Can’t Get Enough
The plastic wrapping surrounding the blue album cover slid across the small, polished wooden table.
“I don’t know if you’ve already got this,” Michael said.
I looked down at a dark-skinned man with curly hair so shiny it appeared fake. Can’t Get Enough, the title read, emblazoned above a carousel filled with the singer’s face.
“No,” I said, raising my head. “What’s the occasion?”
Michael shifted in his seat. He looked as if his tie felt too snug. He cleared his throat.
He picked up his short squat glass of scotch and rattled the ice.
Michael always sat at the same table, away from the front door and close to the bar. Before lunch, he sipped one scotch on the rocks, paying extra for Chivas Regal. He ordered his cheeseburger well-done, but lifted the meat out, using his index finger to anchor the patty on his fork while abandoning the bun. Then he poured a puddle of catsup in a space made on his plate by piling the French fries up.
If a girl didn’t show up for work and I wasn’t getting to tables quickly enough, Michael didn’t seem to mind. Rushing past, a round tray weighed down with full glasses of Coke and beer balanced on my right palm, I’d toss him an I’ll be right with you, and he’d smile and throw back a Take your time.
The restaurant filled the ground floor of an office building a block from Dupont Circle, in Northwest Washington, D.C. Anyone who knew D.C. at the time understood that Northwest was practically synonymous with white. I worked the lunch shift and sometimes stayed to help with Happy Hour at the bar. We had regulars, mostly professionals from the building, who shed their sports coats to enjoy our famously juicy burgers. Several indulged in a gin and tonic or scotch and water or even an extra dry martini on the rocks. A few downed more than one.
Mornings before walking to the opposite end of Dupont Circle for work, I painted on a wooden easel set in front of my bedroom window. Pondering what to do next, I’d look out onto the street lined with elegant old townhouses, some sprouting new paint in this starting-to-gentrify neighborhood. I worked in my snug bedroom on the third floor of a large old house I shared with five roommates.
Many nights I joined friends to listen to folk music at a neighborhood club. The rhythms of the African American city that throbbed beyond the White House and the Capitol, the Smithsonian, and Garfinkel’s Department Store were all around me, vibrating on streets like Seventh, where white people were afraid to go. They beat in the wreckage left from the riots following Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. I heard them collide with the breeze, as they danced out the open windows of taxis passing on sultry August nights. James Brown and the Jackson Five. Aretha and Marvin Gay. And, of course, Barry White.
I preferred folk music and country rock singers, like Willie Nelson and Emmy Lou Harris, and the down-home twang of Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys. I was living smack in the inner city, with its two deadbolts on the door and constantly looking over my shoulder when walking home alone at night. Willie, Emmy Lou, and the Bluegrass Boys transported me to a place that was simple and calm, where poverty was something to sing about.
As time went on, Michael and I started to talk. He was a light-skinned African-American man, attractive in a conservative way, whom I guessed to be about five years older than me. Michael worked as an investment banker for a firm across the street. He wore suits that looked expensive, with pale pressed pink shirts and colorful ties.
I hadn’t noticed that Michael was coming in later and later each week, finishing his lunch and lingering. Perhaps I didn’t notice because Michael wasn’t my type. My type was outdoorsy and artistic, the sort of guy who wore his hair stylishly long and sported a diamond stud in his ear before most straight men dared do so. It never occurred to me that my short conversations with Michael near the end of the lunch shift, when most of the crowd had cleared out, were anything more than friendly chats.
The invitation for a drink slipped so easily out of Michael’s lips I barely noticed. It popped right up after a comment about the cherry blossoms busting into bloom and spring having finally arrived. I was in a gay mood, because of the weather and my shift being nearly over. So I said, “Okay.”
The bar was elegant, on the first floor of a fashionable hotel with heavy leather doors.
“What’ll you have?” Michael asked, moments after I sat down.
A flame flickered in the small round red candle on the dark wooden table between us. Michael tried to hold my gaze but I looked away.
“A gin and tonic,” I said.
Drops of condensation dripped down the side of my glass. I sipped from the short thin straw and the gin went straight to my head.
“I have a wife,” Michael said.
He lifted his short squat glass and swirled the scotch and ice. My gaze fell on the thick gold ring with a clear stone I assumed to be a diamond he wore on his pinky finger.
“She works for the airlines,” he added. “She’s out of town a lot.”
Michael’s being married didn’t matter, as he still wasn’t my type. But I did enjoy being in that bar on a late spring afternoon. I liked sipping that cool gin and tonic with a quarter of lime. And I couldn’t help but smile when this attractive married black man in an expensive dark gray suit pulled a folded twenty dollar bill from a sterling silver clip to pay for my drink.
Afternoons when I was painting, Michael sometimes called. My ear pressed to the receiver, I pictured Michael leaning back in his leather chair, his shiny black shoes anchored on the desk corner. I assumed that investment banking, tallying up tired columns of numbers, took a toll. As with the drinks we shared in that cozy bar, I loved having this man call. Sometimes, I thought I could smell his lemony cologne through the receiver.
But when it came to a lover, I didn’t choose Michael. A well-built modern dancer, Robert had mountain-lake blue eyes and curly black hair.
After a few months of dating Robert, though, I couldn’t find anything I liked about him besides his looks. When we ate together, the silences stretched out longer and longer.
I played the album on the portable record player in my room. One of the two tiny built-in speakers no longer worked, so I missed some of the Love Unlimited Orchestra’s stereo sounds. Even though Michael hadn’t dared suggest anything more than a late afternoon drink, I listened to Barry White exhale the words of the title song and I knew exactly what Michael wanted.
For days, the music and words, and especially the throbbing beat of the songs, slid around an invisible record player in my mind. Can’t Get Enough became the soundtrack of a fantasy film about my life. I imagined myself having an affair with a rich, married, African-American man. The music let me step into a sultry, smoke-filled club, wearing a skintight red shimmery dress and three-inch heels dyed to match. Barry’s lyrics carried me to a place where men and women danced, their bodies pressed so tight there wasn’t room between them for a breath to pass.
As if the music in my mind wasn’t enough, everywhere I went in the city, I heard Barry White. Barry’s low, whispery voice drifted out the open windows of bars. Barry fell across the pavement after someone opened the door to a car. In the back seat of a taxi I’d taken home from a party late at night, Barry slow-danced me around, the driver tapping his fingers against the steering wheel in time.
Michael invited me out for drinks a couple more times. He hinted at our spending time together someplace else but never dared steer the conversation past that point. He even bought me a second gift – a black and gold blouse sheer enough to expose my breasts.
A few days later, I returned the blouse to the small boutique where it had been bought and made an even exchange for a pair of pre-faded jeans. When Michael asked why I didn’t wear his gift, I explained that I didn’t want to ruin it working.
At the end of June, I quit my job. A week later, I abandoned the hot, humid city to travel with friends through the South.
Driving the back roads past worn, one-pump gas stations and general stores, I frequently fiddled with the radio dial. I soon discovered that the only music powerful enough to reach us on those quiet, rural roads was country Hank Williams, Dolly Parton, and Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys.
• • •
Patty Somlo has received four Pushcart Prize nominations, has been nominated for storySouth Million Writers Award, and has had an essay selected as a Notable Essay of 2013 for Best American Essays 2014. Her second book, The First to Disappear (Spuyten Duyvil), was a finalist in the Fiction: Short Story category of the 2016 International Book Awards. Her work has appeared in journals, including the Los Angeles Review, the Santa Clara Review, Under the Sun, Guernica, Gravel, Sheepshead Review, and WomenArts Quarterly, and numerous anthologies. She has two forthcoming books: a memoir, Even When Trapped Behind Clouds (WiDo Publishing), and Hairway to Heaven: Stories (Cherry Castle Publishing). Find her at www.pattysomlo.com and  on Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/Patty-Somlo/e/B006T340US ,
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