Sitting on the smooth plastic bench of the subway, rocketing along underground at God-knows-how many miles per hour, Rebecca Simmons for once didn't find herself sleepily musing about how her heart felt feeble without the pulse-pounding rap music of the club, or how much her feet hurt, or the cotton-wool feeling of percussion deafness. Instead, she found staring across the subway car, into her own eyes, reflected in the window and illuminated by the clinical fluorescent lights.
God, she looked awful.
Underneath the layer of foundation, blusher, eyeliner, shadow, and shimmering powder, her eyes were half closed from perpetual exhaustion, the whites an unhealthy reddish-yellow, like dirty Arizona river water. Despite being careful to take off (or rather, scrape off) her makeup each night, her skin was unhealthy, clusters of pimples erupting like little white-capped volcanoes around her nose, mouth and chin.
Her other friends almost never had this problem. Many of them worked night jobs (although she was the one who went home the latest, at 3 AM) to pay their way through school, and they all appeared every morning, bright-eyed and goddamn bushy-tailed. She was the only one who dragged herself through her waking hours like a ghost, veins running pure caffeine, constantly wearing sunglasses because her eyes were sore and photosensitive, and passing up every social event in order to steal herself a few hours of sleep.
She snorted, shaking her head slightly as though the thought had come from outside her. It hardly mattered how the ceaseless cycle of class, homework, and work affected anyone else but her. Even if everyone else managed to get away with treating their bodies like shit, hers was intent on reminding her that she could no longer consider a power bar and a glass of water (and three large espressos) as proper food for an entire day.
Dear Madam, she composed wearily, I have recently registered your complaints as regards the physical well being of one Rebecca Leah Simmons. Regretfully, circumstances render it impossible to address your complaints or the manifestations thereof. In other words, stuff it!
The subway lurched to a stop somewhere in the Spanish neighborhood of upper Manhattan, and she climbed to her feet, feeling every muscle in her thighs trembling with the effort. Sometimes her exhaustion was so bad that she had nightmares of being menaced or chased by some nameless fear, and each time she tried to run, her muscles would seize up with that horrifying inertia that made her fall headlong to the floor and kept her waiting in terror for whatever threat lurked in the shadow-darkness of her mind.
She sometimes woke up hyperventilating from these night terrors, only to find that two or three or five minutes had passed. Those nights, it was an effort to get herself to return to the bed, her mind warring against her subconscious fear of finding herself trapped by helplessness once again.
In rebellion against these thoughts, Rebecca quickened her steps, striding forward into the vibrating night of New York, her heels snapping resolutely against the cracked asphalt of the sidewalk. Like a horse with blinders, she passed by lighted windows, slumbering homeless, staggering drunks, and lone drug dealers with equanimity, forcing her feet to maintain their punishing pace until she reached number 368, a crumbling brownstone the upper floor of which she shared with three other girls.
There were always lights on upstairs when she came home, but the lights downstairs were always off, so, as usual, she removed her shoes in the entryway and came tiptoeing upstairs, the change in speed making the muscles in her calves spasm painlessly, as though her legs thought they should still be flying along the streets, driving her beyond the reach of the fear that waited when she closed her eyes.
Jillian was typing away on a paper on the kitchen table, the smell of coffee rich in the air and her giant mug filled with the steaming hot drink, and if Rebecca didn't know that Jillian brewed her coffee thick as mud, as per her Louisiana heritage, she might have poured herself a cup. But she knew better, so just poured herself a glass of water, murmuring a greeting in passing.
None of the girls in the apartment spoke to each other that much, especially at night. The close confines of their living space made it imperative that each girl was an island, to be visited only upon invitation and otherwise as inaccessible as Antarctica.
Simone was asleep, and for that Rebecca was grateful, as the aspiring novelist could be a little tiresome at times, milking Rebecca for information on any "characters" she might have seen that night. For all she wanted to write about people, Rebecca often thought sourly, she certainly knew few enough of them.
Amani was half asleep on the sofa, the remote hanging limply between her fingers. She had suffered from insomnia ever since her three-week visit to Egypt to bury her paternal grandfather. At first, everyone had thought it was just jet lag, but now she was seeing a psychiatrist three times a week and asking daddy for loans just to make rent.
Her daddy had broad shoulders and deep pockets, though, so none of them minded.
Oh, shit. Speaking of rent…
Rebecca went into her own bedroom and shut the door firmly behind her, turning on the lights only when she was certain her blinds were all the way closed. Tomorrow was July 5th, and if all the rent checks weren't in they'd get slapped with a late fee. Besides, none of them wanted to put a toe out of line. A rent-controlled apartment was rare, especially one of this size, and their landlord was just itching to get market value for theirs.
Therefore the tiptoeing and the whispering after 9 PM, as well as learning how to fix loose fixtures, plumbing problems, and even malfunctioning thermostats on their own. It would be too easy for him to evict them on causes of tenant negligence.
She upended her purse on the bed and watched as cell phone (three texts), wallet, keys, and a wad of cash slipped out. It was the cash that she caught up, separating the greasy, wet, soured-alcohol-smelling bills with her own sticky hands. On a rather morbid whim, she brought one hand up to her nose and inhaled. Just as always, no amount of washing purged the scent of booze.
If only she had more self-confidence. She could have made her living (and then some, perhaps) as a stripper. All things considered, she'd probably have to deal with less pawing from drunk clients, and strip clubs probably had bigger, more alert bouncers.
No use thinking of that now though. It looked like she had a halfway decent haul tonight, at least. She started sorting the bills, mostly fives and singles, one mint-crisp ten, probably from that yuppie couple, which, considering the amount of booze she'd poured down their throats, they'd stiffed her; altogether she'd made just about $50 in tips. Not the best night she'd ever had (the record was $294, which occurred one luminous weekend night just after she'd fallen in love for the first time) but far from shabby.
She flipped through the bills one final time, counting slowly and straining at each one, to see if she hadn't missed one, when writing on the edge of one of the fives caught her eye. She was used to seeing dog-eared, graffitied bills, but this one was clean, and the writing was done in an India-ink dark ball point pen, each letter distinguished, like a soldier lined up for uniform inspection.
Pulling it out from amongst its fellows, she found the beginning of the note, and read:
You are sweet and pretty and smart and tired. I would give you my number, but I hate the phone. I would like to talk to you, and writing is much more comfortable for a first conversation. Please email me.
And he'd put down his address. A straightforward username of jbennet. Gmail.
Direct. Simple. Not stalker-ish at all. Yeah, right.
Keeping this one was a wrench, because it was a five, but she decided at last that it deserved its position of honor. Stabbing a tack through the top of the note, she put it on her corkboard with all the other scribbled phone numbers, call me's, obscene suggestions and declarations of devotion. It hung there stiffly, black writing still marching defiantly onward, somehow catching her attention each time her eyes drifted across the landscape of her room, almost as though with the uniformity of the characters they could convince her of the sincerity of the sentiment.
Her neck was stiff the following morning, because she'd fallen into bed, missed the pillow and instead slept like a log (thankfully no nightmares) against the metal frame. Add to that the various and sundry aches and pains in her legs, shoulders, and back, and she decided that this morning was a four aspirin morning instead of a three.
The apartment was fairly busy at eight o'clock in the morning, Simone sitting by the window in the living room and highlighting some class readings, Jillian reheating last night's coffee in the kitchen, and Amani sitting leaden-eyed at the table, letting her Cheerios get soggy in the milk.
Rebecca grabbed one of her pears out of the fridge and joined her at the table, relishing the sharp, crisp texture of the fruit's flesh and the way her jaws and teeth worked, primal and strong, biting down through the tough skin.
Jillian turned from the coffeepot, offering it silently to her, and she nodded, knowing that caffeine was required to survive the six-hour gauntlet of classes she faced every Tuesday and Thursday. The benefit was, of course, that those nights she could come straight home to catch up on homework and sleep as early as she could force her brain to shut down.
The prospect of being in bed by eight (maybe even seven-thirty!) was delicious and she felt her eyes drifting closed in sympathy. As penance, she took a large swallow of the tasteless, burnt black coffee, and felt her eyes water with the strength of it.
Lectures were soon attended and over, passing by in a haze of notes, questions, answers, and surreptitious pinches to the tender flesh of her underarm to keep her eyes peeled. At three, she let herself into the empty apartment and went to her room to start on homework.
As Rebecca hauled her books out of her bag and prepared for her nighttime reading, she found her eyes catching on the message from the previous night, the way a rich piece of silk snags when run over calloused fingertips.
For some reason, she kept considering his first sentence.
You are sweet and pretty and smart and tired.
The first two were garden-variety compliments, bandied about by any drunk to the first decent-looking thing to cross his line of sight. Even the third was becoming common; no modern girl wanted to be wooed solely for her exterior allure. It was only the last (and it was no compliment) sentiment that caught her attention. Tired…she certainly was. Probably anyone could tell, but why write it in a love note?
Her vision narrowed until all she could see was that single word, written in letters rigidly spaced apart. Her eyes traced the characters until she could reproduce them in memory, the round bulge of the top of the 'R', the faintly diagonal angle of the crossbar of the 'T'…
Her eyes snapped open and she made up her mind. Opening her computer, she busied herself setting up a new Gmail account.
Twenty minutes later, she sat back and considered the five sentences on the screen.
Sweet not so much. Pretty, thank you. Smart, you'd better believe it. Tired like you wouldn't believe. Who taught you how to flirt, anyway?
So Rebecca broke the first rule of her working life, and clicked 'send'. Then, to put the event out of her mind, she opened her books and started to read, taking notes and filling in short answer questions. By the time she was done, it was early, only quarter to seven, and feeling glorious with the luxury of so much time (she could be in bed by 7:30 and since she had to wake up at 5:30 to be in class by 8:15, that meant she would have ten whole hours to sleep!) she decided to check to see if her rather poisoned bait had gotten a nibble.
Surprisingly, there was no response. She had rather pictured the mysterious "J. Bennett" as a lonely, pimpled shut-in, too nervous to talk to a girl without sweating through his shirt. That meant that he was actually out somewhere, having a life, and not connected to his cyber social network with the newest gadgetry.
Yeah right. He could have seen her response and just been counting on her to make that assumption about him. Or he could have sent out a dozen bills like that (a rather pricey proposition, but still…) and was trying to recall which 'pretty, sweet, smart and tired' girl she was. Or…
Clearly she was giving this way too much thought. Running her hand through her short blond pixie, she decided to take a cool shower (thank God her bedroom was not on the sunny side of the apartment, or she'd be poached alive in the summer) and get into bed.
Sinking beneath the sheets, Rebecca ran through tomorrow's agenda.
It was a bleak prospect, but with the next ten hours cleared for nothing but sweet dreams, she thought she could handle it.
Rolling over, she breathed deep into her sheets, the smell of vanilla and fresh cotton lingering in her nose. On the exhalation, she was asleep.
At five the next afternoon, she was unwrapping a greasy hamburger on the bar as the band unpacked their synths and started balancing the speakers. God, but she hated techno days; the relentless computerized sounds drove her crazy. Honestly, after a few hours of that, she wanted to dance just to try and dislodge the beat from where it burrowed like a chigger underneath her skin and ate away at her flesh. Was that why it seemed so popular? Dancing to avoid being cannibalized?
Rebecca shook her head, hard. At least she had an hour before she had to start helping by wiping down the tables and helping slice the garnishes for drinks. One hour in which to glare moodily at her cell phone (no calls, no texts, no emails) and chew slowly on the burger that had all the flavor of meaty dishwater. She would be lucky to escape from her latest fast-food binge without having heartburn so bad she'd need to eat Tums like candy.
At least the two Jakes were already there. They always made for something fun to watch. As they flipped bottles and prepared glasses and wiped down the bar, they were something of an Abbot and Costello act. Jake A. (called Jay-KAY, with the last syllable stretched out like a wad of gum) was the joker, one-liners breaking on the stoic façade of his comrade, Jake B. (called Bennie, for some reason) who responded either with tired sarcasm or not at all.
She liked Jake B. He was the only one she knew that showed his exhaustion just as much as she did. While Jake A., who worked three part-time jobs almost round the clock and certainly round the week, was always full of humor and life without even having the decency to have a bad day once in a while, Jake B., a full time student like her, was always worried about flunking tests, constantly letting his temper run short, and often snappish when he wasn't in the mood.
But she'd shared an art history class with him when she was a Junior and he was a super Senior still cramming gen eds to graduate, and she was used to his grumpy demeanor. At least it didn't chafe as much as Jake A's relentless cheeriness.
She sidled up to him where he stood on the other side of the bar, methodically polishing glasses and said, "So, I think between the two of us we could break enough bottles to burn this place down with a cigarette. Wanna join me?"
"Don't tempt me. I'm on till closing tonight, and I've got a fifteen-page paper due for Art, Music and History, Augustine to Constantine."
"Is Roberts still teaching that class? He was one of my favorites."
"Actually, his TA took over after he retired, and he's cracking the whip. Doesn't like my writing style, either. Not that I've got much of one anyway…we had a ten page due already that I'm still trying to make up for."
She smiled, "Could be a reason why he doesn't like it." At his frown, Rebecca bit her lip. "I think I've got my old textbooks and notes from that class. You could borrow them; I think I've even got some of my outlines for my papers. Might give you a hand catching up."
The constant furrow of his brow relaxed a little at that, and he favored her with a wan smile. "That would be a huge help. I try to stay awake to take my own notes, but it's a 7:30 class and I usually go straight from the bar to campus and can't think of much else but sleep for the whole two hours."
"I hear ya. The only thing is that I'm off tomorrow…I wouldn't be able to get them to you until day after, and I dunno how much good that'll do you."
"Hmm." He turned around and yelled, "Jakay! Wanna pick up some overtime?"
The other bartender's head popped from around the corner of the bar. "What's up?"
"Gotta get some notes. I'll work your shift till two, and you stay on for me till four, okay?"
"Sure man, whatever," Jake A's gaze went between the two of them for a moment, and then repeated, with a grin, "sure," and darted to the other side of the bar again.
"Mind if I catch a ride to your place and take the notes home? The sooner I get to work on this the better chance I'll have graduating this year."
Rebecca shrugged. "If you want to. It'll take you an hour out of your way to come up to my place, but sure."
"Hey, time has no meaning for me any more." Suddenly his hand went to his pocket, and he fished out his phone. "Shit."
As he spoke in low tones to the person on the other end, Rebecca looked over her own phone again, feeling it vibrate under her palm with a new email. Flipping it open, she read:
I think you must be sweet to deal with what you do every day without bringing a pistol to work. It must be a lot to handle. Or maybe you just figure that killing customers never goes over well. You're prettiest because you are too smart to flaunt it and destroy it with attention. And I know just how tired you are. I see that same exhaustion in my own eyes whenever I look in the mirror.
I don't flirt. I talk. I'm talking with you.
Oy. When had it been a good idea for her to start a conversation with this idiot, anyway? The line about killing customers was cute in an off-color kind of way, but the next one, about being too pretty to flaunt it, just reeked of male territoriality. She'd heard it from so many guys in love with so many of her friends, "She's just so modest, you know? Like I know it's only for me, and she saves it for me because she loves me so much…"
Bleh. Rebecca lapsed back into boredom, and then, suddenly infuriated, she slid the phone towards her and clicked away in a frenzy.
You're talking, but talking in a flirtatious manner. Stop trying to sugarcoat (or un-sugarcoat it, whatever) the situation. I don't care much for your implication that any other woman in my position would lose it and start killing people, however slimy they may be. Yay, I'm not a serial killer! Perfect girlfriend material! I also don't care much for your macho pissing contest idea that says I save whatever beauty I might have for your eyes only. I save it because I don't want anyone who comes here to look at me, and that includes you, Mr. High-and-Mighty. And I don't care if we both suffer from the same existential angst caused by a shitty job and not enough money. So does three quarters of New York.
She finished typing and hit 'send' without even taking a breath. She swallowed hard and blinked down tears, the whole world momentarily feeling claustrophobic, the air in the club thicker than usual. So much for anticipation.
"God damn it," she whispered, snapping her phone shut.
Jake B. looked up from where he was packing ice around the garnish trays, and blinked. "What's up?"
"Just some dumb shit. Class," she said, nails scoring the lacquered bar. "I've gotta go change."
He opened his mouth to say something, and his hand rose as to catch her arm before she left, but then his phone buzzed again and he turned towards it to check his messages. Rebecca scoffed and swept her dinner wrappers into the trash before swinging off towards the break room.
At two in the morning the club was in full swing. Rebecca couldn't hear anything anymore (thank God she could, after a fashion, read lips) and she was quite literally dead on her feet, foundation and blusher doing their best to hide the sick pallor of her cheeks and her eyes feeling scraped raw from the smoke and the sting of alcohol and cologne.
In the bathroom, she plugged up the sink and filled it with scalding water, pulling her hair back and squeezing a dollop of exfoliating cream in her palm. It felt so good, wiping away all the sludge of congealed makeup and scum of the club's atmosphere. Ducking her head under the steaming water, she held it there for as long as she could, wondering how bad it would really feel to open her mouth wide and suck in enough water to fill her lungs.
She took two handfuls of paper towels and dried off her face, not stopping an instant to study her zombie reflection. The fluorescent light hurt her eyes as she tilted her head back to put in some drops, and the finishing ritual of the evening was her usual cocktail of water, Tums, and aspirin.
Jake B. was waiting for her, leaning against the cold glazed bricks of the back hall, bag slung over his shoulder and eyes looking corpselike and sunken in his face. He looked at her.
"Like you wouldn't believe."
"C'mon, I'll drive. Take less time than waiting for the subway."
Rebecca fell asleep the minute her head touched the seat back, and it was only when the car's engine stopped purring that she woke up, blinking owlishly, to realize they were already outside her apartment.
"How'd you remember how to get here?"
"I used to work as a cab driver. Besides, it's pretty straightforward."
She yawned, the strain cracking her jaw. "Thanks for not waking me."
As they walked across the street, she briefed him on the safety precautions they needed to take inside, and even though he looked at her askance, mouth twitching, he toed off his shoes and dutifully tiptoed upstairs.
The apartment was dark and still, and rather than turn on the lights and disturb anyone, she took Jake by the hand and led him through the shadowy hallways, tinged orange from the streetlights outside. All the bedroom doors were closed, but Amani was still lying on the sofa, hand across the remote, while the TV played silently into the darkness, throwing splashes of light across her wan, sleeping face. Rebecca leaned over and switched it off.
When they were inside her room with the door safely closed, she flipped on the light and started rummaging through her bookcase. Jake looked around the room.
"That's pretty cool," he said, and Rebecca didn't need to turn around to know that he was pointing at the oil painting on her far wall. "Who did that?"
"I did," she said slowly, turning to look at it with him. For a moment, their eyes lingered on the vibrant colors of the fanciful landscape until, wincing, she had to turn away.
"Didn't know that you were actually majoring in art. When did you paint that?"
"About a year ago. Around the time we were in Art History together. Here."
She shoved her notebook into his hand and backed off, hands in her pockets, avoiding his eyes. Her lips were taut and her stomach muscles tensed. If he asked any more questions, she just might throw up.
"It's like something out of Dali. But not quite."
He looked at her, poised in that stoic way he had. "What's wrong?"
Her shoulders tightened and she burst away from him, a tight turn putting her back against the dresser. "Nothing. Everything. Why the hell do you care?"
"Didn't say I did. Call it morbid curiosity."
"I'd call it something else. You'd better get your paper started, it's already 3."
He chuckled. "Why do you care?"
Rebecca looked at him dead-eyed. "I don't. I'm not a sweet pretty candy-cane girl. Now go away, Bennie."
"Y'know, I really hate that name."
"How'd you get it, anyway?"
He paused, hand on the doorknob. "My last name's Bennett, and they didn't like having two Jakes."
She didn't even hear the front door close as he left. The first sound she heard was his alarm chirping, and then his engine started and he pulled away. She turned away from the window after she watched him drive off, and faced the picture. Underneath it, a row of brushes bristled from a jelly jar, hairs dried with the same jewel-tints that shone from the canvas, and gnarled like a rheumatic's fingers.
Folding her hands in front of her, she put her back to the wall and slid down, resting her chin atop her bent knees and staring at the picture, until her head ached and her eyes followed the swirling, dipping lines of her creation until they felt independent of her muscles. She bit her knuckles and tried not to scream.
Upon further consideration, you're absolutely right. I am flirting, and I want to flirt with you. But I don't know how to go about it with you. You don't believe compliments and you won't even allow yourself to begin to trust me…I guess I can't really blame you there. I won't compliment you any more; you hardly need to hear it from me. I won't talk to you again unless you want me to.
Even if you don't believe me, trust me when I say that you are an admirable person, and that I respect and admire you…even if you refuse to listen to the reasons for my admiration.
Rebecca let her head fall back until it caught the hard steel edge of her chair back. Great. Just the best way to start her morning. Viciously, she hit 'delete' and gripped her desk, hauling herself to her feet. She had to leave for class in an hour, and Jillian was making pancakes.
Or she should have been. There were two voices coming from the kitchen, and as she listened, Amani swore loudly and slammed her hand on the tabletop, and a mug fell to the floor and cracked apart. Rebecca rounded the corner and found Simone standing in the corner, shoulders hunched together like she expected to be slapped. Jillian sat at the table with lips firmly together, one hand spread wide on the table and the other wrapped around a spatula. A pan of burnt pancakes smoked on the stovetop.
"I won't let them!" Amani cried, "I will not let them do this to me! Do you see this?" she yanked out her wallet and threw a picture of a handsome Arab man onto the table. "They expect me to marry him! They want me to come back to Egypt and marry that man!"
Jillian looked like she wanted to interrupt, but Amani slammed her hands down on the table again and raged, "I'm too old, they say. No man will take me because I'm too old. But whose idea was it for me to come to America to study? It's their own stupid fault! And I'm only twenty-five! How…how…"
Her voice trailed off and she choked on her breath. Back to the wall, she closed her eyes and bared her teeth. Rebecca could never remember seeing calm, collected, smiling Amani ever this emotional.
Jillian was the only one who could think of anything to say. "When do they want you to go back?"
The other girl laughed, bitterly. "Before the end of the semester. After three years, I won't even get my Master's. Apparently, education is only important so long as it doesn't get in the way of child bearing."
Rebecca bit her lip hard as she chastised herself for thinking of the unpaid rent before Amani's blighted future. They all waited in silence for a long moment before Amani, muttering in Arabic, shoved herself away from the wall and stalked from the room.
Simone let out a long breath that was more like a shaky sob, and pressed her fingers to her mouth. Jillian sighed and stood, grabbing the skillet from the stove and scraping the carbonized pancakes into the trash. She put the pan on a cold burner. "I don't really feel like breakfast anymore."
Rebecca watched her dash a tear from her eyes, and remembered that she and Amani had always been the closest. The two of them had lived in the apartment alone before Jillian had lost her paralegal job.
Despite it all, she couldn't help a bitter chuckle. "And to think I thought my problems were the worst in the apartment."
"Why?" Jillian said, taking a cake of steel wool to the pan, "What's wrong with you today?"
"Just managed to chase away the first guy who's been interested in me for months. And besides being a little hokey, he was actually all right. Poor Mr. J. Ben—"
She stopped. Of course. What a little fool.
"Who?" Jillian asked.
"No one. Not important." Rebecca checked her watch. 7:30 class, and it was 8 now, and she could get to the campus by 9:30, and he'd be getting out just about then…she ran back to her room, grabbed her book bag and slammed the door on her way out.
She watched him walk out of the classroom, eyes almost blinded by the brilliant sun in the courtyard between buildings. Even her prescription sunglasses couldn't keep out the full glory of the day, but she kept them for the momentary anonymity they offered. He caught sight of her and started to fish her notebook out from his bag, but stopped when she saw that she made no move to take it.
"Rebecca, what's going on?"
She didn't answer. He stood there, waiting.
Her head drooped and she stepped forward to rest it on his shoulder. His arms came up behind her and within their framework she felt strong, like his body radiated the sun that could drive out the shadows in her mind.