Extraordinary stories from everyday life on the edge of the world

Stories

the best thing about us is the people we know.
 

Lincoln Avenue // Friday, 8.30pm

What must it be like to wake up in a house, stumble across a floor, make coffee in a kitchen that Frank Lloyd Wright designed?

This is what I wonder as we cruise through the verdant street of Evanston, in between giddy theorizing of what this area must look like in the autumn.

The day’s humidity has turned cold on us; we stop at a dress shop in search of a pashmina. The salesgirl tells us that the one Char likes is “six eighty five.” Char’s hand figures it out before her head does, freezing in mid-acceptance.

"Do you mean…"

"Six hundred and eighty-five dollars," says the girl. She’s younger than me, blonde and built for a screen treatment of Upton Sinclair, wearing a LBD and a chunky necklace fastened with a ribbon.

We find a pashmina at a lower price point in a shop down the road, and park the rented silver beast outside a 100-year-old stone chapel with demure stained-glass lilies in the windows. The inner columns have that fusty look I’ve only ever come across in Europe; the floor echoes our steps echo with the sound of mah-jongg pieces; I’m entranced by the ancient patina of the bathroom tiles, and vow to find myself a dress in that same celluloid blue.

The wedding is small, elegantly spare, and highly traditional; matching bridesmaid dresses, tightly timed processional, long train on the bridal gown, unity candles, minimal participation from the minister. It’s quickly over, and we’re chewing hors d’oeuvres in the courtyard of the adjoining 100-year-old fellowship hall. (Which, in a gesture of nonsectarian community spirit, is known as a “recreational facility.”)

Electing imported over domestic (it’s Sam Adams…what would you do?), I watch a little girl twirl her pink skirt in luxuriant circles. The music playing is Astrud Gilberto; I’ve got to play that record more often. That chick’s voice is what’s up.

The courtyard has split into bride and groom factions; it’s easy to tell them apart. On the bride’s side are tall, tow-headed family units, dressed in organdy and polished shoes. The groom’s side is predominantly men of a certain age—commensurate, in fact, with the groom’s age. It looks a bit like a Sigma Delta Phi reunion; you can see the pecking order falling into place.

---

The best man gives Char what is almost a punch on the shoulder, asks how she’s doing, and proceeds to tell us about how much God has blessed him that he’s made enough money to just quit working and enjoy himself.

"How do you spend all your extra time now?" I ask him.

"Looking for a wife," he answers very quickly, which leads to a lengthy discourse on how hard it is to find a good woman these days.

"Rob got the only good one left," he says.

A few moments later, however, he reveals that he is here with a date; we are left to draw our own inferences. He leaves us with a teaser of his best man speech, and we are approached two more men.

---

I’m divining my potential for PYT status at this shindig. There aren’t many women in my age bracket with naked ring fingers. There’s at least one, who is definitely the best-looking—tall, 36-24-36, unexceptionable nose, long black hair, and a tight black dress. I immediately decide that she must be a snobby bitch and who wears a dress like that to a wedding? But she’s with someone, a guy with great hair and a face like a Botticelli angel.

My suspicions are confirmed as the two men now talking to us grow more voluble in their conversation, and branch into those nervous tics used by the male species as a gauge of their right to confidence in the presence of a woman. The short, bald man leans forward at a precipitous angle, his eyes widening slowly but consistently as if to take in more of the improbable fact that I’m listening to what he has to say. The tall, silver-fox type does the quick hand-to-shoulder contact that is somewhere between a tap and a grab. I can almost hear the calculations grinding in their heads:

"She asked me another question; that means this is going well. She let me touch her; she must be totally into me."

---

At dinner, I end up sitting next to the 36-24-36. Her name is Emma; she’s only been in the US for five years; she grew up in a primitive country town in Romania, and came here as the wife of an American who left her as soon as she began to be competent in English and the workplace. The guy she’s dating now is also Romanian; they met on Facebook. She turns out to have not only a background of hard manual labor and Communist deprivation, but also a willingness to communicate with vulnerable genuineness, and the more I enjoy talking with her, the more I feel like a bitch of the first water.

---

Dinner, cake, and at last dancing. But the first song is “September,” and I have a strict boycott policy against Earth, Wind and Fire. So I excuse myself to the bathroom.

When I return, Char and Emma tell me, “Your friend was looking for you.”

"Who?" I ask.

"The guy we were talking to outside," says Char. "The short one?"

"The bald one?" I ask.

"He came by and asked where you were."

Oh Lordy, I think, and ask Emma if she’ll come and dance with me. The floor is like an industrial bakery, a kneading mass of moist, white and doughy forms.

---

Char hooks an adjacent man by the arm.

"Are you single?" she says. "Will you dance with my friend?"

He’s the brother of the groom, a little taller than me, with white hair and the look of a weary sailor. As we dance, I find him looking even more self-conscious than I feel, so I paint on a sorority smile, spin around, and meet his eyes in carefully timed, noncommittal increments.

My efforts are more than successful; when the song ends and I say, “Thanks for dancing with me,” he lunges for the courtyard door, saying, “Do you want to walk outside?”

"Um…" I look at his hand, straining against the latch. "I think I need to get something to drink."

"The bar’s right out here!" He points triumphantly, his face like a boy who just ruined his mother’s rosebush to bring her some flowers. I hear my voice saying, in a tone of reluctance I don’t recognize, so long has it been since I’ve used it,

"Um, okay."

We each seize a glass of champagne, and position ourselves at a 45-degree angle from each other. He needs me to repeat my name. He asks where I’m from. He’s never been there. I feel disinclined to tell him it’s a great place to visit; while I try to think of a response less amenable to interpretation, I realize that he’s eyeballing the side of my face; I feel the potential energy of his arm planning a trajectory toward my back. Throwing up a force-field with tightened lips and stiffened posture, I ask whether he’s an older or younger brother.

"Middle!" he says, as if it’s an accomplishment he worked long and hard for. He points out the other brother, and his son, and his daughter. He tells me about his older daughters, who aren’t here; one is in college and one is deployed. I ask him about how he feels about her deployment, and then wish I hadn’t. My instincts suggest that it would better to steer clear of feelings as long as this conversation lasts.

"Well, you’re a very beautiful woman," he tells me, apropos of something, I’m sure; I can’t remember now what.

With a longing gaze back indoors, I attempting to stifle a groan while answering, “Thank you, that’s very nice of you to say.”

A long, long pause ensues.

"So, California! That’s a great place to be from," he says.

I look back to find him calculating the distance toward my face again.

"Yeah, it is," I say. "We take it for granted." I hold up my drink. "I’m going to go use the restroom."

"Okay." His tone sounds equal parts relieved and disappointed.

---

Emma and I are dancing together, again, when a stout man with ginger hair and a navy blazer sidles up and says to Emma,

"You dropped the bomb on me!"

"What?" she asks.

The ginger blazer is trailed by the silver fox, who begins to cut a shine (if that’s the phrase I want) in front of me, his feet moving like the flickers on a pinball machine, wielding his elbows dangerously. The stout guy, having repeated the phrase to Emma five or six times, is now trying to explain to her the meaning of the song.

"I thought we were going to dance!" says the silver fox to me.

"We are dancing,” I answer.

"Yes, that’s true! We are dancing!” he says, and for a moment is a study in concentrated effort. “We’ve got to get them to play something more organized,” he says, looking up and around, his chin set like an astronaut posing for a stamp.

---

Looking back, I’m wondering if I was flirting with these men.

There’s such a fine line in banter between the come-hither and the condescending.

I was indignant at being the object of these ham-fistedovertures, especially from men whose age triggered my instinct for respect.

At the same time, I felt guilty about crushing a fragile ego with too direct a rejection.

Humor seemed like the best rebuff.

But it’s not.

That’s the moral of this story, in case you were wondering.

---

I haven’t been dancing in a long, long time. And, against all cultural odds, this predominantly white wedding is unequivocally down to rock.

The music switches to “Call Me Maybe”—stupid, disposable pop music that is in its element here. I suddenly feel irresponsibly happy. It stops mattering to me whether my body’s motion is projecting the wrong message to the silver fox or the rest of his ilk, who are riding the facility chairs like La-Z-Boys and watching us.

My hair covers my eyes, so that I can’t see any of them anymore.

My bra strap breaks free of its mooring, and I feel it hit my elbow.

He’s trying to dance close, but I don’t care; the music is closer.

I feel myself falling gratefully back into that zone where dance is communication with the music and nobody else. And whatever the fellows think it means…well, they’re not part of the conversation.

Moving freely is joy, and it’s the only thing. It’s why I came to Chicago.

---

"I need to get your number!" said the silver fox, following me back to my seat. "I need to give you my number, and I need to get yours!"

"What for?" I ask.

"I said, I need to get your number! And give you mine!"

"Why? What for?" I'm hoping he'll get confused and let it go.

This exchange was repeated two or three more times.

"I’ll give you my card"—he rifled through his wallet, pulling out one bit of paper after another. "And you can give me yours. Your email address, your number, your card, whatever you’ve got."

"I don’t have a card," I say.

He grins with gritted teeth, as his fingers stumble over themselves. “Just got to find one that doesn’t have anything written on the back!” He unearths a blank card and presents it to me.

"Just put your number and email on there," he says.

My hand moves sluggishly to take it from him; my head feels cast in lead. I scrawl numbers down on the back."

"And your email!" he says.

"I think we’ll just stick with phone numbers," I smile hollowly, sitting down. "Thanks for dancing with me."

"Oh, we’re not done yet, Chelsea!" he tells me. "We’re not done!"

---

Char is standing with the matron of honor; they’re both giggling in delighted horror.

"Looks like you got some numbers," she says, as I walk up to them.

"No," I tell her. "I gave him my dad’s number."

"You didn’t," says the matron.

"I did."

I have made up my mind to savor the novelty of cruel satisfaction, and save the guilt for tomorrow morning, to deal with over room service.