Sharp light. Gasping. A hammering in her temples. The whirring of clothes in a dryer called her back, back, back like music.
Candice awoke, startled, head spinning, eyes burning, ears ringing. She was a record, the dropped needle hissing along vinyl, some unknown song just about to begin. She was a seashell, broken open.
She had dreamed of phoning for help last night, but piercing nausea doubled her over, made her fumble the receiver, and misdial again and again. Her cries were muffled. Lying there, Candice still felt the phone receiver, the plastic still warm against her cheek. It was silent. Disconnected.
What did you do? she thought. The whole room smelled of sickness and warming bile. Oh, god, oh, god, where am I? Candice's hands were shaking as she felt around for her cell phone.
Candice remembered how useless her phone was last night, how her stomach sank when she couldn't get reception. That had been the first sign of trouble.
She always believed undercurrents, rushes of chance that swept downstream, directed her life. Good luck, it seemed to her, arrived all at once like fortune cookies dropped in a takeout bag. Happy, crinkling accidents. Unexpected promotions, like when she added the word "senior" to her job title, "market research analyst." A single unlucky break, on the other hand, inevitably brought more, inconveniences that dominoed into crisis. Broken heels then flat tires. The boyfriend who worked late became the bastard ex-boyfriend who had been cheating for three months. Crisis dominoed into disaster.
So when her goddamn cell phone didn't work in this area she wasn't surprised when her friend Gillian said she had forgotten to charge hers. It figured. On a different night neither problem might have mattered. But they had been waiting in PJ's Tavern, that supposed faux dive bar, for their dates to arrive. At that point the guys were already 45 minutes late. They ordered another round of drinks and went to the pay phone in the back. They each tried their own dates' cells without luck: Candice rang through to Neil's full voicemail. Gillian said Floyd's was off.
They returned to the bar where they rendezvoused with a pair of fresh cosmopolitans that stood out pink as a bikini top. They picked up the cocktails as a stocky bartender with a lazy eye glanced at them and continued sliced limes.
After that, memories would not fit together to recreate the prior night, one that had begun with a simple goal: finally go on a date again. Candice could not remember how she left the bar or who took her away and brought her here, to this unfamiliar bedroom. She did not know why.
Acid slid down the back of her throat, and she winced, panicking, not wanting to look to her chest, her pelvis, to see whether her pants, blouse, bra, and underwear were still on. To see whether someone had pulled them off. The clothes she wore felt too big, and she finally bent to look—a man's tank-top and shorts.
Her muscles ached, and she felt drying sweat on the inside of her knees. Pink vomit stained the pillow and sheets, leaving dark circles. The phone fell away as Candice rolled back to the middle of the mattress. She looked at the unfamiliar nightstand that held an alarm clock with large, red digits, so unlike the analog one in her bedroom. Seven, it read, but a.m. or p.m. she was not sure.
Broken sunlight shined in through the blinded window. The walls were painted pale yellow, decorated with black-and-white photographs of hotels. A picture on the nightstand showed a middle-aged woman she did not know posing in front of Lombard Street. Behind her, the pavement twisted, coiling like an eel.
Two cocktails. She counted each again. Yes, she had only drank two cosmopolitans, one before the call and one after. Fewer than on two other star-crossed nights that had swum back to her as flashes of overreaction then apology. One had ended with her at the door of her ex-boyfriend; another had left her Mazda without a side-view mirror—she had promised herself never again.
Though hazy, she remembered feeling someone behind her in the dark, remembered another's breathing, but in her mind it all seemed flat, like a postcard. As she explored the memory, pushed to recall more, it tumbled like bricks. Then others rushed back, washing over her.
"What shall we do now?" Candice remembering saying last night as she pushed back her blonde hair, sipped the drink, then stared at her watch, tapping the face with her nail. They had had tickets to see Tom Waits play downtown.
"Relax. Two hours—we still have time."
At least you work together, Candice had thought. You know your date. I'm waiting for his friend, the "other guy." Then, gulping her drink, she had rolled her eyes and smoothed her black pants, bought at H&M the week before. It was no use—she couldn't resist fidgeting; she couldn't make the guys arrive earlier. Maybe Neil wouldn't be so bad. Maybe he'd be—
"The one." Gillian had grinned and wiggled her nose, which was flat and pointed like a chicken's beak. "I think Floyd might be the one." She twirled her dark hair in her fingers.
"He's hot. A really good kisser, too."
Disinterested, Candice had turned away, scanning around the bar.
"You'll absolutely love Neil though. He's a sweetheart."
"Sweetheart?" She remembered frowning, feeling unnatural sparks of anger. "That sounds like another word for dishrag." Then Candice started blinking like a lash had fallen in her eye. On the edge of her hazy vision a bouncer in a black, spandex shirt seemed to watch her. What have I done? she had wondered.
"And no dwelling on your ex," Gillian had said, her voice distorting.
The diamond Budweiser sign glared red in the window. It darkened. In the corner a television flashed.
In her memory her lips had tasted like the chemical salt used to melt snow. Then a tap on the shoulder and she turned. The motion was a Vaseline blur. A deep voice had asked, "So you thought you might like to go to the show?" Then she had felt spinning as the curtain dropped.
"Hello?" she tried to call out from the bed, but her voice was gone. Just raspy breath. A soapy, chemical taste, like touching a 9-volt battery to your tongue, lingered in her mouth and nose. She swallowed cotton spit.
"Hello?" The wrecked voice was hard to recognize as hers.
The clock hummed; a dryer spun in the hallway; beyond remained unknown. Was there anybody out there? The bedroom door was slightly open. Headaches and bubbling in her throat drowned the urge to fly from the bed, to run out to the street. Her body would not respond. There is nowhere to go, she thought.
As she slid herself to the edge of the mattress Candice felt stabs of nausea in her stomach that brought rivers of new saliva. Below her, there was a spattered stockpot sitting on ivory carpeting, flecked with chicken breast and romaine lettuce she recognized from lunch yesterday. Candice fought the urge to throw up.
She paused, waiting, hoping for a playful knock or a concerned voice asking, "Can you sit up?" Candice wished for some lucky sign that Gillian had protected her. Or even that Neil, a true gentleman, had found her, helpless, and would soon call her a homeward bound cab.
Candice, standing then stumbling forward, imagined another person taking over her life, someone who reversed currents of fortune with a finger snap. A woman who would move into Candice's apartment and throw her faded towels and scratched furniture in a dumpster. A woman who would sit in her cubicle and shop her grocery store and fill every empty place Candice had once filled, washing away the traces of her like sand.
As she moved, her foot pressing into the carpet, she had this thought: Run like hell.