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River Queen

By Jonathan Trosclair

 This girl was a blade of compacted steel. This girl was the hidden pulse in all the things you can’t believe are still alive. I watched her make my drink behind the bar and thought, oh shit Raqual.

If there’s anything I know it’s that you have to really hold onto these easy, good loves.

 

I did not light up when he stepped out of the Uber. Inside the restaurant he was slightly clumsy and talked about his time in California, the freeways, the flailing acting auditions. He wore rope leather bracelets that looked older than he was and he had tiny femur bones tattooed on his knuckles. These were details I could hold onto. They gave me visions of dried blood on the walls of empty swimming pools, of sand blowing across desert cul-de-sacs, and of the vapid mounting years that I imagined were what sent him west to the sprawling evil that was Los Angeles.

“So what brought you here?” he asked me. We were in a booth in the corner, rich red seats, blackhole glass tabletop on which our mezcals sat. I could tell he was trying not to look at my tits. Everything about him was graceless and endearing and boring.

“I came up with my mom when I was still a kid,” I said. I was enjoying the smoked-out taste of the mezcal, the empty shoreline feel of it in my chest. “She dragged us here from Queens.”

“All the way from New York to Pacific Northwest?”

Nodding, “As far as she could get from my dad without actually leaving the country I guess.”

“You still cool with your mom?

“I’m kind of her only friend. I don’t think she really understands how relationships work. Don’t get me wrong, my dad was a dick,” raindrops beading heavily outside on the window behind the bar, “But mom is like an alien.”

“Oh. Do you miss New York?” The questions were coming fast. He had them ready, like a deck of cards he was dealing out and I figured I was one in a series of dates for him, one among a slew during the kind of swells of loneliness big enough they can make you feel the pull of strangers on the internet. That the process of physically meeting one of them might be worth it.

And why was I here?

“It’s so hard to tell what’s just nostalgia,” I said. “I was young, you know.” I remembered the sun glare on the East River. I remembered clutching a dead bird against my belly on the subway.

“What did your mom do out here?”

I looked at him, not sure why he’d asked that. Maybe he was just afraid of an early silence so any question was good enough. What my mom did was a thing I’d often lied about.  I’d often told the truth too. It came down to whim and tonight was not a night on which I felt concerned.

“She was an escort,” I said.

He blinked. I thought maybe he’d misunderstood and I was maybe a little phased by how unphased he was. “Is she still?”

“Good question.”

He tilted his head at this, and I was filled with a momentary spasm of anger. Because that look was sympathy. That look was like he knew me. I ordered another round when the waiter came back even though he wasn’t halfway finished with his. I smiled and said, “Keep up.”

After dinner we were outside, each waiting for the other to initiate the next stage of the date. Or to end it. We stood there under the east side of the Burnside Bridge in a blear of Asian shop lights and rain, hearing the cars tear across the wet roadway above us.

“You wanna go somewhere?” he asked.

“Where?”

“We could go to a bar. Or I have wine at my house.” He was lighting a Parliament cigarette. For some reason this made me dislike him less.

“Alright,” I said.

“Wait which one?”

“How far do you live?”

“Just over the river. You?”

“I’m in North.”

He dragged on his cigarette. “My place is walkable. I only took an Uber cus I thought I might be late.”

From which I guessed he didn’t want to pay for another car. It was still raining and I wasn’t about to walk across the fucking bridge in the rain. “Let’s just go to Lovecraft.”

He laughed.

“What?” I said.

“I almost suggested Lovecraft. But I thought it would be one of those things where you think something about someone and get it all wrong.”

I looked at him. “Well, you were wrong weren’t you?”

He nodded, smiling. We walked up Grand not speaking much. In the bar they already had the fog machine going. The tentacles and pentagram were changing color with the purples and reds of the barlight. This shithole, I thought, and looked for Raqual, who was thank god behind the bar in the back. “Hey Izzy,” she said when we came around. My heart swelled up.

“Raqual,” extending my hand over the bar.

My date looked between us, at our hands briefly entwined and said, “Hi, I’m Van.”

“Hi, Van,” Raqual said. She’d been keeping her hair cropped lately and had two nose rings and was probably the best person I knew who still lived in the city. We took stools and maybe he felt embarrassed about suggesting we walk across the bridge in the rain instead of getting a ride because he bought the drinks. They didn’t have anything for tequila here much less mezcal. I got a gin and lime and he switched to beer.

“How do you know her?” Van asked me.

“Uh, we met at a show I think. My ex played in a band that she used to do booking for.”

“She’s tiny, yeah?”

“Some people are small, dude.”

Raqual was tiny though, it’s true. Under five feet, bird-slender. She even had a step-stool for the top-shelf liquors behind the bar. We’d become friends pretty fast and about three months after we first met, her old boyfriend, who was a small-time big shot (aka delusional) in the Portland music scene (three words that at this point only just fail to make me vomit), broke two of her ribs with a crowbar outside the pub where she was working after she’d split up with him. Minor scandal for his band. He got his ass kicked a couple times over it and he moved to Nashville. I visited her every day for a week while she was in the hospital, snuck her wine and read her the ugly poems our friend Theo was writing then. We got close.

Just two months ago though, in October, this fucker comes back to town and tries to kill her. Showed up at her house with a knife, saying how she ruined his life, she broke his band up and he had to teach her a lesson. She grabs clothes and goes to stay at some boy’s house for a couple nights. Two nights later, when she finally goes back home, she finds his dead body hanging from a pipe in the laundry room.

And here she is.

She’s tiny yeah? This girl was a blade of compacted steel. This girl was the hidden pulse in all the things you can’t believe are still alive. I watched her make my drink behind the bar and thought, oh shit Raqual.

If there’s anything I know it’s that you have to really hold onto these easy, good loves.

Van was watching me now. “Do you like it here?” I asked him. “In the city.”

“I don’t know,” he said. “I’ve only been here since September. Too soon to say one way or the other.”

“Mmm,” I shrugged.

“The vibe is cool, I guess. But a lot of people really turn off when I tell them I’m from Cali.”

“Yeah it’s like a thing here. You’re the enemy if you came from California.”

“Why though?”

“Personality clash. Portland likes to think it’s moody and reflective. California is all neon and bleached assholes and loud conversations on your cell-phone in public. Plus some people think old Portland can be salvaged. They want everyone, not just Californians, to stop moving here. You guys are just the most numerous. And you drive the worst.”

“I’ll have to start telling people I’m from Vermont or something. I don’t even have a

car.”

“But it’s dead anyway. The golden age of Portland died ten, probably twenty years

ago. That city is long gone.”

“Sucks I missed the boat.”

“Still probably better here than LA though.”

“What was it like? Old Portland?”

“I’m not the one to ask. I was a weirdo kid spending a lot of time outside the city back then. Lots of music festivals in the woods. I was selling like literal fistfulls of molly to washed-up hippies and hanging out in tents and RVs for weeks at a time. But I will say it was definitely less of a white yuppie paradise back then. There used to be a real edge to the city.”

“Where was your mom in all this? During the tents and RVs?”

“Oh just somewhere,” spreading my hand and waving in a small arc, “Out there.”

“Dating around?”

I looked at him. “No dude. She had clients in Seattle. Sometimes she got flown out to LA for these big parties.”

“Oh.”

“What, you didn’t believe me?”

He said nothing and considered his drink.

Which is when I saw Markay walk in. Which is when I stood up at once in mute fury and went down the bar to where Raqual was and she looked at me and looked behind me at Markay and said, “I can get him out of here.”

“Please?”

She went around the other side of the bar and he was already on me. “Kiddo,” he said.

“Fuck off.”

“Kiddo, don’t be like that.”

“My mom is still waiting for a phone call from you. A text message. Anything, really. Although to be honest it’d be pretty fuckin cool if you never spoke to either of us ever again.”

He was behind me, and I was looking ahead to the bar but I could feel the way he looked. His trim mustache and gray eyes, his garbage body in the dark, fit clothes.

“That’s what I want to talk to you about. My phone got disconnected. Cell-phone company shut me down.”

“Like you don’t know where she lives.”

“I’m a busy man in the winter. Can you tell her about my phone?”

“Nah,” I said. “I don’t think so.”

Van had come over now. “Is everything okay?” he asked.

“Family stuff,” Markay said dismissively.

Van looked to me and then to Markay behind me. “She seems upset, man.”

“The fuck are you?”

“Just a friend,” Van said.

“You two on a little date?”

“We’re having a drink,” he said.

“Well,” probably smiling here, “Strippers are usually a good fuck.”

“Wow,” Van nodded. “Wow.”

I didn’t know if he’d already known I was a dancer. If he’d stalked my Instagram enough (you never knew with these Tinder boys, some of them played the game hard, and some of them didn’t even bother to try remembering your name until they were walking in the door to meet you) he’d have seen some locker room mirror-pics at DV8, June or so. I didn’t care. I stopped caring about that stuff so long ago it seemed like another life.

“Listen,” Markay was clearly addressing me again though I still hadn’t looked at him. “I didn’t come here to talk to you. Just pass the message to your mom, okay? Phone’s out. Simple. Can you do that?”

I saw Raqual coming back with the doorman and then saw the anger on her face drop into disgust as behind me the two men greeted one another. “Jon’s upstairs,” the doorman was saying. “Sorry about this.”

“No it’s my fault, really. Just some family stuff. These young girls, you know,” Markay said. “Women in their twenties. Just, I don’t know, good fucking luck.” They were moving off, both laughing.

“What the fuck,” Raqual said.

“Forget it,” I said, feeling the heat roll up in me.

“No but what the fuck,” Raqual repeated.

“Are we really surprised? I mean really?”

“Not actually,” she said.

“Up they go to the rape lair.”

“I’m this close,” she said with her fingers barely an inch apart. “This goddamn close.” She shook her head sending her hoop earrings glittering and swinging, and then asked me, “You wanna like dip out for a sec?”

I thought about it. My pulse was up, I was feeling wild and defeated.

Raqual turned to Van. “Here,” she said and poured him a double shot of rye. “On the house if you wait till we come back. Otherwise I’m charging your tab double.”

He looked confused but then shrugged and nodded.

“Billie, I’m taking a smoke!” she yelled to the other bartender.

I’d already named her, back on the train. Penelope. A child’s name, very sleeping princessy. But she’d been my first love, and in my little girl brain like some kind of beacon to a whole different world, so it fit. And how do you come back from burying your sister in a trash can? Tell me how the fuck you do it. Tell me how to be this good queen everyone silently expects when they look at my face. How do you be the one who saves her sister from the terrible life and who looks out with real light in her stupid eyes?

We went outside, jogging through the rain to her beat up BMW a couple streets down. Sitting in the passenger seat I passed a hand over my face while Raqual tapped out a couple lines on the back of her massive cell-phone and cut at them with a small flip-knife. “I would have invited your boy but I don’t know what that situation is.”

“Tinder date,” I said. “He didn’t need to come.”

“Good,” she said. I listened to the tapping of the knife on the hard plastic. My eyes were closed. She did a line then pinched my arm with the knuckles of her left hand. “Yours.”

I took the halved inkpen tube and the phone and snorted the fat rail she’d laid for me. That same smell, like what I imagined dried and crushed insect legs would smell like, but so chemical-clean too, because Raqual always had the good coke. I let the numbing ride up the front of my brain then down my throat in a swift thin void. Quick breaths. Fuck, I thought, fuck. “This is good.”

“It’d better be. It’s about to get cut twenty times.”

I sniffled and she was already laying out more lines. Raqual, among other things, sold coke to a few venues around town when they needed to “take care” of bigger bands. I was getting the warm drip in the back of my throat. I wanted another mezcal. Its barren shoreline, my opening lungs. Raqual tapped at the new lines with her knife and I was thinking of the dead bird on the subway going back into Queens.

Heavy, reeking thing.

How I’d cradled it sticky against my stomach. Hid it deep in my sweater and windbreaker because even that young I knew I shouldn’t have had it there on the train and shouldn’t have tried to take it home but the bird was my sister and I’d known this, at seven years old, in the deepest and most unflawed part of my stupid heart. I’d known it so truly it had hurt my fucking bones.

Because before mom had me, she’d had a miscarriage. In the sketchy narrative of our family this had been the great decider. The last fork in the road. She chose to stay a call-girl because her body rejected that other way. Some shit about god’s path.

But I knew the miscarriage was true. I knew I’d had a sister once, even if it was only for a few months. Blood-dark and full of heat in that same womb and moving through the massive world that way, sheltered in a belly. I knew it in a way when you just know something bad is going to happen. That undeniable evil feeling. But this was the opposite, a good thing, warm and hugely filling.

I’d found her beside a mailbox coming back from the movies. Pile of peppered brown feathers ruffling in the rush of traffic, still faintly warm when I’d scooped her up without thinking, convincing myself she was still alive. I would take her home and nurse her back to health. I would take her home and she’d come brightly alive with forest-eyes and would watch from my shoulder as I did homework and I’d never keep her in a cage never say a bad word to her never let my father get near her. I’d take her home and we could know what the other was thinking without ever speaking.

Fucking crazy.

Raqual did another line and then handed the phone to me. I used the other nostril and smiled, tensed-up and enjoying the speed of the glitter-burst crackle on my face. “Look,” she said. She’d poured out a little water from a plastic bottle into her cupped hand. I dipped two fingers in it and shoved one in each nostril and then wiped them them on my top. “You wanna go back or what?” she asked.

“I guess I have to.”

“You think that boy is still there?”

“I almost hope not.”

“Not into it?”

“I really just wanted to get laid tonight, ya know. But then Markay. I feel crazy now.”

“I can’t believe he’d show his face after what happened last time.”

“Obviously it’s all fuckin kosher again though, isn’t it. Right upstairs to talk to Jon.”

“Jon’s human trash too, no news there. We’re hearing talk like he’s about to get called out. Full blast on facebook by some femme and queer groups.”

“Good.”

“Yeah. Sooner the better.”

“You ready to go back?”

“Lez go,” I said.

“Oh actually,” she grabbed my arm as I was getting out and started rummaging in the center console. “Maybe this will turn your night around, I don’t know at least like a little?”

It was a small baggie, no more than four or five rails. “This is yours for the shift though?”

She smiled and kissed my cheek. “Come on.”

We skittered back through the rain, back into the bar, and he was still there, looking thoughtfully at his two drinks, sipping at them, and I laughed because he looked so ridiculous, like some goddamn wine-taster but with his cheap beer and call whiskey.

“Wasn’t sure if you’d wait,” I said taking my stool.

“Wasn’t sure if you’d come back.”

“Yeah, fair enough.”

He shrugged, “Anyway, this isn’t the worst date I’ve had lately.”

“Wow, you must be on a pretty bad streak.”

“Yeah but it’s been that way since like 2011 so I’m getting pretty used to it.”

“Well, that’s something.”

“That dude left,” he said.

“Oh. Markay.”

“Yeah he came down a couple minutes after you guys went out.”

“How long were we gone for?”

“I dunno. Ten, fifteen minutes.”

I wiped my nose and on his face he’d already known it. I smiled, drank my drink.

“So who is he? Mom’s boyfriend?”

I’d hoped he wouldn’t want to talk about it, but of course he did. “Something like that. Like I said, she doesn’t really understand how relationships work. He’s in and out. Goes to Seattle a lot, who knows what for. That’s where they met.”

“What’s his burn with you?”

“He’s just garbage. I went off on him about taking my mom for a ride with the rent money last month. Then he tried to drug me here, a couple weeks ago, I guess to get even. Luckily Tasha was bartending. She saw him do it when I was in the bathroom.”

“Jesus, what happened?”

“He got kicked out that night, but all the men who work here have fucking amnesia apparently.”

“Goddamn.”

“Yeah it’s wild, huh.” I was getting angry again thinking about it and the little bag in my pocket felt fat and magnetic on my leg.

“Well,” he said, “I’ll buy you a fresh drink if you want. Just so you can be sure about me.”

“Already took a drink of this one, didn’t I?”

He nodded. “Yeah, you did.”

“Well.”

“Well,” he said, looking down at his own drinks.

“You seem alright I guess,” My eyelids start drooping,“Raqual is on your ass though.”

“She looks like the kind of girl who carries a knife.”

“More than one,” I said.

We sat there. The stage-lights were changing from red to blue and I could smell the fake fog. Some synth band with huge spiked hair was setting up. Van watched them idly, then drained his whiskey. All I wanted was to do the cocaine in my pocket. This time next week I’d be back living in Queens, a realization that kept popping up and rocking me flat on my back. I hadn’t told anybody. Not even Raqual. I guess I felt pretty bad about that. But the secrecy factor, along with how soon it would be…I was drunk on it.

“You wanna head to your place?”

He looked at me, and for the first time that night there was no pity in his eyes, no searching gaze. He just seemed to see me, there as I was, and he said, “Sure.”

“What’s your address? I’ll get us an Uber.”

He told me and as I typed it in I said, “I’m texting that to Raqual along with your number. So she knows where to send the dogs if something happens.”

“Yeah, alright,” he said. “Whatever you need to do.”

In the car I put my head on the glass and we let our hands touch and then his hand was on my leg. I watched the water black and city-scumbled below us.

When my dad found the bird in our apartment I’d never seen him so mad. He broke the bedroom door off its hinges. He called me words I’d never even heard before (which, public school in Ridgewood, I’d heard a lot of them). Then he made my mom haul me downstairs and throw her in the dumpster. I don’t think I ever forgave them for that, the disgrace of it. Their own daughter. Her body was cold by then, crumpled stiff on a pizza box, feathers all stuck at messed up angles.

I’d already named her, back on the train. Penelope. A child’s name, very sleeping princessy. But she’d been my first love, and in my little girl brain like some kind of beacon to a whole different world, so it fit. And how do you come back from burying your sister in a trash can? Tell me how the fuck you do it. Tell me how to be this good queen everyone silently expects when they look at my face. How do you be the one who saves her sister from the terrible life and who looks out with real light in her stupid eyes?

His hand was there on my leg and I was looking at the river.

I could see the bird and feel her sticky on my belly on the rattling train. I remembered the sun on the East River in a blinding yellow cut.

It was the water underneath us I was talking to, screaming tell me how to be the good queen. He was talking about a forgotten movie he’d been in and I was screaming to the water if you remembered everything wasn’t that supposed to have been enough? Wasn’t trying supposed to count? So please fucking tell me how do you keep doing this and keep doing it on the side of good because every time I try it goes lower to some even worse level, some new bottom you didn’t even think you could get scraped down to and then leaves you there just like I left my sister in the dumpster.

My face on the glass, I noticed the rain had stopped. His hand was on my leg. Then we were in downtown.

 

Art by Brenden Barraza: “Levitate levitate Levitate levitate”