NOVEL EXCERPT: EXCUSE ME, WAITRESS, IS THAT NEW JERSEY?
Humorous Women’s Fiction with Romantic Elements ©2017
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*language – 93K words
Post-punk, mid-’80s girl-power discovery journey on the Delaware River, New Hope, PA.
Jessica and her three college roommates waitress their way through a summer of new wave clubbing, drag shows, imposing mystics and friends of all sexual persuasions, as Jess struggles to finance a semester abroad to study art. Her soulful, hometown boyfriend wants to “see different people,” just in time for a bottle-blond, risk-taker of a bassist with killer blue eyes to crawl through her basement window and make her head spin.like a record. When Whit sends Jessica careening off the road, draining her savings with an ER bill, she has to decide whether falling for both guys at once is amazing, or a reckless personification of her cracked-glass mosaic projects—and whether a commitment to either boyfriend will hinder her dream of heading to Europe.
A guy with biceps thick as knotty tree limbs inspects my driver’s license, flicking his eyes at me. I’d smile, but that seems inappropriate for a hardcore club like The Fall Out, where people dress in head-to-toe black to protest the sordid state of their collective youth.
A buzz-saw type band called Killing Joke is scheduled to play. As promised, Trina borrowed her mother’s station wagon to drive us into downtown Philly, to show me hardcore life as-it-is. Her language confused me, however, as she calls it “The City,” which to me has always meant Manhattan. Even in Pittsburgh, no one says “The City.” They say, “downtown.” Which comes out more like don-ton.
Guitar riffs strain through an obscured hallway plastered with 8×10, Xeroxed ads for previous performers: The Circle Jerks, The Dead Kennedys, Black Flag. This place is what we punky types call authentic. None of that bubble-gum, Katrina and the Waves “Walking on Sunshine” shit around here. The Pretenders are playing here at the end of the summer. That show’s been sold out for months. I checked.
A woman paces toward us in the dank hallway, clomping in studded stilettos. She wears a leather jacket and a cap with chain link across the brim. Her face is a sheath of eyeliner and white powder.
“Ow!” barks Kimmer. “Excuse you. You stepped on my favorite foot.” Leather Girl continues down the hall, void of expression.
Trina pulls Kimmer aside. “Please. This is not a comedy club.”
“And that wasn’t a clown shoe,” Kimmer says, “unless it was the special dominatrix version.” She limps her next few steps.
“Do I look tough enough to be in here?” I ask Trina as I navigate the shadows of the corridor. “I’m getting worried.”
“You’re always worried,” Trina says. “Just keep your eyes low and your mouth closed. Seriously. Jokes are not tough.”
Audrey is Amazon tall. Trina’s black eyeliner is angry and her hair is blunt enough to be positively fascist. Kimmer is sprayed-up Deborah Harry gorgeous, so she doesn’t need to be frightening. I am somewhere in-between, not brave enough to screw up my hair with dye or an overdose of Aqua Net. I gel it behind my ears for a swingy geometric look and piece-y bangs. But I will not qualify as tough unless the Lollipop Guild shows up. I pretend to zip my mouth.
“Squint,” Audrey instructs me over my shoulder. “That usually adds an intimidation factor.”
“That, or people will think I lost a contact lens,” I say, yanking as my hem rises with each step.
“You look great,” Audrey says to me. “So shut up. That’s intimidating enough.”
The Fall Out is a black-washed, Pirindello-esque nightmare. The place wallows in dim cigarette smoke. Expansive and pitch, it’s a cavern where someone knocked together a stage in the back. A few metalwork tables and blood-red chairs with slashed seats line the walls, upholstery split open and spewing stuffing like reverse wounds. We elbow our way to a couple of tall bar stools and Kimmer and I claim two. She pulls off a pointy black pump and rubs her pained toe.
Oversaturated guitar riffs vibrate through the club’s speakers. Audrey hails a lanky bartender in eyeliner. I estimate him at forty-percent (Chance. Of being straight. We’re not that far from New Hope.) She orders Scotch on the rocks and Trina orders the same, with Dewar’s.
Trina always seems to have more money than any of us, no matter the circumstances. When we do runs to the campus mail room, which we always do after lunch at the Pitt caf, envelopes from her father materialize a couple of times a month, which she laughs off. Yet these instances are usually followed by the appearance of a new freaky blouse, or boots I beg to borrow. And she always snags the best jobs.
“You’re drinking Dewar’s, Trina?” Audrey articulates over the strains of a Gang of Four song. “I don’t have your deep pockets.”
Trina smiles. “The Rose has its perks. Bryan turned me on to Dewar’s. It’s smooth stuff.”
“Bryan sounds like a blast,” says Audrey.
“He is. Please don’t ask him to point out New Jersey, though,” Trina says. “You will forever be marked as a tourist.”
A tourist is an ugly thing to be when you’re a local. Which for the summer, is how we have quickly learned to identify ourselves. We have been indoctrinated into the cult of New Hope Servers, a special breed that holds no judgments amongst ourselves. We survive being ordered around like marionettes, stiffed by artistic millionaires, and finger-snapped like dogs by tacky passers-through. And we are all stunningly aware of the exact location of New Jersey.
And recall, at the Chambre Rose, the staff has survived a famous drowning incident in their parking lot. They are The Elite.
“We’re a pretty tight crew at The Rose,” Trina brags. “When you pool tips, everybody pitches in. It’s the way to go, waitress-wise. Bryan is especially … helpful … to everyone.”
“Everyone in a skirt?” Audrey asks.
“Okay, so he does a lot of flirting,” says Trina. “That shithead.”
“Triiinaaah,” says Kimmer, replacing her shoe and leaning over the bar. “Are you falling in like?” Waves of inflexible blonde hair drop over her eye on one side.
Trina shakes her head but smirks as if she’s harboring something amusing. If I had to guess, we might witness some blushing at this point. But I can’t confirm in these lighting conditions. And Trina would probably whack me with her rocks glass if I mentioned it.
Instead, I pull a bill out of my boot, which doubles as my purse tonight, and order a whiskey sour. I’m perpetually on the tightest budget of the four of us, being the least experienced waitress, and having the most to save for.
But I don’t dare ask how much the drink costs this time.
Last week, I asked. A bartender smacked a bar glass against the Formica in front of me. How much have you got? he barked, his exhale louder than the drum beat.
Audrey steps next to me. “Twelve o’clock,” she says in my ear, “Staring at you.”
I stretch to get a better view of the bar, swiveling my vinyl bar stool.
“No, no—” She grabs the seatback to stop me from turning. “He’ll know I tipped you off. Blond. Or… brunette-altered. Bleach streaks in the front.”
The bar is lined with shoulder-padded men in brawny blazers. One thing about this attire, it makes all men look like the brutes who feed at the Pitt Football Training Table in the caf. When they disrobe, they lose four inches-worth of shoulders.
“Is he one of the scary ones?” I ask.
“Maybe,” Audrey swirls the Scotch in her glass and swallows. “Long earring, black jacket.”
“Every guy in here has an earring and a black jacket,” I say.
“Everyone in Philadelphia has an earring and a black jacket,” says Trina, stepping next to me. “Who are we scoping?”
“Bleach job due north,” Audrey says to Trina. “Semi-Adonis.”
Trina’s eyes dart toward the guy, whom I’m warned not to look at full-face yet. “Huh. I wouldn’t kick him,” she says.
Meaning, out of bed. Part of our roommate rating system for guys. I wouldn’t kick him out of bed.
I strain my powers of peripheral vision to glimpse the somewhat-blond guy across the way. He hunches his back as if to protect his bottle of a Guinness from an undefined threat. I notice the song spewing over the speakers change to Echo and the Bunnymen’s “Lips Like Sugar.” Amazing synths zing through the place. It makes the staring blond guy more exciting.
Guyliner the bartender places a Heineken in front of Kimmer then plants a highball glass full of yellow, foamy liquid in front of me, decorated with fruit and a swizzle stick. I offer a bill, but he waves my money away. “From that guy.” He tosses a thumb over his shoulder.
At least I’m allowed to look at him now. He has European-esque bone structure and blue eyes that are ratcheted up to full power. The line of silver that swings from his ear could break skin.
Audrey pushes off the bar. “Ten points for Jess.”
I smile and mouth “thank you” at the guy, since there’s no way my voice can compete with the sticky-slow XTC song that now blares through the speakers. Gazing through the yellow spikes of hair that spill over his eyes, he tilts the bottom of his bottle toward me, raising just one eyebrow.
Trina leans in. “Wrap him in a bow and take him home,” she says.
“He is lovely,” I agree. “Lov-e-ly.”
I spear the cherry in my drink with the swizzle stick and lift it to my lips. Slowly, I roll the edge of my tongue against the plumpness of the fruit. Blond Streak watches, his stare locked to the on position. I rest the cherry against my teeth, then methodically let it break away from the stick. My tongue slowly sweeps the cherry into my mouth.
Blond Streak smiles with one side of his face at a time. His eyes could melt my frigging highball glass.
“Go talk to him,” says Trina.
“Let him come here.”
The issue of whether or not the guys comes to us or we go to them shouldn’t matter. But it does. There is power dispersed in the process or who walks to meet whom.
Control. Control is a big thing.
I nibble strategically at an orange slice and pretend not to notice him anymore.
“Are you kidding with that fruit routine?” Trina says.
“Works every time. Is he getting up?”
“No,” says Trina.
“He’s ogling a frigging hole in your forehead,” notes Audrey. “But he’s not moving.”
Kimmer hoists herself onto a foot rail for a better look across the bar. I tug her back.
“Maybe he’s parked in a handicapped spot and can’t walk.” She slides back onto the stool. “Anyway, Trina, does this Bryan character live in New Hope?”
“Doylestown. He carpools with another waiter.”
“He’s got a car?” Kimmer says. “Ten points.” She slugs her Heineken.
Notice she did not order wine. No one orders wine in a place like this. And no one ever will. The glasses hanging upside down from black rails in the ceiling are a lie.
“Twenty points,” Trina says. “Because he’s cute. And he makes me laugh.” She pulls her fingers through the bottom of her sprayed, brown bob. “The other night, a woman ordered the braised Long Island duckling in rosemary glaze,” she says, sing-songing her way through the story. “Bryan’s been hauling trays all night, and he’s frazzled as hell. He heads out with a tray. I’m trailing behind him, with two dinners.”
“Right, the team approach,” says Audrey. “Must be nice.”
I have no team. I have only a Pixie Dishwasher Girl at the restaurant where I work. But this is the only place that would hire me. So I shut up.
“Bryan balances the plate of duckling in one hand like he’s in the Russian Circus.” She acts this out, suspending imaginary stoneware. “He announces, ‘Okay dokes, who gets the fuck?’”
Kimmer bursts laughter, slapping her Heineken to the bar.
“How did they take it?” I ask.
“He gave them free Tiramisu and a round of drinks.”
I glance back for Blond Streak guy, who’s still stooped over a beer bottle. No longer looking at me. “He’s really just gonna sit there?” I say out loud.
“Hey, you got a drink out of it, no strings attached,” says Kimmer. “Who can complain?”
“I can,” I say. “I can complain. Finally a straight guy looks at me, and he stays there.”
Talk Talk drones through the sound system and a few black-coated monsters gravitate to the dance floor. They clod gracelessly, as if they’ve just escaped from a class on sedation techniques.
“Oh, ladies, that is not attractive,” Audrey says. She places her empty glass on the bar.
“The Bozo bus just let out,” says Kimmer. “Right here on the dance floor.”
“Let’s show them how it’s done.” Audrey pulls at Kimmer’s arm.
Kimmer hops off her bar stool. “Owww. We’re gonna lose our prime seating. And I’m down to one good foot tonight.”
“Dance off the pain,” Audrey says. “Time to send the Bozos packing.”
Trina drains her Scotch and shoves off the bar with Audrey. She yanks at my elbow as the music hits full flail capacity.
“But…but…” I gesture vaguely in the direction of Lovely Blond Streak, who has left a void in his place at the bar. A grizzly cultist-type with bare arms quickly commandeers his seat.
“You can dance, or you can write that guy an engraved invitation on a cocktail napkin to come talk to you,” says Trina. “Pick A or B. Before the song ends.”
I take a significant gulp of whiskey, some of which spills. The alcohol plods to the bottom of my stomach and delivers a shiver. It buzzes in my brain, amping up the magic of Talk Talk and then Aztec Camera in the murkiness of the dance floor.
We girls assume our typical positions on the floor, a new wave version of a square dance. Or a human compass. Blue and red beams of lights wipe past, blurring in my peripheral vision. I revolve to see if anyone’s watching. Because what fun is dancing otherwise?
“Don’t worry about that bleachy guy,” Audrey shouts in my ear.
“Maybe he’s only 80 percent?” adds Trina, swishing her arms to the bass line.
“It’s all right,” I say. “I’m dancing now. I need no one.” The club takes on a certain fuzziness, blurring at its edges as I whip myself around the floor. I recall I haven’t eaten much today. I mistakenly whack someone with my arms, and apologize to a guy with long bangs that are a little too Flock of Seagulls for real life. I wipe sweat off my forehead.
I almost always hit someone when I dance.
When we return to the bar, our seats are occupied by other women, far more dangerous-looking and availed of much more hairspray than we are. A towering, powdered-up skinny girl with a half-Mohawk and a strangely beautiful boyfriend leans against the bar in my place. Multiple piercings decorate her nose. I reach between two sets of shoulders for my whiskey and tilt back the last of it, catching a selection of half-melted ice cubes between my teeth.
Through the lens of the bottom of the glass, a tall shadow defuses my light.
“How’s that drink?”
Blond Streak has nice shoulders, now that he is not slumped over a beer. I hope they are not all padding. His eyes assault me with blue.
“Aha,” I garble through ice cubes. I splinter them with my molars, rolling my hands as I swallow. He shows a half-smile, which takes its time to reach across his face. An ice pain shoots through my temple.
I gulp. “Well, hi.”
Trina grabs my arm. “Don’t kick him,” she whispers. I ignore her. The English Beat start spilling out a musical confession in the background.
“Hi,” he says back, acknowledging Trina with a nod. She ducks away, eyeing Mohawk Girl’s boyfriend before she slips behind various sets of anonymous black jackets and is engulfed by the crowd.
“Thanks for this,” I raise the now-empty glass. He lifts it out of my hand and reaches toward the bartender.
“One more of these,” he tells Guyliner. “And another Guinness.” A earring resembling a fishhook swings at the side of his face. What little illumination there is in the place slides along his formidable cheekbones.
“I’m glad I get to thank you face-to-face,” I say. “It took you a while to say come hello.”
“Sorry,” he says. “I had to gear-up for it.”
“To talk to me?” Maybe I look rowdier than I imagine.
“A cute girl like you? Sure.” As he nods, the blond spikes in front of his eyes quiver.
“Huh. In that case I forgive you. And please keep talking…”
“I’m Whit,” he says.
“As in Whitney?” We have to shout at each other.
“As in Mark Whittan,” he says.
“So why aren’t you Mark?”
“My roommate is Mark. We need to differentiate.”
“So you get to be the derivative Mark?”
He laughs. “No. I get to be the interesting Mark.” He leans down to my eye-level. “Your name is….?”
Duh. “I’m Jess.”
The Sex Pistols start causing Anarchy in the UK loudly over the sound system. Rowdy punks in torn clothing begin whipping themselves around the dance floor.
I rise on my toes, resting a hand on his arm. “Jess. As in Jessica.”
His smile, out of place in this resounding black hole of warehouse, makes my inside tingle, like ice crystallizing somewhere in the pit of my stomach. “I heard you the first time,” he says.
I bite my lip. “I know.”
I glance at the bar. Guyliner flicks his chin at me in acknowledgement of my finally hooking-up with this guy. It’s another weird, gothic grin among the too-cools of the desolate bar.
“Jess-as-in-Jessica, want to get a table?” Whit asks, handing me a glass.
I try not to smile too widely, but it hurts to holding my muscles back.
I glance over my shoulder. My friends chat away down the bar. Kimmer blows cigarette smoke and makes a kissy face full of red lipstick. Audrey waves me off.
“Sure, Whit-as-in-Mark-Whittan,” I push my hair behind one ear. He leads me away from the bar by the hand, trailing through rows of the night’s party-goers.
I pass Trina. “Every time,” I say in her ear. She rolls her eyes and pushes me away.
The crowd parts more easily for Whit than it did for us girls. Must be nice to have a formidable physique. I notice the back of his hair is dark, and gets blonder till it reaches the bleachy front. He is gradient. His hand is warm, though. He keeps a hold of me.
There’s a scrap metal table open in the back, off to the side of the blank stage.
“Good thing that guy on the dance floor didn’t knock you back when you hit him,” Whit says.
“You saw that?” The cracked red vinyl of the seat bites the undersides of my legs as I sit. The aluminum table wobbles between us.
“Couldn’t miss it.”
“I get a little carried away.” I gulp sour mix and harsh, low-shelf Canadian whiskey. The drink is stiff. At least you get your money’s worth in this place. Even though it’s not my money.
“So what do you do with yourself?” he asks. “Besides play with fruit.” He brings his arm up to the tabletop showing a studded leather bracelet, sharp and threatening. It scrapes against the metal table.
“I’m a waitress, at the moment. I moved to New Hope for summer break.”
“New Hope?” he pushes back against a bench seat. “That place is a little off-the-wall, isn’t it? Unless you’re an actor. Or an artist.”
“Bingo,” I say.
“Which one?” He takes a guzzle of opaque brown beer.
“Both, kind of. Artist and singer,” I say. “I’m a student. University of Pittsburgh.”
“You don’t sound like you’re from Pittsburgh.”
“Yeee-ah. So they tell me.” I sip a whiskey sour so acidic it sends fumes up to the back of my nose. I try not to cough. “Really, I’m from Long Island.”
Whit tosses his Ric Ocasek blazer along bench seat. His shoulders are in fact authentic, gaining only slightly from his jacket. He runs a hand through his hair, which flexes back to rest in front of his eyes again, only barely shifting from where they started out. “So, New Hope, Pittsburgh, Long Island, Philadelphia…”
“London!” I say, popping straight in my seat like a bagel out of a toaster.
“When did you live in London?”
“With any luck, in a couple of semesters. I’ve got a lot of double shifts in front of me if I want to afford it.”
I notice a scar above his one eyebrow, a straight, tan slice, as if scripted by a sheet of glass. Behind us, a guy with inorganic-looking, Cher-black hair wanders around the dark stage, adjusting mikes and taping down cables.
Whit squints at me. “Wait. So you’re how old?”
I invite him closer with a bend of my nail-bitten finger. “I turned 21 the other day.”
“Your twenty-first birthday? No shit! Prove it.”
“I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.” I hand dig into my boot for my license. Vinyl shrapnel digs deeper at my thighs as I shift. I hand him my card, which he holds up toward the light bar in the rafters of the stage.
“Can you not attract attention to the fact that I only just turned legal?” I swing to see if anyone official-looking is in earshot. Although you basically have to be in my lap to be in earshot. I grab the back my ID. “Now let me see yours. That was the deal.”
“Mine is boring.” He extracts a wallet from the back of his jeans, passing me his license. In the picture, he wears a casual smile. His signature is neat and linear. So are his teeth. He’s got a desirable King of Prussia address. And dark brown hair.
At least his name is real.
I hold the license level with his head. “Ahem. Not much of a resemblance.”
He closes his palm around the card and shuts his eyes. “Shit. I forgot about that.” He slides the card into his wallet, then raises a hand in surrender. “You got me.”
On the stage, the roadie with the carbon-black hair taps microphones and adjusts equipment. He and Whit exchange nods.
“I didn’t exactly think this was natural.” I say, flipping a finger toward the front of his hair. “It’s terrific and all, don’t get me wrong. But not many people are born with strategically placed platinum streaks.”
Lights flicker in an overhead beam full of gels as a roadie tests the system; finally, some decent light between us. His jaw is cut; kind of Sting-like. Which is great by me. I had a cover of Interview magazine taped next to my bed all semester with Sting’s face staring down from it, intense in blissful Warholian pastels.
He wraps his finger around mine and pulls me close to his face, his skin smooth as a canvas, colored in gel light. I smell the leather bracelet. “There’s no fooling you,” he says in my ear. “Don’t let on and I’ll keep you in whiskey sours the rest of your life.”
I clink my highball glass against his Guinness. “Works for me.”
Whit’s sight line drops toward my mouth for a second, chest rising as he breathes in, lips barely open. That melt-ray in his eyes begins to charge up, honing in on me. It vibrates through my body.
I feel warm places bubble to life. I want to draw his finger against my lips and into my mouth. It is … right … there. My teeth part.
Far too early, I think.
I break the stare, pressing myself back against the crimson diner chair. Chrissie Hynde from The Pretenders croons “Message of Love” in the background. I sing, pulling out my best molasses-slow vibrato.
“You have a nice voice,” he says.
“I’m always good for a deep, throaty number like a Pretenders song. Or The Motels.”
It dawns on me it is probably not a good idea to mention my deep-throaty vibrato in the presence of a guy whose stare I just had to cool down, provoking thoughts of wrapping my tongue around his appendages. He pulls a little closer, on the edge of the bench.
“I didn’t just say that,” I say.
“You did,” he laughs.
“I’m all talk, I swear.”
He tosses his hands. “I didn’t say a word.”
I poke my fake license back into my boot. His eyes follow as I bend. “So, are you in college?” I ask.
“I did two years at Temple,” he says. “It was … a mess.” He shudders and guzzles lager. “I majored in business. Then communications. Then business again. You know what I learned? Business sucks. Now I work on a loading dock at IBM in Center City. And I’m … waiting for things to happen.”
“You and me both,” I say. “Isn’t King of Prussia the Main Line?” I paid attention to his license.
“That’s way above my budget,” I say. “I live in a basement. We’re lucky the river doesn’t pour in at night when we’re sleeping. How can you afford King of Prussia at 23? Are you a trust fund kid?”
“No way, sorry,” Whit says. “It’s a condo. I inherited it, since my mother got remarried a few months ago. I’m allowed to live there until the lease is up.”
“Are you lying?”
“I wouldn’t lie,” he says.
“Don’t worry,” I say. “By the same token, every blonde chick older than age 16 is a liar. So I’ll let it slide.”
He has a mother he’s willing to reference in public. He has a good dentist. He has a job with a real company. And it took him half an hour to gather the guts to talk to me. I wonder how nice the rest of the intimidating gothic linemen at the bar would be if I talked to them.
A couple of guys file past us, moving towards the far end of the club. “You comin’?” one of them asks Whit, who lifts a finger.
A guy I’ve never seen climbs on stage and adjusts the drum kit against a wrinkled gray backdrop. He taps a cymbal, and juts his chin toward me in a little hello gesture. I squint. I don’t recognize him.
Bodies gravitate towards the stage. My roommates glide by, an exclusive crowd all their own. Judging by the glassiness in Trina’s eyes, I estimate she is clutching at least her third Dewar’s.
Audrey strolls to our table, heels smacking the floorboards. “Are you two going to dance by the stage? The opening band is coming on. We need to stake out a spot.”
“I don’t dance,” Whit says. “But nice to meet you.”
“Charmed,” Audrey says. “Even if you don’t dance.” She bends to my ear. “Although he loses five points.”
Yet another guy passes, knocking on our metal table, making my glass jump. “Come on, man,” the guy whines.
“I have to leave,” Whit says, pushing his chair away from the table with a screech against the floor.
“Do you have a date or something?” I laugh.
“No—well,” he rises. “You could say that.”
I gape at him. “I was kidding.”
He reaches for his blazer, crumpled on the bench. “I’ll talk to you in a while, I swear. But I have to go. Now.”
He disappears among the many ghastly bodies beginning to crowd the stage.
“Is he turning back into a pumpkin?” Audrey asks. “That is one undecided guy.” The stage lights go dark. “Come on,” she tells me. “We’ll never get a good vantage point if you wait for him.” Prime placement is crucial for a small person at a general admission concert.
I elbow past a couple of not-too-mean-looking guys to get toward the front of the crowd. I don’t mind elbowing guys. Society dictates they are not allowed to hit me. Women, you never know.
The lights swell, white and red. Guitar chops begin, their vibrations tickling the soles of my feet. I look at my pulsating boots.
“Jess—oh shit!” Audrey yanks my arm. I look north.
Whit is up there, a bass guitar slung across his torso, washed in clear spotlight. He looks at his strings, adjusts the pegs for the first few moments, turns in place.
“Oh shit is right!” I shout.
Trina bumps the side of my arm, her one palm curled around her rocks glass, which is magically full again. “Isn’t that—?” She points with her free hand, hugging the glass to her chest.
“Yes, it is.”
“Big points,” says Audrey. “This is big points.”
“To the Nth power,” I yell over the emerging brrrring of guitars.
The bass is strong and plush. The muscles in Whit’s jaw tighten as he plays. Light catches his streaked-out hair, draping his eyes in shadow. He turns to mess with the knobs on an amp and I get a spot-lit view of how starkly the back of his head contrasts with the front. An ounce of smile rises when he sees me, just barely curling one end of his lip.
Adrenaline accentuates my alcohol buzz. I push past a layer of black-jacketed types to get closer to his side of the stage.
They play along the lines of a guitar-heavy New Order. Danceable stuff; gorgeous, dreamful guitar riffs, brush cymbals—and real lyrics, not emotional whining. The crowd is a shifting sea of bobbing heads. We bounce along. A chill streaks down my spine every time Whit flicks his eyes toward me. We girls dance in what little sweaty space is available, when the tune calls for it.
He is talented. The band is fun. I am wired.
They take a momentary break, exuding feedback as the instruments power down. The floor cheers and whistles. A spotlight sweeps, flashing the back of my retina. The room is a buzzing white screen for a second.
The lead guitarist introduces the band, calls Whit “Mark.”
Audrey scowls. “Didn’t you call him something else?”
“Long story,” I yell back.
Whit bends down at the edge of my side of the stage, guitar on his knee. I push past two girls whom I hope will not hurt me.
Whit leans to my ear. “You enjoying yourself?”
“You could have warned me!”
“Where’s the fun in that?” He turns a pick in his fingers, then presses the shard of plastic into my palm. “Hold onto this.” The RIOTS is scrawled across the red plastic.
“Can I have one?” a girl whose face is a lousy smear of eye makeup shouts at him, jostling against me. He motions hello, then turns back to me. Ha-ha.
“Wait for me after the set?” he asks me.
I lean against the edge of the stage. “For sure.”
For a spark of a second, he presses his lips against mine. Sheer white stage light burns through my eyelids as they momentarily flutter closed.
“Definitely,” I say.
He stands again, digging into his pocket. He flicks a few picks into the crowd, including one to the sloshed girl next to me, who slaps her palms together to catch it.
She looks at me, hands as if in prayer, then tosses her head toward Whit, who has begun to play again. “Nice,” she says to me.
I shake the pick in my fist. “Yes, very nice.”
I retreat toward my room mates, who are semi-dancing in what little plot of floor space they’ve been able to carve out.
“I saw that kiss,” Audrey shouts in my ear. I slip his guitar pick into my boot. Hopefully it will not pop free when I reach for my money. At this point I’d rather lose the money than the pick.
“The whole club saw that kiss.” Trina raises her empty glass over the crowd. “Dewar’s!” she shouts. “Who do I have to sleep with to get a refill around here?”
“You know what they need in this place?” Kimmer chimes in, grabbing my shoulder. “A waitress.”
The set ends. The crowd is rowdy and hollering–they have succeeded as a warm-up mechanism. My boots stick as we shuffle back to the bar. I crane my neck to see whether anyone has emerged from beyond the stage area.
Trina stomps toward Guyliner the bartender and demands another Scotch, smacking her empty in front of him, making two sprayed-up ladies bend away from her with that I’m Going To Ignore You Then Make A Face Behind Your Back look, popular in high school cafeterias throughout the country.
I order another frothy whiskey. It kills me to unfold a twenty from its resting place against my ankle, but I need a glass to fiddle with. Trina drains her Dewar’s rocks with two tilts of her glass.
I lean to Audrey. “Does she forget she’s driving?
“That’s what I was thinking,” says Audrey.
“Should one of us two volunteer?”
Kimmer doesn’t have a driver’s license. Her parents died before they could teach her. She swears she will get to it someday.
“I’ll arm-wrestle you for it,” Audrey responds, lifting her own glass of Scotch.
I could stop drinking … except I might actually have a guy willing to buy me alcohol for the rest of the night. If he ever comes out from back stage. That would also mean spending the rest of the concert sober. And there’s the fact that I don’t know these roads, so I have no clue how to keep us from drifting into the slums of south Philly.
There’s a tap on my shoulder.
Whit’s hair has taken on a bit of a wave. The lights must have had him sweating, dissipating the magic of whatever hair product he uses. It’s cute; more natural. If a gelled-up bottle-blonde can look natural.
“You couldn’t wait for me to buy the next one?” he says, pointing to my whiskey.
Oh, me of little faith.
Musicians from the headlining act start to populate the stage. Harsh feedback rips from one of my eardrums to the other as they begin playing rough, ripping chords against a brain-splitting drum beat. Couch-breaking music, indeed.
Trina argues with the Mohawked chick at the bar, whose Pleather jacket sleeve she has accidentally doused with Dewar’s. I step away from them so as not to be in the nuclear blast range if Trina goes off. Whit steps with me.
The keyboard player’s eyes make me wonder if he has constructed too many hats in Jolly Olde England. The crowd in front of the stage morphs to form a group of men, thrashing in a mindless clump of bodies along with the—I use the term loosely now—music. Slam dancers. They’re dressed in ripped-up, Stephen Sprouse-looking black garb punctuated with ill-placed safety pins. A few of them land on the floor, only to projectile themselves into the mosh again.
“Come on, we can get closer,” says Whit. He leads me forward by the shoulders, into the mosh. As reckless as they seem to the naked eye, the slam dancers make space.
“How polite they’re being!” I remark.
“It’s not a British soccer game,” Whit laughs, positioning himself behind me so I still have a semi-decent view of the stage. “It’s just Killing Joke.” I recall images of British fans, faces pushed against a chain link fence until some guy’s cheeks practically squelched through to the other side, like jello. Then he died.
“Now I know why you don’t dance, if this is what you listen to.” I say. A T-shirted slam dancer jumps onto the stage and gets thrown back into the pit by a burly roadie.
“They’re not who I listen to,” Whit says. “They’re who the club let us open for.” He slides an arm around the front of my waist and presses, tall and warm, against my back. “Why’d you come here if this isn’t what you listen to?”
I look up at him and laugh. “To see if I’d survive!”
I decide I might even like this obnoxious frigging band. For a second. Maybe. In some other life. I bounce on my toes and bob my head through the various songs, only one of which I recognize, a banging number called “Tension.” For good reason.
The set finishes and the music blares to a close. Glass shatters at the bar behind us.
“Well fuck if you think I’m cleaning that up!”
I turn to see Audrey pulling at her arm. “Trina, you need a valium,” she says.
“What are you looking at me for?” Trina shouts at the bartender. “Suzie Mohawk with the scrub brush hair bumped me!”
Suzie Mohawk makes a motion toward them.
“She’s good! We’re good,” Audrey says, holding out hands of peace between Trina and Mohawk Girl.
This is not the first time Audrey has been inspired to resolve a potential brawl on Trina’s behalf. I’m thrown back to the Phi-O fraternity house, during a full-blast basement Zoo Party, Trina not being able to resist bitching-off at one of the brothers who rebuffed her hardcore flirting. If you know anything about frat life, you don’t call Brent the frat vice president a fucking ass and a half if you want to continue to drink their beer at their house. At least, not if you’re a girl. Guys get different rules.
I remember Audrey’s arms rolling, windmill-like, as if she could physically force back Brent’s outrage and reverse the slew of insults that spewed like lava onto the dance floor. “Out. Git her outta here,” Brent drawled in his middle-of-nowhere Pennsylvania accent, heaving alcohol-tainted breaths. “I don’t like nasty girls calling me out in my house. I don’t like big girls in my house.” Audrey trying to make peace, to somehow emotionally glue the seams of their relationship back together like Peter Brady’s leaking, shoddily repaired vase. Trina lunging between them to spit a stream of beer against at the front of Brent’s button-up flannel.
We were disinvited from the Phi-O house that night.
Little sisterhood at a fraternity is a tenuous venture.
Back at the bar, Suzie Mohawk growls at Audrey in a voice as coarse as a bad muffler. “Tell your friend to watch herself.” Her skin is powdered pale like a German impressionist painting. She could pose screaming on a bridge.
Audrey’s palms are a barricade between Trina and Suzie Mohawk, whose nose-studs gleam like ionized lightning bolts.
Suzi Mohawk steps back. The girl’s brooder boyfriend looks on, expressionless.
I hold an arm in front of Whit, like we’re in a car whose brakes just jammed.
“Isn’t it that your buddy?” he says.
“She gets this way.”
“This isn’t the best place to stage a temper tantrum.”
“What’s worse is, she’s our ride home. And it will only go downhill from here.”
Whit removes the glass from my grip. “Can you drive? Or one of your other friends?”
“We didn’t expect to be driving. We’re all several drinks into this,” I say. “And we’re not city drivers.”
He takes my hand. “I’ll drive you girls home. But we better do it now, before things get any rowdier.” He leads me toward Audrey and talks in her ear. I can’t hear either of them. Audrey attempts to gather up Trina, who yells back toward the bar: “She doesn’t own the place! She’s just a skinny bitch riddled with holes!” She points at Mohawk’s boyfriend. “That goes for you, too, Adam Ant!” Audrey wrestles Trina to the other side of the bar.
Whit waves to the bartender and hands him a bill, waving over Suzie Mohawk and her boy-toy. As he talks to them, Suzie’s wrinkled brow smooths, and they nod. Suzie and Adam order drinks.
I fetch Kimmer, who’s been hiding behind a wall of husky guys. Whit grabs Audrey and Trina by the shoulders and turns them toward the door.
A tube of Trina’s lipstick projectiles as she digs through her purse. “Where are my effing keys?” she blurts, grappling on the floor for her lipstick.
“I stole them a half hour ago,” says Audrey.
“Good plan,” says Kim. “You win Nurse Kimmer’s Extraordinary Foresight award.”
We pile onto the late-night mischief of Chestnut Street.
Trina looks up at Whit. “What’s he doing here?” She walks in a line that would not qualify as a straight during a police traffic stop.
“He’s driving your car home,” I say, boot heels clomping on the cement.
“To my mother’s?”
“No, to our apartment,” I answer.
“Trina, shut up and walk,” says Audrey, grabbing her the elbow like it’s a rudder. “You’re completely killing my buzz.”
“Just as well,” Kimmer says, swinging her shoes in her hands. She walks on dirty pavement in nothing but black knee-his, her toe butting through a hole. “If I had to listen to another second of that band I was going to burst into flames.”
Whit laughs and straightens his jacket.
“Friends of yours?” Kimmer asks. “Sorry, I forgot. No offense.”
“None taken. I don’t know those guys.”
Audrey digs into her pocket and turns around, walking backward in front of us. She plants Trina’s keys in Whit’s hand. “I forgive you for not dancing.”
* * * *
The girls sleep in the back seat. I want to help Whit navigate, but I’m clueless. He claims to basically know the route to New Hope, and since we live on Main Street, he’s confident he can get us home. I grapple for a decent radio station, poking buttons in the dash.
Whit drives for-shit. But better him than Trina. He shuts off the radio. I didn’t love any of Trina’s mother’s pre-sets anyway.
The engine hums around us. “Maybe it’s late to ask, but I assume you don’t have a boyfriend?”
A dart finds its way into my stomach from the inside. I haven’t thought of Drew all night. And I haven’t had to answer this question any way but yes, I have a boyfriend in almost two years. Drew has My Boyfriend stamped over his image in my head. As if no one else could really wear that suit. The whole idea is incongruous now.
“Uuummm…,” I mumble.
“What does that mean?”
“We’re seeing other people.” I lean against the seat back. “As of this summer.” My feet throb out a new beat from standing in heels. It feels good to let the pulse slow by resting them in the car. I feel Whit’s guitar pick rattle under my arch. “He’s back home on Long Island for the summer.”
Whit gives me a stare, silent.
“Just trying to be honest,” I say. “What do you think of that?”
His body shifts, considering the concept. Highway lamps sweep over his face, filling in smooth
planes and angles as he drives. “Long Island is pretty far away.”
“I wasn’t sure the seeing other people thing was such a hot idea,” I say. “Until tonight. Maybe there’s something to it.”
Adrenaline seeps out of my body as I relax in the quiet of just me and this new guy, the only two people in the car still awake. “So how come you don’t have a girlfriend?” I ask. “I mean, half the girls in the club would probably throw themselves at you, seeing you’re in the band and all.”
“I’m not looking for … a groupie, for lack of a better word.”
It’s as if he doesn’t even know what he looks like.
I watch his fingers whiten around the steering wheel, taut as the molded faux-stitching in its plastic. “I just broke up with someone. Two weeks ago.”
“Two weeks?” I notice my jaw is hanging and snap it closed, turning away from him. I wonder what crap I have just stepped into, smearing figuratively under the soles of my scrunch boots.
“Yeah. It was brutal. I came home to find two people in my bed. Neither of them being me.” He breathes deep.
“That is very shitty.” The gearing-up to talk to me thing doesn’t seem as strange now. Headlights whip past us in the opposing lane, throwing patterns through a repetition of slats on a concrete abutment. It’s like watching a movie through a running fan.
“I thought I’d had it with women for a while …” he says.
I twist my hair. He looks to me, then to the road. “But…”
The car strays from its lane for second. I tense, grabbing the dashboard. “Maybe that’s stupid,” he finishes, correcting course. Air returns to my lungs. Maybe from the inadvertent lane change. Maybe not.
“I don’t know what the story is with you and the guy from Long Island,” he goes on, “but do you want to go out together, and see what happens?”
I try not to smile, but I’m losing the battle. “I’d like that. If you’re good with this whole arrangement. How far is King of Prussia from New Hope?”
“Oooohhh… about 50 minutes.”
“No way. I had no idea. You’re willing to drive that far?”
“I could be.” The pink highway lights glow through the car, swelling with every passing lamp. He initiates a nod that slowly recruits his whole upper body. “Okay, definitely,” he smiles. “And if we have a good time, that’s what matters.”
* * * *
We live a good hour from Chestnut Street.
He parks with the grill of the station wagon pulled up against our building. Trina groans, her consciousness slowly finding its way back to the reality of the vehicle. Audrey open the heavy car door and draws Trina out of the vehicle, throwing Trina’s arm over the rack of her own shoulders.
“You’re a trooper,” Kimmer says to Whit, patting him on the arm as she disembarks. Her gold waves kink in all the wrong directions now. She pulls Trina’s other arm over her shoulder. “Let’s get you into your egg crate,” Kimmer says. Whit raises an eyebrow but doesn’t ask. Trina wrestles free of Audrey, yanking open my car door, throwing her weight on it.
“Jessica,” she slurs. The sharp edges of her hair cut across her mouth and adhere to her dark-stained lipstick. “Never fuck a guy in a station wagon.”
I palm my face.
Audrey drags Trina off the car door. “Say goodnight, Trina,” she says, shoving the door closed. It clunks.
“Goodnight, Treee-na,” she barks at my closed window. She and the girls stumble away toward the back of the building. I listen to Trina’s voice echo over the river: “Whaaaat? Advice from the master!” She sings Clash lyrics in the distance and guffaws.
Whit and I are alone. The amber of a new streetlamp slides over his face, setting his cheekbones alight.
I’m an intense combo of depletion and buzzing cognizance, feeling this stranger next to me in the confinement of the car. It’s like I can fell his pulse from across the cheap vinyl, each beat infusing itself through the muggy, un-conditioned air of the front seat.
“This was a really nice thing to do,” I tell him.
He relaxes against the headrest, staring. “Thanks.”
“I mean really nice. I’m too exhausted to be more articulate than that.”
“You’re doing fine for three in the morning.” He looks at me like I’m that girl he’s been in love with since fifth grade, suddenly next to him on the bus.
“So now what?” I ask. We didn’t plan on how he’d get home. The parking lot is empty. Crickets buzz loud enough to be heard through the closed windows.
He blinks, exquisitely slowly. He bends toward me, a slow-motion arc that presses us together, his lips on mine, warm and tired and unbelievably perfect, moving. He kisses deep and without reservation. You’d think I ordered him to-fit from some personalized boyfriend catalog.
A palm glides over my shoulder blade, the other smoothing its way up the small of my back, fingers spreading, displacing clothing.
I snake my arm under his jacket. Synapses prickle up and down my body, like when I used to run my bike over cap gun strips in the street as a kid.
Did someone tell him exactly what kind of touch does it for me? Did I conjure this guy?
I snap upright. A sheet of hair smacks the corner of his jacket. The curtain of hair slinks back to me as I add space between us. In two minutes, we have created score-fog on the windows.
He loosens his hold on me, looking the way I feel. As if neither of us knows exactly what just happened.
He says, “You’re good at this.”
I say, “So are you.”
I have known him four hours.
This is not the level of goodbye we would have said at the club. I shimmy out of his grasp, adjusting the back of my shirt. “I have to get out of the car.”
“I understand,” he says.
“I can’t leave you here. Did you want to come in? I mean, can you … without anything else… happening?”
“I’d appreciate it. Otherwise I’m sleeping in the back of this car.” He raps the steering wheel with his palm.
“I can’t let you do that after you drove all this way,” I say. “We could drive you home in the morning.”
He twists Trina’s mega key ring out of the ignition and hands it over. “I promise not to attack you,” he says as they chime in my palm, cool metal spikes poking my skin. “Although that’s not the easiest test of willpower I’ve ever had.”
“I guess I’ll have to trust you.” I pop the keys in my purse and smooth my skirt, which has hitched to an inappropriate level. His eyes follow my hem. He moves to help me fix it, then pulls his hand away, as if breaking a boundary.
We climb out of the vehicle. The river gurgles behind the building as the car doors slam.
Crickets sing in phrases. The rest of the street is quiet.
I point toward the window he’s parked in front of, where a pair of matronly eyelet curtains newly stretch on a tension rod. Ugly as original sin, but the best we could afford. At least we have curtains now.
“Yeah,” he says.
“Welcome to my living room.”
* * * *
I click the foyer light switch and see Kimmer tucked into the pull-out. She extends a Strawberry Shortcake sheet over her head and groans. All I can see is an all-over sprawl of her blonde hair. I kick her discarded capris and 1960s bowling team button-up under the bed with my boot.
Whit lifts the two fugly orange sofa cushions that are piled in the corner and rearranges them on the floor. He lies down, facing the wall.
“Don’t mind me. Go about your business.” He shifts on the cushions. “Nothing to see here.” Checking that our pipes haven’t leaked on it first, I toss him a blanket from the closet. It lands across his legs. He gathers it up and thanks me with a wave over his shoulder. Stacked on his side, he’s still fully clothed, including combat boots and the black blazer.
I click off the light.
“Hey, Jess,” Trina calls from the bedroom.
“What?” I loud-whisper.
“Don’t you kick him.” She giggles like a madwoman.
KILLING JOKE: TENSION…………..THE CURE: BOYS DON’T CRY……..TALKING HEADS: ONCE IN A LIFETIME
………THE PRETENDERS: MESSAGE OF LOVE
(Note the earrings and black jackets in The Pretenders’ video.)
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Listen to retro Euro synthpop: The Thin Wall Radio UK