Robin Goldberg met Virgil Keller the night that Robin graduated from Hodges University.
Robin was wearing a royal purple one-piece bathing suit. She’d ordered the swimwear from the official Omikron Epsilon Delta merch catalogue. Robin didn’t like how most swimsuits looked on her pale skin, but dark purples brought out the chestnut in her hair. The collegiate gear felt appropriate since her Brothers and Sisters were the ones that had brought her out to celebrate in the first place.
That evening was Robin’s first trip to Jardin, and the disco throbbed in lavender and rose eternity. The nightclub’s walls were mirrored, and the mirrors had built in strobes. The lights were arranged as blooming, lush flowers. The night was just finding its own rhythm, and the lights embedded in the walls were creeping up to a frantic pace. Jardin‘s ceiling and floor were also mirrored as were all sides of the elevated bar seating that crisscrossed the dance floor in a spider-web of reflection. Fractal, electric Kool-Aid lighting suffused every molecule of the room, and getting stoned for the light show and tunes at Jardin had been a burner rite of passage for decades.
On Jardin‘s more architecturally conventional evenings, a large dance floor dominated the center of the club. A cozy, plush red bar rotated in the middle of the dance floor. Arsene liked to call the bar their Rosebud. Most of the lesbians that haunted the place called it “the Clit” instead. Arsene had never corrected them.
The evening that Robin started to fall in love with Virgil, Jardin had embraced an aquatic décor. The polyamorous, pansexual party traded in dresses and suits for speedos and bikinis… and less if you weren’t shy. Few were by the time they left Jardin.
The dance floor had been replaced with sprawling hot tubs and more raised, glass walkways between the tubs. There were open areas of blanketed glass with pillows, lubricants, and prophylactics, of course.
The tubs were steaming. Between the mist and the reality-shifting haze of pure color, Robin’s slow descent into disassociation was, perhaps, understandable.
Vol. 1: Overture
By Dawn Saas and Nic Frankenberry
Powered by the Apocalypse and the work of D. Vincent Baker
as well as
Urban Shadows by Andrew Medeiros and Mark Diaz Truman
Microscope by Ben Robbins
Content Warning: Depictions of Severe Depression, Attempted Assault, and Drug Use
Robin looked down at her silver watch. It wasn’t even close to midnight.
Robin was standing thigh deep in the blissfully warm water of the northeast pool, and she was regretting her decision to come out. The water was rippling in syncopated rhythm to the music, but Robin couldn’t convince herself that this warmth or beauty or lust was something she was experiencing. All of her senses were as out of tune as a bad radio reception of someone else’s memories. The only external stimuli that Robin couldn’t ignore was the bass thudding against her chest.
Before Robin lost her hearing, slipping gradually from partial loss when she was thirteen to total deafness before her sixteenth birthday, Robin had loved music. Music had been the only part of worship that she’d connected with at temple. Robin had never felt God the way her parents or her rabbi had promised she would. Robin prayed, she meditated, her essence screamed into the void, but nothing and no one ever spoke back. There was, however, song.
Robin’s first substantive questions as a child were about music.
Robin’s parents gave her books on the science of sound and music. Robin consumed music theory and taught herself proper vocal techniques. Her parents thought maybe they had a young Streisand on their hands. Their daughter had perfect pitch, and she wasn’t simply capable of mimicking the zimrah of her temple in Squirrel Hill; even as a child, Robin could move the most stoic worshipers in the synagogue to tears. She transmitted the joy and melancholy of spiritual song as if it was her divine calling.
By the time Robin was a teenager and her hearing was starting to vanish, Robin was accepting that it was a matter of time before this magic left her life for good. She wanted to know what was that missing spark between the sound waves and her eardrums. What was happening inside of Robin that made her feel like maybe she had a soul after all? What else was music touching in this profound of a way?
Then Robin’s hearing was entirely gone, and she was denied the answer she so desperately craved. Robin forced herself to be grateful for the brief moment she got to experience music as the only thing that ever came close to resembling God’s spiritual presence which she had always been promised.
Robin was unable to feel grateful at Jardin. She saw Chad’s tongue tracing the lines of this week’s boyfriend’s abs. Robin watched as the tongue made almost imperceptible little flicks in time with the crash of the bass. Robin caught sight of Todd dealing to PittU kids that she didn’t recognize. The PittU kids looked like they were having fun at least.
The only thought Robin could maintain was how much she wanted to be wrapped up in her blankets at home, asleep in her bed. She’d be just as warm and far more content, and there, at least, no one would expect her to pretend to be having a good time.
As that impulse to escape bounced around her mind and Robin was working up the willpower to ghost from the club, she felt a splash of water against her face.
Robin turned and saw a man without pants, pulling himself out of the water. His shriveled, wet cock was rapidly receding into his body. Standing over the man, there was a woman in black, cotton trousers and a dark red button up shirt with an open collar. Robin thought the woman was maybe a couple years older than her. 25 at the oldest. She had wavy, dark brown hair that fell just above her shoulders, and there was a small clutch on a chain down at her hip, floating in the water.
Robin could see the belligerent nudist’s mouth stretch open in a rictus of rage as he screamed at his clothed attacker. The offended woman simply stared at him, no fear, just a cold, detached curiosity. The pale woman’s hands clenched tight enough to shatter the man’s testicles. Robin didn’t know how the woman wasn’t bleeding, the way her nails were digging into her palms. The man pulled back his fist and started to swing as two security guards in coordinated rose bathing suits grabbed him by the waist and dragged him out of the pool as he kicked and splashed in impotent futility.
The woman stood motionless as the man was ejected from the club. Robin couldn’t tell if the woman was breathing.
Minutes after the man was gone, Jardin‘s celebrants acted like nothing had happened. Chad was licking more than just his boyfriend’s abs. The PittU students were lifting water out of the pool and ritualistically bathing each other with an almost religious reverence.
Todd must have sold them the good shit.
There was a tall, muscular black woman in a baby blue bikini making out with a black man in jammies in a corner. The man was wearing sunglasses and he had a cane resting against a nearby wall.
Robin started to worry the woman in the trousers — wearing more clothes than anyone else in the club — was having a PTSD incident. Robin was convinced her “Little” in OED was suffering from PTSD and had never figured out a way to broach the topic. Robin didn’t want to be nosy, but she was fond of Melika. She wanted to make sure that Melika was getting the help she clearly needed.
Robin needed to know that this woman was okay and steeled up her nerves. She hated approaching strangers in public. Robin was very sensitive about her voice. She could still speak, but she had seen too many snickering teens in the workshops of her education classes. It wasn’t so much that she cared what these boys thought although Robin would admit it bothered her more than she ever let on. Speaking was a reminder of the void that her own voice had become.
After securing her heartbeat, Robin waded the short distance across the pool. It was only ten feet, but Robin felt more anticipation and anxiety than when she’d crossed the stage at her graduation earlier in the day. Robin situated herself in front of the woman who did not react to her presence. Robin looked at her more closely. There was a thin, jagged scar around her neck, and Robin was more certain of her PTSD diagnosis than ever.
There was a brief pause in the music. The bass had ceased its rattling of Robin’s chest, and the only ripples in the pool were caused by Jardin‘s clientele. Robin finally forced herself to speak.
“Are you okay?”
The woman finally stirred and studied Robin. She nodded her head silently. The woman almost walked away and then looked back at Robin and signed, “I’ll be fine.”
Robin signed, “I can read lips if you feel more comfortable talking.”
The woman gestured to her lips. “I can hear fine; I’m mute.”
There had been a handful of mute children in Robin’s first ASL classes before she started going to the Pittsburgh School for the Deaf full time. Those children had been so much younger than her. Even the four year olds picked up sign language so much faster than Robin did. Robin could tell by this woman’s unsteady signs that she had also picked up ASL later in life, but Robin suspected this woman’s ASL lessons had come even later in life than hers.
“Can I buy you a drink? I figure you could use one, and I could use the conversation.”
The woman studied Robin more closely, and Robin returned the favor. The woman’s eyes were a pale green. Her skin was almost alabaster and made Robin look like she had a tan. The scar looked fresh.
The woman was so thin that she almost looked undernourished. Beneath her eyes, there were dark circles. Robin wondered if this woman was getting any sleep at all.
“I don’t drink, but I’d love to talk.”
“My name is Virgil, by the way. Virgil Keller.” The woman reached out her hand to Robin.
“Robin Goldberg.” Robin reached out and shook Virgil’s hand.
Virgil’s hand was cold. Robin didn’t know how that was possible. It was warmer than a Turkish bath house in Jardin, but Robin chalked up Virgil’s chilly palms to poor circulation.
Robin and Virgil made their way up to one of Jardin‘s elevated walkways which were deserted. Almost everyone else in the club that evening preferred the balmy embrace of the pools and the lower level. The pair sat at their table until last call. Virgil was the best “listener” Robin had met since she was in elementary school. Robin’s hands were a whirl as she told her life story to Virgil.
How complications from her juvenile diabetes took her hearing. How she’d discovered film and theatre afterwards. Going to Hodges. Deciding that she wanted to teach theatre to other deaf teenagers at her old high school. Her hopes of still making independent films even as she taught. Losing her mother to ovarian cancer.
Robin promised to show Virgil one of her student films some day. Robin’s favorite was about a lesbian couple who worked in the Oakes Steel mills during the second World War. Virgil let Robin go on and on the whole evening, but when Robin brought up that specific film, Virgil finally piped up with little anecdotes about the lives of the Rosies of the city.
How hellishly hot it was in the mills and the light fabric they had to wear… that they still stained with sweat ten minutes into every shift. The Polish women that sold pierogis on lunch breaks. There was rationing of course, but folks had ways around that, and the sauerkraut and mushrooms and cheese got you through the day. How the women with their husbands’ cars would help drive home the workers who were single or whose husbands hadn’t owned a car before they left for the war.
Robin asked Virgil how she knew so much. Virgil signed that she had studied history in college and had specialized in women’s work during the war. Virgil chose her signs carefully during that explanation, and Robin wondered what this woman was keeping from her. However, Robin’s instincts had never been to pry.
After Jardin shut down and the club’s amorous, exhausted dilettantes shuffled into cabs and buses, Robin and Virgil walked the Strip until the sun rose over the Three Rivers. They were holding hands as they walked, and neither was sure of the exact moment their hands clasped. Robin still couldn’t believe how cold Virgil’s hands were, but Robin was also discovering that those hands possessed an excited curiosity. Virgil’s fingers would lightly caress Robin’s wrist and her palm. Virgil looked at Robin and took in everything she had to say. Robin felt seen and understood as a person and not just as a student or a teacher or an artist or a grieving child for the first time in months.
Robin and Virgil said goodbye at six in the morning at the bus stop to Squirrel Hill. Robin tried to give Virgil her cell phone number.
“I’m a little too old-fashioned for a cell phone.”
Considering Virgil was dressed like Katharine Hepburn or Irene Dunne, Robin didn’t have it in her to put up too much of an argument. Virgil promised that she’d be back at Jardin two nights from now. Robin said she’d stop by and say hello. She didn’t want to tell Virgil how much she was already starting to like her. Robin wanted to play it cool.