Joyland

San Francisco |

Desiree

by Linnie Greene

edited by Lisa Locascio

I woke up on her couch, rain outside, wine still sloshing in my stomach, a dry mouth and my heart beating fast when she stepped out of the other room, feet brushing against the carpet and last night’s detritus.

On the ground, a Menudo sleeping bag spread out like a rug, several pairs of shorts cut from old jeans, shoes without their mates scattered willy-nilly, a small table stained with fluorescent nail polish, a couple of tiny cactus plants nearly dead, scarves and shirts that were thrown there as rejects sometime in the past few months and left to pad the floor.

The more nights I spent on that couch, the more my life resembled her apartment. Things strewn everywhere, tacked onto the walls, every surface covered in a memento or a homage or an act of indifference. Toss that shoe over there, we need to go. Forget it, I’ll pick it up later.

Like vampires, we spent most nights underneath the dim glow of porch light, chain-smoking Camels and sucking long gulps from bottles of grocery store wine. Like vampires, we spent most days indoors, waking up in the afternoon with a Bloody Mary and later, a line of blow if we’d come into any cash.

Mornings were the sickly taste of a sugary mouth – Moscato, leftover from the night or day before – and uneven legs, muscles that twitched and ached with the effort to stand. One of us would drag the other to breakfast, the bar, to work, or to my bed – barely touched, in those months – where I’d sleep until my 2 p.m. shift. We would wake in bed together like puppies and moan at the sunlight coming through her window.

She went into the bathroom and came out in a tall pair of shoes and a short dress with her keys in her hand. Towering above me, as always, with her bleached blonde hair and the eyeliner painted on and smeared. I scanned her arm for track marks, but they wouldn’t be there yet. I was always looking up at her.

“Let’s go,” she said. I scrambled up and steadied myself on the edge of the sofa, looking around the room to see whether I’d left anything amid the rubble. I thought of all the things she’d borrowed without asking. This would be the last inventory I’d ever take, I figured, memorizing the piles of discarded clothes and wondering what I’d remember later, the things I would never ask her to give me back.

“Now,” she said, grabbing her purse from a chair in the kitchen missing one of its legs. She shook the last cigarette out of a carton and avoided my eyes. “I don’t want to be late to work.”

In the other room, Jeremy was sleeping in her bed, no conscience to wake him, to watch Desiree and I dance around each other, an uneasy three feet between us at all times. He had surely slept through worse.

The rain came down in sheets, so that between the front door and the car, D’s espadrilles sank deep into the grass, muddied and stained. She didn’t bother to take them off when we got in the car, and they slipped when she pressed the gas, sending the car shooting backwards. This wasn’t so different from any time that she drove, when I’d pretend to relax against the passenger door while she ripped through intersections and took turns at clipped angles, tires leaving black trails on the pavement. Then, my heart was always racing over something.

My house was a few miles down the same street, and I’d expected to walk that far, that she would try to tiptoe out without me on her way to work and leave me alone there with J, who surely wouldn’t wake until half past noon. Instead, I said, “Thanks for the ride,” and she said, scoffing, “I wasn’t going to leave you two alone again.”

We stopped at my house, where all the doors were locked because everyone else was at work.

“I’m sorry,” I said again. She was already moving the clutch into reverse.

“Yeah, see you later,” she said.

I rummaged for the spare key and slept until it was nighttime again, and when I woke up, I thought of everything I would never get back.

#

D was the rare friend whose entry into my life – however momentary – reset its entire course. A meteor, an atom bomb. When it was over, everything was rubble and I was a piece of it, living on the floor of D’s room, another earring destined to be forgotten underneath the couch.

I can’t even remember how we met. I was fucked up, and I imagine she was too. I know that it was slow – so many friends in common, so many drinks shared, until finally we set out just the two of us one night and made some mutual destruction. We were two souls twinned by fire, by the people we burned and laughed about behind their backs.

Mostly, it was coke. The weekend that cemented it all was the one where we stayed up all night doing lines, dancing to Built to Spill on top of the old sleeping bag and opening the curtains to a dazzling, blinding light that made us both widen our eyes in shock, as if noon was a new and impossible thing to fathom.

Friday night bled into Saturday, where I fell asleep in a dressing room while she tried on clothes that she would steal. When I woke up we went for more drinks, and my tab stretched on for everything I owed her. The coke cost money; the pills cost money; the gas cost money; her love cost money, so much of it. I would spend it all to look at her preening there, eyeing herself in the mirror, sometimes sparing a few glances for me, tenderly.

Her world was neon pink, bleach blonde, blood red, powder white. Everyone else seemed washed out, like they had sat too long in the sun. I was trying to exhaust myself on all that color, that vibrant universe covered in diaphanous scarves and cat’s eye sunglasses. I wanted to stare at something beautiful until I became it. I wanted to walk to the very edge of the cliff and wave to my old friends lingering far behind, saying, “Look what you’ve missed!” I wanted to set my course towards something other than what I’d known: my parents’ traditional marriage, traditional divorce, traditional remarriages, traditional friendships. Everything in its strict, orderly place. Friends were not lovers, lovers were not friends, and love itself was fleeting, replaced by resignation or contempt.

It was never quite morning and never quite night. My feelings for her were outside of anything I’d ever known. Sometimes jealousy. Sometimes resentment. Sometimes desire, leaning forward to embrace her, our mouths grazing and our eyes finding each other’s, a joke we played on every man in the living room, her nightly salons of admirers and hangers-on. Sometimes pity. Sometimes lust, true and base as a punch in the gut, stirring when I smelled her powdered hair or watched the sweat bead on her collarbone.

#

I could list the things she never gave me back, but if I did, I’d have to tell you the things I stole from her. In the end, they were probably square, the things stolen equaling the things that were broken and couldn’t be fixed.

There were the earrings, one of which still lies snapped in half inside the plastic box on my dresser. There was the only pair of heels I owned, which she squeezed her large feet inside and stumbled on, one heel broken, forever gaping like a mouth. There was the curtain rod that she hung from like a monkey until it wrenched away from the wall. My car door, which she backed into after midnight on a Friday.

As for me, I shoveled her money up my nose. I pulled secrets out of her with confessions of my own, most of which were fictions, and I stored the things she said in a place where I couldn’t forget them. I still have the pair of white men’s jeans with black grease stains on their sides where J rubbed his hands that night, cut into Daisy Dukes. I have her spare phone charger, which doesn’t even fit my own. I have the memory of that evening, the one that ended it all, when I was cast out of her orbit, which she probably has forgotten, or slept away, her system flooded with plenty of drugs.

#

It was the first night he shot her up, at her request. Her pale doll’s arm stretched one way, her face nearly against mine while I held the other hand. She couldn’t look, but she slapped her feet against the carpet while he found the vein and pushed the plunger, breathing into my mouth. I watched her eyes go from wide and pert to lush and dreamy.

“Woah,” she said, lolling back against a torn map tacked to the wall. “Woah.”

He worked on himself next, while I stroked D’s head and she leaned into my shoulder, smiling and flexing her toes. “No thanks,” I said, when he held out his hand. “I’m scared of needles.” A lie. I was scared of everything.

#

Even with a few lines in my system and a stomach full of jug wine, I hadn’t gotten so far from my old self. I hadn’t forgotten who I was, even though I tried to scrub her out, the good girl. My mouth could hardly move, I was so tired and drunk, but when his met mine, it responded in kind. D was asleep on the couch. I pretended his mouth was hers, and wondered whether she would taste like cigarettes or candy. We rolled around there like kittens until she came outside, too quiet for us to hear, and she reached down between our faces, too gentle.

“What the fuck are you doing?” she asked, like she really hadn’t seen us there, doing that. “What the fuck?” She stood up and kicked at us until Jeremy sat up and grabbed her foot.

“Baby,” he said, “Baby, calm down.”

I stayed there in the grass, wishing I could turn into a snake. I pressed my back against the grass while he followed her inside, and I kept looking up at the stars, staring petrified until the door slammed a few seconds later, and D started screaming, and I opened my eyes so wide that it hurt. I pinched myself in the face, trying to feel anything, and noticed only the absence of feeling, a great void I’d managed to carve that summer when I should’ve been doing other things.

I slunk into the apartment like a mutt. When I tried to talk, she shoved her palm close to my face. Andrew had his arms out to either side, incredulous, like the statue of Jesus in Rio.

“Baby,” he kept saying, “baby, baby, baby!”

I sat down on the couch and put my head between my legs. I wished I was a child, that my hips would shrink back into their old shape and that my breasts, too small, would disappear completely. I wished that I could call my mother and wait outside at the curb until she pulled up in her old red Volvo with dog hair in every seat, and that she would drive us home where I could sleep on my old mattress and read Jane Eyre again.

D retreated into the bedroom with half a bottle of rail tequila, then locked the door, and J settled behind me on the couch. I felt his breath on the back of my neck and wanted to move away, but he was there, hand clenched so tight against me that I thought it might be touching the bone of my shoulder.

“It’s alright,” he said. “She’ll be fine in the morning.” He slid his palm from one shoulder to the other, across my chest, down my stomach into the waistband of my jeans, and tried to match his mouth to mine.

“It’s alright,” he said again, and I closed my eyes, wondering how far my feet would take me if I walked out now with my empty wallet and my dead phone. He tried to pull me toward him, back to her door. I stayed frozen and mute, imagining the bugs outside crawling over my legs.

He got up and moved in front of me, crouched down so that his breath wafted into my face, drafts of sickly-sweet tobacco, unclean teeth. He moved his hand over me, tracing ribs and cheek and jaw, until his index finger settled on my lip, quiet.

“She’s not mad,” he said, first, a boldfaced lie. “She’ll be fine in the morning, just wait.”

He stood and moved to D’s door, and I heard her ask if he’d fucked me. “No,” he said. “We wouldn’t do that. Be reasonable, baby.”

She opened her door and he went inside, then the sound of the lock, then the quiet that I took to be their latest high. Alone then, dark, devoid of color. I heard them making love until I fell asleep, dreaming fitfully, wary of who I’d be when I woke up.

Illustration by Carolyn Tripp