This story is totally and utterly true.
In the spring of 1994, I fell in love with an extraordinary woman. She worked in a local coffeehouse owned by the owner of the bar where I worked at the time. The two venues, Winston's Beach Club and Rumors Café, were adjacent, connected by a shared backroom door.
Michelle had brains, beauty, gusto and grace. She had Newcastle hair and coffee-bean eyes. She also had leukemia, though it had been in remission for two years.
Before each bartending shift, I used to come through the backroom door into the coffeehouse and request her special triple mocha mint masterpiece and revel in those short moments of her enlightened, enthusiastic conversation. My heart fluttered from espresso and infatuation.
Finally, after a month of courting, she agreed to come over to my side of the door for drinks. To the drone of a lame-ass Wednesday-night band, we sat at a table and chatted. She told me about her war against the cancer and how it had focused her on the important things in life. She said she might be moving to San Francisco to be near her family. She said she loved to surf naked at twilight and told me about the butterfly that was tattooed on her shoulder blade and how she might show me later-if I was lucky.
I bought another round and returned, of course, to find an enormous, swaggering, intoxicated oaf in a wifebeater hovering at the table appraising Michelle as though she were a peach tree and he was Paul Bunyan.
“Let's get out of here,” blurted Michelle, wide-eyed.
We guzzled our drinks, warned Tom, the newly hired doorman, about the lumbering, lovesick lumberjack and began the long walk home. We walked and talked and held hands and, just a few blocks from my lair, er, I mean, house, Tom the doorman pulled up in his pickup truck. He was distraught.
Apparently, just after we left the bar, Paul Bunyan flew into a rage and ripped the front door off its hinges. After the melee, Bill, the owner of Winston's, fired Tom for doing nothing to stop him.
“I need to talk,” moaned Tom.
Greeeeat, I thought. I can't wait to listen to some guy I don't even know mewl over his problems when I'm trying to make love to the enchanting Princess Papillon. Was it not clear to Tom that Michelle and I were about to unravel the quintessence of the cosmos? Couldn't he see that he was about to become the biggest, bulgingest, squeakiest, annoyingest third wheel of all time?
Tom stared at us from the window of his truck. He looked like he was going to cry. I invited him over. Once home, we made ourselves comfortable. I sat on the far left of the couch and Michelle sat next to me. Tom-instead of taking the vacant, super-dooper reclining armchair-plopped his fat ass on the sofa next to Michelle!
So there we three were on the couch. Tom groused about his miserable existence, scratched his fat belly and swiftly dispatched four beers while Michelle and I stole fleeting gropes and kisses. The truth was that I didn't care about the firing, or about Paul Bunyan and the front door. It all seemed pretty clear cut to me-a doorman needs to protect the door, pretty much by definition. I cared only about the ticking clock. There was much loving to yet lavish, many toes to very massage, two nipples to much lather.
Just when it seemed things couldn't get any worse, they did. Tom's head tipped back, his mouth dropped open and he began snoring as though his lungs were gasping the last few droplets of the world's air supply.
I shook him repeatedly until his eyes slowly opened. “Tom, it's very late. You should be going, huh?”
“Yeah,” he said, and fell back to sleep.
I woke him three times. Three times he fell asleep. I wanted to kill.
Defeated, Michelle and I crawled into each other's arms. We sweet-talked, kissed and fondled to the soundtrack of Tom's baritone snores. She unbuttoned her shirt (though her bewitching black bra remained intact) and showed me the infamous butterfly: a masterpiece of ink, muscle tone and femininity. But I needed more than that butterfly-I needed the cocoon. But, while the snoring beast contaminated the air, she would take things no further.
At 5 a.m., my sweet Lady Papillon re-buttoned her clothing, scribbled my number on a matchbook and climbed into a cab. She said she would call me the next night.
But she didn't. One... two... three days passed and no call. Had I done something wrong? Was our love not meant to be? Was the great snoring beast to blame?
On the fourth day it was official. Our love was not to be. I sat dejectedly in my living room, watching the news. The coroner was hauling an apparent shark-attack victim out of the water in Ocean Beach. The victim-a woman in her 20s-was naked and unidentifiable, except for one distinguishing physical characteristic: a tattoo on her shoulder blade of a radiant Monarch butterfly. Later, a friend confirmed the horrible truth: Michelle had gone late-night surfing and encountered, unbelievably, a Great White shark.
There's a moral in there somewhere. Perhaps it's “Just when you beat the cancer, they send in the sharks.” Maybe it's something else.
I don't work at Winston's anymore. And Rumors Café has been replaced by Starbucks. But somewhere under the layers of that crisp, contemporary Starbucks paint job is the smell of Michelle's mint mocha masterpiece, which I still miss to this day.
In warm memory of Michelle Von Emster.