In my late twenties, I waged a bitter struggle for the affections of a belly dancer named Lotta. This "battle of Lotta" cost more time, money and self-respect than any crusade for companionship from the opposite sex I've undertaken before or since. Reflecting on it now with my 53-year old brain--and my 53-year old libido--it's hard to characterize the battle as anything other than a pointless, idiotic conflict. I'd like to reach back to 1987, grab hold of my younger self and demand, "What were you thinking?"
I'd like to do that, but it would pretty much be an act. I know what I was thinking. I was thinking that I was lonely and rudderless after my divorce, that Lotta was more sexually alluring than any woman I'd ever been with, and that she was a complete kick in the pants--spontaneous, adventurous and sometimes just plan crazy. The fact that she was a part-time belly dancer--doing gigs at Middle Eastern restaurants and performing "belly grams" for birthday parties while I held her boom box--didn't hurt. Everyone wants to be with a celebrity.
And that was exactly the problem. I met Lotta while waiting for my divorce to be finalized and since I was still married--she often reminded me--I couldn't expect an exclusive arrangement. As a consequence, I had a number of rivals during the battle, the most persistent and formidable of which was (unfortunately) another guy named Mark. Mark II, as I will call him, was younger and better looking than me, but (if you will trust my judgment on the matter) did not test quite as high in the IQ department. He worked as a shoe salesman, which paid less than my job as a computer programmer, but did give him access to discounted women's footwear. And Lotta loved her footwear.
I first became aware of Mark II at one of Lotta's performances at a Greek restaurant when he "happened" to be in the audience. After Lotta had changed out of her gold-spangled belly dancing outfit (the construction of which had been underwritten by me) and returned to our table, Mark II came up to tell her what a swell performance she had given. Lotta gave him a smile that probably warmed a lot more than his heart. After he mooned off, I asked who he was.
"Oh, just some guy I met at church," said Lotta.
The next time I ran into Mark II--or, more accurately, he ran into me--was when I was over at Lotta's house for Sunday dinner. Dinner at Lotta's house was usually something to be avoided. It wasn't so much that Lotta was a bad cook, it was that she was so incredibly cheap. She spent a good two hours every Sunday morning clipping coupons, which meant that the side dishes--or even the main courses--were always some sort of crazy, ersatz packaged item that the supermarkets or one of the big food companies was pushing. Think potted meat or clam jerky. Another manifestation of Lotta's cheapness was her insistence on buying fruits and vegetables that the supermarket had discounted because they were nearly (or, in many cases, already) past their prime. I choked down more overripe zucchini than I care to recall--and I don't even like fresh zucchini.
But Lotta's pièce de cheapness was her insistence on saving the aluminum wrappers from margarine cubes. These were hoarded so that they could be slapped onto chickens and turkeys like so many sections of aluminum siding in order that the tiny bit of residual margarine would soak into the skin of the unfortunate (cut-rate) fowl during the roasting process.
In any event, on this particular evening I had not managed to avoid dinner at Lotta's. She was in the living room setting the table with her best china, and because the dinner was intended to be "special" (or as special as it could be where the repast included a side of clam jerky), I was in her bedroom doing my best to look presentable. At the particular point in time that Mark II came up to stick his mug in Lotta's front-facing bedroom window (unbeknownst to me), looking presentable for dinner involved ironing my chinos while standing pants-less in my shirttail and boxer shorts.
Apparently it was news to Mark II that my relationship with Lotta was such that I might stand in her bedroom in my boxer shorts, and shortly thereafter I heard the doorbell ring, and once the door was opened, a great deal of yelling. The yelling increased in volume as the proximity of the yellers grew nearer and nearer to the (closed) bedroom door. I struggled to pull on my pants to fend off the attack I was sure was coming, but just when I expected the bedroom door to be flung open, the yelling stopped and I heard steps retreating down the hallway. The front door opened and closed again, and I rushed to the window in time to see Mark II flipping me off as he went down the sidewalk to his car.
Once I returned to the living room, I naturally asked Lotta what the hell was going on. She tried to play it cool. She said Mark II had assumed their relationship was more serious than it was and didn't understand that she was seeing other people.
"Are you sleeping with him?" I snapped.
"Of course not," she said. "Now relax and have some clam jerky. The roast chicken will be ready in a minute."
Having fought the battle of Lotta long enough by this point not to accept her explanation at face value, I decided a little independent verification was in order. Later that evening, I asked innocently when we were getting together again, and by carefully shifting her responses about when she was free over the next week, determined that her cover story for Thursday evening ("girl's night out") seemed the weakest. Sure enough, as I sat across the street from Lotta's house in my car reading Bret Easton Ellis' "Less Than Zero" by flashlight that Thursday evening, Mark II pulled up and bopped inside.
If reading Ellis' dispiriting book by a wavering yellow light in a freezing car wasn't depressing enough on its own, I made sure to get the full measure of ego-nullification by staying past the time that all the other lights in the house except the bedroom went off, past the time that beacon went off--and I presumed the sex began--and well into the early morning. I briefly considered letting the air out of Mark II's tires before I left at around 3 a.m., but couldn't quite bring myself to stoop that low.
I was too embarrassed to admit that I had staked out her house, but eventually I confronted Lotta about Mark II, citing evidence I had obtained through less craven means. When I laid the accusation out on the table, she just shrugged, and said, "What do you expect? You're married."
And so I was--for another few months anyway. Somehow I made peace with the situation and life continued, Lotta now doing little or nothing to conceal her relationship with Mark II from me. At one point, she went so far as to ask for advice.
"You know your nose hair?"
"Yeah?" I said.
"How do you--you know--trim it?"
"Why are you asking?"
"Mark's nose hair is sticking out all over the place. I want him to cut it back, but he says he doesn't know how."
I should have told her I used a Zippo lighter like a flamethrower to burn it out. Instead I mumbled, "Tell him to get a pair of nail scissors at the drug store. Those work fine."
Surprisingly, the trend of talking about Mark II's shortcomings continued--and even accelerated. First, Lotta mentioned that she thought that Mark's neck was too long and scrawny. Later, she said she thought he wasn't very mature and he had a dead-end job. I began to think the tide of the battle might be turning my way--although there still seemed to be plenty of new shoes from Mark II's so-called dead-end job in Lotta's closet.
I went on the offensive by funding a trip to a bed and breakfast in the Napa Valley and the acquisition of several new dresses. Lotta was too cheap to buy nice things for herself (and if the truth were known, her taste wasn't very good), so the dresses had a double-impact: they were both nicer and more stylish than anything she would have bought for herself. When an ex-boyfriend told her she looked the best she ever had while wearing one of them, she was extremely pleased and I thought I had turned the corner.
It was about that time that her parents came to town. I joined them for lunch--which seemed to go well--and Lotta said she was going to take the rest of the day to show them around the area. She invited me over to dinner the evening after they flew home to Iowa, and for once, I had a pleasant meal at her house: I insisted on ordering pizza and paired it with a six pack of my favorite beer. Lotta told funny stories about her dad working on her car and playing handyman, and things seemed more relaxed between us than they had in a while.
Until I got up to go to the bathroom.
After taking the opportunity to inspect my nose hair--to which I now paid an inordinate amount of attention--I realized that I had a "bat in the cave" and went hunting for a tissue to aid in its extraction. I opened the cabinet under the sink, and rather than locating a box of Kleenex, found Lotta's diaphragm sitting out to dry on top of its little plastic dish.
Lotta had told me that her parents had been over for dinner the previous evening and then had returned to the hotel where they were staying. It now dawned on me that there had been another guest at dinner--and this guest hadn't gone to any hotel to spend the night. He'd spent it in Lotta's two-hundred gallon water bed.
I snatched up the diaphragm and carried it back to the kitchen table, where I tossed it onto Lotta's plate, right on top of the greasy pepperoni. "What's this doing out?" I demanded.
Lotta tried countering with the "how dare you paw through my stuff" argument, but I wasn't having any. Eventually it came out that Mark II had been there, and when I accused her of using her parents as a sounding board to help her pick between us--first showing me off at lunch followed by him at dinner--she pretty much copped to the charge.
I got up to storm out of the house, but she wheedled and pleaded and managed to talk me into staying. I guessed that maybe her parents had thought I was the better catch, even though I'd been given the less desirable spot in the dog show. Now she was working a little harder to keep me on the leash.
After cleaning the greasy diaphragm and entombing the leftover pizza in Tupperware like organs preserved for transplant, we retired to the den to watch a rerun of The A-Team in almost complete silence. Then we took ourselves off to bed, where (for once) I resisted Lotta's attempt to use sexual favors to assuage my righteous anger.
"Look," she said. "I'll wear the lamb slippers again if you want. Baa-baa!"
"No, damn it. The sheep thing is not going to make up for this. And besides, I'll bet you got those slippers from him, didn't you?"
Lotta just shrugged and returned the woolly, two-toed slippers to the closet. She dropped off to sleep almost immediately, but I tossed and turned for hours, unable to shake the conviction that she was turning me and Mark II into a couple of emasculated drones for her hive. Finally, at about two in the morning, I decided I was leaving. The only problem with that idea was that Lotta had given me a ride to her house. My car was still in the parking lot at work.
But, having made the decision, I wasn't going to let this deter me. My close friend Terry lived about two miles away, and I thought the air and the exercise would be a good way to clear my head. How Terry and his wife Mary would feel about me presenting myself on their doorstep in the middle of the night didn't figure in my calculations.
Now your true reconstituted man, anxious to throw off the chains of drone-dom, would have shaken Lotta awake, boldly pronounced that he was leaving, and then marched out of the house in a testosterone cloud. What I did instead was slip out of the covers, dress quietly in the dark and sneak out the door with my garment bag. I even felt guilty about leaving Lotta's front door unlocked--but only slightly.
The walk to Terry's was a straight shot down a major road that was completely deserted. Now that that die was cast, and I was marching inexorably towards the hoped-for sanctuary of Terry's abode, it finally occurred to me to worry about the reception I would get. What if he wasn't home? What if he didn't answer the door? What if he called the cops?
None of those things happened. I tapped quietly on the door, whispering, "Hey, Terry, it's me," until the porch light came on. I heard the safety chain being taken off and then the door yawned open. Terry stood in his pajamas, gripping a baseball bat in one hand while rubbing tousled hair with the other. "What the f---, Coggins?" he asked (reasonably enough I had to admit).
I explained that I had come from Lotta's, and no sooner was her name out of my mouth, than he said, "Okay, okay. You can take the hide-a-bed." You see, Terry had heard a story or two about Lotta by that point.
It developed that Terry and Mary had also had a fight earlier in the evening and he had been sleeping on the hide-a-bed when I knocked on the door. I was now doing the important service of reuniting him with his wife. A further irony was that my ex-wife and I had given Terry and Mary the hide-a-bed when we moved from our old house. I was being reunited with it--at least for what was left of the evening.
I steered clear of Lotta for the next few weeks, feeling virtuous and remasculated. She emailed me once asking about some stuff I'd left at her house, but she didn't make any serious attempt to get us back together, nor did she ever ask exactly what happened the night of my disappearance from her bedroom. I guess there wasn't much ambiguity about the message I had sent.
Then, around eight in the morning one Saturday, I got a tearful call from her. She'd been arrested the night before for drunk driving and had spent the night in jail. She was all torn up, she said, and would I come over and spend some time with her? I told her I was sorry, but no. We were done.
I hung up the phone--and immediately felt I'd been too harsh. The circumstances of the arrest sounded arbitrary and miserable: she'd abandoned her Pontiac Fiero on the side of the road when she decided on her own she was too drunk to drive, but was arrested when she came back to get something from it and an officer happened by. She'd been handcuffed and spent the night with other drunks until she was allowed to make a phone call to a girlfriend to post bail.
I decided it wouldn't be the crime of the century to go see her. I wasn't getting back with her, I was just going to comfort her for old time's sake. I swung by the supermarket on the way to pick up her favorite--Haagen-Dazs ice cream bars--and then drove to her house.
As I came up the sidewalk, I saw through the kitchen window that someone was sitting at the kitchen table. The someone didn't have his shirt on, and as I looked at him from the back, I realized that Lotta was right: Mark II's neck was long and scrawny.
I dropped the Haagen-Dazs bars on the welcome mat and hot footed it back to my car. I drove to the nearest pay phone to call Lotta to tell she could find them there, and furthermore, exactly what I thought about her having Mark II come over after she had called me.
"But you said you weren't coming--" was all she managed before I slammed down the phone.
I'd like to tell you that that was the last day I spoke to Lotta--that I never had anything to do with her again. I'd like to tell you that, but I'd be lying. My addiction continued in fits and starts--as addictions will--for another three years over two different continents. (Lotta took a temporary job in Germany, where I traveled several times to visit her.)
When she came home, I agreed to meet her in a bar in Palo Alto and there I told her once and for all that we done, finitio, finished. It took her a while to grasp that the worm had had turned. But when she did, her face dropped and she stormed out of the restaurant, leaving her Kahlua and Cream (and the bar bill) behind.
The bar has long since closed, but the building now houses a popular Asian restaurant. My (new) wife and I eat there occasionally, and whenever we come in, I glance involuntarily at corner by the door where I had that final conversation. I didn't meet my wife until years and years later, but I know we'd never be together if the battle of Lotta hadn't ended at that spot.
Maybe they should put up a plaque.
(Photo by D. Sharon Pruitt. CC 2.0 licensing.)