Dan T. Cox is creative director for the advertising agency he co-owns in Portland, Oregon. He is also a fiction writer. Current projects include a growing collection of stories, a screenplay, and a novel that explores the life of a man who ought to be dead. This is Cox's publishing debut.
I love the smell of burning bridges. At least that's what my adoptive parents say about me. And I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn that pretty much everyone I've ever known or been in close contact with would say the same thing. Which only goes to show the extent to which I have been misunderstood in my life.
It's a shame, really. An injustice. Because if you take the time necessary to know the real me, well, you'll see that Robin McAllister really isn't all that bad.
For one thing, I'm very attractive. Take my word, I'm not one of those women who wake up ugly and then spend an hour in front of the mirror repairing the deficiencies of nature. Many people have told me I wake up looking gorgeous, and I'm not in much of a position to disagree. Because even after a long and adventuresome night out, I look like a Barbie right out of the box. Pretty as ever and no worse for the wear.
My eyes are a beautiful shade of blue in the morning. A deep violet blue that skews toward indigo as the day goes on. Looking into my eyes, it's clear why I have such an effect on people in general and men in particular. Seriously. They can't help themselves in the least. That's how unavoidably beautiful Robin McAllister's eyes are. Of course I use an appropriate amount of eyeliner and mascara to make the most of what I've got. That's mostly to satisfy myself. Although sometimes, I dial it up to accomplish a special task. You know, to win somebody over. Somebody I want something from. Then my eyes are roadblock beautiful.
But maybe you're not all that interested in my devices. So let me tell you about my nose. Basically, it's perfect. Small, of course. And symmetrical in shape, which the fashion magazines say is an essential component of true beauty. People like perfect symmetry. I read one article about how these psychologists conducted a study with little babies to see how they reacted to women with symmetrical facial features versus women with unbalanced faces. It came as no surprise to me that the babies were drawn to the symmetrical women, because I've seen it my whole life. People of all ages are simply drawn to me at first sight. You can see it in their eyes. It's as if they go into some sort of trance or something. Crazy. Anyway, back to my nose. My nostrils are discreet. And thank God they aim fully toward the ground. Because I just hate it when someone's got nostrils that point right at you. Always reminds me of the air intake on jet engines. I mean, it can be frightening. But no one's ever going to get the creeps from my nostrils. And they're never going to see anything unsightly there either. I make sure of that. It's a rule I have. Now the last thing I have to say about my nose is that I have small pores. So the complexion thing isn't a problem. Nor is it a problem anywhere else on my face, which is also perfectly symmetrical.
My cheekbones, for instance, are high and pronounced. People are always commenting on them, saying things like I have the makings of a model. No surprise there. But what always gets me is how consistently people go from complimenting my cheekbones to complimenting my smile. It's almost like everybody got advanced notes on the proper order of compliments to be paid to Robin McAllister, so as not to annoy me or disrupt the natural rhythm of my day.
The teeth are good, as you might guess. Bright and big, with the kind of alignment that everyone hopes for but few people have.
My finest feature, though, could well be my lips. Because they're big and full, and really nice to kiss. They're the kind of lips that can close a deal. One woman friend called them pillow lips. And she would know. Because—now I'm sorry if you find this shocking—there was a time when we spent plenty of pillow time together. These days, though, I have nothing to do with her and nothing more to say about her. She had her chance.
Maybe you've noticed that I haven't described my hair, or my body. Well there's a reason for that. And all I'm going to say is that my hair has been many colors and styles, and it all works for me. As for the rest of me, let's just skip it.
I am 37. I live in the Greater Salt Lake City area with my husband, Donny, and my three boys. Donny works in the promotions department for the Utah Jazz, which means I'm one of the semi- regulars in the courtside seats, although it's rarely the same seat. I had hoped when we first got married that Donny could manage to secure a regular seat that would position me opposite the Jazz bench, so I could make eye contact with the players. But it turned out that Donny didn't have all that much weight in the organization. So I've had to make do with this seat and that one. The important thing is that I get my fair share of face time during televised games. The cameras love me, you know. Because most of them are operated by men.
I've been pushing Donny to buy one of those impressive Salt Lake City homes that back right up to the mountains on the way to the ski resorts, where all the players have places. But Donny is reluctant. So when the games are over and the television lights go dark, we have to drive all the way down to American Fork, which most people consider part of the Greater Salt Lake City area.
Sometimes I wonder about Donny. About his ambition. Because it's starting to feel like he'd be happy just staying in American Fork with the rest of his massive Mormon family. Now there's a dull bunch. They pitch a fit if one of them sees me drinking a Coke, whether or not there's rum involved. And to top it off, half of his siblings sing in the Mormon Fishin' Tackle Choir. Which is what I call it when nobody's listening.
Donny makes okay money, I suppose. He's handsome. Keeps the front yard looking sharp. Gets free Delta tickets through the Jazz. Looks good in a tux. And for what it's worth, he's pretty good with the boys, considering none of them are his. (Although he thinks the youngest one is his.) But I can't help but think that life's got something better in store for me, and that I'm entitled to whatever it is.
That's why you find me here in one of Delta's finest first class seats, winging my way back to Salt Lake from my first visit to New York City. I went there on a mission. And if you think you can give my story the serious attention it warrants, I'll tell you about that right now.
But understand, I take this business very seriously. And I'm feeling pretty raw about the whole thing. After months of research in the genealogy department of the Mormon Church, I virtually confirmed the identity of my birth mother. She lives and works in New York City. So I went there to meet her in person.
Adopted kids do this sort of thing all the time, I know. But my situation is unique. Because my mother is famous. In fact, she's one of the few performers ever to win an Oscar, a Tony, a Grammy, and an Emmy. And here's the really weird thing about it: I loved her before I knew she was my mom. Because I've always been her biggest fan.
I've been writing to her for years. I know everything about her. I've seen every movie she's ever made. I've read reviews of every Broadway production she's been in. I even got to watch her on Sesame Street and reruns of the Rockford Files. So it was quite a revelation when I discovered she also happened to be my mother. Quite a lucky day.
After all, who else can claim to be the illegitimate daughter of Rita Moreno?
There must be a terrific story to be told about me. About my secret birth in some undisclosed location. About the doctors and nurses who vowed silence at the behest of Rita Moreno herself.
And there was the question of paternity. Who is my real father? An actor? A director? A producer? I get chills just thinking about it. And this is just part of what I hoped to learn about on this trip back east. Because I have to confess, she's never answered any of my letters. Not even after I sent her pictures of me, so that she could see the resemblance.
I flew into Newark just yesterday. Being early November and all, the trees of New Jersey actually looked kind of pretty in the sunset as we circled the airport. Nobody ever told me New Jersey had trees. So it came as a pleasant surprise. And it made me feel as though this whole New York adventure might not be as intimidating as I had imagined.
The town car I took into Manhattan was right out of Seinfeld, complete with a pasty, sweaty white guy at the wheel. He could be a real butt, I'm sure. But it didn't take him long to realize that I was worthy of his respect. So he was a prince the whole way in, even when things got a little tense entering the New Jersey Tunnel, where eight lanes of traffic came down to two, and people were using their horns like swords.
Next thing I knew, we squirted out the other end of that dingy, tiled tunnel and into Manhattan. The sun had disappeared in the time it took to get this far. But I quickly realized that New York City doesn't get its vitality from natural light, which I also found oddly reassuring.
Shooting across Times Square in traffic was a bright, brilliant blur. But I'm pretty sure I saw some famous things.
Then my driver took me up West 44th Street. He drove slowly here, because the street had narrowed. Everywhere I looked there were couples and foursomes getting out of taxis and town cars and limousines, and they were all going into theatres. The marquees were huge and dazzling. And very close to me.
That's what really struck me about that happy, clean street with all the theatres. The intimacy. The proximity of the big time and the bright white lights.
I felt as though I was in a parade. It seemed as if the people of Manhattan had come out to welcome Robin McAllister. And to let me know that this city wasn't as bad as it seemed. And that there was room for me here. And that they understood the significance of my arrival, not to mention the importance of establishing contact with my famous mother.
I was pleased by all of this.
The last time I got near a parade, it was an awful scene. It was back in Brookings, the Southern Oregon coastal town made famous by meteorologists for its unusually warm climate.
My first husband, Kurt, was the second assistant chief of the volunteer fire department. Which meant it was his duty to appear as Santa Claus in the annual holiday parade. That was the tradition in Brookings.
Kurt was a desperately handsome man. He adored me with special vigor. And he helped me conceive my first son. But he dressed poorly, and wasn't worried about what people thought. Which helps explain why he decided Santa should drive a cherry red dune buggy in the parade, a sand rail if you want to be technical, rather than simply riding atop the fire truck.
I was set to ride with him as Mrs. Claus. And I'd even gone to the bother of getting Kurt's mother to make me a cute little Mrs. Santa suit, complete with fluffy white trim along the hem of a very short but billowy skirt. But on his way from the fire station to where the parade was forming up, he got T-boned by a Buick. Thank God I wasn't with him yet.
His buddies had quite a time dealing with the Santa suit as he lay sprawled on the pavement, because the blood was hard to spot. But they managed to gather Santa up and haul him to the hospital.
Fine, I thought. I'll go to the damn hospital. Never mind the parade, I thought. Never mind my outfit. Let's go be with Kurt in the hospital. Let's go be compassionate. Why not? I'm certainly not going to be riding in any parade today, I thought. Just fine!
Kurt came out of it okay. You know, a broken neck that healed and amnesia that lasted for months. Not too bad, really.
But after a year of nursing him back to health, I'd come to the realization that being the dutiful wife of the second assistant fire chief of Brookings, Oregon, was simply not going to be enough. And that in his reduced condition, Kurt was increasingly worthless to me. So the day before he was once again set to ride in the holiday parade, I marched out of Brookings with my infant son.
You understand, don't you? It was for the best.
My travel agent had booked me into the Algonquin Hotel, which was easy to spot amid the beautiful white lights of West 44th. As the town car pulled up to put my door handle within reach of the Algonquin's doorman, I wondered if anybody on the street thought I might be somebody important. It seemed to me that people were staring.
The lobby of the Algonquin was charming. The colors were rich and warm, the lighting was subdued but by no means dark, and the ornate ceiling was quite high. I liked the way the furniture was situated, with all sorts of high-backed arm chairs and interesting sofas, all arranged in little conversation clusters, most of which were occupied by well-dressed people drinking cocktails and talking.
The lobby waiters were dressed in black waistcoats, black slacks, white shirts, and black bow ties. They all carried silver serving trays, and were constantly in motion.
I noticed that when they took an order, the waiters disappeared through a discreet doorway in the dark paneling that surrounded the lobby people. A small sign above the door offered a clue.
The Blue Bar.
I asked the man checking me in if that's where Rita Moreno performs. Because I had not gone to the Algonquin by accident. (I don't do anything by accident.) I had done my research. And I'd learned that The Algonquin Hotel had one of the last true cabarets in New York City. And that this was where my unsuspecting mother would be performing her one woman show.
"No," answered the desk clerk without looking up at me. "That's the Blue Bar. Miss Moreno does her show in the Oak Room, back there."
He gestured to the rear of the lobby, toward a pair of closed double doors I had not noticed.
"If you want tickets, just call our cabaret ticket office from your room. They'll help you," he said.
Then the desk clerk proceeded to ramble on about the history of the hotel. He made a big deal about that stupid Round Table, which was located just inside the dining area in the very back of the lobby. But I had not come to New York for the sake of Dorothy Parker and a bunch of dead writers who drank too much. I was there to meet someone important. Someone to whom I'd written some of my most private thoughts.
I immediately booked a table for two for the following night's show. Then, after freshening up a bit, I went back down to the Blue Bar for an Absolut Citron and tonic. And to find the companion I'd need for the cabaret show.
The Blue Bar was smaller than I expected. The dark wood paneling was crafted into large geometric squares, with lots of ornate trim work. Tiny wall-mounted lights lined the room but barely created any light beyond their respective square on the wall. The light was as low and smoky as the conversations of the murmuring couples who filled the place. They were all dressed in black, and hardly anyone even seemed to notice me in my backless blue dress. The bartender noticed, of course. But he seemed irritated by my presence, and spoke to me in a very clipped foreign accent that was courteous, but impatient. I smiled sweetly when he brought my drink and then cursed his existence as he shuffled away.
I noticed through the discreet windows facing the street that it had begun to rain, which doused any notions I'd had about venturing out into midtown Manhattan that night. Better, I thought, to sit tight in the Algonquin and take my chances in the Blue Bar, useless bartender and all.
Three Absoluts and a Caesar salad later, it occurred to me that nothing good would come of this dreary little place. I'd begun to feel as though I'd become part of a pen-and-ink cartoon drawn for the pages of The New Yorker. I felt surrounded by caricatures of unsmiling New Yorkers. And somewhere in the room, someone was saying something that was intensely clever but completely understated. And someone else was looking over the top of their dry martini with one eyebrow raised in response to what they'd overheard. And the unpleasant bartender discreetly rolled his eyes toward the dark ceiling as if to say he thought he'd heard it all. And me? I was the beautiful woman alone at the end of the bar, my lack of understanding as exposed as my back.
Losers. That's all I could think. I was in a room full of useless losers who didn't know or care about what I was up against. To hell with them, I thought. To hell with finding a date to balance out my table at the Rita Moreno show. To hell with everything. And by the way, if you don't like me or what I'm about, to hell with you. Okay?
That's how it is, you know? Every now and again, people need to be told to go to hell. It's a cleansing process for me. A ritual. I find someone that's worthwhile, and I let them get close. I get what I can. And then, when the goodness plays out, they're out.
Maybe this seems harsh. But you sure can't argue with my results.
After all, I've got three little boys who love me for all they're worth. That's something, isn't it? And there's my education. A Bachelor of Science degree with a Geology major from Humbolt State University.
It's kind of funny when you think about it; how I went from spending weekends on the sand dunes with Kurt to spending weekends in the library studying rocks. And how I'd managed to get pregnant with my second son by discovering bedrock with the head of the Geology Department. His name was Ian. A full professor with a full-blown British accent. Which makes sense when you consider that he grew up in small village just outside of Northamptonshire, England.
Ian wanted badly to marry me, which was sweet. He tried everything he could think of, too. Money for tuition and living expenses. Good grades. A nice little used Saab to drive. He even managed to set me up with a scholarship while I was there, the ceremony for which resulted in a photo and story in the student newspaper.
But here was the problem with Ian.
He loved it there in Arcata, California. He loved the weather. He loved the coastal plain that reaches out from the town to the beach itself. He loved those weather-beaten farms that line the tidal rivers. He loved the bridges of Arcata. But most of all, and this is the part that really killed me, he loved the people there. Because they reminded him of his people back home. People who live in the mist and gray. People who can go for days without sunshine. People who can drink all night to get over the dreariness of their day, and then get right up the next morning and proceed as if they had something to look forward to in life. Ian loved that dedication to nothingness.
Me? I liked two things about Arcata. Getting my degree, and spending weekends in my favorite little retreat at Trinidad, where weekenders from San Francisco congregate. Other than that, the place had nothing for me.
So about a month after graduation, my two boys and I took off. But not before I'd secured my second son's financial future by threatening to reveal Ian's tryst with me to the university. He hated the very idea of blackmail. But he could afford a small trust fund for my son far more than he could afford a scandal.
I made a mistake in Arcata, though. I'd left too soon. Because I was two weeks down the road when I realized I was once again pregnant. There was no way to pin it on Ian. And time was short. So I headed for the nearest place I knew of where large families are considered a good thing. A status symbol, even.
On my way from the Blue Bar to the lobby elevator, I noticed a cat on the front desk. Cats like me. So I strolled over to say hello.
"Our cat seems to be taken with you, Ma'am," said a smooth baritone voice from over by the main entrance. It was the doorman.
"Yes," I said without turning around to him. "There's just something about me."
"In town for a show, ma'am?"
"Well, as a matter of fact, yes. The Rita Moreno show. Right here in the cabaret. Have you heard good things?"
As I asked the question, I turned fully to face the short but striking black man in a burgundy uniform with gold trim. But the weird thing was, he immediately looked as if he recognized me. As if we'd met somewhere before.
"You're Miss McAllister, aren't you?"
"Why yes," I replied. "That's me. How'd you know?"
The doorman hesitated. Then he explained that it's the Algonquin's policy for the entire staff to become familiar with the guests, and whenever possible, to greet people by name. It's hospitality protocol, he said.
I went on up to my room and then to bed. I drifted off thinking how nice it was to be recognized in the hotel lobby in New York City on my very first visit, and to be liked by cats. I thought about what I planned to say to Rita the next evening down in the Oak Room. I thought about how she might receive me. I thought about her giving me a huge hug right there in front of everyone. I thought about us crying together, and then seeing the episode retold on Entertainment Tonight. And with that, I slept well.
I awoke the next morning looking unruffled, as usual. But I was unsettled. Because I'd managed, up to that point, to go without actually setting foot on the streets of Manhattan. And I knew how stupid it would be to spend the whole day in the hotel, waiting to see Rita. So I resolved myself to a plan to overcome my angst.
Dressed and full of anxious energy, I stepped from the elevators into the bustle of the lobby during the morning checkout. I maneuvered through the luggage and long-coated people to the front doors, which swung open at the hands of a doorman I hadn't seen before. Oddly, and very much like the other doorman, he seemed to recognize me.
"Good morning, Miss McAllister."
"Good morning," I said, thinking again how nice it was to be acknowledged.
But let's get down to business, I told myself. Let's take a hard right turn out the door and immediately begin walking. Let's match the pace of every one going the same direction. Let's not look anybody in the eye. And most important of all, I told myself, let's not let anybody see my fear. Let's act completely unimpressed with everything and everyone. No matter what. If you can manage that, I encouraged myself, you'll be fine.
And I was.
So when I came to the corner of West 44th and Fifth Avenue, I resolved to continue on around the block. Within minutes, I found myself approaching the entrance to the Algonquin from the opposite direction.
I'd made it. Mission accomplished, I thought. Good job, Robin. Step on inside and reward yourself with coffee in the lobby. Sit in the high-backed chair with purple upholstery and gold piping, the one that lets you see the whole room. And when the server in black and white scurries up, go ahead and order yourself a bagel to go with your well-deserved coffee. Or a croissant, maybe.
As I waited for the return of the faceless little man with the silver tray, time-delayed impressions of the streets outside streamed through my mind.
There was no sky. Only buildings that seemed to grow together at the top, where the sky should be. Gray buildings. Concrete. Glass. People dressed mostly in black or shades of black.
There were no bad smells. Only the scent of bacon when I passed by delis and cafés. And coffee when I went past the Starbucks. And perfume on women who, when they stopped to wait for the crosswalk light, probably enjoyed their own scents.
There were no street people. No panhandlers. No bums. Only well-dressed people with places to go. Or delivery truck men who seemed at ease with themselves. Or frantic food vendors, who sold donuts and fruit to people who were not yet fully awake or ready to talk.
There was nothing to be afraid of. And upon accepting that fact, I decided to spend the day wandering. But first, I returned to my room to put on something black.
November in Manhattan. People of all colors dressed in black. Rich people shopping on Madison Avenue. Athletic people jogging though Central Park. Talkative people in chic restaurants, waiting to see or be mistaken for somebody famous. Yellow cabs everywhere. But more than anything, people. So many it made my head swim and my feet hurt. Such a temptation it was to look up where the sky should have been. Such an unwavering urge there was to look passers-by in the eye. But such a source of personal pride it was to do neither; to keep pressing on with false purpose and a jaded face. And to do so with such conviction that I caused tourists to comment on my New York rudeness as I brushed past them, importantly. Look out, losers, I said to myself. I'm Robin McAllister. And this is my town now.
But as I tired, it came to me that this was actually my birth mother's town. And that I'd do well to remember that fact. So off I went to the Algonquin. To prepare for my big evening.
Brushing past my courtly doorman and toward the cat that was sniffing luggage, it came to me that I should get an advance look at the Oak Room. So that I could enter the show with confidence, looking completely comfortable with my surroundings. Like a regular.
The double doors to the Oak Room were closed but not locked. Nobody noticed me slipping in.
The house lights were up and the Oak Room was empty. It turned out to be nothing more than an extension of The Blue Bar. With the same dark, square panels on the walls. And the same tiny light fixtures running the length of the rectangular room on both sides. The ceiling was much higher, though. More like it is out in the main lobby. Affixed to the ceiling were several rows of small but I'm sure powerful spot lights, all aimed at the grand piano that was situated in the middle of the room, against the wall. In front of the piano was a small area of wood parquet flooring, where Rita no doubt sings, leaning against the piano, chatting with her pianist and her audience. The carpeted portion of The Oak Room was crowded with small, round tables, each with two chairs. Along the wall opposite the piano was a row of even smaller tables with one chair each.
Stepping onto the parquet, I imagined being there with Rita. She in a sparkling dress in the spotlights. Me in my blue dress seated within her view, illuminated by my table's candle.
I imagined her performing her first set of tunes. Maybe something from Rogers and Hammerstein. Or Blizzard of Lies. Or maybe The New York City Blues.
I pictured Rita Moreno smiling the smile that years earlier had won over Louis D. Mayer. And her beautiful brown eyes; I could see them vividly, and I appreciated how they managed to hold Brando's attention for all those years.
I conjured up my mother floating around the room in dance. Her body still trim and fit and graceful. Just as she was as a 16-year-old nightclub dancer, playing the Latin Spitfire for all her worth. Or later, as she was earning her Oscar for Anita in West Side Story.
I sat there under the unpleasant fluorescent lights with respect for Rita, the former Rosita. A little Puerto Rican girl who grew up like me, shy and inadequate, but who made it to Broadway by age 13. I sat there alone and cried at the thought of how it must have killed her to play all those typecast parts. The hot-blooded Latin sex kitten. And how she played those parts barefoot, with her nostrils flaring, her blouse off her shoulders, her hoop earrings swaying, her teeth gnashing. Doing what she had to do to win. Just like me.
I sighed out loud.
"You're not supposed to be in here," said a baritone voice.
I turned toward the door. It was the first doorman who'd recognized me. He was leaning in the double doors of The Oak Room, and he was looking far less pleasant than when opening the main doors of the Algonquin's lobby.
"Oh, yes. I belong here," I said. "But I'll go if you answer a simple question for me."
"Quickly, Miss McAllister."
"What time should I plan on being seated for Rita Moreno?"
I did not like the answer.
"Cancelled!" I shouted.
"Yes, Miss McAllister. And if I may be blunt, you of all people should understand why Miss Moreno's people decided she shouldn't perform tonight. Anyway, everyone gets a refund. With the Algonquin's apologies, of course."
The only thing I understood was my outrage. My face and neck instantly felt hot and painful. My fingers and feet felt ice cold. There was a high-pitched ringing in my ears. I vaulted from the patch of parquet floor, past the frowning doorman and into the lobby, directly into the path of a stupid little waiter. The silver tray and coffee service he was delivering found its way to the floor with such speed and intensity that I don't recall hearing what must have been a loud crash, or the instant hush that must have consumed the lobby guests. I do recall the sight, however, of coffee and cream and sugar in a splatter pattern on the floor, and a picture of me amongst the mess. A picture I'd had taken back in Brookings.
It was the first thing retrieved by the waiter. And though it was puzzling that the waiter carried a picture that I had sent to Rita Moreno with one of my many letters, I was too upset by the cancellation and the collision to think about it. The elevator opened and I exited the scene.
I immediately began to pack. Then I phoned Delta to get an earlier flight back to Salt Lake City. Robin McAllister had had enough of New York City. And with Manhattan, in particular. An overrated chunk of land surrounded by two straits and an estuary that they jokingly refer to as rivers. Life's too short, I thought. At least the Great Salt Lake is honest about what it is. A big, salty lake. And while it can't support fish life any better than the Hudson, Harlem and East rivers, at least we've got our brine shrimp. At least there's that.
The next available flight was in three hours. So I checked out. And my last impression of the Algonquin was seeing their damned lobby cat sound asleep on the back counter of the registration desk, its tail draped across a short, neat stack of photocopies of my picture. Screw the Algonquin, I thought.
I've never liked the looks of Delta's fleet. But when you sit in first class, it's not such a bad airline. Not really. And today, having failed in my quest to meet my mother as I'd planned, I have a sense of gratitude to the airline whose planes I see coming and going all day in Utah. The flight attendants are nice to me, and generous with the vodka, too. They make it comfortable. They allow me time and space to think. To work it out in my head. To get this whole unfortunate incident squared away, just as I have had to do so many times before.
But listen, enough of that. Because the man across the aisle keeps looking over at me. And he looks like somebody I think I've seen on TV. And the tag on his carry-on says NBC Sports. And the seat beside him is as empty as the one beside me. And, well, I just got an idea.