I met a girl at Sunday karaoke and started lying to her. It was a little after one and the friends I arrived with had peeled off one-by-one to second locations or bed. A cold drizzle slanted against our necks, so we shouldered against a wall spattered with names, threats, dicks, initial-clotted hearts, promises of forever. We shared my Camel blues, the twigs on which our friendship perched. Inside the bar the crowd was yelling along to Toto’s “Africa,” trying to conjure emerald mists of chaos and joy out of the fading night.
The girl had a septum, patent leather Docs, a plaid romper draped with a tatty gray cardigan. Her hair was chopped into a shag and dyed a riotous sunset—tangerine to rose gold from root to tip, her baby bangs lit pink by the white Christmas lights strung along the fence. I was dressed in a denim jacket and black jeans and MAC Russian Red. I wore a vintage t-shirt that said CAMP OFFAGANOFEE.
I had never been to summer camp; I had found the shirt at Goodwill. I had gotten the jean jacket from the Gap outlet store by the highway. I was almost thirty. Most mornings I had to roll out of bed like a beetle because my lower back seized up overnight.
In the open weedy lot next to the bar a pair of men who slept under the overpass were yelling, starting shit with each other, and people were straying over to watch. Meanwhile I made small talk, agonizingly. I told Sunset Girl about my karaoke go-tos: “Rihannon” for the challenge, “Jesus Take the Wheel” under the right circumstances. Her eyes clouded with boredom behind fake lashes. Her eyes and chin tilted toward the fighting men, the growing clamor. I could see that I was losing her.
So—I tried something else.
I told Sunset Girl that, you know, I had slept on the street once. In—Ann Arbor, where I went to college. Yeah, Ann Arbor. I slept on the street because my phone was dead and I was too drunk to walk home. I curled up like a croissant in the alcove of a craft store called Nice to Bead You until a wood-paneled station wagon stopped in front of me. It was driven by an ancient old man. He said he was an anthropology professor and he took me back to my apartment—but not before holding first one of my hands and then the other and weeping, telling me I looked just like his dead granddaughter, Antonia. He asked me to say it—SAY IT—say that my name was Antonia. We sat outside my apartment building, the professor hysterical and refusing to release the child lock, me trying to stay calm. I didn’t dare to ask why he was driving around at three in the morning.
I had never been to the state of Michigan. I couldn’t find Ann Arbor on a map if you paid me. Whoops and deep jeers carried from the lot nearby, as the two homeless men began to circle one another. But Sunset Girl was fixed on me. The ash from her untapped cigarette curled like a talon.
“Whoa,” said Sunset Girl, nodding. “Whoa.”
“Yeah, it was crazy,” I said.
I told her that I dropped out of UofM a semester after the incident with the professor, spent most of 2016 living in Chicago with two high school friends and working at a bratwurst stand near Wrigley stadium. The owner was an enormous Greek bear who had a penchant for dipping his hand under my apron and grabbing hearty fistfuls of my tits. One day I got sick of it and squirted him in the eye with hot mustard. I fled while he yelped and flailed into the flattop.
After Chicago, I told Sunset Girl, I found myself squatting in a warehouse in Philadelphia with a bunch of graduate students—
“Where in Philly?” asked Sunset Girl. Her voice was as flat as I imagined Michigan to be. Wisps of smoke peeped out of her nostrils. “I love Philly.”
My pulse flooded my neck and temples, a bloodtide of fear pulling an iffy swimmer out to sea.
“…North,” I said. “North Philly. But not, like, the suburbs? It’s hard to explain.”
“Nah, I got you,” said Sunset Girl, smiling. “I went to the Mutter museum with my mom once.”
Sunset Girl was in Philly with her mother? flitted through my mind and out of one ear into the night. The cold drizzle beat against us in gusts. I felt none of it. I felt like I was skiing downhill with four lungs.
I told Sunset Girl that me and the graduate students used to talk late into the night about Butler and Benjamin, Durkheim and hooks, and Heidegger and Foucault and Deleuze. We had no furniture. Instead we sat on the splintery hardwood floor passing around fifths of Heaven Hill and insulting each other’s taste in music, in books. I told her that we propped open the leaden warehouse windows with Žižek and Paglia so we could smoke our clove cigarettes without stinking up the place. I told her that we slept together on conjoined mattresses crowded against many space heaters, that we all loved each other in some capacity—poly, very horizontal, no jealousy.
After about a year in Philly the warehouse burned down after a smudging gone awry, so I moved down to Little Rock with two other grad students—yes, Little Rock, Arkansas. I took a job as a bartender at a dive called Three Diamonds. I slept on egg crates in a house that kept a pony keg of PBR on the porch and nursed it at all hours and for days at a time, even in summer.
One of the fighting men had ripped off his shirt and tossed it onto the chain link fence. There was a fetid green electricity coming off the crowd—like ozone, like dread, like something bad coming around the bend.
But now was no time to stop. I told Sunset Girl that my friend Timo, who worked the door at the spot where I bartended, had been Bill Clinton’s personal bodyguard. Timo claimed there was a serial killer stalking the streets of Little Rock—the Little Rock Strangler— and his theory was that that serial killer was Bill Clinton’s cousin, Ray Clinton, who hadn’t been caught because he had Secret Service protection.
I told Sunset Girl that Little Rock got hairy for reasons that would take a while to explain, so I fled Timo and the specter of Ray Clinton and ended up in Omaha. I worked as a barista until my first arrest, for vomiting in a megachurch parking lot after a night out with two other baristas, both of whom went by the name Timothy. I spent the night in the holding cell shooting dice with the other women. The prize a box of Tampax Pearls, because the pads they gave you in jail were about as useful as cardboard.
We heard a sharp yell and looked over to see one of the homeless men clutching his head. He had been struck by a flying beer bottle. The crowd pushed in on him. A lone woman shoved out of the crowd in a hurry. Two men followed her, laughing at her panicked back, striding behind her with intent.
Only then in my fear did I notice the constellation of acne across Sunset Girl’s forehead, her cakey too-dark foundation and shaky eyeliner. Sunset Girl was so, so young. She barely even noticed the fight, the danger emanating from the crowd. Maybe still in high school, in with a decent fake ID. I felt like I had negative three lungs, my chest collapsing like a dying star. I had work in the morning, emails and Slack. Sunset Girl probably had intro to Psych.
Oh, sweetie, I thought, and I meant it for both of us.
Still—Sunset Girl’s eyes were so round and blue and open—open for anything, in a way I couldn’t even remember anymore. Who knew when her ride would be picking her up, if she had one at all.
So I kept going. I shifted until I felt the crowd at my back, until their howling echoed in my spine, and I kept going.
When I bonded out and got home, I told Sunset Girl, I found both Timothies squatting in my apartment, since one of them had taken my keys during the arrest—for safe keeping, they said. I let them stay. I slept between them each night safe and sound, like Kate Bush and her Weimaraners on the cover of Hounds of Love. We scorched our throats with Aristocrat straight from the bottle, gave each other stick-and-pokes with needles from my grandmother’s sewing kit. The Timothies and I loved each other, but then the coffee shop closed due to the owner’s coke problem. His nose collapsed and he spent thousands on plastic surgery. And so we all moved on to the next thing.
Boston, Seattle, Helena, Taos, Providence. Mosh pits and DIY root canals, bad acid and avalanches and hitchhiking and three-legged dogs. I spun them all into a tale, weaving a golden cocoon around Sunset Girl and I, dreaming some beautiful world into life.
De La Louisiane
.5oz Sweet Vermouth (go easy depending on taste)
A couple dashes Peychaud’s
Absinthe or Absente
Stir rye, sweet vermouth, benedictine and Peychaud’s in a shaker filled with ice. Rinse a coupe glass (or tumbler, whatever you’ve got) with absinthe/absente. Strain the stirred shaker into the glass and garnish with an amaretto cherry, if you have it.
Ali Riegel currently serves as the 2021-22 Clark Writer-in-Residence at Texas State University, where she received her MFA in Fiction. Her work has appeared in Barren Magazine, Porter House Review, and elsewhere. She is based outside of Austin, TX.
image: Jade Hawk