I could see her from the end of the block. She was sitting on the sidewalk under the yellow-orange street lamp, next to a pile of white rubbish bags from the nail salon next door. There was something white sticking from her mouth, bigger than a cigarette. A thermometer maybe. And she was holding an ice pack over her eye. It was fresh, which meant Abdul had probably given it to her. I could see him as I approached, peering out the window of the shop, making sure the crazy white girl with the black eye was okay on the street.
He smiled and waved when he saw me coming.
“It’s all right,” I called through the glass. “I’ll take care of her.”
Abdul Suleiman was the 50-something owner of the Halal market under my apartment, and my landlord. He had a sloping bald head with an arc of black stubble around the sides and back. I don’t wanna stereotype anyone, but pretty much every time I saw him, he had a stained frock hanging around his neck and a long knife in his hand.
Kell had her hair pinned back and a light, colorful silk jacket over a half-length Ninja Turtles T-shirt that showed off her flat stomach. Her sleeves were rolled, exposing the tattoos on her arms. She watched me approach, then stood.
“You’re wearing my jacket,” I said. I forgot I let her borrow it. Months ago.
She lowered the ice pack and I could see the shiner under her right eye.
The white plastic sticking from her mouth wasn’t a thermometer. It was a pregnancy test.
I looked at it. “Didn’t you just pee on that end?”
She waggled it up and down with her tongue.
I swiped it and looked at the result.
“He didn’t hit me,” she said. “Okay? I fucking freaked when I saw the result and hit my head on the toilet.”
She was still gorgeous, even with the bruise. Every time we got together, I was very aware of how not-gorgeous I was.
I got my keys and opened the heavy door between the market and the hair salon. She grabbed the plastic bags by their necks when she stood, and I realized they weren’t rubbish. They were all her things.
She saw me looking and shrugged. “I got kicked out.”
I pointed to the stairs, and she walked up.
Abdul and his family lived above me, on the third floor. There were two studio units on the second. I had the one facing the alley in back. The other seemed to be in a constant state of renovation, which was fine with me. It meant I had the place to myself. I think Abdul was holding it in the hopes that his 23-year-old son Samir would get married and move under his parents. I suspect they were in for a disappointment. On multiple fronts. I’m pretty sure Samir was gay.
I watched my friend saunter up the stairs. Or at least, that’s how it seemed to me. Sauntering. But it was just how she moved. She had platinum blonde hair and looked sort of like a hipster Marilyn. Same round hips but with a narrower waist and ginormous eyes, and absolutely perfect skin, right down to the beauty mark over her full lips. And of course those boobs.
She was the original femme fatale.
There was a strong light on the second-floor landing, and I grabbed her hand and turned it over. The ends of her nails were scuffed and the polish had been scraped off in a couple places near the tip. There was a thin brown hair—short, like a man’s—underneath one.
She pulled her hand away and scowled at me.
I could guess how it went. Kell told Diego she was pregnant. He blamed her. Or something equally bad. They had a fight, shouting back and forth. Throwing things, probably. Kell took her claws to him. Probably got an ounce of flesh, too, before he swung back. I’m sure it ended with them humping on the floor.
The immediate news of pregnancy is a terror and an aphrodisiac.
I stuck my key in the door. “I at least hope you got in a couple good ones.”
“You know it, bitch. That toilet didn’t see me coming.” She swung a mock punch.
Kell could handle herself fight. That much was true. I’d seen it first hand. Back when we were in school, she and I got arrested for street brawling. Some lesbians were picking on this gay friend of ours, Reynaldo, who’s super, super skinny and very, very shy. We were all drunk and high and words got said and things got out of hand very quickly. All I remember is being so angry at them. They were lesbians—they were supposed to know better!
But the fight was epic. Punching. Screaming. Kicking. Hair-pulling. The works. The police came and broke it up. They had us all line up and sit with our backs to the wall. Kell and I looked like shit. We were outnumbered and totally got our asses kicked. Those bitches travel in packs. Like wolves.
I don’t think I’ve ever felt so alive, though. Kell, too. I’m sure that’s why neither of us said anything. We just sat there, all bloody cuts and darkening bruises and pulled hair, as the police processed the lesbian gang. We had stood up for our friend and we were feeling good. We were soaking in it like a hot bath and neither of us wanted to do anything to break the spell.
“I thought you were gonna stop seeing him,” I said as we walked into the apartment.
“Please don’t lecture me, okay? Can you just be my friend tonight? You can be my mom tomorrow.”
It was a testament to our friendship that I didn’t have to tell her what a disaster my apartment was. Let alone make excuses.
She stopped in the door and looked at the two-meter tall, unfinished paper-mache clitoris. “Sweet. This the new one?”
“I dunno,” I said, looking at it. “I thought so. But now I think it’s just kinda cliche.”
My apartment had one open space that served as living room, dining room, and kitchen, with radiator heating and a window-mounted AC that blocked one of the two windows at the back. Across from the front door was a nearly-closet-sized bedroom and an even smaller bathroom. I had an Ikea table, two chairs, a secondhand couch, and no TV. The carpet was littered with spray cans, boxes of markers, construction paper, stacks of newsprint, and dirty dishes. And lots of clothes and casually discarded shoes. And a giant clit.
“What are you gonna do with it?” she asked.
“I don’t know . . .” I sighed. “I don’t know anything anymore.” I took the bottle of Patron off the Ikea table and carried it to the “kitchen.”
Kell dropped her plastic bags on the couch, tossed my silk jacket on top, and sat under the wall at the front. It was plastered in sketches and plans—some new, some old. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It’s just, why am I doing all this if I’m not even brave enough to pull it off.” I removed the silverware drawer from its groove and reached into the gap underneath and took out a baggy. “Is it really art if I’m not taking any risks?”
I hadn’t actually executed any of my guerrilla art. The work that impressed Bastien so much. I made it, sure. I planned and built everything. But Kell put it in all place.
She turned to the sketches on the wall behind her and ended up laying flat on the floor. “We’re a team, man.” She dug a pack of cigarettes out of her pocket and lit one. “Besides, you have risk. If I get arrested, I’m totally taking you down with me.”
“Yeah . . .” I took a bottle of sangria from the fridge and got a glass with ice. “Can I at least know what you’re doing for money these days? Or is that a mom question, too?”
She sat up with a grunt. Her loose, half-length shirt revealed the underside of her left breast. She inhaled the cig. “I’m hooking. Downtown.” She exhaled. “Outcall. Only the best. Make five grand a night.”
She looked up at the ceiling as she spoke, as if she were contemplating what that life would really be like.
“Cool,” I said. “Give me a loan?”
“Whatever. You’d make more than me, with that tight ass.”
“And no boobs? Please.” I walked over and handed her the drink. “One Dragon Ball Special.” Sangria, Red Bull, a shot of Patron, and an illegal pharmaceutical. On ice. I had an unlit joint between my fingers.
She snuffed her cigarette in a dry cereal bowl I’d left on the floor and took both. “You give alcohol to all the pregnant women you know?”
“Only the ones who smoke.”
She downed it in three gulps. “Yum. I forgot how good you are at that.” She shook the remnants of the drink in her hand. “How come you’re better than me at everything?”
rough cut from the revisions to Curse of the Red Dagger, the second course of my forthcoming occult mystery, A FEAST OF SHADOWS