Through my window, the flashing, colored lights of the fairground beckoned me. I drew closer and watched with fascination the new constructions of games and rides that rocked our quiet neighborhood. Since the erection of the fairground, our small-town evenings were never the same. As darkness fell, searchlights would flash upon the sweeping snake-like roller coaster and high-pitched screams of delight would reach my little room.
My usual practice was to sit with my back to the window and valiantly ignore the tawdry spectacle while I immersed myself in a good book. The pulsating lights and sharp noises, however, managed to intrude and vex me. Of course, my work as a librarian at the high school gave me ample opportunity for quiet study during the day but I have always been immoderate in pursuing my interests. Further, as a matter of principle, I did not like being at the mercy of the nocturnal creatures across the way.
On this particular night, though, I turned toward the window. I don’t know precisely why but I sensed a transition coming. I had reached the end of my pendulum swing away from the place and now I was sweeping inexorably in its direction. All day I had been restless and unable to read. I could not wait until I would be able to come home and watch the illuminated display. I realized that I would have to pay a visit to the fair.
Upon closer inspection, the fairground was not unattractive. There were rows of blue-white arcades with high archways. Brightly colored flags strung across the walkways snapped in the breeze. The balmy summer evening was scented with the sweet smell of cotton candy and jelly apples. The sky was bathed in a rose-pink twilight and adorned with puffy magenta-colored cloudlets. I drifted along in a haze, astonished by the throngs of people who were thrilled at getting dizzy on the giant, twirling contraptions. I noticed with particular fascination a machine called The Claw. This device held squealing captives in its iron grip as it laboriously rose to its full height, then swung down at vertiginous speed.
I had grown a bit tired from my perambulations. A quiet-looking cafe became immediately desirable. Fortunately, it was devoid of some of the loutish types who lounged near the pinball machines. I took a seat in the corner and perused the menu listings of cakes and ice creams.
“Hi friend!” a woman said. It was a lilting, feminine voice. I gasped slightly when I saw her. She was lovely in her candy-stripe waitress’s uniform. A tumbling mass of blonde hair fell playfully over one shoulder. I nearly tipped over my chair. She called me her friend! Did I know her? I was sure I would have remembered.
“Hello,” I said. “Do I know you?”
“Could be. I thought I saw you around here before.”
“I’ve never visited here before.”
“Oh, well I’m pleased to make your acquaintance now.” She smiled.
I was charmed by her suave manner. I ordered some ices since it was a particularly warm night. I confess I was captivated by her. She moved gracefully from table to table, making pleasant conversation with the patrons. I listened to her as I toyed with the ices. She did not call anyone else friend.
I stayed at my table until the ices were fairly liquid. Most of the other customers had left.
“Do you mind if I sit down?” she said. “My feet have had it.”
“Not at all. Please. I insist.”
Thus, the waitress--the woman--Nadine sat down at my table. I could see that she was not suited for the job. She would seem more in place in a formal drawing room with velvet cushions and hanging tapestries. Her cool, delicate porcelain features suggested a woman of elegance and refinement.
“I usually don’t work the evening shift,” she said. “I like to keep my evenings open. Besides, I have to go home at such a late hour.”
When she hinted that she would prefer being escorted home, I leapt at the chance. I waited expectantly until she emerged from the back room. She had changed her clothes and hairstyle in those few minutes. She was dressed in a stylish, gray suit. Her hair was pulled into a sleek chignon. This image of the sober, meticulous woman could easily have led me to believe her a fellow librarian.
On our way to her house, Nadine conversed so effortlessly with me that I felt I had known her for years. When she discovered that I was a librarian, she disclosed her ardent love of books. She even asked me if I had a copy of Plato’s Symposium at the library since she had been desiring to read it for some time. I was greatly pleased to find her such a literate woman; my sympathies towards her increased.
I was so absorbed in discussion that I barely realized how far I had walked. I had rarely if ever traveled in that section of the town before. The buildings were old and occupied mostly by transients. The streets were deserted in the darkness. Nadine stopped before an apartment house with a stiff, brown facade.
“This is home,” she said, as she pulled me into the doorway.
We walked up five flights of stairs until at last in the dim light of a long corridor we reached her room.
“Please, you can come in,” she said.
You cannot imagine my surprise when I entered her apartment. The squalid clutter staggered me. I could see through the doorway to her bedroom that her bed was unmade. The bedclothes were askew and the mattress still held the impression of a recumbent figure.
“Nadine,” I stammered, “it’s been a delightful evening. I wonder if it would be possible for me to see you perhaps on another evening at your convenience?”
“Let’s make it tomorrow night,” she said almost absent-mindedly.
I was stunned with joy. I wobbled down the flights of stairs and held onto the banister to keep myself from flying headlong to the ground. I was to see Nadine the next day.
When that evening arrived, the earth itself seemed to sway as I mounted the stairs to her apartment. I gathered myself together and knocked upon her door. No answer. I checked the number on the door to be sure I had come to the right place. It was the very same door I had left the night before. I knocked again with greater emphasis. I stopped when my knuckles burned from chafing.
Foolishly, I thought that saying “Hello!” with great volume and clarity would cause the door to spring open. Alas, that ploy succeeded only in opening the door of a neighbor’s apartment. A woman in curlers popped her head out and looked at me with considerable suspicion.
“Can I help ya?,” she inquired.
“Indeed you may madam. I’m seeking the young lady who occupies this apartment. Would you perhaps know her whereabouts?”
I believe the woman took pity on me, seeing me distracted and anxious in the middle of that dark hallway. She called me over to her and spoke to me in the tones of a confidant.
“The girl you’re looking for ain’t here now. I got a peek at her leaving with some young guy. A real strongman.”
“Do you have any idea where they went?”
“I can’t say for certain. I thought I heard them say something about a fun house. You know, at the fair.”
“That’s very strange. I had...an appointment with her this evening.”
“I guess she got confused.”
The woman closed her door. I was no less confused. I slouched down the stairs and entered the street. I walked and walked until I saw the lights and high, arching curves of the roller coaster.
I quickened my pace as I entered the fairground. Perspiration unpleasantly dampened my shirt and suit. I was panting by the time I approached the Fun House. The entrance was painted as an enormous clown’s mouth; I entered under a row of beaming white teeth. I hurried through a number of twisting, expressionistic passageways, aware of an odor of disinfectant. Though I sought to find Nadine, I found only my excited visage ballooned or shrunken in the row of mirrors. Everywhere I turned I saw my gold-rimmed spectacles and graying mustache, and my weathered but carefully pressed suit.
I should have returned home but my steps had already led me back to Nadine’s apartment. I climbed up the stairs in anticipation of her return. I positioned myself in a pool of shadows. At last, I heard Nadine’s footsteps as she approached the landing. As I saw her, I called out her name. She stopped uneasily and turned.
“You scared me,” she said.
“I believe we had a date this evening.”
“Really? I don’t remember that. I said I would see you tomorrow night.”
“Exactly. That’s tonight.”
“No, I mean tomorrow night from tonight.”
“Yes, but if you said yesterday night that it would be tomorrow night, then that couldn’t make it tomorrow night from tonight.”
“I’m sure I said it would be tomorrow night from tonight yesterday night.”
My head was starting to spin from this exchange. Whatever desire I had to pursue the matter abated when I saw that the woman in curlers had opened her door and was taking in our conversation.
“Don’t be mad at me,” Nadine said in a close whisper. “We’ll have a wonderful time tomorrow night. I’ll be ready for you.”
The next day, at work I related my story to my assistant librarian. I felt I could rely upon Bruce’s objectivity in this matter. I confided the whole matter to him, set all the facts on the table. Bruce listened patiently while I pleaded my case.
“It seems the young girl needs equilibrium,” he said mildly.
Both the content and tone of Bruce’s reply disturbed me. It was true that he and I had never discussed our personal problems with one another, but I anticipated a fuller range of sympathetic response. I tried to press Bruce further but he shrugged his shoulders and said, “That’s how I see it. You’ll have to discover for yourself.” I was startled a bit at finding an enigmatic oracle working for me but, in general, his pithy replies made him serviceable in the library--he broke his silence with great care and effect, and then resumed his quiet duties.
When the evening (the evening we had agreed upon) arrived, Nadine did receive me at her door. I should have been content, but I was somewhat taken aback when I saw a hulking man in dark glasses lumber out of her apartment. I watched as he descended the staircase and rhythmically pounded the banister with his fist. I looked at Nadine; she was slightly flustered by my early visit.
“That was an old friend of mine,” she said.
Any effort to gainsay her would have been vanquished by her appearance. She was resplendent in an elegant dress that made her my perfect companion at the concert hall for an evening of Baroque music. Indeed, all went well: the music was perfectly articulated and controlled, the audience was responsive, and I had Nadine beside me. All went so well that I began to be apprehensive. I wondered if I had been dreaming her pleasant smiles and kind, inquiring eyes. Had I fantasized her appreciation of chamber music?
My anxiety, though, was not entirely unfounded. When we left the concert we repaired to an expensive restaurant, where we sat in the patio flanking the street. The utter contrast to my first encounter with Nadine could not have been more apparent. Though equally beautiful in both contexts, she was now another person entirely. With her hair done up in a regal coiffure under a wide-brim white summer hat, she appeared a creature innocent of work, strain, or longing. She had a pristine, glacial perfection. She was a fantasy made tangible.
I was happy at first. When she touched my hand and said, “You’re a good friend,” I could not contain my pleasure. Yet, from my peak of joy, I was dashed down with dizzying alacrity. An intense man walked by the railing of the patio and stopped. He turned and looked at Nadine. He walked back to where we were sitting and stared at her to make sure he was seeing the right person. Nadine made an effort to look away and started conversation with me about the concert. The man was not put off by this tactic but was determined to communicate with her.
“So, it’s you,” he said. “What’s a girl like you doing in a nice place like this?” He laughed. “That’s how come I can’t see you no more? You wash the dishes here later?”
The diners around me grew quiet as if they did not want to lose a word of this confrontation. Nadine was visibly discomfited by the man’s harangue.
“I have nothing to say to you, so you had better leave,” she said.
“Ha! You had plenty to say to me before, baby!”
My mouth hung agape at this unsettling situation.
The man then turned to me. His hawk-like features silently took in the fact that I was with Nadine. His eyes seemed possessed of exultant anger. I grew anxious when his lips slowly curled to a smile.
“You’re her date, are you?” he said. “You have my sympathies. She’s not all bad, though. She does some things right. Just as long as she’s in bed.”
Nadine gasped; I rose to her defense and heard myself say, “Now see here, that’s quite enough!” I saw the man stare and smile as he reached toward me. A table fell and a buzz of astonished voices animated the background. I felt a push that caused me to land at the feet of a portly matron. From my new vantage point, I could see the shoes of the intense man walk away. As the buzzing subsided, I crawled back to my seat.
Nadine looked imploringly at me and said, “You don’t like me, do you? I don’t blame you really.”
“Of course I like you,” I replied. “I just don’t like brawls, that’s all.”
“But you were so brave, and so good--I could kiss you.”
She leaned over and pecked me on the cheek. It was a soft, innocent kiss.
I could tell from that moment that my career with Nadine was to be tortuous and involved. I soon discovered that she had a plan, one that had already been articulated the night when we had our misunderstanding about when I was to arrive for the date. Nadine never permitted me consecutive evenings. When we were together, the ritual was unvarying: Nadine would meet me in an elegant dress, we would attend the latest cultural offering the town could muster, we would exchange opinions about said offering in a quiet, expensive restaurant, and then Nadine would retire early to her apartment. I would accompany her to her door and then depart.
This procedure worked quite nicely for awhile. Yet, despite that, I found myself stationed in an alleyway across from her apartment house. I waited as I saw her leave on the arms of some riotous swains whom she could only have found at the fair. I never said anything to Nadine about this when I escorted her, but in my private storehouse of feeling I soon had my fill of disgust; I recoiled from Nadine and stayed away.
I walked down the streets of the town and wondered half in expectation, half in fear, when I would encounter her again. Every curve in the road had the potential to lead me to her; every closed door and curtained window might have temporarily concealed her from view. I kept imagining that any woman up ahead was Nadine, ready to turn and meet me face to face. It was a strange feeling. The town once had belonged to me, in a sense. Now, I knew it was she who occupied, who vitalized it. I was there to play my part.
I was not immune from Nadine even in the library. In the midst of my work, I recalled her request to read Plato’s Symposium. As I indexed and cross-indexed the new arrivals, the title kept flashing before me. By rights, I would not be expected to seek her again. Indeed, I should have felt better, but all I experienced was a weighty vapidity that sent me out of doors.
One night, when the air was ionized and heavy with the scent of flowers, I returned to the fairground. The electric fire of the bright lights stung my eyes and the circular strains of the calliope made me giddy.
I slowly made my way to the cafe. Through the window, I saw Nadine serving customers. I stayed to the side of the shop, so as not to draw attention to myself. I wanted to look at her quietly for a while.
When her work was over, she walked onto the central arcade. I followed her through a crowd of drunken teenagers out for a night of fun. Breathless, I reached where she stood and spoke to her. She shook slightly as though my voice had struck her.
“We can’t talk here,” she said.
I followed her until she paused before a boat ride. An attendant drew up an empty boat and Nadine climbed aboard. I hesitated for a moment and eased myself into the swaying vessel. The attendant pushed us forward along the dark current rippling with colored lights. We lowered our heads as we passed under a low bridge.
“Nadine,” I said, “you understand why I...went away, don’t you?”
I waited for her reply but she was silent. We entered a long, narrow tunnel that enveloped us in darkness.
At last, I heard her voice.
“We’re friends, aren’t we?”
“Are you my friend, Nadine?” I shouted. My voice rocketed off the walls of the tunnel and vibrated the boat.
“I appreciate you,” she said drawing close to me. “You’re a man of culture. I’ve wanted so many things. I need someone like you. Don’t be a stranger. Come visit me again. I want you to. I want you to.”
That last phrase echoed. Did she mean “I want you too”?
I voiced a quiet “All right” as I sat there in the rocking boat.
And thus it happened that, as if in a dream, I walked in slow motion up those agonizing stairs to her door. I held myself upright along the walls of the corridor as I managed to reach the door knob. At the touch of my hand, the door eased open and I reeled into the clutter of the living room. There was no light on so I stumbled and groped my way to an anchored object for support. I called out to Nadine softly. I thought I heard a noise.
I lurched forward to her bedroom door. It was wide open. In the half-darkness, I found her. I could see that she had been making love. A blanket dangled over the side of the bed, almost touching the floor. Nadine lay on her back with her breasts exposed. To my shock, I noticed the form of an unconscious man wrapped about her. I tripped slightly on the floor rug and banged against a wall. Nadine slowly turned her head in my direction and opened her eyes. I started to back away but the expression in her eyes told me to stay. She lifted her right arm and extended it toward me. I wavered but her hand held me fast.