I'd known Tina for less than three months and she already owed me two hundred dollars, money I needed for next semester's books. It was on my mind constantly, but I never mentioned it because no-one else had ever invited me out. I envied her bold clothes and loud, mouthy personality—the way she was good at attracting attention. But now I wished that I hadn't agreed to go gambling with her.
We'd been sitting at the casino bar, avoiding each other's eyes, since Tina blew the last of her cash on the slot machines. I knew she wanted to borrow more money. I leaned away from her, resenting all the drinks I'd had to pay for, smoking another generic down to the filter. I rubbed the thick pink scar on my left wrist with my thumb. A year ago, suicide had looked like a better option than sleeping behind the mall again. Now I seemed to spend half my life either scratching the scar or contorting myself to hide it.
Tina sniffled, peevishly kicking her shoe against the bar, the disco balls spinning red streams of light across her face. Kick. Kick. I gritted my teeth. I'd been trying all night to get Ben, the bartender, to flirt with me, and now Tina was driving him off with her pissy attitude. It was late as hell and we were the only ones left at the bar now, but he kept his back turned, lounging by the cash register.
Around us, deep purple carpet stretched into a glittering maze of slot machines. Blackjack tables, hazy through the smoke, floated like leather islands in a sea of chrome. The sight of all the flashing dollar signs whipped Tina into frenzied dreams of wealth, but none of it seemed interesting to me. I was focused on Ben. The way he'd smiled at me when I tipped him on the last round of drinks had given me a little shiver of hope. That's when I'd asked him his name.
Tina hauled herself out of her slouch, sliding her elbows onto the bar. "Lend me twenty dollars," she said. Her eyes looked runny. She swirled the ice in her empty glass, tilting her chin as if disgusted that she'd had to ask.
I lit another cigarette and studied the pattern of dots around the filter. I was working day-shift at a famous Memphis strip-club and people always assumed that I was loaded. But I wasn't, though I wouldn't admit it, and secretly I bought everything I could at garage sales. I worried constantly about running out of money. I couldn't forget what it was like to live in alleys, dragging around my bag full of dirty clothes, feet sore, mouth stale with unbrushed teeth.
"Oh God," Tina said, glaring at me. "I bet you make three hundred bucks a day and you can't even loan me a twenty?" She said twunny. She stuck her lower lip out. All the lipstick had been rubbed off hours ago, but traces of her dark lip-liner remained. I felt like telling her to go wipe it off, but I didn't.
From the corner of my eye, I saw Ben straightening up and realized that he was about to come back over. I also realized that buying Tina endless drinks at the bar would cost me more than a twunny in the long run. Let her go brood over a slot machine again, and drink the free cocktails passed out to the players. Then I might have a chance with Ben.
"Fine," I said, handing her two limp tens. She snatched them and threw her arms around me and I wondered why she always smelled like lunchmeat. She kissed my cheekbone, giggling. I waited until she had turned away, then grabbed a napkin and wiped the side of my face.
Ben stood in front of me, watching, his arms folded. I crumpled the napkin and tossed it on the bar.
"You guys don't seem to get along too well," he said. He picked up the crumpled napkin and threw it away.
I glanced over my shoulder. Tina vanished into the slippery golden light between rows of slot machines, tugging at her tight denim shorts.
"We go to school together," I said.
Ben smirked. "Let me guess," he said. "Simmons School of Cosmetology. That girl in their ads looks just like her."
I forced a smile, not sure if he was making fun of me. "No," I said. "ICB Technical Institute, in Memphis. For a paralegal certificate."
"Yeah, I've seen their ads too," he said, rolling his eyes.
I stared at him, rubbing the scar on my wrist again. I could just barely afford those classes and now, because of Tina's mooching, I didn't know how I'd pay for the next set of books. Was I wasting my money? Did he know something I didn't? I didn't dare ask. My buzz frayed around the edges.
"Let me have a couple more shots," I said.
I watched Ben dump Jagermeister into two etched shot glasses. His blond hair was short and sun-streaked, the back of his neck tanned darker than his face. I imagined kissing him there, the slight roughness of his skin against my lips. I could tell by his easy smile that his phone never stopped ringing, that he was always on his way somewhere to meet someone. He was the type of guy who had looked right through me in high school, and I'd spent half my life wishing for a boyfriend just like him.
"I hope you're not driving back to Memphis tonight," he said.
I slammed both shots and tried to grin as the alcohol surged through me, feeling bold in a splintery, strip-club way.
"Maybe you could drive me home tonight," I suggested.
He raised his eyebrows. "We can't leave with the customers."
"I won't tell."
"You're a wild one," he said, with a smile I couldn't interpret. "Get you anything else?"
I didn't want him to walk away. "I'll take a Corona," I said. "I don't have to work tomorrow." I waited for him to ask me what I did, but he just slid the beer in front of me. "I'm taking the day off," I said.
"Must be nice."
"I'm a dancer. I can do what I want." I waited for the big reaction, but his expression didn't change.
"I dated a dancer once," he said. He dumped out my ashtray, wiped up the ashes spilled on the gleaming bar.
"Then you already know how much fun we are."
"She wasn't much fun," he said. "All she cared about was getting high."
I tried to think of something witty to say, but as usual I drew a blank. I thought about Tina griping and sulking earlier in the evening until I broke down and bought us a joint. She'd said it was bad luck not to smoke one on the way down here. She'd also insisted that I fill up her tank, though it was only a forty minute drive from Memphis to Tunica.
"Let me know if you need anything else," Ben said, walking away.
I stared at his back, at his big shoulders snug under his crisp white shirt. Did he like me? He hadn't said that he wouldn't drive me home.
For the first time, it occurred to me that Tina probably expected me to get us a room. We'd been drinking all night and the road between Memphis and Tunica was notorious for roadblocks. A cab would be insanely expensive.
My back stiffened. I'd rather sleep in the car on the side of the road, as I'd done when I moved down from Boston. But I knew she wouldn't go for it. When she'd moved to Memphis from California six months ago, she'd had no money for hotels, so she'd strapped her kid into the back seat of the car and driven twenty-six hours to her mother's house. She told me stopping on the side of the road was the most dangerous thing you could do.
But the thought of parting with a hundred bucks for a hotel room made my stomach hurt. I liked to let people think I was a high-dollar dancer, but the truth was that I wasn't very good. The stage scared me. The other girls liked to crawl around on it, pretending to hump the floor, leaving greasy streaks of sweat and expensive lotion. When my turn came, I walked too stiffly, always forgetting to smile, afraid of hitting a slick spot and landing on my ass. I got pity tips from the regulars and not much from anybody else.
People had told me that strippers in Memphis made two thousand dollars a day, that rich men came from all over for the famous "Memphis Grind." But I had no luck selling lap dances either and not just because the Vice Squad raids made me nervous. All the money-men shooed me away, forever looking past me at someone prettier. I would rather die, or go broke, than admit this to Tina, but pretty soon she would figure it out for herself. What would I tell her if I had to drop out of school?
I looked at Ben again. I tried to imagine what it would be like to date him. I'd never had a real boyfriend, or even a real date. I was sick of trying to meet people in bars. I was sick of guys who bought me drinks and said I was the girl of their dreams, only to bolt in the morning without even getting my number. They were drunk and scruffy and Ben was good-looking and clean. If he was my boyfriend, people would think I was normal.
Behind me, one of the slot machines trumpeted loudly, and I heard Tina howl with delight. I put my beer down. Ben glanced over his shoulder, raising his eyebrows at me.
"Oh shit, oh shit, oh my GOD!" Tina screamed.
I jumped off the barstool and hurried into the maze. When I found her, the slot machine was blaring victory music, lights flashing, chrome sparkling, and she was hugging it, laughing and crying, bits of hair stuck to the side of her face and her nose swollen and shiny. I looked at the display. One thousand dollars. My heart thudded. Finally, I would get my money back.
Tina seized my arm and wrung it like she was trying to squeeze out water. She was incoherent. I pulled away from her and watched enviously as the floor host showed up to clear the win. He signed Tina's ticket with a big gold pen and handed her the curled slip of paper. I went back to the bar as she rushed off to cash in her winnings.
"Big money?" Ben asked.
He curled his lip slightly, a flicker of envy crossing his face. "Well, she looks like she needs it. Not everyone can dance for a living."
I felt embarrassed suddenly. What was that supposed to mean? Was he wondering why I was with her? Most dancers hung out with other dancers. I thought about the club, about the purring clumps of long-legged girls, who all sat in each other's laps, rubbing each other's shoulders, who exchanged glances and smiled distantly when I spoke to them. Everyone here hates Yankees, Tina had told me once, smug with her California accent. You're as Yankee as they come.
But what she didn't realize was that they didn't like Californians either. I had watched her at school, flapping like a moth around the people in our classes, bumping against them over and over again as they tried to brush her away. I didn't have the nerve to pursue people like that. I stood alone on smoke breaks, pretending to look at text messages. The only ones I got were from the phone company. Sometimes I worried that my Boston accent wasn't the only thing that turned people away. I worried that there was a permanent stain on me; a lingering odor of musty carpet and mouse shit, ground into my skin at the homeless shelter in Boston.
"It's not easy," I mumbled.
"You don't look like a dancer," Ben said. He put both hands on the bar and leaned forward. I looked up and caught him running his eyes across my chest. Did he mean that as a compliment?
Then he looked over my shoulder and I turned to see Tina staggering towards us, still clutching her ribbed plastic cup half-full of a sloshing cocktail. Her face was sweaty, her grin unsteady, as if she might start crying again. The floor host stalked behind her, his eyes narrow. He exchanged a glance with Ben. Tina tripped, spilling some of her cocktail on the carpet, and the floor host took her elbow. He seemed to be telling her something exciting.
"Hey!" she shouted, waving her cocktail at me. "They're going to comp us a room!"
I gasped, then grinned wildly at Ben. "Maybe you can come up and see me," I said.
"Much as I'd like to," he said. "It's against the rules." Much as I'd like to! His words made me giddy. "Maybe we can get permission from your manager," I said. He laughed. Tina lurched onto the stool next to me, fanning herself.
"What a night," she said breathlessly. "I'm ready for bed. We get a free room!"
"Let's have another drink first," I said, looking at Ben. I waited for Tina to say she was paying, but instead she scowled at me.
"Oh God, do we have to? I'm exhausted." Her mouth wobbled again. "Let's just go to the room."
"You go," I said. "I'll be up in a bit."
She started blinking. I could feel Ben watching us. She was going to make a scene.
"Well, come up and help me find the room," she said, in a whiny voice that made my skin crawl. "Then you can come back down, if you must."
"Fine," I said. I had lost interest in the stupid room. I asked Ben how much longer he was working and he told me an hour.
"I'm just going to take her upstairs," I said. "Then I'll come back down for a drink." He shrugged and I thought he looked disappointed.
"Let's go," I said, pushing Tina away as she leaned on my shoulder. The floor host handed her a comp card to use for the room.
"You're so great!" she cried, fluttering it in the air.
He backed away. "Have a good night, ladies," he said thinly. He edged around us and went to sit at the bar a few stools down. Ben followed him. He didn't look back at us, though I kept trying to catch his eye.
Upstairs, the carpet was shabbier, thin and brown like mouse fur, and there were plastic cups lying in the hallway. Tina kicked one of them and giggled. I marched ahead of her, looking for room 607. The door, when I found it, hung crooked. After three tries, I got the key to work.
Inside, the A/C was blasting and the frigid air smelled faintly of Lysol. There was one queen bed, with a flowered quilt, and a metal trashcan with a tissue stuck to the bottom of it. A sign above the trash can shouted in red inkjet letters: VOMMITT ON THE CARPET WILL BE CHARGED TO YOUR CREDIT CARD.
"Well, this is nice!" Tina exclaimed, jostling in behind me. She flung open the curtains, but all we could see were our reflections looking back at us. Yawning, she kicked off her shoes and sat on the bed. She pulled her shirt off. Her purple push-up bra looked two sizes too big for her, and her belly pooched over the waistband of her shorts.
"I can't believe I won a thousand bucks," she said dreamily.
"Yeah," I said. "Good thing I loaned you that twenty."
She didn't look at me. I realized then that she wasn't going to pay me back.
"Dance for me," she said suddenly. She leaned back on her elbows, bleary-eyed, a choppy smile coming and going on her face.
I stared at her, dumbfounded. "What?"
"Come on, dance for me! You're a stripper, aren't you? Give me a lap dance."
"No," I said. "Quit messing around."
"Alright, just show me your tits then," she said. "I want to see your tits."
"I don't show my tits for free," I snapped, and immediately wished I hadn't. My face burned.
Tina pouted. "Fine," she said. "I'll give you forty bucks. Isn't that what you get paid for a lap dance?"
Forty bucks. That would get me back the twenty I had loaned her earlier, plus cover some of the drinks. I hesitated.
"So what's the problem?" Tina said. "You show your tits to dirty old men all day, but you can't show them to me?"
"No," I said. "Yes."
Tina grabbed her purse. I watched her thumb through her wad of cash. She peeled off two twenties and held them out to me.
"Here," she said. "Forty bucks."
I shoved the money into my purse. Part of me wanted to cry. The fluorescent light was unforgiving and I knew she'd get a good hard look at my pimples and cellulite. I almost fished the money back out again and threw it at her, but something wouldn't let me. I gritted my teeth and pulled up my shirt.
"No, take it all the way off," Tina said.
Breathing hard, I pulled it over my head. She leaned back on her elbows again, watching with her tongue between her teeth. I unclasped my bra and stood there holding it stupidly, while she stared.
"So you don't have a boob job," she said. "Let me feel them."
"No," I said. "I'm going back downstairs."
"Oh God," Tina said. "I get us a free room and give you forty bucks and you can't even let me feel? I know you let the guys in the club touch them."
"Fine," I said.
She smiled and sat up. "Come over here, then."
I went and stood in front of her and suddenly she yanked me into her lap. She grabbed my breasts with both hands and started squeezing them. I tried to pull away, but she gripped hard, pushing her face against my neck. I was starting to feel sick.
"Get me off," Tina begged, her breath hot and moist in my ear.
I wrinkled my nose. "I'm not gay," I said, trying to pry her hands loose.
"So what?" she said. "I'm not either."
"Yeah, well, I'm not a whore," I said.
"I gave you forty bucks!"
I gave up trying to be polite and shoved her away. I struggled out of her lap and put my bra on. Tina sank down onto the bed, her face streaky with tears again.
"What, I'm not pretty enough for you?" she said.
"I'm not gay," I said. I put my shirt on.
"This is unbelievable!" Tina wailed. She rolled onto her stomach, hiding her face in her arms. Her shoulders heaved. I knew I was supposed to hug her and apologize, but all I cared about was getting the hell out of there. I grabbed my purse and the extra room key and left her sobbing on the flowered quilt. My buzz had evaporated.
Back at the bar, Ben seemed surprised to see me.
"I figured you'd pass out," he said.
"I'm not that drunk," I said, trying to smile, still feeling bruised from Tina's fingers. I ordered a couple of shots.
Around us, the casino was almost empty. I wondered if the restaurants had closed. I stared at the shots that Ben lined up in front of me.
"Maybe we could get something to eat," I said. "When you get off work."
"I told you, we can't leave with the customers."
"How would they know?"
He sighed. "They watch us."
I slammed a shot and tried to look like I was having fun. I felt flimsy. He'd said Much as I'd like to, hadn't he? I wanted to remind him of that. Mostly, I didn't want to go back upstairs and lie down next to Tina. She would wrap herself around me, hug me like a forty dollar teddy bear.
Ben shrugged. "Tell you what," he said. "I can't let them see me leave with you. But you could go find my truck and wait there 'till I get off work." He looked at his watch. "I've got another twenty minutes."
"I can do that," I said, hoping he wasn't kidding. I pictured us in a booth at Waffle House, pouring syrup on our pancakes, laughing. People would see us and smile.
"It's a red F150 with a blue dolphin hanging off the rearview mirror. Should be the only one in the employee section."
"I'm sure I can find it."
"It's a long walk."
"I don't mind."
"OK," he said. "Wait a few minutes, then go."
He walked away. I pretended to study the alabaster pendant lights hanging above the bar. I sipped my second shot and smoked half a cigarette. Then I slid off the barstool and walked casually toward the entrance, trying not to look back over my shoulder. I wondered if Ben was watching me.
Outside, I waved the valet guy away and strolled toward the parking lot. There weren't many cars left. I had to walk the length of two parking lots to reach the employee section. By then I was limping, so I stopped and took off my heels. The asphalt was warm and scratchy under my bare feet. The steamy Mississippi air clung to my skin.
I hunted through the employee cars until I found the red F150. I smiled at the dolphin hanging off the mirror. Only a guy with a sense of humor would hang something so silly in his vehicle. I examined the truck closely, hoping for clues to Ben's personality. But there was nothing besides the dolphin. He had parked directly under a humming ultra-bright streetlight and the truck gleamed hot red, inscrutable like its owner.
I pressed my face against the driver's side window.
"If you hold on, I'll let you in," Ben said behind me.
I jumped. "I-I was looking to see if it was unlocked."
I turned around. In the flood of light, he looked older than he had inside. His hair seemed thinner, his skin rough and creased around his mouth.
"I need to be home in an hour," he said. He unlocked the truck. "There's a place to park about half a mile down the street from here."
"A place to park?"
"Yeah, then you can walk back to the hotel."
I looked at my red toenails, dusty from traipsing across two parking lots. "It's kinda hard to walk in these shoes," I said, holding them up.
He looked at me blankly.
"Aren't you hungry?" I said. "I was thinking, maybe we could go to Waffle House . . . "
"I thought you wanted to get laid," he said, putting his hands on his hips.
I took a step backwards. I felt a dark flush start below my breastbone and spread up past my neck. I bit my lip. Maybe I should shut up and get in the truck. He was probably just too tired to take me to Waffle House. At least he wanted to screw me. On our next date, we could get pancakes.
I unzipped my purse and fumbled for my smokes. Tina's twenties were crumpled up next to my wallet, looking faded and greasy. My fingers brushed against them. A chill came over me.
"So what's the deal?" Ben said. His shirt was starting to stick to his shoulders and a faint trace of stubble roughened his chin. His neck was fleshy, sweat collecting in the creases.
"I'm sorry," I said, trying to keep my voice from shaking. "I thought I liked you, but actually I'm just hungry."
I started to back up, afraid suddenly that he might reach out and smack me. He sucked his teeth. I scooted around the truck and hurried painfully away, grit stuck to the bottoms of my feet. I heard the truck start. I imagined him driving it over me, crushing me into the asphalt.
But he just left.
I reached up and pushed my hair off my sweaty neck. The casino lights blazed in the distance. I stopped and rubbed the dust off my toenails, wiped the grit off my feet. That was the first time I ever realized that something wasn't always better than nothing. That I didn't just have to take what I could get.
The extra room key was in my purse, all tangled up with Tina's money. I threw it in a trashcan. I crumpled the twenties and thought about tossing them too, but in the end I put them in my wallet. I needed those books and I was going to get them, no matter what. The tiny hope that they represented was the best thing I had.