“Well, I’m glad you’re not in blackface.” Jade said. She was wearing Minnie Mouse ears with regular clothes.
“Do you think people will know who I am?” Jess shuffled along in pink terrycloth slides as they made their way to the costume party.
“I’m not sure if anyone’s seen that movie.”
“But it’s a classic!”
“People may think you’re like a… cool, retro waitress?”
“It took me three hours to style this wig! If at least one person recognizes the character, I’ll be happy.”
“Hey, is that Mia?” Jade indicated the scruffy punk girl shuffling slowly past the student center towards the security office.
“Yeah! I haven’t seen her in forever! Hey, Mia!” Jess made a brisk shuffle up to Mia, who seemed startled by her approach.
“I’ll meet ya in there, Tom’s waiting for me by the punch bowl.” Jade said, checking her phone.
“Later! So, how ya been? I haven’t seen you since our last puppet show!” Jess’s exuberance was met with a trepidation that immediately dampened her spirits. Mia’s wide brown eyes were full of fear and shock. Her blonde dreadlocks were starting to grow together and her thrift store ensemble appeared to be several days old. The over-sized gray sweatshirt she wore had stains all over the front and her ripped jeans were falling off of her bony hips. Her decaying green converse were untied. Jess had a flashback to Martha cornering a chipmunk underneath the slide attached to the swing set in the backyard.
“I stopped going to class a while ago…” Mia’s whisper was hollow and ominous. Jess didn’t need to ask if something bad happened.
“Are you okay?”
“Do you want to talk ab…”
“I was date raped.”
“Oh my god… I’m so sorry, Mia.”
“It’s not your fault.”
“Can I hug you?”
“Yes.” Mia said, bursting into tears. Jess gave her a hug and didn’t let go until Mia did.
“Are you going to report it?”
“Yeah, I’m headed there now.”
“Okay, do you want me to go with you?”
“No, I have to go alone.”
“Okay… You’re doing the right thing.”
“I know… Have fun at the party.”
“Thanks, kid… Hang in there.”
“Thanks… Great Aretha Franklin costume, by the way…”
The words to “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane were ingrained on Jess’s soul, but starting to blur on the karaoke screen in front of her. The basement bar in Alexandria, Virginia was packed with Thursday night drunks in various states of inebriation. They ignored her timid, off-tempo start, so Jess closed her eyes and thought of the first time she heard the song. Searching Grandma’s dusty LP’s, she was intrigued by the album title “Surrealistic Pillow”, which seemed purloined from a Salvador Dali wet dream. The invigorating crescendo of the rhythm made her heart beat in sync with Grace Slick’s powerful voice. Jess felt the change in the song coming and belted the last few lines.
“When the men on the chessboard get up and tell you where to go,
And you’ve just had some kind of mushroom, and your mind is moving low…
Go ask Alice, I think she’ll know…
When logic and proportion have fallen sloppy dead,
And the white knight is talking backwards,
And the red queen’s off with her head,
Remember what the dormouse said:
Feed your head, feed your head!”
Jess opened her eyes to the entire bar staring at her. For a split second, she thought she had done a terrible job. They all burst into applause. Jess was overwhelmed as she stumbled back to the bar where her friend Linsey was waiting, holding two shots of whiskey up in celebration. Linsey had long light brown hair, big bright blue eyes and wide cupid’s bow lips that were always painted dark red and never far from the rim of a glass. She wore a black and white polka dot swing dress that hugged her buxom curves and hid her alcohol-related belly bloat. Her low-heeled sandals were hooked on the lowest rung of the bar stool.
“BITCH! THAT WAS AMAZING!” Linsey yelled at Jess over the crowd, who sat on the stool next to her and could have heard her at a normal speaking volume. Linsey knocked back both shots at the same time. Jess took the coaster off of her rum and coke, stirring what was left of the ice with a tiny red straw.
“Thanks, I haven’t done karaoke in forever.” Jess took a sip of her drink and tried not to make a face. Thursday was her night off. She was wearing a loose black skirt and a black t-shirt. She would pair any outfit with her beloved black converse, especially if she felt obligated to drink alcohol. Black and white striped knee socks covered up her weeks-unshaven calves. Her red hair was pulled into two tight braids that merged into one braid at the nape of her neck.
“Well, it was about time! God damn, you are so fuckin’ talented, I could shit and puke at the same time!” Linsey slurred while trying to catch the eye of the bartender, who appeared to be avoiding her.
“That’s… a complement?” Jess said, temporarily forgetting to use an adjective. Her alcohol tolerance was below zero and half a rum and coke was starting to make her feel queasy.
“I tell ya, ya have to send that story to Henry O’Connor. It’s so good I’ve been coming to it all week!” Linsey picked up Jess’s drink, mistaking it for hers. Jess let it go.
“Shhh! I told you that’s top secret!” Jess admitted while Linsey chugged her drink.
“Shmop Smecret, my ass! Then why are you posting it online?” Linsey tipped her drink with a knowing eyebrow and spilled some of it on Jess’s knee.
“I… I don’t know. I hope it doesn’t creep him out.”
“Pssht! If by ‘creeped out’ you mean he’ll pop a big boner! Bwahaha!” Linsey’s laugh at her own attempt at a joke was cut short by a scathing look of drunken recognition shot across the room. She let out a long, dramatic gasp. “There’s Vlad… Ugh. If that Bulgarian fuckhead thinks he can ghost me, he’s got another thing comin’!” Linsey adjusted her bra as she stood up from the bar stool, almost falling over like a newborn baby deer. Jess caught her hand, made sure she was steady before she clicked her tiny heels across the concrete floor in what she probably thought was a sexy saunter. Linsey started speaking broken Dutch to an angry looking European man with thick black eyebrows.
“Hey, Kid. How’s it hanging?” The bartender said to Jess.
“Hey Nick, it’s fine.” Jess said, accepting the club soda and lime he put in front of her.
“How’s your mom? Still touring?”
“Yep, twelve more cities, then the festival in Nashville. They should be coming through before the end of the summer.”
“Sounds great, let her know she’s got the Tuesday spot if she wants to do an acoustic set.” Nick left Jess sitting alone to satiate the drunks giving him the stink eye at the other end of the bar. Jess looked around at the basement full of sloshed bar dwellers, glad she felt invisible to them. She started feeling around her bra for the joint she planned on smoking in the alley behind the dumpster as soon as Linsey said they could leave.
“That god damned gorilla doesn’t know what a good thing he’s missing!” Linsey said, walking up to the bar and stealing Jess’s club soda. “Ew, what is this?!”
“Vodka tonic.” Jess lied.
“Oh.” Linsey said, drinking the whole thing down and letting out a loud belch. “I hate men.”
“Me too… Well, I like one of them…”
“I like you…” Linsey said, her glassy blue eyes sinking into a seductive expression. She leaned in and started kissing Jess. Starved for physical affection, Jess kissed back.
“Wait, this isn’t right…” Jess pulled back from Linsey’s voracious red lips. The taste of alcohol on her breath was ruining it for her.
“You knew this was gonna happen eventually…” Linsey said. She reached up Jess’s skirt and slipped her fingers underneath her panties, tickling the folds of her labia. Jess grabbed Linsey’s wrist and pulled her hand away from her lap.
“Not in front of people. You’re wasted, we need to get you home, Linds.” Jess touched Linsey’s cheek affectionately.
“Fine! Let’s go then! I’m sick of this fuckin’ place! Who goes to a bar named after a fish anyway?” Linsey stormed out of the bar, Jess followed. Linsey lived in an apartment a few blocks away from the bar. Jess wasn’t sure why Linsey bothered having a trash can since it was always overflowing with bottles and cans. It was an alcoholic wreck, a borderline hoarder’s nest, but at least Linsey had her own place and didn’t live in her grandma’s basement. Jess made sure Linsey got in bed with a glass of water on the nightstand. She stayed with her all night, cuddling and making sure Linsey felt loved.
In the morning, Jess woke up first and searched for her glasses. They were nowhere to be found. Linsey eventually woke up and gave Jess a pair of novelty sunglasses with a plastic mustache attached to it as a joke. Jess wore them to Starbucks, where they had lattes and cake pops for breakfast. On the way out, Linsey saw a sandwich board advertising bottomless mimosas in an adjacent bar.
“Oh, that’s just what we need! A little hair of the dog… Wanna come with?” Linsey gave Jess the same seductive gaze as the night before.
“Nah, I have to get home. I’ll check in with you later, okay?”
“But first, I must-ache you a question… Can I keep these sunglasses?”
“Haha, yeah… Go nuts.”
“Henry, what’s this about? Does this have to do with your mom dying last year?” Ben sat next to Henry in the stairwell. Henry had his palms pressed into his eyes.
“No… Yeah, I don’t know, man. I’ve been trying to work all that out in therapy, but then the thing in Vegas kinda threw me through a loop. I don’t know what’s the matter with me. I feel…” Henry took his hands off his eyes and stared off into the distance. “I feel like everything I do is wrong. I feel like I don’t deserve to be alive…”
“Oh, shut the fuck up, you idiot!” Ben shouted at Henry, his voice echoing throughout the stairwell. Henry looked up at him, startled by the outburst. “Do you have any fucking CLUE how lucky you are? Some people come back from Vegas with a jackpot, some come back with crabs. You got a golden ticket from the goddamned universe and you’re depressed about it?! You are here. You’re alive. You’re breathing. Being sad about that is like keeping a winning lottery ticket in your back pocket like a moron! Take that shit out and spend it for fucks sake!” Ben jostled Henry’s shoulder while smiling. Henry gave him a half-smile for being right.
“Yeah… I do miss my mom though.” Henry admitted. He tried to block out the grief so that he could function on a daily basis, but the hailstorm of emotion was always on the horizon. His first and most basic need was the comfort of his mother. He could still smell her. The image of her face was so alive in his mind. Her features were so similar to his, her eyes the exact same rich shade of dark brown, it was like looking in a fun house mirror warped by age and gender, still so startlingly real. He didn’t want to remember her withered by chemotherapy.
“Me too, man. Hey, remember the time I borrowed all her underwear for that “granny panties” sketch in college?” Ben playfully elbowed Henry in the ribs. Henry made an amused grunt at the memory.
“Yup, then she chased you around the house with a can of Pledge.”
“I was lucky she was out of Raid!” They both laughed out loud. “Okay, Henry. Get your ass up, we need to get you to that meeting!”
“Fine! Ugh. I’ll get up and be an adult.” Henry sighed.
To be continued 9/30/18