“WHAT?” I shouted, not hearing him the first time. It was Thursday evening at Sarducci’s, a restaurant in Bellingham that attracted the student population with cheap beer and door prizes. Thursday nights were special — buy a beer, get a balloon. Pop the balloon, get a prize. Buy more beer.
“THERE ARE A LOT OF PEOPLE!” Mark replied, shouting through a ten-fingered megaphone.
“WHAT?” he asked.
“Want a beer?” he asked
“DO YOU WANT A BEER?” he shouted again.
“Yes, thanks,” I said.
“YES!” I yelled silently, giving him an exaggerated thumb up. I leaned against the bar as Mark disappeared into the crowd to find the bartender. It was the first Balloon Night of the 1985 fall semester at Western, and the bar was filling up quickly with giddy students still sporting tans from their summer jobs. I felt out of place though. It had been almost two years since I’d dropped out after Alice died. I kept thinking I’d bump into someone I knew from my first two years at school. I hadn’t so far. Most people I’d known had already graduated and moved on. I, on the other hand, was picking up where I’d left off, like being put back to repeat third grade like Jimmy Burns. He was a kid in my class at Ashwood Elementary who was always a little slow, wore hand-me-down clothes and smelled funny.
Mark returned with a couple of beers in hand and we settled in to watch the growing throng of students. The din from the crowd was occasionally punctuated by loud shrills of laughter and the balloon remnants cushioning our elbows resting on the counter as we sipped our beers. The waitress eventually made her way by us with a handful of balloons in tow.
“You guys doing alright?” she asked, looking a bit frantic at the gathering.
“Another round,” I said as I spun my finger in the air indicating more beer. Scribbling on her notepad in the middle of the round tray, she pulled a couple of strings away from the bunch in her hand and shoved them towards us. We pulled the balloons away from the suspended pod and proceeded to attack them with car keys.
Mark’s balloon was a bust. TRY AGAIN – BETTER LUCK NEXT TIME the note said. I fared better. POSTER mine said. Claiming my prize from the bartender, I unfurled it while catching my reflection in the mirror behind the neatly stacked pyramids of liquor. The poster advertised Red Hook Brewery’s Ballard Bitter with the tag line, “Ya sure, Ya Betcha.”
Rolling up the poster, I glanced at the mirror once more and for a moment I caught a girl looking at me in the reflection. Our eyes locked then she turned away. Spinning in my chair to find her in the room, I didn’t see her. Turning back to the mirror to find her again, she was gone.
“What are you doing?” Mark asked.
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” he shouted, looking at me curiously. I motioned him to move closer and I leaned in beside him.
“I saw a girl looking at me in the mirror.” Mark exaggerated his affirmative nods as he pulled a long draw from his pint glass. I motioned at him again and leaned in.
“And she’s got red hair.”
The waitress came by with our beers and scurried on after we paid. Resigned that it was nothing more than a random incidient and wondering if it actually had happened, I hunched over the counter and stared into the mirror sipping on my beer and clutching my prize. At least the poster wasn’t a figment of my imagination. I continued to stare into the reflection hoping without success it would conjure her reflection.
“Oh well,” I said as I turned in the stool and leaned back against the bar, still clutching the poster and beer. The standing crowd from the lounge was beginning to push against the bar when it suddenly parted like the Red Sea, opening a pathway momentarily to the far side of the room. Sitting across the room in a table against the wall was the redhead. Holding her well drink in one hand and positioning the straw in her mouth with the other, her lips pursed around the small straw, alternately taking sips and speaking to the girl next to her. She was a redhead all right. Not the typical orangey red — but a deep coppery hue in large curls, framing her petite face.
“FOUND HER,” I shouted to Mark.
“Over there,” I pointed with my chin as I looked back her direction. She looked straight at me yet this time didn’t break it off. We held the mutual gaze for several moments until she finally turned to her friend to say something, clearly wearing a smile.
As I kept my eye on her table, I ran through multiple scenarios how to approach her without sounding full of cheap pickup lines. As I contemplated the scenario I saw a familiar face in the crowd. It was Sloan. I’ll ask him. He knows everyone. I flagged him down and he stumbled over to us.
“YO RICK, WHAT’S GOING ON?” Sloan sprayed as he stood a few inches from my face, the alcohol clearly affecting his personal space meter. I made the introductions with Mark.
“Do you know who that is?” I asked, pointing across the room with the poster. Sloan’s eyes traced the invisible beam from the end of the poster to the redhead across the room.
“You mean, Red?” he said, his volume adjusting appropriately as he leaned against the bar with a sloppy grin.
“Her name is Red?”
“Yeah, Red. As in red hair.” Sloan rolled his eyes as he sipped his beer.
“Her real name is Teresa but nobody calls her that. Why, you interested?”
“Well, uh, yeah, I guess.”
“Then ask her out. I’ll give you her number, “ he said, grabbing the poster from me, creasing the neatly wound roll flat as he scribbled the number on the back. So much for the poster.
“Her boyfriend is up in Alaska driving busses for the summer and won’t be back for another month. She would love to get out and have some fun,” he said talking through the pen cap in his mouth.
Boyfriend? Damn…just my luck. I might as well right her off. Heading home later that night I tossed the poster into the rear well of my ’63 bug and forgot about it.
A few weeks later I came across Sloan and his girlfriend at the Birnam Wood laundry room.
“Rick!” he shouted as I entered.
“Ron!” I shouted back.
“What’s going on?” he said, more greeting than question.
“Hey, have you called Red yet?” he asked.
“I dunno,” I said with a shrug. I didn’t feel like mentioning I had given up on it because of the boyfriend in Alaska.
“You still have the number?” he asked.
“I think so,” I said while not totally recalling what I had done with it.
“Then call her!” he commanded as he stuffed his dry clothes into a laundry bag.
“Yes, call her,” the girlfriend repeated as she pulled the clothes out of the laundry bag Sloan had just shoved in there and began folding them. “She’s expecting your call,” she said with a sly grin.
I looked at her more closely and suddenly recognized her. She was the girl I had seen sitting next to Red at Sarducci’s.
“She is?” I said, doing a lousy job sounding nonchalant.
“Oh yeah,” she emphasized heavily. “I told her Ron gave you her number.”
“She’s your roommate?”
“Yes, and she is interested in going out with you, but you need to make the call.”
Ron grabbed the neatly folded stack of clothes and shoved them back into the laundry bag as they headed out the door.
“Call her!” he shouted, laughing as the door closed behind him.
“Ya sure, ya betcha,” I muttered to myself. Suddenly remembering I had put the poster, I walked to the parking lot and dove into the back of the VW. Excavating the poster from under my battery cables and fermented gym clothes, the roll was now squished entirely flat. It didn’t matter though — her number was staring up at me just as Ron had scribed it in big bold numbers. Returning to my apartment I called her. She answered on the first ring and I was caught off guard for a moment.
“Uh, hey. Is this Teresa?”
“Uh, hi. This is Rick. I got your number from Sloan awhile back and, was uhh…I was uh, wanted to know if you might, uh maybe, uh be interested in grabbing a bite to eat?” Shit. I sound like a total dork.
“Sure,” she said without hesitation.
“Great, do you like Venus Pizza?” I asked.
Indicating she did, we agreed on a time later that week and she gave me her address. I couldn’t wipe the grin off my face for days. Dropping by to pick her up, I left the VW running as I knocked on her door. The Bug was still a 6-volt system and had developed an annoying habit of not starting. Half the time when I tried to start it, the lights would come on and the starter would click but that would be it. I’d have to dive under the rear driver’s wheel with an old screwdriver and arc the solenoid to get it to crank the engine. Not the ideal scenario on a first date so I wasn’t taking any chances.
She answered the door and her eyes sparkled. She was just as pretty as I remembered from the restaurant. Waiting for the pizza to be delivered to our table, I sipped on my beer and inquired about her name. “Do all your friends call you Red?”
“No, just the guys,” she laughed. “Last year I lived in a house with five guys. I was kind of the house mom and they all ended up calling me Red. Most of my friends call me Teresa though.”
“Okay, Teresa it is.” She smiled a sweet smile and my neck grew hot as the Ballard Bitter slid down my throat. So began the evening’s conversation, light banter at first of who knew whom. The defining moment came when Teresa was telling a story.
“Escared,” she said, when explaining her reaction to a scene in a movie. I can’t even recall the movie or the scene, but was captured by her mispronunciation. It drew me to her like cat hair on fleece.
“Can we go out again?” I asked as I lead her to her apartment door.
“Yes, that would be nice,” she said.
Feeling the flush in my cheeks I leaned over and kissed her on the lips, slipping my hand in hers. As our lips touched, she drew back abruptly.
“Ooh, ouch,” she said, lifting her hand to her mouth.
“Oh, I’m sorry! Did I hurt you?”
“No, no. It wasn’t you,” she said quickly, squeezing my hand as she kept her other hand over her mouth.
“I was in a car accident last week and I hit my mouth on the steering wheel. I just had the stitches removed,” she explained, “It’s still tender to the touch.”
I examined her face more closely and could see the slightly swollen, asymmetric shape on the side of her mouth. I followed the line of her checks down and across the gentle point of her chin, and then back up the other side to her brow — two perfectly shaped coppery semi-circles capping her close-set eyes flecked with gray, green and golden splashes. All this framed in a warm glow of red curls. She was beautiful.
Returning to my apartment, the thought suddenly materialized, as clear and articulate as if I had declared it out loud.
I am going to marry her.
By Thanksgiving I had all but moved in to her apartment, and a few pieces of the puzzle came together — one known and two unexpected. The bus driving boyfriend in Alaska was leaving repeated messages on the answering machine.
“Hey Red, this is Jimbo. Just checking in.”
“Hey Red, this is Jimbo again. What’s up? Miss you.”
“Hey Red, this is Jim. Give me a call back, will you?”
“Hey Teresa, how come you’re not answering?” Jimbo’s voice broadcast desperately. “Is everything okay? Something’s up, I know it is. Call me back please!”
“Teresa,” I said.
“Put him out of his misery,” I said.
She groaned audibly.
“Or maybe our relationship isn’t what I thought it was,” I said. I leaned over and gave her a long wet kiss on the mouth. “You choose,” I said with a coy smile. It was a hollow ultimatum.
“I know, I know,” she said with heavy sigh, her head flopping back on the pillow.
She made the call the next morning as I sat at their dining table eating Cheerios, listening to half the conversation.
“Uhm, I’ve been busy. Sorry.” I was imagining being on the other end of the phone. I shuddered at the thought.
“I know, I’m sorry.”
This went on for a few more minutes until she got to the point. “Yeah, well uhh, what would you think if we wanted to see other people?”
There it is – the kiss of death. I was actually feeling sorry for him.
The conversation mumbled on for another few minutes, though I couldn’t take listening anymore. And that was it. Well, almost. I had picked up some part time holiday hours at Nordstrom and Jimbo came into the store, heading straight for me at the counter. My heart rate skipped a beat as he approached, expecting the worst.
“No hard feelings, Rick,” he said as he stepped up to the cashiers counter and stuck out his hand.
“Uh, yeah. Thanks,” I said.
He turned on his heel and headed out the door. Classy move, I thought.
The unexpected came in two punches a few weeks later. First, Teresa received the call that her Uncle Bill had died from a heart attack. Though I’d never met him, Teresa shared countless stories of him and four siblings and their lives growing up together. Amongst the children that Uncle Bill, Teresa’s mom Nancy, and the three other Haycox’s had born, Teresa had eight cousins; one boy and seven girls. Given my childhood experience, theirs was an idealic Americana story; of growing up spending weekends together on Mud Bay near Olympia, WA. It was a time when mobile gaming and electronics had not yet come into existance; when kids would get kicked out of the house after breakfast to roam and explore the beaches of the South Sound and not be expected to return home until dinner, and no one was less the wiser for doing so.
Uncle Bill was married to a saint by the name of Aunt Marianne. A woman from the Dakota’s, she cooked a mean hot dish and could cheat the chair from right under your nose in a game of hearts. She was the Yang to Uncle Bill’s Ying. He was more known for his awkward fashion, bumbling attempts to negotiate his trimaran through the Ballard Locks, or his explosive temper over simple things like a spilled glass of milk. He was complicated and his relationship with others in the family equally so. Regardless, the impact of his death on Teresa drew us together, bonding us into something more than a passing relationship.
The second punch came in the form of the largest snowstorm Whatcom County had seen in decades, arriving a couple of days before Thanksgiving. We were sealed in her apartment by the growing drifts of snow, inseparable from each other as we marveled at the white wonder outside. Eventually digging out from the snow, we made our way south for the holiday gatherings. Heading our separate ways when we reached Seattle, I spent Thanksgiving unable to think of much else than wanting to be back with her.
“Tell me about her,” Mom inquired, noticing my distant attention. I smiled at her question. I hadn’t said a word about Teresa to Mom. Her face immediately came to mind as I described her.
“She’s great, Mom. She’s fun to be with and she is a great cook.”
“You like her a lot?”
“Yeah, I do. A lot.”