Same Old Story
Kevin P. Keating
Here at last was our chance to succumb to new temptations (if one must think of such things as being so unabashedly sinful, so improper, so lascivious and corrupt, as to call them temptations), a long evening dawdling in sophomoric reverie beneath a bridge in the bustling neon funhouse of the Flats, twittering mischievously as we passed around a flask, our parched lips ready to accept the magical metamorphosis that would inevitably ensue, our hearts beating with the anticipation of the Kingsbury Run Killer, a ghost from the city’s past, our eyes darting back and forth from shadows to bright buzzing streetlights, searching for a sign of the cops, stone-faced Celtic henchman rumored to lurk behind the deteriorating concrete supports near the edge of the Cuyahoga River. An excursion into the forbidden, an escapade into the realm of “low rent,” of something less than the middle class mediocrity to which we had become unwittingly accustomed.
“Hurry up with that flask,” I said, leaning against one of the supports with a cigarette dangling from my lips.
I was so brazen in those days, thought myself so debonair, confident of the workings of the world, my heart swooning with something more than the mindless bravado that plagues the souls of most young men. Somewhere in the world, probably in one of these bars or nightclubs, a true romance awaited, a chance encounter that would change the direction of my life.
“In a minute,” Xavier said and then took a healthy swig.
A philosophy major who even then was acquiring that indispensable portliness that would later characterize his contentment with the status quo, Xavier belched uproariously into the night and with curious fingers poked and prodded Lorelei, a haughty waitress from a diner on Fulton Avenue, the femme fatale of this story, a woman who’d been conjured up from the very real, very urgent longings of the male consciousness and loins, a pretty nineteen-year old girl whose eyes sparkled not with the effervescence of cheap alcohol (in this case, a poorly blended scotch), but with, as my almost nauseating sense of romance would have it, the azure luminescence of moonlight; a woman whose virtues could never be questioned for fear that the spell of chivalry, that sanctified myth of olden times (lost, yes, but never forgotten) might evaporate into the ether much like the fumes rising out of our flask of cheap booze.
“Let me show you how it’s done,” said Lorelei, extending her pinky finger and taking several small sips. “Smooth.”
“My turn!” I demanded, reaching out a hand.
But Lorelei slapped it away. “There isn’t any more whiskey. I drank it all. Not a drop left.”
She was obviously insane to be out with the likes of us, a couple of crude buffoons, stumbling on the crushed stone under the Superior Avenue bridge, tiptoeing around the shattered bottles and crushed cans, laughing at our adolescent jokes, never expecting us to apologize for our antics, but regardless of her overwhelming, almost palpable aura of sexiness, her pouting lips and long red hair, Lorelei was, above all else, a “tough broad.” This, at least, was how Xavier described her.
“She isn’t intimidated by us, by our station in life, our education, our families. She thinks we’re harmless, innocent, charming little boys like out of that Salinger book. It really amazes me. There’s no way two idiots like us could have coped with some of the nasty experiences she’s been through. You know all about her mother, right? It’s incredible that she overcame such chaos and misery. And yet she still strikes me as a lady.”
Xavier had very definitive, very presumptuous terms for women—having the audacity, for instance, to proclaim who was a “lady” and who was not, to actually think Lorelei should meet his approval instead of Xavier meeting hers—and I (perhaps equally presumptuous) failed to see any of these extraordinary attributes in Lorelei. She was only a girl after all, not a goddess; she was nineteen and radiant, yes, but a girl all the same, one who for some inexplicable reason graced us with her presence, that was all, and as for chivalry, well, that was a scam and I knew it even if Xavier did not, but I was really much too drunk to care about any of those things at the moment.
Xavier continued to play his games, unimpeded by my as yet to be formulated views.
“Just look at this beautiful woman…”
He had his hands around her waist, and she, feigning coyness, gently slapped him, snorting laughter, and in the gloom they became graceless silhouettes, spinning round and round in a clumsy ballet, a tarantella performed by two intoxicated teenagers, their innocence and energy transforming the dismal underpass into a strange vision of modern romance.
“No, no, no.” She pushed him away. “This was great fun, but let’s go to the bar.”
“Oh, just one minute,” Xavier said with a smile, and though it was a broad and beaming smile, it lacked the charm and wit he thought he possessed. Poor Xavier, he couldn’t bare to pry his fingers away from that soft skin and all of that glorious red hair (“Bolshevik red,” he liked to call it, “she’s such a goddamn liberal!”). I felt sorry for him. It was obvious: he was standing on the edge of a great precipice, of falling deeply in love with Lorelei, but their relationship would never last. How could it? She knew too much about the world, about men (and we were hardly men, just idiotic boys), and she was obviously destined for, if not better things, then at least different—far different—ones.
“Kiss me,” he said.
She sighed. “One kiss, a small one. And then we’re going.”
Even though Lorelei was my friend and she enjoyed my company almost as much as Xavier’s, she nevertheless made me feel like a voyeur, it was an easy thing to do, and as she started to part her lips and lean forward I turned away and started walking to the bar.
How proud Xavier must have been to walk beside her, to strut down Old River Road with that girl, that vision, as she clung to his arm, a true beauty who invited, even insisted upon, a plethora of stares from men and women both (some desirous, some envious), until at last they were no longer on a mere walk but were instead on a magnificent promenade, marching toward a magical evening of cocktails and cigarettes, Xavier in deplorable attire (jeans and powder blue polo shirt), Lorelei in a billowing white blouse, a tiny black skirt, pumps—oh, what legs.
Once inside the club, she cried, “Dance with me, Xavier, dance!”, effortlessly seducing him into an angry sea of sweaty flesh on the dance floor, her words somehow mellifluous despite the deafening industrial rhythms. Here Lorelei was in her element and enjoyed herself immensely, swinging her hips in time to that incomprehensible turbo tempo, and Xavier, I must say, looked the part beside her, his head bobbing up and down in a frenzy, his arms flailing about in every direction.
I was not a very good dancer and preferred to stand at the bar, tapping my foot, sipping a pint of nasty draft beer, hoping, praying (despite my budding agnosticism), that a young lady would pause beside me to ask an unassuming question—“What time is it? Is this place always so crowded? Do you know how cute you are?”—but my luck was never any good. In fact I was cursed with an altogether different kind of luck. The bad kind.
Lorelei waved to me, wanted me to join them out there, but I only lifted my glass and offered her a weak smile.
I was impressed with Xavier’s ability to attract such a fine girl, how despite their enormous differences he became romantically involved with her. She lived with her mother in a rented clapboard frame house on a narrow street in Ohio City; he lived with his family in an enormous colonial in Shaker Heights with a gazebo and a garden and a swimming pool. Neither one seemed particularly bothered by this, never acted self-conscious about it. Anyway, the fall semester would start in another few weeks, they would part ways, and their relationship, which had temporarily blossomed, would fester and die.
The wall of pulsating revelers pressed nearer, and I began to feel almost claustrophobic. Behind me, a woman screamed, and I spun on my heels just in time to see a pint glass sail across the bar and pelt a man in the chest. From out of that senseless cacophony there erupted riotous shrieks, high-pitched screams. One man tackled another. Fists started flying. Quickly, I pushed my way toward the door where a bouncer, his massive tattooed forearms blocking my path, chattered away in an incomprehensible Iron Age dialect with a freakishly tall woman wearing what looked like a blonde wig. When he finally saw the commotion at the bar, he excused himself, saying, “Hold on a sec, babe, while I take care of this.” By merely lifting his arms he parted the crowd, his scabbed-over knuckles threatening to mutilate the perpetrators of the disturbance.
I offered the blonde a crooked smile. She sniffed and walked away.
Then from out of the swirling cigarette smoke, Lorelei suddenly materialized and sauntered slowly over to me, seemingly unfazed by the bedlam all around. She always managed to stay in character.
“Where’s Xavier?” I asked her.
“We got separated.” She didn’t sound too concerned. “It looks bad, doesn’t it?”
“Yes, it does.” More screams. I tried to peer above the milling crowd but it was impossible to see what was happening.
Lorelei reached into her purse. “Shit!”
“What is it?”
“I left my cigarettes in the car.” She sighed, tugged at the ends of her hair. “I don’t feel like looking for Xavier in this mess. Would you mind coming out to the car with me?”
“Sure, but shouldn’t we…”
But before I could search the dance floor for Xavier, Lorelei took me by the hand and pulled me out the door and onto the street.
During the long walk back to the car Lorelei hung on me, stroking my shoulders, her face nuzzled against my neck, her eyelashes fluttering against my skin, her fragrant breath, warm and heavy with whiskey, winding its way through the darkness, entwining me in its singular bouquet of mint and patented “Lorelei”, her laughter soft, subdued, her footsteps heavy, a little clumsy. I sensed that she was pretending to be a little drunker than she really was.
“A fight, how exciting,” she said.
My heart pounded in my chest. Why was she so close? What did she want from me? I liked her, yes, but I didn’t expect to feel so uncomfortable around her, didn’t anticipate the butterflies in my stomach, didn’t want to tremble on this humid, summer night, but I decided to just go along with whatever wild ideas she had in her head.
When we reached the car she didn’t say anything, just stared.
“Your cigarettes…” I said.
I tried the handle. “Locked. That was dumb. Xavier’s got the car keys.”
She pressed close to me. “Don’t you feel something?”
I squirmed. “Yes, I feel stupid.”
“And what else?”
Very close now.
How long had I known this girl? Only a few months. When did Xavier first bring me to that diner? May? June? Certainly the beginning of the summer. Oh, how shocked I was, how astonished to actually behold this “haughty vixen,” as Xavier called her, this uninhibited young woman who spoke her mind, smoked her cigarettes even while waiting tables, saying, “Yeah, my fags left me a five dollar tip,” and there I sat, shocked, stunned, the Jesuit prep school boy, eyes bulging. “I love my fags,” she declared, “they come in just to see me, to shoot the shit, and they always leave me a nice tip,” and then I found myself digging in my pockets, searching for more money, loose change, but Xavier said, “We don’t have to give her a tip, for god sake, she’s a friend, and if we did leave her a tip she would just give it back to us,” and, indeed, that’s just what she did when I tried to stuff money into her hand. “Get outta here, you jerk!” she cried and then she took a few items off our check, saying, “They’re loyal, my fags, and they never bother me, just a pot of coffee, ya know, that’s all they ever want, a slice of cheesecake,” and Xavier, grabbing her by the hand, pulling her into the booth, chastising her, “You hang around with those guys because it gives you a sense of security,” and Lorelei saying, “You’re so stupid,” and Xavier, “You’re afraid of men, you’ve had a bad time of it, what with your mom and all of her boyfriends,” and I stared deeply, profoundly, into my cup of coffee, the meek suburban boy, the product of a Jesuit education, a spiritual sepulcher where the rasping priests branded our brains with passages from Horace and Plutarch, and Lorelei turning to me with a sharp laugh and saying, “I’m sorry, what did you say your name was,” and I could only stammer, my cheeks searing with heat.
And now this moment beneath the bridge, her fingers on my chest, unbuttoning my shirt, slowly, playfully.
“Don’t you feel this mutual attraction?”
A bus rumbled by overhead. The foundation of the bridge seemed to shake.
“But Xavier…” I said. “Doesn’t he… don’t you two…”
She arched her eyebrows, a daring succubus. All of that red hair. Her hands sliding down my back. “No,” she breathed.
I inched my lips closer, saw the small smile at the corners of her mouth as we kissed, as our mouths made that sound, and the bridge rumbling and shaking with traffic overhead, and there we were against the car, tearing at each other’s clothes in front of god knows who or what, and then, in the middle of it, in the damn middle of this wildness, this craziness, this savagery and danger, as my mind drifted away into that mindless realm of pleasure, as my naiveté and uneasiness dissipated in the darkness, vanquished at last by stupid desire, as my voice tried to utter the words, attempted to say with poignancy, with purpose, “I am a virgin, only a virgin,” another voice suddenly spoke to us from the sinister shadows, a voice not my own, not Lorelei’s, one filled with great solemnity and sorrow.
“I think I’ve heard this story before…”
We turned, Lorelei and I, startled, still in that impetuous embrace, to see Xavier standing in there, smoking a cigarette.
Kevin P. Keating has worked as a landscaper, a painter, a bookie's apprentice, a boilermaker, and a beauty pageant judge. He currently earns his living as an instructor of English at Baldwin-Wallace College near Cleveland, Ohio. His fiction and essays have appeared in a number of literary journals, including most recently Fringe, Identity Theory, The Deepening, Mad Hatter's Review, Smokebox, Exquisite Corpse, Green Hills Literary Lantern, The Stickman Review, Underground Voice, Perigee and many others. You can access much of his work by visiting his blog at http://www.kevinpkeating.blogspot.com/
Photo "metallic siren" courtesy of 123rf.
Story Copyright © 2007 Kevin P. Keating. All rights reserved.