Chasing A Fantasy: A Blind-Sided Romance

I opened the door to my dorm room that early Thursday October morning and there she was, naked, lying on top of the comforter, staring up at me. Her long, grey fur coat, thin pink sweater, ragged jeans, underwear, and leather boots were scattered on the floor. She was a petite, black-haired stranger whose melancholy eyes dripped with an erotic sense of wanting. For a second I wondered if I was even in the right room. I felt an unordinary chill seep into my skin and a cramp in my chest, followed by a deep breath and a wave of panic. When she wiggled her way to the edge of the bed, her hair fell over one eye. That’s when she started to massage her thigh. In a moment’s squint, her face became a blur. I froze, not knowing what to do, or how to talk myself out of this mess. There was a faint cigarette smell and the glare from a bedlight above my pillow highlighted her weather-worn skin. The rest of the room was dark. It was 1AM.

“You, uh, took off your cl-…”

“You’ve done this before, right?” she whispered, pursing her lips.

Moments earlier I’d been leaning over a men’s room sink pondering my dilemma, my hands trembling.  This was unlike me. It was the first time I’d ever met someone and brought them back to the dorm. Now that “someone” wasn’t even a student here, and in my dorm room, sitting on my bed.

“How did this happen?” I thought. “What am I supposed to tell everyone tomorrow? Wait, it is tomorrow, right? That gives me even less time to…”

I let out a sigh, splashed my face, and looked in the mirror. “Is this what she’s seeing now?” I wondered. My eyes were bloodshot, the light hair on my face was spotty, and my thick frizzy mop needed a good trim. At 5’9” I wasn’t active on the diamond or hard court in high-school or college because of my bad eyesight, but I did work out regularly. Friends and relatives still considered me thin and underweight, but toned.

“Maybe no one will find out,” I speculated.

Seconds later I wandered down a quiet dimly lit hallway toward my room, the last one on the left, right before the student lounge.

“Uh, sure,” I replied apprehensively. “I just didn’t think you’d take off…” I exhaled through my nose and stopped mid-sentence.

Building

After being accepted to several boutique colleges up and down the east coast and in the mid-west, the second I’d seen the picturesque Baldwin-Wallace College campus from a stoplight on Bagley Road in Berea, OH, I envisioned myself there. I was in the back seat of my father’s car when I glanced out the opened window and proclaimed, “This is it!” A tour of the campus wasn’t needed that day. I had a gut feeling that this would be my home for the next four years. It was a storybook setting. In this live painting were long brick modern dorms with white shutters and antique pillars. There were Victorian buildings made of stone, some with steeples, surrounded by burly maple and oak trees. Some leaves were bright green, others a cool blend of apple and olive. Above this work of art were clear cobalt blue skies. Below were newly cut lawns whose sweet scent I sniffed from inside the car.

 

 

 

BW LOGOIt was 1981. I was 19 and partly through the first tri-mester of my sophomore year. For the previous month I’d been living on the first floor of a two story dorm on campus with brothers from my fraternity, Pi Lambda Phi. I had cherry-picked my roommate. He was a character I’d met in a weight-lifting class the year before named Ed Kramer. Ed was an only child from Parma, who had transferred to BW from the College of Wooster. He was a 6’1”, husky, blonde-haired quipster with wire rimmed glasses and a raspy voice, who majored in sociology, and minored in spreading fibs about his pop’s line of work. His father was a foreman, a vice-president, and a CEO, with two different companies in two weeks. I remember him telling me that the only classes he was able to matriculate over were Led Zeppelin for Beginners and the Advanced Techniques of Plagiarism. He insisted his dress boots were cut from real rattlesnake skin and that only a few hundred existed in the nation. I quickly came to realize that fast Eddie’s anecdotes were a compilation of fabricated nonsense.  Nevertheless, I admired his loyalty and we’d agreed to be bunkmates.

As I began to undress that night Ed’s gruff tone startled me.

“Hey, Migdale, is that you?” he asked from his dark corner.

“Shhh, Kramer, what the…? I stuttered.

“You got a girl here?”

I glanced at my naked acquaintance and then spoke.

“Girl?” I questioned. “I’m not with…”

“Who’s with you?”

She and I looked at each other, then the butterflies circled my insides. “I’m, uh, with a friend, why?”

“Bambi’s asleep,” he babbled in his hoarse tone.

Bambi“With you, in your bed?”  I asked.

“That’s right, bitch. Hey…”

“Why is it so cold in here?” I stammered.

“You cold?”

“We’re fine,” I hinted. “Go back to sleep.”

I looked at the stranger and whispered, “You cold?”

Ed had a habit of nicknaming every girl he slept with. He’d introduce them, we’d smile, nod, and then run into someone else’s room in a state of silent hysteria. I’d seen “Bambi”, a slender brunette, with him on campus a few times but never paid much attention to her. She’d eaten with us in the student union as well but had never said much. Now I had to worry that “Bambi” would awaken suddenly and catch me in some awkward position with the girl in my bed.

“Are you OK?” the girl asked as I disrobed down to my underwear. A surge of ambivalence shot through my veins.

I swallowed and sighed. “I can’t believe I’m doing this,”                                                                                                                                                                Good Buds

Our room was narrow with a window at the far end and two beds planted vertically on the left, a sizeable stationary dresser in-between. My twin mattress was closest to the door. Above our beds were beat up wooden shelves upon which I’d propped family photos, and Kramer showcased his unopened protein powders and vitamin collection. The desks, which were bolted into the wall on the right, had barely been used in the brief time we had lived together. We had scotch-taped black light posters to the walls and had brought in a small rug to cover the tiled floor. I’d lugged a 13” color television with me from my bedroom in Jersey which sat on a coffee table beneath the window.

“You look scared,” she breathed as our noses touched. “If you want, we can leave and you can walk me home.”

Within seconds, she pulled off my briefs and was on top of me. She guided me into her, thrusting her pelvis with a soft moan of ecstasy. I held my breath, clutched her hips, then let out a sigh of relief as my penis began to tingle. It wasn’t long before strands of her hair hung down and brushed my chest as she slithered out, then in. She leaned over and pressed her mouth against mine, her tongue stroking my teeth, then the inside of my cheeks. She licked my earlobes, then my neck. It was a sensation I’d never felt before. Her scent was offensively musty, as if she’d inhaled a carton of Marlboro’s, but that didn’t faze me. I had to do everything I could to keep from screaming out, “Oh God!.”  She closed her eyes and her moan got louder. A soft whimper of pleasure became an intense cry of excitement. I palmed her chest and felt her nipples stiff with elation, then her back, wet with passion. She slid me in and out, harder and harder, faster and faster.

“Oh, Tom, it feels so good.” she whispered into my ear.

“I’m there,” I told her as I lifted her tiny body out of me and exhaled as intense gratification poured out of me.

After cleaning me off, she smiled and fell to the side. Her nicotine scent faded into the stillness as she rubbed my stomach, then closed her eyes. The anxiety from the evening was still in my bloodstream. I reached up, flicked off the bedlight, and lay there with my eyes open in the dark. I’d wondered if Kramer was lying awake as well.

 

 

***********

 

 

Four hours earlier I’d met 5 foot, 1 inch, Corethia Downs in the middle of a sidewalk on my way to the Berea Café, a local pub in town. It was a brisk night as a friend, Carl Hazenstab, and I, strolled across campus and into town to meet up with a few friends. A freshman, Carl was scrawny with sandy brown hair and glasses. His trademark was a forest green Parka he never zippered and never took off, coupled with peach fuzz, and an artificial grin. Tan moccasins of faded deerskin completed his somewhat disheveled appearance. He had latched onto me the minute I helped him move into his dorm room a month earlier, showing me boxes of needles filled with insulin. I was alarmed the first time I saw them and had no idea what diabetes was back then. Whatever he was doing to his skin didn’t make any sense to me. He’d shoot up once a day, usually in his forearm, and then fling the used needle like a dart into the wall of his room. Eventually it would fall out and he’d chuck it into an old shoe box he kept on the floor of his closet. I never inquired about his hideous collection or medical issues. We just chatted about other things. Carl pledged Pi Lambda Phithe fraternity and selected me as his Big Brother, a mentor. I’d nicknamed him “Food” for the large quantity of greasy cafeteria grub he’d consume daily. He was anything but overweight which made it more ironic. “The man of a thousand trays!” I’d yell out. Carl had spent his childhood in and out of foster homes and was now living with his grandmother. His bizarre obsession with MASH and The Jeffersons defined his character– comical, yet determined. As we made our way toward Front Street, and in view of the bar, we heard someone in the distance.

“Do you have the time?” the female voice called out.

We turned to each other.

“She talking to you?” I asked him.

He smirked, “Me? You don’t know her?”

“I can’t see anything.”

We inched our way closer to get a peek at the lady whose random question was a bit peculiar. I vaguely saw the long fur, leather boots, shoulder purse, and several textbooks she’d saddled in both arms.

I leaned into Carl and whispered, “How would I know her?”

“You know everybody,” he asserted.

“Does she even go to school here?”

“We could ignore her and keep walking,” he said.

“Yeah, we could, but…”

A few seconds later the three of us lightly collided underneath a pallid glow of a streetlamp. She introduced herself as Berea native, Corethia Downs. We smiled and explained that we were B-W students on our way to the Berea Café. She claimed she was on her way home after visiting a friend in downtown Cleveland, had night classes before that. It seemed legitimate. I reached my hand out and told her that we had people waiting at the bar.

“Nice meeting you Ca-…I’m sorry what was…”

“Corethia.”

“Corethia, yes, nice name,” I snickered. “Oh, and, if I wore a watch, I’d give you the time. It was around 9 when we left the…”

She glared at me. It was a somber gaze. I sensed sorrow when she squeezed my hand. The timing of this odd situation intrigued me. It was almost as if I’d been drawn into her isolated state of emotion.

“C’mon Tom, let’s go,” Carl insisted.

After a few hundred feet, I stopped and looked back. In the midst of a deep sigh and a smile, she waved. There was no hesitation and very little discussion. Altruistic thoughts entered my mind and the notion of going back made perfect sense. We never made it to the Berea Café.

 

 

*************

 

 

After we strolled into the Pizza Stop three blocks away, Corethia slid her stuff into a booth. She then left for the ladies room. The joint was empty. There was a zesty meatball aroma in the air and low but audible music overhead. Behind the counter, a young man motioned that he’d be with us in a minute. I was disturbed by Carl’s lack of enthusiasm. We sat motionless, across from each other in silence until he flapped his tongue,

“Are you out of your mind?” he muttered.

“Out of my…”

“Did you see her?” he pointed toward the restrooms.

“What’s wrong with you?”

“What’s wrong with me? That girl is…”

“Is what, a hooker?” I nodded and questioned.

“You said it, not me” he gestured.

“She’s a college girl, who lives at home, that we met, on the…”

“Don’t you find it, I don’t know, weird?

“Weird?

“Yeah, weird. A woman, not even a girl, a woman, carrying schoolbooks, stops two guys, out of nowhere, and asks…”

“Are you insinuating that she makes a little cheese to support her…”

“Who wears a full length fur coat in October? It’s not even that cold. What’s up with the skin-tight short sleeve sweater, knee-high leather boots? Is that make-up all over her face or paint? Shouldn’t we be at the Berea Café having fun?”

“We are having fun.”

“Fun? This is your idea of fun? This woman could be a…”

“A what? Serial killer, drug dealer? You’re talking out of your ass, Hazenstab. You didn’t have to come. Oh, and, take off that putrid jacket. You’re making me nervous.”

When Corethia rejoined us, the conversation segued into my year long journey into the fraternity. She chuckled at some lines but kept to herself.  Carl managed to spit out a few memorable all-night junk food tales filled with sugar despite his obvious animosity. We banged the table and high-fived. Sixty minutes later, after we’d scarfed down a cheese pizza and a basket of garlic knots, I invited the mystery lady back to our dorm for a cold beer. Carl looked puzzled but just sat there and didn’t say anything. His eyes bugged and face stiffened. He turned to me and forced out a smile. Corethia had told us that she lived near the pizzeria and she’d return home later in the evening. She’d call her mother from my room when we got there.

Student Lounge in ConstitutionAfter twenty minutes of small talk on the hard cushions in the empty student lounge, Carl said that he needed to sack out and bid us both a goodnight. It was 11:30 and Corethia seemed to have no intention of going home. When Carl left, our conversation turned personal. Corethia was 22, turning 23 on New Year’s Eve. She was the oldest of three, and planned to enter the Army in May. It was a call of duty she’d dreamed of since high-school. She’d serve her country. Basic training would be in Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

I was shocked. “Army?! You can’t be serious.”

Her lips disappeared from her face and she let out a sigh through her nose.

“What about college?” I asked.

She nudged her way next to me, reached for my hand, and raised her eyebrows.

“Will you write to me?”

I was a bit perplexed. “Write, to you? I know you less than three hours.”

“I felt this instant connection with you though, on the sidewalk, when we met, and besides, by then I’ll know you seven…”

I couldn’t imagine this small sultry body with black locks and magnetic charm  inside army barracks taking orders. What was she thinking? It was almost midnight and I began to worry. Somehow Corethia would have to get home. I had the jitters thinking about the walk back to the dorm in the dark from an area I knew nothing about.

“It’s late. I’m sure your mother is concerned. And your boyfriend must be…”

“There’s no boyfriend.”

“No boyfriend?!” I asked.

“I do have friends in Cleveland that I see often, and an aunt.”

The minutes ticked. At a quarter to 1, Corethia asked me if she could stay the night, on the floor, and go home in the morning. My eyelashes were glued to my lids, and tears leaked from the corners of my eyes with each yawn. I crept to my room and checked the door. I peeked in and saw the fuzzy yellow glow of my roommate’s bed light and felt a draft before closing the door.

“Listen, we need to call your mother,” I said quietly. “My roommate is still…”

“It’s OK. She won’t care.”

“Really? It’s so late. You sure?”

“Never mind the phone call, really.”

“I have classes in the morning,” I explained.

“It’s fine. I’ll be gone when you get back,” she told me.

Ed’s light was off by the time we tiptoed into the room. A dismal ray of hall light shone in and I found my bed light. I turned it on and pointed to my chest, then the bathroom. She sat on the edge of the bed while I brought down an extra blanket from the closet shelf. I quietly told her that I’d be right back. The evening’s sequence of events up to this point was ludicrous, but for some reason I found myself relishing the moment. “What’s one night?” I thought. I had a foxy female gypsy in my dorm room on a weeknight at 1AM who had a crush on me. As I made my way to the men’s room all I could do was pound my fist into the air and loudly whisper, “Yes!”

 

 

************

 

 

I returned from class later the next morning to find Corethia perched in a desk chair rummaging through her purse. Make-up containers were spread out on the wood and one was on the floor under the chair. I didn’t see the coat right away or the text books strewn on the bed. She jumped up, threw her arms around my neck and almost knocked me over. I wasn’t angry that she was still there, just surprised. Our room stunk like a well-used ashtray even though the window had been open all night. She did call her mother though and hinted that she wanted to spend the day with me.

“Did Ed see you?” I asked her.

“He’s funny,” she giggled.

“No, did he, you know, see you?”

“He did get a good look at my ass,” she laughed. “The girl was also nice but she…”

“You saw Bambi?!”

When she loosened her grip I told her I had afternoon classes. Part of me wanted her to stay. I was confused.

“You want me to leave?”

I sat on the bed, sighed, leaned over, then rubbed my forehead.

“I don’t know. I…just, I don’t know.”

It was almost lunchtime. I handed Corethia a dark brown flannel shirt that she put on over the rancid sweater she’d been wearing from the day before. It was too warm for a full-length fur. Inside the cafeteria, the noise was deafening. When we approached our table the first person to stand up and say “hello” to the mystery lady was Al Donaldson, the best dressed brother of our fraternity. A Lakewood native with a jet black feather cut parted to the side, thick eyebrows, and a distinct nasal inflection, he invited Corethia to sit down. Al’s passion was fine outerwear, personal hygiene, and the rock group Styx. He’d brag about his eleven name-brand suits, four watches, and unique collection of designer cologne. I had hoped he was wearing something that would drown out the smoky aroma of Corethia. He acted as if he’d known her for years. That was Al’s persona. He made you feel comfortable and calm when he wasn’t obsessing about the latest Dennis DeYoung solo. Carl grinned, dipped his head, and pointed his index and middle finger as if to acknowledge us. Kramer continued to shovel mashed potatoes into his mouth and never looked up. I saw Steve McLain, the first friend I’d made as a freshman. We’d met the third day of school in the men’s room as he was Steve McLainpopping in his contact lenses. He was ultra-thin with happy eyes, a sloppy hairdo, and had an unbridled obsession with Kiss, Heart, and his electric bass. Steve lived next door with Scott Maxwell, a well-mannered, studious guy who had a hand-washing neurosis. He’d wash his hands before and after every meal, in-between classes, and before bed. If he was down to his last bar of soap, he’d have anxiety attacks. He was a Bob Segar fanatic who never said much and acknowledged Corethia’s presence that afternoon with a gaze of curiosity.

McLain and Kramer waited until I was on the food line to take a poke at my eccentric house guest.

“What the hell are you doing?” hammered Kramer.

“What am I doing?”

“Her crap is all over my desk!”

Then Steve chimed in, “She looks like a…”

“A what, slut?” I barked.

“Hazenstab told us the story,” he added.

“Oh, he did, huh? Figures…”

“Take her home today.”

“Get her out of here!”

“Why? I kind of, I don’t know, like her.” I told them.

“Cause you got laid?” Steve wanted to know.

“She’s holed up in our room!” Kramer continued.

“Why are you two so…”

Kramer interrupted, “Why would you waste your time with that…”

In unison they both uttered, “skank” before walking away.

 

 

Marting Hall

Corethia left before dawn the following morning. Light drizzle stung our faces as we shuffled outside into the chilly autumn air. I wasn’t sure of her destination. She hugged me and said she’d be back. I slipped my phone number inside her purse and she was off, the gray fur fading beneath a hazy sky.

That day was difficult. My concentration was off kilter. I spent my morning flooded with daydreams. I saw the long fur coat, sadness in those eyes that made me melt. I saw her face beaming at me as she lay on my bed. “You’ve done this before, right?” I couldn’t get her out of my head. The professors who called on me got a blank stare. I saw Kelly Oh, a girl I’d dated casually at the beginning of sophomore year. She ran up to me in the cafeteria during lunch. A recent admission to B-W, Kelly had milky smooth skin, shiny straight, long black hair, and a high-pitched cackle that made me squirm. She’d seen me with an older woman on campus, she said, and wanted to know where I’d met her. Rather than humor her and get a chuckle, I just smiled and told her we’d met at the Berea Café.

Wally, Mike, SteveThe previous afternoon I’d skipped classes to give Corethia a tour of the institution I’d someday refer to as my alma mater. Now my mind was clogged with uncertainty. I needed advice. A vent with a fraternity brother was useless. They had already Squeeze Boxvoiced their opinions. Steve had even stood in my doorway with his guitar singing,

“She’s playin’ all night, cause the music’s alright, Corethia’s got a squeeze box, Tommy never sleeps at night.”

I called my parents every Wednesday and Sunday at 5PM. That was the ritual. It was a five minute touch-base session. They’d ask questions and I had one word answers.

“How’s school?”

“Good.”

“How are your friends?”

“Great.”

I couldn’t open up a can of worms and say, “Hey, I met an older woman off campus one night. We jumped in the sack, things are good. She sleeps here now. I’m getting used to her stained teeth and raunchy breath.”

My father would drill me about this woman. He’d ask question after question, even stretching himself to ask, “What’s she studying?” My mother, on the other hand, would go right for the jugular just to annoy the crap out of me, “Is she Jewish? What kind of nonsense is this? You’re a nice Jewish boy mixed up with this filth, this shiksa?”

And then I’d say, “I’m in Ohio, it’s a Methodist college! Give me a break.”

Rather than sit and ponder this mental anguish any further, I sat on top of my desk Saturday morning and called the only person I knew I could trust, my sister, Sue. She had just started her senior year of high school in my hometown of Wayne, NJ.  We were 19 months apart and spoke frequently. She knew about my romances; the letters, poetry, short stories, left inside a dusty three ring binder that still sat underneath my bed at home. It was different now. I wasn’t able to knock on her bedroom door.

“You what?”

“She was just there, on the street…”

“And you slept with her?”

“It was more than that and…”

“Oh my…more than that?”

“No, what I meant was…she’s smart, we talk, and…”

“How long do you know her?”

“Not sure, two, three days I guess.”

“Three days?!”

“Three days.”

“And she’s staying, in your room?”

“She left yesterday morning, but she’s coming back…”

She sighed and there was silence on the other end for a few seconds.

“Hello?”

“Please be careful.”

“I know.”

“Where does she live?”

“In Berea, close by.”

“And that’s all you know?”

“She is going into the Army in May.”

“Oh dear God!”

“What should I do?”

“Don’t get thrown off campus for something this stupid.”

She urged me to proceed with caution.

 

***********

 

Corethia returned Sunday afternoon wearing a denim jacket with a powder blue silk button down underneath, extra-tight gray parachute pants with pink leg warmers and black heels. She’d exchanged her tobacco odor for a cherry-blossom scent this time. Around her shoulder was a Nike duffle bag. I didn’t ask where she had been for 2 ½ days but I was happy she’d returned. Al was lying on Kramer’s bed when she walked in. He jumped up and gave her a hug. We had just learned that our fraternity would be trick or treating for UNICEF in five days and were mapping out a route. The weather had dropped five degrees since Corethia had left two days earlier and we wondered how cold it would be on Halloween.

The Way it Was

Several people had quickly heard that the mystery lady was back. Some had never met her. Now that she was in my room, they wanted a peek at this exotic miss. One brother, Wally Thompson, waltzed in puffing his pipe. He sat on my bed, smoked, and stared. I’d met Wally shortly after Steve. The three of us were the first to express our interest, two weeks after school started, in the smallest fraternity on campus which had six members. One word that described Wally was hair. It covered him from head to toe, including his back. I wouldn’t have recognized him without the hair. From Jamestown, NY, Wally wore cut-off t-shirts and baggy jeans. He was stocky, quiet, and craved the drink a bit too often. We roomed together for one semester freshman year. He’d pack it in and swig it down like no one I’d seen and, in his stupors, pass out to Neil Young or Steely Dan. He signaled me into the student lounge and wanted to know why Corethia had returned. I had no answers. My thoughts were cluttered. He said it gave our fraternity a bad image and felt it was in everyone’s best interest if she left, permanently. I had to walk her home and break the news. My stomach was in knots. Instead of walking her directly home hours later, we stopped into the pizza place and slipped into a booth. It was there that Corethia told me that she wanted me to meet her parents.

 

 

**************

 

 

Tuesday afternoon, two days later, I was in Corethia’s spacious bedroom thumbing through crates of record albums and comic books that sat on her parquet floor. She had a twin bed with a black comforter and a white pine wood dresser. In the corner was a tiny stereo with two speakers. I noticed that the walls were bare and there was a lemon perfume scent.

We’d spent the last day and a half in my dorm room with the door locked. Kramer was shacked up with Bambi somewhere on campus thus allowing my lengthy slumber party.  I’d bring back food from the cafeteria and we’d have our own picnic on the rug. My friends were consumed with exams, essays, and homework. Classes didn’t exist, only sex, beer, and late-night television. I continued my emotional descent into her well and had no desire to climb out.

Corethia slid open the closet door, bent down, and began emptying a small box. The first item she took out was a white envelope with some photos. She handed me ten.

“What are these?” I asked.

“So you don’t forget me when I’m gone.”

“You’re still thinking about the Army?”

“I leave soon,” she told me.

“Not until next year.”

After I scanned through pictures of her family, she handed me a royal blue bic lighter. The flame shot up like a torch when I flicked it.

“Whoa. What am I going to do with this?”

“I brought it to the last concert.”

“Really?”

“Judas Priest, you’ve heard of them?”

She took a long thin white handkerchief-like scarf out of the box and gave me that also. It read Judas Priest in red script across the cloth. Then she stood up and snatched a small card in a sealed envelope from on top of her dresser along with a large beige pouch with a string and gave it to me. I placed the items in the pouch, tied it up, and told her I’d seen Diana Ross in her collection. Once the needle was set on the vinyl, she Mahoganysmiled, came in close, and kissed me. The music played, we danced.

“Once we were standing still in time, chasing the fantasies that filled our minds. You knew how I loved you but my spirit was free, laughing at the questions that you once asked of me…”

That night I had dinner in the kitchen surrounded by her family. I found out that they were southerners. Corethia had been born and raised in Alabama before her family re-located to the mid-west. I sat across from her two younger brothers and next to her mother. She was a thin lady with short blond hair above the ears, big green eyes, and a soft voice. I don’t remember her father being there. There was little said. Corethia sat next to me. At one instance she winked. I smiled. Dinner was served.

 

 

 

 

Constitution Hall On the walk back to the dorm, Corethia stated that she had night classes the following evening and she had to visit some people on the weekend. She wanted to come back for our small Halloween party in the student union on Thursday.  My schoolroom focus was gone. I needed to get myself back to classes. It would be difficult. When we entered the dorm, a few brothers pulled me into another room and said they had the perfect way to get Corethia to never come back.

“A cult-like ritual,” said Kramer.

“A what?!”

“We’ll light up some candles, say some shit…” Steve’s voice fading as I yelled,

“Are you insane?!”

“A fake ceremony,” said Hazenstab.

“Fake what? This is gone way too far…”

“We’ve asked you a number of times and you keep ignoring…”

“That’s because I can’t. OK?”

“You paying her?” Steve laughed.

“Get the fuck outta here! Paying her, to do what?”

“Do you want to get thrown out of school, for having a whore on the floor?!” Kramer cackled.

“Thursday night, after the union shindig, we’ll come back and have one of our own,” uttered Wally.

Corethia’s extended stay had grated on my friends. She had clothes in my closet, books on my shelves, shoes and boots on my closet floor, nail-polish on our desks, cigarette cartons in the drawer beneath the bed, and purse items everywhere. Sometimes she’d pack up and take the junk with her. She’d always manage to leave something behind. Sometimes she’d take showers in the ladies bathroom, eat with us at our table, wander in and out of our rooms, and sit in my desk chair to use the phone.

My sister called me Wednesday night after I’d hung up with my parents. I had mentioned that Corethia was still around. I felt invincible when she was with me, lonely when she wasn’t. Whatever she did in her spare time besides attending school didn’t concern me as it did everyone else. I never asked and maybe I should have. The one night fling had turned into a seven day blind-sided romance.

 

 

 

**************

 

 

I handed her a brush as she towel dried her hair near the side entrance of the dorm. Streaks of shaving cream embedded into her waves, she sniffed and wiped her eyes. The powder-blue silk button down she’d worn two days earlier was soaked. I ran it to the washroom and threw it in the dryer. She rifled through her Nike bag in the student lounge to find that snug short-sleeve pink sweater, the one that she was wearing whenDeath Rider I’d met her. I held up the brown flannel shirt as she continued to towel dry her hair and get rid of every ounce of lather.

Earlier my frat brothers had called us into my room. It had been transformed into a candle lit chamber. After relentless pressure from my friends I caved and reluctantly told Corethia about this weekly bogus customary tradition; to gather in someone’s room and beseech forgiveness to a higher power for our sins. She would be ordered to confess her wrongdoings, to reveal her secrets. Deep inside I felt terrible. This would be a hoax I’d regret. After a short lecture from Kramer, the floor was given to Wally who raised a candle in front of a black-light skull poster on the wall and started spewing some nonsense. Within seconds the jig was up. There was a snort, giggle, burst of laughter. Someone reached into a plastic bag and pulled out a shaving cream can and squirted. Two cans, three, then four. Foam was splattered everywhere. Corethia opened the door and sprinted down the hall to the bathroom where she dunked her head under the sink, then rinsed in the shower. Seconds later my room emptied.

“Why (sniff) do they hate me?” Corethia sobbed, fluffing her hair.

“They don’t hate you C, it’s just that…”

Her dark blue eyes welling with sadness, she inquired, “This, whatever it was, was pretty much bullshit, right?”

“I’m sorry.”

“You (sniff) didn’t try to stop it?”

“This is a college fraternity and…”

“Where was Al? He was probably asked but would never…”

“I don’t know Corethia.”

“You should hang out with him, not these other…”

“They’re my brothers, my friends. I’m sorry.”

We smiled, hugged. I caressed her face and wiped away the sorrow.

 

 

************

 

 

I watched her walk away into the pitch black of an October morning, Friday, the day before Halloween. It was hard to believe I had only known her nine days. She scooped up her items and crammed them all into her duffle bag.

“You take care handsome,” she said. “I’ll call you Sunday. Come over for dinner. I’m going to miss you.”

In a flash, she was gone, her black waves fading into the frosty dark Berea atmosphere. I would never see her again.

 

 

**************

 

 

Corethia Mae Downs was killed two days later, hit by a Rapid Transit train in downtown Cleveland. From the platform, with two full bags of groceries in her arms, she realized she was on the wrong side. She jumped down onto the tracks to run across instead of climbing down the stairs that would have taken her to the other platform.

I didn’t find out until after lunch on Monday afternoon, November 2nd.  I never read the paper or paid attention to any current events. In college, sports and social activities came before anything else. It was quiet at our table. Scott Maxwell patted my shoulder and said, “Migs, you’re a good guy.”  The silence wasn’t out of the ordinary. It had been an exhausting weekend. As I walked out of the student union, they followed, seven of them, down the sidewalk.

Jim Ashmun, a fraternity brother, stepped in front of me and said, “We need to tell you something.”

I stopped and said, “OK. What?”

He paused and stayed silent for a few seconds.

“Your friend, Corethia, she was killed yesterday afternoon by a…”

“Huh? What?”

All I heard were the words “Corethia” and “killed” in that sentence. Any other sounds that came out of his mouth at that instant were muffled. The sky turned dark. Their faces were grim. The mood was dismal. “Corethia, killed, Corethia, killed.” It was like a scene from a major motion picture, in slow motion. “Corethia, killed.” I couldn’t breathe for a second and started choking on my own saliva.

“I heard it this morning on WMMS,” he continued. “She was hit by a train, the Rapid Transit.”

It didn’t make any sense. I thought, “Hit by a train? No.”

Then Kramer moved in, put his arm around me and said, “This isn’t one of our pranks Migs, this is real.”

I thought I was dreaming until I phoned her home. Her mother was hysterical, could barely speak  through the hiccups. Corethia was on her way to Berea to see me.  She had called her mother to let her know. For weeks I was a mess, my head in a fog.  Ten of us went to the funeral. I was never the same.

Corethia Downs walked in and out of my life in eleven days. In that short time she tugged open a door to a part of my heart I didn’t know existed. I kept the items she’d given me for over a decade, including the newspaper article of her death I clipped from the Plain Dealer.  A short time later, I opened the Hallmark card she had slipped into the pouch a week earlier. I was sitting at Kramer’s desk chair. He was lying on his bed. This was how the escapade had started and ended, the two of us, in our dorm room. In the card on the left were two stickers, a female rabbit making eyes at a male one. On the right was written, “I’ll never forget you.” She had signed the card, “Love always, Corethia.” It was almost as if she’d known.

 

 

 

Al and his kids

Pi Lams rocking*This piece is dedicated to Alan S. Donaldson who passed away on November 15th, 2012. We roomed together junior year on the second floor of Constitution Hall. I kept in touch with Al up until the summer of 2009. He was my friend and my brother. Miss you Doc. 7//31/62-11/15/12.

*In memory of Corethia Mae Downs. 12/31/58 to 11/1/81.

*In memory of Carl Hazenstab, my little brother, my friend. Carl passed away in June of 2001 at the age of 39. I never spoke with him after I graduated from B-W.

*Thank you to Stephen McLain for his permission in letting me use his name. Steve is married with 3 kids and lives in Massillon, OH. He’s the National Sales Manager for United Titanium. We have never lost touch and have remained friends since college.

*Thank you to Wally Thompson for his permission in letting me use his name. He’s a Physical Therapist Assistant, is married and lives in scenic Russell, PA. We have never lost touch and have remained friends since college.

*Thank you to my sister, Susan West, for her permission in letting me use her name. Sue is a school teacher in Kinnelon, NJ and is married with 3 kids. She ended up at the University of Cincinnati so we did see eachother during college. She lives in Wayne, NJ.

*And to fast Eddie Kramer, wherever you are, hope this brings back some memories.

**Not 4 Years But A Lifetime**

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I Heard You the First Time

“I want the RAZR,” she whined.

“The what?” I asked her.

“The RAZR,” she said, determined to grab my attention.

For three months, phone conversations with my daughter, Marlee, had centered around a brand new cell phone I knew nothing about. It had become tiresome. Each time I changed the subject she managed to reel me back in.

Girl on phone #5 “Daddy?” she moaned.

“Huh?” I answered.

“Are you listening?” she asked.

“Yeah, a phone, I know,” I told her.

“No, the RAZR!” she barked.

“I heard you the first time,” I explained.

“Well?” she wanted to know.

“We’ll look into it,” I said, trying to skirt the issue.

“Ugh,” she sighed, and then hung up.

Seven months earlier, in December of 2005, I decided it was time for Marlee to have her own cell phone. No one knew my idea except for me. I had been speaking with Marlee on her mother’s cell phone about a homework assignment one night when my ex-wife abruptly grabbed the phone from my daughter’s hand. I was rudely told that my three minute time limit had elapsed. There was no compromising or reasoning. Each attempt was an open and shut case.

“She has homework!” my ex-wife shouted.

“That’s why we’re on the phone,” I told her.

“It’s my phone! You’ve been on long enough!” she yelled.

“Two and a half minutes is enough?” I asked.

“I’ll help her with the rest,” she screamed.

“We were in the middle of–”

Click. Dead silence. She had hung up.

I’d say to myself, “All I needed was another two minutes.” Thoughts went through my mind. What if she’s crying? How will she finish the assignment? At the age of ten, I felt Marlee was ready to own her own phone, to take on responsibility, and then we’d be able to chat as long as we wanted, with no interference.

The first weekend in January of 2006, we went phone shopping. Marlee was excited. She had never owned anything.  I had lectured her before walking into the store that this phone was to be used sparingly. I didn’t want to see unnecessary calls or texts appear on the bill. The two hour T-Mobile #1browse-around session at the T-Mobile outlet on 89th and Broadway ended with a successful purchase. Marlee had selected the newest Samsung,Samsung #2 chosen a phone number, and picked out a case. No one on Long Island would know until minutes after I had dropped her off. As expected, that Sunday night, I got an earful.

“Are you crazy?!” my ex-wife hollered.

“Who is this?” I asked.

“What do you mean, who is this? A ten-year-old with a cell phone!?” she clamored.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” I told her.

“I’m taking it back tomorrow,” she said angrily.

“That’s fine, take it back. Good luck. It’s in my name,” I explained.

“She doesn’t need one. None of her friends have a phone!” she shouted.

“My three minute time limit with you has expired,” I stated.

She continued to yap. I pressed “end” cutting her off, and sat in silence for a minute. I shook my head and wondered if Marlee’s phone would be safe in that environment. Her friends might snatch it away, giggle, talk, and text for hours, and I’d get stuck with a thousand dollar phone bill. My imagination ran wild. I was flushed with anxiety, worrying that her mother might use the phone to save on her peak minutes. What had I done? Had I make the right decision? A week later, Marlee called and told me she loved the phone.

“Be careful of the minutes,” I warned.

“I know,” she said.

“Just remember, during the week, the shorter the conversation, the better,” I nervously told her.

“Then why did you get me the phone?” she asked.

“So I can talk to you without a chaotic interruption,” I answered.

“Whatever,” she replied.

In the weeks that followed, her mother calmed down. Marlee’s grandmother was also thankful that I had purchased the extra cell phone. They were able to reach her anywhere. I felt relief knowing that at any time, I could text or ring Marlee’s phone and either leave a voice mail message or speak with her.

Six months after she had the phone, our dialogue centered on a cell phone that a friend of hers had at school.

“You’ve only had your phone for six months,” I told her.

“But, the RAZR is so cool,” she said.

“Six months,” I repeated.

“So,” she retorted.

“So? You think you’re going to change phones every six months?” I asked her.

“No, but I want the RAZR,” she groaned.

“And I’d like a Mercedes,” I mentioned.

“You’re weird,” she said.

“You’ll need to keep your phone two years…”

“Two years!” she exclaimed cutting me off. “That’s not fair.”

One by one, her school friends started showing off their cell phones. Parents were buying their daughters the newest and most expensive cell phones on the market. They were different shapes, sizes, colors. After two months, Marlee’s Samsung was considered outdated.

She’d say, “My friend’s Mom bought her a Blackberry and I have this crap phone.”

Another time she’d say, “My other friend has a Sidekick. She’s so lucky.”

Some of her friends had rock-band ringtones. Others had flip phones. One girl even had a keyboard that popped out. Marlee’s phone was plain and simple. That’s what she had wanted on that January afternoon.  A half a year later, I was now the rotten Dad for not listening. In my eyes, I was the one who had recently meandered for two hours in a T-Mobile store while his daughter tried out every phone. I had signed up for unlimited texting, even bought her a nice rubber case. Now, my daughter believed she was the “unlucky one with a crap phone seeking the next best designer ring tone.”  By the time she started sixth grade, her phone, in her opinion, had become an antique.

With the holidays approaching, Marlee’s constant nagging was unbearable. I had promised her I’d speak with T-Mobile about the cost of breaking the two year contract. She got her wish. On a frigid Saturday afternoon in late December of 2006, Marlee and I rode the subway down Motorola RAZR #1to 86th & Broadway. We wandered into the T-Mobile store three blocks north to 89th. There she picked out her second cell phone, a hot pink Motorola RAZR, the thin flip phone she had belly-ached about for half the year. When we got home she called everyone bursting with excitement. The old Samsung had found a new home, the dresser drawer.

From the start, Marlee managed her new phones as if she owned her own business. She knew where her phone was at all times. It was in her coat pocket in cold weather, and in her front pants pocket in warmer weather. When she visited, the charger was stashed in the small zippered compartment of her suitcase. It traveled with her everywhere. The three month campaign for the Motorola RAZR was over. She finally received her dream phone. I was smugly satisfied at how smoothly it had all worked out.

On a Sunday morning in Manhattan, in April of 2008, 16 months after I had bought her the RAZR, she walked into the kitchen and proceeded to aggravate me.

“When can I get a new phone?” she asked.

“What?!”  I yelled.

“A new phone,” she said again.

“Where did that come from? What’s wrong with your phone?” I wanted to know.

“Nothing,” she told me.

“So, why do you need a new phone?” I asked.

She sat on our light purple suede kitchen chair and said nothing.

“The contract is up in December. We’ll look then,” I explained.

“Ugh. That long?” she whined.

“You just got this phone,” I told her.

“No, I didn’t,” she said.

“Does it ever end?” I questioned raising my arms in the air.

“All my friends have new phones,” she told me.

“Really. Good for them,” I ranted.

Texting“You stink,” she mumbled under her breath.

“What was that?” I hammered.

She sighed, then said softly, “It’s not fair.” Then, she got up, turned the television on, sulked on the couch, and waited until it was time to leave for Long Island. I shook my head and imagined the barrage of comments and questions being bounced around at the lunch table in school. “Oh Marlee, your phone is so old.” “Marlee, tell your Dad to get you a phone that has the internet. How do have one with no internet?”  “Marlee, the RAZR is so “yesterday.”

We left the apartment at 3:30 that April afternoon.

I had stopped driving back and forth to Long Island in October of 2007. After four and a half years of highway exhaustion, I had ditched the wheels for the rail. I’d leave work early on Fridays, catch a late afternoon train for Long Island. A family member would drive Marlee to the Hicksville station to meet me, then we’d take the train back to Penn Station. On Sundays, we’d hop on the LIRR to Hicksville at 4:30. At Hicksville, we’d taxi to the house, I’d drop Marlee off, and head back home. It gave me time to read, relax, and not worry about congested roads, or an unexpected detour. It was our routine.

Under a pale gray sky, I wheeled her black suitcase down Broadway toward the subway station while she was in tow. It was a warm but overcast afternoon. She was still angry from our conversation. I handed her a metrocard on the escalator in silence. When we reached the top, I faintly heard the subway rolling into the station.

“It’s here! Let’s go!” I shouted, making a mad dash for the turnstile.

“Wait!” she yelled after me.

“C’mon,” I motioned with my arm. “I’d like to catch this one.”

TurnstilesShe swiped her card at the turnstile and went through. I rolled the suitcase underneath the metal bar, she grabbed the handle. The sound of the subway was louder. She handed me the suitcase on the other side as I stuffed both metrocards inside my back pocket. The station shook, the subway screeched.

“Wait!” she said again.

“What now?” I asked her.

“I need to tie my shoe,” she told me.

“C’mon!” I barked.

She rushed over to a wooden bench next to the turnstile while I waited. People were darting through the metal gate as if it was the last subway into mid-town for the day. Men were shouting, tripping. Women were running. I lifted the suitcase after Marlee finished and said, “Quick! It’s gonna leave!” We galloped up the stairs. The doors closed as we entered out of breath.

Thirty seconds after the subway began moving I looked at Marlee. She was touching the outside of her jacket. She patted the pockets.

“Oh no, oh no,” she uttered.

“What happened?” I asked her.

“My phone, oh no,” she blurted.

“Your phone?” I questioned.

“It’s not in my pocket. Oh God, no,” she nervously reacted.

“You sure you don’t have it?” I snapped.

“I don’t!” she cried. “I think I left it on the bench.”

“You’re kidding me,” I told her.

“Daddy, no, no, oh no,” she stammered.

“Calm down. We’ll get off at 116th and go back. That’s all we can do,” I mentioned.

Marlee was still trying to catch her breath. She looked as if she’d seen a ghost.

We got off and hopped back onto the uptown train. At 125th, we raced down the stairs and looked. Nothing. We scanned the floor. Nothing. We hunted high and low, even searching on the opposite stairwell. Nothing. I asked a subway employee. Nothing. By this point, Marlee was hysterical. I stood at the bottom of the stairwell with the suitcase feeling as though I’d been hit by a car. I was drained. The hot pink Motorola RAZR was gone, stolen. Marlee sat on the wooden bench, nose running, tears streaming. I tried to settle her down.

“It’s OK,” I told her. “We’ll get you another phone.”

“But, (hiccup) Daddy, I (hiccup) want my phone,” she wept.

“I know you do. It’s gone, Cookie,” I explained.

“No, (hiccup) Daddy, my phone (hiccup), no,” she sobbed. “I (hiccup) put it down (hiccup) to tie my shoe,” she told me.

“Listen, let’s get to Long island,” I quietly said. “We’ll come up with a plan.”

She cried for twenty minutes on the subway down to Penn Station. On the LIRR, I immediately phoned T-Mobile and temporarily canceledLIRR picture the service. Marlee wailed uncontrollably for forty five minutes. She kept saying that she missed her phone. The conductor walked toward our seat with a concerned look. I told him what had happened. He felt terrible.LIRR pic #3

“Daddy?” (hiccup) she bawled.

“What, Cookie?” I asked her.

“I’m (hiccup) sorry I said you stink before,”(hiccup) she cried.

I put my arm around her. “It’s OK. I’ve been known to stink,” I nodded.

She tried to crack a smile through her tears. It was a traumatic day.

The following day after school, her grandmother took her to T-Mobile. Service was temporarily restored on her old Samsung phone. On her visit two weeks later, we found out that Motorola had discontinued that particular RAZR. She reluctantly ended up with a new Samsung. It was a tough incident for a 12-year-old and her Dad to live through.

December, 2010, 16 months ago. I picked up Marlee on a Saturday morning on Long Island. We rode the LIRR into Penn Station. On the subway uptown, I told her I needed to stop into the store to pay a cell phone bill.

“How boring,” she said sitting there.

“Boring?” I questioned.

“Do you have to pay the bill today?” she asked.

“They’re going to shut the service off if I don’t,” I told her.

“You didn’t pay it?” she moaned.

She rolled her eyes.

“Is it too much for you to come with me?” I wanted to know.

“I want to do something,” she moaned.

“You just got here!” I firmly stated.

“So,” she said.

“So? It’ll take less than a minute,” I told her. “Then we’ll jog home with the suitcase.”

“You’re so weird,” she smirked.

T-Mobile #2We got off the subway, traipsed up the stairs, and walked into the store. The salesman approached me and asked if I needed assistance. I told him that my daughter was in need of a new cell phone. Marlee looked at me.

“What?!” she exclaimed.

“There’s no bill,” I chuckled.

“You’re kidding?!” she said flustered with excitement.

“Go pick out that Blackberry Bold you’ve been whining about for months,” I told her.

“Daddy, this is so great!” she remarked with joy.

“Just don’t leave it anywhere this time,” I jokingly stated.

She gave me a hug and said, “I love you Daddy.”

We laughed all the way to the uptown subway. It was the start of a perfect weekend.

It Just Happened…

Eye pic opening

My left eye went dark. One moment I had been reveling in the mayhem of a company party. The next, I was staggering through a black hole to the eye doctor. On a late afternoon in mid-June, 1997, I learned that the retina in my left eye had detached. I’d already spent the majority of my life struggling with my sight. Throughout my childhood and teenage years ophthalmologists had stamped me as “severely handicapped.” Then this happened. There were no warning signs. Blindness was hours away.

“Turn it up!” someone screamed.

“Not too loud,” a few others yelled.

“It’s Friday!” clapped another, raising the volume up high.

It was someone’s birthday in the boardroom. There was a white icing sheet cake in the back, sprawled on a desk, with cups, plates, and sodas of every brand.  Its vanilla scent carried into the hallway where a few corporate dresses chatted in cliques. There were chips, pretzels, and candy kisses in bowls. Candles lit, the crowd roared, “One, two, three, blow!” One hundred white shirts and ties wearing party hats cursed, shoved, Wall Strret Bull party picpounded desks, and elbowed each other. With each beat of the music, we grew louder and louder in that 3rd Avenue boiler room in mid-town Manhattan. “Bamboleo” by the Gipsy Kings had been cranked on the stereo receiver. With the sound blaring from overhead, some jumped up on desks, others loosened their ties. Supervisors grabbed assistants and twirled them into a rumba. Others clapped their hands, snapped their fingers, and danced solo in the aisles.

I’d been with this firm for four months. It had been a tradition to celebrate a birthday with food, music, and bags of shredded old account forms. Since I had entered in February, they’d thrown six of these shindigs. This one seemed to be getting a bit wild. The two guys I was friendly with in my row, Ben and Roger, had belted out the words in my face, “Bamboleo! Bambolea!” The strings played, the Kings sang. “Porque mi vida, yo la prefiero vivir asi…” I’d stepped up onto my chair, laughed, and pumped my right fist into the air.

Then someone shouted, “Break out the 151!” as the boardroom cheered.

Someone had shut the big green metal doors in the front and the festivities rolled on. I Office party pic 3hoisted myself up onto the desk, took a swig of my spiked 7-up, and ad-libbed a little salsa move with the music. Then I raised both arms, bent my knees, sprang high into the air, and jumped off. The cup flew from my hands, and feet hit the floor hard. That’s when everything went black.

I thought I’d hit my head on the corner of a desk or was accidentally punched in the face as I bungeed off from above. I didn’t feel anything but wasn’t sure. No one had come to my rescue. Streaks of lightening flashed in my eye. Bent over, I squeezed my eyes shut, then opened them. I loosened my tie and opened the top button. With my four fingers pressed against my forehead and thumb on my cheek, I closed my eyes again, then opened them. I couldn’t see out of my left eye.

Someone’s muffled voice uttered, “Who threw that cup?! Someone gonna need to clean that shit.”

People danced around me as I blinked, then blinked again. Tears leaked from my left eye as I began to shake and sweat. The party hadn’t stopped as the Kings handed their mike to AC/DC’s Brian Johnson.  “She was a fast machine, she kept her motor clean…” The floor started to vibrate as shirts and ties started doing shots.

“Tom, are you OK?” my friend Ben asked over the music.

“My eye, I don’t know what’s wrong,” I told him, squinting. “There’s something in it.”

“I’d go wash it out in the bathroom,” he said. “Maybe there’s dust on your lens.”

“Good idea,” I replied.

I leaned over the sink in the men’s room, took out my contact lens, and flushed my eye with water five or six times.

Someone came out of a stall, looked at me, and said, “You OK?”

“A little too much 151,” I told him sarcastically.

My reflection in the mirror was blurred. I closed my right eye, opened my left. My sight was gone. With my head down and hands on the sink, I said to myself, “God no, this can’t be happening.” I put my contact lens back into my eye. I wasn’t even sure if that tiny piece of plastic hit the eyeball. It was still dark, except for the flash of bright light in the corners, streaking in and out. The music was faint. I stood in a daze, took a deep breath, and felt my heart beating through my skin. “I’m living my worst fear,” I thought as my mind went into a sudden panic. I walked back into a dense fog of incoherent chatter, went to my desk, and picked up the phone.

Over the music I stuttered into the receiver, “Hi, it’s, it’s, hello?—it’s Tom Migdale, is Dr. Shulman in? Yeah, is he there now? It’s, it’s an emergency.” I don’t remember the cab ride there.

In his examining chair, I was on my back as my eye doctor peered into my eye with a spotlight. The beam stung. My lids ached. Then I sat up, rested my chin and forehead on his eye machine. He scoped the back of my eye with another bright light. “Try not to blink,” he told me. Sweat poured down my face. I was terrified to think that my once perfect vision had vanished, in seconds.

Eyeball pic 4“You have a detached retina,” he told me.

“A what?!”

“Detached retina,” he repeated. “The entire retina has detached. You’re going to need surgery immediately.”

I sat there silent.

“What’s a detached retina?” I asked him. “How did this happen?”

“Tom, there’s not much time left. I’m going to send you over now to see a specialist,” he told me.

“Time? I don’t understand. It’s 6 o’clock, My 13 month old daughter is at home. I need to go…”

“If you don’t go now, there’s a good chance you’ll go blind in that eye.”

I remembered sinking deeper into the chair boxed in by the glare of a dull, yellow light, illuminating the office. My eye doctor of fourteen years remained silent. I thought about the path my vision had taken up until this point. My head throbbed and chest ached. Seconds ticked.

“Blind!? What?!”

He walked me outside, handed me his home number on a small folded piece of paper, and hailed a cab. As I got into the taxi he said, “This is very serious, but don’t worry, you’ll be all right. Dr. Fuchs will take care of you.” Tears rolled down my face in the backseat.  One minute I was singing “Bamboleo,” the next, my eye doctor had diagnosed me with a detached retina.

Dr. Fuchs said the same thing.

“The retina is fully detached. If you don’t operate within 72 hours, Tom, you’ll go blind.”

He offered to perform the operation, but his practice didn’t accept my insurance. I wandered aimlessly to my gate at Port Authority thinking, wondering, not knowing. That night I rode the bus home to Hackensack, NJ as if I’d been paralyzed from the neck down. INJ Transit bus #3 couldn’t move. There were imaginary knives jabbing at the back of my neck.  It was a long dark ride into a tunnel of questions that floated in and out of my mind.

“This is insane? God, what now?”   I thought.

My good eye wandered the night sky through the bus window. I could hear my heartbeat and feel my hands shaking. I did all I could to remember streetlamps and apartment lights. Seconds after I yanked on the cord, the bus pulled over and dropped me off on a street corner. The decision came at a moment’s guess. I stumbled into my complex and entered my apartment as if I’d been in a roadside collision. It was as if my ears had caved in. It was pitch black and dead quiet. My body was stiff. I couldn’t eat or change my clothes. My dress shirt was soaked with worry. I sat in silence, in the dark. Several hours later, I left Dr. Shulman a message. Later that night, he called and gave me the cell number of Dr. Ben Cohen, his close friend and colleague who happened to be on my plan. He was the lead ophthalmologist at Retina Associates on Lexington Avenue and 80th.  He and Dr. Jeff Paccione saw me the following day, Saturday, June 14th, a weekend exam the office had labeled as “urgent matter.” They scheduled my surgery for Monday morning, June 16th at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City. My heart sunk. After all I had been through with my eyes. Could I go blind? My eye had been perfect the previous morning. I called my parents on a stomach flooded with anxiety. My voice cracked and eyes watered.

“Dad? Something happened to my eye,” I stammered through the receiver.

“Your eye?”

“Last night. My left eye. I can’t see. Everything’s dark.”

I choked up imagining his facial expression. That sigh of fear. After a moment of silence came the quiet words, “Oh my God.”

That night I couldn’t eat or sleep. Sunday I sat motionless on my couch in my New Jersey apartment. I replayed Friday afternoon’s steps in my head over and over.

“Migs, step up onto the chair,” Ben suggested.

“No, the desk,” Roger told him.

“First the chair, then the desk,” I laughed.

The boardroom is spinning. The voices seem to drown themselves inside a tin can. “Bamboleo” by the Gypsy Kings is blaring, resonating, throughout the room.  In the daydream, I see myself dancing, laughing, twisting. “Bembele, Bembele, Bembele…” The cup flies from my hand in slow-motion. Then a sharp stick of light hits my eye. Where am I? There’s a beam of light. It’s bright, so bright. I can’t see anything.

Monday morning, someone had wheeled me into a large operating room. There were cackles of laughter and muffled sounds coming from somewhere. I wasn’t paying attention as I felt tired and drained with anxiety. I’d popped the contact lens out of my right eye as told and saw blurred visions of faces. My parents had taken seats in the waiting room with me before I was escorted down a bleak and dismal hallway. With my right eye, I looked pic of 2 surgeonsup and vaguely saw two physicians in light blue surgical scrubs wearing shower caps ready to take a scalpel to my face. Their subdued words echoed inside my altered state. “Count backwards from 100 to 1, Tom, when you’re done, it’ll be over.” An IV attached to my finger, I felt the anesthesia seeping in. Lights flickered in and out of my subconscious. My right eye went first. Open, shut, open, shut, a flicker of sharp light, shut, open. Then it all went dark.

What are the Odds?

“…Smarty Jones has a four-length lead, Birdstone is moving to be second on the outside…”

Inside the ESPN Zone that night on 7th Avenue and 42nd St., suds flowed, fists pounded the bar, and people cheered. A candied cigar scent floated in from the few scrappy OTB’rs who vied for a little more upscale ruckus. This last leg of the Triple Crown was packed with guzzlers and first-timers ready to witness history. The Belmont Stakes announcer sounded like he was caught in an oxygen tank trying to breathe, excited from anticipation. The volume seemed louder with every inhale.

“…Rock Hard Ten is back to third, and Smarty Jones enters the stretch to a roar of a hundred and twenty thousand…”

Glued to the giant screen above the bar, I stood with a beer, and watched a horse I had known nothing about days earlier make it look easy. Inside, my adrenaline was bubbling for this horse to run faster and faster. I imagined a roar from this restless crowd as Smarty Jones crossed the finish line with a victory. I held my breath.

“…but Birdstone is gonna make him earn it today, the whip is out on Smarty Jones, it’s been 26 years, it’s just one furlong away…”

When the race ended, I placed my empty beer glass on the bar and inched my way back to the men’s room. Diehard racing fans stumbled past me out onto a congested sidewalk into the heart of a humid Times Square. A minute or so after the photo finish, the Mets game was flicked on. Jeers and cheers from an anxious crowd filled the sports pub. Several other wide screen plasmas played highlights from old NFL games. This early June night back in ’04 was just getting started. As I stood at the urinal, a tall man in an untucked light blue button down and moccasins turned his head to me and said,

“Some race, huh?”

“A nail-biter,” I replied shaking my head.

“The odds were so in his favor,” the man nodded.

“They were,” I agreed shaking my head.

      In our brief encounter, he mentioned his obsession with jockeys and statistical equestrian jargon. Before long, I’d nicknamed him Lucky Dan, a southerner who’d flown in from Baton Rouge to take a poke at the city and swim in the glory of its neon lights, if only for a race. In a despondent state at the bar he told me that he’d left his wife weeks earlier after her admitted affair. His two young children were home with family. We threw back a shot of whiskey and talked about our marital woes. Then I had to leave to meet a woman. Unsure what watering hole he’d end up in next, he winked and shook my hand. Lucky Dan was a positive chap ready to muster up a night of booze and beautiful women.

“Are you with me?” he slurred in a southern twang.

“Not tonight, my friend,” I told him.

“Come out to Rouge, we’ll jazz the night and…”

His voice faded as I wandered into the street.

I’d hopped onto an LIRR train and rode it from Hicksville, Long Island to Penn Station a few hours earlier to meet Janice, a city woman I’d seen only in a picture and heard briefly on the phone. We’d met online the day before Memorial Day and in-between her sharp wit, and my snappy comebacks, we agreed to meet for dinner the following Saturday.

Over the past year, the dating scene for me had been a B-rated romantic comedy-with-a bad-ending. Most of my dozen weeknight one-act escapades were with strange, dense, self-absorbed divorcees, in my opinion, cashing in on a few hours of relentless self-pity. One had even gabbed with me for six months via phone and instant message and had never wanted to meet. She’d gone so far to remark, “I’m not ready yet, but I’m close.” Another woman yakked with me for four weeks without taking a breath. The night before our first date she called and cancelled. “Tom, I’m orthodox and, well, it wouldn’t be right. You knew that going in.” My response to that was, “And you just figured this out now, tonight?”  Two minutes later, I deleted Rebecca The Religious from my cell phone.

The night before, I’d driven into the city to meet a red-haired personal trainer named Mindy at Café Luxembourg, on 70th and Broadway, who immediately explained that our pheromones were incompatible.

“I can’t feel a signal,” she told me.

“Signal?” I asked.

“Our pheromones, Tom, when our eyes met…”

“Wait. Phera what?” I asked.

“Pheromones. I couldn’t feel the sexual sweat that…”

“Sexual sweat?”

“The erotic matching scent of our skin soaking up…”

“Scent? I’ve known you five minutes.” I interrupted.

It was a Friday night chemistry experiment that ended early with a slab of steak tartar, a handshake, and a soft pat on the back. Deep inside, I knew that this Streisand-like audacious narcissist would again make the archives.

Times Square Subway #1      I shuffled through sewer lid steam on 7th Avenue and sniffed my way past the salty smell of pretzel carts and mouth-watering hot dog stands. I’d even elbowed my way through the bustling crowd to find the subway stairs at 42nd, but was unsure which train Janice had mentioned would take me to my stop uptown. There was the local 1 and 9, the 2 and 3 express, and an army of people with cameras hanging around their necks on the subway station booth line looking just as confused. A bit light-headed from the beer, I sauntered through the turnstile, hoping my conversation with Janice from a few nights earlier would jar my memory. That’s when I heard the piano.

Three steps down, in the center of the concourse a young boy crouched on a stool behind a keyboard. He wore a thin black tie loosened at the neck over a white button down. His red polka dot suspenders were strapped over his shoulders and a pair of wire frames rounded out his appearance. A navy sport jacket was draped over a small director’s chair on the side. A crowd of twenty or so snapped, tapped, and wiggled. “The Entertainer” was spot on. On the ground next to the keyboard was a white plastic bucket filled with dollar bills and coins. In back of him were two stocky men with hats who stood guard while Kid Wonder’s eyes stayed glued to those sticks of ivory. I smiled and thought to myself as my eyes met these strangers, “I love this place.”  When he stopped, the diehards beckoned for an encore. Some stayed as he segued into a much slower song. The piece sounded familiar but my attention soon wandered off into the direction of a noisy subway.

The heat was so thick on the platform that I found it difficult to breathe. My stomach began to cramp and the jitters set in. In one hour I’d be eating dinner with another online stranger. “How long can I keep doing this?” I thought to myself. I remembered the Larchmont woman from 9 months earlier I’d dubbed Debbie Delayed. Her sense of direction the night we met was somewhat off kilter. She showed up 90 minutes late for our date and insisted that mapquest was “technically” in the wrong. The amusing side note to this disaster was that the restaurant was in Larchmont. Then she double parked in front of the pub, jumped out, and flagged me down on the sidewalk where I’d been yukking it up with the bar crowd to let me know she had made it. I was too blitzed by that point to even care. In my mind, that night was over before it started. I had hoped this wasn’t a repeat.

“Excuse me, does this train go uptown?” I asked a man sitting beside me on the #1 train.  I thought to myself, “The sign did say ‘uptown’ so why am I leaning into a scruffy overweight black man with a cigarette stench on a train going in the right direction?”

That was when I started to doubt myself. Fifteen months earlier in Bellmore, I’d walked out of a dysfunctional marriage just shy of nine years, leaving a seven-year-old daughter without a Dad for a short time. In between then and now, the many female acquaintances I courted never lasted. My life had been a rollercoaster of demented drama in the midst of getting settled and trying to find my soul mate.

“Where you looking to go?”

“105th St.”

He nodded and replied, “You on the right train.”

“It stops at 105th?”

“A hundred and third,” he answered.

“Thanks.”

Jolly Roger smiled and eventually dozed off as I sat in deep thought. I’d phoned Janice the day after our chat. It was an overcast Memorial Day. Dark clouds and raindrops had replaced a clear sky and sun. I’d taken my daughter to the parade in my hometown of Wayne and then swung by the local town hall for the annual two star buffet. A few minutes after arriving, I was outside dialing her number.  Not too over confident I muttered, “Here we go again.”

“Is this Janice?”

“Tom?”

“Right on schedule,” I joked.

“Are you busy?”

“Well, I’m standing outside of a VFW hall in a light drizzle with a plate of pasta in one hand and…”

Just then my daughter, Marlee, came bursting through the hall’s screen door and out onto the sidewalk.

“Daddy, Daddy!”

“Janice, can you hold on?”

I covered the receiver with my left hand.

“Marlee, what are you doing out here?”

“I wanna talk,”

“You can’t, go back inside, now! It’s the girl from the computer last night, remember?” I whispered.

“But you left me…”

“Janice, can you excuse me for a minute while I…”

“Is that your daughter?” she asked.

“Huh?”

“You said in your message yesterday she was nine,”

“I did, didn’t I. Nine.”

“My favorite age. Can I talk to her?”

“You want to talk to her?”

“Sure.”

I jumped out of the subway at 103rd and Broadway just as the doors closed behind me. The late afternoon heat had crawled into my royal blue button down and sweat began to trickle down my back. To kill time I popped into the Mexican Deli and browsed, chugged a cold draft at Tap A Keg, swapped one-liners with the hostess at Toast, and then entered Henry’s at the corner of 105th and Broadway. Janice’s first recommendation had been a café called The Heights, seven blocks further. The Heights was a bit too loud, in her opinion, so she called me and asked if we could move our date to a quieter place.

“I like that white fence,” I told the hostess as I approached her stand and pointed to the tables outside.

She smiled and asked, “How many?”

“Is that part open?” I asked tilting my head toward the outdoors.

“Would you like to sit outside?”

I paused for a second. “I’ll grab a seat at the bar. I’m waiting for someone.”

It was my third tab in less than two hours. I slid onto a high stool and ordered a draft. Every coaster seemed to have the same pattern, every face looked the same. “Would the night end like this?” I thought as I dug into the small tin of party mix on the mahogany and launched into a daydream. My blurry cell phone clock seconds later said 10:15. I blinked, then blinked again. Debbie Delayed waved from the dimly lit front entrance. I slid off the stool and moved toward the red wood doors out onto the sidewalk. Debbie was gone. The beer in my hand had vanished. When I turned, Henry’s was a parking lot.

“Is something the matta?” she asked.

To my left was an attractive young woman in a beige blouse with the sleeves turned up. Several inches from her eyes was a magazine she seemed to be reading. I noticed her thin light-brown hair in a bun and crossed legs. She glanced over the page at me and delicately plucked an onion ring from her oversized martini glass.

“Nah, I’m good,” I nodded.

“You weh starin’ into space,” she said.

“Where you from, London?”

“Britain”

I smirked, shook my head, and took a sip.

I never caught her name but she reminded me of Diane Keaton’s character Theresa Dunn in Looking for Mr. Goodbar, only a bit more subdued. She was a slender gal with little jewelry and flat shoes. Her boyfriend was stationed somewhere overseas and every now and then her buds would thirst for some quality Upper West Side grub, so she told me.

“Some race earlier, huh?”

“Race?”

“Smarty Jones,” I explained.

“I’m not one for the horses, but I heh’d it was excitin’. Ya hee with someone?” she asked.

“Blind date, waiting, for a blind date,” I told her.

“That’s always gobs of fun.”

I thought, “Maybe I should get Theresa’s number in case Janice didn’t work out. But, what if it did, then what? I’d feel guilty. She’d understand, right? We didn’t exchange names so once Janice comes, we’ll bid farewell. But…” She stared and I stared back. The onion rings sat quietly, untouched. A television on the wall above played a ball game with no sound. Laughter erupted from a table somewhere in the place. Moments later, Janice walked in.

The hostess sat us toward the rear of the restaurant but off to the side where we spent the first few minutes talking about our online chat. Then the conversation turned another way.

“So, do you always flirt with women at a bar right before a blind date?”

I reacted a bit anxiously.

“I got here a bit early so…”

“Early? So that gave you enough time to…”

“You’re kidding me, right?”

“You look a bit flustered.”

After a deep breath and a smile, I noticed that Janice was attractively quiet with thick, curly blonde hair, and a pale complexion. A Long Island native, she’d been living in the city since the early 80’s, right after her one year of post-graduate study at SUNY Albany. Her parents and older sister had moved to Boynton Beach during that period and she opted out of the Florida humidity and stayed north. At 5 foot, she stood just shorter than her Dad, the tallest in her family. She left publishing in ’96 and enrolled at the Swedish Institute to become a licensed massage therapist. Three years later she started her own business and had a lucrative practice massaging the ultra-wealthy on the upper east side.

For several hours we exchanged comical dating stories, family tales, humorous lines from old sitcoms. She was well-read and intelligent, graduating number 7 in her high school class of over 700. What did cross my mind several times was the fact that she had never been engaged or married. It was a concern but the night was more important. My daughter, Marlee, was mentioned just briefly. I thought, “If we get serious, how will she handle being with a nine year old every now and then?” Another issue I’d need to consider. But, Janice and I had a connection, a chemistry. There wasn’t a lull in our banter all night.

After dinner, we walked and talked. We shuffled down Broadway to 72nd, and across to Central Park West passing Gray’s Papaya and Sambuca’s Restaurant. She wasn’t fazed by my past, just overwhelmed that I’d been through quite a bit. Up to 96th St. and over to Broadway, we hiked talking about her experiences living in Queens, then Manhattan. She walked me past Tom’s Diner, the one used in Seinfeld. I stood there in a daze as she smiled. We stopped at Deluxe, a café at 112th and sat outdoors for some desert. It had been three hours since we’d met in Henry’s. There was a full moon above us and I told her to make a wish. We both closed our eyes and sat in silence for a minute. When we opened them something seemed to be missing. The waiters had started removing the metal fence and the tables surrounding us. We didn’t get up, just chuckled and continued our conversation where we had left off. They left us alone sitting at a table in the middle of a Manhattan sidewalk where nothing else seemed to matter.

“I guess this is it,” I said in front of her apartment building near Columbia University.

“I guess so,” she answered.

“You think maybe we can go out…”

Before I finished speaking she interrupted, “Possibly.”

We held hands and kissed. I didn’t want the date to end. Moments later I hailed a cab down to Penn Station. It was close to midnight. I peeked out the rear window as we drove down Broadway. She waved. I waved back and didn’t turn around until her blonde hair was out of sight. “What an incredible night,” I thought. “Simply incredible.”

*                                       *                                        *

I opened the apartment door the other day, bent down, and picked up the New York Times from the brown tiled floor in the hallway. Jan was still sleeping so I placed the paper on the purple velvet chair in the kitchen where she’d see it when she got up. She had read the Times cover to cover almost everyday since I’d known her. It was a ritual. The night before, I’d suggested breakfast at Kitchenette, a small eatery on Amsterdam Avenue near our building. I looked forward to the weekends. Sometimes, my 17 year old daughter Marlee would come in from Long Island and visit, but not today. We’d relax in the morning and go for breakfast, and then celebrate our eight year anniversary in the evening. The Belmont stakes was up for grabs once again and my mental bets were on Animal Kingdom and Stay Thirsty. I’d watch it from the best seats in the house, our studio apartment.

We often joke about the day we met and the events leading up to our first encounter. I sometimes imagine a 21-year-old Kid Wonder decked out in a button down shirt rolled at the wrists, tie, and vest, in a dimly lit 3rd Avenue bar. He’s behind a Hammond upright wearing a Fedora. A second one is upside down on the wood in front of him filled with bills and change. The smell of loaded potato skins fresh from the oven lingers throughout. Five television screens throughout the place play some race, any race. The Kid is stuffed in the back playing Maple Leaf Rag while the others pound their fists into the bar, shout, and yell at the bartender, “Another round down here!” Theresa and Lucky Dan are at a table off to the side. Their lips are moving but I can never hear them. They seem to be lost in their own agenda. It’s Saturday in mid-town and the stakes of ending up together are fairly high.

That June night back in ’04, Smarty Jones, the 2 to 1 favorite, lost his bid for the Triple Crown in one of the closest races I’d ever seen. The chance that Janice and I would continue to date, and eventually move in together was quite a long shot. I couldn’t have predicted a better finish.

Talkin’ To the Sun

The subway car stood still. The doors opened. I kept reading. My daughter Marlee, in a trance from a song on her iPod, poked me.

“Stand clear of the closing doors.”                                                              

Ding. The doors closed. Screech.

“Will you cut it out?” I hollered.

Marlee was becoming annoying.

“Is it too much to ask to sit there and listen to music while I read?” I asked her.

“You’re always reading,” she said.

“Well, you’re always listening,” I told her.

With that, my nose went back into the fine print. We’d been sitting on the uptown #2 train in Manhattan for some time.

I had signed Marlee up for acting classes 18 months earlier. I logged on to the internet one afternoon and found a high profile actors Studio in mid-town offering a two hour session on Saturday mornings. Marlee had been selected in 4th grade for the ensemble cast of “Tommy” by the Who, the 2005 Plainview-Old Bethpage High School production. I sat in shock through the play. Marlee was singing center stage. Too many thoughts ran through my head. “Maybe this is her calling.” After four sessions at the studio, Marlee decided to sleep-in on Saturdays. She hated this class that much. She’d never get up from our brown, soft-cushioned couch.

“Marlee get up, time for acting.”

Nothing.

“Marlee, it’s enough, the fake snoring. I see you smiling.”

Nothing.

“Now you’ve done it,” I would yell.

Out of the clear blue, Bob Marley and the Wailers would make one last attempt.

“Get up, stand up. Stand up for your rights. Get up, stand up. Don’t give up the fight.”

Marlee would moan, cackle, sniffle, and with reluctance, sit up. Then she’d make some lame excuse like she had a sore throat, or a stomach ache. Jan, my girlfriend, would eventually pull the CD out and shut everything off.

I thought to myself, “There has to be a school that will teach her the essentials of acting.”

I was seeking a professional who would help enhance her self-esteem, work with her one on one, not just have her read from a piece of paper in a room with fifty other kids. It was worth another try. With a click of luck several months later, we’d landed in the studios of Peggy Lewis and Biz Kids down at Pier 40. It would be a full day of acting, and singing; almost six hours each Saturday. The first time I took Marlee it was a 90 degree day. We had hopped onto the #1 local train from 125th St. and Broadway on the west side of Manhattan, and rode down to the Houston St. stop. Then, we walked, and walked, and walked some more. We looked around and walked again. My feet were sore. The t-shirt I was wearing was soaked. My mouth was dry. I called them and said I was lost. They directed me in detail. It didn’t help. Meanwhile the temperature had risen three degrees. I was out of steam. Were they trying to drive me mad? Where was this place? Was it a hoax? Marlee wanted to go home. She was uncomfortable. Her legs were like wet noodles. We sat on a bench somewhere and took a breather.

“Daddy, what are we going to do?” she asked.

“I don’t know. How can we be lost? It’s around here. I can taste it.” I answered.

With one last gust of fortitude left in me, I took a deep breath, looked up to the sun, licked my index finger, and raised it high in the air. I thought to myself, “C’mon sunshine, take me to Biz Kids, please.”

“This way,” I told her.

“How do you know?” she asked.

“Earthling, have I ever let you down?”

“You’re weird,” she answered.

The final limp to the steel door was momentous. From the time the subway doors had opened at the Houston St. station, it had taken 45 minutes to find. Biz Kids was stuffed down a narrow causeway by a kayak rental. That was a brutal Saturday morning. Nevertheless, she loved it and looked forward to going every other week.

On this October afternoon, we were on our way back home from a day at Biz Kids. We had gotten on the #2, the express train, at Houston Street which was making all local stops up to 96th St. because of construction. The #1 local train was not running uptown at that station that day. We would need to get off at 96th St. and wait for the #1 train that would take us to 125th St. and Broadway. If not, the #2 would continue, but veer off, making stops in central Harlem. It was cold. I wore my black leather jacket. Marlee had on a windbreaker.

“I told you to put on something heavier this morning,” I told her.

“I wasn’t cold,” she said.

“Oh, I see, you weren’t cold. You’re lucky it’s not a long walk to the subway.”

At 96th St., she poked me. I wasn’t paying attention. I was eye deep into Chapter 5. When I looked up we were at 116th St. and Central Park North.

“Oh crap!” I yelled out.

“What? What happened?” she cried.

“God damn it! This time, you were right and I messed up. We’re going to have to get off at the next stop. It’s 125th St. but nowhere near my apartment.

“Why?”

“Why. Because we should have gotten off at 96th St., that’s why. I was daydreaming, or reading, or something. It’s no big deal. We can just go across and get the subway going downtown or grab a bus. Earthling, I will lead you home, because I am Spartacus.”

“You are really weird,” she smiled.

We walked up the stairs and it hit us like bricks–rain, falling from the sky, in buckets.

“Ho-lee shit,” I mumbled to myself.

“Oh my God!” Marlee shouted.

“Now what?” I asked her.

We looked at each other dumbfounded. Never thinking that it would rain, I never bothered to bring an umbrella or a hat. It smelled like rain-induced smoke, the kind you see shooting up from sewer plates, almost like exhaust from a car. I glanced around from the middle of the stairwell and had no idea where I was. The rain was thrashing down so hard I couldn’t see anything. Dusk was setting in which made it even more difficult. I’d only been living in the city for less than two years and had never been in this neck of the woods. Which way was Amsterdam Avenue? Where did we have to stand to catch a cross-town bus? Where was the downtown subway? My train of thought had vanished. My sense of direction, gone. We stood for another minute and then I saw a heavy-set black man at the top of the stairwell with a doorman umbrella.

“Excuse me, yeah, hi, which way to Amsterdam?” I asked him.

“Fella, you got a long walk. It’s that way.” he pointed.

“Damn!” I exclaimed.

“You got an umbrella?” he asked.

“I don’t,” I told him.

He shook his head and wished me luck. I told Marlee that Amsterdam couldn’t be that far. We’d walk.

“But it’s pouring, and I’m cold,” she stated.

“Great, now you’re cold. Well, five minutes we’ll be home, I promise.” I told her.

“You said you were Spartacus, Daddy,” she said.

“I did, and I am. Trust me on this.”

  In the midst of a late afternoon torrential downpour we trudged across 125th street to the west side of Harlem. The mighty wind gusted. Cars honked. Bright headlights flickered. Windshield wipers swayed. We passed men and women with umbrellas. Some were inside out, others torn to shreds. Store owners were closing up and running full speed to shelter. The rain didn’t let up. I kept looking at Marlee.

“You OK?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she answered back.

I held her hand as we crossed Lenox. Water had seeped into my jacket, shirt, and pants. My shoes were flooded. My hair was drenched. My fingers and toes were numb from the cold. Marlee never said anything. We kept walking.

“Just think of the sun,” I told her. “Pretend the heat is beating down on us.”

“Can we tell the sun to keep us warm?” she questioned.

“Yes, you can tell the sun anything you want,” I told her. “Just don’t tell anyone I got us lost.”

Water had crawled into my eyes. I had to blink a few times to make sure my contacts were still there. After we crossed 7th Avenue, I knew we were in the home stretch. It was so cold, Marlee’s hands were turning blue. I had to take a few deep breaths to make sure my body parts were functioning. On and on we walked as the downpour got worse. We hit Amsterdam and I knew it was only a matter of minutes before we would be inside. It had been a memorable twenty-five minute excursion.

When Jan opened the door to our apartment she stood there. Her jaw dropped. We were soaked. The two of us dripped all over the hallway. There were two puddles right outside the door. In a few seconds I had told her what had happened. We immediately took off our jackets, rung them out, and started to thaw. Jan wrapped us in blankets. We sat in the apartment telling her the story.

“My Dad got us lost,” Marlee told Jan.

“Thanks, very much appreciated,” I told her.

“My Dad said he was Spartacus and he’d get us home,” she told Jan.

“Did I?” I asked her.

With a towel on her head, her hand in mittens, and oversized wool socks on her feet, she smiled at me and said, “I had fun, Daddy. Thanks.”

“You’re welcome,Earthling,” I winked. “Now, how about some hot chocolate? Who’s with me?”