My palms were red and burned from all the clapping. If I had wanted to be first out of the block, however, I was too late, for after having taken several questions, one or two cripplingly cynical, the speaker was now shaking hands and talking to the lingering audience. The boy standing there next to him wasn’t about to let go either, I could tell—the boy with his head in the stars, looking up to Ross, eyes burning bright. He stood ready to pounce every time anyone paused for breath, and I disapproved of him, his clod-hopping eagerness trampling over the fine nobleness that had been conjured here tonight. The man at the center of it all patiently listened to, spoke with everyone in turn, his manner grave and polite, his actual thoughts about it all unreadable.
There were only a few stragglers left when I got up to leave, turning around, pulling my coat off the back of my chair. His words had left me in a thoughtful, subdued frame of mind. A lot to contemplate, compelling company for the walk home. Ross saw me get up and with practiced skill interrupted the young admirer, putting his hand on his arm, and not taking no for an answer, broke away and came over to me. He said quickly, “Can you stay for a minute? I’d like to apologize for earlier. Maybe we could get a cup of coffee or something; I haven’t eaten.”
“Oh, sure,” I said. (Are you kidding?) “That would be nice.”
“Great,” he said, gently smacking his palm with his fist as if that was easily accomplished, a gesture I didn’t care for, then half-walking, half-trotting back to his remaining fans.
After a few more parting handshakes and promises to undertake great things, it was just Ross and the boy. The volunteers were cleaning up, unplugging and dumping the coffee, stacking the folding chairs. I couldn’t guess how long he’d be and felt stupid just standing there, so I motioned to him that I’d wait out in the hall. Alone for the moment, I paced the entryway, stopping now and then to bite my lip and look up at the ceiling—the floodgates of expectation wide open now—my agitated mind and heart racing each other without restraint.
Finally he must have had enough. The kid left, giving me a sidelong glance, and Ross came out fiddling with his scarf and papers. “Sorry about that.”
“This is the second time tonight you’ve apologized to me.”
Ross didn’t know how to take that and didn’t answer directly. “I told you my name, but you never told me yours.”
“Amy, Amy Templeton.”
He smiled, “Well, Ms. Templeton, how about Greenwood Pizza? Do you mind going there?”
“No, that’s fine.”
“Good, my car’s parked out back.”
“Oh, we’ll have to walk. You’ll never get a space, y’know, Toad’s Place. It’s not very far.”
“Right. Let’s go.”
We went out through the basement door, up the steps into the night. It must have rained during Ross’ talk though showers weren’t forecast. Outside the dark streets were wet, mirroring the multicolored lights and a fresh wind was blowing the dampness away. The phantasmal scene glimmered and twinkled, reflecting my state of mind. Just like Alice pushing herself through the glass, we had stepped through to the other side it seemed, into a transformed street world—everything familiar still extant but with a slightly charged and fantastic quality to it. Even ordinary things, even me. So we walked up the side streets through the shimmering lights and mild air, sidestepping the puddles, up to campus, an underlying lightness to our gait.
We arrived at the brightly lit and crowded Greenwood Pizza. Music was wafting, a steady beat pulsing from Toad’s Place up the block, that crowd just starting to filter in, a small group of poseurs already clustering outside in front of the window. I followed Ross into Greenwood; we were lucky and got a booth without too much waiting. There, sitting across from him, tantalizingly close, face to face, I could study him with impunity. The curves of his mouth, the dark spiky hair, the reflected neon sparkling in his eyes whenever he turned his head. I almost could not process it, and with emotions already stretched tight, I throbbed with jittery excitement, flushed and wrought-up. This couldn’t be for me; it was too much. I had met my match and I could only wonder at it. Because I knew in my heart I would do anything for this man. For a man who held everything universally positive and powerful in his eyes, but who also kept the wounds—the worst that had been done, sunk by the weight of its own terribleness—hunkered there, glinting darkly through the blue waters. Oh, I do believe. Yes, I do. I do.
“It’s warm in here, isn’t it?” I said, fanning myself with the menu. Our knees inadvertently bumped under the table.
“Well, it’s crowded, but the food’s good,” Ross said, shifting, scanning his copy. “What‘re you getting?”
It was crowded, and in my altered state, ground zero, the place to be. The air was steamy and pungent with the smell of garlic even though evening poured in every time someone opened the door. A longing to capture the colors on canvas, the yellow ocher of the hanging atmosphere, the espresso night outside, stirred from a long forgotten place. Our order arrived: gyros and coffee. Everything and everyone pleased me. The coffee had the dizzying kick of wine. The clientele chatting away over the background beat of jukebox music were all on the verge of greatness; some day we’d look back on this night and say, ‘Remember when . . .’ The waiters were witty, the cook and cash register guy running the busy counter like the United Nations. Ross took off his jacket, rolling up the sleeves of his corduroy shirt, and as I guessed, its discolored label confessed it was not a recent purchase—from the fifties perhaps, his father’s maybe.
“Well,” I announced inanely, “I’m so glad I’m came to hear you tonight. I thought what you said was . . . uh, great. And needed to be said.” No discernible response. “Was it a good turnout?”
“Pretty typical,” Ross said through a mouthful of gyro. Swallowing, he continued, “It’s frustrating, though, ’cause basically I’m preaching to the converted. The ones who need to hear aren’t listening.”
Ross was no flirt. He was reserved and his conversation remained focused on his work, never straying into the personal. He seemed more interested in his food than in me. At certain points I could tell he was thinking, responding in his mind to something I said, but never saying anything out loud.
I was beginning to have to work at it a little bit. We had nothing in common in our experience; why would he be interested in anything I had to say? I had nothing to offer, only things I wanted to take. “So what’s next for you? Are you going back to Central America?” A stranger rudely familiar with his past, sticking her nose in where it was none of her business.
“No, not in the near future. Actually—you’ll be interested in this—HRI is planning to open a New England regional office here in New Haven sometime this summer.”
“Really? Why New Haven? I would’ve thought they’d put it in Boston.”
“Well, for several reasons. I’ll be heading it up, and my contacts are here just as much as anywhere else. It’s close to New York, and I’m still going to run some things out of there. We’re planning to set up a national Refugee Office; but we’re not sure yet how or where. We’re just starting to get that going.”
“So you’ll stay in New York.”
“No. I’m here already—in Milford. Right on the water. That’s sort of cool . . .”
“Also, I think it’s a good idea for us to get out of the clutter of all the various groups in Boston. Professor Atkins, one of my old professors at the Law School here, is going to push some of his students to work on field studies with us, and we’re trying to get Yale to give us some office space and support—yeah, good luck, right? I know. Basically except for a skeleton staff, we’re gonna have to rely on volunteers.”
Ross became increasingly animated, his face brightening as he spoke of his plans, and the looking-glass world shuddered with an earthquake jerk back to normal, reality curling its chilly fingers around the back of my neck as I realized he was recruiting. Sure enough, next came the dreaded, “So what is it that you do?”
Sitting across from me was a person who, I imagined, could be living a predictable cushy life instead of risking it doing the heavy lifting, struggling without much reward to make the world a less terrifying place for the “others,” as he called them. What was I suppose to say I’d done so far? ‘Oh, I used to service a tennis player, did the laundry, kept him on an even keel if you know what I mean (wink),’ didn’t seem quite it. I squirmed, having no adequate explanation for my existence; I’d just been unattractively shifting ashes. “Well, I just moved here a little while ago,” I hedged, twisting my hair with my fingers. “I’m working at Sterling, for now anyway. I, I do a lot of, uh, cataloguing in Spanish, you know, for the, uh, Latin American Collection thing. I majored in Spanish, so . . . yeah, stuff like that,” I added, desperate to give my situation some sheen of adequacy.
If Ross was disappointed I wasn’t Joan of Arc, he had the tact not to show it. He plowed forward; he was good at this. “Ah . . . necesitamos gente.”
“You need people?”
“Si, voluntarios. We’re not in a position to offer paying jobs. Your Spanish skills would certainly be helpful to us; particularly in regard to refugee issues . . . that would be great. Do you think you might want to give us some time once we’re set up?”
‘Your Spanish skills would certainly be helpful . . .’ The colors and shapes blurred around me, sucking me back into that hotel room once again facing Michael across the table (‘After all, you gave up your job prospects to join us . . .’). The same formality of phrasing coating the bare-faced request. The similar placing at a distance, the solicitousness that felt like a slap across the face. Confusion ricocheted painfully between my head and heart. I was wounded by having the squeeze put on me like this—but why? A golden opportunity no less. What had I been going on and on about? I didn’t know what I wanted exactly, but I didn’t want this.
“I’ll think about it,” I said coolly, effectively putting the kibosh on any further conversation. Though there was no question I’d be there when they opened the doors, for some reason I just didn’t want to give Ross the satisfaction. I didn’t like being pegged so easily. I wanted to be more important to him than just one more lassoed volunteer, roped in lightly and added to the stable. Unflattering images of myself flashed through my mind—going to the lecture solo, staring like I did, I must have come across as desperate, demented. A wave of humiliation flooded over me at this nasty self-revelation, the smell of the picked-over onions on my plate nauseating me. Sickening me. Sick of being nothing, sick of not having the things people immediately and without thinking wanted.