It was Tuesday November 20 1973 when I awoke in the male bunk room of the youth hostel in Florence, or as I was referring to it now by it’s suaver sounding real Italian name, ‘Firenze’. I had arrived at the hostel the previous evening with a big throng of my cohort, all of us with wet ponchos from the rain, dripping everywhere in the main common room as we stood in line, boisterously chatting with each other about the shitty weather, anything to break the ice. Trix and the other five young women, who I had shared a crowded compartment with on the train from ‘Roma’, went off in their own directions for the evening, and Jen and Sarah, who had left Roma for Firenze a day before, were yet unsighted among the throng in the hostel that night, but hopefully I would encounter them again.
Last night I had braved the rain and gone out to eat with three fellow backpackers from the States – Derrick, Matt and Michael – who had been in line behind me at check in. With most of the other backpacker types a few years older than I, it was a very different dynamic to engage with these three guys who if anything were a bit younger than I was, or at least just out of high school. They had a rebel without a clue, just escaped my parents, sort of jailbreak fragile exuberance and overarching naivete. I noted in my journal that they seemed, “Kind of corny and crazy and high school jockish”. Michael was one of the rare black people among my cohort of fellow travelers.
But to be fair, the three of them had the pluck and agency to be in Europe on their own, away from those parents and the control their adult overseers had previously exercised over their lives. The same pluck perhaps that had inspired my best friends Lane and Angie, also just in their senior year of high school, to hatch their own Europe trip plan, the one that I horned in on and ironically became mine and neither of theirs. Derrick had the mane of long curly hair like mine, but his was blonde and formed a circle of spun gold around his face, making him look a bit like The Who’s Roger Daltrey. Matt you could tell had had that shorter straight black hair neatly parted on the side now grown shaggy and not properly combed anymore. Michael had that same circle of hair like Derrick and I, but his a natty afro with a headband ala Jimi Hendrix.
Despite their tie-dyed t-shirts and bell bottom jeans they didn’t look like actual hippies, but rather dressed like hippies for Halloween. But then Zo, who had picked up Steve and I hitchhiking and taken us across France to Spain, had worn her Canadian flag headband under curly red hair and I had adored her and her look, which seemed so authentically countercultural. Guess I was harder on my male peers, not cutting them any slack. The three had all gone to some liberal private high school on the eastside of Cleveland and lived in the various upscale ‘Heights’ – Shaker, University and Cleveland. They were impressionable and determined to a fault, kids in a candy store, and referred to all the young women of our cohort as ‘chicks’ and were quick to comment on those with ‘nice tits’, and which ones they wanted to have sex with, at least to me and each other.
So making no connections this morning with my favored female types – Jen and Sarah, Trix and her crew – I headed out with ‘the boys’ to do our walkabout sightseeing thing. The sky was gray and drizzly, but the hard rain from yesterday was gone. I kind of enjoyed the three of them looking up to me a bit like an elder, since though we were all eighteen, I was already a year into college and now a veteran European traveler. I could tell they also were a bit impressed with my two-inch two-tone heeled shoes, and my resulting strut and physical stature above theirs, the three of them in their more kidlike sneakers – Keds and such.
First we walked through the Boboli formal gardens, which, speaking of kidlike, was the kind of place I would have loved to play army in as a kid. Pathways with shrubs and small trees forming an arch over the top. Little walkways winding off into oblivion. And right in the middle, a fantastic peaceful little pond, with sculptures and quiet, particularly on a cold drizzly day that may have scared off some of the ‘tourists’ (that other group of older more conventional travelers who we differentiated ourselves from).
After the gardens we went to the flea market, learning how to bargain with the stall owners and eventually actually buying a few things. The boys really got obsessed with the whole bargaining bit, so they went around trying to talk everybody down on everything, which given they did not end up buying very much, was probably pretty annoying to the merchants, though they seemed to take it in stride. I at least bought a few things which I hoped my mom and dad would like. Given all the time I had spent obsessing over returning with Christmas gifts for my family members, I ended up spending my precious remaining discretionary funds on crazy things, exotic wrought metal earrings for my mom, and a glass decanter for my dad. We ended the morning having some cheap pizza and killer donuts for lunch, the boys sharing their tales of newly learned bargaining prowess.
Later in the afternoon we went to the Academia and saw ‘The David’ (which I guess was so iconic it had earned a ‘The’ in front of its name) and other fantastic sculptures by Michelangelo. The David was impressive because of the size and the proportions, full set of male genitals with carved pubic hair and all, Matt commenting on its “small dick”. But it was all the great sculptor’s other stuff that really blew my mind. Particularly a series of sculptures of men half carved out of blocks of stone so the rock they were embedded in became the context of the piece. I read somewhere later they were unfinished, but in that moment with their faces and bodies trapped in the rock they were partially chiseled out of, some half a millennium ago, they seemed to me to metaphorically represent the longing for the liberation of the human spirit, a key thread of human history in our modern era since Michelangelo’s time at the beginning of that awakening.
Like these sculptures, I pondered whether Michelangelo saw himself, at least to some degree, as trapped. His life seemed to be a continuing battle with ‘the Man’, the powerful members of the elite who commissioned his work and allowed him to make his living doing what he loved. I really would have liked to have met the guy. I understood his stone faces, more so than perhaps any other of the great classic art I had seen. I’d never seen anything with quite their energy and expression. A face locked in rock pleading with me to be let out. Wild! The artist was talking to me across a gap of five centuries. Goya and Picasso had talked to me, but they were much more contemporary, though Picasso in particular was a bit sophisticated for me. But Michelangelo really brought it home. He had made all those beautiful realistic pieces to earn a living perhaps, and then these others to really send a message to people of his own time but also, as things turned out, into the future to mine.
Walking back from the Academia to the hostel we finally crossed paths with Jen and Sarah, who were on the other side of the street. Jen saw me and called out with a “hey Coopster” and Sarah followed by blowing me a kiss. That certainly got my three male comrades going wondering who was I to receive such attention out of the blue from female types. I told them I’d met the two in Rome. Led by Derrick, the three immediately got going rating the two women for their ‘foxiness’. Jen, who was physically large, a bit chubby even, loud and demonstrative, did not so much register on their fox index, other than giving a nod to her “big tits”. Like most of my fellow backpackers, we were all pretty horny pretty much all of the time, since we rarely had the opportunity through sex or masturbation to do anything about it. So large breasts were always a feature on a young female person that we noticed, even though I would never never be so rude to comment to someone else like that about a person’s physical features, male or female. The exceptions were a person’s height and of course, their hair.
But the more demure and poised Sarah, particularly having blown me a kiss of all things, had them all a flutter as to my past dealings with this, judged foxy, female type. Derrick, though trying to deliver the query offhandedly, fired his question across my bow.
“Did you fuck her?”
It caught me off guard at first like it came out of nowhere. I quickly figured out what was going on. Derrick was obviously the alpha of his little trio, the fast talking fair-haired boy with the big blue blue eyes, that saw me as a challenger to his position. I’m sure he figured I hadn’t had sex with her, but he was just being salacious to show off to his friends, and either get me to play along with his game or else knock me down a peg. He wanted me to say something like, “No, but man I’d love to get in her pants!” and then the conversation would go on from there with him having set the agenda.
Realizing the dynamic, I bristled on the inside, and struggled to decide how to reply within the context of this conventional male camaraderie which I both feared and loathed. I so wanted to turn to him, shake my head and scowl, and tell him what an asshole he was to ask that, rather than asking something more reasonable and less rude like, “So they seem to like you?” Instead my shyness got the better of me and I showed no anger, something I was well practiced at, and cobbled together something neutral to say.
“Yeah we had some conversations at the Rome hostel. They’re being kind of silly, that’s just the way they are.”
I felt like a wuss the moment the words came out of my mouth. I should have mentioned that Jen gave me that nickname and that I’d accompanied Sarah to try gelato for the first time, and that I thought they were both pretty awesome. But I could barely share any feelings I had for my female peers, let alone romantic or sexual ones, with my closest of male friends, or certainly the women themselves. There was no fucking way I was going anywhere near there with this Derrick character.
To up the ante a bit, upon returning to the hostel, Derick, Matt, Michael and I encountered Trix, her travel partner Evelyn, plus the other two sets of young women who had made up yesterday’s train compartment comrades, in the common room. Rosie noticed me walk in and waved animatedly.
“Hey Coopster. There you are!”
She had yesterday’s big mane of thick curly blonde hair corralled into a single ponytail that stuck nearly straight up and exploded above her head like frozen fireworks. Amelia was next to her, and looked our way and gave a little wave as well. With her pigtails, freckly face, slender frame and curvy figure, sure to register high on the boys’ fox index.
Trix was apparently starting to tell a joke, but stopped mid sentence when she saw me and my three male companions approaching.
Also noticing us, Evelyn said to her travel partner, “So finish the joke!”
Trix, not one to back down, glanced at me and the boys, and I could see the decision behind her alien green eyes to go for it, and she turned back to her waiting female comrades.
“All right then ladies. At Ev’s request here it is. What’s the difference between love, true love, and showing off?” She paused for effect. “Spit, swallow, and gargle.”
They all laughed as one, with Rosie laughing the hardest, flinging her exploding ponytailed head back and letting loose, even looking at me as she laughed. Though I would never tell a dirty joke, doubly so one THAT crude, I loved that Trix had done so and that all her female crew had a hardy unrestrained laugh.
Trix then turned to face me and my entourage, standing just an inch or two over five feet atop her black shitkicker boots. Knowing that she’d told a raunchy joke in unexpectedly mixed company, sometimes the best defense is a good offense, and she called out to me, even using my new nickname.
“Coopster. I see you’ve got some mates!”
She strode forward on her big black shitkicker boots under her short frame and thrust out her right hand to Matt, the closest one of my three male comrades saying, “I’m Trix. It’s a pleasure.”
He was taken aback for a moment at the visage of this diminutive alien with that face so exotic it was hard to pull your eyes away. I chuckled to myself at his state of shock.
“This is Matt, Michael and Derrick”, I said, grinning and rolling my eyes just a bit for Trix’s consumption unseen by the boys.
Matt finally reached out his hand tentatively and she seized it, squeezed it, and gave it a firm up and down. She followed suit with Michael who was more ready than his buddy to meet her hand with his own. Finally Derrick, trying his best to anticipate and match her strong handshake.
There were quick introductions all round. Next to their diminutive ringleader, the other five women looked like Amazons. We learned that the three sets of female travel partners were headed out in different directions for the afternoon. Trix said they all were going to rendezvous at the trattoria just across the Arno bridge from the hostel for dinner, and maybe we’d see them there.
In the presence of the young women the boys had been subdued and even a bit intimidated by this crew I’d shared the train ride with from Rome. But after the women departed and it was just us male types at a table in the common room, soon enough the three, egged on by alpha Derrick of course, were back at their game of classifying and ranking them. Who had the “best tits” and the “cutest face”. Which one would you marry versus the one that was the “best fuck”.
In those latter two categories the three had their different favorites, but they were in consensus that Amelia definitely had the prize winning tits and face. But according to Derrick, she probably wasn’t the “best fuck” because she was “too pretty” and therefore would be somehow too “full of herself” and not want to “put out” sexually. Matt and Michael nodded in at least passive agreement and the analysis moved on. I recalled Amelia’s story yesterday in the train compartment, loosened by the cheap wine, of being fondled without her consent by her boyfriend’s best friend, while her boyfriend had urged her to just let it happen. Was that somehow punishment for a similar judgement on the part of her boyfriend and his friend that she was too pretty and therefore too full of herself to “put out”, and some of her ‘assets’ had to be seized against her will.
I was struck by the hubris of Derrick, Michael and Matt making their pronouncements on the salable commodities these women possessed, the boys indulging a fantasy that they could pick and choose which female type had what they desired in the moment. And even more laughingly, all based on the briefest encounter just now. Derrick had even judged that Amelia’s partner Rosie was the “slutiest” somehow, but based on what? The fact that she had laughed heartily at the dirty joke Trix had told rather than the stereotypical tentative female giggle?
Not since my early high school years had I seen this discrepancy so starkly, between how male types behaved around female types versus around just other males. Perhaps it was particularly pronounced because they perceived themselves (as I did) as a few years younger than most of the young women.
Derrick, Matt and Michael had pretty much attached themselves to me at this point, but it was a weird dynamic to be sure. Derrick was the obvious leader of the trio, the fast talking fair-haired boy with the big blue blue eyes. He was like a Doctor Jekyll/Mister Hyde really. Around the young women he was subdued, but when only male types were around he would launch into the most salacious discussions about the young women we encountered to kind of keep control of the discussion and assert his alpha status. Matt and Michael usually played along with Derrick’s schtick, at least to some lesser degree. But the two were also more inclined toward me and that bit of swagger I was beginning to develop atop my two-inch heels, along with the array of young women who I seemed to know and bring them into contact with.
In Derrick’s mind I was another alpha male competing for the leadership of his band, but not one he felt confident openly challenging. Not sure why, but maybe because he was shorter (particularly in his flat sneakers), had not spent a year in college like me, and thus felt less experienced and worldly wise in our shared travel context. So as Matt and Michael gravitated toward me, Derrick would somewhat reluctantly do the same for fear that he would otherwise be abandoned, but quickly try to point out something that would diminish me somehow. Like when Sarah blew me that kiss earlier, it was Matt and Michael who I could tell thought that was awesome and longed to be in my (elevated) shoes.
It was Derrick who then tried to take me down a notch by crudely querying and confirming that I had not had sex with her, and implying somehow that he would have. It was more stealth resistance and guerilla war than open hostilities, and a dynamic between a group of male peers that I was pretty much unfamiliar with among my own male friends back in Ann Arbor. I could recall guys in my Junior High classes behaving like that, but they were not the type of guys I chose to hang with in high school or college.
So as it started to get dark and we were getting hungry, me and the boys found our way to the recommended trattoria across the river for dinner. It was still cold and rainy outside and the place was cozy and warm with it’s single room with little rickety tables and chairs for about thirty, surrounded by counters on three sides with additional stools to sit at, the fourth wall being the entrance and windows looking out to the street. The big brick ovens were just behind the counter on one side, pumping out the heat and glowing with embers of burning wood, the smell of which filled the room along with cooked garlic, green peppers and onions, plus the aroma of juicy chickens roasting on spits. Though there were a few customers seated at the counters who looked like actual locals, or at least Italians, the majority of the diners were young adult types I either recognized from the youth hostel or looked like they were fellow long-haired backpacker types.
When the guys from Cleveland and I entered the place, Jen and Sarah were there at a table, holding court with three or four guys clustered around them laughing at Jen’s stories and Sarah’s occasional pithy comments, between big slurpy gulps as they messily chowed down on big plates of spaghetti or lasagna. Jen pointed at and Coopstered me when I came in with the Cleveland guys, and Sarah grinned at me and rolled her eyes at her partner’s extreme extroversion. We found seats across the room at the long table by the door and front window. Later when Trix and her mates showed up, the diminutive Kiwi slash alien from outer space looked about at the crowd and shook her head, perhaps regretting having turned so many of the rest of us on to the place. But a group of people had just left at our table and I waved them over.
Trix’s train compartment comrade Amelia, her big breasts emphasized by the tight turtleneck she was wearing, ended up sitting down just to my left at our long table. Trix sat across from her with her travel partner Evelyn squeezed in on one side and next to Michael on the other, with Matt across from him and Derrick on my right at the end of the table. Trix quickly noticed the three guys whispering to each other and staring at Amelia’s chest, and Amelia, though mainly engaged in a conversation on the other end of the table, getting uncomfortable and making fitful glances in their direction. Trix shot a knowing look at me, chuckled, and then leaned towards the three guys for a quick low voice aside while Amelia wasn’t looking their way.
“Okay boys, don’t be rude, yes she certainly has a pair!”
She didn’t even say it angrily but more resigned and matter of fact. The three of them snapped out of their libidinous thrall, and caught in Trix’s green eyed alien from outer space gaze, Michael and Matt mouthed a barely whispered “Sorry”. Derrick, at the end of the table, did not meet Trix’s gaze but just scowled quietly.
Trix chuckled and decided to quickly change the subject. “So, this your first day in Florence?” she asked the three of them. The three nodded and it was Michael actually who rattled off the places we had gone to. Matt, and finally Peter chimed in as well. Trix shared what she and Evelyn had done, with Evelyn embellishing. With Trix kind of facilitating, soon the conversation was circling between us four males on our end of the table and the six females on the other side.
And so the evening went, several dozen backpackers from the States, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Great Britain, enjoying conversing in the English language they all shared and the camaraderie of each other in the warm and cozy confines of a small Florentine trattoria along the Arno river, on an otherwise inclement evening. Most doing the ‘circuit’, some come from Venice headed next to Rome, others come from Rome and headed to Venice. Comparing notes or suggesting what was ‘must see’ in the Italian cities ahead for the others. Fellow travelers used to being in much smaller groups of two to four, but happily sharing a larger circle on this occasion.
At one point Jen got up from her table in the corner and started to ‘work the room’, as my mom would say, and do at parties. Sarah stayed at their table and watched as Jen moved from table to table introducing herself and once each person had initially replied, trying to guess where they were from based on their accent. She would often get it right, but even when she missed the mark, would make a whole funny bit of it, which was very charming and totally disarming her new acquaintance.
I noticed she would try to compliment everyone on something about their look or what they were wearing. Maybe their hair or the color of their eyes. If they wore glasses maybe those. Or a cap, hat or scarf. Even a shirt, sweater or jacket. She seemed to love foot wear, particularly big gnarly hiking boots or, of course, my two-inch heels. Those compliments were yet another way she would disarm her conversational comrades and tease out more about them. Back at the Rome hostel she had even complimented that guy’s butt. I guess she had been in a particularly wanton mood that evening, because her compliments this time were more mannered. And everyone was pretty much sitting so she could not even get a good look at their rear ends.
When she got to our table she maneuvered up behind me and put a hand on my left shoulder and then smacked the side of my right shoulder with her other hand while she scanned all the others at our long table, including the Cleveland guys and Trix and her crew.
“Hey all you gents and ladies, is the Coopster here keeping you entertained with his stories?” Her words were loud, projecting, spoken with what I would call a ‘theater voice’. Then taking another look at everyone around me, “Looks like you’ve attracted quite the entourage, mate!” I was a bit embarrassed, and was convinced she liked making me so, watching my squirm, though I did my best to hold form and not let her get me flustered.
“Hey Comrade Jen”, I shot back, throwing in a pulpy Russian accent for the ‘Comrade’ as I looked up at her with just a wisp of a grin and a raise of one eyebrow (I’d actually practiced that, like Leonard Nimoy’s Mister Spock). With her big hands still on my shoulders, though not at all unwelcome, I felt like it was wimpy, overly passive, to just sit there with her touching me and not touch her back. So I reached across my body with my right hand and put it on top of her hand on my left shoulder.
Grabbing her big warm hand sent electricity all through my body. The last time I had taken one of my female peer’s hands was like over a year ago when I danced on stage with my chorus partner Rhonda in the musical Most Happy Fella at Western the previous fall. Though Rhonda and I could have even maybe developed a relationship outside of play rehearsals, I had been, per usual, a total chickenshit and not even at least tried to pursue it. And I had managed to go the entire year since then without any relationship with a female type that involved even hand holding, let alone kissing or making out or more. Of course there was that moment a couple days back walking Rome’s streets alone with Jen’s partner Sarah when she got intimidated by some guys walking by us and reached over and held my upper arm like we were a couple. But I don’t know that that quite counted, though I had enjoyed the moment immensely.
Back in this moment I could see that the boys from Cleveland were intimidated by big in-your-face Jen. I expected it would be Trix, certainly an alpha in her own right though not so gregarious as the big Aussie, to be the first to introduce herself. Instead it was Rosie, a fellow Australian, certainly not Jen’s physical stature, but with a big blonde mane of curly hair not that unlike Jen’s, though now up in that wild ponytail.
“Cheers Jen, I’m Rosie”.
“Cheers mate”, Jen responded, sizing Rosie up. “Love the big blonde hair or course!” Jen mocked a little coy smile and fake arranged her own big mop of blonde hair. Rosie laughed, an instant Jen acolyte I could tell.
“And the flannel shirt”, Jen noted, “Stewart tartan right?”
Rosie’s nose wrinkled, “I have no fucking idea!”
Jen gave out a big belly laugh at that response, from somewhere just above my head, her big tits tussling with my own mane of hair as she laughed. Her hands still on my shoulders but double the electricity now that her breasts were adding their energy to our proximity.
“You sound like another bloody banana bender if my ears are still spot on”, Jen noted.
“Indeed mate, spot on”, Rosie responded, “Cairns”.
“Me too”, chimed in Amelia.
Jen still behind me, I saw her hands on either side of me make fists with thumbs up and point back at her.
“Toowoomba ladies”, she said proudly. Rosie and Amelia beamed, having found another from their own stomping grounds I figured. Then sizing up Amelia’s good looks and blonde locks, Jen cooed and again pretending to play with her own hair said, “Look at all us hot blonde babes!”
Jen then smacked my shoulders with her hands. “Good man, Coopster! You managed to hook up with a bunch more Oz girls!”
This was the cue for Trix, silent so far, to finally chime in.
“En zed here mate, not O zed!” She winked at Jen and those wild green eyes flared below her five random pigtails. I had heard some talk about rivalry between Australians and New Zealanders, and could hear that bit of edge in Trix’s words. She then stood up, which did not increase her stature that much, but better displayed her gravitas, and stuck out her right hand to shake Jen’s.
“I’m Trix”, she said categorically, “It’s a pleasure.”
Though Jen was still just behind me so mostly out of my line of sight, I could feel her energy change, like Trix hadn’t been on her radar. I wondered if the big Australian had missed the diminutive New Zealander because of her stature or even the fact that she was not a white person. Jen missed a beat, but only one before she recovered and reached out her hand to join Trix’s.
“En zed it is. Presumptuous me. A pleasure Trix!”
Their hands clasped in what felt like a more formal handshake. I could see the sinews in each of their fingers tighten. Even the hardest walnut between those two hands would have been crushed to smithereens. I was waiting for Jen to fling out one of her signature compliments.
Before the moment was lost she finally did. “Ya got killer green eyes, mate. And I LOVE the hair!” Jen waving her hands over her own head for emphasis.
Trix gave the slightest wry grin, like she had Jen’s schtick all sorted out. “Ta, mate. Yeah I’m not QUITE as tall as you so”, she waved her hands above her own head mimicking the way Jen had just done, “all this keeps people from forgetting I’m down here.”
“It does indeed”, Jen noted. I sensed she still did not know quite what to make of the diminutive bronze-skinned Kiwi.
Evelyn stood up as well leading to another relatively formal call out of names and stout handshake, Jen complimenting Evelyn’s sweater.
Now it was time to bring the boys from Cleveland into the fold. They had just been sitting at their end of the table mostly talking quietly with each other and casting only occasional glances at pretty and curvy Amelia. I was expecting alpha Derrick to now introduce himself, but he and his comrades just sat there. Finally it was Michael, seated across from me facing Jen who still hovered behind me, who spoke.
“Hey Jen, I’m Michael”, he said breezily with a smile, waving his right hand at her rather sheepishly, which preempted her standard move to shake hands. Derrick and Matt quickly followed, just calling out their first names and waving, with looks on their faces like this was a formality they had to go through until they could get back to stealing glances at Amelia’s tits.
I looked up at Jen to get her reaction, and I could see by that little wrinkle in her nose that she was a bit miffed at their passive response, but was not going to be thrown off her game.
“Hey, boys!” She said the word ‘hey’ paroting the clipped way Michael had said it to her, following it with ‘boys’ instead of their names, or even ‘mates’ or ‘gents’, like she would have normally done. She also mimicked their little hand wave, like she was making the point of how lame it was by showing them what it looked like. As I had said before, the three of them looked like high school kids dressed up like hippies for halloween, particularly Michael with his whole Jimi Hendrix headband and ‘fro.
I was embarrassed for the three of them, but also realized that I felt they reflected poorly on me in Jen’s, and Trix and her cohort’s eyes, this jury of my somewhat older female peers. I pondered why I couldn’t let ‘the boys’ just be themselves, who they were, somewhat grown up kids playing at being hippies. They weren’t me. But was my self-esteem so tenuous that I feared even associating myself with them and being revealed as the faux wannabe that I felt like much of the time.
Like she’d done in that whole scene where we first met in the common room of the Rome hostel, Jen called out to Sarah across the small packed eating area of the trattoria.
“Hey Shakespeare!” Summoning her as well with a wagging finger.
And just as before, big-haired heads of our fellow backpackers, getting their daily allotment of deliciously hot cheap pasta in the place, turned to eyeball the big brash Aussie who had called it out. Then looked about for the Bard or someone presumptuous enough to usurp his name.
Sarah’s head briefly turned as well and I could see her shoulders slump a bit. It looked like she was in the midst of an intense conversation with a couple other people at her table and not wanting to stop, the wayward Jen’s empty chair next to her. Continuing to make some point to the guy across the table from her and touching his forearm as she did, Sarah flicked her other hand up in the air and put up her index finger signalling to give her a minute. Jen made a little pout and her eyes met mine.
“M’lady travels to the beat of a diff’rent drum!” I recognized the reference to Linda Ronstadt’s Stone Poneys song lyric, and Jen spoke the words with the same cadence as the opening line of the song, which now triggered in my mind’s jukebox…
You and I travel to the beat of a diff’rent drum
Oh, can’t you tell by the way I run
Every time you make eyes at me Wo oh
I could see Jen’s eyes get soft and introspective, a different look from her than I’d seen before. She spoke for once quietly, barely audible even to me right next to her in the crowded noisy trattoria.
“M’Lady needs her champion by her side. I desist!”
Jen then raised her head to address all eight of us sitting at the table with her fog cutting Aussie drawl.
“I should return to my comrade over yonder and make sure she’s not telling too many tall tales”, said to all, but winking at me. “It’s been a pleasure, and I’m sure the Coopster here will continue to entertain you with his tales. Make sure he tells you the one about his commie high school history teacher in uh Moscow Michigan!” One more smack of my shoulder and she was off.
I watched her slowly make her way through the tightly packed young backpacker type pasta slurpers back to her table, continuing to work the room and coming up with something to say to just about everyone she made eye contact with as she squeezed between the seated diners. It occurred to me that she would have made that great older sister that I’d never had, a confidant and advisor to help me navigate all the social dynamics with both parents, teachers and peers that a shy kid like me struggled with.
There actually was a tiny town of Moscow Michigan about forty miles southwest of Ann Arbor, but she couldn’t possibly have been that expert on arcane U.S. geography. But of course that wasn’t what she was talking about. She knew where I lived and went to school. She was just stirring the pot, sewing creative chaos to force everyone to rise to the occasion, she a nihilist really of sorts. Planting a seed for the others at my table to ask me, “So you had a communist history teacher in high school in Moscow Michigan? What’s that all about?”. Giving me the intro to tell a story she figured I liked to tell, and that she at least had enjoyed watching the ‘Coopster’ tell, hand gestures and all. That was what made Jen Jen.
When I turned back to my table mates it was actually Derrick, cowed by Jen but now struggling to get back to form in her absence, who took the bait.
“You went to high school in Moscow Michigan?”