The four of us girls decided to hell with it, it's Saturday night so let's just go out and have a few drinks and listen to some music. We sat at a round table in the corner of the packed, noisy and smoky Avalon ballroom. They had a big band and a guy playing trumpet who was a dead ringer for Harry James. Boy, was he good. We were close enough to the bandstand to be able to feel the music in our bones. It was loud, and it was exciting.
A guy came up to the table, and looked right at me. He didn't pay any attention to my girlfriends. Just me.
"How about a dance, sweetheart?" he said.
He had black, shiny hair, with a white part. A thin, boyish face. Very handsome. And those eyes! Deep, dark, shining eyes that made me suspicious and interested at the very same time. I got up, followed him to the floor.
He told me his name was Mike Quinn. I told him I was Elizabeth Callan.
His parents, like mine, came from the old country around 1900. We had a lot in common, both being Irish, he said. He was a good dancer, very smooth, almost like Fred Astaire. I was 21 then, and he was 22.
I suppose I was waiting for him to make a mistake, so I could write him off. But in the beginning he did everything right. He was sweet, he knew how to make me laugh, although underneath his joking he looked like something heavy was on his mind. He didn't tell me right away what it was about. I had to pry it out of him, later.
But maybe that's what drew me to him. That pained look in his eyes made me want to take care of him, make him feel better. Kind of like wanting to bring home a hungry stray dog.
Marie, Lois and Harriet gave me dirty looks when I leaned over the table and told them that I was going to leave with Mike, we were going to find a place to have a couple of drinks and talk some more.
"Be careful," Lois said.
"Yeah, you don't know that guy at all," Marie said.
"You just never can tell," Marie said.
"But he's okay, really," I said. "His folks are from the old country."
"Oh, the old country!" Lois said, rolling her eyes. "That makes all the difference."
"See you Monday," I said.
We walked out arm in arm. You should have seen the grin on his face, like a little boy at his birthday party, who had blown out the candles and was ready to open his presents.
Mike had a new Chevrolet, which he said he and his mother and his sister had gone in together on. It had a radio and a heater and everything. We found a quiet bar out on Division Street, and sat at a dark little booth, and our knees touched underneath the table. He drank seven and sevens and I ordered Tom Collinses. Back then I liked mixed drinks, and I liked pulling the red cherry out and tasting the crunchy sweetness, and I liked the scent of the gin.
That night we drank a lot, and laughed a lot. It got to the point where everything he said was just right. Either it was hilarious, or somehow interesting to me. I sat close to him, and I looked at his little-boy's face, and into those dark, deep brooding eyes of his, and I wondered if I should have sex with him. I guess I just wanted to know what it would be like with a moody guy like him. If it was anything like his dancing, well, look out!
"You know all about me," I said. "Now it's your turn."
He waved his hand. "Bartender! Another round here, huh?"
"C'mon, Mike. Tell me about yourself."
The bartender brought the fresh drinks, and Mike sighed, then took a long swallow.
"Okay, okay," he said. "I've got a sister named Jane. She works as a clerk at General Fireproofing. My mother, well, she's sick a lot. She used to take in laundry. My old man died when I was twelve."
Mike turned his head, took in a deep breath, let it out slowly. He looked down at his glass, which he turned slowly, a little bit at a time.
"You loved your dad a lot?" I said.
He gave me a sharp look. "I don't want to talk about it, OKAY?"
Uh-oh! The first red flag. How quick this guy goes from smiles and jokes to anger.
"Sorry," I said.
We had a few more drinks and I told him I wanted to get home because it was getting late. He looked disappointed but said, "Sure, whatever you want." When we got to my house I waited for him to get out of the car and open the door for me, but he just sat there with his hands on the steering wheel.
"Can I call you?" he said.
"Sure," I said.
I wrote down my number on the back of an envelope I found in my purse and gave it to him. He kept sitting there. So I opened the door, gave it a good slam shut, and headed up the walkway.
* * *
Mike called two or three times during the week but I told my dad that I didn't want to talk to him or anyone else. I decided it would be fun to play hard to get. I did things like that a lot back then. And why shouldn't I play hard to get? I was young, and pretty. At least that's what they all said. And it was funny watching dad on the phone, winking at me as he held the receiver to his ear, telling Mike I wasn't available.
The next Saturday Marie and Lois and I decided to go back to the Avalon. Harriet had a date, would you believe? She told us to have a good time. We got a table close to the bandstand. The place was crowded, and noisy, as usual. I ordered a vodka gimlet.
The bandleader waved a short, white baton and his other hand moved up and down, and he had his head turned to one side so I could see his profile. Little threads stuck out on the ends of the sleeves of his shiny tuxedo. His pants were wrinkled deeply at the backs of his knees. The fabric shined, as if it had worn thin and had been ironed too many times.
The guy looked very much like Harry James. But this time around his playing didn't seem as exciting. I don't know why. He put the trumpet to his lips and played "St. Louis Blues," and "Chattanooga Choo Choo." He hit all the notes exactly right, but this go-round it didn't move me at all.
And then Lois nudged me. I turned. There he was, standing there, grinning, swaying slightly. "Wanna dance?" Mike said. I got up. He took my hand. I smelled the booze on him. He pulled me real close and he talked in my ear as we moved slowly to the music. "I tried to call you," he said. "But your old man kept telling me you weren't there. I wanted to talk to you."
"So here I am," I said.
"Yeah, you sure are. I wanted to tell you something important."
"Like how gorgeous you are. I could go for a gal like you."
He moved back so he could look at me. "No, really," he said. "Honest to God. I mean it. I've been thinking about you. All last week. I almost wrote you a letter."
"So why didn't you?"
"Because I figured I'd see you here."
He pulled me close again. "Remember when I dropped you off at your house?"
"Well, I wanted to kiss you so bad."
I didn't say anything.
"You're the most gorgeous gal I've ever seen," he said. "I can't get you outta my mind."
I felt his hand moving up my shoulders, and under my hair, onto the back of my neck. He caressed my skin. And he continued whispering, right into my ear. A steady stream of words. Mr. Smoothie.
We moved among the dancing couples, drifting closer and closer to the bandstand. For a moment the spotlight glared in my eyes, then we turned and I saw the trumpet player not two feet from me. He had the horn to his lips. His cheeks were puffed out. His eyes were squinted shut. The notes were metallic and harsh. Mike kept whispering how beautiful I was, over and over again.
I stared at the trumpet player. A glistening drop of sweat hung on the bottom of his chin and fell off, and I shuddered.
* * *
I knew enough about Mike to make a decision. One, he drank too much. Two, he was touchy and moody. Three, he lived at home and was under his mother's thumb. Four, he was a draftsman at the electric company so he didn't have much chance of ever making a lot of money.
But on the other hand he was part owner of a new Chevvy, complete with radio and heater. Yes, when he wanted to use it he had to clear it with Jane and his mom, but then how often did Jane go out? She was no beauty queen, that much was obvious from the picture he showed me.
Also Mike was completely nuts about me. He wrote me four letters, each one saying more or less the same things, that he thought I was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen, that I was the sort of girl he'd always dreamed about. He was in love with me, and always would be in love with me. And so on.
I should have put the kibosh on the whole thing. I should have kept going out with Joe, who didn't write letters but knew how to open a car door for a lady. The last time I was out with Joe he ordered just one beer and left half of it in the glass. Joe worked in the bank, just got promoted. Daddy approved of Joe, but then that sweet, generous father of mine would approve of just about anything I did.
Looking back I think I knew deep down that Mike just wasn't right for me, but I went ahead anyway. I don't know why. Maybe it was vanity. Getting long love letters and flowers from a guy, and seeing him stuttering and falling all over himself when he comes to pick you up for a date, well, there's something to be said for that.
As for the drinking, I don't know. I drank a lot myself, and I sure as hell didn't like the way Joe would count how many times I called the bartender for a refill. I liked having a good time. Maybe it was as simple as that.
Besides, I thought Mike had a pretty good reason to drink the way he did. It had something to do with his father, who died when he was twelve. And underneath all that ballroom smoothness, all his jokes, he was a guy who was carrying around a lot of anger. It was in his eyes. And that's what drew me to him. I guess I figured I could help the poor sap.
As I said, I should have put the kibosh on the whole thing. But Mike never gave up, even though he didn't think too much of my family. He kept calling, kept writing letters telling me how beautiful I was and how much he loved me. I'd decided, more or less, that I'd eventually let the thing die on the vine. Sunday mornings I'd tell myself to say no the next time he called to ask me out. But each time he asked, I said okay, what the hell. So we kept dating.
One day he gave me a little bound notebook. Inside were love poems, in his boyish-like writing. At first I thought he'd written them himself, but he told me later he copied them from a book he found in the library. Even so, it impressed me that he went to all that trouble.
That night, in the back seat of his family's Chevvy, we had sex for the first time. I was pretty drunk, but I knew exactly what I was doing. I'd made up my mind even before he came to pick me up, as I was sitting at my dresser, brushing out my hair. It wasn't much. I just wanted to see how a guy would act once he got what he wanted more than anything in the world.
* * *
So how does a guy act when he finally gets what he's wanted more than anything in the world? Well, for one thing it didn't take that long for Mike to get it. He was inside me for hardly a second and then...well, you get the picture.
It wasn't at all romantic or even comfortable, fumbling around in the back seat of that Chevvy. I didn't like one bit of it, out there by the side of the road in Mill Creek Park, the street light shining right into my face. It was just a lot of elbow banging and leg cramps and grunting. How can a guy enjoy that kind of thing? All I could think of was that somebody might come along any second and see us. The cops even.
Right afterward he started bawling. He kissed my face, he kissed my hands over and over. "Oh, I love you so much, baby," he whispered. "I love you so much." I thought: Jesus, here's a guy with his pants down to his ankles, bare assed, and he's saying all the right words but somehow all I can think of is how stupid he looks.
I'm getting a crick in my neck being pressed down into the corner of that back seat. His cum is dribbling out of me and I'm worried about it getting on the seat. And then I think: this means he still wants me more than anything in the world, and of course THAT means he'll be wanting to do it again, if not right now, certainly later. And I say to myself, Christ almighty! What have I gotten myself into?
* * *
The next time the girls asked me to go to the Avalon with them I told them, no, I didn't want to because I knew Mike would be there. I didn't answer his letters, and I sure as hell wouldn't answer the phone. I told dad that I didn't want to talk to him, period. Naturally Mike kept calling and dad kept telling him I wasn't available.
So I put him out of my mind. I was doing well at the bank, and not just because I was my father's daughter. They transferred me to the International Transactions Department, doing statistical typing--which I found I was extremely good at. For me it was easy. I could look at a column of six-figure numbers in a ledger or a balance sheet and type rapidly, sort of absent-mindedly, and all those numbers would come out perfect. None of the other girls could do it as fast or as accurately as I could. I liked that job because I could lose myself in it, and the time went by quickly. Also I didn't have to put up with customers, or have to talk on the phone.
Daddy always wanted me to go to college, but I told him I wanted to get a job and eventually get a place of my own. He told me I didn't have to get a place of my own, I could stay home with him. But I didn't want to do that. I wanted to be able to make my own decisions. I didn't want anybody to second guess me, or to keep asking me to do things for them. Daddy was disappointed, but he didn't argue. He didn't like what I was doing, but he went along anyway because I was his little sweetie. God bless him.
Mike's calls tapered off, so I figured I'd seen the last of him. I went out a couple of times with Joe but he got to be a pain in the ass with his holier-than-thou attitude, his frowning at me when I'd order a third or fourth drink. I got the chilly feeling that he was the sort who would go to any length to straighten me out, to do things the way HE thought they ought to be done. And he was just waiting for a chance to get his mitts on me.
One afternoon I was listening to La Boheme on my Victrola and my mind was wandering, not thinking of anything in particular, except how beautiful that aria is when Rodolpho and Mimi exchange their life stories and at the end they walk off together and they both hit those high notes that you hear from a distance. That scene always makes me cry because it captures so perfectly how love ought to be, but never is.
Anyway, I was in a dreamy state, lost in the music, when I felt a peculiar, chilly sensation. A thought lurking at the back of my mind. Something I know but don't want to know. Then it came to me, and I sat up straight.
Oh, Jesus. Oh, shit. I didn't have to get the calendar out. I knew it.
My first thought was to drive out to the Mahoning Avenue bridge and jump into the goddamned river. It was reddish-brown, slow-moving and putrid, full of run-off from the steel mill, and just perfect for somebody like me.
How could I have been so stupid? Why hadn't I made that whimpering, skinny little bastard wear a rubber? I could have told him to use one or forget it, I knew he would have done exactly what I told him to do. At that point he would have stood on his head and whistled Dixie, he was right in the palm of my hand.
Oh, Jesus, what was wrong with me? I was supposed to be smart. But that night I most certainly wasn't. I guess I thought I was safe. Vatican roulette. Right.
I walked back and forth in my bedroom. I looked out the window and saw that pimply little creep from up the street riding by on his bicycle, tossing rolled-up newspapers onto the front lawns. I shut off the music because suddenly that sentimental shit made me sick.
Opera! I liked watching melodrama--not actually being a part of it. Getting knocked up always happened to someone else, it would NEVER happen to me. Uh-huh. That's what the ALL say. My mind raced. I wondered what in hell I was going to do.
I sat down in the rocking chair, the chair that Mom gave me, the one she got from her mother. She gave me that rocking chair three months before she died, and she made me promise never to paint it. Keep it as it is, she said, with that dark floral pattern on the back. Three generations of women have sat in that rocker, nursing their babies. I put my hands over my face. I wanted to scream.
I got out of the rocker, paced some more. It would have been so easy. I didn't have to sleep with Mike. All I had to do was tell him, "Look, I don't want to see you anymore because I don't think this is working out. Good bye. Good luck."
Sure, he would have kept calling for a while. But then eventually that would have been the end of it. And I wouldn't be in this mess right now. God DAMN it!
I opened the door and listened. Daddy hadn't gotten back from the club yet. I went downstairs, right to the liquor cabinet. I poured out a four-finger shot of Ballantine's, and drank it down. Then took another.
My head was buzzing. I fumbled through the pages of the phone book, got the number of the electric company. I asked the woman to connect me with Mike Quinn. In the DRAFTING DEPARTMENT I told the stupid bitch. That's spelled, Q-U-I-N-N. After three rings he came on the line. I told him I needed to see him.
"When?" he said, breathless.
"Right away," I said. "Now."
He said why not after work, five thirty, at the Shamrock Bar and Grill?
I said I'll see you there.
The Shamrock was crowded two deep at the bar, but there was an open booth in the back, and I sat down and waited for Lover Boy to show up. I ordered a double scotch on the rocks and drank it half down when Mike came in, turning his head, looking for me. I waved, and he grinned and walked over. He slid in, and said, "Hey, it's good to see you again."
He hadn't a clue. It never occurred to him, and why should it? That's not something that he'd give much thought to. He looked at me. His black hair was combed shiny in a pompadour, and his eyes were soft, like a puppy's. He was ready to lick my hand.
"I'm so glad you called," he said. "I thought I'd never see you again, and I..."
"Why don't you order yourself a drink?" I said.
He blinked. "Oh, sure. Hey, Willie!"
What a sap!
When Willie brought Mike his seven and seven, I got right to the point. "I'm pregnant, Mike."
He stopped his glass in mid-air, a bit below his face, and he squinted.
"We need to talk about what we're going to do," I said.
"Are you sure you're pregnant?" he asked.
"Yes, I'm sure."
"And I haven't slept with anyone else. You're the only one."
That wasn't exactly true, but Mike was the father. No question about it.
"Holy shit," he said.
"Well?" I said.
He looked to his right, toward the crowd, as if he'd might get a sign or a signal, some hint as to what he should do next. But then he turned back, reached over and took my hands. "I don't know what to say."
"What are we going to do?" I asked.
"I'm stunned," he said. "Honest to God. I..."
"Mike, tell me. What in hell are we going to do?"
He blinked. "Well...I guess we should get married. Right away. I mean..."
All right, so that was settled. I didn't want to give Mike a chance to get second thoughts, so I told him to take me to my house. On the drive over I told him we had to give my father the news together. And then we had to go tell his mother. We just have to get it over with. Right now. Otherwise...I don't know what.
We took seats in our living room, and Daddy asked Alice to pour us all a round. I suppose Daddy knew something bad was about to happen.
"Mr. Callan," Mike said, "I've asked Betty to marry me and she's said yes. And, sir, I uh...want to tell you..."
Poor Daddy. He looked at Mike, then at me. He knew, instantly. I saw the great disappointment in his eyes. A weary sadness, just like when Mom died.
Daddy turned to Mike. "Well, lad, this is quite a surprise," he said.
"Yes, sir, I know. But I love your daughter more than anything..."
Daddy listened quietly to Mike's recitation. About how he fell in love with me the moment he saw me. That I was the most beautiful girl he'd ever seen. That he knew marriage was a serious responsibility. That he had a good job, and that we'd be able to find a small apartment somewhere. With hard work we'd find a way to manage and make it work. And so on.
Daddy listened patiently, nodding every now and again. When Mike finished, Daddy raised his glass.
"In that case," he said, "I offer you two my most sincere congratulations on the occasion of your marriage, and my very best wishes for your future happiness."
When Daddy said those words I wanted to sink deep into the earth, to disappear. I'd let him down, I'd disappointed him deeply, but he had the good grace and decency to pretend I hadn't.
At Mike's house it was a different story. We trooped in, and his mother and his sister, Jane, gave us sharp, quick looks. Mike told them, "We're in love. We're getting married right away."
Both women looked daggers at me.
"So what's the big rush?" Jane asked.
"There's no rush," Mike said. "We don't think there's any reason to wait. I told you, we're in love."
Mrs. Quinn didn't say a word. She hadn't liked me at all when we'd first met a few weeks earlier. Now she hated my guts. I could see it on her face. But Mike and I sat in that tiny living room, with the lace doilies on the arms of the couch and chairs, and toughed it out. We were, after all, of legal age and there wasn't anything they could do to stop us.
An hour later, in the car, Mike said: "Now what?"
"You tell me," I replied.