The house was only blocks away, so I got there in minutes. Staci’s sobs were already breathless heaves. All I could do was hold her and utter empty words: “What is it, sweetheart? Tell me what I can do.”
The crying eased, and she forced out broken fragments: “Sorry. So sorry.” Then the gasps came back. And still I had no notion. Was someone in a wreck? Had one of her parents died? Rape suddenly broadsided me, and I nearly panicked. She’d been at the library late. I shoved the gruesome images down and away, then held her tighter.
After maybe ten minutes, Staci’s breaths grew slightly deeper and her shoulders sagged. The desperate sobs turned to whimpers. I grasped some words—“gross” and “awful”—but not the source of her terror. Eventually we sank onto her worn blue couch. Her chin rose slightly, the first time she’d looked at me. I watched the tears cascade onto her robe. “The worst thing that’s ever happened to me,” she stammered. Then her hands were covering her face again. “I think it’s me, not you,” I heard her say.
What turned out to be “only” a case of body lice should have been my tipoff. Once her crying gave over to outrage, Staci acted innocent enough: Looking back, the stages were humiliation, more tears, then blaming, and finally her confessing to the crabs’ creepy presence, struggling to convince me it couldn’t be her. Or if it was, she’d caught them innocently. From a toilet seat maybe. Only years later could I face the reality that she’d probably been unfaithful the whole time. After all, hadn’t cheating on her last boyfriend been what thrust us together?
It was my first “failed” relationship—at least the first one I’d gone all in for—and it left me in ruins for years. Maybe still does. Up to then I’d been guarded and selfish, but Staci—to lift a line from Great Gatsby, a novel I’d blown off in lit class that first year back from Nam—“was the first nice girl [I’d] ever known.” Trust me, I know how pompous that sounds; it’s actually worse, though, when you tie it into the arrogance oozing from the crevices of my own rotten soul. We’d sprung full-grown from the wreckage of her four-year romance with an athlete BMOC she’d “outgrown.”
All my worst “selfs”—self-loathing, self-blaming, (lack of) self-esteem—had come crashing together my first semester in Lawrence and driven me into hiding: staying to myself when I could or ducking certain topics. I’d gone back as a junior, so I knew the ropes, but eventually dropped all my classes to avoid straight F’s. These sorry grades grew mainly from loneliness. I couldn’t stand any of the other students, but really, really hated the constant blatherers or those who exuded any whiff of Greek-ness. “Discussion classes,” they were called—in Poli-Sci, History and English, the only subjects I could stomach. I’d sidestepped math and languages by forging the advisor’s signature, and never even shown up for no-fail biology.
I didn’t open my mouth in any of the occasional sessions I actually made it to. For one, I never read the assignments. Not that I didn’t read: in fact, I’d stay up all night in my crummy Lawrence apartment blasting through James A. Michener or Leon Uris or Ayn Rand—the lurid, violent stuff of my recent life. And then there was this: I couldn’t begin to live up to the suave-raconteur pose of my own fantasies. I’d pretend my classroom silences were a choice, not crudescent fear.
I’d perch in the very back of the dusty classrooms, staring out filmy windows at yellowing leaves, picturing ways of silencing the eager voices in front of me: A sudden larynx-shattering strangle-hold from behind was my usual go-to—our favorite choking maneuver during hand-to-hand training in the Marines. Or sometimes I’d delay the reckoning until after class, when a quick boot to the upper back might propel some glib offender headfirst down the marble stairs. Either way, it would end (what I imagined were) their sly glances and under-the-breath comments to friends. I should add here that I myself had no friends; and, unlike my be-Weeguned classmates, actually wore boots—“salty” jungle ones I’d brought back, and which totally betrayed the uncool clinging to me.
Afterwards, the ten-cent bus ride home being beyond my means, I’d traipse the two miles home and lock myself in, swilling the cheapest wine I could afford with my slender GI Bill money (Gallo Paisano—$3.40 a gallon), glaring vengefully at the evening news on my twelve-inch black-and-white, mind aboil with seething, self-righteous carnage.
Of course, these rabid fantasies could bloom only as long as I actually showed up for classes. Even this ended when Kansas pitched an early cold snap and staying in bed grew easier. November 15 had been the Viet Nam Moratorium on campuses across the country, and I think the day I decided to check it in. Some scruffy protestors—the opposite of my trendy frat enemies, but no less vile to me—had forced their way into Politics and History of Southeast Asia, chiding the instructor for not calling class. I was livid, but couldn’t decide which I hated worse, the Greeks, the longhairs, or the wishy-washy professor. Anyway, I never went back. Since I was failing everything, you couldn’t exactly say I dropped out (the term dignifies my motives too much). What it signaled, though, was the need for a job, or I’d soon be slouching back to my parents’ basement. In the end, I chose going to seed right where I was.
I did have one remaining human contact, my roommate, Woolley, who in most ways was even more worthless. He was a massive class avoider, one who stayed fed with a small monthly allowance from his mother. He’d pad this meager pittance with what he called his college survival skills: bribery, charm, and shoplifting. By mid-December, not even these could keep us afloat. Rent was overdue; power and phone turned off; prospects scant for any tuition money come January. Woolley took off for Mississippi to sponge off friends for a month. I was forced to get a job in a nearby Taco Bell: greasy, demeaning labor that provided me a meal per shift. My co-workers seemed nice enough—and were spared the venom coursing through me—but I saw in them dispirited ghosts of Christmas future: college dropouts, no particular goals, looming middle-class lives.
At some point, I realized the gas in our apartment was still on—a fuckup by the power company, no doubt—so I’d light the stove burners and sleep on the hard kitchen tiles. My GI Bill cessation notice came less than a week after I’d quit, but I figured I could fox them by pre-enrolling for spring. I hauled myself up to campus on a chill early-January day and did just that. In those days, you could put off paying tuition for a couple months if you played things right. Buying books wasn’t a worry since I’d formed a plan to bolt for California once I’d ratholed enough government bucks. Not that I had the vaguest idea what I’d do there. My clothes hung off me like they’d been stolen from a laundromat.
Pre-enrollment turned out to be my lucky day. On a frigid, nearly deserted campus, the Student Union happened to be open. I ducked inside to warm up and found myself pawing through a used newspaper. Deathly sick of Taco Bell, I turned to the help-wanteds. One stood out right away: part-time bartender at a local hotel. I figured why not? I was spending half my cash on booze anyway, maybe this could cut costs. I dropped a precious dime into the pay phone and dialed.
Fortunately, the club manager answered. He had an accent of some sort and was difficult to understand, but I scheduled an interview for later that day, just before their afternoon opening. The hotel was on the opposite side of town; luckily I had just enough change in my pocket for buses, but that left me with four empty hours. I sat in the cafeteria sipping hot water out of an un-bused coffee cup. Dress-wise, they’d just have to take me the way I was. The club itself was named the Rubaiyat. I knew it was the title of a poem, even if I’d never read it.
The manager turned out to be Iranian (Persian, as he insisted, the Shah still being on his throne), and a dedicated womanizer. His name was Mohammed-Ali Masoud, but he insisted on Masoud alone. From what I could tell, he’d been imported as a sort of exotic by one of the hotel’s owners, a self-styled Lawrence playboy and world traveler. Masoud was thought “interesting,” as I’d find out, at least by women of a certain age (such as that owner’s wife), with his accent, thin build, and slightly walleyed gaze. He wore flared, cheap, Asian suits specially tailored for him.
He motioned me inside the dim, empty club and seated us in black, low-slung leatherette chairs. The deep-red walls glowed with iridescent gold leaf. The only other person in the place was a cocktail waitress busy toothpicking cherries into orange slices. Aside from an initial glance, she paid no attention to us. Masoud’s first question was how I liked the harem costumes he’d designed. I glanced over—the woman’s outfit was scanty and quite Persian, I guessed—and told him they were really striking. He gestured for his girl, as he termed her, to attend us at our polished brass table. When she arrived, I saw a kind of hardness in her eyes, like she wasn’t pleased about something. Masoud ordered an orange juice for himself and a non-alcoholic beverage for me. When these arrived, he reached into his valise and pulled out a banana, which he proceeded to peel. Very carefully and fastidiously, I noticed. We both sat silent while he alternately chewed small bites of the pulp and loudly sucked at his orange juice.
When he’d finished, Masoud tossed the peel onto the table and leaned back. “For the ladies,” he said, gesturing at the flaccid banana skin. “We all eat much fruit, keeps us strong.” The diction threw me for a second, especially the royal we; at first I thought he meant everyone who worked there, though the “strong” was also mysterious. I chalked it up to his struggles with English and only later learned how the words lay bare his Persio-centric biases.
Masoud proceeded to discuss his feelings about women, telling me they were here solely for “our” pleasure. “Pleasing” them though required regular renewals of “energy,” such as that provided by the banana. As degraded as my sensibilities were, I still felt shocked. Did he imagine he was running some kind of actual harem here in Middle America? I couldn’t help glancing at the waitress framed in the light of an open storeroom door with her sheer, flowing pants and skimpy top. Was she the site of his expended energy?
Only after calling her over again—Vicki turned out to be her name—to clear our debris did Masoud get to the point, asking me what my most recent job had been. I decided it might be better to skip Taco Bell, which could be too declasse for his tastes. Instead I told him, the Marine Corps. He seemed pleased. He told me he’d known (in some vague way) a U.S. Embassy guard in Tehran and was very impressed with the man. Who wouldn’t be? Embassy guards were tall, stoic, and impeccably turned out—qualities no one would associate with me. Evidently, though, it was enough to elevate me to the next rung. He called Vicki over and asked if Jim, the head bartender, had come in. As it happened, he had and was busy inventorying liquor. Masoud nodded, stood up, and motioned me to follow him. I’d passed part one.
Things went fine with Jim, though I’m sure I gaped at his outfit—black toreador pants; gaudy, flowered shirt; a red sash circling his waist. He mainly wanted to know how dependable I was, and how fast I caught on to things. His questions were direct and down-to-earth; I got the impression that the “job” of student wouldn’t impress him, so I included Taco Bell this time. Things would sit better, I figured, if I was actually employed and just looking for a higher billet. I didn’t try any lies or evasions, just related my prior civilian work—furniture-mover, farm laborer, construction grunt—then, suddenly remembering the only positive thing my drill instructor had ever said about me, blurted out that I had fast hands. He caught my eye a second, then hired me on the spot. I’d start the next day, when he’d outfit me in my own costume and fill me in on everything. I walked out fingering the change in my pocket. I’d have to do one last Taco Bell shift to eat for the day.
Bartending not only changed my luck but in some ways turned out to be my métier. The Rubaiyat’s environment was cordial, the complimentary meals in the hotel restaurant dependable (and civilized), I had tip money in my pocket, and, most of all, I’d perfected a new mask. I was always a decent mimic, so it wasn’t hard to pick up the conversation style of my co-workers and customers. If I heard something that seemed socially cool, I right away owned it. An example would be punctuating my spiel with “my dear” and “darling” when speaking to the cocktail waitresses; it’s what the regular customers and other bartenders did.
I found myself working with a sophisticated group—virtually all grad students, accomplished and popular, not to mention pleasing to look at, yet part of a demimonde that prized the leftover energy to work and drink in a variety of Lawrence bars. I quickly invented another self, one able to stay afloat in such an environment, and then added layers as needed—making myself out to be an educated, intelligent, slightly mysterious dilettante (here’s where my wide reading helped). Within a short time, Jim was transporting me to the Flamingo Club after work in order to swill even more booze than I’d snuck on the job—we all did it, the three bartenders and four waitresses—and introducing me around to the Lawrence bar-scene gentry. It turned out to be no trouble adopting the town’s louche insouciance.
The Rubaiyat itself was a hothouse of sexual intrigue. Beyond the owner’s wife and his own live-in girlfriend (a bedraggled, mousy person who only appeared on weekends), Masoud entertained a number of women in any given week (his fruit bill must have been enormous, we’d joke), but he also moved constantly on one of the waitresses, Valerie, though so far as I could see she managed to resist his oozy charms. Jim was sleeping with Vicki, despite her being married and putting her husband through college. Sandy, who lived with her boyfriend, was the continual target of the other hotel owner, who sauntered in daily, sans-wife, the moment the doors opened. Larry stayed dedicated to his girlfriend for a while, but eventually got swept up too. I myself fell into the clutches of the hotel’s night desk-manager (Hence, a choice of empty rooms!) while her live-in bf, a full-time student, was home sleeping. Only Staci seemed to stay constant and aloof.
I make this situation sound like some sort of Hugh Hefner fever dream, but, of course, it wasn’t. Beneath the surface was frantic desperation, a constant sense of guilt, and vile intrigue. There wasn’t a stable one among us, someone who wasn’t sexually ambitious, who didn’t think he or she could “do better.” All borders got breached: honesty, fidelity, respect, self-respect, ordinary decency. We were thrust into a moral hollow space we didn’t understand or have any way of freeing ourselves from. Relationships evaporated, replaced by queasy, drunken trysts; honor and fidelity were set to heel. Emotional debts got instantly cancelled, the well-being of debtor and lender alike scattered like corn to chickens. In ways not always figurative, rapine and theft consumed us.
We stood in the hotel parking lot that Mayday night, Staci and I, watching the towering flames across the valley. Distant blue and red lights swirled, and faint howls of sirens bounced off midnight clouds, angry with flickers. I remember thinking of Yeats’s words “the blood-dimmed tide is loosed.” Now back in school, I’d discovered his poetry that spring and its images were suddenly everywhere. The Union was burning—the very place I’d called Masoud from—crumbling in an arsonist’s flames. Two other buildings had also been firebombed in the reaction to Nixon’s Cambodian invasion. It didn’t occur to me then, but this was the first time I’d ever seen Staci outside the club’s dim, smoky interior.
It also turned out to be Lawrence’s last curfew-free night: “nonessential” citizens were locked in at sundown, while uproarious parties raged in every sleazy complex. Drunks competed for floor space with mounds of empties; weed smoke drifted shoulder high in each apartment; cheap portables pounded out Credence and Santana; every squealing siren raised cheers. Then, within days, Kent State happened. Nixon’s bombs had reached us all.
With protests spreading, KU’s chancellor suspended school. Lawrence immediately became a huge, wide-open party. The pent-up energy led to one, final, lawless blast. Woolley got on the phone and convened a blowout at our place. My new-earned wealth had gotten rent caught up and utilities restored, but the place itself was a ruin: carpets burned and stained, holes in the sheetrock, food rotting in the refrigerator. We felt absolutely no obligation to what we termed the management cabal, so Woolley called everyone he knew. Unfortunately, I had to work at seven.
So did Staci, as it turned out. She seemed upset when she got there, and started drinking earlier than usual. Naturally I joined her. We both had whiskey sours. And then more whiskey sours. They eased our sorrows, which for her included a big fight with her jock boyfriend. When the last drunks wobbled out at one o’clock, it was just the two of us. I took a chance and asked her if she wanted to go to a party. Surprisingly, she not only said yes, but seemed enthusiastic. I didn’t yet own a car, so she drove.
We heard the stereo blaring as soon as we pulled into the shabby complex; inside, though, the partiers themselves seemed wasted. They paid absolutely no attention to us. I didn’t recognize any of them; Woolley was nowhere to be seen. As if it were somehow pre-agreed-upon, Staci and I tiptoed down the hall and into my bedroom. In short order, we were locked in a panting embrace, then found ourselves entwined on my single bed. I remember her telling me at some point that she’d started with the boyfriend right out of high school. He’d been All-State in football, she added. But it was all over now.
We were immediately together everywhere. Staci, it turned out, needed someone—some male—constantly with her. As disheveled as I was, she had to make me a project: yet another re-invention, one I gladly got in step with. She herself was a total slave to fashion, to the point of sewing her own wardrobe. I quickly found myself being clothed (literally and as a cliché) in ways I otherwise wouldn’t have imagined. We upgraded my rundown “look” with fashionable clothes and more frequent haircuts. We appeared in Lawrence’s more chic dinner spots. In this re-formulation, I was smart, witty, hip, and most of all fun. After work, we’d jump into my new Volkswagen (another of her insistences) and drive all night to Estes Park for a weekend of revelry. Or, on impulse, we’d head out for Lake of the Ozarks just to surprise friends living there. We woke up together each glorious morning, my former frightened, bitter persona now banished.
Both of us were bred from insecurity. Staci’s vanities were social. She’d actually come from a modest background, her parents having migrated to Kansas City from somewhere in Deepest Ozarkia. Her mother’s people were all natives (literally, at least in part—after one holiday trip, she had a Polaroid of her Cherokee grandmother), and her father had had to scramble to attend college. His degree in chemistry, in fact, is what brought them to industry-rich Kansas City. She’d only “emerged” socially after high school, she told me, “risen” at chic KU from the family’s modest background to her present status as habitue’ of trendy clubs and boutiques.
For me, though, the seething creature below this veneer strained against its newly grown skin. The suave, dapper persona we’d invented strode blithely through the frivolous milieu, desperate to be of it. In reality, even though Staci had ushered me into acceptance, I’d never found a way to unload my burdened past, the lurking will to mayhem. I was absolutely primed for the inevitable fall that everyone else saw coming.
Less than a year into our relationship, I got fired from the Rubaiyat because of an ownership change (the scion of Persia was canned too). Staci was welcomed into the new regime and with a decided uptick in costumery. I picked up gigs in other bars and continued with my BA; even though I still trailed a string of incompletes, I was technically in my final semester, with the university at least temporarily willing to entertain my excuses. Staci, on the other hand, was working on her M.A. and searching for a “real” job, which is to say a more normal life. Of course, I remained blithely unaware of this shift.
I’d become complacent about us, and in many ways slipped back into the morass I’d carried home from Viet Nam—negative, critical of society, posing as an intellect, disdaining the empty rituals around us. Ironically, this cynical personality was closer to the “real” me than anything I’d exhibited in two years. Staci, I’d privately decided at some point, was actually the shallow one for balking at my recognitions of this person or that event as a mere veneer of our hollow culture (and yes, I spoke that way then). Ironically, it was really the “counterculture”—totally passé in our trendy milieu—whose everything-is-corrupt values I’d unwittingly embraced.
I should have seen it coming, of course. Staci had bigger things in mind—a life, children, a secure middle-class existence—while I’d been busy avoiding the specter I’d lugged home in 1969. It grew inside me, heavier all the time and yet harder to reach. I had spells of what the nineteenth century would have termed “melancholy”—depression, I now see—and became less and less able to leave the house, hers or mine. I only wanted to bury myself in books, and expected people, Staci especially, to accept such behavior.
She and I grew apart, enough that we agreed to start “seeing” other people, though only as “friends.” I got my own place, though we still spent most nights together. I felt broken, but too late; worse, I was lost. I started going out with a couple of other women. My boozing, always fairly heavy, got worse, and so did my behavior. My violent urges came back, not toward her, but generally. I got into three fairly gruesome fights, all in bars where I worked. I seethed with anger and my instincts were vicious: None of my targets knew he was in a fight until it was over. It was like my KU classroom fantasies, but real.
Sometime in early December, shortly after the crab episode and just before my last college exams, I was working at a seedy college bar called the Mad Hatter. It was midnight and not very busy. A drunk pal of mine, also an ex-Marine, asked me to hold his piece for him, a military .45 as it turned out. He was a law student, but his real pastime was selling pills, so he always “packed heat,” as he liked to term it. He must have been sampling his own wares that night because he was feeling cops in every lurking patron. We slipped outside and ferried the pistol from his car to mine. I watched him eject the magazine and clear the action, then shoved it under the seat of my VW. It was exactly the kind of self-destructive behavior I invited at that point.
After I got off, drunk and lonely, I drove by Staci’s duplex. A strange car sat parked in her driveway; her own was pulled up in the shadows of the carport. The windows were all dark. I rode slowly around the block, mind racing, refusing to grasp the obvious. I told myself it was probably a girlfriend staying over; or maybe Staci had borrowed her cousin’s car. I decided I needed to call rather than barging in. I drove to an all-night filling station and huddled inside the booth, cutting off the frigid wind.
After several rings, I heard Staci’s drowsy hello. It took a minute of bluster to force her into the truth: she was with another man. I fumed and cursed, then suddenly remembering the pistol, announced I had it and was coming over. I had no intention of even touching the now-harmless piece—or probably even going back—but when I heard the receiver slam down, some ghostly message from my cerebral cortex must have overridden any sense I had left. By the time I pulled over just down from her house, I felt trapped in my own rage and fear. I just sat there, hands on the wheel.
I remember actually feeling relieved—grateful really—watching both of them dash out the front door and leap into his car. I sat riveted at my darkened post as it lurched backward out of the drive, then screeched up the street and around the corner. I steered home blinking away tears, my whole made-up self knocked from under me.
I saw Staci one more time after that. It was twenty years later, in Lawrence. I was delivering the final copy of my dissertation to the committee director, ecstatic at having that grueling hump behind me. I knew she still lived there but had avoided her, partly out of shame, but maybe a squinch of fear too—she’d married the guy I’d sent fleeing that night, who was, of course, another KU jock.
We met at a downtown coffee place. I thought she looked terrific, basically herself with a few years added. She had two kids, a boy and a girl, both in school, and the husband was a university administrator. She didn’t work herself, despite her education MA, or rather she’d been a day-care attendant before she got pregnant the first time. No professions of anger or disgust were forthcoming; in fact she said she was sort of glad to see me, but that hubby had sworn to kill me if he ever had the chance.
That was back then though, she added. Maybe I was safe.
Jeff Loeb lives and writes in New York City. Prior occupations include: US Marine, bartender, construction worker, waiter, truck driver, furniture mover, carpenter, college and university teacher, radio reporter, assistant city manager, cable television company manager, photography studio owner, farmer/rancher, and teacher. He has a PhD in English from the University of Kansas. Journal publications include Adelaide (multiple), American Studies, African American Review (multiple), English Journal, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood (multiple), and War, Literature, and the Arts (multiple). Book entries include “Foreword” in Black Prisoner of War and “Afterword” in Memphis, Nam Sweden.