by Lauren Goodwin Slaughter
Along the far wall, a display of mannequin legs in athletic tights, the neatly sawed bottom halves of a magician’s trick. Throughout the store, racks of silky running shorts and crop tops, après yoga jogger pants, structural quilted jackets, and infinity scarves with such profligate material they might double as hammocks. I picked up a fleecy pink one and put it on, noting in one of the mirrors my ghostly head crowning through its vaginal folds and creases.
“That is so cute on you!” The salesgirl was in matching sports bra and shorts with an 80s paint-splatter pattern that she rocked with no irony. Around her bitty waist she wore the same red fanny pack as the other salespeople who darted around the store like pumped-up fireflies. “Can I start you a room?”
“Just looking,” I said, pressing the sharp corner of the gift card in my pocket hard between fingernail and flesh, a punishment. I wasn’t just looking—this was my last chance. The card, which expired today, was a birthday present from a boyfriend a few years back. He had immovable Lego hair and always a different belt buckle. We’d been on a few dates and he still figured I was the kind of girl who liked the kinds of things girls liked.
Those three-inch shorts in pink camo. Jazzy cocktails that end in “ini.” A tongue in my mouth as I stand there after the movie, noting the way the stars looked sneezed by the sign’s neon lights.
It wasn’t the first time a fling that began with sex I liked ended in a conversation over greasy Chinese food, the poor fellow across from me sighing all over his slippery noodles, “Well, what is it that you want?” Tell me how a person ever answers anyone honestly, and I’ll give you Lucy Liu. Le sigh. If only she was mine to give.
“I love your dress.” The salesgirl was still there, staring at me. I smoothed down the sides of my favorite thrift-store find, a velvety green party dress I wear when I need to feel like the Emerald City. “It’s so unique!”
I smiled, willing myself not to turn on this poor, wide-eyed thing before me.
“Thanks,” I said.
“You’re welcome!” she seemed to scream. “And, omg your lipstick!” The shade—Firestarter—had been a gift from Rebecca, my former best friend, who finally gave up once and for all after I skipped movie night at her house for the umpteenth time. But respect where respect is due, for Rebecca had succeeded where I, thus far, had failed: she had outgrown me.
“I like your fanny pack,” I lied.
“They make us wear these even though we’re not allowed to put anything inside,” the salesgirl confided. “My boyfriend thinks they’re dumb, but at least I have a job.” Then she looked at me as if I was the full fat ice cream she might be willing to splurge on. “Are you sure I can’t start you a room?” She held up an awful peach sweatshirt. “So pretty,” she said.
I thought of Rebecca, alone and stoned in her apartment, noshing oatmeal cream pies and watching Face Off, the way we used to do. Her stupid tracksuit, and French braid, and bunny slippers. Curled beside her, the female kitten we named Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson because she was such a little badass, flea-ridden and shitting in a neat pile on the stairwell where we found her. It’d been over a year since Rebecca and I had stopped talking, which means Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson would be big enough now to bring home slain rodent offerings, set just so upon the doormat. I hoped so. My former best friend would really like that.
The dressing room was small, fluorescent, a box of mirrors. The hooks grew ever-heavier with the salesgirl’s picks. She kept bringing me more and I kept saying yes.
“Nope, not feeling it,” I’d said to Rebecca when she asked if I wanted to go with her to the Renaissance Fair. I see now that this was the beginning of the end for us. I used to enjoy tagging along to joust whoever was willing while Rebecca flit around in her lace-up, flouncy-sleeved gown, head crowned by a wreath of Hobby Lobby flowers, flirting with the knights. She said she’d bring a flask of gin and promised fair food, but no way. One thousand funnel cake tangles would not have been able to lure me. Why?
We met in high school on the stage crew for Our Town. I was tasked to paint the enormous moon that looms over the set, and she was tasked to hang it.
For the rest of high school, she hung it. Even through college she did, though she went to a fancy liberal arts school many states away, and I attended the default local one and lived at home.
Then suddenly, an eclipse. When I searched my brain for some kind of explanation, it was just an image of the oily night sky. For no reason at all: moonless.
“Does this make my butt look big?” I asked. My ass looked fucking fabulous, but it seemed like what I was supposed to say coming out of a dressing room in head-to-toe spandex. I walked toward the three-way mirror to really take myself in, anticipating the salesgirl’s requisite compliments. She’d loved everything I had tried on so far. I took a spin in the mirror—my shifting, kaleidoscopic me’s. I kept waiting for her adulation, then noticed her on her phone, huddled behind a rack of t-shirts.
“What the fuck am I supposed to do,” I heard her whisper, and, “but you promised.” More urgent mumblings. And then I heard her voice break.
There were black crescents of mascara beneath her eyes when she reappeared from her hiding place. She walked toward me, stone-faced, looking at the ground. “So pretty,” she said, “I love this on you.”
“Sorry for the mess,” I said, pushing the unopened mail, empty La Croix cans, and my lucky dinosaur figurines from the passenger seat onto the floor.
“You really don’t have to do this,” she said.
“What, and miss my meeting with the executive board?” She looked at me confused. Rebecca would have gotten it. She would have laughed.
“Anyway, thanks.” The salesgirl unzipped a vape pen from her red fanny pack that was supposed to be empty and took a deep pull that blew dragon smoke all through the interior of my shitty little car. “I can’t believe that cunt ditched me.” When the smoke cleared, I could see the stripes where her makeup had been cried away.
“So,” I said, “where are we going?”
Stay in the left two lanes, my phone directed in its British accent setting. Rebecca and I had named the setting Dame Judi Dench. Turn right and go straight for two miles. The salesgirl punched an address into my phone with no explanation and, since she offered none, I tried to be an adult and did not ask.
She looked even more beautiful here, out of context, sitting in the passenger seat beside me wearing only the sports bra and shorts from earlier, texting furiously, muttering obscenities to her phone from time to time, ignoring me.
One time I was invited to Rebecca’s house for dinner. It was a summer evening in high school, and she’d asked me to come over after we’d spent the day taking photographs of each other in silhouette. Her parents welcomed me inside, and we all ate chicken tetrazzini. Rebecca’s mother set up a game of Pictionary, and fresh brownies were for desert. Her father made the kind of jokes that are more puns than jokes, same way Rebecca always did. It was the most boring, normal night of my life. Sometimes I’ll drive around looking for her parents’ house just to try and prove to myself that night even happened. I imagine seeing Rebecca’s mother outside planting pansies or her father shooting hoops with the neighbor kids. If I ever find that house I like to think I’d stop the car and pull over. What would I say? Maybe I’d ask them what tetrazzini even is.
There was a small group of picketers set up outside the clinic, sitting in lawn chairs and eating sandwiches. Their identical signs, which leaned against their chairs, read, It’s a Child Not a Choice! When they saw us pull into the parking lot, they rushed to their feet, grabbed their signs, and began to chant their slogan through full mouths.
The salesgirl, a tiny doll, sat beside me, looking out the window. A little cloud grew on the glass where she was breathing. Her phone buzzed and beeped with more messages.
“What a bunch of assholes,” I said. Above their head, one of the picketers held an oversized plastic fetus figure, which they bounced in time with the chant. “Do you want me to come with you?” I heard myself say. The salesgirl gave me a long, hard, puzzled look. It was like the look from the store when she held the peach sweatshirt to my face, but this time she wasn’t smiling.
“My boyfriend doesn’t even know,” she said, talking past my offer. “I told him I was trying a new detox that was making me nauseous, and he believed me.” She brushed coils of gold, shining hair from her eyes. “He kept telling me the detox was working, how hot I looked. Idiot.”
“Jerk,” I confirmed.
“My friend was supposed to give me a ride from work, but then she said her car was making a noise? I know she’s full of shit. She thinks I shouldn’t do it. She told me so.” The salesgirl drew again on her vape pen. “We had a fight—I told her if she felt that way about it, maybe she should go on and have the kid.” Her exhale filled the car. “Then, she said she actually would. She would raise the kid, she said. Or, we could do it together. She said she’d talked to her parents, and they’d all agreed. What the fuck?”
“Wow,” I said.
“She’s a fucking virgin. I don’t know why I thought she would help me.”
I imagined taking the salesgirl’s hand, soft and trembling in mine as I escorted her to the clinic door through a tunnel of red-faced, chanting picketers—their breath hot upon us. The salesgirl might turn to me, wiping her tears against my bare shoulder. I would be strong for her, there for her. Inside, the waiting room would be deadly quiet, punctuated by young women looking at their laps. Neat piles of out-of-date magazines everywhere, most of them Oprah. And a woman with a gentle voice behind a desk. The sound of a clock ticking.
“I could come with you if you want?” I asked again.
“Thanks again for the ride,” the salesgirl said, hurrying out of the car, rushing past the picketers, and disappearing into the clinic.
I sat there, idling, imagining another version. In this one, the salesgirl and I screech out of the parking lot, leaving black streaks on the pavement. We go back to my apartment. I buy a crib, bottles, all the stuff. We name the kid Dwayne if a boy, Judi if a girl.
The light was that greenish bright of weather changes. The trees were arms reaching, full of wind. The gift card was still in my pocket—maybe I would return to the store to use it, or maybe I would just keep winding these roads forever. And if I just happened to come across Rebecca’s parents’ house—her mother and father out front, as if expecting me? I could say thank you or I could say sorry. Or, I could just keep going. No one would be looking for me, no one needed me today.