The girl in front of me lists his scars as though we might identify him as someone else, admit our mistake and tell her that her husband is waiting for her at home to finish their fight about who should do the dishes. I want to tell her to stop, that there are people who actually need my help and there’s nothing I can tell her differently. But I have told her this three times already and still, she keeps listing. Finally, when her voice has grown hoarse and the shock in her eyes is beginning to turn to desperation, I am able to apologize for her loss and tear myself away.
By the time I check the vitals on the two old men in room 204, it’s one in the morning. I check over my shoulders to see if one of the doctors happen to be passing behind me in the halls. When I don’t see one, I abandon the men’s charts in the room and only hesitate long enough to find my purse and punch out. Somehow I find my car and drive the ten minutes home from the hospital. I don’t know if I was harassed by one of the drunk college boys who lives in a decrepit house on my street, one of the ones that landlords are willing to let rot to the core before they even think about patching the hole in the roof or re-bricking the cracked steps up to the front porch. Cat and I can’t afford to patch our place up, either, so we come up with solutions that mostly involve covering holes with tarps and duct tape.
The next thing I’m really conscious of is catching my scrubs on my earring as I pull my shirt over my head. I abandon the Pepto Bismol pink mess on the bathroom floor, grabbing an oversized plaid shirt from the top of the laundry basket and buttoning it onto me as I move for the living room. Cat had left a light on, and it takes me a second to recognize that it’s her on the couch and not just a jacket she’d left lying around. The dark makeup on her eyes has been smudged, some of her short blond hair hanging in her face. She still has her nametag on from the casino, which always makes me nervous. I didn’t want any of the men she saw inside to follow her to her car, to know who she was outside of there.
I sit on the opposite side of the couch, careful not to disturb her, watching as she sighs in her sleep. Her legs are spread, and if I wanted to I could see her panties at the right angle. I own bathing suits that cover more skin than the beverage server’s outfits do, but Cat is young and much more capable of dealing with the attention that the outfit gets her than I could ever be. She stirs, rubbing her eyes and leaning forward and I can’t remember if I wanted her to wake up. Cat turns to me, smiling.
“Marta?” She reached forward like she’s going to touch my cheek, but ends up pulling at my hair tie instead, letting my hair fall out of its ponytail. “How was–” Cat twirls her hands to fill in the rest of her sentence.
“Fine,” I say, trying to keep my eyes on hers. I can’t help myself, my gaze falling to her knee, the raised line where she once sliced her leg open trying to cook dinner. Her knee is one of the many exposed areas of her skin. “Yours?”
“One eighty-seven,” she says, picking herself up from the couch. “My sweats in the bathroom?” I don’t answer, letting her wander off. Once she told me that a girl she was working with got motorboated and I begged her for days to quit. The most she’s told me since is how much she’s made in tips that night. I can’t tell if this is for my sake or hers, and I wonder if it really matters either way.
Cat smiles at the middle-aged man in the stained white undershirt as he drops his twenty on the floor. They always think they’re clever, that somehow no other man who came into the place had tried the trick before. Cat leans forward as quickly as possible to pick up her tip and then tucks it in the little clutch that she carries around with her. Turning, her smile fades and she could feel the foundation by the corners of her mouth starting to cake. With midnight only a few precious minutes away, she would finally be able to report her tips at the employee bank downstairs and then go home. The one thing that Cat hated most about her job at the casino was needing to run around for eight hours in stilettos to get more tips.
Marta was always worried that it was the men with their greedy eyes and too-friendly hands that would upset Cat, but Cat could ignore those much easier than spikes driving into the heels of her feet. Between the pain and the constant dinging of the slot machines, Cat took at least six Advil in one shift. People always told Cat when she said that she worked in a casino that, like she was a kindergarten teacher or something, it must be a fun job. She considered it a possibility that people were dense enough to think that she just spent eight and a half hours every night playing blackjack or something.
The kitchen smells clean compared to the casino floor, though Cat had been growing so used to the smell of cigarettes that she often wondered if it was possible to become addicted to nicotine second hand. Only one person is waiting on the inside of the kitchen door. Cat flashes a smile, rolls her eyes the way she does at the end of any long night. The girl returns the gesture, the bitterness of not being able to leave quite yet showing in her more reluctant smile.
“How long you stuck here ’til?” Cat asks, running her fingers through her hair as she picks up her little clear bag from the counter.
“1:30,” the girl responds, keeping her eyes on Cat’s.
The girl’s blue eyes pop under her dark eye makeup. Cat shakes herself, feeling bad for staring. They were ogled enough as it was over the course of a night; she didn’t need to add to the general air of creepiness that comes with the dinging of the slot machines. Cat groans, just a touch too dramatically.
“I hate that shift. It’s the worst.” Cat stops, wondering why she’s staring down at her bag and not running out of the place as quickly as her heels will carry her.
“Oh, you’ve got something.”
Before Cat could even look up, the girl had taken two wide steps forward. The girl reaches toward Cat, grabbing the thin fabric of her dress just above her breasts. Taking one of her long red nails, she scratches at the makeup or whatever it was that had crusted there.
Cat, unable to control her breathing, makes accidental contact between her skin and the girl’s hand. The girl brushes off what’s left on the dress and brings her eyes up to Cat’s, the hint of a smile on her overly glossed lips. A tightness–a burning–builds in Cat’s gut, so strong that she almost feels the wind knocked out of her.
She can’t help herself. She stares straight at the girl for one moment.
The girl is not moving away.
The girl chews just lightly on her lower lip.
Cat thinks about that warmth of the girl’s hand against her skin, about warmth all over her skin.
Cat firms her grip on the bag in her hand and runs from the kitchen, breathing as heavily as though she’s just run a marathon from her home.
Once the water is just hot enough to produce steam, I step into the tub. I duck my head so that the water from the showerhead hits my hair the hardest. The smell of the hospital is the most difficult thing to lose, makes me feel like there’s a grime coating my scalp that I just have to scrape away. I close my eyes, lose track of time, wonder whether it is possible to fall asleep standing up in the shower and not even realize it. When I open my eyes, I see a form blurred on the other side of the shower door. She might be making noise, but all I can hear is the spray of the water beating down on me.
I watch her, trying to remember the last time she came into the bathroom while I was in the shower. Reaching for the shampoo, I notice that she’s lingering and tilt my head. Then I do hear something–the zip of a dress, and I see the shadow of it tossed toward the wall. I swear I hear it hit the wastepaper basket, but figure I’m filling in the sounds at this point. Her silhouette has not changed except for the lack of flounciness around her thighs from not having her dress on.
I wonder if I should turn off the shower, if Cat has actually been telling me about how her day went this whole time and I just haven’t been listening. I remind myself that all I get anymore is a number. Cat moves toward the door of the bathroom and is gone again, so I continue by washing the shampoo out of my hair.
One minute, five, ten–I’m not sure how long it is until I hear the glass door slide open. I stumble back, bracing my slippery feet by laying my slippery hand against the slippery tiled wall. Cat is standing there in my plaid shirt that I’d worn to bed the night before, which swallows her even more than it does me. Her short blond hair is starting to frizz against the water, the shirt soaking through in splotches. I open my mouth to warn her but I stop, and when I do I’m suddenly overcome by how cold I am now that I’m no longer standing in the direct path of the showerhead.
I wrap my arms around my stomach, my toes shifting to pick up any warm water from the bottom of the tub that they can. Cat is staring at the birthmark on the side of my shoulder as though she hasn’t seen me in twenty years and is remembering piece by piece.
I lower my eyes, watching as the hem of my shirt seems to float against her thighs. Slowly I reach for her hand, nesting my fingertips under hers. In one movement petite little Cat is against me–arms thrown around my neck, squeezing so hard that it’s difficult to breathe. I wrap my arms around her waist, holding my breath against the smell of cigarettes in her hair. I hope that the shampoo has taken away my hospital smell for her. She’s kissing the side of my head all over, so either it worked or she found a way to look past it. I hold her tight to me, burying myself in her, letting the water wash over us.
Queens, NYC native Audrey T. Carroll is an MFA candidate with the Arkansas Writer’s Program and graduated with a BA in Creative Writing from Susquehanna University. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Fiction International, Hermeneutic Chaos, Foliate Oak, The A3 Review, and others. She can be found at http://audreytcarrollwrites.weebly.com and @AudreyTCarroll on Twitter.