Samuel Ligon

A Street Guide to Providence

    Nikki doesn’t know how much longer she can wait around for this Buckley, Nikki not knowing if that’s his first name or last, just Buckley, supposed to be here fifteen minutes ago, Nikki perched on a brick wall off Wickenden waiting. Frank would kill her if he knew—just a little weed and he’d go bullshit on her—but that’s the way with Frank since he landed in the hospital last month after a beating outside Babe’s and quit everything cold turkey the next day. Now he wants her to quit everything too. She thought he was weak when he was drinking, Frank, but it’s when he stopped that the weakness really took hold. Or, no, not weakness. More like deadness.
    At 3:30 she is definitely going to leave—walk home and get changed before heading to La Chatte du Maison, a lesbian bistro off Hope Street where Nikki pearl dives, what La Femme Danielle, the owner of La Chatte, calls dishwashing. Nikki doesn’t mind the lesbian flirting, the jokes about pearl diving and house pussy, because no one there cares if she’s stoned or finishes drinks, as long as she does her job, which is much more bearable stoned. But in five minutes she will have to leave, weed or no weed, fuck this Buckley. And Frank. And everyone in this town. All she can show for six months in Providence is fifteen twenty-dollar bills stashed in her backpack, and she hardly spends money on food as it is, eating at The Pussy when she works, stealing as much from the walk-in as she can manage, but it’s never enough. She’s always hungry. If she had a thousand bucks she’d go someplace cheap and warm, Florida maybe, if that is cheap and warm. She could work with kids probably, in a preschool or daycare, like her cousin Melanie used to do. Or she could go to college.
    A dude rounds the corner from Wickenden, dressed in board shorts and expensive sandals, his bleached straw hair in his eyes, saying, “You Nikki?”
    He opens a gate in the brick wall. “I’m Bradley.”
    She drops to the sidewalk. “Buckley?” she says, and he says, “Come on,” and she follows him across a concrete patio.
    Inside, he unlocks the door to number 4. “I’m not late, am I?” he says, ushering her through his kitchen and into the living room, his backpack sliding off him onto the floor. “Just one second.”
    “You are late,” she says, but he’s already gone.
    Nudes cover the walls, sloppy oils in reds and blacks. A mannequin by the window looks toward the fuel tanks over in East Providence, most of her body day-glo except for her black Hitler mustache and bush—a magic marker fountain between her legs—copies of Art in America scattered around the paint-speckled floor at her feet. Buckley must be a RISD student. Nikki didn’t always hate school—just the people, the teachers and students, the do-gooders in the Upward Bound program back in New Hampshire always trying to save her from something, until they caught her when she was sixteen fucking in the summer dorm and sent her home. As if her mother cared. As if the world didn’t depend upon the fertile fucking.
    Buckley’s stereo sits on a shelf over a long row of records, the cover to the new Throwing Muses album, House Tornado, facing out, that song, “Mexican Women,” always sending a shiver through Nikki, Kristin Hersh’s warbling voice a kind of frantic wailing—like she’s about to rip herself out of her skin. And she can’t be that much older than Nikki, that’s the thing of it.
    “You wanna beer?” Buckley calls, and Nikki says okay, and does he mind if she puts on House Tornado because she loves that album.
    “Yeah,” he says, “just a sec,” meaning, she guesses, she’s not allowed to touch the stereo. A two-foot Graphics bong sits on the coffee table in front of her, a weed tray beside it empty except for seeds and stems and smears of ash.
    Buckley walks in with two pints of Haffenreffer, drops the needle on House Tornado, then opens a closet door and pulls down a black shoeshine box.
    Nikki holds up her sneakered foot. “You can try to shine these,” she says.
    Buckley grins as he unlatches a side door on the box. He takes out five or six quarter bags and lays them on the coffee table by the bong. “Take your pick,” he says.
    Kristin Hersh sings, “I’m losing my friends.”
    Nikki doesn’t think she has friends anymore. Not real ones anyway. Not the kind that hold secrets. If she does have them, they’re up in New Hampshire finishing high school, consuming themselves with plans for senior week, for summer and college. Less than two hundred miles away, they might as well be dead.
    Buckley dumps a bag on the tray and starts loading a six-hit slider.
    Nikki’s got five minutes if she wants to change before work. At least Frank won’t be home to smell her.
    “Tina said you work at La Chatte,” Buckley says, handing her the bong and a lighter. “You go to Brown?”
    Nikki knows she can’t be confused with a Brown student. She has the wrong clothes, the wrong hair. The wrong everything. “Yeah, right,” she says. She takes a huge hit and holds it. “I hate those fuckers.”
    Buckley laughs. “RISD students too,” he says, referring to the snotty art school.
    Nikki blows her hit toward the mannequin by the window.
    “I’ve only got one year left,” he says. “But I might not finish.”
    Nikki doesn’t prompt him. She drinks her beer while Buckley hits the bong. If she could have the money he’s not going to spend on RISD tuition, she’d buy a car and visit every place she’s ever heard of until the money ran out. She examines the bags of weed, takes the biggest, and hands Buckley three twenties. “Those paintings are pretty cool,” she says, nodding toward the nudes.
    “You like them?”
    “The middle one,” Nikki says. “That girl looks crazy.”
    Buckley stands and takes the painting from the wall. “Take it,” he says, propping the canvas on the couch next to her.
    Nikki wonders if Buckley painted the girl and then fucked her—if giving the painting to Nikki takes something away from that girl, makes her cheap. She knows the painting really has nothing to do with the girl, which is even worse. Or maybe not. It looks like Buckley was afraid of her, with her proud, defiant eyes, a sort of glare.
    “What’s her name?” Nikki says.
    Buckley shrugs. “She was a model,” he says. “At school.”
    “You don’t know her name?”
    “I couldn’t get her left foot right,” he says, pointing to the canvas.
    This close her foot looks like red-streaked putty, a moss-covered rock.
Nikki looks at the girl in the painting, a nude model without a name, her eyes actually sort of flat and dead. Nikki could do that—take off her clothes and lie on a blanket while painters turned her body into rock. Especially if she could pick the music.
    “You want it?” Buckley says. “Take it.”
    A buzzer sounds somewhere in the apartment. Buckley walks through the kitchen and out the door to the back hall. He’s different from what she thought he would be, though everyone is, until they become their predictable, moronic selves. She hears voices from the hall, then Buckley leads another guy into the room, a dude she knew for three days six months ago, after she lost George when she first got to Providence. Met him on Thayer Street in the middle of October with no money and no place to stay. Stole a big fisherman’s sweater from his closet.
    “Nikki, this is Pierce,” Buckley says, and Nikki, standing, says, “I know Pierce,” and Pierce says, “Hey, Nikki,” and Nikki says, “I gotta go. Thanks, man,” and Buckley picks up the painting from the couch and says, “Don’t forget this,” and Nikki says, “Are you sure?” looking at the painting, trying to decide if she really does like it, if she could even love it, because, otherwise, she’s not taking it, she’s not that cold—to drop a dude’s painting in a dumpster on her way home—but Buckley’s pushing it toward her before she can decide, then walking her through the kitchen, saying, “You wanna get a beer sometime? Coffee?” Nikki nodding, like, maybe, and Buckley rummages through a junk drawer, pulls out a pen and yellow legal pad, and asks for her number.
    “I don’t have a phone,” Nikki says.
    “Thanks for this,” she says, holding up the painting, and then she’s out and away.

    At home, even though she’s late for work, Nikki rolls a joint, smokes half, and puts the roach in cellophane in her jeans pocket for later. She hides the painting in the shared basement of the six-unit building, the fucked-up girl’s face against the wall. If Frank saw it, he’d go bullshit on her: “Where’d you get that? Dude just wants to get in your pants.” She runs upstairs for a sheet to wrap the painting in, wondering if she’ll take it with her when she goes, or if someone will discover it years from now and hang it in their dingy little living room upstairs. Maybe she should look at it one more time, in case she never comes back, but she’s too late for that. If she walks slow enough, she can smoke a whole cigarette before reaching the alley door to The Pussy’s kitchen.
    “Put that out and get in here,” La Femme Danielle says, pushing open the screen. “It’s almost five o’clock. Come on, come on, get in here.”
    Already both sinks and the back table are overloaded with pots and pans and trays from the lunch steam table.
    “What the fuck,” Nikki says, and Danielle says, “I’ll make it up to you.”
    “How?” Nikki says, tying her apron strings around her waist.
Danielle breezes through the kitchen and out the swinging door to the dining room. And to make matters worse, Ilsa’s working.
    “Where’s Slater?” Nikki calls, and Becky, one of the line cooks, says, “Sick.”
Ilsa steps into the back room on her way to the walk-in. “No fucking off,” she says.     “And I mean it, Nikki.”
    “Oh, please,” Nikki says.
    Ilsa cooking means no music in the kitchen, or worse, easy listening. Nikki unloads dishes from the soak sink, stacks them on the table behind her that’s piled with crusted pans. She’s either too high or not high enough, but no way can she make this shift without music. She unties her apron, hangs it on a steel plate rack, then sticks her head in the kitchen proper and says to Becky, “I’ll be right back. I forgot my tunes.”
    “Absolutely not,” Ilsa says coming back from the walk-in.
    “It’ll just take a sec,” Nikki says, and Ilsa says, “No,” and Nikki says, “Yes,” and Ilsa’s fair skin under her netted blond curls goes pink, the last thing Nikki sees before bolting through the screen door.
    But she forgot about Frank. Now that he doesn’t drink he’s home all the time, and walking east on Transit, she sees his van parked on the street. They haven’t really talked lately, haven’t seen each other, Frank delivering couches for Castro Convertibles all day and Nikki pearl diving four nights a week, and now that the weather’s getting nice, staying away when she’s not working, walking. She met him at a Max Creek show at Lupo’s five months ago, came home with him, and never left. At thirty-five, he’s three years younger than her mother, but now with the nagging, making Nikki smoke outside, sniffing around her all the time, he acts more like fifty. Without the drinking, without weed, without Percocets or acid or even cigarettes, he never wants to do anything but watch TV. Three nights ago, to make up for the not talking, her smoking and drinking and not knowing how to cook, and hopefully, to keep him from saying what she knows he’s been thinking, she sucked him off while he watched The Cosby Show and she listened to Dinosaur Jr. through her headphones. Sometimes in the morning he fucks her before work, but she pretty much sleeps through it. They never fuck at night anymore.
    And he’s not such a bad guy. They had some fun together those first few months, but then he landed in the hospital and came out wanting her to change. And there’s never any music in the house, just the noise of the TV floating back to the kitchen table, where, if she’s not out, she works crossword puzzles from a book, waiting for him to go to bed, wondering when he’ll kick her out and what she’ll do then.
    She can hear the goddamn thing blasting from out in the hallway. She needs to get in quick, pick up her Walkman, the new Dinosaur Jr. tape, Bug, still in there, and get back to The Pussy before Danielle decides to fire her.
    But he’s not in the living room when she walks in, not in the kitchen. The TV’s blasting city news, a fire raging in Pawtucket, and he’s not in the bathroom either. Where he is is on his bed, the contents of her backpack spread around him, her tapes, her Walkman, her paraphernalia pouch, a couple books, his face inside her new bag of weed, smelling, his eyes watching her over the plastic as if he’s not surprised to see her.
    He squints at her as he breathes in the smell of the weed.
    “Give me that,” Nikki says.
    He looks at the weed in his hand, at Nikki. He’s chewing gum.
    “Right now.”
    “Shut up, Nikki.”
    He sticks his face in the bag, then lowers it and picks up her backpack.
    He shakes her empty backpack upside down over the bed. “How you think that makes me feel, Nikki? Jonesing in my own house.”
    He tosses the pack toward her. “You got money for weed but not for nothing else, right?”
    She gathers her belongings from the bed and jams them into her pack, the money sock missing.
    “I only took what’s coming to me,” Frank says, tossing her the sock and inside—she counts them fast—seven twenties. Eight missing.
    “Give me my money, Frank,” she says.
    “I’m not even gonna bust balls on food,” he says, sticking his face in her bag of weed again. “Or late rent, the tiny bit you pay.”
    “Right now,” she says, and he says, “That ain’t half the heat or electric since you been here.”
    “You never asked for electric,” she says. “Give me my fucking money.”
    She grabs for the weed, but Frank jerks his hand away, dangling the bag in the air.
    In third grade, Tommy Jessup caught lethargic flies on their classroom window ledge and leashed them with strands of hair pulled from Nikki’s head. They’d buzz drunkenly on the leash for a while, then Tommy would take off their legs. One day during independent reading, Tommy’s face close to his desk as he removed a fly’s leg, Nikki came back from the book corner with a dictionary and slammed it against the fucker’s head, chipping three teeth.
    Now, she folds her arms across her chest, waiting for Frank to hand over her money. He watches her with his pointed rat’s face, still dangling the bag by his ear, then drops the weed to the bed. A minute passes. They look at each other. “You think I’m a complete asshole?” he says. “Like you?”
    Nikki picks up the weed, jams it in her pocket.
    “You think I got money put away?”
    He stands up from the bed, Nikki following him to the kitchen. Most of her clothes are in milk crates next to the closet, plus a winter coat, a pillow, and a few other things scattered around. But she’s got her good leather backpack, her weed, her Walkman, and most of her tapes. And less than half her money.
    He opens drawers in the kitchen, cabinets. “Where’s it at, Nikki?” he says. “Where am I hiding it?” He reaches into the cabinet above the stove, sweeping macaroni and cereal to the floor. “I help you all this time and you got money on the side? Where’s my savings?”
    He dumps the silverware drawer into the stink, stands looking at forks and knives, a ladle, a spatula.
    Nikki looks into the sink with him. “You’d pay three hundred a month whether I’m here or not,” she says.
    “Jesus, Nikki,” Frank says. “You have no fucking idea what I’m talking about.”
    “So what are you talking about?”
    “What’s fucking fair.”
    “Like stealing my money?”
    “Like you not paying when you could? Hiding shit. Making me pay. For fucking everything?” He reaches into his T-shirt pocket, jerks out the money, and hands it to her.     “Here you go, Nikki,” he says. “Get out.”
    She touch-counts the eight bills, watching his face. “I’m sorry, Frank,” she says. “I am. But you shouldn’t go through my stuff.”
    “I was looking for the fucking weed,” he says. “I was gonna roll one.”
    “Maybe you should have,” she says, reaching for his hand.
    “Just go,” he says.
    She could blow him right here in the kitchen, buy a week, two weeks. A month? She reaches for his belt, but he swats her hand away and walks out to his couch and television.
    “Frank,” she says, holding up the Walkman, “I just came for this.”
    “I wasn’t hiding that money,” she says.
    “Get out.”
    “I gotta work,” she says. “Frank. Please.”
    He concentrates on the television, and the worst of it is that this might be the nicest he’s been to her in weeks, not hitting her even now, when she so clearly deserves it, proving finally that there’s no chance to make things right and keep her cheap place to live, proving that he is done with her once and for all, not that she’ll miss him in any way, but how is she going to save escape money now when she won’t even have enough to live in Providence?
    She races back to The Pussy with her Walkman and tapes and books and weed, her three hundred dollars, two hundred ninety more than when George disappeared and she didn’t know one person in this town. That was fall, six months ago, Nikki walking Thayer Street looking for him, panhandling in front of CVS, certain he would show up simply because she loved him. Because he loved her, because it was love at first sight at Short Sands Beach on a Saturday afternoon in August with Crystal and Jenn, when she had been looking for nothing and found him and still expected nothing, until a week later when he tracked her all the way back to Manchester, showed up at her mother’s house and took her away, camping Downeast Maine until the money ran out a few weeks later, then on to Providence where he had a cousin, an uncle, someone who owed him money, the possibility of a job, where he left her, the memory of George always making Nikki hate herself, to be such a little girl in love waiting for a boy who would never return. Left her with ten dollars on the street, and when she thinks about it that way, she realizes that, now, with three hundred dollars, she’s actually in pretty good shape. Practically rich. But she can’t think about it that way. Not really. She feels herself sinking deeper into stuck, and back at The Pussy, La Femme Danielle is elbows deep at the sinks, twisting to meet Nikki’s eyes when the screen slams, and though she’ll ultimately be pissed and maybe still fire Nikki, right now she is only relieved, saying, “Oh thank God you’re here,” and Nikki, already pulling an apron over her head, says, “I’m sorry—I’m—my boyfriend,” such a ridiculous word to describe Frank, and she thinks she might even be able to bring up a tear or two, saying, “He’s, we’re, I’m—”
    “Shh,” Danielle says, untying her apron then taking Nikki in her arms. “I’m sorry, baby,” she whispers in Nikki’s ear. “I want to hear about it. I do. But we’re getting slammed out there. I want to hear all about it over a glass of wine later. Okay?”
    Nikki nods. She’s relieved for a minute, watching Danielle make her way back to the front of the restaurant where she belongs, then horrified. What the fuck is she supposed to do now?

    Five hours later she can’t tell the difference between her sweat and the dishwater soaking her pants, her apron, her T-shirt, her socks, her underwear, the skin of her hands, halfway up her forearms, pale and shriveled and dead, soft enough to slough off with a butter knife, and throughout the night, instead of taking a break, she runs the water hotter in her sinks as the tape loops on her Walkman, that song “Don’t” like the soundtrack to a horror movie, the partially buried nearly satanic shrieking under wailing guitars—“Why?” he shrieks, but until tonight Nikki has heard the rest wrong, hearing his distorted howling as “Why don’t you fuck me?” or, sometimes, “Why don’t you bite me?” when in fact, under all the psychedelic noise, he’s saying, “Why don’t you like me?” which seems much worse, somehow, especially when Nikki considers her mother, the men she would bring home from time to time, but who never liked her because she was unlikable, though that’s not what makes Nikki add more hot water to the sink and turn the volume up until the music burns her eyes. The bad part is the immediate past, reaching for Frank’s belt in his kitchen in hopes of another week at his place, which puts the value of the act at, what? twenty bucks? And how weird it is that she’d be willing to lay down nude on a blanket for Buckley to paint but won’t consider applying for a job at the Foxy Lady, which she knows goddamn good and well would make her rich, but which would also get her deeper stuck in something she can’t quite name or understand, her mother’s mastectomies ending that problem for her once and for all, and taking far more away, it seemed to Nikki, than her tits, because her mother was so goddamn vain, so aware of her beauty, her body, to the exclusion of everything else, her body being finally the only thing she cared about, and while it’s one thing to like sex, to know your body, to take pleasure in pleasure, shit, to understand the real power it gives you, it’s another thing to invest everything in the body, to earn a living from the body, making the weight of it almost too much to bear, and the ultimate betrayal, when the body begins its sag and collapse—in what? five years? eight years? ten? work out all you want, but it’s going to happen—that much harder to take. But she won’t be a slave to other people’s ideas about it, either. She’s not a whore. And what if she was? Whose fucking business is that?
    The thing you have to figure out first is where, not what. And certainly not who.
    Becky scares the shit out of Nikki, tapping her shoulder and offering a glass of wine. Nikki turns off the Walkman under her apron, wipes her hands, and pulls the headphones from her ears. “There’s a guy at the bar asking for you,” Becky says, bringing on the old jolt, the old lie, and Nikki wonders how much more time she can waste hating George, waiting for George, loving George.
    Fucking George.
    She puts the wineglass on the nearly empty table behind her, thanks Becky, who goes back to scouring the grill. There’s almost nothing left to wash, one bus pan, two big pots, a few trays from the steam table. “Pretty cute, too,” Becky says, “if you like that kind of thing.”
    The door from the dining room swings open, La Femme Danielle leading one of her beautiful girlfriends into the kitchen toward the office in back, both of them flushed from whatever they’ve been drinking. “Nikki, Nikki,” La Femme says, “leave the rest to soak and bring your wine back to the office for a treat. Nikki has boy trouble,” she says to her companion, who tilts her head and plays with her hair.
    “Poor thing,” the friend says, reaching a manicured hand toward Nikki’s face.
    Nikki jerks her head.
    “Ooooh,” the friend says, “I wasn’t going to hurt you. I was just—” and she reaches again for Nikki, who this time allows her to push a strand of hair behind her ear.
    “You just look so sweaty,” she says. “I’m Erica.”
    “Nikki,” Nikki says.
    “Take off your bib and come back for some candy,” Erica says, following La Femme out of the room.
    Nikki clears the back table, gulps her wine. “What’s he look like?” she says to Becky, who’s folding the floor mats so she can mop under them.
    “Sort of shaggy,” Becky says.
    “Shaggy?” Nikki says. None of them has seen Frank. And, after all this time, George wouldn’t know where to find her, wouldn’t care to find her, anyway. It is pathetic that she has to remind herself of this, after the way he bailed on her, though a part of her still wonders, still hopes in a sick way that something horrible happened to him—that he was abducted, murdered, beaten until he lost his memory, anything to explain his sudden absence as something other than a complete blow-off when Nikki was broke and without one contact in this town. The place he brought her.
    Nikki drops her apron into the laundry bag. She’s played this scene in her mind before, George coming back to her begging forgiveness, and Nikki spitting on him or slapping his face, until, finally, after he explains the agony of his months held hostage, she agrees to take him back.
    But it’s Buckley at the bar, of course, not George. George is still dead, still lost in the wilderness, and she’s glad of it. But what to say to this Buckley?
    She’ll have to say something, if she wants to crash at his place for the next couple nights or weeks or months—until she has enough money to get out of Providence. Buckley sitting at the bar is proof of something. She can fit everything she owns in a garbage bag, and Buckley can carry his own painting back to his apartment off Wickenden.
    But she’s soaking wet still, her limp hair stinking of the kitchen.
    She sneaks out of the dining room and back to the office, where La Femme Danielle sits behind her desk. Erica stands opposite her, bent over a mirror she holds in her hand, snorting two long rails before passing the mirror and straw to Nikki.
    “Don’t do that to me again now, Nikki,” La Femme says. “Come in late and leave and scare me half to death.”
    Nikki finishes her first line and tilts her head for the drip. “No,” she says. “I was having—”
    “I know,” La Femme says, “I know.”
    “Boy trouble,” Erica says, and she reaches out and pinches Nikki’s right nipple.
    Nikki drops the mirror. She means to slap Erica’s hand away but ends up backhanding her in the nose, Erica saying, “Oh, shit,” and dropping her face in her hands.
    “Don’t fucking touch me,” Nikki says, a little surprised by the sound of her voice in this room, the power of it.
    “It’s bleeding,” Erica whines, pinching her nose between both hands as if praying.
    “Nikki,” La Femme says, standing, “go get a broom,” and Nikki looks at her, looks at Erica holding her nose.
    La Femme snaps her fingers, points toward the door. “Get the broom, Nikki—if you want another treat.”
    Nikki sees herself a fat, tattooed forty-five-year-old woman, curled at the feet of an even fatter, powdered Femme Danielle, being offered chicken legs and lines of coke and buckets of wine, and she says, “I need money.”
    “Money?” La Femme says, and Erica says, “Don’t we all,” and Nikki says, “I need eight hundred bucks,” and La Femme says, “Payday’s next Friday,” and Nikki says, “I have to find a new place tonight.”
    “Get the broom, Nikki,” Erica says, and Nikki says, “Fuck off, Erica,” and La Femme says, “Do you want to be out on your ass?”
    “I need money.”
    La Femme stands over her desk, pointing toward the door. “Get the broom, Nikki,” she says. “Right fucking now.”

    Much later, hours and days and months and centuries and two joints and a hit of ex later, Nikki and Buckley are the stars of a Brown party off Thayer Street, and the amazing thing is that time hasn’t begun its rapid acceleration yet after all. She sits on Buckley’s lap as he runs his hand up and down her back, through her hair and around her neck, his other arm lying across her legs, and she sees by his watch that it’s not yet one o’clock. Newcomers pour into the kitchen for beer, the Talking Heads from ten years ago blasting over warped floorboards in the living room, through French doors to a little deck sagging over Benevolent Street, and it’s as if she and Buckley have been together forever but that the newness of their attraction hasn’t worn off. Everyone knows Buckley and wants to know her. How clever she is and how beautiful. Walking back to Frank’s place from La Chatte, after storming out of La Femme’s office and through the restaurant, and then the bar, where she feigned surprise at seeing Buckley, who said her name and followed her out the front door and around the corner to Transit Street, Nikki had the strangest feeling that Frank would be dead in the bathtub, OD’d or his veins opened in the now cold water, but not only was Frank not dead, he wasn’t even there. And then, to make everything better, after she gathered her belongings in a garbage bag and directed Buckley downstairs to get the painting, as she was making one last sweep of the apartment, Frank showed up with a pint of ice cream, still not dead. They even hugged goodbye, Buckley smart enough to read the situation from the hallway and wait outside unseen. And to make matters better still, she showered at Buckley’s place so that now there is no stink of La Chatte on her whatsoever. Everything she owns is gathered and safe at Buckley’s.
    The ex starts to take effect, warm butter running through her arms and legs, spinning in her stomach. She needs to stretch and get another beer and talk to these excellent people and dance in the living room, where this one chick—maybe half-black or a quarter or less, what her mother called an octoroon, such a horrible, nasty word, and this is the kind of filth Nikki has to purge herself of, to look at the girl with her beautiful face and long braided hair and have the word “octoroon” come into her mind is a perfect example of the poison her mother raised her on, that song “Artists Only” blasting and the girl starting to pogo, so that Nikki has to do it too, Buckley holding the beers as Nikki pogos in circles around the beautiful, sweaty girl, her eyes blazing—everybody’s on ex—the beautiful girl offering Nikki her hands so they can spin as they pogo, the center of the dance. And they keep spinning and dancing as the songs change, one into another, taking drinks of beer and water and wine Buckley or other people provide, Buckley there dancing too, and that guy Pierce, and it’s like she knows all these fine, good people, has always known them, will always know them, the beautiful girl coming in close, rubbing her body against Nikki, sort of shimmering against her, her mouth close to Nikki’s ear, breathing and licking, and she says, “I’m Maya,” and Nikki shimmies back against her, touches the spot behind her jawbone under her earlobe with the tip of her tongue and says her name, “Nikki.” She’s never fucked around with a girl before but this chick is so hot, and plus, really, she just loves everyone. An excellent song she doesn’t know comes on and Maya sort of humps herself against Nikki’s leg, not in a crude way, just real liquidy, and then she’s got the bottom of Nikki’s shirt in her hands, pulling Nikki toward her and they start to kiss, Maya’s mouth and tongue so warm and sweet it all seems perfectly natural, so good and right, Buckley’s big face suddenly part of it, too, and then she’s kissing him, facing him, Maya behind rubbing her hands over Nikki’s breasts and back down into the front of her jeans and back over her breasts as she kisses Buckley, and it’s like, why can’t they just take off their clothes right here on the dance floor? She pulls away from Buckley for a minute to breathe, turns her head as they continue to dance or whatever it is they’re doing, Maya’s arms still wrapped around her, and Pierce’s sweaty face is there, Pierce’s mouth, his tongue and this look in his eyes like he’s starving to death, a fucking rodent attaching himself to Nikki’s face, her mouth, all of it happening so fast in the blur of the music and ex—she pushes him away with a flat hand to the side of his face so hard he crashes into Buckley before spinning off and landing on the floor.
    Nikki just wants to spit the taste of his tongue out of her mouth.
    Maya’s like “Are you okay?” and Buckley screams, “What happened?” and Nikki says, “I have to get some air,” Pierce pulling himself from the floor and fixing Nikki with pure hate in his animal eyes.
    “Fuck you,” she screams at him.
    Buckley spins around. “What are you doing, man?”
    Pierce holds up his hands. “Dude, nothing, man.” And the crowd swallows him.
    Beer is what she needs. Beer and air and cigarettes. The little balcony tilted over Benevolent Street is empty, the bodies all on the dance floor. Nikki stands against the railing, looking down at the drunk stoned students wandering below. Buckley appears beside her with a cup of water. She drinks it down and hands him the cup. “What happened?” he says. “I didn’t see—”
    “Could you get us beer?” Nikki says.
    She sits on a rusty chair breathing. It might be cold out. She might be freezing.
    “Don’t touch her,” Maya says, and when Nikki jerks her head, Pierce is behind her pulling his hands back to himself. Maya stands farther back, all shadow in the backlight from the living room. “Get out,” Maya says. “You fuck.”
    Pierce growls something but slinks back to the throbbing living room, and Maya says, “Fucking pig,” as she slides an empty keg next to Nikki for a chair. They’re quiet a few minutes, the floor lurching under them with the bouncing from the living room, and it seems likely the deck will fall off the side of the building and pitch its contents down to the street below, not far enough to kill them probably, but who knows? Nikki’s cigarette seems to smoke itself, and Maya’s been talking for some time, weaving her voice into the music, planting names of people Nikki’s never heard of into the night, Bodeyair, Nin, Wolf, Dorkin, saying, “I was three rows behind you at Schuler’s lecture, but on the other side of the room,” and Nikki says, “Schuler?”
    “That idea of the cloistered feminist,” Maya says, “the quiet revolutionary—like a stealth attack—”
    Nikki doesn’t try to follow; she lets herself get lost in the river of Maya’s words.
    A cup of beer appears in front of her attached to Buckley’s hand. Even though she’s wide awake, still buzzing with the ex, she’s too tired to keep up anymore. She wishes they would just fuck her and be done with her. Let her sit on a couch in an empty place, Buckley’s living room with the Hitler mannequin, let her use the stereo, the bong. “Let’s do another hit,” she says, interrupting them. She looks at Maya. She looks at Buckley. “Let’s do another hit somewhere else.”
    Back in Buckley’s living room off Wickenden, Nikki rehangs the nude while Buckley cuts the ex into three bumps because he and Maya agree that nobody needs another whole hit, Kristin Hersh on the turntable saying, “Keep walking,” and a minute later, “Does love sit cold ’til you put it somewhere?” And later still, another song, she says, “I didn’t care, I didn’t care, I didn’t care, I didn’t care,” and they talk and talk, Maya and Buckley, so that’s good, that they have each other, and Nikki opens beers and loads bongs and chooses the music and participates in the conversation when she can, and gives Maya a back rub and gives Buckley a back rub and helps Maya out of her top because the ex is kicking hard, and then helps them back to Buckley’s bed, loses herself a little in the fucking even, but not too much because she has to keep her senses about her now that she knows what’s going to happen. There’s a moment on the bed when Buckley looks at her, keeps looking at her, touching her face with his hand, a moment when they seem to see each other, study each other, Buckley staring into her eyes, rubbing her face with his fingertips, touching her hair, until Nikki finally takes his hand and redirects it to Maya’s breast, Maya’s ribs, Maya’s belly, Maya’s pussy, helping Buckley focus on this other body on the bed, and it seems to Nikki that these two have found each other, Maya and Buckley, that they’re made for each other, so beautiful and smart, and that makes it so much easier, really, to do what she has to do. Not kill herself, she’d never do that. Just get one more chance. A chance of her own. No George. No Frank. No Femme. No Buckley. And so she wishes and wishes and hopes and hopes and maybe she does love this Maya a little, this Buckley, as they kiss and touch and lick and fuck, and she wishes and hopes that there will be enough for her of Buckley’s, when added to her three hundred, to take her away. It’s not the ex either, she hopes, that convinces her there will be enough. And it’s kind of sad that the three of them can’t be together like this forever. They’re so kind to each other, so considerate, Maya bringing cold water, Buckley rubbing Nikki’s feet, Nikki holding both of them while they fuck, then holding and lighting the bong for them, feeding them joints and beer to help them come down and sleep.
    It occurs to her before she leaves the bed that it’s better they’ve had no chance to reveal who they are to each other, that they’ve only made their best selves visible. That they’ll always be perfect together.
    She’s so sure of her good luck she doesn’t even panic when the shoeshine box offers nothing but four bags of weed. So sure, she writes them a note at Buckley’s kitchen counter before she finds the money, apologizing and promising to repay him and telling them both how much she loves them and how this isn’t the ex talking, because it’s seven thirty in the morning, but that she really does love them more than she’s ever loved anyone and that she always will and will never forget them or this night. She finds the money in a frozen juice cylinder in the freezer, a roll of hundreds and twenties, over two thousand bucks. Enough, she knows, to go south. Walking to the bus station with her good leather backpack and green garbage bag filled with everything else, Nikki thinks she might even change her name before she arrives wherever it is she’s going. Catherine, maybe. Or Elizabeth. Some armored name suggesting power and a past. A name to have when she finally gets somewhere.