I'm standing outside Pioneer Square, around Five PM, less than two weeks before Christmas. It's festive out here. The sky looks pitch black this early in the evening, because of the bright contrast the Christmas lights in the Square create. It's cool out today, but not wet. The city's official Christmas tree towers behind my back, as I stand and wait for the Max like I do most days after work. I was considering doing my Christmas shopping, but doused that plan. I don't know what to get anyone anyway. This time of year used to be my favorite. The vacations from school, lots of presents, the chance for snow; what could be better? Even with most of these benefits vanished as an adult; I would still love this season, if my Mom were still alive to share it. She was my family's Christmas spirit. Nowadays, it's just another time of year with extra expenses that I cannot afford.
I take a deep breath. I'm thinking that I should go grab a pack of cigarettes. If you're waiting for the Max and you decide to light a smoke, the Max will show. It always happens. On the other hand, if I run across the street to grab the smokes, the Max will arrive during that transaction. Instead I'll just be patient and look around at people and hope I can manage to score a seat on the train. It will be doubtful with the size of crowd that's hanging around tonight.
To my left, down the block about 10 or 15 feet, my eyes catch a familiar face, a face that I will not ever forget - a face that I used to gaze at longingly throughout the summer of 1993. That was the summer when all of my friends and I went haywire. It was the summer of 70+ hour work weeks at two different jobs. The summer of playing hoops at Oceanlake School with Bad Religion cranked from Matt's VW Rabbit and piles of "Dino-size" cups and fries lying about. It was the summer that I fell in love with Little Debbie and her tantalizing treats. And who could forget about all the Blitz Beer? It was the summer that "Emmaline" broke my heart. It was a summer lacking sleep, or any real direction. It was that summer that I relied on my friends to keep me from spending time alone.
I have always had great friends, but have mostly lived as a loner. This has been self-imposed to a large degree. I have never wanted to hassle anyone with my medical issues, or my crazy phobias. I have always kept everyone at arms length, especially women. It's not like women are clamoring to get at me anyway, so it isn't very difficult to build a wall to hide behind and focus on survival. But it was her face, the one down the block that ruined everything.
I'll refer to her simply as "R" and she is waiting for the Max train as I am now. Her face is older and her features more striking than before. She is tastefully dressed, wearing a clean cut, dark woolen winter overcoat, and a black skirt that drops to her knees. Below the skirt, she has on dark stockings that hug her muscular calves. This is quite a change from the shorts and T-shirts she usually wore that summer. She is standing close to some guy and huddling into his left shoulder, as I peer at her profile. He seems oblivious. I can see a small strip of her soft brown hair twitch as it sits lightly on her long eyelashes.
I was trapped in Lincoln City that summer after another false start with college in Seattle during the fall of '92. Unfortunately, both of my kidneys were full of tumors and another surgery was necessary. This has been the story of my life: false starts and incompletes. The summer of '93 was sort of a last hurrah for me and my friends – most of who had just graduated from college. I hadn't. This was the last summer "back home" for us, before heading off into whatever directions to deal with the crapheap of adulthood. The fun that we seemed to be having every night drinking and joking around felt frantic with desperation. Personally, I was afraid to be alone. I could not sleep, so I would just stay out all night. If I didn't, there was a good chance I would cut my throat, or something wacky like that. I could no longer trust myself alone.
I remember seeing "R" around that summer, when she used to hang out with the usual clan that would slide into Gallucci's Pizzeria near closing time on most nights. The pizza place was a hangout joint for the under-21/over-18 crowd. They would gather in huge groups for hours and only order the 30 cent cheese bread. I worked days at a One Hour Photo lab and nights making pizzas and those orders of cheese bread. We got to know each other by sight, but we never spoke. I asked some friends of friends and co-workers and anyone else I could think of about her. I found out she was new to town, 20 years old, and by all accounts a cool girl. She was gorgeous. Her lips and eyes, her deep tan skin, and her long slender body overwhelmed me every time I saw her around, until long after she had gone away. She was way out of my league. She was driving me crazy.
The first time I ever saw her she was surfing. She was pretty good. I was out there attempting to surf as well, but I never got the hang of it. My old hippie high school chemistry teacher was also out there on his long board. I was afraid that he would run me down and bust my head open, causing me to drown in a mixture of seaweed, blood and patchouli oil. Besides, the ocean didn't need this fat fuck paddling around like a wounded manatee.
It took me the entire summer to build up the nerve to talk to "R," and I doubt I ever would have, until she gave me an opportunity.
Prior to all of that, I had a blind date early that summer with a girl recently moved from San Francisco named Alexandra. She was the daughter of the drummer from the 60's band Paul Revere and the Raiders. You know, "Cherokee People," and a whole bunch of other songs that get played on oldies radio? She wrote me a letter. My friends and I used to occasionally Xerox a terrible 'zine called "This Wreckage," and she liked it. The 'zine almost never received feedback for our efforts, so I excitedly wrote back to her pages and pages of thoughts along with copies of the back issues. We corresponded a few more times before deciding to meet. The meeting went well. We hit it off and we started to hang out. She was pretty, funny, smart, and we liked a lot of the same music, books and movies. My best friend Wil really liked her too. The three of us would stay up all night on the beach drinking beer, or up in the old cemetery above Spanish Head drinking more beer, talking about crazy times and singing the sad songs of Mark Eitzel. Wil fell for Alex big time, and I was distracted by my huge crush on "R," so it was easy for me to step aside. This is assuming that I was in the game, which is never a lock. Whatever the case, all of my thoughts were about "R." Every song I listened to pertained to her or my attraction to her. Every moment my mind was free to wander, it wondered about her. Would she be interested in someone like me? Would I ever get over myself and talk to her? What would I say? What would she say?
Looking up from the grey sidewalk, I see "R" talking to her companion. They are arm in arm. She is looking at him, so I can see her face directly. It is definitely her. She's smiling. I recognize that wide smile where her full lips part slightly to show off a glimmer of her teeth. Her boyfriend is shorter than her and looks like a total shit. I am terrified by the jealousy I feel toward some stranger who is spending valuable time with a girl who I once dreamt about. Something about seeing her with him bugs me. I cannot shake the thought of that weasel with her. I may be old fashioned, and most likely a sexist bastard, but I'm sickened by the idea of some jackass sportfucking a woman who I once held in such high regard. I can't seem to stomach the thought, despite knowing better.
I'll never forget that day when I was working at the Photo Shop, when she wandered in. My Dad owned the shop and had some of his paintings on display around the front counter. She quietly walked in with no film to be developed. She was looking around at the paintings with a content expression in her eyes. We crossed glances several times, as I sat on a stool at the machine adjusting light densities to badly taken pictures. I did not know what to do. Normally, my exposure to her had been when she was surrounded by a huge group of people, but now she was on her own. We were on our own. I kept looking over at her, feeling serious panic. Finally, I asked her if she needed help, wondering why she was there. Asking her this simple question that I was being paid to ask felt difficult. I could feel each word stick in my throat. She nodded with a shy smile and, after a few moments, she silently walked out the door. Maybe she was there to see me. I needed to stop hating myself and do something, so I suddenly bolted after her, catching her outside the doorway.
"Hey!" I mumbled, out of breath, not from the quick sprint, but because of nerves and adrenaline. I couldn't believe what I was doing. I had no plan.
"Yeah?" She turned and grinned as if she expected my affront.
What ensued was remarkable. Somehow, as if possessed by someone who knows what they're doing, my mouth formed some words that formally introduced me to her. I told her how beautiful I thought she was, and I managed to ask some general questions. She continued smiling throughout, and never broke our eye contact. She said that she would love to meet up for lunch sometime, when I asked her for a date. She wrote down her phone number and asked me to call her at such and such a time.
This may seem routine, but then you don't understand. She said yes. For the first and last time in my life, a girl who I had amassed a major crush on said yes!
Moving closer to "R" on the platform while waiting for the Max, I can see her eyes tearing up from the cold, dry breeze. My eyes begin to tear up from not blinking for so long, like that day when I asked her out and our gazes were locked.
She was the girl who said yes. She had told me on that sidewalk outside the Photo shop that she was working at Subway and that maybe we could meet for lunch or coffee before her shift in the next couple of days. I watched her tongue explore her top lip as she wrote her phone number on a slip of paper. She slid the paper into my hand and held it for a moment, before turning to walk away from wherever she had appeared from. I was shuddering from her touch and breathing in her sweet scent. My heart was pounding so hard that my shirt was hopping up and down. After a few steps, she turned her head over her shoulder and reiterated that I call her. Her smile was gentle, smooth and cool. She had a seductive ease about her. I was shocked that she said yes.
The Max pulls into position at the stop and the doors slap open, releasing a collection of homeless skate punks, Goths, drunks, Christmas shoppers, commuters and in-betweeners like me. Unfortunately, a far greater number of people are attempting to squeeze into the Max. These are mostly people heading home from their various jobs downtown. I manage to slide into the Max using the same door that "R" and the guy use. Once I am inside, I stay by the door and lean against the backside of the elevated seats. This position is easy for getting out in a hurry when the train is jammed. "R" and her little buddy find a seat to share with their backs toward me. I can see them sitting close, unknowing of my intent stare.
I remember that first call. I was over hanging out with Wil at his Mom's house in Taft. He and I had a few beers and he gave me a pep talk rivaling any speech from a sports movie. "R" had told me a time to call so I did. She answered and I told her who I was, half expecting her not to remember. Wil left the room, leaving me to pace back and forth nervously, while talking with my hands. She did remember me to my surprise. I asked her if she wanted to meet up for lunch the next day. Instead, she said she wanted to get out of town. She said that Lincoln City was getting too claustrophobic for her. She asked if I had any other ideas. Did I ever? I had already envisioned a plan while I was working up the guts to ask this girl out.
The plan was to leisurely drive up the coast to Oceanside. Oceanside is a quiet coastal town, mostly devoid of the usual family tourist trappings. It's nestled into a large cliff that juts out to the sea on its north end, making the small town reachable only from the south. Plus it's off the main highway, providing one of the most secluded and scenic beaches around. Visiting there a couple of times earlier that summer, I found a rare inner peace. It instilled in me a sense of comfort - a sense of home - I hadn't felt in years. "R" and I would walk the beach to the end by the cliff, where the driftwood collects, and sit there as the sun set behind the rock island that towers up a few hundred feet off shore. We would talk and hopefully (at least) hold hands. At dusk we would stroll back to the cozy restaurant at the south end of the beach and enjoy an incredible dinner. This was and still is my most romantic daydream. It may be my only romantic notion. In this vision, however, my car would not have been the tiny piece of shit Subaru that I drove at the time. A car so rusted out that the driver's side door was taped on, forcing me to climb in and out through the passenger's side door. I could never sort out this problem with my plan. I could open the door for her, but I'd have to climb in first. Or I could pretend to be gentlemanly and help her into the car, before jumping into the open window of the driver's side like the Duke Brothers used to do on TV. Of course the chances of a coastal mist soaking the inside of my car were too high to leave the window down. I left the door details out of my description, as I tried my best to tell her my date idea, while trying to make it sound as if I were inventing it on the spot. Telling her this plan felt unbelievable and magical to me. Here I was, rambling on, and the girl of my dreams was listening. When I finally shut up, she paused and then sighed, sending shivers down my spine.
"That sounds so nice," her voice cracked. I will never forget the sound of her voice as she said this. She sounded so sultry and sexy that I stopped pacing and dropped into a chair and melted into the phone. I was hooked on this girl and could not believe what was happening. Maybe there actually is a merciful God or whatever, instead of the bleak black hole that life had previously presented itself to be.
We spoke for a few more minutes. She said that she had to go, but would call me back, so we could set a date. The inflection of her voice told me that she liked my idea.
I couldn't help but stare at her, while standing on the crowded train. She is so fucking alluring. Her friend was looking straight ahead as she whispered to him. I could not hear her words, but I could remember how her voice had given me goose bumps. I stare at the side of her face and stop breathing.
A week passed after that first phone conversation. It seemed like an eternity. I went into Subway for lunch hoping to run into her. My patience was not as strong as my excitement. She wasn't there. The girl who made the sandwich I felt obligated to order seemed to know who I was. She told me that she was "R's" older sister. She encouraged me to call "R" and not to wait any longer. So I did, after forcing down the sandwich, but nothing came together.
This all happened at the end of that summer. Eric and I had been planning to be roommates and move to Portland to get out of town. She was right when she told me that Lincoln City was getting claustrophobic.
The move took place early in September, but I hadn't given up. I felt like a new man. I had broken through my insecurities and was finally growing up. Besides, it had only been a few weeks since I had asked her out. Since I was planning to drive back to the coast the first weekend after the move to get a final load, in a new-to-me car, I decided to give her another call. Now I had a car with functioning doors, so I wouldn't have to resort to Dukes of Hazzard tactics during the date and she could come visit me at my place whenever.
After collecting the last of my things at my Dad's house, I phoned her. I was brimming with my renewed confidence. We chatted for a long time, and she told me that she was sorry that we hadn't ever met up. She told me that her life had recently been hard to deal with, because lots of "bad things" were happening to her. She asked if I would be in town all weekend. If so, she wanted to meet up Sunday afternoon. I tried to pin down a time and place. Instead she asked me to call her.
Thinking about that conversation, I begin to grind my teeth - forcing myself not to look at her sitting in front of me on the train. At that moment, I hum to myself the lyrics of a song my memory of her always brings to mind: "If I bother you / please tell me to go away / I don't want to bother you / but it's not for me to say." Those words always acted as my motto for the few times I have asked women out. I simply want honesty. I am not as afraid of rejection as much as being misled.
I focus my attention on the windows of the train. The blackness beyond made the reflections of the other passengers as sharp as a mirror's. Thinking back on that call, I cannot figure out how I could be so naïve. There she is in front of me now. I swivel my head back toward her. The last time I saw her, she left me shaken with an excitement and a high that I haven't felt since. Here she is again, with her hazel eyes and long eyelashes, looking better than before. Her head turned over her shoulder as it had been when she asked me to call her in front of the Photo shop all those years prior. That's when we make eye contact, as she stops her diatribe to her silent partner. She does a double take when she sees me. I fix my eyes on her and do not blink. The train comes to a stop and the doors open to allow the cool breeze in and several people out.
It was a grey day. I remember that detail vividly. Everything seemed grey. The road, the buildings, and the sky were all grey.
I pulled into the Safeway parking lot near the north end of town, parked, and went to the payphone feeling dread well up inside my chest.
"R" answered the phone after several rings. I took a deep breath to settle my nerves - determined to get something definitive out of her. Before I could say anything, aside from the hello that followed hers, she asked me to hold on. After what seemed an eternity, there was a clatter on the other end of the line, followed by the voice of a male.
"Don't call here again," the voice said flatly. The line went dead.
I glared at the payphone for several moments and slammed the receiver before storming back to the car. Alex, sitting in the back seat, quietly said that she was sorry. We rode back to Portland in verbal silence. I played music loudly, while trying to keep my frustration and anger inside. But every song on the drive home broke my heart. The songs were still all about her, but at least now I finally had my definitive answer.
Why didn't she tell me? I clearly couldn't figure it out on my own. If she wasn't interested, she could've told me or not acted so interested initially. It would've hurt, but not like this. Apparently, she had to stomp on my heart after coaxing it from its dark cavern. Maybe she had been interested, but I did something wrong along the way to change her mind. Maybe I was blind from the beginning.
Another stop. The Max stops about every two blocks as it trickles through downtown. "R" and the short man stand up and move toward the door I am lurking near. Her eyes are fixed on mine. I sense the recognition in her eyes. Her face had already been burned into my memory forever. I would recognize her face more quickly than my own, but she had to search her memory. Not surprisingly, I had been forgotten.
As the line of people pass in front of me to escape the density of the train, she moves to within a foot of me. She breaks our silent staring contest and turns to the dwarf on her other shoulder.
"That's the fool who wouldn't stop calling me, when I lived in L.C.," she belts out so loudly that it numbs my ears and makes me cringe. Her right hand points at me to make sure everyone around are aware who she's shouting about. As they reach the door, they both turn back towards me. They look at me with malicious grins. I continue to stare back blankly, against my better judgment. "What is your problem? Did you ever get a clue?" She laughs at me, as she disappears outside.
I put my head down as the doors clatter shut and the train shudders back into motion. A hush takes over my surroundings and I no longer feel anyone around me. My vision blurs and my temples begin to pound. I feel boxed in and claustrophobic. I feel like I did seconds after last Halloween's debacle, when a gang of Russians jumped Jeff and I ran in to try and stop it. I managed to stop the attack, but not in time to keep us both out of an ambulance ride to the Emergency Room. I remember sitting on the edge of the examination table, with my eyes swollen shut and a head the shape of the Elephant Man, as some doctor told my roommate to check on me while I was trying to sleep that night. Apparently, sometimes when people get their face kicked in they wake up with panic attacks. I am already familiar with panic attacks. I know them from years of being butchered by surgeons and from waking up alone in my own skin.
I didn't want to bother her. Apparently I did.
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