Across a Crowded Room…
first published 8/4/15
I remember one particular moment of my life so clearly. It was a small moment, just a snapshot of an emotion set in a frame.
I am making tea for him in my kitchen. I am standing at the little corner counter top next to the stove. I am facing the wall, pouring the just-boiled water into the tea pot. I see the striped place mat on the Formica. The counter is so small, the place mat almost covers it completely. I realize, “I really like this man…more than I have liked anyone before.” And in this instant, I am caught exactly and equally between two emotions: love and terror. Two trains of thought slap through my brain, like the ropes in Double Dutch: “This love can change my life” and “If it’s not real; if he is just playing with me, I will not survive. The blow will kill me.”
But he was not just playing with me. And indeed, he did change my life.
I was working as an exotic dancer. I was not a slut or a drug user or an alcoholic. It was simply the only work I could find that paid my bills. I knew I couldn’t do it forever, but I was still young enough not to have to think about that for the time being. I was just happy to have a steady, decent income; happy not to be dependent on anyone. I’d learned young that no one else can be counted on. The job paid more than working in a factory or as a cashier in some supermarket or greasy fast food joint. I wasn’t stupid but I had no education. I didn’t have a lot of options.
But being seen, night after night, through the eyes of horny, lustful, lonely men — that slowly kills something inside a woman. It’s kind of strange. You might think that being in a position of sexual power (the men were, after all, paying to be close to me while being forbidden to touch) would make me feel, well, powerful. In control. It did not. It made me feel as if that was all I was worth. That my mind, my feelings, my soul, were of no consequence whatsoever. I was only my body. It made me feel hollow. It numbed me to my real self.
Then, one day, he came in. He was with a bunch of guys; friends from work, it turned out. (One of them was getting married.) He seemed uncomfortable, as if he were there reluctantly. He wasn’t drunk; he nursed the same beer for an hour. He was pleasant looking. He had the kind of face that could make you relax just by looking at. He caught my eye and smiled, a bit sadly. His expression was completely lacking any lust. I felt his eyes on me all evening, and in the end, even though I didn’t do anything special for him, he gave me a very big tip just before he left. He looked me right in the eyes and said, without any sarcasm, “Spend it wisely.”
After that, I thought about him a lot. He’d really gotten under my skin. Even through the whiskey haze of that place, amid the flashing lights, over the hooting and jeering and drunken remarks of the patrons, beyond the half-naked women who were adept at teasing as much cash as possible out of the men, in this room ripe with the overpowering scent of sweat and pheromones, he looked at me and saw a whole person.
It was unsettling and yet exhilarating.
It was a couple of weeks before he came back. This time, he was alone. He remained aloof. He did not look at or engage with the other girls. He nursed his one beer for a few hours, resisting all entreaties from the dancers and the bartender. He watched only me, but in the most respectful way. He never leered or stared , but his glance always returned to me, letting me know he was always at least peripherally aware of me. Once again, before he left, he handed me a large tip, and said, cryptically, “I don’t need any change, but I think you do.” And then he was gone.
I scratched my head over that for a while. Who was he? What did he want from me? And why me?
He returned a week or so later (maybe it was longer – my memory for these things is not so good any more.) It went that same before – the watching me from the corner of his eye, just the single beer. Again, he waited to leave until after my set was over then he came over, as before, to hand me money. This time I looked at him closely, noticing the details of his kind face. He appeared to be a few years older than I was (seven, I later found out). He was nicely dressed in casual business clothes. There was just something so comfortable about him. I’d never felt like that about anyone before. He handed me the tip and said, “You have something. Don’t waste it.” He smiled, and left, as usual.
I ran after him and caught up with him just outside. I was intrigued but confused.
“What…?” I said, not even knowing what to say, what to ask.
He smiled, “I noticed you the first night I came here, with the guys from work. There’s something different about you. You’re not like the others…”
I didn’t really know what he meant. I was, to my thinking, not so much different from the other girls. When I did compare myself, I always felt myself coming up short. I knew I wasn’t as good as they were at getting the most out of the men. The girls who’d been there a while really knew how to play those drunken guys. Compared to them, I was nothing. I was just some loser girl, working a humiliating job to pay the rent. I didn’t feel in any way worthy of being singled out. So what could he possibly have seen in me?
“I don’t understand…” I said.
He was shy, which struck me as sweet. “You shouldn’t be doing this.”
At first I thought he was judging me negatively and was offended. He must have seen that on my face and quickly tried to explain.
“I mean, there’s something about you that doesn’t fit here.” I don’t remember everything he said exactly, but he tried to convince me that it was time for me to make different choices in life, and that they would pay off better in the end.
After my shift, he took me for coffee at the diner. We talked for a long time…about our lives, about our childhoods. He was easy to talk to. He really listened. Nobody had ever listened to me like that before.
I guess he saw in me someone he could help; someone he could save. He suggested possibilities I’d never considered. He made me feel as if I could choose differently and still be OK.
After that, he came to meet me every night at the end of my shift and we’d sit and talk in the same back booth.
And finally, one night, I invited him back to my apartment. That was the night I made him tea.
I was shaking with fear and uncertainty when I brought the tray to the couch. He was so respectful and kind. I’d never met a man like that before. I was afraid to do anything, for fear of spooking him.
Finally, I fell asleep on the sofa. In the morning, I woke up alone, neatly tucked in, covered with the blanket. Nothing had happened. I was both disappointed and overjoyed.
My life changed after that in ways I never would have imagined. Just having someone believe in me made everything seem possible.
We were together for 27 years and I loved him more every day of my life, until the day I died. And he loved me the same.
At the moment we first saw each other, it was as if we recognized each other. Now I know we have been together in lives past; and we will find each other again in our next.
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