The Wish Bathers, Chapter One

Knee-High in Foods and Dudes

Chapter One

After 25 years of traveling around this big, beautiful sun, I’ve come to the unfortunate realization that most people fit into one of three categories after hearing my name for the first time. I used to think it was a drag to be constantly reminded of how monotonous and confined most people live their lives, but now I feel it’s a good indication of who is on the road to personal freedom and who isn’t even looking for signs.

Countless times meeting strangers and hearing the same responses, I think it’s really cool when I meet someone who cannot be categorized. These rare individuals dare to be fearless and free, pushing their boundaries with life’s vast possibilities, while the other people stay limited in a safe place. I like to think I’m one of the freaks, but sometimes, I do play chicken with the other side.

Hi, I’m Penelope Custer,” I say to person A.

Custard? Like the sweet stuff?” person A says with a dorky smile that kicks in my gag reflex.

Hi, I’m Penelope Custer,” I say to person B.

Did you say mustard?” person B says because either they’re not listening or the way I say a “C” and an “M” sound really similar.

Hi, I’m Penelope Custer,” I say to person C.

Hmm….is that any relation to the historical Custer?” person C responds and I almost go ape.

Of course, there are people who respond completely unlike A, B, or C, but most people, man, fit into these scenarios. It’s weird and really uncool and it makes me so skeptical that humans can be so robotic. Are they even awake in life? Maybe the mold they’ve locked themselves inside is what keeps them from evolving. Meeting someone for the first time has become something much more than just a lobotomized social greeting that most people don’t think twice about. For me, it’s like seeing what kinds of lines are drawn and whether people draw them to stay inside their comfort zones or to stay out of them.

I’ve stopped always using my full name when meeting people because sometimes I need a day off from information overload. It’s cool, though, because secrets keep the allure going and I don’t mind interpersonal tangents. I don’t need to know all the details immediately. It’s like knowing the gimmick behind the magic trick before you even see the trick. Where’s the fun in that every time?

So, I’m at this party at my best friend’s pad, but I’m not diggin’ the vibe. It’s not that the atmosphere isn’t hip enough, or the people are a drag, but I’m at this place in my life where I feel sort of displaced, or I guess, lost, and there’s a huge disconnect between here and there. I could say me or them, really, but the ‘them’ is relative to the situation and not necessarily the kind of people.

I’m standing behind a yellow beaded curtain smoking a joint. I watch the smoke slither through the plastic rain and it’s like I’m staring into the window of a house I don’t know. That’s how I feel lately. I also quit beauty school today.

“Hey, are you going to share that grass, man, or stay lurking in the shadows all night?” A cute bell-bottomed, shaggy haired guy says from the couch. I don’t know him.

I stay behind the curtain for a few moments, enjoying the puffs of solace, when someone comes up behind me and whispers in my ear.

Star, are you ballin’ him?” Jazz grabs my hips. I turn around and she’s got a huge smirk on her face.

Considering I just met him and he hasn’t left the sofa, I don’t think so, but thanks for asking,” I say. She smiles and pulls me through the beads.

Put on some Jimi and come sit down,” Jazz says to her friend Greg who is standing by the record player. He reaches down and places the needle on top of the record. A breath of silence, a crackle, and “The wind cries Mary” hovers above our heads, persuading everyone in the room to form a circle on the floor and pass the rest of my joint around.

I saw Jimi once,” The cute boy from the couch says as he takes a huge, slow drag next to me.

Are you serious?” I say, holding out my hand for the pass, “Where?”

A couple of years ago in England. Man, that guy can play the fuckin’ guitar like no one I’ve ever seen.”

Shit, man, that’s bitchin’,” Greg says from across the circle, his comment provoking a few high laughs that move through each one of us like a contagious wave.

What’s your name, brother?” I say while looking down at his bell bottoms and clean, bare feet; imagining seeing Jimi live and how groovy that must’ve been.

Sydney Vasquez. You?”

Penelope Custer,” I say.

Groovy,” Sydney says.

Uh, thanks. Most people call me Star.”

Uh huh,” Jazz winks in my peripheral.

Opposite us, Greg sits happily between two cute blonde twins with long, ironed hair and their hips wrapped in tight, high-waist jeans. The three of them lean over a mound of grass, picking out the stems, rolling the good stuff into more party favors. Greg’s thick, brown, curly hair falls like bouncing springs over his face; yellow framed glasses spare his ice blue eyes.

How do you know Greg?” I say, quietly, still watching the three of them and enjoying the dynamics of their triangle.

He works at the club with me. He’s a cool cat,” Jazz says. Greg flips his curls out of his face and looks at us with a joint in each hand.

Why couldn’t the lifeguard save the hippie?” Greg smiles while handing the blondes the joints to spark up.

Why?” We all say.

He was too far out, man!” Greg pauses and then laughs. The rest of us can’t help but acquiesce to his charm. In the background, Jimi fades into silence and the record spins softly under the needle.

Is it time for The Doors?” Jazz gets up and walks to the record player, but none of us respond because our groovy dialogue is so, like, interesting, man.

Before Jazz returns to the circle, I find myself secretly gazing—okay, staring—at Sydney. His eyelashes are so long they could catch things—almost as if they are traps for eye contact, demanding a deeper connection from anyone that speaks with him—and the warm, emerald green of his irises are totally distracting. He doesn’t notice me staring at his profile, scanning the contours like I am investigating the topography map of a paradise I haven’t seen before, but I am quite, uh, mesmerized. Maybe it’s the mass of strawberry locks that adorn his head like a familiar crown of understanding; knowing what it is to be a true ginger. Or, maybe I just don’t get out that much.

Mary Jane passes into his hands and I watch him stare at the joint as if he is having the most deep, philosophical conversation with it in his mind. He flicks the ashy embers skillfully and pulls the doobie to his mouth. I remember that the other joint is in my hand and I should take a hit before someone accuses me of it being a microphone, even though I am not projecting any words, but staring like a fool at a shiny object. We both exhale and swap joints.

Hey,” Sydney says.

Uh, sorry, so how do you know Jazz?” I say.

My pad is just down the street from here, but we actually met when I was at the club a few months ago. She makes the best martini in town, and after three, we found out we lived in the same neighborhood.”

Small world.”

Do you work at The Dragonflower, too?”

Oh, no, I work at a little Greek diner on the other side of town, called Aphrodite’s. You should come in sometime for breakfast.”

Man, I do love a choice Greek omelet,” He leans over and nudges my shoulder with his, “Maybe I will get some of that chicken lemon soup, too.”

And me,” I want to say out loud, but don’t. I’m really banking on telepathy right now.

Let’s get moody,” Jazz says as she puts a new record under the needle and then turns off the lights. Sydney touches my knee but takes his hand away at the sound of a striking match in the darkness, like maybe I will only notice if I can see what he is doing. I get excited by the fact that the darkness keeps it our little secret, but feel anxious for not knowing how it truly makes me feel.

Moments later, Jazz appears in the glow of a candle flame, as if her face is surrounded by a vertical halo. The reflection of the flame in her brown eyes makes them look like shimmering gold orbs floating above her smile.

You are pretty,” Audrey, Jazz’s roommate, says.

It’s getting late and I gotta crash,” I say.

Can I catch a ride with you?” Sydney says.

Sure.”

Wait a minute you two,” Jazz says, “And get over here.” She squishes us together forcing our bodies into a group hug.

Have a groovy night,” Sydney says.

Walking out with this strange, but totally cute dude, feels a bit awkward. I don’t really know what to say to him. I just keep thinking about his hand on my knee. Was that his hand on my knee? Oh god, I’m weird. The silence is killing me.

So, where do you live?” I say.

I live just a few blocks down the street, but it’s cold and I have a strange affinity for ginger chicks, you know,” He says deadpan and I wait for him to mention something about our little, dark secret but I get nothing.

Look at that,” I point to the street. The parked cars look like a postcard. Six white cars all in a row and my purple Beetle sitting in the middle of them. The only working street lamp on the block shines directly above my wheels as if the universe really wants it to stick out in space like a blob of sparkling, purple glitter.

Wow, man, are those your wheels?” he says.

Yes,” I say with the fattest grin on my face because I always have the fattest grin on my face when I see my Beetle. “Her name is Gloria,” I open the passenger side door for Sydney.

Sydney studies the inside of my car like he is reading Braille. He begins with the ceiling that is decorated with pinned up paisley handkerchiefs just so that they hang a little in the center of the cloth, giving the ceiling a puffy cloud look. He then moves his hand down the seatbelt and onto the passenger side window, circling the peace sign sticker in the bottom right corner with his index finger a few times.

You dig it in here?” I try to get his attention but he just moves on to the dashboard and remains silent. His fingers glide across the random knickknacks, and when he reaches a picture of the holy trinity from 7th grade, he changes direction and points upward.

What are those for?” He points to the silver keys hanging from my rear view mirror.

They’re from a bike lock I had when I was a kid, but I also dig the symbol keys resemble.” A sudden image of that stupid Schwinn still makes me laugh.

I dig Gloria. She is so cherry,” He buckles his seatbelt.

I step on the clutch and put her in first gear. A couple blocks, a right, and a left later we’re at his pad. Sydney gets out of my car, turns around with a big smile, and leans in the window. I decide to say something before he does. I can’t take the heavy silence.

“Hey, do you have anyone else in your family with red hair?” I say.

“No, man.”

“Me neither.”

“I guess we’re genetic freaks then,” Sydney laughs. “Thanks for the ride, sister.”

“You are welcome,” I grin.

***

The next morning, sunlight pours into my room like a tipped open bottle of honey. It’s all wonderful and Zen-like until the phone rings.

“Where the hell are you, man?” Some guy says in a really loud voice. Well, loud enough to shake me right out of dream state and remember that I picked up a shift for a chick at work and I am 45 minutes late.

“Shit, man, I’m sorry. I’ll be there as soon as I can.” I hang up the phone and frantically collect myself, but waking up still drunk and high is not the best way to jump start any morning. Take my advice.

When I get to Aphrodite’s, it is bustling with the usual early breakfast craze with a line out the door. All the waitresses look like ballerinas in a perfectly choreographed dance—spinning, twirling, and weaving in and out of tables, guests and each other all while carrying multiple plates of eggs and pancakes and coffee pots. One of the waitresses, Pam, whips by me asking for a coffee round, so I grab a decaf with my left hand and a regular with my right—right is for regular, always. Right?

I start on my left and work clockwise around the entire restaurant filling cups and smiles as if my hands poured liquid happiness right into their eyes. The usual customers at Aphrodite’s always sit at the same tables, on the same days, and order the same menu items. They are definitely regular, to say the least, but they are also like family and I think they feel the same way about us.

“Good morning, Penelope,” Mr. Baxter greets me with his shaky hand holding up an empty coffee cup. He must be in his 80’s but he is here a lot of mornings for a cup of coffee, one scrambled egg, and a read of the free press. Some of the older folks don’t really like my nickname and prefer to call me by my given name. The octogenarians have a charming way of pronouncing ‘Penelope’ as if it is the name of an old friend and it invokes pleasant memories that light up their whole faces as they speak. I dig that about them.

Mr. Baxter is Aphrodite’s very own charmer. Not only does he visit every morning, but once every week he brings the entire staff a gift. Sometimes he gives chocolates, or stickers, or flowers. Postcards and pens are some of his all time favorites. When he brings postcards he makes up elaborate stories about the pictures and his imagined travel to those places.

“Hello, nice to see you,” I fill his cup and move onto the next table.

“Next time you come around I must tell you all about Egypt,” Mr. Baxter points to a postcard with the pyramids on it.

Back at the server station all the women are huddled together discussing sections and which one of us is going home. I return the coffee pots to the burners, start brewing a couple new pots, and stick my head into the discussion. Pam stuffs her face with pita bread wrapped around sausage links while she shares her opinions. Another lady, Deb, slurps at a large grape Faygo throughout the day. She’s always got an enormous cup filled with that horribly delicious soda and a straw in her mouth whenever possible. Some people might say she has an oral fixation but, thinking objectively, maybe her tongue just needs a lot of exercise. Whichever, the straw is hardly as distracting as her complete set of purple stained teeth.

“You take the window section, missy,” Pam’s mouth is full of food when she speaks to me.

“How was the party last night?” Deb says, twirling the straw around her tongue, obviously implying by the movement of the straw what she wants to hear.

Before I can answer, I see someone out of my peripheral sit down at one of the tables in my section. It’s a woman that I don’t recognize hiding underneath a wide-brimmed hat and a shawl. I walk over to the table ready to take an order.

“Hello, are you ready to order?” I greet the woman curiously, but when she looks up at me I realize who it is.

“I think we’re finally done,” Kat says with tears in her eyes.

“Sister, where have you been? I haven’t seen you in weeks.” She’s dressed in a fancy blue dress that looks like it came out of Holly Golightly’s closet with a beautiful red hat and lacy, black shawl.

“Simon took me to Paris to break up with me, man.”

“Well, at least you got to go to Paris and get that groovy outfit. Do you want any food?”

“Mind if I stay at your pad tonight? I don’t want to go back to my folks’ house yet. And do you have any Boston cream pie?”

For the past seven years, Kat and Simon have been ballin’ on and off while battling a world of dramatic love and chutzpa. Luckily, the call we got on graduation day was just a scare so none of us had to escort Kat in a bullet proof vest, but we did have to suffer many years of their crazy relationship roller coaster. Frankly, I am glad to hear that he finally ditched her. I’m sure there are plenty of other Jewish fish in the sea. I think they’re called Lutefisk, right? Wait, that’s Scandinavian.

I’ll see you at home,” I hand her the keys, food to go, and send her off with a hug.

I’ve been at this diner for three years and I’ve gotten into the habit of measuring time at work in terms of brewing coffee pots. An entire day shift is about 30 pots of coffee.

“How much time do you have left today?” George, another regular, refers to my notion of time when he walks in during the afternoon for a cup of coffee.

“About 5 pots,” I say and am mildly entertained by the fact that we both know exactly what I mean.

George is a funny Greek guy. He is friends with the boss. Most afternoons my boss and all his Greek guy friends loiter at one table and drink coffee for hours—watching and pointing. I never know what or whom they talk about but I am pretty convinced that they are part of the Greek mafia in town. They all wear peculiar gold bracelets that are always on the right hand. I don’t know, man. Maybe I am the only one that pays attention to the odd details of dodgey characters but the bracelets are certainly creepy. They must mean something.

Business slows down in the late afternoon. I am exhausted and I can’t help but fantasize about my bed while I clean up the ketchup bottles on empty tables. Oddly enough, this task allows my mind to wander and it goes from thoughts of sleeping to thoughts of sleeping with Sydney. It amazes me sometimes how thoughts can be so sneaky and jump in when you don’t expect them to. Maybe they’re dream burps.

A split second, or burp later, I hold up one of the ketchup bottles into the light of the sun to inspect it and make sure I’ve cleaned it entirely. My focus on the print of the label gets caught into a pair of eyes floating behind the bottle. I move my head in surprise, recognizing the eyelashes, and see Sydney standing in front of me.

“Hello, groovy chick.”

“Oh, hi,” I say, awkwardly.

“I hope you don’t mind that I stopped in, but I started a craving when you told me about this spot, man.”

“Well, I’m on my last coffee pot,” I say, a bit nervous.

“What?” Sydney is obviously confused by me.

“Oh, I’m almost done with my shift, I mean.”

“Right on. Would you like to join me for some food here or go somewhere else?”

“Um, I thought you were craving this food?” I tilt my head and lift an eyebrow.

“Well, I must confess I definitely paired that desire along with your cool company.”

I tell him we can stay and get my discount on food. When he agrees, I do my best to hide my excitement that he’s actually standing in front of me right now. Am I dreaming? Deep breaths, right. So I go back to finishing my duties and he picks a table.

Back at the server station, the girls are obviously curious.

“Who’s the red head?” Deb tongues her straw again.

“Wouldn’t you like to know?” I smile at her, wipe down the counter, and untie my apron.

***

Two days later, Kat still lounges around my pad like a suicidal teenager, crying into the bottom of ice cream containers as if she might find the answers in her preserved, milky tears. Three day old eyeliner has blended into her face and she exudes a healthy stench—something sweet and wrong, perhaps, like orange juice gone to the fermented side.

“When was the last time you took a shower?” I say.

“Why? Do I smell?” She lifts up her arms and snorts her armpits to check if I am serious, “Oh my, that is disgusting.” She tosses the empty ice cream container into the garbage and heads for the bathroom.

“Maybe it’s time for you to go out and ball someone else,” I yell towards the bathroom and wait for a response but the only noise that comes from that direction is the sound of running water. Maybe she doesn’t hear me, or maybe she just doesn’t want to respond, but I am starting to wonder if all wannabe Jewish girls are so high maintenance or if I have a unique friend on my hands.

“I know what you’re thinking,” she shouts from the shower, but she really doesn’t, of course, unless wannabe Jewish girls are also telepathic.

“What?” I yell back, pretending I don’t hear her.

A couple seconds later Kat bursts out of the steamy bathroom wrapped in a towel and sits down on the couch next to me. She is a drama queen that’s for sure.

“Do you really think I should be ballin’ another guy while I’m like this?” Kat whines. I am not impressed.

“Put on something foxy, smile, and let’s go out to The Dragonflower tonight. I’m sure Jazz will want to see you and I think Greg is working, too, man. Groovy?”

“Oy vey,” she says as if she’s agreeing to commit a murder that she knows she will regret, but saunters to my closet and begins pulling out clothing options anyway.

After seven outfit changes and a few moans in between, Kat settles on a pair of high-waist bell-bottom jeans, a white peasant blouse with multi-colored embroidery, and a huge, gold peace sign medallion dangling somewhere between her free hanging bosom and her belly button. Her long, shiny, dark hair cascades down from the middle part of her crown and ends somewhere close to the latitude of her pendant. We’re finally ready to hit the road.

“So, what is this club like?” Kat says as she sits down in the passenger side of Gloria.

“Laid back. You will dig it.”

“Do I have too much blue eye shadow on?” Kat whines.

I don’t answer her because sometimes it’s better to stay silent than give into her emotions, and I am also preoccupied with the red head that won’t get out of my red head. And then I think about being in bed, again. Head, bed.  Am I really thinking in rhymes or am I going ape for a stranger?

“I’m going crazy,” I say out loud responding to my inner thoughts and forget that Kat can hear me.

“You what?”

“Are you ready to party, chick?” I pull into a parking spot next to a red Beetle.

“Do I have a choice?” Kat says.

The night is exciting and I can feel the changes of spring on my skin. There are several people in line when we get to the front entrance but Joe, the door guy, knows me so well that I just pass him with a wink and head into the club. I don’t have to wait in line like the rest of the world because I’m friends with the employees. Maybe there’s another reason, too, but the first is good enough for me. Kat is impressed by my elitist groovy powers.

Inside the club, music blares, laughter permeates the air, and my mood begins to shift.

“Hey ladies!” Greg shouts from behind the counter as he mixes a cocktail and dances to “Touch Me” pumping out of the speakers.

“This place is groovy,” Kat sits down on a bar stool.

“You chicks hangin’ here for the night?” Greg says.

“Yeah, we’re on a mission for—” I say.

“Star!” Kat interrupts me. She gives me a serious look. Greg laughs because he knows something is going on between us and he maneuvers around it.

“What would you two like to drink? It’s on me,” Greg says.

“Maybe a couple of vodka tonics?” I say and then reach into a bowl on the bar top assuming it is filled with pretzels or peanuts or some other bar snack, but the bowl is actually filled with love beads and mood rings. I put one of the necklaces on Kat and save a ring for myself.

“What is this for?” Kat says.

“To conjure the balls, my dear.” I laugh and spin in my stool to scope out the surrounding scene.

The walls are busy with murals of psychedelic flowers painted from floor to ceiling in extremely bright colors. Silhouettes of dragonflies are placed sporadically between flowers and are painted with black light paint so that they glow amid the floral designs around the room. One side of the room has a dance floor—packed with sweaty bodies and go-go dancers—and the other side has an island of sofas for kicking back and hitting the bases.

“Where’s Jazz?” Kat says.

“Yeah, she was on break, man, but she should be out any minute,” Greg says and then goes back to making cocktails.

I head for the empty corner of an orange, fluffy couch and settle into my cocktail. Greg is busy behind the bar and I want to work on my buzz for the night. Plus, there’s lots of good people watching and Kat needs a distraction.

“Did you ever like Simon?” Kat says. I almost choke on my gulp of vodka tonic. I hate talking about this dude.

“I never really got to know him that well. I guess I’m glad he ditched you because I think you can do better. And wasn’t he a little pretentious?”

“Anything else?” Kat says. She’s surprised that I answer so bluntly but she shouldn’t ask questions if she doesn’t want answers. I am saved by the belle when Jazz jumps onto the sofa and cuddles between us. She always has the strangest timing.

“Wow, right on. It’s so groovy to see you, Kat,” Jazz says.

“I know I’ve been out of touch. I had a crazy rendezvous to Paris,” Kat says.

“Paris?” Jazz raises her eyebrows.

“And now we’re on the hunt for some springtime ballin’,” I wedge myself in before the conversation goes back to the dreidel side.

“I will be done in an hour and then I can join you,” Jazz says. She gets up from the couch and heads over to the bar. Greg is happy to have some help. Kat starts another tangent and I zone out in my own world.

My vodka tonic starts to kick in and it initiates a surplus of random thoughts. I begin to wonder what the hell happened to my step-father after he left in that moving truck. I’ll never forget the image of the back of his yellow truck dissipating into the neighborhood as he drove away. I remember my mom watching from inside the kitchen window because she didn’t want the neighbors to see her; although I’m sure they watched from their own windows and saw plenty.

“Man, I’m so glad you didn’t get pregnant,” I finally get out of my head.

“What are you talking about?” Kat says.

“You know, graduation.”

“Oh, you’re still thinking about that? It was so long ago now.”

“I guess, but you really scared the shit out of us.”

“Do you ever miss working there?” Kat reminds me of the past.

“At Gary’s?” I say.

“Yeah.”

“Not really. I mean, it’s a nice place and we had some fun times, but it seems so old-fashioned now.”

“And Aphrodite’s seems so progressive?” Kat laughs.

“Well, no, but it isn’t so old school and I don’t have to wait on teenagers that leave only a mess for tips.”

“Fair enough. Hey, did you bring any grass?” Kat wiggles her eyebrows.

“I have some in the car. Finish your drink and we’ll go out for a minute.”

“Right on.”

We order a couple more drinks from Greg on our way out to the car. Outside, the line still wraps around the corner with anxious party goers. Joe looks serious and handsome, per usual, as he commands the line with his posture.

“What’s his story?” Kat says, pointing to Joe as we walk by him.

“I don’t know much except that he’s an ex-military guy from New York.”

“Bitchin’,” Kat says.

“Your vodka tonic must be working.” I am totally surprised by her choice of slang words. Kat is so random.

“Maybe I need another necklace when we go back inside,” Kat laughs.

“Double the necklace double the powers?” I give her a joint and shake my head.

She puffs a few times before passing. I take a drag and hold it in until the smoke comes out in a session of intense coughing. She’s always surprised at the way I inhale, but you gotta cough to get off, no?!

“Man, how did we ever eat so many candy cigarettes when we were kids?” My buzz is in full effect and I feel a little fuzzy around the edges. We sit in happy silence until Kat grabs the keys hanging from the rear view mirror and laughs repulsively loud.

“You should’ve seen your face when you got that bike,” Kat takes me back in time when we were kids.

“Was it that bad?” I say.

“Your mom had this weird smile on her face, too, that looked like she thought your humiliation was funny.”

“Yeah, I think she still has that bike in the garage.”

We both laugh at our sweet, childish politics and then get back into the club. Our drinks are ready on the bar when we return. Jazz and Greg are busy chatting with the notorious bar flies so we find a spot on the dance floor and start grooving to the music.

After so many hip songs, beads of sweat decorate my body like intended designs and my red locks flap and swirl with each of my groovy movements. Kat dances across from me with her eyes closed, totally relaxed. Her hair swishes to the beat and her pendant twinkles in the random mood lighting.

“It’s Your Thing” bursts through the speakers and puts the extra funk in everyone’s dance steps. I’m lost in a daze. I’m inside the music. Then suddenly, I feel a jolt.

“It’s you,” a strange man says as he presses his body against the back of mine. At first, I am startled, but after my two drinks I enjoy the anonymous intimacy and keep on moving to the music. He puts his hands gently on my hips and for the rest of the song we move in familiar unison.

“And you are?” I say as the song comes to an end and I spin around to look at him.

“Hello Starlight,” Sydney smiles. He looks sweaty and sexy and his long, fringed vest dangles with temptation.

“It’s you,” I say.

“You want to go sit down?”Sydney points to the couches.

He grabs my hand and leads me through the crowd to the super cool orange couch. We sit down next to each other and watch the crowd of people. It’s nice to have company this time. Well, I mean, his company.

“I really dig this place,” Sydney says.

“So, what’s your story?” I say. Fuck it. I’ve had two drinks of bravery by now.

“What do you want to know?”

“Well, what is ‘Sydney Vasquez’?”

That’s funny,” he laughs, “My mom is Irish and my old man is Mexican. I get that question a lot.”

“I know what you mean.”

“You do?” Sydney smirks.

“Yeah. . .so, are you here with anyone tonight?” I blurt out like an idiot.

“You,” he grins.

He leans in closer to me, but not too close, and tells me how it’s funny we keep running into each other. I have never seen him here before but I don’t mind it one bit. Maybe I need to get out more. Too bad I only grabbed a mood ring earlier. Where’s my beaded necklace when I need it?

“Anyway, you want to go dance some more?” I say.

“What do you say we ditch this place?” he grabs my hand and looks at my mood ring as if he will find the answer in the color of the stone.

“Um, I have to find Kat first and let her know.”

“Dig it, I’ll wait here.”

Oh. My. God. Is this really happening? I groove and slide between each dancing body and find Kat wedged in between two burly men in the thickness of the sweaty crowd. I try to get her attention but she has her head turned and eyes closed, so I grab one of her arms to pull her out of the sandwich.

“I’m gonna cut out. Will you be okay?” I yell above the music.

“Are you going home?” Kat says, confused.

“Not exactly,” I say.

“What?” she says. She gets irritated with me fast.

“I met this guy a few days ago at a party at Jazz’s pad and we keep running into each other.”

“Is he cute?” Kat says.

“I don’t know why that matters to you, but yes.”

Just then, Jazz appears on the dance floor, of course. She has a way of always appearing when the conversation gets good. Kat catches her up on the gossip and then they both follow me back to the sofa.

There’s several people sitting around Sydney talking and taking breaks from the dance floor. Kat sees Sydney before I point him out and starts tugging on my arm. I can only imagine what she’s about to say. My eyes start to roll just at the thought.

“He’s a cute one,” she says.

“Which one?” I say, messing with her.

“The one with the red hair,” Kat says just as we reach the orange couch.

“This is Sydney,” I say. Sydney stands up to shake her hand.

“Oh, ahem, hello,” Kat flashes her pearly whites.

“You must be one of the holy trinity?” Sydney says.

How do you know that?”

“The picture in Gloria.”

“Gloria?” Kat looks at me, confused. I, however, am astonished that Sydney even remembers details about me. Is he really paying that much attention to me?

“My car?!” I say.

“Oh, right, Gloria. How can I forget?” Kat laughs awkwardly.

My eye rolling continues and I can’t wait to get out of here. We’re about to ditch the club and then Audrey finds us. She’s Jazz’s roommate.

Audrey has a striking appearance. She looks a little bit like Ellen Holly with an afro and she has a beautiful voice that is assertive but very feminine. My mom is addicted to ‘One Life to Live’ and that’s the only reason I even know who that actress is. I swear.

“What are you heads up to this evening?” Audrey says.

Sydney takes control of the conversation and tells Audrey that we’re just about to split. She’s just arrived ready to party and Sydney convinces the girls to go to the bar and order cocktails. His finesse is admirable. Getting rid of nosy chicks is definitely a gift.

Finally outside, the notion of spending time alone with Sydney starts to sink in. Is this really happening? Am I getting lucky, or what? Thanks, universe.

“There she is,” Sydney says when he sees Gloria.

“I can’t believe you remembered her name.”

“My mom says I have the memory of an elephant.”

“Have you ever been on an elephant?” I wonder because it is such a bright memory for me.

I never have,” Sydney says.

“Your time will come,” I pat him on the knee for consolation. “So, Mr. Vasquez, what do you have in mind for the rest of the evening?”

“Do you like Creedence?”

“Yes. Why?”

“I just got a copy of their newest LP, Bayou Country, and I’m dying to play it. Would you like to see my pad and listen to some music? I think I have a bottle of Boone’s, too.”

“That sounds perfect,” I say.

The ride to his place is exciting, at least, for me. I’m doing my best to keep cool but it’s been awhile since I’ve been somewhere with someone that really interests me. Since I’ve been feeling so alienated lately, it’s already cathartic just having a good conversation.

Upon entering his pad, Sydney apologizes for the mess, but his apartment is so barren that there really isn’t much to get messy. A bed, a red bean bag chair, and a carved wooden coffee table are the only pieces of furniture in the room. A small fern and a blown glass ashtray give life to the center of the table and a number of posters decorate the walls. An image from “Funny Girl” hangs above the bean bag and one of The Doors above his bed. Five stacks of records sit like mini towers against the opposite wall underneath a Salvador Dali poster. An ethnic tapestry separates the main room from the kitchen area.

“You like Barbra Streisand?” I say. I can’t believe I’m even asking the question at all.

“Hey, it’s a bitchin’ movie,” he says. The smirk on his face gives away too much information. He knows he’s funny.

“You continue to surprise me,” I laugh hard as I fall down on the bean bag.

“And it’s not just any Streisand poster, man, it’s a black light poster. It glows!”

“Of course it does.”

“I’m going to find the wine,” Sydney lifts the tapestry, vanishing behind the ethnic design.

The massive record collection across the room lures me into a curious search. I sit down next to the stacks and run my fingers down the spine of each title, reliving old memories that correlate to different songs and eras in my life. Elvis, Coltrane, Miles, Buddy Holly and the Beatles are among the multitude of names printed along the vinyl spines. The piles are unevenly stacked so that they snake up the wall in a precarious way.

To my left, there is a candle in the window with a picture of the Virgin Mary on it and some kind of rosary looking necklace wrapped around the bottom. Sydney doesn’t strike me as the religious type, but it’s hard to tell what people are into these days.

Sydney reappears from behind the tapestry. He’s got a big smile on his face, a bottle of Boone’s in his hand, and does a little wiggle of excitement before he speaks.

“I hope you dig Strawberry Hill,” Sydney says.

“Groovy,” I say.

He sits down next to me and the records and pulls his new album off the stack. He holds it up and admires the art on the cover. Then, slowly, he removes the record. It glistens in the lamplight with a slight blue hue. Gently, he places it under the needle.

“Can you believe we almost lost Creedence to the draft? That would’ve been a damned shame.” He studies the artwork on the front of the cover intensely. It is a picture of the band fragmented, or tie-dyed, into the dark night.

“Have you seen them live?” I say.

“No, not yet, but I will. This song is boss,” he refers to the second track, “Bootleg.”

The lead guitar strums and then the drums pull us further into the groove of the rhythm. We both start bobbing our heads to the downbeat and smile at the mood of the moment. After taking a big sip of wine, he pulls out another record and places it on the floor to use as a flat surface for his wine glass. He starts tapping his knees along with the drum line and then stands up and dances around the room.

“Put your glass down and join me,” he says as he wiggles, uninhibited, to the music floating in the air.

I can’t find any reason to stay on the floor, so I get up and start shaking and twisting and twirling to the music.

“This is great,” I say. He doesn’t say anything. He just keeps on dancing. And I do the same.

When the last song plays, we collapse onto the bed and gasp for air. I turn my head to look at Sydney next to me—falling for his Boone’s breath and sweaty forehead—and wonder what he’s thinking because he hasn’t spoken a single word since we started dancing.

“What should we listen to next?” Sydney says.

I look at the time. Sadly, it’s late, and I’ve got to open up the diner in the morning. I’m torn between seizing the moment and leaving while it’s still so groovy. Maybe some things are better left when they’re good.

“I gotta split soon. I have to work in the morning,” I finally say.

“Well, then, next time.” He sits up and takes off his vest. I get a bit hot flashy.

“Are you Catholic?” I wonder.

“That’s a random question,” he leans down close to me. His eyelashes might reach out and grab hold of my irises. Am I ready for that?

“What’s that in the window?” I say, pointing to the Mother Mary.

“I’m in recovery, but my folks are Catholic. My old man gave that candle to me and the rosary belonged to my grandmother. Are you Catholic?”

“No, we’re not really anything. I mean, I think my mom used to be Christian but she was banned from the church after she got divorced twice.”

“I think you’re something,” Sydney looks into my eyes.

I stare back into Sydney’s eyes. They seem genuine, kind, and so very deep. I don’t know where this is going, but it looks like I’m on the train. I collect my things and head for the door. Sydney races to open it for me.

“When will I see you again?” Sydney says.

“Give me a call,” I write my phone number in the palm of his hand.

***

The next morning arrives too quickly, but that happens when you don’t go to bed until 2 am and clock in time is only five hours away. Kat, Audrey, and Jazz are spread on the living room floor as if they fell asleep in the middle of whatever they were doing at the moment of their narcoleptic attack. I tip-toe over their limbs very carefully and admire how peaceful they look, despite their awkward positions. I don’t have enough time to make coffee at home, so I grab my keys and head out—slightly tousled, but cute enough to serve eggs—and stumble into Aphrodite’s at 7:06am.

Mr. Baxter waits at the door with a big denture grin and twinkling, cataract eyes. I can’t help but acquiesce to his pleasant demeanor.

“Hello Penelope! It is another beautiful morning, isn’t it?” He tips his hat as I open the door to let us both in.

“Yeah, ask me after my coffee. I’m still waking up.”

“Oh, my dear, so much youth,” he giggles as he walks to his regular table.

I walk back to the server station, punch my time card, and start two fresh pots of coffee. Five minutes later, I’m out on the floor with my customer service attitude. Here we go again. The coffee pot countdown begins.

“So, regular coffee today, Mr. Baxter?” I greet him at the table.

“Oh, how about half and half,” he holds his cup ready for the pour.

“Where have you gone traveling lately?” I say.

“Funny you should ask, you see, because I was most recently at Stonehenge,” he pulls out a picture of the famous rocks and points to it.

“What was it like?” I wonder.

“Well, it’s like a bunch of really big rocks in the middle of nowhere,” he says. We both laugh at his bad joke.

“Do you want your usual this morning?” I ask.

“That sounds good, Penelope.”

“Be back in a jiffy, okay?” I wink at him and walk back to the server station to brew more coffee. Two pots down, 28 more to go.

The morning is quiet and most of the tables are empty. I hold a cup of coffee, sipping slowly, while Deb flirts with the only other customer in the whole place. She leans on the side of his booth, smacks her gum inappropriately for this early and for service, and laughs annoyingly at whatever dumb things the guy can possibly come up with. But, hey, maybe she’s the only action that dude ever gets. Some people like toxic candy breath, especially when it’s grape.

The order bell rings in the kitchen and I’m sure it’s Mr. Baxter’s food. His single scrambled egg looks so lonely and meager on the plate. I feel bad for the poor egg but at least I know it’s going to a proper home.

“Mind if I join you?” I set his plate down.

“Well, that would be lovely,” Mr. Baxter says. I get my coffee and sit down. The restaurant is still empty and the boss is always telling us to get to know our customers, anyway.

“Hey, Mr. Baxter, are you married?”

“Oh yes, I was once,” he finishes the last of his lonely egg and then drifts off into his thoughts. He tells me about how his wife died of a heart attack 4 years ago and that they were together for 52 years.

“How did you know she was the one?” I wonder this so much.

“Well, you see,” his voice gets shaky, “It was the way she crinkled her nose whenever she got mad about something.”

“You knew by a nose crinkle?”

“Yes,” he pulls out his post cards.

“I’ll have to pay more attention to nose crinkles, I guess,” I pick up his plate and take it back to the kitchen.

The rest of the day stays slow and quiet and I only make 15 pots of coffee before I clock out and go home. I am beat. The girls are all still at my pad when I get back and the house smells like food.

“How was work today?” Kat says.

“Slow and dreary,” I fall down on the couch, “What are you cooking?”

“We thought we’d make you breakfast,” Jazz says from the kitchen as she flips a pancake.

“Wait, you didn’t just wake up, did you?” I say.

“Not that long ago,” Audrey laughs.

“So, what happened at the club after I left last night?” I shrug my tired shoulders.

“More dancing, more drinking, more drama,” Kat says.

“You mean, your love beads worked?” I say with excitement.

“Not really,” Kat says.

“Um, Jazz had some fight with Darryl,” Audrey says.

“Darryl?” I say.

“He’s the owner,” Kat says.

“I thought Jeff was the owner,” I am totally confused.

“Yeah, he’s the front man owner,” Audrey says.

“There are two owners?” I say.

I get off of the couch and walk into the kitchen to ask Jazz. I didn’t know the club had two owners or that one of them is a questionable kind. I need details.

“Yeah, you didn’t know that?” Jazz pours the last of the batter on the griddle. It smells buttery and delicious. I’m so tired I can’t wait to sleep.

“What did you get into a fight about with this Darryl?” I say.

“Oh, nothing, work stuff,” Jazz says as she turns off the stove, avoiding eye contact, and takes a heaping plate of pancakes over to the kitchen table.

“Is it time to eat?” Audrey says.

“Why don’t I know about Darryl?” I say.

“Can we not talk about work right now?” Jazz says.

It’s weird that this Darryl person has suddenly come up and that I’m the only one who doesn’t know about him. I will look further into this when I’m not so beat. Jazz has a tendency to be affiliated with strange characters. She hangs out on the border of crazy most days.

“So, what happened after you left last night, Star?” Audrey says.

“More dancing, more drinking, more drama,” I grin.

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