't cost him his heart. Brantmyer still believes in love. And, like countless others, he still holds the conviction that someone, somewhere, is meant for him. He just has to find her.

So every Friday and every Saturday night, and a few weeknights too, he hits the town swaggering in his sleekest getup. After all, a winner is always drawn to a winner. It's in Tampa's dim, music-pumped corners, where musky cologne and vodka tonics console lonely hearts, that Brantmyer hopes to find his gem.

He'll know her not just by the shimmer of her youth, but by the signals she'll unwittingly give off. The same color polish on fingers as toes will reveal class. A dance sensuously executed, and "she'll be great in bed." An electric first kiss and "anything is possible."

Everywhere, the Russ Brantmyers of the world are leaning on bar counters, sizing up women, sucking in their guts and scratching their numbers onto napkins. The human imperative to unite -- for a night or a year or a lifetime -- keeps them coming back to the trenches, against the odds. Night after night. Year after year. All for that perfect, elusive connection.

For Brantmyer, it would look like this:

"You're getting a lot of attention, you're dancing with everybody and everyone's watching you and the best looking girl says, "Take me to my car.' And you go to the car and she says, "Get in.' And then she says, "Give me a kiss,' " he continues.

"You give her a kiss, and you fall in love."

And off he goes.

Here comes the stun

At 8:25 p.m. on this rainy Saturday in January, Brantmyer's green 1997 Explorer is hurtling down Dale Mabry Highway, past strip malls and strip joints. Techno music throbs through the speakers. The air conditioning is pumping full blast, despite the nippy night.

First stop is Ybor City. It's not the sort of place Brantmyer would ever take a date (too many men with roaming hands). And for one reason or another, his lady luck hasn't always held out in this, one of Florida's most notorious havens for hungry bachelors. But the four-star babes keep him coming back.

Arriving in the maelstrom, Brantmyer finds his usual free parking space in a dirt lot a few blocks from the Seventh Avenue drag. He enters the bar Fat Tuesday, shaking the drizzle from his umbrella, and orders his favorite elixir, a slushy concoction called 190 Octane. Triple sec, orange and punch.

This is where Brantmyer and his buddies like to warm up for their Saturday night circuit. They generally start by tossing down some mixed drinks, throwing a few electric darts, and reminding each other that the passing decades haven't left much residue.

Mike Barthle, standing in the back with a handful of darts, went to King High, near Temple Terrace, with Brantmyer. Now, they are exacting their revenge on the studs who got the cheerleaders.

"We weren't in the cool group back then," says Barthle, "but we run into guys from school and now we're a lot cooler. All the guys who were Mr. Homecoming are fat now."

If anything, Brantmyer's powers have grown over time. He says he has the ability now to lock eyes with a woman and even make her "walk into a wall." Brantmyer calls it his "stun gun."

Even Barthle's mother isn't safe.

"He stunned my mom. It was funny," says Barthle, 44. Friends sometimes call him "Little Russ" because he's the second-most handsome guy around, after Brantmyer.

A couple dozen people mill around the cavernous bar. Not much to look at here, Brantmyer concludes. He takes a stool beside the bar's front window. Staring through the glass, he eyes a woman rushing by, the rain splashing her nude legs.

"I still enjoy dating but I'm tired of seeing the wrong people," he says, taking a swig of his mixed drink. A recent wrong person was a Hooters waitress who lied to him and trampled his heart. Still, he keeps a photo of her in his album, an archive of blonds who have come and gone.

For Brantmyer, the right woman is someone who sees him as a finished product, not a fixer-upper.

"I don't like people getting inside, tinkering around, poking things and trying to change me," he says.

Suddenly, the disc jockey pumps up the volume on a remix of the Saturday Night Fever song Stayin' Alive. When Brantmyer hears this tribute to survival, he pumps his fists and lets rip a grizzled Yeahhhh!

But Fat Tuesday isn't where the action is. Somewhere on this boozy, teeming strip, the perfect woman waits to be stunned.

Cupid Shrugged: Part 2
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