Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 116 in 2008.
I wanted girls. But I knew I could never have one.
In those days, my parents subscribed to the Chicago Daily News. For a long time, all that I ever read in the paper were a few select comic strips, and the columns of Mike Royko, the city’s Pulitzer Prize winning satirist.
But one December morning I stopped at the headline: “Abduction foiled by passing motorist,” and I read the entire story. The victim was not identified, but a hooded assailant had tried to force a 20-year-old female college student into his car. She struggled and screamed, and another man driving by, pulled up and shined his headlights on the abductor, causing him to hop in his car and speed away.
I read that story a second time, and the particular paragraph about the “abductor,” a third time.
I was no rapist, but I thought I knew what the abductor had in mind. His hunger. And maybe, like me, he, too, could never have a girl. At least, not in the conventional way that some clear skinned hotshot easily could—a guy who had dental coverage, and fraternity membership at some college out of state, who operated on the premise that a girl, any girl he wanted, would also want him.
No, the abductor and I did not have that same luxury. Maybe rape wasn’t even his intention. Just get the girl home, somehow. An empty house--maybe his parents were away on vacation. Or he might have even had his own apartment, where he could keep her. Not tied or gagged or anything, but simply locked in a closet or basement, so she’d be there whenever he’d return, at which time he’d turn off the lights, and they’d be close under the covers, and he could swim in her hair, her skin, her body heat. Press himself against her so that their two bodies were indistinguishable.
And after the initial terror, she would notice his strength, his intelligence, his quiet courage. She would come realize that he, like Jake Barnes, Hemingway’s hero in The Sun Also Rises, was worth cherishing more than some fancy dressing matador or spoiled frat boy.
Who knows, maybe he wasn’t such a bad guy. Maybe he was like me, unable to get a girl, but fantasizing all day long about sex with Ann Margaret, Twiggy, Marlo Thomas, Aunt Evelyn, my buddy Doug’s mother (names changed) and the crossing guard on 95th street & Francisco Avenue. Even the women we did not desire to have sex with, we fantasized about having sex with.
The problem remained how to get girls if you’re incapable of talking to them. If a girl spoke to me or even looked in my eyes, my mind froze up. I was struck dumb.
For a time, I thought music might be a solution. Elvis and Paul McCartney had women flocking to them. I took a crash course in guitar playing. I bought a second hand instrument and a Beatles songbook, one of those which showed with bold black dots, which of the six strings was pressed down for each guitar chord, and in several weeks I was playing and singing “Hard Day’s Night,” and “If I Needed Someone (To Love).” I thought I sounded pretty good in the basement, too, but had no clue how to engineer the serenading of a woman. My only audience was Doug and the boys, and the only song they wanted to hear was “Hang Your Balls On the Christmas Tree,” a ditty I learned from one of Doug’s old man’s dirty records.
Later, I found a dating shortcut that seemed to have real potential, and one that was almost, but not quite legal: alcohol.
I discovered the merits of this valuable resource quite by accident one Christmas when National Foods, where I was a stock boy, hosted its Christmas party at a local restaurant. We each paid ten dollars for the dinner, and then there was a cash bar, where Blue, the produce manager at the time, was happy to get me as many highballs as I wanted, so long as I paid for his drinks, too.
Although I can’t recall if that was the first time I was drunk, I do believe it’s the first time I experienced the aphrodisiacal effects of liquor. Blue and I sat side by side at our rectangular table, and Emma, the full time deli clerk at National, was sitting across. She was a mature lady, 30 or maybe just 25 years older than me, whom I thought handsome that evening, an observation I attributed to her wearing a dress instead of the green National Foods smock with white apron tied in front.
After one highball, I found her stunning, and after two, irresistible. It took a third highball to enable me to discern the implicit “I dare you” gleam in her eye, and the fourth to get me off my own chair in order to take the empty one next to her.
That she did not leave immediately, I ascribe to her having a highball or two herself, and to being either desperately lonely, or exceedingly polite. But two things were permanently imprinted onto memory cells from that moment of close proximity to a warm breathing female. The first was the image of her brightly flowered and flowing red and white dress with the plunging neckline; and the second was that I was nearly overcome from what must have been a liberal drenching of Jean Nate cologne on her neck and shoulders and ears.
Yet, the power of Seagram’s 7, diluted in Canfield’s ginger ale and ice, was such that it converted my accustomed repulsion to harsh perfumes worn by my grandmother and aunts, to amorous adoration, which had me soon licking and kissing the same bare neck, shoulders and ears, while simultaneously embracing the not insubstantial torso of our deli clerk.
At least, that’s what I was told I was doing by Doug the next morning, as I lay, headachy, guilt wracked, and humiliated in my bed, while he gleefully recounted the ghastly details.
“Poor old Emma is sitting up straight, with this forced smile,” he said, “and here is my pal Romeo, his paws all over her, his tongue like a snake down her cleavage.”
Though I would never have countenanced suicide, quitting my job at National was a very real option. But the headache finally went away, and by the time Monday rolled around, I thought I could put in my four hours stocking shelves, as long as I avoided the deli aisle.
The biggest shock was that no one cared. Except for Emil saying, “I heard you had a real good time,” nobody else said a word. This was a great relief. But by the time my shift was ending, I felt curious, or maybe even a little slighted, so I purposely exited the door by way of the deli aisle.
There was Emma in her green smock, her white apron, her paper hat, scooping potato salad from the supply bin to the serving tray. I kept walking, but I stared till she looked up. She shot a look my way for perhaps a second, then back to the potato salad. No smile. No blush. No frown. An onlooker would have said she did not know who I was.
This was an important revelation to me, the miracle of alcohol being that you become someone else. It gives you a mask and a costume, with which you can cross thresholds which were blocked to your other self. Liquor gave me warm, glowing, full body camouflage for incursion into enemy territory.
Getting it was not much of a problem. Though my father’s salary was stretched thin to feed and clothe a family of ten, he did make sure to have the requisite Formica wet bar in the paneled basement, with fifteen or twenty bottles of blended whiskey, vodka, gin, and scotch on the shelf.
A novice imbiber at age 17, I didn’t need much. When no one was around, I’d unscrew the cap from a bottle of Early Times and take one swig—like kerosene in my mouth, flames down the throat. After a moment’s recovery, I’d take a bigger gulp, one that went down easier, but whose dizzying wallop I could feel, even as I tightened the cap back on and set the bottle back in place.
From the bar, I went to the downstairs bathroom, where I’d comb my hair, put a couple of drops of my brother Ben’s Old Spice Lime after shave behind my ears, and then gargle with a capful of his Lavoris.
Thus primed, both chemically and cosmetically, I’d head outdoors. Evergreen Park is in the center of the rust belt—not a place listed in any travel magazine’s top ten list of nature or getaway vacation destinations. But in mid April, with snows long melted, magnolias blossoming, and fresh spring breezes blowing across town from Lake Michigan, through budding maple trees and over rain soaked clay, it can be sensually invigorating and inspiring. Others call it spring fever. My particular case was intensified by the radiance of Early Times.
Amy Davis must have had spring fever, too, because she would sit out on her front porch steps each evening that April, with a bottle of Tab, and Seventeen magazine. Amy was only 15, had short brown hair, a rope-like, contour-less body, a tomboy’s manner, and a gossip’s outspokenness.
Usually, about ten minutes after Amy appeared on her top step, Janice Lincoln from the other side of the street, would glide across 96th Place and join her, seating herself two or three steps down.
Glide is the operative word, since Janice had balance-a-book-on-her-head posture, owing, I was certain, to her perfect, hourglass shaped figure, crowned at the top with long blonde hair. Marilyn Monroe at age 16. Marilyn Monroe in tan shorts, white sleeveless blouse, and sandals.
I would not have been able to approach the porch if it were just Amy. Or just Janice. Either would have required a presumption and an intimacy far beyond the power of an entire fifth of Early Times. But the three of us on the porch connoted no presumption, no pairing, and neither a consortium nor conflict of genders: just three teens passing an evening in conversation.
Strictly speaking, one teen conducting a monologue, and two teens listening.
Okay, one female teen talking, the other listening, while the lone boy was feeling a warm buzz in place of the self conscious floodlight he usually felt aimed between his eyes, whose temporary absence was allowing him to sit on the bottom step and close enough to Janice Lincoln to detect the Calamine-lotion scent of Clearasil smeared over the blemishes on her otherwise angelic body.
“Can you believe this new dress code?” said Amy.
I nodded. I had no idea what she was referring to, but I could see Janice nod in the approaching darkness, so I did too.
“Everybody’s going to boycott it—it is such a joke—we had this discussion in history and Mr. Hennings, you know, Mr. “Dumbo” ears—everybody calls him that, but I think he’s nice, not like Mrs. Strang, such a … I won’t say it, rhymes with witch!”—and here Amy stamped both feet on the cement step and squealed, which gave me a reason to turn all the way around, as though caught up in Amy’s hysterical glee, but really to take in the full, close specter of Janice’s silhouette against the pale light coming through Amy’s curtained picture window. Janice in repose, leaning way back against the stair tread, her right hand raking slowly through her blond hair, the forward thigh tourniquet-ed by the tight shorts, my eye led along the bead of lush tan flesh toward the darkness of her inseam, until I nearly fell from my step when she caught me looking, after I was jarred by her utterance of what I initially mistook for a declamation, a soft, pleasurable vocalizing of “hnnn,” lasting two, or, at most, three beats, enough to acknowledge Amy’s agitation while simultaneously signaling that Amy might go on, with no interruption or insertion to be anticipated from Janice’s corner.
Thus went my love life in the spring of 1967. Nor am I complaining. It felt like progress—seemed wholesome compared to the debacle with Emma.
Still, I had no girlfriend. Not even a dance partner. I would soon be 18, and something or someone had to give.
It was the night of July 19th, my 18th birthday, and Ben drove me an hour across town in his ten-year-old white Impala convertible, to the Bluefront Lounge in Willow Springs.
The Bluefront was a long roadhouse with a low ceiling and a dirt parking lot, nestled in the woods of unincorporated DuPage County, Illinois. On the inside was a horseshoe shaped wooden bar, 30 tables with chairs, and a dance floor the size of half a football field, all enveloped in smudgy darkness, with the only illumination coming from the cigarette machine by the front door, from the elevated stage with a spotlight in the center of the room, and from a florescent beam shooting out the men’s room each time the door opened.
But what the B.F. was mostly known for was its live country music acts, and its six-foot, seven-inch bouncer, Rick, who collected a two-dollar cover charge but never asked for i.d.’s. What more could an 18 year-old ask for?
“Smile at the girls, but only if they’re with other girls,” said Ben. He put a bottle of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer in front of me, and took a swig of his own as he sat down.
“These girls look like women,” I said.
I repeated, shouting over the music. Compared to the teen girls I was used to at school, the ladies here put me in mind of my godmother and my aunts at a family party.
“The more you drink, the younger they get,” he said.
The song ended, and the singer, a stocky, serious faced fellow with a charcoal sport coat, a bolo tie, and James Dean hair, talked in a soft, deep voice, introducing the band members, and exhorting everyone to come out onto the dance floor for the next number. He was strapped to a pink and black electric guitar and introduced himself as Faron Young, whom I had not heard of, but who had quite a few fans in the audience, calling his name and whistling.
There was a table next to us with three guys in white shirts, with the sleeves rolled up, who had stood and then split up, and I watched one walk across the room and lean over a table where two girls were sitting. I may have been wrong, and it was pretty dark, but to me, both women appeared to be my mother’s age. One rose and followed the guy in the white shirt to the dance floor, and I suppose she was the prettier one, or the younger one, or maybe she was just wearing the more fashionable dress.
The music was playing again, and Mr. Young was singing a wrenchingly sad song about leaving a woman he wished he hadn’t, in a trembling baritone, and in between verses, his stickman-skinny guitarist in white sport coat with black dress shirt underneath, dipped toward the front of the stage, making his instrument warble and whine, with some sort of sleight of hand that made you feel like his guitar had been strung in the middle of your chest.
“Let’s wait this one out,” Ben said. “They’ll do another fast one, and then they’ll take a break, and then when they come back with a heartbreaker, we’ll make our move.”
I nodded like it was routine. Ben had gotten us two more Blue Ribbons, and I was starting to feel comfortable, and oddly companionable toward the men in the band and the fellows on the dance floor, who, I just realized, were also wearing white shirts with the sleeves rolled.
And then there was this other feeling, something not quite as exalted as romance, not quite as base as horniness: a combination of longing and fear—of what I’m not sure—but Ben had been right, as he usually is: the women were looking more like girls as the night ensued. They had been soft shapes in print dresses when I had first come in, but now they were eyes and colors and dazzling flashes of teeth and skin in the half light, and I was working to be nonchalant and patient, even with my brain ticking with the discovery that the potential for happiness in the adult world was vague and limitless.
A glass smashed the floor about two tables over. I couldn’t see anything at first, for the darkness and the bodies, but a cone of light appeared, and I saw Rick towering over the table, a flashlight held in one hand, while he grasped the shoulder of a white shirted customer in the other. The cone flicked off, and Rick steered his quarry along the far edge of the dance floor and towards the door.
“Don’t stare too long at any of the men,” said Ben.
I tipped my bottle in assent, but I wasn’t worried, as his caution seemed to further enhance the richness and sexuality of the night.
When it was time to act, the table which Ben had targeted for us was not the one I would have chosen. Two girls sat side by side, not talking, facing the band. The one drinking beer from the bottle had a big smile, big yellow hair, and a substantial chest. She had her legs crossed to the side of the table, wore tight black petal pushers, and a white, lacy blouse with frills like cascades falling from the dark cavern of her cleavage.
Ben walked ahead of me, and bracing his hand on the table just in front of her, leaned close so she could hear him over the amplifier. She giggled at his words and then put down her bottle to get up and dance.
I panicked a little because I had nothing funny to say to my girl. She had brown hair in bouffant style, and dark brown eyes. I leaned close to speak, and as I did, my eyes stung from smoke, hanging like ghostly ropes across the rows of tables, and from the astringent scent of hair spray, familiar from its use by my mother before church, and my sister when she wanted to hose me away from her bedroom.
“May I have this dance?” I said.
She said something I could not hear. I stepped back, waiting for her to rise, but she remained seated.
I leaned in again, but before I could repeat my request, she spoke again, saying that she had to stay at the table and watch her sister’s purse.
Since they resembled sisters about as much as Dolly Parton and Twiggy, I interpreted her excuse as rejection, and I turned and found my way through bodies and shadows to the bar. I wasn’t about to sit at the table by myself, after being refused a lousy dance on my birthday.
The bar could have been a mistake with long-range implications I could not know at that time. It felt at once like a lifeboat in troubled waters, and I boarded a stool. At the bar rail, I found you didn’t need a partner, you didn’t have to talk, and you didn’t even have to ask for a drink, having only to slide your bottle to the edge of the well for a fresh replacement. You could be unselfconsciously alone in the midst of a throng, free to listen to the band, to stare at the women, with no one expecting you to talk or react or make a difference or a demand, outside of the space over the stool to which you laid claim. It was the perfect limbo for somebody who did not seem to fit anywhere else in the human social grid, which is why I almost wish Ben hadn’t come up behind me with the two women.
“Nellie wants to know why you ran out on her.” He announced this as if performing with a microphone, in the way he usually spoke when he’d come home all liquored up. He had his arm around his blonde, and the blonde’s “sister,” Nellie, stepped forward from the blonde’s side and extended her hand.
“I’ll take that dance now,” she said.
She was shorter than I thought, but not as thin below the table, rather like my Aunt Evelyn in that department. But either she or I must have pulled close enough on the dance floor, so that our bodies were touching, and she didn’t feel much like an aunt anymore. I did have to turn my head slightly to the right to keep my mouth and nose out of the hairspray, but we were good after that. After she mentioned hearing it was my birthday, she didn’t require more conversation, and seemed happy, in fact, just to be dancing. With me, of all people.
I returned to fetch Nellie for each slow song after that. The third and fourth times, she took to rising before I arrived, so that there was no downtime for me at their table, where “Benjamin” (which is what Ben had the girls calling him) was alternately petting and kissing and conversing with Dolly. I never learned Dolly’s real name, since she was wholly occupied by my brother, with both of them laughing and puckering and draining bottles of beer.
Anyone watching would have thought us an odd entourage, with the three of them camped at a table, while I stayed at my outpost at the bar, venturing over each time Mr. Young began a ballad, then escorting my partner back to the table when it was over, before repairing to my stool. Nellie seemed content with the arrangement, Ben and Dolly were mostly oblivious to it, and I, of course, was at the absolute outer limit of my social skills with this silent pageant of musical chairs. “Making time,” as my brother was doing, was light years beyond my ken.
I was pretty sure, though, that I was having a good time. For me, it was not a drawback that the interaction with Nellie was what you might expect to see in a pre-school from boys who had not yet progressed from playing in the vicinity of other children, to actually playing with them. What counted was how I would remember and could report that I had been with a woman at a cool and dangerous saloon. I was in a true story.
I also reveled in my discovery of anonymity at the bar, and how the gaudy, passionate music, made me feel a vicarious participant in what I was observing but not fully participating in. Yes, it was some kind of contradiction. But as I squinted through the smoke at the others talking it up, laughing at almost anything, I knew it was a contradiction I could get used to. Self discovery, I realized, doesn’t have to be great news to give power, as long as it’s, at least, a genuine new truth.
Sometime before 4 a.m., the lights dimmed, then turned all the way up in the Bluefront Lounge. I had been drinking beer, but not so much that I didn’t appreciate the apocalyptic transformation of the room. The trash on the floor and tables seemed almost festive, compared to the mold on the walls, the cracked and jagged beams suspended overhead, and the ancient stains and ominous ruptures in the ceiling tile. Rick stood like a traffic light, blocking the entrance to the washroom, directing the long stream of us out the door.
Ben was making his own stream on the front right tire of his convertible.
“Where’s your blonde?” I said.
He turned toward me, not yet finished: “I invited her to the car to meet ‘Freddy,’ here, and she took off.”
“Back to the farm. The bitches!”
I drove, and Ben fell asleep, slumped against the door. It was warmer outside than when we had arrived, and I would like to have put the top down but didn’t want to wake him.
We cruised down Highway 171, which snaked through a necklace of forest preserves, and I could hear crickets all along the roadside, along with occasional clamor from peepers when we came to the bottom of a hill.
I felt buoyant, even energized, until I saw the bright blue flashing light in my rear view mirror. Ours was the only vehicle on the road at 4 am, and I slowed and turned and braked on the shoulder.
I opened my door—a mistake—as an amplified, “Remain in your vehicle,” made me jump. I got back in.
“What the hell?” said Ben.
“I was driving slow, really slow,” I said.
“That’s why they stopped you,” he said. He turned to look. Another police car pulled behind the first.
“This is Willow Springs,” he said. “Let’s get the fuck out of here.”
“What do you mean?”
“These cops are assholes. Step on it.”
I cradled the gearshift, took one last look at the Mars light in my side-view mirror.
“What are you waiting for?” said Ben.
I sat back and turned off the engine.
“What the hell you doing?” Ben was breathing hard from all the beer. His eyes were slits of fire.
In the side-view, I watched the officer with no hat approaching my door. He shined his flashlight into the car.
“License and registration,” he commanded.
Because of the flashlight, I couldn’t see his face, just his Adam’s apple throbbing, below the bright beam.
Another squad from the opposite direction, its lights flashing, cut across the road and pinned us in.
I couldn’t yet see where the other police were. The blinding lights from all three squads, the flashlight in the windows, and the cacophony of their radios and idling engines made you feel pretty compliant, if not totally helpless.
But then he ordered us out of the car, which enabled me to see what was what. His partner was on the radio behind us, while two at the car in front, stood watching us, and the other two searched for beer or guns or whatever.
I felt sober and not that worried. I had been stopped by police before, and I knew that nothing bad would likely happen if you were reasonable and did what you were told, were polite and prolific with yes sirs and no sirs.
Officer Adam’s Apple shined his flashlight in Ben’s face.
“Looks like you had you a few, pal.”
Ben squinted, sneered back at him: “Uneducated mother-fucker.”
In retrospect, we could very well have had a classic precursor of the Rodney King beating, on that dark lonely road.
Fortunately, though, the entire Willow Springs police force, we later learned, was being investigated for bribery, corruption, and even murder (the body of candy heiress Helen Brach was found in a Willow Springs canal), which was likely the chief motivator for the sergeant on the scene that night to step in between Ben and the other cop’s raised nightstick.
They did cuff us, though, and take us to the station. They might have arrested us, too, except that I was underage and it would mean some kind of extra paperwork, or at least a different jail cell.
Instead, they called my father who, though it was 4 am, came right out, handed an envelope to the sergeant, and then drove us home. But before we were out of the parking lot, the sergeant came running up to the car and gave him back the envelope. My father was so happy to get back his money, that he barely yelled, just telling us to apologize to our mother.
Was she nearsighted?
Although we had stayed away from the Bluefront as my father had asked, it didn’t slow the drinking, as there seemed to be a college “mixer” every Friday and Saturday, the year I turned 20.
A woman was looking at me, or seemed to be, from the opposite wall of a basement party I attended on this particular November night. Women didn’t do that, or I assumed they never did for very long, since I’d quickly relieve them of the burden by averting my own eyes. Especially women like her.
Not a blonde. Not a bombshell like Janice Lincoln. Just big soft brown eyes set in a classically chiseled face. Soft, shining, long brown hair. A blue velveteen dress, and some kind of sparkly, Christmassy earrings,
I thought maybe nearsighted, because why else would this Natalie Wood—that’s the face I was reminded of—with the ironic smile and deep dark eyes—why would she be looking in my direction with an interested gaze, unless she just had trouble with her vision.
It was the first of several bring-your-own-booze parties scheduled over the holiday season, this one in smoky, black-lighted enclave of Zeke and CB. Their parties were famous for usually drawing “extra” girls, pairs and trios of females which Zeke and CB would invite while cruising the thoroughfares and side streets the previous week in their identical convertible Chevy Super Sports. Not that there was any hope any more of my forging a relationship with one of them. A forger I was not. Though I was a now a college senior, a member of the school newspaper staff, and would in five months have a bachelor’s degree, I still did not mix or mingle, let alone engage.
But there was an outside chance that a short circuit in one of the nests of wires clotheslined along the overhead joists in Zeke’s basement, carrying voltage to the strings of Christmas lights, or carrying sound waves of The Doors or Credence Clearwater Revival, to the dozens of stereo speakers set in the walls and on the floor of their den—a miniscule chance that a short circuit along one of those wires would cause excess heat, burning the insulation, igniting a combustible spark, that would set fire to the curled, yellow edges of the “Make Love, Not War” poster pasted to the cinder block wall, with a flame leaping to the crepe paper and then the coat rack and soon the gallon cans of oil based paint stacked in the laundry room, causing the building to fill with toxic, blinding smoke, precipitating mass panic and a stampede up the stairs toward the back door by all the partygoers, save for one nubile, unattached female, overcome by fumes, whom I spot lying unconscious on the floor.
Risking my thoroughly expendable life, I struggle in the opposite direction of the guests fleeing the hell fires, in order to retrieve the imperiled woman, scooping her up before being the last person to ascend the stairs, coughing, gagging, but ultimately prevailing, until the paramedics take over, placing her limp body on a stretcher, and I simply drift away and make my way home, days after which I receive a call that a recovered and extremely grateful Susan, no, Suzanne, yes, Suzanne Fields, a beautiful debutante and publishing heiress has been looking for the stranger to whom she owed her life and love, a love poignant enough to enable her to forgive the rest of the ugliness and worthlessness in this otherwise selfless unknown, and to take him as her forever lover.
Yes, a very slim chance of that happening, indeed, which is why, once again, I was flushing down my second half quart of Miller High Life beer in the weekend novena of totemic inebriation (as distinguished from binge drinking).
But “Natalie” was apparently not nearsighted, or else she was, and was making her way nearer for a clarifying look. I could not track her progress from across the room, since she had not once released her gaze, forcing me to turn elsewhere, pretending to examine the sound waves in the air, since certainly she was coming for someone else.
Talking to someone else nearby.
“Can I talk to you?” Louder. Closer. Voice with low musical pitch, bemused tone. A voice heard in my dreams—wonder whom she’s calling. I go to tip the tall aluminum can to my lips, when I feel something cool on my neck. She has placed her hand on the back of my neck. I turn around.
Speechlessness in the company of women was nothing new for me. Muted reverence was a first.
“Thank you,” she said.
Her face was a light, and a stern smile, as if to show she was fully aware I was playing hard to get.
“You’re a hard guy to talk to.”
“Nice to meet you.” I had not yet learned to smile at people. She laughed for both of us.
“We haven’t yet. But aren’t you—and I’m probably all wrong about this—but aren’t you Mr. Olfkampus?”
I should have known. She wanted someone else. Then she touched me. Probably meant to just point at me, a simple gesture, but she had a pink satin scarf in her hand that brushed my chest.
“You know, belle letters, Spiro Agnew, all that?”
“Oh. ‘Off Campus.’ Yes. My column in the college paper. I didn’t know…”
“That anybody read it?” She laughed again, touching me once more, must do it a lot.
She stole my line, and I didn’t know what to say. I should have asked if she were Italian, for her compulsive hand gestures. And did anyone tell her she looked like Natalie Wood? Or that her perfume was the perfect scent, neither astringent nor fruity, but subtle and evocative of exotic places. And at least a dozen other facts and questions which I would not think of till the following day, when replaying our meeting and conversation.
“Yeah,” was all I could come up with.
“Carol, you know Carol? She said another student from State would be here, and then she said your name, and I knew who it was immediately.”
I was wholly helpless. I couldn’t back away, turn away, look away.
So close was her scent, her body, her warmth, allowing no space for my accustomed shield.
She asked if we could sit somewhere away from the door where winter air was blowing in, so we went to the old green puffy couch by the electric fireplace, and I left to get for her one of those opaque plastic cups with wine at Zeke’s bar, which was really his electronics workbench behind a room divider.
“Mr. Smooth, way to go!” said Zeke, reaching his hand across the bar for a fraternal handshake Zeke was short, with blond wavy hair and a powerful build. He had no way of knowing that smooth was antithetical, in its every implication, to the encounter that I was experiencing, so I shook his hand and hastened back to, my God, I didn’t even know her name, and made an abrupt turnabout to the bar.
“Zeke, who is that girl?”
“Uh, Carol’s girlfriend.”
“Right. But her name!”
“I don’t know. Get her number, though.”
I had already started back to her, when I held the cup up against one of the Christmas lights, since I did not recall telling Zeke what to put inside, and saw one ice cube spinning slowly in a shallow pool of purple and green, but which turned to the proper pink, when I moved it near a white light.
She was still there!
She asked about the school paper. She wanted to know about the other staff members, most of whom I never met, since I always slid my submissions under the door before 8 am on Monday mornings.
While I sat beside her, I could not have mentally charted or articulated what exactly was transpiring. But I was actually having a normal conversation with a woman. It seemed easy and I felt, suddenly, powerful, like Superman, though a tiny grownup part of my brain knew had little to do with me and everything to do with her.
“I was curious about that book review a couple of issue back,” she said.
“You read that, too?”
“Twice. No, three times.”
“Really? I didn’t think it was that good.”
“It wasn’t, Sweetie. I reread it because I didn’t get it. Okay, I got it that Roth is a genius and a talent and all that, but when you bookworms do that bell thing tolling for us all. You know, that business?”
“’Strumming your fate.’”
“How is that?”
She sat forward, lowered her head, and a curled strand of hair fell dangling across her right eye. Both eyes were slightly watery now from the wine, and maybe the smoke, which made me smile to realize that I had temporarily forgotten that we were here among others.
“Roberta Flack’s new song about a musician ‘strumming’ her ‘fate’ with his fingers,” I said. “You know someone is a real artist, when he nails something so true, that you get goose bumps on your entire body. That’s how it was with Portnoy’s Complaint.”
She sat back. She fixed her hair, the satin scarf brushing her face.
“Are you okay?”
“Uh huh.” She took a sip of her wine. “I’ve been to a million of these basement parties. I was not going to come tonight.”
She looked about the room conspiratorially, and then bid me come close. She leaned forward, held my shoulder, and I felt her lips brush my ear, and then she whispered, “I’m glad I did.”
The following year we were married. Had it been solely up to me, it would have been the following week. I figured it must have been love if it changed the way you walked, the speed of your gait, the tilt of your head, changed how music sounded, and food tasted.
I would like to say we lived happily ever after.
It’s a work in progress. More accurately, I’m the work, and she’s the progress.
At first, I thought it was because she was a mirror in which I finally saw something good in myself. But as time passed, and my life resembled something more socially normal, I’ve come to understand that she was less mirror than a window, through which I began, at last, to look at someone besides myself.