She was not your typical beauty. Her deep-set eyes a little too close together, her prominent nose too large and her lips, well, too full. All framed by her dark, pageboy hairstyle. There was something exotic about the combination though. Something that caused me to look again and examine her face more intently as if looking for an answer I did not have a question to.
I noticed her for the first time while shopping in downtown Bellingham. It was fall term of my second year at Western, 1982, and I was window shopping amongst the throngs of Canadians adding “eh” at the end of every sentence. Entering the Nordstrom store, I made a beeline for the shoe department and stopped in front of the Sandro Moscolori display. Picking up a pair of oxblood calfskin dress shoes, I fawned over the soft leather and deep burgundy color. “Handmade in Italy” the marking on the bottom of the sole read as I turned the shoe over in my hands, inspecting the perfect stitching. $165.00. Damn, I thought. How am I going to afford that on my budget?
“What budget?” I laughed out loud. To say one has a budget implies there must be money to begin with. I had none, having saved very little from working during the summer. Worse, Dad’s consulting business was struggling and he was not able to contribute to my tuition. I hadn’t a clue as to how the rest of the year’s expenses would be paid. I glanced at the well-dressed department employees attending to the flock of Canadians requesting shoes to sample and fantasized working here. Imagine the shoes I could buy, I thought.
“What’s your size?” I heard a female voice say, breaking through my inner thoughts.
I looked up, turning toward the voice.
“What is your shoe size?” she asked again. “You’ll absolutely fall in love with Sandro’s once you try them on–their sooo comfortable.”
It was her eyes that captured me. I felt naked, as if she could read my thoughts and the words coming out of my mouth were nothing more than an echo.
“Eight and a half double-e,” I said, not sure whether I had thought or spoken it.
“I’ll be right back,” she said with a quick smile. She spun on her heel and disappeared through a split curtain draping an opening in the wall at the rear of the department. I found a seat and waited, trying to come up with a good excuse for why I couldn’t buy the shoes. I can’t afford the shoes, I can’t afford the shoes, I kept repeating like a mantra for a shopaholic in recovery.
She burst through the curtains a few minutes later in a flourish with half a dozen boxes pinned between the point of her chin and her arms. She traced a honeybee’s path around the shoe floor, pollinating the waiting patrons with shoeboxes and eventually making her way to my seat. She sat down on the stool facing me and the wake of perfume followed her, enveloping us both in the luxurious scent.
“Okay, let’s give these a try,” she said. I watched her delicate hands open the box and remove the stuffing from the shoes. Cupping my heel in her palm she placed them on my feet and expertly tied the laces like a baker lacing pretzel dough. She sat back and paused for a moment, gazing at me.
“You go to Western, don’t you?” she asked.
“Yes, I do,” I replied. My voice sounded like a five year old.
“I thought so. I’ve seen you around on campus. I think you know my roommate, Jessica. She’s in your art history class.”
“Jessica?” I thought for a moment.
“Blond, ditzy and prissy?” she said with a grin.
“Oh yeah, I know who she is,” I laughed. Who didn’t? Jessica captured the attention of most of the guys in the class when she walked in the room.
“She is dating Jim, right?” I asked.
“Was?” I repeated, cocking an eyebrow.
“Was,” she confirmed with a wry grin.
“Bummer.” Too bad for Jimbo, I thought.
“Let’s see how these feel,” she said, stepping away and inspecting me with her hands on hips. I looked up, feeling her intense gaze. Standing, I paced across the department floor a few times working my feet in the shoes with a modest look of concentration on my face. As if I knew what I was doing. As if I bought $165.00 dollar shoes every week and was discriminating about how they looked and felt on my feet. I stood dumbly looking at my feet and wondering what I was gong to say next when she spoke up.
“I’m Alice by the way,” she said, holding out her hand, stepping inside my comfort zone. The back of her hand was fair, almost translucent and her veins were barely noticeable beneath the silky white skin. I shook her hand while my eyes moved up her arm to her well-formed shoulder exposed by the sleeveless top. She had the build of an athlete.
“I need to check on my other customers so walk around the store some more and make sure those feel good, okay?” she said, breaking her hand loose from mine. The heat rose in my face as I looked away. She flashed a knowing smile and strode confidently to her customers across the department floor, parting the cluttered shoe floor like Moses.
“Damn,” I said as I walked around the shoe department, unable to envision how I was going to extricate myself from the purchase. They felt incredible, even on my bunion prone feet. I watched Alice as continued to moved around the floor, checking in on the pods shoe buyers discerning their vain choices — Sage Green or Tunisian Red, lace up or slip on, heels or flats.
“$180.32,” the LED readout on the register read with decimaled accuracy. I painstakingly wrote the amount on the check, masking my reluctance in handing over. Alice inspected it for an extra moment before slipping it into the cash drawer and then walked around the register counter.
“Thank you, Rick,” she said as she handed me the bag and her card. “Maybe we’ll run into each other on campus. Or better yet, come see me again soon,” she offered, punctuating it with a cocked eyebrow. Alice returned to the shoe floor, tending to the rest of her customers while I stood dumbly in front of the register. Noticing a pad of job applications on the counter, I stuffed one into my bag while toying with the notion of getting a job here. Maybe that is how I will pay for the shoe habit, I reasoned.
I kept an eye out for Alice on campus the following couple of weeks, hanging out in Red Square between classes certain I would catch her. I never did. I didn’t hear back from Nordstrom either, having sent in my application the week before. Too poor to buy another pair of shoes, I dropped the pursuit and gave up thinking about her until a month later when I was party hopping on a Friday night with a friend, Tony. After a couple of stops that didn’t yield much in free booze or an acceptable ratio of women to men, we decided to give the night one more shot at a party we’d heard about near Buchanan Towers on the south end of campus. As we pulled into the parking lot we could hear the music blaring from the open apartment door and I smiled at Tony, certain we’d found a lively venue. As I stepped through the apartment door into the hallway jammed with people holding red party cups, I bumped into a girl huddled against the wall with a couple of friends.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I shouted over the music.
“Whoa! Hey there,” she said laughing with her palms turned up in mock surrender.
“Hey,” I said. My neck immediately turned hot and prickly.
“How are those Sandro’s working for you?” she asked.
“I’ll go get find us something to drink,” Tony said with a roll of his eyes.
“Good. Great, yeah.” The truth is I hadn’t looked at them since I threw the box in the closet, though my wallet was still feeling the pain. Buyer’s remorse had gotten the better of me but I was too chicken to return them to her store. I vowed to return them in Seattle during my next trip home.
“It’s good to see you, Rick. How have you been?”
“Uh, okay.” I stood for a moment awkwardly searching for something interesting to say when a hand reached into view, pulling Alice away. Her head tilted back as she was pulled, eyes closed and laughing. Tony stepped into view after making his way back from the depths of the apartment with two party cups in hand.
“Man, you have got it bad,” he said, shaking his head and handing me a cup brimming with beer.
He was right. I did have it bad and I stood frozen in a polarity of emotion, both repelling me for fear of acting stupidly, of which I was demonstrating quite well, while also being drawn into the room to find her. As people continued to enter the apartment we were pushed deeper into the Volkswagen sized space. The volume increased exponentially and after suffering through a few shouted conversations while staying on the lookout for Alice, I finally gave up and motioned to Tony I wanted to leave. He drained his beer and as we made our way toward the door, I heard Alice call my name. As I turned to look for her, I felt something pressed into my palm and suddenly Alice was standing right in front of me. God, she smelled good. She leaned in to me until her cheek was next to mine and I could feel the heat of her cheek next to mine.
“Call me,” she said, her warm breath blanketing my ear, and then disappeared into the mass of partygoers.
Her folded business card lay in my hand with a phone number penned across the back, the numerals scribed in a series of artful arcs and loops.
“Come on Romeo,” Tony said, as I stumbled to the car, fumbling for my keys.
“I am so far out of my league,” I said to the cool night air.
“Obviously she doesn’t think so,” Tony answered dryly.
I finally called her a week later after Tony threatened to make the call, growing tired of my vacillations.
“How about tonight?” Alice said, catching me off guard with her quick reply to my stammered invitation.
“S-sure,” I said.
“I’ll pick you up at eight. Bye,” she said, confirming it with a click of the receiver.
Though it had been my invitation, she suggested the Fairhaven Tavern and headed to the south side of Bellingham without waiting for a response. We found a quiet table in the corner and ordered drinks while I fingered the corner of my fake ID. I hadn’t told Alice I was underage. The waitress inspected our ID’s without remark, handed them back and took the drink order from Alice. Relieved at not being called out I relaxed, further aided by the Courvoisier in large snifters warming over hot water.
As my inhibition subsided, I began prattling on about school and friends and family while Alice sipped from her brandy, offering an occasional comment or low, alto toned laugh. I cannot recall what she said during the conversation, yet the arc of her brow, the intensity of her gaze and the lipstick residue on the edge of her glass are monuments in my memory.
Sometime later in the evening, thoughts of early morning classes overcame the conversation and we headed home. Alice dropped me off at my duplex, both of us tired yet still in the affect of each other. She placed her hand on mine and I smiled, feeling the tug at the corner of my lips as uncertainty reasserted itself. I leaned over to hug her. She squeezed me back, chuckling lightly as I exited the car, already wishing I had kissed her. As I fumbled for my keys to the apartment, I vowed to not miss the next chance.
It would never happen.
The phone rang repeatedly in my dream until I finally woke, still wondering if it was real or imagined. I rolled over and began to drift back to sleep when my roommate, Stephanie, burst into my room.
“Rick. RICK!” She flipped the light on and thrust the phone at me, stretching the long coiled cord into the bedroom. “It’s the police,” she said with panic in her eyes.
“What time is it?” I asked, blinking in the bright light.
“Shit,” I muttered.
In a practiced monotone, the detective asked whom I was and if I had been out with Ms. Brems the night before. Confirming his questions and fully awake by now, I asked him about Alice.
“Is she okay?”
“We found her just a short time ago in her car. The paramedics are with her now,” the detective explained, his voice revealing nothing. He gave me the location, which I scribbled on the back of an envelope. It was down on Indian Street, on the north side of Western’s campus. I grabbed for my clothes on the floor, the same I had worn just a few hours before. A wave of her perfume hit me as I pulled on my shirt and for a brief moment, her face materialized in my mind and my gut knotted at the vision.
Stephanie accosted me as soon as I entered the hallway. “What is going on?” she demanded.
“It’s Alice. Something’s happened but they’re not telling me. I’m supposed to meet them down in Indian Street.”
I glanced at the clock on the way out the door. The dial indicated 3:15 AM and it seemed impossible to me that just a few hours ago, I had held her in my arms. A few hours — an insignificant amount of time that now stood as an unscalable wall between what might have been and what is.
I sat in the VW, hunched over the steering wheel as the engine struggled to warm up. Shivering against the cold Alice’s parting smile came to mind, mocking my lack of courage in placing my lips on hers when I had the chance. I drove through campus, cresting at Highland Drive and headed down the hill past the student housing, the dark buildings packed with students full of restless sleep over unfinished term papers.
Merging onto Indian Street, the reach of the VW’s headlights began to pulsate. Oscillating in red and blue, the orbs morphed into a circus of spinning lights atop the assembled emergency vehicles. I approached the fire trucks as flares funneled me past the patrolman’s waving light wand, past Alice’s car parked askew in the middle of the road.
I pulled to the side of the curb and left the car running. Alice’s burgundy Celica stared back at me, the hazard lights blinking, dutifully doing their job. I stretched my memory to connect her car with the one I had ridden in the night before but could not join the two.
“Richard Thomas?” a voice asked, breaking the concentration. “I’m Detective Johansson,” a mustached man introduced as he handed me his card. I stared at it without comprehending.
“I need to ask you a few questions about last night,” he continued.
“Where’s Alice?” I asked.
“They’re working on her. Just a few questions,” he said as he repeated the questions he’d asked on the phone earlier. “Is there anything you can recall about her that was out of the ordinary?” he asked.
The question hung in the damp morning fog for a few moments as I pondered it. Yeah, I thought. Everything.
“No, nothing I can think of,” I said.
“Okay, that’s all for now,” he sighed, steeling himself. It was the first slip of emotion he’d shown and it spoke volumes. “About an hour ago a neighbor noticed Ms. Brem’s car parked in the middle of the road so they called 911. The paramedics found her unconscious and unresponsive. She was taken to St. Jo’s.” The detective paused for a moment, gauging my reaction.
“Is there someone I can call to meet you there?”
“No. No, I’m fine,” I said.
“Okay. I may have some follow up questions for you,” he said as I headed for the car.
Driving to the hospital, I made the four-block trip without awareness of how I was steering car, shifting gears or using the signal indicator. I entered the emergency room and waited while the night shift nurse stared at her monitor. “Yes?” she asked as she looked up. Her eyes were dull and tired.
“I’m here for Alice Brems, the woman brought in about an hour ago. Is she okay?” I heard my voice ask from some other place.
Her expression said it all — the slight downturn of the mouth, the averted eyes, the tension knotting her brow — all undermining her stoic poise and it made me want to laugh that I ever thought I could fool someone with a lie.
She stood and walked around the counter into the lobby. “I am sorry,” she said. “Alice died.”
“How?” I asked, my voice cracking.
“We don’t know yet.” She looked at me for a few moments, studying my face. “Is there someone I can call? Someone who can pick you up?”
“No. I’m fine,” I said, and walked out into the pale gray morning.
I stood in the empty parking lot as the buildings across the street emerged from the darkness. Fine, I thought. I am not fine. I vowed never to use the word again.
“She was beautiful,” I said out loud, though no one listened.
The coroner’s report was inconclusive. The newspaper said her death was due to natural causes, though I couldn’t reconcile it. The date of her memorial service approached, yet I didn’t go. Too caught up in the whirlwind of the other chaos in my life, like flunking out of college, my parents divorce, and Dad’s bankruptcy, I pretended her death didn’t affect me rather than grieving for someone I had hardly known.
I stayed in Bellingham for a while longer, eventually stumbling into another relationship. We were a perfect fit for each other. Her fiancé had just committed suicide and we dulled each other’s pain with our company while pretending the loss of another didn’t affect us. But soon the relationship suffered the same fate as our mates and we went our separate ways. I dropped out of school and escaped to Alaska, spending the summer on a fishing processor with all kinds of people running from something. Mostly the law.
Eighteen months later I re-enrolled at Western, determined to finish my degree; to return to where I had been and for once in my life, to make things right again. Just like they used to be. Though, I am hard pressed to recall a time when that wasn’t more than a fleeting moment.