The story goes roughly like this: Girl meets boy in chat room, agrees to meet downtown for coffee. And does, and after three minutes of coffee can see it’s not good. The story goes like such stories do. Girl’s got to ditch boy but can’t simply snub him outright; he’s not for her, but he’s human, and not stupid, either. What’s more, he isn’t ugly, has what you’d call middling good looks, with a kind of weird dark charisma, despite the clothes: he spent eighteen months in the army, was discharged for ambiguous reasons, and still wears mainly khaki. So girl not only suffers the droning self-centered barrage but says well, OK, yes, she’ll join him for dinner, and get this, hops in his minivan in the freezing parking garage (boy has no children, no trade, not even a job), leaving her own car there on level three, trusting the universe to protect her, as it must, asking herself why in God’s name does she do these things that she does.
Lucky for her and for us, the story doesn’t end in this vein. Boy does not pull off into a dimly lit lane to rape her and cut her with his knife and burn her and maybe cannibalize a bit for good measure. Girl does not become a statistic, another in a long list of sorry bodies that turn up piecemeal in dumpsters. This is a happier story, unhappy as both girl and boy seem to be. First he sideswipes a wall, descending the parking garage. Turns out the van is his mother’s, he borrowed it, and in fact rarely drives (this in part was the rub with the army), though he’s just turned thirty-three. With forced nonchalance he pilots the damaged van to the valet lot at Atherton’s, the city’s most illustrious eatery, and in they go. Into the tableau of Italian suits, diamonds, candles, magnificent dresses — to the dismay of said girl, clad humbly in Levi’s and tennies and white poly-knit top. The boy has brought his guitar in its uncomely case. They like me to play here, he told her outside. Anytime. Really.
The bar upstairs is a degree or two less formal, if not quite your jeans-or-khaki locale. And it’s brimming with murmuring holiday tipplers. Boy squeezes through with his instrument, followed by girl; they claim the single unoccupied table, a tiny walnut thing trimmed in brushed chrome, like the bar. He unsheathes the guitar, tunes briefly. The girl motions as the waitperson passes, but he’s looking every direction but theirs. The boy kicks off his set with a burst of flamenco. The murmur halts in the bar for a moment as this new element registers. This Spanish brashness so forwardly flung, unprompted, so at odds with the holiday music. With “God Rest Ye” issuing still through the invisible speakers.
The boy retunes between songs. He hadn’t gotten the guitar tuned in the first place. He doesn’t get it right now. He’s tone-deaf, or nervous, or both; he’s only been playing eight months. The waiter glides over at last, addressing them — boy, girl, guitar — as if from some immeasurable distance. Beer for the boy, scotch on the rocks for the girl. And an order of fries and steamed clams, since the boy said there’d be dinner. Boy blasts off again. Another fervent song by Montoya. It’s all flamenco, actually. Flamenco’s what the boy knows; it’s his passion, his love. That and playing in public. Which he does with much flair: head jerks, grimaces, dramatic down-strums.
Two songs later the girl slips away to the bathroom. She opens her purse on the spotless mica-flecked marble counter, extracts her cellphone and dials her housemate. Sharon, she’ll say when said housemate picks up, I blew it, come rescue me, now — no, better yet, invent an emergency, something terrible, just call my cell in ten minutes. But Sharon’s not home. Girl leaves message on voice mail, conveying just a fraction of the desperation she feels, then enters a stall, latching the elegant latch on the veined marble door, and, unzipping, sits. She doesn’t have to pee, but, well, here she is.
She’s gone out of her way lately to find these least-feasible men. Tonight seems to epitomize all, the whole sad, vivid tally. There was the bewildered professor, a guitar player also, who didn’t and would never know what he wanted, who couldn’t say what he meant, for all his fondness for words, and was, by the way, married. There was the brother of her ex-roommate Stella, psychotic, volcanic, a bona fide stalker after the fact. There was the computer astronomer, whose very face made one want to yawn, and Ken, who was addicted to pot; there was the lovable drug-and-alcohol counselor with his less lovable herpes. And yes, the man who comanaged the greeting card factory, too old for her, really, who couldn’t be pleased unless she played boy to his girl, unless she forcefully “took” him; and she likes being a girl, and feels strange, not sexy, with plastic accoutrements strapped to her hips.
For sure, one can be forgiven for doing what one does again and again and again. Girl meets boy after boy after worst-possible boy. But what hurts is knowing you do it, and knowing you know, and knowing you haven’t learned. What hurts is playing the role willingly, knowing in your bones how dire the ending will be. Even in the oldest, most basic stories the wolf hides its teeth badly. And the girl knows what a wolf is, and knows about teeth, and still dares the thing to bare its teeth fully.
She sits biding her minutes, jeans at her ankles. Then gets up and zips up and checks herself in the mirror and then exits. She passes the Christmas ficus with its tiny white bulbs, the row of gleaming bar stools, the cheerful holiday couples; she settles again at the table, where the boy is playing full tilt. Bargoers glance over occasionally. A few look embarrassed. Above all they don’t know how to respond. Why are these people here? they seem to wonder, this smiling pretty girl with the mole and all her white teeth and this manic young man in black boots and khaki. They don’t see a bowl, or a tip jar. Will the girl walk around in a while with a hat, a sombrero? And the boy might choose, if he would, to play a bit softer.
One more clam, she decides, one last sip of scotch, and she’ll say she’s got to go. She’s feeling sick, she will say; it’s her stomach, the seafood perhaps; she hasn’t had a clam since she was seven. She looks at the antique leaded windows, which are just slightly steamy, then at the bar, squinching her face up, trying to will her guts to rebel. That’s when she sees the woman. A short erect lady, midseventies, maybe, clad in cobalt chenille. The lady’s not drinking, nor is she with anyone. She’s just standing there gazing — at the girl, at the boy — three paces off, serenely smiling.
The boy ends his song with a flourish. The woman applauds emphatically, edging up, inciting the first general applause of the evening.
Wonderful, she says, beaming.
Her face is exuberant, radiant, rosy. The house music intones yet from on high, cautiously operatic. And heaven and nature sing, and heaven and nature sing!
Thanks, says the boy.
The woman beams at the girl, the boy, the guitar. Do you know “The Hunt,” by Albéniz? she asks.
Still working on that one, the boy answers.
Thanks, says the boy.
Are you here every Saturday? We’re downstairs. I never come up here.
I just come around when I can.
I see, the woman says.
She’s swaying minutely, touching the girl’s chair to keep herself steady.
Would you play for us? she asks the boy. At my table? Downstairs?
The boy looks at the girl.
Just two songs, the woman says. We’ll pay you.
The girl’s got her hand on her gut, face squinched, but doesn’t speak up in time.
OK, says the boy, and stands up. And the girl says, I’ll wait here, and the lady says, Oh, honey, no, he’s playing for you!
Downstairs it’s a soft-spoken party of six. White linen, candles, maroon linen napkins. At the table’s head a pair of diners slide over, making space for the girl and the boy and the acoustic guitar. The lady’s husband, who resembles Marcus Welby, MD, orders a beer for the boy and a scotch for the girl, looking like the last thing in the world he wants to ask his dear wife is What have you gone and done now? The boy tunes, then rolls into the Montoya piece he opened with earlier. This time he gets every note right, the song is flawless, minus a few rhythmic stumbles. He concludes, panting almost. The whole table applauds. As do others: other tables, other diners, who seem at least vaguely interested in what is transpiring at this end of the room. The piped-in Christmas carols have been summarily silenced. The waiter hands the desserts around, coffee. The boy rolls into song two.
The woman seems entranced by the girl. She’s beaming and beaming, confiding, utterly wrong but somehow also right in her way, her fine silver hair swept in a bun, gazing over the bouquet of hibiscus and holly, the candles, the neck of the Spanish guitar. The boy moves into song three, and then four. There’s no stopping him now, he might play forever, and that’s fine with her, with the woman, even if her party’s begun again to converse, and the old man on her left, liver spots, baggy red velvet vest, half blind and half deaf and maybe touched by Tourette’s, is nodding off slowly.
This is how it feels to be young and in love, her face seems to say. This is how we’re made love to; this is how love comes at us, deliciously headlong. This is how we flower and live in it because it’s all that matters, ever. I know this well, her face seems to say. And I refuse to forget it, or lose it. And I know you’ll remember it, too.
And now the girl’s phone is going off; it’s clipped to her hip, not ringing but vibrating in its imperative way. And in this happier unhappy story of girl and boy, this story that could and does go on without end, the girl lets it buzz. She melts into her chair and her scotch and stays where she is.