Raquel Luna’s Evening of Enchantment
On the rare occasion that Raquel Luna, fifty-one years old, never married and seldom kissed, prepared for a date, her mother Esther would sing “Some Enchanted Evening,” always getting it wrong.
“You may seem a stranger,” she would croon.
“See,” Raquel corrected. “See a stranger.”
Tonight Raquel was meeting Eugene Krulikowski, whom she knew only from his Mature Singles ad. He liked romantic dinners, foreign films, and walks in the park. Though far from a regular reader of Cosmopolitan, Raquel had nevertheless happened upon an article (in the grocery checkout line, of course) that decoded singles ads. According to Cosmo wisdom, “romantic dinners” paired with “walks in the park” signified intimacy followed toute suite by abandonment, one and done. As for foreign films, they were the lure — seduction by subtitle.
It was exactly what Raquel was seeking, having long given up on a real relationship. Her own ad had read: Fifty-something, above average in all categories, looking for short-term, no-strings-attached non-relationship. Raquel had received six responses to her ad. She’d weeded out the ones with bad grammar and Eugene had risen to the top of the remaining pile of two. It was a match intended for one purpose: losing her virginity. Virginity at her age was nothing if not an oddity, so lose it she must.
It was a term that had always confounded her. As if it was something that slipped through a hole in your pocket or you left behind on the bus. Virginity was nothing like spare change or an umbrella. Not something you left unattended — you snooze, you lose. It was nothing like that. She knew that, even if she knew little else about courtship and sex.
“I don’t see why your date can’t pick you up here,” Esther said, scurrying in with a half dozen necklaces hanging in the crook of her arm and another two against the large, only slightly drooping shelf of her bosom. Even at age seventy-five, Esther’s breasts were impressive. Raquel felt cheated. Her bras had always been roomy, with air pockets in which a hamster might comfortably nestle.
“In my day, the man always came to the door,” said Esther, who was given to reminiscing about her glory days as a much-sought-after date more than a half century ago. From among her crowd of suitors, she chose shy, lanky Oscar Luna whom she doted on and bossed about until he succumbed to a weak heart, leaving Raquel to receive the brunt of Esther’s doting and bossing.
“Times change,” Raquel said, weary of Esther’s stale memories, fearful of the day they would become hers by default.
Esther hummed through pursed lips and busied herself matching jewelry to Raquel’s attire — a long-sleeved, high-necked, pale blue dress — a synthetic blend whose cling somehow felt sympathetic, even protective at her round shoulders, her too-soft belly. On her feet were girlish Mary Janes.
Esther eyed the effect of a pearl teardrop that hung at Raquel’s breastbone. Esther sighed.
“A choker,” she said. “A choker is better.” She wriggled a short strand of beads off her arm and clasped it around Raquel’s neck, and Raquel watched in the mirror as it sank in the hollow of her collarbone.
To compensate, she plucked a red paper rose from the vase beneath the mirror and planted it in her hair, which gripped it with its lacquered strands. She looked, she thought, not unlike a cartoon. But Esther was clucking over her, clapping her hands and shooing her out the door.
“Now go have your enchanted evening,” she said, as if Raquel, in her late middle age, were on her way to a fairy tale. As if at this stage of her life, there could be the possibility of leaving Esther for a prince.
At the restaurant Raquel watched Eugene Krulikowski slide a raw oyster untidily into his mouth.
“An aphrodisiac,” the young waiter had said with a smirk when he delivered them to the table.
“Here you go,” Eugene said, reaching around his martini to hold a half shell to her mouth. The raw oyster glistened, jiggling slightly as Eugene waved it under her nose.
Raquel had not meant to eat them herself. Hers was a mission that required only resolve and a splash of wine, not uncooked invertebrates. But Eugene was insistent, and she didn’t want to seem a spoil sport. She poured the slippery contents past her teeth and felt the coldness skim her throat. The sensation made her blink. Grit scraped her molars. She let Eugene polish off the platter.
He was a large man, football-player size, but without the muscle or grace. He had meaty hands.
“You’re not at all how I imagined,” Eugene said as he swabbed oyster juice from his chin.
It was the name, thought Raquel with annoyance. She had been in high school when Raquel Welch was at the height of her sexpot popularity, when the name “Raquel” conjured one thing, well, two things. She forced herself to make eye contact with Eugene, and was relieved to see no disappointment in his beagle eyes.
“You’re much more above average than your ad suggested,” Eugene clarified.
Was it a flirtatious remark? Had the oysters kicked in? She attempted a coy smile and averted her eyes. She saw their waiter at a table near the window where she would have liked to have sat for a view of the bay, perhaps a glimpse of the stars if there were any to be seen. Instead, the table was occupied by three slinkily dressed young women, the kind of women that stare daringly from the pages of Cosmo in articles about empowerment while revealing half a breast.
She became aware of eyes upon her and Eugene. Was she imagining the titter of the waiter and the slinky women above the ambient noise of the restaurant? Could they possibly have guessed her motive? She felt herself go warm and her hand went to her neck where her fingers pulled at the choker.
Raquel turned back to Eugene who apparently had been clearing his throat to rawness, awaiting a reply to his remark, which she had by now forgotten.
“That’s a lovely tie you’re wearing,” Raquel told him, wanting to assure him of her interest.
“I like your flower,” he said back to her, and Raquel was convinced they were on the right track.
When the waiter arrived with their main course, Raquel cast a cold eye on him. The waiter, however, was professional in his demeanor, if a bit ostentatious. When she declined to have him ground pepper on her fillet of sole, he gave the slightest bow. Raquel followed the direction of his head to the table of the slinky women who were absorbed in their colorful cocktails and Caesar salads. Oh, to be young and oh, so knowing.
They dug into their meals, Eugene heartily and Raquel with determination since a good dinner was never to be wasted, even if one was preparing oneself for a rite so momentous, however belated it might be.
Except to ask each other how the food was, little conversation passed between them while they ate, which suited Raquel. Just as she was wondering if what they were experiencing qualified as a romantic dinner, Eugene popped the question.
“Would you care to see a foreign film? I have a great selection at home.”
So there it was — the veiled proposition. Raquel felt the oyster slither in her stomach.
The waiter came by at this moment to offer them dessert. Key lime pie, chocolate mousse, crème brulée.
“Yes, I would love to,” Raquel said to Eugene, who met her knowing wink with a look of puzzlement that seemed almost genuine. To the waiter she said, “No, thank you.” She did have a hankering for key lime pie. But she wanted to snub the waiter, his know-it-all demeanor, his apparent conspiracy with the slinky women. She excused herself to go to the ladies room. It was empty and she stood inside her stall, trying to fortify herself for Eugene’s foreign film, because she was starting to lose her resolve. Raquel remembered that cartoon that was popular for a while where the woman puts her hands to her face, suddenly stricken, exclaiming she forgot to have children. Yes, Raquel had laughed at that. But, of course, one doesn’t forget to have children. Likewise, one doesn’t forget to lose her virginity. It was all a matter of timing and opportunity and, sometimes, love — all of which had bypassed Raquel.
Even though she had not used the toilet, she flushed it anyway, watching the eddy in the bowl accelerate then vanish. She came out of her stall to find one of the slinky women at the mirror, applying lipstick. Raquel soaped her hands, pretending not to watch her paint her lips then fold them into each other to blot the excess color. The slinky woman set the lipstick tube on the counter, unmistakably nudging it in Raquel’s direction, then she twirled out the door on her skinny high heels.
Raquel had never worn make-up, had never known what to do with all those colors. She uncapped the lipstick, considered the possibility of germs. But she’d already eaten a raw oyster that evening. She pulled the color across her lips. The effect was startling. Her mouth bloomed, an efflorescence that was almost gory in its brilliance. It seemed to magnify the hue of the paper flower in her hair. Her whole face was lit like neon as if she were a piece of museum art.
When she got back to her table, the slinky women were gone from theirs, and the waiter was pocketing his tip.
“Ready?” Eugene said, doing an unsatisfactory job of wiping crumbs from his face. He had consumed a slice of double chocolate cake in her absence. In the dim light of the restaurant, he seemed not to notice her newly made-up mouth, her glow, and she wondered if she had imagined it. They split the tab and Raquel left the tube of lipstick on the table instead of a tip.
Outside they headed toward their separate cars, and Raquel saw that there were stars, a thousand little winks in the night. “Follow me,” Eugene called from the sheepskin interior of his Honda Civic. Raquel got in her car, checked her mirrors and saw her blooming lips. As she steered her car behind Eugene’s, she imagined kissing him, transferring her red color to his lips, and her lips picking up leftover cake crumbs. It seemed an uneven transaction, but she knew that life wasn’t always fair.
She followed him into the parking lot of an apartment complex with an endless number of look-alike units. Eugene’s was on the first floor, a smudge of groundcover separating his front door from his assigned parking slots, and she took note of this easy escape. A soft breeze pressed her dress against her legs and she adjusted it as she crossed the threshold into his living room cum dining room cum kitchen.
Raquel liked how three functions fit into one form, no walls that hid or hindered, no doors to shut. Eugene offered her a seat on the black vinyl couch while he stepped a few paces into the dining room to pluck a bottle of red from the wine rack and lean into a kitchen cabinet for some glasses. He was back beside her in a stride and a half. The efficiency of the set-up was reassuring.
After he poured, he raised his glass to hers. “To foreign films,” he toasted. They clinked and Raquel threw back a generous swallow.
“What’ll it be?” Eugene asked. “Something in Spanish? French? Serbo-Croatian?”
“Something French,” she said. She decided its slurry sounds were probably most like the sounds one would make while having sex.
Raquel gently swirled the wine in her glass as she focused on the TV, where Jeanne Moreau was in close-up, her face luminous and expectant.
“Watch what happens,” Eugene said, and he lifted his arm to point to the screen, but the back of his hand batted Raquel’s Cabernet. She gasped as the wine puddled in her lap and seeped between her thighs.
Eugene vaulted into the kitchen and when he returned with a sponge and a bottle of soda water, Raquel was standing up, holding the fabric away from her body but not able to detract from the fact that the spill had made a neat triangle over her crotch. Eugene dribbled soda water over the stain and began dabbing at it with the sponge.
“Oh,” Raquel said, wondering if this was meant to be foreplay. She released her hold on her dress and its dampness settled against her body, as did Eugene’s sponge.
“Oh,” Eugene said, as if suddenly enlightened.
“Oh,” Raquel said again, suddenly confused.
Despite the possibility of mixed signals and uncertain intentions, they found themselves entwined on the couch. Groping. Such an appropriate word, thought Raquel. Eventually, their odd gymnastics landed her on her back and him on top of her, his face lodged at her chest. Her dress was scrunched at her belly where she could feel the metal clasp of Eugene’s belt. She reached for her purse on the coffee table and fished inside.
“For you,” she said, inserting the little foil packet between Eugene’s face and her neck where his tongue was leaving a trail of saliva.
“Of course,” he said, obliging and then falling upon her once again.
She fixed her eyes over the bald spot on Eugene’s head, above his rump raised in the air, above the television from which Jeanne Moreau spoke her squishy French consonants. There on the wall was a framed black-and-white photo of the Eiffel Tower rising out of the soft-focus cityscape. Paris. She would like to go there someday. She had taken Esther to the one in Las Vegas. But it wasn’t the same.
Eugene’s mouth covered hers and she tasted oysters and wine and chocolate cake. She wondered what she tasted like, whether he could taste the slinky woman whose lipstick she wore.
As Eugene continued to rumble around on top of her, she closed her eyes to all of it. Closed her eyes the way she did when she rode one of those roller coasters at Disneyland and waited for the sudden screeching velocity which she met with muted panic and a determination to just hang on.
Abruptly, though, Eugene paused in mid-thrust. “Oh, my,” he breathed.
She hoped he was taking a break from the exertion that might easily tax his bulky frame and chocolate-cake-laden arteries.
“It’s a little difficult,” he whispered.
“I can explain,” she said, though she wasn’t sure whether he meant the problem was him or her, so she was silent, stumped.
Eugene cleared his throat.
Raquel, suddenly impatient, clenched her teeth and hissed, “Switch!”
Eugene complied without question, and Raquel, now on top, went to work, her dress tucked into her bra, his pants puddling at his knees. Truth was she had done more than read Cosmo in the grocery check-out line. She had actually purchased a few, kept them hidden in a shoebox under the bed, had memorized one article in particular, the main points of which she now put into practice as best she could. It was her first time, and she understood not to expect much pleasure — in fact, just the opposite. She didn’t wait for a chorus of angels, for the earth to quake, for her head to spin. It was the pain she was really after, but when it came, that disappointed too.
She righted herself and as she waited for her breathing to slow and her eyes to refocus, her ears filled with Jeanne Moreau’s nostalgic purr.
It was all over. The deed done, never to be undone.
Esther’s voice came back to her: You may seem a stranger. But she didn’t. She felt more herself than before.
She restored her clothing to its proper arrangement. Eugene still lay dazed on the couch. She realized he had really only expected to see a movie. She extricated the paper flower that still clung to her hair and handed it to Eugene. He already wore her lipstick. Thus, relieved of those accessories, she took herself out the door, covering the quick distance to the parking lot. In the car she strapped herself firmly into her seat.
Her dress was still damp in the crotch. She turned on the heat full blast and rolled down her window and as she accelerated onto the freeway, she let the words of Esther’s song disappear in the mix of artificial heat and cool night air. The stars were brighter now, their glitter testing her perception of depth and distance. She closed her eyes for one long second, blindly steering the wheel, and then opened them wide.
When she arrived home, Esther was asleep on the couch, dreaming behind her glasses. Raquel kicked off her Mary Janes and unclasped the choker at her throat. She bent over and removed her mother’s glasses, inhaling the smell of old skin. She breathed out gently as she wound the choker around her mother’s hands, just barely capturing both.about the author