love story photo by Todd
Here are two brief love stories from my new novel Magenta.
When I was a senior in high school at Fort Orford High and causing my God-fearing parents great distress by playing the guitar, I fell in love with Iriana Ceja, a beautiful Mexican woman three years older than I.
Iriana was a waitress at the North End Café, now Dave’s Donuts, and believe me, Iriana was the only reason anyone knowingly went to the North End Café. The food was bad, the coffee uniformly bitter, the décor ugly and uncomfortable. But Iriana was so lovely, so friendly, and such a sparkling conversationalist, hundreds of people made the North End Café a daily part of their lives, and I was one of those people.
I went there after school to gawk at Iriana and listen to her talk and laugh. I would buy a stale cookie and a cup of bitter coffee and stay for hours, supposedly doing my homework, but really just reveling in Iriana. My life at home was torture because my parents were so fiercely opposed to everything I loved, especially my playing the guitar and writing songs. School was drudgery and my peers were largely disinterested in the poets and artists I admired.
Iriana was my solace.
She called me Hank—no one else did—and when I finally got up the courage to ask her why she called me Hank, she gave me one of her darling smiles and said, “Como Hank Williams, por supuesto. I heard you playing your guitar at the beach. I love your music. Why don’t you bring your guitar here and play for us?”
Us meant Iriana to me, so I started bringing my guitar to the café and playing for her when she took her breaks. She would sit at the picnic table under the oak tree behind the café, smoke a cigarette, and listen to me play. She sang harmony if she knew the song and hummed harmony if she didn’t know the words.
After every song, she would say, “So beautiful, Hank,” or “I love that song, Hank,” or “You’re so good, Hank. Bueno bueno.”
So of course I wrote songs for her, and after I played her the third song I’d written for her, she kissed me and we were officially a dyad.
We had a hundred passionate tussles under that oak tree and at the beach, but whenever I asked her to make love with me, she would say so sweetly, “When we are married, I will make love with you every day.” So I vowed to her that when I turned twenty-one, if she hadn’t found someone else, I would marry her.
My parents were terrified I would fulfill my vow to marry Iriana. They were racists, not violently so, but they wanted me to marry a white woman, not a Mexican. I graduated from high school, turned nineteen, and went on a hitchhiking trip to Canada with my pal Gunnar Digs. Not long after we got back, I joined the Army.
When I came home from Germany two years later, the North End Café had turned into Dave’s Donuts and Iriana was married to Fernando Viramontes and pregnant with the first of their two kids. She was working at Stuyvesant’s by then and would work there for the next forty years. It was Iriana who encouraged me to go to Nashville and try to sell my songs.
“You have to go and try, Hank,” she said, sitting across the table from me at Stuyvesant’s, just a few weeks before she gave birth to her daughter Veronica. “God gave you a special gift. Maybe you won’t succeed, but you will never be happy if you don’t try.”
When I came home from Nashville three years later and hid my guitar away and took up the chainsaw, I ate at Stuyvesant’s three or four times a week. The food was good, but that’s not why I went there.
I went to be in the presence of Iriana, my dear friend who never stopped believing my music was beautiful.
When I was living in Santa Cruz and working in a bookstore, my greatest joy was attending poetry readings in San Francisco. I enjoyed the adventure of hitchhiking up the coast to that great metropolis, but more than the journey, I loved the atmosphere of those readings and how everyone was so curious about new and original ways of using words to convey feelings and ideas. And I was most intrigued by the couples who came to these readings, for they often seemed, at first glance, to be fantastically mismatched.
One such couple was Janice Cleveland and Rufus Borenstein. Janice was a buxom black woman in her forties with short hair and red glasses perched on the tip of her nose. She wore blouses made of colorful fabric from Nigeria, tight slacks, and high heels. Rufus was a tall slender white guy in his fifties with a pointy white goatee and a monocle that was forever falling out of his eye. He wore a gray tweed jacket over a black T-shirt, faded blue jeans, and white high-top tennis shoes decorated with red and yellow polka dots.
I first met Janice and Rufus at the intermission of a poetry reading starring two of my idols, Kate Fetherston and D.R. Wagner. Janice came up to me and said, “We heard you read at the open mike after Jane Blue’s reading last month. We totally dug your poems. You gonna read tonight?”
“I am,” I said gleefully. “And I want to kiss you.”
So she puckered up and we kissed.
“What’s going on here?” asked Rufus, joining us with two glasses of cheap white wine, one for him and one for Janice. “Hey, it’s you. Your poem about waiting for a ride on the coast highway. Brilliant. Can we get a copy?”
“Of course,” I said, giddy from their flattery. “Where do I send it?”
“You got one of our cards, Rufe?” said Janice to Rufus.
He fished in the pocket of his tweed jacket and brought forth two volumes of poetry—Robert Duncan and Kenneth Rexroth—a rubber band, three small crystals, and a somewhat banged up business card:
Janice Cleveland & Rufus Borenstein Tarot & Psychotherapy
I took the card and said, “If only I could afford you.”
“You can,” said Janice, laughing. “You give us some poems, we give you tarot and psychotherapy.”
So I sent them some poems and the next time I was in San Francisco, I had a fantastic tarot reading from Rufus and some incredibly helpful talk therapy with Janice, after which we went out for spaghetti. They became my good friends and remain my friends to this day, though sadly they got priced out of San Francisco and moved to Victoria, Canada five years ago.