Wet Matches

By

I was waiting for her.

I’d found the only room I could afford near the Prado in a pension that was being run as a transvestite brothel. We all shared the same bathroom. The boys called me El Guapo when they passed me in the hallways. They worked outside the gates of the Parque del Retiro while the Moroccans sold hash inside the gates or near the pond with the rowboats. The Moroccans even had business cards. It was all very civilized.

Then it was four late one night or early one morning. I hadn’t talked with anyone or slept for so long it didn’t matter. There was another argument cooking up from behind a wall in my room. The police had come the night before and left after a few minutes.

I leaned out the window looking over the little courtyard and lit a cigarette staring at the hung laundry of dresses owned by the skinny South American boys. There was an ashtray on the windowsill with a train wreck of cigarettes scattered in its palm.

I’d written her a letter and she’d promised she’d come see me.

She was going to stand me up.

I’d never gotten over her, the best kiss I had. She was a hooker. But she hadn’t told me she was. I didn’t know her name for the first few days. It wasn’t even a contrived gimmick. Somehow it just hadn’t occurred to me to ask for it.

I’d thought she was a little nervous to sleep with me because she was a virgin.

It only lasted three days.

The last time I saw her was on her porch:

“What’s wrong Brin?”

“I dunno. I just don’t have anything to ask you and I don’t have anything to say to you. I don’t know why.”

“Well, that’s when you say goodbye.”

She was right.

The night I met her I’d been working on a story about someone with the lousy luck of falling for a prostitute. When we were eighteen and first visiting Europe, a painter friend of mine had sketched a portrait of a haunted and haunting girl standing behind a window in the Red Light District and had given it to her. The real girl didn’t especially care, but the girl in my story did. And I was trying to figure out a way for them to kiss and have it mean something because I liked the poetry of prostitutes withholding a kiss and giving up all that other stuff.

The girl behind the counter at the cafe followed me outside where I was smoking and asked what I’d been writing about, then gave me a very startled look when I told her. I asked if I’d said something wrong and she asked if I could walk her home when she got off at 3am.

Along the way she told me she enjoyed the walks to the boys’ houses more than the boys.

I’d been waiting for her a long time.

I’ve been waiting for her a long time.

I’ll be waiting for her a long time.

At some point I needed to put some miles between us.

I hadn’t told anyone when I flew over to Madrid and stayed out all night Christmas Eve until that strange hour when the Chinese step out into the copper street light haze and huddle on hundreds of street corners across town clutching dozens of shopping bags full of to-go food for cheap. Chance being stuck over a toilet for 10 hours and go sightseeing through the nighttime streets that get started around 3 am. Walk until the Chinese have abandoned the street corners and turn off the Gran Via and head down to Puerta del Sol along a path where all the Africans are waiting for you peddling movies and music and scarves and sunglasses on blankets that if a whistle echoes down a corridor that Policia are approaching are packed up by the hundreds, swept up as quick as dominoes tip over, and two seconds later a thriving black market economy is a ghost echo of footsteps haunting 80 different directions, weaved into all the other squeaky Windex-scrubbed reflections on storefront windows of urgent men casting hectic glances at their fake designer watches.

Nurse your hangovers with scenic strolls down the street for some coffee near that statue of a bear reaching up into a tree who looked just like you going for a first kiss, just as shy and deliberate and off-key pilfering some girl’s museum gift shop while she was a little amused that you offered to read her palm because obviously you couldn’t read palms and just wanted an excuse to touch her.

For entertainment give Don Quixote another half-assed try in Spanish on a bench until the tourist buses roll up and the Gypsies move in like a kicked over ant nest and set up their coordinated strikes.

Then someone knocked on my door.

“El Guapo! Correo!”

I open the door to one of the transvestites with half her makeup off. I was pretty sure her name was “Daisy.” She handed me a letter. I opened it.

Just a date and a time and a place.

I’m a romantic; a sentimental person thinks things will last, a romantic person hopes against hope they won’t.” -F. Scott Fitzgerald

You can always tell the people who fall for the kind of beauty that subtracts rather than adds something to their lives.

She had cigarette-stain eyes. I look into brown eyes rather than at all the other colors. I looked into her eyes and saw my own private pawnshop. I kissed her and it turned into a warehouse. Pure and complicated. The more she talked the less I knew about her. I liked the stories she told. Her body language stuttered to keep up. Holding her hand felt like sanitizing a lethal injection needle.

With no buildup or wind-down, apart from us nearly fucking, we’d said goodbye. She’d just finished doing some handstands for no particular reason. I didn’t see her again for three years.

I was outside her cafe again, long after she’d quit working there. I was leaning over a table writing in a notebook when I heard some roller skates smack the pavement. I looked up and saw her.

“Can I sit down?”

I stood up and we looked at each other for a while. I pulled out her chair and she sat down.

“I know you.”

I nodded.

“Brad?”

“Something like that. It doesn’t matter.”

“I remember. You were writing a story about a guy who falls in love with a prostitute.”

I nodded.

“It’s strange, it happened to me.”

“Hold on a second.” I tried to calibrate this. “You fell in love with a gigolo?

“No,” she smiled. “I was a hooker.”

“When?”

“For the last 5 years. I just got out last summer.”

“You were a hooker when we met?”

“I was.”

“But you were working here.”

“Part time.”

“But you were in school.”

“How do you think I paid my tuition?”

“Your step-dad was a dentist!”

“It’s creepy you remember so much. Are you in love with me or something? I came so close to telling you but, you know, it just sorta took care of itself.”

***

In Madrid my phone rings…

“You know who this is?”

“You’re the only person who has my phone number.”

“I’m at Plaza Mayor.”

“Okay. You’re close by.”

“I’m high on ecstasy.”

“Delightful.”

“I’m drunk, too.”

“Come over.”

“You’re sure you know who this is?”

“I already answered that question.”

“Where do you live?”

I gave her my address.

“I’ll call you when I leave.”

4am. Phone rings:

“Still up?”

“No, I’m fast asleep.”

“I’ve been dancing all night. I just got out of a swimming pool five minutes ago. I stink. Still want me to come over?”

“Get over here.”

“Positive?”

4:15am. Phone rings:

“I’m getting the heebie-jeebies. I haven’t talked with you in a really long time. This is really weird.”

“Don’t worry. I have strawberries. It’s fine.”

“You have… strawberries?

“Exactly.”

“You have strawberries?”

“Exactly. Nothing weird. Bowl of strawberries. Very wholesome arrangement. Everybody’s happy.”

“Okay.”

“Just come over.”

There was a pause and I felt something in my brain creak.

“I don’t think I––-” Raped-, pregnant-, aborted-pause. “Okay. I’ll be there in a second.”

A few minutes later I saw her get out of a cab on the Gran Via. I dug into my pocket and pulled out my keys and flicked them out the window. I heard them connect with the pavement.

She entered the room and sat on the floor and grabbed a handful of strawberries and smoked from a pouch of Drum tobacco.

She didn’t say much at first. Every ten minutes or so she’d go to the bathroom and leave the door open while she pissed. After the first time I leaned over and watched her.

“Why don’t you close the door?” I asked.

“Why should I?”

This seemed to me a very sensible answer.

“I dunno.”

“I’m peeing.”

“I know that.”

“Welllll?

Well, do you ever close the door?”

“Do you want me to?”

“No. It’s just weird you’re so… ”

She wiped herself and flushed the toilet.

“What?”

“I dunno,” I said. “It’s intimate.”

She came back over to the carpet and sat cross-legged facing me.

She wouldn’t say anything.

“Tell me how you got into it,” I asked, feeling like a jackass.

“Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman.”

I gave her a look.

“My sister.”

“Is she still working?”

“No,” she said, pressing a strawberry against her lips. “She was a meth-addict. So was my mom. But my sister kicked it and got out of turning tricks.”

“So you worked on the street?”

“No. I worked at places they have set up for it.”

“Which ones?”

“A bunch.”

“What kinda type goes for it?”

She smiled. “There’s no type. It’s everybody. Nobody.”

“So what celebrities did you fuck?”

“Sometimes. Sure. That guy, Ruffalo. Something Ruffalo. Christian Slater was a client––-”

“Only Vancouver?”

“No,” she said. “Other places. They give you an apartment. They set you up with a room. I’d write my essays or study and the johns would come over and I’d buzz them in. They’d leave, I’d go back to the books until the next one arrived. I worked at a place in Japan for a while. Hostess thing. I didn’t go over there for it. But it finds you.”

“How’d you get out?” I asked. Are we on Larry fucking King? KISS HER.

“Roll me another cigarette.” She waited until I’d finished and handed it over and lit it for her. “You do that nicely. I always was a little crazy for how you roll and prepare those things. Well, a john approached me and I could see it in his eyes.”

“See what?”

“It happens to these guys. They fall for you.”

“But you never fall for them?”

“Anyway––-this guy was gray, gray but not ugly. He was wearing an expensive but all wrinkled-up suit. And he came over to the bed and sat down beside me. He told me I didn’t belong there. And I was pretty cold about it and told him if he was feeling something for me it was probably a useful thing to know that for me love was money.”

“You still believe that?” I asked.

“No,” she corrected. “But he said that was all right. It was fine. He took a second looking at the ground then turned back to me while he reached into his briefcase. He told me he had money. Then he asked what my price was to get out. I asked him to repeat himself—just to be a bitch about it—and he found the checkbook in that at-ta-ché briefcase of his. I couldn’t breath when I saw it. Sorry. I have to pee.”

She tried to get up but stumbled. Behind her I saw a wallet drop from her pocket. She struggled to get to her feet and made it, albeit a little woozy. With her back to me I swiped the wallet. She had the bathroom door open so I couldn’t case it.

“Had you ever put a price on getting out before?”

“Roll me another one,” she said, flushing the toilet. “No, I’d never put a price on it. Not before that moment. But I thought about it. And I just, you know, crunched the numbers.”

“What’d you come up with?”

“I told him I wanted him to pay my full tuition up to a doctorate in whatever I wanted. I wanted a car. I wanted an apartment for a year. I wanted 20 grand upfront.”

“And he tore off a check?”

“He tore off a check. We walked out the door together.”

“You were with him?”

“No. I saw him. But I wasn’t with him. It was just your average sugar daddy arrangement for a while.”

“You think so, huh?”

Anyway, then I met somebody. And I fell in love with that somebody. That had never happened before. Or since. And I told the guy who’d gotten me out of the game and he was good about it and backed off. He gave me space with it. And the guy I fell in love with fell in love with me. We played house. Two years I was with him. And it was––I’m not sure how to put it––it was true.”

I reached over and took the cigarette from her mouth.

“Why are you looking at me like that, Brad?

“You knew my fucking name when you were on roller skates, didn’t you?”

“Maybe.”

“Is everything you’re telling me made up?”

“Maybe.”

“Keep telling the story, Roxanne.”

“I played it straight with this boy and a lot of stuff was around the corner. Playing house was nice. But one night I’m out walking my dog and I bump into that john. The sugar daddy. He offers me 15 grand for one night. I took it. Turned the trick. And the next morning I go back to the guy I was living with and confess it.”

“Why?”

“Because I loved him.”

“I got that part. I meant, why’d you turn the trick?”

“Anyway––I told him it was a horrible mistake. I told him that I loved him. And he said he loved me and that we were done. That was a few months ago. Biggest mistake of my life.”

“So the john bought you out and bought you back in?” I felt like a CNN ticker.

“I’m getting tired.”

“Did you kiss the john?”

“I’m sleepy.”

“Sleep here.”

“Umm… I don’t think so.”

“Not with me. Just sleep here. I can’t sleep on the bed anyway.”

“Why?” she asked.

I shrugged. “It intimidates me.”

“I can’t stay here with you. I can’t stay here.”

“Why?”

“Because this is better. For you I mean. It’s a good little memory to gnaw on as it is.”

She got up off the floor and looked at me, tilting her head to one side.

“I have your name,” I said.

“Do you now? You know my name?”

“I don’t know it,” I corrected. “I have it.”

I pulled out her wallet and stood up and gave it to her. We both held onto it for a second before I let go and went over to my window and watched the dawn breaking until she came out the entrance of the apartment a suicide’s jump below my window.

Later on I had a book reading to give in Vancouver. She found out about it. She wrote me that she wanted to come. Then she fucked up the dates and missed it. She said she was going out of town for the summer but wanted a copy of my book. We were supposed to have a walk before she left but she screwed up preparing to pack and a bunch of stuff so all I had was five minutes to give her the book, have a cigarette, and say goodbye.

Then there was the issue of writing an inscription.

I went downstairs to meet her in front of my apartment building and she arrived and it was rainy and she had a hood on. Her car was crammed full of stuff and there was more tied down to the roof. She came over and I lit two cigarettes in my mouth and gave her one and my hand was shaking a little. I gave her the book and she glanced at the cover and compared the photo of me as a kid with my face now.

“That’s you, huh?”

“That’s me.”

I was watching her very carefully. I did not want that fucking inscription read until after she was out of my presence. I didn’t want to be accountable for it. Especially not at that moment. I kept thinking, Take the book hooker-bitch. Take it. Just take the fucking thing and go.

She went to open the front cover.

“Hey! Quit it. Don’t open that here.”

“Why? You gave it to me. It’s mine, isn’t it?”

She opened it.

“What does the title of your book mean, by the way? What does Sic mean?”

“It’s a dumb title because nobody gets it. You write ‘sic’ beside something when you’re saying it’s their mistake and not yours. It’s about fault. It’s attribution of blame.” I end up speaking like my father when I’m nervous.

“I get it. So, should I, like, write ‘sic’ beside this inscription?” She pointed at the word love.

I put my head down for a minute.

Attribution of blame,” she repeated. “Fault. Whose fault is that… Brin?”

She giggled a bit and stood up and flicked her cigarette.

I walked into the rain to see how hard it was coming down. It was kinda misty.

“Do you have a pen, Brin?”

“Yup.” I gave it to her.

I know whose fault it is.” She opened up the front cover and glared at the word.

She leaned over and I pulled back and everything was fine until she kissed me hard for a few moments, then slipped off my lips as softly as snow falling from a branch in the stillness of night.

***

Rumpus original art by Jason Novak.


Brin-Jonathan Butler has written for Men's Health, ESPN Magazine, Deadspin, Salon, and Vice. Picador USA is publishing two books from Butler in 2014: "Split Decision," which examines Cuba and the United States through the lens of elite Cuban boxers faced with the decision to remain despite the lure of millions, or chase the American Dream from a smuggler's boat; and "The Domino Diaries," a memoir of Butler's time living and training as an amateur boxer in Cuba under the tutelage of Olympic champions. More from this author →