Tucson by night in the late 1970s offered skulking bars plus U-Totems and skulking bars plus Circle Ks, these watering holes and convenience stores all in the midst of a veritable fast-food Utopia, with every over-lit,  teenage-staffed, menu-posted eatery in America garishly represented, the main streets glutted with logo-studded come-ons in an acne of neon. And though Brandy and Simon had consumed their fair shares of Big Macs and Jumbo Jacks, service with a pock-marked smile was on neither traveler's agenda.

"Italian food; how does that sound?"

They pulled into the nearest gas station in search of a phone book. The attendant, virtually mesmerized by Brandy’s décolletage, pointed toward the office, his eyes never straying—they followed her cleavage in; they followed her cleavage out—and were still agog as the couple drove away.

"I just chose the one with the nicest ad. It’s apparently not very far. We’ll find another, if it doesn’t strike your fancy."

Candle light

On an unlikely street in a residential section they found what they were after: a converted Spanish-style ranch house with quaint Southwest decor, its outdoor arbor, enclosed patio, and candle-lit tables creating an ideal ambiance for the leisurely flirtation Brandy premeditated. Simon’s weather-beaten attire was a trifle out of place, but the hostess showed no reluctance in seating them; Brandy looked presentable enough for both. She wore a simple fawn-colored cotton dress with a loose-laced bodice, peasant sleeves, and an empire waist-line, its gathered pleats falling gracefully to the skirt's ruffled hem. Sandal-style shoes, an un-burnished copper bracelet, and a creamy rayon shawl completed her ensemble, the overall effect one of ‘casually dressiness,’ without unduly shaming Simon’s utilitarian denim—his ‘dress’ denim; of the three outfits he owned, this turtleneck, jeans, and Levi’s jacket combination was the best he could affect.

The waiter came. Brandy ordered a bottle of Chianti. The waiter departed.

"You do drink, don’t you?"

He shook his head.

"Not at all?"

To ease her disappointment he indicated ‘a little.’

"I don’t drink much either, but wine with dinner—a nice dinner—is a must. I think you’ll like this one. I used to order it in a little place on Franklin Street in Hollywood. Do you know Hollywood? Well, it’s one of the few towns I’ve been in where a woman can walk around without getting hounded right and left by men in heat. They’re horny there, too, of course, but they chase each other. I used to sit in that cafe all by myself, sip my wine, read a book or write in my journal—even late at night—and never have to worry about fending off some jerk. That’s the thing I hate about being a woman; you can’t go anywhere, do anything by yourself without attracting unwanted company. I mean, on one level, it’s just irritating. But when you stop to think about the violence in most men, it’s downright terrifying. Not that women can’t be violent, too… What about you, Simon? Aren’t you afraid, hitchhiking all by your lonesome?"

He shrugged, and was spared elaboration by their waiter’s return. The Chianti was uncorked, a taste poured for each. Simon, though no longer an imbiber, knew a good wine from a mediocre one. This one was better than average; he nodded his approval; Brandy nodded, too. Their glasses were filled. The waiter withdrew as Brandy proposed a toast.

"To our new friendship."

They clinked glasses and drank.

"Mm, tasty, isn’t it! What do you want to eat? I’m leaning toward the Cacciatore."

Simon pointed to Eggplant Parmesan, feeling that vegetables might help settle his nervous stomach. It was he who caught the waiter’s attention, proceeding, then, to order by pointing, knitting his brows to ask questions, signaling yes or no with a self-assured air that Brandy found both surprising and altogether charming. Happily she yielded to her escort's ‘blue-jeans savior faire.’ Simon, again via gestures, asked the waiter for a pen and paper. Once delivered, he wrote:

Your lips could kiss the dust from a butterfly's wing.

Used to being complimented, Brandy took his tribute in matter-of-fact-like stride.

What will you do here in Tucson?

he added, as their salads arrived.

"I honestly don’t know. Did I tell you I’m a dancer? A belly dancer, to be exact. You’re smiling. You don’t believe me? It’s true. Really. That’s how I’ve earned my living the past four years. You don’t believe me. Well, my costume ought to convince you; I’ll give you a look. Or, better yet, I’ll model it back at our motel."

He wrote:

I believe you.

"Anyway, I don’t know if I’ll try to find a place to dance here or not. Mostly I’ve come for a change of scenery. LA was getting on my nerves, sort of gnawing on them with its set of flawlessly capped teeth. Plus, the air there is awful. I want to live where I can breathe. I read once that a doctor examining a person’s lungs can tell right away if he or she has lived in Los Angeles, California even if you've breathed that muck for as six weeks. I inhaled LA for nearly six years. I suppose, by now, my lungs must look like a coal miner’s."

Simon’s sidelong glance suggested he disagreed.

"You’re sweet; but I meant under the surface."

‘Why so flattering suddenly? Maybe even "Jesus" yields sometimes to sin?’

Yet Simon had not meant to stroke Brandy's vanity. In point of fact, neutrality sustained his outward ease. Brandy was attractive—to his eye exceptionally attractive—but not to the distraction of pursuits he lately craved.

Noting their salads were finished, the waiter brought out both entr�es.

"Mm, mine’s delicious! How’s yours?"

Simon kissed his fingers, then gathered a bite-size portion for Brandy to try. She leaned forward, blew on it, tested it with her tongue, then took it into her mouth (using her lips, not her teeth, he noticed) to ease the steamy morsel from his outstretched fork. He then replenished her glass with a splash of the hearty wine.

"You’re not helping much with this vino."

A busboy refilled Simon’s tumbler of water.

"That's tastier?"

He took a swallow, then followed it with a token sip of wine.

For a while they ate in silence, savoring their respective (well-prepared) meals.

Simon at last wrote:

Do you have any friends in Tucson?

 

"Yes, as it so happens. At least I think I do. A girl who used to work at the club is living somewhere outside town. We didn’t have enough time to become friends really, but I felt we could have been. She must have felt that, too, because when she got to Arizona she wrote, inviting me to visit her any time. Her letter is in the glove compartment along with a map she drew of where I could find her. I guess she lives in a kind of artists’ community. Earns her living by making and selling pottery. Strange girl."

Simon lifted his brows inquiringly.

"Oh, there were a lot of rumors going around about her: that she was gay; that she got mixed up with a young boy; that she had some sort of deformity. I don’t know if any of them were, or are true. I do know Jodi’s sweet—or was to me. Maybe, if you like, we could visit her together."

At length, their table was cleared. The waiter brought a dessert menu.

"Ah, cannoli! Great stuff! Yes, yes, I’ll have some. Simon, you?"

He nodded, then indicated ‘two cappuccinos’ before the waiter took his leave.

Brandy, verging on tipsy, recalled her dinner date's earlier flightiness. She would have to be discreet, lest scare the lad off. And yet she felt her seductive power would doubtless prevail. What to do contraceptive-wise suddenly cleared her head. Being one day (two days max.) from her clockwork-like ovulation, extra special caution assuredly was advised.

‘No sense worrying at this stage. If we get it on, I'll just have to improvise.’

She looked at Simon. The candlelight played softly on his angular face, illumining Christ-like qualities that Brandy found disarming: stoic mouth, austere beard, eyes so clear they chastised, yet surely must conceal more down-to-earth concerns.

‘Jeezus, he looks like Jesus! That must be the source of my schoolgirl crush. I used to have this thing for our parish priest. Thought I’d outgrown it. I can remember praying to Mary—not Mother Mary; the other one, the "fallen women" —except I thought that "fallen" meant "fallen in love." Poor thing; the first decent man she dotes on leaves her unrequited. How I used to mourn Ms. Magdalene's fate!’

Dessert and coffee were served. The cannoli was devilish, its rich effect on Brandy as inebriating as the wine. Simon, stone-cold sober (if hot-wired by the caffeine) gazed across the table with ambiguous eyes.

He wrote:

Tell me about your dancing.

"I'll do better than that; how 'bout a private performance? I have a cassette player in my luggage and a tape I use for auditions. Costume, musical accompaniment—I'll give you the works."

They finished their coffee. Simon signaled for the check. Before Brandy coul;d reach for her pocketbook, Simon had paid (peeling several bills from the roll in his pocket). He rose, held Brandy's chair as she stood, then lent his arm gallantly. They strolled out into the parking lot under a host of stars.

Simon drove. They were halfway home before Brandy thought to ask how he had come by so much cash; she refrained.

‘Why shouldn’t he have money?’

It occurred to her, then, how little she knew about the man beside her. Perhaps whatever he had written in her journal would fill in some blanks.

In the meantime, clouds had cleared. A nascent moon competed with the motel’s multi-colored lights… as Simon parked the Volks by their cactus-nestled bungalow.

"Did I give you a key? No, I have both; here, take one."

Simon opened the door, then followed Brandy in.

"Wait. I'm going to change. Won't take but a minute."

A "minute" grossly underestimated the interval needed to 'transform.' Getting into  costume, for Brandy, was a ritual affair. The delay would enhance reentry, she was certain. Confident, repairing to the bathroom once again, she deliberately took her time..

Simon, somewhat fidgety, settled into an armchair. The prospect of seeing this woman shake and gyrate to pseudo-Mideast 'Muzak' suddenly made him cringe. Once or twice he had witnessed genuinely skillful belly dancers. Done with finesse, theirs was a praiseworthy art. Done banally, however… He could picture rank-and-file housewives flaunting gross anatomies as they crossed with spastic fervor some local-high-school-gym floor. Something very similar, he feared, might be in store.

*

*

Tinny strains...

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