This is a true story. Every word is a memory. Only the names and places have been changed.

The Meeting That Changed Her

At least it was warm. That was the one good thing Sandi could think of. She sat, in the cloud of smoke and loud music, her coffee cup clutched tightly between her freezing hands. The black iron railing rattled behind her threateningly. The sound of the hard granite balls clacking together on the twelve pool tables just down the ramp was jarring to her. The combined voice of the hundred or so people was an unfamiliar roar.

A slight form with curly blonde hair detached himself from the milling crowd. He moved toward Sandi, a curious light in his eyes. He walked slowly, with the grace of a predator. Sandi looked away from him and pretended not to notice him as he closed in on her. She thought she recognized his ‘type'. He was cute, though not in a way that was attractive to her. He seemed very sure of himself.

"I'm Dutch." The small guy announced as he plopped into a chair across the table from her. He clasped his hands in front of him, leaning up on his forearms. "You haven't been in here before, have you?"

Sandi could only shake her head slightly. Words eluded her entirely as she saw the amused light in his eyes. He seemed to delight in adding to her discomfort. Later, she would learn that this was just his way of breaking the ice. Sandi watched in relief when a pretty young girl, only about thirteen or so, came and whispered something into the ear of her new companion, and he hurried off after her.

Sandi was shy and quiet. She was perfectly content to just sit alone, her knees up, on her bed. She would read and read for hours. How she'd ended up there, in that crowded pool hall, on that January night, was a story in itself. She wanted to leave. She would leave, she vowed, as soon as she got her hands on her sister. It was Neena who had dragged her through a snowstorm to get there.

As the older sister, she felt like she was babysitting. Two hours previously, under threat of death from their mother, Sandi had reluctantly agreed to accompany her little sister to a high school dance. She had showered and curled her long blonde hair. She had applied makeup, accenting high cheekbones and bright blue eyes. She had dressed in her best outfit, since it was supposedly a formal occasion.

One hour ago, they'd left the house. She had trudged for more than half an hour through bitter snow. By the time that they'd reached Buddha's, she'd been so cold that she'd agreed to go in and have a cup of coffee before she called a cab for them to go home in. Twenty minutes and two cupfuls later, Neena was nowhere to be seen.

Sandi was fuming, she had rarely been so angry. Her heart jumped in time to the rhythm that was being pounded on the wrought-iron rail behind her back. Someone very angry stood there. Sandi did not deal well with men, especially angry ones. Her mother had horrible taste in men, and the girls had been abused.

Their parents had split up when Sandi was seven and Neena only five. Her mother had been a drug user and a chronic alcoholic throughout her whole childhood. Sandi had been beaten and raped. Determined to stand always between harm and her little sister, she'd born it all stoically.

She'd been emotionally and physically hurt in other ways that there are not such easy labels for. All of this began before she'd been ten. Then along came the stepfather, who'd put all the other assholes to shame. Sandi had been almost sixteen, when (brandishing a ten inch kitchen knife) she had finally chased him out of her life.

But despite the huge brute that pounded on the railing behind her, despite the incredibly loud and smoky atmosphere, she was enjoying her coffee. She knew that she should find her sister and drag her out into the snow by her blonde ponytail. She knew that when their mother found out about this, there would be hell to pay. But not one bit of that changed the fact that the coffee was really delicious.

So, what made that freezing January night any different?

Why, mixed with the anger and fear and discomfort at her unexpected situation, was there a certain joy? Why, when she knew she'd get her ass chewed off when she got home, did she lean back in her chair more comfortably? What made her decide to light a cigarette and stay for that third cup of coffee? Was it fate? Whatever it was, though for the rest of her life she would never be able to explain it, she would be eternally grateful for it.

Sandi had always been the ‘good' one. She had gotten high grades, had always been obedient, had even quit school at sixteen because her mother was not willing to work to support their family. She had turned eighteen that past October, and had always done what was expected; always she strove to please the ‘adults' in her life.

Neena was just the opposite. She seemed determined to prove to herself that there was nothing to be afraid of. She was bold and brave, and Sandi was jealous of how easily she approached people. She was disobedient and wild, and completely honest with herself. Sandi admired her baby sister greatly, even while she sat in this strange new world, boiling with anger at her.

Slowly, Sandi began to relax. She was embarrassed by how out of place she looked, in her best silk dress and stockings, high heels and scarf, in the middle of a pool hall. She was entranced by this side of life that she'd never seen. People were laughing and dancing, playing and swearing, drinking coffee and cokes and smoking cigarettes. In general, almost everyone in the room looked to be having a fantastic time.

Sandi wanted very much to be one of them. She had never really done anything fun or exciting. Her life was a basic institutional green, a prison of duties that had been forced on her by an irresponsible mother. She worked, she slept, she cleaned the house, and she read books. She wrote poetry, listened to the radio, and read more books. She had even written a novel, but did not have the nerve to let anyone outside of the family see it.

She even went out often, like that very morning, on her day off, and knocked on the neighbor's doors and begged them for cash. Her mother told her that this was necessary to their survival, the money that Sandi made working two jobs was just not enough to support them. She had never understood, or asked for that matter, where all of the money that she brought in was going to. Somehow, they kept having to move, and never had enough to eat.

Sandi singlehandedly paid the high rent on their five bedroom suburban home. She paid the light and gas bills. She kept twenty dollars a week for her cigarettes and personal needs, and handed over every other dime that she earned without pause. Periodically, she made phone calls at behest of her mother, to her aunts in California, to plead with them to send more money.

She had never failed to do what was demanded of her. Never, until that unusual day, that is. For some reason, when she'd handed over the proceeds from their ‘knocking' session, Sandi had held back. Sandi had a fifty dollar bill in her pocket. A neighbor, who felt bad that the girls were out in such frigid weather, had handed it to her while Neena's back was turned away, earlier.

The smell of burgers and fries cooking at the snack bar, about twenty feet to her left, was making Sandi's stomach hurt. She knew that Neena must have been as hungry as she was. They'd walked a long ways today, trying to bring home enough money to please their mother.

They'd only eaten one grilled cheese sandwich apiece for dinner, and that had been several hours before. Sandi was contemplating getting up and ordering something to eat when Neena arrived at the table, eyes shining. Angry as she was, Sandi could not help smiling at her little sister.

"So, I'm pretty pissed off." Sandi's voice didn't sound angry, even in her own ears. "But I'm hungry. And I've got a few bucks. You want something to eat?" Neena, who'd obviously been expecting a real fight, looked so surprised that Sandi couldn't stop herself from laughing. "You look like you've just seen a miracle. Stop gaping, and go get us a couple of menus."

Neena returned with the tacky paper menus, smiling broadly. "See!" she said, "I knew you'd like this place." There were tears in her blue-grey eyes, and even a few stuck to her long lashes.

"Well," Sandi said cautiously, "at least it's warm."

The truth of the matter was that the place was starting to slowly grow on her. The more she relaxed into it, the less frightening it became. The music was strange to her, nothing like the light ballads she usually listened to, but not entirely unpleasant. The food smelled fantastic, and how bad a time can you really have, when people are laughing all around you?

They ordered thick hamburgers with ham and cheese on them, hand-cut fries with ranch dressing, and cherry cokes. To them, this was tantamount to a feast. They sat together, and bonded on an entirely different level than ever before. They were free, for now. They were both happy, loving every second of it. Though Sandi was painfully introverted, she had never felt such a deep and honest joy.

"Do you remember how to shoot pool?" Sandi asked Neena, feeling a little wicked. "From back when mom used to work dinner rush at the Busy Bee?" Years ago, their mother had been a bartender at a small bar in California. The girls, still too young to stay home alone, would go with her most nights. In fact, later in their young lives, that nasty little place is where their mother would meet the stepfather from hell.

They'd both learned to play darts, pool, poker, and quarters, all before they'd learned long division. "Want to shoot a game with me? If you win, I won't tell mom where we really were tonight." That was Sandi's idea of a peace offering. Neena, shocked beyond any sound, could only nod. Feeling atypically bold, and determined to have some fun herself, Sandi handed her sister a five dollar bill and said, "Here, go get us a table."

Unsure of what was going on inside of herself, but enjoying it nonetheless, Sandi watched her baby sister's slender back disappear among the crowd. Neena would be sixteen soon, and Sandi was determined that even if she had to pick up another job herself, the younger sister would finish high school. Sandi felt a surge of protective love bubble up inside of her. Was a place like this really a good thing for Neena? Was it wrong of her to hang out here and try and enjoy herself?

When she saw her sister coming back, the tray of pool balls in one hand, Sandi knew the answer. There was a smile on Neena's face. Like Christmas morning does to a five year old, there was a gleam in her beautiful eyes, a bounce in her step. "Well," Sandi told herself, "there's no alcohol here. At least it's better than the places mom used to take us to."

Neena set the heavy tray on the table with a glass-rattling thump and grinned hugely. She grabbed Sandi's hand hard, pulling her to her feet, and hugged her breathlessly. "I love you, you know." It had been years since Neena had admitted to any such thing. "I know, but I'm still pissed at you," Sandi replied, her heartstrings singing.

Still holding Sandi by the hand, Neena dragged her away from the table, and toward one of the ramps that lead to the pool floor. Sandi started to protest, her purse, their sodas, and the pool balls were all still on the table. Neena gripped her more tightly, as if afraid that she would flee the scene, screaming.

"Oh, my God, will you loosen up? There's someone I want you to meet." Neena relentlessly tugged her big sister's hand, pulling her around the wrought iron railing. They moved down the ramp towards the throng of bodies, Sandi's heart caught in her throat. She'd never liked crowds, and especially not large groups of people that were almost half male. With a determination that was epic in nature, Sandi swallowed her fear and followed her hand.

The combined smells of soaps, hairsprays, colognes, cigarette smoke, and sweat threatened to knock Sandi right off her feet. Her heart was beating like a hummingbird's. It was really only a few feet, twenty at most, but the trip seemed to take hours. Her head reeled from the noise, and the kaleidoscope of the day-glow colors that were on the bodies of the young girls all around her.

Queensryche began to sing ‘Silent Lucidity', a song that Sandi would later come to love profoundly. "Frank," Neena's voice was saying, "this is my sister, Sandi."

Sandi looked up into the most amazing green-blue eyes she had ever seen. They twinkled with silent amusement as they flashed up and down over her best outfit. She thought she would faint, or even die from her embarrassment. This was the same young man that she had thought of as ‘brutish'. He was the same one who had been pounding out his frustration onto the railing that had been to her back all evening.

With trepidation, but good manners, Sandi extended her shaking hand to him. The corners of his beautiful mouth turned up ever so slightly, his eyes never leaving hers, as he reached out for her hand. When their fingers touched, a shock like lightening ran up Sandi's arm, and straight to her heart.

He was obviously upset by something. He towered over her, a full two heads taller than she was, and standing a few inches back on the ramp, she felt tiny. But she was not afraid. That thought alone amazed her deeply. A jolt ran from the pit of her stomach to her toes. There was such sensitivity, and an echo of her vulnerability lived in his eyes. She felt as if she could live those twin oceans forever.

Frank kept his gaze locked on hers. She felt like she was caught in a delicate vise. He never looked away for a second, as he gripped her hand gently, and ran his thumb across the back of it. He ever so slowly lifted her hand to his lips, and kissed it lightly, between the knuckles of the second and third fingers. "It's very nice to meet you," He said, his deep voice just above a whisper.

And the harps began to play. Sandi's heart flew from her chest, straight into his hands in that instant. She didn't mind, somehow.

They invited him to play pool with them, that night. He beat them six or seven times. As he relaxed and started to smile, Sandi noticed how beautiful he was. At two a.m., as they were leaving, in an uncharacteristically bold move, Sandi leaned close to him, where he rested on a stool. Her breasts brushed his arm, her chin lay on his shoulder. She put her lips very close to his ear.

"For what it's worth," she breathed, "you have a beautiful smile."

She would relive that moment, every millisecond of it, a hundred million times. Sometimes, she would wonder what had made her behave so brashly. Mostly, she didn't care about the why. It was the most deliciously naughty, the flirtiest thing, she had ever done in her entire life.