“Why you looking for another job? Seems like the one you got ain’t that hard.” Gina, her next-door neighbor, wouldn’t let the topic rest.
For one thing, the money wasn’t great. Last month, she’d given plasma twice to make rent. Also, and probably weighing in more heavily, was the fact that she’d accidentally slept with An Dung, whose parents owned the Noodle Bar where she waited tables. He worked afternoons and she imagined them both struggling to break free of the shackles that life places upon the young and poor.
In fact, An Dung wasn’t poor, but stood to inherit all of his parents’ assets, which were considerable and included four restaurants in addition to the Noodle Bar, but she wasn’t one to get hung up on facts. Case in point - she told herself that the whole thing was his fault, even though that first time, she’d been the one to grasp his hand and lead him to the cooler with the dead fish eyes and bloody slices of animal. When his hand crept under her skirt, she closed her eyes and slid into it, thinking of rose petals and candles.
His name, after all, meant ‘peaceful hero’ and she wasn’t going to tempt the universe by ignoring a sign like that. She was so parched and dry, so bone-tired, not a hero in sight, and suddenly, there he was. Muscular to say the least.
It was easy to imagine them together in black and white scenes from late night television. The two of them reclining on a blanket, picnicking in the park, walking arm in arm, no words needed because love had bridged the gap between them. A silent touch on her wrist meant we are bound to each other forever. A hungry glance in a crowded room told her you’re the most beautiful girl in the world. His arm casually tossed around her shoulders told her I am yours and you are mine. When this last image flashed through her mind, she knew suddenly that she would fight anyone, face anything, to be with him.
There were other imagined snapshots, singular moments frozen in time. Red wine in glasses, stars in the sky. Her head thrown back with wild laughter, his eyes watching her with adoration.
The truth was much less lovely.
He rarely spoke, but communicated primarily by grunt or nod. The affair, if you could call it that, lasted only a month, during which time she single-mindedly pursued him and abandoned all that was important to her while he continued with his life much as it had been before, except that now it contained even more sex. She had no idea where he lived, just that he trudged off into the snow at the end his shift, silent and smoking.
Without any discussion or agreement, it was suddenly over. Weeks passed and when they finally did speak, it was a negotiation for money. She needed an abortion, and she needed it quickly. The realization that she’d mistaken his silence for gentleness, had incorrectly imagined him as a knight in shining armor despite the hoodie and tattoos, hit her square in the face. A knight probably wasn’t inclined to jamming his hand under the skirts of young ladies, stealing money from the register, or not answering his cellphone for days at a time. The truth, difficult to face, was that he’d been an asshole from the start.
He’d stopped showing up for shifts at the Noodle Bar and she’d been trying to track him down for weeks. During this time she barely slept, could scarcely breathe. She awoke with a start in the throbbing dark of the night and imagined that she felt the thrum of a tiny heartbeat trying to keep time with her own.
Meanwhile, An Dung danced at clubs, feigned incomprehension, and drank beer with his friends. She finally found him down at a bar he’d taken her to once on the other end of town. The afternoon was beginning to fade into evening, but it was still light outside when she stepped into the door, stumbling and hesitant while her eyes adjusted to the light. When they did, she was practically staring right into his eyes. He was sitting at the nearest barstool and looking in her direction, sneering.
“I need to speak with you alone.” When she’d practiced at home, the words had sounded less like a plea and more like a command, but it was too late to call them back now.
He gestured at the dimly lit bar with a jerk of his head, drained his glass, and knocked on the bar for a refill. He kept one eye on the television screen. “Say it.”
She knew places like this.
Here the disenchanted, lonely, and repeated makers-of-poor-decisions cloak themselves in mini-skirts more appropriate for their daughters. They wobble on heels of a height which dizzies the mind considering the piles of snow and ice crusting the streets. They don leather of all sorts and Harley emblems run rampant. Jack Daniels and Marlboro softly tiptoe about, wrapping the room in a cloudy haze of love and affection. Glasses clink, darts fly, laughter peals. Occasionally, the door opens noisily, admitting gusts of frigid air, stamping of feet, and an enthusiastic greeting from the merrymakers. The newcomer is magically absorbed into the tableau.
Time marches forward with steps that are increasingly less certain and not altogether linear. By the time the first glass is broken, the toilet in the ladies’ room has clogged up, a neighboring resident has called the police to complain about the music blaring from the juke box, the bartender is wondering why he didn’t take that call center job last month, and the faces in the room are beginning to involuntarily twist into masks of guilt, grief, need, and loneliness. The majority of them need just one more drink, and are utilizing their credit accounts to fund this activity.
By the end of the evening, grown men who, earlier as the sun dipped below the horizon, hugged one another with eyes moist with recollections of Little League coaching, are now tussling on the beer doused concrete floor over a five-dollar bill. Considering this, the fact that she is here to negotiate for money seems like enough to make anyone burst into tears, but she has exhausted all other options and it has taken too long to locate him, so she can’t be bothered with that.
She threatens to tell his parents. He laughs brutally, almost gleefully.
He finally removes some cash from his wallet and tosses it on the bar. He assures her that it’s all he can spare while stabbing at his teeth with a toothpick and ordering a round for the bar, which elicits a cheer all around. The bartender pulls a twenty from his tip jar, places it flat on the bar and slides it toward her.
“Now go on, honey,” he says, his eyes kind as two men in ball caps add bills to the stack without making eye contact. She folds the money into her wallet and glances at An Dung. His eyes are on the blaring television mounted in the corner and he doesn’t glance her way again.
When she calls the clinic to schedule the procedure, the voice on the other end quotes a price which is much higher than she’d been told originally. She tries his cell phone, but it is no longer in service and so she finally works up the nerve to ask his parents about him during her next shift at the Noodle Bar. They shrug and continue chopping cabbage.
Later that evening, she sits across from An Dung’s father, Huy, in the closed restaurant chopping cilantro. He is a small, quiet man and when he gently places his hands on top of hers, they are almost exactly the same size. For the first time she notices the flecks of gold in his eyes and the tiny wrinkles around his mouth.
“He a boy player, I think. He no good for you.”
Before she could answer, he rose and went into the kitchen, but in his place was a small pile of bills.
The procedure is accomplished on a beautiful, sunny day, exactly the kind of day on which she would have taken the long way to work with a book in her bag, breathing deeply. Today, it was not to be. An Dung did not accompany her, nor was he invited.
When she checked out afterwards, the clinic attendant punched buttons, made notations on a paper, and finally, agonizingly, awarded her with a receipt that she wanted to tear apart with her teeth and swallow bit by bit. The total on the bottom was $533. She had it, but not enough left for lunches the rest of the week.
In addition to the money she’d gotten at the bar and from Huy, she’d brought all of her savings, rolled and secured in the bottom of her purse with a rubber band. Evidently this had come undone, allowing the money to explode into her bag. She dumped the contents on the counter as the cashier sighed extravagantly and rolled her eyes to the ceiling. Scattered among the bills were bobby pins, lint, gum wrappers, bits of paper, and crumpled receipts.
She’d been meaning to clean out her purse.
As she sorted and counted, mostly ones and a few fives from favorite customers, she thought about transactions. What was life if not a series of barters and bargains? She liked the straightforward transactions the best. They were easier to handle, that much was certain.
-You want bangs, toots? That’ll be fifteen dollars and I’ll thank you to remove that magazine from your bag. It was here when you got here and it had better be here when you leave. Cosmo costs money, you know.
-Two cans of red beans and an onion. Three dollars and sixty-two cents, young lady.
Groceries. Gas. One knew what to expect from these predictable bargains. The price tag was clear-cut; no bewildering consequences would crop up decades from now, requiring the services of a therapist. It seemed to her that the less obvious ones snuck up on you and pulsed ever so slightly with trickery and imminent disaster. They required the use of craftiness, delicacy, and a crystal ball.
How was it that she came to be paying every dollar she had in the world to this callous middle-aged woman in order to kill her baby? While it was possible to retrace the myriad of steps that had led her to this Clorox-smelling strip mall, it was not at all pleasant.
In any case, she didn’t have time to think about it at the moment. Her shift started in half an hour and now she was really behind on the rent.