A Stranger with Strange Questions
Being in the familiar setting of La Ideal eased my nerves. The entrance was on the main strip in Ybor where most of the activities took place, both in the day and at night. This particular place was of a decent size; it could fit about seventy-five to one hundred people comfortably. It served as a café specializing in Cuban dishes by day and a place for small venues by night.
The walls of La Ideal were made of aged, red brick from the floor to the middle of the wall; from the middle of the wall to the low ceiling, the wall was made of wood paneling, painted over by a golden yellow coloring. Along this portion of the walls were several elaborate picture frames, also antique-looking in nature, of various places and people, things of the past. It gave one the feeling of comfort. The setting gave the impression of all things aged and broken in, a place where people would automatically fit because it molded to you, no matter where you came from.
No wonder I liked this place so much.
Opposite to the entrance was a wooden dance floor of a decent size centered in relation to the wall farthest from the front entrance. Situated in front of this dance floor and against the far wall was a slightly raised level of flooring which served as the stage for bands, DJs and any other type of performer, depending on the audience and the time of day or night. Around this area were several small, round tables where people could sit and eat or drink. The tables were covered in red velvet cloth; in the center of each table was a small white candle inside a curved glass vase, tinted blue with a square opening at the top. The blue glow of each candle’s light through its vase gave an eccentric feel to the place by day and a mysterious, intimate feel by night.
Closer towards the entrance, on the right hand side, was a huge bar made of old, dull mahogany that almost stretched across the full length of its adjoining wall. Along the bar were several stools, two in front of the corner closest to the entrance, seven across the front of the bar parallel to the opposite wall and one in the corner closer to the dance floor and stage area; this part of the bar did not touch the wall, allowing easy traffic flow for the bartender, waiters and waitresses.
Facing the bar, on the wall opposite the entrance were elevated seating areas: tall chairs and tables where people could stand or sit in a setting that felt more private since most people would be concentrated at the dance floor and bar areas. Huge deep green curtains spilled from the ceiling, hovering over each table to add to this feeling of intimacy. In between the bar and the opposite wall were two huge columns with old news clippings plastered to every inch of them, again adding to the eccentric feel. Each column had black satin strips curling around them, matching the color of the tables and chairs in the room.
The wall adjacent to the entrance had a few comfortable looking seating arrangements. In the corner, resting diagonally so that each end touched each adjacent wall was a black velvet love seat. Next to the couch on the wall with the tall chairs and tables was a small bookshelf holding a few generic titles; a small comfort for people who wished to read next to the window.
There was one huge window, a single, clear pane stretched across the wall where the entrance was. It almost took up the entire wall space save for the area needed for the door to enter and exit, and a foot or so of actual wall space framing the window. Humbly written in blue cursive outlined in white at the bottom right corner of this window were the words, La Ideal. Looking through this window from the outside in was like looking at a huge T.V. screen. In this particular scenario, if a person liked what they saw on the inside, they were able to join the show. I sometimes imagined what it would be like if that scenario were true: entering another world like any person who enters this café. As simple as opening a door.
The more the time passed between my incident and being here, the more I felt myself flowing back into the ease of normality. Amanda and I walked into the rehearsal with a few minutes to spare. It was going to be a small set tonight; we were opening for another, more popular band. Not to worry though: a few hours of escape, singing to my heart’s content was more than I could ask for tonight.
Jess, the bass player, and Neal, the drummer, were ready and set up to start; they waited, a little on edge, for us to be ready to practice. Maybe Amanda and I were actually late; that wouldn’t be a shock to me given my current track record with time keeping. Oh well. Too late for apologies. I passively smiled at Jess and Neal as we approached the stage.
Jess was almost as quiet as I, but not in the same way exactly. He liked to keep his thoughts to himself not because he was a particularly secretive guy but because he really didn’t have much to think about or consequently, to share. Not that he was an idiot. Quite the contrary; he was one of the most talented and knowledgeable musicians I knew. Except that’s where it stopped. He loved all things music and could talk up a storm about anything and everything related; he just didn’t care to talk or know much about anything else.
Neal, on the other hand, was the exact opposite. He talked about the first thing that came to his mind the moment he acknowledged the thought. Most of the time, what he talked about was purely fictional. He was that guy; the one that talked about all the crazy adventures or “close calls” he happened upon in his life. Mostly too fantastic in nature to really believe. So whenever he told a story, we listened and “Ooh-ed” and “Ahh-ed” at the appropriate moments while inwardly we were rolling our eyes and sighing, waiting for him to be done. But overall, Neal was a more or less good guy to be around. Despite his many stories, fictional or real, he was the kind of guy you could depend on. The kind of guy who you knew would be there for you in a sticky situation.
Nothing would be new for me tonight, and, for once, I was more than happy for the onslaught of tedium; I had no need to feel restless again…for the most part. I fell back into the routine and let the numbness of monotony take over. I tuned my guitar and plugged in. We went through the first few seconds of each song, only practicing parts of each song that really needed specific attention. We were only going to play about four or five tonight.
Towards the end of our practice, I noticed someone watching from the window. It didn’t bother me very much, but for some reason, I couldn’t help looking at him, observing him. Usually, in this neck of the woods, we see the same people, more or less, on a weekly basis; so it is always obvious, and intriguing, to distinguish new faces. Probably some tourist visiting the area, checking out a possible place to hang out tonight, I thought.
There was something about the way he looked at us; no…the way he looked at me. He looked at me like I was some cryptic code he was trying to decipher. Like I was some kind of discovery he was waiting to look at more closely to ensure it was real. I tried to ignore it, but my surprise at being the object of someone’s observation threw me off; I forgot what I was doing, and in the process, trailed off in the middle of the song.
“Hey, what’s up?” asked Jess, rather incensed, so I knew I must have really screwed up the song. “You okay, Grey? You kind of trailed off there mid-song…and then you started singing in the wrong key,” he added.
“Yeah, I’m fine. I just…I don’t know. Let’s take it from the top, but after a drink first, okay?” I said, trying to play it cool.
“I have to go to the John anyway,” said Neal, living up to his status as a sharer of unnecessary information.
Break time. I took a seat at a nearby table where a pitcher of water was set with glasses for each of us. I filled a glass and took a huge gulp. I heard the bell ring above the door, signaling a person’s entrance into the café. I looked over nonchalantly to see who came in, and to my surprise, it was that guy. I looked away quickly so that he wouldn’t catch my stunned expression at his entrance. I had the urge to get a better look at him. There was something about the way he looked at me that made me feel like I needed to know him. At the very least, I needed to get a picture of what he looked like deeply ingrained in my memory. For whatever reason.
Lucky for me, I had chosen a seat that wouldn’t make it obvious to anyone, especially to him, that I was looking, analyzing. He had stopped at the bar and was chatting with Candace, one of the girls who usually worked the day shift throughout the week. She was the typical bartender beauty; her stunning features worked well for her in this occupation. All she had to do was bat those long lashes over her crystal clear blue eyes and toss her long, full head of straight blonde hair a few times in a day, and any man was at her mercy. The money she made from her tip jar alone from these unsuspecting male victims was truly appalling. Sickening, really.
She could pay off my college loans after one weekend with a new haircut and a little mascara. That’s how good she was at her job.
Of course, I thought with a tinge of chagrin. He wasn’t looking at me at all. He was probably looking at her, and now he’s talking with her. Despite feeling slightly miffed, I still took some time to look him over. That was allowed, right?
He was tall, of medium build, and he had a mass of dark brown hair that settled at the tips of his ears and the edge of his eyebrows, curling slightly at the ends. It was unkempt but not unattractive. His brows were of no real consequence; they were simply the same color, perhaps a shade darker, than his hair. His facial features were sharp but not imposing; he had a defined jaw line, a straight and pointed nose. But it wasn’t intimidating; though he looked imperial, he did not seem unapproachable. Quite the opposite.
But his eyes. The eyes I had thought were looking at me. His eyes were the most captivating feature of his face. They were the clearest of blues. Like the sea on the coast of some recluse island. They were piercing, captivating. Full of an amalgam of mystery, hope, secrecy, confidence.
He was leaning over the bar towards Candace. Not surprising. She had a very welcoming personality; not in a lewd way; people were simply drawn to her because of her beauty and her naturally cheerful attitude. He was smiling, the kind of smile that made his eyes disappear beneath his dark, contrastive lashes. Beautiful and genuine. Yet, I could detect a twinge of urgency in his eyes. He was trying to figure something out.
As he said something to Candace, he quickly nodded his head in my direction, piquing my interest to know what it was he was trying to figure out. At this discovery in observing his interaction with Candace, I looked away from them but listened as hard as I could.
“Oh, her?” Candace said, realizing what he was getting at, and, with a quick glance, I saw his silent plea for her to be more discreet.
“Who is she?” he continued.
His voice sounded rough with a mixture of anticipation and anxiety. Like he was in a hurry to get somewhere. Though there was another tone of something elegant in his voice, almost regal, as if he were addressing someone and not simply conversing. It was accented, but not distinct to a specific place or country. Just markedly different from the voices normally heard in this area.
“That’s Grey. She’s a regular performer here with that band of hers she’s in. They’re not half bad. People enjoy the music and, mostly, her voice. It’s indescribable,” she answered.
I couldn’t help but beam inwardly at the compliment.
I’m not a great talent. Not at anything, really. There are many things I enjoy doing, some more than others, and there are many things I am good at doing; but, secretly, singing was one of my greatest passions. I never let my love for singing show entirely though; for fear of being disappointed in the end. And so, I never gave all of myself, even to the things I love the most because there was no guarantee that people would think or feel the same about the things you loved. In this case, her compliment was graciously accepted. Who knew there was someone who actually liked hearing my voice?
I quit these musings and returned to the conversation just in time.
“How old is she? Do you know anything about her family?” he asked, hurriedly, still maintaining that elegant tone.
I was taken aback by this question. Who was this guy and why did he care about me or my family? I had never seen this man in my life, and for someone like me, who is in no trouble with the law and really of no importance, it seemed like a pretty odd question to ask. I looked at Candace, who clearly felt the same way towards the sudden, invasive question. She looked highly uncomfortable. And she didn’t answer him. Thank goodness; she was sensible.
By Candace’s reaction, he quickly gathered that his question was too invasive and alleviated the suspicion he created, “I’m sorry. She just looks like someone I’ve met before.” I could tell he was lying, but his voice sounded so smooth, and he spoke with such ease that it seemed to take away any discomfort he created.
“She is pretty popular around here,” Candace replied, “There’s no reason why you wouldn’t have met her if you come around these parts every once in a while.” She looked him over though, knowing that this was the first time he had ever shown his face in this café. Before she could get suspicious again, he responded, “I think I might be confusing her with someone else…my mistake.”
But he didn’t leave. He smoothly, almost too smoothly, like he was trying to appear nonchalant, walked over to the couch next to the window. He picked up a book and read. Though every now and then, I caught him, most discreetly, glance in my general direction. Oddly enough, it made me more inquisitive than uncomfortable. At this point, any logical person would be running for the door. That is, after promptly hitting the guy with a club to knock him unconscious and calling the police.
But I couldn’t feel anything but the opposite of logical…not with him. It was like I was drawn to him in some strange, mysterious way. I didn’t have enough time to think over this because I was called back to reality with a sudden shouting of my name:
All of my band mates screamed this in unison.
Amanda came up to my table and said, “Geez. You’re really out of it today, huh? What did you do last night?” She smiled, mocking me amiably. I smiled and rolled my eyes.
“Nothing crazy or stupid if that’s what you’re getting at. I’m just having an off day, I think. Are we ready to do that last number from the top?”
They all nodded with hurried agreement. They were ready for practice to be over. I got back up stage, picked up my guitar and Neal counted us off. Every now and then, I glanced at the stranger, whoever he was, and every time I did, he was looking right at me without hesitation.
But it wasn’t a look that was seductive. Nor was it one that was trying to get my attention. Rather it was analytical, deep in thought. Like he was on the verge of solving his mystery, a mystery that was, for whatever reason, connected to me. His brow furrowed as he concentrated harder on a thought that led his eyes to finally look away from where I was standing. He looked like he was mumbling.
What a day. First, the restless night. I still couldn’t remember everything I did. Next, the realization that I hadn’t seen the “vision” only to be startled by it in a completely different setting. I shuddered at the memory. I wasn’t far enough removed from the recollection to believe it was all in my head. And now, this brooding stranger, asking questions about me and my family.
I had a strange yet confident feeling that this phase in my life that had been so mundane and so unsatisfying was going to come to an abrupt end. And soon.
Then I heard the words of my most recent visit from the woman surrounded in white light:
My heart stopped and missed a few beats at the connection. Whatever end was coming, as the vision forewarned, it was coming soon…tonight. Could the person coming be a he; as in “he’s coming’; as in the man that was sitting on the black couch in this very room? Am I supposed to be escaping from him? If that were the case, the urge to do so wasn’t coming to me at all in any way. If anything, I wanted to do anything but escape from him. I wanted to run to him. Despite all of that, I had a growing understanding that my life, as it was at this moment, was coming to an end.
Just what kind of end would it be? I wondered.