I had just put my tip money in my locker when I heard yelling from down the hall and walked toward Rodney’s office. The door was standing wide open and Kayla was inside, standing in front of him as he circled her. “It looks to me like you’ve put on a lot more than ten pounds,” he said, his eyes moving up and down her body, his expression one of utter disgust. He reached out and took a handful of her ass, and he must have squeezed because Kayla jumped and let out a little yelp. Her eyes were wide with shame, and her neck was blotchy.
“I’ve been having a rough time, Rodney,” she said. “My old man walked out on me and—”
“And it’s no fucking wonder!” He threw his hands up in the air. “Why would he want a lard-ass for a girlfriend?” Kayla grimaced, looking down at her feet.
I crossed my arms. “Do you really think you’re the one who should be giving diet advice to anyone?” I looked pointedly at his huge gut.
Rodney smirked at me. “I’m not the one shaking my stretch-marked ass out there for paying customers,” he said, a nasty edge to his tone. “So don’t give me any of that shit. Neither one of you is worth more than your tits and ass, so keep ’em in shape.” He turned back to Kayla. “You’ve got a month to take off the weight, or you can find yourself another club. If anyone else would even have you. And you, Crystal, stop being such a fucking bitch to the customers. Men want a woman who’s warm and inviting—not some ice queen. Now get out.”
Kayla headed toward me, dejected, and as I stood in the doorway, I felt sick and filled with impotent rage. Men want a woman who’s warm and inviting—not some ice queen. But Rodney was wrong—men didn’t give a hot damn what I was as long as I let them grope my body to their heart’s content. Kayla caught my eye and gave her head a small shake. Whatever was in my expression must have told her I was considering ripping Rodney a new one. Disgusting asshole. The thought was compelling, but I knew anything I said would only make things worse for Kayla, and for me. I needed this shit job. And so I clamped my lips shut and followed her back to our dressing room. I shut the door and let out a growl, picking up a small wastebasket by the door and chucking it. The plastic made an unsatisfying clink when it hit the wall and clattered to the floor, right side up as if it’d been placed there. All I’d managed to do was relocate it.
“Feel better?” Kayla asked sarcastically, sinking onto the settee.
“Fucking prick,” I muttered. “You okay?”
She sighed. “Yeah. He’s right anyway. I have gained weight. I can’t seem to stay away from junk food since Wayne’s been gone. Yesterday I stayed in bed with a bag of Doritos and a box of donuts watching old DVDs until three in the afternoon.” She looked down at her clasped hands. “I thought he was the one. I’m so stupid. I thought we were gonna get married, I might be a mom someday.” She paused, tears welling in her eyes. “And now I’m just … I’m so damn lonely.”
My heart contracted painfully. “Oh, Kayla,” I sighed. “You call me if you have a day like that. I’ll come over and eat Doritos with you.”
“Nah, I don’t share my Doritos with anyone.”
I laughed and she shot me a wobbly grin. “Hey, if we can still laugh, we must be halfway okay, right?”
Her smile slipped. “Halfway okay. Yeah. Is there anything more?”
The silence stretched between us for a minute, Kayla’s face filled with so much defeat it broke my heart. She was one of the only girls here who had been a true friend to me since I’d gotten this job. She was never petty, never superficial or competitive like all the others. I wanted to tell her there was more. I wanted to share my own hope with her that life held happiness for girls like us. But I’d given up on hope long ago. I’d discovered early that hope was nothing but a cruel and dangerous business.
“I don’t know, Kayla,” I answered honestly. “But I’m all right with halfway okay. It’s better than completely miserable, or halfway dead. And I’ve been both.” I gave her a small smile, and she offered me a sad one in return. I picked up my brush and started brushing my hair in long strokes.
“Yeah,” she said on a sigh. “Rodney might be right, you know. What else do girls like us have but our tits and our asses? And what do we do once those are shot to hell by gravity? Who will want us then?”
No one. No one will.
“And,” Kayla went on, “what if we get sick? Who will take care of us? What will we do? Die alone under some overpass?”
What am I gonna do now? Oh, Lord God, what am I gonna do now?
My mama’s words. My mama’s experience. Was that where I was headed, too? A feeling not unlike dread moved down my spine. I dropped the wooden hairbrush and it clattered to the floor. I bent to pick it up, my hands shaking as I snatched it and stood again.
“You okay?” Kayla asked. I glanced at her in the mirror, and her face was wrinkled in concern.
“Yeah,” I said, the word rushing out, more breath than sound. “Yeah,” I repeated more clearly. I set the brush down and turned to face Kayla.
She sighed again. “I was pregnant once. Did I ever tell you?” I gave her a small shake of my head. She looked down at her hands. “Wayne made me get rid of it.” Tears welled up in her eyes. “I didn’t want to, but he said he wasn’t ready for kids, and he wouldn’t stick around if I kept it. So I had an abortion.” My belly did a slow flip as if I was going to be sick.
“Oh, Kay, I’m so sorry.”
You told me you got an abortion … I didn’t want her seven years ago, and I don’t want her now.
A tear slipped down her cheek. “It was my own fault. I listened to him. I did what he wanted. I chose him over my own baby. And look where it got me—in the end he left me anyway. I hate myself for what I did, and I’ll never forgive myself. My baby would be five years old now.”
I sat down next to her on the couch, taking her hands in mine. “You’re a good person, Kayla.” I didn’t know what to say other than that, and so I didn’t say more. I just held her hands and squeezed them. She was a good person. I wished I could tell her how to forgive herself, but if I knew the answer to that, maybe I’d be a lot better off than I was. I sighed, giving her hands one final squeeze before letting go.
“Let’s stop beating ourselves up right now, Kay. This is what Rodney wants us to be doing—going over every way in which we should feel ashamed. Let’s not give him this power over us. You lay off the Doritos and call me if you need someone to hang out with, okay? And as far as the gravity stuff, I think we have a little bit of time before it starts stealing our assets.” I put my hands on my breasts, plumping them up over my bikini top before winking at her, feigning a nonchalance I didn’t feel, trying to cheer her up, even just a little. What I actually felt was breakable, as if I might shatter the moment someone looked at me the wrong way.
Kayla smiled. “Okay. You got an appointment with your boyfriend tonight?”
I raised a brow. “My boyfriend? Hardly. He’s just another paying customer.”
“Oh, I don’t know. I heard a special little something in your voice when you told me about him on the car ride here tonight.”
I rolled my eyes, going to the mirror, where I wiped a smudge from beneath my eye. “He pays well.” And after tonight, I’d be able to give the garage enough money that they’d start fixing my car.
“Uh-huh. Maybe he’ll be the one to sweep you off your feet. Wouldn’t you like that? Someone to take care of you?”
“Oh, Kay, life doesn’t work that way. And anyway, I take care of myself just fine.” I turned to her, feeling a strange ache where my heart lay. The truth was, I found myself thinking of Gabriel Dalton more often than I liked since I’d seen him last. I’d woken to the vision of the gentleness in his eyes, the curve of his lips when he smiled, and then the way he panicked when I’d gotten close. The look on his face as I’d moved toward him had felt like something sharp was pressing against an old bruise deep inside. It had hurt seeing him like that. It wasn’t that I felt sympathy for him, although that was part of it, but mostly it had hurt me, and I couldn’t figure out exactly why. It made me feel twitchy and restless. He made me feel twitchy and restless.
That’s what I need you to help me with. Staying.
I wanted to push those words away. I’d felt embarrassed and exposed when he said them after I’d told him I could help him remove himself mentally from a physical encounter. I’d revealed myself to him, and I hadn’t meant to, and now he knew far more about me than I wished him to.
There was a knock on the door, and Anthony stuck his head in. “Gabe’s here, Crystal.”
“Speak of the devil himself,” Kayla said, laughing. Devil? No, an angel, just like I’d first thought. And angels didn’t belong in hell. What had he said to me? Funny, I was thinking the very same thing about you. Why would he think that about me? This was where I belonged. And in any case, there was nowhere else to be. Nowhere.