The day after Bruise tells me he loves me – words he claims he hasn’t said to a woman in years – I’m sitting shotgun in his brother Riot’s pickup parked near burnout bridge and Riot’s got his tongue between my thighs and this, this is the kind of worship that weakens my knees. I’m genuflecting at the altar, I’m making a cross over my lips, I’m believing in one Riot, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things seen and unseen.
You keeping an eye out, Riot whispers. The engine’s still running, and he’s got his .45 wrapped inside a faded t-shirt on the dash, just in case. I’m supposed to be watching for headlights out there in the dark – any lights really – but can you blame me, no, no, even if I was trying to I wouldn’t be able to see a damn thing.
My mother knows about Riot and all my secrets because she is dead. I talk to her framed picture by my bed each night. I tell her she’s beautiful too because I grew up hearing my father’s women say that about her photos in our old apartment and not mean it. My father believed anything they said.
Bruise has never met my father but we’re flying out west for Christmas Eve tomorrow. I haven’t been back home in years. Lately Bruise and me have had whiskey nights and broken sleep, waking up at separate times because one of us has pissed the sheets. We see the scars on our walls and it’s easier to drink. My mother knows all this. And she knows how Riot told me to get in his pickup one morning because he said it was too chilly outside to walk to my parked car, knows my car was only a hundred yards away, not a big deal, what are you talking about. But anyhow I climbed in and when that arm of his reached low over my lap to pop the door open for me, I thought about never getting out, ever. I imagine my mother would have gotten hooked all the same. She wouldn’t have been what I like to call Filipina Fabulous, wouldn’t have been like my father’s women, each one a wannabe Imelda Marcos who swooned over men who’d buy this and this and this so she could look expensive in church. My mother would have been about the simple things, the little things.
I don’t really like to talk, but when I do, sometimes Bruise says, wait what?
When I talk, Riot turns the volume down on the radio.
In the morning Bruise doesn’t ask why I got home late because he thinks I was waiting tables at the club. He doesn’t flame up like he used to because I’m a waitress now, doesn’t call the place and hit the button to ask the front desk girl if I actually showed up for work. Back when I was dancing he’d call and listen to the recording of the line-up. Tonight, Tuesday, we have: Carmen, Chase, Dallas, Devyn, Dinah, Jade…Jade looked like what my mother would have looked like in her early twenties. Hail Jade, full of grace. If my stage name didn’t come up on the recording, I’d hear bullets from Bruise. I’d hear about it all night, the week after, and the next.
Where were you all night, he’d press.
Bruise could kill me in less than five minutes without a gun, if he wanted to.
Nowhere, I’d tell him.
Who is it? Just tell me who is the guy.
I wanted to tell him the truth, I did, but when someone believes something and believes in it real hard, well, good fucking luck.
The truth is, I’d drive to a high school two towns away and sit in the bleachers right behind home plate. I’d see things through the fences out there in the dark. Something about the field reminded me of the one behind the all-boys school across the street from Sacred Heart, the all-girls school I went to, back home. The comfort was in the grass maybe, how it smelled. My father worked seven days a week at the refinery on our side of the bridge to afford tuition because he said I needed to be around girls, like classrooms full of them could make up for the fact that my mother had been dead since I could crawl. In the eighth grade I’d been the last one to shave my legs, the last one to get a manicure, the last one to do something about my bushy eyebrows. I’d taken a razor to them eventually, thinking of all the mornings I’d watch my father shave, my elbows propped on his bathroom counter. Why couldn’t I use a razor on my own face too? The next day one of my classmates noticed the nicks above my eyelids and said, don’t use razors, those are dangerous.
I didn’t have a whole lot in common with the other Sacred Heart girls, girls who were anointed by a different zip code. They didn’t walk through the halls. They floated. Angels. I couldn’t touch them. Couldn’t understand them, even if I stared too long, even if I eavesdropped from bathroom stalls and locker rooms. I was from the other side of the bridge, the only brown face in the yearbook. I could only imagine what their lives were like.
So I’d saunter over to the baseball field after school and watch the boys practice from the bleachers, watch pitches and bats and drills and kicked up dirt. This is what they did. I could see it. They let me. And it was like they could read each other’s minds out there, how that white ball bulleted from glove to glove. A language I understood. I watched home games too. More than a few times I’d witness a killer fly ball and try to track it in the sky, but I’d lose it in the sun.
At night, Bruise says we should get out of the house for once and asks if I want to hit up the bowling alley with him and Riot. Riot and me, we’re careful not to talk to each other much or sit too close. After Riot bowls a strike and makes his way back to us, I turn toward the front doors, like I’m looking for someone else to walk in.
I can’t tell you how it started really, but it’s been going on a good while.
Bruise tells Riot we’re flying west tomorrow morning and Riot sounds surprised, even though he knows. He’s got his paint-splattered work shirt and pants still on, doesn’t care how goofy it all looks with those bowling shoes. Riot’s got a crooked nose he doesn’t care to fix. He broke it twice in high school. Bruise, the other night, asked me if he should shave his beard. But does it look okay? Are you sure?
It was like the Sacred Heart locker room all over again, being in front of those dressing room mirrors at the club. The girls didn’t talk to each other much and you could feel their pretty glitter eyes on your back when you were holding a client’s hand up the stairs to go to private rooms adorned with cherubs. Three hundred dollars for fifteen minutes. One hour up there and you could pack up your things and cash out for the night while everyone else was still trying, still smiling.
It’d be different if women worked together, like a team. But they operated alone. Angels on clouds unconnected. So I found solace in strangers, these men. Different ones every night. Men full of faith. In the dark I let them kiss the insides of my elbows. My wrists. My hip bones. They believed in me blindly and I loved them for it and hated myself all at once.
Bruise doesn’t wince when it’s his turn to bowl even though he has big blisters on his fingers from work. He’s been probing for pipelines with metal rods in the kind of sun that stings and he doesn’t wear gloves. Bruise never complains about work. He can stand out there and last and last and I want to be like him.
After Bruise bowls three strikes in a row, Riot says we should go to the casino. I stretch out in the backseat and close my eyes. Bruise turns around in the driver’s seat and squeezes my knee.
We head for the roulette tables, and both of them throw chips down on red. I can’t join them at the table’s edge. I don’t want to see where the ball lands, where the clicking stops, the end of things.
It’s you, a voice says.
When I turn around, I see a face I recognize. Before I can react, Jade leans in and gives me a cheek-kiss like we’ve known each other for years and this split second this close to her makes me feel like something special. Hail Jade, full of grace. She smells like perfume and hairspray and heaven.
Look at me, she says, balancing a tray of cocktails and cold beer bottles. Left the club, but not doing too much different.
Don’t be so hard on yourself, I say, I’m still there waiting tables.
If I knew why I couldn’t close the door on the club and end it, I’d tell her, but I’m not so sure myself. I hear my manager’s voice in my head: you know it’s the opposite, usually people start waitressing and then they want to start making the Hallelujah money. I didn’t know how to tell him it wasn’t worth it, didn’t know how to tell him I’d rather not make Hallelujah money.
Jade asks who I’m here with and I motion to Bruise and Riot over at the table. Bruise turns around just then and calls us over, orders drinks, hands me some chips.
Throw something out there, sweetheart.
I’m looking at his chips in my palm and I can’t do it, can’t even take the chance. Not here, not out in the open. I avoid looking at Riot.
You know you can just pick a color, Bruise says.
I slip the chips into Bruise’s back pocket and feel for the valet ticket before walking away.
I don’t want you to lose anything, I tell him.
There was the man who told me his wife never thanked him for the three thousand dollar sewing machine he bought her, the man who paid with a credit card at the bar and asked me to read his receipt to him because his wife broke his glasses during a fight, the man who told me about couples therapy in a downtown skyscraper. We don’t even speak to each other in the elevator, he said, I just watch the buttons light up. Some of the men still stand out now, some of them blur together. Most of them just wanted to talk. I’d listen. I’d be reassuring. And then I’d be up all night when I got home, watching Bruise sleep, thinking that was where we’d be headed. Wrong ways. One day he’ll want to talk into someone else’s ear. One prayer away from someone who is not me. One day, he’ll trace our scars to a dead end.
I tell my mother all this, how I can’t believe in much of anything. But I believe in the paint stains on Riot’s pickup, the places he’d lean against while smoking cigarettes on work breaks, all the telltale splotchy signs he’d been there once.
And sometimes I believe what those men at the club would say to me, things like, you’re my Monday night’s saving grace.
Then there’s the school motto in big white letters on the banner behind the boys’ dugout, what I believed in day after day in high school, watching them play for a kind of glory I would never truly know: Les Hommes de Foi. Men of Faith.
I make my way over to the empty baseball field and pull Bruise’s truck into the parking lot. Can’t hear a thing out here. I run up the steps two at a time and sit down in my usual spot, prop my elbows on my knees.
Good game you see out there or what, a voice behind me says.
Through the fences, even in the dark, I catch a yellow cab pulling away. It’s Riot who followed me. Riot, not Bruise.
You remember when Bruise thought I was cheating back then?
Oh yeah, Riot says, one hand deep in a pocket. Then he pauses and catches a dandelion seed floating in the air. Tiny wisps of white. Who knows where it came from, or just how far the wind carried it to us. He holds it up by the short stem to show me.
I remember, he says, Bruise wouldn’t stop.
This is it, Riot, I say, motioning to the empty field. This is where I’d go.
Riot twirls the stem between his fingers slowly, like it might break. I reach out and he places it in the center of my palm. Then he takes a seat next to me and puts two cigarettes in his mouth, lights them both, hands me one. I can still taste his tongue on it and tell him so. He doesn’t ask if I’m looking forward to going home for Christmas, doesn’t ask what’s going to happen with Bruise, doesn’t ask how I feel about anything, like he knows there is nothing to say. We sit there for hours with our heads bowed in silence, like we’re waiting for someone to tell us we can’t be here anymore.