Studio of Edwin & Marcia Ward

Friday, February 18, 2011


The First Time

I remember the first time: a Philly in sight of the river, downtown residential hotel. Four flights up worn Oriental carpeting after casual scrutiny by a half-assed, half-sober, rent-a-cop doorman.

“Visiting a friend,” I say as I wonder: on whose side is he? Little do I know that wonder is about to redefine itself.

Inside Four O Nine, a square-ish room with a window, three more doors, a narrow bed covered
with a bandanna-esque sheet patterned after the fashion of a mandala, a radio tuned to WXPN, and a
most beautiful girl, already a woman, perhaps three years my junior, nineteen at most. She is expecting me, a stranger, although I’m not expecting a woman to open the door as I spoke with a male voice named
Rick on the telephone an hour earlier. I notice there is no phone and think for a moment that maybe I’ve gone to the wrong room. I ask after Rick, and she whispers that he is a minor player. I suddenly realize that I am four friends removed from this woman with whom I am about to commit a felony.

With a beckoning finger she bids me move closer to her to discuss the particulars of the deal, reminding me that walls can have ears. True, I can hear the canned laughter of Laugh In from a television in Four O Seven. As she explains her modus operandi, I focus my attention on her mouth. Her lips are the same color as the freckles which bubble lava-like up her neck. Her teeth are white and I find her crooked eye teeth cute. A natural strawberry blonde, the jade of her cotton dress and the blue of her eyes confuse the arithmetic of dollars and ounces in my head. Such a novice, such a virgin at this am I, that I would agree to anything she says, and I do offer her three hundred and fifty in bank fresh notes. Ulysses S. Grant and Ben Franklin in green always remind me of Philadelphia for reasons of a different electricity. She takes the bread and palms it, after first separating from the cash a bill which disappears into her dress pocket. I am to remain while she goes to another room somewhere in the building. She leaves through what I take to be a connecting door to Four Eleven, and it turns out to be a good ten minutes before she returns, during which time I snoop about, my heart pounding for a number of reasons, paranoia and lust among them.

Behind one door I find a bathroom in whose window a plethora of Boston ferns and spider plants mute the city lights outside. On the floor by the shower-less tub lie some tie-dyed shirts and shifts, towels, socks and undies. I can’t resist the temptation to smell her panties, and in an instant I struggle against the confinement of my B.V.D.’s. Then in the mirror above the sink I notice the backpack on the back of the door behind me. A rather parochial city boy, I have never seen one. Its numerous pockets and compartments appear to hold the bulk of her belongings: a Kelly green sweater from the Aran Islands . . . an Afro pick . . .a stash of hashish in a thirty-five millimeter film canister along with a Dakota pipe stone pipe in a small beaded bag of soft deerskin . . . patchouli oil in a glass vial . . . a Manila envelope stuffed with letters received . . . a blue denim skirt replete with assorted collages of hand-sewn patchwork . . . a Cub Scout shirt, Troop 20, Jackson Hole, Wyoming . . . and a sweat shirt bearing the logo of the University of Pennsylvania. I note the lack of bras, and thinking on that subject, I remember that I still hold her panties in my hand. I inhale the fantasy of her deeply again as my tongue toys with the roof of my mouth. I flip up the lid of the toilet, unzip my herringbone slacks and urinate. The blood swelling in my penis abates as I wonder what’s taking her so long?

Inside the next door: a closet containing a Loden coat, a pair of sun dresses - one light weight, sky blue cotton, the other heavy forest green linen, - and a pair of Frye boots. My paranoia goes into remission. She won’t burn me; she does, indeed, live here. The Spartan aesthetics of her lifestyle blows me away. I flash on the extra closets I built to store the out-of-season wardrobe of my wife in Wenona, the too many rooms in the house of doomed love. The door has a full length dime store mirror in which I examine myself, my prepster stance. Two years into marriage a man gets a wee bit chubby, and my long-ish curls, their rotundity reflects that. Pasta fat is not to be confused with baby fat. I run the fingers of both hands through my hair thereby fluffing its appearance and think about the photograph of Dylan ironing Baez’s hair. I think of other mirrors in my life.

There was a time in my early teens when I’d spend afternoons alone before a mirror much like this one, singing along with records. Over and over I’d chant and rant and sing along with a Dylan song until I felt I’d never forget the words and phrasings. Once, my father came home early and unannounced; he spied my ritual-like recitations in silence from the living room. I guess he had some inklings as to the seriousness of my path, for in his veins flowed the blood of actors and poets; unfortunately, too much bar whiskey flowed as well, and he’d been distracted from the path and lost the battle of choice. I know that when I first became aware of his presence watching, I hardly missed a beat. I availed my self of the opportunity to direct the venom of Dylan’s verse at him. “Get out of the way if you can’t lend a hand” is all the more powerful if one can target the you. I hated his alcoholism and the hysterical pain it inflicted on my mother. When the song ended, I kept up the litany of the snide outlaw, the cynical back-talk. For another ten minutes I recited, all the while pretending that I was unaware of him until our eyes met, undeniably, in the mirror. On the threshold of tears, I turned and faced him; somehow, I knew he knew I wanted out of anger and into love. But he made no attempt to explain himself, then or ever. Strange it is, that the heaviest communication I ever had with my father was through the medium of a pop star. Funny it was, too, when some months later I came home unexpected and found my father, drunk and happy, singing in the kitchen. Through the same mirror that he had watched me in, I watched him. His hands clasped his ears, his eyes were shut, and he leaned back on the rear legs of the chrome kitchen chair, with his feet propped upon the white enamel radiator cover. He recited all one hundred and thirteen lines of “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” missing not a beat, not a word. He understood its pathos and angers and visionary threshold and cried my first man-child tears.

As I’m standing now, in the catalyst of the hotel mirror, I realize why I had not cried at the funeral when, unexpectedly, the corridor door opens and bangs into the closet door which dominos into me. My own image smacks into my face. The mirror cracks and then spiders in a dozen directions. My eye tooth splits my lip. I suck the trickle of blood.

I make no attempt to explain the open closet door to the girl, although I offer to pay to replace the broken mirror.

“Fuck the mirror,” she says. “Here’s the weed.” It is wrapped in The Evening Bulletin. It is compressed. A hunk of a Columbian kilo. Its earthy sweetness reminds me why exactly I am here in this room with a strange woman risking my professional credentials and freedom. I fish with my finger from out of my watch pocket the key to my Swinger. I offer again to make amends for the mirror, but she indicates its demise is no big deal, no problem, as she’ll be moving at week’s end anyway. She also asks if I’ll hang out a little longer as quick in and outs are cause for suspicion. I have brought along a briefcase to transport the herb, and when in my nervousness I open it upside down, the unmarked compositions of my students tumble out and flower the gray carpet with their vitality. I feel klutzy and foppish as I bend to reorganize my briefcase and somehow leave behind my gold Cross pen. The last ten minutes, indeed, the last hour or so, have wrecked my nerves. I feel uncoordinated and time seems languid as I struggle to close the Samsonite. The shape of the broken key, however, prevents closure. I am afraid to squash the bud any further, but then she solves my problem with the deft use of a pocket knife which she produces from somewhere on her person. As she kneels in front of me working the blade through the pot, I see that the freckles on her neck cover her breasts as well. I envision speckled ass and strawberry snatch.

I ask if I can smoke a cigarette while I wait. She says that it’s O.K., for now we can open the blinds and window, now that the deal is done and the weed is out of sight. She refuses my offer of a cigarette with a compassionate “That shit’ll kill you” as we look out at Society Hill below and the Delaware in the distance, towards which I blow menthol rings that disappear in the Indian Summer evening. I know she is right in her distaste for smoking, and for the first time in my life, I realize what nicotine addiction is. Although it will be a year or so until I quit smoking for the first time, I credit Diana with my awareness. For that’s what she says her name is when, after I flick my butt street-wards, I ask her. Prior to this point, neither of us has revealed our identity.

“Not D _ I _ A _ N _ E, not D _ I _ N _ A _ H, but D _ I _ A _ N _ A.”

So as not to be confused, I have asked her to spell it, although I’m not sure that Diana is anything but an alias. Ah, the little white lies of the deal . . . the fabrications of origins . . . of whence comes the weed, of whither goes the woman. When she asks after my occupation, I lie and tell her that I teach Literature and Composition at Glassboro State. Ah, the youthful exaggeration of self.

Diana thanks me again for my patronage. I thank her for the nerve, the connection, and the trust of the deal. She also asks for a number where she can reach me with her new number once she relocates, in the event, she says, that I should need to contact her again. She writes my phone number backwards in a miniature address book which she fetches from the backpack in the bathroom. All her actions seem so well conceived and clever. I linger somewhat humbled by her hip-ness. Time passes, the radio changes disc jockey, and rock and roll trumpets my exit. I leave, exhilarated and confident that I’ll return home safely. Even the prowling squad cars that pass me on my way to my Dodge phase me not.

And on the way back to Jersey, crossing the Walt Whitman Bridge, in my rearview mirror, the outline of the skyline looks unusually beautiful and the river below the bridge especially voluminous.
Hell, it’s a new decade, and the war babies are about to get into things different than pot and peace. Born-again Christianity and cocaine, two of the era’s great intrigues, will have little to do with the likes of me and Diana, who never does call with her new phone number. I have not seen her since the first time.

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