I was in a biker bar. There were worse places. My colleagues, who had names like Lumpy and Gargoyle, thought no less of me simply because I was an English professor. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, one dude suggested. It's what's inside your heart that counts.
The venue --- the Astrid Hotel, in Astrid, Maine --- was famous not only for the skankiness of its patrons but also for its ghost, an undead girl who walked its tattered hallways weeping in her pajamas. She’d drowned in the twenties, in the nearby Kennebec River. The girl was determined, supposedly, to find her father and her sister, who'd been guests of the hotel, back in the day. Hey. Don’t you know I can’t swim?
I had come to the Astrid to play with my friends in an R&B band, Blue Stranger, up on the hotel’s grandiose stage, in what had once been a fancy ballroom. Now it had a cement floor, fiberglass tiles on the ceiling. On one wall was a rough-hewn mural of the north country. There were lumberjacks hoisting logs with skidders, fur trappers trudging through the woods on snowshoes. The Astrid Hotel itself was depicted on the mural as it once had been: a genteel mansion perched on a ridge overlooking Carrabec Falls.
It was on a rock at the bottom of the falls that they’d found the girl.
Over at the pool table, guys with tattoos and beards employed the ladies’ bridge. There were mill workers and river guides, taxidermists and hippies. The bouncer chalked his cue. To his left and right were guys named Sleepy, Gangrene, Itchy, Monster, Weasel, and Happy.
The last song of the first set was “Somebody to Love,” the Jefferson Airplane number. I was playing Farfisa organ through an old Leslie amplifier.
Your eyes, I say your eyes may look like his
But in your head baby I’m afraid you don’t know where it is.
I liked this song all right. But sometimes, I don’t know. It left me dispirited.
During the break, we all went up to the bar. The band’s lead singer, my friend Shell, ordered me a drink.
I got out the book I was reading --- Pale Fire, by Nabokov.
Shell looked over and sighed. “Hey. Professor Glasses. What now?”
I smiled. “It’s a fake poem. And then there’s commentary on the poem, written by somebody who doesn’t exist.”
She sighed. “Whatever.”
“It’s really interesting,” I said.
When she wasn’t leaping around the stage of the Astrid Hotel in spandex, Shell was the vice president of a savings bank. “You think?” she said.
I cleared my throat.
“Was he in Sherlock Holmes, the fellow whose
Tracks pointed back when he reversed his shoes?”
She smiled. “You really do live in your own little world, don’t you?” she said fondly.
“That’s so wrong?”
The bartender put two clear, fizzing drinks in front of us. There were what looked like prunes on the bottom. Shell handed me a glass.
We clinked. “Fart in the Ocean,” she said. “Tequila and Seven–Up.”
“Served–with a prune?”
“Served,” she said, “with a prune.”
Why is it, I wondered, that women have to drink the undrinkable? In my day, I had seen my sisters order everything from a Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster (vodka, cider, cherry brandy, and Tia Maria) to a Warsaw Waffle (an unspeakable union of vodka and Maine maple syrup). Would it be so wrong if once in a while we had a nice pint of Guinness instead? But whenever I had a Guinness it was inevitable that one of my girlfriends would come up to me and say, You know how many calories are in that, Jenny? As many as a steak dinner! This, from someone who was drinking something called The Screaming Chocolate Monkey.
From the other end of the room a woman’s voice rose in anger. “Leave me alone!” she shouted, then threw her margarita in the face of her good man. This dramatic imperative was greeted with applause and cheers by everyone except for the fellow whose face was now covered with triple sec.
Shell looked at me and smiled. “Brandy and Boyd LeMieux,” she said wistfully. “They’re the perfect couple --- she’s an ex–model, he’s an ex–Marine.”
Brandy stood up and headed toward the bar where Shell and I were sitting. She was an attractive woman, in a dilapidated sort of way. “You want a cigarette?” she asked.
“I don’t smoke.”
Brandy laughed. “Right,” she said.
“Jenny here’s an English professor,” said Shell.
Brandy LeMieux laughed like this was funny. “Yeah,” she said. “And I’m an astronaut.” She picked up Shell’s drink, downed it in a single gulp. Didn’t eat the prune, though. She looked at my book.
“What’s that? Any good?”
“It’s Nabokov,” I said. “You like Nabokov?”
Her mouth dropped open, as if I were one of the Beatles. “Whoa,” she said. “You really are an English teacher. Aren’t you!”
Shell patted my shoulder. “Well,” she said. “I’ll let you two chat. Then she headed over toward the place where Boyd was sitting, staring sadly into Brandy’s empty margarita glass.
Brandy and I watched as Shell sat down next to him. I could imagine the counsel she was offering. Don’t worry, Boyd! There are plenty of other fish in the ditch!
“What a nerd,” Brandy said. “My husband. I can’t believe I ever married him.” She looked at me. “You married?”
One of the awkward hallmarks of my life is the way relatively simple questions command complex answers, the kind that require a PowerPoint presentation and several Oprah shows to do them justice. I am more than a little hopeful, in most situations, to be seen as human. But there are plenty of times I don’t want to go into the details. Especially when I’m sitting next to a woman who’s just downed a drink with a prune in it.
“You’re wearing a wedding ring,” Brandy said, trying to help.
“It’s a long story,” I said.
Brandy raised her empty glass and clinked it against mine.
“You go, girl,” she said.
“You go.” We were friends now.
“You’re really pretty, did you know that?”
“I don’t think so,” I said.
“Will you buy me another drink?”
"Sure,” I said. The bartender cut another Fart in the Ocean.
“Boyd wants to put me in a time machine,” said Brandy.
“Hate that,” I said.
“He can’t see me where I am. Only where I was.”
“Where are you?” I said.
She reached out and squeezed my hand. “I’m here with you, Jenny.”
“My son wants to be a time traveler,” I said. “When he grows up.”
“Well, the hell. Maybe he can use Boyd’s machine, after he’s done with it.”
The topic of superpowers, including time travel, was a frequent one in our house. There were times when it seemed like it was all we ever talked about, Grace and me, and our middle school–age children, Paddy and Luke. I maintained that the only two superpowers worth having were super–strength and super–speed. Ten–year–old Paddy, for his part, advocated the power of virtual reality, the power of time travel, and something else he called super–stickiness, which might be the thing that enables Spider–Man to climb walls, or might be something else entirely. In any case, Paddy said that super–strength and super–speed were mutually exclusive. “If you have super–strength,” he maintained, “it slows down your super–speed.”
I knew well enough to let Paddy have his way in these discussions, even though I didn’t exactly understand what the power of virtual reality was, not that it hadn’t been explained to me again and again. “It’s the power to turn your imagination into reality,” Paddy said, exasperated that such an explanation was even necessary.
I'm not saying the power of virtual reality isn’t a good thing. Honestly I’m not. But I’ve been in lots of situations in which super–speed would have been extremely useful.
Boyd got up from his table and started heading toward us. “Shit,” said Brandy. “Here we go again.”
She took me by the hand. “Come on, follow me.” We walked out into the foyer, then into the ladies room. Brandy leaned against the wall, next to the paper towel dispenser and grinned at me. “So what do you think?”
Brandy rolled her eyes. “Duh, Jenny,” she said.
I appeared to have agreed to something that had not been put into words.
“Look at you,” she said. “You’re trembling like a leaf!”
“I am not.”
“The fuck you’re not. Come on. It’s really okay.”
She pulled me into the handicap stall. Then she drew toward me and put her arms around my back and hugged me. Her body was soft and warm, and her head fell against my shoulder. I was a lot taller than Brandy.
“It’s really okay,” she whispered, and then she raised her head and kissed me on the lips. Then she kissed me again. I felt her breasts pressing against mine. “Nngg, Jenny,” she said. “Nnnngg.”
I pulled back. Incredibly, my first concern in this skanky situation was making sure I didn’t hurt Brandy’s feelings.
“Listen,” I said. “You’re sweet, but you know, like --- ”
“Please,” said Brandy achingly. “It’s my birthday.”
And I thought, It’s her birthday?
“You don’t understand,” I said. “I’m married.”
Brandy didn’t understand what this had to do with anything. “So?” she said. “I’m married, too!” I heard the voice of Jimmy Stewart in the back of my head: This is a very unusual situation!
“I should go,” I said.
“Wait,” she said. On the wall behind her were phone numbers, profanities, names of men and women enclosed with hearts. Her eyes filled with tears. I didn’t want to wait for her, was in fact more than eager to get out of this particular situation. But I couldn’t leave.
Tears rolled down her cheeks. “Nobody knows me,” she said.
“Brandy,” I said. “I’m sure that’s not true.”
“It’s like having a dog. Like a Saint Bernard.”
“The secrets,” she whispered. “Everywhere I go, they have to go, too.”
“What secrets?” I said.
She laughed to herself. “What secrets,” she said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world, what her secrets were.
“Have you thought about talking to someone?” I said.
“Jenny?” She looked at me as if I were on drugs. “I’m talking to you.”
“I mean, you know. A professional.”
“You mean like a shrink?” she said, stunned by the suggestion. “Oh, I’ve talked to plenty of shrinks, believe me.”
“Listen, Brandy. I don’t know you. I’m just an English teacher.”
“But that’s what I need,” she said. “An English teacher.”
I tried to think of what could possibly be so wrong with her that the only thing that could help her was an English teacher. Nothing came to mind.
“What’s wrong?” I said.
It seemed to take her a long time to put it into words, as if she were trying to find the courage to say something she had never spoken out loud before in her life. “I don’t want to be who I am,” she said finally, in a hoarse, desperate voice.
Amazingly, I understood what this felt like. I’d had this feeling lots of times, when I was younger. “Okay,” I said. “So who do you want to be?”
“I want to be someone --- ” she said. “Who writes poems.”
The words hung in the air between us. I blew some air through my cheeks, and felt bad for her. There’d been a lot of progress in the field of psychology over the years, but so far as I knew there was still no cure for poetry. I don’t know. Ritalin, maybe.
“Have you…,” I said. "You know. Tried to write poems?"
“No,” she said. The tears spilled over her lashes again and rolled down her face. "Because I don't know how. Because I'm not the kind of person who writes them."
“Maybe you could change. You could be that kind of person. If you wrote some. Why don't you try?” She stopped crying and looked at me suspiciously. “My poems would suck,” she said with an air of clairvoyance.
“Probably at first. Then you’ll write some more, maybe you’ll get better.”
“You think?” she said.
I nodded cautiously.
“And then --- ” she said. “I’ll be somebody else?”
I wasn’t sure what to tell her. To be honest I was less interested in helping Brandy than I was in getting out of the ladies room. At the same time, I didn’t want to lie to her. It seemed likely to me that she was clinging to a false hope, the idea that writing poems would make her into somebody else. What seemed more likely was that, when all was said and done, she’d still be herself, except that now she’d own a rhyming dictionary.
But what the hell. I didn’t know Brandy’s future any more than I knew my own. Encouraging her seemed just as likely to be an act of kindness as of cruelty.
“Why don’t you write,” I said, “and see who you are afterward?”
Brandy took this in. “Okay,” she said hopefully. “Okay.” She looked at me hungrily. “And then --- if I wrote a poem good enough --- maybe you’d reconsider?”
“You know,” she said, softly brushing her fingertips against my shoulder. “Maybe we could be girlfriends, you and me? And if I ask you to kiss me, next time you won’t act like I have leprosy and junk?"
I sighed. I don’t underestimate the power of literature. But that would have to be one hell of a poem.
“Good luck,” I said, by way of answer, and then left the stall. She didn’t follow me. Out in the bar, I could hear the sound of Big Head Chester tuning his guitar. “You coming?”
“I’ll be along,” said Brandy. “I’m going to start working on my poem right now!”
“Good for you,” I said, and washed my hands at the sink. “That’s great.”
“Hey Jenny,” she said. “Do you ever wish you were a man?”
“A man?” I said, stunned. I looked at myself in the mirror. “Not really.”
“I do,” said her voice, from the stall. “Sometimes.”
I dried my hands with brown paper towels.
“What do you think it’d be like?” said Brandy.
I told her the truth. “I don’t know, Brandy,” I said. “Kind of like being a woman,” I said. “Only less so.”
I returned to the foyer of the old hotel with my head spinning. On the walls around me were framed photographs of John Wayne, Jesus Christ, and Elvis. It reminded me of something, but I wasn’t quite sure what. Out in the ballroom Big Head Chester was noodling around with the opening riff of “Paint It Black,” the Stones tune. I heard the crack of the cue ball as a guy named Freebird made the break over on the pool table. The nine ball fell into the side pocket.
I’d gone on many travels in the last few years, voyages that had taken me halfway around the world, to Chile, and Venice, and the Turks and Caicos. But it’s fair to say I had never felt quite so far away from home as I did at that moment, at the bottom of the worn–out stairs of the Astrid Hotel. Looking around at my hairy companions, my ears still ringing from the volume of the band, the memory of Brandy’s lips on my neck, I thought of the phrase my sister and I used to call at the end of a round of hide–and–seek: Olly olly oxen free.