That Friday Night in D.C.
Frank* and I started in on the night like pigeons on a bagel, nibbling here and there from the edges, pecking the crust away slowly before the rest of the flock arrived. We frantically gorged ourselves on a summer Friday evening in Washington, D.C.
I remember it being hot and humid, a muddled white heat thickened with the perfect sheen of mugginess. That’s the weather I expect from the nation’s capital in June. As ever, it was an integral ingredient to the perfect night-out cocktail. The other seminal component was the company, and that never lacked this Friday.
I was hanging out with Frank, one of my best college buddies. He had come to D.C. from out west representing his major daily newspaper at an investigative reporting conference. His crazy friend, Mandy, and her pack of dangerous Georgetown “Sex in the City” obsessed coeds, who appeared to have their way with the city’s hapless men like rednecks playing with suburbanites on a Georgia camping trip, were also there. Janka too – my Hungarian ballerina, already gone back to New York City and the American Ballet Company. I’ll see you again in my own grainy 40mm movie, one of these days.
Frank and I started at Tom-Tom’s, a youngish attractive kind of bar in Adams-Morgan’s strip. We sipped our overpriced Red Bulls, vodkas and Tom Collins, smoked and joked about Jayson Blair, a classmate of ours at the University of Maryland and, in a stroke of irony, the Teacher’s Assistant for my introductory class to the functions and ethics of journalism.
We sat at an outdoor table and watched the beautiful denizens of Georgetown, George Washington University and a dozen other students walk by. Frank leaned over and smiled at me.
“Five ladies coming tonight.”
“Take your pick.”
Indeed. Ten minutes later the steamy night air was pierced by the high pitch squeal of Mandy – behind her one, two, three, four, five ladies, and the sixth…
“Who’s that?” I asked, leaning over.
But Frank had already gotten up to greet Mandy, a friend of his girlfriend, which meant that the tied-down Frank would be nothing but a wingman tonight in my quest for… Who was that girl?
When Frank returned we pulled two tables together and the girls began sitting down in various chairs. I could see the one – and at the moment, she was certainly “the one” – about to do something unspeakable – sit on the other side of the table. So, like a (sleazy) gentleman, I offered my chair to the closest girl and came around to sit by Frank.
“Janka,” she said, extending a perfectly feminine hand in a dead-sexy accent.
But of course, I thought in my best Sean Connery. Out loud, I said, “So what do you do?”
“I just got back from Austin, and I’m moving home to New York.”
“You’re from New York?”
“Well, yes. Originally, Hungary. I came to New York to dance with ABC. Oh!” and she laughed, like silver bells announcing heaven’s own lunch hour. “You probably don’t know the ABC.”
“American Ballet Company?”
“Wow!” She genuinely smiled (and my brain did a mental victory lap around my libido). “Not too many guys know ballet.”
But I knew ballet. Or I knew enough to bullshit the night away sounding like a guy who knew ballet. That was probably more than Janka was ever used to, her smile seemed to indicate. As we sat around getting progressively drunker, Frank leaned over to me and whispered in my ear (and by “whisper”, I mean slurred), “You’re the man, bro.”
“That’s funny,” I drunkenly muttered back. “Because we’re talking about ballet.” He snorted beer through his nose.
Later Janka hit Tom-Tom’s dance floor, which became increasingly throbbing and packed. I watched her walk perfectly away with a mix of desperation and lust. I quickly downed my drink which gave me an excuse to follow her and enough courage to go with my impulse. But as I refilled my cup at the bar (at this point oblivious to Tom-Tom’s rampant extortion), I could only give puppy-dog eyes again as Janka came back to our circle of friends while I fumbled with my ever lightening wallet to pay the bartender.
I went back with her. She was standing in front of everyone complaining about the music when the beat changed and her face brightened. “I love this song!” she squealed.
“Me too,” I muttered behind her.
She turned around and gave me a sly smile, subtly slid her hand into mine so no one at the table could see (YES!), and led me back to the dance floor.
The next stretch of time, measured only by the grindy hip-hop songs pumped by Tom-Tom’s DJ (who I mentally thanked over and over for maintaining Janka’s interest in the music), is largely lost to me. I remember time through Janka’s painted-on-pants moving like oil on Eden’s waters and every now and then my hips. I recall holding her lithe body close to mine, swaying to the music, sharing bachelor’s smiles with Frank and the press of bodies of D.C.’s youth, all of us moving like a pulsating tumor of desperate, horny youth.
We drank too much and moved on to the next bar, Janka’s arm now interlaced with mine – her slender, brown fingers occasionally shyly scratching the crook of my elbow. We walked through the crossroads of D.C.’s upper-class youth on a weekend night, where the kids and the pimps share the streets, laughing and chatting together, the cops interspersed like stern recess monitors with crossed arms, making sure no one got too wild. Too wild? We were reveling in too wild.
Our next stop was Meze, a trendy Euro-style bar with Spanish waiters in tight black pants and shiny silk shirts. The Georgetown girls knew some of them, of course, and that’s another thing about D.C. Even getting the right table for a bunch of college kids requires dropping some names, flirting it up and having the all-important hook-up.
Janka and I continued our increasingly intimate conversation (I was trying to impress her with travel tales of her native Eastern Europe. Impressing girls is the real reason anyone wants to be a travel writer). Frank and Mandy said they were heading back to Mandy’s apartment to tuck into a bottle of wine she’d been saving. Our group split – some of the girls went back with those two while Janka, me and another straggler decided to catch up, laughing away the night until two in the morning.
We ended up taking a drunken stumble all the way down the stairs, from the top of D.C.’s most affluent youth-packed meat markets, through rich smelling ethnic ghettos, to grimy, inner city slums. Like true East Coasters we walked through it all with pride, ambivalent to the increasingly more dangerous city blocks. Our noses weren’t in the air – they were pointed straight ahead and sniffing up the ambience. It wasn’t rich kids slumming – it was real kids enjoying a night out.
Early summer is prom season and we watched Ethiopian kids decked out in tuxedos and cheap gowns that I would have smirked at if they were worn by white girls, but smiled at because of the way the gaudy fabric accentuated the inner glow of these teenage girls who were obviously the true princesses of the night. They cursed and swore and laughed at their boyfriends who had their bow ties hanging loosely around their necks, before the lot of them disappeared into a smoky back room pool hall packed with Ethiopians aged 14 to 44, the haze of cigarettes so thick you couldn’t see the faces staring curiously back at you from the back of the room.
We passed a trio of young men freestylin’ on a street corner. One of them busted a quick lyric complimenting the girls walking by me. Janka smiled at him and me and tightened her grip on my arm. We walked by Ben’s Chili Bowl, packed with late night starving students and blue collar guys – finishing a night of heavy drinking, stuffing themselves with the finest in greasy late night fare.
We crossed the African American Civil War monument, a sure detriment to a bunch of white kids in any other city in America. But on this muggy, steamy night, when I could drink the air and feel a Hungarian ballerina hanging off my arm, I didn’t care. That’s not to say I didn’t feel. On the contrary, I felt lighter than air.
On some nights, D.C. gets all decked out. Like those Ethiopian girls, she may be poor, she may initially come off as gaudy, even cheap. But she’s so beautiful for all that, so beautiful for trying to appear as sexy as she can and you can’t help but fall in love with her and the opportunities and sights and smells she shows you.
I woke up the next morning in their apartment and Frank and I walked through a soggy gray morning with our own hangovers to the Metro station.
“The D.C. walk of shame,” I said, to his laughter. But in reality, the rain felt like cleansing holy water, washing off a night of excess and adventure. I marveled at the million worlds this city can offer when she looks her best – be it as an Ethiopian high school senior or a Hungarian ballerina, who probably already forgot me and is dancing in a New York whose heart I’ve never walked through like I did in D.C. that Friday night.
*Names have been changed to protect the innocent.