Sam’s voice rose distinctly above the electric current of noise that lit the packed bar. I shook my head and smiled. My name is my blessing and my curse. God love my parents. They consider my name a tribute to my grandfather in Ireland. Or so they tell the relatives.
The truth is my parents expected a boy. The sonogram confirmed that indeed, a boy would finally grace the Sullivan family. I landed in my mother’s arms to a chorus of shocked “Holy Jesus!”. My father obstinately refused to consider another name. Marshall C. Sullivan. Etched in writing. Since that day, I have learned to handle the variations of my name, as well as the shocked expressions of many of my teachers, not to mention male peers.
I strained my neck over the shoulders of the people around me. A grin spread over my face as I caught Sam’s signature Princess Leia ‘do. The first time we went out as roommates, still dopey freshmen, Sam wore her hair that way. Four years later, she still insists on wearing it à la Princess Leia when we go out for special occasions. She claims it leaves an impression.
Sam embraced me and handed me a beer. “Where did you go for dinner?”
“Oo-la-la. Très chic.”
I raised my bottle for a toast. “To four years of slave labor and the sheepskin to prove it. May the future give us all we desire.”
Sam downed a swallow of beer and gave me an appreciative look.
“We’re looking good tonight, Marsh. Do you think we’ll finally find the big fish in this little pond?”
I shrugged. “We are the big fish.”
We both laughed. I scanned the room for anyone I knew. Cat’s Eye was one of many bars lined up along the main strip of Elmwood Avenue. The Elmwood Strip, as it was known, offered a funky mix of boutiques, restaurants, coffee shops and bars. Like a lot of other college students, Sam and I lived in the area in one of the old houses that had long since been converted to flats. The area was one of the colorful spots in the largely gray area of Buffalo.
“I put us up for some pool.”
I groaned. “You know I suck. Besides, I feel like I accomplished something today. Don’t ruin the streak.”
“Just one game until I can find someone else,” Sam pleaded. “I think James is coming up later.”
Sam read the flicker of interest on my face. James was our mysterious neighbor. He was a bit older than we were, lanky and handsome in an artsy way. Not my type, but Sam had expressed an interest since the day he moved in two months ago. He remained very elusive.
“I saw him in the hall when I came back from the ceremony,” she explained innocently. “I invited him to come and celebrate. He said he would be up later to buy us a round of beer.”
I raised an eyebrow and smiled. Sam had a way of engaging men and convincing them to be a part of her world. It’s a skill I have yet to perfect.
We were up for pool. We shook hands with the two brawny guys who grinned and extended the courtesy of going first. It was only through Sam’s sure hand that we won. The losers eyed us with new respect. Sam had just introduced us to our next opponents when I saw James’ lanky frame by the bar. He smiled in our direction and headed over with three beers.
“Sam, and, Marshall, right?”
I nodded and thanked him for the beer.
“Congratulations. Welcome to the great unknown.”
“Thanks, but I think I’ll pass.”
“It’s not so bad once you surrender the need to always know what’s next.” He smiled. “Are you playing?”
“What? Oh, no. Sam’s been looking for a better partner all night.”
I surrendered my cue and watched as Sam and James talked. Sam inclined her head slightly and smiled, lightly touching his arm every now and again. Sam could earn a lot of money teaching flirting classes. Seeing her in action is like watching a Master paint. It’s incredible. I sighed and grew bored and restless.
I drank another beer and wandered around, saying hello to someone now and again. I wondered whom I would see again in this bar. The thought made my head spin–or was it all of the wine I had had at dinner? I had to pee.
I pushed on the door to the women’s bathroom, only to meet resistance.
“Hey! Wait outside! There’s no room in here.”
I swore under my breath. My eyes rested on the sign for the men’s bathroom. I waited until someone came out and there was a break before I dashed into the bathroom. I had the desire to laugh hysterically. Let them wait in line. I went into the bathroom and closed the stall door.
As I lifted the handle to leave, the door swung in and two guys came in. Damn. I stood on the toilet seat, in my mandarin sheath and silk mules. I gritted my teeth and prayed silently that they would hurry. Just as I felt my feet slide towards the open hole and imminent wet feet, they left. A sigh escaped my lips as I gingerly stepped to the ground.
The bathroom was still empty. I leaned over the sink and reapplied my lipstick. I tucked some stray hairs into the chignon I had managed to put up, puckered my lips and muttered, “Gorgeous, darling.”
“Finally, the mystery revealed.”
I swung around sharply and felt my face begin to flush. I wanted to explain, but my mouth refused to cooperate. I fumbled with my lipstick, dropped it and bent to pick it up. Unfortunately, so did the man who had interrupted my beauty session. Our heads cracked smartly together.
“Fuck!” I yelped.
I glanced at him briefly. He had a bristly stubble on his face, smooth head, eyes the color of tea and caramel-colored skin–Indian? I stood abruptly rubbing my head.
“Hey–sorry. Can I–”
I fled before I embarrassed myself further. I found Sam finishing a game of pool. I grabbed her and propelled her towards the bar.
“What? It’s only two.”
“I just totally humiliated myself. I’ll tell you about it later. Should I leave the light on?” I nodded towards James.
Sam rolled her eyes. “That’s not my style. Listen, do you need a ride home? I can–”
I saw the man emerge from the men’s room, head craned, eyes scanning the room. They locked on me.
“No. I’ll be fine. Bye!”
Outside on the street, I walked quickly, gradually slowing as I crossed the next street. I exhaled slowly. People were driving up and down the street, hanging out of cars, yelling at people they knew, singing off key–an urban orgy. The lights had a fuzzy edge to them. Suddenly, everything seemed too fast, too loud, too bright. I stumbled over a crack and lost my balance.
“Are you okay?”
I ignored the voice and kept walking. Tears fell unheeded.
* * *