Monday, March 30, 2009

Just Dinner

I picked up the book, a crime novel. I looked at the photo of the author on the back cover. Was it her? She'd only mentioned her last name once, during that conversation twenty-two years earlier. She was still attractive, with nearly white hair. The photo related that mixture of light and dark in her eyes. It had to be her. I thought of the night we met, back in the mid-eighties.

It was dark when I bounded up the steps at the old post office in Ventura. My two "regular" homeless guys weren't there; they'd no doubt packed it up for the night and were back at their camps on the river bottom. I was glad. I always gave those two money, and sometimes I'd buy burgers for them. I felt confident they weren't scamming anyone, and if they were, they deserved money for pulling it off so well. But that night, I had a vicious sinus headache, and I felt none too inclined toward generosity.

I grabbed my mail out of the box, then stood at a table dumping the junk. I saw a figure in a hooded trench coat walk into the lobby. He looked like a stage hand from Rust Never Sleeps. I almost prayed that he wouldn't approach me looking for money. I was a little surprised when I heard the person opening a box, figuring he was homeless. The post office would only give boxes to people who could provide evidence of a physical address. The river bottom didn't count.

I could hear the soft footfalls approach. I tensed. A soft, feminine voice glided to me. "Excuse me." I turned. A woman, indeed. Early thirties. No makeup. Beautiful. But not beautiful in a Hollywood-manufactured way, no. Beautiful in a way that haunts a man not on initial impact, but in the way it grows in his mind and heart. Beautiful in a way that somehow eclipsed the sadness pouring from her eyes. I was stunned.

"Do you have the time?" I looked at my wrist, and somehow managed to croak, "It's eight thirty-five." "Thank you," she said, and walked away. I watched her exit the lobby. I'd tagged her as homeless, but her clothes, while old-looking and drab, were clean.

I walked to my car, and as I opened the door, I saw her walking away, head down, in a fast shuffle. She looked as if she wanted to dodge the streetlights, dodge the world. I started to call out to her, but realized I had no words. I drove away, in the opposite direction, toward my apartment.

I turned around halfway home. I drove back down Santa Clara Street, past the post office, continuing east. I was about to give up when I spotted her. I slowed, rolled down my window. What to say?

"Excuse me," I called out. She lowered her head even more, and quickened her pace. "I'm sorry if I scared you," I continued. "If you're hungry, meet me at the coffee shop at the Best Western. It's only two blocks from here. If you're not there in a half hour, I'll leave."

She stopped. I stopped. "What do you want?" "I just want to talk." She raised her head a bit. "No one just wants to talk." I was trying to come up with something both witty and non-threatening when she asked, "Are you gay?" "Not as far as I'm aware," I answered. I'd hoped to get a laugh out of her, but no luck. "Too bad," she said at last. But, she raised her head to meet my eyes, and I thought I saw the slightest smile. "I'll think about it. Sit toward the front."

It would make a better story if I were to build the tension a little, and write that I was just about to give up when she walked in the door. But, I'd only been seated for ten minutes when she made her entrance. She looked at me from the door. She looked like she might be changing her mind. But the hostess walked up to her, and she motioned toward me.

She sat. She looked at me for a moment, seeming to study me. She looked at me again. She seemed to have trouble meeting my eyes. "Why are we doing this?" I searched for the right path, then gave up and guessed. "I was hoping that if I bought you dinner, you'd agree to be my sex slave for a week." She didn't laugh, but she smiled a real smile, and the sadness flowing from her eyes slowed to a trickle, if only for a moment.

"You don't seem like the sex slave type," she said. "You're right," I answered. "I don't think I have that much stamina." Another little smile from her.

"So, you thought I was homeless, and you decided to give me a little comfort in a coffee shop?" Her question was matter-of-fact. No mirth, but no acrimony either. "Yeah, I thought you were homeless at first, until I realized that your attire wasn't so much the homeless look as Goth Lite."

Another little smile. I was on a roll.

She looked at me. I hadn't answered her question. "I thought you were homeless until I saw you up close. Then I got a better look at what you were wearing, and I noticed how . . . "
Don't say beautiful, I thought to myself.

"I noticed how attractive you were. It made me curious to know something about you. What can I say? I'm a nosy bastard."

"So, you're not just out trolling, looking to get laid?" I paused, caught in another what do I say moment. She was meeting my eyes now. "No." I left it at that. I waited.

The flow of sadness from her eyes seemed to slow more. But it didn't stop. No, it didn't stop. But, her posture grew less defensive, and her expression more relaxed.

We ordered. We talked. She had grown up on a dairy farm in New York. Her parents had died in a car crash during her senior year in college. She'd majored in English Lit. She never finished her degree.

She asked, "So, how do you like me so far?" "You're an interesting person," I answered, with nothing witty in my arsenal. "Here's something interesting for you: I've been diagnosed with schizophrenia. I'm on medication. I'm a free-lance writer; I sell short stories and articles to travel magazines. I only take my medication every other day, because it kills my creativity. I have sex with men for money, and that funds my travels. I'm part writer, and part whore."

I laughed, sure she was joking about the sex for money thing. She wasn't laughing. She wasn't smiling. "You're serious, aren't you?" "Yes. Still want to know me better?" A touch of bitterness. She told me that her clients were all older retired men, and that she wasn't a streetwalker. I paused on another what do I say crossroad.

"Well, I have to admit that I've changed my mind about proposing marriage." She looked at me for a moment, expressionless. Then she laughed, long and hard. She stopped. Her eyes traveled over my face. Then she began to cry.

"I have to go," she said through sobs. "Why? Our food is coming."

She put her wallet on the table. She pulled out a photo, and placed it in front of me.

I was stunned. The guy in the photo looked like my double, except he was sans moustache and had blond hair.

"That's my husband. We got married during our junior year. He died two years later. He tried to break up a fight in a bar, and one of the guys shot him."

I felt at a total loss for words. Finally, I uttered, "So he and your parents . . ."

"That's right," she said. "I lost my parents and my husband within a year of each other."

"You seem like a great guy," she began, "but I can't see you anymore. You look too much like him. Your voice is almost the same, and you have the same sense of humor. I can't do this."

She stood hurriedly, and began to stride away. I watched her stop at the hostesses' station. She turned and walked briskly back to me.

For a moment, I thought she was about to slap me, but she took my hand, stood on her toes, and kissed my cheek. "Goodbye," she whispered, and began walking away again. Once more she turned. She walked toward me, but slowly, with her eyes downcast. She took my face in her hands, and pulled me down to whisper in my ear. Then she walked away for good.

I sat there for an hour, picking at my food, looking at hers.

The more I looked at her face on the back of the novel, the more certain I felt. It was her. I stood in line to buy her book, but when it came time to pay for it, I turned heel and returned it to the display stand.

She'd made a request that night, just before she walked away: "If you see me around, please pretend you don't know me."

I walked out of the bookstore. Somehow buying that book would have felt like breaking a promise. I doubted that she would care. But somehow, holding onto the promise seemed important.

She's published three more novels since I spotted her first. I haven't read any of them. I'm still keeping my promise.


  1. Hal, this was great! I laughed, I cried ... really! WOW!