You Never Give Your Real Name In This Bar
by Anne Baldo
'You know, I could have let them do anything they wanted to you last night.'
I opened my eyes, caked shut with mascara. Cat sat cross-legged by the mattress on the floor I slept on the nights I stayed over, a place cleared in the dirty clothes, platform sneakers and knee high boots, broken jewelry and crinkled essays on Flannery O'Conner that she got A's on despite their always last-minute composition. She was tidying her dark red nails with a file. Her indigo hair held back with hair clips, two resin glitter hearts. Her makeup was done; I wondered if she had woken early, or only slept in it. Days it looked really good, she said, she kept it for the next - sleeping perfectly flat on her back to preserve it.
'What?' Last night's vodka slowed me down as I tried sitting up, still in the denim skirt I'd slept in. My silver hoop earrings had left crescent-moon indents on the backs of my hands.
'Those guys we came home with last night from the bar. The ones we met after Tasha left. I know she's your friend but does she have to act so good?'
'She isn't. I mean she's - what guys?'
'Derrick. Eric? Kevin. The other one was definitely Kevin. There's always a Kevin, right?'
'You don't remember? We walked home from King's with them.' She was already dressed for the day, her bleached D.A.R.E. to keep kids off drugs t-shirt on over her jeans. She laughed. 'Ellie! Don't worry. I didn't. I would never let anyone touch you. Fucking never. I mean, you wouldn't have known the difference, though, right?' Cat smiled, lips the hard gloss of candy apple coating. 'But I'd kill anyone who tried something when you were out cold like that. I'm your best friend.'
When I think about Cat now, I remember her in her fake suede coat, white fur at the wrists and neck, gone yellow, salvaged from a thrift shop. The inside liner conveniently torn in places - perfect slits to nestle cigarettes, lighters, mickeys of hard liquor, but also more unusual things - tinsel-thin rings from grocery store gumball machines, keys to unknown doors, phone numbers from men she swore she couldn't remember, blue cubes of pool table chalk inexplicably nicked from bars, small plastic toys from Happy Meals of the 80s.
Perfectly scuffed sneakers inked with Sharpies, a taste for expensive lipstick and ironic t-shirts, jeans torn at the knees. She sat behind me in our Canadian Literature class, then disappeared for two weeks. When she came back, she asked to borrow my notes.
'I was sick.' Her long hair was snapped back with a pair of mint green acrylic clips, a Crime Stoppers pin-back button on the matted fur collar of her coat.
'Sure. I don't know if they're very good, though.'
She had the clear cold gaze of a crow, a smoky voice that felt like the raw scrape of a cat's tongue, fake eyelashes, a glittering piercing through her cheek. I wondered if it had hurt, but knew I couldn't ask.
'Better than nothing, right?'
'Maybe,' I said, holding open the door as we walked outside. 'I don't know, though. It's a lot of doodling.'
Cat laughed, and dipped into her suede coat for a cigarette. When the sleeves slid back a bit, you could see her skinny wrists under the fur. Her pale skin was cobwebbed with scars, her arms inked with blue tattoos, little anchors and hearts, high school marginalia. There was a black semicolon on her left wrist. A nod to her literary interests, her militant punctuation, and because Kurt Vonnegut had called them a symbol of nothing. On her shoulders she had roses, sailor-style. I didn't know that, then. I'd never seen her without her beautiful coat on. She sat all through class wearing it. It was January, start of the semester, the sky was glacial white, the sun a thin incision of light. 'Thanks,' she said. 'I'll have them back tomorrow.' I noticed her delicate fingers, chipped nail polish, a small gold skull ring.
She returned them a week later, the day before our first quiz, sticky, smelling like smoke. 'Sorry,' she said. You could almost believe she was.
'I don't mind.' There was such a fine line, between pushover
. I used to think I had good manners.
She nodded, offered me a cigarette. I murmured no thanks
, regretted it right away. 'My boyfriend calls you a Thursday girl.'
'I don't know what that means.
'You know,' Cat said. 'Cheap. Easy. The type of girl you see at King's on Thursday nights.'
'Oh,' I said. I knew I was supposed to be offended, but I was more bemused that he would think of me at all. I knew Cat's boyfriend, tangentially. His name was Billy and he walked around campus with the uncombed curls of a sixties folk singer, vintage Vans sneakers, dirty jeans and a skateboard plastered with punk rock stickers. Even though we all somehow knew they were a pair, they were rarely seen together. During lectures they would sit separately, Cat off on her own and Billy surrounded by a small group of guys.
'I wasn't really sick,' she said. 'I just went on a bender.'
'No kidding,' I said, straining to mirror her - a casual slouch of my shoulders, as if that was a thing we all did. Next to her, I felt hopelessly prim.
'Yeah.' She tilted her plastic pop bottle towards me. 'You don't want to have a drink before Canadian Lit with me, do you?'
Two hours later we were down at the river, the lecture we missed on the frontier experience long forgotten. Side by side on a bench in the Sculpture Park, sharing stories like this was something we always did. Cat could say the most awful things as if they were jokes. She told me all the girls we knew who'd been with Billy like she was making a grocery list.
'We're going to break up.'
Chanel-lipsticked mouth, a red satin finish, Coco Rouge in Magic. Her long hair, dyed a deep blackish blue, pressed flat and tidily kept in place with a pair of vintage hairpins, tortoiseshell flowers. It was the one orderly thing about her, her hair. 'Really?' They seemed somehow meant for each other, their long series of carefully tended neuroses and dysfunctions fitting together perfectly, like a row of matryoshka dolls.
'Yeah,' she said. She snuffed her cigarette out under her sneaker. 'We always do. Every spring. It's inevitable.'
'Oh.' I felt honoured, as if she had chosen me to be the treasurer of her stories. She seemed to think I was cynical and tough enough to appreciate her collection of confessions, that we were secretly alike. Or maybe she always knew the truth.
Billy's contribution to creative writing class the following week was a poem about a girl he was in love with, thin-hipped in skinny jeans / mermaid hair
'His ex-girlfriend,' Cat whispered in my ear.
'What's mermaid hair?'
Cat shrugged. 'Who fucking cares?' By now Cat and I sat together always, scratching jokes and sketches for each other into the margins of our notebooks. I tried to get a glimpse of Cat's face when Billy volunteered to read it aloud, but she didn't flinch. She just sat there in her suede coat with the fur at the wrists, eyes hooded by her heavy, glued-on lashes, rhinestone piercing shining on her cheek, and took a sip of her drink, gin mixed with pop. She offered me the bottle.
'I have to drive.'
'Right, right,' she said. 'You're very responsible.'
They broke up a week later, on Valentine's Day. I was strangely glad when they did; Cat felt more like mine that way, although they kept seeing each other, Cat told me. She came to class with bruises on her throat, which she made half-hearted efforts to hide beneath the fur collar of her coat. She smiled when I saw them, teeth gleaming.
'It's nicer here, now,' I say. Tasha and I sit on the patio at King's, a decade after we used to come here. There is a chalkboard, Ask Us About Our Daily Specials!
in artsy cursive and strings of bare bulbs, glowing like white drops of light. The bikini girls are gone from the walls inside, I notice, on the way to the washroom earlier, and so are the five dollar pitchers of watery beer. There is landscaping, too - not the cracked asphalt we clacked across in wedge heels and platform flip-flops when we were nineteen. They'd repaved the parking lot, added a little garden below the patio - citronella grass surrounded by bluish slate chips.
'It's the same old King's,' Tasha says. 'No matter what they do to it. Did you see they still have a junkyard out in the old batting cages?'
'No, I didn't look back there.'
'Like, lawn furniture. Cars from the 80s.' We drink from Mason jars of water, eat our appetizers - blue cheese biscuits, crostini toasts buttered with avocado.
'I used to come here every Thursday with Cat.'
'Cat!' Tasha says. 'I almost forgot about her.'
'I still think of her,' I say. 'A lot. Is that weird?'
'You were really close for awhile.' The strings of white bulbs varnish Tasha's bare shoulders, her lemon print summer dress, with light.
'I Googled her, a few times,' I say. 'Nothing.'
'There was a silent film actress with her name,' I say. 'Catherine Desrosiers. She tried to poison her husband and went to jail.'
'Cat would have liked that.'
'Yeah,' I say. 'She would have. I wonder if she knows.' She must know, I think; Cat's mind was kaleidoscopic, a coral reef, swimming with trivia. I don't tell Tasha about the way I think I see her, sometimes; behind me in line at the grocery store, or from the window of a car. In bright sunlight on the other side of the street. Or the dreams I have, the way we meet again, by chance, in strange places - hotel lobbies and elevators. Restaurants with chandeliers with white glass shades and rock lobsters, the kinds of places we never went. Still in her suede coat, her dark red lipstick, her hard, quick birdlike gaze. How she smiles and speaks to me, her dark hair shining, but in the mornings I never remember what she's said.
We were both in love with tacky pop culture; we watched weird McDonald's commercials from the seventies, Ronald biking through fields of grinning trees and Grimace playing tennis. We found out we'd shared a childhood obsession with Nancy Drew. Combing thrift shops, we started a collection of Mr. Peanut things, plastic whistles, pencils, and our prize, a colouring book of his travels across Canada from 1982. Aw c'mon fellas
, he complained with nutty good-natured cheer as salmon tried to flood his boat. In Alberta, he struck peanut oil. We began hanging out after class in the evenings, getting Taco Bell, Hard Taco Supremes, always. Drinking in her mother's basement, then putting on our coats and going for walks. We wandered for hours, drunk enough not to feel the cold weather, vomiting in fields on the way to King's or seedy bars on Wyandotte with the bathrooms down a maze of crooked basement stairs.
'You never give your real name in this bar,' Cat would whisper, fingers cuffing my wrist, and so we made them up, Courtney for her, because of Courtney Love, and I was Nancy. We shared cigarettes between our sullen lips, we told each other we were above all always ladies
, that old-fashioned word that made us smirk, funny to us as we outdrank the men we'd meet and stumble out the back doors of bars into the alleys, sit for an hour in the broken glass and weeds. Blood sisters
, Cat said, as we took each other by the hand, vomiting our hearts out.
I type her name into Facebook. Cat Desrosiers. Catherine. Cathy. A smiling mother on a sunny beach in a straw hat with a cream bow, holding two toddlers. A blonde in professional clothes, cuffed white blouse and green capri pants, working at a law firm. An elderly woman living in London. None of them possibly her, in this or any other universe. Cat never smiled for pictures.
Tasha calls me and says, 'Lily. I saw her at my new optometrist's office. She's the receptionist. She was Cat's roommate, right? She'll know where she is.'
By the summer, Cat had moved out of her mother's house and into an apartment by the river with Lily. Lily had been a child model for Zellers; I'd seen ads of her, in denim dresses and pink overalls and rainbow scrunchies, drinking milkshakes with Zeddy or showing off arms banded with neon slap bracelets. At twenty, she had a jagged line of black stars tattooed down the back of her neck, her hair chopped short and asymmetric, violent eyeliner; when I saw her in the evenings, she was usually drinking Raspberry Sourpuss on the sofa and watching The Price is Right
, which she was uncannily good at.
'You can make an appointment and go ask her, Ellie,' Tasha says. 'You need your eyes checked, anyway.'
I'm bored of this world
, Cat said to me once. How do I get to another one?
Once she'd gone to a spa by the lake with a rich aunt of hers, came back with two glassy pieces of angelite, pale blue stone, with a note, Ellie, I found these for us. At the spa they said angelite can hone telepathic communication, bond you to angels and ghosts, teach you about astral projection. If you figure out the secret of astral travel, you better not leave me behind, here alone.
We always drank too much and never made good choices so that night was no different, when Billy picked us up from King's after Cat called him for a ride from the payphone. Billy's best friend Aidan got out of the front seat, let Cat climb inside, still perfect in her slip dress the dark glossy shade of black cherries, her fishnets, her hair clipped back with one white acrylic heart. The matching one she had slid into my hair in the washroom. Blood sisters
, she said. I should stab you with this.
I touched it, made sure it was still there as I crawled into the back seat with Aidan.
'Don't vomit in my car again,' Billy said as we pulled out if the parking lot. He glanced back. 'You either, Ellie.'
Cat flicked at the radio till she found a station playing Hole, Courtney screaming herself raw as she sang the lyrics to Violet
. 'Fuck you.'
Beside me, Aidan coughed. As we stopped at the light on the corner, I glanced over at him. Black All Star converse sneakers and a faded ringer t-shirt. As the light changed he looked back towards me. It had started to rain out and the windows dripped gold, the light trickling over his face.
'I like your dress,' he said.
I was wearing one of Cat's, a black velvet baby doll with a keyhole neckline, her gold skull ring too tight on my finger. My knuckle throbbed. 'Thank you.'
'Yeah,' he said. 'No problem.'
At the next red light, I felt something. When I looked down his hand was just against my thigh. My mouth met his, awkwardly sideways.
We kissed all the way down Riverside Drive, on the way back to Cat's apartment, until Billy pulled up in front of the building. As we said goodbye, Cat and I getting out by the curb, I saw Billy pass her a crumpled green twenty.
'You win,' he said.
I followed Cat across the dead lawn in front of her apartment, the cracked sidewalk. 'What was that about?'
Cat turned. The piercing on her cheek glinted under the streetlight. 'Oh, nothing.'
'You weren't supposed to see that.'
'Okay,' I said again. By now I knew Cat well enough to know that seeing was the whole point of it. I'd drop it; I didn't want her bait.
'Okay?' she repeated.
'You really want to know? We made a - I bet Billy you would make out with Aidan before he dropped us off. I said first five minutes, the most, and she'll be letting him stick his - oh, Ellie, it's fucking funny, alright? You always do. I mean you make out with anyone when you're drunk. Don't bet against a Thursday girl. This time I made us twenty dollars.'
She started walking again, then stopped on the front porch. Her long dark hair, blunt bangs, white Mary Janes. 'Come on, Ellie,' she said. 'We can go to Taco Bell tomorrow. This is like, fifteen Taco Supremes. Definitely worth it.'
'Right,' I said, following her inside.
A week after Aidan, we were on the patio at King's.
'Did you get your final schedule for September?' I asked.
Cat flicked her cigarette at the stained plastic ashtray, ashing over the Coors Light logo. 'Fuck, yeah, I guess so. Did you, El? Topics in Medieval Drama, right? Laurel Kennedy's the prof, and she's awful, but it's easy. No written exams.'
'I don't think I'm taking Topics in Medieval Drama anymore,' I said, peeling my elbows off the sticky table.
Cat stared at me. She had tried to cover up an infection spreading through her cheek with makeup before we went out, applied so thick her face had a caked look to it. Probably from shoving safety pins in there
, Tasha had said. She needs to let it dry and put on some peroxide.
'We were supposed to take that class together.'
'I know, I'm sorry, you know I wanted to, but I realized I don't need the credit, so I'm taking Italian for Beginners instead, I still need that one to graduate.'
'Fuck graduating,' she said. 'We were supposed to be in that class together. Now you're making me do it alone? You know that professor hates me. And we were supposed to share a textbook.'
That was what it all came down to, splitting the cost of a textbook, or letting Cat lip service the idea till I forgot about or dropped her half of the money.
She touched her tender cheek, sucked on her cigarette. 'Take it anyway.'
'Cat,' I said. 'I can't.'
She stood up, flicked the lit cigarette at my chest. 'You're such a fucking bitch,' I heard her say, before I walked away.
The next morning there was an email in my inbox from her. Aw c'mon fellas
was the subject line, but I didn't open it.
I make an appointment with Tasha's optometrist, a Thursday afternoon. It is a nice, new office in Tecumseh, concrete and glass in what was a farmer's soybean field ten years ago. Inside, the walls are Oxford grey, with accents of sage green, pale blue. Silver gelatin prints of birds in neutral frames, and walls of glasses displayed under lights. I see her right away, Lily at the front desk; she has undergone a change, too, and now matches the office décor - her hair ash blonde and pulled back, a pastel mint blouse, a polished stone grey manicure. She looks up and she says, 'welcome to Doctor Reed's, she just opened up a month ago. Isn't the new place lovely?'
'Yes,' I say, although I've never been to the old place.
'Please take a seat,' Lily says. 'She'll be with you in just a moment.'
I thank her, and find a chair, a magazine. I let my chance to ask her about Cat quietly expire and open my waiting room copy of Elle
, the new rules of beauty, the trends - vampire brides, dark red lips, how Cat would approve. Think about rose gold frames or tortoiseshell horn-rims.
I'd rather keep squinting into the sun, always wondering if that was Cat, finally, standing by the river, or just across the street. Waiting for a bus on Tecumseh Road. Turning her face away at the last moment. Dark hair. Pierced through her cheek or a scar there, now. When I drove down certain streets and saw the women waiting by the curb in fur coats and pajama pants I looked twice. In a car at the light before the on ramp, heading west on E.C. Row. Or maybe she had left this city years ago, wrote a book, went to New Mexico like she'd always wanted and seen where they said the spaceship crashed. Cat in her suede coat and sneakers. They say if you dream of someone you should take it as a sign, that that person's dreaming of you, too. I keep my blue angelite in my dresser drawer. You better not leave me behind, here alone
. I haven't so far.
Anne Baldo's first collection of short fiction, Morse Code for Romantics, is forthcoming from Porcupine’s Quill.