Vanessa Winkler was said to be easy on the eyes, but hard on the heart.
If my father had been alive at the time I met her he would simply have said she was a bitch plain and simple. He had passed away in December of 1994, two years before I had entered college, and had warned me no matter what I did not to marry any bitches. My mother had been the death of him it had been said. She and I didn’t get along to well either which is why I lived in New York and she lived in LA. We spoke occasionally but I didn’t go home much.
Vanessa was a piece of work, though not to take her side or anything she really couldn’t be blamed, it wasn’t her fault she was born lovely. And though she could have chosen a better temperament her circumstances made her behavior more understandable if not acceptable to most of those who knew her. She grew up on the south side of Chicago.
Vanessa was something of an rarity. A misplaced soul if you will. At fifty, she looked little different then she had at twenty, and young men found her just as attractive as the men her age. But she was mean and unpredictable. That is, she was mean to men. Woman found her funny and smart, or a smart ass, which to them equaled funny too, usually at the expense of some guy. On one such occasion that guy was me.
We met in a New York art gallery. She was looking at a painting of the Hudson River Valley. I walked up to her and said, “There’s an old story that goes with that valley.”
“Yeah, that how you normally pick up girls?” she asked.
“Well no,” I said trying to recover and fumbling, “but you seemed very interest in the picture. I’m the curator. I just thought you’d like to know.”
It was true nevertheless. I couldn’t help taking in her beauty. She spent the next twenty minutes telling me she was old enough to be my mother, not quite, and trying to shoo me away. I wasn’t going for it. I told her the story of the thunderstorms in the summer afternoons in the Kaatskill and old stories about Hendrick Hudson and his crew and their game of nine-pins, “It’s the story of Rip Van Winkle.”
She looked at me with amazement and a wry smile and said, “I’ve got a story for you.” We sat on a sofa under soft lighting and she told me her story.
At twenty in 1974, she had been a wide eyed heartthrob, young, eager to try things, and adventurous. Her mother was particular, critical and always fussing at her. She wandered; a habit her mother had said would be the death of her. But she was always armed, and she always had her dog with her, a large chocolate Labrador called Brute. He wasn’t mean spirited, just very protective.
One evening out on one of her usual excursions, Brute grew alert and sniffed curiously at the air. Ahead a party could be heard, the base of the music so loud it sounded like a thunderstorm. Traveling in the direction of the music was a young beautiful woman, tall, wiry, and seductively dressed. On her shoulder she bore a keg. In her other hand she smoked a strong-smelling cigarette. She nodded and beckoned to Vanessa to follow.
“Help me serve this unruly crew.” she said and smiled.
Vanessa was glad to help.
They danced and drank and looked as though they were having loads of fun despite not having a smile on a single face. They wiggled and strutted and teased the men to no end. Vanessa decided she had to have a taste of whatever heavenly brew was in the keg and sampled it. It was sweet and dark, with a light chocolate flavor.
“It’s good huh?” asked one of the girls as she sashayed up for another glass.
“Yes,” she admitted sheepishly after getting caught mid drink on her third or fourth taste.
The girl seemed unaffected. “Smoke?” she said, like a question, but Vanessa wasn’t certain if it was a request or a command. The girl didn’t wait for an answer and placed the lit stick between her lips. She inhaled twice and then exhaled. She had a “Hotel California” moment, her head grew heavy and her sight grew dim. Before long she found herself dancing and flirting with the men just like all the other girls. It was loud and the room was spinning, and she had begun to wonder what might have been in the drink or cigarette. She felt at her side and her purse was still there her piece inside. She called for Brute but did not see or hear him.
She woke in the light of the next morning. Her mother would be worried and furious. The area look abandoned and it was hard to believe a party had been here the other night. In was dusty and scattered with old rusty chairs that looked fragile and dangerous to touch let alone to sit in. As she departed the abandoned building she saw a large rat, and grabbed for her gun. The strap of her purse broke. The material was dry and threadbare. Her pistol jammed and would not fire. She ran, calling for Brute but he was nowhere to be found.
She decided to catch a bus, she had a few dollars and just enough change. When she found the bus-stop the sign was odd, but she sat on the bench and waited. When the bus arrived, it was odd looking, boxy with wide doors, what was this an experimental bus? The fare box, also boxy, had a mechanical inside and a digital LED readout that told how much money she had put in. Vanessa was awestruck but when it read fifty cents she held out her had for her transfer.
“You need another dollar twenty-five ma’am,” said the driver.
Vanessa attempted to argue but the drive said, “If you don’t have the money you have to get off the bus.”
She put in the extra dollar and a quarter and asked the driver if he went past Vincennes.
“No, you’ll need to transfer at the 95th street station.” said the driver.
The driver explained her route and told her what number bus to catch. He promised he would point it out once they reached the station. The bus road along the freeway and when they reached the station he pointed her to the bus and sent her on her way.
She tried to pull herself together but her hair kept getting in the way. It was a nice length as her friend’s mother use to say, but not so long it should keep obstructing her activity. She pulled it free from her jacket and long lengths of salt and pepper tresses fell across her chest. She began to cry. People looked at her strangely but offered to help her. One man gave her a bottle of water from the vending machine and asked if there was someone he could call for her. He reached in his pocket and pulled a tiny device from its confines. Vanessa looked at him confused and gave him her mother’s number, which he dialed and handed her the device. He nodded as if to reassure her.
She could hear the phone ringing on the other end. The person who answered the phone sounded just like her mother.
“Mama it’s Vanessa, something’s wrong.” she said.
“I’m sorry, who is this? Vanessa has been gone a long time.” the woman said.
“No this IS Vanessa.” she repeated.
There was a dead silence at the end of the phone.
“Vanessa this is Angela, your sister. Mother has been dead for 12 years. Where are you.” she answered finally.
“I’m at the ninety fifth street bus station.” Vanessa answered.
“Stay there, I’ll come and get you.” Angela said and hung up.
In twenty minutes Angela pulled up in a Honda Civic. She was tall and beautiful and at 43 looked just like a thinner version of her mother. As they drove through the neighborhood she noticed everything had changed. Buildings and businesses had sprouted up everywhere.
Angela had been taking care of her mother’s property since she had passed away and just happened to be at the house. Their three younger siblings still lived there. The house had been renovated and additions added. Her mother had boxed all of her things and the baby was in what used to be her room now though. Vanessa remembered her brothers but did not know the baby girl; she was 19 nearly the age Vanessa was on the night she disappeared. She had not yet been born when Vanessa had last been this way. Her name was Vanessa as well.
Her sister asked what had happened and Vanessa tried to explain the party, the women, and that drink. Her sister told her Brute had returned without her. He had stayed until he had gotten old, but went out every night as if to look for her and one day he too did not come back. “Mother assumed you had run off with some man or been kidnapped. She thought maybe you had gone because she was so hard on you.”
Her sister gave her clothes to clean up. She went to her old room. She was in tears and Angela tried to comfort her. “I am close to dying already and have not yet even had the opportunity to live. I feel as if my life has been ripped away from me. I don’t belong here anymore.”
“Come live with me in New York. It will be fun and even though you won’t get back those years you will be able to enjoy your life.” Angela responded.
She agreed. She donated her old things to her baby sister’s theater class. She flew on her first plane flight to New York. Over the next few years she discovered a world that was filled with computers and technology. She took classes in art, and wandered the city of New York. She had a new dog, Et Tu Brute, and they wandered the nightlife of New York City. She didn’t drive, she had never learned how, but she had mastered the city transit.
When she finished her story I was amazed and quiet. Next year I would be forty. I could not image what losing thirty years of my life would have been like. I began spending lots of time with her and two years later asked her to marry me. Now we wander together.
One night we came upon a man carrying a keg in the direction of a party that sounded like it could have been a thunderstorm, he asked if we wanted to come along. We looked at each other, laughed and turned to the man and said, “No thanks,” and turned and headed for home.
Sometimes you don’t realize you were lost until you find out where you’ve been trying to get to.
Ripped © DJuna Blackmon 2014, All Rights Reserved