The girl behind me was kicking my seat to get my attention, but I would have none of it.
“Is this guy honestly ignoring me?” she finally said, leaning forward so she could funnel the next sentence into my eardrum. “Does he think he can dismiss me with some half-assed head fake? He’s about to learn something about the cost of miscalculation.”
No, I wasn’t. I hadn’t learned anything from my previous miscalculations and there’d been scores. That moment was a perfect example. I was sitting in a darkened community center, watching the Habibi Belly Dancing Academy’s annual gala. I was there because my ex had invited me to watch her recital–as a friend. Something was clearly wrong with me.
The weight of this realization pushed me a little lower in the chair. My back was basically parallel to the floor. I could barely see the stage or the seven beginners up there stumbling their way through a routine they’d likely concocted in twenty minutes or less. Five of them kept snapping their hips and smiling like homicidal maniacs. The two less nimble members of the group were kneeling on the stage, doing arabesques that looked faintly vulgar. Despite this train wreck of a show, I was actually enjoying myself. My favorite part was when one dancer got lost and had to track the others to figure out where they were in the routine. It was so nice. I was even getting teary-eyed, watching these hip-less wonders butcher an entire ethno-musical tradition. But pretty soon the girl from the row behind was back in my ear. “What are you doing here and where’s your coat?”
That question touched a nerve. I coughed into my hand and ignored her some more.
“Oh, I get it. You’re here to gawk at women like a registered sex offender.”
That got me scrambling and trying to get upright.
“Oh, man,” she laughed, punching me in the shoulder. “I knew that one would get your back up. Men hate to be called registered sex offenders. Especially the ones with the hardcore fetishes.”
“I don’t even…what do you consider hardcore?”
“Relax,” she said. “I thought you were at worst some kind of mute. But even that wouldn’t have been fatal to the discourse because I know how to sign.”
She reached in front of my face and did some arbitrary-looking hand gestures. There was no way she knew any kind of sign language, but she did have attractive hands. Her nail polish was sparkly green and chipped along the edges. My uncle had bought a van that color on a whim when I was a kid.
“Seriously, where’s your coat?” she asked. “Look man, I’d work this mystique while it’s still in play.”
“I checked it,” I told her.
“No, I’m not.”
“I’m the coat-check girl.”
She tilted forward, resting her arms on the chair-back to my right. My quick glance turned into a double-take. She was amazing, blonde with a touch of goth, like she might have a tattoo near an erogenous zone, but would keep the piercings facial.
“I don’t get it,” she said. “Are you trying to give yourself hypothermia? Because if this some doctor’s note scam, your plan’s full of holes. I’m going to tell you about them.”
That wasn’t my plan. Until this girl elbowed her way into the paint and started talking trash, I’d been doing reconnaissance. I was looking for guys with Marlboro Man style denim jackets who looked like me. Pale. Unkempt. Like a base player in an indie rock band. Grace, my ex-girlfriend, had a weakness for men like this. Once she’d found a new edition, she’d give him this jacket that had belonged to her father. I’d never wanted to know the rationale behind this practice. Anyway, I’d thrown said jacket at her head upon catching her mid-coitus with a local barista. My present plan was to look for the jacket, kick the shit out of the barista wearing it and then steal her heart back. I thought it was a solid plan. But it was slowly dawning on me that I’d been stood up, that I wouldn’t be seeing Grace or beating up her new version of me, and this coat check girl wouldn’t lay off emphasizing my plan holes.
“My ex is dancing later, if it’s vital information!” I finally snapped. “She slept with an asshole who resembles me and now I’m feeling conflicted!”
The whole sex offender awkwardness from earlier lurched back onto the scene like a drunk uncle who’s just regained consciousness. Luckily, the performance on stage was reaching an equally weird climax so I had some cover. Then she leaned over and said, “I’ll take you to the place where I got my coat.”
I turned to look at her coat. “I don’t know if I can pull off a short-sleeved fur.”
“They have gentlemen options.”
“I’m okay,” I said.
“You’re pretty far from okay.”
The MC tapped her microphone up on the stage. “Our next number is by an all-male belly dancing troupe, but since they’ve been choreographing their own renditions of Broadway musicals since high school I hesitate to call them true beginners.”
“Let’s go,” I said.
The coat-check girl was right about the weather. It was cold enough to split your knuckles. She put on a pair of fingerless leather gloves that met the sleeve of her fur.
“Hey,” I said, glancing over as we walked. “Total arm coverage.”
“I don’t play around.”
She stopped next to a Vespa. Not a new trendy one with nice chrome. A lawn mower with two wheels and handle-bars. I waited on the curb as she scratched frost off her mirrors with a teaspoon she produced from her fur. My mouth muscles started to tremble, like I was about to cry. Different arctic winds systems were whipping my flannel shirt around like it was a flag sticking out of some patch of lonely tundra. I started to hug myself and mutter profanities.
“I told you about hypothermia,” she said. “That shit’s no joke.” She threw her leg over the Vespa. It took a few tries for her foot to make contact with the kickstand. It occurred to me that her out-going personality might be alcohol-related.
“Are you good to drive?” I asked.
“I’m great to drive. Watch and learn, Chuck.”
“That’s not my name.”
“Whatever. Let’s roll.”
I got on behind her. She chugged out into the street. There was really no need to worry about accidents because we stuck to the back alleys and barely achieved enough ground speed to keep the Vespa upright. I had to drag my feet on the pavement.
“Stop it!” she shouted back at me. “You’re slowing us down.”
“I’m the problem?”
It was a long, cold ride down to College Street. On the upside, my plunging core temperature gave me an excuse to cop a feel. Leaning into the turns was a revelation.
She parked in front of a store in Kensington Market with a sign that read: Raj Mahal.
“Guess who that is,” she said, pointing inside at a man with an orange turban.
“Yes! Get it? Raj Mahal. That’s crazy inventive signage.”
We went in. The thrift shop smelled like wet wool and samosa. Raj raised his hand to wave, but the coat-check girl was already rifling through his circular racks and secondhand inventory. Raj put his hand back in his pocket and acted as if he hadn’t waved.
As it turned out, she’d come up with a formula for selecting coats for guys like me. It cross-referenced body mass with emotional vulnerability. It was slow going, but we made headway. It didn’t take long for me to start moaning and ruining the rapport, however. “I mean, you can’t just shrug it off as superficial bullshit when the guy she’s screwing looks like you. That’s a deeper kind of rejection.”
“Will you please shut up,” the coat-check girl said, pulling a peacoat from the rack. “I’m only going to say this once. This Grace sounds like a mind-fucker who gets off on razing the villages she conquers. I know what I’m talking about here.”
I rubbed my chin and reflected. “I hadn’t considered that possibility.”
“I just didn’t think she’d play me like that.”
“Guys like you never do.”
“What kind of guy is that?”
“The pussy-whipped kind.”
I rubbed my chin and reflected some more until she started working a peacoat up my arms and onto my shoulders. Then she turned me around, took a step back and said, “Wow. You don’t look half as pussy-whipped now.”
“Yes,” she said, laughing at this small miracle. “Ring it up, Raj!”
Raj rang it up. A minute later we were outside again. It felt good to have a membrane of pungent wool between me and that bad weather. She got on the Vespa. I tried to get on behind her, but she gave me the straight-arm.
“Sorry Chuck, but this is it,” she told me. “I’ve got to get to my next job.”
“Like another coat-checking job?”
“Exactly like another coat checking job. I’m a coat-check girl.”
I stepped back on the sidewalk and searched my mind for some kind of cool protest. “Hey, what about the coats from the last place?”
“They’ll figure it out,” she said, kick-starting the Vespa. “Keep warm, baby cakes.”
She pulled out into the street. The Vespa crossed under a cone of streetlamp light and she raised her hand, giving me one last flash of that green nail polish. It brought to mind that beat-up van again, rumbling over gravel through thick summer twilight as my uncle lectured me on the mysteries of women. He never mentioned anything about coat check girls. I watched until her taillights melted into the distant traffic. Then I turned my collar up and started walking the other way, feeling the warmth creep back for the first time in forever.
Darryl Crawford lives and writes in Toronto. His work has appeared in Harpur Palate.