For a brief moment, the dead flowers sprouting from Tabitha’s white vase swayed in a placid rhythm, circling with each thump, an accord so succinct it was as though the bookshelf below it had disappeared and the banging and yelling making everything spin had also vanished, both replaced by a wonderfully harmonious pendulum. But anger soon overwhelmed all of them, as it always did, and the vase pitched over the edge of the bookshelf, shattering on the floor. It had rested there for so long the ghost of its footprint stood in an oval of absent dust.
“Tab! Open the door.” The yell came from the other side.
“You just broke my vase!”
“Open the fucking door!”
Tabitha perched on her tiptoes and peered so close to the peephole I thought the shaking door might slap her in the cheek. It’d be a fitting injury, considering a bruise there would match the one on the other side.
“Open the door,” I said to her.
She glared over her shoulder, hair cascading in red curls over mascara-stained eyes. I liked annoying her, working her rage until she pounced. My tuxedo shirt slipped off her left shoulder, her body’s attempt at legerdemain, transforming simple cotton into an instrument of sex.
“Don’t tempt me.”
“No, he’ll kill you,” she said, but her fingers tickled the bolt lock, stalling on the tumbler.
Tabitha was a woman whose penchant for danger made her interesting for a day, a week, though sometimes less. She turned back to the peephole. My shirt halted just above the curve of her butt and her panties were quickly assisted in their dutiful coverage of her pale skin by green knee-high socks, champions as it were, of the three way title fight of seduction her assorted clothing battled.
“If you don’t open this door in two seconds—”
“Do as the man says.” It had been months since I felt so close to a moment. Tabitha’s beauty was so real to me just then, so present.
“Why, are you going to disappear on me if I do?”
I balled my empty fist, and then pulled a tissue from its innards.
“It’s not funny.”
I opened the tissue and held it in front of my face.
“It is until I get the trick to work.”
Something more than a punch struck the door.
“Couldn’t tell. Let him in.”
“He won’t care that you’re a woman.”
“That’s fine, I don’t care that he’s a man.”
“Go out the back. You can’t get down the fire escape from this side, but climb up and over the roof and you can get down on the other side.”
“He can hear you.”
“I can hear you!” It had to be his foot now. The doorframe waffled. A few more and it’d give way.
I buttoned my pants, stretching my suspenders over a half tucked white tank top. Opening my bag, I pulled apart the city landscape of Portland printed there and grabbed my weapon. I put it in my pocket.
“Well fuck, you’re just as stubborn as he is.”
“You must attract it.”
“Open the door, Tabitha.”
“If you don’t open this fucking door I swear to Christ almighty—“
Her resolve strengthened in the taught muscles of her neck. Her hand spun the lock and opened the door.
Hutch seethed with balled fists, his righteous fury baying at the women in front of him.
“You’ll do what?” Her arms folded and her hip popped, opening the curtain of my shirt where the buttons failed to conceal. I saw Hutch’s wide eyes harden on the journey from her face to those exposed panties.
They flicked to me.
Pitching waves of anger fell across Hutch’s face but confusion ebbed in the tides. Beneath a thin white undershirt, small breasts hid my identity from gender labels, apparently their only purpose. Without any make-up, or shadow or eyeliner or lips the color of a wine stain, I left nothing to help him counter the puzzlement caused by my toned arms and buzzed haircut.
“Who the fuck is this?” His finger wavered in the air next to Tabitha’s bruised cheek.
“A friend.” She couldn’t help it, couldn’t hide the grin contorting her face into satisfaction’s comfort. But that flint reignited him.
“And what the fuck is it doing here?” That gave him pleasure; I could tell. As if I’ve never been called anything worse than a lapsed pronoun.
“Finishing what you left, sweetheart,” I responded.
He swatted her to the side and stalked me with heavy footfalls. Those thumping beats of hostility closed the distance between us as they had to Tabitha last week and so many women before her, millions of them, stretching back to the Roman Empire, cowed, scared, beautiful women beaten for the twin crimes of beauty and confidence.
“No, Hutch, stop!” Her voice drowned in his mass.
I knew I’d have to take the first.
He may not have been a gentleman but he did the favor of hitting me in the stomach. I crumbled over his extended arm, his strength holding me aloft. He pulled away and I shattered to the floor next to the glass shards of the vase.
My face scraped the carpet and I searched for my breath amid smells of vomit and sex. Hutch’s massive boot stepped in front of my eyes.
“Get out!” Tabitha’s voice echoed through my head. She hadn’t moved.
I dug into my pocket.
“A broad. I can’t fucking believe it. You cheating on me with a broad. And I’ve seen scrawny dogs hotter than her at that.”
“She’s wonderful,” Tabitha said, her voice soft through forming tears.
“I bet she is.”
I felt his hands latch onto my neck, stronger than the lobster pincers he’d spent his life harvesting from the sea. He hoisted me back to my feet and the pressure from his fingers slackened my grip.
On my toes, he raised me higher, bringing me close to his face. Fish and sweat and labor diffused from his pores. His thumbs held and choked me at the same time. Time passed in shooting streamers of twilight and I nearly felt sorry for him. He worked hard, this man, harder than I ever had, harder than my dad, a political science high school teacher, harder than my mom, a failed housewife and successful drunk. Hutch earned his money the way everyone used to earn their money, by their totals. How many pots of crab did you lift? How many bundles of hay did you carry? How many bodies did you dispose? He was a part of the history of the word, Hutch was, the grit and toil that created the fantasy we all lived in today. But no one remembered men like Hutch. No one remembered their work, their sacrifice. He’d be forgotten the moment he died. Vanished from the world. And me? My entire purpose was to entertain people just like him, give them one night of awe and laughter and of hope in something greater, something more wonderful than sleep and work. That was my job, to make people like Hutch smile.
“I’m gonna bite your clit off, you dumb bitch.”
“Oh Hutch,” I struggled to say as his fingers summoned blackness at the corners of my vision.
“Your girl already did that last night and it was amazing.”
His lip curled and he tried to push me through the wall. The moment had come.
The taser did its work just as the mail-order catalogue had promised.
I fell to a knee, rubbing my neck and gathering my breath. Hutch’s stiff body shook on the floor, a muffled vowel escaping his mouth.
“What’d you do?” Tabitha still hadn’t moved; her hand melted to the doorknob.
“Gave myself a head start,” I coughed out.
I took to crooked feet. Hutch shook his head, expelling his surprise before rolling over. I shocked him again. His legs kicked against the carpet, the same carpet Tabitha and I had kissed on for an hour before moving to the bed, a fact that didn’t bring me as much pleasure as I would have liked.
“Stop!” Tabitha yelled, finally ungluing herself from the door and kneeling by his side.
I hit him again. His yellow teeth clenched and the veins in his thick biceps bulged.
“Stop, stop!” She pushed me away and, still weak, I tumbled to the floor.
Hutch moaned and Tabitha cried and I coughed until a trickle of blood blotted my chin, and we all gathered in the middle of the small apartment to commiserate with each other about the wonder of life. When I left minutes later, it was as though I had never been in the apartment at all and instead, some mysterious force had invaded the space between Hutch and Tabitha’s love and reversed their roles. I couldn’t be sure which way was better.
The show started at eight with call at six-thirty. I risked Ali’s wrath and spent a few extra minutes in the hotel’s steam room, letting the alcohol drain from my skin and the pain drip from my bruises.
I lifted my sweaty head from my hands. A large, homely woman gathered her mass and sat beside me.
“Hey, yea I’m fine thanks.” I rubbed the back of my head and the small stubs of hair spat sweat.
“You look familiar,” the big lady said.
“I get that.”
“No, I know you.” She stared and scrunched her flat nose. “The magic show. You’re the assistant right?”
“Yea.” My eyebrows rose to the extent of excitement.
“Ali Aziz and The Amazing Antoinette,” she said, framing the words in the steam with her chubby thumb and forefinger. I ignored the jiggling of her underarm.
“Yea, that’s right.” Her enthusiasm summoned my smile. “I guess you enjoyed the show.”
She couldn’t say enough about it. She’d seen it twice already and they had tickets to tonight. Originally from Oakland, they took a cruise up the Alaskan shoreline on their thirtieth wedding anniversary and fell in love. Six years gone, Juneau was still their permanent home. This little trip up to Anchorage was a reward for her husband’s retirement.
“But it’s not often we get high quality entertainment like you and your husband up here, that’s for sure.”
I didn’t feel the need to correct her. If the lady couldn’t tell I wasn’t married to Ali for the thousands of obvious reasons, there wasn’t much else that’d make her understand.
“Tonight’s our last show here,” I said.
“And where you headed next?”
“Fairbanks I think.”
“Beautiful this time of year. Absolutely beautiful. Cold, but you get used to that sort of thing the longer you live here.”
I let the steam broil around me, entering my nose, expanding in my chest and massaging the sore muscles of my throat.
We sat in the warmth for the remainder of the hour. When the timer dinged she got up – I never did get her name – and opened the door. She watched the air billow from the room before closing the door and turning to me.
“I’m sorry but, how did you do it?”
“Get into magic?”
“I guess it sort of found me.”
She smiled. Her hand fought to keep the white towel cinched around the flesh of her large breasts. “I like that. It’s romantic, though I know you don’t mean it to be.”
“I never choose much of anything. It all just finds its way to me.” I cleared my throat, felt its scratchiness. “Or away from me.”
“That I understand.” She shimmied and the towel reclaimed lost ground. “I had things,” she nodded at nothing, “yes, so many things I wanted to do. And now with the kids grown, and my husband’s 401K not being what we thought, and the sadness.” She forced a fake smile. “Well yes, the sadness that despite how hard you’re fighting it’s all starting to wind down, and those things just don’t seem reachable anymore.”
The timer dinged and another round of steam rose from the floor vents. Heavy white mist ate the growing dryness.
“I feel invisible sometimes. Like no one sees me anymore. Like—” she paused. “Oh this is so silly to tell a stranger.”
“No.” I nodded to her. “No, go ahead.”
She breathed deeply, and I saw the muscles in her neck tense and her resolve strengthen. “My husband sees me as his wife and my kids as their mother and my sister as the matriarch now that my mom has passed, and I’m all these things to all these people but the woman that I am, the woman I know in here, she’s invisible to everyone, including me. And I can’t help but wonder if that’s my fault for not telling them or their fault for not asking.”
We spoke a little while longer. I think she cried but it was difficult to tell and in fact, I could barely make her out through all of the steam. She thanked me and left. I stayed in the room for another half hour until my fingers pruned and the light above faded to a pinprick.
In the mirror of my dressing room, I examined the red bands circling my neck like the rings of Saturn. I dabbed them with primer but the chaffed skin bore the make-up down into crevasses and it resurfaced in spider-web cracks that refused to wane.
“You’re late,” Ali called in from the hallway. He never entered while I was getting ready; he at least had that much respect.
“I know. I’m sorry. I had a long night.”
“They are all long nights.” His reply came in slow, studied English.
He continued, more about responsibility and the importance of career. I put on my bra and the highest collared shirt I could find, buttoning it slowly, listening to Ali talk, but not to the words. His words faded, and in their place the cadence of his voice scattered the silence.
The show began. From the glare of the stage, I couldn’t see if Tabitha had come. I told her I’d save her a seat, even left her a ticket. This was after the sex and before Hutch. I did see my steam room mate though. And despite her admissions, she sat comfortably next to her husband, a man much thinner than I would have imagined, with her head on his shoulder and the loving touch of her fingers on his wrist.
Later in the show, Ali embraced the audience with his hands, begging them for a volunteer to hold the dove I knew he would turn into a handkerchief. I descended into the audience and searched for volunteers. Though I had never seen a more perfect mark than my large friend, she surprised me by not raising her hand. I thought about picking her anyway, guiding her up to the spotlights. I would have too if I hadn’t spotted her, the other her, she who would for her entire life always be the other her, sitting not four seats away.
Tall with strong legs accented by just the right amount of girth where her black and red mini dress pinched her thighs, she climbed the stage on delicate steps, perched atop spindly high heels. I took her hand to assist, unfettered by lust for a woman so wholly not my type and yet ecstatic knowing every man in the hall would be staring at her legs and every woman would envy her taught black ponytail and no one in the entire theater would be looking at a dumb white pigeon; that magic indeed was about to take place.
Once she was safely up the steps, I spared a glance back to the audience. I bowed with flair, though truthfully, I was taking a moment to confirm what I already knew. Tabitha wasn’t coming.
The tall girl in the heels lifted the bird high into the frozen quiet of the theater. I caught Ali stealing a glimpse of her ass, an ass one thin layer from freedom, starkly unburdened by panties. Once he had his fill, he cupped her hands and with a puff of his cheeks, the bird vanished.
Ali liked her so much, he kept her on the stage for the next trick, and then another, adlibbing a role for her, possibly the role he had always wished I would fill, that of the true assistant and not of the illusionist in training which I had turned it into. The black haired goddess here could hold the curtain in front of the levitating box, throw all but one card in a deck and have it be the one with his initials on it, shoot flames from her hands, laugh at his horrible redundant jokes.
I studied the audience and how their entrancement with the pretty girl contrasted with the strange man from the East. She giggled, marveling at Ali’s poise, but the audience didn’t laugh with her. They stared at her, at her shape, and her small chest and the perfect symmetry of her forehead. How could she be so invisible? It was the truest tragedy of any age, that the beauty of women could forever be supplanted by the desire to obtain them.
The show ended and Ali bathed in applause, in light and rapture. She bowed too but I sidestepped and stole as much as I could. I think I already knew it’d be the last time.
Backstage Ali asked for her number, if she was originally from Anchorage, and if she had ever considered leaving. Here, yes, and yes, were her answers, and the sooner the better. He left her in the women’s dressing room so he could pack up his things and we could all go have a drink and talk about the future.
I leaned into the mirror and wiped away my stage make up with a moist pad. The girl folded her legs and examined her wine colored nails.
“What’s your name?”
“How old are you, Lucy?”
She paused. From the vicious tilt of her eyebrows I saw mistrust, or at the very least some dark prejudice against androgyny.
I nodded, closing one eye and swabbing the shadow there.
“School.” Something on her hand was quite interesting.
“I’m not coming with you tonight.” I closed my other eye and removed the rest of the shadow. My face stared back, bare and drawn out, appearing from beneath the expert curtain of my cover up. “You don’t have to worry about the lesbian getting in the way of your interview.”
She paused. “It’s not an interview.”
“Well it isn’t a date, so you forget that shit.”
“Do you hate me because I’m pretty?”
“Do you hate me because I’m not?”
“I don’t hate anyone.”
I paused and inwardly berated myself. She waited for me to finish. “You shouldn’t go with him either,” I decided to say.
“I think I may have to.” She shrunk. “I think it may be my only chance.”
That was the moment, not when she sauntered up to the stage, not when Ali nearly blew the raining umbrella bit because he was too enamored with her neckline, not even when I saw her pinch Ali during their bows so tightly she turned his wrist white. It wasn’t at any of those moments but then, with the clamor of the zombies still shuffling out of the auditorium and Ali probably jerking off in his dressing room that I had the nauseating feeling I could see, however flawed, why men rape. Not understand or endorse, but see it, see the realization they must come to when they figure out just how transparent a man could make a woman feel. No one saw all the pretty girls including themselves, forced into blindness, so why would anyone believe when something horrible happened to every damn one of them.
“You two ready?” Ali called in from the hall.
Violent images hid behind my eyes and I couldn’t silence them with a shake of my head.
“She’s not coming,” I yelled out the door to him.
“What?” Lucy replied.
“Shh,” I said.
“What do you mean she’s not coming? You’re both coming. It was a good show. We need to talk about the future. Both of your futures with the show.”
“You can’t speak for –“ Lucy whispered.
I pushed my palm into her face. The dainty girl receded.
“She already left, Ali. Said this business wasn’t for her. I let her out the back.”
Ali sighed in frustration. “Antoinette, this is disconcerting. I had plans for her. For you and all of us.” He stepped closer and his voice grew. “Are you decent? May I come in?”
“No.” I pointed at Lucy to keep her quiet but the girl’s spirit was already broken. “I’m still not changed, don’t come in.”
“Really, Antoinette, this is unfair. Did you feel threatened by that pretty girl? You have nothing to worry about. I value you as an assistant and protégé.”
He continued about the importance of our partnership, how he felt one day, when he was weary from traveling the Pacific Northwest, I could inherit the show from him, as if I wanted to be the heir to handkerchiefs and boxes and scissors for cutting up twenty dollar bills and markers for tagging all those playing cards. Inherit a mirage, a business measured in office supplies.
I put her coat over her bare, slight shoulders. Lucy closed the arms and our fingers touched. I stood behind her and squeezed and through the reversed image in the mirror our eyes met. For that second, with Ali droning on about beauty and skill, I tried to see Lucy as a woman, a person, and not an expectation, but it was so Goddamned difficult to see anything more than a hot piece of ass. I hated the entire planet for that.
I opened the back door and let her into the alleyway. The snow had stopped but a fresh blanket consumed the last two steps. Her naked toes with their pretty red nail polish nestled in a pair of sexy heels sunk into the softness. She smiled back at me.
Ali and I engaged in a bitter fight after that. Before I decided to confront him, I opened the top three buttons of my shirt until my bra was fully exposed. I had little in the way of cleavage, but it wasn’t my intention to excite him. No. I wanted him uncomfortable and I knew seeing me in any light other than dutiful asexual assistant would put him off balance. Still though, I wanted to believe him, believe he was insulted by my assumption that Lucy was my replacement, believe him when he said he wanted me to do more in the show, not less. Long ago, the earnestness of his sincerity made me believe in wisdom. But that was before the trips to Seattle in the rain and Vancouver in the snow and Sitka in the wind so cold the winch on the trailer snapped in two. I didn’t learn more about him in those moments as much as I became disappointed there wasn’t anything left to discover. Ali became ordinary; less the enchanting mystic and more the unremarkable man, and Christ if I wasn’t tired of watching unremarkable men rule the universe.
We parted before raised voices became screams. I didn’t want it to end this way, didn’t want a four year partnership to dissolve in the wake of another woman. But I knew it always ends on the tip of chauvinism.
Ali fled and I sat alone in the dressing room. Three minutes later, after a series of loud clicks, all of the lights in the building shut off. Through the dim red emergency exit sign I could see the faint silhouette of my neck and long nose in the mirror. I remembered a game my brother used to make me play, ten years before he traveled to the deserts of Iraq to fight people that looked like Ali but really weren’t anything like him at all. Bloody Mary. We’d say it three times into the dark glass, three times and the witch would appear; another woman from another time here to eat the young.
I put on my coat and bag. I wasn’t certain the busses stopped this late but it’d be a long walk back to the hotel. I closed the door behind me, and only then did I notice the black figure blocking out the white snow.
I grimaced. “Hello, Hutch.”
“I’ve been waiting.”
“I didn’t know you were a fan of magic.”
“You left the ticket on her nightstand. I may be stupid but even I could find you after that.”
My breath froze in the air. A thin shirt hugged the mountainous topography of his chest. All those years on a crabber had toughened his skin, immunized him from frostbite and cold.
“Where is she?” I asked.
“She’s at home. Licking her wounds.”
It began to snow again, silent flakes fluttering to the ground. The moisture swallowed the sound of the city until there was nothing between us but low static.
“I’m leaving town, Hutch. I’ll never see her again.”
“Do you know what it does to a man? To find his woman like that? Do you know?”
“It wasn’t right of me.”
“You knew she was with someone.”
“And you fucked her anyway.”
More snow landing in growing piles.
“Then you attacked me.”
“We both know that’s bullshit.”
He laughed; a hard punctuation at the end of his logic.
“I thought about it. Not gonna lie. When I broke down that door I thought about strangling the two of you, about burying you both in the same field so you two dumb dykes could be together forever.”
“Too bad you weren’t born a barbarian. Or a Viking. You’d have made a great Viking, Hutch.”
“It doesn’t have to be like this.”
“It always has to be like that. It’s what you bitches don’t get.”
In Tabitha’s apartment it all happened so quickly, I didn’t have time to examine him, to stumble beneath his might, the force of his presence. The taser, buried somewhere in the zipped bag on my shoulder, beneath my stage outfit and make up bag and bras and hairbrush, felt further away than my childhood.
He walked towards me, boots crunching fresh snow. I unzipped my bag and blindly felt around.
“I just quit my job.” I don’t know why I said it; words tumbled from my mouth.
“Pain,” he stood above, an eclipse of man. “It’s everything. Pain is real. It’s the only thing on this earth that you can’t see but always know is there.”
Light from somewhere, maybe the snow, maybe God, lit the whites of his eyes, opaque sideways bullets against blackness. Before long he’d beat his way through my skull. He’d disfigure my face, break my hawkish nose. The bruises would rise up, forming craggy Pangaea sized masses. His boots were large enough to do that; heavy rubber soles, it’d be as though he were trying to stomp his life into me, years of it, disrespect and low wages and the desperation of never knowing from where his next meal would come. A kick to break my ribs to impregnate me with his past, two years out of high school with no life, getting a job on a trawler, a punch into my kidney’s and then it’d be alcohol abuse, the only thing capable of putting him to sleep at night and asking him to wake up in the morning. One last punt to my groin, which would somehow hurt the most, and I’d fold, Tabitha and an abusive three year relationship would swim in my thoughts, what love becomes when the world twists it up so tight it bulges and splits at the seams, spilling poison across the bad years as well as all the damn good ones too.
“You’re going to beat me now, Hutch? Is that it? Beat another woman?”
“Na, I’m not going to beat you. I’m not going to slap you around. I’m not going to teach another bitch a lesson her father should’ve taught her in the first place.”
My searching hand found the taser. I brought it up in front of me. I pressed the button as a warning and an arc of blue electricity lit between us.
I took a step back.
“Scum. She’s going to leave you.”
“Leave me?” He pointed to his chest. “I’d never let her.”
“It’s not up to you.”
“Well it is. And she ain’t.” A fissure formed across his lips, a broken smile. “That’s the reason I came down here. To tell you, you don’t fucking matter.” He hadn’t moved. The snow piled around those black boots of his.
“I should shove this down your throat.” The anger rose in my throat, cut off my breath. A tear drifted from my cheek but I slapped it away. “I should shove it down your throat until you fucking choke on it.”
He took a step back, his feet pulling free from the snow like a monster from the deep.
“You take all that anger and all that pain and you live with it, you crazy cunt. Live with it and remember me every time it drives you fucking mad.”
I should’ve charged him then. I should’ve ran at him, zapped him, left the button depressed and the weapon against his neck until the flesh bubbled black around the metal prongs. I wanted to kill this man. Erase him from forever. Erase all of them from forever for the crime of hiding so many Tabithas from happiness.
But he balked. He stepped backwards once, twice, and before I could shake the lingering fear from my head he was in full retreat, calling me a whore once more for good measure and then leaving me alone in the quiet snowfall of the alley.
I tried not to feel like the only person in the world then. I tried to feel like each snowflake was a woman reaching back to the beginning of time, millions of them, smiling, something like victory. But they weren’t women, just snow, tiny pieces of snow that disappeared when they fell to the ground.
J. J. Sinisi is a professional out of New York but spends what little free time he has strolling dark alleyways creating crime fiction. His work has appeared at Dead Guns Press, All Due Respect, Thuglit, Shotgun Honey, The Flash Fiction Offensive, Heater, and he received an honorable mention in Glimmer Train’s Family Matters contest. His noir themed website www.thisdesperatecity.com recently relaunched and is meaner than ever.