In the car on the way to the airport the next morning, I’m feeling the whirling aftermath of post-intoxication full force. I always have to get myself sloshed so that I don’t spend the entire ordeal crying like an orphaned whale calf, so that I don’t cringe when he touches me. Something tells me that Gil won’t take to kindly that sort of behavior. Gil is driving and I’m in the passenger seat staring up at the palm trees, wondering what it would feel like if one of them came crashing down on us.
Gil’s a lip-smacker. Before he interrupts uncomfortable silences his lips smack apart, making a horrible popping sound that I now take as a cue to look his way. “You know,” he smacks, “we should be thinking of more permanent arrangements.”
I look over at him. “What are you talkin’ about?”
“I don’t like you living in that house—living with those girls.”
I open my mouth to interject.
“You’re different from them.”
“We’re exactly the same.”
“If by the same you mean beautiful, then I agree, but other than that, you’re nothing like them. You’re a gem—a colorful, vibrant, lively gem. They’re all just pearls. Pearls on an old necklace that no one wants anymore.”
I fold my arms across my chest. “I like it there. It’s my home.”
“Anywhere can be home if you shit there enough,” Gil contests.
“I never shit when I’m with you,” I tell him.
“Really?” Gil smirks. “Then why do you spend so much time in my bathrooms?”
He takes my by surprise with that one. He was supposed to sleeping, not lying in the bed listening to me tiptoe off to the bathroom in the middle of the night. “You snore,” I explain.
“I’ll fix it.”
“I can deal with a few sleepless nights.”
“I don’t want you to deal. I want you to be happy.”
Happy? This I say with my eyes and a slight part of the lips, accidentally letting through a thin puff of air, which sounds very whateverish.
“Aren’t you happy?” he asks, reaching over and placing his right hand on my thigh.
“Are you?” I ask.
“You’re not happy,” I tell him. “If you were happy, you wouldn’t still be wearing that wedding ring. You’re just lonely.”
“This?” Gil takes his left hand up off the wheel, leaving us on the interstate going ninety at the mercy of his arthritic knees. “You want me to take it off? I’ll take it off.”
“I don’t want anything from you, Gil,” I sigh. “I just want to go home.”
“Do you want a future?” Gil asks.
“A future. A real future. Education, stability. I can give you that. Don’t you see? Can those girls give you that? Isn’t that what you want? Someone to take care of you? Isn’t that why you do this?”
“I don’t know,” I say. His tone and his questions have me confused and uncomfortable.
“Then it doesn’t make any sense for you not to want me. Not to want to be with me. That’s what life’s about; finding someone who can give you what you need, matching up, and making it work.”
“We don’t work. I work. This is my job, just like selling jewelry is your job.”
Gil slams his hands on the wheel of the car. “I want you,” he grits through his teeth.
“And you pay, and you get what you want.”
“People don’t pay for a bracelet and then send it back to be wrapped around someone else’s wrist,” Gil growls.
“There’s no one else,” I tell him.
“Well, how do I know what goes on between your legs when you’re not with me?”
“Because I’m telling you.”
“I don’t trust you.”
“And how could you want something permanent with someone you don’t even trust? Someone you don’t even love” I look down at his wedding band. “You still love her, but she left you because she found out you were wearing more than one bracelet.”
Gil’s eyes narrow.
“You don’t want me. You don’t love me. You’re just lonely. And that’s what you pay me for. Company.” I inhale and stare out at the road. “I’m not rent-to-own, and I’m not for sale.”
Gil looks down at his wedding band, inhales deeply, and nods.
I’ve only been gone three days, but when I walk through the door, I’m met with waves of hugs and affection, like they hadn’t seen me in years. Technically speaking, a year has passed, but still, seventy-two hours is hardly enough time to arouse deep concerns. Deep down I know all of them just feel guilty. Deep down I know they all feel responsible for me even being apart of this whole operation, but on the surface, it feels a lot like love, and that’s what keeps me walking back through these doors.
As I unpack, Juney and Tam sit on my bed watching my every move like little school girls.
“So how was Florida?” Tam asks.
“Nice,” I tell her.
“Did you stay anywhere nice? Do anything worth talkin’ about?” Juney inquires.
Neither of them had ever been taken out of state. Stitch is actually the only one who had ever been with a guy who would even dare to be seen with her in daylight. I tuck the last of my dry-clean-only lace panties in my drawer and crawl up next to them to shell out the story that they want to hear. I lay my head on Juney’s lap and stare up at the ceiling fan sitting idle above us.
“He has a huge studio apartment on North Shore Drive,” I tell them, “which, I hear, is one of the posh places to live there, besides Star Island, of course.”
“Where’d you go?” Juney asks.
Tam stretches out beside me. “What’d you eat?”
“Gil’s a huge sushi fan, so we ate at a lot of Japanese places. If I see another piece of seaweed, I’ll probably barf.”
They both laugh.
“But we didn’t do much outside the room. I went to the pool in the mornings, that’s about it. I didn’t even get to touch the sand.”
“How can you go all the way to Miami Beach, and not even touch sand?” Tam asks.
“It wasn’t that kind of holiday, I guess.”
“Right,” Juney agrees.
“But yeah,” I sit up, “lots of fancy wines, a new dress, new necklace, and, on the way to the airport, he pretty much asked me to marry him.”
Tam and Juney’s mouths fall open.
I look over at them and shake my head “Now, that’s just out of the question.”
We all start laughing and look over to see Kitty standing in the frame of the doorway like a scarecrow silhouette. She’s completely gone to shit. Her boney legs hang out from under her t-shirt nightgown like matchsticks, and her eyes droop loosely under caked mascara, and they’re shadowed by rings of dark circles. Her lips are chapped, and her hair looks as if it has four days worth of hairspray nesting in it.
“When’d ya get back?” she sniffs.
“This morning. Just about thirty minutes ago,” I whisper.
“Sun’s good on ya,” she says, then turns and walks back to her room.
She’s right. Sun has always been kind to my skin. I own an interesting assortment of hues that change with each passing season, but always linger around the same shade that every pale chick secretly longs to be. This is the only thing that I know, without a doubt, has to come from my father’s side. My mother was damn near transparent, and shew burned if she even thought about the sun. Thinking of my mother makes me think of Bonny.
I glance over my shoulder at Tam. “Where’s BonBon?”
Tam’s eyes drop to the bed spread.
I look over at Juney.
“The night you left, she got really sick,” Juney says. “Had a fever we couldn’t break, ended up passin’ out and havin’ a seizure. Kitty called 911. And she went to the hospital.”
“Is she okay?”
Juney nods, “She’s all right, but…”
“She’s got AIDS,” Tam says.
“Boss kicked her out,” Juney continues. “She went back to Canada.”
I close my eyes and picture Bonny’s bright blue eyes smiling at me, and her sandy red bangs swooping across her left eyebrow. I open my eyes and sigh, “Well that sucks.”
Juney and Tam sit silently.
“Let’s go for a walk.”
None of us think to say, Fuck walking, it’s freezing out here, we all just grab our coats and shoes and leave to cruise our city. It’s a Tuesday morning, a quiet morning for our neighborhood, but a tireless one for the rest of the world around us. Downtown is bustling as usual, bumper to bumper, shoulder to shoulder traffic; lunch time in the windy city, trying to get everything done before the snow comes. Everyone’s coats are pulled tightly around their necks. Heads are down, pushing through the ceaseless winds and crowded sidewalks. I have a wad of fresh green in my purse, and I want to spend it all on my friends.
Hair accessories and handbags are Tam’s most lavish vice, while Juney prefers to buy trinkets. Her room at the house is lined with a menagerie of misfit knickknacks. As for me, I browse books. Nancy has become a great friend of mine. I make my way down to her place once or twice a month, and she always has tea and deserts waiting.
After our shopping spree, we stroll down to Navy Pier to give the wheel a whirl before heading in for the evening. It felt like ages since I had stood under the mechanical marvel. There are no lines, being that it’s nearly off-season, so we get our tickets and walk up to the ticket taker. She’s shivering in her little red and blue overcoat and sporting an obvious teeth-baring, chattering ruse of a grin while she lead us to the rotating box that we are to occupy for the next few minutes.
We laugh and talk nonsense the entire ride. For the first time in a long time, I feel my age, I feel like a teenage girl, just out living the life she should be living with her friends, not like my usual woe-is-me-I-hope-nobody-notices-what-a-complete-mess-I-am inside. I laugh out loud. I lock arms with my friends, not afraid to touch them or be touched. A part of me is opening back up; a part that closed up years ago that I was simply afraid to let out again.
As we step off the ride, Juney thanks the girl, and I pull my coat a little tighter around me. It’s freezing. The three of us organize our bags in our hands and take off walking. Just then, I hear my name being called out.
“Cookie,” the voice rings out from behind us. “Cookie Dough!”
My head jerks around so fast that my earrings nearly poke me in the eye. I search the rotating carts in front of me. The girl is opening up a rig when I see him standing there at the base of the wheel.
“Rex!” I scream, dropping my bags of books and running towards him.
Before I know it, I’m in his arms. When he finally releases me, I just stand there smiling at his adorable face. He has a few new scars, but he’s still handsome, and he’s still smiling.
“Hi,” he whispers.
Juney and Tam aren’t far behind me. They come squealing and offering their own embraces.
“Where in the hell have you been, boy?” Juney screams, smacking him with her purse.
“Around,” he sighs.
“You look good,” Tam says. “For a dead kid. You know we all thought you were dead.”
I silently stare at him; happy, angry, confused, and overwhelmed, all at the same time.
“What?” he asks.
I shrug. “What are you doin’ here?”
He grins. “It’s Tuesday.”
“Well,” Juney sighs, pinching his cheek, “let us by you dinner. Looks like you skipped a few dozen meals since your resurrection.”
“I won’t object,” he mumbles, placing both of his hands where his stomach should have been under that big, bulky coat of his.
We hop in a cab and make our way over to Susie’s Drive Thru. Rex is a huge fan of their modestly priced, yet delicious burgers, but I am in love with the creamy, exotic chocolate shakes. I could have one for every meal. Tam and Juney snack on an order of fries and take off mid-meal to go get ready for their evenings. I slurp on my straw as Rex scrapes his pile of ketchup into multiple inanimate forms with his last remaining fry.
“I’m sorry I didn’t come by,” Rex whispers, staring down at that ketchup, now in the form of what he said was a giraffe.
“I don’t blame you.”
“I knew you’d be safe. Safer with them.”
He sighs and cracks his knuckles under the table.
“Did they hurt you? Badly?” I ask.
“Na,” he grins, playfully squinting and shaking his head back and forth, trying to convince himself that things hadn’t been as bad as his eyes let off. After a few seconds of silence, a ketchup elephant surfaces, and Rex looks up at me. “You look good. Nice.”
“I wouldn’t a pictured that hair color on you,” he smiles.
I nervously run my fingers through my ponytail. “Me neither.”
“You’ve changed,” he says.
Rex sits up in his seat, crosses his arms, and smiles at me. “You’re baked. You’re not dough anymore. You look like you belong here.”
“Oh, yeah,” I perk up.
“But you’re empty,” he says, “your eyes. You used to have a light in ‘em, sort of, but…” he pauses.
“But what?” I sit my cup down gently.
“I still see you. You’re there.” He looks down at his watch, the same broken one that only he could tell time with. “Look, I gotta run.”
“But I wanna see you again.”
“I wanna see you, too.”
Rex smiles. “Yeah?”
“All right, then. Tuesday, at the pier?”
“I can do that.”
We stand up at the table. Rex helps me into my coat and then buttons himself up snuggly before we walk out to the street. Standing in the entrance to Susie’s brings back a lot of memories of our time together. Rex bends down and scoops my hand up in his, bringing it up to his lips. “See ya next week,” he whispers right before gently kissing my bare knuckles. Then, with a smile and a wink, he backs up and turns away.
“Rex,” I yell. He turns around. “Are you okay?”
He nods. “Better than okay. Now.”