As usual, Rita waited in the car, while I was upstairs talking to an arty redhead in a cramped hallway of a Center City apartment, swallowing the worm. My new friend wore paint-splattered jeans, and a splotch of cobalt blue on her neck might have been a birthmark or a bruise, or just more paint. This was in Philly, years ago, and when I think of those times, I think of the talking that we did, all the talking, talking and talking at parties in long hallways crammed with people, bodies squeezing past bodies, distended, limbs contorted, bodies leaning, sitting, smoking, drinking, everyone’s mouth open and hungry, like one of those horrible Hieronymus Bosch paintings.
But tonight, in this hallway, it’s just the redhead and me. She’s a girl whose name I will never know. We met just a few minutes ago in the kitchen, huddled by the stove, looking more, I’m sure, like characters escaped from an Edward Hopper painting, glad to be close, glad to be talking. Just two minutes ago, a guy in a leather jacket — a genuine leather jacket, this before every leather jacket was simply a reference to a previous leather jacket seen in a commercial, film, or Gap ad — had come huffing up the stairs, smoking, and asked, “Are you Stewart?”
When I nodded, he went on, “There’s a blonde in an Accord parked out front and she asked me to tell Stewart to hurry up down.”
Hurry up down, I thought.
What I didn’t know at the time was that Rita’s soon-to-be lover lived just two blocks away from where she sat in the idling car, but that’s another story, and what I was wishing, while I stood there with the redhead, was that I hadn’t called Rita to pick me up just moments before Ray Beckett had stepped into the kitchen and pulled a bottle of mezcal from under his coat like a rabbit from a hat. The bottle had a dead worm floating along its bottom, and Ray, enamored by this fact, had clamored on about it, telling us how it worked as an aphrodisiac, how the Aztecs used it to communicate with the gods.
At the time, Rita and I lived together in an apartment in Ardmore, out on the Main Line. We were free of the city, finally — or so we told ourselves. But I had no car, and I’d never wanted to leave the city. It was Rita who’d wanted to flee the city, wanting nothing more to do with the crime-ridden neighborhood surrounding the University of Penn where we’d lived for the last three years while I finishing my B.A. at Temple. I’d agreed to the move after Rita had agreed she would pick me up in the city on those nights I was still there after all the parties had ended, or the bars had closed, and the trains had stopped running. This was one of those nights, late Saturday, and I thought that gave me a certain prerogative, but mostly I just missed the strangeness of the city, our life there, the nights watching TV in our underwear, knee-deep into a sixer of Lowenbrau while eating take-out Ethiopian from the Red Sea across the street. Often, watching the local news at night we’d see yellow crime tape in front of a storefront window, a familiar window, we’d think, before the subtitle on the tube announced Murder in West Philly and we’d realize the familiar window was from the deli two blocks down, so close to where we lay our heads each night, so close to where we, under the covers, traced each other’s young bodies, feeling at our luck and laughing at the fact that we had found each other so easily and at such a ridiculously tender ridiculous age.
There were 491 murders in the city the year before we moved. The same story over and over: The owner of a store pulls out a sawed-off shotgun and murders two black teenagers he has mistakenly identified as thieves or two black teenagers murder a Korean clerk for sixteen one dollar bills. Each night before the news, I skipped across Walnut Street to the Red Sea and bought a take-out six-pack, seeking my relief.
So we moved to Ardmore. Made the deal. Now, she was below waiting. I had called from the kitchen phone well over an hour ago, in a lonely moment, a dead moment, when the party was at a lull, a moment before Beckett walked through the door and pulled out that mezcal bottle from inside his trench coat like a street-corner magician. It was just about then that I spotted the redhead, looking at Becket with the same bemused smile pasted on my face.
We had been talking in the kitchen, which overlooked the street, when I first heard the faint echo of a car horn.
When the horn sounded again there was no doubt it was her, so I took the redhead’s hand and guided her to the hallway. This was before Nirvana, before cell phones. Michael Stipe still had hair. No one but us knew of Morrissey, the Meat Puppets, Bad Brains. I was twenty-four. How cocky were you when you were twenty-four?
Then the guy in the leather jacket came in and told us about the blonde in the Accord.
“Is that your girlfriend?” the redhead asked, god bless her, this child, this girl, this young woman, this ruby princess, wherever she may be. I imagine her in Denver, a yoga instructor, sipping tea, trying to find her chi. Once at a party just like this one in yet another hallway near another door, I had told a girl I couldn’t go home with her because Rita, my Rita, was waiting for me at home. Why Rita was always at home waiting is a mystery this story can’t solve. She just was. She didn’t drink; she didn’t fool around, she was so serious and beautiful with imperial blue eyes. She wasn’t interested in the foolishness that drew me in, but her body was liquid in my hands, her soft breasts and lovely puss were like epiphanies. I loved to lick and suck her, driving her crazy. She used to pull her legs together and beg me to stop. A virgin when I met her, a girlfriend of hers had to explain those waves she felt in her belly were an orgasm. This other girl at this other party, call her Heather, stroked my face when I told her about Rita waiting at home. She called Rita a lucky girl. I remember Heather well; her red lipstick and black hair. Her thick wool sweater couldn’t hide the wonderful swell of her breasts. She wore a denim skirt and black nylon tights. She was young and pretty and she wanted me, offering herself for one night, but when I said, “No, I can’t,” all she said was Rita was a lucky girl.
She didn’t know the story, didn’t know that I had already fucked someone else, only to come home and fuck Rita, two girls within an hour of each other, both young and beautiful. I thought I was God. I was an asshole, yes, but still, after Rita did eventually leave me, do you know how many times I’ve thought of Heather? (To say nothing of Rita.) Can I say this? Can I explain how much all this means? And it’s not the pleasure, it’s not the sweet pain, it’s the possibility, this glimpse into another world where a guy like me might be seen pointing back, guffawing; beautiful women everywhere. I think I was beautiful once. I think everyone has moments. And I think our alternative selves race alongside us, mocking our choices. It’s a 100-yard dash to the finish and we don’t look left or right for fear of falling farther and farther behind what we might become.
That night in the hallway with the redhead, I told her, yes, that indeed it was my girlfriend waiting below.
“I’d be pissed if someone kept me waiting that long,” she said.
It wasn’t that simple, I explained. I told her about the promise, the deal brokered, and she asked me what I was given Rita in return for her taxi service, and I laughed and said, “My undying love, of course — to the end of my days,” or some such asinine comment. I didn’t know what mattered. I didn’t know whom I loved. That night in the kitchen, I think I even put a hand over my heart. I was such an asshole, but really there are millions of guys out there like me, telling the same jokes, living that same life over and over again. Everyone wants to be ________. (Rita, my love, had cheekbones carved from stone, a father who left her at thirteen, and seven sisters who backed me into a kitchen corner the first night I met them, demanding to know my intentions for their sister. I laughed them off and told them Rita’s opinion was the only one that mattered. I was right. They believed me. One of the sisters called me “The Poet.” Another, whose name actually was Rita, and who dared me one night to drop a towel and jump naked into a pool, a dare I refused fearing that my dick would appear too small in the lamp light reflecting off the pool’s pink-purple surface, once said to me, “My sister never forgive my father for leaving. She doesn’t forgive.”)
I know this now. I understand.
“What do you do?” my new friend asked. The way I remember it she had impossible green wolf eyes, this before colored contact lens, before fake boobs, before instant replay in football, before organic food. Aids still a death sentence. The world just about ready for Kurt Cobain, but really I thank god there were no cell phones that night because certainly Rita simply would have called mine and I would have answered, of course, fhaving forgotten to turn it off, and the vibe of this conversation would have been broken, stopped short, this whole story sucked down and away into some smirking tech-savy black hole. I would have been in the car on my way home by now, and possibly none of this would have happened. Rita wouldn’t have been still waiting in the car, waiting and fuming, plotting her departure from my life, our life. Who knew? Not me. I smirked and answered my new friend.
“I’m a writer,” I said, “I’m trying to write about my generation.”
“What generation? We don’t have a generation.”
“Exactly. That’s exactly it. Those bastards from the 60s stole it all away. Stole everything. We’re still living in the freaking shadow of the hippies and how lame is that? That’s the thing, that’s what I want to write about.”
“But no one believes all that crap. Peace, love and understanding? I mean be real. They don’t even matter anymore”
“Yeah. No, that’s what I’m saying, exactly, but I think the hippy aesthetic is coming back. There’s going to be another Woodstock. I can feel it.”
“Another Woodstock? Are you serious?”
We were on the verge of the great ironic age, a time when it would become impossible to simply state how you feel, to say, “I love you,” or “What’s wrong?” or “I’m scared,” or “Help me.” Those words are all gone now, but they lingered in the air, mixing with the cigarette smoke.
Speaking of irony: A month after this night Rita would leave me waiting alone all night in that apartment in Ardmore until the morning when she rushed in eyes wide with heat, telling me she was moving out. I would learn later that the man she left me for had the other guy’s apartment at 19th and Chestnut. In all likelihood she had already started it up with this guy (at least on a flirtatious level), and, I’m sure, while she waited for me she must have debated to herself the merits of leaving right then, at the peak moment of my ridiculous power, and to drive those two blocks, park her car (and why she never simply parked the Accord and came up and got me is the second mystery this story can’t solve) and buzzed her new man.
Now, another guy, not in a leather jacket, came up and told me the same story about the angry girl in the Accord.
“Don’t know her,” I said.
“You’re bad,” my new friend said.
We moved closer. We kissed, our one smoky kiss, before I would leave her forever, this girl leading me nowhere but to the next chapter of my life, allowing this part of my own little story to unfold as Rita sat below waiting, deciding our fate. And this is the truth because this is what she told me, what Rita told me that morning she came home and said she was leaving me for a man named Vicose.
“You fucker, I knew I was going to do this the night you made me wait on Chestnut Street for an hour.”
“Forty-five minutes,” I corrected her.
She said this. I said that. It’s the truth. This really happened.
And I really did go then, after the kiss, I went back to the kitchen, the window there, opened it and leaned out like I was watching a parade, leaned out to give Rita a signal, to buy myself just a bit more time — just five more minutes, maybe one more kiss.
But she was already gone.