Avery calls me up and says Alexa, I figured it out.
You figured what out?
I figured it out, Alexa, I figured it out I figured it out I figured it out!
Honey, you are coked out of your mind.
Alexa, who isn’t? But listen up, I know you’re always talking about how everyone in Boston is totally apathetic and I’m like the worst example, I mean I don’t even have a political bone in my body—I know I was a poli-sci major for like ten minutes but I didn’t even know what was going on I thought poli-sci was science. Alexa, there are so many problems, so many problems and I know you know that I know I know I know, Alexa. But what was I saying, what was I saying? Oh—I still don’t fucking know what’s going on, but I thought of something we can do together—oh, maybe I shouldn’t say it on the phone. Alexa, it’s true, I have to wait at the haunted house for a few deliveries, but I’ll tell you my idea later, when I see you. I think you’ll like it. I think you’ll really like it. Really really. I’m sure. I’m really sure. Okay?
Later, Avery and I are at Bertucci’s and she looks around to make sure no one’s paying attention and then says listen, Alexa, listen: Remember when we went to Star Market last night to get contact lens solution? Yes, last night, that was last night! Okay, so I was looking around at everyone looking at you. Everyone. And no one, no one at all, no one was looking at me. You see what I mean?
Alexa, don’t play coy with me, coy decoy, you’re the one who likes to call it bargain shopping. No one was looking at me, get it?
Oh, okay, yes, yes, I get it. Bargain shopping realness.
I knew it, Alexa, I knew it! And you’re right about something else—I should smoke more pot, I didn’t realize I could be so hungry, even though there isn’t any fucking cheese in this pizza it’s yummy, almost as yummy as you, and here’s my example, it’s cold out, right? Really fucking freezing-your-ass-off cold. So what do people need, people outside? People stuck the fuck outside in this fucking freezing cold. Sleeping bags, right?
Usually I’m so focused on my own bargain shopping, studying everyone’s reactions while I yawn and pretend to be oh-so-relaxed. Wait, did I tell you how relaxed I am? Honey, I could almost fall asleep right here. Everyone looks at my hair, but then there’s the moment when they look away and that’s when I liberate those seventy-dollar vitamins.
But it’s so much easier when all I have to do is take in the attention, bask in it, glow. Whenever someone glances in Avery’s direction, I ask some idiotic question or act like I’m about to slip a Hula Hoop into my purse and boom, all eyes are on me. Eight sleeping bags in one afternoon—we can’t help adding up the prices on the labels, just to see. Okay, goodbye evidence. Hello homeless shelter. Let’s just drop these off outside.
Remember The Unbelievable Truth, where in the beginning two girls are lying in the grass looking up at the sky while talking to one another and that’s kind of how I feel in the car with Avery, doing another bump of coke and this is our movie, shot from inside a cream-colored Mercedes. It’s probably not called cream. Avery, what do they call this color?
Breathe deep and let your head roll back and then step outside like you don’t even notice the camera’s on you, yes, you. Every store has plenty of mirrors, even if they’re selling sporting goods in Allston, Cambridge, Brookline—and everybody knows mirrors are for runway. High-level undercover stunway. Honey, what is all this gear for? Bug smearer. Rain fearer. Forty-degrees-below-zero dream gear hair smear bug fear right here, turn.
Think about waving, waving for the cameras. Especially when they’re playing “Highway to Hell.” Think, but don’t look. Yawn again. Turn. Avery’s out the door. Pose. Let the lights blend into your eyes. Walk.
Another bump? Of course, darling, of course—you always know how to provide.
The good thing about the coke cure is that it helps with my cough. No, seriously. Just a little bump and I’m fine. Another bump and I’m even better. A third bump and the cough is practically gone. Or if not, what a perfect distraction—AIDS alert in aisle four. “Camera’s ready, prepare to flash.” Runway runaway.
Avery, you’re right, you’re right, this is fun. Fun for the whole family. Whose family? Brighter days brighter days brighter days! Wait, what am I making for dinner yes dinner, do you want to come over? Oh, probably not a good idea, I mean not right at this moment.
Why not at this moment—you don’t want Sugar Daddy to see you with your bitchy boyfriend?
I don’t want him to see me with my bitchy boyfriend when we’re both coked out of our minds.
I am not coked out of my mind, I’m coked into my mind.
Girl, that’s brilliant, but wait, today’s the day we get our test results.
Here we are on Boylston, opening the door in the wind tunnel and then checking in at the front desk, where the receptionist gives us that fake smile and then waves us into the waiting room dungeon. Clinics are so depressing. It’s like they’re just waiting for you to die. Why can’t they at least play good music, something with a beat, maybe a DJ and a dance floor, they could easily fit a disco ball over there in that corner by the dusty plastic flowers.
What about real flowers—even something cheap, carnations, what about carnations? What about art on the walls, I’m sure there are plenty of rich bitches who would be glad to donate art, or if not, then give me a couple of twenties and I’ll go to Goodwill to find some wacky glamour. Or at least paint the walls bright colors instead of this atrocious faded gray-and-tan wallpaper—we’re here to take care of ourselves, not to fade into nothingness. What about velvet sofas and herbal tea and steamed vegetables and brown rice and maybe something to read besides pamphlets about STDs?
What if the clinic was like a café where you could hang out and gossip and cruise or even read a good book, there could be a library or free massage or acupuncture or hugs, right, what about hugs? Instead of hugs we just get sterile beige carpet and hand-me-down office chairs and a few boring ads for safe sex. What about makeup lessons or a reading group? If no one wants to read, we could practice all Kevyn Aucoin’s makeup tricks, I wouldn’t mind practicing makeup tricks with a bunch of queens at the STD clinic. What about a deejaying workshop, I would love a deejaying workshop. Art supplies—what about art supplies?
They call my number and Avery’s still holding my hand and I’m thinking about colored pencils and crayons and magic markers and oil pastels. Or what about making collages? The clinic would be such a great place to make a collage—it wouldn’t even cost anything. Everyone could just bring in their old magazines and cut and paste and get to know one another. It would be fun.
Avery’s squeezing my hand tighter—I can’t believe she’s twenty-three, but she’s never been tested before. They call my number again and then I’m in another sterile room, this one feels like they sucked out all the air and some blonde woman in a powder-blue cardigan with pearly buttons asks me what I would do if I tested positive.
I have nothing against powder-blue cardigans, especially not powder-blue cardigans with pearly buttons, I mean I have a lavender one just like it. But that strand of pearls around her neck. Real pearls.
Those pearls, I want to say. What are you trying to say with those pearls?
How would you react if you tested positive, she asks me again.
Honey, I’m thinking—I would jump off a bridge. Can you take me to the highest bridge? I need a ride. You don’t drive? Then at least give me directions.
I want to say that I would go out and do so many drugs that I wouldn’t even know my name. “My name is Luka. I live on the second floor. I live upstairs from you. Yes, I think you’ve seen me before.” But instead I just say I don’t know.
She asks me about my risks. I don’t ask about hers. Is she going to give me my results?
After she suggests condoms for oral sex—yeah, already tried that—she finally looks down at the piece of paper and says: You tested negative for HIV. Thank you for coming in today. Do you have any questions for me?
Back in the waiting room, now I’m nervous waiting for Avery, until he comes out with a smile. I can’t believe how hot it is in here, I’m totally covered in sweat.
We get to Avery’s and she pours a bunch of coke on the mirror without even taking off her coat, snorts way too much and then shakes her head back and forth and starts jumping up and down. She hands me the mirror, says let me hold you while you do it—come on, come on, hurry up, catch up with me—and then I’ll bend you over and fuck you over the sink.
I thought you never wanted to have sex again.
That was before.
I wake up the next day singing “I think I love you, what am I so afraid of, I’m afraid that there’s no cure for …”—what are the rest of the words? “No cure for … No cure for …” Avery, do you know that song, who sings it? “I think I love you …”
“What am I so afraid of …”
Yeah, yeah—that’s the one.
I’m just imitating you.
The way it all blends together, one day and then the next.
One store and then the next. One line and then the next. The day we wheel a whole shopping cart full of canned food out of Star Market—hello, food drive. And then the next Star Market. And the next. Honey, we’re getting a tour of all the Star Markets, who’s the star now?
That feeling in my head, where am I, that feeling when I’m sitting with Nate and he’s speaking and I’m trying to pay attention—oh, right, another cocktail, thank you. That feeling in my head, so warm and cool at the same time, blending these pills and powders and potions and yes, that feeling in my head, hold me.
The way my eyes can be blue but really that’s white and blue and a circle of green, sparkly brown spots on the left I never realized brown could sparkle is it really purple in disguise like the way the white of the eyes is the part that shines the most and you never realize that from far away. Or the way skin is really all these little holes, some dry and some greasy even after the apricot facial scrub and oil-free moisturizer it’s never just smooth except from far away and I guess that’s why so many people wear so much makeup. But even the bags under my eyes can become pretty when I stare long enough and let everything blur. Look, look how my lower lip is bigger and puffier and redder than the upper lip.
And now, our special guests for the evening: teeth—that’s just the way you are—teeth. We think of you as white, but that’s only compared to night. So much closer to yellow, hello—unless you’ve been bleached. Bleached, leeched, and impeached.
No, don’t impeach my teeth—I swear they didn’t mean to lie when they said they were light-bright spite fright mighty fighty tighty-whitey, I swear.
Really, stop looking for stains, okay? Stop pulling back skin to disguise structure. Focus on the way the water pours over your hands in little tiny waterfalls, all this hot water for my hands, oatmeal soap a massage until I’m ready to take out my contacts, right, I’m taking out my contacts. And then, time for magical Marinol, oh yes.
Avery rings the bell and when I get to the door in my robe he’s standing there with sunflowers, what a great way to start the day. Then she reaches down and picks up a boom box—where’d you get that boom box?
I’m bringing back the eighties.
Oh, no, please, not the eighties. Anything but the eighties. Even the seventies, I mean you know how much I hate disco but anything’s better than Michael Jackson. Thank you for the flowers, they’re beautiful.
Okay, 1991. It was only four years ago, but wait until you hear this. You’re beautiful. Too sexy.
Avery wants to watch the sunset, and when we get to the Esplanade it’s almost warm out—I mean it’s freezing, but at least there’s no wind. Look at those pink clouds over there, someone’s finally lighting the Citgo sign on fire. Avery puts the boom box down and says are you ready? And she presses play.
No way. The beat starts and I can’t help it, I’m flinging myself into the air and around, falling to the ground and rolling in the frozen grass toward water and then jumping across the paved part and back again for more space, give her, give her what, give her the river, deliver, shiver, my liver, and Avery’s clapping and I’m throwing my arms everywhere, hands flying up and back, head in every direction, yes there are a few tourists and joggers who look scared, too sexy for my, too sexy for my, too sexy for my, and then I do the big kick in the air as high as possible and I land with one leg straight out and the other crossed underneath like I’m just sitting there so calmly. Avery comes over to fan me with her hand, and that’s when I jump up and twist around her, is this another mix, how many mixes are there?
And there’s that beat like one of those movie songs—girl, where the hell did you find “I’m Too Sexy” anyway? Okay, okay, here I go, running down the Esplanade and Avery’s cackling and I start to twirl around and around and around until I’m dizzy enough that doing the falling-over runway really is falling, bending side to side and taking the tight rope into fight rope, light rope, blight rope, smash the glass and jump-up-and-down delight rope, and Avery runs in front of me and I stop, turn, put my hand on her face and then we turn around together, I’m holding onto her back like I could hold on forever but then I push her aside and she laughs and what is this mix, I don’t remember this mix and now I’m leaning back against Avery like a prop or a wall or treasure or the end of the line or sustenance.
Excerpted with permission from, Sketchtasy, a novel by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore (Arsenal Pulp Press, available October 9, 2018).