I caught my reflection in the mirror at the top of the stairs. Unsteady in Mom’s suede high-heeled boots, I hadn’t the ankle strength of years in women’s shoes. My wobbly, girlish joints threatened to buckle, requiring a certain focus to maintain posture. Grasping the rail firmly I crept down the stairs feeling more like a frail elder needing assistance.
The lobby was calm, a familiar melody of Pachelbel’s Four Seasons Spring played on the stereo. A single, nearly extinguished log smoldered in the hearth. Mick debriefed Mom of the afternoon events at the front desk. His familiar gesticulations recapped a busy day that he appeared relieved to be over. It was Sunday and most of the guests had checked out.
I walked over to them, eyeing the aperitif table. A fresh round of brie lay over an acanthus leaf. The ripe stench of the cheese following me as I passed. Mom caught me in her contemplative gaze as she was about to speak to Mick. She turned to me instead.
“Sweetheart! You look absolutely stunning!” Her eyes widened as she measured my appearance, top to bottom.
Mick took notice as well. I shrank back a bit, feeling a slight warmth under my cheeks from the compliment.
“Wow heart breaker,” he added. “Who’s your victim tonight?”
Mom gave him a disapproving look and tapped him playfully on the chest. “Hey, that’s my daughter you’re speaking to.” They both laughed quickly and then resumed their discussion of the evening’s agenda.
“Darling, I’ll be just a moment. I want to make sure Mick is up to speed on things.” She turned back to him and waved me off.
I circled back to the aperitif table, my olfactory sense reminding me of the brie, then busied myself polishing the rims of a couple Tiffin gold-rimmed cordial glass.
“You stay as long as you like.” Mom reassured him. “Then lock up and head out. I won’t have you waiting up for the two of them.”
Flower the cat lifted her head at the sound of the glasses clinking as I placed them back in the silver tray, then jumped down from the chair and circled my ankles, meowing out for a good stroke. I acquiesced, giving her a few pats on the head.
“Come now darling. Let’s celebrate.” Mom said as she took my arm in hers and urged me toward the door. “They’re waiting for us.”
“Who’s waiting?” I asked as I barely set the last glass down straight into the tray. She hadn’t made mention of anyone who would join us.
“Oh you’ll see my sweet.” She squeezed into my side and ushered me out the door onto the sidewalk.
The early evening was misty and cool. A thick cloud cover hastened the darkness as the street lights buzzed on. Cars whizzed past us along the highway. Across the street the thumping of music came through the open windows of the The Little Shrimp. A green neon OPEN sign at the entrance cast a dim light over two young men in jeans and leather vests who smoked cigarettes outside.
“Come on.” Mom insisted as she tugged me across the street at a pause in the traffic, my ankles aware of every step.
“Mom, where are we going? There’s nothing down here except The Shrimp.” I contested.
“I know” she said, passing a small smile off in my direction. “We’re going to celebrate!”
“What? We’re going to The Shrimp?” I squeezed Mom’s hand as she continued to pull me, unsteady.
“My darling” she started, moving forward toward the bar, “Michael has arranged for a small celebration in honor of your birthday for one hour.”
A squeal of excitement escaped me as I leaned in to her again. “You can expect all the usual suspects, except your sister of course, for the obvious reason of her age.”
“But Mom, I’m only 14! You have to be 21 to go in there. You could be arrested! Michael could be arrested!”
“My sweet child” she retorted, stopping at the curb and reeling me around, “There are times in a woman’s life that must be celebrated, despite the absurdity of convention, especially that which accompanies something as arbitrary as age.”
My insides eased slightly, although not enough to let go of her hand that was now gripping mine tightly in emphasis of her point.
“Fourteen is an important year, a milestone, a rite of passage of sorts. You are no longer a gawking, awkward adolescent with a round belly that doesn’t match you breasts or hips. You’re two years into your cycle. You are passionate about the world and your surroundings, a loyal daughter and sister… So many things to celebrate my sweet.” She looked deeply into my eyes and squeezed my hand further, my silver ring pressing the adjacent fingers.
“Now are you going to balk at me and the notion of celebrating your birthday among some of the finest men in my life? Or are you coming?”
I weighed this momentous overture, looking at her as she waited with a restlessly sympathetic expression on her face. She was right. In the last year, and all that had come to pass… I straightened up, bracing my ankles which were feeling sturdier than they had up until now.
“OK Mom. You’re right. I’m ready. I love you.” I said. She squinted her eyes and smiled in satisfaction, then kissed my forehead.
We walked up to the doorstep of The Little Shrimp. The two men who were smoking cigarettes extinguished them on the ground as we approached. One man opened the door and stretched his arm out long, bowing as we passed.
“Welcome Ladies.” he murmured as we passed. “Enjoy your birthday.” he added, looking up with a crooked smile. I looked back at him quickly and stopped, forcing Mom to let go of my hand. How did he know?
“Thank you. But how did you know it’s my birthday?” I wondered aloud.
Mom rounded back, a look of tender discernment on her face, then pulled me playfully by my skirt through the doorway without letting the man answer. I stumbled over the threshold and into the middle of a small dance floor.
“Well what’d you do that for?” I insisted. She didn’t answer, only looked around in satisfaction at the scene.
The dance floor was flooded with the spiraling flecks of a disco light. Men gathered in pairs around the bar or the far wall, some swaying or stepping lightly to the rhythm of disco music. They stood close to one another, smiling, some with arms around the others’ shoulders or waists. One man had his hands in the back pockets of his companion’s blue jeans as they stood face-to-face, their noses nearly touching.
A tall, lanky bartender with blonde hair and a long pointy nose attended to a group of 3 men at the end of the bar, laughing loudly with them.
I looked around for Mom who I felt suddenly wasn’t at my side where she had been. She was speaking with a balding, obese man who sat behind a piano near the dance floor. He had a red, bulbous nose and wore circular gold-framed sunglasses. A dense tuft of black hair sprouted out where the first few buttons of his Hawaiian shirt were undone. He rearranged a lavender feathered boa around his neck as he listened intently to Mom speaking.
“And this is the birthday girl!” Mom sang out drawing me in with an arm hooked into my elbow. I was unsure of this odd-looking man whom she appeared to know well.
“Well hello, hello gorgeouth.” the man said with a slight lisp as he continued to fidget with his boa. “I hear you’re 14 today, all day and night.”
“Yes thank you.” I replied, wanting to help him with the boa as a few feathers came loose and fell to the floor.
“This damn thing!” he fussed.
“Here Moody, let me help.” Mom insisted as she rearranged it comfortably on his neck and shoulders. “There, much better.” she said giving him a coy smile and a peck on the cheek.
“Thanks love.” he replied touching her hand, then reaching out to shake mine. His fat knuckles were covered in curly black hair. Several large gold rings with various gemstones shimmered on his fingers.
I took his hand, warm and slightly sweaty, and shook it firmly. He gave me a small squeeze then returned his hands to the piano.