Laura tilted the rearview mirror down and leaned in closer to apply her lipstick. The interior of the car was lit in shifting hues of red and blue, victimized by the neon sign above. From the direction of the river nearby, a ship's horn bleated, too loud and too close. The sound bounced off the walls of darkened warehouses like a ricocheting bullet, dying out only to be followed by another.
Annoyed, she rolled up the window and reclined in the seat, trying to block out all sound and motion, and to relax for a few more minutes. She smoked her last cigarette and stared blankly at the windshield, willing herself to be hypnotized by the rhythm of neon.
Some time later, a truck rumbled down the rutted street, jolting her to awareness. She scanned the interior of the car to make sure she hadn't left anything, knowing she wouldn't be coming back. Her hand felt disembodied as she pulled the latch and pushed the door open, swinging her legs out.
She tried to examine her reflection in the grimy side mirror. Too much mascara, and lipstick too dark, but this was what they liked. Her black dress was damp from the oppressive humidity and clung to her skin like a fungus. She pulled at the fabric awkwardly as she crossed the street to the bar.
The Terpsichore Inn. The lettering on the sign was a dirty smear, barely legible in the glow of a dysfunctional street lamp salvaged from another century. She recognized the name of the Greek muse Terpsichore, the whirler. Classical mythology had once been a great passion, but now this was just a leftover scrap of knowledge from a past life.
Laura shifted the worn denim bag on her shoulder. It contained everything she owned, which wasn't much. Everything but money, because today they had spent the last of it for nothing, for a high she barely felt. "The Fatal Underdose," Hayden called it. It was a condition she knew well.
Inside the bar, the stale odor of cigarettes, sweat and booze staged an assault. She stood by the door surveying the room and giving them a chance to look her over. Many noted her entrance. There was the slight pause she could sense even though she made it a point not to look, and the feeling of being watched although she pretended not to notice. She never looked at their faces.
This was the place. It was what she hoped for. A block from the dock, where the merchant seamen hung out. They were horny and always carried cash. She had lived in Boston, so she knew. Every port city had a place like this. It would be perfect for what she wanted.
One man said something and another laughed in response, a dirty joke laugh. Intuition told her that she was the subject, although she didn't understand the language. It was undoubtedly better that way.
She took a seat in the corner by the door, her back to the wall. She didn't want any trouble with the whores, who had by now stopped looking at her and turned their attention back to whatever romance was underway. That part she hated, too. Pretense was wasted on the wrong people.
The wooden chair held her body uncomfortably as she waited for someone to come to her. She didn't wait long. A glass of whiskey appeared within a few moments. Then the chair beside hers was pulled out, and a body filled it. She looked at his mouth as he spoke in broken English. His moustache was in revolt. She couldn't look too closely, afraid that something might be living there. She hated whiskey, but took a drink anyway, hoping her grimace might pass for a smile.
"I don't like whiskey much. Tequila? Maybe a bottle? And a beer . . . and some lime, too." To-kill-ya. You only needed a few shots to do the job.
He smiled broadly and nodded. She waited, he nodded again, and she wondered then if he even understood what she had said. He called to the bartender loudly, as if he wanted his shipmates to know he had gotten lucky. Soon they had a bottle of Cuervo, a saucer of lime, and a cold bottle of beer for her. He tried to be debonair as he took out his wallet and handed several bills to the bartender. She wished she knew how much was left.
He tossed his wallet onto the table as he poured her shot and set it in front of her, placing his hand on her arm. It was heavy and hairy, his fingers thick. Laura began to dislike him. This was working out very well.
The Moustache babbled and slurred, a carnage of English, sounds that reminded her of the Greek restaurant back in Boston, the one where Hayden used to take her every Friday night. Their days of wine and roses, retsina and French kissing at the corner table for two. They had such grand hopes then, and often talked about moving to the Greek Isles where they would spend their days sailing and their nights making love on the beach. They were in college then and still full of illusions, believing that life worked out that way. But that was almost four years ago, before the post-graduation trip to Europe and the months in Amsterdam that had ultimately brought her to this. Now, illusions came at a high price.
Laura searched the room, studying the hunched shapes at the bar, perched like gargoyles over their drinks. One of the whores was drunk and staggered around dramatically, ranting at the bartender over some vague offense. Finally he gave her another drink and she quieted, holding her glass with careful reverence and turning her attention back to the man beside her.
It was getting late. The Moustache chattered away but Laura had no idea what he was saying nor did she care. She was thankful for the jukebox that drowned him out, glad for the distraction of static noise, an old Stones tune. The music was dated but not bad, the kind she and Hayden would have danced to at a college pub. But no one danced here. It wasn't that kind of bar, regardless of the name. No whirling going on except the whore who could barely stand.
His body was closer than before and his breath stained her cheek. He smelled bad, of unwashed clothes and whiskey. She was just about done here. Laura picked up a slice of lime and licked it, inhaling the scent. She bit into the lime as his hand slipped under her dress, his coarse fingers sliding up her thigh. Inwardly cringing, she didn't let it show, concentrating instead on the lime and the need for continued pretense.
Someone left the building, an exit marked by the clanging sound of a cowbell that hung on the doorknob. The drunk whore yelled after, a sobbed curse, angry at being abandoned after devoting the best hour of her life to a failed courtship. But now, it was time.
"How'd you like to take a walk outside? I know a place . . . "
He didn't need to be asked twice. He stood and took her arm with surprising tenderness, like a prom date. She grabbed her bag from the back of her chair, swung it over her shoulder, and screwed the cap back on the tequila before shoving it into her bag. She dumped the saucer of limes in as an afterthought. He grabbed his wallet and stuffed it into his back pocket.
Laura walked awkwardly to the door, her boots dragging heavily on the concrete floor as if filled with iron. As she stepped outside, his hand pressed against her back and slid down to fondle her. She gritted her teeth and tolerated the familiarity. Just a little longer.
The street was deserted, too pathetic even for the derelicts that were abundant in this city. Everything was crumbling, broken, bent. The man put his arm around her shoulder and reached into the low neckline of her dress. She pretended to stumble and moved away. She never let anyone touch her like that.
"Come this way . . . it's here . . . " she gestured to him, not bothering to look back.
Laura could hear his shoes crunch on the broken glass and knew he was following her into the alley. Reaching into her bag, she located the revolver she always kept there, just in case. She heard the attack, the sickening collision of flesh and stone, and kept walking. She had done her part. Leaning back against the damp brick, she closed her eyes and waited for it to end, for the dreadful silence that signaled victory.
"C'mon baby, let's go . . . "
Hayden tossed the valuables he had collected into her bag and grabbed her hand, pulling her towards the street. She stepped delicately over the unmoving form as if it were a muddy puddle. They hurried together in the direction of the Business District. He walked with urgency, angling toward the street and nervous like he always was afterwards, on an adrenaline high. He needed a fix; needed it worse than she did. Several blocks down they caught a bus. The lighting was harsh and hurt her eyes, so she rummaged in her bag for her sunglasses. It was then that she noticed the dark stains on his jeans.
"Is he dead?"
Hayden looked at her and blinked, surprised by the question. She had never asked before.
"Don't ask me that."
He grabbed her hand and held it while he stared out the window.
"I don't know. I didn't check."
He spoke so quietly she could barely hear him. He never wanted to hurt anyone; it was just for the money. They never talked about it after. Laura looked down at his hand resting in her lap, his fingers wrapped around hers. She remembered the way his hands moved when he played the piano, and how they moved on her. His hands were so damaged now, scratched and bruised. His nails were dirty. How his mother would hate that, she mused.
The bus let them off at Canal Street and they made their way to Chartres, their new haunt, already as comfortable as a hometown although they had been in New Orleans for only a week. On familiar terrain, they headed into the heart of the French Quarter, through the drama of the street scene. They never felt like strangers, because it was the same in every city, the place where the junkies lived. It was where they belonged now.
She clung to Hayden's arm and kept her eyes fixed on the sidewalk, having long ago learned that you never want to look like you're holding cash or dope. You can only feel safe when you look desperate and hungry like everyone else.
Breathless, they finally stopped in front of the Lafayette Hotel and slid into the cavernous dark of the front door alcove. He took the wallet from her bag and counted the money. It was more than they had expected, over $500. This would last a few days. He shoved most of it into her hand.
"I'll be back as soon as I can. I love you."
Unexpectedly, he pulled her into his arms and kissed her, his hands tangling in her hair. She slipped her arms around his waist and leaned against him, wanting more, another kiss, but he was already moving away and into the shadows. As he stumbled down the street, his hair streamed behind him like a gonfalon.
The room sucked, as expected. Bare bulbs and bare walls, except for a tattered print of Van Gogh's Sunflowers that someone had stuck to the wall with duct tape. Still, it was palatial compared to some of the places they had slept, like the abandoned car that had been their bed last night.
Laura unpacked their belongings, ecstatic at the idea of sleeping in a bed again. Hayden might be back in an hour or in a day, she had no way of knowing, so she contented herself by drinking tequila and trying to create a temporary home, finally deciding a bath might help calm her nerves. There were no glasses in the room, not even plastic cups, so she drank it straight from the bottle while she lay in the tub, the water as hot as she could tolerate. With detached interest, she studied the scars and bruises on her arms, and wished she had a candle so she could turn out the light.
She closed her eyes and tried to relax, to remember something good, to ignore the hunger gnawing at her stomach and veins. The little hotel in Charleston, where they splurged and spent Christmas a year ago. Candles all around the sunken marble bath, and all those mirrors, even on the ceiling. The honeymoon suite.
Hayden had asked her to marry him as he washed her hair. There in the water they made vows and love, promises to each other, promises to go clean. But everything felt different; somehow doomed. She cried afterward. He was sure he had hurt her, and kept apologizing, wanting to know what he had done wrong. He couldn't understand that it was because she loved him too much. It was so different in those days, when his love for her was still stronger than his need for drugs. Now it seemed as if she lurked on the edge of his life, fitting into small spaces left between the fix and the endless search for dope. This was what she had foreseen and dreaded, but even now he couldn't understand.
Laura sighed, feeling his absence. The bathtub faucet dripped predictably every 2.5 seconds, and her nerves jangled at the repetition. She shoved her big toe in the spout to make it stop. She imagined that her toe might get stuck, and she could die here in the tub, like this, starved to death. Maybe Hayden wouldn't come back to free her. She wiggled her foot, working her toe more deeply into the spout, wondering if such a thing could happen.
How comical, to die that way. Her old friends would get a huge kick out of that, if they heard about it. They were all buried under the smothering weight of desk jobs and mortgages and babies, imagining that she and Hayden had it made. All the freedom, no restrictions, they just worked for what they needed and moved on when they were ready. And they did live that way, at first, but it was harder now. They needed more cash to get by; more than they could make waiting tables or tending bar.
Her parents had figured it out. They had stopped sending her money when they finally realized where it went, and that it wouldn't bring her home again. So much for unconditional love. Hayden's parents cut him off about the same time. She suspected her parents were responsible for that, too. Her mother blamed Hayden for everything, just as his mother blamed Laura. Both of them were right.
His older brother wired money every two or three months whenever they could give him a reliable address, but it wasn't much. They knew, eventually, that too would end. In between they lived like gypsies. They got jobs when they were able and stole only when forced by necessity. They sold what they could, except themselves. They had sworn never to sink to that. It was better to be dead than live that way. And there were easier ways to die.
Sooner than she expected, Hayden arrived with dope, beer, and food, saving her from a possibly embarrassing death. He was stoned already. She could tell by the way he smiled at her, so carefree and painless. He only looked like that when he had fixed. He stripped off his clothes and got into the tub, taking the bottle of tequila from her as she passed.
She could hear him splashing around as she shot up in the other room. She gave herself a little extra, feeling she earned it. He sang an old Sinatra tune.
"Hey babe, what was the name of that movie, the old flick, you know, the junkie? The one we saw at that place in . . . "
"The Man With The Golden Arm," she answered. "In New Haven, I think . . . "
"Oh yeah," he said. "Yeah . . . golden arm."
It was second nature now, all of this. She barely felt the needle. Her blood warmed instantly as she stumbled to the bed, dropping the used rig on top of her dirty clothes.
"BITCH! WHERE IS IT?"
His grip tightened on her throat as she struggled to rise. She clawed frantically at his fingers until she realized it only made him push harder. When she lay still, he abruptly released her and began to pace, stopping to search again through all of his clothes, now strewn across the floor.
"What the fuck? Are you crazy? Like I'd steal your dope?"
She climbed out of bed, wrapping the sheet around her, and put a safe distance between them.
"Then where is it? It was in my pocket . . . "
"Hayd, you finished it last night. Remember? This is all we have left. Remember?"
She grabbed a small paper square from her bag, a little bit she had set aside for today, and threw it at him. They both watched it flutter to the ground like an errant snowflake. He retrieved it from the floor contritely and tapped it with his finger, checking the contents. He didn't remember, but he did believe her.
"Oh, yeah . . . um, sorry," he mumbled. He wouldn't look at her.
"Yeah, I can tell how sorry you are," she retorted. Laura stormed to the bathroom, slamming the door behind her. She had marks on her neck where he had choked her.
"You're such an asshole!" she raged at him through the door. "We're broke again. It's all gone. We've got like $28 left . . . you spent the rest last night."
He was silent while he cooked up his shot. He had used much more than his share again, like he usually did. But he needed more, and always had, from the start. The man with the golden arm. He used almost twice as much as she did. Only three days had passed since the last score, since the night at the Terpsichore, and already they were back to this, busted. Too broke even to get through the next 24 hours. They had to get money today.
"I have some jobs to check out, but if I get hired it might be a couple of days before I get paid. Why don't you look for a job? You said you would."
An annoyed sigh was his response. Hayden hated it when she nagged him about working. The door creaked as he leaned against it on the other side.
"Christ baby, can't you just go suck some guy off for twenty bucks? Ten minutes of your time . . . hell, maybe even less. You're pretty good as I recall."
Aiming for the spot where she thought his forehead would be she hit the door with all her strength.
"Fuck you! You promised you'd never ask me to do that!" She opened the door and glared at him, wholly betrayed. She knew he had said it just to piss her off, but still she wanted to hurt him. The lazy grin on his face enraged her more.
"You have a good memory. I can't remember the last time you were hard enough for me to suck off."
She didn't wait for a response, but pushed past him, determined to get dressed and go somewhere, away from him, any place where she could be alone to think. Hayden grabbed her from behind and fell heavily to the ground, landing on top of her as she tried to crawl away. He muttered obscenities, names he had never called her. She felt his teeth against her bare shoulder, and his fingers dug painfully into her arms. He rolled her over onto her back and slapped her hard.
The blow stunned her. In all their years together, worse times than this, he had never hit her or even threatened. She wanted to scream but no sound would come. She closed her eyes and wept silently, unable to look at his face, waiting for him to strike her again. For a moment she wished he would just finish her off, and finally end all of this.
But he didn't hit her again. His anger defused by the sight of her tears, he gathered her against him, kissing her through anguished apologies. They made love desperately, as if it could restore them, surrounded by the litter of their existence, the empty bottles and used syringes. The pathos deepened as they struggled to please each other, finding that even this part of their life together had finally been tainted.
Afterwards, they stared at the ceiling wordlessly, realizing they had at last fallen into the abyss. When Hayden finally spoke, his voice was hoarse with defeat.
"We'll have to go out again tonight."
Laura touched her cheek self-consciously as she examined her reflection in the bathroom mirror, wondering if the bruise would be apparent to anyone else. She didn't want to look like someone's crack whore. You could always spot one of those. They looked beat, a face only a mother could love. She wasn't pleased with what she saw. Her hair was unkempt, faded to the color of wet autumn leaves. Her skin was too pale and her eyes looked old.
Laura went back into the bar and took her seat. The place was filling up with the late night crowd, mostly locals who liked to live dangerously and tourists looking for a good time who had wandered off the beaten path. Located on the fringe of the Vieux Carre, it fit all the definitions of a red-light district, thick with thieves and hustlers.
She scanned the crowd for Hayden, and finally found him leaning against a far wall by the pool table, trying to blend. She could always pick him out of any crowd, with his blonde hair tied back into a ponytail that hung past his shoulders. She watched as a couple of women came on to him. He was still handsome, although he looked disheveled and a little strung-out. But he was broke and couldn't buy them a drink, so they moved on.
The seat next to her was empty again. She had gotten rid of the last guy after it became clear he had even less money than she did. Now she nursed her beer and waited for another suitor. Minutes ticked by and she methodically peeled the label from the bottle, wondering if they should just try a new tavern before it was too late. She looked surreptitiously towards the bar, noticing the same guy still lurking there.
He had been watching her from the start, but was waiting for an invitation. She could tell. Their eyes had met a couple of times, and he made her uneasy, although she wasn't sure why. He didn't look like he belonged in there.
"Probably a serial killer," she muttered to herself. She tried hard not to look his way again but still felt that he was watching. The sensation was unnerving. Moments later, when she heard a male voice beside her, she knew that it was him.
"Excuse me, Miss . . . do you have the time?"
"Maybe. Do you have the energy?" She smiled up at him, waiting for him to get the joke. He laughed and set his beer on the table, but he didn't sit down.
"Sitting here, all this time, by yourself. With that one beer?" He asked as if he already knew the answer. But she knew how to play the game too.
"It's an experiment in behavioral psychology. To see how long it would take for you to offer to buy me a drink." Flirting came naturally to her, one of the few things she did well. His eyes dipped to her breasts.
"Oh? Well, okay then. How am I doing?"
"You haven't offered . . . yet." She turned toward him and leaned back into her chair, treating him to a generous glimpse of thigh and the sultry smile that she reserved for these situations. The `come hither' look, Hayden called it. She didn't use it much these days, but it rarely failed to produce the desired result.
Laura studied her new friend as he made his way to the bar and back again with two beers. Attractive, but maybe a little too clean cut for her taste. He was as tall as Hayden, but he looked stronger, like a guy who could take care of himself. Absent the surprise attack, Hayden would have trouble with this one.
She was still angry over their fight, and the awkward attempt to repair the rift by making love had only made it worse and left her feeling estranged. She knew that he was sorry, but she just wasn't ready to forgive him yet. At that moment, the idea of Hayden getting his ass kicked by some other guy was not altogether distasteful. She smiled to herself, knowing that Hayden was probably mentally cursing her for not picking up some scrawny drunk.
She turned her attention to her companion as he seated himself next to her. His name was Daniel something, a writer, photojournalist. He said he was staying at the Monteleon. Money-to-loan. Swank. Her interest was piqued. This one just might do.
They talked about Boston, places they both knew, and the other places he had visited in his work. He told her about his summer in Greece and she found herself feeling jealous and intrigued at the same time. Their conversation rambled through music, movies, books and writers they both liked. He seemed surprised that she was well read. She was aware that she didn't look like the kind of girl who could quote Rimbaud from memory, and she liked the idea that it seemed to take people off balance. He didn't mind that she didn't want to talk much about herself, allowing her to change the subject when it became her turn to divulge details. Information wasn't what he wanted, after all. But he didn't seem like a bad guy. Probably not a serial killer after all, just lonely, in a strange town. And he bought more drinks, always paying in cash.
Daniel wasn't as desperately horny as all the others. She had laid her arm on the table, pressed her knee against his leg, touched his hand with her own, but he never made an advance, no groping or lewd whispers, and this left her wondering about his intentions. He's a handsome guy . . . he probably gets laid plenty. So what is he doing here? Slumming?
Maybe he wanted to court her, seduce her with his charm. She could tell that he wanted her. The way he smiled at her, subtle visual cues, the signs were all there. But he was taking his time, letting the tension between them build.
Hayden skulked uneasily on the periphery. She could see him fidgeting. He was out of money, beer and patience; ready for her to make a move. But she didn't want to. Not then. It was just after midnight, and she was with an attractive man who found her interesting and amusing. Her ego needed this. It didn't bother her that Hayden was getting angry, although she wondered how much longer he would wait before signaling her to leave.
Then Daniel reached for her hand across the table. Leaning closer, he paused as if he was about to say something. She turned to look at him when he didn't speak, waiting expectantly. He kissed her softly, and then again, harder. The third time, she forgot that Hayden was watching and kissed him back. His lips moved to her ear, and he whispered to her, an invitation she could not refuse.
They held hands as they walked down Decatur, making their way to the Monteleon. They didn't talk anymore, having already tired of idle chatter. The scent of the river filled Laura's head, the smell of decay, soft and dirty, baked in summer heat. She fought back a wave of nausea.
Hayden's boots scuffed on the pavement behind them. She felt his eyes on her and sensed the tension in his body. She knew he couldn't do anything. Not there, not yet. There were still too many people on the street. Her heart thumped in her chest so wildly that she wondered if anyone else could hear it.
As they neared the cathedral in Jackson Square, Daniel pulled her under the balcony that sheltered a storefront. From an upstairs apartment, the sound of a piano floated into the night air and seemed to fall in fragments to the cobbled street where they stood. The soft jazz melody reminded her of Hayden. He had played like that once, even better. But that was a long time ago.
Daniel kissed her and his hands roamed freely, heedless of anyone who might be watching. She didn't protest the contact, even when he ventured further, his fingers moving between her thighs. Only Hayden had touched her like that. Betrayed by her own body, she found herself pressing closer, seeking the warmth and motion of Daniel's hand against her. She turned her face toward the shadows, away from the street where she knew Hayden stood watching.
A collection of voodoo dolls in the nearby shop window witnessed the seduction. Laura imagined them as a perverse Greek chorus, chanting her doom. A mask in the display caught her attention, a grotesque weeping face with black eyes. It was like looking into a mirror at her own reflection, full of despair and longing. She had the sensation of being lured away, a slow descent into madness.
A door slammed above. The music ended abruptly, jolting her back to awareness and a sudden need to be free. She pulled away and started walking, glancing behind to make sure Hayden was still there. Daniel fell into step beside her, whistling and unaware of her agitation. He grabbed her hand and squeezed it warmly before draping his arm around her shoulders. She needed something soon. Her mouth was dry and the heat was oppressive.
In front of the cathedral, Laura stopped in sudden indecision. She could hear the revelry of Bourbon Street close by. If she turned left, they would be in the midst of the crowds within seconds. All those tourists, all the cops. Hayden would have to turn back, and she knew that he would move on without her, gone forever. There would be no future for them, no chance for redemption. And if she turned to the right, she knew what was in store for all of them.
Hayden waited, motionless, no more than twenty feet away, but she felt his presence as if he stood inside her. His voice was persistent in her brain, telling her what to think, what to feel, what to want. His love settled heavily over her, like a shroud.
Laura reached for Daniel's hand, silently urging him to follow.
* * *