California Stars

Pepper Espinoza

 

Chapter 1

Loud music poured from the speakers, through tightly packed, writhing bodies, and out the door of The Boogie Room. The revelers greeted friends with cheerful shouts and invitations to join them on the dance floor and lift a glass to the impending holidays. College students from UC Riverside filtered through the crowd easily, tolerant of their younger counterparts, sharing the festivities. A scene repeated in clubs and bars across southern California as the month of December wound down and weeks of parties and gifts, Christmas lights and trees, booze and sugar cookies, and sweet freedom, stretched ahead of them.

William watched the warm mass of humanity from the balcony, hiding in the corner away from the dancers and drinkers. The bass from the music throbbed in his head and throughout his body, setting his teeth on edge. The full Coke on the table before him was altogether unappealing, and the greasy fries cooling and congealing in the dirty basket didn’t even warrant a second glance. The pages of the notebook he brought with him out of habit remained empty, and his pen had long since been lost.

William was miserable. Tired. After the last final, he just wanted to go home, eat, and go to bed. But Alex insisted they go out and party, dance, mingle. His main selling point was that a bunch of sorority girls would be there, and wouldn’t that be fun?

“Alex, there’s not a sorority girl alive who would give us a second glance,” William had pointed out, annoyed. “I’m not interested.”

Alex snorted, “They’d be lucky to have us.” Alex wrapped his arm around Aimee’s thin shoulders and gave her a squeeze. Aimee withstood the assault with a smile, and William knew she was happy to have the contact. How long had they all been friends? Ten years? Aimee had been in love with Alex for at least half of those years. “Wouldn’t they be lucky to have us?”

With a sad smile that Alex ignored and William hated to see, Aimee had agreed that the two college seniors would be a great catch for any girl.

“Besides,” Alex continued, “Aimee and I are both going out of town for the break. It’ll be our last night to hang out together until next year.” William had caved in to his friends’ demands, like they all knew he would. He had wanted to see them before they left him for the holiday.

When the three of them arrived at the club, Alex and Aimee hit the dance floor, their bright faces lost in the crowd. William had immediately hunted out an empty table, as he was wont to do, and avoided the chaos that always seemed to attract his friends.

William looked at his watch and sighed. It was still early, technically, and if he tried to escape, they would notice and hold him back. He didn’t understand why it was so important to them that he watch them dance. Normally he didn’t mind. William would have gone home, but Anne would be full of questions. His mother thought it was good for him to go out with Alex and Aimee, and encouraged him to do so often.

William wasn’t concerned. William was tired and annoyed, and the hint of temper he kept locked away was frighteningly close to crawling to the surface and…

“Is anybody sitting here?”

He looked up at the perky, smiling voice. His face softened from a glare to almost a smile, and to his horror, he felt the hot fingers of a blush crawl up his neck and cheeks. “No … no … not at all…” he said.

“Thanks!” She grabbed the chair, dragged it over to the nearest table, plopped down, and proceeded to suck down an entire Coke. William watched her for a minute, and then sighed without a hint of surprise. It had happened before.

Without thinking, he grabbed one of the fries and popped it into his mouth, and immediately regretted it. Unmindful of who would see, he grimaced and spit the cold, greasy mess into a napkin.

“So you think I should avoid the fries?”

For the second time in as many minutes, William looked up at the sound of an unfamiliar feminine voice. A different girl stood above him with a bright smile and long blonde hair that framed a sweet face. Her eyes sparkled like the blinking Christmas lights hanging from the rafters of the club, and she was already pulling out the third and last chair.

“Do you mind if I sit here?”

His tongue felt thick and dry in his mouth, but he managed to shake his head and say, “No, that’s fine.”

“Thanks.” She sat down and crossed one bare leg over the other, her black skirt riding up her thigh. “It’s crazy down there. I needed a breather.” She reached for the basket of fries then looked up at him, “You don’t mind do you?”

“No.”

She pulled the basket next to her and grabbed several. “I’m starving.”

“Do you want something less … cold?”

“This is fine,” she said around a mouthful.

William pushed his untouched drink towards her. She accepted it with a large smile.

“My name is Lynne, by the way.”

“William.” He fought the urge to offer his hand.

She narrowed her eyes. “Have I seen you around here before?”

“I don’t go out much…”

“Oh.” She chewed a fry thoughtfully then asked, “What’s your major?”

“My major? Creative writing.” As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he regretted them. In his experience, most girls weren’t impressed with creative writing majors. They tended to look for jocks, business majors, and pre-med students.

“Really?” She shrugged. “That sounds interesting.”

“Yeah.”

William felt awkward, but the girl—Lynne—continued picking at the fries and sipping her soda happily.

“What year are you?” she asked.

“Senior. Are you a student?”

“I just completed my MBA.”

“Wow. Congratulations.”

“Do you want to dance, William?”

He hoped that in the dim light she would see his scarlet stained skin. “I … um … I don’t … I really don’t dance.”

“It’s not that hard. I could show you.”

“No … I…” William fumbled for an excuse, though it was more out of habit than anything. He wanted to dance with her. Very much so. Finally, he grabbed one, desperate. “The music’s too fast.” As soon as the words were out of his mouth, the song changed, and a slow melody drifted around them.

“Well, then, this should be suitable.”

“I don’t want to go down there … the floor is too crowded,” he tried.

“You keep this up, and I’ll think you don’t want to dance with me.” To illustrate what a disappointment this would be, she stuck out her lower lip and pouted.

“No … no … I’m sure you’re great to dance with.”

She stood up and casually wrapped her warm hand around his cool fingers. He didn’t protest as she pulled him to his feet. “We can dance right here.”

William didn’t know where to put his hands, didn’t know how to move, which way to go, how close to stand. With a serious expression, she placed his hands on her body, stepped close to his, and swayed. He picked up the rhythm. He couldn’t think, not with her warm, tight body pressed next to his. Her breasts pressed into his chest; her hair tickled his nose; her cheek rested against his shoulder.

He felt like the center of the universe. He didn’t recognize the song, but he wanted to sear it to his mind and remember it forever so he could relive the moment. Overwhelmed, flustered, his mind was spinning. Girls didn’t notice him most of the time, so what was this beautiful woman doing dancing with him?

The music stopped, and she moved to step away. His arms tightened around her, and an awkward moment passed as he tried to force himself to let her go.

“My friends are over there,” she said. An excuse, an apology, an escape route, William didn’t know.

“Right … Of course.” He stepped back and smiled shyly, unsure of what to say next.

“Maybe I’ll see you around?”

“Yeah … I’ll … um … be around.”

She paused as she walked by and leaned in, kissing his cheek. “Thanks.” Her breath felt like a brand against his skin. It was all he could feel for the rest of the night.

* * * *

Time crawled on Thursday night, and William asked himself a million times what he was doing there anyway. Packed to bursting on Saturday night, The Boogie Room was practically dead in the middle of the week. Alex and Aimee were both gone for the holidays, and two lonely weeks stretched before him.

Every time the door opened, he looked up with anticipation. He couldn’t help himself, though he tried not to be too obvious. Unfortunately, as a lust-struck, inexperienced young man, he couldn’t help but be conspicuous. They were playing softer music than normal, so at least he didn’t have a piercing headache, and the food wasn’t bad either. The dance floor was empty, and the only people in the booths and at the table were couples, completely engrossed with each other. Overall, it’d be a pleasant evening if he could stop himself from staring at the door like a starving, lonely puppy.

William had no reason to believe she would return or, if she did, that she would notice or remember him. But sitting there, waiting for her, was the best chance he had of seeing her again. All he knew was her name and that she had an MBA. He didn’t have any other characterizing details. In fact, he had never seen her before around town or at The Boogie Room. He knew it was foolish to choose the table closest to the door and keep a constant vigil. Foolish, but he didn’t think he had a choice. He needed to see her again, at least to verify she wasn’t a figment of his imagination, or just the memory of some vivid, torturous dream.

And it’s not like he had any plans anyway.

The waitress passed him without offering to refill his drink, and the music changed to something with a faster beat, but nobody moved to the dance floor. If Aimee were there, she’d try to drag him out, and he’d insist that he didn’t dance and, well … that wasn’t true anymore. Because he would dance. He would definitely dance if she showed up and asked again.

William’s mind turned to Alex. He wished he could confide in his friend. A little support would be nice, but Alex was nearly a thousand miles away. That morning before he had left, Alex had invited him to go with his family to Oregon. Begged, more like. Alex was far from excited about the long drive up and back, and the even longer twelve days in between. William could understand where his friend was coming from, and he gently pointed out that he didn’t want to spend nearly two weeks with the Baker clan either.

“You got to help me out here,” Alex whined. “I can’t do this by myself.”

“Sure you can. Good luck.”

“But … but … don’t you want to hear Uncle Rory’s drunken revue of 1776?”

“What?” William had no idea what Alex was talking about.

“Uncle Rory gets his holidays mixed up,” Aimee explained. “He sings Christmas carols on the 4th of July.” This extra bit of information had not encouraged William to change his mind.

“What about you, Aims? You always loved coming up to Oregon with me,” Alex said, dropping to his knees and looking at her with sad eyes.

She shook her head. “No, I never did. Besides, my mother is really excited about this retreat and she’s not going to let me get out of it.”

“You know it’s a cult right?” Alex had asked, one final attempt to sway her.

She hit his arm. “It’s not a cult.”

“Fourteen day retreat, no contact with the outside world, and they’re providing the clothes? Excuse me, jumpsuits? It’s either a cult or a prison.”

“It’s not a cult,” she repeated. “It’s a retreat. Besides, I’d be safer in a cult than with your family.”

“Some friends you guys are.”

Now William wondered if going to Oregon wouldn’t have been a better option that sitting in an empty club waiting for some girl. At least if he had gone with Alex, he’d be doing something worthwhile by helping his friend.

William was about to pay his check and leave when the door opened, and she waltzed in. She was with another girl, a brunette, and they were both laughing. To William, she sparkled, and he swallowed hard. All he wanted to do was touch her again. Her name danced on the tip of his tongue, and he longed to say it and get her attention, but he couldn’t push the sound past his lips. Before he could move, she walked past him without a second glance and headed to the balcony.

William froze in his chair. His heart pounded in his ears, and he couldn’t remember how to breathe. He couldn’t pull his eyes away from her as she made her slow way up the steep stairs, still engrossed in her conversation with her companion. He noted every single detail and yet, later, couldn’t remember anything about the way she looked, about what she was wearing. It all passed in a blur, but he was staring at her for an eternity. How could somebody completely overwhelm him like that?

He hated gawking at her, but he couldn’t stop. She sat at the table near the edge of balcony, and he had an unobstructed view of her. He hoped she wouldn’t look his direction and notice him panting, because nothing short of an apocalypse would divert his attention.

“Excuse me? Excuse me? Hello? Sir! Hey you!”

William didn’t even glance at the waitress trying to get his attention, just randomly counted out bills and laid them on the table.

Technicolor fantasies of walking up the stairs with smooth confidence and asking her to dance played in his head. He practiced words he would never have the courage to say to her, speeches that would never be vocalized. In his mind, he was witty and charming, and she would smile at his good humor and accept his invitation to dance, and he would lead her down the stairs, and they would glide across the floor gracefully.

William allowed the fantasy to continue, and before long, it morphed into an elaborate scene with dialogue and a plot that involved him coming to her defense, like a knight in shining armor. He would stop the mugger that stole her purse, or get in between her and some jerk who was all up in her face, and she would be so grateful for his assistance.

Fantasies were easier than reality and as familiar and comfortable as old friends. He never had any real intention of acting on his desires. He knew he wasn’t witty or intelligent, especially in front of the fairer sex. He would look and sound like an idiot and then she would laugh and his humiliation would be complete and he just didn’t think he had the strength, or the courage, to face the inevitable rejection.

But…

But, but, but … but she had been so soft, and had smelled so good, and he had never been that intoxicated by anybody before, and if there was a chance of rejection well wasn’t it worth it anyway for the sheer joy of being near her? Besides, when would he get another chance? Just because he was lucky enough to see her twice at the Boogie Room didn’t mean it would happen a third time.

William stood up, his legs stiff with nerves and his mouth dry. He reached for his glass of Coke and his numb fingers knocked it over, sending soda all over the table and the floor. William grabbed a handful of napkins and tried to sop up the mess, but just as he did, Lynne stood up and moved towards the stairs. He panicked, and dropped the dripping napkins on the table without a second thought.

He hurried to the foot of the stairs, wiping his wet hands on his pants before they could get sticky. Just as she reached the bottom of the flight, common sense kicked in, and he turned on his heel, intent on fleeing and putting the insanity behind him completely. He had been silly to think that…

“William? It is William right?”

He turned around to face her smile. “Right,” he said slowly. “It’s nice to see you again, Lynne.”

She laughed, “It’s nice to see you, too. I didn’t think anybody would be here tonight.”

William shrugged, his mouth now on autopilot. “I like it better when it’s quiet.”

“It’s definitely easier to have a conversation.”

William didn’t know if that was a casual observation or a not-so-subtle hint. “Um … do you live around here?”

“Yeah, here in Riverside.”

“It’s a great city,” William announced lamely.

“It is.”

The conversation stalled as William’s brain ran dry. Finally, with no other options, he said, “It’s getting late. It’s been nice seeing you…”

“Do you want to dance?” she asked quickly, cutting him off before he could make a run for it.

“I … yeah.”

She surprised him by taking his hand and leading him to the dance floor. He followed her willingly, and would have been happy with just the touch of her fingers on his. They had the entire floor to themselves. A dream come true for William. Unfortunately, William wasn’t prepared to deal with dreams and fantasies when they became reality, and he didn’t know what to do with himself.

As before, she took the initiative, placing his hands where they belonged and swaying to the slower pop song now blasting the speakers.

“You don’t need to be so nervous,” she said, her mouth close to his ear.

“I’m … I’m not … nervous.”

“You’re tense. Relax.”

William tried, but he couldn’t. He held himself upright, his spine ramrod straight. His fingers curled into her skin tightly, and he moved rigidly, like Frankenstein’s Monster in those old movies. Except the Monster might have been more graceful.

“Relax,” she repeated. “I’m not going to hurt you.”

He smiled slightly, “I know. It’s just … I’m not … I’m not used to dancing.”

“Well, we can fix that. Come on, put your shoulders back. Yes, like that. Now, loosen your fingers a bit…”

He pulled his hands away instantly. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to … I didn’t hurt you, did I?”

Lynne laughed and shook her head. “No, but you don’t need to hold on so tight. I’m not going anywhere.”

“Right, of course.” He put his hands back, and this time he did make a conscious effort to relax. Once he did, the entire experience changed. It felt like all of his senses expanded, and she was surrounding him.

William didn’t know what to do. He wanted to talk to her, ask her about herself, invite her out to dinner, write her poetry, read her poetry, kiss her, laugh, smile until his face cracked, and all he did was stare over her shoulder and trace the tables and chairs with his eyes as they danced around the floor in small circles.

The song lasted forever but ended far too soon, and he almost groaned in protest, but released her all the same.

“I was just heading out for the night,” she said, by way of apology. “I’ve got to get going.”

“Yeah, me too.” She looked at him as though she was waiting for something, and William was at a loss. “So … um … have a good night.”

“Good night … William.”

It was as though a demon had possessed him to make his mouth and brain functional because the words just poured out of him in a rush. “Lynne, would you like to go out with me tomorrow night?” As soon as he finished speaking, his eyes widened with surprise at his own boldness, and he braced himself.

She brushed a strand of hair from her face and smiled. “I’d love to.”

“Really? I mean … great. Um … do you want to meet here at seven … no, eight. Eight. Do you want to meet here at eight?”

“Eight is fine. Until then.” She blew a kiss at him, and he had the insane urge to put his hand up and ‘catch’ it.

William’s first impulse when he got home was to call Alex. The phone rang eight times before the fog from his brain cleared, and he remembered Alex was out of town. Automatically, he started to dial Aimee’s phone number as well, but stopped after three digits. Frustrated, he threw the phone on the bed and paced his room.

He had never been on a date by himself before, unless taking Aimee to the university’s homecoming dance last year counted, and he didn’t think it did. He had doubled with Alex a handful of times, but Alex always took care of the details, and the girls never seemed very interested in William anyway. He had no idea where to go or what to do or what was expected from him or how much money he needed. Not that he had any money. Of course, the fact that she was older only added to the pressure. She was probably accustomed to fancy dinners with dates that were actually able to speak in her presence. He glanced at the digital clock beside the bed. He had less than twenty-four hours to come up with a plan and money. William had never felt more pathetic in his life. How had he made it through four years of college without taking out a single girl he liked?

William knew it was a combination of factors. Girls were exotic, strange creatures, and he never knew what to say. Even if he could think of something to talk about, he didn’t know how to approach them. That, coupled with the fact that William was driven to not only get perfect grades in every course, but also publish his first collection of poetry before he earned his degree, kept him out of the dating scene. Being sequestered from society didn’t bother him. He fancied himself a misunderstood artist, too sensitive to interact with the outside world, lest it upset his muse.

And where did that leave him?

Movies. People liked movies. He was sure she would like movies. People went to the movies on dates all the time, or so he had heard. But he didn’t know what kind of movie she would like. He didn’t want to pick a movie she would hate, thus ruining the entire night and destroying the possibility of a second chance.

He collapsed on the edge of his bed and ran fingers through his hair. He tapped his foot in a nervous rhythm. How did he get himself in this situation? What on earth possessed him to ask her out? What on earth possessed her to ask him to dance?

A quick knock on the door interrupted his brooding. “Come in,” he called without thought.

His mother pushed the door open and stepped into the room. “Hey, did you have fun tonight?”

William shrugged. “There’s nobody left in town.”

“Alex called while you were out.”

“Yeah? Is he doing okay?”

“He said that he wishes you were there or that he was anywhere else in the world.” Anne smiled, idly brushing a lock of hair out of his face. “You need a haircut.”

Great, another thing to worry about.

“I’ll get it done tomorrow,” William promised.

“I’ll give you some money.”

It occurred to him then to ask her for a bit extra for his date, but he didn’t know if he even wanted to tell her about it. He had no reason not to share, and he usually had no problem telling her everything, but something … something was holding him back. He couldn’t put his finger on what. Maybe it was shame. He knew he shouldn’t be mooching off his mother, but she never indicated that she minded.

“Oh,” she said, as an after thought. “Do you want to go with me tomorrow night?”

“Go with you where?”

“To Literati. There is a reading there tomorrow night, and Larry said he thought we’d be interested.”

William frowned thoughtfully. He was interested. The types of readings Larry held at his bookstore weren’t typical fare. Inevitably, obscure poets, novelists and philosophers simply did not appeal to the masses. He had them about once every three months, and William didn’t like to miss them, but the bookstore would always be there. His chance to date Lynne, however, would not.

“I’d love to, but…”

Anne lifted her eyebrow. “But? It’s not like you to turn down a reading.”

“I know, I know, but … well, I have plans.”

“Well, this is a new development.” She sat down on the edge of the bed, a clear indication that she wasn’t going anywhere until she had the full story. “I didn’t think you would since Alex and Aimee are out of town.”

“I have other friends,” he said defensively. “And not everything I do involves them.”

“So? What are your plans?”

“Nothing,” he muttered as he fussed with the books on his desk, anything to occupy his hands and attention. “Nothing important.”

“It doesn’t sound like it’s nothing important,” she said.

“It’s just … well…” It occurred to him as he fumbled for an explanation that the only way to get more money would be to ask his mother. “Can I borrow … um … fifty dollars?”

“Fifty dollars? What on earth do you need fifty dollars for?”

“I … I don’t know,” he answered honestly.

“William, spill it. What’s going on? Why are you so nervous?”

“I’m not nervous,” he insisted, even as he continued to fidget.

“William, don’t lie to your mother.”

He sighed then mumbled, “I have a date.”

“A date?”

“You don’t have to sound so surprised.”

“Who is the lucky girl? Do I know her?”

“I … don’t know. I don’t think so.”

“What’s her name?” she asked pleasantly.

“Lynne.”

“Will I get to meet her then?”

“I’m meeting her at The Boogie Room tomorrow night.” William shifted uncomfortably; he didn’t want to answer any more questions. He just wanted to know if she was going to give him the money or not.

“Talk to me tomorrow morning and remind me before I go to the bank.” She stood up and smiled. “Though I still want to meet your young lady.”

He smiled and nodded noncommittally. He sighed with relief when she finally left, shutting the door behind her. He had the money, now he just needed to figure out what to do with it.


 

 

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