Alan Gerstle was born in Hollywood and raised in Brooklyn. He is a teacher and writer, and has published short stories, poetry, literary analyses, and essays in many journals. In addition, he has edited several college-level textbooks. You can read some of his work in Chicago Literati, Literally Stories, and Halfway Down the Stairs. He remains sane by bicycling as much as possible when the weather allows. You can reach him at email@example.com.
CURLS: A LOVE STORY.
We connected via an online dating site. Cleo lived in North Philadelphia with her mother. She didn’t drive, so I traveled down to visit her. She lived on a street in an area some people would call a “bad neighborhood.” But within two weeks, I had visited three times. I felt compelled.
Imagine watching an old movie. It begins with an animation. A road map from New York City to Philadelphia fills the screen. A cartoon car chugs along a winding blue line that represents the distance between the two cities. It seems the automobile has been destined to make this journey since it left the assembly line.
The fourth time I drove down was to give her a ride back to my home for the weekend. That we lived a city apart was irrelevant. Cleo had told me she had never been in an airplane, and felt apprehensive about flying. But I would have driven to Buenos Aires if I had to.
Cleo was waiting in front of her house, a suitcase in her hand. Her glowing, caramel skin and red felt bowler hat were visible halfway down the tenement-lined block. I stopped and climbed out. Before I could say anything, she grabbed the rear passenger-side door handle and tugged. She registered surprise when it didn’t open.
“It’s locked,” I said.
I pressed the button on my key fob and the door latch snapped open.
“Now,” I said.
Cleo looked at me with a furrowed brow. She pulled on the handle again. The door opened. She put her suitcase on the rear seat, and slammed the door shut. Then she opened the front door and slid into the seat before I could act the gentleman. I sighed audibly, and got back in the driver’s seat. She slammed her door so hard, the whole car shook.
“It’s not the hatch of a submarine,” I said.
“We’ve never owned a car,” she said. I made a right turn on Susquehanna. I was focused on finding the way to the turnpike entrance, so I didn’t say anything.
“You’re my Nile goddess,” I said, once we got on the turnpike. Cleo nodded diffidently. It was true, though. She had beautiful copper skin, and a heavenly smile. She seemed captivated as we drove, as if she had never been on a highway before. I surreptitiously eyed her. It struck me that she was looking out the window as if she was viewing a magic kingdom—not the anticipation of traveling towards one—but as if we were already there. Her beatific bearing and wondrous gaze. As I drove, I pondered how I felt blessed even though I was an atheist.
I explained that New York City consisted of five boroughs, and that Staten Island was one of them.
“I don’t know much about Staten Island."
“Joan Baez was born there.”
When we reached the Outerbridge Crossing that connected New Jersey to New York, she took out her phone.
“Could you lower the window?” she asked. She held out her Samsung and began videoing the Staten Island Sound below, improvising a verbal travelogue. Her melodic voice imitated a tour guide’s script.
“You’re clever,” I smiled. “Making up a story on the spot.”
“Is that okay?” she said. She lowered the phone, and placed it on her lap.
“It’s not a criticism. I do that when I write. But I need something to inspire me.” Then Cleo revealed that puzzled look again.
“We’re here,” I said. We pulled up to my house. It was an old Victorian, somewhere between quaint and dilapidated. I lived on a residential street, and the trees—in their leafy way--had decided that spring had arrived and wouldn’t be leaving anytime soon.
Cleo reached out and took a few strands of my hair, and twisted them around her finger.
“Don’t make my hair any curlier than it is,” I said.
“And to your left, ladies and gentlemen,” Cleo pretended to hold a microphone, “are Peter’s thick brown curls.”
“Definitely not a tour highlight,” I said. Then we kissed.
For dinner, I made spinach salad, and we drank Pinot Grigio. Cleo never had wine before, and she got dizzy. I walked her over to the leather sofa. I prayed she wouldn’t throw up. She leaned against my shoulder and I stroked her henna-tinted hair.
“Your hair is curlier than mine,” I said.
“Maybe it’s in my genes,” she said quietly.
“That could be easily misinterpreted.”
“It could?” she said. Then there was that furrowed brow.
“Let me know when you feel better.”
I reached out to the coffee table. It was strewn with oversized books and periodicals. I grabbed a cycling magazine that lay beside my notebook and began leafing through it. Cleo’s head felt heavy on my shoulder.
Occasionally I glanced at her, trying to read her facial expression. One minute it seemed to signal a deathly illness; the next, a hunger for affection. She opened her eyes, took a deep breath, and sat up. She was scanning the wood floor that stretched outward to the opposite wall, meeting the lowest shelf of my ceiling-high bookcase.
“You have lots of books,” she said.
“Hazards of being a teacher.”
“You don’t want to know.”
“Oh,” she said, followed by an expression of dawning recognition. “But I do.”
“Enlighten me then,” I said. She seemed to perk up.
“Sometimes you read about the mysteries of the universe, like ancient history or the dinosaurs, and it’s as if you’re walking around during the time of the Romans, or you’re in Jurassic Park.”
“That’s fair,” I said tentatively.
“But other times.” She emphasized the word so deliberately, I had the feeling she was imagining herself getting off the back of a Tyrannosaurus. “Other times you have so much reading to do, you feel your head is about to explode.” She raised and lowered her arms dramatically as though mimicking a bomb being detonated.
“Feeling better now?” I asked. Instead of responding, though, Cleo reached out and picked up a large book about Michelangelo that lay on the table. The dust jacket displayed the famous image of the finger of God reaching out to touch Adam.
“The sixteenth chapel.” Cleo drew the book to her and put it on her lap, marveling at the cover as though we were touring the Vatican.
“Sistine,” I said.
“I knew that wasn’t right,” she said.
“It’s all right with me.” I gently tugged on the book. “Want to see the terrace?” I pointed to the double doors.
“That sounds like fun.” But she jumped up so suddenly, she began to wobble.
“A little dizzy, that’s all. Sometimes I’m a klutz.”
“A ravishing klutz.” I thought for a moment. “Sounds like an oxymoron.”
“A what?” Then that look of bewilderment.
The door to the terrace was stuck. Layers of paint had built up over the years, so I had to pull on the door extra hard. We were outside, but I thought how if I didn’t fix the loose doorknob, I’d soon wrench it out along with the screws.
“If you look up, you can see stars.”
“Very unique,” she said.
“Meteor,” I said, and pointed.
“Another one,” I said. But it too was already gone.
“Here’s what we do,” I said. “Use my finger for a guide. Stare in the direction it’s pointing. Eventually a shooting star should appear. It’ll be quick, though.”
I stretched out my arm and pointed. It felt like we were staring through a single telescope. My arm began to grow tired.
“I don’t see anything,” she said.
“There!” we shouted together. Then it was gone.
“Be right back.” I rushed inside and grabbed a pencil. I opened my notebook and scribbled something.
“Sorry I left you out here alone,” I said, as I stepped back outside.
“Where’d you go?”
“I had a moment of inspiration.”
Cleo raised her long bronze fingers and ran them through my hair. “Did you mean that about needing inspiration to write?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Written all over your face.”
“No one’s ever told me they can read my face.”
“I can read invisible ink,” she said. She made the same motion with her fingers. It felt nice until she grabbed my hair and tugged.
“Ouch. That hurt," I said.
“Serves you right.”
My Nile goddess. I knew we were at the start of a long, intimate, and unpredictable journey. I imagined an animated film. There was a rocket ship, crudely drawn. Cleo and I were climbing into it. I wasn’t sure what Cleo thought, but I felt I had no choice. It was clearer to me than anything I had ever known.
We headed for the door to go back indoors. I stopped momentarily to glance up at the stars. Then I looked at Cleo. Her expressions of bafflement had disappeared. It was replaced by a thin veil of what I could only describe as wacky wisdom. When I took hold of the doorknob, I grasped it firmly, and pulled hard. But I didn’t have to. The door opened with ease.