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“You don’t look your age,” he says.
I know his type. He’s not one of those newly minted millionaires, the kind that slides into the bar decked out in the season’s latest Brooks Brothers, throwing around his plastic like he’s an elite member of an underground society.
He looks like a gentleman, a carefully curated image, wrist adorned with one purposefully selected piece of expensive jewelry. He wears his charm and his compassion like a drugstore Halloween costume. At the end of the night, the mask starts to slip just like oil on the customized leather seats of his Porsche.
I always try to split before the inevitable implosion. Meaning, I will never fall for the myth that seems to have bewitched some of the girls that are in this line of work. I’ve been stuck here in Vegas for a while and I know his type.
Sometimes we don’t even have to verbally initiate things. The invitation can be as simple as waiting for me after the end of my shift, engine purring, speakers quaking, door propped open for me like I’m Cinderella about to step into her pumpkin carriage and fly off into the stars, straight past the Milky Way.
Call it whatever you want, but I am rewarded for playing therapist.
Lately I think my mystique has gone sour. The last blumbering dickhead didn’t seem to comprehend the boundaries of our tight-lipped business arrangement, nor the proper term for such a relationship. I eventually had to quit my job because even after I cut ties, he kept showing up every day, always high and freaking out the customers. The only way to lose him was to submit to the city. People who lose sight of the game are the desperate ones. The desperate ones are like drowning swimmers, each flail and twitch another swallow of sea water.
I’ve learned long ago to never save a drowning person. It’s been my mother’s Hail Mary, the one proverb that dictates her way of life. It’s one of the few things we have left in common.
“Oh yeah, and how old do you think I am?” I ask. I throw in a wink. Sometimes I feel like a used-up truck stop waitress, listening to all flavors of vagrants spill their sob stories, men who are so disconnected from their wives or fiancées or girlfriends, they forget that their partner is a human being and not vengeful siren speaking in a dead language.
“Hmm…This is a trick question, isn’t it….seventeen, eighteen? You can’t be old enough to drink yet,” he replies. He takes a swig of his beer, deliberate and slow, ensuring that I see the slight rise and fall of his Adam’s apple, the way his mouth fits around the bottle. He’s got noticeably pink lips, a color somewhere between the velvet bow on boxes of Valentine’s Day chocolates and a Dr. Pepper Lip Smacker.
“Why, you’re the first to get my age right, today. I’m eighteen.” I grin.
It’s always better to lie. The younger you are, the greater your appeal and desirability, which makes for more tips. In addition to my main gig, these tips help cover the cost of my tuition at the state university. My mother has been scrubbing floors even before my dad died and now she’s got knobby knees like two gnarled crabapples. She doesn’t hide this and so whenever we go out somewhere, I can’t help but feel slightly embarrassed. Her sympathy concerning my minimum-wage hell is in direct correlation to her her moods, which can always be improved by a heated game of Mahjong or a good, long, 90s Diva-spanning session of karaoke with her best friend. My mother likes to remind me that when she was younger, she was well-known and respected and people kept telling her to try and make it in Hollywood.
When my dad suddenly got sick and then died, my mother pushed all those dreams aside. She became almost militant about her work and other people read it as a woman who didn’t know, whether it be out of fear or complacency, to say no. They refused to recognize an unconventional form of survival.
“Well shit, anyone could’ve thought you were older. Easy mistake to make,” he says, pride coating his voice.
They love it when you play along. A pure hit of instant gratification. Makes them believe that for a second, they’ve escaped the monotony of earning stacks faster than you can spend it, the relentless drudgery of the everyday commute, the excitement, the lust for life freezing into the predictability of domesticity with a safety net.
“You want another beer?” I ask.
“Sure, sweet cheeks,” he says, making it a point to let his eyes travel to my ass.
What a Casanova.
The place I work at, which favors owls and hideous hot pants, may not be fine dining and I’m sure if someone like Gordon Ramsey stepped foot into the building, he’d be horrified by the less-than-sparkling kitchen and the boss’s tendency to hand out raises to the girls who are willing to get on their knees. When I first started, I was straddling the line of desperation and pride. I wanted to finish school and I didn’t know how else to come up with the money to afford everything. You can only take out so many loans.
Later, after his fifth beer, Colin leaves a fat tip and his number. When I get back home, my mother is passed out in her bedroom with her shoes still on and I’ve got a paper to finish and I need to mainline coffee if I want to wake up.
I make a pot, down two cups, write about another paragraph and then I’m texting Colin because I’m bored and suddenly restless and lonely.
I turned twenty-two three days ago. I spent my birthday working and then I went and walked the Strip and then walked into a boutique and bought a slinky dress I didn’t need because the black fabric felt like cool milk on my palms. Cole likes to point out how long I’ve been single and with the passing of each birthday, his exasperation and shock quietly boil. We’ve known each other since middle school and I’ve never been able to shake him off. He ended up going to community college, where he met his current fiancée. Her name is Sky and she’s the Olive Oyl to his Popeye. She’s like a love-struck neurotic enchanted by Midas.
Sometimes Cole feels like a brother and then other times, when he gets too drunk or takes too many pills in the company of his “boys,” he’s just another man, another red-faced sucker. I’ve tried to tell him this, explain that when he gets all sloppy and pouty and irritable and I don’t even want to bother with him. Cole says that I’m a naturally judgmental person and while I somewhat agree with him, I don’t think it’s fair to blame my repulsion on a lack of empathy.
“C’mon, let’s go out tonight,” Cole pleads. He put on his “good pants” and did something with his hair, maybe got a hold of some gel. He thinks that minimal effort is enough, enough effort to detract from the stark facts of his ambitionless existence. He is twenty-three with a GED, a beer gut and a fiance he doesn’t really love. At least, if it is love, it’s not the type I would ever look for, let alone settle for.
It’s Saturday night and my only night off and all I want to do is stay home, paint my nails and put on a face mask, maybe watch a shitty movie on cable. I don’t want to perform for anyone. I don’t want to see anyone. I want to luxuriate in the silence of this house, the rare opportunity to decompress.
“Why? It’s Saturday!”
“So? For fuck’s sake, you’d think you were sixty-two instead of twenty-two. What else are you going to do tonight?”
I tilt my chin towards the TV. “I don’t know. For now? Finish the rest of Pretty in Pink.”
“You’re so fucking boring. Fine. I’m going out and meeting up with Paul and Derrick.”
“Oh, great. Have fun smashing mailboxes or peeing on the side of the high school or whatever bonehead shit you all do.”
“What? Are you kidding me? Fuck you, Amelia.”
Cole stomps out of the house in his Timbs and then peels out of the driveway, gravel spraying from beneath his tires. It used to be much easier to handle the tension, to predict the tides of his resentment. Cole prides himself on being a Nice Guy and often uses this as a reason to sway my feelings.
He is a Nice Guy because he helps little old ladies get the top can off the dusty grocery store shelf. He is a Nice Guy because he takes his little brother to baseball practice. He is a Nice Guy because he opens car doors and he has let me sleep over at his apartment when I’m too smashed and too much of a mess to go back home and face my mother.
He is a Nice Guy because for my last birthday, he bought me tickets to see my favorite band. He is a Nice Guy because in the fifth grade, he became my personal bodyguard. He is a Nice Guy because he taught me how to change a flat tire and he always calls my mother ma’am.
An hour later, my phone rings. Thinking it’s Cole, I pick it up without thought. Colin’s voice drifts through the line, small as though he’s across the Pacific.
“Are you busy?” he wonders.
Gone is the smirk from our first meeting. Have I somehow gained the upper hand?
“Umm, not really. Why?”
“Well, I’m hungry and I’ve got nothing to eat here but it isn’t any fun going out to dinner alone.”
Half an hour later, after I’ve assembled myself into an outfit that will elicit both sincere appreciation and a sizeable night’s pay, I am getting into my car and driving to some drab place past the Strip. In the parking lot, I take a few puffs of the roach in my glove compartment and then apply another layer of burgundy lipstick.
He arrived before me. He ordered a bottle of red wine for the table and even though I hate red wine, I fill up my glass and take a hearty swig like I’m some wine aficionado with a vineyard stashed away in the south of France.
Sometimes it’s easier to just be someone’s canvas.
“Tell me something you’ve never told anyone before,” I coax him.
When I drink, it’s easier not to care, to assume the persona. It’s to be brave when you’re viewing everything through an intoxicated haze. And then, I tell myself, I’m not really me, I’ve taken the stage and I’ve got to put on my best beauty pageant-winning smile. Like I said, I know the type. If these men wanted someone they considered disposable and nameless, they would have found a hooker or at least made a visit to the strip club. But these arrangements guaranteed a strange yet steady form of companionship.
I think I’ve got this one figured out. He certainly isn’t looking for something in the market of softness and innocence and fluttered eyelashes.
Colin’s mouth curves into a smirk.
“I used to spy on my next door neighbor’s daughter. Her bedroom was across from mine and she never closed her curtains. Maybe she just didn’t care. I did that for two years and then she moved and I never saw her again.”
“Why are all men are such perverts?” I tease.
He pulls up the thin strap of my dress. Under the table, I cross and recross my legs.
“Bullshit. You know how many men use that as an excuse? Oh, we can’t help it. So lame. Just own up to your shit. It’s much easier that way.”
“Well, some men really can’t. Just like drug addicts.”
I twist my mouth into a scowl.
“I don’t know.”
“Besides, when there’s girls like you walking around, it’s kind of hard to be good.”
I roll my eyes. He grabs my hand.
“I’m serious. You’re beautiful and there’s just something about you…”
“I’m nothing special.”
He leans across the table and kisses me.
When I get home the next morning, I’m surprised to see Cole’s ancient Jeep in the driveway, engine wheezing. Platform heels swinging in my hand, I walk up to the driver’s side. Cole rolls down the window and I can tell that he’s livid. His ashtray is full of spent cigarettes.
“I thought you said you weren’t going out last night.”
“I changed my mind.”
“Why don’t you ever want to go out with me when I ask?” Cole demands.
“What is your problem?”
“I thought we were friends!”
“YEAH. We’re friends. And you have a fiancée, remember?”
“Look. I just wanted to stop by and apologize for last night. Ok? Can I do that?”
“I never said you couldn’t.”
“For fuck’s sake, Amelia.”
“What? Now what have I done?” I demand, exasperated.
“Nothing! Ok! You’ve done nothing wrong. You’re a perfect angel and you never make a mistake.”
“Get out of the way,” he instructs with cold finality.
I do as told.
He backs up, then drives away.
I know that he’ll be back.
He always comes back.
Colin and I meet at a bar of his choosing. He gets a booth in the back and I cuddle up next to him, wearing a purple designer bandage dress that he had delivered to my house. He orders drinks and I feel like I could dance through fire.
When that night’s band starts playing a New Order cover, I start dancing on the table until Colin scoops me up like we’re a highly synchronized figure skating team. In his car, (it’s a Porsche, of course, it’s always a damn Porsche), we have a conversation about Ernest Hemingway, or at least he tries to lecture me about Ernest Hemingway and I try to tell him that I can’t stand Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn was an underrated badass and had every right to escape that marriage. He’s surprised that I know Hemingway, let alone Gellhorn, and I can tell that this has deepened whatever affection that has wormed its way into his heart. He puts his hand on my knee and starts telling me about the first girl who broke his heart, who was also the first girl he slept with. His words fill the air and he works himself into a kind of voodoo daze. In the past, people have said that I’m a good listener.
“I like you, you know that?” he murmurs.
“Sure. I like you, too,” I say.
He shakes his head.
“No. I mean, you’re different.”
“Different good or different bad?”
He starts the car and I know we’re going back to the hotel room he rented.
“Different good. Different very good. Different as I may have to keep you.”
Afterward, in the hotel room, his kisses are sincere, and the longing makes me lose buttons faster than anticipated.
The day that my car decides to break down, my mother has to go to the hospital. Cole doesn’t answer his phone and he ignores my texts. I resort to sending him a Facebook message but the clock ticks and I don’t get a response. I’m disappointed, but I also know that this was bound to happen sooner or later.
You can only bottle up so much frustration and humiliation until it releases like a loose valve.
I text Colin, asking to borrow his car, briefly explaining my predicament. I watch as he starts typing. He writes back:
No problem. Any nice guy would.
Vanessa Willoughby is an editor and a writer. Her work has been featured on Thought Catalog, The Toast, The Hairpin, Literally, Darling, and Bitch Media. She is a Prose Editor for Winter Tangerine Review and writes at www.my-strangefruit.tumblr.com.