I fold over the stack of ones and fives and slide them inside the pocket of my blond leather coat. Seven crisp and new, another seven with corners folded, and twelve crumpled and dirty. A pretty bad take, even for a weeknight. Too many guys there mainly for the six-dollar steak, black crisscross on top, inside sanguine. Women tip best—it makes them feel like feminists—and there wasn't one out there tonight. Not that I could see, anyway. Not that I looked real hard.
"Night, Sabrina," Jenna says as I come down the back stairs. She's leaning against the brick wall with that creepy boyfriend leaning against her. He's the kind of guy who goes around bragging to his buddies that his girlfriend's a stripper, and she's too dumb to realize that's not the kind of proud you want your boyfriend to be.
"You need a ride home?" the creepy boyfriend asks. He asks me this nearly every night, even on ones when Jenna's not there.
"No, I'm good."
Someone should bother to clean up this asphalt. It's nothing but a parking lot outside a bar on Colfax, but there just aren't that many pretty sights late at night. The Rocky Mountains melted away hours ago, and it's too bright to see the stars. Light pollution, they call it. We get it on both ends, a brown cloud during the day and a blinding haze at night. So even though a piece of blacktop might not seem like much, it would make a difference to have the cigarette butts swept up and the oil stains cleaned off. You can do that with plain kitchen cornstarch. Mama taught me that, because Mike hated when grease leaked from the barbeque grill onto the concrete porch. You had to clean it up right away, as soon as it dripped down, instead of waiting until after dinner, otherwise Mike couldn't eat. And if Mike couldn't eat, then Mama and I couldn't eat, either.
"It ain't safe for you to be walkin' home by yourself," Jenna's boyfriend calls, but I'm already far enough away that I don't have to answer.
You'd think it would be true, that it's not safe for a woman to be walking alone on Colfax late at night, but it's a funny thing: the later it is, the safer it becomes. Men who hurt women aren't any different from regular folks in that way. At two-thirty in the morning they want to be home in bed with their wives or girlfriends, or whoever. At two-thirty in the morning even the bums are asleep in the doorways of closed-up businesses, and the only people I see are kids, barely twenty-one, in black boots and studded denim jackets and ripped black jeans. They're buzzed from drugs at some club, trying to decide if they're going to go home and sleep it off, or keep looking for another party.
The door to my building—four stories of red brick and black fire escapes, the kind that suburban kids dream of escaping to—is unlocked. It's supposed to be a secure building, but the lock has been broken for months and no one's bothered to fix it. Maybe no one's bothered to complain. I walk up one flight of starkly lit stairs and there's Kort, slumped-over sleeping in front of my door. Sable suede jacket, faded blue jeans with one ripped knee, black leather boots. I don't know how anyone could sleep in the bare light bulb bright, but his eyes are closed. He looks peaceful. Innocent.
Kort hasn't been innocent for a good fifteen years, not since before we lost our virginity to each other back in Texas. It was in his bedroom after school, even though he hadn't gone to school that day. Sometimes it was easier to skip school than to make up excuses. We were almost always alone at Kort's house, since his mama died when he was nine and his dad worked until six. His dad was real kind to me if he came home right after work, because that meant he hadn't been drinking yet. He always offered me a Coke, and a couple of times even asked me to stay for supper. We just had Hamburger Helper and green beans from a can with Italian salad dressing to flavor them up. Kort made fruit cocktail mixed with Cool Whip for dessert. I know that's not what people call good food, but I'd eat it again if someone put it in front of me.
I bend down and stretch my hand out toward Kort's suede shoulder. His arm flies out, hard and straight like a crowbar, to swat me away. His whole body convulses upright, and his blue-grey eyes go wide. They're underlined by crescent moons stained dark by red and blue make purple. "Sab," he says. "Sorry. I didn't know it was you."
"It's okay." I know there's no good way to wake people like us in the middle of the night. "How long you been here?"
"I don't know." He squeezes his blue-grey eyes shut. Not sky blue, the color of boy-next-door-seducers, and not grey, like someone who doesn't give a shit. Blue-grey. "An hour, maybe."
I twist my key in the deadbolt. "Come on in."
My apartment is stuffy from being closed up all day. I push my two windows open, and pull aside the red paisley curtains I sewed out of fabric from Goodwill. Kort slides out of his jacket and tosses it across records upright in a plastic bin. Clapton. Sex Pistols. Femmes. His boots clomp against the scratched hardwood as he walks to the futon next to my east window. Both my windows face south, but I call the one on the left side my east window. The one on the right is west. In the morning, I only pull open the paisley curtain on the east window; in the afternoon, the one over the west.
"You want some tea or a beer?" I ask.
"Tea would be good."
I run water into the silver tea kettle, turning metal cold. "I haven't seen you for a while."
"Yeah, well . . . " He pulls a rubber band out of his matted blond hair, smoothes it down and back with his fingers, then pulls the length through the rubber band again. "I've been pretty busy fucking up my life."
"That's hard to believe," I say. "The last time I saw you, you were a picture of self-confidence. You were also in love." She was smart and kind, he told me. Educated at a real college—like him. Not in community colleges spattered through towns leading away from Houston. Studio Painting here, Elementary Ethics there, Poetry everywhere. She was also from a good family, the right kind of girl for someone like Kort.
"Well, being in love isn't all it's cracked up to be," he says.
"Depends on who you talk to," I say. "Some people actually like it."
"Well, some people are better at it than I am. It's been a long time since I've gotten it right." He inhales through his nose like the air is sprinkled sweet with rain and he just wants to smell it. Taste it. Absorb it all. "Maybe the only time I ever got it right was with you."
"Well, that doesn't count." Not because we were fifteen. Because he ran away. Because one night after his dad passed out, Kort stole all the money from his wallet and jumped onto a bus with his backpack and guitar. He didn't call me until a month after he got to his big sister's apartment in Berkeley. He was afraid I'd be in trouble if I knew.
The kettle whistles, although I don't know why it's called that. It's more like a shriek, when all the pressure has built up inside and the only way to let it all out is with a good scream. I pour the hot water into two coffee mugs that I stole from a diner on Broadway. Kort looks better now than when I first woke him, but not as good as when we first ran into each other two months ago. It was at the record store where I work, my day job, the one I tell people about when they ask what I do. I was crouched behind the counter with a razor in my hand, slicing through fibrous brown tape on a cardboard box. He asked my co-worker if we carried used vinyl. Even though his voice had lost the slow Texas drawl, the sound of it made me hot. Sticky. I unfolded my body and went tall—like how you stretch out one of those paper lanterns over a light bulb. Make it pretty. I said his name with an old twang, then his sunglasses fumbled out of his fingers, onto the floor.
Peppermint steam tingles in my nose. I hand Kort a hot cup. "Honey?"
"Please." He huddles in, meets the rising steam.
I pick up the amber plastic bear from the counter—Francis, that's what I named him. I never throw him out, just refill him from a vat at the hippie co-op—and sit next to Kort on the futon. Francis dangles upside down over Kort's mug, a gold stream, sticky sweet, dropping down. Kort smiles at me like how you think grateful should look, small and string-thin, but real, then looks into his mug. His smile goes away fast, like he sees something in there, something black and cold. "I was always sorry I didn't take you with me."
I shake my head. "You were just a kid."
"I shouldn't have left you there, with him." He keeps looking into his tea, but I wish he'd look at me, because there's something swirling in that liquid that makes him taste regret.
"I could've left, like you did," I say. "I didn't." Because by then it didn't really matter anymore. I'd gotten too old, too risky. Especially after Kort ran away. Before that, if I'd gotten pregnant Mike could've blamed it on Kort. "That delinquent knocked the little whore up," he would've said to Mama. But after Kort, there was no one left for blame.
His eyes rise up. "I was at the club tonight. Did you see me?"
"No." I look to the east, I look to the west, I look at plastic bins, at Clapton and Sex Pistols and Femmes. No, I didn't see you, no don't come to work to see me, no I swear I'm never going back there again, to those dank walls infected with stale cigarette smoke, because I swear this isn't me. No, I'm not one of those girls who does it for the power. You know the myth, that some man took your power away a long time ago, and you get it back by being on stage. Your body, their bodies—all under your control. I do it because for someone like me, there's no other way to make good money.
"I don't see faces," I say.
"I stood in the back," Kort says. "You were beautiful."
"Yeah, that's some beauty contest."
He's got one hand cupping his mug, another resting on his knee, but I want it to be resting on me, so I know he sees me here, not there, on stage in costume, then not.
"You were so sexy. So sweet." His voice drifts and fades, goes searching in the corners of the room, and I hope it never finds its way back. Just falls away thinking of me sweet. "It wasn't very crowded, you know, but there was this one guy . . . this asshole hooting and hollering. Some fucking frat boy. Teasing you with dollar bills, like you were a goddamn trained seal, or something." Kort swallows hard, and his voice goes down his throat. "I was this close to beating the crap out of him."
I shake inside and feel it peeling away, sliding across my hardwood floors, this tightly wound ribbon—it's white silk, see?—that holds the pieces in place and allows me to live this life, to be what I am, but I want to be who I am instead, who Kort thinks I am, and maybe if he could see the ribbon come undone, watch it flutter and wisp in my windows' dark night draft, he'd know how badly I want him to take me away. He could be that guy—couldn't he?— that guy in the movies who's gentle and strong and knows what's right and what's wrong and carries the girl off stage and treats her like a princess and protects her from the men who make her a whore. He could have picked me up, at the very least grabbed my hand, could have taken me with him on that bus with his backpack and his guitar, and I would have stolen money, too, from the empty coffee can that Mama kept hidden back behind the sugar in case of emergencies, in case she ever got the guts to leave. It was still there when I left, I bet it's still sitting there now.
Kort crosses his ankles in front of him, his legs tied up in a denim bow—Indian style, we used to call it, back when it was okay to call it that. I do the same and face him, the points of our knees touching, then not touching, then touching again. Kort says, "I saw my Dad last week."
"He tracks me down about once a year, uses the baseball games he's covering as an excuse for being in town. Guess the Astros played the Rockies last week." Kort shrugs like he's trying to toss something off his shoulders. "When I see him, I just . . . I want him to know, to think, that I turned out fine." His eyes watch my red curtains sway in the breeze, paisleys dancing through the air. "My girlfriend breaking up with me . . . losing my job . . . it's hard to seem fine. So, it turned into this big melodramatic scene with lots of booze and pills and forced puking."
"That's nothing new with him, right?"
"Well . . . " He looks into his tea, laughs the nothin's-really-funny-laugh. "Pop's in AA. One year, twenty-two days, and counting. First time in his life. I was the one puking up tequila and Valium. I just wanted to steady my nerves. But I guess I went overboard."
I see Kort's nerve endings, live wires crackling, jumping about randomly, trying to find a place to land— hopefully in a pool of water to spread quickly— and it's all a lie. Trying to steady them. Numbness, that's what Kort was going for. Beating those nerves into submission through booze and drugs and sex and distance from what made you this way.
"Good," I say. "I hope he knows now what he did to you."
"But that's the thing, Sab." He's still staring at the tea that Francis made sweet and thick and gold, his eyes threatening to make it salty, too. "It got me thinking. After all these years, he's pulling his life together, and I'm more fucked up than ever. So, when's it not his fault anymore? When's it just me being weak?"
My hand reaches to his knee, to the exposed flesh peaking out from the soft, ripped threads. I slide my palm up along the cotton blue. His eyelids drop half-closed. The air was hot and sticky. It was a Texas spring day, after school. But he didn't go to school that day. He had just stayed home. Sometimes it was easier to skip school than to make up excuses. There were only so many times the teachers would buy that he got in a fight on his way to school. His bedroom bright, his skin white, stained red and blue make purple, he fights against me to keep his T-shirt on, but I won't let him. I won't be able to hide, so neither can he. I kiss that patchwork of colors with butterflies and he almost cries, but kisses my lips instead, kisses and cups my tiny breasts, and he unbuttons my cut-off 501's and I say go slow, and he does. His hand is warm, filling the small space between my shorts and those curly hairs darker than the ones on my head, a finger exploring through creases inside creases, and I am hot. Sticky. Wet. My hand on the top button of his 501's, not cut-off, pulling over his slim hips, boy hips, bare ass, a boy's ass, and boy hard. This is what a boy, hard, feels like, not that much smaller than a man, not that much softer, but kinder. He has a condom, because he knows it's risky. He covers the purple veins, makes them shiny. Contained. Safe. When he slides inside of me slow it doesn't hurt, not like it's supposed to hurt your first time because it's not my first time, but it is, and my eyes water because I want it to hurt with him and no one else. I want it to hurt the way it's supposed to. Then Kort speaks. He tells me to look at him, to see his eyes, not blue and not grey, to stay there with him in his bedroom, bright.
Red paisleys dance in the night. I set my tepid mug on the floor next to the futon, and Kort does the same. My hand moves up his thigh, past his crotch, over his belly soft, up his chest hard like a man, and I push him back. My pillows catch him. I slide my curvy hips-full breasts along the cotton comforter, alongside his ribs, and settle in. My ear rests against his chest. Ba-boom. Ba-boom. Ba-boom.
"Close your eyes," I say. "You need sleep."
His arm moves across us both, and pulls me to him tight. His eyes close and mine stay open while I listen to the air shushing between his lips, to the ba-boom, ba-boom, until they are both quiet, deep, slow.
In the morning it will be bright, blue outside my windows east and west, inside my curtains red, and no more purple beneath Kort's eyes.