Everyone agrees that my Great Aunt Tina looks fabulous dead. Great Uncle Morris has picked her favorite violet pantsuit for her, the one with the gold buttons. I hear nothing but murmurs of approval as a beaming Great Uncle Morris works the crowd, accepting the quiet pity and sartorial admiration of the fifty or so relatives and friends gathered around the casket for the occasion.
“She looks just lovely!” gushes my mother’s cousin’s wife. “I just can’t get over it! If I didn’t know better, I’d think she was just sleeping!”
My mother’s cousin’s wife is an educated woman so I know she does know better. Great Aunt Tina is so stiff with rigor mortis that you could flip her over and use her as a table for high tea at the Brown Palace Hotel downtown.
If I didn’t know better, I think. Linguistic code for “Listen up, everyone! I’m about to say something profoundly stupid.”
Roger Duke, owner of Duke and Duke, (and our family’s undertaker of choice) steps into the room. “Friends, loved ones,” he says, licking his lips and twisting the thick, gold chain around his wrist. “I want to thank you all for coming here today.” He clasps his hands together and raises them in front of him as he speaks, showing us the gold rings that cover nearly every finger. I’ve heard Duke’s death speech preamble at least ten times in the last fifteen years, so I only half-listen. The rest of me scans the crowd, making a mental list of people I want to talk to when the show is over.
“Tina would want us to remember her, I think, as a lover of life,” Roger Duke begins.
I can barely keep my eyes from rolling. Duke’s “Lover of Life” eulogy is as recycled as the non-potable water irrigating Denver’s City Park. I tune out, and instead mull over the word “non-potable.” Where the hell do these words come from? “Non-potable.” Any reasonable English speaker would immediately suspect the word to mean “unable to put into a pot.” I amuse myself for the next few minutes by envisioning crowds of sleek, thirsty Denverites crowding into City Park with their high-end cookware, trying in vain to capture sewage-laced water jetting from sprinkler heads in the ground.
A tickle at the intersection of my sinus cavities and nasal pharynx distracts me from my reverie. My brain often misreads my seasonal allergies as a full-fledged germ assault and responds by launching a sneezing fit counterattack.
I reach up and brutally pinch my nose. This usually works, but just in case I have to blow a bacterial and mucus suspension into the air, I take a step backwards to move to the rear of the room. My four-inch stiletto lances something spongy…maybe a shoe. I pull my foot up and do an about-face to see what I’ve stepped on.
On a foot between the straps of a black beach sandal is a bleeding circular indentation where a small artery used to be.
The first thing I think: sandals. I can hardly believe it! I look up to inspect the peasant who would wear sandals for such a somber occasion. Potential cutting remarks bubble up and prepare to take form. Suddenly, I’m being scrutinized by eyes the color of Ty-D-Bowl water and my cute comments go as flat as a day-old soda. At this point an observer might think that I’m still looking this stranger in his pain-filled eyes as he grimaces and hisses in agony. But I’m actually checking out the rest of him with my superior female peripheral vision. His longish, dark brown hair is parted on the side, and faux-disheveled in a sort of “Ooops-I-Didn’t-Know-I-Looked-Hot” style.
Who says laying people to rest can’t be fun?
“Sorry,” I mumble. Now he’s smirking at me as I fumble around in my purse for something to put on his bloody foot.
“What about this?” he says, touching the fabric belt cinching my black silk blouse at the waist. “We can use it for a tourniquet.” He shoots me a lopsided smirk before dropping down to apply direct pressure to the hole in his foot with his hand.
Still top-side, I consider telling him that it took me two months to subtly convince a friend that this three-hundred dollar blouse made her look fat so she would give it to me. This potential revelation requires further thought–about three seconds of it–before I decide to leave it bouncing around in my cranium. It has a Creep Factor of about five—that dangerous middle-ground of comedy that makes it just as likely that it will repulse him as it will make him laugh.
“Here’s a napkin. It’s clean,” I whisper, crouching down beside him and handing him a board-stiff Taco Bell napkin that has the absorptive power of aluminum foil. A rivulet of blood is running down the side of his foot and pooling on the dark blue carpet. “Holy crap, Duke is going to flip out when he sees this,” I mutter.
“Who, the gold-dripping death dealer?” he says, doing a head fake in Roger Duke’s general direction.
The aforementioned is still eHHe milking the “Lover of Life” speech for all it’s worth. I try for what I think is a look of pure disapproval. “My family has been using Duke and Duke for over fifty—”
I cut myself short, my peripheral vision alerting me to a matter that needs closer attention. I look down at the long-sleeved gray T-shirt he’s wearing. “Mean People Suck” it screams in bright orange letters. “Did you get lost on your way back to the halfway house?” This has an Asshole Factor of about eight, but (as my mother always told me) words are not fishing line you can reel back in after a bad cast.
Luckily he laughs, baring his orthodontically straight teeth. We’re hunkered down with our heads almost touching, and I notice that he’s one of those guys who smell really great to me.
The “to me” part is important. As a sexuality researcher, I once managed a pheromone study where a dozen different men were asked to wear identical white T-shirts to bed for three days. We then stuffed them into individual Ziploc bags (the T-shirts, not the men) and recruited women to sniff them and give them each a score. There was also space for optional comments.
We found that pheromones were in the eye of the beholder, so to speak. T-shirt #11B in particular drew very different comments from two participants. “Yummy! Christmas trees crossed with pipe tobacco!” wrote one. The second: “Smells like a goat rolled in moldy rags.”
In the end they found out that women who scored a particular T-shirt high had immunity markers that were the opposite of the T-shirt wearer and speculated a union between the two would result in offspring with a high chance of fighting off, say, diphtheria, scabies, herpes, Ebola, or any one of the other fun bugs in the grab-bag of human diseases.
I reflect on his pleasant scent as the blood from his foot overwhelms the impenetrable fiber barrier of the napkin, and consider saying, “Our offspring would have an increased chance of surviving the impending influenza pandemic because of our contrasting genetic immunity markers.” It’s possible that comments like this led to the creation of the Creep Factor scale in the first place. I rate this one as a perfect ten and break eye contact.
That’s when I notice that people around us are staring. I stand up and motion for him to follow me. We end up in a small, private grieving alcove of sorts with a couch and end tables loaded up with flowers and boxes of tissues. I nearly gag on the overpowering aroma of lavender before pulling the curtain closed over the entrance.
“What are you wearing?” I wave my hand up and down at his shirt and sandals ensemble like a manic game show hostess showcasing a prize.
He looks totally unconcerned. “They said this was just going to be the screening for some great aunt.”
“Viewing,” I correct him.
“Right.” He shrugs. “I thought it was a memorial service where I could just stand in the back. If I’d known it was going to be an all-star gala—”
“For your information, we dress up to show our respect for the dead.” I squat to pile a wad of tissue on his irreverent, hemorrhaging foot.
He snorts. “The dead should be glad I didn’t show up in a jock strap and a pair of socks. Besides, I don’t think anyone’s interested in what I’m wearing. As far as I can see everyone’s saving the fashion critique for the stiff—ow!”
I smack the last few tissues over his sandal and stand up. Whoever he is, he’s not much taller than me because I don’t have to crane my neck back to see his face. “The ‘stiff’ is my Great Aunt Tina. I’d appreciate it if you’d speak about her with a little more respect.”
He smiles at me a little, just turning up the corners of his mouth. “Christine told me your family was weird about funerals.”
Christine is my cousin. She lives near downtown Denver in one of those 1920s bungalows that once dotted the city before they were bulldozed to make way for office buildings and walk-up lofts. The house is dwarfed on all sides by high-rises, stubbornly refusing to move, like the Zax in the Dr. Seuss poem. I once made up a parody of this poem in honor of Christine’s house. Now, at the mention of her name, it pops into my head and starts running like reel-to-reel audio:
It stands there, not budging! At 18th & Pearl
With its Birkenstock owner and her boyfriend named Earl.
Of course Denver didn’t stand still. It grew.
In a couple of years, the new high-rises came through
And they built them all ‘round that quaint little shack
And left it there, standing alone like the Zax.
“I’m here with Christine and Earl,” he says. “We were on our way to a movie. Christine got a call from someone in your family reminding her about the viewing.”
“I’m Leigh Fromm.” I stick out my hand and then I wait. I know what’s coming next: “Leigh Fromm? Leigh from where?” Ba-da-bing, everyone’s a comedian.
But this guy doesn’t take the bait; he just stares at me, a sort of crooked half-smile on his face as my hand hovers in dead air. Then he grabs my fingers up to the second set of phalanges and applies a touch of pressure before releasing it.
I stare at my hand, wondering if he shakes every woman’s hand like a damp hand towel, or if he has some paralyzing war wound that would be rude to bring up when he says, “I don’t remember seeing you at Christine’s wedding last year.”
I drop my hand. “I wasn’t there. I had to go on a business trip.”
“Were you at their baby shower in April?”
Now I’m starting to get uncomfortable. Why does this guy care where I was? “Uh, no, I couldn’t make it. I sent her flowers when her son was born.”
“When was the last time you saw Christine?” He grins at me before bending down to take over his own field dressing.
“At my grandmother’s funeral,” I say to the top of his head. “And what does Christine mean ‘our family is weird about funerals?’”
“Let’s see…how did she put it?” He stands up and holds the tissues in place with his other foot. “‘The most dangerous place to stand is between someone in my family and a casket.’”
“That’s not true!” I then quickly perform the arduous mental gymnastics required to nail down the last time I attended a wedding or a graduation. I’m almost certain I’ve never been to a baby shower.
He smiles. “She said the family motto is ‘If You’ve Got a Corpse, We’ve Got a Plane Ticket.’”
“What’s going on?”
We turn simultaneously to see my cousin, Christine, peeking her head around the curtain.
He snorts. “Trying to recover from meeting Leigh.”
Christine looks confused. “Well, the wake’s almost over. Earl wants to know if you want to grab a drink at the Funky Buddha and wait for the next movie.”
He glances at me. “Whaddya say, Leigh? Want to join us for some drinks? I promise not to show everyone my open flesh wound.”
My hand’s already on the curtain, sweeping it aside. “Uh, no thanks. I don’t think binge drinking is an appropriate way to grieve.” I shoot an accusing look at Christine.
“Oh, come on, Leigh,” she says with a laugh. “She was your great uncle’s second wife. You didn’t even know her!”
“Funerals are meant to comfort the living,” I retort before stalking out of the alcove.
“I thought this was the viewing?” he mumbles as I move out of earshot and head back to the parlor where my Great Aunt Tina’s open casket is displayed.
I mentally kick myself in the mental ass the whole way. Regret is familiar territory. When it comes to dating and men—hell, even having a coherent conversation with people in general—I am something of a social retard. ‘Funerals are meant to comfort the living?’ God, I’m like Emily Post crossed with Debbie Downer. I queue up in the coffin line so I can say my final goodbyes to Great Aunt Tina before going home to spend a quiet evening in respectful isolation. Sort of like every other night.
Although I pretend not to notice, I can tell that there are people in the room staring at me. While I’m not vain, I’m not stupid either; it’s not like I don’t know what I look like. I know what they’re seeing. By all empirical measures, I’m a social misfit trapped in a model’s body—maybe an eight on a scale of ten. I have hair like those girls in shampoo commercials. I mean it; it’s some glossy, thick stuff. Left to itself it’s a sad, mousy brown but I have it shamelessly dyed to a Harlequin Romance chestnut just in case I run into my own personal thong-clad Fabio. I’ve been told my whole life that my eyes–hazel with slivers of cat-eye yellow–are “striking.” At five feet ten, my only real complaint about my body is that I have a hard time finding size ten shoes. And tall men.
All the staring does make me self-conscious and I fight the urge to find a mirror. Right on cue I notice that there’s a large mirror on the opposite wall. And then I wonder: why a mirror in a funeral home viewing room? It’s one of those really ostentatious, oversized mirrors so it must be there to make the room look larger. At least I hope that’s its purpose. It’s not like the corpse is going to sit up and do a makeup check.
Which in the case of Great Aunt Tina is probably a good thing, I think as I get closer to the casket at the front of the line. Roger Duke does fine with his male clients. He weed whacks their bushy Andy Rooney eyebrows down to an acceptable length and can recreate a comb over like nobody’s business. But generally speaking I disagree wholeheartedly with my mother’s cousin. Duke’s female clientele never look like they’re “just sleeping.” As the line moves along, I see that Great Aunt Tina’s skin is encrusted with a thick layer of orangish foundation. The word “Oompa-Loompa” immediately springs to mind.
“Smile!” A camera flash lights up the room like a strobe light at a rave.
“Grandpa!” I whisper before crouching/running in for a hug. I have to crouch because my grandfather has somehow shrunk to the size of a lawn ornament in the last twenty years. He’s wearing the same powder blue polyester suit that I’ve seen him wear to every formal occasion since I was seven.
He gives me a toothless kiss on my cheek and pushes me back towards the coffin where I pose by the head of my dead great aunt. “Squat down a little! You’re too tall!”
Most in the room take this in stride. They know that, basically, my family likes to take pictures of dead people. Not just take pictures of them, but have people pose with them like a bride and groom on their wedding day. “Move a little to the left…can you move your heads closer together? Let’s get another one with you on the right side. Can we get the flowers in the picture? How ‘bout a little smile?”
It’s sort of weird to blow out a cheesy grin when you’re one foot away from an orange cadaver but I’m a veteran. I beam like I’m Great Aunt Tina’s sole heir while my grandfather snaps a few more photos before moving aside for the parade of mourners.
“I saw you with that boy,” he says, putting his camera on a table and pulling me down for another kiss on the cheek.
I look around “What boy?” And then I remember. “Oh, you mean Christine’s friend? I cut his foot with the heel of my shoe. He was wearing sandals. Can you believe that?”
“Royalty can wear what it wants.”
I snort-laugh. “He’s a royal pain in the ass, all right.”
“Saw you talking with Prince Roman.” I turn towards my dad’s voice just in time to get nailed with a slobbery kiss on the other cheek.
I reflexively wipe my cheek with my hand. “His name is ‘Prince’? Like the singer?”
By now my mom has stepped into our little circle. She was the most likely inspiration for the song “Short People Have No Reason to Live” and doesn’t even attempt to bestow a kiss upon me; it would require a ladder and a dramatic ascent that could trigger the bends. By this point everyone is laughing heartily at me.
“Prince isn’t his first name,” she explains just as I’m starting to feel really stupid and sort of pissed. “He’s Prince Roman Karl Franz Joseph Max Heinrich Ignatius Lorraine von Habsburg.” In response to my blank stare she adds, “Of Austria?”
They say you can take the girl out of the trailer park but you can’t take the trailer park out of the girl. It turns out that it’s pretty tough to get the girl out of the trailer park in the first place—at least this girl. You stay in the trailer park and you never have to worry about the psychological ramifications of an abrupt move to a different socioeconomic class.
Off Colfax Avenue at the edge of Denver, Happy Trails (formerly Happy Trails Trailer Home Park) is the run-of-the-mill trailer park where I grew up. The Denver Metropolitan Rejuvenation Project was launched ten years ago and provided subsidized mortgages to low-income renters, which pretty much described all of the mostly elderly residents at Happy Trails.
As a result, Happy Trails is filled today with pseudo-houses, those prefabricated residences that are constructed in pieces at a factory and then sort of slapped together on-site like a kit car. It’s actually hard to tell them apart from smaller suburban ranch homes. Mine came complete with vaulted ceilings, upgraded cabinets in the kitchen and a “luxury tub” in the master bathroom. You couldn’t actually hitch one to your Ford F-150 diesel and take off to the next crystal meth lab.
Every once in a while, someone will buy a piece of land in Happy Trails and park an actual rolling RV on a concrete slab. This isn’t necessarily against the zoning regulations for Happy Trails but, as my neighbor Mrs. Wellmore once stated, “Even trailer trash have standards.” Before they deploy their living room slide-outs, mount a satellite dish, or hook up to the septic system to dump their holding tanks, residents gather at their door and gently suggest to the newcomers that they consider the local Wal-Mart parking lot home until a space at the KOA Kampgrounds opens up.
Which is what I’m doing the next afternoon when my best friend, Kat, pulls up alongside me in her Honda Accord.
“Still enforcing the trailer park caste system?” she says, looking over the group of fifteen or so residents behind me. “Who’s the Untouchable this time?”
I turn to Mrs. Wellmore, an old lady with a white puff hairdo wearing a pastel flowered robe, and suddenly realize that I am the only person in the crowd wearing clothes that are meant to be seen after nine o’clock a.m. or by people other than your mom or spouse. “Mrs. Wellmore, would you mind speaking to the new people without me? My great aunt’s funeral is in an hour.”
“Oh, you poor thing! Of course, sweetheart, of course!” She turns to the assembled mob whose average age is about eighty-five. “Leigh has such a close-knit family!”
I am actually relieved that Kat’s early. What started off as a well meant effort as part of the Rejuvenation Project to combat crime by encouraging permanent residency has morphed into a torches and pitchfork scene akin to an AARP battalion storming a Social Security office.
I jump into Kat’s car and shut the door. “Thanks for the ride.”
Kat’s known my family for a long time. She’s against ogling dead people in caskets, so she didn’t come for the viewing last night but, like me, she’s used my great aunt’s funeral as an excuse to take the day off. Which is a good deal for me; my 1993 Dodge Neon, currently at 300,000 miles, cannot be trusted to drive any further than the end of my driveway without a Triple-A team following me in a support car.
I immediately kick my beige heels onto the floor of the car.
“Cute suit,” says Kat, eyeing my pink-pinstripe-on-desert-beige pants as I struggle to extract myself from the form-fitting matching jacket. The papaya lace camisole underneath makes this one of the cutest outfits I presently own. Before I can respond with a “thank you” Kat follows up her compliment with, “So…do you have any friends who aren’t cotton heads?”
I choose to ignore her blatantly ageist comment and change topics. “I’ll have you know that I personally impaled the foot of the Crown Prince of Austria last night.”
She pops the car into reverse and hooks her arm on the back of my seat, twisting her head and torso around to back up. “Yeah, I heard.”
“You heard? How?”
Now in drive, she slowly maneuvers the car past the crowd of my aged neighbors. “I ran into Christine and them last night.”
“At the Funky Buddha?”
She shakes her head. “Uh-uh. Walking downtown. It was late. They’d just seen a movie.”
“He’s not really a prince anyway.” I don’t tell her that I spent two hours on the internet the night before trolling for information on him. “Austria’s a parliamentary representative democracy. The monarchy was abolished in 1918.”
“Yeah, but a girl can always dream. Christine says that Austrians have the option of reinstating the monarchy by petitioning the Parliament. Besides, how many people do you know who are the next in line to a throne that doesn’t exist anymore?”
“How is it that my cousin knows almost royalty anyway?”
Kat shrugs. “I guess Christine and Roman just reconnected a couple of months ago, but they met in—”
“I’m worried about his jaw,” I say, cutting her off.
“His jaw,” I snap. “The House of Habsburg-Lorraine was completely inbred. All that inbreeding? Some of them had jaws like bulldogs. Charles the Second couldn’t even chew his food because his grandmother was also his aunt. And he was insane, mentally retarded, and impotent.”
Kat shoots a sideways look at me. “You’re effing weird.”
Her insult—contracted curse word and all—is said with the greatest affection and I am not offended. I know how much effort she has expended of late to reform her mouth. Time-honored curses like the F-bomb and sonuvabitch have been replaced with laughable substitutes like “holy old leguva bench” and “Jesus tapdancing Christ.”
Kat and I have been friends since college, so my peculiarities have sort of grown on her. “He asked about you,” she says. “As soon as he heard that we were friends he wanted to know where you lived, what you ate for breakfast, and whether or not you had ever considered writing a book about…how did he put it? ‘Funereal rites and fashions.’”
I groan and sink down into the seat until my nose hooks the diagonal seat belt strap. “Stop, stop, don’t tell me anymore.”
“Roman met Christine at Denver University,” she says. “He went to law school if I remember correctly so scratch mentally retarded. He owns some kind of construction company. And I’d be willing to give him a little tumble to check on that impotency thing for you.”
“Hey, that’s the kind of friend I am,” she says. “Always thinking of others.” She lifts her feet up onto tiptoes to hold the steering wheel with her knees while she twists her waist-length blonde hair into a bun on the back of her head and stabs it in place with a pen. She can get away with a bun because she’s been married for eight years and just doesn’t care anymore.
She recently informed me that she only shaves her legs and armpits on national holidays, which really isn’t as much of a sacrifice as it may appear—she’s one of those women with silver-blonde hair, water-blue eyes, and porcelain skin who produce colorless, translucent body hair. “I was, like, twenty before I realized that other girls shaved every day,” she once told me. And unlike the rest of the female population, whom she refers to as “muffburgers,” Kat has never had to have her junk waxed. Apparently she’s like a Barbie doll down there.
Kat turns the car onto Colfax heading west. “I gave him your phone number.”
“You what?” This is a potentially bad development, and I reach into my purse and turn off my phone so any calls I get will go straight to voicemail.
“He asked for it!”
I don’t respond. I don’t have to. Kat knows that I have the social skills of a potted plant, and that the only thing that tops talking to me in person is having a telephone conversation with me. My friends are convinced that I have some sort of debilitating conversational Tourette’s Syndrome, and think a trip to a neurologist couldn’t hurt.
I’ve tried to explain. It’s the silence—it makes me nervous. Once I’ve exhausted the conventional script and the conversation flags, I jump right in like a scattershot of bullets to say something controversial, offensive, or blatantly moronic. “Do you ever wonder how long you have to be friends with someone before you can go to the bathroom while you’re on the phone with them?” The victim of this bit of conversational genius understandably never called again.
It’s a pretty quick trip up Colfax and down Quebec to Fairmount Cemetery, which holds the moldering remains of multiple generations of Fromms. The first wave came from Virginia in covered wagons in the late 1860’s, thereafter sealing their affinity for portable housing. At 120 years, the cemetery is old by western standards, and possibly has more trees in it than all of the eastern plains. Kat turns onto the entrance drive and slows to a crawl. We pass weeping birches sprinkled among clusters of blue spruce, and families on blankets picnicking under the canopy of American elms.
My Grandpa Leo used to bring my cousins and me here on crisp autumn afternoons to jump in piles of leaves. On Halloween the whole family makes a trip to top the Fromm tombstones with tiny pumpkins before hauling off anyone under thirteen to trick-or treat. On Christmas Eve we light candles and sing carols. Flags on the Fourth of July, Easter egg hunts in the spring. Even when you’re dead you can’t get away from us.
There’s no need to give Kat directions. She makes a series of lefts and rights and finally pulls over to the curb by a ten-foot-tall marble Romanesque statue of a woman weeping, a handkerchief held to her eyes—our own professional, eternal mourner marking prime Fromm territory. There’s already a line of cars in front of ours. We walk on the balls of our feet across moist, neon green grass, sidestepping aeration plugs and goose droppings until we reach a black tent erected over rows of folding chairs. I raise my hand to my mom and dad in the second row, and purposely lead Kat to the last line of chairs.
Something about the ritual of lowering a steel coffin into a concrete grave liner really creeps me out. I’d feel much better just chucking a shroud-covered corpse into a hole in the ground. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and all that. I read a few months ago about a “green cemetery” back east where embalming and gravestones were verboten, and grave markers had to be made of materials that would “return to the natural landscape within one hundred years.” The choices of coffins were pine or…pine. The idea was to return one’s body to nature as quickly as possible, to become a part of the trees, flowers, and animals of the forest. The thought of being reincarnated as a maple tree, and thereby reducing the chances of saying stupid things to zero, has a strange appeal.
I’m imagining my family’s reaction when I tell them that I plan to forego the family graveyard in Colorado to become an Ent somewhere in Virginia, when Kat nudges me with her elbow and looks to her left. I follow her gaze. Two rows ahead of us a smiling Prince Roman Karl Franz Joseph Max Heinrich Ignatius Lorraine von Habsburg winks at us and turns away. My response resembles the newborn startle reflex. I have enough self-control to keep my arms from swinging out to the sides, but my legs are a different story. My high heels dig into the grass and push simultaneously, and if it wasn’t for Kat grabbing me by the shoulder I would have gone ass over teakettle into the goose shit.
Roger Duke materializes by the coffin to shake hands and offer false sympathy to my Great Uncle Morris and other relatives in the front row. Now I can’t seem to take my eyes off the gold that seems to sag from every one of his appendages. The price of gold being what it is, I consider whether or not I could take Roger Duke down, perhaps after the crowd has dissipated and he’s on his way back to the hearse. I think I could convince Prince Roman to hold him for me.
With pleasant thoughts like this running through my head, I don’t even notice that the graveside service is over until Kat stands up. A baritone voice behind me is unmistakable: “You two ready to leave?”
Kat looks behind her at Roman, then over at me. “Hey, Roman. Uh, I’ve got to get home and feed my Tadpole.”
Roman doesn’t even blink at this strange reply, so he must know that Kat isn’t talking about a pet amphibian but is referring to her eight-year-old son, Thaddeus, a.k.a. Tad, a.k.a. Tadpole.
“I gave Leigh a ride here,” says Kat. “Would you mind taking her home?”
“Absolutely,” he says, smiling that delicious, crooked smile.
I’m checking his grill for signs of the famous Habsburg jaw, such as a jutting under-bite or a string of drool hanging from his mouth, when I notice that he has a deep dimple in his right cheek. I mean, I think I could get my index finger in there down to the second knuckle. I decide right then and there that I want to lick his face.
He turns to me. “Should we go get some dinner?”
I’ve had thirty years of practice running social scripts, so I am able to locate the potential answer to the “shall we have breakfast/lunch/dinner” question in my database without missing a beat. My choices are:
- a) Sure thing
- b) I’m afraid I already have plans
- c) I don’t want to touch your penis, and I never, ever want to see you naked.
I choose the first, and just to flaunt my conversational abilities I daringly add, “What did you have in mind?”
“Have any objections to organic food?”
“That sounds great.” But it’s not great. I am now officially out of things to say, and it sounds like I’ll be grazing on some gross vegetarian spread for the next hour. I look over at Kat, who avoids meeting my eyes.
“All right, well I’ll see you guys later!” she says with a wave, and then she’s gone—my only hope for a functional third in a conversational ménage à trois.
I am in the middle of making a pact with myself to respond to anything he says to me in monosyllabic grunts when he holds out his hand. I stare at it, unsure if we need to go through the whole business of shaking hands again, when he turns it palm-up. “Thought I’d help you get out of here on those stilts alive…before you get my other foot.” I put my hand on top of his, and he leads me back across the minefield of goose offal to the street.
I breathe a sigh of relief at the sight of his car, a Toyota Prius. While I figured a horse-drawn carriage would seem pretentious even for faux-royalty, I was expecting something more along the lines of a Beemer or some Euro-trash Mercedes.
Roman pulls open the passenger door, and I realize too late that I will now be stuck with him in an enclosed space for at least ten minutes trying to think of clever things to say.
“That suit looks really great on you,” he says. This catches me totally off-guard. I usually forget what I look like until someone brings it up, causing me to get flustered and say something dumb like, “It sure does.”
“Thank you,” I mumble quickly as he snaps the door shut, and scramble to think of topics for small-talk while he walks around to the other side.
A series of unsuitable questions flits through my head: So why did you waste your time in law school if you weren’t going to take the bar and become an attorney? Have you ever suffered from any type of severe jaw or orthodontic problem? Why would a royal –“almost” or otherwise –come to Denver over L.A. or New York City (or London or Paris for that matter)? I see you drive a Prius and eat organic food…are we going to hug some trees after dinner? I’m sure Christine and Earl have told you all about me …does royalty like to amuse itself by dating freaky women?
Roman slides into the driver’s seat while I try my best not to look like a teenager on a first date. I steal a glance at him and realize that he has traded in his Nirvana tribute clothing from yesterday for a button-up shirt and tie. As if reading my mind he says, “I wanted to apologize about yesterday. I shouldn’t have spoken that way about your aunt. I feel terrible about it and just wanted to say that I’m sorry.”
My brain is spinning its wheels, and finally spits out this gem: “She tried to look her best.” Oh, Lord. I almost cover my mouth with both hands like the X on a hot cross bun.
Roman chuckles as he stabs a button on the dashboard. “You really make me laugh, you know that?” I’m not sure if he means this in a circus side-show kind of way. Then he turns to me, those blue, blue eyes of his suddenly serious. “I thought she looked very nice. It was great to see your whole family there to support your great uncle. And I’ve never been assaulted in a funeral home before,” he adds, grinning, “so thanks for that.”
The car must be “on” somehow, because he’s turned his attention to the street and all of a sudden we start moving in almost total silence. I’ve always been able to rely on the hum of an engine to mask my conversational deficiencies, so the silence is most definitely not welcome.
“I met your grandfather and your great uncle after you left,” he says, “and I apologized for how I was dressed.”
My brain recreates this interesting encounter, and I hone in on one aspect of the tableau to comment on. Before I say it aloud, I run it through a quick Creep Factor check; it comes back with a score of zero so I’m cleared for take-off. “Yeah, next time you’ll have to wear a powder blue polyester suit from the 1970s so you can blend in a little better.”
He chuckles. “Normally I would have a witty follow-up to that, but as a rule I try not to make fun of World War II veterans who stormed the beach at Normandy.”
I’m feeling pleased that he actually chatted with my family enough to glean this bit of information when Roman’s hand hovers over the power button on the stereo. “What kind of music do you like?”
I think of what to tell him and then realize that it doesn’t matter. Whatever he was listening to before I got into the car will tell me if his musical taste will be a deal-breaker for us. Men always go out of their way to play the music you like (to your starry-eyed delight), but as soon as you’ve rolled around naked for awhile and the glow of the new relationship wears off you’ll spend the next two or three years being subjected to unbearable country songs with lyrics like “her teeth was stained, but her heart was pure.”
I keep my response purposely vague. “I have pretty eclectic taste in music.”
He pushes the power button and to my great relief the car is flooded with the sounds of alternative rock from a local independent station. “Like what?”
The car accelerates from a stop light on a trajectory more or less heading towards downtown Denver. I take a deep breath and blurt out the truth. “I’m a cult follower of Tori Amos, but I also like alt rock, rap-core, adult contemporary, orchestral music from the Classical and Romantic periods, and mid-nineteenth century Appalachian gospel.”
He doesn’t answer, too involved in cutting off a hulking SUV in the opposite lane. The car comes to a stop at the next light, and I’m beginning to think that the Appalachian gospel music is going to be the deal-breaker for him.
“Appalachian gospel?” he says, his right eyebrow arching towards his hairline in disbelief. “Is that, like, John Denver?”
“No, that’s hillbilly folk.”
Roman laughs as he turns onto Colorado Boulevard. His perpetual cheerfulness is catching, and I find that my mood is only slightly dampened by the gluten-free spaghetti and bark pasta that will undoubtedly be my dinner.
The Mercury Café is one of those places that’s way too cool for me. For starters it’s definitely one of those “word-of-mouth” locales. Unless you just stole a car and need it stripped for parts—no questions asked—or you’re looking forward to checking “get mugged” off your bucket list, there’s no way the average Denver-area resident would ever just stumble on this place. I quickly take in the restaurant’s light blue-painted brick, and the murals covering the outside walls. Painted in midnight blue to the left of the doorway is a moon with carefully drawn eyebrows and collagen-injected lips. On the right side is a stern-looking sun. The whole tableau makes me want to sit down on the sidewalk and weave a daisy chain.
Roman opens the creaky wooden door to reveal a vestibule with wire racks filled with trendy newspapers, and an arched doorway covered with a heavy, red velvet curtain split down the middle. While he paws the fabric to find the opening, I look around at advertisements taped to the wall. Poetry slam this Friday! Bassist needed for neo-punk band! One of them—Learn to hula!—makes me giggle. Roman looks back and I point to the ad. “Can you get kazoo lessons here too?” I whisper.
He laughs and pulls aside the curtain for me. I step into the impossibly small main part of the café. Ropes of red Christmas lights are strung across the ceiling. Everything is worn, dark wood—the tables, the bar, the church pew benches by the door. I’m taking in the Buddha, Vishnu, and elephant ceramic lamps affixed to the walls at three of the nearby tables when a dreadlocked conehead bears down on us. “Two for dinner?” he says.
I clench my jaw just to be sure my mouth isn’t hanging open at the sight of the twisted ropes of hair coiled into a long, thick point. The base of this massive hair tower is wrapped haphazardly with some sort of blue rag. A spicy smell drifts off the guy, and I’m not sure if garlic, patchouli, or B.O. dominates.
Thankfully Roman steps in to retrieve the situation. “Two for dinner,” he confirms, holding up a couple of fingers. The host grabs some stray menus off a nearby table and leads the way. I motion for Roman to walk ahead of me, with the logic that the piquant odor cloud will have dissipated slightly before I walk through it.
The human narwhal shows us to a small table in the corner next to a wall covered with painted roses. “This okay for you guys?”
“It’s great, thanks,” says Roman.
I move to sit in the opposite chair, when I realize that Roman is still standing. I glance at the tabletop to see if something offensive has caused him to reconsider the table–free range bugs or tofu remains–but it appears spotless. Then I realize that he’s pulled a chair back a few feet and is waiting for me to sit in it.
To be fair to me, I’ve never had a chair pulled out for me so I’m not really sure what to do. Do I drop my ass onto the chair and then scoot it out of his hands and under the table? Sort of hover my butt over the seat and let him scoop me up like a front loader? Dump my trunk like dead-weight and force him to push the chair in like a bricklayer pushing a loaded wheelbarrow?
Being the commoner that I am, I launch my body in the general direction of the offered chair, like a competition junky playing one-man musical chairs. Once I’m seated, he simply walks to his own chair, settles in, and snaps the cloth napkin across his lap. “So,” he says, picking up the menu, “are you a carnivore or an herbivore?”
I’m still pretty rattled from the whole chair chivalry thing, and before I can stop myself a basically true (but completely illogical) response blows out of my mouth. “Well, technically I’m a carnivore because I do like meat occasionally, but meat isn’t very good for you so I’ve been eating a lot of beans and fish lately. Of course fish is meat…that’s why it’s the Chicken of the Sea, but ethically I’m opposed to corporate farms and keeping animals stuffed in pens. But at the same time, our human ancestors were always meat eaters, at least since Homo erectus. And I know I couldn’t kill an animal myself if there were plants available to eat unless I had to kill an animal to feed my children if they were starving. Except I don’t have kids.”
I heard once that you can’t cry and drink cold water at the same time. At this point the hostess has stepped up to the table with glasses of ice water, one of which I immediately snatch off the tray in her hand. Guzzling the cold water temporarily staves off any full-blown sobbing, and gives me the strength to see how Roman has taken this particular piece of verbal diarrhea. He’s leaning far back in his chair, smiling broadly at me across the table.
“Wow,” he says, as the hostess steps away, “now I know your opinion on dietary ethics and human biological anthropology…what the hell are we going to talk about for the rest of the meal?”
My smile is tight, not because I’m angry at his response, but because if I don’t force my mouth into a position incompatible with speech I’m liable to say something even more cringe-inducing.
He turns his attention back to the menu. “Anyway, I was just going to recommend the rack of lamb in the event you weren’t a vegetarian. Everything they serve here is organic, hormone-free, that sort of thing, and you don’t even have to kill anything yourself—as far as I know the animals arrive already dead. But if your conscience is steering you away from mammals, the rainbow trout is delicious. Personally, I wouldn’t go for the bean burrito on a first date.”
I do not allow my brain to fixate on the word “date.”
When you have the conversational abilities of a sea anemone, you spend most of your time trying to respond coherently to another person’s questions. I’ve been told in the past by friends that this makes it appear that I am self-centered, and not interested in the other person’s life. Which, when you’re on a first date with the Crown Prince of Austria, is probably not the best way to a second date. Now that I’ve answered a few of Roman’s questions in a more or less comprehensible way, it’s time to launch a counteroffensive.
“How did you ever find this place?”
“I dance here,” says Roman.
Oh God, I think to myself. This is going from bad to worse. I’ve met guys like this before, guys who always got jilted at the dances in middle and high school, and spend the rest of their lives trying to boost their self-esteem by dragging blue-haired old ladies around the dance floor in the foxtrot. Somehow though, I can’t imagine Roman as the jilted high school dance partner. Also, the people in the restaurant don’t really seem the foxtrot type. In fact, I am willing to bet that there would be open hostility towards anyone who started any foxtrotting funny business here. The place is just too hip.
My response is vague, not because I’m not interested in his hobby, but because it’s too soon in our potential relationship to find out that he is some sort of waltzing aficionado. It doesn’t take much to kill interest in the early stages. “Dancing is such great exercise.” I take a few deep breaths while I pretend to peruse the menu and try to shift the conversation to a different topic. “Kat told me that you went to law school at DU, but that you’re not an attorney. What do you do?”
I know before he answers that he isn’t going to say “Crown Prince of Austria,” a winning hand I would throw down every day and twice on Sundays.
“I build treehouses,” he says.
I find that I have no response to this response. What can you say about a person who spends four years on a degree at one of the most prestigious law schools in the country, only to toss it in a drawer somewhere so they can go out and slap together swing sets? I think I’m supposed to be intrigued by his answer, but I actually feel sort of embarrassed for him.
He casually tosses the laminated menu to the edge of the table. “Christine says you’re some kind of researcher? Like human research? Animal research?”
Uh-oh. Now I have to be careful. “Actually, I’m a PRA—a professional research assistant. I work for a company that does human biological and psychological research.”
“Like finding out if people prefer Coke over Pepsi?”
I smile. “No, that’s marketing research.”
“Any new, exciting discoveries made of late?”
Luckily our server appears, so I am spared from telling him that the research we do is all related to human sexuality, and that our latest study found that women with clitorises an inch or more away from their vaginal openings did not desire or enjoy sex like their close-proximity peers. The findings had every female employee squatting on their bathroom floor with a Stanley tape measure in one hand and a compact mirror in the other. It turns out that collecting this type of biometric data on yourself is surprisingly difficult.
According to what I’ve been told.
“Hey, Roman,” says the tattooed and pierced server before us. A port wine stain birthmark covers a portion of her right cheek, but she has cleverly deflected attention from it by loading up the rest of her face–eyebrows, lips, nose, chin–with silver, gold, and diamond piercings. Also, there are O-shaped earrings in her earlobes that have stretched out a hole large enough for a circus lion to jump through. I resist the urge to reach out and poke my finger through one of the holes. “Shea wants you.”
Roman groans. “I’m having dinner! Tell her I’m on a date.”
She frowns. “Doug didn’t show up. She’s got about twenty-five couples up there and says she’s going to be forced to do the ‘dancing with myself’ routine again if you don’t help. She says there’s two hundred dollars in it for you… one hour of your time, and she’ll let you personally castrate Doug yourself.”
Roman sighs and looks across the table at me. “Leigh, do you mind if we eat upstairs? I’ll help Shea really quick and then we can eat our food at the bar up there and pick up where we left off.”
I’m bewildered about who Shea is, why she needs help, or how Roman intends to provide this help. “Uh, sure…no problem.”
“Great!” He turns to the server. “Can you pop upstairs in about five minutes to see what Leigh wants to order? I’ll have the rack of lamb and a Fat Tire.”
I follow as Roman gets up and walks past the door we came in, and through the opening of another set of red velvet curtains. This brings us into an open area with café-sized tables, and a small stage. He turns left at the far corner of the room, and then up a flight of painted concrete stairs. As we climb, I can hear the soft chatter of people, and the voice of a woman louder than the rest: “If you can hear me, say ‘Shhhh!’”
We round the corner just in time to hear the dutiful group hiss at each other. This has the effect of silencing the entire crowd, which is made up of about thirty or forty women and men in an elongated circle that is pushed to the outer edges of the rectangular room.
Red and white Christmas tree lights are strung from one end of the ceiling to the other and oversized ornaments—the ones I’ve seen hanging in trees outside during the holidays—dangle here and there from the light strands. The wood floor is worn, and appears to buckle slightly in places.
A woman walks towards us and a few of the assembled break ranks to make way for her. “Roman!”
He gathers her in a friendly hug. “Hey, Shea.”
Shea is a lovely, petite woman–younger than me–with big blue eyes who appears not to have gotten the memo that it is no longer 1920. Her hair is piled on top of her head in pin curls, with the back being held in place by a sparkling, black-knitted snood. From the neck down she’s dressed more contemporarily in jeans and layered camisoles underneath a tight-fitting, short-sleeved, blue sweater. I look her up and down a few times and decide that she has the buffest body I have ever seen. I wonder if she runs or lifts weights.
She looks over at me with a big, pretty smile. “I am so sorry I ruined your date! Feel free to stay for lessons—no charge.”
“Thank you,” I mumble, without knowing what I’m thanking her for exactly. Maybe she gives the hula lessons.
Roman gives my hand a squeeze. “This won’t take long. I’ll make it up to you.”
My heart does a back dive with a half twist as Shea pulls him to the middle of the floor.
“This is Roman Lorraine,” she announces to the group, still loosely holding his hand. This makes me absurdly jealous. “My regular partner wasn’t able to make it today, so Roman was nice enough to offer to help me out.
She circles around to face him. “Okay, so what you’re here to learn is called Lindy Hop. Depending on which part of the country you’re from, it may be called East Coast swing or jitterbug. Lindy Hop is essentially 1920s and 1930s African American street dancing, which was a mish-mash of tap dancing, jazz, breakaway and the Charleston. It is technically classified as a ballroom dance but that’s pretty much where the similarities end.”
Suddenly Roman grabs Shea in a very stiff-armed embrace, his left hand holding her right hand high in the air, and sort of marches and spins her around in a circle in one of those waltzy dances I dislike. “This is traditional ballroom dancing,” he says as they twirl, “which is done with this very upright and rigid frame.”
I’m relieved when they move apart from each other, connected by only one hand with at least two feet between them. They’re much looser now, slightly bent at the waist and bouncier in the knees. Shea makes a pointing gesture at someone beyond the circle of onlookers. I turn in unison with some of the others to see a short, curly-haired guy at the helm of a sound system next to the deserted bar. Catching her signal, he nods before tapping away on some buttons. The room booms with the jazzy, trumpet-filled sounds of Big Band Swing.
Roman pushes Shea away from him, allowing her to do some very sexy swiveling of her legs and hips before pulling her back for a full-circle spin. He does this three times in quick succession, so fast that I can barely see their feet moving. Wrapping his arm around her waist, he pulls her backwards beside him, and suddenly they’re doing a step I recognize from eighth grade PE class, the Charleston. I am congratulating myself for recognizing anything in this bewildering dance when the crazy stuff starts.
Roman moves Shea an arm’s length away from him, only to snap her back towards him like a rubber band. Just when I think she’s going to run him down, she sort of leaps on to his right arm. He lifts her and—I swear to God—spins her around on his right shoulder. With one arm. Like, three times.
The onlookers burst into spontaneous applause and cheers. I would clap too, but my right hand is busy covering my mouth. I am simultaneously amazed at their abilities, and terrified that someone is going to fall and break their skull on the hardwood floor. This looks like stuff that people dream up after they’ve had a cocktail and a few bong hits. This move will look really, really incredible, they think. In reality it will probably end up killing them, leaving their family glumly holding their posthumous Darwin Award.
Shea somehow makes it back to the floor in one piece, only to be grabbed by both hands, spun around, and pushed forward. Now they’re doing the Charleston again, but this time she’s in front of him, like a car in a train, their legs kicking forwards and backwards. They face each other again, and there is blur of kicking feet and some more spins and twirls before Shea does a forward flip through Roman’s hands, and lands on the floor in the splits just as the last trumpet note of the song sputters out.
The room explodes. Shea and Roman do a hasty, simultaneous bow, and then she leans close to his ear and says something. He nods and makes a beeline for the bar where I am standing near a stack of plastic cups and pitchers of ice water. There’s a big grin on his face, which fades somewhat when he sees my expression. I decide to cut right to the chase, just in case he’s nursing some sort of Ginger Rogers/Fred Astaire fantasy that involves me.
I point my finger in the general direction of where Shea should now, by all laws of physics and common sense, be an irreversible quadriplegic. “I am not doing that. I can’t even line dance.”
Roman just laughs and wipes his sweaty face with a napkin. His dark hair is plastered to his skin in spots, and damned if he doesn’t look even more adorable like this. “Don’t worry, Leigh, I’m not going to throw you into the air in the first class.” He fills a cup with water, drains it in a few gulps and wipes his mouth with the napkin before balling it up and chucking it into a trashcan behind the bar.
Behind us I hear Shea directing the men and women to separate and line up on opposite sides of the long room.
Roman holds out his hand to me. “C’mon, Leigh, give it a try. Then we’ll have something to do when I take you out again.”
When I take you out again…
I’m so flustered I can’t work up a suitable reply, so I let him haul me to the women’s side of the room. Before I know it I’m practicing step-step-triple step along with the rest of the class, all of us sounding like a disorganized herd of stampeding cattle.
Every few minutes Roman looks my way and melts me with a smile or a wink. I smile and wink back, and continue step-step-triple step-ing my way to a second date.