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05/26/08: Issue 2

Bel-Air
by Jen Michalski

 

Cathy looked up from her lunch at Lynn, the new girl, who slid her tray across from hers. All week Cathy had watched her hang outside the cafeteria by the smoking corner, trying to talk to the long-haired, knobby boys who listened to metal music and tinkered with muscle cars in shop. Yesterday, Lynn had caught Cathy looking at her. Now, they eyed each other across the table in silence until Cathy coughed and offered Lynn some French fries.

“Bunch of stuckups, this school,” Lynn finally observed, her eyes not shying from the group of girls who glanced back at their table and snickered. She folded her arms and littered her boot-cut jeans on the table. “My name is Lynn.”

“Cathy,” she whispered, unaccustomed to the brashness of her new lunchmate. “Where are you from?”

“Originally or recently?” Lynn snorted, flipping her straw-colored hair off her shoulders. Cathy touched her own shortish, dirt-colored hair absently. “I’m from Texas. We just came from Scottsdale.”

“Oh, your dad got a new job?”

“My mom found a boyfriend on the Internet, but it didn’t work out so well.” Lynn frowned, but not at Cathy. “But we’re stayin’. So what’s there to do in this town?”

Cathy looked at the other girls. They would have a much better idea than her. There was the mall, the pocket behind the high school where kids drank and smoked weed, there was the drive-in and TGIFriday’s, where a lot of the popular girls worked to pay for their car insurance.

“I don’t know. Not much,” Cathy said finally.

“Well,” Lynn cocked a smile. “What do you do?”

“Nothing, really What do you want to do?”

“Well, you can always come hang out with me at the Bel-Air,” Lynn answered. “They got a pool.”

* * *

The Bel-Air was as Cathy had imagined, but not at first. When Lynn first mentioned the Bel-Air, Cathy had immediately thought of the Hotel Bel-Air in nearby Los Angeles. Sandy Green, one of the cheerleaders at their school, had lobbied their prom committee to raise funds to have the dance there, although the price was far greater than any car wash or fundraiser they could muster. Cathy also had seen the hotel on television when posh events were reported on the local news. She imagined the lush gardens and courtyards, the pools.

She found it hard to believe that Lynn would be staying at the Hotel Bel-Air. She was wearing last year’s jeans, although she ripped up the bottoms in a pleasing design that made her hidden feet look like feather dusters. Her backpack came from the Army-Navy surplus store and not the posh outfitter at the mall. Why would she travel this far to South Pomona High, the land of rural deadbeats and Hispanics, when she could go to Beverly Hills High?

But when Cathy had met Lynn after school by the bike racks, after they’d gone to Cathy’s trailer and picked up the bikini she’d bought during her junior year, a neon pink one that was pilled on the bottom piece, and came back to the high school, there was no limo, no car waiting for them. There wasn’t even any bike. They’d set out on foot toward Route 10, with the explanation from Lynn that her mother was working at the Howard Johnson’s until ten.

Although it had dawned on Cathy that they were not going to the Hotel Bel-Air, she didn’t realize Lynn and her mother were taking temporary residence at the motel until Lynn pulled the room key with the red diamond-shaped keychain from her purse.

“We’re in room 12.” She nodded in the general direction, then shook her hand, which contained some loose change. “Want a soda?”

In the dark, damp room Cathy sat on the edge of the queen bed, cradling the Fanta grape can in her hand while Lynn fumbled with the channels on the clock radio. Cathy noted the mounds of clothing on the floor, the dressers cluttered with makeup and lighters and change, old newspapers, pizza boxes.

“You got a boyfriend?” Lynn asked, satisfied with “Witchy Woman” on the radio. She leaned against the headboard and lit a Newport inexpertly with both hands.

“No.” Cathy turned to face her.

“Well, you should wear a little makeup. You’ve got a nice nose and eyes,” Lynn answered, coughing slightly. “And grow out your hair a little.”

“You got a boyfriend?”

“Back in Texas. Leonard -- he wears a Stetson and drives a pickup. Got the biggest balls of anyone I’ve ever been with.”

“You been with a lot of guys?”

“My fair share. What about you?”

“Some.”

“How many?”

“I’d rather not say.”

“Virgin,” Lynn remarked, although not teasingly. “We can go see Carl if you’d like.”

“Who’s Carl?”

“He stays down in 15 -- he does night security for one of the banks.”

“How long have you known him?”

“Couple of weeks -- since we’ve been here.” Lynn shrugged. “He’s always at the pool when I am after school.”

“Why would I want to see him?”

“No reason -- I just hang out with him sometimes. We go swimming and stuff. I can get stuff from him, you know, booze and pot.” Lynn took the Fanta from Cathy and took a swig. “You get high, right? Maybe later, huh?”

“Maybe. I’ll probably have to get going soon -- my Mom is expecting me home before she gets there.”

“You’re no fun,” Lynn frowned, stabbing out her cigarette. “Come back tomorrow, okay? We’ll sunbathe then.”

* * *

Cathy spent the next week with Lynn after school by the pool. Lynn did not seem to bore of her company, even though Cathy had begun to bore of sitting by the pool, hearing about Leonard. She wondered why Lynn could not let Leonard go, why she couldn’t just hang out with Cathy at the mall or TGIFriday’s, where they could maybe talk to some of the boys in their classes. But Lynn did not seem to be interested in Cathy’s company outside of the Bel-Air, which was dirty and broken up and, most unforgivable of all, unbearably silent.

“You wanna go see Carl?” Lynn looked at her from the pool one day. Cathy shrugged and stood up. The air around the door of Room 15 smelled thickly of incense. Lynn knocked loudly and stood back.

“Hey, it’s Lynnie.” A man in his late thirties wearing flip flops, a muscle shirt, and shorts appeared, absorbing the musky smell between the doorway and the room, replacing it with the scent of strong aftershave. He leaned against the frame and crossed his legs. “And who’s your friend?”

“This is Cathy. Cathy, this is Carl,” Lynn answered and took a step forward. “Can we come in?”

He nodded, the bulky front of him disappearing into the darkness. The room smelled damp, like Lynn’s, but with the strong, weedy scent of marijuana. Lynn sat on the bed and pulled one of Carl’s cigarettes out of his pack.

“You girls want something to drink?” he asked, scratching his crotch, slightly hidden underneath his stomach. Cathy noted his little sausage toes and thick ankles, but considered him generally good-looking, his goatee well trimmed and hair short and gelled.

“Gimme a shot,” Lynn answered. “Cathy, what do you want?”

“Same,” she shrugged. Carl looked at her and winked. Feeling as if she passed some stressful test, she plopped comfortably next to Lynn, who leaned back into the pillows. Carl brought two shots of whisky over in NASCAR shot glasses.

“To new friends.” He watched in satisfaction as they downed their shots. “And new adventures.”

Cathy let the burn of the whiskey weight her body into the bed. She felt heavy, but relaxed, ready to sink into Carl’s bed and take a nap. Instead, she watched as he sat at the small, round table by the window, packing a bowl.

“So, Cathy, you a friend of Lynn’s from school?” Carl asked, looking up briefly from his activity. Cathy nodded. He nodded back thoughtfully and lit the pipe, inhaling deeply. Lynn sprung off the bed and took it from him the minute his hand, with pipe, extended toward them. She inhaled deeply and coughed before offering it to Cathy, who shook her head.

“Maybe next time,” she answered. She watched as Carl and Lynn passed the bowl back and forth. Lynn swayed back and forth and giggled as Carl leaned back and raised an eyebrow.

“You ready to play?” Carl asked Lynn as he tapped some soot in the ashtray. Lynn glanced back at Cathy.

“Maybe next time, Carl. Let’s go for a ride today,” she answered, grabbing his keys from the dresser and going outside. Carl stood up unsteadily and laughed.

“She’s a live wire, that one.” He winked at Cathy. They went out to the parking lot, where Lynn sat at the wheel of a beat-up Toyota truck. Carl made Cathy sit in the middle, her legs straddling the stick, as Lynn threw the truck heavily into gear.

“Where’re we going, darling?” Carl asked, taking a swig of whiskey and holding it out to Cathy as he lit a cigarette. She swallowed as much as she could handle, coughing and doubling over trying to keep the remainder down.

“Down the strip,” Lynn answered. “Up and down and up and down, all right, baby?”

“Just make sure you stay in the lines,” he answered. Cathy felt Carl’s arm around her shoulder as the truck jerked forward on the highway. Lynn laughed the faster she pressed on the accelerator, almost standing up in her seat, tears running down her face by the time the truck hit 95. Cathy closed her eyes for a second, feeling a little sick from the whiskey, but mostly the speed of the truck shuddering like, she imagined, an airplane burning downward through the sky. She felt Carl squeeze her shoulder and leaned into him, using his warmth and bulk for support. She liked the smell of cologne and whiskey and something else on him. Sweat? Sex? He did not smell like the boys at school, at least the boys that actually talked to her.

“Shit,” Lynn laughed as the back wheel careened off the highway, spitting rocks and dust into the road. “Fuck.”

“Hey, what did I say about the lines?” Carl said, reaching between Cathy’s legs and popping the clutch.

“Cathy, you okay?” Lynn asked, reaching over and touching the side of Cathy’s face.

“Yeah, just tired,” she murmured. “Maybe you should drop me home.”

“You’re such a party pooper,” Lynn frowned, swinging the truck around in the middle of the empty highway. “Carl, you gonna pick us up from school tomorrow?”

“You be ready to play,” he answered, nuzzling Cathy’s neck. “You too, Cathy.”

Lynn switched places with Carl, and he drove the girls to Cathy’s trailer park. Lynn's cheek pressed against the window as she waved goodbye to Cathy, making her look like one of those mimes trapped in boxes that aren't there.

* * *

The next day Cathy stole some of her sister's cosmetics and allowed Lynn to make up her in the girl’s room at lunch.

“There--you’re a real vixen now.” Lynn smiled at Cathy’s reflection.

“What’s vixen, exactly?”

“You know, like a bitchy tease.”

“I’ve been with guys.” Cathy looked at Lynn, who did not question her. “How do I know you’re not lying about Leonard?”

“He gave me this bracelet,” she answered, thrusting her arm out toward Cathy. She saw the silver clasp bracelet with a faint floral pattern, but she also saw the little pink cuts on the soft of Lynn’s forearm. Lynn pulled her arm away and ran a comb through Cathy’s hair. “Why would I lie about something like that?”

“Do you like Carl?” Cathy asked, fooling with a tube of lipstick.

“Carl’s okay. He’s fun, mostly. And he can get us stuff, you know?” Lynn shrugged. “I’m in love with Leonard.”

After school Cathy met Lynn by the bike racks. Just then the beaten Toyota pulled up. Carl was wearing sunglasses and a surfer shirt. Cathy got in first, straddling the clutch, and gave Carl a kiss on the cheek.

“Whoa, looks like somebody’s ready for fun today,” Carl answered, massaging Cathy’s shoulder. “All right. Okay.”

Back in Carl’s room he kicked off his flip-flops and packed a bowl while Lynn looked through a stack of CDs by the bed. Carl passed the bowl to Cathy first, who took a small hit and coughed. Lynn, stretched out on bed in a pair of Daisy Dukes and a lime green t-shirt, reached for it from Cathy. The bowl went around a few times until it was finished. Cathy felt a little lightheaded and sick. She wanted more than anything to crawl into the corner and merely observe what would happen next.

“What do you want us to do, Carl?” Lynn asked from where she lay on her side as Carl stood up and put the bowl back in its pouch.

“Get closer,” he commanded, the light, sing-songy tone of his voice now absent. “Kiss a little.”

Lynn sidled up to Cathy and put her arms on Cathy’s shoulders. Cathy’s eyes tried to communicate the effusive, sticky feelings that ran like sweat out her pores, but Lynn gave her a small smile and kissed her on the lips, rubbing her arms stiltedly, as if Cathy had hypothermia. She heard Carl tell them to take their clothes off, and then she knew she was naked but could not remember the steps she had taken to get there. From the corner of her eye, between kisses, she could see Carl’s fat, red cock flop and then harden as he worked it with his hand. She stared at the headboard as she felt Lynn rub her breasts, then grabbed her clothes when Carl moaned and cursed. She turned and watched him adjust his pants before opening the minifridge and taking out one beer.

“You girls coming around tomorrow?” He asked, between gulps. “I gotta get ready for work.”

“Sure, Carl,” Lynn smiled, not looking at Cathy. Back in Lynn’s room, Lynn closed the blinds and laid on the bed, the cherry of her cigarette small and hard. Cathy sat down next to her, wanting to leave, but not wanting to be by herself. She felt Lynn’s hand on her back in light circles.

“You okay, Cathy? You did good.” she murmured, watery. Cathy felt the shuddering of Lynn’s body next to hers, and suddenly Lynn grasped her like a pillow, climbing over her.

“I miss Leonard,” she cried into Cathy’s neck, her lips slippery with spit. “I hate it here. How can you stand it here?”

Cathy didn’t answer. It was not a question of comparison; even though she’d lived in Pomona all her life, she knew there were better towns, places. It was not a place that she stood or even tolerated. It was a place that she was. She did not know what else to become.

“I’m going back to Texas,” Lynn continued. “Even if I have to hitch back. You wanna hitch back with me, Cathy?”

“No,” she answered, although she thought she would say yes. Up until the second she opened her lips.

“I gotta take a shower.” Lynn rolled over and stood up. “You gonna be around when I come out?”

Cathy nodded. When she heard the shower in the next room, she stood up and turned on the light. She noticed Leonard’s bracelet in the sheets, where it must have fallen off when Lynn grabbed her, and pocketed it before leaving.

* * *

Lynn was not at school the next day. Cathy pressed the bracelet in her pocket between her fingers absently, hoping to catch a glimpse of her in the halls, in the girl’s room, by the bike rack. She waited by the bike rack after school, but Lynn did not show up, nor did Carl. She walked the long road to the Bel-Air alone, holding onto Lynn’s bracelet like a talisman.

She knocked on the door of 12, to no answer, before knocking on the door to 15. It opened quickly, with Carl stepping out and almost knocking her over.

“Where’s Lynn?” Cathy asked. She realized it came out sounding more desperate and tearful than she wanted to, and she wished she had held Lynn back when she took a shower yesterday, held onto her a little longer, talked her into staying, something. Something physical but not, something that did not need words, that was just there, that would stay.

“She ain’t here,” Carl mumbled, scratching the back of his neck. “I don’t know where she got to.”

“She said she was going back to Texas,” Cathy explained. “Do you know anything about that?”

“Texas, huh?” He stared at past her, looking thoughtfully, although she knew his mind was elsewhere. “Well, that’s as likely a place as any. Listen, you still wanna play?”

“Not today,” Cathy answered, stepping away from number 15, and it closed just as quickly as it opened. She walked out to the pool. She and Lynn were the only people who seemed to use it. No families with their teenaged boys, not even older women who tried to hide their fat under bathing suits with skirts. She had not even seen Carl out by the water, as Lynn claimed. She sat down, dipping her legs. The water was warm after a day of the sun hovering over it, almost like, she imagined, the inside of an embryonic sac. She took the bracelet off and let it fall through the water, faster than she thought, to the bottom. She also thought it would shine, that the sun would catch a corner, a twist of flower, but instead it lay dark, crumpled into itself, a body in folds of sheet.

 

 

Over the past four years, Jen Michalski has sent her work out 284 times and been accepted 40, giving her an acceptance rate of 14%, which is much, much better than her chances of winning the lottery. Her notable rejections include The New Yorker, The Missouri Review, One Story, Glimmer Train, The North American Review, The Gettysburg Review, and many, many, many others.

 

   

 

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