May 16th, 2009

Robin Goldberg met Virgil Keller the night that she 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, Arsene’s temple of song, dance, and sex. Every evening at Jardin was different. Arsene — the club’s owner and manager — was not a fan of predictable, rote hedonism. They wanted a crowd that worshipped at the font of excess and lust. The expected was the antitheses of their brand of ethereal pleasure. Jardin had been a Pittsburgh institution for forty years because walking through its velvet-plushed doors was a guarantee that your inhibitions would dissolve. A night at Jardin was a promise that the evening’s carnality would consume you. The club was a decades old reminder that desire could be obtained. You just had to open yourself up to embracing your appetites.


Orchid

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


Jardin 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 even Jardin‘s most audiophilic and techno-competent regulars couldn’t figure out how Arsene got the lights to sync up just right with both the melody and rhythm of each song.

On Jardin‘s more architecturally conventional evenings, a large dancefloor dominated the center of the club with a cozy, rotating bar in the center. 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 light show, Robin’s slow descent into disassociation was, perhaps, understandable.

Robin looked down at the watch on her wrist. The timepiece had been her mother’s. It wasn’t even close to midnight yet.

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. The psychedelic pool was like treading in a spiritual projection of the 60s given life, 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 if they were 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 thing she’d liked at Temple. Robin had never felt God the way her parents or her Rabbi had promised she would. She prayed, she meditated, her essence screamed into the void, and nothing ever spoke back. There was, however, something about song.

Robin’s first substantive questions as a child were about music.

How does it work? Why am I feeling this way? When will I be able to sing like that?

The first and third questions were easy enough to resolve. 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.

Robin’s hearing, however, was long departed before she ever got an answer to her second question.

How did music make her feel the way it did? How was her voice so able to move others? By the time Robin was a teenager and her hearing was starting to vanish, answering those existential questions became one of the few things that mattered. 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 temporarily denied the answer she so desperately craved. Robin forced herself to be grateful for the brief moment she got to experience music as magic. 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 Chad’s 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.

Robin was at Hodges. Todd was at PittU, but they ran in a lot of the same circles. It came with the territory of their shared skillsets. 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’s life was about to change forever.

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, but Robin could sense that this woman would curbstomp her nuisance into oblivion if she felt so inclined. 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 in the pool as the man was ejected from the club. Robin couldn’t tell if the woman was breathing. She was perfectly still, but she hadn’t passed out so Robin assumed she at least wasn’t oxygen-starved.

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. The woman in the trousers and the shirt — wearing more clothes than anyone else in Jardin — stood stock still without reaction to the desire and craving and wanton sex that surrounded her.

Robin started to worry the woman 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 knew a thing or two about needing help when the world hurt you and took away everything that mattered.

No one else in the club was paying any attention to this woman who had been forced to violence to defend herself from a drugged loon’s lascivious and predatory advances. Robin needed to know that this woman was okay.

Robin steeled up her nerves. She hated approaching strangers in public. She was very sensitive about her voice. Robin could still speak, but she had seen too many teen boys in the workshops of her education classes, snickering when she lectured. 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. What really upset Robin was that she could never hear herself sing again. 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 was stunned. It was rare that she ran into folks outside of her special education courses that used ASL. Robin wondered if this woman was deaf and was reading her lips. Maybe she could hear but knew Robin was deaf because of her voice and this woman knew ASL instead because of a family member or a friend that was hearing impaired.

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. Whatever had happened to this woman had happened recently.

Of the many things Robin was wrong about that evening, that was, perhaps, her most comical mis-assessment.

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.

Robin’s instincts were at least right there. The woman didn’t need to sleep though so Robin’s concerns were misplaced.

“I don’t drink, but I’d love to talk.”

The woman reached out her hand to Robin. “My name is Virgil, by the way. Virgil Keller.”

Robin reached out and shook Virgil’s hand. “Robin Goldberg.” 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 had to give up her dreams of being a singer. 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.

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 Virgil’s 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 heard as a person — and not just as a student or a teacher or an artist — for the first time since she was a child.

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.

Robin heard Virgil’s voice two days later, walking back to her apartment from her local bodega in Squirrel Hill. Robin was about to start getting ready for what she was already mentally calling her second date with Virgil. Instead, Robin found out exactly what Virgil had been hiding that first evening they met, and the fact that Virgil could speak was the least shocking revelation.

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