Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Chapter Four - Maria

(Prior chapters in chronological order can be found here)

    Maria watched the green sign with its reflective white paint as it passed by at sixty-five miles per hour. As her headlights illuminated the sign, it informed her that Dothan was five miles away from her present location. Maria clutched the steering wheel and checked her rearview mirror for what seemed like the thousandth time since driving out of Miami, Florida at Eight the previous evening. The sun was just making its appearance in her rearview mirrors and the clock on the dashboard of the 1985 Volkswagen Rabbit read 6:30 A.M.

    She knew it was time to stop and sleep. When she had entered the interstate in Miami, Maria had told herself she was just running to the store and would be right back. That was the only way to keep her nerves from once again getting the better of her. The only way to keep herself from going to the store to buy a gallon of milk they didn’t need and going back home. This was her fourth attempt at leaving Nigel. The first three times she had wussed out and went back home to him. Him and his syringes on the coffee table.

    Nigel thought it was hilarious that he used his dead mother’s set of collectible silver spoons when shooting up. He always thought he was somehow “sticking it to the bitch” as he put it.

    “If mummy could see me now,” he’d laugh while tying the tourniquet and carefully portioning out the powder on a spoon with the flag of Britain on the handle. His accent always slurred when he was high, Maria noticed. It was the only tell. His eyes didn’t change, pupils didn’t contract or dilate. Just the accent changed ever so slightly, as if forgetting where it came from.

    Passing a sign for a motel at the next exit, Maria forced herself back to the present. She estimated that Nigel noticed her lack of return from the grocery store around ten, after waking up from a heroin-induced stupor. It would have taken him a while to re-orient himself, Maria knew. He liked that disconnected feeling that being high afforded him. Like a little kid, he would fling his arms wide and spin, spin, spin, spin, spin, until he fell over, laughing so hard he didn’t notice when the glass of bourbon shattered and cut his palms as he put out a hand to break his fall.

    Maria had pulled off of Interstate 10 and was now in downtown Dothan. She pulled into the parking lot of a no-tell motel. It was a dark and dingy place with only one working street light on the entire block. The outside of the building had once been white, but the cheap dye used in the paint job on the roof had run down the sides of the building over the years, and now it looked like the roof had been crying pink and green tears.

    She opened the driver side door of the Rabbit, heaving with her shoulder to coerce the thing into obedience. The car was slowly, but surely falling apart; she was surprised it had survived this long really. Considering there had been two two stops for gas, two hour long breaks at rest areas to collect her wits and convince herself NOT to turn around and go home, not to mention the three times she had exited the Interstate while still in Florida and driven through backwater towns just in case anybody had been following her.

    Maria knew Nigel didn’t care about her so much as he cared about money. Money was what made his drug addictions go round after all. Which is why Maria was driving a Rabbit now, after Nigel had sold her classic car out from under her one day when she was in Ft Lauderdale with friends. She had come home from a weekend away to find this decrepit, once-green with paint peeling to reveal rust spots and primer, piece of shit Rabbit.

    Taking a deep breath and gathering all of her courage, Maria said to herself, “I’ve seen enough horror movies to know where this is going,” and got out of the car. She practically ran to the front door of the one-story building and crashed through the glass double doors in an effort to limit her exposure outside to a minimum. She half expected vagrants and drug dealers to come out of the woodwork and converge on her car, stripping it to the chassis while she rented a room.

    The woman at the front desk was dressed in a pink sundress, and had a kind smile. Maria rented a room for the day and was thankful that the sun would be up fully in a matter of a half hour or so. She didn’t feel quite so unsafe in the broad daylight. It was much easier to imagine all of the horrors of your life were following on your heels when it was dark out. Funny, she thought, how the darker it was, the more exposed she felt, like there was nowhere to hide.

    Maria pulled her car in front of the room two doors away from the one she was staying in. She immediately register that she was taking precautions against discovery, even though in all probability, Nigel couldn’t possibly figure out where she was heading. Maria dialed the front desk and asked where the nearest Walgreens or CVS was located. It was only a couple of blocks away. Tired though she was, Maria decided to venture out one more time before shutting herself into the motel room again, and closing the curtains against the outside world. When she returned from the CVS, Maria took off her clothes and lay on the bed in her bra and panties. She set the alarm on her cell phone and slept fitfully for the next three hours.

    Upon rising, Maria dumped the contents of the plastic bag onto the bed and dug through them: potato chips, pop, Lunchable,  shampoo, conditioner, body wash, box of hair color. She opened the box of hair color labeled Egyptian Plum, and mixed the two chemicals in the provided squeeze bottle. While she waited for it to change color, Maria pulled the rubber band out of her long, blond hair and gave it a thorough brushing. She took a swig of the pop and ate a couple of potato chips to settle her growling stomach.

    Maria slipped the thin, cheap plastic gloves over her hands and started squeezing the purplish red dye into her roots. She only needed to cover about half of her hair, so she hadn’t bothered buying two bottles of color. After thoroughly saturating most of her hair with the colorant, Maria massaged it in for several minutes making sure it covered every strand. Then she twisted it up into a bun and wrapped the rubber band around it again.
    After washing her hands twice, she opened up the Lunchable and ate while keeping an eye on the clock. Maria felt antsy. She knew it had been a bad idea to use the card, since it wouldn’t take a rocket scientist to track her via the bank’s website. The first order of business when Maria finished with her hair was to go to the Dothan branch of her bank and clean out the savings account. In hindsight she should have planned better and found a way to set aside cash until she had a stockpile to run on for a while.
    After forty minutes had passed, Maria took the shampoo and conditioner and hopped into the shower, running the water as hot as she could. It took her ten solid minutes of scrubbing before the water ran clear, and when she stepped out and looked into the mirror, she barely recognized herself.  After dressing, Maria ran her fingers down the pages of the business directory and found a cheap barber shop. She packed all of the garbage from the hotel room into a plastic bag, including the towel she’d used to dry off as it was now a mottled shade of bruise-purple.
    Maria stashed all of the garbage in the dumpster behind the motel and got into her car. After getting directions over the phone, she headed for the barber shop which advertised five dollar hair cuts. Thirty minutes later she walked out of the shop feeling naked, her hair barely brushing the back of her neck. The stylist had cut it in a cute, chin-length, low-maintenance bob. Maria handed over her last ten, telling the girl to keep the change and then made one final stop at the local branch of her bank to withdraw funds.
    She still felt a little bit jumpy and knew that her nerves wouldn’t settle until she got out of Dothan. This is where she hoped any trail she had left would end. After doing some quick mental math, Maria withdrew eight hundred dollars from the checking and another eight hundred from savings. She would have to get where she was going and have money left over, so frugality was the name of the game. After walking out of the bank, Maria got into her car and left Dothan.
    Just then her cell phone started playing the ringtone she assigned to Nigel. Shit, she thought. Maria didn’t want to answer the phone. She reached towards it cautiously as if it were a snake that might bite her. She stopped half way however when the phone stopped its ringing and beeped the missed call notification, followed by the voice mail tone. Maria scooped up her phone and shut it off, putting the call from Nigel out of her mind. She couldn’t face him, even only in a verbal sense, until she was far, far away where he couldn’t find her.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Chapter Three - Leah

(Links to chapters in chronological order can be found under the Writing Snippets link)

Leah Strong stood on the rotating, circular dance floor surrounded by her friends from the acting classes she had been taking for the last five years. Her acting coach, Lenny and his husband, Rick, who was Leah’s vocal coach had put together an amazing going away party for her. Word had spread quickly that Leah decided to give up on New York and move to San Francisco to try her hand at acting out West.

    Lenny and Rick took a break after a couple of songs worth of hard core dancing and went back to one of the tables they had reserved for the occasion. Gift boxes wrapped in brightly colored papers, and bags with cutesy sayings on them littered one table along with a pile of cards wishing Leah good luck and farewell. She hadn’t opened any of them yet though. She would do that later, Lenny knew. In the isolation of her small studio apartment so nobody could see the tears she cried.  
    As he picked up one envelope and looked at the hand drawn border around it, he could still recall that rainy morning one July when Leah, bedraggled and running half an hour late with rain soaked hair and stringy curls, had rushed in apologizing profusely for getting lost on her way to the class. The girl on stage, who had been reciting lines when Leah rushed in hadn’t even missed a beat, and neither had Lenny. The girl on stage had however, snubbed Leah from that moment forward.

    Leah danced with her friends on the rotating loor, loving the disconnected feeling she got from the lights spinning above her, mingled with the flavors of the tequila shots she had taken before the music had started. The DJ eventually took a short break from spinning records and hopped off the stage, making his way over to Leah.

    “Hey, girl,” Randy said, arms out to enfold her.
    “Hey, Randy,” Leah replied as she snuggled her face into his broad, strong chest. He wore a fishnet tee and black pants with a silver chainmail belt.
    “You don’t have to go, you know?” he said to her, raising his voice just enough to be heard over the music.

    Leah smiled up at him wistfully. “Yeah, Rand. I do. I can’t hack it here, and Brandon wants me in California.” She shuddered then, and forced back the sob that threatened to break out. The only tears Leah wanted anybody to see were the ones she cried when playing a part. Real tears were different. Private. She hated to cry in front of people.

    Randy let go of her and stepped back. Then he took her by the hand and led her over to the bar where the bartender was pouring a line of pink Kinky shots for the party. Randy picked up the tray and carried it over to the table. He had been hired for the party specifically by Lenny, a long time friend of his. Leah passed the shots out and Rick stood to make a toast, lifting the shot high above his head. The other members of the large party did likewise.

    “To Leah Strong. One of the greatest undiscovered talents of our generation.” Rick was slightly intoxicated by this point, and slurred his words slightly. “May she find everything her heart desires in good ol’ San Fran.” He tossed back the shot.  Leah, Randy, and the rest of the party followed suit.

    Leah made a pit stop at the ladies room to fix her makeup. Her friend Carmen was cutting and shaping a line of white powder with a razor blade on the marble countertop. Carmen and Leah had met in acting class two years ago, when Carmen was new to New York, its disappointing casting calls and dark alleys. They had become fast friends, renting a one room apartment on the tenth floor of an uptown slum before Carmen had landed a recurring role on a popular medical drama. She moved to an apartment closer to the studio and Leah moved to her current studio loft.
    Leah didn’t begrudge Carmen her success. The opposite in fact, Carmen turned out to be one of the more genuine people Leah had met during her time in the city. On more than one occasion when Carmen had won a role, she had put in a good word for Leah to get her an audition as well. Sometimes it paid off, sometimes it didn’t, but Leah didn’t care. What she cared about was the fact that Carmen thought of her at all now that her star was somewhat on the rise.
    “Hey, Leah,” Carmen said sniffling loudly and checking her face in the mirror. “You want some of this?” 

    “Sure, why not.” Leah leaned over a crisply drawn line of fine white powder. She always thought it looked like talcum powder at this distance. She wiped the remnants from under the rim of her nose when she was done and then washed her face with the icy water from the bathroom faucet.

    “So you’re really leaving us?” Carmen asked sadly their reflections looking at each other in the mirror.

    “Yeah,” Leah replied for what felt like the hundredth time. “I’m not making any money here. I’m not willing to do porn, and as much as you’ve helped me out, it’s just not enough right now.”
    “Where will you go?”

    Leah looked confused. “I’m going to San Fran, remember? How many lines have you done?”

    Carmen waved a hand impatiently. “Yeah, yeah. I mean where will you go when you get there? How will you get auditions? The acting scene is in Los Angeles, not Frisco.”

    Leah shrugged. “I’ll live with Brandon. I’m assuming that once he gets settled with his new job he’ll ask for a transfer to the LA office and we’ll move there.”

    Carmen nodded hesitantly and picked up the razor blade. She carefully portioned out another thin line of powder and picked up the tiny straw she had been using. As she bent over she said, “porn isn’t so bad. You get way more money, and the guys are hot.”

    Leah’s jaw dropped. “What? Have you been doing it?”

    “Yeah. How do you think I was able to afford my apartment?” She snorted the powder through the straw and took a deep breath before exhaling slowly. 

    “I assumed you made good bank doing the medical drama. Aren’t you still on that show?” Leah was shocked to hear that her friend had been degrading herself like that. She and Carmen didn’t talk every day any more, nor did they share the most intimate of secrets, but she was still surprised that this had happened and she’d had absolutely no idea.

    “Yeah, but that doesn’t pay much. I get ten grand an episode. I’m only on once a week or so. Besides, I realized that I wasn’t going to make a living on what Lenny was teaching me, so I branched out.” Carmen threw the straw in the garbage and put the small glass bottle of white powder deep into her handbag. She reapplied her lipstick and poofed up her black hair.
“I just had no idea. I’m surprised you would do that, considering what you said about women who work at strip clubs.”

    Carmen sneered. “Women who work at strip clubs are basically giving it away. I make serious bank working once a week as an adult film star. Serious bank. If you decide California doesn’t work out for you let me know. I can get you an audition with my agent.”
Leah was appalled but didn’t let it show on her face. She didn’t want to alienate the one true friend she had in New York. Sure Lenny and Rick were good friends, but they had full time jobs with their coaching gigs, and Leah knew she’d soon fall off their radar. She fixed her lipstick and ran her fingers through her own long wavy blond hair, all the way down to the three-inch pink, purple, and blue tips she’d had put in recently.
“I’m going to hitchhike,” she said suddenly to Carmen who stopped, her hand still on the door handle.

    “You’re what now?” she asked, letting the door swing shut again.

    “I’m going to hitchhike to California,” Leah repeated. “I read this book by Jack Kerouac, and now I want the American Experience, ya know?”

    Carmen raised one slender black eyebrow. “No, I don’t know. Are you crazy, Leah? Hitchhiking in this day and age? Do you have a death wish?”

    “Not at all. I feel that since California signifies a new life, a new beginning for me, I should expand my horizons a little on my way out there. See how the other half lives so to speak.”
armen shook her head and opened the bathroom door. “Don’t call me when you’re chained to the radiator of some trash can trailer with some sweaty tub of lard named Bubba leaning over you with his pants down.”

    The disgust registered plainly on Leah’s face. “Yuck. Where the fuck did that come from?”

    “I saw a story on the television once about it.” Carmen walked out of the bathroom with Leah close on her heels.
The girls went to the table and did another round of shots. Leah could feel the cocaine working its way through her system. She felt light as a diaphanous cloud. She could do anything, she had so much confidence. Leah decided that she was going to hitchhike to California, taking pictures and keeping a journal all the way there, and when she got to San Francisco, she was going to land the biggest acting gig of her career. Some part of her knew it was the drugs and alcohol talking, but other parts of her didn’t care.

    Her cell phone buzzed and she slid it out of the tiny pocket of the skirt she was wearing. It was a text message from Brandon. It read:
     Sorry I can’t make it to your party. Stuck in SF at a conference. Early start in the AM. 

    Leah was pissed as she looked at the clock on the phone. Brandon said he was taking the 5 O’clock flight. She hit the green button to call Brandon’s phone and listened to it ring. After four rings it went to voice mail.

    “Brandon. What the fuck? You said you were taking the Five PM flight to La Guardia. It’s now Eleven. Why didn’t you tell me before now that you weren’t coming? And why aren’t you answering your phone less than two minutes after you just texted me?”  She mashed her finger on the red button that ended the call and slid the phone back into the pocket of her pink satin skirt.

    “Trouble?” Rick asked.

    Leah rolled her eyes. “Brandon said he was taking the 5 O’clock flight, which should have landed an hour ago. Just now he sent a text saying he’s still in California and not coming.”

    “And he just now tells you this? Six hours after he was supposed to have left? What an ass.” 

    Leah nodded. She knew that none of her friends took her relationship with Brandon seriously. They said he was self-centered and after spending only half a day with him last time he visited New York, Carmen said he was going to get her out to California and then expect her to give up her acting job.

    “I can just tell,” Carmen had said when Leah pressed her two months before.

    “But how?” Leah persisted.

    “Because first of all, he didn’t ask once, not once about your acting career. He didn’t ask any of us about our jobs, but he had no end of things to say about his own career.”

    “So he was a little proud of himself. This job is a big deal, you know.”

    Carmen waved it away. “Maybe so, but to not even ask his own fiancee how her job is going? That’s just inconsiderate. Plus there’s the fact that he was clearly bored at the cast party we went to last night.”

    “He didn’t know anybody there,” Leah had insisted.

    “He may not have known any of them personally,” Carmen shot back, “but when you’re in the same room as Tom Hiddleston, Robert Downey, Jr, and Chris Hemsworth, you find a minute to say hello to people. You don’t sit in the corner texting on your phone all night, looking at your watch, and ignoring your fiancee.”
Carmen had a point, and Leah knew it. The problem was she had already given up the lease on her apartment, and she had already committed a year of her life to her relationship with Brandon. How could she just back out now? Besides, she told herself. If she got to San Francisco and things didn’t work out, she would come back to New York or go back home to Nebraska. Or come back to New York.