She walked into the restaurant and changed everything.
A small, single-strapped dark green dress hung tight from her hips. She had electric hair and a full-lipped smile. She captured and controlled every eye.
She resembled my wife. Their complexions were similar, both smooth and sandalwood. Their mouths were the same, both expressive and inviting. With their hips, thighs, shoulders and breasts, this woman and my wife were near identical.
It was their eyes that couldn’t be reconciled.
This woman’s eyes spoke of a hunger for life, death was far from her mind.
I sipped from the glass of absinthe I’d been certain would make me look cool, like some sort of avant-guard writer; an expatriate living in France maybe? Instead, I grimaced like a Saturday morning cartoon character, and probably looked just as silly, the only black guy in a room full of increasingly drooping blue eyes.
Someone slapped me hard on the back. “You don’t drink much do you Jay Jay?” The bellowing voice laughed.
The large drunk man then stood to perform his best Jimmy “J.J.” Walker impression, “Dy-No-Light Weight!” The laughter that followed was only limply enthusiastic, a far cry from the loud and asphyxiating braying that had come at the top of Happy Hour.
At this point, we’d been going strong for two hours. We were some of the last, and loudest patrons, still carousing on the floor of the soon to be closing Eatonville. A southern styled restaurant and bar on 14th street, Northwest Washington, D.C. It had offered discounted prices to all employees of the offices in the building above the establishment. My cohorts had decided to take management of the upscale bar an eatery up on that foolhardy offer and now things were finally winding down.
“Get it? Jay? I’m talking about J.J. What’d he say, “Dy-no-mite?!” Right?”
He laughed and I nodded, feigning amusement at the 40-year-old joke.
The woman in the green-dress was arm-in-arm with some squat, unattractive mole of a man. After the obligatory pleasantries – and several astonished glares his way – he, chest out and preening, introduced her hilariously as “my date” to our table of former frat boys and dumb jocks who couldn’t have cared less if she had a name or not.
“My name’s Jason,” I extended my hand and paused, my last name of sheepishly hung up in the 1970’s sitcom chow line growing in my mouth.
She smiled. For whatever reason, I felt accomplished that I had somehow amused her. “Come on Mr. Dynamite,” she said, biting her bottom lip. “Don’t be scared about what your parents did now.”
“Johnson,” I relented. “Yeah, yeah I know. J.J. and Good Times. I’ve heard it all since I was a kid.”
“Samirah Taylor,” she offered. “And don’t worry, I’ll just assume it means you’re the hardest working man in this show business.”
Suddenly, Mr. Squat jumped back in, “Oh yeah, my fault, my fault: Samirah? This is The Guys. Guys? Samirah.”
The Guys were the editorial staff of my employer, Clark Law LLC, a Washington, D.C., publishing company that produced online HR-centric print newsletters. Every third Friday, they’d gather at a bar and construct some fantastic bill as a monument to their own egos, all on the company dime.
They were all legends in the office, both for their frequent forays into debauchery, as well as for their hard-nosed approach to ‘getting the job done’. This is what kept the top brass looking the other way when the editorial department’s monthly Happy Hour tab steamrolled through accounting.
They were drunkards, but they were good at their jobs.
This was D.C., after all; this was 2008. The economic world had collapsed into pieces of dried out kindling and tender, providing fuel for the fire that was surely set to rage through what was once great about this country.
In The Guys’ eyes, now they were needed more than ever, and the brass agreed. So if you wanted to be anyone special in the company, you had to make it through one of their whiskey-fueled Friday nights.
Silas, a square-jawed managing editor with glassy eyes and orange skin, nodded his acknowledgement of Samirah. He just as quickly returned to his conversation about the asses of this year’s current crop of interns, “It was like two apples in her back pocket, I swear, dude. Dude. I swear. Two apples, man. I swear.”
Then there was Chris the production manager who needed glasses but refused to wear them because they made him look like his grandfather, a man none of us had ever met. Next was Brad, a sales rep who was had been up for manager so long that he had taken on the responsibilities without the accompanying pay. His defining feature, to me, was the way it seemed sadness creased lines in his face when he smiled.
Lastly, there was Mr. Squat, Lawrence, a low-level sales guy who looked as wide as he was tall. He was fidgety and anxious like a small dog and reacted to every slight and perceived insult as a Chihuahua would to loud noises.
And thus Samirah was immediately dismissed.
She was only arm candy after all. These were The Guys. It wasn’t odd for beautiful women to be in their company.
“Obama, man…he’s got to be the most weak-willed beneficiary of Affirmative Action…” “So the doctor said he’s going to have to lose the toe…” “Minor procedure my ass, they’re my balls…” “Shut the fuck up Silas, her ass ain’t that impressive…”
I found myself staring at her and wondering quietly, “why are you here?” Like, really? Why would you do this? She really didn’t have to. Simply by looking at her, anyone could tell she was above these types of shallow interactions.
It was her shoes. They were flats. It was evident that appearances only went so far with her, before they began to bristle on the borders of good common goddamn sense. She was going into the city; yes, she would look nice, but she would also be comfortable, especially if she had to leave in a hurry.
Poor Mr. Squat. He didn’t seem like the type to understand that all women have exit strategies.
“You like absinthe?” She asked, pointing to my glass I’d been nursing for the past hour and a half.
“Uh? Oh, oh yeah!” I responded, sucking air deep into my chest and tightening my gut, “It’s….uh…interesting. Yeah, oh yeah…I’ve been drinking it for years. Good stuff,” I took another sip and tried to hide my anal clench. “It’s …flowery…”
She threw her hands over her mouth, “oh my god, you look like you’re about to hurl. Should I step back?”
“To be honest, it tastes horrible. Maybe, I just don’t get it.” I leaned closer, “I only ordered it to impress the Tiger Blood Brigade here.”
I motioned to my coworkers who were in the process of giving each other a 4-man, simultaneous high five.
“Well, how about this,” she offered. “Let’s say I order one? Then we can suffer together.”
Get a hold of yourself, Jason, I thought to myself, feeling the stabbing giddiness a man only feels when he realizes that a beautiful woman ‘likes him’ likes him. She’s most likely just passing time. It makes sense. No one was paying attention to her, not even Mr. Squat. There was a lot of money at this table and a lot of important people, and I was definitely not one of them.
“So what’s your story?” She leaned back in her chair, “Who am I talking to?”
“Nah, I’m just your everyday pencil pusher…a warrior for the cubicle nation,” I said proudly, waiting for a laugh that wouldn’t come. “I’ve been with the company for five years…but I’m, you know…moving up the corporate ladder. Carpe Dentum…Seize the Teeth; onward and upward.”
This was a lie. I’d been working with the company for close to six years and had shown little of what could be called ambition. This night would be my first attempt at schmoozing my way to the top.
And why not? This was the age of Obama. How could I continue to be meaningless in an era that meant so much? There was a black man in the White House. Anything was possible now. The doors were open and their world was now ours. If I had to endure a night of inane, drunken circle-jerking, so be it. I raised my glass to The Guys, “here’s to us corporate drones. Fuck the meek, may we inherit the earth, for as long as we all shall live.”
One tree trunk-chested James Something-or-another from Oklahoma, slapped a meaty hand on my shoulder, “That’s right! That’s why you’re my boy, right? We’re gonna take over the world, grab it by its balls, right? Hang on and never let go!”
This was all very amusing to Samirah, who tried her best to hide her glee.
The waitress brought her drink and Mr. Squat immediately turned, “Oh, my fault, my fault. I’m sorry, I shoulda asked if you wanted a drink. Do you want a drink?”
Samirah stared at him blankly, "No. That’s fine. Thank you, Lawrence.” He nodded like a seal and turned away.
She shot me a glance over her glass rim, her shoulders shaking with laughter.
I immediately wanted to do something wild, like take her and run. I wanted to escape through the crowded streets where we could discuss things other than portfolios, trust funds and pension plans. The pull to do so was strong. My hands began to itch.
She alone was making the night enjoyable, if only because her inevitable exasperated explosion was sure to be just as epic as it would be orgasmic. She was going to curse someone out and damned if I wasn’t going to see it.
I twisted my wedding ring – a nervous habit. She said flatly, with resigned acceptance. “Ah, so you’re married? “Nice, where’s your wife? She should’ve come.
“My wife isn’t the social type, at least not usually. She’s more of a homebody. Besides, we’ve been experiencing some family tragedies and she, uh, wanted to kind of sit this one out.” I don’t know if she believed me. There’s no reason she should have.
Still, her face fell and she showed the courteous concern one reserves for the misfortunes of strangers. “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that…was it someone close?”
I told her, “kinda.”
“Was it someone you loved?”
I told her that I had loved her dearly.
“Well, this person – this person that you lost – I’m sure they knew you loved them.”
“Yeah,” I took a deep breath and held it in like hope, then exhaled. “I hope so.”
“So,” I began, changing the subject, “you look like the type to chase danger by grabbing its tail and following it so close that it can’t bite you without turning on itself.”
“Really?” She said, smiling and leaning closer.
“Yeah, you like you grew up with scraped knees and ruddy knuckles, like you made friends with people you’d get into fistfights with; you look like you’d take your clothes off in public, simply because it was too hot to keep them on.”
She looked to the sky in contemplation, biting her lower lip.
“You look like,” I continued, “…like you’ve never apologized for anything in your life.”
“And how do you know so much about me, Mr. Dynamite?”
“Simple,” I responded. “It’s in the eyes.”
“Let’s leave,” she proposed.
Things had grown stale with our group, and I was beginning to develop this itching feeling that we were all in the middle of a western version of a Japanese Noh play.
Were these all masks; perverted and distorted versions of our inner selves, worn only to hide secretive truths? Were these guys real? Was I pretending – was this really me?
It was getting late for our little crew. Happy Hour had ended, and the party had quieted to a gurgling incoherence. Mr. Squat was staring out the window, eyes low, nodding in and out. He hadn’t spoken to Samirah once.
And so we were leaving together, the two of us. Sure, Mr. Squat and The Guys were morons, but they were successful morons – they were Washingtonians: corporate, political, and in control.
To them, I was the idiot.
I was the one that stopped at a bachelor’s degree and couldn’t get a promotion even if I had blown everyone in the front office. I was the one that married young, during my prime upwardly mobile years… I was the one who had to ask to be included in their Friday outing.
So while Mr. Squat nodded in and out of consciousness and everyone was going for their wallets, Samirah slipped off to the bathroom.
“Jason, where’d what’s her name go?” Silas asked.
“I don’t know,” I shrugged, slowly sliding my empty glasses to her side. “But honey sure can drink, can’t she?”
Silas nodded thoughtfully, as most drunks do before saying something stupid. “Yeah, black girls are like that. I dated one once, she could drink like a fish, dude. No, dude, seriously. Like a fish.”
I didn’t wait for him to get started. Fishing and asses, Silas could go on for hours about either subject. I waited till he and the others were drunkenly lost in their pockets, before I stood up and slowly walked toward the bathrooms. I then doubled back around the dining area and headed toward the front door, out into the warm spring air where Samirah, and whatever, was waiting.