Her name is Billie. Billie Blue.
“Cool name! Alliterative. Sounds like a soap opera name,” I say, the whole of my being facing my waitress. Billie’s eyes, colored like cherry wood, colored like trouble, don’t shrink from the word “alliterative.” Her lips are glossed pink and they are smiling and loose and playful. What I really want to say to Billie: “Billie Blue. Huh. Sounds like a porn star name!” But even I (a married man who hasn’t been on a date in fifteen years) realize how stupid that would be.
“Yeah,” she says, investing fully in a laugh that shakes the totality of her long, dark brown hair. “Most people tell me it sounds like a porn star name.”
“What? Really? No. No, not at all.”
We laugh together and she shifts her weight to her right foot, placing the left behind it and to the side, causing her left knee to stick out. Pantyhose. Skirt. Inner thigh! I manage to keep about 80% of my focus on Billie’s face, while the remaining 20% of my vision (the less-satisfying “peripheral” kind) devours as much detail as it can in the .5 seconds that are deemed socially acceptable in such instances of first-impression flirting. Her skirt is blue (the same cobalt hue as her headband), slightly ruffled, and well-above the knee (we’re talking 3+ inches). Billie’s pantyhose are black and sheer; they clothe legs that are full and strong and on the short side of average. The pantyhose (yes, I’m enjoying this) have multiple runs, so many that she must be self-aware of their existence and is thus fashion-forward enough to attempt such a statement. She makes it work.
“Awesome,” Billie says before inhaling deeply. “Are you waiting for anyone else?”
“Nope. All by myself today.”
“O-oh,” she says, turning the word into two syllables, the second syllable being higher in octave than the first and full of jocular wonderment.
“I have the day off,” I say, answering her subtle line of questioning. A rouge-ish swagger infests my tongue and I lower my voice. “I’m walking from Northeast Minneapolis to the Nokomis neighborhood where I live. I’m writing about the experience as I go. Here, look,” I say, wrenching my writing notebook from my pocket in an attempt to somehow validate the experience and my quasi-legitimacy as a writer. “I’m putting it all down in here (‘rouge-ish swagger’ gives way to ‘abstract mumbling’ and ‘lots of hand gesturing’). I know it sounds weird and dumb, but I just kinda want to find out a little more about the city I live in. Adventure a little bit. Figure out what makes it tick, you know?”
My pulse increases tenfold after my description, one that contained all the conviction of a fourth-grade book report recounting a half-read Hardy Boys story.
“Cool. Great,” she says in a flat intonation. “Anything to drink?”
“Just water.” Head nodding, two-second pause. “Gotta stay hydrated.”
“Yeah,” Billie says, smile at full throttle again. “I’ll get some water for you and let you look over the menu.” She puts her right hand on the table, touching my left-hand pinky with hers. I’ m rebuilt as she walks away, noticing that she has a key tattooed on her left hamstring. I’ll ask her about it before I leave.
Being that I’m the only person in Pizza Nea eating alone, I have little choice but to peruse the menu, scribble random shit into my notebook, scroll through pictures I’ve taken, and eavesdrop on the two other couples in the restaurant (two women at each table). It’s difficult to hear anything of real substance being uttered, but I catch two business-casual gals chatting about “how it’s so difficult getting from point A to point B.” I take this moment of synchronicity as a gift from the WRITING GODS, a gift that tells me I’m on the right track and that my walking adventure is a project worth my while. Although elated, the synchronicity doesn’t move me to the point of revealing myself as a writer going “from point A to point B.” The verbalization of my project to Billie moments earlier kind of cheapened the whole “undercover essayist/voyeur” angle that seemed so cool until it was spoken of aloud. I’ll do my best to keep my adventure to myself going forward.
So after Billie comes back, we banter a bit more and I order the Caprino E Treccione, a pizza comprised of goat cheese, smoked mozzarella, artichokes, sun dried tomatoes, cracked red pepper, oregano, and garlic. Lord, what exotic ingredients! Fifteen years ago, I didn’t even know such fare existed; the nomenclature associated with pizza was limited to pepperoni and sausage. Now, I’m moments away from eating stuff that most other consumers view as ordinary.
When adventuring, there’s a want to experience the exotic, to become familiar with otherness, and nothing engenders exotic familiarity more than food. And I’m not talking about sampling “the exotic” as some conquering, high-stationed Occidental sticking my toe in the water with haughty, laughing disdain, as if I was the manifestation of imperialism noted in Edward Said’s Orientalism. No, I want to achieve the opposite; approach strange new realms, whether it’s people, places, or (in this case) food, with a sense of fealty, of curiosity, of a neophyte wanting to cleanse some trace of ignorance. Again, I’m relying on a hearty dose of suspended disbelief with the faux-epic-ness of my walkabout, but, mental prestidigitation aside, perhaps a taste of new-fangled pizza can make me a tad more human.
It’s red and white and teeming with knife-up-the-nose spices. Super hot, too. My Caprino E Treccione pizza could easily be shared, but since I’m alone (AND RAVENOUS!!!), I figure I’ll consume the whole thing. But there’s Billie, in the corner of my sight again, the whole of my sight again, and my world and all its moons of reasoning once again orbit her sun. Women (especially charming and beautiful women) have a way of banishing the tomes and canvases of men’s minds, of taking the certainties and logics of family, employment, and current relationships and throwing them from male consciousness like they were antediluvian heresies. In Billie’s presence, my wife and daughter are extracted from my skull and replaced with the following three questions/hopeful narratives:
- “Would Billie think more of me if I told her that I was saving part of my pizza so I could give it to a homeless guy?”
- “Should I mention that I’m a vegetarian and a former college athlete, thus revealing that I’m both sensitive and masculine?”
- “Should I just say, ‘Fuck it!’ and ask Billie to join me in my adventure so we can make love under the Stone Arch Bridge and then run off, together, to Memphis, where we’ll live in a houseboat and make money as a two-person band, me playing death-metal-style drums while she plays zydeco fiddle and sings?”
“Enjoy!” Billie says, turning away, once again leaving me with the key on her left hamstring.
The pizza is superb, a gastronomical marvel of tomatoes and cheese transmuted into bursts of ripened acid and savory bases. The spice, not overpowering but certainly present, makes my nose run a bit. It is also gone in about eight or nine minutes. Shit, I am stuffed! Looks like there won’t be any homeless people ingesting Neapolitan pizza today. My full belly leads to a lethargy, a “food coma,” that starts in my stomach and ends at the top of my head.
“Was it good enough to write about?” Billie says.
Waylon Jennings’s Good Ol’ Boys (the theme from Dukes of Hazzard) pisses into my ears from some absurd and wholly unexpected astral outhouse.
“Just some good ol’ boys/Never meaning no harm/Beats all you never saw/Been in trouble with the law/Since the day they was born”
Billie’s no longer wearing her blue headband, leading me to believe that she must be conscious of her appearance and thus somewhat interested in me. Emboldened by both Billie’s headband removal and Jennings’s redneck outlaw apologia, I wring what little courage I have left from my gonads and ask…
“So what’s the deal with your key tattoo?”
“Oh,” she says, putting her hand to her mouth. She pirouettes and faces away from me and nearly puts her right leg in my lap. I inhale as deeply as I can through my nose, feeling every pixel of red in my blood. The key is ornate, rounded and flanged, the kind you would classify as skeleton. A miniaturized Minnesota is in one of the heart-shaped ironwork loops at the top. To paraphrase Billie (as male memory has a way of failing in these…sanguine and distracted moments): the key represents how some part of her essence will always remain Minnesotan, no matter how far she roams.
“Very coooool,” I say, squinting and nodding. And I mean it for once. Admittedly, my appraisal of tattoos can be pretty harsh (though I keep such opinions to myself for obvious reasons). I usually love tattoos in the purely aesthetic sense, like, “the detailed shadowing and line-work of that dragon reveals some true talent!” The body-as-canvas pieces, basically ornamentation bereft of calculation, is how I like it. Great art is great art, regardless of where it happens to be placed. The major turn-off is when an artist’s handiwork is meant to symbolize someone else’s insecure declaration of individuality. Perhaps I’m an idiot in this realm, but it seems strange that people are so quick to let someone else personalize their bodies in order to express themselves. You’re letting someone else do the important talking for you in a way that is both bodily personal and permanent. There’s so much more power when the bodily modification is extemporaneous and not contrived, even if it’s crude or ugly or foolish. The cigarette burn on your wrist; the rut on your palm from punching a window; the jailhouse scrawl made from India ink; a safety pin speared through your cartilage; the near-straight line on your lower back after your brother cut out a cyst using a razorblade. I don’t know, maybe I’m just bored with the tattoo phenomenon. Or, at least I was.
“Yeah,” Billie says, un-posing slowly.
“Yeah.” She pauses for a more moment, allowing my senses to dig one more shovelful of stimuli.
“All done?” Billie turns to face me. “You want the check?”
(Big sigh, a little sad that there weren’t any allusions or entendres about dessert) “Yeah.”
So Billie goes to the back, near the pizza furnace, and begins talking to one of the pizza chefs, a stocky man dressed in whites who rests on one of those staff-like wooden pizza paddles as if it were a pike. She leans in to him, laughing at some joke he tells; they seem to have an easy camaraderie. I’m illogically jealous of their harmless interaction yet fully self-aware of my own illogic, so thus I’m angry at myself for being envious while still being envious. Nevertheless, Billie’s mirth with another man is a scalpel, unintentionally slicing away the fat of unreality and exposing my life as it is, stark and raw and naked and wonderful and flawed. Sure, they’re stupid, these grand and unspoken connections, these possibilities, these simple but stalwart words We and Us. We build these furtive bonds like they’re secret snowflakes, cobbled into being from air and ether and the cold of solitude. And these fragile constructs, little narratives latticed into form, most of them melt away without a mention, without another snowflake to meld with and call partner. So we come and go, possibilities evaporated, a little more alone than before.
Billie leaves the check and goes outside, by herself, to stack chairs on the patio. I give my leg muscles a quick stretch, give her an eight dollar tip on a bill of fifteen dollars, and get up, ready to continue my adventure. I pat at my pockets and do a quick inventory. All systems go and I leave Pizza Nea.
Still cloudy, more than a touch of humidity. Billie looks up at me. Smiles, of course. I give her the last of me. First order of business: smile returned. Second: find the rouge-ish swagger. Third: wait for it…
“Have a great day,” she says.
I turn around, walking backward, the earthen Mississippi close enough to taste.
“Yeah…Have a great adventure, Billie Blue.”
Check in next Thursday for Part Five: Over the River and Through the Woods!!!!!!!!!!!!