I tended to avoid Jimmy’s Tap, a dimly-lit campus bar favored by students and faculty. I called it Jimmy’s Trap because I could get stuck there for hours, explaining why I gave someone’s midterm paper an A-minus. I could be cornered by some graying faculty don eager to recap the glory days, when the University of Chicago was unearthing news-worthy archeological discoveries, before most of the dig sites were violated.
“There’s more down there,” one tweedy charmer once told me. “And you could be part of the next crew to make history.”
He was being encouraging. I didn’t want to go over there now and excavate, risk my neck in modern day Mesopotamia over some pottery shards. The origins of human history used to be my passion. One Ph.D. later, at 31, I knew that finer minds than mine had fallen short.
That’s what I was thinking as I listened to the wail of Springsteen’s Born to Run pealing from the CD-jukebox. My friends Corine and Lydia insisted on dragging me out in the rain. It was the first Friday night in May and we were single.
Below plumes of dissipating cigarette smoke, steady hands hoisted pints as laughter rang out.
Swirling gimlet in hand, Lydia smiled and turned a face that was equal parts Kahlo and Hayek toward the guy in a green and gray striped rugby shirt. He regaled his companion with drunken wit as she fought to restrain demure giggles. Her platinum bob illuminated the dark bar like a lampshade above her tight pink t-shirt.
“Too many women in this city,” Corine grumbled to her Heineken, looking every bit of fourteen with liquid brown eyes and long chestnut hair cascading over her black turtleneck.
“Too many young women,” I said, entranced by the tongue of flame lapping in the red candle jug on the pocked, wooden table.
Petite Lydia scanned the wood paneled walls and neon booze signs. “The competition is stiff,” she said, her Columbian accent barely detectable. A white lace collar peeked over her navy blue military-style jacket.
“Only the competition?” Corine asked in a low voice.
“Naughty girl,” Lydia chided with a wink.
Two male grad students sauntered in with the sound of rain and cars splashing through puddles on 55th Street. The awkward waltz of pub choreography snagged our wavering attention with each round as the classic rock soundtrack churned.
I caught my stern reflection in a framed Smirnoff mirror. No wonder people thought I was angry when I wasn’t smiling. My short, ash blonde hair did nothing to hide large brown eyes that revealed the smallest trace of annoyance.
“I can’t believe how long we’ve been coming here,” Corine said, raking blunt fingertips through her hair. “I can’t believe I’m getting divorced.”
Corine did tech support for the university. We had met four years ago when the Oriental Institute converted its files to database.
“Honey, this is no-thing,” Lydia said, having been through it three years ago. Her ex-husband Ken had custody of their nine-year-old son, which left plenty of time to resume her pagan ways. She told Corine: “You have a great ex to watch your kids while you go out and celebrate your freedom. You are just starting out…”
Lydia and I had been complementary friends since sophomore year. A chemistry major, she aced my lab and physics assignments while I wrote her history and lit papers. Her fashion advice and sexcapades spiced up my years of buttoned-down monogamy. She was a research biologist for Abbott Labs.
“Remember when we were undergrads?” Lydia asked, grinning nostalgically toward a neighboring table. The students’ young eyes sparkled with exhausted relief, as if surprised they could laugh after three midterms and multiple term papers.
“Crescat sciencia,” I toasted, employing the university’s motto: May knowledge be increased.
“Vita excolatur,” she responded, clinking my Jack-and-Coke, which meant: And life be improved.
“Stop,” Corine muttered. “This isn’t Hogwarts…”
“You’re just jealous…” Lydia said, staring off toward the ‘No Sniveling’ sign at the kitchen window, where baskets of cheeseburgers and fries were handed out.
Corine tossed her thoroughbred mane, uttering, “I’m quite sure I had more fun at Columbia than you two did at this pretentious nerd camp…”
Rivulets of water flowed in hypnotizing succession down the front window as competing voices clamored. At the bar, dueling baritone voices debated the wisdom of invading Iraq, then switched to the history of beer when the discussion became too tense. It was 2003 and these scholar knew that war in that region had been nearly constant for the last six thousand years.
I recognized the backs and voices of these poli-sci profs. For all their expertise, few knew exactly what was going on in modern-day Mesopotamia in the wake of our recent invasion.
Their exchanges reminded me that the first stories were told around campfires with fermented beverages. Maybe if our ancestors hadn’t been intoxicated we would know more of our earliest history. Then again, perhaps that was how myths got started in the first place. My eyes skipped over the quivering beacons of light on the tables, recalling the primal urge to gather around fire at day’s end.
“Eva,” Lydia said, inclining her short-cropped head my way. “You want to be part of this conversation?”
“Oh; sorry.” I straightened in the brace of wooden chair and swizzle-stirred my Jack-and-Coke. “At least you two have ex-husbands, kids, condos,” I said, imitating my icy beverage as Jagger sang, “I’ll never be your beast of burden…”
“Yeah,” Lydia said, smirking at Corine. “You could be living with your daddy like Eva; never married, no children, teaching a history no one cares about.”
“It’s true,” I allowed, following the curl of smoke off Lydia’s cigarette in the black plastic ashtray. “No one cares about Mesopotamian history, even if it is the cradle of civilization.” Soberly, I regarded my semi-buzzed friends. “I should have gone into bio-chem.”
Silver rings glistened on Lydia’s hand as she picked up the cigarette and drew a graceful drag.
“Why?” Corine asked, ogling two guys as they collected their drinks at the bar and disappeared into the back room. “When the rest of us had crushes on Tom Cruise and Jon BonJovi, you were probably mooning over King Tut and Alexander the Great.”
Lydia tipped back her head and grinned, releasing a jet stream of smoke.
I nodded guiltily, recalling my crush on one particular fourteenth century B.C. pharaoh. He had broken with polytheism to create a monotheistic society that honored poetry and the arts.
“Even Akhenaten doesn’t get to me like he used to,” I admitted, gazing down at my lavender sweater set.
“I wonder why,” Lydia stated with eloquent eyes.
“You can always hook up with a living, breathing man,” Corine suggested.
“Had one. Twelve years.”
“You broke up with Kurt five months ago,” Corine said, absently tucking a strand of hair behind an ear that held a gold hoop. “And you were dating since the Bronze Age.”
Lydia tossed a smile to a guy in a teal polo shirt at the bar. “Early Bronze Age…”
“Face it honey,” Corine said. “You’re only interested in dead guys.”
Lydia yelped with amusement. A passel of undergrads erupted in laughter near the front of the room as if they’d overheard us.
“You’re a complete bitch,” I mumbled, over the clink of bottles as the undergrads toasted the end of another week.
Corine shrugged and drained her beer. “Speaking of things dead, miss sweater-set, we’re taking you shopping tomorrow.”
“Salvation Army?” I asked hopefully.
“Nordstrom,” Lydia countered, sharpening her pixie-vixen face at me.
“I can’t shop there,” I said, fear bulging my brown eyes. “Everyone has better clothes and shoes than me.”
Corine consulted the ceiling. “That’s because you approach shopping like an archeological dig. Shopping means buying new things, okay?”
I drew a contemplative breath and regretted it. The whole place smelled like an ashtray full of beer.
“Okay,” I granted, hands raised in surrender.
Sipping each other’s air in this dank room, bumping against each other’s worlds lent the illusion of togetherness, fueled by the elixirs of the gods. But at least my friends cared enough to revolt against my lack of style. I bent to grab my umbrella, careful not to club anyone.
“You’re leaving?” Corine asked, looking at the rain sheeting down the window.
“Why not?” I replied, shrugging into my black trench. “The rain couldn’t beat me up any worse than you two.”
“Or be any colder,” Lydia added archly. “Bye Sweetie. See you at eleven.”
“Eh.” I held up a fist and side-stepped my self-conscious exit.
Through the rain-splattered window, I spied my gray Accord under a streetlight. A car was a necessary indulgence on the sketchy South Side. Hyde Park was aptly named. This Ivy League enclave in-the-‘hood had a split personality, like Dr. Jekyll. Local news channels never let us forget that our sweet home and Midwest mecca was murder capital of the civilized world.
Slipping past Ms. Jailbait and her suitor, I turned up my collar and felt the cold comfort of keys in my pocket, jean cuffs still damp.
Under my duvet, I listened to rain shredding against the roof and pavement. A flash of lightning illuminated my pale, gabled walls and inflatable King Tut mummy standing guard beside my door. Sometimes a few drinks made it even harder to fall asleep alone in the creaky Victorian.
As a bellow of thunder rumbled through the house, raw ache raked my stomach. During the day I savored the vast, vintage solitude that was mine until Dad returned from Germany. At night, I double-checked doors and windows and strained my ears for unfamiliar noises. Every creak and pop of century-old wood sent my stomach into spasms. Like the candlelight and the intoxicants, fear was inextricably linked with the night.
Only interested in dead guys, huh?
Gradually the drumming rain retreated and I surrendered to the anxious drama of dream life: missed lectures, forgotten translations and the unwritten doctoral thesis.
A river of cars flowed north and south down Michigan Avenue’s valley of towering glass, metal and stone precision, glinting under the sun.
The warmth on my face was a velvet caress, and just what my pale skin needed after months of hibernation. Trailing behind Corine and Lydia, I admired the carvings on the high granite exterior of the Hotel Intercontinental—a procession of bulls flanked by round, Assyrian shields.
Lydia, wearing a short red jacket and cat’s eye sunglasses, ratted me out to Corine. “Eva doesn’t like shoe shopping.”
“Really.” Corine fixed a withering gaze on me as we followed shoppers gravitating toward three revolving doors.
Lydia smiled her sunny South American grin and hooked her arm through mine. “She feels the same way about shoes as she does about men.”
I applied a stoic expression and explained my theory. “The attractive ones aren’t comfortable and the comfortable ones aren’t attractive.”
“Get in there,” Corine said, pushing me into a wedge of revolving glass door.
The spacious white marble foyer drew my eyes several stories up, where a suspended metallic sphere trailed lengths of oversized silver strips like film from a giant camera. The world is watching, it reminded shoppers, so look your best.
The starchy aroma of new merchandise filled the soaring two-story corridor lined with upscale boutiques. Mannequins modeled the latest colorful, spring outfits behind plate glass windows.
My brown loafers skated over white marble to stores where bass beats throbbed. Lydia and Corine paid homage at The Body Shoppe, Armani Exchange, and Sephora, but these were just card-swiping practice. At the end of the marble corridor, a sleek, wood-accented coffee bar enticed shoppers to rev their engines before the advanced retail therapy began.
Beyond the wide entrance, an acre of glamorous footwear posed on wood tables, metal displays, and glass shelving.
“Come on,” Lydia said, grabbing up her double-skim latte and sashaying toward the shoe floor.
“Ooh,” Corine said, momentarily torn between the shoes and the makeup department across the aisle. I took her arm and guided her toward Lydia’s low-slung jeans.
Dark, terraced tables held Franco Sarto mules and sandals in black, mocha and crimson. Cascading glass shelves supported stilettos with multiple metal buckles.
Stylishly mothers with babies in strollers sat on low sage green sofas slipping on ballet flats. Elegant ladies with highlighted hair and designer handbags requested leather sandals in multiple shades from suited men and smartly-attired saleswomen.
While my friends salivated over the merchandise, I spied on female shoppers sporting colorful spring jackets and professional manicures. I forced myself to turn away from one woman’s unique jewelry, chic haircut and impeccable makeup, noting that even the less-adorned wore the attitude of youth or affluence.
Was I just as fabulous as they were and couldn’t see it? I caught a glance at my defenseless expression in a display mirror. My tawny, windblown hair was dark at the roots. My gray Gap sweater set did nothing for my pale complexion and lack of makeup.
Every other woman toted a jewel-toned shoulder bag proudly. Since mine were tattered and black, I wasn’t even carrying one. Forty dollars and a credit card were lodged in the back pocket of my blue chinos. Turning away, I wished I had worn lipstick, or at least tinted gloss.
I longed to abandon myself to the rituals of foot fashion, but my wardrobe was conservative. I owned loafers, boots, and sandals in black and brown.
“Wow, these heels are high,” Lydia admitted, picking up a black buckle Via Spigga stiletto.
“So is my Visa,” Corine said, studying the underside of the shoe.
“Now here’s a sensible shoe,” I said, picking up a black leather loafer with a spongy sole. “Donald J. Pliner.” I turned it over and choked on the hundred-and-ninety-five-dollar price tag.
“Why don’t you go over there,” Lydia said, waving toward the other side of the shoe floor. “Where the less-expensive shoes are.”
“Okay, but don’t stay all day,” I said. “I’m just going to look.” Lydia snatched up pastel leather mules while Corine scanned the floor rabidly for a salesperson.
Ambling around a circular display, I avoided other shoppers until I came across two attractive young women gazing at a pair of fawn-colored wedge-soled sandals with a wrap-around ankle strap. “Those are adorable,” said the brunette.
“I have them in red,” her blonde companion said. “They’re actually comfortable.”
As they walked away, I realized I had to have them. Sandals were not shoes. The Egyptians, Romans, Assyrians, and Hebrews wore them. They had historic significance.
I picked up the sandal and thumbed the padded sole.
“Can I help you?” asked a cheery male voice.
“Yeah,” I said, meeting the espresso-hued eyes of a darkly attractive, wavy-haired man. “I’d like to try these,” I told him, noticing that his navy, double-breasted pinstriped suit fit him far better than the average salesman.
He was only a few inches taller than my height, five-six, and between the tailored Italian suit and matching face, I didn’t know where to look.
“Everyone loves those,” he said in a friendly voice. “What size do you need?”
“Uh, nine-and-half,” I confessed. “Wide.”
“That’s a pretty common size,” he said in a voice brimming with theatrical cadence. “But I think I have one pair left. I’m Larry,” he said with a relaxed smile.
As he handed me a pair of nylon footies, I glimpsed a cuff-link in the shape of three tiny cigars holding back his French cuff. He had the wide, veined hands of a body-builder. “Have a seat.”
He disappeared into the stock room and I settled down on an empty sofa, slipping off my comfy brown loafers. I peeled off one sock and my lungs nearly collapsed in mortification.
I hadn’t shaved my legs for at least a week.
My unpolished toenails and pale cactus calves poking out of navy chinos announced to everyone that I had picked the worst moment to go glam.
After several naked, shrinking minutes, Larry emerged from the stockroom with two stacked boxes, which he placed on the sofa.
“Thanks,” I said quickly. “You can leave now.”
“Why?” he asked with combative curiosity. “You have foot fungus or something? Broken toes?” Finally some face time with a handsome man and I blow it completely, deservedly, over grooming.
“No,” I said defensively, avoiding his eyes. “I haven’t shaved my legs in a week.” No sense sugar-coating it.
“Oh that’s nothing,” he said with a dismissive brush of his oversize hand, bending down to open a Kenneth Cole box. “I have five sisters. You guys can’t scare me.”
“Five sisters?” I asked, impressed.
“Yeah: Sheri, Sandy, Samantha, Sabrina and Eva.”
“My name is Eva!” I crowed, amazed.
“Really? Eva is a great name,” he said, extracting the sandal from tissue paper and plastic filler. “It’s an old family name.”
As his muscular hands worked, I observed how the line of his jaw, the tilt of his cheekbone, the arch of his nostril and the slant of his earlobe all came together in diagonal parallels, to a confounding symmetry. At a quick glance, it was mainly an aquiline face, Italian or Spanish, framed in dark, soap opera star waves.
He handed me the sandal and I slipped into the cool, pristine leather.
“You’ll have to buckle it a little tight,” he said, never looking at my stubble. “So your foot doesn’t slip.”
Fumbling, I strapped my foot in.
“Put them both on,” he said. “And take a stroll.”
Second shoe secured, I stood and sauntered away, feeling sexier by the second. I turned and walked back.
“I’ll take them,” I said proudly.
“Great,” Larry said. “I brought you something else for fun.” He popped open a box of black leather mules with a dominating silver buckle across the top.
“Oh, I’d never wear something like that,” I told him.
“Why not? They’re sexy.”
“They’d never stay on my feet,” I replied, but inside, I was beaming. “What I really need are shoes for dancing.”
Larry lowered his chin. “Talk to me,” he crooned darkly.
“Low, black heels, a comfy sole and a secure-fitting strap.”
“I’ll see what I’ve got,” he said and hustled back to the hive.
I stood up and spotted Lydia and Corine across the floor at a sofa, surrounded by a sales person and a dozen shoe boxes. I sat down, gloating, because I had the best-looking shoe guy.
On his return, Larry broke open a gray Franco Sarto box. “Now don’t be afraid of the ankle strap,” he said, which was thicker than most.
“I love them,” I said, admiring the retro crisscross straps over the toes. Larry handed me the shoe and I put them on eagerly.
“Go take another walk.”
As I took another strut on the aisle-turned-catwalk, other shoppers admired my stylish heeled sandals.
“I had a tango dancer buy a pair of these last week,” Larry said. “She bought another pair yesterday.”
“I can see why,” I said, rotating an ankle. The shoes hugged without strangling. “Can I afford them?”
“It’s a wrap,” I said, surprised to be enjoying myself.
“Good. Hey, what kind of dancing do you do?”
I sat down. “It’s kind of a rhumba, merengue, flamenco…” I flubbed, removing one graceful stiletto. Was there even a name for the belly-dancing mambo I called dancing?
“Flamenco,” Larry said smoothly. “Now there’s a dance.”
“You like flamenco?” I asked, fascinated.
“I studied for a couple of months in Toledo.” The way he said Tol-ay-do, did not mean Ohio.
“You studied in Spain?” Although he was roughly my height, his suit could not conceal broad shoulders and a dancer’s posture. “I’d love to see you dance sometime. I go to this place called Déjà Vu.”
“The Vu,” he said with a reminiscing grin. “I used to go for the turtle races on Wednesdays.”
“I go on Thursdays for the Banditos. They sound just like the Gipsy Kings,” I said, studying the impeccable waves of his glossy dark hair.
“Ah, those guys. You know, they’re not even Spanish. They’re Assyrian.”
“I know. I love their Arabic music.”
“The Assyrian race is one of the oldest on the planet.”
“I know,” I replied, relinquishing the other shoe to his muscular hand. “I teach Mesopotamian history at the U of C.”
“Really…” Larry purred, as if I had just confessed to wearing lace panties. He pulled back slightly, squaring his shoulders, inhaling sharply. “So you know how Sargon with his sons Ashur and Arman used to sweep down into Egypt to pillage and plunder.”
Head swirling with annoyed fascination, I bristled at the thought of the marauding conquerors who repeatedly violated Egypt. “Not many people know the names of Sargon’s sons.”
“Not all twenty-seven of them,” he added casually, nestling the shoes inside their box.
“Twenty-three,” I corrected.
“Whatever,” he shrugged in polite superiority. “Or that there was a city named Ashur,” he said in a near whisper. “On the Tigris; in the north.”
“Sargon’s chief deity was Ashur,” I added, new fire sparking my veins. Not only was this salesman addictive to look at, he liked history; a lot. “I’ve always wondered whether Sargon named the city after his son or his god.”
“Or if the city and the god existed long before Sargon,” he replied with an authoritative wink as he placed the lid on the box.
“That’s debatable,” I granted, chuckling.
Larry shrugged, looking down at my brown loafers. “Hey, those are great shoes. Munros.”
“Yeah,” I breathed, catching the spiced aura of his musky cologne.
“They don’t make that style anymore, so take care of them.”
I nodded, thirsty for more historical small-talk.
“Let’s get you checked out,” he said, collecting my boxes and heading toward an empty register.
“Do you ever go to the Vu on Thursdays?” I asked, following.
“Sure, I’ve been there.”
“I can’t believe I’ve never seen you.”
At the register, Larry keyed in my purchases, giving my eyes ample time to trace the lines of his fit physique.
“The Assyrians used to sweep down into Egypt to steal silks, gold and grain, and bring them back to their women,” he said as the register spit out my receipt. His voice dropped to a lower octave and his dark eyes lost focus. “Three-thousand B.C.,” he said slowly. “The world rode on the point of a spear. Armies weren’t anything like you’d think of today, or even a hundred years ago. Back then; an army was like a Mongol horde.”
The world rode on the point of a spear.
In seconds this shoe salesman had transported me to the sands of the Sinai Peninsula. Why couldn’t I paint those ancient vistas for my students?
Larry placed my receipt on the counter with a pen. I scrawled my signature and he swept it up.
Suddenly it occurred to me that I was draped over the high ledge of the sales counter, my ears as drunk as my eyes on the elegant planes of his chiseled face. I stood up straight.
“Ah, this is probably boring to a history professor,” he said, hovering over my receipt, scrawling something. Could it be his phone number?
“No,” I sputtered. “Not at all.”
He stretched large rubber bands around each shoe box and bagged them in a large gray tote.
“I’m at the Vu every Thursday,” I reminded him, taking my bag from the counter.
“I might drop by with friends sometime,” he said, handing me the receipt on which he had written, ‘Thank you, Larry’.
“Alright, maybe I’ll see you,” I said, matching his cryptic tone. Now leave, I commanded myself, turning away and throwing a wave over my shoulder.
As a triumphant smile cross my face, I spotted Corine and Lydia watching proudly from the main aisle clutching large Nordstrom bags.
“Find something you like?” Lydia asked with a rakish grin.
“I love shoe shopping,” I said, suppressing a schoolgirl giggle.
“My shoe person,” Corine observed, ogling Larry, “looked nothing like that.”
The pulse of hushed club music drove us through the colorful racks of the juniors department. In the display mirrors, my hair looked golden and tousled instead of unkempt. My dark eyes sparkled with an ingénue gleam instead of the formerly fragile stare.
Someone flirted with me who wasn’t old, ugly, drunk or fishing for a good grade. He danced flamenco and wore cuff-links and looked great in a suit. True, he was a commissioned flirt but when was the last time a man made me feel that good besides Frank, my massage therapist? An ego massage. That it was. Where could you even book one of those? And leave with great shoes as a souvenir?