Katherine Robb is a writer and attorney. Her writing has been published or is forthcoming in Blue Fifth Review, Gray’s Sporting Journal, the Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row Journal, Hobart (online), Jenny, New York University Annual Survey of American Law, and Taconic Press. She is currently working on a novel set in Eastern Oregon.
This story appears in Issue Nine of Tincture Journal. Please support our work and buy a copy today.
The white woman on stage plays the guitar like she’s screwing the entire world. The black woman is impressed. Not at the guitar screwing, but in the way the white woman hoovers her eyelids in a nearly closed position throughout her entire solo. In a second they’ll close. Or open. It has to go either way at some point soon. The black woman is sure of this. But they never do. They just hoover. Slits.
The stage is a ship’s bowels. Climbing wood. Narrow curvature. The musicians stand in the hollow space shrieking for their fans. There’s a balcony above but the banister mirrors the stage’s front edge, so the young drunks end up crowding the edge in their fervour. An enormous-assed woman wearing gold Lurex stretch pants and a worn denim jacket dropped her beer off the balcony ledge during the black woman’s performance. The glass shattered and beer splattered the front of the stage while the drunken woman yelled something about fucking folk music, which is why the black woman decided to finish her set with a cover of Joni’s “All I Want”.
The white woman’s band has two more songs, but the black woman’s seen enough. She pushes through the sweat-soaked crowd to the panhandle-shaped bar, takes a seat behind the window farthest from the stage. The black woman has broad shoulders. Her feet remain planted on the ground when she sits on the barstool. She stances them far apart even though she’s wearing a skirt, but it’s a long skirt, ankle-length in theory though only mid-calf on her, but it’s not like nobody can see nothing even with her legs set wide. When Raquel brings her rum (neat) the black woman asks what she knows about the white woman and Raquel explains how she doesn’t think it’s right for girls to be so angry. Last night, says Raquel, the white woman punched a wall. Her frayed knuckles swelled up, but she still ordered a bucket of beers (six) and drank them down like pudding in a survivors’ camp, those greedy knuckles bleeding all the while.
The black woman tells Raquel to send the white woman a fernet-ginger when she finishes, and when the time comes she watches as the white woman sniffs the drink. She looks like a sweaty kitten discovering milk. After the sniff, the white woman asks and Raquel points and Aimee has to decide whether to approach or tip her glass in interest and for the first time in a long time she’s unsure what to do. There’s a brush in her chest and it’s sweeping, sweeping, sweeping, and then she blinks, realises the white woman is no longer standing at the other end of the bar, realises the white woman is touching her shoulder. The white woman is whisper-yelling down a tunnel toward her. The white woman’s face is scrunching up like a baby discovering its fingers and now the yelling is louder and louder until finally it lands.
“Why’d you send this?”
Aimee shrugs. Her tongue has dried up, salted slug like. “You from here?” she finally says.
“Los Angeles,” says the white woman.
“So, not here?”
“Here, fernet’s a tradition.”
The white woman tilts her head back. Aimee watches the curve of her throat as the shot disappears.
“Tastes like shit.”
“You’ll like it in a second.”
The pair holds gazes until the white woman concedes. It’s not so bad. Kind of pleasant. The white woman’s name is Kelsey.
“Kelsey Ann,” she says holding out a chapped hand.
Aimee doesn’t ask the question that’s in her head: Why would somebody from Los Angeles have two first names? The club has descended into the muggy, sweat-vomit-funk period of the night. The headliner, an all-male band whose most famous song is about dropping LSD and swimming in the ocean is concluding their encore. The lead singer invites his girlfriend to the stage and she sings back-up vocals. Her voice is crystalline, like it arches out of stained glass windows. The girl closes her eyes and sways next to her boyfriend, the hem of her skirt rippling around her thighs. Her boyfriend can’t stop looking at her face. He wants to marry her. He wants them to move to the suburbs and live in a big house with three kids and a golden retriever. He wants to listen to his girlfriend sing their kids to sleep, and he wants to read her the highlights from the local paper in the morning.
There’s a fight breaking out near the women’s bathroom, which is just a toilet in a room not big enough to turn around in. The front of the toilet is so close to the wall that sitting down squarely requires stepping one leg up and over the toilet, although most people just squat sideways, facing the door with the faded posters and peeling paint. The sink fits a single pair of hands, but the soap’s gone and there’s never once been paper towels. A woman has been inside for ten minutes and the line outside the door is entangling with the beer line. It’s making everyone anxious. The second woman in line decides the first woman isn’t being aggressive enough, so she steps past her and bangs on the door, yelling that there’s a huge line out here and if the person is taking a shit she should have done that at home. Then the door opens and the woman who exits is astonished to see anyone at all, much less the crowd that’s formed. She looks like she just exited her own bathroom in the comfort of a fluffy bathrobe after taking a long soak and she’s shocked to see all these people standing in her living room.
“Carl?” she says. The first woman in line is confused by the confusion of the woman who exited and doesn’t readily take her rightful place inside the bathroom until the second woman in line asks her if she came to piss or not.
“Carl?” says the bewildered woman again, and suddenly a tall man in a button-down shirt and tie appears.
“Cynthia,” he says, “I thought I’d lost you.”
“Carl, I want to go home.”
Carl looks a bit disappointed, but he says, “yeah, yeah, no problem.” He downs the remaining three-quarters of his beer and reaches through the crowd to set the bottle on the bar. Cynthia takes his arm like they are going to promenade the square and then they do somehow, the crowd parting as they make their way to the door, the doorman nodding them out into the cool night air.
“They seemed nice,” says Aimee.
“Seemed a little tight,” says Kelsey Ann.
“Like they’d be better off if someone ripped them open, yanked out all their organs, massaged them with fresh mayonnaise, then put everything back, normal as pie?” says Aimee. She takes a sip of her beer and smiles at Kelsey Ann whose eyebrows are huddled like they’re anointing the next Pope.
“Why fresh mayonnaise?” says Kelsey Ann, emphasising the “fresh”.
“The better to clean their souls.”
“Their souls are in their organs?”
“Large intestine mainly, sometimes it carries over to the small intestine. Depends on how much church they attended as kids.”
Kelsey Ann watches Aimee pick at the label on her beer. Aimee looks like she’s reconsidering saying what she said, but Kelsey Ann doesn’t think it was weird. She thinks maybe those two people would be better off if someone loosened up their organs, loosened up their souls.
“Listen,” Kelsey Ann says, “you want to get out of here?” She tilts her head toward outside and wrinkles her eyes in the way she knows make her cheekbones look good.
“This is the city of love,” Aimee says.
“Is it? I hadn’t heard.”
The women take the long way back to Aimee’s apartment, walking the streets through the Mission, picking their way over cigarette butts and plastic bread bags and corncobs chewed dry. It’s the sort of night that makes Kelsey Ann think life could be a bubble she could grow inside forever, like tomorrow she could awake a different person if she makes the right decision tonight, like if she opens her bruised palms skyward and tells the naval uniform sky her secrets, tomorrow she might awake free of them all. Aimee asks Kelsey Ann if she knows anything about the stars. Kelsey Ann says no and Aimee starts to tell her about Orion, but Kelsey Ann interrupts her, says she doesn’t want to hear about the stars. She wants what’s up in the sky to remain a mysterious puzzle. She doesn’t like how people on Earth are always trying to solve the sky, to translate it into human existence, like a dance pattern. Aimee feels ashamed, like she’s tried to sell her mother’s ring for money she should have earned on her own. They walk on in silence, stroking through the night air, until Kelsey Ann brushes Aimee’s hand with her own and Aimee grabs hold of her pointer finger, holds it loose at first, tighter as they walk on.
Aimee’s apartment is an old Victorian, but not the kind Kelsey Ann imagines. It’s boxy and cut off from the street by the outside staircase that provides access to the three floors, each of which hold two apartments. The owner carved the place up because at this time, in this neighbourhood, nobody would rent a whole big house. One day they will. One day people will stand in line and pay three times what it’s worth to rip out all the interior walls so they can say they live in a modern home with character. But right now instead of expansiveness the tenants live in small rooms, their mattresses kitty-corner to two-burner stoves that sit next to small sinks, which in Aimee’s case is strewn with teabags and toothpaste smears. The tenants on each floor share a bathroom. The bathroom has a door on either end, leading into the two apartments. Once, Aimee forgot to lock the door while she was in the shower and her neighbour came in and took a shit while she was rising off the soap. She thought maybe the guy didn’t realise she was in there because he had bad glaucoma, but when she turned the shower off she knew that wasn’t the case. He wasn’t deaf; he would have heard the water running.
Aimee asks Kelsey Ann if she wants a drink. Kelsey Ann shrugs her shoulders, so Aimee opens the cabinet to pull down her bottle of rum.
“Rum,” says Aimee, gesturing to the bottle.
“No, further back,” says Kelsey Ann, and Aimee realises she opened the cabinet too wide. She should store the blue label in another cabinet, she thinks, somewhere the girls she brings back can’t see it. She used to use it like a prop in a play. Sometimes she said she bought it after her father’s funeral ‘cause he was always too cheap to buy the good stuff. Sometimes she said a woman she played with on the road gave it to her after the woman decided to quit music and sober up and try to regain custody. Sometimes she said she bought it herself, saved up a long time, wanted to have something that was more expensive then it was worth to show people she knew her legs belonged standing on this planet, not kneeling. She never told them how she actually got it. She didn’t tell them how she took a job at seventeen cleaning motel rooms and one day she found it rolled deep underneath a sagging mattress and she’d held onto it ever since.
“Pour me some,” says Kelsey Ann.
Aimee shrugs. Normally she doesn’t give anyone the blue label. The story was usually all they’d need. But it’s not like it’s doing something special sitting up in the dust. Aimee pulls her wooden chair over so she can get the bottle down. When she steps back to the floor and turns around, Kelsey Ann is shirtless. Her breasts drop small, like poached eggs. She presses her hands into her lower back and leans into them, letting her neck fall back, highlighting her clavicle. This is normally when Aimee would step forward, would slip one hand around Kelsey’s Ann’s back and run her fingertips across those delicate ribs. Normally, she’d tuck the girl’s hair behind her ears and lift her up, fitting each slender leg over the sides of her hips, and back the girl into a wall, push her up hard against it until the girl lets out the whimper Aimee knows she’s been waiting to release. But Aimee doesn’t do that. She opens up another cabinet, pulls down two stained coffee mugs and pours them each a drink.
There’s only one chair in the apartment and Aimee sits down in it, so Kelsey Ann drapes herself across the bed. The bedspread is a quilt made of old t-shirts hand-stitched together. Kelsey Ann examines the map of Aimee’s history. She runs her hand over the band names, over the middle school emblem of a horse’s profile framed by olive branches. The thin fabric feels cool and soft against her stomach. She wonders why Aimee hasn’t made a move. She wonders if she’s misread the situation, if she’s misread the woman. She would be more concerned about the potential awkwardness of things, but the Moab-coloured liquid in her mug tastes so, so good, like a sweetened camp fire.
“What’d you think of that guy’s girlfriend?” says Aimee.
“In the band.”
Kelsey Ann nods, takes another sip of her whiskey. “Infertile,” she says.
“You couldn’t know that.”
Kelsey Ann sits up straight. She crosses her legs under her, so she looks like a kid in gym class, except shirtless. She studies Aimee, running her eyes up and down the angular lines of her form.
Aimee rises, walks the three steps to Kelsey Ann with heaviness, like a doctor about to deliver bad news. Kelsey Ann scoots herself to the front edge of the bed and leans over so far Aimee thinks she’ll topple to the floor, but she doesn’t. She tucks her hands underneath Aimee’s peasant skirt and runs them up the outsides of Aimee’s legs, down the insides. Aimee shudders when Kelsey Ann’s fingers bump over her scars. The few times Aimee catches glimpses of them, after a shower in somebody else’s apartment where she can’t avoid the mirrors or if she’s gone swimming, she thinks they look like a herd of tiny cockroaches under her skin. She considers telling Kelsey Ann to stop, but doesn’t say anything. Kelsey Ann’s face remains unchanged, as though she noticed nothing out of the ordinary, but she noticed. She knew Aimee was infertile before she ran her calloused hands along the length of her long thighs, before she felt the scars that climbed too high to be anything but bad. She knew because that was Kelsey Ann’s gift. She could see the scars in the women’s faces.
Kelsey Ann clasps the edges of Aimee’s skirt hem, lifting until Aimee’s knees are exposed, then shifts the skirt around Aimee’s legs with a motion like she’s steering a semi. She bends forward, kisses Aimee’s knee, kisses Aimee’s other knee, lets the skirt fall.
“I’m not,” Kelsey Ann says.
“I guess you’ll carry our children then,” says Aimee.
Kelsey Ann laughs. “What makes you think I want children?”
“I know things too.” Aimee winks at Kelsey Ann and Kelsey Ann leans back on her arms. She stares at Aimee, then stretches all the way back, patting the empty space next to her before tucking her arms beneath her head. Aimee crawls across the bed and fans out next to Kelsey Ann.
“When I was ten,” says Kelsey Ann, “I went on vacation with my parents. We’d gone to the beach for a week. We didn’t have a lot of money, but my mom found this motel right along the water, direct beach access and everything. The sheets were scratchy and the beds had those polyester coverlets that always smell like an old sponge, but it didn’t matter because we were at the beach all day anyway, and it was hot, so we stuffed all the coverlets in a corner and slept under the sheets. One night we ate these fried clams. I’d never tasted anything so chewy. I kept smacking on them and smacking on them and my dad started calling me Mr Ed ‘cause of the way my jaw seemed to come unhinged and then snap back. I thought it was funny. Anyway, three nights in, the air conditioner stops working. We’re sweating like piss ants, rolling around, waving our hands through the air trying to get some circulation going, when my mom remembers her hot water bottles. She was always carrying around hot water bottles because she got these migraines and she thought the hot water made them go away faster. So she remembers her hot water bottles and she’s like, let’s fill them up with ice and we can put them at the end of the bed to cool us off. Great idea, right? So I volunteer to go get the ice because I figure the air outside has got to be better then inside. My parents hem and haw. They can’t decide if I’m old enough to go outside, around the corner to the ice machine by myself at eleven o’clock at night. But finally they decide it’s OK. I grab the plastic ice bucket and head out. The motel was made of four pods and each pod was connected with a metal roof. The room entrances were on either side of the pod, except for the pods on the end, one of which held the office; the other held laundry and an ice machine. Our room was in the pod that held the office, so the ice machine was all the way on the other side. I walked down the sidewalk past the pods real slow. I was taking my time because the air outside was cooler and it felt amazing. Coming out of the hallway between the next set of pods was a lady with her son. We pass each other and her son says hi to me and I say hi back. I don’t think he was my age because he was smaller then me, but then again I feel like you can never tell for sure with kids. Anyway, I continue on my way to the ice machine and I push the button to fill up the bucket. The machine stops with the bucket half-full because it needs to make more ice, so I let it sit for a minute and check out the vending machine that’s next to it. I’m just standing there wishing I’d brought enough money for a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup when this kid, same kid I’d passed with his mom, comes out of nowhere and pushes me up against the glass of the vending machine. He doesn’t really do anything at first except hold me there pressed to the glass and I’m thinking, I don’t really remember what I’m thinking, but I think I was like, where’d his mom go? And then he starts rubbing himself up and down against my back. He’s gripping one side of the vending machine and he’s got one hand pressed up against the glass next to my face and he just moves himself up and down against me, real slow for a few seconds, and then he runs off.”
“What’d you do?” Aimee says.
“Nothing. I filled the ice bucket the rest of the way up and went back to our room.”
Aimee looks over and sees a tear hovering in the corner of Kelsey Ann’s eye. She blinks and it runs down her face, slow at first, then fast through the hollow of her cheek before it drips off the edge of her jaw.
“Did you ever tell anyone?”
“No,” Kelsey Ann says. “I never told anyone. Isn’t that weird?”
The light in Aimee’s apartment is dim, not just because it’s night but because the outdoor staircase keeps most of the light from making it in the front window. But this night there’s a full moon and one strip of moonlight makes its way in, hitting the back wall like a division sign for darkness. The white woman and the black woman lie there in silence, their chests rising in differing tempos until eventually they come together, rising and falling, rising and falling in unison. Aimee lifts her hand up. She lets it hoover over Kelsey Ann’s stomach, close enough to feel the heat radiating from her body, until she hears a catch in Kelsey Ann’s breath. Then she lowers her hand, tucking it beneath Kelsey Ann’s worn jeans, underneath her cotton underwear, pressing it through the graininess of her pubic hair until it comes to rest like the codpiece of a chastity belt.
Kelsey Ann knows she needs to leave Aimee’s apartment, that if she doesn’t leave now she’ll never make it to Portland for their next gig, which means she’ll miss the Seattle show as well, and the Vancouver one. She knows if she misses those shows she might never get another chance to play those stages, she might never get a chance to play again at all. But she doesn’t get up. She stays in the dimness and waits and waits until the rising and falling of her chest matches Aimee’s again, so that they are two women in the night rising and falling together.