by Rachel Godin
Walking home through downtown, I saw a young girl, maybe 15, whose protruding 8-ball eyes devoured everyone she saw, who had cheekbones that hung out above her puffy jawbone like jagged porches over a dirty white concrete stoop. She seemed to regard the trail of blood oozing out her nostril as casually as a toddler'd respond to a snotty upper lip—lapped it up from her cupid's bow like a lazy mosquito.
I live in Roxbury now. My apartment door is the one right next to the tobacco lounge and across the street from the Chinese restaurant that the neighbors say smells like fish water. Mine's the evergreen door with a big ash-wood knocker in the shape of an angel's head, whose eyes look up to the door frame where no keys are ever hidden. I lift the knocker four times, nod at Big Johnny standing in the doorway, who nods back s'if to say, "Lo' Nancy." Big J always smells like Indian cologne—that kind that gets into your brain and lingers for hours—and weed. He said Sal was home, that she'd been moping all day, had started jogging around her bed after she'd had swiss cheese on her sandwich. I asked how she was doing that since her bed is pushed into a three-walled nook. He shrugged, said he'd tried getting her out for a walk around the block around 2 p.m., but she opened the door an inch wide and looked at him with her head sideways, both eyes an angry red. He made a sort of coughing attempt to cover up a little laugh. "Ha ha, that Shorty. I looked over that little red head a' hers and she'd rolled her bed out into the middle of her room like an island! She's gonna scratch those floors if she keep doin' that!" He went on to mumble that Julia, her flat mate, had left the room because she said her ears were 'bout to fall off listening to that Sal's toenails scratch against the uneven wood floors as she jogged. I make a note to push my toenail clippers under her door before she pulls down her shades tonight. I'll tell you what; that woman Sal is a nightmare in the daytime, but at nightfall, she's a precious little doll, all powdered up like that—a real angel on the eyes. A few men come up from Boston asking for Ariel when they arrive because she simply stops talking altogether when the sun goes out. Ursula comes in the form of male bodies and bedside table jewelry box gifts. We didn't understand which girl they were asking for when her voiceless midnights first began, until they described to us her hair and her bedroom demeanor, which is usually against the rules. Guess they suspect us girls would share that kind of information with one another. We don't. It's a job, and we don't talk about it unless something out of the ordinary happens, which is rare because we've seen everything. It's pretty nauseating what becomes habitual in these incense-smoke filled apartments that are more like cubes in a Rubik's that never quite gets set back in place.
Anyway, apparently men really dig a silent girl, because from then on she's been booked. That's all a girl's got to do around here; hush up and open those big glossy eyes real, real wide. We all know she likes this life, though. She's just some petty shop girl with designer taste who takes her lunch in the bathroom. The shadows thrown into her room by the 3-inch wide window blinds make the floors look like a cage, oh, but she crawls on them, enjoying how her pale skin looks zebra-sliced by the shadows.
A muted siren in a cube next to other cubes, in a city of cubes that house little lives, and we're all prisoners in them; we walk other people's neighborhoods for pleasure. That's what I've been doing all day.
Big J slipped me a pill before I took the stairs up. It's only on the way down you need the handrail, unless you're a ballerina like me. It takes a special prescription to give you this species' midnight gracefulness, but J always has the recipe in his leather coat.
Sometimes I try talking like Big Johnny when I'm out of earshot and turn down my hall. I'll repeat something he's just said or act like I'm him, greeting me at the door. "Baby gal, you was supposed to be back here for that bankin' mista already." I'd respond, "You know I had some things. I can't have you boys thinking I'm always free. Girl's gotta walk to get her head right." At this point in my imaginary conversation, I'll be fiddling to get my keys out of my pocket or pushing the key into the door. It's not until I've taken my shoes off by the fish bowl, adjusted the heater and turned on some music that I get to hearing myself talk to myself, get real embarrassed and everything, and stop. I like a bit of white noise wherever I am, even if it means I've gotta talk to myself some. It's better than listening to other people's conversations.
I'd hate to be like Johnny. We joke that he's our house plant because he just gets bigger and bigger and doesn't' t really say much. He's not a hydrangea or a potted mum; he's a funny brown cactus that stands guard but doesn't hurt a fly. From across the street and across town, everybody knows Johnny'll put you in your place, but he wouldn't touch any of us girls. He's got bosses that are technically my bosses too, but I've only seen them once. That was when they came and pulled Natalie's body out of the tub. She still had bleaching foils in her hair. It was strange; ten minutes or so after they'd left and locked her door, her tea kettle started to scream. None of us could get into her room to turn the gaslight off, so we just slouched in our doorways for an hour and gossiped about the fatality until all the steam burned off. I used to make tea on the stove like that, but I avoid it now, so I can avoid ever hearing those screeches again. I don't think she planned for that to happen, but if she did, I'd honestly say it was genius. She hated us all. Detested the apartment and the job. She was one of only a few girls who had to do this for a living, you know? She dyed her hair once a week, was always chain smoking, always laughing at inappropriate times and leaving evidence of herself on her clients, which is against the rules. If she'd wanted to go out the way she did and make us listen to that scream after she was gone, then she did it. She had a vein of the devil in her; the one on her forehead that stuck out when she was hot or stressed out. I know it sounds insane, but I used to wonder what it'd look like if I poked it with a needle. It was one of those veins that just kind of made you think of needles, you know? She was always twirling this string of plastic pearls around her index finger. She'd press them into her skin until her fingertip turned purple. Unraveling the strand, purple-pearl indentations remained. It kind of made her look like she had snake skin.
The only stories from the Bible I can remember are both about snakes. The first one is about Satan as a snake, the apple and Eve. The second one's about Moses dropping his walking stick onto the ground to prove that God can do anything. When he dropped it, the stick turned into a snake. I always thought it was fascinating and very stupid of him to prove God's existence by producing the symbol of evil. I'm not a religious person much, but that seems like the obvious thing not to do. To be honest, the sound of church bells never made me think of God. I always appreciate its ability to make me stop and look at the sky. I always felt a bit offended by church steeples, the way they stand there like a massive thorn, ripping low clouds apart, assuming it's OK to poke a hole in the sky.
I'm a devout astrologic; more stones and cards in my cupboards than cans. All the other girls know it and make fun of me. They call me stargazer in the morning when we brush our teeth, and I like it. They call me Athena, as if it's supposed to offend me, but they're all mixed up, and I find that to be a compliment, too. To be cruel, we all call each other the Madonna and Virgin Mary. It especially offends Susan, who's got a plastic cross with a rosary strung around it hanging above her door. I think it's just inexplicably wrong. Says she's a devout Catholic. I told her maybe my stones would be better off for a case like hers. She's the house's crowd-pleaser.
I always send my problem boys over to her if I don't like 'em. Once, I told a fellow about how the girls called me names while we sat on the fire escape. He got it all confused and called me Medusa! I thought, if you don't know anything about the sky, how can you know anything about a woman! Just to get rid of him, I shrieked like a gin-drunk witch and yelped, "Never look me in the eyes! Never ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever…" I went on like that for a long time; maybe I over did it a little. No matter, anytime I get the chance to be an actress, especially for an audience who already paid to get in, I run with it. I'll tell you one thing—he sure didn't look in my eyes again that night. I got a good laugh out of that, but unfortunately, no tip. Ya win some, ya lose some.
I walk to the bathroom. Turn the white plastic knob with the silver C. Cup my clean, grey-ish hands under the flowing water and open the cabinet behind: baby oil, a toothpick, two sticky pennies, powder, a small vile of morphine and pencil eyeliner with a hard tip and no cap. I ingest what can be ingested. Place my hands on the mirror. The water is still running. I hear someone down the hall turn on "Scarborough Fair." They drag the needle to the song instead of lifting. It's tomboy Liz with the Simon and Garfunkel "Greatest Hits" again. It's what she listens to on repeat every Saturday night. I've never heard the album in its entirety, and I seriously doubt Liz has either because she always picks the needle off after "Bookends." "Cecilia" has yet to play in this establishment; you take a guess.
I pull my hands away from the mirror, and the thinnest rivers of perspiration are left behind. In the few seconds they take to evaporate, I can make out the Girdle of Venus and the line of heart. I wonder if seeing it stamped out backwards like that in sweat would make a gypsy woman tell me a lie, or recite to be backward what it'd been like to be me.
Looking up, into the yellow-tinted mirror above the peach porcelain sink, I grimace, bearing my top upper gums. I look scared. In one jarring movement I concurrently use my left hand to pull down on the bottom of my black skirt and yank the collar of my shirt until it hangs off my right shoulder, baring a few more inches of skin. I touch the mirror again with the tips of my fingers while I stretch forward, arching my back in a standing cat-pose, my ribs spreading apart from one another. I imagine the darkness between the bones, even though I know there'd be shiny red muscle. I imagine a white drawstring pulling out of my back like a talking baby doll. "Ma-ma", I say, as if someone had pulled my string. Stand upright. Notice the pale yellow rim around the sink mirror needs to be cleaned off.
I've got a conscience that recites to me like a shoulder parrot calling me by all my false names. I have been called "baby," "tiny dancer," "sugar," but never by my first name. This is tourist town and attractions walk up and down the streets. They've all come to look for America, but they keep ending up behind our doors.Remember me to one who lives there. She once was a true love of mine.