“ if i didn't know better, i would have assumed he'd had a piece of questionable shrimp at supper”
usually when i'm out doing a long show, i try to keep a low profile. i eat out as little as possible to preserve my per diem. i don't drink in the pricey convention area bars. it doesn't take much for me to entertain myself lolling around the hotel room. i am in the convention, but not of it.
i generally make one exception over the course of the campaign. once the first week has passed and the show has successfully launched, i can breathe a little easier. on the night of the show's opening day, i pretend to be one of the crowd. i spend like a sailor on shore leave. i hang out in bars and make momentary friends and talk shop like i give a shit. i drink too much and feel like hell on the second day floor because that's the one day i can pretty much coast through before the teardown.
and that's how i ended up at a Bahama Breeze on orlando's evil International Drive. the I-Drive is the ultimate, really, the sick logical conclusion of florida's strip mall culture. to get directions to something on the I-Drive, knowing that your destination is near a walgreens or a TGIFridays is not enough. you have to know which walgreens or TGIFridays it's near. there are three of each on a straight stretch of heavily-hoteled road-- not three miles long --that leads to the orange county convention center. over-convenienced, i think that part of orlando is.
so, anyway, the closest trap to my hotel was Bahama Breeze. not the one a mile closer to the OCCC. the one way out, like a mile and a half from the OCCC.
they had dudes near the patio doing covers on acoustic guitars. within ten minutes, they had done, as i had predcicted, both "brown eyed girl" and "margaritaville".
they had overpriced unremarkable beers in really LARGE glasses.
they had seafood. i had a plate of different sea stuff battered & fried into undifferentiated salty sameness.
a guy sat down at the bar beside me. he asked to see a wine list in an exotic yet familiar accent.
i looked at him. he looked suspiciously like my old boss in brooklyn, merdhad nava, only younger and a little taller, and without the ludicrous trademark nicotine-stained brush moustache. i felt comfortable enough to assume that my new neighbor was iranian.
which, it turns out, he was. and his name was also merdhad. he was staying at the Embassy Suites. not the Embassy Suites Jamaica Court that i was staying at. the one further up, a quarter mile or so toward the convention center.
this merdhad was an architect. my merdhad had studied engineering. both merdhads were proud of the long and illustious heritage of persian poetry. to both of them, it seemed, being versed in verse was one of the most macho things a man could be.
i liked this merdhad more than brooklyn merdhad, truth be told. he was pleasant, intelligent, refined and considerate, but mostly he wasn't my boss.
he ate and we drank and talked easily over a range of topics.
after he had eaten and we ordered another round, i noticed that merdhad was visibly distracted.
it was immediately obvious what had captured his attenton. at a right angle to us at the bar, two women had arrived. one was remarkably average in appearance, a typically frumpy and a little frazzled office-worker sort. her companion was hands down the belle of the ball, the finest woman in the house. she was stunningly beautiful--olive complexion, tall & willowy, sharp features... casually elegant with incongruously icy purple-blue eyes. she was accoustomed to a lot of attention, and her movements were deliberate and graceful as a result.
and she was wearing a really cool ring around the middle finger of her right hand, a silver band with some dark pattern embossed on it. it floated as she gestured, and i followed it like a cat mesmerized by a laser penlight.
merdhad broke the spell. apropos to nothing he said, "that's a really cool ring she's wearing."
a few sips later, i excused myself, went to the restroom, and on my way back, without any premeditation, told her, "my friend and i are facinated by your ring."
i sort of paused long enough to get her attention, let her know i was addressing her, said my piece and kept ambling to my spot next to merdhad. she held up her hand and rotated it vanna white-style in our direction once i was seated.
"surely that's a ring with a story," i said.
she started to explain, but again without premeditation, i cut her off.
"no no no. not like that... this ring has a story that requires a story about the story."
merdhad, the belle and her friend screwed up their faces. i may have, too. they were puzzled. i was too. i didn't know where i was going with this. i only knew that merdhad wanted some reason to talk to this woman. i figured on some level, i suppose, that after i'd made a moron of myself by approaching the unapproachable, merdhad would have to try pretty hard to come off any goofier or more utterly guileless and game-less.
i also knew i had to make up some shit pretty fast.
i said, "let's do it like this: you, what's your name?"
"olivia, pleased to meet you. you, olivia tell the story to merdhad. this is my friend, merdhad. i've known him for twenty minutes, and i have to say it has been the finest twenty minutes i have spent in orlando. this guy is a cut above: an architect, historian, wine afficianado, philosopher and poet... i'd trust him with all my passwords... so you tell the story of the ring to merdhad. he comes back, tells me the story, then i report back to you, and you decide if we did it justice. allright?"
deafening puzzlement this time.
i put my hand on merdhad's shoulder and pressured him toward the seat that separated him and olivia.
he stood, and with a respectful hand flourish, asked for and received permission to sit beside her.
further down the road, but still just as lost, i watched them talk in low tones for about thirty seconds. Fuck.
merdhad returned. if i didn't know better, i would have assumed he'd had a piece of questionable shrimp at supper.
he faced me and said, in a hoarse whisper, "dood, there is no story. she went to a flea market in philadelphia with her sister and her sister bought it for her."
i had my elbow on the bar and my hand on my chin and cheek, so that the women couldn't see my mouth.
"well, don't just sit there," i said, "act like you're telling me a story. i'll try to think of something."
he told me a story about he and his brother trying to fly a kite on a beach, in jordan maybe? it was a good story, and i kinda forgot that i was supposed to be making some shit up.
finally, he finished.
i got up and made a show of bulging my eyes, blowing out my cheeks, slowly shaking my head.
i clapped merdhad on the shoulder and pulled up a chair next to olivia.
"wow," i said.
"i knew there was a story, but wow... i'll do my best to get it right. and i'm sorry if it's been an imposition. really, i am. but here goes...
(roughly transcribed. swear this was top-of-the-head freestyling)
"so you went to ireland as part of a teacher exchange program when you were in education grad school, right? if he said where you went i missed it. you were assigned to a rural village in the center of the country, a beautiful place still mostly pastoral. you lived with a shepherd and his wife, who packed a homemade lunch for you every school day.
"the second graders you taught were wild about you, even if sometimes your american accent was impenetrable.
"teachers don't like to talk about it much, but it's true-- y'all have your favorites. yours in that village class was seamus claugh. right? he was sweet, intelligent, respectful and almost impossibly compassionate. you loved him. he was your special kid--the one you looked forward to seeing every single day.
"so you noticed when seamus didn't make it to school. and near the end of the last term, seamus was missing kind of a lot of school. when you asked around, you were shocked to learn that your boy seamus was battling lymphoma. turns out, he was being raised by a single father who sometimes shuttled him to dublin for increasingly aggressive treatments.
"it was heart-rending. you offered to help out seamus's father and grandmother, an older woman in poor health who was in charge of two other grandbabies, and they happily accepted. over that summer, you spent so much time tending to seamus that you practically lived with him and his father, shane.
"here’s the tricky part… and as sometimes happens, all that time spent with shane, too, who just so happened to be incredibly handsome, dark & rugged, and every bit as lovely as his boy..
"soon enough, y'all were pretty much a cute little family. that's right, you and daddy. honestly, neither of you saw it coming. but, sure enough, you flipped for one another.
"you moved the last of your stuff out of the shepherd's house in july.
"fall rolled around, and you told the university back in the states that you were going to take a leave of absence. what you didn't tell them was that deep in your heart, you could not imagine ever returning to the world you'd left behind.
"the rhythms of life in the countryside, the soul-filling love for shane and the talks til sunup, the wisdom from the little sage, seamus, and his relentless balance. hell, you even learned to bake bread, for god's sake. you! you could barely heat a cinnamon bun in a microwave before. this was living...
"but near christmas, seamus began to fail. the cyclical ebb and flow of the disease just stopped, and it was nothing but bad news from then on. the downslope. through it all, the kid was phenomenal. obviously he was in increasingly hellish amounts of pain. but you never once heard the champ whine or complain. a real trooper, that kid.
"and even though he was generally too weak to stand for more than a few minutes, seamus insisted that his dad take him into town to do some shopping--without you around...
"that ring right there is the result of that final shopping trip…”
I knew I was fuckin laying it on with a trowel, but olivia was dabbing tears. no brakes, no filter.
"seamus knew what was up,” I continued, “he knew he was dying, and he knew what that meant. when he gave you the ring he told you that he wanted to give you something circular, without beginning or end, because that's how the soul is, and that way he'd always be around."
Olivia was sobbing. she asked me, "so how did i get back to the states?"
"y'all buried seamus on the twelfth day of christmas and shane couldn't bear it. it broke him. eventually turned him to dust. you couldn't love him out of it. you couldn't love him into getting help. pretty soon there wasn't even a man in there to support. so you bailed...
"never even went back to getting your teaching certificate. that's why you're here at a builders' show..."
she was staring at me, eyes moist, jaw slightly sagging.
olivia pointed at merdhad. "he just told you all this??"
"scout's honor. any mistakes are on me...
“what? did i leave something out? what did i forget? did i get a name wrong? oh shit, wait, the kid was 'shane' and the father was 'seamus'? no… no i got it right... i think."
"that was the. most. amazing. story..."
"right? i told you, the guy's a poet..."
olivia summoned merdhad over. she patted the seat to her left.
they formed their own exclusive huddle for a solid hour; whispering nose to nose, as god is my witness.
i kept the plain plump friend company. she was a good egg. her name was carrie. she was olivia's assistant, not actually a friend. she was married, with kids. we talked about our kids. i was drunk and happy and good & truly done with my work for the night.
olivia and merdhad resurfaced and announced their intention to go to another bar down the I-Drive strip, one in the direction of merdhad's Embassy Suites. from the overly enthusiastic invitation they both extended, it was obvious they didn't really want the company.
carrie and i, we didn't just fall off the turnip truck. i walked her back to her hotel then stumbled back to mine.
jesus, i thought, i just killed a kid by lymphoma to hook up two strangers.
i feel certain enough about merdhad's character to guess that, before they left the Bahama Breeze, he'd come clean about the origins of the story.
perhaps it wasn't necessary; olivia wasn't on that turnip truck yesterday, after all.
but, anyway, thanks seamus claugh.