Cynthia is a nearly six-foot-tall redhead, with a kind of intense and ribald energy that borders on hostile, and arresting blue and brown eyes. “It’s called heterochromia. Dudes fucking love it,” she says, staring me down before blinking hard and lizard-like. She has the twitchy movements and tense posture of a coiled snake. I can’t tell if she’s weary of me, or if it’s just her habitual demeanor. Either way, she doesn’t question Chris when he tells her I’m going to pull up a section of couch for the night. Only sizes me up, then nods. Like it’s totally natural that a stray girl her boyfriend brought home might spend the night in her living room.
We spend the evening hanging out in her cramped apartment. The three of us crammed onto the single sofa, watching episodes of Friends on a small TV propped on an end table. It’s the only other piece of furniture or décor in the room, save for a macrame holder, with a huge spider plant ensconced in its woven embrace, long tendrils shooting off in all directions like little bursts of green fireworks. A homey touch in the sketchy, rundown walk-up that seems oddly incongruous with the homeowner's brusque personality.
Cynthia hasn’t asked me any personal questions. Doesn’t seem to care who I am, or why I’m there. I keep trying to get a read on her, but she remains inscrutable. If she has any thoughts on my presence, she’s not divulging them. Chris sparks a joint and passes it between us, which cuts the tension a little. Sunk into the cushions, face relaxed, with her legs crossed casually in front of her, she loses some of her towering presence and seems, for a moment, almost approachable.
I’ve mostly been directing my attention to Chris, but I figure I should attempt to make polite small talk with my host. “So, this is your place? You live here all on your own?” I try my best to sound casual, but there’s a perceptible quaver to my voice that betrays my nerves. A creeping paranoia sets in as I realize I’ve just marked myself as fodder, and I can’t keep graphic voraphillic images from consuming my thoughts. I’m certain this pied-eyed, reptile-girl can smell my weakness. She is merely waiting for the right moment to strike and will soon devour me whole.
She inhales and holds it for a moment, then lets out a bellow of smoke from both nostrils. Taking another toke, she says through gulping breaths, “Yeah. It’s just me here. Chris’s parents actually like him, so he doesn’t wanna come live with me. Why split the rent when he can just crash here for free whenever he wants and still have his mom make dinner and do his laundry.”
“I mean, it’s a pretty sweet deal. Can you blame me?”
Cynthia easily passes for eighteen, but I know she’s underage because Chris told me she was sixteen on the walk over. I’d met Chris at the mega-mall food court after my dad and I got into a fight—over housework, of all things. He could be oddly exacting about small things, despite keeping his own personal effects in a state of perpetual chaos. He’d kicked me out of the trailer that afternoon for casually pointing out the hypocrisy of his domestic dictatorship.
I have a friend who lives in the housing projects near the mall. He drives an orange Gremlin, and he picks me up sometimes to hang out on the musty brown pastoral print couches in his basement. When he gets too drunk on the cheap malt liquor his older brother buys for us, and he can’t drive me home, I just crash there for the night. His parents never seem to mind. No probing questions or concerned exclamations that shouldn’t I be going home, and wouldn’t my parents be worried about me? I figured I could stay there a few nights and wouldn’t have to explain my situation or be worried about his parents calling CPS. But when I called from the mall pay phone, his mom had said I’d just missed him. He’d be out for the rest of the night. With nowhere else to go, I parked myself at a table in the food court.
Chris and his mall-rat friends had been hanging out in the food court. Making a mild nuisance of themselves by sprawling over multiple tables. Defiantly taking up too much real estate, to the endless annoyance of the businesses and other patrons. Every so often a weary security guard would stop by to harangue them about not spending enough money. Capitalism demanded its due. The mega mall was no exception. When this happened, one of the group would break off to go buy a soft drink, or a pack of gum, returning moments later to wave it triumphantly in the security guard’s face, buying them another half hour.
The group had been stealing curious glances at me all day, and as the shops started to close up, one of their crew sidled up beside my table. He asked why I’d been hanging out in the mall food court by myself for most of the day. I told him I’d been kicked out of my house and had nowhere to go. The guy, a skater type, with shoulder length dishwater hair, who’d introduced himself as Chris, invited me out behind the mall to smoke a joint with him and his friends. I bummed around the parking lot with them for the next hour or so, listening to boasts about all the sick skateboard tricks they could do.
As the sun sank behind the monolithic mall, casting blocks of shadow across the near empty parking lot, the crew began to break off. Chris asked where I was planning on staying. When I said nowhere, he offered up his girlfriend's couch for the night. He said people came and went at random all the time and were always crashing there, so he was pretty sure she wouldn’t mind. He seemed nice enough and it beat having to try to figure out how to take a bus to the youth shelter. I’d never taken the city bus on my own, and I’d heard the youth shelter was pretty rough. I wasn’t keen on staying in a shelter, or worse, trying to smooth things over with my dad who’d become increasing irrational and was near impossible to reason with. He seemed to be sliding into another one of his mental episodes. He claimed he wasn’t using anymore—drugs exacerbated his paranoia—but he’d been going off a lot lately about police surveillance and communists and had even just the week before tried to dig what he thought was a tracking device out of his shoulder with his hunting knife. I also didn’t relish the thought of hitchhiking back home in the dark. I was accustomed to hitchhiking—it was the only way to get out of the trailer park, unless you wanted to walk the few kilometers to the nearest town or had a friend old enough to drive—but we usually clambered into strange cars in packs of two or more for safety. When I’d hitchhiked the fifteen kilometers or so to the big city mall on my own that day, the middle-aged guy with the feathered thatch of orange hair who’d picked me up had placed a hand on my thigh and suggested we have a bit of fun together. I’d said no thanks. Scooted over as far as I could, pressing my body against the door so hard I practically melded into the vinyl panelling. He’d driven the tense remaining kilometer or so without speaking. I half expected him to turn off onto some deserted side road, but he surprised me by pulling up to the curb across from the mall. He didn’t even bother to pull into the parking lot, just dropped me on the side of the highway. I’d practically leapt out before the car had even stopped. He’d yelled after me that I was a dirty little cock tease. And didn’t I know it wasn’t smart for little girls to hitchhike? The incident had left me a bit shaken and duly weary of another attempt at solitary hitchhiking.
I had a modest chunk of babysitting cash in my purse, maybe even enough to get a room in a dive motel for the night, but I knew there was no way a motel was going to rent to me without a credit card and I.D. My options were pretty limited, so I counted it as a stroke of luck that I’d found a place to stay before nightfall.
I’m pretty curious how at only sixteen Cynthia is able to get an apartment. Apartments are a lot like motels in that they only want to rent to adults. I know this because my friend Mandy and her boyfriend just had a baby and had a really difficult time finding a place. Mandy’s baby cries all the time, so she feeds him, like a little bird from a dropper into his wailing open mouth, gooey pink Tylenol and dill scented gripe water—which I don’t even think helps, because he never actually stops crying. His eyes are a bit off, and I know that Mandy drank a lot before she realized she was pregnant, I wonder if there’s maybe something wrong with him. I don’t mention my suspicion to Mandy, of course. She says it’s not because of the baby or his nonstop crying that they can’t get a rental though, it’s because they’re both underage. They finally found a basement suite in a rough part of town, but they had to get Mandy’s parents to sign their lease and promise to pay if Mandy and her boyfriend skipped out on the rent.
“So, how’d you get the lease for this place on your own?”
“A friend signed it for me.”
“But like, how come you’re here all by yourself?”
She leans back and gives a short, sardonic laugh, two toned eyes full of antipathy. “I got tired of my daddy getting drunk and trying to put his dick in my mouth. So, I fucked off once I could get up enough money to get away from that asshole.”
Chris throws her a look of disgust. “God, I hate when you talk like that. Do you have to be so crass?”
She stabs out the joint into a little green glass ashtray that sits overflowing onto the floor beside the couch. “That’s not what you said last night in bed. Thought you liked when I talked dirty.”
“That’s different. I don’t like when you talk about that shit. It’s gross.”
“God, I can’t believe I stayed in tonight for you when I could be out partying. You know what? Fuck this. This is fucking lame. You’re fucking lame.” She launches to her feet and stalks over to the patio door. Her eyes scan the darkening street corner—for what I’m not sure. She turns back to me and presses a finger to the side of her nose. “You like to party?”
“Sure.” I say, feeling a bit queasy, but not wanting to be marked as lame. I’ve done a few lines of cocaine with my dad before, but I got scared off the stuff when he offered me a needle. My dad treats my brother and I more like pals than children. Letting us drink cans of skunky beer, or skip school to get high. Sometimes he takes us to hang out at the biker's clubhouse, or out to the back forty to rip doughnuts on the gravel roads in his rusted pickup and blow-up tree stumps with fat, red sticks of dynamite. He’d been not much older than I was, practically a kid himself when he’d knocked my mom up, and I always got the sense that he just never really quite grew up. I’d declined the needle. I liked to party, but injecting drugs was for junkies. Between my schizo uncle, who’d crashed on our couch for a brief, but terrifying and chaotic period, and my friend’s dad, who was dying of Hep C thanks to his needle use, I’d seen enough junkies to know I didn’t want to become one. I couldn’t understand how he’d gone from snorting a few lines here and there, to injecting the shit. It was the first time it’d clicked for me just how bad his addiction was. I had watched with horror as he meticulously prepared the liquid and fastened the tourniquet but had left the room before he’d inserted the needle and pumped the drug into his arm. Later, I’d told him he was stupid for injecting drugs, and to never do that in front of me again. He’d looked embarrassed and ashamed and hadn’t mentioned or offered up any dope to me since.
“Come on. Let’s get the fuck outta here.”
Chris is incredulous. “Hey! What the hell? Now you’re going out? Thought we were staying in and watching a movie tonight?”
“Fuck you.” She snatches her purse from the floor beside the couch and motions to me to follow.
I rarely venture further into the city than the mall, which is on the city outskirts, nestled in the sprawling suburbs. The rural trailer park where I’ve spent most of my youth, is lit at night by ghoulish pools of amber cast by a few sodium arc street lamps scattered through the neighborhood, and the soft glow of television sets through the windows of mobile homes. If you walk a ways out, past the gap-toothed fence line and into the wheat covered farmers field, it’s so dark you can see every single star in the night sky, but you can’t even see your own hand in front of your face. I stare out the bus window and watch the city fly past, transfixed by the whir of colors, and the lights that illuminate the streets so brightly night could almost be mistaken for day.
Cynthia eyes my small, bony form with skepticism. “How old did you say you were?”
“Fourteen—well, fourteen and a half.” I add for good measure, before realizing how childish adding the half year makes me sound. I wish I’d just lied and said fifteen.
She adjusts the collar on my scoop neck baby-t, pulling it down to expose my cleavage, then extracts some makeup from her bag and sets to work.
“There.” She surveys the results of her handiwork with admiration. “If anyone asks, you’re sixteen.”
The bus stops a few blocks off the main drag, and we hop off and make our way down a quiet side street and into an upscale neighborhood. The lights of the city fade behind us; high rises give way to the manicured lawns and sprawling estate homes that overlook the river valley.
Cynthia rings the front doorbell of a huge Mediterranean style home. A guy, who looks to be in his mid-twenties, dressed in athleisure wear, with slicked back hair and too much pomade, opens the door. Laughter and techno float out from the hall behind him. He doesn’t look all that excited to see us. “You know you’re always supposed to call first. What if Camilla was here?”
“You told me she was out of town.”
“Well, she is, but I thought you said you couldn’t come tonight?”
Cynthia gives the guy an air kiss, then breezes past him into the entryway. “Guess I changed my mind. I brought a friend. Hope you don’t mind?”
He looks me over and shifts uncomfortably. “I got some clients here. She cool?”
“Angelo, fuck. She’s with me, of course she’s fucking cool. Come on.” She tilts her head, motioning for me to follow her through the elaborate entryway and into the living room, where a handful of guys sit playing video games and shooting the shit. Various brands of cigarettes, a half empty bottle of whisky, and a bag of powder litter the marble coffee table. Some of the guys ignore our entrance, a couple look up and nod.
Angelo flops into a black leather armchair, the only remaining seating in the living room, leaving Cynthia and I both standing at the edge of the Persian carpet.
Cynthia crosses her arms over her chest. “Well, aren’t you going to introduce me?”
Angelo waves his hand at the group of guys with annoyance. “Cynthia, you already know Leo. This is Sam, Tony, Joe, and Marc.”
The last one, Marc, eyes me with interest, but addresses Angelo, like I’m not standing right there. “Who’s the little blonde?”
Angelo shrugs and looks to Cynthia.
Cynthia doesn’t bother to reply, instead she makes a beeline for the coffee table. “You like rye?” She waves the bottle of Canadian Club at me.
“Sure.” I prefer rum, but I’m feeling jittery, and I’ll drink just about anything to loosen up a bit.
Cynthia heads into the kitchen, smoked-whisky voice trailing behind her. “You got any mix?”
“There’s some cola in the fridge.”
I remain in place, unsure of what I should be doing. It feels like it would be a weird thing to do, to go root around in a stranger’s kitchen, but standing in the middle of his living room isn’t much better. After a protracted silence, I make a feeble attempt at conversation. “This is such a cool place you have.”
Cynthia, who’s just returned from the kitchen, arms overflowing with glasses and cans of pop, gives a snort. “Ha, this isn’t even Angelo’s place. It’s his parents' place. His parents spend most of the year in Italy and let the lucky bastard live here, rent free.”
He shoots her a look of annoyance. “It’s basically my place.”
“Sure it is. You know, this guy doesn’t even have a real job.” She says, watching his face closely for a reaction.
He bristles, “I’m a businessman. I make plenty of cash. Not everyone can make a living on their backs.”
She shoots me a triumphant smile, clearly pleased that she’d managed to rile him, then blows him a kiss.
I begin to wonder what Cynthia does for work. She hasn’t mentioned a job.
“So how do you guys know each other?” I ask.
She gives him a pointed look. “We do some business together. You could say it’s a mutually beneficial arrangement.” She pours out a couple of fingers of rye into a crystal tumbler and tops it up with fizzy cola, then passes it to me.
“Mutually beneficial my ass. This woman costs me a small fortune.”
She’s unperturbed. “You keep coming around though.”
He laughs and pulls her to his lap. Her drink sloshes in her cup, and for one tense moment I think it might escape the lip of the glass and spill all over and ruin the beautiful carpet.
“Guess I do. Can you blame me though? It’s those fucking legs of yours. Shit. Legs like yours should be illegal.” He runs a hand down her leg and bites at her neck with a savage snarl.
I wonder if Angelo and Chris know about each other.
Cynthia bends over and grabs the little baggy of powder off the coffee table. She holds it up and gives it a shake. “You gonna share some of this with us?”
“That bag isn’t mine, it’s Leo’s. I don’t get more in till next Saturday, I only got enough to sell right now, I need the income cause we gotta put a deposit in on the church this week. Nothing in the supply right now for recreational purposes. Sorry, babe.”
Annoyance creeps across her features, but her voice remains cool. “Whatever. I guess it’s just drinks tonight. Too bad, I was really hoping to party.”
My relief is palpable, but short lived. Marc, a thick guy with a heavy gold watch and tufts of hair spilling out the top of his Dolce and Gabbana shirt pipes up. “I’ll buy some for the ladies if they want to party.” He pulls a stack of hundreds from his wallet and flashes me a toothy smile.
Angelo calls us a cab and walks us to the end of the drive as the sun ascends, and the bloom of dawn spread out over the river. The light stings my retinas and my brain hums erratically, occasional misfiring synapsis sending me into a state of starburst syncope. I sway, unsteady on my feet. We’ve just done another line, hoping to sober up enough to stay awake for the taxi ride, but it’s not enough to cut through the haze of intoxication. Each time I take a lurching step forward the pavement appears to be coming up at my face. I’m only semi lucid, and it takes a Herculean effort to make my brain connect with my legs.
“Your friend Marc, he seems like a bit of a high roller.”
“Yeah, his parents own a huge construction company. You know that big high rise that’s going up on one eleventh? That’s their project. They’re semi-retired so they pay him a shit ton to basically just oversee it all for them. Guy’s loaded.”
She nods towards me. “He really seemed to like my friend.”
Marc had made his interest abundantly clear as the evening wore on and he’d gotten progressively more wasted. He’d spent the night paying me slurred compliments and had even cornered me near the bathroom at one point, sliding a hand up my shirt. Stinking breath hot on my cheek, grunting some incomprehensible come on in my ear. I’d ducked Penelope the cat fashion and slipped out under his arm and into the bathroom, locking the door behind me.
Cynthia looks pleased by the disclosure of Marc’s impressive solvency. “You should talk to him, see if he’s interested.”
Cynthia sits on her bathroom counter in her black lace bra and panties, long legs crossed lotus style, knees jutting out at odd angles. Her mouth forms a round O as she applies mascara to her pale lashes. She pauses between coats to ask, “You ever think about sucking dick for cash?”
It all starts to come together for me. How Cynthia is able to afford her lifestyle and what type of business her and Angelo get down to.
I’m being recruited.
I’m not a prude. I’ve had sex before (with my friend’s brother, on their basement floor) and I don’t have any moral qualms against sex work, but the thought of sleeping with some creep I’m not attracted to for money makes me want to lose my lunch all over the hot pink bathroom mat.
I try to think of a response that doesn’t make me sound lame, but all I can come up with is, “Uh, no. Can’t say I have.”
“Angelo’s friend Marc really liked you, you know. These guys, they all got girlfriends. Nice Catholic girls who don’t put out much. You know the type of girl they can take to family dinner.” She gives a dry laugh. “But they want a little action too, so sometimes they keep a side piece. Just someone to have a little bit of fun with. They got so much money they don’t mind helping out with rent and giving you a bit of spending cash, so long as you keep it low drama.” She sucks in her cheeks, sweeping a heavy layer of blush across her pale visage. “It’s no big deal for them. I used to have three guys I saw regularly, but Angelo, he doesn’t mind paying a bit more to keep me mostly for himself. Marc would take good care of you, pay enough to cover your rent and even give you some grocery money. They don’t even care what you do with your own time, just so long as you make yourself available when they want a little fun. And hey, we could split the rent and still have some extra cash.” Her expression is hopeful. When I don’t immediately respond, her eyes flutter to the bathroom counter. She hugs her knees to her chest. Folded up like that she looks small, almost childlike. “Angelo has been complaining about the cost of rent a lot lately, he’s planning a wedding. It would really help me out to be able to split the rent.”
I mull it over. I don’t have a lot of options, and the thought of begging my dad to let me come back home after our big blowout isn’t really all that appealing. Even still, I can’t bring myself to consider it seriously.
“I don’t know…I don’t think that kinda thing is really for me.”
“Oh, I get it. Little miss priss is too good for that kinda thing. You just wait though. You stay on the streets for a while and you’ll be kicking yourself for not realizing what a huge favor I’m doing you. You ever stayed in a shelter? It’s not fucking pretty. Do you have any idea what I had to go through, the things I had to do to find someone like Angelo? I’m practically handing you this and you’re too dumb to to even take it.” She tosses her hair over her shoulder and turns her back to me but watches my face through the mirror.
I’m Alice, poised on the threshold of the looking glass. Something tells me it’s no wonderland on the other side. Even if I could get past my visceral disgust for it, I wonder: how long till these men get bored and move on to something new? I want a place to live, and I really do feel bad for her and want to help her out, but the cost is too high. I turn away from the mirror. I can’t meet her eyes.
“Whatever. Starve. Go live on the street. I don’t give a fuck. But I can hardly afford to take care of myself. I’m not putting up some freeloader, so you better figure out your shit real fast.”
I walk to the Turbo gas station and stand on the curb, scraping at a piece of flattened and grayed bubble gum with the toe of my shoe. I wait for the phone behind some guy who’s arguing with someone over who’s going to pay for the damage he caused when he got drunk and drove his uninsured car into the side of their house. I try to imagine the various people the specks of bubble gum had belonged to. Try to give them faces and purposes. Had they called about a job prospect, or maybe called their mom for some extra cash to make rent? Had they, like me, been waiting in line to use the phone to make a phone call that would determine the immediate direction of their lives?
I run through a list of people in my head who I might be able to call for a ride. To where, I’m not yet sure. My friend who lives in the city has a job at a mini golf place and I know he’ll be at work for a few hours still. I could call my mom, but I’m still mad at her for not sticking up for me. It really pisses me off that she always just defers to whatever my dad says. Doesn’t even seem to care what I’ll do or where I’ll go.
I consider going back, apologizing to Cynthia and telling her that I’ll do it. It feels like the most practical solution to my immediate housing dilemma. But no matter how hard I try to convince myself, I can’t will my legs to make in the direction of her apartment. My feet remain firmly anchored to the pavement, as though tethered by the remnants of bubblegum from all the payphone users who’ve gone before me.
I wrack my brain, trying to think of who else I might call. I’m scheduled to babysit for Rita and Tom later that night, I’m their regular babysitter for their pool league nights. It’s only a twenty-minute drive from the trailer park to the city, maybe if I explained my predicament, they’ll come get me and I can buy some time and figure out my situation once I’m back at their place.
The man has finished his diatribe and is walking off shaking his head, mumbling something to himself about the fiscal responsibility of homeowners. I pick up the greasy phone receiver and insert my quarter. When I hear Rita’s voice on the other end, relief washes over me, and I start to cry. “Hey, Rita?” I sob into the receiver. “I’m stuck in the city, and I don’t have anywhere to go. I’m kinda scared. Any chance you could come pick me up?”