Melissa had something to tell me. We had arrived late at a party in the East Village hosted by some crotchety writer who was making a name for himself after a negative review of his first novel appeared in The New York Times. We were surrounded by a group of young, lanky women who were awkwardly dancing in place, beer cans bopping, postures slouching, taking tentative steps like marionettes. Many of them wore short dresses with colorful tights, their shaggy hair falling past their shoulders. Their bangs, long enough to cover their eyebrows and accentuate their eyes. I hunted for something to calm me.
I asked one of the Marionettes for rolling papers, so I could enjoy the stash of bud I found in Crotchety’s cookie jar. When I finally scored some banana-flavored Bambu, Melissa tapped me on the shoulder.
“Want some?” I said. The taste of synthetic banana numbed my tongue.
“I’m sleepy,” she said, yawning into her fist.
“It’s not even midnight.”
She looked at me, and at the joint I held between my thick fingers. She knew how much I hated to smoke once someone else’s saliva slathered my joint.
“Sabi, I have to go soon,” she said.
“Is the awkward parade getting to you?”
“I thought we were going to a quieter place.”
We hadn’t hung out for over two weeks, and I was beginning to feel rejected. After several pleading texts, Melissa finally agreed to go out tonight.
“What’s the matter, pretty Melissa?”
“I went to the pharmacy today to pick up something in the lady aisle,” she said hiccupping.
I cut her off. “It’s absurd, right? In one aisle, diapers and condoms. Lube and tampons. Feminine hygiene products and pregnancy tests. Wait, is something wrong?”
“No. Yes. I’m turning 35, and I’m not married. I mean I don’t want to be married…”
“I love that about you,” I said.
“No, listen Sabi. I have no one.”
“What are you talking about? You have me.”
She stood up straight and placed her paw on her belly. She not only bit her nails to the nail bed, she liked to chew through the skin on her thumb, gnawing at hangnails and flesh but never ripping the skin. Her fingers were always pink and tender.
I knew whatever she had to tell me would make our night go down south and fast.
“Wait a minute,” I said and waved to Joaquín who walked into the party. I hadn’t seen him since that night last month, when I raged at the Film Forum after some idiot decided to stand up in the middle of the leaves scene in Bertolucci’s The Conformist. I stomped my way down the aisle and demanded he give me back the $15 I spent on my ticket. Joaquín buried his head in his popcorn. He knew, of course; I was lying. I’m a Film Forum member. My ticket was only $9.
Joaquín, being the diehard Bertolucci freak that he is, stayed in his board-thin seat and acted like he didn’t know me when the usher rushed in and kicked me out. I ran to the bar on the corner where there was always a line to get in to see the band, but I knew the bouncer. He’s a second or third cousin from the Heights who once asked me to write him a paper on the Bronte sisters, and he got an “A,” and it was the only “A” he remembers ever getting.
All night, I texted Joaquín, but nothing. And now he’s here, and I was about to let him have it. In the three years we’ve known each other, Joaquín was the only friend I could lure to art openings and film houses. We had the kind of friendship where we could sit at a café for hours reading and not talking to each other. A friendship based on acceptance. He did have a nasty habit of leaving me stranded though.
Melissa, who knows when my mind starts running the marathon, put her hand on top of my head and said, “Calm down.”
But I never listen to Melissa. I took off after Joaquín, and he turned, pulled my full-figured body into his long arms, squeezed me, then took a good look at me.
“Ugh, what are you wearing?”
“Is that all you’re gonna say to me?”
How could I stay mad at him? It’s true. I hadn’t thought my outfit through for the shitty party. My hot pink librarian sweater had shed its bright fluff over my black slacks. The pants rode up my crotch, so I kept pulling down my pant legs, but pulling the leg meant stretching the fabric in front of my upper thighs. I had pockets of air there.
Joaquín scowled. “Are you wearing a bra?”
“Yes, you idiot. But I hate feeling constricted, so I get my bras a size too big.”
“It defeats the purpose.”
“Wouldn’t my boobs sag anyways because of gravity and what- not?”
“You need to worship Anna Wintour,” he said with clinical seriousness.
“Who the fuck is Anna Why No Tour?”
“You ARE a lost cause.”
“Hey, hey,” Melissa said, “why don’t you two kiss and makeup.”
Joaquín leaned in to kiss my cheek, but I pushed my hand in his way. Without hesitation, he kissed it. Then he walked away to grab something to drink or a hookup, who knows.
I needed to find a spot to smoke the banana joint I hid in my bra.
“Sabi, I really need to talk to you.” Melissa would not let it go.
I spotted an open window down the hall. I lunged at it. I wasn’t going to let her ruin my night. And more than anyone she would understand. We’ve been hanging out since we were twenty, enjoying New York City and crashing at friends’ apartments. Back in the day, I had to be there for my family. I owed them that. And when I married Nick on my 30th birthday, a church wedding even though we were atheists, I committed to him, but he knew my need to take off, that Melissa was my last go-to escape friend left. Together, we didn’t have to pretend to be good girls.
A tall, bearded guy fixed his eyes on Melissa. He came over with two Red Stripes. He handed Melissa one bottle, but she refused. I grabbed it and tried to gulp it down, but my gag reflexes kicked in. I choked and spat more than a mouthful of beer and foam all over Melissa’s jeans before she could jump out of the way.
“Really?” she said, looking at me the way she did whenever I switched subjects in the middle of our conversations.
“Oh geez, sorry,” I said frantically trying to wipe the beer off her, but she swatted my hand away and walked to the kitchen with the bearded guy chasing after her. I rushed over to the open window relieved to leave everyone out in the living room swaying awkwardly to a remix of Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk.”
Alone finally, I panicked because I didn’t have anything to light my banana boon with, and then this giant in cargo pants and heavy construction boots came out of the bathroom. I didn’t think he even noticed me until he reached into his back pocket and pulled out what looked like a tiny grenade.
I stared at the little black missive in the middle of his massive, calloused hand. When I didn’t move, his finger flipped open the top and then pushed a trigger. A small torch appeared. It looked like the engine fire of a fighter jet. I stood still near that tiny jet flame careful not to singe the ends of my fake lashes that I had just bought at the drugstore for $1.99. They took about half an hour to glue on. I surrendered my joint, and he placed it on his dry, wind burnt lips. He lit the joint but didn’t take as deep a drag as any good American would.
When he handed it back, I said, “Thanks.” His body, a foot and a half taller and wider than everyone in the party. I sucked on that little joint like a vacuum cleaner. For a second, the deep inhalations made my vision go blue.
The Giant barely nodded before lumbering away.
I had two hours to go before running to the Port Authority to catch the last bus to my beautiful suburban neighborhood where my neighbors were either online jacking off to some porn or in bed snoring with the air purifier buzzing on the loudest white-noise setting possible—drowning out the solitary train whistle that breaks the monotony of suburban peace at 4:22 every morning, the bane of every light sleepers’ existence.
Nick had grown up in the South Bronx, back when it was called Fort Apache. He didn’t want to spend his adult years fearing his neighbors, so to him, the suburbs were a haven. I was devoted to Nick, so long as I could come and go as I pleased.
A remix of Joy Division’s “No Love Lost” played in the living room, and it was a guitar slashing, kinetic drum-beat that only those tweaking on Dexedrine could dig. The rest of us, deadheaded types, could only stand with hands on hearts, freaked out by the bouncy vibration playing in sync with our heartbeats, and wondering, how the fuck did the DJ know the beat of my heart? That guy deserved the Nobel Prize for figuring that out without any scientific training.
The Giant stood in the kitchen drinking a tallboy, talking down to the crotchety writer like he was a kid lost in the supermarket. Crotchety stared up at the Giant with a big fake smile on his face. He waved at the awkward Marionettes, no doubt hoping they would come over and flirt with the Giant, but not one paid him any mind.
I said, “Right on, sisters!” as I shoved them out of my way. I headed towards the Giant and Crotchety who now looked at me with the most dazzling smile on his cherubic face. I smacked his sweaty cheek playfully, took a sip of the Giant’s tallboy, and asked him very sweetly, “Is there something I can help with?”
“You’ve got to tell these people the party’s over,” the Giant said to Crotchety.
“I bet ya if you gave the music a chance, you’ll get into it, and what’s wrong with staying a little longer and getting a free buzz on?” I said.
“I just came off a fourteen-hour shift,” the Giant said.
Crotchety pulled on the neck of his Justin Bieber t-shirt.
“If you’re lucky, a boy will pinch your nipple.” I attempted a sexy Mae West wink, which I then followed up with an unintentional horselaugh. The Giant wasn’t convinced.
“Come’n. You need a drink,” I grabbed the Giant’s hand and tried to drag him, but he didn’t budge. Joaquín was still in the living room smoking a royal blue Fantasia cigarette.
“Whoa, girly, I’m not sure you’re my type,” he said as he tried to pull away.
“Don’t be fussy. I’m married. Five years.”
“Where’s your ring?”
I dropped his hand and pulled out the ring hanging from the gold chain around my neck. “My fingers are like sausages, and today I’m retaining water because Aunt Flo is about to hit the town like a tornado.”
“Jesus, what’s with you?”
“Sabi!” I heard Melissa’s voice. She was standing behind me.
“What already?” I looked into her bespectacled eyes.
“Congrats,” The Giant said. He shook her small, chewed up hand with his two massive ones.
“Rich works in construction.”
“That’s all you are going to say to me? I’m pregnant. PRE-GOS.”
But we had a silent pact. She was my fun friend. The free friend with no interest in family or marriage. No man or woman was going to be responsible for her happiness. She had me, and she had her colleagues and students. That was supposed to be enough.
“Are you keeping it?” The protective way she held her body away from me was enough of an answer. Shit, the baby will be real.
“Let’s go somewhere quiet to talk.”
“I can’t leave Rich here alone with these wackadoos.”
The Giant turned his attention to the dying party. Crotchety picked up the beer bottles strewn around the kitchen. Out in the living room, Joaquín was putting on his leather jacket.
“Wait up, Joaquín! I’ve got time for one more drink.” I yelled across the living room.
“Boiler Room!” Joaquín answered as he walked out the door. He wasn’t going to abandon me today.
“Oh yes, cheap cocktails. Divine,” I said because the last time we had ended up at that bar, one drunk guy had called me Rita Hayworth, and I know I don’t look anything like Rita. But, on a good hair day, I make an ugly Rita, and Ugly Rita is much better than what I look like on my bad hair days.
“You’re a piece of work,” Melissa said. “Call me when you’re ready to talk.”
I watched her walk away, her paw still on her belly as she shoved a few chubby boys out of her way. She couldn’t have been too far along. She was still petite, but there was a tension in her shoulders, and the usual sway in her hips was gone. Her body gave off that you-better-step- off vibe that we had mastered at hip-hop shows back in the day when we’d be surrounded by boys wanting to grope any girl that walked in their way.
“How can she do this to me,” I said more to myself than to the Giant, who just stood by me staring.
His dark eyes softened. Maybe he understood what it was like to have no one? The table lamps around the room made everything look golden and warm.
Just then Sia sang, “I’m gonna swing from the chandelier,” and I remembered that one time that I was on a health kick and pushing through the elliptical machine at like 2.5 mph and that song came on. And my legs pumped that machine so fast that, for a moment, I flew. My body tingled. My heartbeat jumped to 161 bpm.
The party crowd was leaving; Melissa was probably halfway to her Queens-bound subway; and the Giant’s dark eyes were on me. He waited for me to—I don’t know—rip my hot pink sweater off, wipe away the moisture now forming in my eyes and under my nostrils. Fly like a bird through the night; I won’t look down, won’t open my eyes.