I never knew her name, but she always used to dance
right in front of me. So pretty--her Patty Duke hairstyle was a dark auburn,
her smile constant, her big green eyes gazing up at me with something like adoration.
Often she drew close enough that the crinoline skirt of her green dress (it was always one shade of green or another)
brushed the stage, and I could hear her sweet alto voice singing along. Then
my lips would begin to tremble with the desire to kiss her and my hands would ache to touch her—so much so that I could
hardly play my trumpet anymore. And when I had to walk to the mike to sing my
only lead number—the Drifters’ recent big hit, “Up on the Roof”—she would applaud harder than
anyone and bounce up and down with such delight that my knees buckled. I had
all I could do to look at anything in the club but her.
dream girl was out of the question. For one thing, I was a short, skinny black
boy of 16, playing in a little combo with other Virginia country boys. We only came
to the “big city” of Roanoke—here, to the Starlight Club--a couple of times a month. For another, I was not the lead singer, like I said. Maybe
if I had been, she could have ignored my race (my foolish optimism talking), and we could have at least had a dance while
another band was playing. Our group didn’t even play on the best nights—Friday
and Saturday. We had to settle for Wednesdays, doing our homework backstage,
sometimes dozing off before the call came for us to go on. But, I told myself,
she is here every time we play—that has to mean something. Even the fact
that she looked to be a couple years older and a few inches taller couldn’t completely discourage me.
Then one night, I was complaining
a bit too loudly to my band mates about an English assignment, a paper on the book “As I Lay Dying”. I suddenly heard a soft voice behind me, “Maybe I can help you with that? I love Faulkner!” I turned my head so quickly that I
got a crick in my neck, and my hand went up to rub the spot as I looked up to see the girl in the green dress standing over
me. She crouched down beside me and began to massage my neck as she went on talking,
pointing with her other hand at the book and my paper. I couldn’t hear
a word, could barely take my eyes off her. Her touch was electric, sending a
gentle wave throughout my entire body--particularly to one very sensitive place. (I
had noticed warmth there when I watched her from the stage, many times—but had never felt it hardening like this.) I was not used to such attention (my older brother was the handsome one), so even
when my neck began to relax I didn’t tell her. She did stop rubbing eventually,
but never moved her hand from my shoulder as she continued explaining the complexities of the story. The low, soft, clear way she spoke forced me to listen, reminding me of my favorite actress, Lauren Bacall,
so I began to think of her as Lauren. She finally drew me out into conversation,
first about the book, then about so many other things that I didn’t notice the time passing.
When it was our turn to
take the stage, the rest of the guys took off, pointing and snickering. My ears
must surely have been turning red as I stood shakily up from the crate I had been sitting on.
I only hoped Lauren didn’t see my embarrassment as I looked into her eyes when I reached down to take her hand
and help her up. Her blissful gaze never left my face as she tottered on her
high heels and smoothed her full skirt, but the hand I held was trembling. I
gripped it tighter and cleared my throat; even so, my voice was a pitiful croak as I said, “Thank you for your help.” I coughed a second time before adding hastily, “I need to go now!” How ridiculous, I told myself as she nodded—she heard the call and saw the others
go! Still, there was not a hint of derision in her tone or in the broadening
of her smile as she replied, “You are very welcome, anytime!” Something
about the way she said that last word made me bold all at once. With a quick
glance around to make sure no one was looking, I stood on my toes and let my lips brush hers briefly. Lauren giggled, and the sound went straight to that private place that her touch had aroused a short while
before. Afraid she would notice it bulging; I walked quickly away and joined
the combo onstage.
We played our set and I watched my dream girl do as she always did, but on this night something
more than distant desire was passing between us. It gave a different meaning
to the words that I had always tried to make sure she knew I was singing just to her:
“There’s room enough for two…” She had shown me
that when she came down to my level in both a literal and figurative way backstage.
In spite of my youth I knew in my heart that her doing so--let alone kissing me--was much more than innocent flirtation. So many white people—even the owner of the Starlight Club—persisted in
calling my friends and me “boy”, in spite of the strides our people were beginning to make. But this lovely, kind, sweet white girl had made me feel like a man.
I don’t mean because she had stirred feelings of lust within me, though there was no denying that she had. No, even if I never had the chance to act any further upon those feelings, I would
always have the joy of knowing that at least one person of her race had tried to find out who I really was. And even if she never came back to watch us play, I would forever have her in a way no one else could.
But Lauren did come back every Wednesday night, until that fall when she went away to college. (Someone told me, when I got up the courage to wonder aloud about her). Though they would still tease me about her occasionally, she had helped all the guys with their homework,
as she and I sat holding hands. And she always let me kiss her just before we
went on and she took her place out front. It never went much beyond that, though
with her usual straightforwardness she soon let me know (in a whisper, with a smile) that she had noticed her effect upon
my anatomy. By the end of the summer she was pressing herself against me and
opening her lips to welcome my tongue. But still she never told me her name,
and never asked for mine—she always used to call me “sweetie”, and I called her “baby”. That was enough.
Over the years I never forgot her. No matter how
many places my combo traveled, no matter that I eventually became the lead singer and we cut a record in New York City, no matter that we finally had some success among whites as well as blacks. Nothing else like those nights in Roanoke represented the changes
in my world; nothing else encouraged me so much to take advantage of them. My
sweet girl in the green dress is the reason I can sit here now, watching the renovations that I am able to pay for, as owner
of the club where she is still dancing right in front of me.