My Night with Billie Holiday
ecause we were in University and obnoxious and in many ways utterly naïve, my friends and I would buy similarly obnoxious and garish button down shirts either emblazoned with floral Hawaiian prints—the Aloha shirt (Polynesian, I guess)—or silk-screened with something atrociously resembling a far-East dragon, or, more usually, Mandarin or Cantonese script. Or more likely it was I alone who had the bad taste, my friends proving a steady bulwark against my creeping meretriousness. At any rate, the shirts were given to equally obnoxious labeling; one (actually all) being so-called the “Get Laid Shirt.” More, as I would like to recall, a result of our innocence than any general crassness such an atmosphere imbues, the “Get Laid Shirt” embodied a freedom we had yet to grapple with, even less comprehend. There were no consequences—albeit a few, essentially ineffectual university bodies—no limits, no shortage of possibility to our actions. Every sentence either began with the liberatory “I” or the call to arms “We.”
As to the effectiveness of the “Get Laid Shirts,” the data were inconclusive. It seemed I was no more or no less likely to get laid wearing the shirts, and an unlikely three week- streak only added to the sterling perception that would later be invalidated once I acquired a permanent girlfriend. But, really, the story begins on an early autumnal night at The Pub (our suitably named on-campus pub) where, on a predictable Wednesday night lark, my roommates and I (the six of us, and my gaudy shirt) decided to start the weekend early, not unlike weeks’ prior.
Having imbibed enough alcohol to disable good sense, as well as freely indulging myself in ridiculous dance floor histrionics, and, of course, reveling in my friend Matty’s controlled, carefully studied, bleating, I then proceeded to work at my collar magnanimously, straightening and smoothing out the dampness, spotting an innocent girl for whom my boorishness would no doubt offend. I made my way over and slipped into the empty chair beside her, apparently, to the horror of her girlfriends; but recognizing the situation, my friends were quick to play interference. Caruso, our unflappable consigliere into the world of University Athletics (he was a Baller), deftly diffused the girls’ consternation by simply being in close enough proximity; his quasi-celebrity seemed license enough for our sometimes-odd behavior. Our in house lothario, Ben, who was as impressed with his own good looks, if not more so, than practically every other girl at the bar, made short work of convincing a shapely red-head that it was better if they went back to her place. I, meanwhile, was tweaking the sincere face, crooking the smile winsomely, incredulously elevating the brow, and, surprisingly, it was working.
But when her sincerity didn’t appear contrived, where she was genuinely interested in what I had to shout into her ear over the din, even excusing some spittle, I dropped the game and re-introduced myself. (Which is just to say I changed the game.) Her name was Angie. She had sable black hair, of buoyant curls, that ran the length of her neck and sat, delicately, in the grooves of her clavicle. Her face was intelligent and aloof and sympathetic. She looked a little like Wynona Ryder if Wynona Ryder were Italian. What exactly we talked about that eventually cemented the bond I can’t entirely recall, and yet we were out of The Pub before last call, into the humid, early autumn air, and on our way to her place.
Up the stairs and into the hallways, the cacophony of voices wasn’t unusually loud. Appropriately loud, actually. Entering her room, I was aghast at what I hoped was her roommate’s bizarre and anachronistic monument to Elvis; the vulgar posters; the sinister bobble head; the sentry life-sized cardboard cutout, and other miscellany. She answered positively, that, indeed, it was her roommate’s kitsch and I needn’t be worried. Not that it would’ve deterred me. Her side of the room, however, didn’t exactly inspire confidence, given that it was almost entirely bare—save for a florid duvet comfort. I wanted to ask about this, but wasn’t given the chance, and soon found myself being pulled onto her bed. She began kissing me with an earnestness that was both peculiar and welcomed. Just as quickly she was back on her feet, racing to her stereo, fumbling through some CD’s, and mumbling inaudibly, explaining “how much I’d like this,” which I was ready to agree with as soon as it got started. But of course she was referring to the CD.
She jumped back into bed, nearly landing on everything I cherished, and rolled onto her back, staring directly at the ceiling. I followed her gaze, curiously, and found nothing of particular interest on the ceiling. “Wait,” she said. “Wait.” Some-type of distortion began creaking from her stereo, possibly the CD skipping. But then, very quickly, a simple, saccharine piano keyed in as the distortion waxed and waned like the warped vinyl it was, no doubt, recorded on. A winding French horn made my hair stand on end. And then, as if from a gramophone, an almost adenoidal, slick, voice collapsed into my heart, a simultaneously jarring and soft landing. Immediately, Angie was burying her face in my chest, there to remain, only answering one question of mine: “Who is this?”
It was, of course, Billie Holiday, and for the rest of the night I held this girl I barely knew in my arms, intimately close, literally doing nothing else but studying her eyes and kissing her lips, for no other reason than Billie Holiday had me under a spell I was all too willing to participating in. It was, by far, one of the oddest and most fully realized experiences of my life. As if the weather were conspiring with Ms. Holiday, an electric storm added another level of romance, the rain falling benignly, the sky lighting up intermittently. I didn’t bother going to Psych the next day, didn’t really bother going to any classes. And as I repaired to leave her room, she slung her arms around my neck and offered a plaintive look. It was all over so quickly, I thought, and then expelled a deflating sigh; we both knew: this was it.
It’s hard to know whether things like this are real or ever verifiable; and I ruled out the possibility that nostalgia had idealized this night, or that alcohol (I sobered up quickly, and we stayed up most of the night) induced the elation. I remember feeling genuinely blissful for at least a week after that night. During that week, I could only hear “Come rain or shine” in my head and see Angie’s face glancing back at me slantwise. I was convinced I loved Angie, which was silly, but I was convinced nonetheless.
But, alas, that night set the bar exceedingly high, and could really only be that good (so good) one time—and one time only. We did—on two other occasions—attempt to replicate that night, as if to confirm how special, if ephemeral, it was for the both of us. But I wasn’t listening to Billie for the first time anymore, and diminishing returns set in. It only made sense to not try again, since neither of us was interested in a relationship (at least I wasn’t, exactly). Rather, we were interested in a moment. And that moment is trapped somewhere in the plasticity of my brain along with Billie Holiday, removed from me physically in the sense that it will never be materially replicated, but enduring as an ideal of emotion, of music, and of possibility.
By: Ron Mashate
Published on: 2006-07-24