In the winter of that year, I fell into a whirlwind romance with this Irish-Italian gal named Gina. With her long black hair and dark eyes, she would have struck you as being Italian, long before the Irish ever came to mind. With her temper, she could have been either one.
I can’t say it was love at first sight. The night we met in a bar, she came off as being somewhat frumpy to me —a bit overweight and dressed like she was at a football game on a cold night, not out to paint the town—but something about her energy turned me on and I ended up leaving with her phone number.
I was living in a second story hole in the wall at the time, in the downtown district of Laurel Lagoon and kept a fairly predictable routine day to day—write until late afternoon, then break off and stroll downtown, park myself at the bar of the Renaissance Café, order a drink and watch people come and go as dusk settled over the town. There were tables outside on the sidewalk and a number of them inside, crowding right up against the bar.
At that time of day, the place bubbled over with conversation and evening’s magic. A local bohemian named Eric served bar. You could not miss him with his tanned Slavic face and the wiry, copper-colored hair. When his face lit up with a smile, he could have doubled for one of those sun calendars from back in the sixties.
Between mixing drinks, Eric and I would talk about art and life and women and even politics on occasion. Other patrons would come and go and join in on the conversation.
Eventually, I would order one of the many cheap meals on the Renaissance menu, then surrender my seat at the bar and go for a stroll around town. That would eventually lead back to my hole in the wall for a late night session at my desk. Then, growing restless again, I would head back downstairs for a nightcap at the Renaissance.
It was during one of these late night strolls that I noticed two women stalking me in their car. When I glanced their way, both of them smiled. The blonde driving the car leaned over and winked at me. When I turned up Forest from Coast Highway, I lost sight of them.
Going into the Renaissance, I parked myself at the far end of the bar, where it terminated into a brick wall. Eric offered his usual big smile, made me a drink and got back to polishing glasses.
At that late hour, the restaurant was mostly empty. A couple was talking down at the other end of the bar. A handful of patrons peppered the indoor tables. A jazz trio was playing quietly in the corner. Given the winter cold, no one was daring the sidewalk tables.
With Eric busy, I spun around to take in the Renaissance. It was Greenwich Village ambience. The old brick walls were decorated with local art. The cheap meals made it a home away from home for all the local artists and bohemians.
As I turned back to chat with Eric, the two ladies from the car came in and took the seats directly to my right. The one with black hair sat next to me. The blonde was sitting on the other side of her.
The blonde leaned over and said “hi.” I didn’t like her, from the looks right down to her ostentatious nature, but something about the black-haired woman had me interested.
“Michael,” I said, holding out my hand.
“Gina,” she said.
Eric, who had been mixing drinks for one of the waitresses, came over with a big smile.
“So, are you going to introduce me to our lady friends here or what?”
“I’m Gina,” Gina said, holding out her hand. “As in Gina Lollobrigida.”
Eric slapped his palm on the bar with a big laugh.
“Bam! That’s the way I like it! Yeah! Gina Lollobrigida! So what can I get you to drink there, beautiful?”
With their drinks in hand, I quickly grew lost in conversation with Gina. The blonde’s name was Sally. I heard her talking away with Eric in the background. A few hours of her and I would have been ready to shoot myself.
When the two ladies got up to leave, I asked Gina for her number.
“Give me yours and I’ll call you.”
“Yeah, right. I’ve heard this one before.”
“No, I promise. If I give my word, I do it.”
I jotted my number down on a cocktail napkin, never expecting to hear from her again.
When she called two days later, I expressed my surprise.
“I told you I’d call. I’m a Taurus.”
When we met for dinner the following weekend, Gina’s extra pounds were struggling a bit inside her tight dress, but she was beautiful and had a heart of gold and was wonderfully playful and the two of us were soon lost in the thickets of a tender little love affair.
With the bit of romance in her mouth, Gina quickly shed the extra pounds and became stunning. I was heading downtown to meet her one late afternoon and made the turn at Glenneyre and Forest. This lean gazelle of a woman was standing with her back to me in a sheer red dress, the back of which had one of those plummeting hemlines. She had on a pair of red, high heel sandals to go with the dress. Her black hair was down to her waist. I was ready to sell my soul and skip the date with Gina.
Slapping the steering wheel, the entire history of mankind’s moral failings played out before me. Christ. There was always another temptation to face.
Just as I had resigned myself to doing the right thing, the woman turned around and my heart did a little jig. It was Gina. She waved with a big smile and I signaled back to say, I’m off in search of a parking space.
A few weeks after I met Gina, I moved into an old Craftsman apartment a block up from the beach. The rent was cheap. The atmosphere was World War II.
To access the place, you walked up a flight of wooden stairs. A Dutch door led into the kitchen. The shoreline and rocks off Cress Street were visible through the double hung windows. A fine breeze was always blowing inside.
I was busy trying to wrap up some work at my desk the first time Gina drove down to see the place. I heard that unmistakable clip clop of high heels coming up the wooden stairs and went to greet her. The beautiful face and big white smile appeared in the half opened Dutch door a moment later. We exchanged a kiss and she came in for the tour.
It was going on a month before we ended up in bed. Then, before I knew it, we were waking up together on Sunday mornings. It had been years since I had let someone into my life that way.
It turned out to be an El Niño year and the endless rain finally flooded the downtown district. I walked down there along the beach one day and found the water level up to the tops of the parking meters. Driving inland through the canyon was like negotiating an African bush trail for several months.
By the time summer rolled around, Gina and I had had our share of ups and downs. To say she had a temper was an understatement. When she went off, dishes started flying.
On Fourth of July, Gina made plans to come down and enjoy the fireworks with me in Laurel Lagoon. Early that afternoon, she called to ask if it was okay to bring along a couple she knew. I said sure and they pulled in about an hour later, driving separate cars. I poured some wine and we sat down to chat. Chemistry what it is, Gina’s girlfriend and I got to laughing by ourselves at one point but no one seemed to notice or much care, or so I had thought.
In the late afternoon, we all agreed to head downtown and grab some grub before the fireworks started. Out on Coast Highway, we strolled along at a leisurely pace and stopped to window shop at all the boutiques.
When we came to a place specializing in aviation related paraphernalia, all of us peered in through the plate glass window. The cockpit dash of an old jet had been attached to one wall. Above it was a poster of an F-15, loaded for bear and going through its paces.
“I’ll bet that’s the cockpit that goes with that jet,” Gina said.
Everyone snickered. Gina turned red. I put my arm around her shoulder and gave her a hug.
“No, that’s probably from an F-4,” I said. “More like the Korean War era or something.”
An uncomfortable silence followed. I gave Gina another hug and a kiss on the forehead.
“Well, shall we,” I said and our entourage continued downtown. I glanced with concern at Gina a few times but she seemed to have weathered the insult all right.
Downtown, we found mile long lines at every restaurant. The average wait was forty-five minutes. Seeing no way around it, we put our names on a list and went for a stroll. The sidewalks were overflowing. The beach itself was a zoo of wall to wall people, as far as you could see.
We turned away from Coast Highway and did a tour of the backside of town and had just arrived back near the beach when, out of the blue, Gina suggested we go see a movie. There were perplexed looks all around. What the hell. We had just made reservations for dinner. Naturally, everyone demurred.
Somehow I got to laughing away with Gina’s girlfriend again and all of a sudden Gina lost it. Right there on the sidewalk, and with all of her venom directed at me.
I honestly don’t remember the bulk of what she said. It was scatological. Let’s leave it at that, her main invectives being that I didn’t love or respect her and that I was trying to put the make on her girlfriend.
Everyone within shouting distance had turned to stare at us. I saw two choices—either slap Gina to shut her up or make a run for it.
Gina’s friends took the latter option.
“Listen,” the guy said with a check of his watch. “Why don’t we reconnoiter back here in half an hour?”
Before I could argue, he and his girlfriend had disappeared into the crowd. I turned to find that Gina had disappeared, too.
With everyone within fifty feet still staring at me, I quickly put as much distance between me and the scene of the crime as possible. At the same time, I kept an eye out for Gina. Having combed the downtown area for several minutes, it dawned on me. Oh shit. I’ll bet she headed back to my place.
Mortified at the thought of how much havoc Gina could inflict in my absence, and realizing she had a sizable lead, I crossed Coast Highway, took off my deck shoes and headed south along the shore in a full gallop. As fortune would have it, the tide was high, leaving me completely drenched by the time I arrived back to my place.
Dashing in the door, I found a vase smashed against the living room wall. The red roses I had bought Gina were strewn amidst the broken glass and water. Rushing into my bedroom, I found all of Gina’s clothes missing from my open closet. Feeling saddened and violated in equal measures, I set about cleaning up the glass and water from the oak flooring. By the time I finished and was seated back at my desk, afternoon had turned to twilight.
Feeling miserable, my previous flame Michelle popped into my thoughts. Michelle never seemed to be available until she couldn’t have me, so from the minute she had learned of Gina, the calls never stopped. That woman could always smell blood in the water.
On a lark, I called to see if Michelle was home alone. She was and listened quietly as I explained what had just happened.
“Did you want to come over?” she asked.
We both chuckled at the irony.
“Listen, with all the hoopla, I’m going to walk so it’ll take me twenty minutes or so.”
Michelle lived over on the north end of town, which meant I had to cross downtown again to reach her place. To avoid the zoo, I walked up to 2nd and navigated two back streets and two parking lots to reach Broadway. At the first break in traffic, I dashed across to the other side and took the steps up to Cliff Drive. The fireworks were scheduled to go off in roughly half an hour.
Michelle’s cottage was on a dead end street lined with maples. One of them towered over her yard. Ten foot high oleander bushes shrouded two sides of the house. In the dusky dreams of a warm summer night, Michelle greeted me at the door.
We kissed and Michelle put a finger up to her lips. As I went in, I heard a couple arguing next door through the open windows.
Michelle put her hands up to the side of her head and waved two fingers, as if they were antenna. I smiled and did the same, only with four fingers. This was serious antenna work, far more than Michelle cared to admit.
Eventually, Michelle and I settled onto her sofa with a glass of wine and laughed again over our state of affairs. Michelle had dumped me the previous holiday. Then, the minute Gina appeared, she was begging to have me back.
What was it with women? They always seemed to want something they couldn’t have.
Michelle and I went down to watch the fireworks from Diver’s Cove. Upon returning, we got in bed. It was good, raw sex, without any questions. Michelle and I had been at this love thing for over fourteen years—sex, boredom, another breakup and back to raw sex again.
When we were done, Michelle asked if I planned to see Gina again.
“I don’t know. I hadn’t really thought that far ahead.”
“Well, I don’t really mind you doing one other woman, but I don’t want to hear about you doing a bunch of them, okay?”
“Oh, well, you know me, Michelle.”
The following morning, I walked home through the downtown district. The city crews were busy cleaning up after Fourth of July. My hangover and sore feelings were all mixed up there with the debris.
But twenty-four hours earlier, I was a devoted man. Now all I had were some troubled memories.
Over the next few days, the shock of what had happened slowly subsided. Gina wanted back so I let her, only to be subjected to one more wild episode of her unbridled temper.
When I dared to suggest that she might be going through early menopause, all hell broke loose.
That was it. I closed the door and never let Gina back in.
Sometime late that summer, two go getters from Philadelphia came to Laurel Lagoon and bought out the Renaissance, intending to turn it into a high end bistro. They were brimming with ideas on how to fix things up and started with making all the employees wear uniforms. The entrée prices tripled. The artists and bohemians abandoned the place in droves.
As the holidays rolled around that year, the new owners arranged a big New Year’s Eve bash. In keeping with their lofty ideas, the gala event was priced at a hundred dollars a head.
I was alone then and had been so for several months. With Gina gone, Michelle not so mysteriously lost interest again.
That New Year’s Eve, I went out walking the streets and stumbled upon the party at the Renaissance. A beautiful blonde was dancing alone out on the sidewalk patio. Smitten, I said hello and started dancing with her. When a slow tune came on, she nestled into my arms.
All of a sudden, I had one of the new owners tapping me on the shoulder.
“Hey, buddy. Did you buy a ticket?”
He was smiling. I wasn’t and told him, “no.”
“Well, you have to have a ticket to be in here.”
“So, I’ll buy one.”
I looked in at the clock.
“It’s almost midnight. How much are they now?”
“It’s still a hundred bucks.”
What a prick. I smiled at the lady and reached for my money clip.
“Shit,” I said, checking all my pockets. “I left my money at home.”
The owner showed me to the sidewalk.
“You want to go someplace where we can talk?” I asked the lady.
“No. Just go get your money and come back, okay?”
“Okay. Don’t run off. I’ll be back in fifteen minutes.”
Being on foot, I was faced with another wild dash down the shore to my house. I could have used Coast Highway but that stretch of the road had more dips and rises in it than the Tour de France. At least the tide was low this time. I had the hard beach sand to hasten my journey.
Following a splash bath and change of clothes at my place, I jumped in my car and raced back to the Renaissance, only to find the woman gone. After wandering downtown a spell, looking for her, I headed back home.
It’s all in the moment, I thought. Opportunity knocks more than once, but not often, and when that chance presents yourself, you’d better jump. It’s that or be prepared to wait a long time before fate drops another jewel in your lap.
Right after that New Year’s Eve bash, the Renaissance closed for its big remodel. A building permit had been taped to the inside of the glass front, along with a notice of intent to serve liquor.
The initial flurry of demolition was followed by days and then weeks without a single sign of activity. Eventually, word spread through the grapevine that those two go getters from Philly had gone belly up. The building permit and intent to sell liquor notice were replaced with a “for lease” sign. The place sat there empty for almost two years.
That was the start of a rough patch for Laurel Lagoon, and for me. It was definitely the end of an era. The Renaissance was gone, and so were all of my flames. Michelle married this petroleum engineer up in Sunset Beach and had a kid. The deal came complete with a beachfront pad.
I ran into Gina at a local mall the following year. She had put all the weight back on and seemed very lonely. I got the sense that she wanted to start things up again but all trust between us had been broken, at least from my end.
In the lonely years since, I have paused to wonder if that wasn’t one of those missed opportunities. I once knew great feelings of devotion. I have struggled to find them again.