In the end it was the girl on the pink chrome bike
Not my steaming coffee
Not the ugly billboard touting chocolate donuts
Not the crossing pedestrians
Not the train barreling past
No, only that pretty girl, yielding, poised to ride
There is no warning rattle at the door, or perhaps I’m in too deep to hear you invade the keyhole with your key, too far gone to hear the scrape of metal against metal. Either way, I’m down so deep I can barely move: I have no warning. You appear before me silently with a candle and a dark smile, holding a small metal bowl, which you set down carefully on the floor.
You circle me, examining me, clawing at me with your eyes. You tug my wrists strung behind my back, you pull my ponytail where it dangles, you run your hands down my spread legs to the shackles and bar at my ankles. You aggravate my hurts and I moan.
You enter my plane of vision and ravage the silence with a growl.
“I’m going to use you.”
I nod and mumble in agreement.
You slip a small knife from your pocket. You loom and cut the rope at my wrists. You let my arms fall to my sides.
You pocket your knife and snatch my hair in one hand. With your other hand you slap my face. Once, twice. A third time, and my face is stinging. I am awake now, you’ve seen to that.
I blink. Your small candle casts eerie shadows around the room.
You abandon my face and travel to my shoulders, which you take firmly into your hands. I find myself at the juncture of clavicle and phalanges. I smile.
You shove me to the cold, hard stone without another word; you watch me watch you deliberately undo your pants. You watch me watch you.
At last, “Open your mouth,” you whisper. I do, and you commence your ministrations. You push me, pull me, you fight me. You play with my breath, you take what’s yours and you steal what’s mine. I am forced out of myself. You persist at my mouth until you take matters into your own hands; your efforts culminate in a hot, wet arc that says it all.
Afterwards I am hot and wet. Afterwards my knees hurt. Afterwards I smile. I am here for your pleasure.
“Bedtime,” you say not unkindly as you replace your clothing. I wait for you to make your way back up the stairs, your quiet hum echoing in the gloomy chamber like a prelude to the slam of the heavy door. The scrape of metal against metal startles me now.
When I’m sure that you’re gone, I use my hands to support my weight as I flip my bound legs around to the front, a feat not so easy to accomplish. My hurts complain. I sit, naked, legs still shackled and splayed before me on the stone floor: I am a bird on a wire. I reach for the small metal dish you’ve left. I am hungry and I dig into the food with my bare fingers, enjoying my sustenance.
Later, as the small candle wears down and sleep threatens, I memorize the shadows. I take note of the size and shape of the empty dish next to me on the floor. A dog bowl, I think with my last few strands of consciousness.
The address turned up above a metal door with chipped green paint at the end of a dark alley. To buy a few minutes, I messed with my lipstick, which was down to the dregs.
“I’m supposed to ask for Ignacio,” I said to the fat guy who answered the door. I pulled aside my leather jacket to show the bare skin between my breasts.
The dude opened the door wide enough for me to pass. I left the chilled alley and stepped inside. A black fox with a white-tipped tail greeted me from the wall. The heavy spice of cigar smoke from the table did its best to cover the smell of death. I took my time shedding my jacket. Opera seeped from the back.
“Iggy, your girl’s here,” the bouncer announced.
The guys were old and heavy lidded. Something comes over old smart dudes with money to burn. It’s almost like they turn into zombies.
“Hello, gentlemen,” I cooed. They liked that. I leaned forward and rested my scantily clad chest on their table and ran my hands over the pile of cash in the middle.
Ignacio smiled around his cigar and turned to eye me up. I inhaled his smoke with a grin. “Watch it, young lady,” he glowered at me. “You have a job to do.”
“Yes, sir,” I licked my lips when I smiled. Zombie on the other side pulled out his cigar, then leaned in and ran the wet end between my breasts. Luck was on my side.
I stood up and moved toward my little podium with a bronze dance pole in the center. This was a first, stripping to opera.
“Can one of you gentlemen fill me in on the rules?” I made my voice all innocence and honey. I batted my lashes at zombie dude for good measure. He death rattled deep in his throat. “Honey, you gotta line ‘em up, make a match, or get outta here,” he stared at my breasts. Girl’s best friends.
“What’s the minimum?” I slurped, shaking slowly along with the opera.
“Fifty for newbies,” the dealer shot out.
“Maybe someday,” I replied wistfully, feeling more like a sculpture than a stripper. The zombies went around calling and raising. No one folded. Fifteen minutes in I was down to just my thong and heels. I pretended the arias were dance numbers and worked my shoulders and hips. An hour passed like that, maybe more, and my feet began to burn. To distract myself, I thought about gene expression for my bio exam Monday.
I stepped off the podium to give the zombies what they were paying for, and right then Puccini came on. Maria Callas’ voice made the perfect accompaniment to my own.
“I can never remember,” I said, doing my best to sound thoughtful. “What comes first, Queen or King?” Several of the zombies laughed around their cigars at that one and the smoke hung over the pot.
I made the rounds, breaking hearts with Maria, careful not to touch any old guy parts. When I got to Ignacio, he smiled and laid down his cards, thoroughly enjoying the close proximity. “Young lady, you are to die for,” he said in my ear, then reached into the pile of money in the center of the table. “This is for you,” he announced, and then flung a bill into the hazy air. The crisp G-note hung there in its little two-dimensional plane of reality, Grover Cleveland’s face superimposed over the watery-eyed zombies, all clamoring for a look as I reached across dimensions for my reward.
It fluttered for a moment, magnificent in its struggle, then wilted and lay still. With my red-tipped fingers, I grabbed it. “Thank you, sir,” I gave him a quick smile. I shoved the money into my handbag, pulled on my dress, and slowly put on my jacket.
“Good evening, gentlemen. Maybe one day you’ll let girls play,” I laughed. They snorted collectively. It was kind of cute.
I waltzed to the door, nodded to the fox, and slipped through the gap that the bouncer dude offered. I headed back down the alley and stopped to peek at the money inside my bag. It was enough for this month’s tuition bill plus a little left over. Dumb as it sounds, all I wanted was a new lipstick.
Thanks so much for the love, Speakeasy readers and editors. I really appreciate the win!
I shoved the door way open to fit baby girl’s stroller through and damn it was hot. Hot like you just want to rip all your clothes off and squeeze into the ice cooler at Benny’s. Baby girl was only in a diaper but she started wailing right off with the sun in her eyes and all that heat cooking her.
The heat was nothing to me, not compared to the itching inside and that deep, deep ache knowing what I was about to do. Oh yeah, I knew it, I did. I kind of appreciated the sun and heat, you know? It got my mind off the itching.
We walked real slow to Benny’s, me pushing baby girl’s little stroller without a damn sun shade and her just wailing, crying so much you gotta think she knows where she’s headed. Babies know things, my grandmama used to say.
She was crying so much and sweating too, so she was wet all over like she just had a bath only I knew the truth. When we got to Benny’s, first thing I bought her a juice and stuck a straw inside even though she makes a mess with straws. She grabbed it and started slurping away like she used to do when she was on my tit way back before I got itchy again.
All the time I’m buying her damn juice and sticking that straw in so she can drink it, you know, I’m thinking about Quenty outside, with his bags of junk. I want some so bad, so bad damn it, right here before I go any farther with baby girl. I want it so bad my hands are shaking as I throw down the quarters on the counter for baby girl’s juice. No, I want to rip my fucking shirt off and scratch away the itching. I want to dig my fingernails into my skin until I’m bleeding and everyone is staring at me, even baby girl.
It’s okay. Soon it’ll be better.
Baby girl don’t look up from her juice as I slip Quenty my second to last $20. He slips me the junk and smiles at baby girl. “Hi there, beautiful,” he says all nice to her.
“Shut up, don’t you talk to her,” I swat him off her. It’s a good thing this is the last time.
I start walking again, the stuff in my pocket. Every so often I slip my hand in and run my fingers over it. Knowing it’s there makes it easier. If only I already had it, if only, I think again and again. It would be so easy if I weren’t so damn itchy. It would be so easy if I were already there.
Baby girl finishes her juice and quiets down. She looks real sleepy in her stroller, her eyes half closed against the sun, and so pretty. She’s real pretty, you know? She’s gonna find a new family real easy. They gonna love her better than me.
I see the station coming up ahead and don’t you know those firefighters got a party goin on? They got the hydrants on and water pouring out of the hoses full blast. They got some disco music blaring, talking about stayin alive. Kids everywhere. Being near it makes me want to tear my shirt off again. I want to scratch so bad. I stick my fingers in my pocket instead.
I push baby girl’s stroller right up to the water so she can get some of the spray on her.
“I love you, baby girl,” I kiss her little head. She’s asleep so she don’t have to see me go.
Her new people gonna get her a sun shade.
There was a time when things were different. Not so long ago, she could not possibly have imagined the joy she would feel after locking herself back into a cell.
When she was little, her grandpa taught her magic – real magic, not potions and spells. He taught her to manipulate perceptions, to create illusion. “You have to get the sun in their eyes, kid. The rest is easy,” he told her with a sidelong glance. Grandpa’s magic was gritty and real.
As she pressed the heavy lever on the drill, making hole after hole, she remembered the day he taught her to pick a lock, out on the front porch, the sun glinting off chrome bumpers on the street and the heat gathering under the shingled roof. She started on Grandpa’s old treasure chest, where he kept his cards, trick knives, and his fake parrot. When she mastered the small keyhole, they moved on to the deadbolt on the front door. Within a few hours she could open it quick.
“You could work your way out of anything, kid,” Grandpa announced proudly.
Grandpa’s magic skills proved worthwhile in prison. She had an uncanny way of showing people what they wanted to see. Good behavior got her where she was today, here at this workshop out in the middle of nowhere. She worked through the afternoon, time seeping in a slow drip and the heavy air wrapping itself around the benches, spliced through with the electric jolts of the power tools. Her hands burned where they held the hot lever of the drill. The sun slanted low in the sky as they cleaned up their tools and wiped down their benches. Grandpa would have liked it here, she thought.
Before she headed for the dingy white bus, she slipped the sharpened sliver inside her sleeve. Aboard, she sat down near the front, staring at the sun through the window. The older woman’s hand on her wrist jolted her.
“Hi Amy,” the older woman said, as she slipped in beside her on the sticky vinyl seat.
Amy gave her a dry, knowing smile. “Hey, Jill.”
“It’s killer hot today,” Jill said, and ran her hand up Amy’s arm to her shoulder, then her neck, stopping at her hair.
At her touch, Amy got chills. She gave Jill another dry smile and turned back to the window. They rode the rest of the short trip in silence, Jill’s hand twisting Amy’s hair, pulling it.
Back in her cell, Amy shoved the shard of wood into her mattress, hoping that she’d be able to find it later in the dark. Time slowed down again as she waited to make her move. Finally, in the night, after the guards made their last check, she ran her fingers along the seam of her mattress until she felt the familiar prick. It took only seconds for her to pick the lock of her cell, moments for her to scurry silently to Jill’s cell next door and repeat her lock trick. She wove her tool into the waistband of her pants.
Inside the cell, Jill stood, waiting. Neither of them spoke. The older woman lifted Amy’s shirt over her head and dropped it to the ground. She pushed Amy back, hard, against the wall and ran her hands over her breasts, her belly, and down. She pinned Amy’s arms to the wall and silently went to work, driving Amy over the edge again and again. Afterwards, after Amy had returned the favors, she snatched up her shirt, retrieved the sliver from her pants, and slipped back to her own cell, grinning now.
Grandpa had been wrong about magic, Amy thought. You don’t always have to get out to escape. She stashed the shard in the seam of her mattress for next time and slept.
I picked up where I left off on this post for my submission to the Speakeasy this week. All the great feedback on my snippet really got me wondering about how much trouble this girl was getting herself into.
Ooh, I got Editor’s Pick this week over at Yeah Write. I think that means that I’m doing this right. Thanks so much, guys!
I think the photograph is from my sixth birthday, when I wore my tuxedo swimsuit and sat on my new Strawberry Shortcake bicycle ready to learn to ride. My kindergarten friends are in it, the ones who I carpooled with and played with at recess. My neighborhood friends are there too, lined up on the same hill that we would sled down in winter. You’re there too.
When I think back to when I first started to love you, I think it began that day, in the moment the picture was taken. It’s just a coincidence that the photograph exists, like the photo that your grandma caught of your first steps. The photograph is beside the point. If it did not exist, I would still remember the moment, just as your grandma would clearly remember your first steps. Even without the photo, I would still love you.
My mom wanted to take a group shot of all the kids at the party. The good little Catholic school kids ran to the hill first and sat in a line, me in the middle. The neighborhood kids followed, not to be outdone. But you, you didn’t listen. Looking back on it, knowing how six-year-olds can be, you most likely felt shy. But my mom insisted that you get in the picture. All the other kids were already lined up, so you ran behind the line, right behind me, and you stood there covering your face. My mom snapped the photograph and I started to love you.
It was just a moment, and I don’t remember exactly what happened before or afterwards. I’m sure there was cake and presents, but it hardly matters. The best thing about my sixth birthday party was you. It never crossed my mind at the time that you hid your face because you were shy. No, you covered your face because you were cool. You surprised me and you showed me how to be different.
Now that we’ve been married for a while, I know that sometimes you are shy. When you’re in an unfamiliar group, I can feel your urge to press your hands to your face the same way that you did at my sixth birthday party. But I also know that more often you are cool, that you are not afraid to stand up and do something silly just because you want to. More often, you show me your fun, quirky side.
Whenever I see you like that, you, that boy on the hill, I love you a little more. I know that I am cool too. I know that being with you means that I can do anything and be anyone who I want to, no matter what anyone else thinks. Then I’m glad that my mom took that photograph as proof.
When Geoff’s grandma calls me, I never answer the phone.
No, wait, it’s not what you think. I love Geoff’s grandma. For simplicity, let’s call her Grandma. Grandma is everything that my Bubbie wasn’t. She’s loving, kind, friendly, funny. She’s delightful. I’ve felt close to her since Geoff and I started dating. Honestly, she inspires me with the way that she loves her kids, grandkids, even her husband. She’s a great role model, and I’ve told her so.
But something about her scares me.
Grandma is pushing ninety. She’s been in good but not perfect health for the last ten years or so. About seven years ago, Grandma and Grandpop were in a car accident that left them each with various ailments. Still, they hang in there, and they are always, without fail, happy to hear from us and ready to welcome us for a visit. They both adore the kids. Grandma still gets down on the floor to play with them.
A couple of years ago I started shutting her out.
We were at her house for a visit, and Grandma started to feel dizzy. She went up to her bedroom to lie down and a little while later she called me upstairs. Me, not Geoff, not Grandpa, not even her own grown daughter. I found her lying on the bed next to her blood pressure machine. Her blood pressure was too high, she told me. She didn’t want to go to the hospital, and she asked me to stay with her. I sat on the edge of her bed, held her hand, and put my other hand on her shoulder. We took deep breaths together.
I was scared.
I told her that she would be alright, and after about half an hour her blood pressure returned to normal. The next day she paid a visit to the doctor. She made a quick recovery and the rest of our visit was just fine. You’d never have known anything had happened.
But I did.
When I was sitting with Grandma up in her room, I had the strangest feeling. With my hands on her and us breathing together, I felt like I was giving her some kind of a transfusion. A life transfusion. I could feel the energy passing between us, even though I didn’t understand it. In the moment, I could only think in dichotomies. If I was giving her life, then she must be giving me death in return. I didn’t want death. I still don’t.
From then on, things were different between us.
When she calls, I don’t answer. I tell Geoff to call her back. I still love her, and we visit. The kids send her artwork. Still, I’ve been stingy with her. I haven’t let her hear my voice, I haven’t given her any more life. I’ve closed myself, as if life were a special gift of mine and death a curse of hers, rather than both being realities that we share.
I’ve been wrong.
I hope that I can find the courage to be open with her again. I hope that I can do the small things that she requests as she gets closer to the end of her life. I hope that she will trust me to help her.
My sister pierced my ears for me. I was nine and I wanted a second set of earrings to go with the eyeliner and blush that I had just begun to wear. She was 27. I sat on a stool in her kitchen, dirty dishes in the sink, an ice cube stinging my earlobes. She used a sewing needle and it hurt. Afterwards, I felt like the coolest fourth grader on earth.
Kim was always an experimenter. Two years after the piercing incident, she taught me to shave my legs in the same kitchen sink, after I begged for the entire summer. A year later, she dyed my dark hair blonde on a whim. Long into high school, she would take me out to the secondhand shops and buy me drapey blouses and tie-dyed t-shirts. She wanted to help me invent myself.
Lately, I’ve been toying with the idea of getting a tattoo. I want to design it myself, and I want it on my back so it will show when I wear a tank top or a swimsuit. But I’m mixed. Geoff doesn’t like tattoos. He thinks they’re trashy and distracting. Maybe he’s right. It’s possible that I would get the tattoo and hate it, dread the sight of it in the mirror, and never be able to wear a sleeveless top again.
I think having a tattoo will remind me of Kim. She got several tattoos, in succession, around the time that she went on drugs. It’s funny, but she was about my age at the time, in her mid-thirties. I don’t remember what her tattoos looked like, but I guess they were your basic flowers and butterflies, nothing that extreme. Yet her body art starkly coincided with her turn to the dark side. It marked her as a druggie, a petty criminal, an abuser in so many ways. Her tattoos offered visible proof of her badness, and they scared me. I was seventeen, eighteen, and symbols seemed significant.
So I stopped seeing her. And I stopped experimenting. I passed a very difficult few years, where even a haircut felt like too much commitment, and I lived in fear of marking myself in any way. Kim had taught me everything I knew, and look what happened to her.
But – how can I explain this to you? After so many years of denying it, lately I’ve been thinking about how completely awesome it was to have a sister so much older than me. She was like an aunt, a second mom who taught me how to have fun. Kim was never afraid of messing up. I mean, she should have been, but she wasn’t. She tried things just to say that she had. She was bold. Even after watching her life crash and burn around her, I love that about her.