Fiction - Third Place
A frequent after-hours-party enthusiast, I found myself playing strip poker a few times while doing cocaine with Michelle and officers from the neighboring town's police force in my younger years. These late nights began at The Bar. Me on one side of the room, them on the other. They had big, taut guts and graying chest hairs. Circling the pool table in tight shirts and jeans, stroking their pool cues unconsciously; crisscrossed suspender-holsters displayed their square, blunt, dull black pistols, which stood out like wild animals in a living room. They would get so drunk, and I watched--waiting for one of them to tear a couple of rounds into the ceiling like some kind of blue-collar cowboy high on nighttime and bar booze.
Michelle lived in the North Village, close to the entrance for the highway. I was lucky--from "the Manor." My concerns were few. I watched the world as if I were behind a two-way mirror and no one could see me, gaping, forgetting all about myself.
"You want to?" Michelle asked me, gently taking the cards from Chris' hands to shuffle them, her sparkly dark-purple nail polish chipped, a jagged skyline on the tips of her long fingernails.
"Yeah," I said. I didn't care. I took the elastic from my wrist and pulled my hair up high and tied it into a ponytail and walked over to the stereo to make it louder.
I thought about my bra, dainty and small and cotton. Probably white or aqua or peach. Then there was Michelle's bra, a bra so large that it almost looked like a restraining device or some medical contraption from which various crimped limbs would hang. Undoubtedly, it'd be silky and red or purple or black. Ugh. Little me. Little girl.
Quickly scanning the rest of my clothing, I counted two flip-flops, cut-off Levi's (my favorite pair, which were later lost in an electric-blanket fire) and a light pink T-shirt. No bracelets, anklets, or rings. Tiny silver hoops adorned my ears, despite my father's stepping in on God's behalf to argue against such mutilation that apparently would already have been there at birth had it been God's wish. Thankfully I had Mom arguing on my behalf.
As the strip-poker game would go, it was always customary for the women to use jewelry, belts, hair accessories, and anything else they could to prevent actually removing clothing upon losing a hand. The guys seemed less concerned and sat, fat, their bellies dropping out at their sides like cartoon characters after removing cartoon girdles, the roll bouncing once or twice before finally settling. Boing.
"Would you hand me the ashtray, baby?" asked Michelle, never taking her eye off of her cards.
She had a flirtatious but warm familiarity with the cops; she handled them like a momma bear with her cubs. Her hands falling easily on their shoulders, or knees, fixing their styled hair with a quick primp but not making eye contact, barely paying attention. She was giggly and bouncy like a little girl, but sexy and knowing, deliberate. She wore eyeliner that swept out from the curves of her eyes (and they were curvy and large) in thick black strokes. Her hair was black too, only dyed more black. It stuck out in places--wavy and full of styling and holding products.
"Michelle, can I get a light?" I asked politely. I always got manners at this time of night, around the cops and all.
"Sure, babe. One sec . . ."
She smoked Newports. I can see her sitting next to Chris in tight black leggings (she always wore black . . . and animal prints) looking around for her lighter like she was looking for her kid's shoes--like we were playing house. "Now where is that thing?"
I smoked Marlboro Lights and watched while she searched. The two of us sat close together in the small cop's room. There was an unspoken understanding between us that I was a Visitor in her world and she was my Protector. I always felt small, even precious, sitting beside her.
In 10th grade my English teacher submitted a short story of mine to a countywide writing contest. I represented my entire high school for fiction, and the same girl represented the school in both the nonfiction and poetry sections. Rumor is that she broke her arm studying. After high school she went on to Yale University. My story was a short version of a book I had taken out of the library a few years prior, a small detail that I did not bring to anyone's attention before or after the contest.
My teacher had a lot of problems with me, disciplinary problems. I never did my homework and was disruptive in class. I loved karate-chopping pencils off the side of the desk and pretending I was unaware that I was showing the guys in the front row my underwear when I wore a skirt. A three-day suspension came after cursing out a substitute teacher and cutting class for three days straight. I did not win the contest, nor did I try harder in class, or school in general. But she tried. I knew that there were expectations of me--to be better.
My eyes probably crossed as I watched my cigarette crinkle up, sucking in the fire from Michelle's lighter--I inhaled twice and left it in the ashtray, burning. Sweat pushed suddenly out of the pores in my forehead and underarms, and I got that anxious feeling.
"I'll be right back," I said, hoping to sound normal.
I went to the bathroom, which was only a few feet away, to my benefit. Turning the faucet full blast, I sat on the toilet seat, not going. In a matter of moments, I got sick. Like one of those sprinklers that clicks and shoots water out in a half-moon, I sprayed my night all over the bathroom walls. There were some cleaning products that were left on the side of the tub, apparently without a proper, permanent storage place. The bleach glugged into the bottom of the tub as I tried to cover up the smell, but I knew it didn't, and now it smelled like bleach too. Oh well, I tried. It didn't matter. They didn't know me. I didn't know them. I didn't consider them real.
Michelle and Chris said nothing about the smell or where it came from. She didn't want to drive me home that morning. She wanted me to go to her house to crash for a while and then drive me later. I said no, that I'd walk. And I was far from home, we both knew that. She gave me a ride. Meat loaf sang "I Would Do Anything for Love," and I thought to myself at that instant that I would always and forever hate that song, as she leaned over to turn it up, singing along.
Like usual, at the Bar we'd made eye contact and met in the bathroom to do lines on top of the back part of the toilet tank.
"Are you still going to be a firewoman?" I asked, awkwardly making polite conversation. Michelle had told me earlier in the summer about training for a physical test and how it was the last part of a series of tests before she was a real live firefighter.
"Yeah," she said, her huge eyes fixed on me for a moment just before she swept her face forward, snorting up two lines in a graceful, smooth motion, one line per nostril.
It was always her cocaine, not mine, and that particular night it was her $100 bill we used to form a tube through which we'd snort the powder. This time she entrusted the bill to me for safekeeping throughout the night for use during our several rendezvous at the toilet. It was an expression of kindness or friendship on her part, like a mother, letting me hold the brand new paper bill.
The next morning, I was sleeping in my room when the phone rang. It was Michelle.
"Hey," she said, a little nervously. We'd never spoken like this before.
"Hey, what's up?" I was too hungover to be awkward or polite.
"Hey, do you have my hundred dollars, because I have to make my car payment today and I can't find it."
Why was she up so early? It was Saturday for Christ's sakes. Are there car payments made on Saturdays? I certainly couldn't imagine so. Doing her bills first thing Saturday morning--Jesus. Of course, I had no bills.
"Hold on, I'll look," I put down the phone and got out of bed. My foot hit the pale lilac carpet that matched the wallpaper and sank a bit. Dirty clothes lay all over the area surrounding my bed. I picked up the shorts I'd worn the night before and quickly checked the pockets for the formerly crispy bill. No bill. I climbed back into bed and told her.
"I don't have it . . . sorry." Now it was my turn to be nervous because I felt like she wouldn't believe me even though I wasn't lying. I had a general feeling that people would not and should not trust me.
A few hours later, when I woke up, I checked again and found the bill. What to do? I pictured myself going shopping and all the things I could buy with that magical, unexpected $100 bill: clothing, CDs, jewelry, dinner at a restaurant with a friend--a friend other than Michelle, of course.
I found her number in the phone book. It was a small town, and we had a small phone book. I dialed and hoped to God her mother or father or brother didn't answer. She answered.
"Yeah?" she said.
"Hi, it's me. I have your money. I looked again and I found it."
At The Bar that night, in the early hours, when the air was clean and cool and quiet, I walked in by myself. I too, in the early hours, was clean and cool and quiet. I had her money neatly folded in my pocket. I went to the bar and ordered a bottle of beer, my usual, and plopped down next to my cousin Amy, another regular. My feet dangled from the stool, my flip-flops nearly coming off. Amy quickly pulled me aside and told me how Angie, the bar owner and mother of one of my classmates, was real impressed with me for giving back the money--the fancy, curled up, multipurpose $100 bill. Everybody was impressed, she said. The whole bar.
New York native Sarah Y. Durning lives in Charles Village and swears that this is her first short story. When not writing or temping, she sings with her band, the Lucky Ones.
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201