Forever and Ever

In 1983, my toddler son and I lived with my mom in Davis, a town near Sacramento. I worked in a government office and carpooled with Casey most days. She was an intern, just out of college. We took turns picking music for the twenty-minute commute. Casey carried cassette tapes in her backpack, stuff I’d never heard of. New Wave, she said, with cocked head air quotes, like I should know. When it was my turn, it was David Bowie, seventies Bowie.

“What’s with all the old tunes?” Casey would say, spitting a little in that cute, lispy way she had.

I couldn’t explain it to her.

His voice, the songs, flipped a switch that let me dream. I wasn’t on the Yolo causeway after leaving my boy sobbing at daycare. I wouldn’t be away from him for ten hours. I was whoever I chose to be. If not forever and ever, then in increments the length of a song.

Casey and I saw Bowie at the Oakland Coliseum that fall. We took BART from her boyfriend Art’s house. He was a professor. She’d been his student. I was almost thirty, a divorced secretary with a child, living with my mom.

Casey wore a jumpsuit to the concert—pale pistachio with big metal snaps up the front. I wore my black denim mini skirt and Superman midriff top. Bowie was a remote figure on the stage, huge on screen, wide-legged pants and a halo of golden hair. After the concert, jostled by the train, Casey rested her head on my shoulder.

“We’re having a party next Saturday,” she said. “This friend of Art’s will be there. He wants to meet you.”
“He know I have a kid?”

“Maybe,” she said. “I can’t remember.”
It wasn’t the first time Casey had tried to set me up.
The following week we went out for lunch. Ordered drinks to celebrate hump day. Casey sucked hers down. Red splotches bloomed on her dimpled cheeks. She slumped across the small table.

“See anything you like?” she asked.

I considered the packed room. Lobbyists and blowhard staffers from the Capitol, ties loosened and legs splayed wide.

“Him,” I said.

“Thebusboy? Seriously?”

I meant it, though I wasn’t sure why. Something about his expression, an unselfconscious ease as he stacked dishes and swabbed the chrome tables. As if he were alone, invisible to everyone but me.

Our waitress brought a sizzling Monte Cristo sandwich and two plates.
Casey asked her the busboy’s name.

“Oh, that’s James,” the waitress said. “He’s a real sweetheart.”

“My friend thinks he’s cute,” Casey said.

James brought us another round of drinks.

“On the house,” he said. “This is weird for me. So thanks.”

As he snatched up soiled napkins and plates, I caught a flash of smile, of pointy incisors. Dents like parentheses framed his mouth.

“You look like David Bowie,” I said. It sounded lame. But it was true.

“That’s a first, too. I’ll have to look in a mirror,” he said.

Casey left my number with the check. “Just for fun,” she said. “He’ll never call.”

He called that Saturday. I picked him up downtown. We drove up 80 towards Tahoe. Pulled off the highway at the first trailhead. Smoked a joint on a rock overlooking a canyon. He told me he was nineteen and that he left home with his girlfriend two years before. To get her away from a bad situation. It was rough the first year. But they were finally getting it together. He could relax. Let down his guard. I didn’t ask why he’d called me. We went to Pancake Circus after. He held my hand under the table, laid it on his jittery thigh.

“I checked out Bowie albums,” he said. “It’s the fangs, right?”

We kissed, tasted syrup on one another’s lips.

I didn’t make it to Casey’s party. On Monday, I picked her up for work.

“Art’s friend kept asking where you were,” she said. “It was embarrassing.”

When I told her I was with James, Casey made the face my mother used to when she was disappointed in me.

For awhile, he would call when he had a free shift and his girlfriend didn’t. We went to their place. Or mine. If there wasn’t time, then the car. I’m not sure what we thought we were doing, other than the obvious. Ten years between us. I had my son. He had her. We both had scut jobs and foreshortened horizons. I guess we thought we could be something different, if only in one another’s eyes, for an hour at a time.

One night he was at my place. Mom was gone. We hunkered down on the kitchen floor, spoke in whispers so we wouldn’t wake my son.

“What?” he said, fingers on my face.

“Guess I have a crush on you.”

“Me too,” he said.

We were still there, on the floor, when the sun rose. James began to cry. His narrow shoulders heaved.

“I can’t do this anymore,” he said. “She’s all I have.”

I lifted my son from his bed. Laid him in the back seat. Drove James home. I never saw him again.

On a weekend months later, my son was with his dad. I went to a triple feature at the Tower, five straight hours of David Bowie. The musty theater was near empty, scattered singles, a group of glammed-out girls. Alone in the flickering dark, I dug my fingernails into the crushed velvet seat cushion and imagined I could be a hero. If not forever and ever then for just a few hours.

That was a long time ago. Certain songs still have the power to transport. Only now, over half a life in, the destination is more often the realm of memories, some of them distant and fragile.

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