By Laura Legge
Echo slithers out of her silk romper while a seven-foot bodyguard observes. The zipper jams near the bottom of its track, and because he is not allowed to touch her, the guard stands with his arms crossed under his chest-veal and watches her struggle.
Player #1 comes out of the hotel bathroom, where he has shaved his face and oiled his skin with vetiver. Echo is flattered by this care. Maybe she deserves a man who will bathe his body for her.
He offers her his game goggles. “Just to be safe,” he says. “I could drill a hole in a hardwood court.” She laughs with her lips wrapped under her teeth. Like the guard, he keeps his hands away from her, so she will have no evidence if there are any misunderstandings between the two of them. When he pulls off his warm-up shorts and thrones the plain bedspread, she does not feel sad. She does not feel shamed or scared. Her knees rasping on the wool carpet, her jaw open snake wide, she wakes up the woman she loves.
Atlanta in the drizzling winter, Echo downing vodka by the hotel’s hidden back door. She stiffens under her rainbow rain jacket as women call to each other across the deserted pool. Because she has ascended their ranks, claimed a place for herself inside the star players’ rooms, they treat her as if she is invisible. She moves closer to their little clusters, one beside the tiki bar, one by the speakers scattering cloud rap. The gold bangles around her ankles, tokens of her highest-profile affairs, clash as she graces the pool’s perimeter.
A model who looks to be in her late teens dives into the freezing water. Amid the floating hickory leaves she loses a costume necklace. “Damien gave that to me,” she wails. Her false eyelashes have come unglued. Her violet hair extensions drag stoneflies across the water’s surface. She is one of many women at the base of their pyramid, known as gutter groupies.
Sweat and vetiver from Player #1 still cling to Echo’s chin. With one good sniff, and one good story, she could make this girl envious. And that, she has found, is an addictive form of power.
The gutter groupie unhooks her garish swimsuit. Buoying above the blue surface are her young, pale breasts, begging for a bruise or stain. Are you okay? Echo’s first lover, a middle-of-the-pack rookie, had asked after they were intimate. And of course, heart neon as a motel sign on that first roadtrip, she had said yes; she had said it in the voice of a new, surefooted woman, one who found self-possession in servicing others, one who had discovered a way, between humdrum weeks as an attorney’s assistant, to be someone’s shimmering dream.
“Help me,” the gutter groupie yells to no one in particular. “I think I’m drowning.”
A group of four working girls, who occupy the middle of the pyramid, throw paper umbrellas at her. They pin her naked skin. Her breasts float apart, wide and long as bleached driftwood, as she tries to bandage her lashes to her eyelids. Echo back-hands the vetiver from her chin, no longer feeling the desire to add to this girl’s shame. No one turns to look as Echo tidies her face; she has earned her place at the apex by being lovely and discreet.
Dusk begins to smother the rain. Echo watches the working girls through the sky’s modesty veil. A bouquet of foam noodles catches the last spill of daylight in her periphery, and Echo, her spirit softened, thinks of throwing a red lifeline into the pool. But then, the bitch isn’t really drowning.
A few hours later by the ice machine, one of the working girls throws Echo a red cup. “Fill it with magic candy,” she says, offering an unlabeled bottle of jungle juice. This is the first time in several trips that any of the other women have talked to her, and Echo instinctively wants to consent to this offer. But she wavers, thinking of the unspoken code shared by women of her high rank: No strange drinks. No free drugs. If it soothes now, it will burn later.
The working girl introduces herself as Remy. They are alone, though down the long hallway, laughter and boom bap shake each bolted door. Remy pours purple so fast it slaps the cup’s plastic. Vagrant drops stain the plain beige flooring, for some bush- league lady to clean.
Echo says, earnestly, and against her better judgment, “It’s really nice to meet you.”
Remy swallows the contents of her own cup, then seals the bottle and rests both on the hotel carpet. She says, “I know you’re lonely. You think you’re the only alien here.” She moves behind Echo and starts to work her head’s cornsilk into plaits. When she is done braiding, Remy begins to knead Echo’s shoulders. Echo’s evenings with players are replete with every conceivable pleasure. But this tenderness is, to her, inconceivable.
Once Echo is loosened, Remy offers the drink again. Against the folk wisdom of women before her, Echo gulps the red cup dry. She feels the jungle juice humming down her arms and legs, dissolving into cut crystals. A few minutes later, each still life on the hotel wall thumps, boom bap, blood oranges rolling out of the bowls. “That feels too good,” Echo says, Remy’s fruit maggot fingers tunneling deeper into her scalp. “Don’t stop doing that.”
Echo will be bald before she is sober.
And yet, the intoxication of being touched.
“Why don’t you come to our room?” Remy asks. “Some of the players sent us a welcome basket. We have little bottles of Moët with ribbons.”
Echo nods to stay awake. Remy seems to see a yes in this gesture. She leads Echo down the hall by her new braids, a workhorse being pulled to a narcissus field. Outside of their suite, Remy stops to probe her key card from her bustier. “One more thing,” she says. “The other girls may not be as sweet to you.” Then she hoofs open the fireproof door.
A moving-life portrait: Three women in mesh rollers and gaping bathrobes, voguing on a king-sized mattress. A carnage spread of aged speck and empty airplane bottles that once vaunted cava. A pillow exploded of its duck feathers. And then, in the mirror, Echo sees her own hair wilding from its tidy lines, each strand a bomb wick leading to her beautiful face. She has not felt this ugly since she was a child.
“We don’t bite,” one of the working girls says. In her hand is a bottle of perfume shaped like a woman’s naked torso, and as she dances, she forces the spray pump.
Echo chokes down the reek of oakmoss. Before she makes her night calls, she scrubs her skin with pink salt, then passes through rooms and sheets like a phantom. This is what the players want, ecstasy that cannot be traced. The girls are thundering toward her now, carrying wax lipstick and gold body chains. The tallest one, moonstones piercing her cheeks like dimples, asks Echo to open her mouth, which she does. She feels a tablet being pushed under her tongue. As the room’s edges start to smudge, a blunt object hits her. The sting, the scorch, the bleed of memory into moment––she welcomes darkness when it comes.
Echo wakes up on the floor of a storage closet filled with power tools. The door is propped open slightly with a wrench, and through that slit she can hear the lobby’s commotion––elevators dinging, tin cans falling onto vending machine shelves, telephones trilling and voices, mechanically calm, answering them. In her mouth is vomit; around her the smell of bleach and oakmoss.
In the dimness, she lifts her one long bruise. Beneath it all her bones sing.
She lurches into the corridor. Daylight from the lobby ignites a floor-length mirror at the end of the hall. With one hand, she feels her way along the paisley wallpaper in that direction, and with the other she touches her hair. The braids are still there, but they seem shorter, clipped nearer to the base of her skull. By the time she reaches her reflection, she is sure a savage will greet her, blood-bloomed lips, cheeks mutilated by mascara.
A plump maid, on the older end of maternal, comes out of the suite at the end of the corridor just as Echo arrives there. They meet eyes in the mirror. Echo sees two fearful women.
“Are you fine?” the maid asks. She is wearing latex gloves and holding a pair of athletic shorts in one hand, a sack of party trash in the other.
Echo lifts her voice against the drag of her nausea. “Whose room are you cleaning?” she asks.
The maid tosses the shorts into her laundry basket and pulls a grey cloth from her toiletry tray. “You know I can’t tell you that,” she says. “But quickly, I will help you wash.” She leads Echo into the suite without touching her and then instructs her to lean against the bathroom’s marble counter. Pressed up to her thin silk romper, the cold stone is a violence.
This lowly, loving woman, her bearded arms. Her double-knotted nurse shoes. “Your knees are open,” the maid says. Echo looks down at the carpet scrapes, deeper now, more amber, and apologizes without knowing why. The maid gruffs her grey washcloth over Echo’s dried blood, and after she stings the wounds sterile, she covers them in soft gauze. She moves to the obvious smears on Echo’s throat and thighs, and then offers Echo the cloth to clean her own breasts. Shaken as she is, discomfited, this particular kindness drives her close to tears.
Until the maid lifts a free bottle of hotel lotion from the counter and rubs it on Echo’s cracked elbows. How average that cream is, how available to everyone. The maid smiles with her stained, working-class teeth.
A heavy hand knocks on the suite door. “Not ready,” the maid calls. She looks anxious, as if suddenly realizing she has risked her livelihood by leading Echo into this bathroom.
“I can’t wait,” the person calls. “Need to get my warm-ups.”
Echo hears the click of the automatic lock, and then she sees Player #2, a man she entertained once, in Oakland, in the red spell between midnight and morning. Player #2 looks into the bathroom and starts to curse aggressively. “Get out of here right now,” he says to Echo. To the maid he says, making every word distinct, “Get her out of here right now.”
Echo looks in the mirror, identical to the one in the working girls’ room, and sees what Player #2 is seeing: not a woman, but a lawsuit. Suddenly it all reaches her, the sorcerous juice, the scorch between her legs, the charmers with their mesh rollers and spray pumps. How many hours has she lost? How much dignity?
“I have my own suite,” Echo says, disgusted at how common and desperate she sounds. “I have a suite on the fourth floor, with monogrammed slippers and an ironing board coated in silicone.” Her romper is huddled too close to her throat, and as she tries to loosen the top, the rusted teeth champ into the silk, making the garment feel secondhand.
Of course, this is when the tears come. This is when they come, and they come, and they don’t stop coming until her chest is heaving. Player #2 says to the maid, “This lady is crazy.” Anger blisters Echo’s skin, but any witness to this scene would agree with him. He says to the maid, “Show me your nametag. I’m going to the front desk.” And Echo is sure she would rather be crazy and visible than to be nameless unless she is in trouble.
“Janet,” Player #2 reads out loud. Before leaving, he kicks his Clutchfit into the bathroom door frame, a quick rush of frustration, a streak of sweat on his long, cool exterior.
When they are alone, the maid leans close to Echo. Having failed to be discreet, her greatest due and talent, Echo feels a tack of guilt. A maid naturally deserves nothing, and yet it is because of Echo’s indelicacy that the woman will be stripped of what little she has managed to attain. The maid, angling in as if to yell, asks instead, “Who did this to you?”
Echo is shaken. She is capable of describing the working girls exactly, their collagen-and-carmine lips, their breasts inked with biblical wisdom, their dream-catcher belly bars. But her mouth remains a scar. She is hopeful that one day the women will learn that she has kept their secret. Then her silence will serve as a passcode into their private clubhouse.
The maid waits. Echo hides her face. “I can’t remember anything,” she says. Her head is heavy from so many held feelings. All the air is turning to cold water, smothering what remains of her energy. She lies on her back on the bathroom tile and watches the white ceiling as ocean surface, as icicle overlay, moving higher and higher above.
This is how the young, female concierge finds Echo, maybe a moment later, maybe an hour. She lifts Echo from the ground and wraps her in a hotel bathrobe, then ties its sash securely. “We don’t want to make a scene,” she says. “But we will need to know your name, and”––fleshy lips by the fly girl’s ear––“what exactly happened to you.”
Echo watches the icicles turn black and white and black. The concierge then balances her on her feet and forces her to make eye contact; Echo notices the tidy lines of the concierge’s lapel, the glossy class of her tree braids. Behind the concierge, the maid is encouraging Echo with motions of her splotchy, plump hands to tell the truth. Those flapping things wake a monster in Echo. A goblin with scrubbed feet and a wanton mouth, who feeds on cruelty. She will not give up on the players, who let her live in her most elite skin, or the working girls, who will one day become her dearest friends.
She points to the maid. “This woman hurt me,” she says.
The concierge buttons and unbuttons her fitted jacket. She says, “We should get you to security before you begin to allege.”
Echo, wrapped in a player’s bedsheet she has not had the joy of wrinkling, is led by the concierge down the hall. The maid follows them as far as her supply cart, and then she installs herself behind it, listing every object in French as if conducting a memorial. L’eau de javel, le balai, le chiffon, l’aspirateur, she repeats in sequence, supplicant, petitioning. Echo wonders, if remorse has no smell nor colour nor shape, how you are supposed to recognize it.
Player #2 has not returned. If he remembers her face, if she is good enough to have her face remembered, her reputation will now be trampled. She will have to have her nose shaved down, her hair camouflaged with extensions, her arms noticeably tattooed––all this to begin again, at the bottom of the pyramid, as she is forced farther from her youth.
The concierge leads Echo into a right-angled room with a view of the empty hotel pool. She shivers a thumb across the hem of the bedsheet, trailing it over her torn-up knees, savoring the pain and relief of that scuffing. “Wait here,” the concierge says, and the authoritative way she leaves the room impresses Echo. She straightens her back.
Echo is alone long enough to watch two decked-out women she vaguely recognizes through the window. One is lovely and the other is not, although they are wearing essentially the same combination of denim leggings and bandeaus, long acrylic nails, gold talarias. The lovely one starts kissing the ugly one so her bulbous features are hidden, so all that can be seen is a perfect rondure of curls, and with her arm extended, the lovely one is filming this act of intimacy.
A security guard bangs his way into the room, cracking his baton against the wall as if blind. His steel-toed boots are untied, his belt lax around his exposed lower belly, and yet he has found time to polish his uniform’s tawdry brass buttons. “I need to cuff you as a precaution,” he says, and he moves behind Echo, his heart dominant against her shoulder blades. He pulls the cuffs from his side pocket, clumped tissues falling out as he does. A cluster of deflated clouds. The click of a silver lock.
He sits across from her, his legs spread wide under the table. He begins to ask questions. “Start from the beginning,” he says.
“On Friday a woman jumped into the water,” she says, because it seems to her the only concrete truth of the weekend. “She would have drowned herself just to get noticed.”
The guard scratches something in a hotel-branded notebook, but he is finished too quickly to have recorded her answer. “Let’s start before that. Tell me about your line of work.”
Echo tells him about the attorney’s office, where she feeds incriminating words into a paper shredder and goes across the street to buy everyone their salads at noon. The lettuce is never crisp enough. The lettuce is always full of water. She spends a long time now talking about the lettuce.
“And how did you pick up this hobby?” he asks. She hates him intensely and briefly. The pool looks wayward with its glass bottles and fallen serviceberry branches, and then it simply looks as it did before, untended.
“That’s my hobby, the paper shredder and the lettuce,” she says. “A couple nights a month, if I’m lucky, I get to live my real life.”
The guard is quiet for a while. He stands and rubs his thighs quickly, as if trying to start a fire by friction. Echo watches the two girls filming themselves through the window and feels purposeless. “Let me tell you the truth,” the guard says eventually, and she is grateful for that interruption. “On All-Star Weekend, the hotel gives me very specific instructions. I need to do everything in my power to protect the players. They are worth so much.”
Echo nods. She wants to be sweet and compliant. But that is so close to her workaday self, the woman who carries everyone else’s lettuce. A larger, livelier part of her wants to reason with him, to assert that she does not lower herself to anyone’s standards. She has palm-sized bruises on her breasts and blood beneath her bathrobe because she refuses to lower herself.
On his desk is a map of Atlanta. Bleaching through the blindless windows. He slides it across the coarse hickory grain. “This is what I can do for you,” he says. “We have staff who can take care of your surface injuries here. And then, I am willing to go out of my way to get you a ride home, if you point to your hometown on this map. Is anything broken?”
The two women have stopped filming themselves. They are now watching the film, the beautiful one intermittently hiding her face in the ugly one’s chest. It’s a scene neither of alienation nor intimacy, though on a given day it could appear to be either. Echo does not know how to answer the question, Is anything broken? So she says, “I would need a professional to tell me that.”
By now, Echo has been living this side-life for five years. There have been lows: Eight players in a row one autumn, Echo with fifteen-minute breaks to brush her teeth and wait for the maid to refresh the sheets. But even after that night, there were certain highs: The dream-white glimmer of the room once she had finished her service, the radiance her talent cast on its every surface.
“I’m sorry,” the guard says. His whole body relaxes. For the first time she sees his long eyelashes, his large and gently sloping eyes. “I have a daughter. I don’t know what I would do if she had to go through all of this.”
Echo sees how easy it would be to convince him to take her side, even if that meant risking his job. She would only need to tell a sad backstory, act ashamed, repent for her misconduct. If this had all happened during the week, when she was an attorney’s assistant, she would accept his kindness. But she is Echo, enchantress, eidolon. She trashes the path of least resistance.
“I am not interested in pressing charges against anyone,” she says. “But I will not disappear.”
He looks at her without a trace of desire, and because of this she feels that he is truly seeing her. He stays there for a while, presumably unsure how to respond. Then he moves across the table slowly, gracelessly, until he is again standing behind her. He wraps his arms around her face, the short sleeves of his work shirt chafing her cheeks. Part chokehold, part embrace. She does not struggle. They stay like that until their breath matches tempo; at no point does she feel joy, but nor does she suffer. Somehow, in the frame of the weekend, that vagueness fits.
The sun is scribbling yellow love letters across the pool. “Wow,” the guard says. “It’s almost six o’clock.”
He enfolds her more forcefully, his arm crowding her high cheekbone. He clutches her, and does not move, and does not speak, and does not stop, just clutches her as if all of the prudence he has imparted will spill from her head if he lets go. Then he loosens his grip. And she feels, for the first time all weekend, that there is someone else in the room with her.
“You know what’s strange?” she asks him, swiveling her neck and feeling pain from that sudden torsion. “The only thing I’m thinking about is missing the All-Star Game.”
The guard is quiet. Echo wonders if he will scold her for speaking about something so trivial in the wake of her assault, for not suffering both deeply and visibly, but he does not. He asks her, “Do you like basketball?”
This, of all things, undoes her. “Yes,” she says to the guard. “It used to be my reason for living.”
He lets her words settle, then unlocks her handcuffs. He does not make a show of it, simply unlocks them and escorts her into the hallway. The elevator comes without being commanded; he waits for her to lead him inside the car. So many mirrors in such a confined space. She cannot avoid them. She doesn’t want to see her face, less her butchered hair, but she is everywhere she looks. The guard says, “Let’s get your property from the suite, and then I will take you where the staff watch games.”
There are so many Echos in the tiny elevator, and each one is making the same rank expression––why should she watch the game with the staff, when she could have been courtside? She is on every surface, skewed both by light and by shadow. She does not want to look this captious, this deserving of her exclusion from the working girls’ circles. Silently, she covets the gentle air of the guard.
The elevator doors open. She is grateful for the common-looking carpet and the plain walls, partially denuded of paper. Before they step out of the car and into the hallway, of which she has sharp and textured memories, she says to the guard, “Thank you.”
The guard says, “My pleasure.” She smiles. She inflates herself with faith and pushes ahead into the long hallway, just in time to see the working girls entering her suite.
The working girls have dead-bolted the suite door, and even the guard’s master key does not allow him entry. Echo raps her knuckles against the steel, saying in the sure voice she normally reserves for players, “Let me in. I don’t want to hurt you.”
She knows how she must look to them through the peephole. A revenant. A damned and discarded body, refusing to lie down. But right now she does not care how she looks. She raps the steel again, and again, until Remy opens the door. She is wearing a bamboo body harness that belongs, or once did, to Echo, and the others are all festooned in different fragments of her––her barrettes on the girl with the moonstone dimples, her espadrilles on the one with the spray pump, her pink extensions framing the small face of the fourth.
Remy says, “I’ve been looking everywhere for you.”
I know you’re lonely. You think you’re the only alien here.
Echo, in the bathrobe’s empty skin, says nothing.
“Do you know this woman?” the guard asks Echo.
The beloved female in Echo, the one who lives under a carapace of pink salt, the one who folds players’ shorts at the foot of the bed after she has serviced them, steps into the light. “She’s my friend,” Echo says to the guard.
Remy’s posture brightens. Her voice is suddenly indignant, protective. “What happened to you, honey? Come show me.” She stretches out her arms.
Echo wants so badly to be held, and held tightly, that she walks into them. She braves a viscous moment––a stitch in her throat, a gloominess––knowing she may have sacrificed all chance at justice. Remy is so close Echo can smell her own deodorant on the body harness. She fantasizes about shoving Remy against the denuding wall,ramming her own skull into the precious diamond of the girl’s breastbone. How gratifying it would feel right now, but how brutal later. And Echo, if she has retained any of her soft features, over the years of hardening, it is this one: She is incapable of inflicting pain.
Remy now looks from the guard to Echo. She asks Echo if he is bothering her, and if she wants Remy to do something about it. In that offer of aggression is the kind of backing, if not comfort, that Echo has searched for in her years of being desired and invisible. When Remy looks at Echo, she may see red, but in that red is a live and tangible woman.
She tells Remy, “I’ll be fine with him. Will you go pack my bag?” Remy enfolds her one last time, a press, a yes, before leading the other working girls into the walk-in closet.
The guard asks if she would like him to stay while they gather her effects, and she says no, she will wait in the hallway. Before he leaves, he finger-combs her hair, and not in a way that suggests there was anything wrong before he did. The bodyguards, the players, do not touch her. They avoid her scintillant skin as a piece of possible evidence. Mentally she has accepted that part of the contract––but now that she is being touched, she remembers the trill in all her nerve endings.
He tells her how to find the staff room. They will all be watching the game together. Echo flashes to the maid and her free bottle of hotel lotion, her stained, working-class teeth. She nods. She does not know if she can survive a fall that far down the pyramid. But at least she can acknowledge that he has spoken.
After the guard leaves, and before the working girls return with her packed carryall, Echo is alone for one moment. She lies down on the carpet in the hallway, beneath a fresh icicle field. Black and white and black. She has always longed to be exceptional, to have someone learn her so well that she continues to exist after parting from his bedroom––if there is a world beyond this one in which she can do that, and be touched, and be made to feel precious, then that is where she wants to live. But for now, for this one grand and gut-felt moment, the carpet is a fine home.
Echo looks up at the blood oranges on the wall, soft and pacific in their painted teal bowl. Mostly they are perfect, unexceptional orbs; a single orange is sliced in half to reveal its burnished red flesh. That is the one Echo sees long after she has closed her eyes.
Laura Legge lives in Toronto. She is the winner of PEN Canada’s 2016 New Voices Award and is currently shortlisted for the PEN International New Voices Award. Her writing has recently appeared in Mid-American Review, Witness, North American Review, and Meridian.