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Dangerous Beauty

We spent the day fighting. It was like a game and we were taking turns. First I got mad about waking up early and having to feed her cat its smelly wet food while she got to stay sleeping in bed. Then I took a shower and she got mad because I didn’t get back in bed. Then I got mad because I went outside to read my book on her stoop but I couldn’t focus on the words because I felt guilty about not getting back into bed. Then she came outside because she wanted to get a bagel from La Bagel Delight on 7th and she got mad again because I didn’t want to go with her. Then she came back and ate the bagel beside me on her stoop and while she was happy, unpeeling the foil and taking big bites of tomato and cream cheese, I got mad because she had a bagel and I didn’t and I definitely couldn’t read while she was eating a bagel. She went inside when she was done and she said she was coming back so I sat and waited but she never came so I went inside.

“Oh,” she said, surprised and sitting on the couch with her computer. “I got distracted.”

I got a glass of water and went back outside to read. There is rarely a time in my life when I’m not reading a book. They remind me that life isn’t as real as I think it is and I shouldn’t worry so much about the little things, like bickering or being unemployed and living in someone’s else’s apartment. I sat back on the steps and tried to read but the words meant nothing. I went back inside and told Addy the words meant nothing.

“Do you want to walk?” she asked.

I said okay and we went outside. As soon as we got to the sidewalk she said, “Don’t you want your sunglasses?”

I hadn’t wanted them before but now that she was wearing hers and looking cool I knew I had to get them because I didn’t want to be the uncool one, sunburned and squinting. She gave me her keys and I ran upstairs. In the abrupt silence of her apartment, something felt wrong. It was in the smell of the rug, the sight of my clothes on the floor and the feeling of the cat wiping its face against my legs. It wasn’t that life was crashing down on me like a box from a high shelf. It was more like life was putting a leash around my neck and telling me to sit and wait. I didn’t know what I was waiting for. It just felt like I had to wait and there was nothing I could do to make it stop.

Addy was waiting for me beside a pile of garbage. We crossed to the sunny side of the street and walked downhill. She touched my arm. “Are you okay?”
I didn’t know what to say. I wasn’t sure whose turn it was to be mad. The game was over and the new game was me being silent and not knowing what to say. She tried to hold my hand and I put my hands in my pockets. We stopped at the corner and waited for the light to change. I stopped breathing to suppress my urge to cry. She saw it in my eyes and tried to hold me. I shrank back because I didn’t want to be touched. Affection was a gift I didn’t deserve.
“My heart is open,” she said. “I’m here for you. Why won’t you talk to me? Why won’t you tell me what’s wrong?”

“I don’t know what’s wrong,” I said, which wasn’t entirely true. The truth was I thought we had made a mistake, spending so much time together, disagreeing because it was the only thing we could agree upon, living together temporarily so I could find a job and a place to live and create some kind of life with some kind of meaning.

“It must be something,” she said. Her voice was sweet. Kids bunched up around us, tiny beings with colorful sweatshirts and shiny voices. Who would ever want such a thing? A couple with bloated faces emerged from a brownstone with a beat-up doorway. They lumbered down the steps with heaping bags of laundry over their backs and said nothing, like the silent and boring couple we would one day become.

The light changed and we continued to walk. We passed a bank, a drugstore, a florist, a rock, a pebble, dirt and dust. All the pieces that made the world were small and temporary. Engines poured their wicked fumes. I stopped in the middle of the sidewalk because I couldn’t breathe. “Are you enjoying this?” I asked, wanting Addy to feel my pain.

“I’m fine,” she said.

“Well, I’m not fine. I’m upset and I can’t keep walking as though everything is fine.”

I turned to go back to her apartment and she didn’t follow me so I sat on the weedy sidewalk and gave up. Five or ten minutes went by and she never came back. I felt guilty for wanting her to want to me, like a child craving pity.

It was late in the afternoon when she came back to her apartment. I was on the couch in the living room.

“I was just leaving,” I said.

She stopped me.

“What’s happening? I need you to tell me what’s going on.”

We sat on the couch.

“Something’s wrong,” I said.

“Why is it wrong?”

We wondered aloud how to avoid the wrong. Would the wrong ever go away?

“We have to be honest,” I said. “Forget the pain and move on.” She nodded. I checked the time. “I made plans. You can come if you want.”

“Are you serious? For when?”

“For now.”

As we walked toward the train I told her Katie was picking us up in Long Island City. It was her friend’s birthday party and everyone was going to World Resort Casino in Jamaica, Queens.

“Katie T. or crazy Katie?” she asked.

“Crazy Katie,” I said.

We took the train to the Pulaski Bridge and walked north along a busy road with antique stores and ripped awnings.

“We have to turn right on Eagle,” I said.

We passed a deli with a cat sleeping on a stack of water bottles, its body lying on the hard caps. I walked ahead at a steady pace. It felt good to have a destination. Addy slowed down. “Do you even want me to be here?” she asked. “I can leave. I can go home. It’s obvious you don’t want me to be here.”

The sky was cloudy. A bus screeched and lowered the ramp that beeped as it went down so old people could board. “Of course I want you to be here,” I said. “Now we have to walk faster to meet up with the group.”

“There’s a group?”

“It’s just Katie and her friends.”

Addy’s face was worried. She was always nervous about meeting new people so I reached out and took her by the hand.

Her pants were baggy and her coat was long. My pants were stained and my hair was greasy. Our lives were not pretty or special. We were the only people on the sidewalk. I stopped at the corner. There were sirens in the distance.
“We passed it,” I said. “We passed Eagle.”

The car honked and Katie stuck her head out the sunroof. The car was a midsize SUV parked in front of a neon-lit diner. She yelled over four lanes of traffic. “Get in here bitches!”

Addy inhaled and walked behind me. I slowed down and touched her shoulder.
“Sorry in advance,” I said. “Katie is loud.”

We crossed the four lanes of traffic in awkward silence and got in the backseat. Katie flipped her head around and held onto her headrest. “You guys have met Jessi, right?”

We said hello to Jessi, a lesbian in a baseball hat with bushy eyebrows.

“Jessi is the best.”

“Cool,” I said.

Katie took out a pack of cigarettes and opened her window. Jessi drove us into parts of Queens I had never seen. We passed pawnshops, strip clubs, and used car lots. Katie blew smoke into the dashboard.

“What should I ask the British girl?” she said. “You guys are gonna meet her. She’s thirty and British and she is going to break my heart. Don’t judge me. I got drunk with her last night and I can’t tell if she’s smart.”

“Ask her about the Prime Minister,” Jessi said.

“Or Zadie Smith,” I said.

“Or Pokémon,” Jessi said.

“No,” Katie said. “Not Pokémon.”

Addy was quiet. She was looking out the window with her beanie hat pulled over her forehead. Katie flicked her hair. It was blonde and curled into a spectacular yellow shell. Her coat was a fancy suede thing with buttons the size of fists.

“I like your coat,” I said.

“Thanks,” she said, flashing her bare knees in the short skirt she was wearing underneath. “The theme tonight is flamboyant and slutty.” She stuck her feet on the vents. Her shoes were black leather with a silver heel. “Did I tell you she calls me ‘babes’? I died. I literally died.”

Jessi pulled into the casino and joined the line of cars waiting to get into the parking garage. Katie tossed her cigarette out the window. Jessi looked at me and then Katie and me again. “How do you two know another other?”

“We dated,” Katie said. “Forever ago. It was a disaster. Don’t ask.”

Addy looked at me with a knowing and only slightly uncomfortable smile. I took her hand and squeezed it so she would know that she was the one I loved. She pulled it away. Jessi parked on the fifth floor. Katie leapt out of the car.

“My first casino,” she said. “I’m gonna win. I can feel it.” She walked ahead with one of her purse straps dragging on the ground. “I’m so excited.”
We followed her through the garage until we reached a brightly lit foyer with a patterned rug and lights wrapped in gauzy crimson fabric. Jessi pressed the button for the elevator. Katie pointed at the ugly lights.

“Need those for my apartment,” she said.

The elevator doors opened and Katie walked in backwards. “I started wearing natural deodorant and it’s definitely not working.” She bumped into a large man with an orange-faced female companion. “Oops,” she said loudly, as the doors closed us in.
We waited in a line with velvet rope so the security guard could check our IDs and make sure we were eighteen.

“Does this place have multiple levels?” Katie asked. “I feel like it’s huge and we’re never going to leave. We’re going to be trapped here and come out with wrinkles and an addiction to angel dust.”

I put my arm around Addy and asked if she’d been to a casino before. “Once,” she said. “When I was a kid and my dad got stationed in Vegas.”

We followed Katie down a carpeted path between the slots. She craned her neck over the machines. “Where’s the gift shop? I want a neck pillow.”

Her other friends were at the bar. It was clearly the nucleus of the casino: a circular atrium with a live band and a bar that wrapped around the stage. Katie introduced us to a tall and handsome lineup of gay men. The birthday boy was dressed as a cowboy with chaps and a wide-brimmed hat. Laser lights shined in our faces. Katie turned to us and grinned. “Is this not the greatest place in the world?” She pushed her way to the bar while Addy and I watched the band. They were the kind of band that was clearly the result of a midlife crisis, the kind that performed at weddings and hired a pretty, young female singer because she sang in high school and felt it was her passion. The guitarist was skinny, middle-aged and good with computers. The drummer was a round man with the face of a squash. We shouted over their music, covers of songs we had heard a million times before.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

She nodded. “Are you?”

I nodded.

Jessi came over with a beer and Katie with a lime green margarita. She took a sip through the straw, leaned into our faces and started yelling. “Fifteen dollars! Totally worth it.” We nodded and smiled and she turned her attention toward the gay men who were more drunk and charming than we could ever be.

Addy pointed at the balcony overlooking the stage. It was lined with frumpy people who all looked different. A pasty guy in a sweater, an old man in a rumpled suit, a woman in a wheelchair with bifocals on the tip of her nose. We watched the people watching the band, a vision of wandering loners, taking a break from the penny slots to bob along to the music of a balding cover band.

Addy’s shoulders felt warm against me. I asked if she wanted to look around and she said she did so we headed down the different aisles of the casino that also all looked the same. She was still wearing her hat, holding onto whatever sense of protection it gave her. I asked her what kind of game she felt like playing and she took out a one-dollar bill. “It’s my only dollar,” she said.

I led her down a row of flashing screens and told her she should play the game that matched her personality. All the machines had stools and people sat curled-up on them as though the stools were their homes. They had coats, drinks, portable fans and baskets of food at their feet. One grown man sat hunched over a machine with his shoes off and his knees tucked into his chest like a girl at a sleepover party. Addy recited the names of the games we passed.

“Triple Diamond. Geisha. Jumpin’ Jalapeno.”

“No, no, no,” I said, dismissing the dazzling lights and colors as traps for taking money. I stopped in front of a box with a longhaired cartoon woman. She had long eyelashes and hot red lips. “This one,” I said. “This is the one.”

She sat on the stool and swiveled. The cushion looked squishy.

“It’s soft,” she said.

“That’s because they want you to sit down and never get up.”

I sat in the stool beside her and a man with yellow eyes glared at me. It was his stool, his eyes told me, his game. Addy got up thinking we had to leave but I said no. I sat on her stool and patted my lap. She sat on me and put her dollar into the machine.

“What do I do?” she asked.

We studied the buttons. There were circles, squares and rectangles. Whatever we were doing, we seemed destined to lose.

“Hit the big one,” I said.

The screen flashed and turned into a series of spinning scrolls. She slammed the button and the scrolls gradually stopped. “This is boring,” she said. “You do it.” We hit the button again, watched and waited while nothing happened.

“Who does this?” she asked. I wondered the same, but the casino was filled with people. Women with bunched-up faces walked by in glittering sandals. A couple in matching acid-washed jeans stood mesmerized by an electronic card game. They were holding hands and the light was bright in their faces. I hit the button for the last spin and the machine sang. We won five dollars. “My lucky charm,” she said. She turned and kissed me on the lips and I felt certain it was true. I squeezed her in the middle. Her shirt was soft. I knew her smell. “Should we keep playing?” she asked. I was tempted to say yes. Given how special it felt to be us in that smoky room, it seemed obvious that we would win and I wouldn’t have to worry so much about work and where I might live.

I shook my head and told her the game was a trap. “If we don’t stop now we’ll lose it all.”

She followed me to the machine for cashing out. When the five-dollar bill came out, I was disappointed to realize it looked the same as every other paper bill I’d ever held in my life.

Katie was at the bar with Jessi and her friends. Go-go dancers had replaced the band and Addy stood beside me in the crowd as we watched them dance, commenting on which moves looked the funniest. The women danced with enough glee to make it seem like this was their first time dancing to Prince and they were having a great time at the casino in Queens. Their hair was long and wavy and too perfect to be real. Their real hair must have been pinned beneath. Eye shadow concealed their exhaustion, lipstick their boredom. A man raised his phone to film them. Twenty minutes later, they drifted into the back and a new pair of identically dressed women came out and started dancing.

“Take this,” Katie said, handing Addy her margarita. “I don’t need it.” Addy tried to give it back but Katie waved it away. “I’m serious. I had too much and the British girl is almost here.”

“How old is she again?” I asked.

“Thirty-three.”

“That’s a woman,” I said. “Not a girl.”

“She’s a girl,” Katie said. “She works in a restaurant. She goes out all the time. Her dad is a famous photographer. Did I tell you that? She’s going to inherit all his shit. I honestly might move to London and marry her. I’m tired of working. I’m tired of dating. It’s dumb, you know?”

A gap cleared and we caught sight of an ancient four-foot tall woman dancing. She looked like a wise and beautiful hag and she appeared to be wearing a potato sack. The old hag smiled at us and we smiled back. Katie took off her suede coat and beelined across the room to dance with her. Jessi took out her phone and filmed it, which I thought seemed cruel but the woman saw the camera and smiled even more. Katie bent over to listen to something the woman was saying. When she came back, she said, “She says she used to be hot.”

“She’s still hot,” Jessi said. “Look at her now.”

We turned to look and the hag was sitting in a long booth by herself, eating lemon slices from a bowl, peels and all.

“She’s so cool,” Katie said.

Addy took off her coat and I offered to hold it for her. She said no but I insisted and finally she let me take it. I folded it over my arms and she put her arm around me. I put my other hand around her and felt her breath against my ear. We were the people we used to be again, before the fighting and the crying, and it didn’t matter what would happen because we loved each other and the feeling was real.

“Stop being so gay,” Katie shouted.

More people came and bunched around the bar. Any minute, a former child star was coming out to D.J. It was the evening’s main event and the room filled with a sense of anticipation as men in oversized t-shirts shuffled around the stage, plugging in microphones and studying computers with infinite buttons. Finally, the child star came out and yelled into his microphone. “Wassup New York? Put your hands up.”

Katie screamed. The gay men talked. Jessi clapped with her beer tucked inside her elbow. The British girl walked up in designer jeans, sparkling white tennis shoes and shoulder-length hair that was greasy in a way that was cool. She smiled at Katie like a piece of candy. Katie introduced us and shouted the girl’s name so that it sounded like “Bevel.” I shook her hand, ready to ask a smart question, but she focused all her attention on Katie, who got on her toes and said something in the girl’s ear. The girl laughed and touched Katie’s waist. I turned to Addy.

“She doesn’t need us,” I said.

A rap song played. It was wordy and complicated and the child star said if anyone knew all the words, he would personally give them one thousand dollars.

Katie stood with her hand on the back of someone’s chair. Her other hand was gesticulating and she was trying to sing along but failing miserably. She gave up and shouted something to the British girl inches away from her face. Jessi talked to the gay cowboy. The old hag in the sack dress was dancing again. Her grey hair was woven into a braid that fell down her back. It felt strange to think that one day we would switch roles and we would be the olds hags dancing while ironically amused twenty-five year olds took our picture and clapped and the old hag would be dead, her soul smashed into particles that would return to the earth in the bodies of the young.

Addy put her arms around me. I pulled her closer and we rocked between stranger’s sweaty backs. The go-go dancers came back out and replaced the ones on stage. It happened fast, like the changing of guards at a royal palace. The pop music was corny and lewd but I danced for Addy anyway, unafraid to look dumb.

“You’re dancing,” she said. I stopped and held her. She held me back and we swayed together like winos. Katie was parading nearby. She leaned into our faces and said, “You dance like dads.”

The child star was still shouting into the microphone when Katie said goodbye. She was leaving with the British girl so we found Jessi, drunk at the bar.
“Do you want me to drive?” I asked.

“I’m probably fine,” she said. “I had two drinks.”

I took her keys and we rode the elevator back to the parking garage. Jessi sat in the back and Addy sat in the front. She pulled up the map on her phone while I adjusted the driver’s seat and Jessi thanked me repeatedly from the backseat.
“It’s my mom’s car,” she said. “I don’t even care if you crash it.”

I found a parking spot near Jessi’s apartment. We hugged her goodnight and walked to the nearest train stop, where we waited underground for a long time. Our legs were tired and the air was humid but we knew better than to complain. We had both lived in New York for long enough to know the importance of accepting what we couldn’t control. A group of girls cackled in front of an advertisement where someone had replaced the face of a female actress with an infant’s diapered anus. I watched the track and looked for rats. Addy looked too but I’m not sure what she was looking for. The train came eventually and when we walked up the four flights and Addy opened the door, there was the sound of a pop. The overhead light in the kitchen had burned out the moment she flipped the switch. I hadn’t heard a bulb die in a long time and I forgot how special it was, like something a bulb waits its whole life for and when it finally happens, it fades in an instant and makes the most beautiful click.

Addy went into her room to find a replacement. I opened the messy closet with the winter coats and pulled out the footstool. Her apartment was dark without the light but I’d been staying there for long enough to know my way around. I unfolded the footstool below the dead bulb and Addy climbed up the steps. My nose was near her belly button as she reached up and unscrewed the dome that covered the bulb. It was fun to be awake in the middle of the night, completing such a mundane chore, while knowing Katie was probably in that British woman’s bed, drunk and laughing for as long as they could before the sun came up and they’d each remember they were alone. Addy handed me the dome. It was a fragile eyelid and we were both living in a dream. I held it close to my chest, careful not to let it drop. She handed me the dead bulb and screwed in the new one. I lifted the dome and she turned it back into place. The light came on and if someone had told me it was morning I would have believed them. I felt awake and alive. Was it the light or something else? Addy held my hand under the covers as we fell asleep. How lucky we were to be alive.

About the author

Erica Peplin is a fiction writer from Detroit. Her stories appear in American Chordata, Joyland Magazine and McSweeney's. She lives in Brooklyn. You can find more of her work at ericapeplin.com.

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