After midnight, Barry and I would head to the White Castle. This, I should explain, happened decades ago. Not much else stayed open late in the nation’s capital, which wasn’t Manhattan, where Nathan’s never closed. The White Castle was a world all its own. We loved that the workers spoke a different language from ours. We wouldn’t have known then but I can say now they spoke in metaphors.
The little diner had too-bright fluorescent light, which caused the off-white Formica counter to shine. That counter ran the length of the place and was surprisingly low. The floor on the grill side lay a foot or more below the customer side. Small round stools were not the normal height, but more child-size, another feature that made the White Castle feel like entering another world.
We’d learned that the owner hired cooks, cashiers and servers recently let out of prison. My boyfriend Barry and I, students at American University, Barry majoring in Business and me in International Relations, called them ex-cons. We didn’t know if the way they talked was convict lingo or not. All we knew was that if you wanted lettuce and tomato on your burger, you ordered it with a walk through the garden.
Recently, I joined a handful of people at a nearby restaurant for brunch. Because of Covid, we took a table on the patio outside. Before that morning, I’d only known these men and women virtually, as we met once a week on Zoom. I don’t remember the context of what was being said at the moment. One of the women commented that she had a poor memory for the past. She added that there were people who could remember every detail of something that happened years ago. I raised my hand and said, “That’s me.”
“Oh, that’s why you’re a writer,” she said.
Certain moments can define a life, once many years have passed. Moments, such as those I spent with Barry in the White Castle and our talks about the place, characterized the relationship we had. If I think about Barry, who I haven’t seen in decades, I remember that we liked many of the same things, and especially loved to laugh.
There are people you meet who don’t get you, or find interesting, amusing or infuriating what sets you off. When I recall the White Castle, with the miniature-sized burgers you could order, the workers’ worn-down faces and abundant tattoos, and how they laughed a lot and spoke in poetry. I remember that Barry and I saw the world through the same pastel-tinted glasses for a time.
Later, there was a moment involving a different guy, at a state college in New Jersey, where I enrolled when I could no longer afford American. He had black hair, like Barry, but wore it in a different style, an Afro. The first moment I spotted him walking across campus, I thought he might be someone famous. He was wearing an unforgettable black leather coat, long enough to reach his knees, and he was tall. Even from that distance, the leather looked soft.
After seeing him from a distance several more times, I managed to meet him. While having lunch in the faculty dining room with my favorite art professor, Gina, who should walk in the door but the mystery man? As he started to pass our table, he stopped next to Gina and said hello.
Standing up and giving the guy a hug, Gina said, “Marco, this is one of my students.” Gina had told me that Marco was an artist, in addition to working at the college. Barely a week passed before I finagled a date. I asked Marco if he’d be interested in getting together and going someplace nice to draw. Not only did he say yes but added that he had a car.
I don’t remember the car’s make or model, but I know the top was down. It must have been early fall because the weather was still warm.
The two-lane road was winding, the view open on both sides. Trees suddenly appeared out of nowhere, branches reaching over our heads, with red and golden leaves brightened by the sun. Marco and I had been talking before slipping into this section of the ride that felt like entering a cathedral. For a moment, we were struck silent.
The show ended, almost as quickly as it had begun. We were out in the open as before. “That was like an orgasm,” Marco remarked.
Marco was beautiful in a way I couldn’t have known meant he wouldn’t devote himself to one woman for long. I’d only had two boyfriends so far, and none as exciting as Marco. He was a serious artist, and Puerto Rican, raised in New York. Large abstract paintings bursting with color were scattered around his apartment floor, propped against the walls.
He took me to his parents’ house for dinner on a Sunday night. His father owned the apartment building in Queens where they lived, and his blind grandmother had the unit above them. If grandma wanted her TV channel changed, she beat her cane against the floor. This sent the chandelier over the dining room table in Marco’s parents’ place shimmying. Marco’s mom or dad, or Marco, had to run upstairs and help.
His mother brought a steaming platter out from the kitchen and set it down on the dining room table. I can see myself now, sitting there and feeling a dry scratchiness in my throat, from what Marco’s mother had said before. “We’re having roast pigeon for dinner,” she announced, as if eating dirty city sidewalk birds was perfectly normal.
I’d never had a Puerto Rican boyfriend, so I didn’t know what Puerto Ricans ate. I sure didn’t want to offend anyone, especially Marco, who I was still wondering if I dared think of as my boyfriend. And when it came time, would I manage to force the flesh of a pigeon down?
I studied the platter at the center of the table. What looked like chicken – legs, breasts and wings — covered the white porcelain plate. Since it looked like chicken, maybe it would taste the same. I didn’t have to wait long to find out. In the next moment, Marco’s mother confessed; “It’s chicken,” she said. “I was kidding you.”
Years later, living on the opposite coast, where winters are mild and trees, rather than tall buildings, shade the sidewalk, I pop in a CD, after starting my car. In that moment, I am taken back. I’m careful as I drive but can’t resist tapping the one-two-three beat of the salsa, with my left foot. Hector Lavoe, who was also Puerto Rican, is singing in Spanish, and I’m transported to another time, walking the quiet dark streets of Manhattan with Marco, steam rising from around the manhole covers.
Earlier that evening in the club, a twirling silver ball threw light on women wearing short tight shimmery dresses and impossibly high heels, and men in shiny fitted shirts, as they stepped and spun to the sounds of Ruben Blades and Willie Colón. While Marco and I danced, it must have showered outside. When we left the club, puddles reflected the streetlights’ golden glow. Walking arm in arm with Marco, I felt like we were living inside a Woody Allen movie.
People often point to a moment they claim changed their lives. I might pick one, walking into a cramped waterfront bar, on a perfect fall day in San Francisco, in which the legendary fog had stayed parked off the coast. The sky was the deep cloudless blue that made me leave my heart in this magical city when I moved away. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust from the bright sunlight outside. The hostess walked over and asked if I wanted to sit in the bar or on the patio. I said I was looking for someone.
A blind date includes that moment when you meet the person for the first time and a snap impression races from your gut to your mind. The hostess directed me to a dark corner, where the man who would become my husband, though I didn’t know it at the time, was clutching a white rose. Once we were seated next to the railing overlooking chilly San Francisco Bay, I was glad I had come.
The next moment, I waved my right hand, smacking the glass of water in front of me, horrified as I watched a stream run across the white tablecloth toward my date. At the same moment, we grabbed our cloth napkins and started dabbing. The server rushed over with extras. My cheeks warm, I said, “I’m so sorry.” But Richard, who I’d just met, in his nice teel-blue shirt and pressed khaki pants I feared were getting drenched, responded by laughing and assured me he was fine.
He had black hair and was slender, the body type I liked, with dark brown eyes and a lovely smile. I picked at the chicken salad I’d ordered, figuring it would be easier to eat with a stranger than something messy, which I would regret. We talked about the usual things – his job and mine, and what we liked to do for fun. Mostly, we were checking each other out, or rather, tuning into that attraction frequency it’s impossible to describe.
He asked if I would like to take a drive. Not long after, there was a moment when we were crossing the Golden Gate Bridge in his red sports car, on a sundrenched afternoon, the moonroof open so the breeze played with my hair, as I watched sailboats drift like toys across the bay, and I thought, I might remember this moment for the rest of my life.
I couldn’t have known that his side of the closet would always be neat, each hanger even with its neighbor, a blue shirt hanging with other blues, while my side would look like a windstorm had just come barreling through.
I also couldn’t have known there’d be another moment the following year, when he and I would be sitting at a compact table, next to a lace-covered window, in an adorable vacation cottage, where I’d taken him to celebrate his birthday. As we sipped our dark French Roast coffee, a light rain pattered against the small-paned window. And in that moment, I knew I was definitely in love.
A moment comes, though, that you never expect, even if, like me, you are prone to doomsday thinking. A moment which, though years have passed, still can break your heart.
The phone rang on the landline that we kept for calls from our doctors. I paused the program we’d been watching on TV, as Richard walked across the room and answered. From what I could hear, I knew it was his doctor calling after seven o’clock at night, which wasn’t a good sign. When I heard him say the word lesions, I felt my stomach cramp up.
There are moments afterward I recall as clearly as if they happened today. They include phone conversations and meetings with his oncologist, procedures in which I waited and waited for him to be done, and years of cancer treatment that has kept my beloved husband alive.
And there is moment after moment now, that I worry and wonder what my life will be like when he is gone.
Patty Somlo’s books, Hairway to Heaven Stories (Cherry Castle Publishing), The First to Disappear (Spuyten Duyvil) and Even When Trapped Behind Clouds: A Memoir of Quiet Grace (WiDo Publishing), have been Finalists in the International Book, Best Book, National Indie Excellence, American Fiction and Reader Views Literary Awards.