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I was twenty-eight years old, running keyboard at Ravinia with the group I'd formed after years of struggling on my own when I saw Zoey for the first time. This gig was only one night at the Summer Festival, and only one set, but it was finally, after all this time, Ravinia. It was also one of those clear Chicago summer nights that sprays music over the countryside like a ton of rampaging Fourth of July fireworks and seduces a guy into believing all his dreams will come true right now and from now on. For me, Joe Barbarello, this night had been a long time coming.
We had just finished an original number we called "Scramblin" and slid into our version of Ramsey Lewis's "Wade in the River," which always got the crowd going, when I peered into the audience, trying to savor this moment enough to keep it forever, trying to embed all the sounds and colors and feelings coming at us in rolling waves into my memory. But halfway through the second number my eyes stopped working the crowd because I spotted her sitting alone in the front row and I couldn't look away. Yeah, fate has a way of running all over you sometimes no matter what you do to stop it, but who wanted to stop it? Not me. I was onstage having the best night of my life, and she was only thirty feet or so away, sitting in the audience.
Streaks of red blended into purple as the sun took its final bow of the evening, shooting its summer brilliance one last time through the open-air walls of the Pavilion. Lights embedded in the ceiling sparkled like a million stars overhead and a spotlight bounced over the front row, landing on her hair and turning it into more shades of gold than I'd ever seenbefore on anyone. I lost four beats while I was looking at that hair. She was wearing a pair of shorts that looked like they'd been poured on, a white v-necked sleeveless T-shirt that definitely had been poured on, and my glance swept over her legs–there went another four beats–and up into eyes that reminded me of the ocean off the beaches of Italy where my dad was born and we used to visit every summer until the year he died.
She never took those eyes off me. The only movement they made was up and down, back up again. It reminded me of the hookers in some of the bars I'd played in who were forever trying to decide whether I'd be worth a freebie or not. But these eyes and the way they moved over me were different. This woman wasn't about to say no to anything.
By the time we reached our last song I'd been doing some major fantasizing while my hands slid over the keyboard and my mind slid over her. We were ending our set with my original composition, a smooth, rolling thirty-two bar tune I called "Dustrollers," and Fuzz and I were swapping fours on the last chorus, trying our damnedest to outdo each other while Pinky and Dave strutted around onstage the way they always did, generating screams from the females in the audience. The crowd was digging it as much as we were, and I knew there were people from major recording studios in the audience. Columbia, Sony, Vibrant.
I couldn't afford to foul this up. I'd waited too many years, played in too many bars where the tips were bad and the booze was worse, spent too many nights in my apartment playing the same chord over and over until I either got it right or Fuzz pounded on the wall and screamed at me to quit making that noise or he'd kill me. So I tried not to look, but sitting there in the front row was all that hair and those eyes and those legs, and I was only eight months past my divorce. I probably should have stopped looking, but you know what they say about hindsight and foresight. I had no idea of the danger and disruption to my life that would come because of my immediate and total obsession with her. We never do. That's God's way of having fun with us.
And even if I had known, could I, at that moment, have looked away and never glanced back? I don't think so. The pull between us was already too strong; it was making a boiling hot mess of my insides and we hadn't spoken a word. A tiny voice over my shoulder told me to look away and pay attention to what I was doing, but another voice, not much more than a seductive whisper, filtered through the music loud and clear in spite of its softness, telling me I'd been avoiding women long enough.
You know which voice won. By the time we'd finished "Dustrollers" the crowd was in a frenzy and so was I. I kicked my stool away before anyone could stop me, grabbed my charts, and headed for the front row.
* * * *
"So, you want to get married, or what?" I said by way of introduction, trying to ignore the teenagers crowding around asking for autographs.
"Married?" She gave a soft chuckle. "We might as well just live together, don't you think? Save a lot of lawyer's fees that way."
"Oh," I said, wishing I could ignore the little brunette who was waving an autograph book in my face, "a woman with a positive attitude."
She laughed. "The only thing I'm positive about is that I have an attitude."
"That's pretty clear, even to me." I patted my pockets to see if I had a pen so I could sign the autographs and leave with her. Only too aware that the most beautiful woman I'd ever seen was watching me, I tried to look as though autographing was an everyday occurrence and I might have carried it off if I'd had a pen handy. But I never carried a pen, and apparently none of the autographees did either. One of them stood with her shirt pulled up, laughing and waiting for me to sign her bra. Yeah, today's kids. All guts, no glory.
Zoey reached into her purse and handed me a gold pen. "This will work on fabric," she said in an offhand voice. She stood back with her lips curled in a half-smile while I signed everything, including the bra.
They finally got enough autographs and left. I opened my mouth to try and outdo my first line when I spotted the guys in the band heading our way, so I grabbed her arm instead. "Let's go," I said, half-swearing inside because I couldn't think of anything more original. Her perfume was making me crazy. I wanted more of it. I wanted to bury myself in it and inhale until there was nothing left of it. But I just took her arm and tried to steer her toward the exit.
She glared at me and dug her heels in the grass, slowing us both down. "You really are an idiot, you know that? You weren't even carrying a pen. What was that, your first autograph?"
I glanced at her, laughing inside at her fire. "No, it wasn't my first one, but thank you so much for asking. Actually, I've signed lots of them."
Copyright © 2003 by Beth Amerski