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Whatever Lola Wants
It’s pouring and I’m without coat and umbrella. I smelled the rain, like fresh-cut grass and laundered clothes, on the wind earlier today, but dismissed it. I was too elated by the prospect of meeting her here tonight to think clearly. Now I’m huddled under the torn black awning of some crappy bar my buddy told me about, half drenched by a puddle that a speeding taxi spat in my face and finishing off my fifth cigarette of the night. The smoke doesn’t get far before raindrops tear through its coiling gossamer limbs. I take one last sweet drag and drop the faintly glowing butt onto the sidewalk. Rain pelts it, and it sizzles and sputters. Some final trails of smoke writhe above the soggy stump as it burns out.
I lift my watch to my face to check the time, moving beneath the electric glow of an overhead neon sign to make out the slug-paced minute and hour hands. She’s now twenty minutes late. I should just go back inside, order another drink. I turn toward the tinted doors and pause, my hand floating inches from the glass. The blurry face that stares back at me looks downright pathetic. Sweet smelling globs of pomade slowly trickle from my slicked-back hair and down the sides of my face, which looks paler than usual. I haven’t shaved in three days, and the five-o-clock shadow has become eclipse-like against my cheeks. What seemed like an appropriate shirt for our first date an hour ago now strikes me as the garb of a traveling salesman: navy and green plaid on a pale blue background, pressed to the point of Stepford-Wife perfection. I unbutton the entire front, exposing a wrinkled grey undershirt. That’s better.
As I reenter the bar, a glorious wave of heat hits me. My eyes readjust to the smoky lighting and, seeing that someone stole my stool at the bar, I look around for an empty table for two. A menagerie of mismatching tables spreads across the creaky, rotting floor, stools and chairs of various heights and colors shoved haphazardly around each. To one side stretches a towering bar, and in one corner rests a miniature stage, a single green curtain rippling above the dormant platform. Sharpee graffiti scrawls its rebellious path over beige walls and under tipsy table legs, never quite making it to the bathroom stalls. The place is packed. A large poster resting against the wall next to the stage announces that it’s “Blues Night,” no doubt the reason why so many bodies have crammed themselves into such a small, poorly lit basement bar. The live entertainment won’t start for another forty minutes, so for now Stevie Nicks’ raspy vocals flow low and bittersweet from speakers hidden along the walls and baseboards, all painted beige to match the walls.
I decide that I should switch to coffee after two beers and that shot of something that burned my throat like turpentine. If she’s going to keep me waiting until morning, which seems likely at the rate tonight’s going, I’ll need a little pick-me-up. As I make my way to the bar to order, forgotten peanut shells crackle in complaint beneath my feet. Squeezing between a businessman and what appears to be either his well-endowed daughter or an escort he’s shamelessly picking up in public, I shout to get the bartender’s attention. A man with black, thick-rimmed glasses and a crooked nose turns to me, a forced smile plastered on his red, sweaty face and eyebrows raised in false interest. He’s been trying to sell me some fancy concoction of alcohols, liqueurs, syrups, and God-only-knows-what-else for the past thirty minutes, telling me it’s their “specialty.” His smile bends slightly when I crush his hopes a fourth time, ordering only coffee, extra sugar.
With steaming drink restoring the color in my hands, I spot a table in the back corner near the stage and make my way towards it. As I walk behind her, a middle-aged woman, out on the town with her girlfriends, each frumpier than the last, excuses herself to the restroom, pushing her seat back and causing splashes of mud-brown to shake from my mug and bleed across my shirt. “F***, f***, f***,” I mutter as the woman glares at me as if I were the one to rudely bump her. She readjusts her all-too-revealing dress before awkwardly swishing off. I hurriedly stomp over to the open table to set the chipped mug down, careful not to let more coffee spill over, yell at a couple at the adjacent table to “save this f***ing seat,” then fast-walk to the bathroom. Above the door hangs a blue neon sign depicting male genitalia, the fluorescent sparks flowing between hung and flaccid states. I push my way through the swinging wood door to the sink, where I dab in vain at the Rorschach test rapidly spreading across my chest. While I’m at it, I rub vigorously at the sticky mess on my head with a stack of damp paper towels, then shove my head under the hand dryer. I know I must look like an a**wipe, but at this point I’m running on a buzzing impulse.
Back at the tilted table, I check my watch for the fifth time. The two black hands have locked themselves in position at 8:05 behind the thin protective glass, which is covered in splintering chips. The gold band shines dully in the light of the lone bulb strung up overhead. The face and links have long been smudged with fingerprints, and now the surely expensive gift looks like a cheap Chinese knockoff. I can’t even remember who the present came from as I stare without sight into the cream clouds blooming into nothingness in my coffee.
I shift a bit on the hard, cushion-less seat; the underside of my right thigh’s falling asleep. A minute later, I have to shift back to the right. My left butt cheek stings with bloodless pinpricks. A soft-faced waitress with one of those ridiculous ‘60s up-dos and too much eye-liner passes on her rounds, offering a sympathetic smile and another one-dollar refill of pitch-black coffee. Nothing is free anymore. Still, I accept with a curt smile, making a mental note to double her tip; no human, no matter how pathetic, should have to work minimum-wage at such a dump. With some struggle (my a** is still snoozing), I pull my phone from my back pocket and drop it on the knotted table next to a field of scattered ring marks that have dug their graves deep into the porous wood. I’ve been resisting the urge to check for new messages and finally give in. But the blue glow and million pixels offer no promise, no explanation. Nick Cave’s “Brompton Oratory” moans overhead, the blunt words and tormented notes meandering through a fog of cigarette smoke and stale coffee breath. I hum along to the raspy-voiced b******’s haunting song as I sip my coffee.
The tiny brass bell, tarnished with the green of previous rains, at the front of the establishment tinkles a gentle alarm. My head shoots up, ears having been trained to seek out the sound through the haze hanging over my cynical mind. It must still be raining because her usually straight, light brown hair kinks around her pale face, near-black curls starkly contrasting the porcelain softness of her skin. I sneak one last glance at my watch: 8:17. When I look back up at Lola, I can’t help but notice the way her drenched black sweater-dress clings to her body. It’s the little things that keep me coming back, an abused pup begging for one more bone. Although our eyes meet, she continues gazing around, seeking a better option no doubt. As if Prince Charming would be swigging chamber-pot coffee in this dive. I take one last gulp of the coffee, head thrown back, a grimace of distaste spreading across my lips as sugarless tar slides down my throat. Damn, I forgot to add sugar to the second cup.
With a mind of its own and with the remainder of my optimism, my hand shoots into the air, the fingers wriggling a bit, each vying for her attention. With a forced smile, a pained wrinkle in the corners of her eyes, she acknowledges my presence with a slight tip of the head. As her short, stockinged legs make their way to my table, I force myself onto my yellow-bellied feet. Both legs shake from uncertainty, and numb pain shoots like electricity through them, disrupted from their sleep. The obligatory grin falls from her face when she reaches the table, reincarnated as a pursing of the lips that gives her normally beautiful features a piggish pout. Her hair, still drenched in black, clings like seaweed to her neck, apprehension choking any greetings. I offer a sacrificial smile to this deified love, but she doesn’t notice. Before I know it, my arms have wrapped themselves around her dripping frame as if possessed, pulling her so close that I can feel her under-wire cutting through her water-thinned dress and smell her peppermint shampoo as it slowly rinses out of her hair a second time that day.
She pulls away with a quick flash of teeth, and the thought of those canines digging into my shoulder sends my mind reeling. She sits down across from me and sets her hands inches from my clenched fists. The hairs on my knuckles brush her unfolded fingertips, but she refuses to acknowledge the small spark that passes between us. A Dayglo-pink scrunchy appears webbed through her fingers, and she knots her unusually curly hair behind her neck with the gaudy, dated accessory.
“Listen, Stephen, can we make this quick? I have to be somewhere by nine.”
It feels like someone shoved a sausage-fingered fist down my throat. I blink slowly to keep my eyes from bulging.
“Is that ok?” she adds with a squint. “I mean, I know you sounded urgent on the phone and whatever, but something came up. And seriously, I won’t be able to make it anywhere if it keeps raining elephants and giraffes like this!” She readjusts her ponytail, looking around for a waiter to take her order.
“Actually, it can wait.” I hear the words drip slowly and uncertainly from my mouth like syrup, just not as sweet. I lean across the table to place a kiss on her wet cheek, causing layers of rouge to flood through her freckled face. I stand, pull some wrinkled cash from my pocket and toss it down, push my wobbling seat into the gum-encrusted underside of the table, and walk away. On my way out, I pass that sad waitress, who’s bent over a table collecting her tip and wiping up blueberry pie drippings. I’m compelled to touch her shoulder, but, not quite sure why, I decide against it. At the door, I sneak one last look into the blackened glass. The coffee and heat have restored the color in my cheeks, and the stain on my chest, which is almost dry, looks almost badass and intentional in the faded light of the bar. I see a grin spread across my reflection’s face, shake my head, and let a small chuckle worm its way between my teeth. Without looking back, I shove my way through the glass door.