By B. DeMarco-Barrett
The fog had rolled in and the mist on my face felt sweet, a blessing. I actually skipped a few blocks down through Union Square to Grant Street in Chinatown, a festive one-way, one-lane street jammed with stores and restaurants on both sides. It was all lit up and clogged with tourists and fried food smells. Jade and pearls glimmered in shop windows. Headless manikins wore silk satin robes. I coveted a red floor-length kimono, mind numbing in its beauty. When you’re broke, $200 is a fortune, but I wouldn’t be broke for long, if luck stayed on my side.
My phone vibrated with a text from Tammy: “WTF?”
I had completely forgotten about her, that’s how high I was from what just happened. I texted her back and said to meet me at the He She Love Acts club on Columbus, just up from Carol Doda.
I was feeling good — better than good, I felt elated. I had little more than $100 stashed under my mattress, but in no time, with a little luck, I’d be raking it in.
I went into the club, ordered a vodka tonic, and settled in to watch the show. The stage was lit dark red. A woman danced languidly. The warm up act. If I was going to be a burlesque dancer, I told myself I needed to study.
Tammy texted that Rob and she were on their way.
I said “great,” but it wasn’t great. I had a bad feeling about this Rob. Maybe I was a bigger prude than I knew. Sometimes I couldn’t tell where the line was supposed to go. My mother, with her string of boyfriends while she was still married to my dad, taught me boundaries were where you wanted them to be.
Rob and Tammy arrived ten minutes later.
“You crazy, girl!” She ruffled my hair.
“Liked your dance.” Rob looked at me as if I’d cast a spell.
“Just a dance,” I said, subdued.
The cute ones always think you like them, but I wasn’t on the market for a cute one. The next time I had a boyfriend, I wanted it to be someone who didn’t hang out at these sorts of clubs gawking at naked people.
Onstage a naked interracial couple was getting it on. Tammy and Rob were fixated. So was I. Was it legal to have intercourse in public? Maybe it was in San Francisco, where nudity was legal as long as you put a cloth between you and public benches.
When the curtain came down, Tammy said, “That was hot!”
Rob fanned himself. “Let’s get a room.”
“You paying?” said Tammy.
“Not only will I pay, but there’s a boutique hotel just up the street.”
“You game, Nina?” Tammy said.
I downed the rest of my drink. Everything and everyone had a fuzzy glow about them. More than fuzzy — I wasn’t sure I could even stand up.
“I should get home,” I said.
“Ah, come on,” said Tammy, slinging her arm through mine.
“Yeah, come on,” said Rob, paying for our drinks. He dropped a ten on the table for a tip.
“We’ll celebrate you getting a job,” said Tammy, winking. “You owe me, girl.”
The line between right and wrong had not only become wavy, it was on the verge of disappearing altogether. I had never been a part of a ménage a trois. Tammy was a gorgeous girl. It would be a new experience, if nothing else.
Somehow my legs carried me to a penthouse suite with thick brocade drapes and two king size beds as soft as clouds.
Rob said he was going next door to buy us a bottle of something and to get comfy.
Tammy pulled open the closet. “Check out these robes!”
Rob was back with a bottle of Dom Perignon, a bottle of vodka, and two bottled of tonic water.
“Oh, ho, ho!” said Tammy, impressed.
He found four glasses on a shelf in a cabinet. Why four? There was a knock on the door.
“I ran into a buddy in the liquor store,” Rob said, going to the door. He let in a burly guy, beefy and handsome in an Aryan sort of way. Not my type, but he was Tammy’s type. Tammy had a million types. He appraised us as if we were entrees he looked forward to savoring. He even licked his lips.
Rob introduced Ivan and handed us glasses. Rob cued up Beyoncé on his iPhone and Tammy engaged Burly Man in a dance. That left me and Rob. I lost track of how many glasses of Champagne I consumed. Rob peeled back my robe and let it fall. Aryan dude did the same to Tammy. His clothes came off and they started making out. I began to feel like an observer, perched on the ceiling of the room, watching the scene unfold, with me in it.
Rob stepped out of his pants. He looked like a fertility god. He pulled me to him. I wanted him as much as he wanted me.
“You need to use a condom,” I said.
“Okay,” he said, “Whatever you say,” and we continued to kiss and play. He was a good kisser, but somewhere in my brain I wondered what the hell I was doing in this room with a stranger and my best friend in this city on the other bed with a man who reminded me of a character in Blade Runner.
Rob tried to stick his boy in me.
“Where’s the condom?” I said.
“Ah, come on, don’t be like that,” he said.
“No, really, you need one.” I was slurring more than a little.
“Just this once?”
He wouldn’t let up and was beginning to make me mad, so I gave him a little push the way I learned in Tai Kwon Do, but it must have been too much of a push because he fell off me, hit his head on the night stand, and was out cold.
Tammy and her Aryan noticed, but not enough to disturb the fevered pitch they were approaching. I knelt before Rob and tried to focus on his face. I held my finger to his nose to see if he was breathing. He was. But he wouldn’t wake up.
“Tammy,” I said.
In between gasps, she said, “What? Oh … Oh!” and when they were done, I said, “I could use your help over here.” My words were tinged with a scrim of hysteria.
Tammy saw me on the floor beside the bed. That got her attention. “What happened?” She blinked hard and bent over Rob, her sweaty boobies grazing his chest.
Aryan dude lifted him, trying to revive him. I pulled on my clothes and gathered my things.
“What are you doing?” Tammy said.
“I’m getting out of here.” This was not who I was, I knew that much. I was not someone who had sex with men I just met. I was not a burlesque dancer.
“You can’t leave,” she said, squeezing my arm.
But I was out of there, in less time than it took to say, “Oh, yes I can.”
There’s nothing like an accident to sober you up real fast. I caught a cable car through Chinatown to Market Street, then a bus to my studio on Mars Street. On the way, I phoned my cousin Mimi, who was born the same day and year as me. My mother said God broke the mold after he made us.
I asked her if this was a good time to visit.
“Come on down,” she said, reminding me of Bob Barker on the old The Price is Right.
I threw my things into suitcases, took my savings—all $112 dollars of it—out from under the mattress, and called a cab.
If I didn’t leave the city now, I never would. San Francisco was like a boyfriend you become obsessed over because he never wants you as much as you want him, but you keep trying, keep staying, keep believing he will change.
I left my key in the mailbox and a message on the property manager’s voice mail saying he should keep my deposit for my last month’s rent. I cleaned up and emptied the trash.
Outside a car honked. The cab that would drive me to the bus depot, which was cheaper than a plane or a train. It made me sad how the last year of my life fit into two suitcases.
As the cab pulled away, I mouthed ciao, baby to the place I’d called home. I had stayed long enough for things to happen for me if they were going to, which, by the looks of things, wasn’t going to. The dancing gig would have put money in my pocket but it also would have sent me into scenarios like the one I just escaped. And that wasn’t me. But what was me? What had happened to the girl who danced every Christmas in the Nutcracker Suite, who had gone to college, who had once imagined herself an artist? Where had the belief gone to that you only had to dream it to make it come true? I was a good girl with big dreams. This wasn’t supposed to happen to me.
Storefronts, cafes, and clubs blurred by as the cab sped down Market Street. San Francisco looked better after-hours when the glare of the day was tamped down by darkness, the neon lights filling the night with a sort of hopefulness. I wasn’t glad to be leaving as a failure, but it was what it was. I would miss the Lotus Garden restaurant in Japantown. I would miss Golden Gate Park’s Conservatory of Flowers. I would miss the way the fog bank rolled in over Sutro Tower.
My phone vibrated with a text from Tammy saying they took Rob to the ER. As I waited for a bus, yet another text arrived saying Rob had died. It wasn’t my fault, I wanted to text back. I didn’t make him book the room. I told him to use a condom. He tried to force me, otherwise I would never have pushed him off me.
Yet, I cried like a little baby for even being in this situation. In college, I was never one of those girls who drank too much and fell asleep with my head on the toilet seat. I got all A’s. Everyone said if anyone made it as a dancer, it would be me.
People on benches in the bus station were beginning to stare. I went into the restroom to pull myself together.
I yanked the Sim card out of my phone and flushed it. I didn’t need Tammy’s texts following me. What choice did I have? You either fought back, or you fled, and I had no more fight in me for this place. Fight or fight: so many choices came down to one or the other. I made my choice.
The bus arrived. I stashed my luggage with my life’s possessions beneath the bus and mounted the steps. I took a seat in back, by the window. Tomorrow it would be a whole new thing. New SIM card, new faces, a whole new life.
Maybe the sun and Ann Coulter would do me some good. Lord knows I was too old for this.
THE END … FOR NOW …
B. DeMarco-Barrett’s first book, Pen on Fire: A Busy Woman’s Guide to Igniting the Writer Within (Harcourt, 2004; 10th printing), made the Los Angeles Times best-seller list. Her short story, “Crazy for You,” originally published in Orange County Noir (Akashic, 2010) was anthologized in USA noir: Best of Akashic Noir Series (Akashic, 2013). In March 2014, “Message in a Bottle” was published in The Big Click Magazine. Her essays and articles have seen print in The Writer, Writer’s Digest, Poets & Writers, The Toronto Sun, The Los Angeles Times, and more. She teaches “Jumpstart Your Writing” online for Gotham Writers Workshop and hosts Writers on Writing, KUCI-FM, also streaming at www.kuci.org and iTunes / college radio. DeMarco-Barrett received a Distinguished Instructor Award in at UC-Irvine Extension. She is founder of the Pen on Fire Speakers Series.