MICHELLE RUIZ KEIL
My best friend is a witch. He is. She is. He or she. Kylen.
Ky does magic—good sometimes, bad others.
The magic works. So does mine, sometimes. At the Rat House you never know. Witches and wannabes, way too many drugs. Day three without sleep and you’re psychotic for real. Then it’s like the song—we’re waiting for our man.
Our man a boy dressed like a lion-tamer lady, basketball-tall with a top hat full of pills. He’s friends with Ky so he cuts me a deal. When he goes to leave, I kiss him on the mouth.
People line up at the sink to take their pills and go to their rooms. I gave mine up last winter to a girl with a kid. The kid is gone, but the girl stayed. I never got my room back.
I sit on the sofa and have a smoke.
I think about Tess.
I see her where she is. Her hair is different, dyed my-little-pony pink. She whinnies in her sleep, tired from work.
Thinking of her tired makes me tired, too.
If I can find my sleeping bag, I sleep.
If I can’t sleep, I go and find her.
I walk out of the house, head any direction; it doesn’t matter.
Every street leads me to Tess.
Tess is in the dressing room smoking a hot-pink cigarette. She found them in a smoke shop the day before, such a deep rosy pink she dyed her hair to match. She looks at the clock. Her break is almost over. “Cigarettes should all be nice colors,” she tells Ramona, who is bundled up to go home.
Ramona holds out two fingers for the cigarette. She puffs, passes it back, and yanks one of Tess’s braids. “See ya, kid.”
Tess leans back on the sofa and watches the clock. It’s just like the ones they had in school, big and round with a white face and black numbers. When the minute hand clicks on the ten Tess sighs and hangs up her robe, shivering in nothing but ankle socks and high heels.
Back on the stage which is not really a stage, lights and bodies warm the air and a sweet baby-girl voice sings. Tess sucks in her cheeks to make a fishy kiss face so the other girls will laugh. Together, the girls are all fish in this aquarium, little pets, their mirrored habitat surrounded by a honeycomb of narrow private booths.
Inside the gross-smelling cubicles customers feed quarters into a slot. What looks like a panel in the wall turns into a window and there they are: Live Nude Girls like the sign outside promised. Some windows are anonymous with one-way glass for the shady or ashamed. Tess likes the two-way windows best. It’s good to see people’s eyes.
Sometimes couples come in. Other times someone has a special trick, like the guy who can fold into a pretzel and give himself a blowjob. Most are regular people, not weirdos or perverts. Just lonely or horny or both.
Today is a Tuesday and Tuesdays are slow. There are no customers, but the boss pops in, so no sitting around. It’s Prince now. Tess loves the line about act your age not your shoe size. In her case, size four, it’s funnier than for girls with normal-sized feet.
Irma and Cookie point at Tess and wag their fingers, a 60’s girl-group attitude dance. Tess dances back at them, pink braids tickling her shoulders. The song makes it easy to shake your ass even if you’re tired and hungry and not really in a naked mood today.
After Prince it’s a boozy southern 60’s lady singing about how being a woman is tough. Stand by Your Man. The hipster management thinks the song is funny. A window slides open. A tiny old guy in a ratty sweater and newsboy cap motions to Tess.
You’re not supposed to let the customers boss you, but Tess dances closer. His little thing is already out and he’s jerking it frantically. The old ones are always like that, praying they’ll come just one more time.
Tess is generous and also tired, so she sits in front of the window, leans back and spreads her legs. Her clean-shaven pussy is reflected in the mirrored wall, violet and compact, with small lips and a cute seashell clit. The view helps and the old man comes quickly. He smiles and waves as the window goes down.
Tess is fixing her eyeliner when another window opens. She is a perfectionist about the cat-eye flick at the end of each lid.
Irma says she looks like a little China doll, except Tess isn’t Chinese, she’s French and Irish and Japanese and Columbian.
Aaron drums on the window to get her attention, a marching-band beat with a great name—paradiddle. He knows things like that. He had music lessons as a kid.
He smiles his sleepy freckled smile.
Tess flushes from her chest to her cheeks.
The girls crowd in, blowing kisses, shaking their boobs.
“When do you get off?” Aaron has to be loud because of the glass.
“Fifteen minutes.” Tess puts her hand flat on the window. “Wait for me?”
“I’ll be out front.” On his side, he hovers his hand but doesn’t press. The booths are cleaned with bleach several times a day, but still. You never know what you’re touching.
“I knew it was pink.” Aaron kisses the top of her head. “I always know about you.”
Tess lights a pink cigarette for Aaron and one for herself. They smoke until the bus comes.
“The house was bad,” Aaron says, settling into the window seat. “Total hippopotamus.” Tess used to confuse hippopotamus with preposterous when she was little. Now she and Aaron use it for what happens when people stay awake too long on drugs. She giggles. Aaron takes her hand and kisses it. “You’re a sight for sore eyes, girl. So pretty. So sane.”
The bus turns, almost to their stop. If Tess can get Aaron to her place now, they’ll be together for a few days at least. But to get there, they have to go by the Rat House, a trashy falling-apart Victorian with moldy green shingles like scales on a toxic mermaid. Tess wants to put her hands over Aaron’s ears so he won’t hear the house whispering skate punks and ska shows and baggies full of sparkling white powder. When that happens, it’s just hey babe, gotta go. And that’s it. He’s gone.
Thinking about it makes Tess want to scratch him, dig her nails into his arm. She should break up with him. She really should.
Like he knows what she’s thinking, he puts his head on her shoulder and snuggles her neck. His lips are soft. His lashes are so long.
The bus stops. When they get close to the house, he crosses the street. “They’re all asleep, but still.” He winks. “Can’t be too careful.” He takes her hand. They are a team. Tess has to stop herself from skipping. Disney bluebirds dance around her head. She squeezes Aaron’s hand.
“You hungry?” He smiles down at her.
“Starving. I’ve got food at home, though.”
Instead of turning up Tess’s street, Aaron goes around the block to her favorite sushi place. In the cozy dim, he changes. “Table for two.” His hand is on the small of her back as they follow the waiter. Tess always forgets Aaron grew up with money, so rich they pretended to be poor. Rich crazy hippies.
“Are we washing dishes for this?” Tess doesn’t get paid for another week.
Aaron pulls a wad of cash out of his pocket. “Found it in the park. I’m spending it all on you.” Tess feels the richness of his intent flowing toward her like the oceany soup she drinks from the ceramic bowl in her hand. His eyes are like the prettiest marbles, the swamp-colored aggies Tess used to collect.
“I realized something last night.” He holds out his hand. It’s shaking.
Tess is shaking, too but she doesn’t know why. Her soup splashes the tablecloth when she puts it down.
They touch across the table, his hand over hers.
His lips part. She can see his heart beating hard through his t-shirt.
“I love you Tess,” Aaron says.
Tess takes a breath before she tells Aaron what she’s known since the moment they met.
“I love you, too.”
It’s dark now, late. We’re full of sushi, spooned up tight. Tess’s bed smells like heaven must. The curtains blow in like sails, fly out like birds. Tess shivers in her sleep.
I get up to close the window, listen to the night. The train whistles downtown and I don’t want to leave but I’m going, pulling on clothes, sneaking out the door. Tess’s cat gives me the evil eye and she’s right. She should probably claw my face off.
Outside is cold but I’m free. I look for Ky under the broken little crescent moon, ready to howl and run and fuck shit up.
It’s what we do together.
It’s what I always do.
The beach is deserted, the virgin moon flanked by evil clouds, a sorry excuse for summer. Kylen zips his hoodie higher, unties his scarf. The wind grabs it, wraps it back around his neck—once, twice, tight. His hair is everywhere, up his nose, in his mouth.
“I’m an asshole. I get it!” Kylen drops to the sand and bows his head. The ocean demands honesty in her house. He lists his transgressions: stealing, lying, intrigue, envy. The scarf falls to his shoulders, a prayer shawl. The wind calms and he braids his hair into a heavy rope down his back. An inch or two more and he’ll be able to sit on it. He finds four rocks for the four directions, spreads the scarf and anchors it: ready for Random Magick. Even in his head it sports the old-school Aleister Crowley “K”.
Like perverted old Crowley, Ky is an anarchist witch: Do What Thou Wilt Is The Whole of The Law. When he can find the money, he’ll have it tattooed over his heart.
Eyes closed, waves in his ears, Kylen settles but instead of the rabbit-hole sensation of sinking into trance, he’s thinking about the hole in the crotch of his jeans, the sand creeping in, his shrinking balls.
His eyelids are gritty.
His nose is raw.
His brain’s a magic 8-ball at a middle school slumber party:
Magic 8-ball, does he love me?
Signs point to suck my dick!
The shit show started last summer.
Kylen is the one who met Tess first. There she was, all four-foot-ten of her, moshing her brains out in the middle of the pit, a kitten among Rottweilers. With her tan shoulders and tough-girl makeup she looked like any number of Kylen’s girl cousins, so there he was, dark brown and queer as fuck, between her and twenty pairs of steel-toed boots.
Later, when they were friends, she said he was sweet, but he wasn’t. It was an animal thing, solidarity. Not that she needed him. She stage dove all summer into white-boy mosh pits without a scratch, protected by the sci-fi force field of her sheer fucking cuteness.
The real nightmare started in the fall after Aaron got out of rich-kid rehab. It went like this:
Kylen: Hey jackass, this is Tess.
Not exactly Shakespeare.
But when those two shook hands—and who the fuck shakes hands in the middle of a party at a punk house?—Kylen saw it: a tiny fur-covered lovething, tender and stupid, nosing to life between their palms.
After trying to off the furry little fuck for almost a year, Kylen remembered something from one of the random weeks he spent in high school. It bit around the edges of his brain till he went to the library and found it. Romeo and Juliet. He opened the book at random and there it was—
For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch
And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss
So all right.
Aaron likes girls.
Girls are one thing. Aaron and Kylen are something else.
When Aaron and Ky are together, they are together forever. When Aaron is with Tess, he’s with Tess.
Half the time no one knows where the fuck he is at all.
So, yeah. Business as usual. Everything’s fine.
Today isn’t right.
It started at sunrise.
The light was wrong, like someone barfed cherry kool-aid all over the sky.
The day was wrong, like a tight, itchy sweater buttoned all the way up.
Sunset was better with a breeze from the sea but now it’s night. The cats are nervous and the streetlights are dark. It’s too quiet and too fucking cold.
So here he is, prostrating himself at the ocean’s dirty feet.
He kisses his palm; it kisses the sand.
The magick settles and this is what he sees:
Kylen is underwater. Everything is pink. He’s in the womb, but whose?
Something bumps his shoulder and he kicks around to see it: it’s a fetus all right, a wrinkled shrimplike version of Aaron. It opens its eyes and blows Kylen a kiss, a slow-motion spit-wad of a bubble moving toward him in the thick pink soup. Another fetus floats into view. Its nails are long and painted black and what looks a like a long, black tail is really a long-ass braid. The little mutant flips into a backward roll and pops up to face its baby-Aaron brother.
Together, the creepers swim closer.
` Now Kylen can see that they’re all mixed up. The hazel-eyed Aaron baby is dark instead of pale. The Kylen baby has dark eyes, Aaron’s freckles, a cute little nose—definitely not Ky’s—and something else. Something familiar.
Kylen squints and damn—the baby’s wearing makeup! Eyeliner, thick and black, with an expert cat-eye flick…
“Fuck!” Kylen shoves off the vision as hard as he can and hauls ass off the beach without a goodbye.
Maybe what he saw was bullshit. Maybe he’s finally losing his mind. Either way, he needs some sleep. Three days without and you really are psychotic.
Tess is warm all over. She stretches, eyes still closed. Her skin knows it first. Something is wrong. She opens her eyes. Aaron is gone.
That’s what you get for believing a man. That’s what you get from a man like your Dad.
It’s her mother’s voice and it will not do.
Tess goes to her altar, a low table on the north wall of her apartment. She kneels in front of it, praying hard to stop loving Aaron, praying hard to save her soul.
She burns sage, gathers his things into a cardboard box: mix tapes, sketchbook, a bag of magic trinkets—a bullet, a chess piece, keys and locks of hair. She puts the box in the hallway outside her door. Later she will put it on the curb with a “Free” sign and let the city swallow it.
She lights the sage again, the smudge stick burned down to a nub, the heat of it on her palm an almost-pain that makes her stronger.
She opens her windows to the gray afternoon. Sitting on a pillow in front of her altar, Tess finds her first chakra deep in her tailbone. She imagines a green vine twisted like a unicorn’s horn growing out of her body, pushing down through the other apartments, a reverse beanstalk bound for dirt.
When Tess smells damp earth and hears the skitter of living things, she pushes further, past the earth’s mantle and crust, deep into its molten core.
Drawing the heat up into her body, Tess lights her white candle. She stares at the painting above her altar. At first glance, it’s a lakey swirl. But if you’re still, a face appears, a watery goddess. Aaron painted it, but it belongs to Tess.
She’ll keep it as a reminder of the boy she used to love.
After another deep breath, Tess squints into the candle flame. “Aaron, since you always know about me, you’ll know what I’m doing now.” A crimson cord spirals out of her belly into Aaron’s painting. She thinks of him where he must be. In bed with another girl. Busking with Ky. Eating a piece of pizza. Doing a line of speed. Tess attaches the other end of the cord to Aaron’s belly, her favorite place to rest her head. She takes her nail scissors and cuts.
For once, Tess isn’t crying.
Two weeks later, her period is late.
Tess sits on the toilet and unwraps the pregnancy test.
Bubbles is sitting on the edge of the tub.
“Done,” Tess says, getting up to wash her hands. “How much do I owe you for the test?”
“Nothing, Button. It was free. A gift from the Goddess.”
“Sticky fingers. You be careful. Jail is no place for the likes of you.”
“Juvie,” Bubbles says. “And I’m always careful.”
“Hmm,” Tess says. She knows Bubbles is good at stealing because sometimes she has to be. Tess started out friends with Bubbles’ three older sisters who were not exactly nice. Not like Bubbles, who is sweet and wise and responsible even if she is only fourteen.
Bubbles tosses Tess the pack of pink cigarettes. “Should we smoke while we wait?”
“You shouldn’t,” Tess says. “But I will.”
When the time is up, they go into the bathroom together.
Tess is definitely pregnant.
Sitting on the edge of the tub, Tess lights a second cigarette. When it’s down to the filter, she says, “That’s it. No more smoking, drugs, beer, junk food, nothing. It’s crazy, but I’m keeping it. I just am.”
“You’re kinda young for babies, Tess.”
“I’m older than you.” Tess splashes water on her face. “I’m old enough.” Her eyes are black in the mirror, a girl’s eyes. What will she look like when she’s a mother?
Bubbles follows her out of the bathroom. “Tess. You know I love you, right? So I love the teeny baby. A fetus is like a sea monkey. It needs a special balance to grow. Like peace and quiet and herbal tea and midwives and stuff, not a juvenile delinquent and a bunch of whacked-out stripper girls. “
Tess plops face-down on the bed and curls into child’s pose. She tells her belly, “We love delinquents and whacked-out strippers in this family, you hear?”
“We’ll make super-fun aunties when she’s out. But I worry about now.” Bubbles lays next to Tess and strokes her hair. “Like what about money?”
“I can work extra till I’m showing?”
“Isn’t there someplace you can stay for a while?”
They are silent, staring at the ceiling. Tess is crying now. “I keep thinking he’ll come back and explain and ask me to forgive him. I keep wishing I could believe it.” She sits up and wipes her face. “But I know him, Bubbles. I love him but I can’t ever trust him.”
“It’s probably true.” Bubbles’ eyes are shiny under her curls. “I wish it wasn’t.”
For the last time, Tess walks to work. Tomorrow, she’ll be on the bus and on her way. She imagines the baby with a periscope, peeking out through her bellybutton at the skyscrapers. The sidewalk sparkles encouragement under her green combat boots as she goes, beating a rhythm of thinking and not-thinking about Aaron. It’s hard but it gets easier. “This is my life now,” she says to a squirrel.
At the peepshow there is a surprise baby shower, roses from Eddie, the bouncer, the sun shining bright, the sky blue-blue: the city kissing them goodbye.
In the nearly empty apartment, Tess finally feels sad. Good thing I’m leaving, she tells herself. She shakes her head like a horse and goes to the bathroom to take off her eyeliner before her cheeks are black with it. Two tiny fairies are inked over the mirror holding a banner between them. There are words on the banner in a made-up language that Aaron swore he didn’t know and never wrote.
“The fairies must have done it themselves,” he’d say when Tess begged him to tell her what it meant. She imagines him like that with a baby, laughing, tickling, painting something beautiful over a little bed.
It wasn’t going to be that kind of story.
Happy still, but not that.
Tess has a plan.
They will live in a silver spaceship trailer surrounded by sagebrush and desert flowers in the backyard of Tess’s cowgirl great-aunt and her tall witchy wife.
Tess will work at the town’s authentic gold-rush saloon, which is also a vegetarian restaurant.
There will be crystals and cornbread and chili and roses.
There will be cats and kittens and three elderly alpacas.
Bubbles will visit. They will get a dog.
They don’t need Aaron. They truly don’t.
Tess tells the baby: need and want are two different things.
Her head hurts and she’s hungry but she also feels sick. She goes to the kitchen for a piece of cold pizza when the doorbell rings.
It has to be him!
She runs to the lobby, flings open the door.
“Hey Tess. Let me come up?”
Tess blinks. It’s Kylen standing there, not Aaron.
In spite of the past, Tess invites him in.
At the top of the stairs, he puts down his duct-taped guitar case and holds up his hands. “You can search me, but I’m clean. Girl Scout’s honor.” Kylen does a devil horn salute. Once, he made a potion that gave her diarrhea and cut off a piece of her hair when she was sleeping to make a voodoo doll. Now he bows his head like a sorry dog.
Tess laughs and play-shoves him into the apartment “Come in, cuckoo clock. There’s nothing to be jealous of anymore anyway. Aaron is all yours.”
Kylen smiles, showing his pointed teeth. “I like you tough.”
“I have to be now.” Going to the mirror, she lifts her shirt, stands sideways. “You think it shows?”
Kylen plops on her low mattress. “Not in your belly, Tess. It shows in your eyes.”
“So what’s up, anyway? I mean, how’s Aaron?” She and Bubbles have a pact not to discuss him, but she can’t help herself with Kylen. She can almost smell Aaron on him, he’s even wearing one of Aaron’s shirts.
“Not good,” Kylen shakes his head and his long hair falls all over the bed. He shows his teeth again but his eyes aren’t smiling. “You’re an iceberg, girl, a lioness. Everyone knows you’re right. But hey, I’m not here about him. I heard from Bubbles you leave tomorrow. I have a present for old time’s sake. It’s your favorite sweetpea.”
Kylen used to do a sweet thing for Tess, way before she was with Aaron and everything got so complicated. Not even Aaron knows about it. Nobody would believe it anyway. Kylen is good at making people forget he can be sweet.
First, they’d have cinnamon toast. Then he’d draw Tess a bath, lay out her old flannel nightgown, make her tea, and tuck her in. He’d feed the cat, tidy the kitchen. It was so lovely, the sound of someone putting her things in order, the light from the kitchen a golden pool outside the dark nook of her bed. She’d hear him in the shower, smell the fragrant steam. Then he’d come out all clean and scrubbed and get his guitar out and sing her to sleep.
Tonight, there’s nothing to tidy and she’s wearing the t-shirt and leggings she’ll travel in. Her mattress is bare. She slides into her sleeping bag. Kylen turns down the lights and gets his guitar. His music sounds like the city, pretty and rough and mysterious and sad. By the second song, Tess is sound asleep.
When Tess is fully crashed, Kylen rests his hand on her belly, an instant pass to womb-land. It’s like Hello Kitty’s nightclub in there, neon pink, Tess’s heartbeat a heavy bassline under the twins’ punk-rock 4/4.
The swimmers show up together this time, gazing at Kylen with their womb-weary eyes.
“You, I get,” he says to the Aaron-thing. “But you—” Kylen points at the freaky longhair, “why are you in there? What the fuck, man?”
“Yooouuu tell us.” The answer bubbles in unison out of the two rosebud mouths.
“I don’t know,” Kylen says. “I mean, I fucked with your mom—I admit that. Nothing major, now. A few charms. A hex or three. Just fucking around—but never in the biblical sense. I swear.”
“Fucking is fucking,” bald little fetus Aaron says over his shoulder.
“Fucking is fucking is fucking,” says Ky’s freaky longhair doppelganger.
Kylen opens his eyes, takes back his hand.
Fucking is fucking.
It rolls around his brain, a nasty little burr.
Fucking is fucking is fucking.
Suddenly, things get very clear.
He goes in Tess’s bag. She’s always been organized, easy to anticipate.
Kylen finds what he’s looking for first try, copies it down, puts everything back as he found it.
He imagines how it will go: a different ending, a better story. He pets the cat and kisses Tess’s forehead before he leaves. “Safe travels.”
It’s almost noon the next day when Kylen tracks Aaron down at Angie’s. A roommate answers the door—somebody new, unaware of the ban so they let Kylen in.
Angie’s in the kitchen smoking a cigarette and frying an egg. Ky lets his brain go blank to encourage stealth. Don’t look up, he thinks at her, but Angie is no fool.
“Stop right there, fucker,” she says.
“I have something for Aaron.”
“Is it money? Give it.” She holds out her hand. Kylen eyes the kitchen. The greasy cast iron skillet looks evil but way too heavy for Angie’s dope-skinny frame. She has the spatula, her nails, the cherry on her cigarette. And she’s mean. But Kylen is fast. He feints toward the kitchen and takes off running down the hall. The living room is empty. Aaron must be in Angie’s room. Kylen just makes it, slamming the door into Angie’s oncoming fist and locking it behind him.
“You have to come out sometime, fucker,” Angie yells. “I’ll be waiting.”
Aaron is crashed hard in Angie’s grimy bed. Kylen grabs the waistband of his boxers and snaps. If they were newer, it might’ve hurt enough to wake him up. At least he’d showered. Last time Kylen saw Aaron, he smelled him first.
Aaron grunts and rolls over, pulling the covers over his head.
“Come on, princess. Rise and shine!” Kylen leans over and wakes Aaron sleeping-beauty-style. It’s the tongue that finally does it.
Crusty-eyed, Aaron blinks. “Angie?”
“Do I look like Angie?”
Aaron squints. Not the fastest leopard in the jungle, but at least he’s pretty. Kylen looks out the window and fuck yes, there is a fire escape. “Come on, man,” Kylen says. “It’s time to do something right.”
Side of the highway, sagebrush and billboards, lady luck spreading her long gold legs.
I tuck my chin and cup the match. First try my cigarette lights.
I close my eyes and see Tess where she is, lunch stop on the Greyhound, feeding chicken nuggets to her cat.
If my luck holds, I’ll beat her to the station.
What will she say when she gets off the bus and sees me there crying my ass off with a bunch of flowers and a shit-eating grin?
My eyes fill up now.
I’ve been that way since she broke up with me, crying like a girl.
Being a father has already changed me.
My cigarette’s gone. The air smells like camping and Christmas. I zip my leather jacket, pull my hood over my head.
Cars go by full of suckers, gonna lose their money and like it, but I’m not here to lose. First ride I snagged out of the city, big rig headed east, set me right down where I need to be. Now I wait, eyes peeled for that blue Ford truck, cloudy with pot smoke, old hippy inside saying, “Going to Silver City, man? Hop in.”
Saw it an hour ago in my sleep. The rhythm of eighteen wheels is good for magic.