My Name is Charlene
We sometimes encounter people, even perfect strangers, who begin to interest us at first sight, somehow suddenly, all at once, before a word has been spoken.
—Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment, Chapter 2
University of Illinois @ Chicago Circle
Tuesday, 24 September, 1968
I signed up for a creative writing course from Sravanthi Chandragupta. Miss Chandra was a short round woman who’d lived in Chicago all her life; she had a raspy voice that sounded like a wood file rounding the edges on a hollow-core door. She was always laughing, teasing and telling jokes, so I thought maybe she would teach us how to write comedy. Laughter was something I was short of, as I was still hurting from a brief and unsatisfactory—and unconsummated—romance quarter before last. Maybe it should more properly be termed a thwarted crush. One of too many. I already know there’s something wrong with me; I don’t need confirmation.
On the first day of class, I checked out the other students, who had a great advantage over me: they can see and I cannot. Faces with details that can be recognized, where I see pink blurs and need to hear a voice. They see a blonde girl with a squarish head and a single long French braid hanging to my middle. I wore a white shirtwaist dress with a black belt and sensible shoes. I save the non-sensible ones for the non-school occasions I’ve had too few of since leaving home. I’m not tall; I’m not thin; I’m not noticeable, nor do I want to be. But because of my long white cane, I stand out.
When I check out the others and it’s daytime or in strong light, I can see movement. If they’ve worn too much perfume or cologne, or if they haven’t bathed recently, I use my sense of smell. What hardly ever fails is listening. Carefully.
Miss Chandra said, “Introduce yourselves—briefly—and tell us why you signed up for this course.” I raised my hand quickly, wanting to get it over with, because I can’t tell when a teacher points to me. They do anyway, despite the cane.
“Charlene van Rijn; call me ‘Chuck,’ please.” It’s what pop called me, ever since I could remember. “I’m a French major with an English minor. I’m from Utah, where I grew up as the only kid on a farm on a small island in the Great Salt Lake. I want to write about what that was like.” I scanned the long oval table, and could tell that there were eight other students, though not what gender they were. “Also, it would help me if someone could find time to read the course assignments for me.” I held up my tape recorder.
A voice to my right spoke up. “Andi Holmes. I was a missionary kid,” she said, “and grew up in Indonesia, the Philippines and Ecuador. I’m living with my great-aunt out in Wheaton. I’m a linguistics major. I took another course last year with Miss Chandra, and it changed my life.”
“Oh, is that so?” asked Miss Chandra.
“I’m hoping this course will change it back.” The class laughed, as did Miss Chandra. “And I can read Chuck’s assignments for her.”
“That’d be great,” I said. “Let’s get together after class.” I liked her voice.
The next to talk was Onyeneke—“Call me Edmund”—Diké, who spoke in a resonant baritone far out of proportion to his size (“He’s really short,” Andi murmured to me). He was from Nigeria and wanted to write about his Colonial education. Hearing the measured way he spoke, I decided instantly that I wanted to hear whatever he wrote—particularly if he were to read it for me. Then a tall Vietnam vet named, of all things, Bill Smith. Miss Chandra prodded him to produce an introduction, and he mumbled to his dogtags, which clinked together as he fondled them nervously; the only word I caught was “swamp.”
Next another woman, Marina Askew; I could tell she had very long dark red hair. She spoke fast and low and said she was here because she thought it would be a lot of fun. I got the idea that by “fun” she meant “guys.” She was a poli-sci major who smelled so much of smoke that it reached thickly across the table, as unwanted as a groper on the L.
There were three more women before the last member of the course spoke in a faint but clear voice that could have used a few books to sit on. “I am Abu Azeem-ir Raman—Abby—and I am from Pakistan. I am an economics major, I’m taking this class in order to improve my English.” He paused. “And to write ghost stories.”
Later, Andi asked, “Say, Chuck, do you have a ‘Nicholas’ in your family tree anywhere?”
Bill Smith laughed, but no one else did, and I said, “No. Why?”
Afterward, because neither Andi nor I had any more classes, we leaned against the big granite sign in the shadow of Circle’s admin building, University Hall; the afternoon sun heated the wall and warmed us against the fall chill. Outdoors, and inside when it’s extra bright, I wear mirrored wrap-around sunglasses. I have a narrow range where I see best: too much light and it hurts my eyes, too little and I can’t see color. “I told you we could sit outside,” she said. She sat near me, almost touching; I was able to tell that she was blonde too. And that she smoked; although she didn’t stink like Marina, the first thing she’d done when we’d sat down was light up (I’m a quick study). “Isn’t this nicer than meeting at the library?”
“Much. Plus it’s a lot closer.” The English department took up two—or was it three?—floors of the Brutalist skyscraper. (Is it a skyscraper if there are only 28 floors?) The student union’s in the basement, and the Slavic languages occupy another couple of floors above English. Maybe there were some other language departments; I was vague about that, I only knew about the Slavs because I had thought I might take Russian, until they’d told me it would be difficult to get Braille texts for me.
“Yah,” said Andi. “Also, this granite soaks up the heat so even when it’s cool out it’s warmer here.” We must’ve been there an hour as the sun declined and shadows lengthened, before we got around to talking about the recordings.
I handed over the recorder and a handful of tapes. “You can record right over these; that’s what they’re for. And look, if you don’t have time to read the complete assignment out loud and can’t keep up because it takes longer than you think, don’t worry about it. I can usually fill in the blanks.”
“Don’t be silly. It’s a commitment. I’ll take care of you. Feel free to tell me if I screw up.” By this time, I felt comfortable enough with her to elbow her, which is when I realized she was wearing a leather jacket. I was happy that she took it seriously. She had a laugh that wasn’t constrained by anybody else’s idea of how young ladies are supposed to.
Tuesday, 1 October, 1968
“Let me buy you dinner,” I said. “For reading for me.”
“I’m happy to do it.”
“Not only do you do it well, you don’t complain. But I owe you. It’s a lot of work. I pay other students—”
“It’s no trouble and I won’t let you pay me.”
“Pizza’s not pay.”
“Nope, you can’t sneak it past me like that.”
“You sure are stubborn.” We were sitting against the granite sign again; I had my glasses off with my eyes closed so I could feel the sun. “How about we get pizza because we just want to hang around and have a little fun?”
“Papa Doc’s.” On Taylor Street.
“What about Little Joe’s? It’s more bar than food, but their antipasto platter’s excellent.”
“What’s wrong with Papa Doc’s?”
“It’s really boring pizza. And noisy.”
“Little Joe’s is noisy,” I said.
“Plus I hate the name.”
“Little Joe’s if it’s my treat.”
“Only if I buy next time.”
“Let’s go.” I can find my way to campustown; I do it all the time, just like I find my way around campus without any help. I have a Braille map. But when Andi offered her arm it was an opportunity, so I took it.
“I can walk!”
“You can’t, you fell on your butt. I’m gonna go get my car, you stay here.” She helped me up from the sidewalk.
“You’ve got muscles. Like maman. Muscles.”
“That’s no surprise, I do all kinds of stuff helping Bill Hogg out. Bill’s my boss at the trailer park.” She pushed me back against the wall to the left of Little Joe’s to lean under the light, and said, “Stay here, keep warm, I’ll only be a minute.”
“Really, I can make it home by myself.”
“Honey, I know that, but I’ll feel better about having gotten you so drunk if you let me do this.”
When she pulled up on the street she double-parked and came to get me. “You could’ve yelled,” I said, “from the street. Car. In your car. Urk.” My tongue got tangled up in my teeth, which made her laugh.
“Here we are. The car. Oops, I gotta clean off the seat.” It was dark; without light, I can’t even see shapes, so I could only hear her rummaging and tossing. “Here. Watch out.” She caught my arm again.
“I can manage, I’m not helpless.”
“Argh, sorry, I know you’re not. But I like helping you.” She held the door and my elbow until I got in.
When she climbed in on her side I said, “Thank you.” I sniffed. “It’s pretty smelly.”
“Looks like shit, too.”
“You promised me a limousine. A non-stinky one.”
“I carry a lot of junk around in the back. For the trailer park. And tools.”
She turned the key, and after a block I said, “I had more to drink than I thought.” Falling on my butt should have been a clue.
“So did I. You’re a fun drinking buddy.”
“Are you as drunk as I am?”
“Oh, drunker,” she assured me, “but I’ve been practicing a lot longer. I’m OK to drive.”
I argued with the middle. “Longer? You’re only 21, you can’t have been drinking longer than me.”
“Who said anything about being legal? I’m an old hand at this. Trust me.”
“Well, I started at 15, what about you?”
“Seven. I was seven.” I had to admit that not only had she started before me, she’d had more driving experience. It seemed logical at the time.
Tuesday, 8 October, 1968
“This is a hell of a dorm room, Chuck.”
“Since Circle’s a commuter college, the dorms are reserved for handicapped. That’s why all the doors are so wide and there’s ramps everywhere. Wheelchairs.”
“It’s not a room, it’s a suite.”
“I’m pretty sure that’s also because of the wheelchair students. Communal bathrooms would have had to have been so big it was more efficient, and cheaper, to give every room its own. Built on the hotel plan. The best part is that they don’t make us move out between quarters as long as we’re enrolled. Too hard on us poor, feeble handicapped.” I walked into the kitchen. “What can I get you to drink?”
“Well, I have a lot. You want to look?”
She came into the kitchen with me and stood close. I waved at the cabinet over the refrigerator. “Up there. Get what you want—”
She reached, brought down a bottle and turned to face me; she couldn’t have been any more than six inches away, because her body heat was palpable. “Tequila. I got tequila.” I’d forgotten that she wouldn’t need a stepstool.
“Good. That’s good.” I turned quickly away, hoping my heart would slow down. “I’ll get glasses.” I pulled two out of the cupboard. She was still in the small room with me. I eased past her, on out to the table.
“Oh, that’s better. MUCH better!” I heard her stretch her legs.
I laughed at the relief in her voice. “You’re quicker than I am.” I swallowed mine, felt it work its way down and out to my fingers. “This was a good idea. Given the weather.”
“If I’d known it was this far I would have fetched my car.”
“I walk it all the time.” I heard her pour again as I put fresh tapes on the table.
She exchanged them for ones she’d brought in her book bag. “Say, how are you with movies?”
“Movies? Depends. If it’s mostly dialogue, I do well. Action movies, though, not so very. ‘Boom, boom, BOOM!’”
She laughed and asked, “So Shakespeare would be OK, then?”
“Oh, yes. Excellent, as a matter of fact.”
“Well then, how’d you like to take in Romeo and Juliet this weekend? The new Zeffirelli one that got such good reviews in London. Months ago, dunno why it took so long to get here.”
“Probably because there’s nudity in it. Wait. Weren’t the stars underage when they filmed it? That’s why.”
“The prudery of Americans knows no bounds.”
“I’ll drink to that,” I said. “Anyway, yes. You can describe the costumes and sets to me.”
“That sounds great. It’s my treat. We’ll have to sit in back so we don’t bother the rest of the audience.”
“No, I want to sit right down front and have you talk in a very loud voice. We can both wear tall cowboy hats.”
“I’ll buy a Stetson tomorrow. You’ll need to work on your annoying laugh.”
She hadn’t said, “I hate to go to movies alone,” leaving me free to believe it was a date.
Thursday, 24 October, 1968
Marina sat down in front of me. I knew it was her before she spoke because of the smoke and her hair, which went on and on, maybe down to her knees. And when she spoke I recognized her husky, smoke-damaged voice immediately. If she wore perfume I couldn’t smell it over the cigarettes. “Mind if I join you?”
“Feel free,” I said. “How’s it going?” I pushed my fries to the center of the table. “Have some.”
“I got my own,” she said. I pulled mine back, happy to keep them, as I’d missed breakfast. Not that breakfast in the Union amounted to much. The last time I’d had decent croissants was when maman had visited me between Summer and Fall quarters and she’d found a busy little French pâtisserie on the near North Side. I’d been wanting to go back there, but it meant a trip on the L—or talking Andi into taking me, which I’d discovered was pretty easy, I only had to remember to do it.
I took a large bite of my burger, and then sniffed. “You’re also having chili. With cheese and onions.”
She laughed. “You’re pretty observant.”
“Is it observing if you do it with a nose?”
“Why not?” We ate in silence for a few minutes. “Say, you like folk music?”
“Sure. I like most kinds of music,” I said.
“Well, Abby and I are going to Earl of Old Town this Saturday to hear Stevie Goodman. Why don’t you get your girlfriend and come with us?”
“You mean Andi? She’s not my girlfriend.”
“You’re spending a lot of time with someone who isn’t.” She lit a cigarette, and I wished she hadn’t. “I got eyes.”
I swallowed my last fry and leaned back against the rough grey tweed of the booth. “Um.”
“I used to have a girlfriend myself. Don’t worry about me. But if you don’t want the rest of the class to know, you oughta watch what you write about a little more carefully.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
She snorted. “Doll, the way you wrote about that girl who helped your mom out that year when the winter was so bad, the way she smelled and held you when you lost your toy sheep and how you felt her face to see if she was as pretty as she sounded—I dunno about the guys, but I thought it was pretty hard to miss.”
“That seagull really had it in for me,” I said.
“She’s sweet on you too, you know.” I heard her inhale. “I guess she likes that fuzzy pink sweater you got. She looks at your chest as much as the guys do. It’s pretty funny; she thinks she hides it.”
I flushed. “I’ll ask her.”
But Andi said no, she had to work at the trailer park that day and she’d be too tired. I suspected her of lying. I hadn’t said it would be a double date but it wouldn’t have been hard to figure out—Abby and Marina were keeping no secrets—but maybe she didn’t care for folk music. Or music. Next time I wanted to hear music I resolved to keep it a surprise and spring it on her when it was too late to back out.
Saturday, 23 November, 1968
I had on my little black dress and was ready for the knock. “Did you dress nice like I told you to?” I pulled her inside and felt. “What are you wearing?”
“You look really good,” said Andi, trying to move away. “What’s going on? I thought we were going to Pizzeria Uno or something?”
“You answer me first.”
“What are you, five? I’ll tell you if you’re dressed properly.”
“Well, you sure are. You look like Jackie but better. I’m wearing slacks. And a blazer. Um, grey. Is grey OK? I wear a lot of grey. Momma says it goes with everything.”
I found the blazer with my hand, and said, “It’ll do.” The material didn’t feel cheap, anyway. I held up the tickets. “Read me what they say.”
“Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Morton Gould—” She stopped. “Chuck!”
“Good. That’s what they’re supposed to be. Orchestra Hall to see Morton Gould conduct Symphony Number 2 by Rimsky-Korsakov.”
“But I don’t—”
She was probably going to tell me she’d never heard of Rimsky-Korsakov. So I said, “Don’t worry, you’ll like this.”
“Aren’t these tickets expensive?”
“Not particularly. They’re student tickets, for crummy seats in the upper balcony where the acoustics are only OK: any further back and we’d be in scaffolding on the outside of the Symphony Center. But OK live music is still better than no live music.” I wondered if she were probing. “I get an allowance from my parents, in addition to aid from the State.”
“I didn’t want you to spend anything on me,” said Andi. “I’m paying for parking.”
“You weren’t kidding, these aren’t great seats.”
“We came to hear music, not watch the baton,” I said. “Besides, it’s all a big gold blur to me.” What I had liked best was that even though I’d led the way, because I’d been here before and knew the layout, Andi had put her hand on the small of my back. As if she knew I thought it was a date. As if she thought it too.
The second movement started. After a minute, she whispered, “This would make great movie music: I’m scared shitless.”
“I’m glad you’re enjoying it.” I enjoyed it more after I hooked my arm under hers and was able to snuggle up a little, and she let me. Sometimes when I did things like that she stiffened up. Maybe it was because there was more anonymity in the big hall.
Thursday, 12 December, 1968
I’d pushed her too hard once too often to let me take her to Papa Doc’s. “I’ll make you a pizza,” she snapped after Thursday’s class.
I snapped back: “And who taught you to cook?”
“I learned in self-defense,” said Andi. “When momma made stewed tomatoes, she put them in a pan and turned on the heat. Voilà, scorched tomatoes. She dressed up the boiled spinach with vinegar. For special occasions.”
“Boiled. How boiled?”
“I’ll come over tomorrow about 10 to make the dough and get it chilling,” she said. “You’ll be there, right?”
“You know my schedule.” As well as I did. As well as I knew hers.
“Just checking to see if you had anything else going on.”
Friday, 13 December, 1968
She had finals in three language courses that all met that afternoon, Russian, Spanish and Tagalog—she’d never taken Russian before, but the other two, she said, were “easy, I grew up with them”—with the last one at 4:00. She showed up a little after five and took the two disks of chilled dough from the refrigerator and began rolling them out onto the counter. “Maybe you should get a marble slab for stuff like this.” We’d both had some of the very smooth bourbon she’d brought with her. She was also nursing one of my beers.
“I generally don’t bake. But if I feel like it, then the counter works fine.” I sat on one of the stools on the dining-room side of the counter; I had two, for the infrequent occasions when I felt like eating on the bar-height part of the divider. The “dining room” was actually only a small portion of the living room, just big enough to hold a round table big enough for two, or three if we used small plates.
“What about baguettes? Don’t you bake those yourself?”
“Why would I? There’s a boulangerie three blocks from here on Taylor Street; it tastes better and costs less. They only make bread, they’ve got those big industrial ovens and heavy-duty machines to do the kneading—I’d be silly to make it myself. Unless I wanted to relax by beating the shit out of some poor innocent dough.”
“Ah. That explains it. You’re not doing it enough.”
I sipped from my shot glass. “I have plenty of ways to relax.” I listened. “What are you doing now?”
“I just put the bottom crust in the pan I brought, now I’m mixing the filling.”
“And what’s in that?”
“Real Greek feta cheese mixed with tofu, ricotta salata, eggs and spices.”
“Wow. I thought you couldn’t have cheese, and that’s why you resisted going to Papa Doc’s.”
“Can’t have cow cheese. Real feta cheese is made with goat’s milk, and so’s ricotta salata.”
“So, there’s also no point in going to Pizzaria Uno?”
“They have a goat cheese pizza. Not as good as mine, though.” She continued to work. “There. That’s the filling, I just put on the top crust. Then I crimp it and add the toppings.”
“And those are?”
“Mushrooms sauteed in butter, spinach, pine nuts and grated pecorino cheese.” She drank, then poured us more bourbon. “Pecorino’s a sheep cheese.”
“Naturally, you boiled the spinach first.”
Andi snorted. “I knew you had good taste.”
“And it’ll take how long to bake?”
“A full hour.”
“I may starve to death.”
“That’s what the bourbon’s for.” I heard the oven door open, then close. “There. Do you have a timer?”
“It’s built into the oven. Let me do it, it’d take too long to explain it.” I went into the kitchen, brushing firmly against her. “Sorry, small kitchen.”
I set the timer for exactly one hour. “OK, now you can relax by rubbing my feet.”
She laughed and said, “I’ll meet you at your couch.” I heard her pick up the bourbon and our glasses. I moved to the couch and sat at the end nearest the window.
“I thought you wanted those stinky feet rubbed?”
“I was kidding.”
“I’m not, lie down and hand ’em over.” I heard her sink into the sofa at the far end.
“Don’t you mean, “foot ’em over?”
“Just do it, kiddo!” So I did, parking my bare feet on her lap.
“You’ve got strong hands!”
“It’s all the stuff I do around the park,” she said.
“I remember. That feels really good!”
“We aim to please.”
“Mmmmm.” I found my glass, but it was empty, so I waved it in her general direction.
“Here you go, princess.”
“I do feel like a princess today. You’re cooking for me, plying me with sweet liqueurs and rubbing my feet. What more could I ask for?”
“Don’t mind if I do.” She poured again. “Ah, that’s nice.” She worked on my feet for a minute. “Hey, if your mother couldn’t cook, how did you learn to be so good?”
“I would watch the cooks in the warungs in Yogyakarta to learn how, and how things smelled when it was going well. I’d also cadge snacks. You’d be surprised how many crusty, irritable old cooks hand out tidbits to 7-year old girls.”
“No I wouldn’t. Not one bit. What are ‘warungs’?”
“Little shopfronts. No glass, no back room, everything is right there, including the ‘kitchen,’ which is usually a wok or a grill, sometimes just a hotplate. You stand in front and order; you pay, get it and leave. There’s no place to sit, so you end up squatting on the ground or parking yourself on the old telephone poles used to mark off parks or squares or private property. And the smells! When you get a bunch of little food joints in a row, it’s incredible.”
“You miss it.”
“I miss all the places I’ve lived. But maybe Indonesia most. I learned to drink in the Philippines, but I learned to cook, learned to throw a knife, learned—”
“Wait. Throw a knife?”
“Looks like we’re out of bourbon. Lemme get something else.”
She brought a full bottle of metaxa and poured. “Wonderful stuff,” I said, “but let’s get back to that knife.”
“It’s not that good, I see. If it’d been truly great you would’ve forgotten about it.”
“What kind of knife?”
“Switchblade. I carry a switchblade.”
“You’re a dangerous woman, Andrea Holmes.”
“Nah. I’m a pushover for you.” She tickled my feet. I shrieked and kicked. “Ha. Lemme check the pizza.” The buzzer went off. “Mmmf. Saved by the bell.”
The pizza was every bit as good as it smelled, like no other kind of pizza I’d ever had. I had her put on some Shostakovich while we ate. I pulled out the album for her, as I store the records without the cardboard jackets in thin sleeves with Braille labels on them. After she put the leftovers in my fridge, we sat on the couch finishing the metaxa. “What’s next?” I asked, holding up my glass.
“It’s getting pretty late, I better get moving. It’s a ways to Wheaton.” She used the bathroom, then went to the door.
She put her hand on the knob. “There’s a protest march against the war on Sunday,” I told her, standing close, holding onto one of the lapels of her jacket. “Want to go?”
“Might. I’ll call you in the morning.”
“It’s at noon, and it takes twenty minutes to walk there, so call before 11.”
“I’ll do that,” she said, and turned the knob. “Sleep tight, buddy.”
I still had one lapel in my left hand, so it was a simple matter to grab the other with my right and pull her down to my level and kiss her. For a lovely, brief, moment, she kissed back before pulling away, and I said, “Oh.” I would’ve kissed her sober.
“Better get going,” she said. The door opened. “Sorry.” She was gone.
There was a little tequila left, from another visit, so I took that to bed with me. Before I fell asleep I remembered she’d weaseled out of showing me her knife. Some other time, I thought.
Friday, 20 December, 1968
I sat on my sofa listening to a tape of Andi reading to me while I sipped on the small glass of vodka I was letting myself have before she arrived to pick me up. Exams had been over for a week, so I didn’t need to listen to any of the assignments from last quarter. It was her voice I wanted to hear: pure and clear. Sometimes when I listened I could hear Joan Baez. I don’t tell her that, she wouldn’t think it was a compliment.
I worried about my appearance. Mirrors are of no help; the only one I have is in the bathroom, where it’s built in. Andi knocked, making me jump. I gulped the rest of the glass before clicking off the tape recorder and heading to the door. I’ve been living in the same dorm room since I started school over three years ago, so I don’t need my cane to negotiate obstacles, which included my plants: two big ficus, a creeping charlie and a potfull of rosemary. I also don’t need much light, which I tend to take for granted. When I opened the door to let her in, the bright hall surprised me briefly. “Hey, bud, you about ready to go?”
“I’ll only be a minute, come in and have a seat.” I reached for the switch only to find her hand already there. I snatched away. “Oops, sorry.” I swallowed; I didn’t want to show how nervous I was. “Would you like a drink?”
“When wouldn’t I?”
“I forgot who I was talking to. What would you like?”
“Some of that vodka you’re having will be fine.”
“How did you—?”
“Vodka doesn’t have any smell.”
“Nai, but the juniper they put in it does.”
“It’s all the way on the other side of the room!” I said, before realizing it was on my breath.
“Honey, you don’t know how good I smell.” She chuckled. I liked it when she called me honey.
“That’s what I like about your jokes; they’re so sophisticated.”
“Oh, I got lots more.” Her tone was light. Was she flirting? She downed the shot I’d poured her in one swallow and asked, “’Bout ready?”
“Right back.” I used the bathroom, and when I came out, she had my cane and my purse ready. I was disappointed that she didn’t help me with my coat. After I locked the door and turned to the right toward the elevators, she offered her right arm to me and I hooked my left hand under her elbow. “Where are we going?” I asked.
“That’s a surprise, buddy.”
“Everyplace you take me is a surprise!”
“Untrue. The student union cafeteria is not a surprise.”
“Well, OK, but still. I’d like to know if I’m dressed properly.” I heard the elevator ding arrival, then the doors whooshing.
“You look great. Even your socks match.”
There was something in the way she said it. I stopped. “Where are we going?”
“You’re fine! Truly.”
“Andi.” My nerves must have made it into my voice.
“Frère Jacques,” she said, reluctantly.
“You’re taking me to the most exclusive French restaurant in Chicago and you tell me my socks match.” I turned back. “I’m going to have to look a lot finer than I did for the cheap seats at the symphony!”
“But you do look fine!”
“Lying.” I turned back to the door and struggled with my key until she took it away from me and unlocked the door for me. “Andi Holmes, I’m a slob. I’m not wearing heels! What were you thinking? I have to change!”
“You don’t need to.” I heard her turn on the light.
“I bet you’re dressed up.” I reached out and felt under her coat. “Oh, my hell, you’re wearing a tie!”
“It’s just a bolo, no big—”
“When’s the reservation?”
“You’ve got about fifteen minutes to change. I’d rather you didn’t. You’re cute the way you are.”
“Stay here.” I dropped my coat on the sofa before going into my bedroom and purposely slamming the door. It was almost as satisfying as I’d wanted it to be. I knew she was only trying to surprise me but it still felt like a sandbag. I sighed. I shouldn’t let it get to me: probably she’d thought I shared her disdain for fashion and preferred comfort as much as she did.
I had little time, but I knew exactly what I wanted to wear, something Andi hadn’t seen before. I stripped off my jeans and blouse and tossed them onto my bed. Then I reached for the last hanger on the left, felt for the plastic dry cleaning bag and caught it on the low hook on the closet door. I felt the cloth under the bag to make sure I hadn’t mixed anything up. Then I took off my bra, which fastens in front: all my clothes button, zip or clip in the front. The cool air felt good; I’d worn the thing all day. I used tissues to wipe under my breasts where the skin was a little sweaty from the band. I pulled the dress on over my head, zipped up and pulled on knee-highs. Like Andi, I never wore panty-hose; she never wears skirts and I say life’s too short. I counted to find the right shoebox and slipped my feet into the matching heels. They’re a little taller than I’m comfortable with, but I had Andi to hang onto. Finally, I opened the jewelry box on my dresser, felt for what I needed, put them on and paused to check the time on my Braille wristwatch. Four minutes left, and I’d only need two.
Twelve minutes after I went in, I came out, held my breath. “How’s—?”
She inhaled, interrupting me. “Chuck. You’re gorgeous.” I ignored her and moved to pick up my coat. Which was gone. “Here.” She touched my shoulder with the fabric. “It really doesn’t go with that red hot dress, though.”
“It’s all I’ve got.” I was gratified for the help with the coat, but pissed because she’d tried to put one over on me. “If you’d warned me I would’ve bought a new one.”
“You even put on lipstick! Looks nice!” I felt like her unspoken comment was, “I had no idea you could get it on without making yourself look like a drunken clown.” But I almost didn’t care: her earlier compliment made up for it. I often wore lipstick for everyday, even if she hadn’t noticed. But not always matching red.
“Let’s go. And you better have a good reason for taking me to such an expensive place.”
“I do,” she said, locking my door, dropping my keys into my purse and guiding me to the elevators again. She pushed the button. “I got a bonus at work!”
The car arrived and we got in. She fingered the “1” button. I wondered if she were trying to memorize the Braille. “You mean you sold some extra pot?”
She was silent for a couple of floor dings. “You weren’t supposed to figure that out.”
“My nose might not be as good as yours but it doesn’t take a perfumier to smell Mary Jane all over you and your car. Plus, you’ve already told me you don’t smoke it. Combined with your heavy load this quarter and all that free time, well—”
“Do I care? About you selling ganja? No. About you hiding that from me? Yes, but I understand.” The doors opened to let us out.
“Are you mad?”
“I’m mad you didn’t tell me where we were going! Oaf!” I whacked her on the arm. She chuckled. She helped me negotiate outside, down the stairs and to the right until we got to her 1960 Comet station wagon. “I’d think a big-time drug dealer like you could afford a better car.”
“I cleaned the seat off after the first time you rode in it—” When we got so very drunk at Little Joe’s. “—And I’ve kept after it.”
“Thank you.” I heard her crack the window and light up. I didn’t want to hassle her about smoking, so I asked, “What color is it?” I’d never seen it in the daytime—not sober, anyway.
“Babyshit green. And rust.”
“I hate it myself. In fact, I hate the car. More than I’ve ever hated one. But it’s cheap to run, it hauls a ton of crap and it’s paid for.”
“So how many cars have you had before?”
“I was counting my family’s, but even with those, not too many.”
“Oh, that’s easy: the Land Rover I learned to drive on in Quito.” She’d had her first three years of high school there. I’m not sure I can relate to the experience of growing up as an atheist (she calls herself an agnostic) with True Believer parents in a distant part of the world, but I know what it’s like to be raised in isolation, and to be an outsider with few friends and peculiar ideas. And habits: I like my Spaghetti-Os sandwiches with Kraft American, thank you very much. Best eaten naked, of course, otherwise you have to do laundry instantly. Andi doesn’t know about the sandwiches. If you’re an only child, home-schooled on a small ranch on a small island in the vastness of the Great Salt Lake, weirdness is normal.
I remembered the smell of the Lake, sulphurous in good weather, rank and alkaline and fishy from the remains of dead brine shrimp in bad, when the winds pick up, taking the water with it and the boundaries between salt lake and salt air and salt sky vanish and the world turns gritty. I remembered the million birds on the next island over, full of eggs and guano and incessant yammering, bill-clattering and mating calls. The heat from the sky reflecting from the water onto my face; the sticky wetness of the leather band inside my cowboy hat rubbing against my sweaty forehead. The skin sticking and slipping against itself in my armpits.
And no, or a few, temporary, friends: all drawn from ranch hands who would be there for a month or a year and disappear, having grown tired of the isolation and lousy wages, or the teen-age girls that maman would hire to help her in the house. As I grew older, we had fewer and fewer of those, because the money got tighter and tighter. One channel on TV when we could have it on—I preferred the radio—which wasn’t that often, because the generator consumed precious gasoline, better used to make trips to the mainland for food, medicine and other supplies. We had no refrigerator or freezer, because of the generator, but there was a small spring on the island which gave us potable water and kept a few things cool. Maman and pop read by candlelight or Coleman lantern, cooked with propane and heated with wood. Batteries were used only in flashlights; they were stored with, not in, them, because otherwise they wouldn’t have lasted until the infrequent occasions when we needed them. And obviously, I never had a prom. I never learned to dance.
But what I had had, I cherished: the smells of the lake and our little farm, with its two horses and four cows, dozen chickens and a few ducks. No predators but us because foxes and cats couldn’t get there without human help. We brought only the animals we wanted, transported, like us, in one of our two boats. I had two different dogs in my time there, Horry and Stubbs (named after characters in books). Horry, the “whitish blob with black spots and silky fur” and Stubbs, the “reddish blob with three legs and a wiry coat.” The feel of horsehair on my face and the pounding thump of horse hearts after a run to the barn in a rare rain. The birds I learned early were gulls and sandpipers, distinguished only by their calls and whether they ran or flew. Of course, any lumber’d been brought from the mainland. Pop never threw away scraps of any size—he even kept sawdust to toss in the wood stove, our only heat in the winters.
“Here we are.”
I gathered my thoughts. “Oh. Sorry I wasn’t better company.”
“That’s OK. Look, I’m really sorry I upset you. I was so focused on surprising you that I didn’t think about bringing you here dressed like a grad student.”
“Thank you.” I was not about to tell her not to worry about it. “I’m not good with surprises. Especially thoughtless ones.”
“Oh, fuck.” She made no move to get out of the car. “I’m so sorry, Chuck. I should have known better. It wasn’t mean. Just—”
“Inconsiderate? Dumb? Jerky?”
“Yes. All of those. I really do care—”
“I know. Stop beating yourself up. You’re just a callow youth.” She laughed with relief. “You can make it up to me with random, heartfelt compliments.”
“You’d get those regardless.” She helped me out of the car and I clung to her arm because I wanted to stay that way all night. Or longer. She helped me with my old cloth coat at the cloakroom, handing along her own beret and black leather jacket.
Andi offered her elbow again when we were led to our table—“Holmes, table for two”—and pulled out my chair for me. The interior was very dim; not quite candlelight, but guaranteed to give me trouble seeing color. Resting her hands on my bare shoulders, she murmured, “You really do look spectacular, Chuck.”
“Thank you, kind sir,” I said back, just as quietly. While Andi was still in the middle of sitting down beside me, our snooty (is there any other kind?) French waiter bustled up and offered menus and a wine list. She sat next to rather than across from me to make it easier for me to hear her when she read.
“We’d love a wine list,” said Andi, showing once again the manners her missionary mother had drilled into her. When we were alone together, she was as foul-mouthed as I was, but in public, it was nothing for her to switch to gracious and refined, to her worldly self. The one I admired. She perused the tall card she’d been handed for a moment before giving it back. “We’ll have a bottle of the Chateauneuf-du-Pape Grenache Blanc, please.” She hadn’t asked me: my coaching had taken and her confidence was up.
“A whole bottle? That’s much too expensive!” I object.
“That was a big bonus,” she replied, “so yes, a bottle.” I was more than usually conscious of her closeness, because of the sleeveless dress; the heat from her arm bled through the crisp white shirt she wore tucked into grey slacks I wanted to touch. So I did, and she acted like she didn’t feel my hand on her leg, so I fumbled with my napkin. “You want an appetizer? I meant it about the bonus.”
“Have you ever had snails?”
“A few bugs here and there, but no snails.”
“Bugs. Really? You’ll have to tell me about those later.” I looked toward the waiter. “Escargots à l’Alsacienne, s’il vous plaît,” I said, remembering to tell him to hold the shells. Too fiddly, even with the tongs.
“Let’s talk about the menu.” Andi is a quick study and I’ve been teaching her how to pronounce French almost since we met at the beginning of the quarter, so she didn’t stumble over anything as she read. She read quickly, close to my ear, in the warm voice that I’d come to look forward to every week when she’d handed over the tapes holding the readings for class. “Huh. There’s no English at all here, not even the credit-card notice.”
“Sounds like a native speaker prepared it,” I said, feeling a little sad that we wouldn’t be sharing any classes during Winter Quarter. I would miss the reading.
Andi leaned back; I could still feel her warmth. “So, what shall we have? I’m thinking of the Thon Basquaise. I love tuna.”
The sommelier arrived with our wine, which he offered to Andi and which she dutifully sniffed and approved: “Oh, that’s very nice,” she said to me, holding the glass under my nose. “Citrusy? Is that right?”
I agreed, and he poured for me, then Andi. “I’m going to have the Paupiettes de sole et saumon aux trois sauces.” I was proud of my French, maybe more than I should be, but I’ve certainly had enough exposure, having grown up with it. It was my mother’s native language, it made up a significant portion of my home schooling, and last year I’d studied in Paris at the Sorbonne. I have a good ear. As you might expect, I suppose, although I’ve never bought into the theory that losing a sense—not that I ever had it—leads to over-development in another. Nonetheless, I am forced to listen carefully. “You’ll have to help with the three sauces,” I told Andi. I didn’t need help; I wanted it.
Andi not only listens, she remembers. When the waiter returned for our order, she ordered for both of us, mimicking my French exactly. After which he complimented her French, in French, to which she replied, “Excusez-moi, s’il vous plaît. Je ne parle pas français. Je suis très, très désolée.” She thought it was a nice joke even if he didn’t.
“Showoff,” I offered.
“Guilty.” Then she smiled—or I heard one in her voice. “What do you expect from a linguistics major?”
I fingered my clip-ons and wondered if she had noticed that they were the turquoise and coral hummingbirds that she had admired once when I had shown her my jewelry collection, which filled a plain wooden box that pop had made for me, on top of my dresser. Like the dresser, it never moved. I don’t think I’m any clumsier than anyone else, but I like to minimize the chances of knocking things over. When things like that happen, it’s hard for me to clean up and easy to step on the pieces. That’s why I have so few glass or ceramic glasses and mugs; the overlooked slivers could lurk on my floor for years, awaiting the perfect time to strike the barefooted.
I knew that Andi had seen my squash-blossom necklace, an icon of my sheltered youth in Utah, one of the more sheltered states of the Union. To me, it’s visually a blob, albeit a pretty-colored one, all silver and turquoise. But I’ve fingered it enough that I have a strong tactile image. I could feel the cool metal against my décolletage—which I hoped was low enough. I usually care very little about my apperance; but tonight I’d taken off my bra because I knew where I wanted Andi to look.
She spoke, close and warm. “Tell me more about growing up on the island, Chuck. You’ve told me a little, but I have a very large curiosity bump.”
“I’ve noticed,” I said. “You knew my mother was French?”
“One of the first things I remember you telling me, that first day when we sat outside the administration building. You were talking about what you needed from me after I said I’d read to you.”
“I was glad you were the one who volunteered. Out of all the people in the class, you’ve got the easiest voice to listen to.”
“Oh, I could listen to Edmund Diké all day.”
“I would focus on that voice and wouldn’t think of anything else.”
“It’d be like listening to Everett Dirksen: you’d never remember he’s a Republican until it was too late!” she agreed. We both sipped from our wine glasses. I could tell she was trying to be just as careful as I was about drinking tonight. Maybe she was thinking about having to drive. I was thinking about what I would say to her when she took me home. What I was hoping.
“Still, I’m glad it was you. You helped me get a good grade.”
She shifted a little in her seat. “You were gonna tell me about that island.”
“There’s not a lot to tell. Besides, you heard my stories for class. I had French lessons every single day I lived at home, unless maman was sick, and even then, half the time she spoke French. We had that tiny farm and I had my chores. And no trees. Or no big trees, anyway—it took years before anything grew tall enough to hide me. When I was really small, if I wanted to get away from my parents I hid behind the chicken coop.” I thought of something else. “Usually the chickens would give me away. They liked being around someone taller than they were because that meant they didn’t have to dodge the gulls—or hawks—when they wanted a meal. Ducks, too.”
Our appetizer arrived. I felt for the dish and the two-pronged snail fork. There were no tongs, of course, since there were no shells. I speared a little meaty chunk and said, “Try the butter on your baguette first.” I smiled. “To be honest, that’s mostly why people eat snails: it’s all about the garlic butter.”
“Nai, I’m going for one of these little goobers. Why wait?”
I chuckled with her and bit. I’d noticed that instead of “yes” and “no,” she always used “yah” and “nai,” rhyming with “sky,” for no. I asked her about it. She chewed, swallowed and said, “Oh, momma’s Icelandic. Born there, anyway, brought here young, but her parents spoke it at home. She speaks it some. To my none. I resisted.”
“I had no idea.” I tore off a chunk of baguette, dipped. “So, what do you think?” Then another. “Of the snails, I mean.”
“Tasty. A bit chewy, though.” I could hear the crust of her bread crackling. “That butter is um,” she groped for the right word, settling for “Dreamy.”
“By chewy do you mean rubbery? That’s what most people mean when they say ‘chewy’.”
“They’re tenderer than that.” Between us we easily finished the dozen petit-gris snails. Almost as soon as we finished those, the dish and the forks were whisked away and our main dishes arrived. When the waiter left, Andi said, “He’s staying in character. He swept the baguette crumbs off onto the floor behind his back with a sneer.” I heard clinking. “Here. Try this.”
“Hmm?” I turned my face to hers and felt her touch on my chin. I felt my cheeks flush. “What?”
“Open your mouth.” I did, and a bite of her tuna, dripping with olive oil, found its way between my lips. “How do you like that?”
I loved it. Her touch. “Oh, that tuna’s wonderful. Very smooth, almost buttery; it just falls apart.” The onions and red peppers were still crisp. I felt for my plate, used my fork to locate the first roll and pick up a morsel with some of the sauce. “Here, try mine.”
“Not until you’ve tried it!”
“Don’t be silly, go ahead.” I held the fork out in her direction. I wanted to touch her chin too, but unlike her, I didn’t have an excuse.
“If you’re sure.”
“Of course I am.” I felt it when she took the bite from the fork. “Oh, sorry for making you bend over. I keep forgetting—”
“That you’re a shrimp and I’m—”
“Humongous!” I interjected. Over six feet.
“—Normal,” she finished, chuckling.
“Obnoxious,” I countered. I took a bite from the same roll I’d fed her. It was the salmon, filled with sole mousseline. I couldn’t see the colors of the sauces, but it wasn’t too hard to determine that each roll was in a different pool. The first was an orange butter cream sauce that was rich, creamy and silky, without overdoing either the orange or the butter. I wasn’t about to remind Andi, but she noticed and volunteered.
She took away my fork. “Here. This is the middle sauce.” Once again I was embarassed for a grownup to be feeding another—but pleased.
“Oh, my. That’s the sauce de Normandie. I don’t think I’ve ever had a better one. Even better than my mother’s!” The final one was the lemon beurre blanc, but it was neither as rich nor as delicate as the other two. “You should try the Normandie.”
“I will,” she said, and I heard the fork scrape against the plate. I expected her simply to eat it, but instead, she put the fork in my hand.
“Ah.” I felt the heat in my cheeks, and hoped the flush didn’t show. I held the fork up and felt her mouth close over it. “Isn’t that nice?”
“Scrumptious,” she said, but I got the impression she wasn’t talking about the sauce. Maybe I should have worn perfume. I’d skipped it because Andi’s nose was so good. And there’s a good reason I don’t wear any makeup other than lipstick. I’ve practiced with lipstick and my braid until I could do them almost in my sleep; I can’t risk anything else. When I’d finally gone to a school with other students, I had at first been jealous that the other girls could wear makeup and I couldn’t, but I got over it. Especially after Andi told me once I had lovely skin.
“You know, I never asked what religion you grew up with.” There was a roughness about her voice, as if she had thought of something and then lost it.
“Bahá’í. I’m not religious any more—not that maman and pop were, even to start. We never went to any services because we could never go anywhere without a lot of preparation. So they said a few quick prayers the days they remembered, and kept Ramadan. But it wasn’t like they forced it on me.”
“I dunno what that’s like,” she said, “not having it forced, I mean.”
“Before they bought the farm on the island, pop travelled all over the world. He worked for EMD—that’s a locomotive builder—as a service rep. He’d go anywhere with ten minutes’ notice, happy to tell people how to fix and take care of their machinery. It’s how he met maman, not in France but the USA; her mother was working as a secretary at the LaGrange plant just before the war. She grew up in Manosque, near Marseilles, but her mother brought her to the US when her father died. Pop’s really bossy and maman’s very talkative. She never really shuts up, you know? One reason I left home as soon as I could. We’d be sitting in the living room and I’d be trying to read my books and study and she’d keep up this constant stream. Pop would try to help me with my homework or tell stories about places he’d been—she’d overlap with him, telling us about what she cooked that day. What we had already eaten.”
“Well. Pop and I could talk when we went out on the boat and she wasn’t there to interrupt him. And other times it was pretty cool. Like in the evenings, she and pop would read to each other. That wasn’t because of me, they did it before I was born. If I could get a Braille copy of a book they were reading, I’d join in, although it’s slower to read Braille. Often the book they chose was in French; pop had taken it in college before the war, and did well enough that it helped him get hired right out of school. Once he met maman his French got better fast. Maman mostly spoke French because she was comfortable in it, and he did too because he wanted me to be fluent. If pop could get her talking about books and literature she was never boring. It was hard to shift her, but I guess he managed it because he was used to dealing with big stubborn machines.”
Andi laughed at that. “How about help? It doesn’t sound like you had a lot of help on the farm.”
“We had girls who would help maman, and boys to help pop with the outdoor chores. At least until I was old enough to be in high school, when money got tight. But then they sold the farm and moved to Salt Lake City so I could go to a regular high school. It was nice having reliable electricity.”
“But before that. Your mom—”
“It wasn’t so bad once I found the cave.”
“You had a cave on the island?”
“Yeah. A small one, on the far side of the island from our farm. I think maybe pop knew it was there, but maman didn’t. I was able to wander off during the day after chores and just—sit there. In the dark. It’d be cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter. I had an old board to sit on; I put it on top of some rocks so it wasn’t like sitting on the ground. Nothing else was in there. I could be alone, without anyone talking to me.”
“If I’d had a place like that I would’ve used it to hide the dirty magazines I stole from my brother.”
“Andi! You didn’t!”
“Tell me you wouldn’t’ve done the same!”
“Setting aside the difficulty of getting Braille porn on the island, I admit nothing. Which brother?”
“Ha. Josh. The younger one. Dana is—was—too good. I don’t think he ever had an impure thought.” She took the last bite. “No impure thoughts equals no masturbation. I doubt he ever even had a wet dream.”
“He sounds too good for his own good.”
“I miss him. He was very religious—not like me or Josh—and a pain in the butt. I loved him anyway.” Dana had been killed in the Battle of Hue. “Josh and I called him ‘runt’.”
“He must’ve been short.”
“Oh. Very short.”
“Josh is six-nine, dad is six-six and momma is five-eleven.” She was six-one.
“You’re all giants.”
“He would get mad at us. Once momma forgot herself and called him ‘runt’ too and he got so mad he was bouncing up and down, like a pissed-off rubber ball. We laughed ourselves sick. Even momma.”
“What we should do is get really drunk on the anniversary.”
“Good idea.” She changed the subject. “I never asked. If you’re from Utah how’d you end up here?”
“I lived with my aunt and uncle in Wilmette. They live there to be near the Temple. You know—”
“I’ve seen it: gorgeous building.”
“I stayed with them for a year to get residency. Pop always told me that Chicago was the best place to live in the world—and he’s been to a lot of places—so I naturally assumed I’d go to school here. Circle’s French Department had a better rep than U of Chicago, so that pretty much settled it.”
“Are they still in Wilmette?”
“They are. Uncle Mort’s a world traveller, too. Aunt Clotilde’s been all the places he has, but she thinks Wilmette’s the best place ever. You know: ‘Oh, my, the downtown PO is a lovely building, but the one here is far, far better. So intimate. So tasteful’.” Andi laughed. “That’s bad, but nothing to what she does to him. Like maman, she talks a blue streak, but she gets mean when interrupted, so uncle Mort never does. He’ll try to tell about an adventure they had on the Amazon, for instance, and she’ll interrupt him: ‘Oh, Mortimer, no one wants to hear those boring old stories.’ Yep, we all want to hear about that salesgirl who shorted you a dime at the drugstore.”
“I take it back: your mom’s a saint. Your aunt is the definition of excruciating.” She poured us the last of the wine and we clinked glasses.
“You can see that when I was offered a scholarship with free room and board I leapt at it. After a year of that I was ready to jump out a window.”
“I’m very glad you didn’t.”
“I don’t visit them often.”
“I wouldn’t either.”
“They’re not quite as bad as I make out. When I was off at the Sorbonne last school year, they took care of all my plants for me, and they didn’t have to.” I smiled at the memory. “Only one plant didn’t make it. I had a big aloe plant, and one of their cats took a liking to it.”
“I didn’t think cats and plants was a viable combination.”
“They’d been lucky. All their plants are in hanging baskets, so the two of mine that were too big for that were new to the cats. The ficus got ignored, but the aloe was chomped on appreciatively by their youngest cat. To death.” Andi laughed. “I’m glad they didn’t have a dog. The ficus would’ve been dead meat.” I drank some water. “Anyway, I owe them a visit pretty soon. I think maybe I’ll take my girlfriend, they won’t care.” I held my breath. She said nothing, and I heard her swallow. “Would you go with me?”
“Sure, bud. Sure.”
For dessert, I had slice of an apple tart; she had a gooseberry meringue pie. “No dairy,” she told the waiter.
“No one likes gooseberries,” I said.
“I do. Here. Try a bite.”
“That’th deyithious,” I managed around the pucker. I was glad she’d fed me again.
But I was still uncomfortable about the “girlfriend” remark. I turned to gossip. “What do you think about Abby and Marina getting together? They seem quite the odd pair.”
“Very strange. That little guy is the most self-effacing person I’ve ever met—”
“But those are some scary stories!”
“The one about the jinn and the university student scared the piss out of me! But the last person in the world I would expect him to cleave to is—” She trailed off, unable to think of the right description.
“Marina does kind of—exude. That’s it. Exude.”
“That she does. Hmm.” She had a drink. “Ah. You know how they say some people’s faces are open books?”
I interrupted. “With her, it’s an open pop-up book.”
“Yah. Oh, wait, no. It’s Marina’s ass, and it’s an open—encyclopaedia,” she finished. I choked, inhaled, snatched my napkin just in time to head off an embarassing splurt.
“I love hearing you laugh.”
“It’s more like choking and dying.”
“Not to worry, I’d give you CPR—” She stopped.
I kept going. “I know, but it’d be too late.” I put the back of my hand on my forehead and did a pretend swoon. “Oh, Rhett—”
That made her laugh, and we relaxed, keeping it light, until the waiter brought the check, parking it on the table near her. “’Bout ready, Chuck?” I heard bills rustling, shuffling through her fingers. I’d wanted to stay longer.
“I hope you’re giving him a decent tip.”
“For being so rude?”
“All French waiters are rude. It’s a job requirement.” She chuckled.
Outside, I thanked her and asked: “How much?”
“I’m not telling you.”
“Well, that’s no good. How can I criticize your choices?”
“That’s a good way to get tickled.” She helped me into her car, got in, started it up. “I tipped him plenty. And the heat’ll be a minute.”
“Your car hates me.”
“It hates everybody. Me most.”
When we were almost to the dorm, I said, “You should bring a couple of joints in with you.” I wondered if she could hear my heart.
“Remember, I can’t smoke it. Makes me crazy.”
“So bring the second one for me.”
She pulled into a spot that was almost too tight. She helped me out, and I stood there while she dug around in the junk-and-mess cargo compartment. She put something in her pocket and offered me her elbow, but instead I took her hand. She didn’t pull away, which made me happy. In the elevator I stood close to her with her hand in mine. “Is it because you’re dealing that you have a switchblade?”
“You’re imagining me in dark alleyways, aren’t you?”
“You’re a shady character, after all.”
“I’ve had it since I was twelve. I think of it as a scrape extractor. Gets me out of scrapes.” My hand tightened around hers.
I wanted her to put an arm around me while I opened the door, but she didn’t. Inside, she tossed the joints onto the small dining table and I said, “I’m going to change out of this. Pour us something, will you?”
I didn’t want to hear excuses so I went into my bedroom and shut the door. I leaned against the wall, breathing hard. After my heart settled down a little I wriggled out of the red dress and hung it up, feeling for the empty hanger. The heels went back into their shoebox, with protective paper. Then I counted three from the right and took what I wanted from that hanger. I put it on and then leaned with my head against the wall again. I swallowed and went out, still so scared it was hard to breathe. I didn’t need to feel my way to the table, I knew exactly where it was. “Where’s my drink?” I asked, and sat down.
Andi pushed a glass over to my fingers and said, “That nightie doesn’t leave much to the imagination, Chuck.” It wasn’t supposed to.
I drank. Tequila. Andi’s favorite. I liked it too. “You’ve got a good imagination. I listened to your stories when Miss Chandra read them to us.”
“Yours were better. Especially ‘The Sheep that Flew.’ What a great title.”
I ignored her. “It’s supposed to get pretty cold tonight. And it’s a long way out to Wheaton.”
Andi poured us another glass each. I could have counted the glugs if I’d wanted to. I drank and waited for her to say something. And waited. I felt tears start. I waited for her to say it. “That was a goodbye dinner, wasn’t it?”
“I’m sorry, Chuck.”
She cleared her throat and poured again. It was an easy thing to do instead of talk. “I flunked out, buddy. I did OK in Miss Chandra’s, but failed all my other courses.”
“Oh, Andi. What happened, did you spend too much time reading for me? Couldn’t you have asked for help?” I reached out and clutched her hands.
“I spent too much time drinking. That and—” She stopped.
“And what?” I waited. “Andi, what else?”
“Dana. There was Martin Luther King, there was Bobby Kennedy. And Dana. I couldn’t get his death out of my head; I thought my family was invincible until he was killed. I didn’t know why he was over there, I didn’t know why he died, I didn’t understand why I was in school, I didn’t understand anything. I took that poli-sci course this semester that was supposed to tell me about Vietnam, how we got there, why, what it meant. All it did was make my brain and my heart and my gut hurt; I drank more and more. I stopped taking tests, turned in blank sheets of paper. The only good thing was you. And when I realized how—” She caught herself. “When I flunked out, I—” And stopped.
The way she said it, I dreaded asking, but I pushed ahead. “What? What did you do?”
“I went to the Armed Forces Recruiting Center. Over on Maxwell Street? And, um. Enlisted.” She cleared her throat again.
“Don’t be mad at me. I report the 15th of January. We can still go out drinking until—”
“You enlisted. Without talking to me. I hoped for something more but I thought we were at least friends.” I could hear my voice go flat, like a robot’s. “Get out.”
I stood. “You’ve made it clear I’m not your honey. This is not how you treat your honey, or a friend; this’s how you treat an acquaintance.” I reached out and fumbled for the bottle and picked it up. I still hadn’t heard any movement. “Get out!” I screamed.
She jumped up and I felt her hand touch mine. I jerked away, threw the bottle, heard it crash. It didn’t break, but something else did. “Chuck, please, can’t we talk?”
“Talk? Talk’s not what I want. I want you in my bed; I want you in my heart. I wanted you to want me in yours! We both know that! Yet you’ve half-pretended to ignore how I felt since we met! I know—” I stopped. I was behaving like a spoiled brat. I tried to calm myself. “So what should we talk about? The feelings you don’t have for me? Because how would a blind girl know what your feelings are? I imagined them, right?” She tried to say something. “You made sure there was no point to talking by enlisting. By making a choice you couldn’t back away from.”
“I don’t—” She stopped. “Chuck.” Not a word, a raw emotion. I felt it too, but I could no more move than she.
“My name is Charlene!” I said it more calmly. “My name is Charlene.” And waited. “Just go,” I said, and she did.
I closed and locked the door and slid down onto the carpet in a heap. “What’s the matter with me? She told me I was gorgeous. She meant it, I know she meant it.”
I felt like I couldn’t ever get up again, but eventually I stood, blew my nose and wiped off the lipstick so hard I bled. I washed my face of tears, located the tequila bottle and swept up the broken rosemary pot as best I could. It made my trash smell lovely. The booze had soaked into the carpet by the edge of the kitchen. There was no getting it back so I found the vodka I’d started in the afternoon and took it to bed.
After I finished it, I remembered the joints and staggered to the dining table. I sat, felt for the baggie. There it was, with a card. The outside was embossed and felt like flowers. Inside was Braille: “Happy 25th, Chuck. Your drinking buddy, Andi.”
I’d never told her.