2:45 a.m. on May 4
“Slow down, man,” says the kid waiting in front of me at the register.
The air is fruity and the lights are soft in the Oxford Hookah Lounge.
He blinks slowly, giving his eyelids a few moments to travel back up to an inebriated resting position. He’s wearing a short-sleeve, red and black button-up shirt with a dragon on the back. His hair is styled into a little tuft at the front.
“Just slow down,” he slurs, like I might not have heard him the first time.
* * *
3:00 a.m. on May 4
The lounge’s address is 15 North Beech Street, but really the building sits on an alley behind Left Field Tavern, off the corner of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Park Uptown.
Through the front door is the head shop — polished and gleaming pipes and hookah parts are displayed for sale in glass counters. You enter the main lounge through a doorway opposite the register in the head shop. The cinderblock walls are painted red and black, and the two-story ceiling gives space for the clubby light fixtures you find in every college bar. They draw red and blue and green beams through the haze that has accumulated from the evening’s exhalation of flavored tobacco smoke.
Thirteen people are crowded around the largest table in the room. They pack a couch and a handful of padded stools and chairs, all drawn close to the four hookahs set up on the table. One of the guys, with blond hair, leans back and spreads his arms wide over the top of the sofa.
A case of Natty rests on the floor, alongside a lone empty beer can and an open bag of Doritos. A dozen more cans occupy the tabletop territory left unclaimed by the smoking rigs. The brunette sitting next to the blond guy takes her mouth off the hose, locks her lips around what looks like a bubble wand for 20-somethings, and blows a wobbling smoke bubble.
The squirrely orb rises up to join one or two others of its ilk floating in the air. Each is the subject of a communal hot potato game, as people sitting around the table wave their hands and blow at the bubbles, propelling them from one laughing friend to the next.
The brunette flaps her hand wildly beneath her tentative creation. It lingers, corporeal, for a few seconds before it bursts, releasing a cloud of smoke above her head.
The blond guy cocks an eyebrow and wrinkles his nose. Clearly, he’s seen better bubbles.
* * *
1:10 a.m. on May 13
Amid the din of laughs, smoke curls and top-40 playlists that fill the air, a couple sit on a couch by themselves. A. They are older than the students in the room, but not yet middle-aged. Between hits from a hookah, they sip Turkish coffee, tipping back demitasses of the unfiltered brew toward weathered cheeks. He wears a faded Ed Hardy-esque sweatshirt.
They were smiling earlier. Now, they look straight ahead at nothing as they puff.
He talks for a little while without changing his gaze and then pauses before talking again. She rests her head in her hand and her elbow on the couch. He puts two fingers to his head and runs them over his eyebrows, smoothing them out. She fixes her hair. He talks again and receives no response.
They leave after a while. Their eyes are glazed.
* * *
About 3:10 a.m. on May 4
One of the girls from the big group stands up from her stool, getting ready to leave.
“Sam!” calls a slim guy in a grey sweatshirt at a neighboring table. He was curled up comfortably in the corner of a couch, but he leans forward a little bit and his eyes open wider at the sight of her.
“You heading out?”
Her jeans have wide, intentional holes down their length and run tight from the top of her thighs down to her ankles. From the front, they barely qualify as pants.
She cocks her hip, accentuating her curves, and, with a smile, yells back something mostly indistinct but for, “Of course I am.” She then spins around to leave.
The slim kid leans back into the cushions. His eyes follow her out. He puts his hand up to his forehead and pushes his hair up and back, holding it tight for a beat. He lets go and exhales. His eyes drift to the ceiling.
One of his buddies says something that pulls him back, and his gaze shifts to the floor as he cracks a crooked smile.
A few minutes later, he pops his hood up and pulls his hookah hose tight against his chest. He’ll nurse it until he leaves.
* * *
1:45 a.m. on May 13
A trio walks in and settles around the table in the front of the lounge. A tall guy in a bright red polo takes a stool and his friend, wearing a sweater that falls somewhere between beige and heather grey, plops into the couch opposite him. They’re both smiling.
The lone girl in the group climbs onto the couch and sits cross-legged, scooching into the corner. Her hair is bedhead-frizzy and she’s swimming in a Miami crewneck and thick cotton sweatpants. Her face is blank; she’s absorbed in the phone cradled in her lap.
A hookah arrives at the table. The guys smoke and laugh. The one in the vaguely-taupe sweater spreads out his legs a little wider on the couch. They smoke and laugh some more.
The sweater guy lays his right arm in the empty space in the middle of the couch between himself and the girl. The girl keeps playing with her phone.
The guy in the polo leaves to go to the bathroom and the sweater guy starts talking to the girl. She responds with a word or two, keeping her eyes down but for a brief glance at the ceiling.
He moves his arm an inch closer to her, in the deliberately casual way boys try to slip an arm around a date at the movies. He keeps trying to talk to her. She tucks her legs underneath herself and points her knees away from him.
The guy in the polo comes back and the guy in the sweater smiles, immediately turning his attention back to the one person at the table interested in talking to him.
The girl brings her head up to steal a glance at the sweater guy when he isn’t looking.
* * *
3:35 a.m. on May 4
A pair of jingle bells tied to the shop door clink as new patrons walk in at 3:30 in the morning on a school night.
Amad Megatheh, the youngest of the three brothers who own and operate the Oxford Hookah Lounge, walks over to check on the slim guy’s group in the corner. He’s wearing dark jeans, with a clean beard and styled hair.
He puts his hand on the shoulder of one the guys in the group and makes a remark that elicits laughs all around. He swaps out the sooted coals in their hookah for glowing ones, pivots easily to grab their trash off the floor, then glides to the back room to drop it off.
Amad comes back and settles into a vacated stool at the large table. He says something to the dragon-shirt guy, then turns and talks to the girl on his left. She brushes back her hair, smiles and laughs.
* * *
4:00 a.m. on May 4
The music drops a few notches. Usually, the lounge closes at 2 a.m. on Thursdays, but Moe, the middle Megatheh brother, says if people are coming in, they’ll keep the lights on. But, by now, the post-bar crowd of 50 has shrunk to less than a dozen.
The group dwindles to a few stragglers after a couple stumbles out, almost colliding with the wall as they do. Another exodus is led by a guy in a black ballcap who promises to a hockey teammate at another table, “I’ll be bringing my A-game tomorrow.”
Amad stands up from his stool and begins straightening up chairs and wiping down surfaces.
With yawns cascading around the room, the blond guy — the one from the group blowing bubbles — stands up, tilts back his head, and polishes off a can of beer. He walks, a bit dazed, out the jingling door and into the drizzling night.