If I ever said I loved Francine it was to get her to set the kitchen knife down on the countertop before something awful happened. To her, I was the “looney.” Especially after she rocked back a row of wine coolers.
“You got a sick head,” she stammered, swinging the blade at me. “When you gonna get help now?”
“Fran,” I said, trying to grab her arm. “I said I love you. You see? I just said it, again.”
A year turned, when one morning she went missing out the front door, not a word, not a note. She wasn’t the first to disappear on me. I wish I could be all sad about it, but that’s just something else, over time, I’ve forgotten how to be.
Months on, after I snagged a gig trucking Pepsi product about town, I’d go to work, come home, squat in front of the computer, then back to work, home, internet and so on. Sometimes, when I remembered, I’d cut up the routine with a VA meeting or two.
Soon Francine was gone from my head, and I moved jobs to work security at the local elementary school. After one nightshift, I stepped out to The Lighthouse, the diner around the block. I didn’t mind this spot because inside they dressed the ceiling with dozens of American flags, and I could bullshit with the owner, Pete, til they locked the doors. Sometimes the old man would rattle on about our country’s “lost war.” His teary-eyed diatribes made it seem like what transpired in Basra had actually happened, and he’d always remind me that his son, “the hero,” had his ears cut off by a “towel-head” while sleeping. Each time he told his story it altered considerably, but that never bothered me. One time, after a few flights of whisky, he forced me to show him my burns, the welts that slid up my arm, shrouding my shoulder.
“Put that away,” he said, looking at the floor. “Don’t ever do that again. That’s horrible.”
Inside, that night after work, it was loud with young drunks and silver light. At the counter, I spotted this girl with rosy lip stain tilted into a coffee. The stool next to her was empty. When I sat, she said she knew my face. I didn’t believe her, but I wanted to.
“Come for me at Flamingo,” she said, chewing on her blueberry nails. “We slow dance together. You be my boyfriend at night.”
I forgot to ask her name.
The next night, and the next few nights, for the next few weeks, after work, I’d visit her at The Flamingo on Roosevelt Avenue in Corona. A ten-minute bus trip over the bridge, laundromats and liquor shops streaming past the window. Slack, hollowed-out faces staring back at me. I always edged towards the exit in case something awful went down, and if there wasn’t a seat I’d stand as close to the door as I could.
Inside The Flamingo, there were only four exits signs, and the room was black beyond the neon sign that gripped the wall: NO GROPING NO STRIPPING. Here, you paid for dances. It was two dollars a turn. Ten for a set, and forty afforded an hour’s time. There was the option to slow dance, grind, salsa, whatever. On a grimy couch you’d pick from a row of girls rocking their legs, snapping gum, yammering about nothing.
Every night, my diner friend would straighten up, flash to the rack, find her time card and clock in. At the club, her name was Marie. We’d hold hands, swing to the music. It felt right to be only this close, and I could always go home, alone, without expectations, without attachments.
Most evenings she’d surprise me with a new satin dress: pineapples, sailboats, this big-tooth poodle. Across the dance floor ladies in low-cut minis swayed, resting on the shoulders of men. The music pierced, a metallic blitz, a bland blue glow kept the space together as long shadows obscured faces.
“You’re pretty good at this,” I said, as I stepped on Marie’s foot.
“You have the funny mustache,” she said. “Like the funny mustache now.”
“Just promise not to cut me Marie,” I said.
She looked confused.
Near the bar, a security guard aggressively ushered a construction worker out the back door for thrusting his hands up a dancer’s dress. I squeezed Marie’s hand, looking over my shoulder.
“Fuck you! Gross man!” the dancer shouted. The other girls chimed in, yelling similar expletives. Then everyone resumed, one shuffle onto another. And I didn’t mind Marie’s cigarette breath, her warm, sweaty back, that two-dollar perfume, the way she misspoke. She could rap for hours: the dishwasher broke, the landlord left her a bottle of expensive wine, her dog ate too much.
“What kind of dog?” I said.
“The brother,” she said, looking down. “I can’t know which dog.”
“What’s the matter?”
“They send brother to Mexico. America no good for me. My brother go too soon.”
A few weeks later, I was calling Marie at home on her days off. Then it was every day, the mornings, after work, before work. I sent flowers. Mailed candy. I did everything a normal boyfriend should do. I could hear her kids in the background shouting at the TV.
“My husband come home soon, too. He come home drink too much.”
“Do you need to go then?”
“No. I like you now.”
“I like you, too, Marie.”
“I like to see you now.”
“But you’re not working? How would I even pay you?”
She giggled. “You funny all the time.”
Eventually, she wanted me to call her by her real name: Valerie. I thought it was a joke. But a few days later I forgot she was ever Marie.
One time, I couldn’t call Valerie because I got knocked over by the flu, saw spiders crawling on the wall all night. I had nightmares of being holed up in a bunker. A robed woman self-immolating, howling in the dunes, skin dribbling off her bones. Mines cracking the skyline, sand vipers gliding the desert and scorpions racing the caves. I was in and out of sleep for days, stirring a sweat. When the fever broke, I rang her, and she scolded me in Spanish and English, crying, accusing me of abandoning her.
“I swear I’ll be at the Flamingo tomorrow. Eight PM sharp. I promise. I was just sick, you have to understand,” I said. “I was sick, Valerie.”
“You have to love someone new. There’s someone else pretty, right? Don’t come for me tomorrow. Don’t now! You stop love with me!”
At once, I was reminded of Francine and the knife. How it felt to talk to her. Even Laura. I hadn’t thought of Laura Henley in years. The way Laura made me feel like I was hiding something from her, from myself. And Laura reminded me of Lindsey. But Lindsey. That was when I first returned from deployment, and all I can call back from then was curling into bed, staring at the ceiling for weeks and months, wondering what was ever real, what had to be fake. But all the girls said the same thing to me, and they never stayed long. I didn’t know how to love anyone anymore. And no one understood that better than me.
A week later, Valerie and her daughters showed up at my apartment. It was midnight, in the middle of a thunderstorm.
“Please. It’s raining all over us,” she hollered into the intercom.
I opened the door. They were soaked, and it looked as if Valerie had been crying for hours. I took their jackets and put them in the dryer. Valerie apologized for coming over so late unannounced.
“This Nina, this Luiza,” Valerie said.
“Hi Nina and Luiza. How old are you’s?”
“I’m twelve,” said Nina.
“Nine-and-a-half and three days,” said Luiza.
“Those might be the two best ages on the planet,” I said. “But that’s just my opinion.”
“How come you don’t have any furniture besides that couch? Or any pictures in your house?” Nina said.
Valerie interjected, “Nina, tu eres ruidoso. Lo siento. I sorry about that. You know how the kids be.”
“Mama, es una casa para fantasmas,” Nina said.
“You don’t have to worry, Nina. Only one ghost lives here,” I smiled.
Valerie asked if they could stay the night. I didn’t see a problem with it. I pulled out the couch, made it a bed for them. They asked to put on the TV because the cartoons helped them sleep. I turned off the light and it surprised me when Valerie trailed into my bedroom.
She paused by my bedside, smiling.
“You very good to me,” she said. “Good man for the kids.”
“Can I get you something else?”
“Can you talk now,” she said, stepping closer to me. “Brother sent back home. They take me, too, next. I know. They take me, too. The kids.”
Her eyes filled up, she reached in to kiss me. I pulled away.
“Did I do wrong?”
“No. You did nothing. No, no. Not at all.”
“But you love me, no? You said, you love me many time?”
I didn’t recall saying that.
“Then why do you talk me so much? For so long?”
I had nothing.
She kept shaking her head at me as if she couldn’t believe what she saw, and then she fell on the bed, sobbing, her body shaking. After a couple of minutes, I pulled a blanket over her and sat rubbing her back until she fell asleep. The room changed and I felt nervous. I didn’t want any part of these feelings. I went into the kitchen for a glass of water and a handful of aspirin. The kids were asleep in the living room. I walked into their room and sat by the TV. I couldn’t keep up with the storyline. It made me feel jumpy. I wanted to yell at the screen or throw something. I thought I heard a shotgun go off in the yard, but it was a car backfiring somewhere. I walked over to turn off the television when Luiza shot up in bed.
“Please, don’t shut that off. It’s scary when it’s off.”
“Oh, I wasn’t going to,” I whispered. “I was just putting up the volume for you. Ya see?
I raised the volume slightly and sat against the wall.
“You don’t have to whisper. Nina sleeps through everything. Are you my mom’s new boyfriend?”
“No, I’m her friend.”
“She said you were her boyfriend.”
She laid back down. A loud explosion from the TV distracted us. An apple shot fire from its core at a couple of worm-like characters.
“Whatever happened to Bugs Bunny or shows like that? This stuff is absolutely absurd.”
“Bugs Bunny was a racist.”
“Who told you that?”
“Everyone knows that.”
She sat up again and looked at me.
“What’s that burn on your hand from?”
“That?” I said, covering my hand. “That’s not a burn. That’s just a tiger bite.”
“No, it’s not. I know what tiger bites look like. That’s not a tiger bite. It looks like a burn to me.”
“I wouldn’t lie to you.” I wasn’t going to tell her about the woman who lit herself on fire in Fallujah. That I tried to tackle to her to the ground to put her out, but that the flames wouldn’t stop. “Luckily it was only a baby tiger.”
“Must’ve been a real scary baby tiger,” she said, laying back down.
I laughed. “They come in all sizes.”
She sat up again. “Are there any other bites?”
“Hmm.” I paused. “Probably.”
“If a tiger really bit you, then you’d know where it bit you. That doesn’t make any sense.”
“Because I can’t see all the bites.”
“Now, you’re just acting weird,” she said, furrowing her brow. “Can you turn the TV up a lot louder?” she said. She pulled the covers up to her chin.
“Was my mom crying before?”
“No. She was laughing.”
“She sounded like she was crying.”
“That’s not what I heard. She was crying.”
“Stop! Stop! Stop already!” I yelled, pounding the wall with my fist. “Goddamnit already. Just stop it!”
She turned over in bed, pulling the covers over her head. I was surprised no one else woke. I heard the kitchen faucet drip.
“I’m sorry about that, Luiza. I didn’t mean that. I was just playing. Sometimes I just…”
She didn’t answer. I turned the TV up almost to full volume. When Luiza fell asleep I shut it off. I sat in black against the wall wondering if Valerie was my girlfriend, and why I couldn’t tell. The more I thought about it the more I got used to the idea of liking her. She was good for me, and at least she liked me. I could learn to like her back. Maybe teach myself to be someone else. I would tell her all of this in the morning. Tell her how I felt about everything.
I stayed up almost to sunrise listening to the street sounds blur in the distance. I thought about this one time when I was a boy and I stood in the kitchen sunlight with my mother, her freckled chest, as she sang this song about this little train over and over again. I hugged her as hard as I could and kept asking: “Mommy, another kiss. Another kiss, Mommy. Another kiss.”
When I woke later that morning, flat on the floor, the beds were made. I walked toward the window, parted the curtain. A rise of birds swooped, a wisp of smoke, turning to a dark rain cloud, spoiling the morning light. I couldn’t thread a thought together, so I took a shower, made some eggs and dumped them after the first bite. I went to work. It looked like it was going to downpour any minute. I decided to call Valerie after work, to give her space. Instead, I rang her on my lunch break. When she didn’t answer I took a cab straight to The Flamingo.
“Is Marie here?”
“No, she’s not.”
It went on for for a while like this.
Marie never came back to work. None of the girls would say where she was or where she went. I was dealing weed and nabbed this second job rolling wheelchairs at the veterans’ hospital. But after work, I danced as often as I could. Those days I had more cash. I was there four nights a week, at least. And every dance felt real. Every conversation. Elva, Abril, Conchetta, Zita, Palomina, Palomina’s sister. I can’t remember them all. But I liked reaching into their eyes. I was learning how to love again.
I liked not getting too close.