I’m taking back the dress. It’s a gorgeous dress: blood red, nylon. Clings to my hips. Used to be Mitchell’s favorite, but I reclaimed it. Because I love it. And no man’s gonna take something I love away from me again. Kinda like girls taking back Bitch, or the gays taking back Fag. Like that. This dress is mine, all mine, for me.
My hairpiece is straight, shoulder length, with bangs that cut straight across my forehead. It’s this auburney-chestnutty color. There’s the boots that cover my ankles, ‘cause honestly, I got some man ankles. Nothin’ I can do bout it but cover ‘em and wear that stiletto high high high. I got these fleshy pieces for tits, though they’re too light for my skin. There’s the pink on my cheeks, the grey smudged on my lids, the red layered on my lips. There’s these—
“Damn Chris, it’s hot as hetero balls in here! Who the hell lives in this nice ass apartment in center motha-effin’ city and doesn’t have a damn air conditioner? I know you goin’ through some sh—“
Then there’s these other things, all these distractions. Like the words on the television. Words coming from Jamie, behind me. Words on the mirror in front of me: I am beautiful, I am bountiful, I am blissful. It’s a saying from a tea bag. I clipped it and pasted it to my mirror four days ago. Makes me feel like Sylvia Plath.
“Oooh girl, I’m loving that dress on you. I am just loving that Miss Christine is back! She’s BACK, BABY!”
I’m staring at my reflection and trying to feel proud of myself for like, getting off the couch. For showering and putting on some clothes. But I still feel terrible. Estoy fea, estoy cansada. All week I spent just where Jamie is now, lying naked in my briefs, clutching this stupid sheet from my bed because in my head it still smelled like him. But yesterday was it. I balled that sheet up and just threw it, because I got so damn frustrated, like, so sick of myself. It made it just to the corner of the room and not to the laundry. I couldn’t bring myself to do that yet.
And Jamie’s right, it’s hot. The air conditioner broke a few weeks ago, when Mitchell and I were still a thing, and he promised he’d find the time to fix it, but he never did. He probably did it just to fuck with me, ya know? Like to make me be even more miserable. It’s like a damn pressure cooker in here.
Jamie’s watching me get ready, all loud and frantic, sprawled out like a stressed cat across the couch. Dark-skinned with limbs for days. I look at her in the mirror and she’s picking at her nails with her teeth. Habit. Her head’s shaved and perfectly spherical, like a newborn. I tell her that sometimes and she gets pissed. Bitch, I ain’t no newborn. That’s what she says. She’s got these real soft features, pretty-faced, and she’s all small-framed so she looks like a woman even when she’s not in drag. But Jamie’s always in drag. Girl goes to work in drag. Half her coworkers thought she was a woman till someone caught her standing up to pee in the ladies room. They tried to make her dress like a man then, or use the men’s room, but the men didn’t want that. Now there’s a lawsuit. She said soon she’ll be a millionaire from it, so then she’ll quit. Girl’s got it all figured out.
The wall behind her is this hideous color. This awful grey. Like, I can’t even look at it. Like the most miserable color you can think of, that’s what it is. It used to be green, kinda an olive, but after last week I was just done, ya know? I was just done. So I went and in a rush bought this yellow paint, like sunflower yellow, and I just start paintin’, start just splashin’ the wall with this, and what it did was create just this awful color. I got so frustrated half way through that I just stopped, so now there’s green like all along the edges and in the corners. For a few days I tried to convince myself that I liked it, but then I just had to admit it that I didn’t, and I still haven’t done anything about it.
This is the first time that I’ve even dressed como una mujer in I think like, six months? Seven months? Some time ago, when Mitchell was first beginnin to freak out, which I should’ve taken as a sign then, he told me didn’t want me dressing in drag. Like that I should stop acting like a woman, he said, because I’m a man. He said it in this real brawly voice, too, as if he was like, asserting his masculine-ness. His man-ness. This was the first in a long list of things I did that he once said he loved that suddenly bothered him, like singing the wrong lyrics to songs and “brushing my teeth loudly.” What the hell does that even mean? “Brushing your teeth loudly”? Shit’s crazy. But, yeah, I stopped. All of it.
“The city just shuts down this time of year, ya know? I just can’t stand it. Like, where’s my sugar daddy with all the money to whisk me away somewhere European? I’d like to go to France, baby. You ever been to France, Chrissy?”
I’ve been thinking lately this will go down as the summer I don’t sleep.
“No. Mitchell promised me we’d go, but guess that’s not happening.” Damnit, it was a slip. I’d already promised myself I wouldn’t say his name out loud, for like, karma reasons, and there I go already fucking it up.
“Bitch, that’s the first time I hear you sayin’ that boy’s name since I been here. I been waitin’ for you to talk about him.”
I look at myself in the mirror and adjust everything. “I know, I know.”
Jamie’s face is expectant. She’s got this purple eye shadow on that matches her dress and she layered it so high up that I can see it from here. I see her waiting for me to say something, but I’ve got nothing else to say. I look back at my own reflection, focus in on my face, layer on mascara, lengthen my eyes with liner.
“No hay nada. It’s over this time. Like, definitely, definitely over.”
The TV’s at this real annoying volume. Like, too quiet to be heard but just loud enough to sound like a dull hum. I’m not looking at it but I already know what images are showing. I’ve watched them all week in this depression-haze. I thought it was some tragedy in a third world country for two days before I realized it’s actually the South of the country stuck in a flood.
Jamie’s speaking about something and I repeat my new mantra in my head. I am beautiful, I am bountiful, I am blissful. Blissful. Blissful.
“Blissful,” I whisper.
The pot brownie I shared with Jamie thirty minutes ago is starting to take effect. My head feels all hazy in that pleasant way.
Jamie stops talking and looks at my reflection. “Whatchu say?”
I turn to look at Jamie and the movements feel rigid, like a stop-film. Her purple dress is tight and scrunched up high, and I can almost see the tape she used to tuck herself away.
“Yeah you did, you said ‘blissful’ or some shit. Girl, don’t you be bringin’ that church shit out now that your heart’s been broke. I get enough of that from my own mother. Always clappin’ and ‘Lord, Jesus, Hallelujah’-in. I ain’t on that type time. And why you talkin’ so proper all the sudden? You think you fancy, hangin’ out with that white boy?”
Sometimes it’s better to just ignore her. The TV keeps on buzzing at its maddening volume. The window’s open and some girls on the street are screaming. One says, You look, literally, like a model. My best friend is literally a model. Then she screams again. Or another girl does. Girls and gays, always screaming like it’s the first time they’ve seen the each other in a century. A SEPTA bus farts carbon, sounds like a train engine blowing past. All the silence lately has me noticing how much sound carries to this third floor apartment.
“You gonna be ready soon?”
“Mm-hmm,” I say, though I’m actually taking my time. One because it’s my first night out as a single lady and I gotta look perfect, and two because I’m realizing it really is my first night out as a single lady. “What’s goin’ on with EJ?” I say, though I don’t really care to hear the answer. This is what situational depression does to you. I read it online.
Jamie sighs, picks at her plastic eyelashes. “Girl, I’ll tell you what’s goin’ on with EJ. A whole lotta nothin’ is what. That bastard been textin’ me all week. All this baby this, baby that… in fact, lemme read you what this man said, this was just on Thursday.”
I am beautiful. I am bountiful.
“We’d been goin’ back and forth about hangin’ out later that night, right? And so he texts me, right? I din’t even ‘nitiate, girl, and this man says to me, ‘Hey baby, you wanna hang later?’ he says, and I quote, ‘I can’t wait to feel that tight ass body under me.’”
“He said that?”
“Girl, I swear it! So then I say, ‘Yeah papi, I’m free after ten.’ And so then he says…”
I am. I am.
I am I am I am.
“…and all this ‘I can’t wait to get wit you’ ‘you my favorite jawn’ and shit, and so here I go, sittin’ on my ass all dressed and lookin’ hot at ten, and this bastard never texts me! I text him twice, and nothin’.”
Time passes and the TV’s still on and I can almost hear the announcer talking bout FEMA. A minute does not feel like an hour. A second passes, then another, another, another.
I tug at my hair, flip it this way and that. I bunch all of it up in my hands and look at my profile with it pulled back and high. Then I let it fall down again, fluff it. I can never do this as naturally as a woman. “Mmm hmm. So what was his excuse?”
“Motha fuckah hits me with some ‘I fell asleep’ shit. It’s ten o-fucking-clock! You ain’t fallin’ asleep. Shit. Fell asleep my ass. And I ain’t even heard from him all day today!”
“He’s actin’ hetero.” My voice sounds comes out in this sad monotone, so quiet that I wonder if I even said it out loud.
“You damn right. That’s bullshit. Just you wait, the minute this Rican comes lookin’ for me, I’ll be sayin’ ‘Shit, I been busy while you was asleep.’ That’s exactly what I’ma say.”
“Thought he was Dominicano?”
“Yeah, you right. Dominican-o. That Dominican-o motha fuckah ain’t gettin’ any of this no time soon.” Jamie lifts her hips in the air, twists them around in a figure eight. I give her a lopsided smirk.
She notices the TV, motions with a pointed foot. She’s a lazy dancer, foul-mouthed royalty. “You see dis shit? You see who caught up in this shit? Black folks, that’s who. Ain’t no white people needin’ to be saved from FEMA or some shit. This is some shit!”
When the hurricane hit the Gulf Coast earlier in the week, I watched the war zonelike footage and tried be less dramatic about my own feelings. Pero estoy egoísta, and it didn’t help.
“Ain’t no Ricans down there, either. We don’t like water all up under our feet,” I say.
“Bitch, you come from the island!”
“You do too!”
“Mm hmm, you know that’s right. My momma straight West Indie blood, that’s that good blood, ya know? Maybe that’s what you need, Chrissy. A brawly West Indie man. I’m tellin’ you, they the best fucks. And afterward they buy you jerk chicken and rice.”
I smile at Jamie’s reflection, let out a genuine laugh. The TV keeps playing. World events keep happening around us.
In another second I’m back to feeling dismal, brooding. Sweat’s building all at my hairline. It shouldn’t be this hot. Jamie moves distractingly, tucks up her knees, presses her feet into the air, wiggles her toes. Weed never affected her the way it did me. My thoughts and movements became slower, more like, refined, while hers became even more sporadic and reckless. A child learning to swim by being tossed in the ocean.
“All right, you ready to go?”
“Hell yeah, I’m ready to go!” She begins to gather her purse, pulls out a compact to add another layer of dark lipstick, then stops and looks at me. “Girl, how long we been friends?”
When I take a minute to respond she sits up quickly, rests her head on a fist, looks straight at my reflection.
“A long time. Since before I started with Mitchell,” fuck, didn’t mean to say his name, “so, like, seven years?”
“Yeah. That sounds right. So lemme just say this, girl, and I’ll just say this and then I’ll say nothin’ else. You can’t keep sulkin’! You look like you damn grandma died. You damn momma died. That’s how you be lookin’. I ain’t never seen you like this with a man before.”
How long would it take to be over him? I’ve been asking myself this, been asking others. Everyone gives a different story. A year for every year you dated, a year for every year you were in love, six months, six weeks. There are no answers. Indefinitely is a possibility.
“You haven’t seen me with no other man before. Period.”
“Yeah, you right. But still!”
I force a smile. “Aight. I know.”
“That’s what I wanted to see, baby girl. You good, you good.”
“Yeah, I’m good.” I rub on more lipstick, make it precise with a fingernail.
“You start lookin’ for new work yet?”
“Nah.” Work. The one thing I hadn’t thought of. I mean, I had, yeah, but not in the immediate sense. I’d taken the week off, “personal time,” but I already knew I wouldn’t be going in on Monday.
“That is one thing, though, I’ll say this, then I swear it, my last thing: the next hot straight man you decide to fall in love with, can he not be your damn boss? Damn!” Jamie flings a leg in the air for dramatic effect.
“You don’t gotta tell me this, Jamie. I know. I’m the one outta work and outta a man.
Jamie stretches out her legs, admires her feet in heels, fixes her tits. “I know you know. Anyway. You ready? I’m ready to get bouncin’!” She shrugs her shoulders up and down, dances in her seat.
I look at my pretty sad face in the mirror one last time before turning around to face Jamie. “What you think of these boots?”
“Them boots are everything, is what I think of them.”
The transformation complete, we walk, two ladies cutting through the night. I’m starting to feel better now that I’m out of that stale air of the apartment. Now my movements feel lithe, like I got some bounce in my step. I live in the right part of the city, Jamie and I don’t usually have trouble here. When I first started dating Mitchell, I shared a house with a buncha queens out West who wore my clothes without asking and left dishes in the sink, and I wouldn’t dare go out in drag alone then. I was young, like seventeen. Mitchell moved me into one of his studio spaces soon after I turned eighteen, the spot I’m in now, at 13th and Locust. He told me no love of his would be spending his time picking mousetraps off the floor or cooking mofongo on a spaghetti-sauce splattered stove. And he said that. He used that word. Love.
“Bitch, slow down. Momma’s got a rock inner shoe.”
I walk with that trying-to-be confident air of someone who’s just had their heart broke. I breathe in deep, breathe out, take slow, precise steps on the uneven concrete.
“I hope that one jawn’s not here. The one I think is fuckin’ round with EJ. I got no interest in seeing her flashy ass tonight,” says Jamie.
It’s so hot. The type of humidity that surrounds you, makes you feel like you’ll never feel cool again. Abuela used to say this was what Puerto Rico was like, growing up. Como una cobija, like a blanket, she used to say. Mitchell liked the summer. It was easier for us. There were always more excuses, easier escape routes, the availability of the outside. Places to fuck that didn’t require a bed or the trail of a credit card transaction.
But I need to stop thinking of him. I’ve been crying like a kid who lost a toy for the last week, and I was hoping I’d cried all my tears out. Instead, I walk, and I notice all the things around me. The hot stink of dumpsters, the packs of men in collared shirts, the packs of college girls clicking in heels, the heat, the wafting smells of pizza, the homeless. I’m feeling like my eyes are only partway open, only partway available for sight. And my feet are hot. It’s too hot for these boots. Suddenly I want to strip naked, to be exposed. I want the city and all of its things to touch me. I step over a vomit stain. Jamie clicks behind me. I picture her tiny legs moving quickly like an insect.
And I can’t not think of him. It’s so fucking exhausting. I run over the scene again:
Mitchell, on the street. Happy Mitchell. Family Mitchell. Mitchell arm-in-arm with his wife. His pale-faced, sad, wife. His pale-faced sad wife and their son, and their daughter. And the ridiculous introductions. The whole fucking happy family and the pathetic “Hi, nice to meet you”s.
We arrive and push through a heavy steel door. I say hi to the girl at the door.
“What?” she says, her face in mock disbelief. “Is that, is that Miss Christine?”
I bow, play the part. Jamie makes a show of kissing the girl theatrically on both cheeks. She turns to me, points like she’s presenting something. Like she’s Vanna fucking White. “Don’t you just love it?”
The music is deafening. Loud enough for me to sink into and forget about him.
Jamie tugs on my arm. “Girl, order me a Henny and coke. I can’t go near that bar.”
“I think I fucked the bartender.”
Mitchell and I wouldn’t fuck. Well, sometimes we would. But mostly, we made love. Passionate love. Sweaty love. Like, movie-style love, I shit you not. And afterward Mitchell would lie next to me, crooked and snoring lightly, his hand resting on my back. And like that I could never be afraid.
The bartender knows who I am and smiles.
“Well, well. Miss Christine is back on the town.”
I nod. “For a bit, anyway.”
“Glad to see you out, babe. What’ll it be?”
“Henny and coke and vodka Red Bull.” It’s the year everyone drinks vodka Red Bull.
Mitchell, though, he only drank whiskey. Sometimes Old Fashioneds, but only when I’d make them for him. He said he liked the way I stirred them. That fuckin’ sucio.
I’d wondered about her, of course. The pale-faced sad wife, even before I met her on the street. I’d only seen pictures of her. I’d even pitied her sometimes, wondered if she knew. Picture me, loving her husband in secret. For six years. Loving him full-time with only part-time benefits, as one of mi amigas put it. I even knew things about Mitchell his wife didn’t know. Like that his favorite meal was mussels in red sauce. That his favorite artist was not Bruce Springsteen, like she kept insisting by buying him E-Street Band memorabilia every year for birthdays, Christmases; that his favorite artist was actually Stevie Nicks, if you can believe it.
“Here you go, babe. And tell your friend over there I know she’s hiding from me,” the bartender says and winks.
I smile, a kind of fake smile, and grab a drink in each hand. Will I ever have a real smile again. These are the things I think about.
And she didn’t know that he liked his toes licked. She never licked his toes. I would run my tongue over the tips and in the delicate places in between, any time, any day, tasting his salty skin. Because I loved Mitchell. I wanted every part of Mitchell, all the time. I wanted to feel his love everywhere; wanted to bathe in it, drown in it, let it to wash over me like rainwater.
“Bitch, gimme that drink!” Jamie rushes towards me, nearly knocks both glasses out of my hands. “I’m feelin’ alllll right, momma. We gonna make sure you enjoy yourself tonight.” She opens her hand and brings it close to my face. “You smell that? Huh? That right there? That’s the smell of a damn. Good. Time.”
I pull my face back to see on what’s in her palm. Pastillas. She pushes her hand forward again and shouts for me to open up, baby cakes. And so I do. And I swallow whatever it is down with my drink.
This kind of thing happened before. For all of Mitchell’s tall, muscular bulk, for all of his model-fine looks and impeccable taste (I’m talking pressed suits, crisp shirts, that kinda thing), he sure did scare easily. In the beginning of all this, I was his baby. His plaything. His sneak-outta-the-house-to-come-meet-me-at-my-place thing. And I was fine with that, I really was. In fact, I could have kept going on just like that. But then he started calling me his love, and made more excuses to come over, to “work on the apartments,” as he was telling his wife. It was all his doing. I was fine, I really was. But then I was in love.
That first winter, we almost broke up. The spring and summer we spent together in this kinda fantastical movie-like world, where the only rule was that we didn’t mention Mitchell’s family. I wouldn’t have even known he had a family if it weren’t for the pictures I found in his wallet. Wouldn’t have even known he wasn’t just another fag looking for a twink. Before I met him, I found work in one of the higher-end clothing stores downtown. He owned the building and was close friends with the regional manager, and I’d seen him a few times, rushing in, always in a hurry, always talking fast. He probably said two words to me, and it probably had to do with folding clothes or dressing the mannequins. Even after we started fucking, I was still just a retail clerk. By the end of that summer, though, I was store manager.
It was that winter when I first saw him cry. He said Oh, it’s so hard, all of this is too hard. That he’s not “gay.” The same shit I went through when I was like, ten, basically. But I listened, and held him, and stroked his hair. We were in a hotel, a nice hotel. Mitchell had to fly out to Chicago for work, and I went too, separately, and snuck into his room while he schmoozed at the bar. I remember that everything in the room was beige and light pink. The bathroom was huge, filled with light. The bed was soft. The sheets smelled of lavender. “We can do this. It can just be us,” I said to him. He sniffled, bucked, went through all those emotions that every gay man knows.
Snow postponed our flights. For four days we stayed together, cooped in that hotel room. Mitchell met architects and owners of large, empty warehouse buildings for lunch meetings in the hotel, and I passed the time, waited. Even when I was scared he wouldn’t come back, that I’d be stuck alone in that hotel room, Mitchell always returned. And I can’t really explain it, but I felt like I fell in love. Like, into these deeper levels of love, and Mitchell said he was sorry for being scared, promised me for the first time that he would leave his wife.
When we finally made it back to Philadelphia, I didn’t hear from him for a week.
The club is packed with queens and gays and girls, and I already lost Jamie. Whatever effect was supposed to happen isn’t yet, and I think for the millionth time of dialing Mitchell’s number. But before I can even get my phone out of my purse to contemplate, there’s un sucio behind me, forcing his arm around my waist. He snakes it around the front and grabs at my thigh. I sway with him and push back into him and tell myself that he’s probably better than Mitchell, that Mitchell never really liked to dance. But even this wasn’t true, because he would dance, sometimes, when we were alone. That was after we got to know each other.
Like, really, know each other, in that íntimo way. He’d dance with this goofy grin on his face.
Shaking his hops and doing this thing with his hands. I could laugh just thinking about it.
And I’d waited for him, ya know. I got so used to waiting, I forget now what it feels like to not wait, to not want something so bad you feel it in your insides. To not ask myself every day if today would be the day. I’d waited through the “After the holidays, I’ll tell her,” and, “After our anniversary, I’ll tell her,” even through, “After the kids graduate – Matthew only has a few more years – I’ll tell her.” I waited through it all, all of it. Esperé, esperé. Twenty-nine days ago, when Mitchell stopped calling, I figured I’d just wait again. I mean, I called, obviously. He has a second cell phone just for my calls. But he didn’t answer and never called back. I called and I called. I was calling just to hear his voice on the voicemail before hanging up again, that’s how crazy it got. And then when I saw him, finally, with his family, I tired to tell him through my eyes. Like, telepathically. I tried to beg him through my handshake. Then, when they all walked on, everyone acting like nothing had happened, like they’d just met one of his coworkers on the street, like now they’re going to get ice cream and they can’t even remember what he said my name was, I stared at all of them. I stared into Mitchell’s back, willing him to turn around and look at me. Just fucking look at me, I screamed in my head. But he didn’t hear me.
I let my head fall back on the shoulder of this guy behind me, who’s still holding on to my thigh and my hip, like he’s afraid for me to leave. I sway in sync with him, and watch the crowd around us become its own living, breathing thing, moving with and against the music. And then, like out of nowhere, something’s starting to happen. I’m hot all over again, like the sun’s beaming on me. Like I’m seven, lying on the concrete sidewalk with mi hermana, daring each other to open our eyes to the sun. The song changes and the bass picks up, and music has never sounded so good, and my hips are pumping hard, my body moving fast. And here go my arms, moving over my head into the air. Then here they go, wrapping around the neck of this guy behind me, pulling him in close. If I shut my eyes tight, he even feels like Mitchell, his body like Mitchell’s bulk all around me. I’m craving something, anything. The beat of the music is so strong I can feel it like a pulse all over my body. I pull this guy in closer.
“What’s your name?” He says into my ear. I can feel his dick pressing into my back.
“Christine,” I say, letting the words fall out my mouth, my head leaning back into his ear.
“Well, Christine,” he moves his rough hands to the front of my hips, not gently, and presses lower, grabs, “how you keep it tucked away so good? I’d almost think you were a real woman.”
I’d freaked out on him too. I begged, I cried. I switched between weeks and months of being patient, being a good novia, to screaming so loud I was sure Mitchell would leave me right then, just for fear of someone hearing me and discovering our secret.
“You know what? I’m leaving. You think you have control over all of this? Over me?
You think I’ll just stay around and wait forever?” These were the things I’d shout.
And Mitchell, he just shut his eyes, let his head fall into his hands. “I know you won’t wait forever,” he said. So quiet it was barely over a whisper, but I heard him.
“Then why do this? Aren’t you afraid of losing me? Don’t you realize how close I am to leaving? To never speaking to you again? Aren’t you?”
“I’m scared every day,” Mitchell said into his hands. He was crouched low on the floor of my bedroom.
I know he was vulnerable, but I was so hurt, I was just acting crazy, saying, “What?
What’s that? I can’t hear you.”
“I’m terrified of losing you! Every day! I’m fucking terrified!” he shouted. And his face was all red, all the stress wrinkles on his forehead showing. And then he just broke down. Just broke into tears right there, and he collapsed his head onto his knees.
And how sad that was, it really was, seeing Mitchell there, crouched on the floor of my tiny studio, when he could be home, in his beautiful loft with his wife and his kids and his cooked meals. I lied down, curled myself next to Mitchell’s feet, angry that I was made to be the one to give in, again.
“I love you.” It was said between soft sobs.
“I know you do.” I moved closer to him, wanting to make myself small, infinitesimal, to be so close to him to not be noticed, so then neither of us would ever have to leave.
“How are we going to do this?” Mitchell asked. He looked at me with his big, clear, red-rimmed eyes and rubbed a finger along my earlobe.
“I guess we’ll just keep going.” I shrugged with one side, my other side still buried against the floor, holding the parts of me I could still keep safe.
And this is a thing I’ve learned: it is possible to love him until all those little things that once made you you are gone.
The last time I saw him, before the street incident, he screamed at me, acting like a real pandejo. Threw a chair across the room and nearly broke it. He told me he didn’t love me, he never loved me, that this was all a mistake, that I’d ruined his life. He looked terrified, like I was a ghost standing in front of him. Just a scared child, I thought. A lost little boy. I didn’t even say anything. I let him scream until his throat turned dry, let him punch his fist against the wall until his knuckles bled. Then I held him when he crumpled into tears, fell against me on my bed. And I let him kiss me, and I let him fuck me, and I listened to him when he said I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry, and told me over and over again that he was wrong, that I was all he ever wanted. And then for the millionth time I believed him when he told me he would leave. That today would be the day. I let him talk me into fantasizing of the new life we were about to start together, just the two of us, in another state – we didn’t care which state – we would just drive until we couldn’t take it anymore, he’d said with this laugh. And we’d live there, and no one would ever know of our past. We’d start our own family there, together, just us. And I believed him when he told me to pack my suitcase, that we would leave in the morning. That he’d meet me at our favorite coffee shop, that we’d leave together, that we’d never step a foot back in Philadelphia again. That all of our sadness and all of the pain would be over. And I believed him, I really did.
When I finally find Jamie, she’s sick. Her small body is hovering over the least-dirty toilet in the club’s bathroom, bare knees on the floor. She looks like a child wearing her mother’s heels and dress. I’m rubbing her back and telling her she’ll be okay while she tells me she feels like she’s going to motha-fuckin’ die.
“Fuckin’ Henny!” she yells between retches.
“Shh, just let it out, baby girl.”
“Why the fuck you ain’t sick? You drinkin’ that Red Bull sh—“
I sit with her until she’s done, until her stomach stops convulsing. She took more of those little pills than I did, and though they were mostly duds, I feel the pang of being sick, too. When her phone buzzes with a text from EJ telling her he wants to see her naked, I walk with her to the bar where she downs a glass of water “to wash the shit out of her mouth” and wait outside until he arrives in a black car with tinted windows. I don’t even say anything to her like, why you going with him? Or, why can’t you stay with me so I don’t feel so lonely? Because I already know the answers to that. She wants to feel loved and feel wanted, ya know? And it doesn’t even matter that it’s on his time, because we just wanna feel it. So I help her into the passenger side and remind her to buckle. The door isn’t even shut before he peels off, leaving screeching sounds in the air behind him.
I walk home alone, filled with this weird energy. I wonder about the people down south in the flood, if they found shelter yet. The air is only slightly cooler than when we left, and the sweat on my arms, chest, and face turns to dry salt. I pretend I’m walking home to Mitchell. I picture his arms wrapping around me and us laughing together, him pretending to not be jealous of me dancing with other men, me pretending to not enjoy that he’s jealous. I see him spending the night and cooking breakfast in the morning, him staying all day with no need to rush home to a family. I picture him not having to pretend. I see us laying in bed together all day, me making him dinner, him enjoying it and asking for dessert. I picture how our life would be a total disaster, a beautiful, total disaster.
“Hey! Red dress!”
I turn around but see only a pack of twenty-somethings hunched over a box of pizza, each inhaling his slice like an animal. I fluff my hair and keep walking, choosing to repeat my mantra, recall my fantasy.
I hear someone walking fast behind me, but not running. The moon is so bright.
This time when I turn around I see a man, maybe in his late thirties, near Mitchell’s age, but without Mitchell’s style. He’s wearing unfashionable cargo khakis that don’t fit well and a grey-green polo shirt. He’s straight-looking. Or maybe figuring it out. He’s overweight.
“Oh, honey. No.” I keep walking.
“Wait, wait, please.”
I turn around. “What do you want?”
The moon is either waxing or waning – I could never keep them straight, but it’s so big, almost full.
And this is another thing I’ve learned: we go to incredible lengths to feel even one ounce of love.
“And what do you think you’ll be paying for?”
He smirks, moves toward me, reaches a hand out. He’s not wearing a ring, at least.
I don’t move toward him.
“What? I want to hear you say it.”
“I mean… you’re a tranny, right?”
I stare at him, dare him to say something else.
“I just, I’m sorry, I’ve always wanted to um, try it. And I’ve got money.” He pulls out a worn leather wallet, opens it to flash a stack of green.
I think of the first time Mitchell and I made love. We spent a night in one of the empty apartments because I was still living in my old, cramped place with a squeaky bed and a door that didn’t lock. There wasn’t even a mattress, just a clean carpet and brand new kitchen appliances.
I take a step toward him, look him up and down. I decide he has a small, fat dick underneath his gross shorts. “Fine. But I want a thousand. And put that shit away. You wanna get robbed?”
He closes the wallet and shoves it back into his pocket. “A thousand? Baby, I wouldn’t pay that much for pussy.”
I’d like to know who told these men they can call me Baby without knowing me.
I squint at him a bit, try to look more threatening. “And that’s why you’re coming to me, right?”
He looks at me, self-consciously rocks back and forth in his dirty New Balance sneakers. I shut my eyes. I am beautiful, I think to myself. I am bountiful, blissful.
Three loud twinks walk by us, drunk and stumbling. One compliments my hair. We move to the side to let them pass. We’re both looking at each other, waiting.
“Look,” he says after the boys are at the next block, “I’ll give you seven-fifty.”
I consider how many meals seven-fifty would buy me until I can find myself a new job. I wonder when it is Mitchell will ask me to start paying rent. “And what do you want for seven-fifty?”
He smiles, looks relieved, shrugs. And I think, we’re both just two people, desperate for different things. And I think of the people in the flood, and picture myself drowning. It’s crazy, like, I can almost feel it, can almost feel the air being sucked out of my lungs, can almost feel like everything around me is collapsing.
“Come on. My place is this way.”
For the entire walk, he stays a few steps behind me, half wanting to be near me and half wanting to avoid me. We get to the apartment and climb up the stairs, and he’s out of breath by the time we get to the top. I tell him he should really cut back on the sugar, that shit’ll kill you. He says it’s not that, he’s a smoker. He just quit ten days ago. I told him honey you still a smoker, you don’t gotta lie to me. We make more small talk with the kitchen island in between us. I feel like I’m in an after-school special like the one’s I used to watch when I was un joven. He’s sweating. I learn his name is Ted and that he’s an accountant. I learn that this is an off-season for accountants. I learn that I don’t give a shit about accounting. I pour him the end of a bottle of cheap white wine because it’s all that’s left over from my week of soaking in liquor and tears, and I get myself water.
He seems to relax a bit and so he walks around the apartment and touches things, compliments things, but avoids the bed. The setup of my place is all wrong for this kinda thing – the bed’s just there, in the middle of the apartment. There’s really no way to ignore it. This guy looks like an overweight kid on the playground, not sure what he should do with his body. He keeps putting his hands in his pockets and then taking them out and holding them in front of him. He tells me three times he’s never done this before, each time with this nervous laugh, and I think how sad I must be to do this. How incredibly sad I am as a person. How I will never get out of this fucking sadness. How even when I think I’m crawling out, even just a little bit, I won’t be. It’ll be just like dreaming up a water fountain in the desert when you’re so damn thirsty.
“Good wine,” he says, downing the final sip. He says he knows all about good wine,
he learned about it on his trip to Napa in June. I wanna tell him it cost eight dollars but I can’t even put the energy into acting mean.
“I’ll be right back,” I say, and I move to the bathroom and shut the door behind me. My makeup is still mostly in the place I left it, though there’s some grey smudged below my eyes. I pull off the dress and the boots, the silicon pieces and the bra, and wrap my red bathrobe around me. I look in the mirror and tell myself I’m beautiful and I almost believe it. When I come out of the bathroom he’s sitting slightly hunched at the edge of the bed in only his worn boxer shorts, a flab of stomach rolled over the top.
Stuff begins only because I want it to be over. He doesn’t know what he’s doing and so I have to act like a fucking coach. Though I was Mitchell’s first, with the exception of a blowjob he gave in college, he knew what to do. His movements were like his style: chic, soft. And caring. He cared, I know he did. I can tell this guy spent most of his life not giving women orgasms. He doesn’t move, he juts, jabs.
His breathing’s getting heavier. I feel the skin of his stomach turn moist as he flaps against my back. He whispers something and I don’t hear him.
“What?” I ask.
He inhales sharply and breathes out the words, “You like that, you little whore?”
“What?” I ask again, though I heard him. I almost laugh, at how ridiculous this all is.
I turn my neck to the left to see his red planet of a face scrunched, heaving.
“You’re a little faggot. You’re such a little fucking faggot.”
“What the fuck?” I say, and I grab onto the headboard and try to wriggle myself away from him, but his weight is pinning me.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” I shout at him, the words choking in my throat. I don’t expect an answer, and I think to myself, I should have fucking known.
He stabs at me with his gross fat dick, faster, until I feel like I’m being ripped open. My eyes are stinging hot, but I start to feel numb, like I’m floating above it all. I stare at the couch, to where an upended New Balance sneaker made its way. I stare at the blank screen of the television and wonder about the people in New Orleans. I look at the far wall and can see his awful face in the mirror. I stare at things until the things are just shapes without any meaning. And I still can’t move. He lets out a final lurching grunt, and collapses all of his weight on top of me. With my face buried in the bedspread, I start to panic that this is how I’m going to die. That this is how they’ll find me. Here, suffocated, with this giant monster naked on top of me.
At some point he rolls over and I take in a large breath. I flip onto my back, my head pressing into the mattress, and watch in a blur as he pulls his clothes on, which he left neatly folded on a table. I’m so tired, hazy, and not really able to connect what just happened with the lump of a man in front of me.
“Good meetin’ you, uh, uh…” he shuts his eyes tightly, presses a hand to his forehead, “what was your name again?”
“It’s Chris,” I half whisper.
“Chris. Good to meet you, Chris.” He pulls his stupid shirt over his fat head. I say nothing. He snaps his belt into place, shoves his feet into his sneakers, and as he walks toward me I tuck my knees up, look at the wall. I feel like I’m a kid again, and Papí heard me talking back to Mamá, and now he’s got the back of his hand ready for impact.
He sets a stack of money on the end of the bed and I let my eyes blur as he leaves, until he’s nothing more than a fuzzy watercolor picture. When he’s gone, I jump out of bed and lock the deadbolt, and then I slide to the floor, my naked back pressed against the door.
Crying feels like a pointless waste of energy, but I do it anyway.
It takes some unclear amount of time, but I get up. He left me eighty-four dollars.
I find my phone and see that Jamie’s texted twice, pictures of herself that she took in the mirror, kissy faces, and I dial Mitchell’s number. I need him to understand what just happened, I need him to see me, to touch me, to miss me, ya know? Because that’s what we all need, we all need love. This is what I know. And Mitchell needs it, too, even if he doesn’t think he does. He needs me. These are the things I think of as I’m dialing, the words I’m so prepared to say I could shout them. But I don’t get the chance to because before I can, a robot-woman answers to tell me that This number is no longer in service.
Alisha Ebling is a Philadelphia based fiction writer. She holds a Master of Arts in Creative Writing from Oxford Brookes University in Oxford, UK. Her poetry and fiction has been published in anthologies in Philadelphia and Oxford, as well as online at Apiary Magazine and The Dhaka Tribune: Arts & Letters.