“I have a surprise for you,” says the woman. “No peeking.”
Jesse shuts his eyes to the hotel room’s stark white décor. Imagines he is in a French bordello. Thick velvet drapes framing the window. A soft canopy above the bed. Brass table lamps with beaded shades. He leans back on his elbows, kicks off his sneakers. He likes a good firm mattress.
“Maybe I can surprise you, too.” He shifts his body back toward the headboard, pantomimes strumming on an invisible guitar. Starts humming, Abracadabra.
A clever choice, she thinks, Sugar Ray all over the radio with his cover of the Steve Miller hit. If he really wanted to surprise her, he might have gone a little further back in time, hummed a few bars from Lay Lady Lay.
Jesse hears rustling, movement. Pictures the woman slipping out of the gunmetal grey sweater she wore, had to be silk the way it clung to her body. Her bracelets moving up and down her forearm are a melody all their own. And the silver necklaces, one a choker of red leather with a lotus charm, another dangling in a game of peek-a-boo with the lace pinching her cleavage—oh, it makes a grown man sigh! He can’t hide it (and why should he want to?), the rising mound beneath the zipper of his jeans, no controlling that hooking to the left once he gets into his head the not-so-secret Victoria’s mix of leather and lace. Three years of playing to pubescent high school girls flaunting fake IDs or pretending to be a thousand miles from their moms at the back of the hall have brought him to this moment. The top of the world.
“Can I open my eyes yet?” It isn’t that he doesn’t relish the dark, what you get often so much more than what you see, what you hear always so much more than what you listen for. It’s more a matter of reflex—someone tells you to close your eyes, sooner or later (most likely sooner), you’re bound to ask can I open them? It’s human nature, anticipate what’s coming next, a musician’s secret, the key to timing. Better ready than not. Curiosity only kills a cat caught off-guard.
Althea straddles him, leans forward, brushes her lips against his cheek. “Uh-uh.”
Two syllables, nothing more, grace notes infused with a whiff of vodka and peppermint and he is hers for the taking, the asking. Whatever. She ups the ante, places a mask over his eyes. From her daughter’s collection. Julie began collecting eye masks on their first trip to Paris. She was seven, thought it was the coolest thing, covering your eyes like Catwoman so you could sleep. By the time she turned ten she had them in all colors, even one in leopard. Maybe not quite the cozy comfort of a plush green alligator named Lizzie that she took to bed each night but you could do worse than cool silk tickling your eyelids. Julie liked that she could open her eyes and not see any light. Until she started becoming afraid of the dark.
Jesse picks up a scent from the mask, faintly familiar. “Wouldn’t take you for the bubble gum type.”
“Bubble gum?” Althea pictures wrappers in the little box Julie gave her just weeks ago, after years of keeping it hidden away. Super Bubble and Nestle’s Crunch, Starburst and Skittles and all manner of candy wrappers she had hoarded in a box shaped from a cut-up manila file folder and dated, November 7, 1995. A time capsule filled with evidence of a pleasure so much sweeter for the guilt it held, treats always available at the houses of friends, a far cry from the granola and carob bars at home. Small decals of bats and black cats were pasted to the outside of the box, an eye mask, the leopard one, set on top like a bow. Althea keeps it with her wherever she goes. Nostalgia is a bitch, a leopard before she got her spots, and everything that was just so right became just so wrong. How could she have not seen it coming? How could the timing of the gift, Julie down three sizes by then, bring anything but tears? And not because she said good-bye to candy.
Jesse starts to sing, he can’t help himself.
Sugar . . .
Ah, honey honey . . .
He lays it on thick, the reggae-twist that has her dancing in his lap, how can she help herself? Only just when he’s getting worked up, she pulls away. Jesse figures it’s part of the game, cat becomes mouse becomes cat. He jokes, “Is it my singing?”
In a way it is, she would like to say. This is not what she expected, a twenty-something punk rock guitarist who could make himself sound like Bob Marley. How easily, she thinks, a plan can be thwarted. She needs to regroup. “Bathroom,” she says. “Don’t go away.”
Jesse clasps his hands behind his neck, resting on the propped pillows. This is exactly what he hoped for. A woman who looked like she walked right out of pages of some yoga magazine had to have a few Tantric tricks up her sleeve that none of the dime-a-dozen Lolitas in their shredded jeans and crop tops or their mini-skirts and fishnet stockings could hold a candle to. Not that he didn’t appreciate his fan base.
In the bathroom, mirror-mirror tricks, a what-am-I-doing-here face staring back at her.
It wasn’t something precalculated, more like a moment, seized, a chance encounter that brought with it a gift, a scheme that spontaneously erupted in less time than it took her to finish the drinks she never ended up paying for. The mask, always with her, was her McGuffin.
The mask, the only one left from Julie’s collection, the others laid to rest one day in a shoebox and put in the garage, next to the tied up newspapers. Large letters—NOT FOR RECYCLING—in Julie’s unmistakable hand. There had to be twenty of them—Tinker Bell and Minnie Mouse (two different trips to Disney World), pink with polka-dots/pink without, three shades of blue (royal, midnight, powder), red with a black trim, lemon yellow, mint green—all but the leopard laid to R.I.P., Julie’s orders, remnants of childhood that had outlived their usefulness to her. Or so she said. Althea knew there was more to this divesting than a bobby-socks-to-stockings threshold crossing. She was barely eleven.
Althea’s heartbeat quickens. She hears music through the bathroom door, a guitar thrumming on the radio, classic blues, Jesse humming along. She feels herself teetering, acute panic setting in. Maybe it’s true what they say about adrenaline, the on-the-spot rush of it turning you into Wonder Woman, no talk/no thought/all action. Or maybe it was pure guise, that swinging lasso, all talk/no action. How else to reckon with reality, the wonder of how a woman ends up in a hotel room with a complete stranger? Althea fiddles with her bracelets, takes a deep get-a-grip breath. Tells herself: remember why you’re here.
“Where were we?” She curls next to Jesse, runs her finger along the dolphin jumping across his shoulder, the band of skulls encircling his bicep, the spider web stretching along his elbow, the flesh tones peeking through, making uncovered skin a form of punctuation. A rest stop between stories written on his body in dark ink. Her finger stops at the tattoo she is most curious about, a name in a swirl of rose petals. Marie. Positively sweet, she thinks. “Let’s play a game,” she says “Name That Fantasy.”
Jesse purses his lips, not a kiss, a whistle. A melody he has hummed many times, one of the first songs he learned to play on the guitar. The whistle dissolves, a scene he has envisioned so many times readies itself to be played out.
Even as he says the words—Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me. Aren’t you? —he can’t escape the feeling: who has an original thought anymore?
“And you?” he asks. She tells him about a beach, the Caribbean, silky sand. A mini-skirt, no underwear. A man she keeps a mystery.
“No fair.” He runs his finger along the side of her body, into the crook of her waist. “That’s no fantasy, that really happened.”
“Maybe,” says Althea. “Maybe not.” She will not take the bait, even if he happens to be right. More to the point: how could he know?
Jesse squeezes her arm, blind man’s bluff. Pulls her down, kisses her neck. She closes her eyes, keen to something he exudes, sweet and clammy as a summer night, as fleeting as fireflies as it gets.
It must have been the roses
Althea slips her hand into her purse. Takes it out. Slips it in again. Just to be sure she will feel her cell phone vibrate. She still can’t get used to it, this hungering for instant access. Not to mention the inane one-sided conversations she finds herself privy to. Isn’t that why phone booths were created? Better yet, the subtle mockery, this craving for constant communication, in the moment at any time of day or night, silence the silence within.
Or maybe it boils down to economics, minutes tallied and parsed out, use them or lose them.
The two girls standing behind her are in a frenzied exchange—
Oh my god, you were there? When Green Day set the stage on fire?—
Soul Asylum was amazing!—
And the line-up this year? Rage Against the Machine. Stone Temple Pilots, Limp Bizkit—
Althea turns around, no point in pretending to be discreet, eyes the girls as they give her the once over. She figures them to be sixteen, give or take a year. Both have multiple ear piercings. The one with short, spiked black hair sports a nose ring. She has a small tattoo, a rose, on the side of her neck. The neon redhead is decked out in safety pin bracelets and an eyebrow ring and fishnet stockings fashionably ripped. Some of the names Althea hears are familiar, her daughter’s room a shrine of posters, the pretty boy bands she started with giving way to the edgier ones and, at the center of it all, the heartthrob, Jesse DuFresne, lead guitar and vocals, Vagrants No More.
The line snakes around the block now, everyone here for the same thing, a chance to be up close (if not personal) with living rock stars, a signed copy of their new CD plus the cherry on the Charlotte Russe, first dibs at tickets to their kick-off show, Roseland. The sale/signing will not begin until 4 p.m., i.e., so that any fans who haven’t cut school will (theoretically) be on equal footing with those who have fooled their parents with uncharacteristic rise-and-shine esprit that had them heading straight to the city once the school bus was out of sight. With Julie home, sick in bed, Althea is aware that her presence here is as much a hedge as it is a bargain. Had Julie not been moaning with fever, she’d be groaning: It sucks so much that they’re doing this on a weekday. Whining: Punish me, I don’t care if it’s a school day, ground me—whatever—I’m going to the signing.
A bout of strep has a way of changing everything, except for the delirium at the heart of it. Whining becomes tears, which becomes begging, which becomes more whining:
Oh please oh please oh please—you have to go get the CD. For me.
You have to get concert tickets. For me and you. My friends think you’re the coolest mom.
Flattery will get you everywhere.
There are worse things than being an enabler.
Althea is startled, the vibrating phone. Julie wants to know everything.
“Nothing much to tell . . . yet. Still in line here.”
“See if you can get a picture . . . when you get close to the table where they’re signing CDs.”
“You don’t have to be embarrassed, Mom.”
Althea rolls her eyes, it’s enough that I’m here, don’t push me. She glances at her watch. Ten to four. The line starts to inch forward. “Gotta go.”
“Not that I’m a stranger to waiting in line,” she says. To no one. Or anyone who will listen. She directs herself to the girls, instant friends once she tells them about the first rock concert with Julie, the Beach Boys at Jones Beach, a safe bet for a ten-year-old. After that came Jingle Ball, her daughter’s choice.
“You went to a concert with your daughter?” Althea has moved from oddity as an old(er) woman in line to a mother now up a notch on the scale of cool. “My mother would never take me to a concert in a million years.”
She tells them about the night decades earlier when she found herself up all night, a Hot Tuna (she is caught off-guard, a smirk that gets the best of her, what kind of name is that?) concert at the Fillmore East in which they announced tickets would go on sale the very next day, the Grateful Dead. Who would want to go home?
They do their best, polite listeners, charcoal eyes cast this way and that, too cool to be really interested in stories about dinosaur rock bands.
Later, home, Julie yelps with joy when Althea shows her the concert tickets. She wants to hear everything. Not much to tell, says Althea. A couple of vagrants scribbling on CDs. One who flashes a very big smile.
“So, you think Springsteen’s gonna join them onstage?” He sidles up next to her, this man with the shiny white hair long enough to keep him convinced that youth is never really wasted (except when it is), and what is wasted time if not time well spent? “Though that wouldn’t be much of a stretch, would it?—Jersey boys honoring one of their own. He downs his pale golden drink, sucks on an ice cube. “Simon and Garfunkel—now that would be something. Queens boys of a certain age, and style, mashing it up with these toddlers from Bayonne.”
Before Althea can even bring herself to respond, a girl walks up to him, taps her finger on the face of her wristwatch, Swatch. A promise is a promise, and hers was to check in with her father at timed intervals. Her eyes dart back and forth between her father and Althea, the sting of curiosity narrowing them; there’s only so much light she’s willing to let in.
“My daughter,” he says when she disappears back into the swell of the crowd. As if Althea might mistake her for anyone else. His sigh is a giveaway, they grow up so fast. “Hates her mother. Still pissed at me for losing the joint custody battle.” ‘You’re a lawyer, Dad, you should be able to get whatever you want.’ Real estate law is whole different animal from divorce law, I try to tell her. ‘Well, then, what am I if not a property not all that different from an apartment or a house?’ Pretty savvy kid, don’t you think?”
Too much information from a stranger, is all Althea can manage to think. And too close for comfort, the open space near the bar, their vantage point, now spilling over with sweaty teenagers guzzling beer and downing shots, no accounting for taste when all it takes is being in the good graces of one friend and his/her fake I.D. “You married?”
Althea nods. “My husband doesn’t like loud music . . . unless it’s you know who—The Boss.” Her smile is a wink.
“And you like this music?”
“Some of it.”
He doesn’t believe her, his eyebrows—seriously—rising sharply, twin arches. Asks her to name songs. The ones she likes.
She could easily do that, throw him a bone. Except those twin arches, and that sneer of a smile, cue her to the setup. He will never be satisfied until she tells him what he wants to hear. Instead of the bone, she throws a curve. “Why are you here?”
“The illusion I’m living under.”
Or did he say delusion? It’s so noisy now, she can’t be sure.
“The illusion that I can keep my daughter from the wolves.”
He insists on buying Althea a drink. “Just say yes?” he winks. Next to them, boys in a football huddle, a clever if not barely masked excuse for discretion in this no-smoke zone.
“Tell the truth —” he clinks his glass against hers, “it’s that oath you swore, never sound like your mother—‘what kind of crap are you listening to’?”
“Maybe I just want to keep a door open—try to appreciate something I might not otherwise even consider.”
Nothing more sobering than Julie flying past her, to the bar, she needs a Coke. The man with the white hair (he has a name now, Kevin) nods. Julie barely notices.
“Looks like you,” he says to Althea.
“She’s light years ahead of me.”
“She loves this music. And she’s not high.”
“Not yet,” he says, excusing himself. “Save my spot.”
The lights dim, Vagrants No More scramble to the stage. She pictures Julie up front, moon-eyed.
A mosh pit forms.
She keeps a watchful distance, her heart in another circle, parents between a prayer and a helicopter wing sput-sput-sputtering overhead.
The mosh pit intensifies, bodies thumping, a dance as primal as it gets.
Althea moves a little closer, who ever was really killed by curiosity? Further in a girl is being lifted up, high above the crowd. Passed along like a surfboard. Who would want to do that?
She gets a look at the girl’s face, the hint of her father in it.
Kevin returns, reeking of pot, the new breed of stoner parents, don’t ask and I won’t tell.
He taps Althea on the shoulder. “Did I miss anything?”
You can’t always get what you want
“Not so fast,” says Althea. “The night is still young.” Jesse’s face, a joker of a smile, a mask only masks so much.
Eric Clapton never smiles.
Bruce Springsteen’s smile can light up an arena.
In an instant the joker face goes poker, no expression except for what can be insinuated, by request. He wants her to sit in the chair near the window, leg propped up. He wants to picture her across the room.
Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me. Aren’t you?—
It’s all in the voice, no one knows that better than Jesse. Inflection is everything. Hearing is believing.
He starts whistling, And here’s to you . . .
Althea is amused. If he can’t see the smile on her face, maybe he can sense it. The whistling stops, his lips soften and twitch, a silent mating call. Twin peaks, almost perfect in their angularity, the barest hint of dimples framing them. A leopard after he gets his spots.
She gets up from the bed, goes to the chair.
He starts whistling again. Pictures the leg up, the perfect angle, the exposed crotch. Maybe lace panties. Or a thong.
“Take them off,” he says. From the top of the world.
All the Small Things
She shouldn’t be doing this, she knows it. But it’s not as if Julie hid the diary away. She left it out, on her desk. Rushing (duh) for a change.
She traces the face on the cover, a Cheshire grin, whiskers beckoning like secret antenna to what’s inside.
She starts at the last entry, retrograde motion, days moving backward instead of forward in defiance of a journal’s logic. Reverse the curse. Go back in time.
She should resist, she knows it, bow to the weight of morality, not be tempted by the crime, petty or not, she risks being accused of. Or is it a crime when all you want is a clue, something worthy of Nancy Drew, the mystery of the missing girl, in this case the one disappearing inside of herself?
May 24, 2000
Oh, God, I was so close, like right up at the stage. Jesse looked right into my eyes, I know he did. He smiled. At me. I think he winked, too, but I can’t be sure. Anyway, if I can get this close, I know I can get closer. He’s only eight years older than me, which seems like a lot now but it’s really not. And I know he must think there’s something special about me. Why else would he have said at the last concert when he signed my tee-shirt– ‘Get rid of some of that baby fat and you’ll be a knockout.’?
Julie’s tight script, the roundness of her letters, brings Althea to tears.
March 24, 1999
I hate my body!!!
Can’t tell my mom, she’d just tell me there’s no one size fits all when it comes to bodies. What does she know anyway? She’s so skinny she’d never understand what it feels like to be me.
She resists imagining the next ten or twenty entries that will move the journal to its natural conclusion, no room for another word. So unlike any of Althea’s, maybe three-quarters filled before a pretty new journal would take its place. Where is it written that a journal once started needed to be filled to the end? Maybe there was something to be said for leaving blank pages, time to move on, the white space at the end of a journal as important as whatever pocket of time it contained and compressed. Nothing like starting fresh.
Althea closes the diary, places it back on Julie’s desk.
Just Like a Woman
A beach, silky sand, a mini-skirt, no underwear.
How could he have known?
“Seduce me,” her masked man pleads. “Do with me what you will. Only please-please-oh-please let me watch.”
He leaps from the bed, on all fours now, inches his way toward Althea, calculating her own next move on the fly as she watches her leopard, even more cocksure (sometimes banal is the only way to go) than he was when he flashed his may-I-join-you smile and sat himself down in the empty chair at the table she had maneuvered for herself, VIP lounge, Irving Plaza. His pounce—wouldn’t take you for a Transplants fan—had her smiling. Until the follow-up, with its Jesse DuFresne lilt—maybe you’ve heard of me?—the sound of which makes her jaw twitch, her blood boil. His hand finds its way to hers. He is wearing a silver ring on his pointer finger. A skull.
Sometimes all it takes is a chance encounter to make things right. The Transplants were playing the song that had hooked her (“Sad but True”), her head was spinning, a typhoon, her heart pushed to its limits, no longer beating on its own, the music so loud—music she would never have listened to had it not been for her daughter, songs so filled with anger she can’t quite fathom what it is she likes about it. But she does. And now, Jesse DuFresne coming on to her, all charm and cheer, an invitation, his hotel room after the show. He rubs his thumb along her wedding band, a wish of its own making. She plays along, coy, puts on her own brand of charm, tells him about the daughter who saved up money to buy her a ticket to the show before heading off to summer camp. If she couldn’t be here, at least Althea should. The waiter brings more drinks, Althea reaches into her purse, her wallet nestled beneath the mask. Jesse does not let her pay. Sounds like you have a pretty cool kid. The cat on her tongue, all tied up in a cradle of thought, Althea lets the cool silk of the mask between her fingers settle her. Jesse is across a small table, saying something, but he might as well be across an ocean for all she hears. Sounds like you have a pretty cool kid. She sees Julie, her first year at camp, all of eleven, spooked by some mean girls, hundreds of miles from home. They told her it was the coolest thing, sneaking out for a night hike. They blindfolded her, led her to a spot in the woods that felt much further than it actually was, left her. The mean girls were expelled from camp, the good ones got to stay. But the fear never really left. At least this year, her third summer away, she went willingly. Maybe the good friends will help her see something her mother cannot. Maybe they’ll get her to eat.
Sounds like you have a pretty cool kid. They have left the club, heading uptown, his hotel, not the Chelsea but cool and hip and worthy of any rock star, even one who finds himself walking alongside a woman who happens to be a mother, who happens to have one thing and one thing only in mind: make him pay for the hurt he has caused.
On his knees, no more pussyfooting around. If she won’t let him look, he’ll sniff his way toward her.
Althea’s eyes play tricks on her. A dolphin jumps. A leopard stalks. A swirl of rose petals bursts with Marie, so young so pretty so giddy with the positively sweet scent of him.
“Stop,” she coos. She calls him by the name she believes he wants to hear—Benjamin—reminds him the graduate has yet to receive his gift.
She will prolong his torture as long as she can.
She closes her eyes, to level the playing field (so she says), gives Jesse her best breathy voice.
“Picture a beach, silky sand, a mini-skirt . . .”
She instructs him to listen. Closely. To the brush of lace slipping between her thighs. To the swirl of her fingers, a clamshell prying itself open.
No pouncing, no more pussyfooting, Jesse knows a now-or-never moment when it’s in his face. He’s on his belly now, slithering, as smooth as a stealth bomber. His lips, those perfect twin peaks, know just where they’re headed.
Althea doesn’t move, kisses as soft and rhythmic as a percussion brush making their way up the inside of her thigh. She sees rose petals, positively sweet. Hears a roar, the ocean. A sigh.
Another sigh becomes a cry becomes a silent scream.
How could she not see it coming?
She opens her eyes, removes his mask.
“Show is over,” she says. “Time to tell.”
“You can’t blame me.” Jesse is pissed, sure, but wtf, easy come/easy go. He is already thinking of a song to write, Rocker Mom’s Revenge.
Blame? She’s played that game. The husband blaming the wife for all the motherly I-love-you-the-way-are talks. The wife blaming the husband for taking his role as soccer coach a little too seriously. You run, you exercise, you lose weight, It’s as simple as that. How little he really understood about girls.
All she wanted was to teach him a lesson, desire for desire’s sake, nothing more.
Her cell phone vibrates.
“Can’t ignore it,” says Jesse, buttoning his shirt.
“Yes I can.”
He reaches into her purse, pulls out the phone.
“If nothing else a photo.” He positions the camera, his arm around Althea. “For your daughter.”