I had been practicing how to be the other woman. How to only meet on foggy nights and wear a beige trench coat with nothing on underneath, and pout just right. How to always wear perfume so that maybe she would smell it, just enough, to imagine me. I practiced being sexy in the mirror. I stared into my eyes and opened them too wide and tried to look up through my eyelashes, the way girls do when men write about them, and I pursed my lips until I deemed myself fuckable. I loved the person I would be in her mind, gorgeous and evil and able to lure men into a trap, like a siren.
I finally met him at the bar I frequented at the corner of my block, one where you had to walk down a few stairs to reach the door. The lights were electric candles flickering in stained glass jars, and the ceilings were low and painted with rococo style naked angels. They played jazz there. Al Capone could have hung out there. I wore a deep red dress that brushed the tops of my knees. I was crying gently into the whiskey neat I was trying to like. I told myself the burn was just like drinking fire . I kept my hair tucked behind my ears and sat up straight so people could see me. I looked prettiest when I cried. My eyes shone extra blue, and my lips reddened in just that way that people wanted to kiss them better.
He sat down with a bar stool between us, a perfect gentleman, and waited for a while. He smelled like mint toothpaste and baby formula and only a little bit like smoke. His dark eyes were sunk deep in his head under bushy eyebrows, he looked tired and more Neanderthal than average. He ordered a Guiness and a shot. A thick silver wedding band shone on his hairy ring finger. He was NAUGHTY.
I watched him through the mirror behind the bar and all of the liquor bottles. His graying hair stuck out at odd angles, and lines were carved into the spaces next to his mouth and eyes. We locked eyes in the mirror as I was studying him, and I held his gaze and made the face I had been trying on at home, the one that showcased my tragic beauty best. I imagined that it made him wish that I was his wife instead. When he spoke, his voice was higher than I thought it would be.
“Why are you staring at me?” he asked. That wasn’t how this was supposed to start. I wanted him to ask me what was wrong and tell the bartender to get me another drink. I took a moment to adjust the story in my mind.
“I think you just want me to be,” I said in a awkward voice .
He laughed a little, closer to a breath out of his nose, and smiled. My heart beat harder when the wrinkles around his eyes scrunched up, and I understood how someone could fall in love with that face. I unstuck my thighs from the stool and moved, closing the gap between us. I angled my knees towards his so he could just barely feel the heat from my body. I wanted him to itch to touch me. He told me his name was Mike. I tried to imagine moaning the name Mike.
I stared at his lips as he told me about his new baby and how much it screamed, like it was angry about being born. He told me he should have been a songwriter and that he cried to Radiohead. I told him my name was Vanya; I always liked the way it felt in my mouth . He didn’t ask me anything else.
After my drink got too warm to stomach, I stood up and made my way over to the jukebox. The whiskey had made my head hot and heavy, and I couldn’t tell if my hips were swaying naturally. Years of spilled drinks made my shoes stick to the floor as I walked. I wanted to turn around to watch him watch me. I dropped a few quarters in and played “Is That All There Is” by Peggy Lee. As the first few notes crackled on the speaker, I pulled him off the stool to the near empty dance floor and placed his hand on the small of my back. His hand was clammy and smoother than I expected. We held each other close. My shoes made me just a little taller than him, so his overgrown scruff itched my shoulder. We stepped side to side real slow in tune with the song, and I put my lips up to his ear so he could feel my breath and whispered along with Peggy Lee: Is that all there is to a fire?
I walked home with his number scribbled on a bar napkin tucked away in my coat pocket.
The air outside was crisp and moonlit. The night made me want to be held and admired. Cars drove by, belching pungent, black exhaust towards me. A man shouted out of his car window…
“You bad as shit bitch. Lemme lick your pussy all night long.”
I thought about all the sweet nothings Mike would whisper to me when we met again.
I pushed open the lead painted door to my dusty apartment. The walls were black and white with cobwebs in out of reach places. A queen mattress laid firmly in the middle and was covered with a rumpled white comforter and a half dozen pillows. I read somewhere that lonely people tend to have more pillows . Knickknacks and half-dead plants filled all of the in-between spaces. Next to my single window, I had a large box TV with antennas wrapped in aluminum foil. Underneath was my pile of VCRs of old film noir movies where everyone was glamorous. I would move my mouth along with Lauren Bacall’s Smokey voiced lines and try to contort my face into something sultry.
I undressed in front of my full length mirror. I ran my hands over the curves of my body and imagined they were Mike’s. Lying in bed, I let chocolate covered almonds melt in my fingers and on my tongue. My cross-eyed cat Elvis came and rubbed up against my legs, stretching long and big before settling in and purring himself to sleep. I stroked his little head and wondered how hard I’d have to squeeze to break it. My gas radiator hissed on and I fell asleep to the sound, naked atop my sheets with my window wide open.
Mike texted me the next day, right in the middle when the sun was at its harshest. The buzz of my phone woke me up from a dream where I was flying. Waking up felt like my blood had turned to cement and someone heavy was sitting right on my chest. Elvis stuck his ass in my face and screamed for food. Mike just said hey.
I stumbled into the kitchen for breakfast. Mustard, champagne, and cat food stared back at me from my refrigerator. I briefly pondered how different cat food really was from a can of tuna. The screech of the can opening sent Elvis scrambling across the floor. I laid on the linoleum next to him and watched him eat. My thoughts felt thick, and I couldn’t open my eyes enough to actually see.
My phone buzzed again.
When can I see you?
I didn’t open the text right away, I wanted to savor seeing his name on my phone. Instead, I drew myself a bath.
My hot water didn’t work, so I boiled kettle after kettle and poured them into my slightly moldy tub. I lit a candle that was supposed to smell like tobacco and leather and slid into the near boiling water. My skin turned bright red and burned. Goosebumps formed where it was left exposed. A ring of dirt stained the tub where the water met the air. I tried not to look too hard at my body in the water.When I did, I felt like I needed one of those tubs William Howard Taft had made because he couldn’t fit into a regular one. The tub was too small for Mike to fit in with me. Maybe he’d take me to a secret hotel just outside of town so we could take a bath together. He’d fill it with rose petals and milk, and we’d share a bottle of champagne, the nice stuff. I’d listen to him the way his wife didn’t, and he’d wash my hair and rub my feet with gratitude.
I told Mike to come over at eight. I sent him my address and stared at my phone until he responded.
He wrote back immediately.
I wondered what my name was in his phone. Where he told his wife he was going. How he tried to hide his eagerness.
I shaved every inch of myself, running my hands over my legs to make sure I didn’t miss a single spot. I washed and conditioned my hair and poured nice smelling oils and oatmeal in the water. I marinated until my fingers felt like raisins and the water was grey and cold. I slathered myself in lotions and plucked the one eyelash that always grew out of my chin. I ran to the liquor store down the street and bought a thirteen dollar bottle of red wine. I cleaned Elvis’ litter box and took out the trash. I vacuumed and swept and hid all my dirty bits under rugs and in closets.
I tried on all of my favorite dresses before settling on a black silk robe that flowed behind me as I walked. My nails were painted a dark red that matched my earrings and lips. They looked so smooth from far away. Wherever I kissed, I would leave a mark, and Mike would think about my lips as he carefully washed each mark off before going home. I looked at myself triumphantly in the mirror. Someone had agreed to spend their life with this man, and he was about to fuck me. I imagined the delight that would pass over Mike’s face and how the crinkles around his eyes would deepen as he smiled at me and that he’d place an expensive diamond necklace around my neck.
He knocked on my door right at 8. I scurried to light a few candles and turn off the overhead lights that made everyone under them look sickly. I kicked Elvis into the bathroom. He scratched at my legs and yowled as I closed him in. I opened the door draped in my robe, with the bottle of wine in hand and purred come in.
Mike was wearing a Mumford and Sons t-shirt with a large white stain, cargo shorts, and flip-flops with thick straps. He smelled like baby vomit and salami. He pushed past me and closed the door quickly. His hands were shaking, and he wouldn’t look me in the eye.
“Uh hello, Vanya.”
“I was just about to open this bottle of wine. Can I pour you a glass?” I asked.
“No, no, I am fine.” Mike stuttered. His voice shot up a few octaves, and he cleared his throat.
“How about I put on some music?”
“Uh, no. Can we just um.. Just do this, okay?” He unzipped his shorts.
My robe and makeup felt ridiculous. He kept his shirt on. We didn’t kiss. He pushed my head down. I tried not to listen to him cum, I no longer wanted to know that about him.
He sloppily pulled his shorts back on and left without saying much of anything.
Elvis hissed and ran out when I opened the bathroom door. The toilet paper was in shreds on the floor. I turned on the fluorescent lights and listened to them buzz as I looked in the mirror, my lipstick was smeared around my mouth. One eye looked so much bigger than the other. Both were bloodshot. I felt like someone had come in and scrambled up my face and none of my features were fitting back into place the way they were supposed to.
I paced around my apartment, blowing out all the candles as I went. I deleted all three of our texts. Still in my robe, I searched my pantry for something resembling dinner. I stuffed the unopened wine into a hidden corner. I warmed up a can of black beans and tried cooking some rice. I fed Elvis as I waited for the water to boil, he ate happily, oblivious that anything happened, that the stink of unfamiliar sweat lingered in the air.
I was sitting on the kitchen floor when I smelled burning rice. Barefoot, I ran the pot outside to the alley and threw the rice and the pot into the dumpster before my fire alarm picked up the smell. That dumpster was somehow always full of sawdust, and usually on fire. The gravel dug into the bottoms of my feet. I walked back carefully, trying to spread my weight evenly over my whole foot with each step. The beans looked like slimy little bugs. I threw them away too.
My stomach hurt, and my mouth tasted like uncooked mushrooms. I kept brushing my teeth, but the taste wouldn’t leave. I took a long cold shower and scrubbed myself raw. I wished I could pull off my skin and keep it separate from myself. The smoothness of my legs made me feel sick. I yanked the sheets off my bed and crawled onto my mattress with just my comforter. Elvis rubbed his head against my legs and stretched and yawned and curled up next to my feet. Cat hair and crumbs from the bare mattress stuck to my still wet legs.
That night I dreamt that my teeth were toenails, and they wouldn’t stop falling out . I held out my hands in front of my mouth and watched them fill to the brim and spill over. They scratched my gums on the way out. I woke up gasping for breath and relieved, so fucking relieved, that it wasn’t real. It felt so good to be happy to wake.
Originally from Miami, Carla lives on in the Pacific Northwest where she drinks beer and writes in her journals. Carla is a graduate from Columbia College Chicago, where she studied Fiction Writing. She is currently working on her first collection of short stories. Her work is featured in Not Your Mother’s Breast Milk Magazine.