ONCE

Perfect Love is ripped away from two young people, bit by bit.

ONCE

(chapter one)
by
Charles Pinning

 
CHAPTER ONE

Flecks of snow were sticking to her eyeglasses.


“How are you?” she beamed, her face bright sunlight on this afternoon deep in February, snow blowing fiercely down from a pewter sky.


I was clutching the shoulders of her thick woolen coat having just turned the corner and walked straight into her. I was rushing to the bank to make a deposit before it closed, already seeing myself writing checks against that sum for the mortgage and another to the dentist and another...


“I am—” I began automatically, but then changed course, “I care about things passionately and not at all. And you?”


“Horrible, but with moments,” she smiled happily.


“Ah well,” I sighed. “You can’t have everything.”


“Of course you can!” she retorted cheerfully. “But where would you put it?”


I knew instantly, but did not say it. Instead, I gave her a good warm hug and kissed her cheek, the way you do a friend who is special, though you might not see them often, and in a few moments we parted and went our separate ways, me, climbing the hill toward my destination, aswirl in remembrance.


Oh, the happiest time in my life, when I did have everything and a place to put it: Newport...The fall of 1981...

 

*                   *               *

 

Pretensions had been massacring me back then. All my life, it seemed, I’d been trying to do something: get on the team, get good grades, get into college, get out of college, get a job, get a wife, unget a wife...I wasn’t trying to win anymore. I just wanted to do whatever I felt like. I was craving to feel.


And then my mother called.


“Are you still smoking? How about teaching? You could get your MA and—”


“Mother: certainly it should be clear by now—I don’t want to teach! I feel like I haven’t been born yet.”


“What? I don’t want to seem to be nagging you honey, but—”


“It is all right. It is your purpose in life. I know it is only because you love me. You want me to be happy—and I am happy. Miserable as my life is, I am happy.”


“What’s your girlfriend’s name?


“Their names are Ingrid, Hope, Sonya, Martha, Allison, and-uh...Terry. I mean...T–T...something like Tanya/Tara, it escapes me.


“Oh.” For a moment we both hold our breath. Then my mother continues: “Well, your father and I love you.” And after a pause: “We’re thinking of coming to Newport to visit my brothers, in August—then renting a car and driving up to Williamstown to visit Gordon.”


“That’s nice.” I wince hearing myself say that.


“Maybe we could meet in Newport and drive up to Williamstown together.”


“That’s a thought. I’m pretty busy here, but it’s something to think about.”


“Well, it’s still a couple months off, so there’s time to think about it.”


“You know me—always thinking. I’ll be thinking about it.”


“Well, don’t think too much and make sure you take some time to do fun things.”


“Mom, I’m not sure I know what fun is anymore.”


“Don’t say that! Take a walk. Get some fresh air! You’ll feel better if you get outside.”


“I can’t—there are too many women out there.”


“What? Are you afraid of girls looking at you?”


”No, Mom, I’m not afraid of girls looking at me. I’m afraid of looking at them.”


“What? It’s normal for a man to look at girls! And I’m sure they look at you too. You’re handsome and you have pretty eyes and your Mama loves you. How’s the hair?”


“Still up there.”


“Are you keeping it cut? You know, first impressions—”


“Lasting digressions...Mom, I think I have to go now. Somebody’s at the door.”


“Are you just saying that?”


“Yes. I am just saying that. But it might be true—after all, this is New York.”


I lie down. My head is spinning. I love my parents, but they make me so angry. And then I feel guilty for having the anger. How can I expect them to understand me?
Intellectually, I can square the whole thing—but in my heart, I can’t.


My life. It can’t keep going like this much longer. I feel in my bones something will happen and I know I’m readying myself for it by being selfish, bringing it toward me by being selfish. My antennae are out. Let it come, let the mystery break upon me. I am ready.


I know now we are never ready. We are only available or not.

Williamstown

August comes and brings with it a visit from my older brother, Henry, who lives in California. Our parents’ trip north from Florida to Newport, Rhode Island, place of our birth and childhood has caught his fancy and he’s keen on the idea of a family reunion. He and I were born on the same day, five years apart.


After spending a few days together in New York, we train up to Newport and meet my parents. They rent a car and the four of us drive up to Williamstown, Massachusetts where our younger brother, Gordon, is working as an apprentice with the famous Williamstown Summer Theatre Festival.


It is a delightful three days with minimal family skirmishing. Williamstown is nestled in a fold of the lush Berkshire Mountains and we go to plays and skits and take walks and have picnics. Gordon is swirling in the wonderfulness of it all; he’s a blur of blonde hair and blue eyes and blindingly white teeth. He’s twenty-one and pumped with budding actorish energy and enthusiasm. Henry is an inch shorter than Gordon’s six-feet and I am an inch shorter than Henry, and though Henry and I both have dark hair we are obviously the older brothers. Our parents, just as obviously, are the parents and it is a good feeling walking down the pretty main street together. One of the tragedies of our time is that family members so often live far apart.


Then it is time to go.


My plan is to return straight to New York, but Henry says, “Why rush back to the Big Crapple? Give yourself a break and come back to Newport with us. We can go to the beach and hang out together. Have some fun.”


There was that word again. I could characterize my life at that time as having a lot of low-level fun, but when was the last time I’d allowed myself some different fun?
And “beach.” That was a magic word. When was the last time I’d been to a beach? Williamstown had primed me, and after a moment I said, “OK.”


Henry grinned. “Andy, Andy...you’re still the serious little poker face you were in that photograph. Do you know the one I mean?”


Of course I did. It was a black-and-white studio portrait taken when Henry was ten and I was five. We’re sitting side-by-side in our pin-striped suits and Henry is sporting the whiffle-cut my parents made him wear until he was fifteen. He has an arm around my waist and he’s beaming a fifty-thousand-watt smile that Gordon seems to have inherited. For my part, I’m sitting with my hands clasped on my lap, trying to grow into my ears, looking like someone has just shown me a newsreel of the rest of my life.


“I was solemn,” I corrected Henry.


“Serious. Solemn. Slalom. Whatever. Loosen up, bro!”


“I’m loose. Inside, I’m loose.”


“Then let the inside out. You don’t want your face to freeze like that, do you?”

Newport

We said good-bye to Gordon and drove back to Newport together. My parents were staying at Uncle Freddy and Aunt Joyce’s House of Catholicism and Playboys Hidden in the Basement, but Henry had lined up a real pad. He had a friend named Elfie and she had a cozy, two-bedroom apartment in a restored colonial in downtown Newport. She was out of town for a week and had given Henry the keys.


Could anything have been better? Proximity to my parents without having to endure repression; a comfortable place to schmooze with my older brother and roomy enough to “entertain,” should the occasion arise, without disturbing the other.
Boy—was I in for a surprise.


The first morning there, Henry and I sallied forth for some breakfast and the day’s adventure. It was a warm and sparkling day and we were walking down Thames Street, which runs along the harbor. Spinnakers were billowing in the bay, people were smiling and I was eyeing a young woman in short-shorts as she wheeled her bicycle out of a shop across the street.


Meanwhile, Henry was talking about something. Henry can get extremely verbal and very deep right away first thing in the morning, whereas my channels normally don’t start clicking open until I’ve had a couple cigarettes and some coffee.


Following the path of my gaze, he stopped dead in his tracks.


“Goddamn you!” he spat. ”Don’t you ever think about anything besides pussy?”


Silly question—and so ferociously put—but before I could formulate an appropriate reply, he hit the afterburners.


“Ever since we’ve been together—in New York, in Williamstown and now here, your main preoccupation seems to be how you can get your dick wet. Being with you isn’t being with you at all! It’s a real drag and I have had it. As far as I’m concerned, starting now, you can find your own place to stay.”


Then he walked swiftly away, melted into the throng of pedestrians up ahead, was gone.


Wow. I stood there in shock. I’d been blind-punched. Outside of conventional brotherly chiding, Henry had given me no prior indication that my...very being appalled him so.


I felt utterly humiliated. I loved Henry and I admired him in so many ways... and he had slammed me; slammed me with just enough truth on that spot where we are all chronically insecure—the intersection of selfishness and regard for others.


I wanted to disappear, and I did. I fled through downtown and got as far away from my fellow human beings as I could. I walked out to where the rocky part of Newport’s coastline juts furthest into the Atlantic, an area known as the Ocean Drive.


Hopping a low stone wall and crossing a meadow, I climbed down into a secret cove I knew about; a private world of tidal pools and periwinkles where nobody could see me. And that’s where I spent the rest of the day—soaking up the sun, listening to the waves pound the barnacle encrusted boulders, thick seaweed beards tossing in the froth...thinking about the mishmash of my life.


On one level, it was pretty goddamn simple: Henry and I were in different spaces in our lives—a circumstance we often tolerate among friends and even total strangers, but which family members rip each other apart for.


On another level, it was pretty goddamn complex: Henry wanted to transform me according to his current standards—a game he’d played all his life—and I had to lose because his standards were always evolving. I could never catch up. Even more frustrating was that while you were wearily trying to win his approval, he was free to be contradictory in his own behavior.


But this time around, instead of playing his game, I’d just “been myself”; I’d introduced him to my girlfriends in New York...not edited my thoughts...and his response had been to change his game plan. Instead of continually badgering me about my “shortcomings,” he’d waited until he could crush me in one moment of high drama.


“Why do you want to hurt me, Henry?” I asked aloud. “It’s scary. I have never willfully hurt you. I am not the source of your confusion. I am not even your parents. Don’t take your anger out on me.”


I had him for a second on that one. In my mind’s eye he stared stonily back at me.


“Henry, I know you don’t like all of me—and that’s OK. I don’t like all of you either. But I still love you. I certainly wouldn’t dump you out on the street like a bag of garbage. “Jesus!” I moaned. “You know goddamn well I think of other things besides ‘pussy.’”


“Really?” his conjured image replied, one eyebrow arched in amused skepticism. (How did he do that anyway? I’d never been able to do that.)


“Yes. Really. We’ve had many conversations about things that are not even remotely connected to pussy. Nonetheless, do I criticize you for stinking up my living room every morning doing your yoga? No, I do not. Do I...get upset when you come and stay at my apartment and criticize me because I don’t do my dishes immediately after eating? No. I let it go because it’s just not important. You are you and I am me.”


“But who you are is so reprehensible.”


“Thank you, Henry.”


“I listen to you pick up the phone and create an illusion with one woman, do the same with another and then go out with a third. How can you do this?”


“With the help of an answering machine. Jesus Christ, Henry! You have crossed a continent and caught me living my life! It is not the best life anyone ever imagined, but it is mine. What would you have me do—hang onto your every word? It’s too exhausting! This may come as a shock to you, but not everything you say is saturated with insight and wisdom.”


“It’s not?”


“No. It’s not. Henry, you suckered me into coming back here. That bullshit about ‘let the inside out.’ Oh sure—I let it out, but because it’s not what you want to see, I end up getting punished for it.”


“And you have this,” he smiled, gesturing grandly to the truly incomparable surroundings of sea and sky. “Or would you rather be laying on that filthy cement at that public pool in New York, cooling your pasty buns in water that looks like onion soup?”


I had to laugh.


“Oh, Henry...you do have a way with words. Do you know how much I’ve always admired your ability to express yourself? You are the first one in whom I saw the power of words.”


“Then why don’t you listen to me?”


“I do. But if I did all the time, you’d drown me! Henry—what is it you want from me?”


“Lots—but for starters I’m curious to know why you behave the way you do.”


“And that’s not as ‘boorish’ as scoping out pussy—wanting another person to explain their life to you? Something that’s always bugged me about you is your desire to know why-why-why. Why?”


Henry grinned. “Beats watching TV.”


I saw a speeded-up version of Henry’s life, his many girlfriends and me growing up, admiring his suave ways.


“Henry—I want to do what I want to do for once in my life. Do you understand that?”


“Sounds to me like an excuse to be a self-absorbed asshole.”


“Fine—I’m a self-absorbed asshole!”


“That’s quite an image, bro.”


“Would it be better for me to go through life trying to please you...or Mom or Dad?”


“At least somebody’d be happy.”


“No—and that is the big lie. No matter what I do—and this particularly applies to you—I’m going to take shit about it. Nobody else is me, and nobody else knows what I need right now. Maybe I’m trying to fuck my way to the truth. Maybe because I sense there has to be something more, I’m trying to fuck my way to the other side! Jesus, Henry—we are different! But we are brothers. I cannot help it that you’re angry at the world for not conforming to your expectations, and I refuse to spend the rest of my life explaining my life to you as it happens.


“Henry...you want so much from me—you want me to be another person—and I want so little from you...let me stay at Elfie’s so I can have a little vacation. OK? Obviously, I need one.”


“OK,” he said at first. Then the picture changed and he said in a nasty murmur, “Not on your life.”

Back Into Town

Late in the afternoon, when the cool, onshore breeze came up the way it always did in Newport at this time of day, I left the cove and began making my way back in the general direction of downtown. God knows I had no place to rush to, so I took my time and walked slowly, enjoying the peacefulness and the sound of the fine gravel by the roadside scrunching underfoot.


Away from the water the air was still...warm and fragrant. A pair of red-winged blackbirds intertwined in frenzied flight, zipping just above the tops of a stand of rosa rugosa, the wild rose hip bush, flush now with bright fuchsia blossoms that would give way to the plump, orangy red berries, the hips.


Further on, entering civilization, I passed an elderly gent, pruning shears drawn, stalking the yellow hybrid roses that trellised alongside his porch.


It was a fine day for rose-lovers, whatever the species.


“Is there anyplace on earth more gorgeous than this?” I asked myself. And I meant not only the jewel that is Newport, but the entire island of Aquidneck.


It was a whole world and each season touched it. To grow up here was to know thick bales of hay resting golden in the fields, stone walls and Little League games at twilight; ponds to ice skate on in the winter and beach sand and fiddler crabs and the deep blast of the six o’clock whistle that shook your heart...and later that night in bed, the alto cooing of the fog horns calling to each other across the harbor.


On the edge of downtown I bought a bag of fried clams and took them to the ce¬ment retaining wall at Kings’ Park, where a fine bronze statue of General comte de Rochambeau, commander of French military forces in America during the Revolution, has been appreciated by many generations of seagulls. Below me was the pebbly strand where those who “didn’t know any better” (my mother’s voice), or who “didn’t care” (my father’s), came and splashed in the oily water of the harbor, or launched their speedboats.


Ernie Tucci and his family had fallen into at least a couple of those categories: this is where they’d trailered their boat every weekend, and I don’t think they cared how filthy the water was—it could never be as filthy as them. And I’d loved them.


They were the epitome of “white trash,” and for a couple of years when I was eight or nine, they’d lived in a rental ranch house down the street from us.


Ernie taught me my first “dirty” words, and the more my mother tried to keep me away from him, the faster I raced over there.


There was also the matter of Ernie’s mom.


I could see her now, sexy and sweet in her black bathing suit, lolling on a beach towel outside their back door, a furry puppy trying to nuzzle itself between her breasts.


She seemed young for a mother, giggly and happy and flirty, and I wanted to squeeze her round breasts and pert bottom, I wanted to kiss her. Who says the sex urge kicks in at puberty? Nah—it happens well before that.


Of course, I didn’t do anything. The world would explode, my parents would go berserk...but God she was flirtatious with me, and that was for real, the way you know these things are but cannot possibly speak of them when you’re a kid—and so they become the very deepest part of you.


I wish she had molested me; I could’ve handled the trauma.


Bathing in the remembrance of Ernie’s hot mama and my parents’ paranoia about certain life-forms getting too close to me, I watched the sun set to the background music of halyards chiming the masts of the gently bobbing sailboats, moored and tucked in for the night.


“Your brother just wants your attention,” came my mother’s voice, soft and conciliatory.


“I know, Mom...but he wants it on his terms. He’s always wanted everything on his terms. For once, that’s what I want—and I’m afraid that if I don’t do what I want to do now, I never will. Do you understand that?”


She didn’t answer me.


I have felt generally torn and thwarted my entire life, I thought. I cannot help it that Henry is my brother and that he has arrived now, while I’m living like this.


The orange sun split open on the horizon and the juice flowed toward me, iridescent across the water. My bare legs dangling over the wall took up the glow and even though my life was a mess, I felt that at least I finally stood a chance.

The Colony Club

My plan was simple: find Henry, try to explain to him what my life was about right now—and if he failed to buy it, repair to Uncle Freddy and Aunt Joyce’s for the night and take a train back to New York in the morning.


Before his conniption, Henry had mentioned that a friend of ours, a guy named Skip, would be playing piano tonight at a place called the Colony Club. I figured there was a pretty good chance Henry would be showing up there eventually, so I found it. It was on the first floor of a dilapidated old building on lower Thames Street where, at the time, there still remained a few blocks that sold neither time-sharing units, Gore-Tex foul weather gear, or gourmet chocolate chip cookies. Money alone can never buy the juice, and since that’s what I was after (including a glass of wine I could afford), I was happy to see that the Colony Club was my kinda place.


It wasn’t a club at all, not in the formal sense; it was just a bar with a pool table and some tables and chairs and a beat-up upright at the back of the room where Skip was banging out his own particular versions of bluesy, New Orleans honky-tonk.


It was the place to be, the place for me, that was clear, and I took my glass of white wine to a little table down near where Skip was playing, his back to the room. I’d just sit and wait for him to take a break and turn around. He’d be glad to see me, no matter what I said or who I looked at. He’d flown helicopters in Viet Nam and knew what truly bad behavior was.


The cold wine was tart and slid down easily...my unfiltered Camel cigarette curled deliciously in my lungs...I was a young man not interested in setting an example for anybody and I felt great. Looked good too: beat-butt khaki shorts; wrinkly, funky-smelling khaki shirt; absolutely scrungoid pair of Nikes...my good ones were back at Elfie’s. My grubby backpack held the rest of my wardrobe—a pair of blue jeans and a green sweater for the cool evenings. I’d only planned on being out of New York for a couple/few days. Some socks back at Elfie’s too—one clean pair, two really stinky pair. Henry was welcome to those if he continued to be such a dickhead.


The only problem was that I still had on my nylon swimsuit under my shorts. It was a nice one too, a purple Speedo, but it was getting kind of itchy. I could try to find the bathroom and peel it off...but God it felt good to be just sitting here. My feet were glad to not be walking and my face and shoulders were tight and tacky from the sun and salt water. More people kept coming in, but nobody who looked like Henry. It wasn’t a particularly well-lighted place, the scene was a chiaroscuro, and I rolled that lovely word in my head and homeless as I was, I was content.


That’s when I saw her.


The place had a long, mahogany bar that ran almost the full length of the room, and she was sitting up at the end near the front door. Given the dappled distance I couldn’t see her clearly, but received an impression that had an unmistakable impact on me, superimposed itself perfectly over some long-held ideal deep in my subconscious and probably deeper than that.


My chest cavity became a hearth of glowing coals, my throat the flue up which the heat rushed to my head, the blood beneath my scalp pulsing. So much for tired feet. I emptied my wineglass and shuffled up toward her end of the bar for a refill and a closer look.


The view just kept getting better and better, and by the time I got to within ten feet of her I knew I was in serious trouble. Certain key components of my nervous system —namely, my brain—began shutting down and I was left with only the autonomic, those functions we perform without thinking about them, like breathing, which itself was perilously close to collapse.


Finally, there I stood near to her, hands of ice, flesh about to burst into hives. To her right, before the short, L-section of the bar where she was sitting butted up against the wall, were three empty stools. I rested a tentative flank on the edge of the one next to hers and ordered my wine. Waiting for it, I eased myself fully into the seat until I was what you would call, sitting next to her.


Now what?


Since she was evincing absolutely no interest whatsoever in my presence, one might think a logical move on my part would’ve been to say something clever, or even normal, like—“Hi.”


Well, forget normal. Normal was well out of my reach at the moment. And the stage was set, too. She wasn’t talking to anyone; just cradling a snifter in both hands and sipping from it. There was a guy to her left she might’ve been with, but that wasn’t conclusive. The elbow of the bar was between them. They were both drinking from snifters...there did seem to be some sullen connection between them.


Still—would it be a crime to say hello?


But I was paralyzed—utterly stone-cold paralyzed—me, the guy who so deftly juggled six girlfriends in New York. Why? Because she was the kind of woman I’d always wanted but never had any luck getting. She was basic. Sexy. She was completely devoid of any of the usual affiliations we conjure up when we first see someone. She wasn’t preppy or athletic-looking, or corporate or hippie or exotic...she just was, in the sense of: this is an apple, this is a woman—and here we have the appliest apple and the womanliest woman. Any of my past losses would be nothing compared to this. Tonight, I had the opportunity to lose BIG! Tonight, I could once and for all take one of my most abiding fantasies—making love to a woman like this—and watch it turn to ash in my very hands. Watch unaffected, essential life blow by me like a summer breeze.


What was my problem? Me—who I was. And with what I had left of my tattered brain, I set about deconstructing my entire life, searching desperately for one small piece that would allow me to connect with this woman. It was like rifling through boxes and bags in the attic for a letter you might’ve thrown out a long time ago. In the meantime, I surreptitiously examined her, pretending I was just a normal guy in a bar having an innocent glass of wine—if such exists.


In no particular order, since it was her entire person that impacted upon me all at once, I present the following portrait:


Lovely hands. Slender, finely articulated fingers cradling the snifter of brandy or cognac or whatever she was drinking. Slender arms also, sleeves of her blouse rolled up, elbows resting on the bar.


Glistening, chestnut brown hair falling just below her shoulders, dark brown eyes, dark well-defined eyebrows; strong, straight nose tilted up ever so slightly at the end. Longish, oval-shaped face, a flawless complexion the color of champagne. Shapely mouth, well-formed chin. No makeup—well, maybe a little lipstick. A young-looking face, but you knew she was older; I guessed about twenty-five or six.


Slender neck, slight shoulders...large breasts she was trying to minimize by slouching somewhat and by wearing a straight-cut blouse. Yet the blouse was tucked into her pants so if she straightened the stress points would be clearly visible. Narrow waist. Full hips. Open-toed red shoes, moderate heel.


And an intelligence. There was in her serene face that indelible mark of intelligence and also a toughness; not a hardness mind you, but a certain toughness that had no time for the usual bullshit.


And that was my problem—my life of conformance had so freighted me with the usual bullshit that truly extraordinary women like this didn’t even see me.


It was such a defeat! What did I have to offer? A woman like this with a body like this, where did you usually find them? They’re mistresses of presidents; in magazines or movies, or trapped by poverty in trailer parks or ghetto tenements. It was one extreme or the other, and I was such a middle-of-the-road guy.


But I wasn’t! In my heart I wasn’t and that’s what I’d been working to change, letting the inside out, being myself. But when I had, my very own brother had slammed me, made me feel guilty...I was so fucked-up. I wasn’t alive—I was a series of constructs pretending to be alive. Face-to-face with what I really wanted, I was impotent. The veneer of opinions and accomplishments I’d faced myself with in order to appear attractive were useless in her presence. Oh, how pretty my hybridized self looked in front of a white porch, while her deep roots rose up into the lush fullness where the red-winged blackbirds played.


You gutless, shallow robot, I thought, feeling the true depth of my loss—and at that moment, in waltzed Henry.


He was glowing, and on his arm was a spunky little blonde nubette, at least ten years his junior. For all the world they looked like they’d been out wind-surfing all day; or at the very least, engaged outside in some pure fun activity.


So jolly were they in the private bubble of their effervescence, they took the two empty stools next to me without Henry even noticing I was there.


If ever I needed a friend, now was a good time, and I nudged Henry’s arm.


“Hi,” I said.


“Oh. Hi,” he managed. Then, like scraping shit off his shoe, he turned his back on me.


Well—that pretty much took care of that, didn’t it. Far as I could tell, it was back to Uncle Freddy and Aunt Joyce’s for the night, then back to New York in the morning. The sooner the better.


I reached down and snatched my backpack off the bar rail and stood up. While I’d been agonizing over the woman next to me, I hadn’t noticed how crowded the place had gotten and I had to squeeze out from behind my barstool toward the door. As I did, I was for a moment caught in traffic behind the woman’s barstool and I did something there was no precise accounting for. Perhaps as a resentful parting shot at the opportunity I had lost, and most certainly as a sarcastic reference to my brother and his blonde friend, I leaned close to the back of the woman’s head and said, “This could be the beginning of something beautiful.”


God knows it was a cowardly, sniveling exit, but—BUT—as I pulled my head away, the truly miraculous happened. The woman turned around and she said to me, “Are you-uh, leaving?”


Was I what? Why would I want to leave? I was just, you know, performing a little seventh-inning stretch.


“Why don’t you sit back down,” she said, “and I’ll buy you a drink.”


Crossing the border from Massachusetts into Maine, there’s a sign that reads: WELCOME TO MAINE—THE WAY LIFE SHOULD BE. An appropriate sign for that moment in the Colony Club would’ve read: WELCOME TO YOUR FANTASY—THE WAY LIFE SHOULD BE. Honestly, had I left as planned and at some later date rewritten history to give the poor schmuck a chance, I could not have done better.


Just in the nick of time I reclaimed my seat, for there were at least five guys more virile than I—who would know what to say—jockeying for it. The woman leaned across the bar toward the bartendress, then paused and turned back to me.
“White wine?” she asked, a trace of uncertainty in her voice.


She was right—white wine was not going to cut it for this.


“Bagaco,” I intoned deeply, flavoring the word with a European accent.


“Bug-uh, what?” she asked.


I giggled. I was so happy I felt stoned. Once, my mother had gone to Portugal and she said the men there started off the day with a shot of something called Bagaco. I’d asked her what it was and she said, “White Lightning!” Well, hell—I knew there wasn’t any bar drink called White Lightning, but that’s what I felt the moment called for, so I said, Bagaco. “Buh-gAhs-so.”


Of course, I finally had to say something that existed, so when I calmed down I said to the woman, “How about a shot of...Wild Turkey.”


She smiled and leaned toward the bartendress again and I enjoyed the afterimage of her smile. It was a crooked smile, mischievous and self-conscious, that drew up to the right side of her face. Her lower lip was full and her upper lip, curvy. Her two front teeth overlapped just slightly and her eyes rolled up and away when she smiled. Her dark eyes were excited and glossy and generous.


I was cherishing that smile and just beginning to get acquainted with my phenomenal good luck, when the guy I’d earlier thought she might be with spoke up.


“So whudaya do?” he posed to me in a lazy, skeptical way.


Oh, no...He was a big, barrel-chested sonofabitch with thundercloud grey eyes and long, slicked-back silver and black hair. With his goatee and jean jacket with the arms cut off, he looked like an aging Hell’s Angel. Make the wrong move and I could almost feel the pool cue come crashing down on my head. I decided to play it straight.


“I’m a writer,” I told him. Jesus—never had an occupation sounded so wimpy.
“No kidding,” he sneered. “Whudaya write? Books?”


Oh boy...For the benefit of his “Old Lady,” whom I now supposed she was (But why was she buying me a drink?), I was being hung out on the line to dry. Was this some barroom game they played? Was I being set up for some kind of weirdness? Did I really have an option any more entertaining than to play along? Straight seemed best—this guy would murder me on the level of trading wise-ass volleys.


“Actually,” I replied, “I am working on a book, but for a living I do magazine writing.”


“No kidding. What magazines you write for?” he demanded to know.


“Penthouse...Gallery...a few others like that.”


Bingo! If there was any “right” thing I could've said, that was it. The woman’s face lit up in a smile of vindication and my inquisitor’s entire being ballooned and he grinned like the Devil.


“S000...” he boomed, “You’re one of those rich, porno writer-types!”


Suddenly, everything went into motion. Henry jerked around to see what all the noise was about, saw it involved me and turned away. I denied I was rich, protesting instead that I was simply generating enough money to live on so I could do my own writing—but who was listening? The man had a presence that dominated everything within twenty feet.


“I like this guy!” he bellowed, and noticing that I was having trouble locating my cigarettes, he shook a pack of his stinking Gauloises in my face and then his beefy hand.


“I’m Martin,” he announced, “and this is Lila.”


And that’s how I met Lila, who stood up and discreetly, but very firmly, squeezed my bottom.


“Don’t go away,” she whispered insistently. “I’ll be right back.”


Go away?! To what? For what? My butt was epoxied to that barstool—I weren’t goin’ nowhere!


I was tingling, rapid mini-explosions detonated along my arms and the backs of my legs. I didn’t know what I was getting into—this was a strange duo—but man, they were alive! I watched Lila wend her way through the crowd toward the bathroom at the back of the room and I was just slain. She wasn’t so much a walker as a jouncer, and when she jounced everything went into motion, and there was just so much everything. She was a perfect S-curve, she had the finest female body I’d ever seen.


In a gravelly voice, weary suddenly, but unable to resist the observation, Martin commented: “Lila’s a nice piece of ass, huh?”


What could I say?

 

I buried my snout in a big gulp of Wild Turkey and almost spit it out in a burst of suppressed laughter. His remark was so piggy...but so true. It was impossible to look at Lila and not admire her body, wonder what she would look like naked, what she would feel like. Some people are just built that way and all you can do is sit back and suffer the heat; such views are among the most acute pleasures life has to offer.


I also knew then that Martin and Lila were not as tight as I had feared. He had reduced her to a piece of meat. To have the fleeting thought was one thing, but for him to actually verbalize it, lay it out in a way as though it characterized the entire person revealed a hostility that spoke of defeat. They were doubtlessly linked but, no, they weren’t “together.”


This was confirmed faster than I could’ve imagined.


As soon as Lila returned she did not sit back down, but said to me, “Do you want to go outside?” I had a hunch this meant ‘Good-bye Colony Club,’ so I grabbed my backpack and out we went. Neither of us said anything to Martin. We just left.


Out on the sidewalk, Lila asked me: “Where are you staying?”


Brave. First she’d had the courage to ask me to sit back down, and now this. Some people might brand a woman like this a slut, but not me. Unh-uh. It was refreshing. I admired her forthrightness; a quality I all too often lacked.


Where I was staying was, of course, a very good question and I told her so, and  in the one-two-three beats of silence that followed my murky admission, whom did I notice not twenty feet away under a streetlamp, also catching the night air?—Henry and his blonde companion.


At this point I did something utterly stupid, utterly selfish, and, as it turned out, totally unnecessary. Awash in euphoria and desperation, I excused myself and whirred up to Henry.


“Henry,” I asked, calm as I could manage, “may I talk to you for a moment?”


He deigned to look at me, but he wasn’t about to allow us privacy so I lowered my voice: “Henry...something incredible has happened. I know what you said this morning, but...may I please, please stay at Elfie’s tonight with...my new friend?”


Oh boy...Henry looked over to where Lila stood—a veritable gift from the gods, which of course made it all the worse—and then he glared back at me.


“I can’t believe you are asking me this,” he hissed. “Especially after—” but he was cut short by Lila, who bounced up to us.


“What’s the problem?” she asked, all innocence and ripply smile.


Whoa—I thought a mythological animal was going to leap out of Henry’s mouth and eye sockets and rip her apart with claws and fangs! Taking Lila by the arm, I hastily led us a safe distance away.


“Um,” I confessed, “that’s my brother. Earlier today—”


“What’s his problem?” she asked.


“That’s a long story...the short one is, we were staying together here in Newport but we had a little falling-out this morning.”


“Oh. Then I guess we’ll have to go to Providence,” said Lila cheerily. “Do you mind going to Providence?”


Lila had a way of saying simple things that packed terrific resonance.


“Nope,” I smiled. “I don’t mind.”


I’d never been to Providence before.

Our conveyance was Lila’s plush, to me, maroon Honda Accord hatchback. Unless you have bucks, a car’s a liability in New York City and I’d gotten rid of my ’65 Chevy Impala shortly after moving there in 1974. In the ensuing years I hadn’t realized how accommodating these little metal boxes had become. I let the back of my hand drift up against the velour on the inside of the car door while Lila fired it up. The stereo boomed on the second she switched the key and we rocketed out of the tight parking space.


We zoomed, rumbling at an alarming speed down the old grey cobblestones of Spring Street and just before leaving downtown, swung into a Store 24 for coffee to go.

 

On we sped out of Newport, gliding through the darker, more rural stretches of Middletown and Portsmouth, over the Mount Hope Bridge which spans wide and beautiful Narragansett Bay, on into the sleepy town of Bristol.


Here she took a right off the main street and zipped down several side streets. Coming to an unlit piece of road she suddenly cut both engine and lights and coasted to a stop, even switching off the dome light so it wouldn’t flash on when she opened the door.

 

Grabbing a pair of scissors from the back seat she said, “I’ll be right back.”


In a few minutes she emerged from the darkness, cradling an armload of gladiolas.


“I’ve got to pee,” I told her.


“OK,” she said. “Just make it quick.”


I watered the rugged bark of an enormous maple next to the car and looked up through the branches to the masses of stars. It was chilly and the fresh dew heightened the rich green smells and the dirt smells, and I felt relaxed and at home.


“That was quick,” she remarked approvingly when I got back in.


“I didn’t see anybody I knew,” I told her.


We were getting along very easily.


Next was the town of Harrison, just up the line from Bristol, and Lila stopped in front of a restaurant closed for the night. Bamboo shades were drawn down behind the large plate glass windows, and in one of them glowed a violet neon sign. In elegant script-style it spelled out: Cafe Lilac.


“I’ll be right back,” she said, gathering the flowers.


“And if not?” I inquired.


“Then it’s all yours.”


Lila had a sweep about her, an extravagant generosity often found among criminals. It stimulated the long-subdued anarchist in me and I tingled. I felt to be her willing accomplice in adventures that she had secretly planned out. She also had a speech idiosyncrasy that was not without charm. Often, at the beginning or in the middle of a thought, she’d pause and insert an “-uh”; “but-uh” or “and-uh”...as though actively trying to be honest, trying to find just the right word or words that expressed how she felt. This not only drew attention to her shapely mouth but was flattering to me, the listener, that she cared enough to get it right and not be satisfied with merely a smooth glibness. You also got the impression she was gearing up to say something bold, and that is always exciting.


When she returned I asked her if her full name was Lilac.


“No. It’s the name of my favorite champagne. But-uh, a lot of ladies who come in say, ‘Oh Lilac—everything is just so wonderful!’ I don’t bother to correct them anymore. I didn’t think of that when I named it. I just liked the name.”


There was one more stop to be made before getting to Providence, this time in the tony suburb of Mumford. We pulled into a gravel driveway and Lila jumped out and disappeared into a darkened house. A kitchen light snapped on and in a few seconds it all went dark again and Lila returned with a pile of clean white tablecloths.


“I’m sorry about all the stops,” she said “This is the last one.”


“It’s OK,” I told her. “We’re getting to know each other—in a Rand McNally sort of way.”


She liked that. She grinned, crunched the car into reverse and we sped away.

Around a sweeping curve...and below us glittered the lights of Rhode Island’s capital city, Providence. I’d never been to Providence before, even though I’d grown up in Newport until I was fourteen. My parents weren't the most adventurous folks on the face of the earth.


Lila removed a stub of a joint from her ashtray and lit it up. She took a hit and passed it to me then slipped a tape into the cassette. The singer's voice was throaty, vaguely familiar, and her refrain, well...“Give me your leather, take from me my lace...”


“Who is this?” I asked.


“Stevie Nicks.”


“Is it old?”


“A year.”


I took a healthy hit from the joint and felt the smoke bloom in my head. “It takes awhile for things to get to New York,” I snickered and offered the joint back to her.


“I’ve had enough,” she said, then downshifted. The rpm’s surged and we zooped off the highway, down the ramp, then zip-zip-zip up a long, residential street, nipping through each light as it went from yellow to red, then a sharp left and an immediate right into a short driveway—engine off, lights off, hand brake yanked—We were there.


Lila had the first floor apartment in a nondescript house, a three-story A-frame with a small front porch. Its grey disrepair outside utterly belied the kaleidoscopic richness behind her locked door.


Oriental carpets on the floor and lush, hanging ferns; potted palms and exotic, twining succulents. The soft glow of stained glass lamps and the burnished patina of antique furniture, side-by-side with overstuffed chairs...a large, sloop-of-a-sofa; inviting, dark blue, quilted with a pattern of golden lilies.


Lila went straight to an imposing buffet in the dining room, an oak museum piece with spiraling legs and jumping dolphins hand carved in relief. Lined up across the top, in front of the mirrored back, were bottles of every sort of liquor and on a shelf above, rows of glassware: wine goblets, snifters, cordial glasses, tulip champagne glasses....


“Would you like some cognac?” she asked.


Why not? I was pleasantly buzzed from the marijuana in the car and now, in this apartment, I felt oiled—like a sultan. She poured overly generous amounts into snifters for both of us. Handing mine to me she said, “Make yourself comfortable. I’ll be right back.”


“You always have been before,” I said.


“I’m good that way,” she smiled.


I settled down into the big, blue sofa and let the sights and the cognac sink in. Across from me was a mahogany bookcase, one whole shelf packed tight with vintage Oz books: The Wizard of Oz...The Patchwork Girl of Oz...Ozma of Oz...it  must have been the entire series, twenty or so...And on the other shelves, good contemporary books like Geoffrey Wolfe’s Black Sun and plenty of junk paperbacks too.


There was a real curiosity on the coffee table in front of me, a slim volume entitled, Profile of F. Scott Fitzgerald. It was a scholarly affair and stamped COMPLIMENTARY COPY—NOT FOR SALE on the cover. I picked it up and was leafing through it when Lila returned with a plate of cheese and crackers.


She sat down next to me and while we munched and drank I did this thing: I launched into an incredibly long-winded monologue about what a great writer I thought Fitzgerald was, laying particular emphasis upon The Great Gatsby and my understanding of it. During this workout, we both managed to get our shoes off and recline at opposite ends of the couch so that we were facing each other, our legs scissored between the other’s.


Finally, some oxygen reached my brain. “Am I talking too much?” I asked.

 

(End of Chapter One)