Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 106 in 2003.
Lana was a tall black girl with long legs growing from her mini skirt. "You're all a bunch a bitches," she yelled, plopping down next to me on the bench. She folded her arms like a kid who'd just lost her turn at something, and she crossed her legs tight, bouncing her foot to the beat of her anger.
Right away I knew she wasn't a girl. Not because of the way she looked or anything but because she acted too much like one, too much drama in her hips and hands. But even though she was mad, her face stayed pretty, her cheekbones long and bony like an Egyptian princess. "When Tony gets back, it's gonna get better," she said to her chest, lighting a cigarette. I wasn't sure if she was talking to me but I was bored with my book so I eared my page and slid the book under my thigh. "He's gonna get me out of this dump and away from you fuckin'hoes". Tears clouded her eyes as she screamed this, her neck craned at a girl and two guys sitting at a table by the dance floor. This girl at the table had platinum blond hair and a white Marilyn Monroe dress, and she flicked her hand at Lana as if to dismiss her. The Bee Gees sang over the speakers, the disco ball smeared confetti on the walls, and Lana fireballed her purse in the general direction of the Marilyn Monroe girl, except it didn't get very far. Just sorta dropped in front of us, on the carpet. Some of her make-up rolled out. The girls on the bench held back their giggles but I could hear them whispering in Spanish.
But Lana wasn't finished. She grabbed the plastic ashtray off a table and flung that too with her lit cigarette and all, but all it did was send a shower of ashes and crinkled butts on top of her purse. The Marilyn girl laughed out loud. You couldn't really hear her with the music and all but she laughed with her hands and her shoulders, like she was making up for the fact that we couldn't hear her. Then she went back to entertaining her two customers. One of them was wearing a white disco suit even though it was 1983.
People at the other tables looked over at us, at Lana and me, wondering what was going on. Even Bic the bartender glanced up from his newspaper and shook his head, but pretty soon everyone went back to their business. The glittery lights slid over their dark faces and the excitement was over as though it never happened. And Lana got down on her hands and knees to gather her things. I bent down to help her.
"Where's your boyfriend now" I asked, picking up a stray lipstick.
"Who the fuck are you?" She snatched the lipstick from me. Her tears were gone now and she looked at me as if my head was on backwards. I laughed a little, something I did whenever I got nervous.
"I'm number eight," I said, pointing to the sign around my chest, but Lana went on clumping her things into both fists. She jammed her purse under an armpit and got up. She was a monument, taller than anyone else in the club, maybe even Bic. She walked away with her arms flailing and her ass-high skirt rocking side to side. She meant business. I picked up some butts and the ashtray, and anyway, I left it at that.
Inside Club Orchid, all the girls were chickens. I sat back down on the red vinyl bench with a lineup of black, brown, and white ladies who went back to holding up their compact mirrors, painting their lips, teasing and spraying their bangs until they stood up like trees against wind. They popped their chewing gum and jerked their heads side to side, pointing at the Marilyn girl, and yakking and nudging their tails for more ass-space on the bench. I wanted to ask one of them if they knew what was wrong between Lana and Marilyn but it was my first night working there so I decided to keep my trap shut. I fixed the sign around my neck and went back to my book. Chapter four, page thirty-eight, you gotta stay out of people's heads, I told myself.
The club was all right, I guess. It wasn't a real bar or anything, nothing like the ones I've seen on TV anyway, but they tried to make it look like one, with a big bartender and really loud music. They played the Bee Gees a lot. Just in the hour I'd been sitting there, Stayin' Alive came on three times. Maybe the tape player was stuck, I don't know, but it seemed to me that the whole place was kinda stuck. There were mirrored walls everywhere, a huge disco ball, and a real seventies looking dance floor that lit up, except most of the bulbs were out. The place didn't feel right. Everything was smaller than it should've been, the way dollhouse furniture is always too small for the dolls. I kind of saw it as a place to pretend. A place where for ten bucks an hour men were for sure gonna meet girls who liked them. More, if they wanted the girls to love them.
But the club was all right for what it was and I was just glad to come in from the rain. After a whole day of walking around downtown looking for work at grocery stores, gas stations, and donut shops, it was nice to hear someone say you're hired, just by looking at you. Like I was a model or something. Miss T. didn't give me any forms to fill out, didn't ask how old I was or where I went to school. She did ask if I was over eighteen, and I felt bad about lying, but I really needed the money. And to be honest, she didn't seem to care all that much about my answer. Rajeev the night manager at Bombay Palace Hotel had asked me the same question before renting me a room, and I'd lied to him, too. But I didn't feel guilty about fibbing to him because he charged too much money.
I looked up at the clock by the cashier stand. It said ten-thirty. I remembered that I had to pay Rajeev by one o'clock that night if I wanted a bed again. He said he'd hold it for me. I didn't know how he could feel good about charging fifteen dollars a night for that smelly dump, though, and the sheets were an extra two, and I definitely needed the sheets to cover up that bloodstain in the middle of the bed. During the night, I kept on dreaming I was sleeping on a giant wet maxi-pad, and no matter how much I wiped the blood off of me, new blood kept seeping up from the mattress. When I got up in the morning I couldn't get into the shower fast enough but I jumped right back out when I saw all the black fungus growing on the tiles, thick and clumpy. It gave me a chill just looking at them, so I decided not to. I put my sneakers on and got back in there with my eyes shut. It helped a little, but it still felt like roaches were climbing all over me. Even the water smelled. I walked around all day with wet spongy feet but that was okay since it rained anyway.
And it was still raining outside. The front door of the club opened and an old oriental man rushed in, brushing the rain off his shoulders. After taking a good look at the place, he took off his jacket, draped it over his arm like a waiter, and walked up to the cashier. All the girls snapclosed their compacts and sat up straight. You couldn't hear a single gum pop. The old man checked us out (I peeked up from my book), and he pointed me out with his eyes and a nod. He paid in cash; I wondered how much time he'd bought. He kinda looked like my Dad, except my Dad was handsomer around the eyes. Not that the guy was a complete toad or anything. He was around fifty, skinny, with a wide, moon face and a basketball for a stomach. He had guppy eyes, half-sleepy, and he was gonna be my first customer. The music got cut off. Over the speakers the cashier girl called my number, then the table number. The girls on the bench came back on again, standing up and lighting up and talking about how they didn't want no sorryass chinaman anyhow.
I hid my number sign and my book behind the bench and went up to the cashier girl who was also Miss T's daughter. She had on a tight t-shirt that said I Love L.A. and was playing with the TV antenna-a Love Boat rerun was on. "Your date's name's Eugene," was all she said without turning her head. I said thanks and walked toward the tables, passing the bar where Bic sat on a stool with his feet up on the counter, his eyes still married to the paper. A slow song came on,,,,She's out of my lifeŠ and some people got up and danced but most of the girls sat at their tables drinking and being real nice to their dates. Marilyn had her arms around both her guys, leaning in close to one, then the other, as if playing telephone, and when they were done Marilyn stood up, fixed her breasts, and led the guys across the dance floor and into the back hallway. Lana stood at the end of the bar, smoking, her eyes sealed on Marilyn. I walked by trying not to look at Lana, which was something like trying not to scratch an itch on your nose. I made it to the table.
"Is anyone sitting here?" I asked, and like Miss T. told me to, I smiled as big as I could. But the old man, he pretended like he hadn't seen me coming.
"I'm sorry, did you say something?" He heard me okay but you could tell he wanted me to say it again, once more with feeling.
"Can I sit here," I said, now my smile completely gone.
Disappointed, he put out a hand toward my chair. Over his shoulder, just behind him, I could see Lana at the bar, leaning her chest and body toward the counter, one leg vining the other, and she was saying something to Bic who had on a face that said he'd heard it all before. But then he gave her something, pulled it out of his pants pocket, and Lana popped it into her mouth.
My date sat there silent, stirring his drink with the plastic sword, one way, then the other, and focusing on his glass like he was waiting for his fortune. I'd pissed him off already, by not talking right. The light from the disco ball skated round and round his bald head and a full minute went by, and nothing. Except a couple of sighs here and there. Maybe he didn't like the way I looked up close. Or maybe he wanted a different girl, but him not saying anything made me feel kind of sad. Like he'd picked me because he'd felt sorry for me. I was definitely the worst dressed girl there, my skirt had a ketchup stain in the back, and I didn't have any make-up on. I checked my nails real quick and saw they were clean and that made me feel a little better. Say something nice about his clothes-Miss T. said this would get things going, but what could I say about a brown terry cloth shirt. Maybe I'll ask him what his best subject in school was or about his favorite TV show. My Dad only watched cop shows, like Kojak and Colombo, even though he didn't understand a word of it. He understood action and I guess that was enough for him.
"Look I don't know why I'm here I don't have problems getting dates. I mean I might not be the best looking guy in the world but I know I'm not bad looking." The man said all this real fast, like a talking teddy bear running out of string.
"Hi," I said, smiling back, and with that, he looked straight at me for the first time since the cashier stand.
"Hi." He swiped his forehead with the back of his hand. "I'm not making excuses or anything, it's just--"
Bic came up to our table. He put down a napkin in front of me and winked. "Another whiskey?" he asked the old man who waved his hand no. Then Bic looked at me. I didn't know what to order, mostly because I'd never been in a bar before.
"I'm okay. I don't want anything," I said, but he just stood there, not going away. He was a wall, waiting for me to say the right words.
"Riuniti on ice?" I said.
"What?" Bic crumpled his face, but then answered himself. "We don't got that."
"Vodka?" I said, trying my best to sound older. Then I remembered Ms T. telling me to order vodka so they could serve me water and it would look the same. Bic rolled his eyes and walked off. "With two cherries," I yelled after him, "and an orange." I was starving.
I turned back and caught the old man wiping his face up and down with both hands, like he was washing it or something, then he rattled his head to shake off the invisible water. He took a deep breath, held it, then let it out, sending me a wave of garlic and more garlic. His face squeezed out a big clown smile that looked more painful than anything, and he pulled up his chair closer to the table, sitting upright and tall. He was a new man. He was gonna take it from the top.
"Hi. My name's Eugene. What's yours?" He said this in a crisp, new voice.
"Nee Ka. Now there's a name you don't hear everyday."
"Actually, I pretty much hear it everyday." I meant for him to laugh, but he didn't.
"Where do you work?" he asked, and he wasn't kidding. He took a mechanical sip of his drink then tapped the side of his glass with the plastic sword. "WHERE---DO---YOU----WORK?" He shouted in a way that made you think we must've been under water.
"Uh, I work-"
"What college do you go to?"
"Sure. I mean, yes." I couldn't keep up.
"You must get good grades. I always did. You look like you'd be good in school." He took another sip of his drink, with both hands cupping the glass.
"Pretty much A's in everything," I said.
"Everything?" He let out a smirk.
"Uh---I think I'm flunking in Gym?"
"I didn't know they had Gym classes in college."
I didn't answer. Didn't like this game anymore. Plus, my mouth was dirt dry. But he kept staring into me long, watching me shred my napkin and twist them into little boogers.
I was glad Bic came back when he did. He put my drink down (no cherry, no orange), and Eugene said, No, no, I got it, waving his hand, even though no one offered to pay anything. He pulled out a fistful of money from his pocket and counted it slowly. They were mostly ones, though. He handed Bic a couple of bills and told him to keep the rest.
"Great. I can make that phone call now," Bic said, but Eugene didn't hear.
I took huge gulps of the water, it felt good to drown my throat, but stopped when I saw Eugene looking at me all funny (I'd forgotten he thought my drink was vodka). I put down the glass and squinted my face how actors do it when they drink on TV.
"Don't you want to know what I do for a living?" he finally asked.
"Uh huh," I said. He looked at me hard again. Right. I was supposed to ask.
"What do you do for a living?" I sat up and tried to look real interested.
"Let's just say I have a job that most people don't realize how tough it is. Would you like to guess?"
Sure, it's your dime, but I could never say that. "You a cop?" Miss T. said I should ask this because cops got everything on the house.
"Me? No," and he shook his head to make the words go away."But I could've been one, I suppose. I'm in pretty good shape for my age. Okay, keep going."
"A baker." He didn't like this guess much.
"Go on," he said with a hard voice.
"A nurse." I was trying to make him laugh again but he didn't like this one at all. Just shot me a look and didn't say a word.
"A doctor." This was much better. His mouth stretched into a crooked smile.
"That's a very good guess. Both my parents and my older brother are doctors, so I guess you could say it's in my genes." Then he got a faraway look in his eyes. "But I wanted more freedom with my life. Didn't want a pager telling me what to do."
I looked over Eugene's shoulders. Marilyn came out from the back hallway, and seconds later, her two boys followed, their faces covered in smiles. The guy in the white suit had one shirt collar sticking up, and he was looking down, checking his zipper. Marilyn walked them to the door and after blowing several kisses at them, she turned and beamed at Lana. She passed by Lana on purpose to get to a table on the dance floor, where a new date sat waiting for her. Lana could've put a hole in her, the way she was staring.
"Okay, give up?" Eugene asked.
"Yeah," I said, as I watched Lana put down her glass and weave toward the dance floor. She crashed into a table, knocked over a chair, then another table where Marilyn sat arm-in-arm with her date. Without a beat, Lana threw up all over her.
"I'm a courier. Wouldn't have guessed it, right?"
Marilyn shrieked and shot up from her seat (I almost did, too) cussing and fanning her hands over her huge boobs now soaked in vomit.
"Are you okay?" Eugene said, waving a hand in front of my eyes.
I looked behind him again, but only for a second. "It must be exciting driving to different places everyday."
"That's very true. I never know what my day's going to be like and I like that. Some days I'm extremely busy---"
Over Eugene's shoulder I saw Lana shout something like Fuck off! to Marilyn and with no warning, she bent over, grabbed the date by the head and tongued him, right then and there, like it was her last kiss or something. The date tried to push her off and Marilyn slapped her everywhichway but it was no use. Lana kept at it and didn't come up for air.
"And lifting those packages takes more strength than you think. It's a great workout. All the secretaries on my route, they can't believe some of the packages I deliver."
Lana finally unglued her face from the date's and as soon as he got free he coughed and spat bullets on the floor. He seemed more stunned than angry as he yanked his leather jacket and ran out the front door, wiping his mouth on his shirtsleeve. Marilyn ran for Miss T's office, and Lana, well, she just kinda stood there, screaming at the disco ball to shut the fuck up. But it kept spinning and the music kept playing and there were so many eyes on her, you'd think she was on fire. I mean, no one could ignore her anymore. Everyone turned to see her, that is, everyone except Eugene.
"---and sometimes there's a lot of traffic on Spring Street, but I'll shortcut it to Main, go down Second, which spits me out to Figueroa. This usually shaves off a good ten minutes at least---"
Miss T. locked the door to her office and marched out to the middle of the dance floor, with Marilyn tagging behind. Lana was gonna get in trouble.
"I have to pee."
"What?" Eugene said, the word falling like a brick.
"I have to use the bathroom," I said, and left before he could answer.
The flashing lights snaked over the dance floor, making it hard to see. But still there was no way you could miss Miss T. She was a thick dark woman with a rump roast body, five by five at the most, wearing a red and black sequined gown that draped the floor. You might've thought she was a circus midget standing next to Lana like that, but you couldn't be fooled by her height. She hooked Lana by the arm and dragged her away, and it was Lana that looked to be three years old. I followed them, but not too close, and when I got near the hallway where they all stood talking, I snuck around the corner and peeped from there.
"This is the second time and there ain't gonna be a third," Miss T. said in a deep preacher voice. She looked to Lana, who tried her best to stay standing.
"Bendeja's psycho, dass whas goin'on," Marilyn jumped in. She was puckering her lips and waving her finger, making Zs in the air. This was the first time I'd seen her up close and I hadn't noticed that underneath all that wig, she was very Mexican.
"Least I ain't no cunt," Lana yelled back, her words almost knocking her over.
"Ay, chinga tu madre, can't help it if your men wanna be with me puta."
"Both of you shut up" Miss T. said, but before she could go on, Lana spit at Marilyn, and soon their fists and arms and heads got all tangled up in a big, ugly bow. Lana pulled on Marilyn's hair but all she got was the wig, and Marilyn screamed and dug her nails across Lana's face, scratching her up good. It was weird watching a fight that wasn't being stopped by anyone. At school, a teacher always wedged in, and that was that, but Miss T, she just stepped back and raised her chubby finger for Bic to come over. But even before Bic got there, Lana and Marilyn got tired and just sorta came to a stop. Marilyn snatched her wig out of Lana's hands, and Lana, she didn't look so good. The fight took the bones out of her. She leaned against the wall and slid down until her back reached the carpet. She kinda passed out there but it was hard to tell if it was for real or not. Miss T. didn't care either way. She stepped in between them like a referee after a knockout and shook her head, looking down at Lana, her cherryplum lipstick smeared around her lips and her long skinny legs spread out in a V, showing a black lacy bulge of underwear.
"She's fired," she said turning to Bic, poking a finger to his chest, "I want her outta here, now. And you."
Marilyn stopped dead in the middle of putting on her wig. "What?"
"Get your ass cleaned up, you smell like you rolled in dog shit."
"It's that puta's vomit."
"I don't care what it is, I ain't payin' you to stink up my place."
"Rise and shine," Bic said, nudging Lana's leg with his boot, but she was out, her eyes were two black slits. Bic pulled her up by the wrists and slung her onto his back. Her shoes slipped off but he didn't care. Just lugged her down the hall and into the back, with her nyloned toes dragging on the carpet like some dead ballerina's.
I was so focused on Lana I didn't even see Miss T. looking at me. My eyes dropped to a gum stain on the floor and I kept them there. Guess I was hoping that if I didn't see her, she couldn't see me, or that she'd eventually get bored and go away but when I looked up, she was still eyeing me. Then she must've remembered who I was because all of a sudden, her face changed into a smile. She came toward me and the closer she got, I felt my nervous laugh coming on. "How're you doing dear," she said but just kept going. That was fine. I really didn't have an answer for her anyway.
The hallway was empty. I picked up Lana's shoes and ran down to where Bic had taken her. There were two doors, one said PRIVATE and the other, EXIT. I grabbed that one, but Bic, he beat me to it and came out first.
"Where you think you're going?"
"I was just-"
"I'd get my ass back to work, if I were you." He shoved me down the hall and I tripped and fell, my nose hitting the carpet. Before I could even think about getting up, I felt his cement hands lock onto to the back of my arms, pulling me up.
"Don't." I squirmed to get away.
"Yeah, yeah," he said and kept pushing me along. I tried to twist my arms, kick him in the legs, to elbow him, to shake everything that would move but he wouldn't give. My nose burned. I felt like I was gonna throw up except I hadn't eaten all day. I kicked him in the shin and hit his chest with the back of my head but it was clear I was just hurting myself.
"Fine. G'ahead," he tossed me off, "I ain't got time for you cunts today."
I slipped into the bathroom and shut the door, and I might as well have popped my eardrums because all of a sudden, everything got real quiet. All I could hear was my heart slushing and sounds of things dripping in my head. I cooled my face against the door and looked down at the floor tiles, where little ladybug drops of blood fell, one by one. My nose was bleeding. I felt sick. Something muddy was coming up my throat.
At the sink, Marilyn stood there in front of the mirror, her dress peeled down to her waist. She was bent over, her huge jelly breasts dangling over the sink, rubbing the pink soap crystals all over her chest. Her back was bare, syrupy skin, and she had on black spikes with skinny leather straps wrapping Xs up her calves.
"What you been takin' chinita?" she asked, but I couldn't answer, "Cuz I want sumov that."
I got to the sink and splashed water on my face. The nose kept bleeding, blood swirling down the metal sink. I sat on the floor, half-closed my eyes, and leaned my head against the wall.
"Don't worry chica, it gets better. First blows the hardest. Dass cuz you got all das'shit in the brain about love and shit. Das'shit can kill you."
Marilyn rinsed her breasts, making sure not to let any water drizzle down her dress. I had no idea what she was talking about. "Me. I don't care about it no more. I don't care about goin' nowhere, being with no one. I work, and dass'it. Been doin'it five years and issa good livin' chinita. On a good night I can do about five guys, dass a benjamin right there, takeaway what I gotta give to Miss T. and shit. But after that, dass'all my money."
I stayed on the floor. It felt good there. It didn't move and I could trust it. On the wall across from me, someone had drawn a picture of an ocean with curly-q waves and a bird flying over, except the bird looked more like a football with wings. And next to that, a girl with a penis drilled through her mouth and out the back of her head. Marilyn was done washing. "But not everybody got money for that. Sumov'em jus'wanna sit out there and blablabla." She yanked on the cloth towel machine, two clicks, and dabbed her chest. "Why make seven bucks listenin' to some guy, how he's mister bigshot at work'n'shit, when you can charge twenty givin' a five-minute massage, dass what I say." Listening to her talk made me feel a little better. Not what she was saying but how. She was TV.
After drying off she pulled her dress back up, made sure she was good, and reached into her purse. "I'm gonna give you sumavice. One." She opened a little vial and swallowed two pills, one green, one red. "Take a lotta drugs. Naw, I'm jus'kiddin'. But not really." She pulled out a cigarette and lit up. "Okay. One." She pointed her cigarette at me. "Dis avice is very important so listen careful. Don't ever, and I mean ever, steal any a my dates. You seen what I did to that puta, I knows you seen it." She faced the mirror and adjusted her wig a little, tugging a few strands. "And two. When your date esplodes in your mouth, don't pull out. You gotta keep it there chica and suck it all in. You do that and I swear you got a date for life, chinita. For life."
When she opened the door to leave, the sounds of the club swam in and out, until it got quiet again. I grabbed Lana's shoes and measured my feet against them. They were huge, as big as canoes, as big as my Dad's. One time I stuffed newspaper inside his shoes so I could walk around in them like they were mine. He was packing in the bedroom, so I flopped by him with them on, hoping he'd notice how funny I was. I really thought that would make things all right. Anyway, he saw me but didn't say anything. He just kept on rolling up his socks and folding his pants in threes, while my Mom screamed at him to leave. She waved the kitchen knife around like it was a sparkler, yelling for him to go, get out. I guess she wanted it to be her idea or something. You're not a real man, she told him, and we don't need you. Right then she pulled me and made me stand next to her and she went on shouting and I just stood there, staring at his suitcase, wondering how he could pack me in. Get out. Just get the hell out.
I got up and went back out into club. In the hallway the music was so loud it made me squint. The clock said midnight. I still had time. So far, I'd been there for an hour and a half, just over ten dollars. I needed fifteen for the room, and maybe two for a hot dog and soda. I didn't see Marilyn anywhere. The bench was almost empty, the dance floor busy with moving bodies, and Bic, he was behind the bar pouring a drink. I knew Lana wasn't there but I looked for her anyway.
And that's when I saw him. Eugene. Talking to Miss T.
I'd completely forgotten about him. Even though I wasn't close enough to hear, I could see every word screaming from his entire face and his angry hand waving in the air.
"She was very disrespectful," he said as I ran up, "Just ran off."
"Calm down, Mr. Takata." Miss T. turned to me with straight lips. "I never wronged you before now have I? You are itchy-ban, okay? Let's take you in the back and give you our number-one girl."
"No, no. it's all wrong now. Don't you see, you've ruined it by talking about it. And I was going to bring the company executives here next month." He crossed his arms and wouldn't look at me. What executives. What company. I wanted to tell her he was lying but I was in enough trouble already. Plus I didn't think she really believed his story.
"C'mon now," she said, convincing his arm. "Think about it, full thirty minutes, on the house."
"Please, don't talk about time."
"Alright." Miss T. kept petting his arm.
"How about that free drink you promised."
I looked over at Eugene's table, my fake glass of vodka to his four empty glasses.
"Now we're talkin'. That, and any girl you want."
That was the best thing I'd heard all night, and for a second, I could actually feel my heart settle. I even thought about recommending Marilyn to Eugene, who scanned the place slowly, raising and dropping his brows at the thought of every girl-no, no, maybe, no, no-until he got around to me.
"I want this one. I think there's a lesson to be learned here." He nudged his head at me, still without looking my way.
"Of course," Miss T. said, giving me a glare that said everything. "Show Mr. Takata to the back, dear." She grabbed my arm and placed it around his, and before I knew it, Eugene and I were walking arm-in-arm across the dance floor and down the hallway with Miss T. right behind us, holding our elbows in place and reminding us in that deep preacher voice of hers how everything was gonna be just fine.
"Don't forget my free drink," Eugene said over his shoulder.
"Not a chance," she said, and unlocked the door to a room.
It smelled like fish and Lysol. As soon as we got in, he locked the door and flipped a switch that turned on a bulb by the corner. It was a red light, the kind that made you swear your eyes were on fire. A bag of white cotton balls sat on the nightstand, and next to that, two large plastic bottles. Both had masking tape on the front-one labeled OIL, the other, ALCOHOL, in magic marker. His face was more raisin in this light. Even my hands looked old and bruised. He sat down on the edge of the cot, his feet still flat on the floor, and unbuckled his pants. Leaning back onto his hands, he looked up at the ceiling with his eyes shut tight, like he was praying for something specific.
"Hurry up," he said, opening one eye to see what I was doing, except I didn't know what I was supposed to be doing.
"Grab that bottle and wash me off." And just like that, he pulled it out from his pants. No game, no acting. His penis hung from his zipper like a shriveled tongue. It had too much skin. Chicken skin. I didn't want to be in the same room with it, let alone touch it. I couldn't move.
"Is this something I need to talk to Miss T. about?" he said, looking at me straight.
I grabbed the alcohol bottle, the cotton, and got on the floor. The crusty carpet bit my calves. I held his penis up with the tip of my finger and it got harder the more I swabbed it with the cotton. I tried to keep down whatever was climbing up my throat.
"What the hell's wrong with you? That's enough." He knocked the cotton out of my hand and pushed my face down between his legs. The alcohol stung my eyes, I couldn't breathe, and the taste of him choked me. He pushed down on the back of my head. My eyes swelled, things slid from my nose, and no matter how much I pushed to get away, I couldn't. The harder I hit him, the harder he pushed. My knees dug into the carpet, and he pinched my ear, twisted it, stuck a wet finger inside it. He moaned, and a couple of times he whispered his own name. He pushed even harder when he did this, trying to shove my head through his penis, through the cot, through the floor. Then he let out a gasp. He grabbed a fistful of my hair and threw me off, and all I could taste was sourness. Bitter milk. Spoiled fungus rice. I coughed and spat and coughed again, and I felt a rope being pulled from deep down in my throat, trying to turn me inside out. I crawled to the wall.
The light burned my eyes. When I came to, he was still on the cot, eyes closed, mouth wide open. I didn't know for how long I'd passed out but one thing was clear-he wasn't worried. He was dead asleep. Sleeping like a baby, with his penis still out and hands limp on his chest. He didn't snore-he growled. An angry dog's growl. I stood over him, the red light coating his body, and watched him for a long time. His chest rising and dipping, the hairs sprouting in his ears, the tiny white bumps on his tongue. The blood from my nose-it had smeared onto his pants, some got on his penis. I couldn't believe that earlier I'd worried about him not liking me. That seemed like years ago. I held the bottle of oil in my hand but I didn't know how it'd gotten there. Or how I'd gotten there. I tried to retrace my steps, to think of all the things that had happened to put me in that red room, but the only thing that kept coming to mind was the taste of him. I bent down, pinched his nose and jammed the oil bottle in his mouth. I gave it a good squeeze, and ran.
Down the hallway, through the dance floor. I felt a rush traveling through me-that nervous thrill when you fly in your dreams. I cut through couples dancing, ran up to the bench, grabbed my book, and headed for the cashier. I saw the clock again. I was all right. It was twelve-thirty.
"I wanna get paid for tonight," I said to the girl but she was in the middle of sculpting a bubble and watching The Odd Couple. I couldn't stop shaking. I looked back at the hallway. Eugene was already there, one hand on the wall, the other clutching his throat.
"Hey," I slammed on the counter, "I gotta get paid."
"Just wait your fuckin' turn," the girl yelled, but there was no one waiting but me. Finally, she got off her chair and studied the roster. "What's your number?" Eight, I told her, eight, and with that, she punched in some numbers on the calculator. I looked over at Eugene again and now he stood at the far end of the dance floor. He spotted me, looked me dead in the eyes.
"Oh wait, I did that wrong," the girl said. "Okay, you get seven an hour and you worked two hours so that makes---wait, what was it?" she asked her calculator.
"Fourteen," I said, "Fourteen. Plus-" I didn't know how to else to say it, "I was in the room."
"That you get from the date," she said, "we just rent you the space, that's all."
I turned around and saw Eugene zigzag through the dance floor, now with Miss T. running by his side. They were coming for me.
"Okay," the cashier girl said and counted the money out on the counter, one dollar at a time, slower than anyone dead. "Now I gotta figure out what you owe for the room." She turned to face her calculator. I slid the money into my book and left.
I ran so hard so fast, the rain hadn't let up. Cars and streetlights streaked by me, gated storefronts, bums sleeping on steps, wet stray dogs, and it wasn't until I was a couple of blocks away that I finally slowed down. I couldn't catch my breath. There was no one behind me, and the streets were empty, except for a few strands of people way up ahead. It was okay. No one was after me. At the first chance I could, I ducked into an alley and stuck a finger down my throat.
I got to the Bombay Palace right at one. It was cold and wet but I walked slow anyway and looked up at the rain, how it fell so pretty on the pink neon sign, except the A and the Y was busted, so it read BOMB. A few people hung out by the doorway, hiding from the rain, and there was a woman lying on the bottom steps, her bare feet touching the sidewalk. She was crying or saying something but I couldn't hear, what with the rain and all. I got up close. It was Lana. She was curled into herself, clutching her arms, her head buried into her chest. Her face was bruised, her bottom lip bleeding, and she looked to have marbles jammed in her cheeks. I tried shaking her awake.
"Leave me alone," she mumbled, half raising her hand to push me away.
The entire lobby reeked of curry. It was pretty dark in there but I could see Rajeev in his cage, talking on the phone and eating his Tupperware dinner. I sat Lana down on a chair but she kept drooping to one side, and straightening her out was hard because she was so big and slippery. I wasn't sure if she remembered me from the club but my guess was she'd have gone with anyone who had a room that night.
"I will call you right back," Rajeev said when I walked up to his cage.
"I made it." I pulled out the fourteen dollars from my book and apologized for the money being a little wet and for missing a dollar but I promised I'd give it to him tomorrow.
Rajeev gave me a limp smile as his eyes moved from me to Lana. "What's that?" he asked, pointing his fork behind me.
"She's my friend."
"I just kick her out and you bring her back in." He picked his front teeth with his tongue and made that sucking sound.
"She's just staying tonight." I tried to sound easy going.
Rajeev shoveled a forkful into his mouth and talked while something brown leaked from the corners of his lips. "It is ten dollars more for a guest."
"I'm sorry. That is policy."
"But it's already one o'clock. She's just gonna sleep."
He looked at Lana again. "I can not do anything. It is policy. See?" He pointed his fork at the sign above his cage. I looked up but who cared about what some sign said.
"Can't you just let it go this once?" I asked but he shut his sliding window.
"You are wet and she is bleeding on my carpet," he shouted from behind the glass, "Both of you, get out."
"You don't understand." I banged on his window.
"Stop hitting the glass," he said, but I couldn't. I kept slamming it with the palm of my hand, screaming things I didn't recognize and yelling for him to open up, to listen, and for a second, I pictured my hand charging through the glass, all the jagged pieces slicing up my arm.
"You must leave now or I will call the police," he said and he wasn't faking. He picked up the phone, showed me the dial pad, and pressed number nine. I stared at him. I couldn't help it. I thought if I looked long enough-the way he gripped the phone, the way his eyes lit up, the way he still clutched his fork-that I could understand him, but really, what I wanted was for him to understand me. My Dad had it right. That night, Rajeev and me, we didn't need words. Rajeev put his fork down to press another number and I understood his actions plenty. I grabbed Lana, and left.
It was hard walking with her sorta half asleep but we made it down to the corner of 6th and Main. There was a bus stop there with a roof. I held Lana up against the bus stop shelter and tried reading the schedule through all the graffiti. I thought maybe we'd ride for a while, it'd be warmer, but then I remembered that I'd left my book at the hotel. And I'd forgotten to get my money back from Rajeev. The twenty-three line had stopped running at midnight anyway.
We sat down on the bench. Lana moaned and slouched toward me, the soggy weight of her body pushing into mine. She put an arm on my lap-her silver bracelet winking with an engraving that said LANA FAYE, and on the back, her birth date. She was a Pisces, like me. We were almost twins, except she was born about ten years earlier. "When he gets back---" she mumbled in her sleep, "---leavin this dump." She still had hope, at least.
Cars slushed by. The rain still came, making the road look vinyl. Down a ways, a row of traffic lights blinked red and yellow, and even farther down, a street cleaning truck turned the corner. The sidewalks were empty. There was no one, no one to bother us. Everything was closed, storefront windows were dark, and the sky, jet black. Everything was black. Everything, except for the 99 cent store across the street. The light inside it was so bright, you'd think you were looking into the sun. All the aisles were bleach-white, the floors wet and shiny and sparkly, and the huge window, the size of three movie screens, was lined with orange, blue, pink, yellow, and red containers of soap. Bottles and boxes of all kinds of detergents-dishwasher, laundry, kitchen floor, you name it, they were all there, like an open box of crayons. Every aisle was as bright and every shelf was crammed full with stuff, and you knew nothing was ever kept in storage, absolutely nothing, no extra supply, no secret shipments hiding in the back room. Everything the store had to offer was all right there, so completely exposed, and I was happy to be seeing them all.