Dispatch 34 (January 7-11)

     I remember her laughing, really laughing, the night we went out for drinks, the week when it all went to Hell overnight.
     Sixth Street is great on the weekends, but only if you like crowds. By midnight, the blocked-off streets are crammed with the Frat and Sorority crowd (Gina calls them the Biffs and Betties), the underage drinkers coveting forbidden fruit (memo to the club babies: the thrill wears off by the time you’re 22), the lowly musicians trying to flit from this gig to that, from that disreputable hole in the wall to that slightly less disreputable pub, to the occasional lecher slinking through the crowd in a shiny suit, copping feels when he can, looking the other way as he does.
     During the week, it’s just the opposite – a lonely little place of lights and beer with only Need To Be There patrons, there to check out a particular band on a particular night. The bouncers stand outside announcing $1 drink specials that no one will take advantage of because it’ll be Friday night before the kids return, whipping out their ATM cards because by then the drinks have shot upto $4.50 each, even for the watered-down, lemonadey Kamikazes.
     Fourth Street, warehouse-district West, is better during the week, if you can stand the money, money crowd who arrive by Limo or Lexus, dressing casual because it’s Austin. But casual means the $100 shirt from Saks near the Arboretum and the $20 vintage shoes spruced up for $300 at the footwear hospital downtown. If you know your martinis, sipping tequilas, swing music and the difference between vested and non-vested stock options, you might enjoy the nightlife here.
     Which makes it a little treacherous for college students, who often don’t stray to this side of town because it’s expensive and a little snobby. You’re not supposed to get withered looks for wearing cargo pants and white t-shirts in Austin, but they do it here anyway. And, you never know if the guy sidling up to you is a millionaire slumming it with his employees, a musician or a waiter at Magnolia Café. It’s a little endearing in a way – a place where the social scene is made up of under-35 creative types who all look as if they might be a phone call away from moneyed success or failure. And though they may lie to their last breath, they’ve all shopped at The Gap. Of that, I am certain.
     It didn’t matter to Gina and I because we were dressed up, and weren’t that interested in the clientele – we were just looking for a place to sit and have drinks on a weeknight.
     Gina had called me after New Year’s, but it was chitty-chat. She was excited because she’d seen an exhibit at Mexic-Arte, the Mexican-American art museum downtown and had gotten to meet a local artist who had inspired her.
     She told me she’d also taken to keeping the candles she’d bought in San Juan lit constantly for her mother, a practice she’s been inconsistent about in the past.
     Then she brought up Juan.
     "We had a long conversation last night," she told me a few days before we went out.
     "And…?" I asked.
     "And I told him that I’ve been confused about things lately, but that things are clearing up now and I still love him."
     "Still?" I asked. "Did you tell him anything that might make him think otherwise?"
     "No," she said. "It would have hurt him. It was a mistake that he doesn’t need to know about."
     "Oh," I said. I was a little disappointed. I thought she was all-too-willing to spill the beans in the confessional with the Almighty, but too afraid to bare her soul to the person with whom she claimed to have a soul-to-soul connection.
     "You think I should have told him," she said.
     "I don’t know. Part of me. A little. Yes. Yeah, I guess I do."
     "Not now," she said. "I have to know this is real. That I’m not going to go back and do something stupid again."
     And that was the extent of it, our chat about Juan the Unsuspecting.
     Two nights later we were at the Gingerman, a dark, wood-based pub with so many beers on the menu that they had to be separated by country of origin. We ordered beers that were served to us at the bar in huge glasses. Mine was from Belgium, chosen because of its dense, unpronounceable name, a marvel of random consonants. Gina ordered German, dark and mysterious and swirling in its glass.
     We talked about the coming semester, about the writing project (no details, just an update to her that yes, I’m still writing, no I don’t know where the finish line lies), about her mother, still house-bound, no better than during our visit.
     We got tired of the late 70s rock (Bob Seger, The Band, Boston, the three Bs of the Soundtrack to Beer Bars), and went over to nearby Fado’s, the Irish Pub. Fado’s is just as wooden, but brightly lit, a cavernous sprightly place that’s built like a circle. You walk in, circle to the left or right and if you keep walking, you’ll end up where you started.
     The music was Irish green, U2 and Clannad and some traditional Celtic. We sat on booths of wood as dark and deep as the Guinness served on tap.
     We talked some more, and did some people watching. We listened to the accents, Scottish, Irish and Elsewhere, trying to place them.
     By the time we got through our second beers, we were both getting drunk on the potent brews.
     She told me the bathroom story. And we laughed.
     The bathroom story happened when Gina was 16. Though it was hard to imagine Gina awkward at any age, she said she’d had butterflies in her stomach and a bad case of the Clumsies around Victor, a boy in her Algebra II class.
     They were in a study group together, and after endless flirting, he’d finally invited her out to the movies with a group of friends. During the movie, The Crow, Victor had made his move, brushing his hand against Gina’s on the armrest between their seats.
     Two weeks later, they were going out to a dance, semi-formal, which for girls always means formal-formal. Victor picked her up, arriving with a corsage that was extraneous given it wasn’t the prom, but hey, they were 16. You always go the extra mile to impress the opposite sex when you’re 16.
     On the way to the dance, he detoured to his house. His mother and father, the Martinez parents, wanted to meet this lovely young lady their son was escorting.
     Even worse than the butterflies she’d had on her first date with Victor, a meeting with his parents scared her down to the heels of her dyed shoes. She began to get flustered in his car, stressing and stressing until she was sure the sweat collecting at the edge of her hairline would start to run down her cheeks, rousing her makeup from its peaceful state.
     By the time they arrived at his house, her hands were shaking and she was clutching her tiny matching purse like a pistol. She smiled and accepted their handshakes. Her nervous stomach was giving her cramps, so when there was a moment of pause in the conversation, she excused herself to the restroom.
     In the bathroom, she ran the water like a demure lady would, and when she was finished, she flushed the toilet, moving over to the mirror to check her composure.
     Then it happened.
     Giving a groan that Gina demonstrated there at Fado’s, loudly so I could hear it over the clatter of Celtic, the toilet protested and began to back up.
     Her eyes moving slowly to the commode she began to pray without knowing she was doing it, her lips moving quickly of their own accord. "Oh please, oh God, no, no, don’t, please don’t, no, not now, don’t…"
     But the toilet wouldn’t hear her plea. It rose to half an inch from the top and there it stayed, swirling in a lazy, disgusting circle.
     And for a full minute, Gina said, she stood facing the mirror, her hands clawing at the sink’s edges. She was immobilized, unsure where to go. She began to move, the demure instinct that often rose to the surface of her feminism wanted to try flushing the toilet again, get rid of the evidence, make it all go away.
     The rational half of her brain screamed in protest, "No, don’t make it worse! It’s going to overflow and then the world really will end, right here, no more planet Earth!"
     She reached for the door to straighten the twist-lock. Her hand recoiled. She reached again, pulled it back.
     She looked under the sink, opening the storage doors in vain, looking for a plunger, some Drano, anything, an elixir to get her out of this jam.
     Slowly, shaking and terrified, she washed her hands. She unlocked the door. She crept into the hall and, still standing in it, whispered to Victor, who was sitting on the couch nearest.
     "Victor!" she whispered.
     She beckoned and he came, bless him, to the hallway.
     "What’s up?" he asked.
     "There’s a problem."
     "What is it?" He looked back over his shoulder to where his parents sat, oblivious to the violation of their home.
     "The toilet. It’s backed up."
     "The what? It’s… you backed it up?"
     He was smiling, near laughter and at that moment, their budding relationship was doomed to end. His days near her were numbered.
     For the moment, Gina still had to get out of her predicament. "It’s backed up. I need a plunger or something."
     "Oh," he said. "I gotta ask my dad. I’ll be right back."
vHe started to go back to the living room. Gina grabbed his arm and swung him back like a top. "No! Don’t tell him!"
     "Gina, I don’t know where they keep that stuff."
     "Well, go look!"
     "Me? Come with me," he said.
     "What if they go to the bathroom?" she asked. "I have to go guard it."
     This time he did laugh, and to hear Gina tell it now, had her teenage rage included telekinetic powers, the house may have fallen on him at that moment.
     "I’ll meet you in the bathroom," he said.
     Gina waited. And waited. The water ran. She looked at her watch and, impossibly, twenty minutes had passed since they’d arrived. She was sure Victor’s parents knew something was up. Their son’s date had holed herself up in the bathroom for fifteen minutes. What was she up to? Was she a druggie? Bulimic? Incontinent? Were digestive problems hereditary? What kind of sick, malformed, diseased digestive tract could this girl introduce to the Martinez gene pool?
     A knock at the door. Salvation.
     Gina opened the door, a "thanks," at her lips until she saw Mr. Martinez, his eyeglasses thick, his lips bright with a small smile, a plunger held like an axe in his hands.
     Victor stood behind him as if he were using his father as a shield. He was still smiling. It as an invitation to violence.
     "Victor said you’re having a little problem," Mr. Martinez said. "I’ll take care of it for you."
     Gina, eyes wide, lips quivering, legs weak, stood aside as Mr. Martinez came in. She walked out of the bathroom, dazed, moving past Victor, the smiling would-be-suitor, as if he were invisible. Behind her, she heard Mr. Martinez shut off the water. Then she heard the plunger go squish, squish, squish, pop, as it did its work.
     Victor: a memory three days later.
     Right there at Fado’s, we laughed together until we were crying. My stomach hurt and my cheeks were sore. Gina’s face was red, her eyes moist, her hair in constant motion from the racking giggles she couldn’t suppress.
     We were laughing and laughing, and when she demonstrated Mr. Martinez holding the plunger like some shotgun-toting warrior out for justice, we started up again.
     We left Fado’s that night and I was driving tipsy, stupidly, but I couldn’t honestly say if the high was from the drinks or the laughter.
     I said goodbye to Gina as I dropped her off, and there was still a grin on her face, constant for the night.
     And I could still see and hear her laughing when she called Monday, long-distance. I wanted her to be laughing again on the phone, for that night of peace and embarrassment and serenity back. But it was gone, replaced by Gina’s dead voice, colorless, humorless, stripped and torn of its music like a broken chime.
     "Heather?" Gina said when I answered.
     "Heather. She’s gone."