“You’re wearing Coco Chanel,” he says to the girl at the bar. She was watching him; they all watch him. The pills he takes makes this pleasant, this observation, like he’s a scuba diver and they’re a school of fish.
“Yeah. How’d you know?”
“I know things.”
The bartender sets a drink in front of him and he walks off without acknowledging her further. He’s wearing black leather pants and a red t-shirt with a hole in the sleeve. She came to see his band play. He’s the lead singer; he also plays guitar. And he can be counted on, at some point during the show, to lay down on stage and freak out like Marty McFly in Back to the Future, only people will love it. They will clap and whistle and he will jump into the crowd so the girls can pluck strands of his hair and put them in their mouths, swallow a piece of him.
She doesn’t know where her friend is, is self-conscious all of a sudden, sitting here alone. She puts her purse on the bar and unzips it, looks inside: keys, wallet, a pack of unopened cigarettes, lipstick, mirror, cell phone. In the side pocket: tampons, cash and a single condom, though the condom is for emergency use only because it’s so old. The foil package says it expired December of 2002.
The lead singer’s name is Jeremy and she’s known him for years because her brother is the drummer in his band, but it’s his habit to pretend everyone is a stranger. Her brother, Avery, is backstage now, twirling his drumsticks and drinking whiskey. Earlier, she drove him to Wal-Mart to buy laxatives and fiber supplements because he’s always constipated. Then she took him to her apartment so he could see where she lived and she watched TV while he made long-distance telephone calls.
“Dana, what’re you doing? I thought you were in the bathroom. Come on,” Mel says, taking her hand and guiding her through the crush of people. Mel is beautiful, so girls get out of her way, and boys smile as they help her along, gently touch her shoulder as she passes.
Dana is attractive in a less reliable way, like if you were to ask one hundred people whether she’s beautiful, maybe sixty of them would say that she is. With Mel, it would be more like ninety-eight. In a way, though, she thinks it’s good to be less obvious because some days she likes to be invisible and watch the world pass without interfering.
Jeremy’s on stage, saying, “Test one, two. Test one, two,” into the microphone. He’s staring at her. It feels a bit like the devil collecting her soul, but she doesn’t look away. Avery comes on stage followed by the bass player, Sean. Dana used to fuck Sean, but Avery didn’t like her fucking his friends, so she stopped and their relationship is much better now. He doesn’t call her a whore anymore or tell her that their father is turning over in his grave, which she hated because their father isn’t even in a grave. He’s in an urn; she’s not sure where because her mother moves him around. Sometimes he’s sunning himself at the kitchen window, sometimes he’s the centerpiece on the dining room table. For a while he was in the attic. That was right after he died and Dana put him there because her mother was cursing him to hell, which she thought unwise seeing as he killed himself.
Avery raises his drumsticks at her and smiles. He is kind like this sometimes, in the space between drunk and sober.
“We’re Jilted,” Jeremy says quietly and steps away from the mike, and then Avery says, “One, two, three, four,” and they start playing. Before they were Jilted, they were Stood Up, and before that they were Classic Yellow. The name Classic Yellow came from a bottle of French’s mustard, but its origin as their original band name is unclear as everyone blames someone different. Dana thinks it was Avery. She remembers him eating a hotdog at the kitchen sink, reading the bottle of mustard like it was a box of cereal, but this could be one of her false memories. She has a tendency to rewrite things even as they’re happening, to create stories in order to fill in gaps.
“I’d screw him on stage up there in front of everyone and they could call it the encore,” Mel says. She’s talking about Jeremy. The last time the band was in town, Mel got trashed and showed him her breasts when they were partying at the crappy motel where the band always stays. Then she stuck her tongue in her cheek to indicate blowjob and asked him to go to the bathroom, but he declined. And when she passed out, he told everyone she had chest hair.
Jeremy is one of the two percent of people who could give a shit about Mel.
“You’re such a slut,” Dana says.
“And you’re not?”
“I’m reformed. I haven’t had sex in six months,” Dana says, and then they don’t talk anymore because they’re dancing, only it’s more like jumping rope because there isn’t any room to move. A couple of fraternity guys are dancing behind them and the fat one is smoking and Dana is afraid he’ll burn her because cigarettes have a way of finding her arms like footballs find her head.
After the show, the five of them walk back to the band’s room at the Moroccan Motel, which is in the same parking lot as the club. It’s convenient this way because everyone, except Dana, is drunk or high. Dana used to sleep around and drink until she blacked out, but she’s trying to be better. She’s started going to church on Sundays and in bed at night she repeats, “my body is a temple,” until the words lose their meaning, at which point she moves on to, “the meek shall inherit the earth.” She knows Mel won’t inherit anything and this pleases her. And when she’s horny, she tells herself that men are just her “brothers in Christ.” Sometimes it works. Sometimes she tricks her vagina and her head into believing these things, but mostly, it doesn’t do any good because by morning she’s forgotten that her body is a temple and she fills it with Pop Tarts. And then she forgets to be meek because she can never remember exactly what meek means.
Jeremy’s on top of the covers, watching a porno. Two eighties-era brunettes are doing it and one of them is pretending to climax. There is a man’s hard penis in the corner of the screen and a hand stroking it. Dana sits at a faux-wood table, chipping the polish from her nails.
“You know there’s semen and puke and God-knows-what on that bedspread,” she says because she can’t think of anything else to say and she wants to say something. Mel and Avery and Sean went to the gas station to get beer; it’s just the two of them.
“I’m sure I’ll add to it by morning,” he says, and changes the channel. “You probably don’t want to watch that. What do you like to watch, Saved by the Bell? Cartoons? Oh, I know, The Golden Girls. Women love watching those old bitches eat cheesecake.”
In her head she’s repeating, Jeremy is my brother in Christ.
“There’s nothing on. Do you mind, watching the porno? Surely you’ve been exposed to this kind of thing before.”
The cherry falls from his cigarette. It lands on the carpet and she thinks, this is how fires start. She steps on it, pretends it’s a spider that refuses to die. When he looks up at her, she says, “Your cherry,” and he says, “Oh.” Then he asks her to sit on the bed with him and she says she’s comfortable where she is because it was an unexpected offer and her first inclination is always to decline.
“Why don’t you like Mel?” she asks.
“She’s nothing special. Why do you ask?”
“I find her almost painful to look at sometimes, she’s so pretty.”
“I find you painful to look at,” he says without looking at her. On television, the prettier brunette is fucking the other one with the biggest dildo she has ever seen.
Her mouth is open to accuse him of lying when the others walk in, cued by a director somewhere eager to move the script forward.
“My new puppy has a chip in her head so she can’t get lost. I guess it’s, like, hooked up to a satellite or something. How weird is that? Someday we’ll all have chips and we won’t have the option of getting lost anymore,” Mel says.
Mel is always buying puppies or having her nose pierced or taking drugs because life bores her, and she talks constantly about nothing, or she has a way of making everything sound like nothing. This is why Dana hangs out with her — she never has to say or do much of anything herself. And they’ve been friends since second grade, so it doesn’t seem like something she can really get out of.
Sean is asleep on the floor and Dana studies his face. It looks different when he’s still, less attractive. His cheeks are acne scarred, his upper lip almost nonexistent. Avery’s been in the bathroom for the last fifteen minutes, attempting a bowel movement, and Dana, Mel and Jeremy are sitting Indian-style on the bed, playing Go Fish, but they’re not really into it. It’s hard to get into Go Fish. The porno is still on, but the sound is off. It’s two guys and a girl now; the girl has a bad bleach job and one small eye like Barbara Walters. She’s getting fucked up the ass and doesn’t look very happy about it, but if the sound were on she’d probably be saying, oh yeah, right there, that’s the spot baby. Dana heard somewhere that it’s always the less attractive girls who get stuck doing anal.
“Do you believe in God?” Dana asks Jeremy.
“Absolutely. God almighty,” Mel says, and then she asks Dana if she has any threes.
“I’m agnostic,” he says, which she suspected. She thinks this probably makes it impossible for him to be her brother in Christ. Then he gets up to get another beer and Dana tells Mel to go fish.
“Why are we even playing this?” Mel asks. “It blows.”
“Let’s just play High-Low,” Jeremy says, handing them each a beer. He takes a card from Mel’s hand and lays it on the bed. “High or low?” he asks Dana. It’s a ten, so she says, low, of course, but the next card he pulls is a Jack so she has to drink. High-Low is like Go Fish, with rules impossible to mess up or forget.
Dana’s sitting on the toilet peeing, her thighs pressed tightly together, when he opens the door. She doesn’t mind; she purposefully didn’t lock it. She asks him to turn around so she can wipe, then she pulls up her jeans and washes her hands in the bathtub, dries them on a scratchy towel. He gets them a couple of beers from the sink and sets the ashtray on the toilet.
Everyone else is asleep.
Jeremy talks about his mother, about how she used to beat him and his younger brother. He says it went on until a few years ago, when his dad bought her a farm and a couple of horses to distract her. Dana thinks sometimes pain is nowhere to be found and other times it’s all that seems to exist: Avery’s depression, their father reduced to ash and fragments of bone, Jeremy getting the shit kicked out of him by a society lady.
“You always act like you’re in a movie, like everything you say and do has been edited and choreographed. You take too many pills. I think that’s your problem,” she says.
“How do you know?”
“I know things.” She removes the cigarette from his lips and takes a drag, puts it back.
“I’m just an asshole,” he says, placing a hand on her thigh. He squeezes her faded skin. She doesn’t go to the tanning bed like Mel and her other friends. Maybe she should fix herself up more, she thinks. Get some highlights and a French manicure along with her Hawaiian tan. Do fifty push-ups before breakfast and seventy-five sit-ups before bed.
“Do you want me?” she asks. It’s a rhetorical question. She wants him to fuck her without speaking another word, to leave a hickey or a bruise somewhere so she’ll have proof, but he just lays his other hand on her other thigh. She takes a sip of beer and sets the can back on the toilet, says, “This is a fine establishment.”
“Only the best for you.”
He flips over then and puts his head in her lap; his legs dangle in the bathtub.
“I’m a lousy lay when I’m wasted.” He traces her jaw line with a finger, touches her clavicle. “You don’t want me anyway. I’m dirty.”
She doesn’t know if he means, like, needs a shower dirty or what. She doesn’t ask. After a few minutes, he’s asleep. She runs her fingers through his hair, collects a loose strand. Then she puts the root between her teeth and swallows.