Toledo Nastasya

 

  In August of 1976, Dad fractured his shoulder bone.  He was debilitated and unable to service his midwest territory of jewelry clients.  Since at that time, I was sitting on my tail reading poetry, he asked or I volunteered (I don’t remember), and the next thing I knew, I was wearing a new suit and shoes, driving a leased shiny blue Camaro with road maps, a new credit card in my possession, and two large black cases full of jewelry samples.

  Perhaps I was, as my disappointed parents accused, a dreamer letting the world pass me by.  I dreamed of odysseys, voyages to mysterious places, and liaisons with exotic females.

  Dad warned.  "It’s a war out there with no room for the weak!"  Mom faced me with pleading eyes.  Considering they raised me in privileged circumstances, I felt a filial obligation to prove I could be responsible in a time of crisis.  I peddled merchandise samples on the road while dad healed.  I was concluding my route in Toledo, Ohio, where Dad had arranged to meet me, and call on an important new client.

  I’d driven down after a frantic day in Detroit.  Upon checking into a restored grand hotel in the middle of the depressed downtown area, I showered, changed clothes, and went down for supper.  There was a lavish buffet in the deserted restaurant.  I ate alone and silently watched the waiters.  I thought about how lonely this job must have been for my dad.  What did he do?  I decided to settle in early so I’d be sharp in the morning.  I called Dad from my room about seven-thirty to confirm his arrival in the morning, and assured him everything was running smoothly and goodnight.  I dozed off while watching television in bed about ten.

  I woke up several hours later feeling restless and couldn’t get back to sleep.  I was weary of the traveling salesman act and anxious to get back home to my poet’s throne and my friends.  I started to call my sister but decided to wait until we were together to catch up on the latest gossip.  I opened my journal and began to write.

***

  He stood and stretched and walked around looking out the window onto the desolate street.  There was nobody, nothing, except abandoned buildings, empty parking lots, and some faintly blinking sign hinting a rather sordid dive in the distance.  He sat down on the bed yawning, and stared at the TV screen, deciding a drink might help him sleep.  He put on his jeans, a T-shirt, track shoes, locked the door to his room, and ventured out into the evening air in the direction of that sordid dive.

  Upon departing the hotel lobby, the desk clerk warned him the neighborhood was dangerous at that hour.  He walked alert to sounds and shadows but only an infrequent breeze seemed alive in the still summer night.  The moon hid behind a cloud.  As he drew nearer, he could make out the flickering sign, “Venus Lounge, Topless Dancers, No Cover.”  He hesitated and almost turned back, since he was alone and had responsibilities in the morning.  However, he tentatively stepped through the front door.

  He stepped into red light, blaring rock & roll, opposite a long smokey bar with small tables and a stage deep in the back.  The place was empty and squalid with only a few polyester mobster types, a couple of leathered bikers, and some creepy figures jumping in and out of the shadows.  He sat down at the bar and ordered a glass of burgundy.  The tired-eyed, balding bartender asked, “You mean red?”

  The stripper was partially obscured from where he sat, but he could tell she looked brutal.  A musky mixture of cigars and urine and ammonia surrounded him, which he ignored, sipping his drink and reading the bottles behind the bar.  He regretted not calling his sister.  Feeling uncomfortable, he debated leaving, when suddenly from out of the darkness a girl appeared.  He spun around on the barstool and stared at her, stunned.  What was she doing there, he thought.  She stood relaxed dressed in fluffy slippers and a pink terry cloth bathrobe, chatting with an elderly costumer wearing a lot of gold.  He watched them curiously, observing her thoroughly.  She seemed out of place to him.  She detected him spying and he glanced down at his wristwatch forgetting he wasn’t wearing one.  He ordered another glass of red, lit a cigarette, and tapped his foot to an Eagles tune.

  He wondered who she was; possibly an upstairs tenant, or the owner’s or someone’s daughter?  What was she doing there, and why was she up so late?  Someone hollered "Nastasya!" and she stood and trooped past him in the direction of that deadpan stage deep in the back.  He watched disbelieving every step she took, was she really going through with this?  He moved nearer to the stage.  She chose her tune from the jukebox, slipped on red high heels and began.

  She swayed, slow and sensual, seductively disrobing.  His attention fixed on her eyes, shoulders, waist, hips, legs.  Her body undulated and whirled, lost in the rhythms.  A pitcher of beer spilled on the bar behind him.  She grew bolder, grinding and bending.  Her eyes consented and smile dared.  She stretched and flexed, exposing her tiny breasts with provocative demure.  She grinned out to a room of starving stares.  She held her breasts in her palms like an offering.  A voice from the shadows hollered to her, "Spread your booty, bitch!"

  The room snickered.  He wondered why she was there, descended to that place.  She finished and disappeared.  One of the polyester mobsters clapped.  Others waited for a starker dose of lewdness as another more voluptuous woman entered.

  He swallowed and looked down, dazed.  The wine had taken its effect.  It was late and he was tired, feeling somehow depressed.  He needed to leave.

  Under a full moon, he walked back to the hotel, possessed by her beauty.  He hadn’t even tried to meet her.  She was so radiant.  He couldn’t get her out of his mind.  Some vision compelled him.  He’d found a link to a world beneath his own that he wanted to explore.  Unlocking the door to his room, he felt an overpowering urge to go back.  He must see her again and talk with her.

  Racing back he ranted aloud to the vacant street.  “Some nights the moon casts a spell.  The air intoxicates.  The music levitates.  Fantasy becomes reality.  Some nights I am a charming boy breaking hearts, winging remarks, rushing fearless into the oncoming traffic.  Some nights justify a thousand ruined mornings.”

  In one sweeping giant breath, he raced in through the doors of the Venus Lounge, carried his drink to the table closest to the stage and looked straight up to his angel, Nastasya.  She smiled sweetly down at him.

  After her performance ended as she stepped down from the stage, he approached clumsily.  She gazed at him with a look of amusement.  "What are you doing in a place like this?"  She asked.

  They laughed and paused, waiting for wit, gazing into each other’s eyes.  For an instant they seemed to float outside the room.  He felt weightless and wonder-struck.

  He stammered, "You’re so good-looking.  I had to come back to try to meet you."

  She gestured a clownish curtsy.  He didn’t know what to say as he blurted out, "What sign are you?"

  "Aries," she said.

  "My sister is an Aries.  When were you born?"

  "April Seventh, 1958."

  "My sis’ is the Eleventh.  You are so good looking.  You dance exquisite."

  "Thank you.  I’m a ram, and I like hoofing mountains.  Hope I don’t fall into the cracks."

  "Nastasya, I’ve lived my life trying to reach higher ground.  I’m your Capricorn billy-goat."

  "Hey Billy, my next set is dedicated to you.  Pick out a song you want me to dance to."

  He walked to the jukebox while she went to the bar.  He scrolled through the pages searching for the right song.  Finally he decided on Bob Marley’s Guava Jelly.  He looked around and saw Nastasya across the room watching him.  When it was her turn to dance again she coasted past him.  “What did you pick for me to dance to?”

  “It’s a surprise.”

  “I love surprises.”

  She stepped onto the stage confident and engaging, aiming her poses his way.  The house cackled.  He sat still in his seat.  She watched his gaze and grinned at his fascination.  She crouched down close to his face, and he recognized the raw scent of her body.  She whispered for him to wait until she was done so they could go for a bite.  He knew the hour was late, and that he had serious responsibilities in the morning, but this was the chance of a lifetime.  He slipped his hand into his pocket to check if he had enough cash.

  It was two in the morning.  She read the menu in the bright fluorescent light of the diner which revealed qualities about her looks he hadn’t noticed in the diffused light of the bar.  She leaned back in the booth, hazel eyes, freckles on a sunburned nose, a zit on her chin,  unmanicured dark eyebrows, faded blue jeans, an oversized white T-shirt.  She ordered a cheese omelette and a chocolate milkshake.  He had a cup of coffee and watched her eat.  He told her he hoped to be a great poet and someday write a epic.

  "So do I!  I’ve been writing since I was a little girl.  I’ve got stacks of poems.  Want to see?  I’ll show you.  I’ll bring them to work tomorrow."

  He discussed authors and wrote out a list of books for her to read.  His voice grew serious.  "I want to write a story that strikes a nerve deep inside."

  "Yeah, me too, exactly."  She replied.

  She licked her fingers and listened politely.  He felt foolish and awkward.  He wished he’d met her somewhere else, not a strip joint.  He wished he could ask her out on a date to the movies.  "I'm sort of short on cash.  Would you like to stay with me tonight?"

  She tilted her chin down and said, “I’d like that.”

  They drove her beat-up powder blue Volkswagen back to the hotel.  She was funny talking and glancing at him and steering.  The car chugged along.

  "My real name is Nadine.  I ran away from my family in St. Paul when I was fourteen.  My mom sold me to a man in a massage parlor when I was nine.  My step mom slapped me silly at the kitchen table ‘til I didn’t know who I was.  And my brothers and cousins raped me.  My dad didn’t know ‘bout none of it."

  "Are you serious?  Are you telling me the truth?"

  "There’s more.  When I was six, I asked my mom if I could cuddle with her and my step dad.  She agreed if I sucked him off and then went down on her."

  "Did you?"

  "Yes."

  She asked of his past, and he evaded her questions.  He was shocked by her world, and felt ashamed of his privileged upbringing, and possibly he was simply lost in adventure.  "I’m a poet in search of a muse."

  His hand grazed between her thighs.  She sighed.  The stars twinkled like plausible destinations stretching across the night sky.  The wind blew her hair wildly.  The world was a place to visit, and that was all.  Her bare foot pressed the gas pedal.  She ran a traffic light.  He was flying high, aroused by her daring.  He loved her spirit, idolized her beauty, and felt a strange fascination in her depravity.  She confessed she was weary of the dancing scene.  Maybe someday she’d find a way out.

  They were like little kids giggling and sneaking mischievously through the lobby, slipping into an elevator.  He pulled her gently to him and kissed her passionately on the lips.  She tingled, thrilled by his adoration as the door opened.

  She was accustomed to handling men, knew the subtleties, oddities, and extremes.  But she was not herself that night, giving in to an impulse, a mysterious force drawing her beyond her boundaries.  Maybe it was a caprice, and maybe it was a wounded place within calling out as if she’d been punishing herself and denying herself the privilege to love and believe.  Delicately she spread open the swollen petals squeezing her muscles in a silent stare.

  Blue waves flickered from the TV screen.  She searched his eyes, anticipated his fantasy, took him to a place he’d never known.  His heart pounded and body perspired.  She faced the moon, revealed her hidden dark side, digging with her fingers, confiding the secrets of her battered soul.  He tasted salt, smelled musk, and called out her name.

  She probed with her tongue.  The blood rushed to his head.  He froze in submission.  She probed and fondled and caressed and kissed.  Then she sprawled and writhed and he lunged.  The room was overturned and scattered; the pillows, sheets, chair, table, lamp.  Everything was smeared with their fingerprints and juices.  Never had he known a woman so shameless.

  Her hair hung tangled and her complexion flushed.  She felt naked in front of him as if he could see what no one else could.  She felt strange and vulnerable.  She studied his face then spoke softly.  "You play so good.  You burn like me.  You strike a nerve deep inside me."

  She snuggled closer, cradling his genitals in her hand as her voice lowered.  "Beneath the surface you remind me of myself.  We are like twins separated who find each other in opposite lives."

  He listened intrigued as her voice became a murmur cooing.

  He kissed her eyelids, licked her nostrils and nuzzled the nape of her neck.  She was precious.  “I don’t want to lose you.  I want you to remain in my life.  Come to Chicago and stay with me.  Maybe in time, we could get married.”

  She said, “One man is all I’ve ever wanted.  One man to be my everything.”  She was thrilled ensuring him she wanted and needed him.

  He could rescue her, and she would strengthen him.  If everything went as he hoped, then yes, he would marry her.  Their kissing and stroking magnified.  Their bodies clung.

  The wake-up call from the hotel operator caught him dozing deeply.  He was thoroughly exhausted but felt inspired when he looked over and saw Nadine’s sleepy smile.  They bathed and dressed.  They smoked cigarettes and discussed plans for a time to come.  The sound of a vacuum cleaner nagged from the outside hallway.  Her sleepy eyes scanned the two black cases in the corner, glancing at the door, the window, then back into his face.  She admitted, “Can I believe you?  Are you really serious?  Will you be there for me?”

  He promised her, “Yes, I swear, I will be there for you.”

  She was to come to Chicago the following week.  That would allow her time to settle her affairs in Toledo.  He would send her a ticket.  She wrote down her address.  They kissed and embraced.  She departed.

***

  Dad arrived a few minutes later.  He knocked on the door and I jumped.  The room looked ravaged.

  "What the hell happened here?"  He questioned in an irritable tone.

  "Rough night.  I didn’t sleep well."

  I opened a window.  Dad glared at me suspiciously.  I didn’t know what to tell him.  I could see his shoulder was still stiff from the injury.  “We’re running late!  I was hoping you would have already loaded up the cases in the car, checked out, and met me in the lobby.”

  “I can handle the cases, no problem.”

  The hotel check out was slow.  Dad asked about several customers I had seen in Detroit as we drove to meet his new client.  Once we arrived, the new client was busy on the phone.  We waited.  When the new client was available, Dad, who was an incredibly salesman, shined.  Next we visited a regular customer of Dad’s, lunch afterwards, then another customer.  The day trudged on tediously.  The sun beat down as we concluded business.

  Later as we drove to the airport, I mentioned I’d met a girl and liked her very much.  He asked, “Where and how did you meet her?”

  “We met in a bar.”

  “What bar?”

  “Near the hotel.”

  “What bar near the hotel?  What’s her name?”

  “Nastasya, or Nadine.”

  “What’s her last name?”

  “I don’t know.”

  “You probably won’t be seeing her again unless you continue working as a salesman on my behalf.”  Dad said.

  The conversation then switched to the jewelry business and practical goals for me.  I nodded agreeably, not wanting to upset his feelings, but I had plans of my own.  I sniffed my fingers.

  When we got back to Chicago, I immediately called my sister and urged her to come over.  I wanted to see her and tell her everything.

  I had not seen my sister since I left Chicago to service Dad’s jewelry customer route seven weeks ago.  I had travelled Illinois, Kansas, Missouri, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio.

  She arrived within the hour bearing several gifts she had made, and turkey sandwiches.  She always brought me gifts.  We ate the  the turkey sandwiches, then I told her about Nastasya.  She listened amazed, uncertain at first if I was serious about marriage.  “You don’t even know this girl.  Maybe you need some time to learn more about her.  Her family sound like a bunch of real losers.  Maybe Nastasya is not who you think she is.”

  “Nastasya is very cool.  Wait until you meet her.  You’re going to love her.”

  “I’m sure I will love her if she makes you so happy.”

  “I just know the two of you are going to get along.”

  She congratulated me and asked many, more questions.

  That week I went out of my mind with excitement.  I cleaned the house, rearranged the furniture and closets, and bought flowers and a bottle of champagne.  I fantasized countless possibilities for my new partner.  I wanted to reveal secrets and share my world with her.  I wanted her to feel safe, secure and inspired to write her poetry.  I would do anything, bear whatever sacrifices.  I planned a party and invited several close friends, telling them she was an exotic refugee.  They must have thought I was crazy.  The only ones I couldn’t tell were my parents.  What would they think?  I could hear Dad hollering, “A stripper?  You mean a tramp, a slut, a whore!  She’s a scammer who will use you.”  In time they would learn to accept her.

  The more I thought about Nastasya the more I wanted her.  She was the vision I needed to achieve my great expectations.  For her, I would write my great love epic.  She was the incentive I needed to free myself of my dependency on my parents.  I was a poet not a salesman.  With her by my side, I knew I could achieve success.  She wanted to write and help me with my work.  The two of us would grow and create and illuminate together.

  I called several times and finally reached Nastasya the day before her arrival.  "Hi.  It’s me.  Did you get the ticket I sent?  Are you coming?"

  "Yes, yes.  Everything is packed.  I can’t wait to see you!"  Nastasya spoke excitedly.  “I’m bringing all my poetry.  And I found a gift for you.”

  “Oh, baby, I can’t wait to see you either.  I’m counting the minutes until you arrive.  I love you.”

  We blew kisses through the telephone.  I hung up and ran around the house, wildly ecstatic.  Then it occurred to me, she didn’t know my real name.  I had been unsure and overly cautious and I’d gone along with the name Billy.  What idiocy!  I burst out laughing, but thought it didn’t matter.  She was coming and we’d have the rest of our lives together.  In the morning, I checked everything to be sure it was as I wanted for her arrival.  The house looked inviting.

  I woke up and drove out early to the airport, hoping to surprise her at the gate.  I watched and waited as other people began to show up.  Finally the flight was announced over the loudspeakers.  I remember the rain falling as I peered from the window at that big jet rolling nearer.  I searched every passengers’ face but she never came.  She wasn’t there.  I ran to the telephones and called her apartment in Toledo, but the number was disconnected.  I called the strip joint and the bartender said there was no one by that name.  I never heard from her again.

***

  On a pale half moon summer night nine years later, in one of many sordid dives he’d grown accustomed to haunting, he met a dancer known as “Z” who had known a girl named Nastasya from Toledo.  Z said, “Nastasya was cool, a good dancer, and very intellectual because she was always writing, and reading books of poetry.”

  He felt weak.  According to Z, “Nastasya had driven to Chicago to find the man she loved and wanted to marry.”

  He conjectured, Nastasya kept her beat-up powder blue Volkswagen, and cashed in the air fare to cover expenses for the move to Chicago.

  Z said, “Nastasya assumed she would easily find this man she loved, never expecting his untraceability.  Nastasya was desperate trying to locate him.  She refused to date anyone else.”

  He stared down at the table paralyzed by this news.

  Z continued, “As the years passed, Nastasya found recognition in other circles, and I lost touch.”

  An eerie chill shuddered through him.  He realized during those years, he’d abandoned hope of becoming a great poet, divorced himself from the literary scene, instead working steadily for his father.

  “Do you know where she is now?”

  Z looked at him sympathetically and said, “I’d heard through an friend about a year ago, Nastasya moved to Manhattan and was writing professionally under her real name, Nadine, and possibly married.”

  He sipped his drink and chewed the ice.  Blue smoke drifted from a cigarette burning in the ashtray.  The music played loudly.  He lied to her about his name and identity.  He lied like a salesman trying to romance a client and seal the deal, following in his father’s shadow.  It was a convenient solution for a dreamer, and it was cowardice.  He was an affluent sales representative, yet never wed, somehow ineligible in his vigilante solitude.  He waited for a girl he was trying to find, a girl he could never forget.  And Nastasya had run a red light, gone beyond her boundaries, revealed her hidden dark side, entrusting her battered soul as true poets must.  The bar was closing as Z left him in his seat.  He stumbled home, staggered up the stairs, fumbling with the keys.

***

  Nadine lifts her fingers from the keyboard and leans back in the chair.  She rereads what she has written.

  "Toledo Nastasya?  No, that’s not right.  Let’s see, lost girl finds boy, loses boy, finds herself?  Maybe, Billy Goat Vanished?  No, that’s not right either."

  Nadine listens to her own voice whispering words.  She is unhappy with the story.  It needs rethinking, restructuring, restyling, rewriting.  She looks at the clock.  It is four in the morning.  The refrigerator hums.  She stares into space trying to conjure details, trying to remember, and imagine.

  Nadine remembers a boy once.  She wants to reach across the distance and touch, feel, embrace him.  She wants to strike a nerve deep inside.  She stands and stretches and scratches.  She searches her mind, walks around, looks out the window.  What happened to him?  Why didn’t he give her his real name, or number and address?  Nadine must begin again, rewrite the characters, their words, actions and choices.  Their meeting must have a profounder bond and result.  An indelible link.  They must not be separate.  Their coupling must defy irony.

***

  Chicago, 1984