Something a bit more serious this time. Hope you enjoy. Let me know in the comments.
As I sat in the Man Cave the other day, I glanced at a scrap of colored paper, bleached light orange by the sun, sitting on my windowsill. The writing is so neat and feminine though slightly faded. I’ve had it so long that my eyes usually slide over it, but every so often it stops me for a moment, a slight metaphorical punch to the solar plexus.
When I met the girl from Spain, it was 1991 and I was 24.
One Friday night, she walked into my watering hole, Casey Moore’s, with two acquaintances I knew from school — an actor named Owen and his lanky, sharp-featured companion whose name I can no longer remember but who once told me he had Marfan Syndrom, a condition Lincoln probably suffered from. I think he’d been in a playwriting class with me. But maybe not.
She caught my attention the second she came in the door — pretty, with something electric about her eyes. Owen introduced us. I was a practitioner of the art of invisibility, but occasionally my powers waned when I drank enough and she took interest in me and we struck up a conversation. Buzzed from Bacardi and Cokes, I felt relaxed and exuded an unnatural self-confidence and I bought her a drink. We hit it off and her two chaperones receded by inches into the foggy background of cigarette smoke like a tide tugged away by the moon. I don’t remember when they disappeared, but I wasn’t sad about it.
She was not the stereotypical dark-haired Spaniard that comes to the mind of the average American. Instead, she had porcelain skin and slightly wavy, honey-colored hair and her name was Alejandra. From Barcelona or Madrid — I forget where. She studied architecture at the ASU School of Design.
Around closing time, an after-hours party materialized and a bunch of us trooped off in high spirits through the neighborhood to the house of a Casey’s regular named Snake to drink some more. Someone fired up the stereo system and we joined in an impromptu dance party. Laughter, chatter, music — I was feeling the rhythm, which I sometimes did when I could shortcircuit the crippling insecurities strengthened by watching eyes that kept me locked in a straightjacket. But that’s why God created alcohol right? (And to stop the Irish from ruling the world). That night, I lived carefree as my heart pumped my carefully hoarded, alcohol-fortified confidence through my veins.
Alejandra’s hips, arms, and hands glided in well-oiled ellipticals as she hypnotized me with her economical yet seductive movements.
She tugged lightly on my sleeve as she leaned in to compete with the loud, rhythmic music, and her gravitational pull drew me in, the scent of her perfume in my nostrils.
“I like how you dance.” The puff of her breath tickled my ear and I shivered as her hypnotic voice coaxed out my smile.
Man, all those hours of practicing dancing in front of a mirror like a dork when no one had been around had paid dividends. Don’t get me wrong, I liked dancing and went clubbing a lot, but unless I’d pounded a few strong drinks first, I felt completely awkward on a dance floor, a creature whose jointless arms and legs were all recently introduced strangers. At that moment, with booze in my bloodstream putting my anxiety in timeout, my limbs were transformed into supple willow, my joints lubricated with mercury, gliding in smooth patterns to the beat. My old man could cut a rug — I’d been amazed to see him explode into a damn good jitterbug at one or two weddings, echoes of his forgotten youth. Maybe I got some small measure of his ability?
Alejandra and I created a powerful alchemical reaction, the two of us isolated in a crowded living room of baser elements.
Several partiers decided to go to an alternative after-hours club and Alejandra and I piled into someone’s car in the convoy, but something happened and we couldn’t get into the club, so we ended up back at Snake’s. A shame, but we didn’t care; it didn’t really matter where the two of us were.
It was closer to dawn than midnight when I finally walked her to her apartment along Mill Avenue about a mile or so away. My car sat back at Casey’s, but I didn’t care. As we walked and shared our thoughts, I wished she lived 5 miles away.
We sat on the step in front of her apartment door and talked some more as the minutes unfairly accelerated into the dark.
We never kissed. It felt like we should — but the alcohol in my blood had ebbed away by that time and normal protocols snapped back in place and insecurities returned and locked away my self-confidence in its dark cubbyhole.
As we talked, she said:
“I’m flying back to Spain the day after tomorrow.”
In a panic, I felt my world lurch as life stabbed me in the heart. No! How could this be? However, the blow wasn’t mortal as she assured me it was just for the summer. She’d be back in August for the fall semester.
Desperate to see her again to keep the magical feeling alive, I invited her to a party I was throwing the next day (later that day, I suppose), and she said she’d come if she could, but she didn’t think it likely because she had a lot to take care of before she left early Sunday.
Out of her purse, she pulled a piece of colored paper and a pen, wrote her name, phone number and the date around when she’d be back and tore the corner off and handed it to me.
“I’ll be back in August,” she said. “Either the eighteenth or nineteenth, I forget. Call me then.”
We stood up and she pressed herself against me in a quick hug and then she disappeared into her apartment, the door closing softly. Ebullience fighting off the disappointment, I floated along the streets back to my car; in my head, I danced along like Gene Kelly in the rain. God, I should have kissed her.
My infatuation with the Spanish girl sustained me for weeks and I thought about Alejandra constantly creating an imaginary romance in my head. But three months is a long time when you’re young and that summer stretched out interminably. I began to worry if the magic of that night could hold up to the reality of strong sunlight when she got back.
Her summer trip home left me with too much time to think. Always my undoing. My brain, that master saboteur, began weaving a neurotic tale with me as a tertiary character in a romcom, cutting me off at the knees. Everything began to seem unlikely. On one hand, a beautiful, international young woman with big plans working on a prestigious degree and then there was me, the underemployed guy with long hair, a college grad with no firm goals, who made $6 an hour as a reservations agent. No way I could live up to her expectations. What did I have to offer? Mundanity and no prospects. I dreaded the disappointment when she uncovered the truth.
One thing I’ve learned over the years is distance does make the heart grow fonder — for someone else who is much closer. A month after she left, I met someone at work, a woman in her thirties and we struck up an unlikely friendship. Kind and funny, she was both physically and spiritually a beautiful person, a single mother with a fractured soul that life kept tapping at looking for a weak spot. As a rescuer by nature (I know, I know, the irony) I helped her out in a tough situation and our friendship grew from there.
I was young, poor, and naive and she was everything I wasn’t: sophisticated, worldly, a former model who’d run in elite circles in a previous life before she fell on hard times after a failed marriage. We weren’t involved romantically, yet, but we forged a growing connection over the many hours we spent together at our shitty job talking about life and her troubles and our dreams. Eventually, we began talking on the phone late at night, sharing secrets. Young, I was out of my depth but didn’t know it. Incrementally, I drifted toward a new shoreline with its gentle waves and hidden rocks.
When August 18th came, I chose to wait until the 19th to call Alejandra. On the 19th, I took the slip of paper in my hand and the phone from its cradle and started to dial but hung up. It had been so long. What if she didn’t remember me? Or maybe she had found someone else? Or she had come to her senses? Maybe our mutual attraction hadn’t lived beyond that night. And what about my relationship with my coworker that seemed like it had grown beyond mere friendship?
Conflicted, I decided I’d wait a few more days and then call Alejandra.
So I waited a week. And then another. Finally, in a moment of clarity, I overcame my silly temporizing. I needed to get to know her and explore the possibilities. Disaster struck when I went to ring her. I couldn’t find the slip of paper with her number on it. Cursing and in a state, I tore my rented bedroom apart looking for it to no avail. My heart sank in despair. I knew where her giant apartment complex was, but not her apartment number. On weekends, in vain, I looked for her to walk through the front door of Casey Moore’s.
I never saw her again.
Or maybe I did, a few months later, at a distance, outside of the Design School. I was trying to get into grad school and hurrying to an appointment on campus when I spotted a young woman who looked similar to Alejandra. She was in the right location, but I couldn’t be sure. She was deep in conversation with another student, some handsome guy. I passed by fifty feet to her left and she may have glanced my way, but I’m not sure. It happened quickly. Neither of us said anything. Life turns on these small moments.
Was it her? Maybe? Or maybe not. I just couldn’t be sure. Turn around and go and find out, I told myself. If it was, maybe she didn’t recognize me. Or maybe she did but the date of expiration had passed? Every step I took made it harder. I walked on and my life took a different path. I didn’t turn around.
Seven years later, I found the piece of paper with her number on it tucked into the pages of a book where I’d apparently stuck it for safe keeping. Single and wearied by life at that time, I looked at it and shook my head. God, I thought, I’m my own worst enemy.
So, why do I keep it still? Sentimentality? A talisman? A reminder that I’m a dumbass? All the above? I don’t know, maybe I keep it as a scourge for mental self-flagellation. Or a quiet reminder that a life lived in fear is a life half lived.
People ask if I called her number after I found it. But that only works in romantic comedies. I knew she was long gone.
Sometimes, I wonder if she ever thinks of me like I occasionally think of her. Probably just another forgotten face and name. I’ll wonder what she’s up to, and guess at the life she led. Did she become an architect? Is she back in Spain? Did she marry? Have kids? Maybe grandkids by now?
And I dream of what could have been. Stupid, I know, but human. Maybe we would have had a fantastic life, a romance for the ages. Or not. It doesn’t pay to romanticize things. I can’t help it though — in my mind, she never gets old, frozen in time, the Spanish girl I never knew. She disappeared from my life after one night. But she’ll never fade from my memory until I draw my last breath. Alluring, aways young. Always smiling. A perfect memory in a flawed existence.
She didn’t disappear though. I let her vanish through inaction. The King of Indecision.
When you float through life, don’t be surprised when the vagaries of wind and tide put you on the rocks.
All those years ago. Does it really matter at this point? No.
So I keep my orange scrap of paper in a shoebox with mementos I have. Out of sight, but not out of mind.
Que será será.
*A clip from the Aussie romantic comedy Strictly Ballroom directed by Baz Luhrmann. I recommend it as a good, light-hearted movie skewering and embracing cliches and stereotypes. Features some great dancing and its share of laughs.
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