In the hours before meeting Jamie, I readied myself in the same concentrated way I used to prepare mentally for a party, and when I walked in through the doors of Brewery’s, I heard Jamie say, “Oh, wow.” Like a whirlwind, she rushed toward me, her tall and full figure straining against faded and torn jeans. I hurried to her open arms, and she surprised me with a kiss on the mouth. Then she placed both hands on either side of my face and gazed at me for a long time with a searching look. I gazed back at her, falling deeply into the brilliant pools of her brown eyes. Time stopped in its tracks.
“You are beautiful!” she said.
Next to her stood a short woman who appeared to be in her late twenties. “This is Mindy, my wife. We got married two years ago,” said Jamie. I gave Mindy a smile I hoped was convincing. She held her white arm out in front of her and I took her hand. It was limp, as if the life had been drained out of it. I felt hollowness in my stomach, a painful circle of void.
Once we were seated at a wooden table, Jamie set her eyes upon me, and a big smile spread over my face. There was something exciting about her company—the rich voice that came out of smiling lips, the warm brown eyes with the twinkle in them. She was twenty-eight and went about life with certainty and straightforwardness. She was most comfortable in jeans, army boots and tees, too preoccupied with other matters to care what she looked like. If not at work, or fixing her car, or repairing something around the house, she read incessantly, classic novels mostly.
She returned my smile with one that was at once worldly and enigmatic, a hint of amusement in her eyes.
Sitting across from her and Mindy at Brewery’s, I listened to Jamie’s account of her new life, of her job at the mines in New Mexico. Intrigued by what seemed to me a non-conventional occupation for a woman, I asked her about it. Jamie reflected for a moment.
“Well, there’s so much to tell, really. It is exhausting. We have to use a drill. The damn thing is so heavy. It weighs about one hundred and twenty-five pounds. . . .”
“One hundred and ten pounds, honey,” interrupted Mindy. She was a dirty blonde. Her voice, dull and sexless and remote, went straight to the pit of my stomach.
“. . .and that takes a lot of doing,” continued Jamie without missing a beat, her arms flaring out like the wings of a butterfly. “And we use conventional mining methods.” I looked at her blankly. “In conventional mining, the coal seam is cut, drilled, blasted, and loaded into cars,” she explained. “We have to use a hand drill to prepare a hole for placing the explosives to loosen the coal.”
“Wow,” I said for lack of another expression. They were speaking of drilling and coal mining, so I was left out of the conversation. But we sat companionably on wooden chairs, sipped our drinks, nodded our heads, and smiled.
The waitress arrived. She stood, patiently waiting, while Mindy ordered a sandwich. “Are you sure you’re not hungry?” asked Mindy for the third time. I shook my head.
“They tried to kill us a couple of weeks ago,” announced Jamie, once the waitress had left.
A paralyzing fear clutched at me. “Who?”
“The guys at the mine,” Mindy said, crushing an empty beer can with her right hand and tossing it to the side. Apparently, almost immediately after their arrival at the mine, there was some rumbling and grumbling from the miners.
“They don’t like having us work with them down at the shaft,” Jamie said.
Rumors spread that they were lesbians. A storm was rising and private meetings were called, and that’s when the threatening notes began to appear in Jamie and Mindy’s mailbox.
“Hell, that won’t deter me from doing what I want to do, and being where I want to be.”
Mindy shook her head sadly. “It’s true,” she said. Jamie chuckled. “I knew that there was danger involved with this job, but not to this extent.”
When I expressed my concern, Jamie said, “I have to live my life to the end until death comes. Yes, indeed, I need to fucking seize it and hold on to it with all my strength.
“But what made things worse was when they found out,” Jamie continued. “We tried to keep our love life a secret.”
Mindy, pale as wax, suddenly became animated. “Yes. They saw us in the car together.” She turned to face me, assuming an expression of self-deprecation. A gleam of pleasure radiated from her. I looked at her, wondering if I should pretend that I didn’t have a clue, or if I should return her smile in conspiracy. Instead, I shrugged my shoulders, leaned back on my creaky chair and listened to the background country-western music. I sat there for a while at a drunken angle. Eventually, there was some talk about leaving the bar and going to The Billiard Room.
The three of us walked out to the parking lot and climbed into Jamie’s yellow Impala. It had a big dent on its front bumper, and someone had painted the word “Ouch” on the afflicted area. We packed ourselves into the front seat with me in the center.
Jamie nosed out of the parking lot and headed toward the freeway. A long silence ensued.
“Why don’t you light up?” Jamie said to Mindy.
“Damn, I rolled up a rotten joint, babe.” Mindy’s face twisted with disappointment as she examined the crooked joint.
“Don’t care,” Jamie said. Her hand brushed against my thigh. It reminded me of old times, the hysterical laughter that used to send us into a frenzied dance. She had made me feel beautiful, dropped everything to comfort me whenever I was unhappy.
Jamie cranked up the volume on the radio, where Jackson Brown was crooning the last words of “Running on Empty.” The memories wove themselves tighter and tighter inside my skull.
I thought of my life-changing adventure, how I’d met Jamie at a diner in West Hollywood three years ago. The rain was dripping off her raincoat. Brown haired Jamie, full-figured, with silky skin. This had always been our favorite story, how we crushed into each other, Jamie on her way out and me coming in. We held on, forgetting to release ourselves from our embrace for a long minute. And that’s when it happened. That moment, which lingered and strengthened over the following year, was my first sexual feelings for a woman. Eventually, this memory reinvented itself as a distant recollection, fading gently away. Until, unexpectedly, I got Jamie’s phone call two days ago.
I never blamed Jamie for leaving. She knew I was trying to rationalize my love for her, that I couldn’t accept the idea that two women could love each other, that my own religious upbringing prevented me from accepting it.
Mindy dragged on the joint, and glanced over at me. “Well, how about it?” she asked, exhaling a little gust of smoke with each word. I watched them pass the joint for a few long minutes, before I seized it, brought it to my lips and inhaled hard and long. As the pot traveled down my lungs and back into my head, I felt a familiar, welcome contentment. Mindy’s left arm hugged the seat behind my back, and I passed the joint back to her. At that moment, time seemed ephemeral. The three of us drew a curtain around ourselves, and for a short while, we were silent.
The traffic was moving without the usual stop and go that was so typical of Southern California. Not that we would have cared. In the confines of the smoky car, our senses were dulled, and our minds slipped away into the fog. After a while, conversation in the car was chiefly limited to remarks that sounded like, “Man, this shit is good,” and “I’ve never been sooo high in my entire life.”
My hips were pressed between Mindy and Jamie. I glanced at Jamie. When she had held the car door open for me after we walked out of Brewery’s, I’d wanted to press myself against the length of her body, thinking in images instead of words, because words were too feeble.
When we finally reached the Billiard Room, I felt a quick sharp pleasure. It lingered full of color and air; then, like smoke in a breeze, the pleasure shifted and dispersed—and I felt a deep sense of nostalgia.
The Billiard Room, which Jamie and I used to frequent, was set in a run-down, largely abandoned shopping plaza with a rusting marquee that listed the few remaining stores along with the vacant ones. The place was dingy, and that was one of its main attractions. A dingy place attracted dingy people, or those who wanted to be dingy for one night.
The night air was heavy with impending excitement. “Let’s see if we can get a little action around here,” Jamie said.
We followed the crowd toward the gaping entrance of the Billiard Room on unsteady feet, trying to look cool, past Bobbie the bouncer. He stood there with his arms folded over his massive chest.
“Hey, Bobbie.” I tried to sound jovial. He blinked and said nothing. Bobbie took his job seriously. Often, I spotted the bodies of overdosing patrons by the dumpster outside the bar, encircled with vomit and blood.
I haven’t a clear recollection of how the evening passed, aside from the fact that once inside, it all felt familiar to me. The brown tinted walls bore pictures of musicians. And on a floor covered with peanut shells, the drug-consuming drinkers crashed from table to table with beer bottles in their hands. Their faces glistened in the overhead lights; a cloud of cigarette smoke billowed around them, tearing at my throat and eyes.
“Hey hon, where have you been?” Armando looked pointedly at me and then at Jamie. Three years had passed since Jamie and I had been there, and Jamie was overjoyed at seeing a familiar face. “Armando!” she called out loudly.
“Well, well, the two of you again.” He winked, wagging his head up and down and grinning, as though the supreme moment he had long been awaiting had finally arrived. He had a pink boozer’s face adorned with a sinister goatee and wraparound sunglasses. The fact that the room was dark didn’t seem to faze him.
“It’s nice to see you again, Armando,” I said, unenthusiastically. He held out his right hand, palm facing up, and said, “It’s pure shit, man, it can send you to infinity.” He seemed to glow with inward laughter, his face as yellow as the pills in his hand.
“No, thanks,” I said.
Meanwhile, Jamie was trying to explain something unexplainable to him. “Yeah, Mindy and I live in New Mexico. You know. We work for P&M Coal Mining Co. Underground-mining, man. We are down in that shaft five days a week. It sucks, but the pay and the benefits are good.” A big smile covered her face. “They tried to kill us . . . put too much dynamite in the hole and forgot to tell us to clear the area. Imagine, we could have been blown to bits. And you know what? They would have called it an accidental ignition of methane.” Jamie had a brief coughing spell. When it was over, she said, “Lucky we got out of there just before the explosion. One day I’ll get my hands on these bastards and teach them a lesson. You’ll see—I just might do that.” Her dark eyebrows contracted, as she closed her lips around her bottle and threw her head back, then said, “I just might get the chance to do it. Yes, indeed. Yes, indeed.”
“Take it easy, babe, take it easy,” said Mindy.
Jamie turned to her. “I will not take it easy, man. Why should I? They tried to kill us!”
“Damn.” Armando sounded impressed. Jamie gave him a friendly pat, and he walked away, shaking his head.
Then she turned to face me. “I get excited talking about it,” she said, and tried to laugh at herself. “Another drink would do me good.” Her face was fiery and her voice was strained.
“I could use a drink too,” said Mindy. Jamie and I turned completely around and watched her walking unsteadily toward the bar.
“I think I might be freaking out,” said Jamie to no one in particular, her face creasing into a troubled expression. She put her arm through mine, and together we moved toward the far wall of the bar.
“Man, she always wants me to reassure her that I won’t leave her.” Jamie’s breath was hot in my ear. “It’s exhausting. Too much of a burden … too clingy, like a shadow,” Jamie murmured. We sat on the floor, and she pulled her knees close to her chest and draped her arms around them.
Mindy had meanwhile spotted us. She advanced in small, uneven half-circles, a slack body on unsteady legs. Drinks nowhere to be found. “Oh, man,” she said, “I’m totally wasted.” Then she walked backwards, until her shoulders crashed into the wall next to us, landed heavily on her backside, and passed out.
“Whaddaya have?” This was what it sounded like, carried over waves of a drumbeat. I looked up from my position on the floor. A pair of black suspenders supported worn blue Jeans. A snake snarled on a hefty bicep. Underneath it, in bold letters: I Love Richard.
“What?” I mumbled. The lights were dim in the bar, and the place was hopping. Almost everybody had to work the next day and it was 3:00 A.M. but the crowd was still dancing, spinning, and gliding, on wild shaky legs.
“Two beers,” said Jamie, after glancing at the dancers and then at Mindy’s body sprawled by the wall. She looked up at the waiter. “Can we have a couple of glasses?”
“They’re on back order.” He rolled his eyes, threw his hands up in the air, and walked away, muttering, “Glasses. Ha!” and turned his head again to shoot a brief, irritated look at us. A few minutes later, he returned with the beer and some peanuts that looked like they’d been recycled from one unwanted table to another.
Mindy started to get to her feet, seemed to remember something, gave me a dark uneasy look, sat back down again.
And so we sat there on the floor—shoulder to shoulder, backs to the wall—in the darkness of the bar, nursing our bottles. With each swig, beer oozed into our throats and some spilled down on our breasts. It felt good to sit next to Jamie.
“So how have you really been?” I asked. She shrugged, tossed a peanut into her mouth. “I’m always checking to see how I feel about my life, man, and my marriage,” she said. “I’m always asking myself if it’s good enough.” She was silent for a couple of minutes. “I have to admit, I may hate sharing my space with anybody, but late at night I’m always happy to be next to a warm body. But is this alone a good enough reason? Shit, it’s just too complicated.”
From the speakers, a wildly popular song called “Boogie Fever,” by The Sylvers, sounded loudly. People continued to convulse on the dance floor. “The beat is just so good that it makes me want to get down and groove!” Jamie paused for a moment and said, “It reminds me of the good times we used to have together.”
“Are you planning to go back to New Mexico?” I already knew the answer.
“Do you think of me?” she asked, looking straight ahead. I was not very high, not high at all, it seemed to me. A monotonous drumbeat moved through the darkness. Beams of spotlights wove between the exposed pipes in the ceiling and shone like a limpid green-red wash upon Jamie’s face. I felt at home in the obscurity, and there was no point beating around the bush. As I looked at her, words yearned to slip from my mouth.
Jamie finished her beer and looked at me. Our eyes lingered. She looked away again. In the intervals of complete silence, I could hear my heart beat.
“I sleep with you almost every night,” I conceded. She placed her hand on mine, squeezed it gently, and went on glaring straight ahead of her, toward the dance floor. She didn’t say anything, didn’t even cast a sidelong glance. I sat there quietly, waiting, when a feeling came over me, slowly, that was how it felt, sinking and sinking, past the murky bottom, looking up at the surface, looking up into the thrashing limbs of a drowning person. I felt entombed by this wave of silence.
I considered gathering Jamie up in my arms, but it seemed too arduous an undertaking.