this is a story i wrote way back when i went to byu (so long ago) and was desperate to imagine up some drama in my life. sometimes (read: all the time) byu/provo/utah/mormon culture can feel very cookie-cutter, white-bread, all-too-predictable. i rebelled in strange ways, perhaps. my inner feminist came roaring up and never went away (praise the heavens). i fell in love with movies telling a different story (like Silver Linings Playbook or even The Grey). i fangirled over eminem and jay-z, pulsing to their music as if i could relate. i went to london and paris just to remind myself the world is a big, big place (fairly pretty, too). and i wrote dramatic stories that no one could relate to, just because I liked the idea of challenging...someone/thing. and this is the first go at it. adult language and all.
Smoke and Shadows
I listen to them make love with sickened disinterest. They are all giggles and breathlessness tangled together, their bodies banging against the stall doors. I kneel on the ground, my body sprawled across the toilet, the vomit still boiling in the pit of my stomach. The tile is cold against my knees. The porcelain is hot under my arms. And the groans of the couple next door turn animal at the end.
I hurl again.
Finally, in a burst of loud laughs, they finish. He stumbles out of the stall. I hear him zip his pants. He doesn’t wash his hands. He just chuckles and leaves, not even bothering with a goodbye. The woman doesn’t seem to care. She lets out a dramatic sigh—something loud and reaching, high-pitched and final. And then she comes out, the stall door banging behind her.
I turn my head slowly to look under the door, watching her put her shoes back on, her knees slightly bent as she bounces on one foot, tucking her other into a narrow stiletto, almost tripping as she pulls the strap around her ankle. She laughs wildly, switching feet to put on the last shoe.
And then I vomit again.
She stops laughing. I’m not watching—my head is buried in the basin of the toilet, my eyes closed shut against the sting of the flood of alcohol that has just betrayed me—but I hear her come closer. And then she knocks.
I think I groan. Her laugh is uncomfortable.
“Sorry. I didn’t know anyone was in here.”
I roll my eyes, but I shouldn’t have. The dizzying motion makes me dry heave. She groans, a sympathetic noise echoing through the hollow room.
“Do you need anything?”
I groan again.
“Are you here with anyone?”
I suddenly think of their sweaty bodies rubbing against each other next door, the fastest five minutes barely climaxing. I wonder how many people have had sex in my stall. How many bodies contorted against the toilet, pressed to too-small walls. And I vomit again. But nothing’s left.
She pushes the door open and I’m surprised by how the light pours in. Even the music seems louder, pulsing through the bathroom walls sounding like a heartbeat tight against a chest. The sort of rhythm you’d hear after running—no, after making love, falling on each other and hearing the heart pound, the beat bouncing through you, becoming a part of you, actually absorbing you until you doubt you could ever breathe shallow or slow again.
It’s how I feel now, except empty.
“Oh, god, you look awful.”
I remember who’s standing over me, the stranger who gets breathy when she makes love. I actually blush as I roll my head to look at her. But she doesn’t seem embarrassed. She picks at a nail bed, staring at me with arched brows. Her eyes look cat-like, the bright green drawn out with purple shadow layered dramatically across her eyelids. The dress is silver and barely there, hugging her and showing her off, like a less-pretty best friend playing wingman to the real star of the show. I’ve never seen someone so comfortable so close to naked. I want to say she acted like she was born that way, and I just smile at my own joke.
And then I retch again. I heave, my body aching to ruin me, to throw everything out, but there’s nothing left to give. And suddenly I’m crying, my face buried in my arms.
The woman sighs behind me. I think she’s leaving. But I feel her lean over me. She smells like sweat and roses. I notice her arms glitter.
She flushes the toilet and then hands me a roll of toilet paper.
“You look like hell.”
I consider laughing but the thought makes me sick.
“I’m no expert, but I’m pretty sure you don’t have to empty your whole stomach to lose a few.”
I shake my head, struggling to find my voice. Finally, it comes back to me.
“No, I’m sick.”
I turn to stare at her, gaping tiredly. Her eyes lock on mine, nothing passing through them, and then she laughs. It echoes through the room, ricocheting from the mirrors and the stalls, distorted by the time it comes back to us. And then she kneels down next to me. I push my hair out of my face, straightening warily as she carefully tucks her legs under her, her skirt inching up even more.
“God, though, you do smell awful.” She laughs again. “Remind me to not get whatever you had.”
I groan, thinking of the endless shots the bartender had poured and I’d gulped on an empty stomach. She nods at me, pulling a joint out from her bra. She puts it in her mouth and waits expectantly. I just watch. Finally, she waves a hand.
“You’ve got a light?”
I shake my head. She nods hers.
She takes the roll and spins it between her fingers. “So if it’s not your fat thighs that sent you here, what is it? Some ex? A broken nail?” She laughs. I’m getting used to the shallow noise.
I watch her carefully, finally shaking my head and frowning. “Do you really wanna sit here talking to me? I’ve got vomit caked to my mouth and you…. Isn’t your boyfriend waiting or something?”
Her forehead creases, and then she laughs. “Boyfriend? That shit?” She laughs. “God, no. I don’t have that bad of daddy issues. He was just some piece of ass on the dance floor. Felt like taking it slow for a minute, you know?” She winks at me. I scoff.
“It didn’t seem too slow.”
I think I’ve hurt her feelings because she stays quiet. And I look up, meeting her eyes again. And then she just throws her head back and laughs.
“I like you,” she said finally, still playing with her weed. She nods at me, “You’re funny. Kinda pretty, too.” She puts the joint back in her mouth. “So what are you doing in here?”
I shrug, finally sitting up. The motion makes my head spin so I straighten, scooting along the floor until I find the other wall of the stall. I lean against it, sighing in relief as the cold metal skates through my shirt and down my spine.
Finally, I open my eyes. Maybe because of the way she watches me, waiting, but I suddenly feel a thousand confessions itching to come out, to finally be heard.
“You’re what—20, 25?”
She blushes, smiling coyly, only shrugging her shoulder a little. I laugh, a soft scoff sliding roughly out of my nose. I wipe a hand across my mouth and stare at the silver wall behind her, wishing suddenly my life hadn’t come to a point spent retching in a toilet with a girl who still smelt like sex.
I think I might cry again.
I think I might cry again.
“Well," I say roughly, "You hit thirty, then thirty-five, and suddenly everyone’s measuring you up. Every year counts. And you take stock of your life and realize…none of it matters. You’ve failed to do something—anything meaningful. Can’t even impress one person for one minute.”
Her smile falters. And then it’s back. She nudges me with one of her heels. “It can’t be all bad. You obviously know how to have a good time.”
I laugh. “Is that what this is?”
She smiles. “Well, I mean before ending up here—you were having a party, you know? Go big or go home! You just didn’t make it that far.” She giggles. She rolls her head along the wall, turning it up to stare at the ceiling tiles. “Life can’t be all that bad.”
I sigh. Everything’s still a little fuzzy but I focus on the red paint chipping off my fingernails. It’s halfway gone and practically useless and I can’t stop staring at the jagged stains still clinging to my nails.
“I’m thirty-five, right? And…it’s like everything I ever thought I’d be or do or have, none of it happened. And I really don’t know why. Maybe it’s my fault, a messed up childhood, my hovering mother, some vendetta god has against me—any of that tired crap people get to blame their problems on. But the point is…it’s like you’re caught running on a treadmill, just going, going, going, but getting nowhere with nothing ever changing except the pity in people’s faces, the judgmental whispers, the damn advice everyone wants to give.” I hate myself for it, but I can’t stop talking; everything's hazy and the words just keep spewing, a new sort of vomit. “And then, tonight, I decide to drown my sorrows with some girlfriends, but they all call to say they’re busy—that their husbands or children or jobs couldn’t spare them. So I became friends with the bartender until I wound up here, puking on the floor of some filthy club, listening to some dirty slut have sex.”
The air goes still. I suddenly remember I’m not alone or talking to myself—even just thinking, my mind spinning like it usually does. And I look up, suddenly scared of what I might find.
The woman stares at me, eyes eerily blank. She doesn’t move. Her arm is stretched out, resting on a knee, her hand frozen in front of her, the joint casually balanced between two knuckles. And then she laughs, something sad and low and frightened.
“You bitch.” She nods at me. Her words are cold but they sting. And she shakes her head, laughing again. “After that speech, you think you can pretend you’re better than me?”
I sigh. “I didn’t mean—“
She holds up her hand, silencing me. “No, you meant it. And maybe I am. I mean, I’m just some blonde who had sex with a stranger in a club. Forgive me for being such a cliché. But you’re just as awful—only, guess which one of us is happy?”
She laughs again. “I’m gonna get up and walk out, dance some more, drink some more, probably go home with another stranger just to sneak out of his apartment after and walk home to sleep in my own bed. And when Monday rolls around, I’ll get up and go to work. And you know what I’ll do? I’ll rave about the wild weekend and all the beautiful bastards I slept with. And you’ll find me back here again by the next weekend. With friends, by myself—who gives a shit? And you know what I’ll think of then? The sad, lonely, messed up girl laying in her own vomit like some broken dog or old man, crying about how her life means nothing to no one. So thanks for that, by the way. Now I know what I never want to be when I grow up.”
I scowl at her. “You think your life is so perfect now. But life—”
She cuts me off with a wild jerk of her hand. She leans closer, her eyes boiling. “Yeah, what? Life sucks? Life changes? Life matters? I’ve heard it all before. And you know what I think? Who gives a shit?” She laughs, moving back, shaking her head. “You’ve got to stop living for other people. One life is enough for them; don’t go wasting yours as if you owe them. You want to be happy? Be happy. You want a husband and kids and the goddamn picket fence? Then get it. But don’t sit here moaning about your shitty existence and drag me into it. Cuz from how you’d describe it, I’d rather be the slut in the stall with the stranger than the girl caught moaning about her life not being just like everyone else’s.”
My frown tightens. And I scoff, shaking my head. “You don’t get to judge me.”
She laughs. “Right back at you, princess.”
And I finally look at her. She smiles wildly, pushing her bangs off her forehead. They are starting to get sweaty, matting together in unforgiving strands. I suddenly notice a mole right under her eye. Her whole face is beginning to melt away, the makeup pooling hotly in the smallest of creases and curves. And she suddenly looks normal—like I could imagine her sitting at home in a pair of old PJs eating a burrito as a cat purrs nearby.
But maybe I just want to see something of me in her.
“What kind of pleasure do you get from living that way?” I can’t shake the awe that suddenly settles on me, making my voice soft.
She laughs, smiling brightly again, nodding towards the other stall. “You were listening to it. You tell me.”
I fight a blush, looking down. She laughs at me again.
“Anyways,” she says quickly, fluttering her hand as if to brush the seriousness away. “The way I see it, no matter what happens, it’s happening to you—not anyone else—so you get to decide what matters, what works, what you’re gonna do to get back at that bitch we call life. You either suck it up or make her suck it, right? So, my advice? Never let the bitch win. She always gets you in the end anyway. Might as well screw her with what time you’ve got.”
I don’t know what to say or think or do. I just nod, slowly. And she nods with me.
Suddenly, the bathroom door opens and three girls come pouring in, sweaty and laughing.
“Hey,” the woman sitting by me yells, pushing the stall door open. “You’ve got a light?”
They look at us and I suddenly realize how strange we must look, one woman in a desperate dress, the other in a pantsuit, each sweaty for different reasons, both sitting on the bathroom floor. The bunch of girls giggle at us, but one steps forward, silently offering a lighter.
“Oh, thank god.” She lights her joint and inhales, letting the smoke spin slowly from her nostrils. The other girls pretend to fix their hair and reapply lipstick, but they watch us from the mirror, finally leaving in another fit of giggles. I consider getting up and going out with them, but I’m too tired. And the woman across from me opens her eyes.
“You want some?”
I look at the joint, wondering what it feels like sliding down your throat. I’m already breathing it in. Maybe that’s why I shrug. She takes it as a yes.
“Here, have the rest. God knows you need it more than me.” She offers it to me after one more drag and then she stands up. I guess I’m surprised to see her leaving. But I don’t have any reason to ask her to stay, and I’m not sure I even want her to. So I just stare at her parting gift. I hold it between my thumb and finger, watching the way the smoke curls up from it, the white paper turning orange then black then ash, fading into nothing but a puff of grey.
The woman stands up, shaking the germs from her. “Hey,” she says, suddenly serious. “Lighten up.” And then she laughs, carelessly, tossing her hair as she gives her reflection a glance. She fluffs her hair and flicks a finger along her eyelashes. I watch as she notices the mole peeking out and quickly rubs the makeup back over it. And then she smiles. With nothing more than a wink my way, she disappears.
I imagine her back on the dance floor, her body gyrating to every violent jump of the music. She was probably one I’d been watching earlier, resenting the way she could go out on the floor alone and suddenly be hunted by every guy out there, each eager to chase her curves, following them slowly with each dip and dive to the pounding of the music. And I can imagine her picking one and chasing him into the bathroom, a stranger to make her feel something or maybe to prove something. That’s when I realize I’m the second one that night to say goodbye without even knowing her name.
I can’t decide if I want to be her, but I stare at the joint between my fingers as I consider it.