When the Lights Go Down

By: Heidi Betts

T he moment Gwen Thomas opened her eyes, she knew it wasn’t going to be a typical Friday in September. Oh, sure, she’d get up, get dressed and go to work just like any other day, but…She stared at the ceiling above her bed, trying to figure out why she felt so strange, almost depressed.

Then she remembered. It was her birthday. And not just any birthday—her thirty-first.

With a groan, she threw back the sheets and stomped to the bathroom. Thirty-one years old, but she felt more like fifty. Where had the time gone? And when had she turned into little more than a hamster on a wheel…every day the same as the last, the scenery never changing?

Twenty-nine had come and gone. She’d barely noticed thirty, surviving that milestone with no hint at all of an early midlife crisis. But thirty-one…. She’d been upset about turning thirty-one for weeks.

Now her birthday had arrived and she was officially a thirty-one-year-old virgin.

An old maid.

Oh, God. The only thing missing was a houseful of cats. Thankfully, her apartment building didn’t allow pets or she’d probably fit that part of the stereotype, too. Then again, she did have a lot of ceramic kitties scattered around the apartment.

How did a semi-attractive woman get to be thirty—let alone thirty-one—without ever going to bed with a man? Gwen wondered. She squeezed a dollop of paste onto her toothbrush and began to scrub.

Granted, her parents had been overly protective of her as a child, and she’d been shy and a bit of a bookworm in high school. But she’d dated some very nice guys in college. None of them had ever made her knees go weak or sent her heart beating out of control, though, which she supposed was why she’d never returned their advances.

After rinsing her mouth, she washed and dried her face, then lifted her head to glance in the mirror over the sink. She wasn’t beautiful by any means, but she also didn’t think her looks would send men running in fear.

Her eyes were a nice comforting brown, a few shades darker than her somewhat lackluster mouse-brown hair. And her figure was okay, if a bit small in all areas. She was petite, with breasts that would probably only fill a teacup if they were lucky. But still, it wasn’t as if she had a hump or missing teeth.

Walking back into the bedroom, she stopped in front of her open closet and studied the lineup of dresses inside. For the first time she noticed how similar her entire wardrobe was. Some long, some short, but all sun-or baby-doll dresses in lightweight, floral fabrics. Lord, could she be any more Little House on the Prairie?

After closing the closet door, she plopped down at the foot of the bed and sighed with disgust. Thirty-one years old and she was still dressing the same as she had in high school. And she knew without having to pull them out that every pair of shoes she owned were flat and matronly, in one of two shades—black or brown. She still sported the same long, straight hair that reached the middle of her back and bangs cut across her forehead with almost military precision.

It was enough to make a girl curl up under the covers and never leave her apartment again.

The thought rattled Gwen. She refused to let another year come and go without at least attempting to take a bite out of life.

Rolling across the mattress, she picked up the phone and dialed the Georgetown branch of the D.C. Public Library by memory. When the head librarian and her boss, Marilyn Williams, answered, Gwen feigned a hoarse cough and asked for the day off.

Marilyn was suitably shocked by the request, considering Gwen had never asked to take a sick day before, but she quickly agreed and promised to call one of the part-time librarians to cover for Gwen if things got hectic.

As soon as she hung up, Gwen stripped out of her mint-green nightshirt—also covered in a tiny flowered pattern—and changed into one of her sadly out-of-date cotton tunics and a pair of shoes. She grabbed the phone book and began searching for a beauty shop, a nail salon and a trendy boutique, to start.

She wasn’t sure yet exactly what she planned to do, but with any luck, this might just be the last day she was a thirty-one-year-old virgin.

Some nights, Ethan Banks stayed in his office high above the dance floor, feeling the rhythm of the loud music vibrate through the structure’s steel beams while he worked at his desk or watched the flashy club-goers through the soundproof windows having the time of their lives. Other times, like tonight, he went downstairs and lent a hand behind the bar to mingle with the crowd.

The Hot Spot was one of downtown Georgetown’s premiere nightclubs—and his pride and joy. He’d rented and completely renovated the rundown building nearly five years ago, and the place had been packed just about every night since.