A LUCKY NIGHT
It amazes me how different the café looks this evening, filled with writers gossiping in various corners as we wait for the readings to begin. Can this be the same bookstore from this afternoon? I saw less than ten people earlier and now there must be close to one hundred fighting each other for the comfy recliners while the losers of that battle are stuck with plastic folding chairs.
I don’t take a seat as I feel too much energy pulsing through my veins, this being my first reading. Ray didn’t blink an eye when I told him I wanted to do this on my birthday, but he did narrow his eyes a bit as it occurred to him I meant to do it alone. I don’t need the pressure of him critiquing my every word, my performance, every damned movement I make.
A small commotion a few feet away gains my attention and I see an overweight gentleman apologizing repeatedly to a walking stereotype Emo-chick with short wild blue hair and a metal spike through the bridge of her nose. I gather from a few strident comments from the short girl that the man stole her slice of plastic real estate while she wandered about the place trying to look artistic. She continues to berate him long after he yields all claims to the chair and I feel bad, his eyes catching mine as he nearly hyperventilates trying to escape her wrath.
I tug on the man’s soiled black tee shirt, which is emblazoned with the logo of a rock and roll band I am not familiar with. Pulling him back against the railing that separates the books from the café, I put my hand on his shoulder in an attempt to calm him. I don’t know if it works, but the emo-bitch leaves him be as the moderator begins yawning on and on about the solemn duty of poets to blah, blah, blah.
I can’t concentrate and I feel sweat on my forehead as the line of names dwindles, closing in on my doom or my first attempt to read at a poetry slam, whichever you prefer. The queue is listed on a screen of sorts behind the makeshift podium. As I begin scanning the crowd in search of a path to the stage I might take to avoid bumping and crashing into people as much as possible, the moderator reads off the next name from the list.
“That’s me. It’s time,” the man says to nobody. I think he is trying to gather enough courage to do it, though I don’t know if he is succeeding for the moderator calls his name again before he even moves an inch. I want to rub his shoulder or pat him on the back for encouragement, but before I can contemplate what such an action might mean, he launches himself into the mass of bodies and bulls his way to the podium.
Without introduction or preamble or so much as a joke, he launches into his reading, which catches me by surprise. His voice is deep and resonant, which gives me a little tickle in my belly until I hear the words.
“I have never known a woman.
Or man for that matter.
I don’t even know if I am gay or straight.
My energies are spent in a lab, finding cures to save people that matter.
Me? I am of no consequence.
I am the fat kid you spit on, the nerd you ignore.
And I ask you…can you spare a hug?”
He bolts from the stage, with the same lack of ceremony as his entrance. There is complete silence in the room, with all remaining still until the moderator gathers his senses to read the next name. Mine. However, I have no interest in reading as the man pushes his way close to me, eyes probing mine for a reaction. I make a nod at him and quickly look away. A nod? I want to crawl into a stack of books, but he is still looking at me and I manage to stop being rude, meeting his eyes once again.“Hi,” I say, looking up at him through my eyelashes.
“Is that your name they are calling?”
“Yes,” I say, looking away once again.
He takes in a deep breath, a small whistling sound escaping his lips and with the tip of his fingers, gentle pushes towards the podium. “Go read. Don’t chicken out now, you will regret it later on.”
Closing my eyes, I take a step into the crowd, letting my action be an answer to his encouragement. I feel eyes devouring me, many sets filled with hunger, suspicion, anticipation and other emotions I can’t decipher. As I take my place on the stage, my mind is a complete blank. I can’t remember a word of what I wrote this afternoon. As panic rises in my belly, I blurt out the following declaration---
I stand for marriage equality and yield my time to have you ponder this: twenty years from now, when this issue is settled, do you want to look back on this time to remember you were on the wrong side of history?
I step from the podium and with my head down, return to my place by the railing. The man is clapping for me, which draws many sets of eyes, as he makes the solitary sound in the room. I am saved by the moderator calling off the next name, his voice sounding like a computer.
“You are brave, young lady.”
“I guess. Let’s talk about what you read instead of me drawing a blank and embarrassing myself in front of all these folk.”
“This is okay with me. What did you think?” he asks, his voice reaching into my guts and massaging my nerves.
Pausing for a moment, I think of my answer, not wanting to further embarrass myself. “I don’t know much about poetry, but I liked what you read, sir.”
He laughs at me and it lessens some of the tension building in my stomach. His eyes are kind and his voice is pleasant, I can’t understand why he is such an outcast. There is a thickness in his face and extra skin under his chin, but I like his thick brown hair and broad shoulders. I feel his eyes roaming my skin and I remember in that moment that I am dressed like a streetwalker, ready for clubs and dancing later in the night. My blue skirt covers little and I know he is devouring my chest with his eyes, looking down into my loose fitting white blouse.
“Is it true what you read, that you have never been with a woman?” I ask. I still can’t believe it. It can’t be true. Can he be a virgin?
“Never,” he echoes.
“How about you take me out for a drink?”
Looking around the room and seeing nobody is listening, he tilts his head as if confused before saying, “With me?”
“No, with the blue haired girl. Of course you, sir.”
He laughs again, but it rings hollow this time and I can hear and feel his nerves. “What is the occasion?”
I let out a little sigh and I see his shoulders tense. He is bordering on panic and I touch his arm, gently. Shivering at my touch, he closes his eyes for a moment.
“We don’t need an occasion, silly, but it just so happens that tonight is my birthday.”
“Where will we go?” he cuts in.
I am beginning to see why the tally is never. Trying to resist rolling my eyes, I force a smile on my face and wait a few moments until the sarcasm is faded from what I will say. “We are less than two miles from Las Vegas Boulevard. I think we can find somewhere to get a drink.”
“Great, it’s a date then. Let’s go to Hard Rock,” I say, pulling him out of the café and through the double doors leading into the parking lot, stopping at Ray’s ’74 Firebird that I drove to the reading. He lets out a loud whistle of appreciation and stalks around the perimeter of the car, staring at each detail.
“Is this yours?” he says.
I think for a moment and shrugging my shoulders say, “It is now, I guess.”
He looks at me, questions in his light brown eyes, but I wave my hand for him to forget it.
“What is at the Hard Rock?” he asks as he settles into the passenger’s seat, which groans and complains under his weight.
“I have a room,” I answer, not meaning anything and for once, not flirting, but he pins his back against the seat and stares straight ahead as I turn onto Maryland Parkway. He is silent as I wait for the stoplight at Flamingo and I shake my head in wonder. Really? There is silence as I pull onto Paradise and drive the last stretch to the casino. I need a drink at this point and don’t know what to expect.
“You are lucky, I hope you realize,” he says as I park the car. I study his eyes for a moment, trying to decide if he is joking or not.
“How so, sir?”
“You are the most beautiful women I have ever seen in my life. You hit the lottery at birth. Perfect hair, flawless skin, eyes a pale baby blue that is tearing away at my insides as I look at you. Can you imagine what your life might be like if you had been born fat and ugly like me?”
He eyes fall away from me and I respond before I can stop the words from escaping my mouth, “Maybe if I hadn’t been so perfect looking my father might have refrained from sticking it in me so often.”
I jump from the car, tears in my eyes and wait for him at the entrance. I know I have said too much, but it simply came out. I didn’t plan to say that and you can’t un-say a thing once it enters the world. He avoids my eyes as we navigate the crowded halls of Friday night and I wonder for a moment what I am doing. I could be with Mary and Ray and Peter, but I am here…doing…I don’t know. Suddenly, he stops, a few feet from the gate to the center bar.
“I don’t know if this is such a good idea.”
“It is just a drink, sir.”
“But…” he looks around for a moment again, that sinking feeling that he is about to have a panic attack rising in my belly. “I don’t do this. The social thing, drinking, women. You are far too beautiful for me.”
“Don’t worry about that. Spend time with me, don’t think,” I say, reaching out and taking his hand in mine. He jumps and laughs, squeaking out a nervous laugh that skips and repeats as he tries to pull away from me. I know I am making his anxiety worse and I release his hand, which serves to calm him a bit. I wait for him to gain control of his breathing before I speak again. “You are right though, it is getting late and I have plans for tonight, will you be able to get home okay?”
Relief washes over his features and he smiles, which makes it all worth it. “I can find a taxi. It is Vegas, after all.”
“Ok, sir, but you owe me a hug,” I say, holding my arms open. He doesn’t fight or argue or hem and haw and instead throws his thick arms around my body, crushing me into his chest.
“I can’t thank you enough.”
“No need,” I say, kissing him lightly on the cheek. After a few moments, he walks towards the lobby of the casino, swallowed in a sea of humanity.