Cigarette smoke covered the ceiling of the second-floor dance hall, mixing with the smell of spilled beer and sweat-glazed skin. It was ’80s night at The Fez, a local nightclub rife with grown-ups still eager for the Bauhaus, Siouxsie, and Morrissey songs of their youth. I proudly counted myself among them. The music still conjured up the days of teenage angst, absent-minded rebellion, and the trim figure I’d proudly flaunted. In the dark shadows of the club, I could lose myself in the music, transported to a different time, a different life, long before mine had been turned upside down. As I bowed my head, the fans blew across my recently sheared nape, and my arms swayed in opposition to my feet with the sounds of Soft Cell’s Tainted Love. I let myself feel the music as I had more than a decade before.
These infrequent Friday night dance sessions were like therapy for me, little oases of freedom in my five years of solo parenting. Brian had willingly signed over all custody to me and saw our two children only randomly. He went months without seeing Stuart and Audrey, despite the fact that we lived just six blocks apart.
Soft Cell segued into Madonna, and I left the floor; I’d had enough of her back in the real ’80s. I scanned the mixed crowd in the flashing strobe light, looking for someone to practice my latent flirting skills with when I noticed the redhead dancing nearby. Tall and lanky, he stood out among the softened bodies of 30-somethings, their lives spent immersed in work and weekend BBQs. I didn’t find him particularly handsome, but he had nice features, short cropped hair and, I noted as he walked past me to the bar, dapper square-toed leather oxfords that made me weak in the knees. I’d always had a soft spot for stylish shoes. I looked up and caught his eye. Maybe him?
I moved back onto the dance floor and through countless songs, we exchanged glances and coy smiles until we danced facing each other only an arm’s length apart. I’d never learned the art of introducing myself and couldn’t bear the jab of being rebuffed, so I stayed in my own imaginary dancing square and waited for him to say something. Instead, we danced mutely to the heavy industrial percussions of Ministry. As the song ended, I moved off the floor to catch my breath.
Standing at the edge of the stained Berber carpet, I awkwardly scraped the transom between vinyl and carpet with the tip of my Doc Marten boot. I wondered if he’d talk to me if I stayed off the dance floor. Lost in my thoughts I was startled when a lone paper cup flew out of the rhythmic crowd and bounced off my head. I looked up to see who might have tossed it, but there was nothing, no indication of where it had come from. I doubted that the ginger had thrown it, but he did see it happen and it was just the incentive needed to start a conversation. He sidled up next to me and within two songs had my number and I had what I thought was his name: Jason. He’d call, he said, in a few days. And I hoped he would. I’d given him my real phone number, a first for me—every other guy had gotten a mishmash of seven numbers that I knew would never find me, but this one was different.
It was the week of Valentine’s Day, a malevolent holiday for single women everywhere. Nothing says you are on your own like a romantic holiday spent making sugar cookies with your kids, but that’s what I did. Sprinkling red sugar crystals onto freshly baked, buttery cookies, the three of us indulged ourselves. As we broke the still-warm cookies in half, the crumbs fell to the table and we pressed our fingers onto the sweet bits, then licked them off. Even though I was single, I knew I wasn’t unloved. Stuart had bought a small bouquet with his own money at the grocery near his school, and it now sat proudly in a Mason jar atop the table. Audrey had made me a card with a chocolate heart held to the front with six strips of tape in varying lengths. Inside, she’d carefully printed in her wobbly second-grade script: “To the best mom ever!!!!”
Two days later, the phone rang, startling me as the kids and I sat huddled together watching “Spirited Away.” Unwinding my arm from around Stuart’s shoulder and helping Audrey up off my lap, I grabbed the phone and pushed the talk button. “Hello.”
“Hi, is this Teresa?”
I pushed the door to my bedroom shut for privacy, wondering if this was some sort of solicitation, a debtor calling about a long forgotten bill.
“Yep, that’s me,” I said curtly.
“Hey, this is Justin.”
Justin? Do I know a Justin? Should I recognize his voice?
Interrupting my silent questioning, he continued, “We met at The Fez last Friday; I was hoping we could meet up for some coffee.”
I sighed heavily. His name was Justin, not Jason, a decibel-induced confusion. “Oh, of course! Sorry. Yes.” I stammered, trying to regain my footing in the conversation. “Yes, we should do coffee.”
We compared schedules and locations—he worked downtown and I was attending university nearby, finally getting my long-awaited college education. We could meet during his lunch hour, which coincided conveniently with my break between my Survey of English Literature and Modern Film Studies classes on the next Tuesday.
My years of being single made me cautious on first dates since they were usually also the last. I’d learned to share little and expect less. In the rough-hewn brick interior of Stumptown Coffee, we’d sat, both nursing chai teas, exploring each other’s pasts with caution and curiosity. Even though we had lived in the same city for the past ten years and had mutual acquaintances, we had never crossed paths. Like me, he’d been part of the local scooter scene, but only after I’d had to abandon it for motherhood. He had also been to Love and Rockets, Meat Beat Manifesto and Nick Cave concerts, but at different venues, on different tours. We somehow managed to slip past meeting until the night at The Fez. I applauded The Fates for finally bringing us together.
We made dinner plans for the weekend. There was a J-pop show at Berbati’s—would I like to go? I instantly agreed, then wondered who would watch the kids and if I could even afford it.
We’d been living off student loans, food stamps, and the meager amount I earned with the vintage-inspired aprons I sewed and sold online. Between classes, homework, and the kids, there was little time for anything else and I’d struggled to make my schedule fit theirs. My classes were only between 9 a.m. and 2:30 p.m., giving me time to drop them off at school before hoofing it across downtown to class and back. When Stuart was born, his father and I had agreed to do whatever we could for me to be with him, to remain a stay-home mom through his childhood, then promised the same when Audrey was born.
Over the years we’d settled into our trio, a family configuration that suited me well enough. Until the divorce, I’d always been the subservient one, but now I was the one in charge and for the most part, I loved it. I wasn’t looking for anyone to fulfill me, be my better half. I wasn’t sure I’d want to go back to being anyone’s housewife. What I realized, though, was that I was thirsty for someone to care for me. Luckily for me, it seemed that Justin might be the one who could.
I lapped up ever hug and handhold he gave me, always eager for just one more kiss before I left. I had forgotten how nice it was to hear a man tell me I looked pretty and Justin was generous with the compliments. By our fifth date, this time for dinner at the Tube, a trendy new bar in Old Town, I was hooked.
“So, when do I get to see you next?” I asked, sliding my napkin back and forth across the table in front of me, unwilling to look him in the eye, afraid my overbearing crush would frighten him away.
“It’ll be a couple of weeks.”
I jerked my head up to look at him. “Weeks?!”
“Yeah, I didn’t mention it, but a couple friends and I are going to Vietnam on Monday. We’ll be there for two weeks.” He reached across the table and held my hand, “But I promise we’ll get together again after I come back.”
I breathed in deeply, immediately sure that he would find some Asian woman to replace me as the object of his affections.
“Vietnam, huh?” I’d never met anyone who had been to Vietnam voluntarily and certainly never for a pleasure trip. He told me of his travels to Italy and his love of Vespas; more importantly the Vietnamese love Vespas, too, he explained, and his friend was hoping to set up an export business there to get vintage scooter parts into the States. It sounded intriguing enough and as we kissed goodnight, I made him promise he’d call when he returned.
Sixteen days later, Justin’s plane landed at PDX and within an hour he called: Could I come over? He had some exciting news to share.
Justin opened the door wide and his arms wider when I arrived that afternoon. I’d skipped Intro to Sociology to be there. We hugged, my right ear pressed against his chest so tightly I could hear his quickening heartbeat. I snuggled into him, closing my eyes to bask in his affection.
“You’re not going to believe what happened,” he said, resting his cheek on the top of my head and holding me even tighter. “I’ve decided to move to Vietnam.”