I tighten the strings of a short white apron wrapped around my hip-hugging bell-bottoms and begin my circuit from the front of the room where Eric Clapton’s “Layla” blasts from the jukebox. Smoke hangs in the air like a veil.
I squeeze between the crush of students on the central dance floor and booths that line the room. Half way around, I pause to throw the cups in the trash can by a tiny bar window in the back.
Three quarters of the way around, I pause by the ladies’ room to send bottles down a shoot that clanks them into wooden cases in the cellar. Then back to the jukebox beside the burly, blonde bouncer who sits on the landing between the upstairs, where I work, and the main bar downstairs where older regulars are served by an SU senior rumored to be the grandson of boxing legend, Jack Dempsey.
I’m groovin’ to the funky wah-wah pedal of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” when the door by the bouncer opens. In wafts crisp autumn air along with a lanky guy in white jeans, a white shirt and a tan leather jacket. He brushes light brown bangs out of his eyes, and walks directly towards me as if I am the reason he came.
It’s hard to hear, so he puts his lips close to my ear. I feel his breath on my neck. His shaggy hair holds the scent of damp leaves and raked earth. “Your first night, huh.”
I turn towards huge hazel eyes. “How’d you know?”
“I come here all the time. I never saw you before.”
I can’t take my gaze from his face, an unusual face: high cheekbones, a rosebud mouth, and a slightly crooked nose with a small scar on one side. He smiles, and I feel its radiance.
Yet, I turn my head. My ponytail flips. “Gotta get to work.” I begin another sweep of the room and realize he’s making his way through the crowd behind me.
When I dump my cups in the trash by the bar window, he says, “So where you from?”
“Schenectady.” The truth is out before I can stop it, even though I don’t want him to know anything about my high-school self, that girl I don’t want to be any more, that girl I’ve tried to bury in my new college ID. I release the beer bottles into the basement. “Where are you from?”
He comes alongside. “Massachusetts.”
I stop for a moment. “I like Massachusetts. I sailed around Buzzard’s Bay one summer with my family. I loved the gingerbread houses, the beach plum roses.” I realize I’m telling him only the good stuff. Am I flirting?
He smiles. “I’m not from that part of the state. Where I live it’s all woods and farm land.”
I bypass the flailing dancers, picking up more trash until I take a break inside the telephone booth by the door. I perch on the small disc seat and let the folding glass panels partially close.
“Staying Alive” by the Bee Gees fills the airspace, and he grins. “Wanna dance?”
My platform boot taps the disco beat. “I don’t think I’m supposed to.”
I rise to begin my next clean up. He slings his jacket over his shoulder and trails me the rest of the night. That could be creepy except my radar says he’s anything but.
Between the hours of 9:00 pm and 2:00 am, I learn he loves to paint. He likes to take things apart and fix them. He’s taking sociology and hates it. He almost flunked out last year, and his parents aren’t paying anymore if this semester doesn’t improve. He worked for a veterinarian the year between high school and college. Actually he didn’t go to high school. He went to an all-male prep school where he got in trouble for hanging a stick on his wall, a cool stick he’d found by the river. But his corridor master was adamant. Sticks don’t belong on walls, no matter how remarkable.
In a flash it’s closing time. The bouncer sweeps the last customers into the street.
The jukebox goes mute, and I overhear a high-pitched girl in the phone booth, “Can you send a cab? My friend threw up in the bathroom and is too drunk to walk back to our dorm.” Click. Redial. Doesn’t she know enough to keep her mouth shut? No one wants vomit in their back seat.
I head down the stairs and skirt the main bar to get my coat. The room is empty except for the bartender cashing out. “Hey, new girl, how was your night?”
I smile, grab my coat from the employee rack, and push open the double doors.
Big Eyes is still my shadow. “Can I walk you home?”
I stop at the corner of Marshall Street and face him. “It’s way up on Ostrom Ave.”
We walk in silence, side by side, under a blanket of stars as if our voices, nude without smoke and noise, will crack something fragile. We climb towards the brownstone bell tower of Crouse College and cut through the empty campus plateau.
The steep back stairs to my third floor apartment creak as tomcats caterwaul beneath. I open the back door, and we whisper not to wake my roommate, Gretchen. In the warmth of my tiny kitchen, we share fried eggs, sliced tomatoes with mayonnaise, and Beer Nuts.
It’s close to 4 am when Big Eyes piles his plate in the sink. “Mind if I crash here? I live way down in Boland dorm.”
I should say no, but I love his relentless pursuit, the fact that he chose me right from the start, the minute he walked into the barroom, his eyes on me alone. Maybe he’s not like Clive, Mr. Life-in-the-Fast-Lane, who betrayed me for another girl. Not like Neil, Mr. Yale Smarty Pants, who wanted to improve me until I was someone else.
I offer Mr. Faithful the couch, twin mattresses piled on top of each other, covered with a batik spread. He lays his head on a tie-dyed pillow, and his look beckons me to join him. But I say goodnight, and walk down the hall, for once not giving in so easily to the lure of love that never seems to fulfill its promise without shame.
And yet I wonder as I lay my head on my own white pillow, if he’s the one. The one I will marry. The one I want to marry even though I’ve only known him a few dark hours. The one who will take away all my stains by making me a legitimate wife.
It’s amazing what you can see from a distance. What I craved was extreme love, a love unto death, a life beyond death – the death smeared all over my planet. I wanted this clearly lonely young man to be my savior. I couldn’t have named it at the time, but my deepest desire was to be, no less than the dazzling, perfected Bride of Christ.