The girl behind the counter had short black hair which she kept covered with a pre-tied bandana.
Benton Muller had seen the look before. Scarf, pale, with the tell-tale flat-chest from the mastectomy. Usually he could see pain from a mile away. “You’re not sick, are you?”
“No, I just like the look,” Angelina admitted.
“Oh. That’s good.”
She was five-foot-eight, 127 pounds, with an angular face that showed plucked eyebrows, thin lips that she sometimes kept silvery with a powdery-looking lipstick, and what always grabbed him most: cornflower blue eyes. (She wore contacts.) Most anyone would look at her and describe her as too thin, what with her narrow hips and slender shoulders. Sometimes she’d go on a binge and smoke clove cigarettes for a month then quit, only to start up again six months later. If you put a tan, a head band and some outback mud on Angelina, she’d look like another predatory contestant on Survivor.
For each morning of his working life in East Boston (since July, 1981), Benton stopped at a chain convenience store on Bennington Street and got a large cup of coffee and a donut. (The routine started because that’s what his father did.) Benton first drank coffee as an 18 year-old with cream and lots of sugar. Through the years he weaned himself to just cream, or sometimes black with two packets of sugar, and finally to black only in his last five years of working at Logan.
On Monday, May 4th, 1998, a federal judge in Sacramento sentenced “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski to four life sentences plus 30 years after Kaczynski accepted a plea agreement keeping him from the death penalty. On May 4th, 1998 Canadian philosopher Vernon Bourke died.
On that same morning, Benton’s usual morning convenience store sold him a burnt cup of black coffee. The plain donut was fossilized.
Benton tossed everything in the trash. But instead of complaining and getting his money back or a fresh cup of coffee, he marched two doors down to The Tower of Bagels. He’d never been there. Once again, providence was at work. This supernatural clarity of vision into the clockwork of the universe might visit him at any time – on the street while seeing pigeons in flight over the brick rooftops, buying a loaf of French bread, or looking across a tarmac at dawn on a winter day.
“If it weren’t for that bad coffee and donut that day,” Benton said.
“Oh, Ben,” Angelina said once, brushing past him to get to the bathroom. “Don’t you know it was just plain dumb luck?”
We should listen to Love speak when we first meet: it says so much. The initial words that jockey us into position become the subliminal map for the roads, detours, crashes and corrections to come. He was normally shy with women, but the counter girl with the cornflower blue eyes said something to the customer in front of him that rattled his mind and gave him the lifeline to speak with her. It helped that he was in Skycap Mode, all sunny, energetic and powerful ready to greet the day. (Wearing his polyester-blend uniform always helped.)
Ah, yes, the fateful words that reached his soul. She said, “I want to travel.”
“Hard Rock Tokyo,” Benton said, stepping up to order.
The counter girl retied her white apron. Her hair was in a ponytail and tucked underneath a Red Sox cap (instead of a hair net), and she wore a peace sign t-shirt with the sleeves rolled, jeans and tan Birkenstocks (worn year-round, except when there was snow or it rained, and then she wore Wellies). She had a small diamond nose stud and a tattooed rose vine at her right wrist with tendrils that ran up her index and middle fingers, and a red spider at the webbing point between her thumb and forefinger. She also had a tattoo of Leo, her Zodiac, on her left calf.
“Oh,” she said, looking down at her shirt. She wasn’t wearing a bra. “My aunt went to Tokyo and got me the shirt. What do you want?”
What did he want? Did he want what every straight man wanted? Of course. But it was more than that. He had a few girlfriends over the years, but no one truly long term. Overall there was no one who could love him as he was, which would have been a major feat. No one special, if he thought about it. He realized at the age of 35 that opportunities such as these were fewer and fewer. What did he want? Angelina would always tease him when he recounted their first conversation. She’d say it was not the dance of words but the bra-less top that entranced him. “I knew exactly what you wanted.”
“Large black coffee and a bagel,” Benton said. “What do you suggest?”
“Spinach-cheese,” she said. “It’s the special.”
“That does sound special,” he laughed. “OK. And I’ll take a vacation.”
“Oooh, vacation, now that sounds good,” Angelina said.
“It’s fun to travel,” Benton said, talking like he was already on the clock. “I get to travel when I’m not working. Family can, too. Reduced or almost no-cost airfare.”
She gave Benton a smile of approval.
Of course, Benton didn’t say that he should try traveling – he liked how her eyes lit up; the cornflower blue helped.
Yes, he got travel privileges, but did he ever explore the great, wide world? No, he worked like a mule. Benton was never sick (except once – and it was for an emergency appendectomy on August 31, 1997, when Princess Diana died, but he was back to work in three days. It was a good thing; Benton had watched too much TV mourning). He always had leftover vacation days left, which rolled over.
“I have six weeks’ vacation built up,” Benton said to Angelina.
She gave that smile again.
He joked that he worked like he did because he needed the money. That wasn’t true. He was frugal only because there was nothing he really wanted. If he had his choice of scraping at the base of the Great Pyramid, he’d prefer work. Those long summers at Watasachi Lake in Eastern New York killed any and all notions of future wanderlust up to then. Mosquitos, campers, sadistic camp counselors, idiots, the Biblical rain that kept you soaked for a week, ants, moths, bats, food poisoning, coyote, water snakes, the threat of polio lurking in the water, and serial killers: how on Earth could his parents send him and his sister to camp for 10 weeks?
He paid for the bagel and coffee. He had a few minutes before he had to get moving. (Benton always showed up 15 minutes early for work.) He stood off to the side and feigned reading the first page of The Globe that was on the counter.
Angelina said, “You know, those are for sale.”
He bought one.
She took his change and moved on to the next customer. He checked his watch; good thing he had a buffer before he really had to get to work. He stood by the display case and checked out the varieties of bagels. He imagined her lean hands (with food gloves on, of course) creating good, fresh works of wonder: the bagel, croissants, baguettes, and real figure-eight donuts with blueberry filling, not mystery jell.
There were no more customers so she walked out into the seating area to bus tables; that’s when Benton saw her Birkenstocks, bell-bottoms and toe rings. He took another bite of his bagel and raved, “You make a good bagel.”
“Hoo-boy,” she said, spinning her finger in the air. “I’m so glad I found my calling before I turned 30!”
She said she wasn’t planning to work at the bagel shop the rest of her life, although she liked how flexible it was. One thing they did have in common was that they both understood a life dependent on tips.
“I was lucky, finding my job when I was 18,” Benton said. “It’s the only one I’ve ever had.”
“I’m a wandering soul. If I worked at one place, I’d rather be dead. Do you really have all that vacation time and really get to go to all those places?”
He nodded. “I can also take early retirement when I’m 50. I’ll have 30 years.”
She gave Benton that smile again.
“You don’t look 50.”
“No, I’m 35 years old.”
“Don’t ever say you’re old. That’s how you get old.”
He didn’t feel old, although he felt arthritis in his hands and knees. The job kept him in good repair; even into his late 40s Benton’s blood pressure stayed at 120/70 and the movement kept his weight between 195 and 207. He felt that his body was regulated by an atomic clock. He learned early in his career to keep up with doing sit-ups, push-ups and leg lifts for his lower back. Luckily, he never inherited his father’s hairline. “I try to eat healthy, but mostly I don’t overeat.”
“I’m vegetarian,” Angelina said, “but once in a while I have this sinister craving for meat.”
“I like a good steak,” Benton said.
“A porterhouse or if I feel really wicked, medium-rare prime rib.”
“I know a couple of good places that makes steaks.”
That Friday they went to Abe & Louie’s steak house on Boylston and to their first movie together: Deep Impact. They were bound in soul by the coming doom of the Biederman-Wolf Comet and the haven found for a million in the Missouri caves, a cocoon for humankind. Afterward, they quietly rode the T back to Eastie, the movie still playing in his mind, the good people of Boston unaware of the doom overhead in the skies.
“Oh, Benton, it’s just a movie.”
The train came to a stop.
“But it could happen any time,” he said.
“I suppose,” she said, looking out the window. “Let’s not think about disaster. We have now.”
Some people survived The Great Depression, or World War II, or the death of a child. Others found Love’s shelter from the Missiles of October and the destruction of Camelot. Benton and Angelina had a survived a blockbuster movie.
Benton saved money almost as well as Silas Marner. He lived sparsely, in a one room place in Eastie, near the airport.
“Let’s go to New Orleans in June,” Benton said, the day after seeing the movie. “I don’t have to work the weekend of the 21st.”
So they went, just like that.
They loved New Orleans. They flew from Boston to Atlanta on Friday the 19th, then from Atlanta to the old Moisant airport. The in-flight snack was chicken Ceasar salad. It was a 22-minute ride from the airport to the French Quarter. They checked in at Hotel Maison de Ville and were booked for Room 9, where Tennessee Williams completed “A Streetcar Named Desire.” (The movie was Angelina’s favorite.) They took a 10-minute cab ride and drove over to Desire Street and Angelina had Benton take a picture of her next to a “Desire Street” sign. Back at the hotel, to celebrate the moment, Angelina had a Sazerac, while Benton (who never drank) had a 7-Up. They spent most of the night walking Bourbon Street, and doing the same on Saturday night. On the flight back Sunday, the pilot announced that “Boston has weather.” New England had been drenched with rain the week before (Boston was hit with 5.99 inches.) Due to fog in Beantown, the jet went over Providence (where it was clear), and coming into Logan in the early evening they did not see the landing strip until a mile out.
Things moved rather quickly for Benton and Angelina; her apartment lease was up in July, and she moved in. They married on August 7th, 1998 in Las Vegas. That day the Yangtze River flooded in China; 12,000 people died. Also, United States embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and Nairobi were truck bombed by terrorists linked to Osama Bin Laden. Benton and Angelina’s jet landed at McCarran Airport.
Benton was awestruck at the sight of palm trees – he’d never seen “live palm trees.”
“Well, they’re usually not dead,” Angelina said.
They took a cab down to the Clark County Courthouse to get a marriage license and then to The Little White Chapel and were married by none other than Minister Charolette Richards, who married Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow and many others. Benton thought his father would have liked the fact, but he also imagined his father saying from the grave, “You’re no Ole’ Blue Eyes.”
Angelina and Benton spent the night along The Strip – from Circus Circus, The Stardust and Rio, past The Mirage Hotel where Siegfried and Roy’s white tigers were housed in a glass cage, past Excalibur (where Benton enjoyed watching the mechanical horse-racing game) and beyond Mandalay Bay and Luxor to the famed “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign on the south edge of town. They stayed at the Tropicana and had a room with a mirror on the ceiling. She had no desire to see the city the next day, preferring to sleep in. “We need some of these at home,” she said, referring to the hotel’s thick, desert light-shielding curtains.
Angelina’s family was put out that they had not witnessed the ceremony, and questioned the speed of the relationship. At first they thought Benton was an airline pilot, having seen his uniform in a picture. Angelina liked the freedom of her work, in which she could work close to 40 hours or 10 hours or take off a weekend if she wanted; it was an expendable job. They were married now: out were the expensive trips such as New Orleans and Vegas (although Vegas was cheap back then and you could still find an inexpensive buffet or steak). Instead, they stayed at hostels or at cheap motels. “There are only two things you do in a motel, and both are with the lights out,” Angelina said.
They had no wish for a child, which was a mutual decision, and it worked because they could go as they please, not fret over money and diapers, formula and sitters and pre-school, vaccinations, baby-proofing the cabinets and stairwells, picking suitable TV programs (L,S, V, TV-7, etc.), or determining what to read to build a young mind. They did not have to weigh the value of The Mozart Effect, the debate of Private vs. Public school, the right playmates, the size of a house (Angelina believed children shouldn’t be reared in apartments), a fenced backyard, genetics, family disease, parental discipline styles, which college to send the child to.
“God, Ben,” she sighed. “Let’s just enjoy us.”
For the next three years they traveled every two months or so.
Angelina’s habit when she visited a city was to go directly to what there was to see, and then she was done. She didn’t want to check in to a hotel, get rest, or grab a bite to eat first. If she would ever go on a tour of the Holy Land, Angelina would surely have wasted no time and gone right to Golgotha outside of Jerusalem. For most vacationers, a trip was a relaxation. For Angelina Muller, a trip was a bullet train to-do list. For instance, in Seattle they left Sea-Tac in a cab and rode directly to the Space Needle. She liked the revolving restaurant, and the view which included the cityscape of Seattle and the majesty of Mount Rainer 70 miles away. Benton tried not to focus on the height of the structure; it was 605 feet at the very tip, and the observation deck was 520 feet. He’d seen the assassination scene in Warren Beatty’s move The Parallax View, and the wrestling on the top of the Needle’s domed roof. Next, at the Pike’s Place Fish Market, Angelina enjoyed the theatre of the sellers tossing fish. One fish thrown almost hit Benton in the head.
Angelina also made a point to make love in every city they visited. In fact, if the experience was underwhelming to her (such as the galleries of Santa Fe, for she was an impatient soul), she spiced up the trip with vigorous or adventurous love making. He wanted to see where pueblos were or maybe where the Sante Fe Riots took place.
“We can make love at home, you know,” Benton said.
“It’s not the same. Are you complaining?”
“No,” he said.
She tugged at his zipper. “I didn’t think so.”
He felt like he was married to one of those types who try to visit all of the major league ballparks before they die, but he didn’t say too much. She was right: he wasn’t going to complain.
They spent Christmas Day 1999 in Corpus Christi; it was a chilly 68 degrees (so the locals said) and they swam outdoors at the motel pool right off the Gulf, picking up sand dollars and driftwood.
Other trips included Vancouver (for Beck’s concert at General Motors Place in October, 2000) and Chicago (to see Koko Taylor and Odetta at the 2000 Chicago Blues Fest).
Once in a while they didn’t fly, but actually rented a car to go to some regional place. Benton didn’t drive a car, and because of her zeal to get there, Benton thought she would’ve made a great NASCAR driver.) One time they went to Providence to see Barnaby Evans’ WaterFire exhibit; she loved the braziers on the three rivers and the music; the fires and wood smoke merely reminded Benton of that long, cruel summer beginning in June 5, 1973 at Lake Watasachi.
He enjoyed pleasing her (and he liked the lovemaking ritual) but he worried about taking too much time off, so from time to time he was able to get her a jump seat on flights to Portland in March 2001 (to see the Portland Urban Iditarod) and Atlanta (to check out The Coca-Cola Museum and Tantric at the Midtown Music Festival in May, 2001.) Angelina traveled alone to San Antonio (to see The River Walk and The Alamo) while he worked the weekend. She came back with photos of all the sights she saw.
Then September 11th happened.
After 9-11, Angelina and Benton made love as much as their fragile minds (and sore bodies) could stand. It was a good thing he was in good shape. They made love early in the morning (around 4, before work) and at bedtime as if to say no to the fading day, that it mustn’t end, that by the act of Love they could stop time, if not reverse it. But there were other times, too. They made love after dinner, once in a taxi, they ducked into an apartment building that wasn’t theirs and graced the vestibule with their passion, even once in the last car while on The T.
Three weeks later, Benton found an EPT test on the back of the toilet.
“What’s this?” Benton asked, holding the test.
She walked away into the kitchen. Benton followed.
“I thought you were on the Pill?”
She sighed and looked straight at him. “I want a baby.”
It was like he had the wrong channel on.
“It’s my choice,” Angelina added.
“No, 50% is my choice. Don’t you think you should ask me?”
“Oh, you had your chance to say no. Don’t worry, Ben. It’ll be mine to carry, my body will change, I’ll do the heavy-lifting. I want a baby.”
She put the long-stemmed wine glassware away into the cupboard.
“Are you pregnant?”
“Didn’t you read the test?”
“I saw it but I don’t know how to read it.”
“It’s easy. A plus sign YES, just a line, NO.”
So she wasn’t, according to the test device.
“We had an agreement,” Benton said, leaning against the countertop. “No kids. Didn’t want any. Quote, “I want to travel”, end quote. Worked good for us, so far. Remember?”
She shrugged. “I changed my mind.”
She put away two cereal bowls. “Look, I want to feel love.”
“You’ve got me.”
“I want to give love.
“Then love me.”
“You don’t understand.”
“No, I think I understand,” Benton said. “It really doesn’t matter about me because this is all about you, and not us.”
“No. You’re not listening.”
“I’m listening now!”
“Don’t yell. It’s not that I don’t have you. I want more.”
They did not need a baby, he thought.
She was crying. “It’s all so horrible now.”
Finally, Angelina had seen the light. “Right!”
“I need to feel something good now with all of this happening in the world.”
“Now? A baby?” Benton asked. “Oh, good.”
Angelina snatched the EPT test from his hands and re-read the grim result, and its flat line meaning NOTHING.
“I can’t believe you’re off the Pill,” Benton said, sitting down. “Without asking me?”
“So I suppose you think this is one of your conspiracy theories? You think I’m one of them ‘cuz I want a baby? You are crazy.”
He blinked. “What?”
Angelina reached into the strainer of dry dishes and threw a glass across the room and it broke. She threw another glass.
“Life doesn’t have plans! Things happen! Things change! Fucking plans change, people are supposed to be flexible and fluid. We’re not robots. That’s why we’re called human.”
“Don’t repeat me,” she said. “Uh! I hate that! Why in the hell do I want a child with an insensitive man like you? I was so stupid. My mother is right.”
He thought, but did not repeat: your mother.
“Look,” Benton said. “A baby isn’t going to fix what the terrorists did.”
“What book or TV show did you get that out of, Skycap?”
He wanted to call her a name, but he didn’t. Angelina bent down on the floor and picked up a big piece of glass. As she did, she caught her hand on it. “Ow!”
“Careful, honey,” Benton said, kneeling. He held her wrist, looking at the blood trickling over the tattoos.
“You’re bleeding,” he said.
She sat against the cabinet and let him attend to her. “Oh, Ben, what’s happening?”
“It feels like the end,” he said. “But a baby isn’t going to change what they did.”
“You don’t get it!” Angelina said, crying. “I want to forget what they did, and I want something that matters.”
“I do, too, but all I can do is remember. We have to remember or else it’s gone.”
“What is?” she asked.
“It won’t be gone, if it matters.”
Benton picked up the shards of glass and reached up and set them on the kitchen table and kissed her hands and took a kitchen towel and gently wiped away the blood and he kissed her mouth and whispered sorry.
The sun streamed through the kitchen window and he held her. Her tears were warm and salty and they made love and tried to forget how the world had changed, and it almost worked.