(Written March 2009.)
Thirteen minutes past seven, Shannon picked up her bag and left.
Outside the restaurant she turned right on a blind impulse, away from the subway station, and walked down the crowded downtown street. The Friday evening was packed with voices, exhaust, and people pushing past without looking at her. She turned right, away from them, then left and right again, seeking the most unfamiliar streets, until she knew she was in a part of town she shouldn’t be in, not alone and at that time and especially with a dead cell phone in her bag. Yet her feet kept walking, and she did not look back. Eventually she would come out on the other side because everything was limited and had an end.
Loitering boys in oversized T-shirts and shorts stared at her as she passed, but she kept her heels clicking down the middle of the sidewalk, never missing a beat.
A car slowed down beside her. “Hey baby, you need a ride? C’mon, sexy, you look cold. We’ll warm you up. C’mon.”
She didn’t look at them. The car kept pace with her until she reached the end of the block, when she ducked into a tiny convenience store.
It was especially bright inside, as stores were in this neighborhood, the windows struggling for a balance between visibility and lottery and cigarette ads. Shannon moved past the two rows of canned vegetables and just-add-water meals, to the coolers, and picked out a beer without looking at the label. She did look at the cashier as she set it down, harder than she meant to. He seemed about her age, dressed in a ragged T-shirt and equally worn jeans, his hair in short dark dreadlocks and a small scar beside his nose. He didn’t card her, and she hadn’t expected him to.
His eyes moved deliberately down her short frilly dress with its black and red pattern, but Shannon wasn’t offended. She was not dressed for this convenience store – or any, for that matter. It occurred to her again how unwise it was for her to be here, alone with no means of communication or real idea of how to get back – but the bigger problem was probably her indifference to the situation.
When he pushed her change back across the counter, she held the beer out toward him. Catching on, he picked up a cigarette lighter from a plastic bin offering them on sale, and with a quick skillful movement, popped the top off.
Shannon turned away, leaning back against the counter as she drank the beer, neither sipping nor gulping. She wished there were a seat; now that she had stopped walking, she could feel her feet.
“Big party tonight?”
Shannon turned her head to look back. “No.” She considered leaving it at that, but even when he had looked her up and down it hadn’t seemed leering, and she had no one else to talk to. “There was going to be a dinner.”
“Stood you up?” The words were offered neutrally, without a suggestive smirk implying either typical inference – that it must happen to her often or never before, such a spoiled pretty thing.
She shook her head, gazing at a selection of ramen. “No. Probably not.” He would have shown up twenty, thirty minutes past, just like every other time. She had accepted that long ago and decided his tardiness was not personal or offensive. It was, in fact, quite a minor flaw. She had not yet thought about why tonight it was suddenly unbearable, or what the consequences would be of her standing him up.
Shannon took another long drink of the beer, then looked more intently at him. He was not unattractive; his brown eyes seemed nice. “What’s your name?”
“I’m Shannon.” She held out her hand, and he shook it after a slight hesitation.
“Is there anywhere I could sit down? Just for a little bit.”
He stepped away from the counter, indicating the small space around him. “There’s another chair here.”
She walked around, through the swinging half-door, and settled the tarnished folding chair down before the cigarette case. Pulling her foot up over her knee, she rubbed at her ankle for a moment, then began to tug at the shoe buckle. T.J. watched, leaning away from her, as she dropped both spindly shoes onto the wooden floor and massaged her red feet. The skin before her toes was starting to blister.
“Where are you from?” he asked at last.
“Uh – around Studewood.”
“Oh. Long way.”
“I didn’t walk from there. Just Bellaire.”
“On those things?” His voice had had a neutral, impersonal coolness before, but now an incredulous note entered. “Why?”
Her lips twisted, and she kept her eyes on her toes, pressing her thumbs into her sole. “Do you live around here?”
“Yeah, just a couple blocks away.”
Can I come home with you, she nearly asked, and bit her tongue in dismay. She couldn’t start acting so crazy. As a deterrent, she tilted the beer up and took three swallows, draining it.
He eyed the empty bottle. “Want another?”
Shannon fished through her bag, finally pulling out a five. “Get yourself one too.”
“Nah.” He waved the money away, but she pushed it forward with sudden aggression, and he complied, taking the bill as he stepped past her. He returned with two beers, but only rang up one on the register and handed her change to her before snapping the tops off both. They touched the wet glass together and drank.
T.J. pulled a second folding chair out and sat down facing her, knees spread apart. “So, where were you headed?”
“Really? No place? Just wanted a walk through nice ol’ South Bend looking like that?”
Conscious, she pulled at the hem of her dress down her thigh.
“Well, it’s your life.”
Minutes passed in silence, until she was nearly finished with her second beer, and then he spoke again. “Can’t you call a friend to come pick you up?” His tone carried neutral curiosity rather than a pointed suggestion.
“Cell phone’s dead.”
He gave her a long steady look, and Shannon suspected he was struggling to keep his disbelief and contempt hidden. Then he took out his battered red cell phone, offering it to her. “Use mine.”
“I don’t remember any numbers,” she said stiffly. “I have them on speed dial or just find their name.”
T.J. rested his head on his arm against the counter as he swore under his breath. That roused Shannon from her blank inertia, and she straightened before reaching for her shoe. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll catch a bus.”
“Are you stupid?”
Shannon stared at him, frozen with shoe in hand.
T.J. sighed, pressing his hand over his eyes. “I’m sorry. I know I don’t know you. But that’s just dumb. You’re going to end up – look, I get off work in less than an hour. I’ll borrow my brother’s car and drive you wherever you need to go.”
“You don’t have to do that,” she said, the words slipping out automatically.
“I really don’t want to see you on the news tomorrow.” He reached for a magazine, next to the ones wrapped in plastic, and handed her an issue of Cosmopolitan. “Just until nine.”
She looked at the magazine and thought she would rather have another beer. Withdrawing a couple more dollars from her wad of change, she held then up to T.J. with an inquiring look, and he pulled a wry face as he got up.
He returned with two more bottles and pulled his chair around to sit facing the back. “Look, I’ll show you how to do this.” Bracing the bottle on his knee, he gripped the neck in one hand with his thumb on top, set the bottom of the lighter against the cap and above his top knuckle, and flicked it off. “You try.”
Shannon took the second bottle, fumbling to replicate his grip. He reached to show her how to brace the lighter, repositioning her fingers with a light touch. Her first try resulted only in scraped knuckles, and she restrained a whimper as she stuck them in her mouth.
T.J. did not laugh at her, though she thought she caught the hint of a smile. “Try again.”
Determined now, she wiped her hand on her dress and tightened her grip again on the bottle, pausing for T.J. to appraise her hold of the lighter and to mime the movement again before her. She twisted her wrist hard, and was pleased this time to hear the pop.
T.J. leaned back, smiling. “There you go.”
A tinkling came from the door, accompanied a moment later by several loud male voices. They brought forward several cases of beer and a bag of chips, slouching against the counter and staring at Shannon.
“How much is she going for, T.J.?”
“Fuck off, Darrell,” T.J. said, without hesitation or menace, simply a quiet admonishment. “She’s a friend of my brother’s.”
They quieted for a moment at that. “He was just playing,” another said, directing his words to Shannon. “Didn’t mean anything.”
She jerked her head down in a fractional nod.
“Tell Ray he’s got lucky there,” the first one said, with a wink toward her that did not feel friendly. “Tell him to bring her around sometime.”
“Around you punks? Ain’t likely.”
The men snorted, picked up their bags and ambled out.
T.J. played with the lighter on the counter, not looking at her. Shannon pressed her legs together, aware suddenly of how cold it was. She could ask – it was a little pathetic – oh hell, why not.
“Do you have anything I could change into?”
The lighter stopped between his fingers, and he looked genuinely surprised. She glared.
T.J. leaned back, considering and doubtful. “I ain’t got anything for a girl. Just a shirt and shorts in the back…they’re dirty. I mean, haven’t been washed since I wore them.”
“I’m not planning on keeping them. Just for the next hour, until I get home, then I’ll change and give them back. – That is, if you still don’t mind driving me,” she added.
He waved his hand dismissively. “Yeah, I said I would. Do you really want to change into my clothes?”
“I’d appreciate it.”
He led her through the small packed storeroom, and from a doorless locker took out a shirt and pair of khaki shorts, which he shook out doubtfully before handing them to her.
Shannon shut herself in the tiny, dingy bathroom, glad she had put on her shoes again. Only after she had slung her dress over the doorknob and pulled on the T-shirt did she look in the dirty mirror.
The face looking back was almost startlingly unfamiliar: make-up nearly intact, straight stylized hair above the faded blue, high-collared shirt with a hole near the shoulder and some illegible words printed over caricaturized faces. A reddish-brown stain spotted one sleeve, and she sniffed it impulsively, but it didn’t smell any different than the rest of the shirt. Folding her arms across herself, she pressed the cheap cotton to her skin. It felt good. She wasn’t wearing a bra, but hopefully that wouldn’t be noticeable.
The shorts just barely stayed up over her hips, and she was glad for the shirt’s extra length. Now her shoes were even more ludicrous, but she wouldn’t go so far as to take the flip-flops T.J. had offered her.
When she stepped out of the storeroom, T.J. looked up, and she saw his lips quirk in a smile as he glanced back down. Shannon stuffed her dress inside her purse and picked up her beer and magazine again, much more comfortable and, inexplicably, happy.
“I called my brother,” T.J. said, playing with his cell phone in his hands. “He’s going to drop the car off back home in a little bit. I also called Mike – he works after me – and he’ll come in a few minutes early so I can go.”
“Thanks,” she said, awkward once more and wondering why she had gone so far as to put on his clothes. “I really appreciate it. I’ll pay for gas.”
He shrugged – not a refusal, but courteous all the same.
Ten minutes later an overweight man a few years older than them burst into the store. He came to the side door of the counter, saw Shannon, looked back at T.J., and said with meaningful finality, “All right, then.”
“Shannon, this is Mike,” T.J. said, unfazed.
“Pleased to meet you.” He shook her hand, then stood back. “All right, get out, both of you. Teej, you take my shift next week.”
“We’ll see about that.” T.J. pushed the door open in front of Shannon. “He’s not a bad guy,” he said, once the door had closed behind them.
T.J. led her through the streets where the lights grew more and more infrequent, to a large and foreboding apartment complex. He tugged on a gate until it opened, and brought her up a staircase to a hallway without lights. They passed screaming TVs, stereos, people, and silence, until he stopped suddenly at a door, and Shannon nearly stumbled into him.
“Wait here just a minute. Don’t go anywhere.”
“I won’t,” she said, nearly reminding him that she was wearing his clothes, but the apartment complex made her nervous.
T.J. disappeared inside and emerged less than a minute later with a set of jangling keys. He took her out by a different course, to a large parking lot and ultimately a slightly battered and aged Cadillac.
Shannon dropped into the passenger seat, buckling the seat belt and finally feeling relaxed again, as she always did to some degree when riding in a car. She gave T.J. preliminary directions, then settled back and closed her eyes. The alcohol had taken a while to sink in, but now she was feeling pleasantly buzzed.
“So,” he said, a minute later. “Who stood you up tonight?”
“I stood him up,” she muttered. It was a truth she would have to face sooner rather than later.
The term repulsed her on a visceral level, and her hands involuntarily clenched. He was not that, certainly, but there was no term for their relationship…and he had once been that. “Something like that,” she said at last.
There was silence for several moments, until T.J. said, “If he’s such an asshole, why are you seeing him?”
Shannon muffled a semi-hysterical laugh, stricken by his perception, and was it really that easy? Getting control of herself, she answered, “He’s not – really an asshole. He doesn’t hit or shout at me or anything. He’s…just late.”
“He’s always late.” Except, she thought. Except for that one time. Not two weeks ago. When many things had changed, and then she thought at least some things would change, and then at least one thing, just this one thing from him when everything with her had been turned upside down and inside out and she had been living in a stranger’s body for the last two weeks, a stranger who had done things she had never thought she would and told no one, wrapping up her secrets in her strange new body filled with unknown things. He had been on time then, and she had been so happy she cried all the way to the clinic.
But tonight he was late again, and nothing had changed after all. Nothing with him. The enormity of the truth, of the selectiveness of his punctuality and what it meant, threatened to drown her now. She hadn’t cried since that last ride, and didn’t want to now, but the soothing hum of the car, the streetlights flickering over them, and the boy’s hands on the steering wheel beside her, were too much. She pressed her face down to her shoulder, burying it in the unfamiliar smell of his T-shirt, and tried to screw it in. It would be terribly ungrateful for her to cry before him now, after all he’d done for her.
She muffled her sobs into her arm, and T.J. said nothing, but after a minute he pulled over, stopped the car, and moved to rummage in the backseat before setting a box of tissues and a half-empty water bottle next to her.
Shannon took them, blowing her nose and wiping her face, conscious of the mess her make-up must have made. “Sorry,” she whispered at last.
“Hey, you don’t have to apologize to me.” His voice was quiet, and he was still. She drank the water, swallowed once more, and said, “Perryhill Station. Left down Merrington a ways.”
He turned the keys and eased back onto the road.
When they reached the station, Shannon found a ten-dollar bill to offer him, but he shook his head.
“Please,” she said, and perhaps the throatiness in her voice made him extend his hand. Instead of handing it to him, she grabbed his wrist, forcing his eyes to hers. “What days do you work at the store?”
After a pause, he said, “I’m off Sundays and Wednesdays.”
“Do you usually work in the afternoons?”
She wouldn’t let go. “I’ll wash your clothes and bring them back to you sometime next week. Okay?”
He looked at her. The dark shadows made it hard to see his face. “Sure,” he said at last.
Shannon gripped harder. “I mean it. I’ll be back.”
Shannon let go, picked up her bag, and stepped out of the car. She shut the door with one hand and stood looking in, but it was almost impossible to see through the window and angles of darkness. T.J. raised his hand, and she lifted hers in return.
When the car was gone, she pulled her purse higher onto her shoulder. The night air was warm, and she felt safe in the anonymity of the crowd and T.J.’s clothes as she walked into the subway.