She once did a guy I was dating, but I forgive her for that because she's my best friend. I never had a sister, and Beth can't help it. Fucking guys completes her chromosomes.
Let's go out, Beth says. Her blonde curls hang limpet-like around her face. She hasn't tanned in a few months. Doesn't have the cash.
I paint my toenails, careful swipes of Seductress Pink. I go out a lot these days: it comes along with Travis. Pursing my lips, I blow on the wet lacquer. Where?
Beth shrugs. Who cares? This place is so damn quiet.
New York spat her back to our suburb like a half-chewed piece of steak. She's all grizzle, some red. But her subway cars and her walkup gave her tenure.
I need your half for the rent, I remind her because it's necessary. Beth doesn't pay what you don't ask her to give.
Travis plays guitar in a local band. Some nights he collects twenty pairs of underwear from the stage. New, old, clean, dirty, silk, lace, cotton, thong, bikini cut. It doesn't matter what kind or who throws. What does matter is temptation.
I don't trust him.
Travis says this when we're curled against each other at night. His bed smells like patchouli and his sheets are worn but cool. His pillows swallow my head. He says I don't trust him and he kisses my hands, draws them between us as if I'm in prayer. A supplicant. I'm not.
I do trust you. I nip his thumb with my teeth as punishment.
You barely ate dinner, he says but it's a whisper, and his hands have already left mine. They're raking my ribcage, pulling the bones up for his inspection. He skims fingers over me and he might be playing a chord for the way it goes, gentle but rough. His full attention required.
I want to eat you, I tell him, and this, at least, is metaphorically true.
Beth knows where Travis's band is playing, and that's where she wants to go. It's a rundown place on the edge of a bad neighborhood where our car may become a casualty to some fast-handed guy who needs to turn over an extra five hundred tonight to support his meth habit. We line our lips with red, pucker up with gloss. I spray my hair, layer gray shadow over my eyes.
The smoky look, Beth tells me, approval in her voice. You look hot. I bet Travis will fuck you tonight like nobody's business.
Something about the way Beth says this makes my teeth grind together. It's that one time that still sticks between us. I know she did it, I know she knows I know, and we both maintain the pretense that it never happened.
I don't say what I want to tell her. Instead: you look great, Beth.
Thanks. A sigh falls between us while she runs mascara over her lashes, then rubs her lips together. I miss Tim.
Like nobody's business, I repeat while thinking it's strange. It's a strange phrase, and stranger that my friend is thinking about Travis fucking me, talking about it in wistful tones.
When we get to the bar, we can't find a place to park. We want a spot close enough to street lights and far enough away from cops. It's not that we drink too much to drive but that we'll probably drink over the legal. Nothing's illegal, Beth always says, as long as you don't get pulled over. This is our going out motto, and I think we should be ashamed but we're not. We never are, and we never stop.
Finally, we park on a dirty side street where there's a condom in the storm drain, cigarette butts, scuttled trash. We clip fast in our heels, afraid one of the locals will emerge from his front door and call to us. It's happened before.
When we get to the bar, Travis's band has just finished playing the first set. Another band hops into the void and Travis wades through the crowd to us. He slides an arm around each of our waists and bumps our bodies into his.
My girls are here, he shouts above the laughing and the bass strumming and the check-one-two-check-one-two-three at the microphone on the stage.
The lights bathe everyone in a red glow so that we're packed together like one thrumming heart in the narrow bar. Beth hugs Travis with two arms, a full-on tit hug, pressing herself against him. I feel my mouth smiling but it's not close to real.
Some girls can exist without men, but Beth isn't one of them. Her skirt hem is always just below her clit. I look at her in the red light, and I see the way she's looking at Travis, and I want to say something but I can't. I just watch Travis, wondering what someone else who doesn't love him would see: brown hair, brown eyes, nose too long, spaghetti arms, ripped jeans. Hairy knees. But he knows himself, and he plays on stage the way he plays with my body in bed. It's intense and planned and climactic.
You're quiet, Travis shout-whispers into my ear. I'm not sure if Beth can hear, so I kiss his neck instead of answering. His fingers flex on my waist, and I hope he understands.
Beth buys me vodka cranberries all night, puts them on her credit card because then she won't have to pay. I'm probably going to file for bankruptcy, she tells me, extracting a Camel from her purse. She holds it in her mouth and talks, cigarette bouncing against her bottom lip. With Tim gone, there are so many bills I can't afford. Our wedding. That was twenty grand. My divorce lawyer. It adds up, you know, so drink up babe. It's on me tonight.
It occurs to me that Beth is paying her rent with the alcohol she buys me. Probably, I should say something to her, tell her that I need actual cash, that I can't pay Darin in vodka cranberries I've already consumed. But instead, I'm half-wasted and everything is starting to feel wispy and delicious. I notice the hair on my arms is dark and stippled with blonde from sun. I forget to answer her and go back to sipping my drink.
Travis is back on stage now, but he's so far away, a river of people between us who are sweating and dancing, hips grinding together, beer tipping from bottles. The floor here is permanently sticky.
I love to watch Travis play, Beth tells me, her eyes squinty as if she's looking into the sun. She turns in the small swath of space she owns at the bar, presses her back against the rail. As she tips her head back, she pulls a heavy hit from the Camel, smoking like she's having a sexual experience.
I wonder if she's thinking about Travis. If she's imagining the cigarette is him, and she's sucking him in, trying to devour him the way I want to do.
You're almost empty, she tells me, then waves to the bartender. Get her a double this time, Robbie. We're besties, and she's been taking care of me.
Before I finish my glass, I have another, and this one is bigger and darker. The bartender grazes my hand when he passes it to me. His mouth looks small under his mustache, like a knot. I wonder if he has teeth. If he does, I can't see them. He never talks, just holds up fingers to indicate price. Everything is a whole number here. One, two, three. Barely ever four.
When did you meet Travis, Beth wants to know. She blows pearls of smoke above her, watching them rise, watching Travis on stage, not looking at me.
She was married to Tim for three years, and we didn't talk then because according to Beth, Tim was an abusive asshole. I've forgiven her for that, though. She couldn't escape.
Two years ago, I answer. I see Travis dipping and angling his body, hear him playing. His music swishes around inside me with the alcohol.
How did you find him? You never told me.
I want to ask Beth why it matters, why the questions, why the focus on Travis.
He's such a great guy, she adds, so talented. I have to find someone somehow. Do you think I should try online dating?
You aren't officially divorced yet, I remind her because it's true, and because Beth never knows when to stop.
That's just because Tim decided to disappear. I swear to God, if he isn't dead by now, I'll rip off his balls when I find him. She grinds out the nub of her cigarette into a black ashtray, and then she smiles. Drink up, babe. How did you find Travis, anyway? You didn't answer me.
Guitar lessons at Guthrie's Music Shop. He was my instructor. That first night, he asked me if I wanted to go for pizza after his shift. I said yes but we never made it to the pizza joint. Instead, we went back to his apartment over a runner's shop. We stood on the fire escape, watching headlights merge in and out of traffic. I hadn't understood who he was then. To me, he'd been a half-cute guy with a hobby I wanted to learn. When he took me to one of his gigs, I understood. He's mine, I wanted to tell the panty tossers.
He's wasted here in our puling town, but I still want to soak in his songs, his every word, touch. I don't tell any of this to Beth. Instead, I fix my eyes on Travis's bowed head on the stage and think about what we will do to each other later. And I raise my glass for another sip.
I don't remember, I tell her. It feels like I've known him forever.
After Travis's second set, a jukebox comes on, and there's a familiar roar in my ears from the amps. I've lost Beth and I have to pee, so I head into the dingy hallway where the ladies' room is often clogged and you have to sneak into the men's. At first, I don't recognize the skinny man with brown hair and ripped jeans and the woman with the blonde curls snaking together against a wall. But then I do, and then I realize it's Travis and Beth. They're not kissing, not exactly, but their bodies are touching in the right places for me to know.
The uneven floor trips me. I skid to a stop, brace my palms on the wall. I notice the streaks and smears from other hands before mine. I hear Travis talking, feel him at my back, and more than anything, I want to puke. But I swallow it down, the taste of cranberry and stomach acid, and I push him away, and I walk back into the swarm of people. Everyone is talking, faces blurry and sincere, watching me, laughing, looking away.
Beth follows me. Her arm creeps around my waist while I hear her telling Travis to go away, that she will explain, that he's done enough. I think I hear an apology, a goddamn it. Travis leaves, and I wish he didn't, but there is Beth's calm voice in my ear. There is Beth kissing my cheek and leaving tears. There is Beth whispering she's so sorry, that she never would have. That she couldn't, not to me. I don't bother to remind her that she already did.
We drink until the bar closes, and then someone locks the door and we're still inside the bar, still drinking. The lights come on, and everyone looks ugly and hungry. I haven't eaten all day and I know I should have, but I love the feel of myself getting smaller every day.
Some guy has been talking to me since the door locked. He tells me how I look like Jewel, and he touches my arm. He massages it. I can't stand so I sit on a bench, wondering where Beth has gotten to, and the guy sits next to me, his legs thrust apart, thigh rubbing mine. His hand drops to my thigh, and I wish I'd decided against wearing a dress. He tells me his name is Lenny.
Have you seen Beth? I ask Lenny. At this point, it's all I want to know. I can't drive, and I think she has my keys but I'm not sure. I don't know who has my purse. Maybe Travis took it when he left. Maybe I put it behind the bar.
His hand slips higher, skims the lace trim of my underwear. I'm glad I'm wearing them.
My friend. She's blonde. Curls? Buying my drinks?
Baby, I bought your last two.
Beth reappears and says we're getting a ride from another guy named Ted who happens to be friends with Lenny. We head to a house somewhere outside town that four or five guys share. One promises us pot, another sits me on his lap in the backseat and I don't think it's Lenny but I can't see in the darkness. We stumble up a set of steps, and there's a living room, a television, a bulldog, a pipe. For some reason, laughter is everywhere, so much of it that I swear it's stuck between my ears. Beth disappears down a hallway with Ted, holding his hand. I call out to her, but she ignores me, and then there's a pair of hairy hands hefting me up, and I'm over someone's shoulder, and I'm looking at cargo pants from above, legs walking up steps.
Upstairs, I land on a bed and I keep talking, keep shoving but nothing happens because I'm so sick, I'm so sick. I just want to crawl in a corner and sleep until I'm not nauseous any more and the room looks clear and I wake up in bed next to Travis and everything is normal again and I never saw him trying to kiss Beth. But there's someone else above me with a scratchy beard and I don't know where my clothing is going, and it's as if there's more than one set of hands on my skin, cold and deliberate, and then there's a body over mine and a feeling. Like I may break in two.
I can smell sheets that need laundering, musky deodorant. I hear a cricket somewhere outside, then the backfiring of a car in an alley or maybe a gun. Then snoring.
In the morning, I'm puking over a toilet. Black mold curls around the rim in a lover's grip. There's a dank smell, the bitter tinge of urine in my nose. I flatten my palms on the scarred linoleum to keep my balance and see dark pubic hairs skitter across the floor. I wonder who they belong to, and then I throw up again.
There's a hand on my back, and it's warm and calming. Familiar. The hand rubs down my spine, then back up again, along my side, my front, tracing my rib cage before it stops, bracing me. It's Beth.
I think we should call Travis, she says. Tell him to come and get us.