Anney E. J. Ryan
I’m standing in line for the bathroom at the Silhouette Cocktail Lounge. After about five minutes, the guy standing behind me taps my shoulder. I look him over. He’s stocky, red-faced, shiny as a peeled onion and smiling wider than an ass crack. A white ball cap sits on the very top of his head. He sticks out his chest, points to the door of the only working restroom and asks, “What do you think they’re doing in there?”
I ignore him. I am bitter, kicked out of the apartment I share with Marshall so he could host a bachelor party. Tourists usually stick to traps like the Hard Rock, so it annoys me to see one in the Silhouette. It makes me paranoid that more will follow, taking advantage of discounted beer and pool when they can afford so much more. Think about it. This guy comes into my regular bar and thinks he’s walked into one of those scary stories he heard about Miami. But it’s only vacation for him. Within a few days, he will return to the cubicle-wide-eyed and bragging.
What I hate most is how he’s acting so comfortable, like he fits right in, when really he’s the whitest guy in the place. Illegal immigrant dishwashers and line cooks pack around the pool tables, smelling of plantains and grease. Their mouths chew cigarettes and snap spanglish into the air. The stripping pole is bare, though usually at some point in the evening some drunk skank will climb up and improvise. This is obviously not his scene. For me, it’s the backdrop, the soundtrack. I don’t choose the places that feel like home; I end up there. Like I wanted to fail out of college, wait six double shifts a week, get kicked out of my apartment to make room for strippers, and stand here in tuxedo pants and an undershirt spotted with salad dressing. My problem is that I only know what I don’t want.
I feel a second tap at my shoulder.
“Hey!” The guy starts up again. “What’s your favorite joke?”
This time, I give in.
“Two men walk into a bar,” I say. “Don’t you think one of them would have seen it?”
It’s not a funny joke and he doesn’t laugh. It’s the only joke I can remember because my grandfather told it to me about a million times when I was a kid. It killed me the first time I heard it, but whenever I tell it, nobody laughs.
“One bad joke deserves another,” he says and puts out a hand. “I’m Shawn.”
I take it, awkwardly. “I’m Suz,” I say.
“Well actually, Shawn’s not my real name. It’s my doppelganger.”
“My doppelganger,” he grins fiercely. “The name I give people when I go out.”
“Why do you need to give a fake name when you go out?”
“You know . . . in case things get crazy!” He waves his palms in my face and does a little dance.
I stare at his hat. I never should have opened my mouth.
He points at my nose and laughs. “You’re an angry one, aren’t ya?”
And you’re one of those guys who walks down the street smiling at nothing, I think. Even when you’re sober, you’re smiling. You smile at women pushing strollers. You smile at construction workers. You smile at police.
I look past him into the pool hall where my girl Kat’s coming down hard, leaning on the chalkboard where the pool players keep score. She’s got her elbows perched on the ledge, her hips sticking out in the aisle, and her head rubbing out the names. Her eyes are closed, but she’s aware. She’s the South Beach Scarlett O’Hara, Georgian-bred; she’ll walk away from that board without a speck of chalk on her.
I’m tired. I’ve been waiting for the bathroom for ten minutes. This is ridiculous. I walk straight up to the door and knock. The door opens and this albino pokes his head out. He’s got red eyes, spiky blond hair, white eyelashes and is wearing a black satin dress shirt with a picture of a pin-up girl on it.
“What’s up,” I say. “Can I get a line?”
The albino furrows his brows together. He reminds me of one of those little orange guys from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. “Excuse me?” he says.
I repeat it slowly. “Can I get a line of some of that coke you’re doing?”
I don’t speak up, but I do lean in close to his face. I part my lips slightly and let my tongue slither out. Before he can back away, I wrap my hands around his neck and lap the spot of white powder left on the tip of his nose.
The doppelganger is right behind me, jumping up and down, chanting like he’s at a sports game, “Let us in! Let us in!”
The albino sighs. Then he cracks the door and we scuttle inside. We inch by his girlfriend, who’s withdrawing from the edge of the sink, wiping her nose and rolling her eyes.
They are girlfriend and boyfriend; I guess by their matching outfits. They dress not exactly like 1952, but like 1982 looking back on 1952. Her version is capri blue jeans and a bandanna print tube top pulled down in the back to reveal an enormous pin-up girl tattoo on her shoulder. Both she and the pin-up girl have the same chopped haircut with the sideburns all glued and curliqued to the sides of her face. I think of what Kat would say. Why you got a tattoo of a lady on your back? You lesbian? She’d get away with it, being Southern.
This bathroom is so goddamn small. In order to fit the four of us, the doppelganger sits on the toilet while the albino stands with his back to him, cutting me a line along the edge of the sink, real jittery and using his pocket knife of all things. That leaves me and the girlfriend pressed against the window opposite the door.
“I’m Suz,” I tell her.
“I’m Shawn,” adds the doppelganger.
She grins and gives him her hand. “Shawn’s my little brother’s name!”
“Well, Shawn’s not my real name,” he says. “It’s my doppelganger. The name I give people when I go out.”
“That’s not what a doppelganger is,” argues the albino. “It’s like a ghost or your evil twin or something, and it follows you around.”
“Exactly!” cries the doppelganger. “When I drink, I turn into my own evil twin!”
The albino’s girlfriend crosses her arms and leans against the window like she’d rather be anywhere else.
I ignore everybody. I am first up to bat, bending over the sink, strawing a rolled-up dollar bill into my left nostril. As I start pulling, ol’ doppelganger asks the other two for their favorite joke.
The girlfriend just about has a seizure from the question. I can tell she’s one of those broads you find mid-day spewing feminism in a coffee shop and by night, the only girl at the party that matters, snubbing all other females as competition. One minute she’s Rosie the Riveter, the next, Miss America, beaming at the chance to tell a joke. She says, “Ever heard the one about the Purple Penguin from Poland?”
The doppelganger is delighted. His eyes light up.
I turn back to the edge of the sink; I know the Purple Penguin joke. It’s this long, drawn-out story of a father telling his son a story about a purple penguin from Poland. The boy confronts his teacher with the story and the two have an altercation about whether purple penguins exist, and if penguins exist at all in Poland. It’s not really a joke. It’s more like a really long story. The punch line ends up being the fact that there is no punch line. The whole point of the joke is to tell a really long story and then annoy your listener with the absence of a punch line. Dumb, right? That’s the kind of girl this chick is.
Regardless, the story acts as a pacifier. Everyone is so wrapped up in the joke that I gank two extra lines. The albino doesn’t call me on it. Line after line disappears up and into my ringing head.
As the center of attention, Rosie’s all warm and happy. The doppelganger’s smiling too, elbowing past me and taking the dollar bill from my hand. I don’t offer it; he just takes it, cutting his own fat line-totally against the rules. He should’ve at least waited for the albino to cut the first, then stolen what he could after bending over, like I did. Before they can remember he came in with me, I start slipping towards the door.
I squeeze past the doppelganger, take maybe two steps and realize he’s grunting like he’s in pain. His body’s jerking, trembling after every sniff, but he keeps at it. My back’s against the door. My hand’s on the knob.
He straightens up, giggling. “I feel cold,” he says. A bit of blood trickles from his left nostril. Rosie shoots a look at the albino.
The doppelganger rubs his nose with the back of his hand, smearing blood all over his face. Then he starts going off. He says it’s weird how everything in South Beach looks like the movie Scarface and wants to know why all the buildings are painted pink. “Is it a Cuban thing?” he asks.
Rosie the Riveter opens her mouth like she’s got the answer. For a second, I want to know more than anything. But the doppelganger interrupts her with the strangest sneeze I’ve ever heard. It’s heavy and dry, as if he’s stopped up with a cold. There’s a hollow, wooden knocking sound behind it. Pulling his hand away from his mouth, he sees the crimson starburst splashed across his palm. A cataract of blood follows, pouring out of his nose and down his t-shirt. There’s a good long gush. The doppelganger tries to catch it, cupping his hands at his chest. As the blood puddles and falls between his fingers, he gapes at us.
“What do I do?” he says.
Well, they waste no time getting out of there. Rosie snatches her little denim purse off the windowsill and bolts out the door. The albino follows. There’s a burst of noise as the door opens and shuts-glasses, bass, beats, protests from people in line for the bathroom. A girl snaps, “Took you long enough,” drawing a chorus of male laughter. The doppelganger looks at me like he can’t believe this is happening. I fly into action, lock the door and get water running in the sink.
“I shouldn’t have done that,” says the doppleganger. “I have bad allergies.”
The words bubble from his mouth. I try not to look, but blood’s everywhere. The water in the basin quickly turns pink as he tries to wash his face and hands. There’s just as much blood as water, funneling down the drain. There’s so much blood I can smell it. To distract myself, I duck over to the paper towel dispenser and spin the handle, gathering a fistful. Towels balled up over his face, I guide the doppelganger to the toilet and mutter that he’s in luck; Altagracia Hospital is only five blocks away.
The doppelganger shakes his head furiously and the towels fall to the floor. More blood. Drops splatter against the tile like spring rain.
“I can’t!” he cries. “I’m a teacher!”
“They can’t get you for possession,” I remind him. “You keep losing blood like this, you’ll go into shock and I can’t carry your ass for five blocks.”
“Just stay with me for a minute,” he begs. “I’ll put my head back.”
So the doppelganger pinches his nose and holds his head back. The blood floods his throat. He coughs it up, soaking the paper towels completely.
I have to look away. The smell is getting to me. The doppelganger’s woozy too, swaying on the toilet. Beneath the sopping red paper towels his face has paled whiter than its ivory; leaving his eye pits a dead, muddy brown. Like the color is draining out with the blood. I start seeing flashes of light; TV fuzz framing my peripheral vision. The walls shudder. There’s someone hammering at the bathroom door.
A shrill voice calls from the other side, “Y’all fuckin’?”
I unlock the door and she enters, ranting that there’s a mad line outside and reminding us that this is the only working restroom in the whole club. The blood doesn’t faze her. She drops to her knees in front of the doppelganger and thumbs his eyelids open.
“I saw you go in the bathroom with this boy and I was just prayin’ that you weren’t trying to get back at Marshall or some shit,” she mutters.
“He only did a line,” I explain. “He won’t go to the hospital because he’s a teacher.”
The doppelganger spits blood and asks, “Who’s Marshall?”
Kat stands up. “Help me get him over the sink. If we can get him to take some water into his nose, it might stop the bleeding.”
I squint, doubtful.
She pigeons her neck, barks with that urgency that only nurses and Southern women know. “What you want to do?”
I look down at him. His head falls against my hip. I rest my hand on the top of his head. Before I know it, I’m petting his hat like I’m his goddamn mother. His nose is bleeding through the fabric of my pants, but I don’t care. He’s so stupid, I feel bad for him.
People are starting to bang on the door. I look up at Kat. “There’s no stopper in the drain,” I tell her.
She bends down and wraps her arms around his middle. I come from behind, slipping my fingers under the doppelganger’s armpits. He’s pretty out of it now. His eyes are shut, his body, limp. We hoist him up and he falls against my shoulder; dots of blood appear across my chest.
“Let him lean on you,” Kat says and lifts his t-shirt over his head.
The doppelganger stirs, cringing into my neck. “What are you getting me naked for?” he whimpers.
“It’s not for you honey,” says Kat.
She rolls his bloody shirt into a ball and uses it to clog the sink drain. As the sink fills, a weird pink foam collects along the edge of the basin. We wait until there’s just enough to cover his head, then start prodding his face towards the water. He bucks; he doesn’t want it. I hold him standing, until suddenly Kat jumps on his back, hooking one leg around his waist and clawing at the crown of his head. She rocks, pushing his whole body forward. The doppelganger topples into the sink, sending a lap of water down the front of my tuxedo pants.
With one foot grazing the tiles, Kat holds his head underwater. He coughs and chokes and I feel awkward. I don’t know what to do besides stand there, listening to the swells of water bubble up, making a puddle at my feet.
A couple seconds go by. Suddenly he wrenches out of Kat’s grasp and flies up, drenching us both in blood and water. He’s so weak that when I try to grab him, Kat tries to grab me and we all fall over.
On the floor, the doppelganger pinches the bridge of his nose and curses, “Why won’t it stop?” The blood collects with the sink water into little pink waterfalls that run down his neck and draw a map on his chest. I’m amazed at how many different colors are in his blood-some brown, some purple, some of the brightest crimson I’ve ever seen. There are thick globs of tissue. I think, this is what they call gore. His chest hairs are gummy with the stuff; his pecs crusted over like bloody saucers.
With a yawn and a wave, he tells us, “This is my white flag. I’m tired.” And he starts to recline, tucking himself behind the toilet.
Kat grips his pants leg and yanks on it. “Hey man, you can’t fall asleep.”
He looks right at me and mumbles like someone talking mid-dream. “Wait ’til there’s a commercial,” he says, and passes out.
Kat starts shrieking. She grabs his head by the hair and we take turns slapping him. I slap and the blood goes on her, she slaps and the blood goes on me.
“I can’t even tell if he’s breathing,” she whimpers. “We should call an ambulance.”
It’s sweltering. I jump up and open the window. With a loud crack the sash grinds out of the ledge. Then the air starts to shift-out goes the hot bloody and in comes the pure Atlantic. I nearly pass out from relief. I press my forehead against the screen and inhale greedily, catching the sounds of faraway traffic and Spanish hollered down the alley.
Then I remember something I thought I had forgotten, a memory that comes with the word ambulance. I took a class. At the Aquila’s in Minnesota every server had to attend one “How to Save a Life” course administered by an EMT from the local hospital. Fellow servers and I giggled through the three-hour session, waggling our tongues at the CPR practice dummy and scribbling raunchy jokes in the CPR manual. Thinking of the old pink and blue cartoons, I remember only a few small instructions.
“Help me pull him away from the toilet,” I tell Kat.
She tugs at the doppelganger’s feet until he’s lying in the middle of the room. There’s only a small space between him and the door, where Kat is kneeling, wide-eyed and shaking. Amidst all the banging, there’s the sharp crack of a foot against the other side of the door. Somehow I tune it out.
I saddle up, climb on top and count the space between his sternum and his heart with the width of my fingers. I thread them together and push down hard, imagining myself the Human Heart Pump. Five good thrusts to the chest and then I get personal. His mouth is clammy. It’s difficult enough pinching his nose slimy and slippery with the excess of blood.
When it’s time to go back to the chest, I worry about finding his heart again. Fortunately, the doppelganger starts coughing and I jump out of the way so he doesn’t spit nothing on me. The doppelganger sits up straight, hacking so hard his cheeks tremble. More red spittle flies and I rub his back like a mother, wincing every time he heaves. Finally, with a cough so loud it rattles the windowpane, a chunk of blood as big as a jawbreaker comes flying out of his mouth and into his cupped hands. Almost instantly, the blood stops pouring from his nose.
“Damn,” says the doppelganger. “I been waiting for that to pass.”
Too numb to reply, we help him stand at the sink and hover at his elbows. Water collects in his hands and pushes away the blood. Chunks of red tissue slither down the drain. When the water runs clear, the only thing remaining in the doppelganger’s hand is a tiny silver round piece of metal with a hole in it.
“Is that a screw?” I ask, peering over his shoulder.
“It’s a hex nut,” says Kat. She cocks her head at the doppelganger. “What the hell was that doing up your nose?”
For once the doppelganger says nothing, just holds up the hex nut and smiles proudly. It looks like a doughnut with eight sharp sides. I ask him if I may look at it and he drops the nut into my hand. It rolls around for a second, then falls over on its side. The eye in its center goes dark in the shadow of my palm, so I pinch the hex nut between my thumb and index finger and tip it up into the light. Through the hole and past the threads inside, I see the face of the doppelganger grinning back at me. He sings, “I see you!”
By the time we venture back out into the bar, most of the crowd has moved into the street. The doppelganger follows me and Kat outside. He’s got his bloody t-shirt flung over one shoulder, but it looks more like a red shirt than a white shirt with blood on it. Early morning Miami is filled with bare chests, drunk boys mimicking the calls of tropical birds and kissing the hands of girls who would just rather go home. They share the sidewalk with pimps and high-class businessmen, each tucking a silver lady into a luxury automobile, and peeling the smell of burnt rubber into the air. Humidity is only a memory from the day before and comforting, like a blanket after being in the cold club all night.
In the midst of the crowd, the doppelganger finds his friends-all in matching white t-shirts and white ball caps, smoking Camel lights. They flock around the doppelganger, who’s talking like he just had some incredible out-of-body experience. He was only unconscious for five seconds, but claims to have seen it all-the light, the tunnel and even heard the choir of angels singing in heaven.
He introduces Kat and me. “These are the bitches that saved my life,” he says proudly. Then he looks at me, feigns a double take. “What’s your name again?”
The boys howl at his audacity. One whistles. Another gives us the privilege of taking his life back. Kat and I exchange a look, but say nothing. For some reason, he doesn’t bother me. After seeing him all pathetic and helpless in the bathroom, it’s like I’m physically incapable of getting mad at him. It’s like he’s my kid or something.
The guys offer breakfast, but Kat has a blunt in her pocket. As we trudge home, we pass it back and forth and try to figure out where the hex nut came from. The sky slowly evens out to day. Home is either six or eight blocks, we can never agree on whether to count the junkyard. Kat’s so tired she’s dragging the bottoms of her sandals so they grind against the sidewalk.
“What I don’t get,” she says. “Is how a little tiny line of cocaine goes in and a hex nut comes out.”
“But the coke went in his nose and the nut came out his mouth.”
Kat ashes the blunt and flutters her eyelashes at me. “He was on vacation with a bunch of old frat boys. Who knows what he was putting inside himself?”
The growling of a doctored engine interrupts her. A group of Cuban boys speed by in a convertible. Their destination is the sun; it has parked itself at the end of the street. As they pass, salsa music drowns our conversation. They honk and Kat shouts, “Hey y’all!” I hide the blunt, cupping the smoking end inside my hand.
It’s still going by the time we get to my apartment, so we sit on the stoop and pick dried blood from under our fingernails. Kat peels the fronds off a nearby bush and uses the tip to poke apart an anthill, punted up between the cracks in the pavement. I do a little dance and sing: “Who saved a life? I saved a life.” Then I sit and go: “I can’t believe that I remembered that CPR shit.”
Kat doesn’t get it. She points the blunt at me. “You talk about dumping your boyfriend for having strippers in the house, but you don’t care if some random stranger OD’s on you?”
“It’s different,” I say. “Like my kindergarten teacher used to say. You don’t have to like everybody, but you have to love everybody.”
“You’re like, the only person I know who’s like that,” she says, shaking her head at me.
“You remember Kindergarten.”
She pauses to hit the blunt, and holding it in, adds: “Girl, I don’t remember yesterday.”
I look at Kat like she’s crazy, because she is, and she looks at me like that blunt did nothing to her. Usually she speaks from inside me, opinions I don’t realize I have until she puts them into words. But not this time.
I don’t tell her how blood is like a mirror. In it, I could see myself and how stupid I am. I could see myself-past, present, and future. Old dreams swim back to me, riding that red wave. I feel rushing under my feet, wind in my hair. It’s not just the weed. I’m surfing that bloody crest right outta here.
Finally. I am so sure. I don’t even care when, a few moments later, Marshall hangs his head out the fifth floor window, calls us hookers and tells me not to be angry with him, because the strippers never showed up anyway.