Stopgap Rhapsody

This goddamn song cannot be stuck in my head anymore.

This goddamn song cannot be stuck in my head anymore. Used to be I chose my songs based on which ones made me feel the sexiest, which ones conjured choreo when I closed my eyes. For a year or two, that strategy served. Six years on, it doesn’t matter what songs I dance to; they stain my breath on my way out to the car. I have rituals to sever myself from this place each night. I change into fuchsia flip flops, hide my platforms at the bottom of my bag, brush out my cherry wig on the mannequin head by the far mirror. If I’m still humming my song as I hustle across the parking lot, my rituals don’t do shit and work follows me home.

In an effort to chase out that tired melody, I picked a random song to blast when I got into my car tonight. It had a comically self-assured title. Yeah, give me some of that.

It’s doing the job. Relentless wails from an electric guitar keep all other songs at bay. The vocals border on yelling, but not quite. More like talking very hard. The singer’s voice groans and crackles. Tonight’s shift left me threadbare. Too many guys trying to get handsy; I rattled off my default scold 14 times in my first hour on the floor. When I started at the club, I found their mix of entitlement and animalism funny. A year in, I didn’t give a shit. Now it gets to me. It seeps under my skin and makes me feel like I’m chewing sand all night. Maybe I started feeling that way when Jetta left. Maybe I’m just getting old.

I saw Jetta last week. We smoked a joint in the alley behind her house while Bee was at school. I told her I missed her but stopped short of begging her to come back. Jetta coming back would start this whole crescendo of consequences I don’t want to deal with.

“Oh, Stari honey, I miss you too,” Jetta said. “Harry’s is hiring. The tips from serving are almost as good.”

“Dancing is starting to wear me out,” I said, as if I was considering it. I wanted nothing more than to work with Jetta again, but, like I said, consequences.

“More than the normal amount?”

“A lot more.” I sucked in a bubble of smoke. We were silent for a moment as I held it, then I let it sluice from my mouth alongside my words. “How do you know when it’s time to leave a job behind?”

Jetta pinched her tongue between her front teeth. “Well, sometimes it slaps you in the face. I never thought I’d leave the club, but after that pervert followed Bee home, how could I stay? When you’re burning out slow, it’s harder to tell. I guess you gotta leave when you realize there’s no future for you there.”

Her advice echoed through my head all shift. Do I have a future here?

When I started, the answer was clear as Absolut: this was the only way I had a future. I bounced back and forth between nodded-off Mom and stop-crying-or-I’ll-smack-you-again Nanna until age 16, when I got myself a good enough fake to get the job. Jetta took me in immediately. She was the one who taught me how to care for my wigs, told me which stores sold the platforms that support your ankles, warned me to keep my distance from customers.

“Never tell them your car’s in the shop or that you just switched go-to grocery stores. Believe me, they’ll get it out of you if you aren’t careful.”

I’m not sleeping on Jetta’s couch anymore, but does that mean my time at the club has run its course? Where else would I go?

After I pull into the parking lot of my apartment complex, I sit in my car for a moment, the song still blasting. I itch to call Jetta, but I never phone her first. I settle on sending her a link to the song before I kill the engine.

I hate all the rock songs Stari sends me, but I listen to each and every one just in case that changes. What can I say? I’m a hopeful bitch.

In all these years I’ve never assaulted her with my No Diggitys and Hot in Herres, but she doesn’t get the message. I put this most recent song on the stereo in the living room and light a cig. Bee is out with her boyfriend, a stray with droopy eyes she dragged home named Ollie. She got that from her mama. We love hard, and my little girl hasn’t learned how to protect herself yet.

The song is an assault, all right. Guitars scream into the night atop a stampede of kick and snare and tom. I’m about to get up to turn it off, but the lyrics slam me back into the couch. Halfway between depleted and irate, the singer spits his decrees. I take a drag, sucking in so hard the smoke feels like stone in my lungs, then I trickle it out in one long stream. Fuck, this man has a point.

When the song ends, I put it on again. Then again and again. I lie on the couch until my muscles turn to jelly.

After a thousand misses, a Stari rec finally hit. They must be making snowmen in hell. I close my eyes, lean back into the fabric of the couch, sip on my cig, and scream along in my mind. Bee goes out with Ollie every night she doesn’t have a host shift at Harry’s. I’m not a fan. Where did that Marceline girl go? They’d been joined at the hip since third grade. Marceline was the one who snuck quietly into my room to return my heels when they stole them to wobble around the house. She told me where Bee had hidden the dab pen the first time they got high in her room. A mom’s best friend, that one.

When the song ends, I put it on again. Then again and again. I lie on the couch until my muscles turn to jelly.

I’m woken up at 3:00 in the morning when the door swings open. Bee stumbles in, makeup smeared and midriff a lot more on display than it was when she left. I jab the off button on the stereo so I can chew her out.

On Sunday morning, Bee and I both work brunch, so I drive us to Harry’s at 9:00. When I plug my phone into the aux, Stari’s song comes on automatically. I leave it. I wanna hear this dude yell about the world again.

It’s much closer to her taste in music than mine. I imagine for a moment that she softens to me. That she says, “Hey Mom, this song is good,” or something. Anything.

“Jetta, what the fuck is this song?”

Tears sparkle behind my eyes but I hold them back. Every mom has perfected that art. “You don’t like it?”

“I do. That’s why I’m confused.” Bee slumps down in the passenger seat, twirling her phone between her fingers.

“Stari sent it to me,” I say.

Bee makes a tiny disgusted sound in the back of her throat. She was young when Stari moved in with us, and my baby girl’s an only child through and through. She did not take to sharing her space. “I know you don’t like her, Bee, but you two have so much in common.”

“My name is Bash.” Bee glares at me. This is her latest idea to get under my skin. Bash is short for Sebastians, her last name. Her dad pushed for his last name, and I relented because only a sicko would name their kid Bee Jay.

I stomp the heels of my hands on the steering wheel. “Bee is such a lovely name. For the love of god, what is wrong with Bee?”

“I’ll call you Mom again if you call me Bash,” she says hopefully.

“Nice try, girlie. I’m not paying for what I used to get for free.”

I spin the car into the Harry’s back lot and jerk to a stop. Bee lifts my phone to look at the name of the song. Maybe I’m too optimistic, but I pray this is a sign she’s coming around on Stari. I grab my purse from the back seat then turn the key, and the song evaporates.

Alone in my room, I listen to the song Mom got from Stari even though it makes me want to vomit. I thought about it all through my shift. I snapped at every pudgy dad who insisted I seat his family in a different section. I’m sure that every time I walked away, they turned to their wives and said, “Well, she’s a bitch, isn’t she?”

You know when you’ve said your name so many times that it doesn’t sound like your name anymore, and it becomes a jumbled pile of syllables? That’s how my body feels as I lie on my floor listening to the caterwauling electric guitar. A heap of skin and sinew and bone. Not mine anymore.

Stari moved in with us when I was ten and didn’t leave until I was 14. At first, she was this shiny new thing. We desperately needed another body to fill the house. Mom had a habit of shuffling around announcing that we were better off without Dad only for me to find her sobbing in her room ten minutes later.

Stari took to sitting in the middle of the couch before enough time had passed to give her the right, in my opinion. Mom didn’t seem bothered that I was on the opposite end from her. Stari rode shotgun on the way to the club while I did pre-algebra in the backseat, then backstage, then in the backseat again. Mom asked Stari what she wanted for dinner and ignored my cries for chicken nuggets.

Mom thinks I’m stuck in my ten-year-old jealousy, but in time I learned my place. Mom loved Stari like a daughter, and I hated her like a sister. Instead of catching Mom crying, I’d hear her humming the chorus to Ghetto Supastar while she boiled macaroni. She and Stari would twirl each other across the kitchen.

Things changed the autumn I was 12. We were cuddled up on the couch to watch a movie after dinner, wrapped in a blue comforter. Mom had commanded we get cozy. When the credits scrolled, she got up to do the dishes, leaving Stari and me huddled under the blanket. Stari slung her arm around my shoulders, and I hesitantly melted into the big-sisterly gesture.

The feeling was perplexing at first—a disembodied shiver. I looked at Stari, but she was calling across the room, saying something to Mom in the kitchen. Completely at ease, as if she wasn’t playing with my nipple.

I sat there in silence, feeling at once like my blood was hissing with heat and my skin had iced over.

I wanted to thrash and kick Stari away from me, but in the time it took for me to understand what was happening, my muscles had atrophied.

Mom glanced over her shoulder at us smushed together on the couch. I watched her smile to herself. How could I crush that moment for her? I sat there in silence, feeling at once like my blood was hissing with heat and my skin had iced over.

I spent the next two years inventing reasons to never be alone with Stari. I tagged along when Mom ran to the drugstore to restock on NyQuil and liquid eyeliner. I took long circuitous walks even though Mom didn’t like me walking in our neighbourhood by myself.

When Stari got her shit together enough to move out, I was free. Sort of. There were still nights when I needed to memorize my lines for the school play in the club dressing room while Mom worked, and sometimes Stari would be back there getting ready for her song. She’d ask me the normal questions: how’s school, what’s your favourite subject, which play is it. But she’d sprinkle in questions that made my scalp prickle: do you have a boyfriend, has he fingered you, have you gone all the way.

I stared at her as my skin tried to peel itself from my body. All words fled my mind. She fixed her lipstick in the mirror.

Once I could drive, I never had to hang around the club, but Mom occasionally needed me to stop by. One afternoon she called me in a panic.

“I ran out of falsies and none of these bitches have the ones I like!” she hollered. “I have a stash in the bathroom. In the drawers by the sink, second one down.”

“I got you, Mom.” I’d just decided to put off running through my lines to watch pirated Spongebob episodes instead, but I lugged myself off the couch and into the bathroom. I found her false eyelashes and zombied to the car. I’d dealt with Stari a million times; I could deal with her again. I was going to be okay.

Of course she was in the dressing room when I got there. Mom was too, but the moment I handed her the falsies, she gave me a peck on the cheek, glued them on with expert speed, and went onstage. Stari was on deck. The rest of the girls were working the floor, I guess.

The dressing room was lit mainly by the bulbs around the makeup mirrors, and one dusty yellow lamp in the corner. It was dusk in there at all hours. Stari wore her sparkly turquoise bra and matching turquoise g-string, and she was swiping glittery highlighter onto her cheekbones. “Hi, Bee,” she tittered.

“Hi,” I said automatically. My voice was flat, but not impolite.

“You know you can talk to me about anything, right?” she said through that gaping face we all make when we put on makeup.

“Yeah, Stari, I know.”

She spun around to face me. The lights on the mirror behind her threw her face into shadow, and the rhinestones on her bra lost their glimmer. “Jetta’s song is three minutes.”                    

A scream built in my throat over and over, but every time it died on my lips. Was I really so weak?

Before I could get my mouth around the words “So what?” Stari pushed me down so I was sitting on the couch. I went limp and brittle. She was wearing her stripper heels, and she propped one of her feet up on the arm of the couch. I wondered how she got her leg that high—anything not to see what was already happening to me. Stari pulled her g-string to the side. She pressed herself against my mouth. Told me to stick my tongue out. I did. I don’t know why, but I did. A scream built in my throat over and over, but every time it died on my lips. Was I really so weak? My fortifications so quick to crumble?

All I could hear was her saying my name, over and over. “Bee. Bee. Bee.”

Mom’s song was ending. Stari walked towards the wings, snapping her g-string back into place like nothing had happened. I ran to the bathroom and held my breath until my chest burned. I longed to sublimate and drift away as vapour. This woman who had already taken from me dared to take more.

When Mom got home that night, I opened my mouth to tell her what happened. Nothing came out. There was a rock in my throat. Finally, I caught control of my tongue and told her a creep from the club had cornered me in the parking lot on a few different occasions.

“Yesterday, he followed me home,” I said in the shaky voice I wished I could use to tell her about Stari. “I ran inside as fast as I could. He stayed there all evening, but he drove off when you came home.”

Mom was livid. I asked if I could stop coming by her work. She promised that I would never have to so much as drive down the street the club was on. Then came an even more merciful blessing. She quit a week later. Told me she was ready for a change. Mom still goes out for drinks with Stari every other week, but I haven’t had to see her since. Thank fuck.

Ollie is the only person I’ve told. I can’t tell Mom—I can’t take away everything Stari means to her. If I tell Marceline, I might as well have told Mom. I don’t want to tell Dad because our one day a week together is the only time I feel like my old self. The light comes back into my body. If he knew, that would go away.

The song is still blaring in my ears. It makes my skin tingle, but not in a good way. My phone is discarded on the carpet above my head. I grab it and turn that shit off.

The urge to hear Stari’s song again bubbles within me all day. I know it’s going to hurt, but I want the hurt. I want to bite back tears again and again until there aren’t any tears to hold back. I put it on as I step into the gas station on my way home from school, one earbud dangling. I’m just here to put 40 bucks on pump two.

I get in line behind a chick in a black hoodie. Her hair is in a messy bun, and dark brown wisps aura her head. She buys a pack of Camels and turns to leave.

I catch Stari’s gold-brown gaze. Here is her pock-marked skin and eyebrows plucked to nothing. No makeup, eye bags on full display, spider leg lashes invisible until she blinks. Her thin lips and slight nose, left nostril pierced. The towers of silver hoops that climb both her ears. We stare at each other for a moment too long, then she’s gone.

Maybe there will always be tears.

The wind passes straight through me. I flicker like a neon sign, or maybe I’m transparent. There is nothing inside me but dust and grime. I want to shove my fist in my mouth and scream, but I’m frozen as tears split my face.

Maybe there will always be tears. I yank the earbud out of my ear.

I light up in the dressing room while I’m on deck. They made a rule against smoking a few years back, but there’s no one else here and I need it. I suck it down. My nerves are snapping in half. I put on the song from the other night and set my phone on the counter between my eyeshadow palettes. No one can hear the tinny screaming over I’m A Slave For You blasting on the club speakers.

The image of Bee in the gas station twists through my mind. She hadn’t changed. Same untouched peach fuzz cheeks. Same mischievous lips. Same carefree bralessness, as if we weren’t all looking. Had we not been in full view of the gas station clerk, I would’ve seized the opportunity to feel her heat again. To snake my fingers through her hair again.

I hate that I have these thoughts. Maybe if I stab my eyes out, they’ll go away. I take another drag, and the tang of burnt filter comes with it. I toss the butt on the floor and stamp it out with the toe of my platform. Part of me wants someone to find it, to know it was mine, to fire me on the spot. Please, just let me leave.

My eyelids are dusted turquoise to match my bra. This thing itches. It used to make me feel sexy. Now it makes me feel tired.

I’m A Slave For You ends. I have five seconds to get my ass on stage. There is only one thought in my brain: I quit I quit I quit. But I bite my tongue and strut out into the light.

About the author

Kyna Eris is a writer, artist, and math nerd from Southern California. She is currently studying mathematics at the University of British Columbia.