by Marian Lorraine
Joan’s breath came in shallow gasps by the time she reached Lillian’s front door. She hung on the doorbell in the cold April air and admired the petal-pink graffiti and the band sticker that said in loopy gold and black script, “life is beautiful.” She ran a hand through her shorn hair before an older girl, tall and dandelioned-haired, threw open the door and said, “What happened? If this wasn’t a good day, you could have said something,” and Joan said, “I got all turned around on Broadway,” and then Lillian said, “West Broadway, sweetie. Come on.”
Lillian bent slightly to kiss Joan’s cheek and led her up to the wide wooden staircase to the spacious apartment, which had belonged to an aging indie movie star before Lillian’s new boyfriend bought it. Leather chairs sat rigidly across from a long plush couch and a pair of Texas longhorn antlers hung over the stone fireplace. Lillian tightened her cashmere sweater around her wasp-like waist.
“Did you get your hair cut at Vidal again?” said Joan.
“Absolutely, I won’t let anyone else touch my hair now. Or my nails–” Lillian flashed a hand toward Joan, gem-tone nails shining. “Do you think it’s too deep a color for Cambodia?”
“We’re going to Cambodia next week.”
“Are you worried about your nails chipping?” said Joan, and she peeked out onto the back porch, the only one in Manhattan she had ever seen. Lillian shrugged.
“The place looks great in daylight,” said Joan.
“Thanks. Maria does a good job.” Lillian cleared her throat.
Joan looked down. “The horns are new,” she said, rubbing her sneaker against the shiny blonde wood floor.
“He got them for me so I would feel like the place was really mine, you know, since I’m from Texas. Would you like a drink?” Lillian smiled with sharp teeth.
“I don’t want to get sloshed before work,” said Joan.
“Oh, have one,” she said. “God knows I’ve been wasted behind that bar. They’ll never notice. Besides, you’re the one who’s an hour late, so you owe me. I can’t drink alone.”
“Okay, I guess one.” Joan sat at the kitchen table, hiding her bitten nails in the pockets of her hoodie. A crystal bowl of fat yellow roses sat in the middle of the table and Joan nuzzled the velvety petals.
“He always brings them to me in the morning, when he comes back from his run,” said Lillian.
“He runs every morning?”
Lillian nodded. “Up at five. Every morning.” She opened the freezer and a cloud of cold air came into the room. Snapshots of two tiny boys with skinny tan bodies and model-shiny hair smiled at Joan from the freezer door: boys on the beach in shorts carrying sticks; boys beside the ice-skating rink at Rockefeller Center; boys holding fire trucks and sparklers. The magnets on the door had Japanese figures on them and underneath the words “love,” “peace,” and “family.” Lillian twisted the ice tray and popped cubes into her hands, dropped them into two glasses and set the glasses on the counter. She poured Kettle One over the ice, then added thick tomato juice, strained olive juice from a jar, and sprinkled Tabasco sauce on top; tilting her head, so that a coil of yellow hair brushed her heart-shaped face, she dusted each glass with paprika, salt and pepper, then covered the glasses with a silver cocktail shaker and shook each glass until the shaker frosted. “I’ve been cooking more since I quit the bar,” said Lillian. “I bet you didn’t know I could cook.” She twisted limes over the top and snapped celery stalks from the refrigerator and slid them next to the ice in each glass. “There Miss Joan,” she said. “That ought put some pep in your step.”
“Put some pep in my stumble,” said Joan and smiled. “I miss watching you make cocktails. You’re so good at it.”
“I don’t miss making them.”
“Did you mom teach you to cook? In Texas?” Lillian looked into her bloody Mary. “No, my mother wasn’t much of a cook. She always had someone to cook for her, but after she left my Dad I learned. So I cooked for him awhile before she got sick. Then I went to live with her, and she died.” Lillian smiled again. “Then I came here.” She drank her cocktail and wiped the blood red juice from her mouth.
“Do you miss Texas? This is a great drink.”
“About as much as you miss Kansas. Oh, did I tell you? I picked him up from the office last week and we were going to dinner. I was all dressed up, in my black strapless, you know–”
“The one Eileen–?”
“Totally stretched out, exactly–”
“I love that dress–”
“So did I anyway this was before she ruined it. I was all dressed in heels and had my hair just blown out and there were all the guys from the bar I used to serve. And they stared at me when I came in, like I was a working girl. That’s probably what they thought, right? You should have seen it. I mean they really stared. Do you think they thought that? That I’m, you know, a professional?”
“They probably thought you were a super hot blonde in a little black dress,” said Joan. “Of course they stared.”
Lillian stirred her Bloody Mary and hesitated. Then she said, “I don’t care what they think. I just think it’s funny.”
Joan sipped her fibrous cocktail. “How’s it going with her?”
Lillian shuddered. “She won’t give him the divorce. She keeps dragging it out.”
“Doesn’t she have a boyfriend?”
“She’s had two or three, but none of them have the money she’s used to. You would die if you knew how much she gets a month. Most of what he has. But the boys you know, Taylor and Tucker, he can’t just cut her off or he’ll never get to see them.” Lillian sipped her cocktail thoughtfully and leaned against the kitchen counter. “She’s awful. Have I shown you her picture?” Joan shook her head. “Let’s just say she’s had work done. A lot. Of work.” Lillian lifted an eyebrow and Joan nodded.
After their second cocktails, Joan asked if she could smoke and Lillian said only on the balcony; the girls went out and Joan lit a cigarette. Lillian asked for one, even though she had quit. They giggled as they smoked and clutched their glasses in the cold. The sun bled into the alleys beneath them and the silvery clouds drifted overhead. “What’s that building next door with the tape on the windows?” asked Joan.
“New condo,” said Lillian and rolled her eyes. “See that little house down there?”
Joan looked, and far below she could see a crumbling brick building, two stories high, with buckets of geraniums on the fire escape. It was nested into the corner of an ice-blue glass building three times its height, like a wad of cinnamon bubble gum stuck to an expensive bottle of perfume.
“There’s an old lady that lives there, and she wouldn’t move out so they had to build the whole damn thing around her. They offered her three million dollars to move but she won’t.”
“Yea, right? When she’s dead they’ll tear it down. She reminds me of you.”
“Stubborn. She’s a smoker too.”
“Probably won’t last then.” Joan smiled and slurped the end of her cocktail.
Lillian blew a stream of smoke toward the clouds. “Smoking is kind of fun,” she said. “I haven’t done this in ages. Not since you and Buckets stressed me out that night at Rue.”
“Did we make out?”
"Oh, God, yes. You don’t remember?”
Joan smiled and shrugged. “I remember.”
“I was a teeny bit jealous, though,” Lillian said shyly.
“Oh, come on. Buckets was making out with that horrible man, and I tried to get her away from him, and she started making out with me. She didn’t even know her own name she was so drunk. It’s not like we were that into it. You know she likes you more than she likes me. You guys take that Pilates class without me.”
Lillian shrugged. “Want another?”
“I have to go.”
“Don’t go. Call Buckets, see if she’ll cover your shift.”
“I could use the money.”
“You could use a break, and I could use the company. Besides, it’s Tuesday, it will be slow. Buckets can handle it.”
“Vegas was a lot of drama,” Lillian was saying. She lay stretched on the green velvet couch, within reach of two empty glasses. She balanced a third glass on her chest between her Hollywood-sized breasts, the left slightly bigger than the right, as she was wont to point out. “The cocktail girls there wear nothing at all.”
“Nothing?” Joan stood with her back to the couch looking at the bookshelves. Titles focused and unfocused before her eyes as her fingers ran over the heavy beveled glass. The 48 Laws of Power. How to Win Friends and Influence People. Hedge Funds for Dummies.
“Garter belts. Big hair. Lower back tattoos. Tacky. Terrible.”
“I have a lower back tattoo,” said Joan.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to–”
“It’s okay. It is tacky, I guess. Is it true what they say about Vegas? That there are no clocks and no windows? And all the drinks are free? And bartenders get tipped in diamond rings?”
“The drinks are free if you’re gambling. I lost a thousand dollars in a craps game, just-like-that. He said, ‘There go your Manolos.’” Lillian laughed. Joan laughed.
Lillian got up from the couch and said, “Gimme your glass.”
“Did that make you uncomfortable?” said Joan. She ran her fingertips over the pristine collection of Great Books on the second shelf. She took off her glasses, polished them carefully on the edge of her tee shirt and replaced them on her face before tipping Plutarch’s Parallel Lives out and standing it on its spine.
“You’ve got some great books here,” said Joan. “Ha ha ha.”
“Oh, yea, the books. I got them on eBay. Did you finish that one I gave you?”
“No, that book I gave you.” Lillian pouted.
“Oh, about the lesbians? Yeah, it was great. I have it here somewhere–”
“You can keep it. Does what make me uncomfortable?”
“The girls. In Vegas.”
“Oh definitely. I’ll never go to Vegas with a man again. I’d rather not know. There are some things you just shouldn’t ask. God, after I found those pictures he had of his last girlfriend. Believe me. It’s better not to know.” Joan turned, but Lillian had come too close and tomato juice sloshed out of the glass and soaked into Joan’s white tee shirt. “Damn,” said Lillian and laughed, bent over. “Come upstairs and I’ll give you a clean one, and you can come back for it later. Maria will get it out. There’s nothing that woman can’t do, I swear.”
Joan lay down in the middle of the floor. “I’ve been shot,” she said.
Joan stood in her bra in the bathroom and looked out over the windowsill. “Your bathroom has a better view than any of the rooms in my house,” she said.
“Yea it’s nice,” said Lillian. Her head was buried in her top dresser drawer. She emerged with two shirts, a white and a yellow one, and Joan chose the white and pulled it over her head. A slick black wig, cut in flapper style, sat on a marble head on the sill. “What’s that?”
“Halloween. Or dress up.” Lillian piled her hair onto her head and tugged the wig on. “See? We could be sisters.” Lillian ran a birdlike hand through Joan’s feathery sharp hair and picked up her glasses from the sink and put them on her own face.
“You look like a sexy secretary in those,” said Joan, squinting.
“You’re blind,” said Lillian. “I used to have glasses.”
“I remember,” said Joan.
“I don’t wear them anymore, though,” said Lillian. She took the glasses off and gave them to Joan. “Where do you get your hair done, someplace in Brooklyn?”
“Sort of. I do it myself.”
“I like it.” Lillian sighed. “It’s edgy. It’s all artistic and whatever.”
“Chocolate-covered cherry,” said Joan. “I get it at Walgreens. I’ve used it since high school.”
Lillian laughed. “God, I barely remember high school. Except the sex was good. Oh my God, speaking of which, did I show you what he got me for Valentine’s Day?”
Joan shook her head.
“C’mere.” Lillian opened the top drawer of the carved ebony dresser. “They’re French.” She drew a pair of black leather cuffs out of the drawer, with cream silk ribbons attached, and a long scarf, also inky black, embroidered with scarlet script. Joan unfurled it and read, “Love is blonde,” which made Lillian shriek with laughter.
“Love is blind,” she said. “Or maybe you are, Miss Joan.”
Joan blushed. “They’re beautiful.”
“They have their own case, see?” Lillian showed Joan a leather box with a golden key. “He wants to take pictures.” She sighed. “But I haven’t decided yet. I guess it would be okay if they weren’t digital. I wouldn’t want them all over the internet–” She yawned. “I need another drink. Let’s switch to Manhattans. Manhattans on the rocks with a twist. I think I have some Basil Hayden downstairs.”
“I would just take pictures of the pictures if I wanted them online,” said Joan as Lillian bounced down the stairs, but she didn’t hear.
“We’re leaving for Cambodia in two weeks,“ Lillian said at the refrigerator. “I go everywhere with him on business now after that debacle at Rue 57. Nothing’s happened since then, right? With that woman? Have you seen her in the bar?”
Joan shook her head and accepted another glass.
“This is a helluva Manhattan.” She shuddered. “Did you know there are cocktails for all five boroughs and probably half the neighborhoods? I don’t know what’s in a Brooklyn, though.”
“Imagine ordering a Brooklyn,” said Lillian.
Joan laughed. “Imagine ordering a Staten Island.”
“But she hasn’t been in?”
“That girl, the one he made out with.”
“Oh, no. He’s only been in a couple times, only drinks beer, tips well, never gets weird. I haven’t even seen him around any girls.”
Lillian sighed. “You would tell me right?”
Lillian shook her head and her yellow hair fell over the pillow as she stretched out on the couch. “Do the girls ever talk about me?” she asked.
“They miss you,” said Joan automatically.
“They never call.”
“They’re kind of flaky I guess.”
When Joan woke up, the movie was still playing. Grace Kelly and Jimmy Stewart peered through their apartment window and watched the man across the way. There were footsteps on the stairs, and Joan turned. A man was standing over her, tall, with his coat in hand. He loosened his tie. “Joan,” he said.
“Hi,” she said. “Sorry–” She got her glasses.
“Sky rockets in flight?” He smiled coolly.
“Um, what? No, I guess I–we–lost track of time.”
Lillian was asleep face down on the green velvet couch, her wig on the floor next to her limp hand.
“Hm,” said the man. “Did she go to Pilates?”
“Um, I”m not sure,” said Joan.
He picked up the bottle of Basil Hayden and placed it in the glass cabinet. “You’re welcome to spend the night,” he said, and gazed at Joan with blank green eyes.
“That’s okay, I should get going,” said Joan.
“Don’t you live in Brooklyn?”
“It’s really not far, only one stop actually.”
“On the train.” Joan looked at her sleeping friend. “Have fun in Cambodia,” she said.
The man sat on the couch and placed his hand on Lillian’s head, winding his thick fingers through her hair. “She’ll call you when she gets back.”
Joan rode a rattling train over the Williamsburg Bridge back to Brooklyn. A muscular man stared at her from across the aisle as he swayed his head along with the music on his headphones and she tried to ignore him. The smell of roses clung to her through Lillian’s shirt and liquor buzzed through her veins. The Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges gleamed like twin pearl necklaces strung across the black water.
After a chilly April, May came soft and warm, and Joan brought a bottle of pink champagne to Lillian in her new apartment, and pronounced it beautiful, though she thought it shabby. She said there was nothing Lillian could have done differently, and said over and over again said what an ass he’d been, that he was a really bad guy, and she was glad it was over. A picture of Lillian smiling with sharp teeth and red nails in Cambodia sat on the chipped mantle above a defunct fireplace. The green couch had not fit through the door, and Lillian had left it on the street along with the horns. Lillian, sitting on the floor, drinking a Jack and Coke, said she would never again date a man who had a sexy secretary, and Joan told her the bar around the corner, a speakeasy with red silk curtains, a doorman, and an hour wait for tables on the weekend, was hiring.