She’s Not Me

Hunter-Kurepa-Peers_She's-Not-Me

photograph by Iris Johnson

Tonight I’m the one on the bathroom floor, christening the toilet with vomit.

It’s the kind of place where the towels are folded into lotuses and the mini soaps are named after feelings. The shampoo bottle says Strength. The conditioner is Tranquility. The face wash is Bliss. We’re paying 300 bucks a night for bottled emotion, and 90 a bottle at dinner to feel none of it.

“Easy, killer.”

He holds my hair out of my face while I wretch up Doritos and Cabernet. His hospital bracelet digs into the back of my neck. The mini-mouthwash I need right now is probably called Fresh To Death. He picks me up off the floor and sets me in the tub. The water’s freezing. I’m still in the red lace dress from dinner. He watches me there, soaked and shivering, and laughs. “You look like a wet kitten.”

My teeth chatter.

He smiles out of the corner of his mouth. “You’re such a mess.”

If the body scrub isn’t called Thinking The Same About You, it should be.

He hands me a loofah. “I’ll be right out here, okay?”

The shower gel might as well be called Bitter You Tried To Kill Yourself Over Her But Not Me. If this all seems glamorous, it’s only because I grew up dirt fucking poor.

I lived in a trailer park and ate out of gas stations. Any extra money went to funding one of my father’s addictions. During the holidays, a year of guilt would set in and he’d try to make up for it. He’d go around to the nicer neighborhoods and steal packages from FedEx trucks for me and my sister. Only the best for his girls.

He never knew what was in the packages until we opened them. It was always just as much of a surprise for him as it was for us. One year, I got a box of Cuban cigars. My sister got a set of shot glasses. Another year, I got a sweater with someone else’s initials stitched on the collar. My sister got a see-through candy cane-striped nightie. Underneath the scratched-out shipping address would be “Love, Dad” in marker.

When you’re rich and you open mystery presents, it’s a game and you call it White Elephant. When you’re broke as hell, you call it Christmas.

I’m used to presents meant for other people.

 

“Hey,” he nudges me. “How ‘bout them?”

We’re watching this couple make out in the middle of the train station. It’s not voyeurism if you’re a thief. I can’t see their faces, they’re so buried in each other, but yeah—her shoes look about my style. Her ass looks about my size.

These two are so consumed in each other, they don’t see us slip by them. They don’t see us rolling away their suitcases. They don’t see anything outside of each other. They don’t care about anything that isn’t his mouth on hers. You’d think they were in a bathroom stall, not a terminal.

We’re walking away with their bags, and he’s whispering into her hair, holding her like she’s something precious. You can take everything someone has and still be jealous of them.

I’ve accepted that I’m not the girl anyone will ever be so in love with that they don’t notice their luggage being jacked.

I’m the girl they’d steal Armani suitcases for.

We check into the hotel under the names Sid and Nancy. At the last one, it was Kurt and Courtney. Before that, John and Yoko. Eventually, we’ll run out of tragic couples and become our own.

We dump the suitcases onto the bed. “Pick out something pretty for dinner,” he says. He digs through the briefcase and pulls out a handful of credit cards. The dress I put on is red as sin and one piece of lace away from lingerie. It smells like someone else’s perfume.

“You make me feel like Christmas,” I tell him.

He kisses the top of my head. “You too.”

He thinks I mean Christmas with wrapping paper and wish lists. I don’t tell him I mean my kind of Christmas. I don’t tell him I mean that he’s a present meant for someone else.

 

It’s the kind of place where you go to not eat, and no matter what the menu says, two-thirds of your meal will be kale. We’re on our second bottle of Cabernet. Restaurant food is just an excuse for us to drink. It’s not alcoholism if it’s paired with bluefin tuna.

“You like this?” he asks me.

I’ve stolen diamonds bigger than the filet mignon on my plate.

“D’you think there’s a drive-through around here?” I ask. “A corner store? Anything?”

“Sure. Wherever you wanna go.”

He writes out a 40 percent tip on the bill. Everyone’s a philanthropist with someone else’s credit card.

 

We pull up to the gas station by our hotel. He parks out front and says, “I just want to give you nice things.”

“I know.”

The difference between us is that both grew up poor, but I’ll drink stale beer to feel at home, and he’ll drink anything else to forget where he came from.

He comes back to the car with cigarettes and Doritos. Our dessert course this evening is stale donuts and two cases of Stella. Our cheese course comes out of a can.

 

The nurse looked at me and went, “You’re . . . uh . . . Yoko?”

“Yeah,” I said. “At least for this week.”

She led me down the hallway. “He’s stable now. Sleeping a lot. He’s been asking for you.” We stopped outside his room. “He really loves you. That’s for sure.” She left me at his door.

He was staring out the window when I came in. I sat next to him on the gurney and pulled his hand out from the mess of tubes. The hospital bracelet on his wrist said John.

“Hey, killer,” I whispered.

“I’m sorry.” He was choked up from crying, and he’s never been the kind to get confessional. “I wanted to be with you. None of this matters without you.”

He turned around to look at me. “Oh,” he said.

I could hear his heart break in one syllable.

“It’s you,” he said.

I could feel mine break in two.

He turned away from me and stared back out the window and I wanted to tell the nurse: Well, he really loves someone. That’s for sure.

 

I wake up to an empty bed and the sound of spitting. For a second, I think he’s overdosed again. I can’t remember the last time I woke up from a dream that didn’t sound like him puking.

“Morning, killer,” he grins, toothbrush dangling out of his mouth. “How’re you holding up?”

“Stellar.” Whether I’m telling him how I feel or reading off the name of the lotion bottle, he’ll never know.

“I made breakfast,” he says. There’s a cold cup of coffee and three aspirin on the nightstand. “You had me kinda worried there last night.”

The cream I’m pouring in the mug is called Returning The Favor. “We never talked about it,” I say.

“About what?” We’re both not staring at his hospital bracelet. “I’m fine.”

“No. No, you don’t get to say that. You weren’t the one who walked in on you.”

“Jesus, that was ages ago. I’m better now.”

“You tried to kill yourself.”

“It was an accident.”

“You said you did it to be with her. I fucking dare you to tell me that was an accident.”

You can be the only woman in someone’s life and still be the other woman.

He spits in the sink. “Oh, like you never drank too much.”

I bet the toothpaste he’s using is Wishing This Tasted Like Her.

 

We hand over our room keys to the front desk.

“Checking out. Sid and Nancy.”

The death of another love story.

 

We’re cruising downtown with the roof down, his hand on the back of my neck, a heaven of streetlight constellations above us. This is our kingdom of pawnshops and palm trees. He calls me his gypsy queen.

“No one will ever love you better than I do,” he shouts over the radio.

If you think about it, that’s an awful thing to tell someone.

We drive past the gas station from last night. Twelve hours ago, I was throwing up in that parking lot.

 

Twelve days ago, he was half-dead in a motel bathroom.

I came back from a cigarette run and he was on the floor between a bottle of Jack and a bottle of Listerine. I turned him on his side and put his head in my lap.

“I knew I’d see you again.”

“Yeah.” I grabbed his wrist like a lifeline. “Yeah, it’s me, I’m here.”

“Wait for me on the other side, okay?”

We always wait until we’re dying to say how we really feel.

“I still love you so much. I never, ever stopped.”

I’ve never wanted to own anything as much as I wanted to own his last words, but I knew this was just one more present meant for someone else.

I called 911 and they asked me for our names. I had to check the hotel registration to remember who we were that week.

 

It’s dark when we pull up to the rest stop. There’s a row of gumball machines lined up outside the bathrooms full of fake tattoos and army men. The ones where you never know what shitty toy you’re going to get, but it’s probably not going to be the shitty toy you want. Your first taste of fate as a kid.

“You want something?” He puts in a quarter. A plastic egg shoots out with a fake diamond ring inside, the kind that turns your finger green.

I slip off the gold ring I’m wearing. I don’t even remember who it belonged to, but I know it’s the kind that doesn’t turn your finger green. I put on the plastic one.

“I like this one better,” I tell him. “You bought it for me.”

 

We get back on the road.

“Who are we?” I ask.

“Who do you want to be?”

“With this rock?” I flash him my new ring. “I feel like Princess Diana.”

 

We drive through the night. I’m falling asleep in the passenger’s seat to Sweet Child O’ Mine on the radio.

“She died in a car crash, y’know,” he says.

He doesn’t mean Princess Diana.

“She was always so unhappy. For a long time, before I ever met her.” He lights a cigarette and sighs in smoke. “And ours wasn’t an easy life for her, we both knew that, but I thought I could save her. She had a war in her mind, and I thought I could stop it. And one night, she just took the car out. Said she was going to ‘the other side.’ Fuck, I thought she meant the other side of town, not…y’know…god, fuck.”

If there is a god, he can’t hear us over the radio.

“I couldn’t even recognize her face, it was so banged up from the crash. Had to ID the body from the engagement ring. Only thing I ever gave her. Took me the whole time I knew her to be able to afford it.”

Axl’s singing Where do we go now, sweet child? My ring’s digging into his hand, but he squeezes tighter.

“I lost her to the road. And I just . . . what the hell can I do, y’know?”

Axl singing Where do we go now? and I myself ask the same thing.

I tell him, “Just keep driving, I guess.”

He has one hand on the wheel, the other holding mine on the armrest. I look down at his hospital bracelet wrist and my fake diamond finger.

Royalty in plastic, on to our next great disaster.