Kath is lying on her bed doing nothing when Abby calls to say she’s engaged. She’ll be the first in their circle to get married. Kath is the first one she’s called.
“Oh, Abby,” says Kath. “You’re going to be so happy.”
Abby talks about the wedding. She is going to have green dresses and white flowers. “Of course you’ll be a bridesmaid,” she says. Kath holds the phone on one shoulder and picks at the polish on her toenails. “Oh, wow,” she says over and over. “That’s so great.” Every now and then, she checks her clock.
She looks at the phone for a long time after she hangs up. Why don’t we ever get a new phone, she thinks. She is already dressed to go out. She is meeting Barry at the movies. He doesn’t come to her house, because he’s in his forties and her mother can’t stand him.
“See you later,” she says as she walks through the living room. She can hear the neighbor’s dog barking outside, even over the television. No one looks up. Her mother doesn’t ask her where she’s going. She’s nineteen now and could move out if she wanted to. It would be expensive, that’s the problem.
She says “Barry” so softly when she sees him that he doesn’t look up. He has his back to her and appears to be reading a poster outside the mall theater. Hunched into a baggy linen jacket, he looks like a pervert, not a community college professor. He wants to be a writer. He says he’s almost finished with his novel. Kath knows he’s waiting for her to ask to see it. So far she hasn’t.
She stops a few feet away. “Baby,” he will say when he sees her. His eyes will move down the length of her. “You look hot.” She’ll feel a flash of something she hasn’t named yet, something halfway between anger and desire. It happens a lot with Barry.
The next day, Cindi calls. She thinks they should throw Abby a bachelorette party. She’s already called everyone and organized a planning session. Cindi always leads them in things like that. That’s her role in their circle because she’s fat. She has straight brown hair that curtains her broad face in a page boy. It’s her one nice feature. Everyone always compliments her on it, notices when she gets it cut.
They meet on Wednesday after work. They haven’t all been together since graduation. “We have to meet right at five, because Tracy’s shift starts at seven,” Cindi told Kath apologetically on the phone. Tracy works nights as a nurse’s assistant.
“It’s okay,” Kath said, even though it wasn’t, because she’d have to sneak away from the store early. Her boss watches her like a hawk.
They meet at a new place called Wayne’s, out by the expressway. It’s supposed to be nice. The bar and tables are heavy, dark wood, slightly more elegant than the average bar. Now that they’ve graduated, this is the kind of place they go. Still, it has that stale beer smell when Kath walks in, the smell bars have during the day.
“Oh my God, you’re so skinny,” Tracy screams to Kath when she comes in the door at 5:20. Kath hasn’t seen her in months, but Tracy always says things like that. Cindi has also invited Daniela, making it all the usual suspects except for Janice, who has moved to New York.
There are only a few other people at Wayne’s. An older woman sits alone at the bar, talking to the bartender. Two guys are shooting pool in the back. Kath can tell they’ve noticed the girls from the way they walk around the table, laughing loudly and then becoming serious as they hunchover their cues. They might be guys from their school, or some other one just like it. They all look and talk exactly the same. The sight of them makes Kath miss Barry.
“We’ll kick-off the party with dinner,” Cindi tells the others“And then we’re going to this bar my friend told me about. It has a drag show.”
“A drag show?” Tracy says. “Not, like, male strippers?”
Cindi looks hurt.
“Everybody has male strippers,” says Daniela. She tosses her long brown hair over one shoulder, eyeing the pool players as she does. One of them looks over. “This will be more wild. Like Abby.”
“What do you think, Kath?” Tracy looks almost scared.
Kath considers. When she and Abby were in eighth grade, they spent every weekend at the mall trying on Earl jeans in the smallest sizes they could manage. Then they would walk up and down and size up the guys.
“That one’s good,” Abby would say, pointing out some guy at the food court. “Shell station, for sure.” Shell station was their code for open all night. She would stare at the guy directly, daring him to meet her gaze. If you call that wild, then Abby’s wild.
“I think it’s fine,” Kath says, regulating her voice. “Whatever. So long as there’s lots of booze.”
“What does Janice think?” Tracy persists. Janice is meeting them in the city. She’s going to Teacher’s College in the fall, but she moved there the minute they graduated.
“Janice thought it was a great idea,” Cindi says. “She said those are the best shows.”
“Well, the big-city girl ought to know,” Daniela says, her voice cold. Daniela and Janice used to be best friends, but ever since Janice moved, Daniela has acted annoyed at her.
The night of the party, they gather at Cindi’s house to wait for the limo. It’s warm even for August. They all have on short skirts, tight tops, heels.
“I didn’t think Abby would be the first of us to break,” Tracy tells Kath. “I always thought it would be Daniela.”
“Yeah, right.” Daniela tosses her hair and snorts. She crooks one knee, then the other, leaning back to examine the bottoms of her shoes. “Fuck it, I think I stepped in something.”
“Or you, Kath,” Cindi adds. “Your boyfriend is older so he’s, you know, ready and all.”
Kath shrugs. She has only been with Barry for about eight months. She has no plans to marry him. Her friends don’t know everything about him. For instance, he likes to wear dresses.
“Well?” he said the first time he showed her. “What do you think?” When she didn’t know what to say, he said, “It’s new.”
“Your hands are too big,” she said at last.
She could tell them. On their way to a drag show, she could tell them it’s nothing wild to her, since Barry the community college teacher wears dresses at home in his apartment. That he likes to be tied up, too. That she’s the one who does it. She runs her fingers through her hair, fluffing it out.
“God, this humidity,” she says.
“Okay, girls,” Cindi says. “Our limo’s waiting. Haven’t you always wanted to say that?”
The limo driver watches them file out of the house toward the car. He looks only a few years older than they are. He has one arm out the window, even though the AC is on.
“Hey, ladies,” he says, with a slight, untraceable accent, as they climb into the back. There are two ice buckets but no ice. Cindi parks a bottle of champagne in each bucket. They rattle back and forth slightly as the car moves forward.
They drive to the apartment where Abby and Greg have been living for two months. Greg has been instructed to make sure she’s there without raising her suspicions, but he must have let on, because when Cindi rings the doorbell Abby answers. Her hair is blown out and she’s wearing a short denim skirt and cropped white T-shirt with no bra underneath. Greg looks pink in the background.
“Oh, no!” she screams. She is laughing as Cindi leads her down the steps. She acts drunk already. “Oh, you guys,” she says.
Greg comes halfway out to the car with them.
“Hey, you all,” he says. “Don’t be getting my future wife into trouble now.” He says it in an indulgent tone, like someone playing along.
Kath watches Abby come down the walkway. Abby’s legs are thin and pale below her denim skirt. She and Kath were best friends in junior high. Then they weren’t really close for a couple years, just talked to each other at games or parties. The summer after junior year, Carlo dumped Abby and she started calling Kath every day to go to the shore.
“Christ, we have to get out of this place,” Abby would always say. “It is so fucking boring here.”
Tracy pops a cork as Abby climbs into the car, and everyone screams when the champagne fizzes over. They sit facing one another, three to a seat. There’s plenty of room but they hold their elbows tight to their sides. There seem to be too many knees in the center. Cindi hands out plastic flutes and they clutch the stems, drawing small circles in the air to keep the champagne from spilling.
Kath thinks of their bodies as one spindly creature being whooshed down the turnpike toward New York, a spider gone down a drain.
They have finished both bottles of champagneby the time the city lights appear on the horizon, blinking secret codes of promise.
“Look out, New York, here we come,” says Tracy.
Abby giggles. “They are so not ready for the pack of us,” she proclaims.
They have dinner at a place in Greenwich Village. Cindi got the name from a friend. It is big and loud and has a list of specialty drinks with names like “Sex in the Afternoon” and “Sixty-niner.” They make Abby order all the ones with suggestive names. Each time, they make her say “I really want” first.
“I really want a Sixty-niner,” she says, and the waiter plays along, putting one hand on his hip and saying, “Well, baby . . .” Then he feigns disappointment: “Oh! You mean the drink!”
Janice arrives late. Daniela rolls her eyes at Kath as Janice comes up, apologizing.
“Hey, everybody,” Janice says as Cindi gets up to hug her. “Jesus, it’s so good to see you all again.” She goes to Abby’s seat and crooks an elbow around her neck.
“You,” she says, jiggling Abby back and forth. “You.”
They all drink specialty drinks before and during dinner. Kath doesn’t recognize what she ordered, a chicken stew of some sort. She picks at the rice underneath it.
“How does it feel, Abby?” Cindi asks, as their plates are taken away.
“Wow,” Abby says. “It’s like white-water rafting or something. You know, once you get on, it all just takes off from there.”
“I can’t believe you’ll be married!” Tracy says. “I mean, what will it be like hanging out?”
“Why should it be any different?” asks Janice, and Tracy looks at her as if she doesn’t understand the question.
“Bungee jumping,” Abby says. “You take that one step and then—whoosh!”
After dinner Abby opens her gifts. They have all bought her embarrassing things: sex toys, underwear, bunny ears. Daniela has given her a penis-shaped chocolate lollipop. They make her hold everything up and model it, and they all yowl with laughter. Abby puts on the bunny ears and holds the chocolate penis to her lips so Cindi can take a picture. Some people at the next table look over.
“Fuck them,” Daniela mutters. She leans out from their booth and stares back.
Barry went shopping with Kath for her gift. “Abby’s about your size, right?” he said when she told him she was going. “I’ll go with and help. Give you the man’s point of view.”
They went to the mall on a Tuesday afternoon when Kath was off work. There was no one else in the Macy’s lingerie department. Kath picked out two black nighties and Barry chose a red one. He came into the dressing room area with her and stood outside her door. There didn’t seem to be any clerks around.
“Let me see,” he breathed when she got each one on, and she opened the door and posed, one hand ready to slam the door shut if anyone came. She felt silly and scared and turned on, wearing the ridiculous see-through getups in a public place. It felt even more public with Barry standing there.
“Oh, that’s the best,” he said when she opened the door wearing the red one. It was short and closed in front with a string that laced back and forth across the plunging neckline.
“Baby, you look fabulous,” he said. “You look like you want to suck my cock.”
Kath resisted the urge to giggle. “Well, I do,” she said in her throatiest voice, and thrust her shoulders back to show off her breasts. Barry narrowed his eyes. He really seemed to like it, which almost surprised Kath. She didn’t feel sexy for real; it was just the right way to act.
“You know,” Barry said, “you really look like a whore.”
Kath felt scared suddenly. What if someone was listening?
“That’s enough,” she said before shutting the door. “I have to pay for this now.”
In the dressing area she leaned in to the mirror.
“Whore,” she whispered. “Slut. Cunt.” Her breath fogged the glass. Coming from herself, it sounded sort of uncertain. But meaner, too.
Cindi pays for dinner with her credit card. They all agree to write her checks later, when she has figured out what everyone owes. They file out of the restaurant, and the limousine is there, long and very white in the street lights. The passenger side window at the front glides down.
“Hey, ladies,” says the driver, leaning over. A small, tight smile flickers across his face.
“Hey, you,” Kath says. She leans in to the car, forearms on the open window. She can see his hands, large but smooth and hairless on the steering wheel. “What’s your name, anyway?”
“Ibrahim,” he says. He smiles again and she can see that he has two rows of straight white teeth, very square and solid. She wonders if he has a girlfriend or a wife. Maybe he comes from one of those places where marriages are arranged.
“What’s yours?” he asks.
“Kath,” she says, spitting it out. She scuffs her clogs on the sidewalk and looks down at them. She could dump Barry and go out with a guy like him. That would shock everybody. But Ibrahim is probably way more normal than Barry. He probably wouldn’t even like someone like her. She lets her own eyes drop to her low-cut shirt, to the warm darkness between her breasts.
The others have climbed into the limo. The window to the back seat rolls down, and Daniela’s face appears like a figure in a puppet show. “Come on, Kath, you slut,” she says. “Get in the car.”
There are giggles from the back. Ibrahim looks straight ahead, over the steering wheel.
“See you,” Kath says, and goes to the back door. She sees the passenger window gliding up as she ducks her head into the car.
The others chatter as they roll onward. Kath sits by the window, watching the city glide by. The buildings are low here, with brick fronts and fire escapes, like a movie set. Most of the stores have their gates pulled down, but the sidewalks are crowded. She sees a gang of young children standing in a circle looking down at something. A man standing on a corner wearing dark glasses with a huge gold dog bone around his neck. Janice lives here now. Everyone talks about moving to the city, but Janice has really done it.
She’s disappointed when they turn off the main avenue and onto a small side street, then stop in front of a place with blacked-over windows. The door is guarded by a large man in a Hawaiian shirt, sitting on a high metal stool. A sign says BARDO.
“Bar Do?” Daniela snorts. “Do what?”
“It’s Bardot,” Janice says. “Like the actress.”
Daniela pulls a face and catches Kath’s eye.
“What was she in?” Tracy asks.
“Bring on the freaks!” Abby cries, and opens her door.
Inside, Cindi’s arrangements pay off. They have a reserved booth at the side of the room, near where the small stage area is set up. Standing people crowd toward the other end of the bar.
They slide into the booth, adjusting their skirts when they come to rest on the warm vinyl. Something is sticky and smells sweet, like a spilled drink.
“Cosmopolitans all around,” Daniela tells a waitress.
“I’ll have a Manhattan,” Janice says.
It seems like a long time before the show begins. Kath watches a pair of couples near the bar. They are young but look like professionals, the kind of confident, urban people you see on TV. The men survey the room and grin as they talk. The women have expensive-looking handbags, little sparkles at their ears. But their outfits are dull: blouses, neatly pressed pants. Deep in conversation, they seem almost oblivious to their surroundings until the lights go down.
“Wow,” says Abby. “Look at that.”
Striding across the floor is a tall, golden-skinned Filipino man in a low-cut black beaded dress.
“Are those real breasts?” Tracy asks in a loud voice. “Those are real breasts!”
The drag queen’s perfect breasts are overflowing his décolletage, the same honey color as the rest of his skin.
“You should ask him the name of his plastic surgeon,” Daniela tells Janice.
Janice, who is flat-chested, looks disappointed, as if she’s a teacher already and the others are unruly students. “You don’t say ‘him,’ you say ‘her,’ ” she says.
“This is Faye Hooray saying welcome, ladies and gents!” Faye is perched on top of a table set up at the front of the bar. He looks around the crowd, eyes batting open and half-shut, giving girlish little waves to people here and there in the room. “Well,” he says, “we have a great show for you here tonight at BarDo. We have Lady Velvet, we have Raven Nevermore, we have songs, dances, and glamour—all brought to you by my own fabulous self!”
The crowd applauds. Male voices whoop in the back. The waitress squeezes through the crowd with a second round of drinks.
“But first,” the MC is saying, “how many straight men do we have in the crowd tonight?”
There’s loud clapping, and a couple of voices shout “Yeah!”
“That’s right, boys,” the M.C. says. “You keep thinking that. I won’t tell you any different when you’re sucking my cock.”
“Oh my God,” says Abby, and grabs Tracy’s arm, giggling.
“This is totally wild,” Tracy says, to no one in particular.
“No lesbians tonight,” Faye is saying. “How about some straight girls?”
They all clap and cheer. “Yeah, baby!” Daniela yells. She puts her arms in the air.
Kath watches the drag queen closely as he introduces the next act. He seems overly conscious of his appearance, adjusting his sequined dress, brushing tiny specks off his cleavage. His hands flutter up to check his earrings, to his straps to make sure they’re not slipping. He is moving all the time, but when he comes to rest he holds still for a second too long, as if striking a pose.
Barry wasn’t like that. He simply went into his bedroom and came out wearing the dress. At first she’d felt a thrill of unfamiliarity, but then he minced a little when he walked by her, and for some reason that made Kath furious. It felt like something was being taken away from her, but she didn’t know what. For the few seconds, she felt aroused, she didn’t want to be, but the instant the feeling went away, she wished it would come back.
She realizes Faye Hooray has come over to their table and is standing right there, one hand holding her mike, the other on her hip.
“Honey,” Faye says to Kath. “Are you from New Jersey? Because the tunnel is closing in fifteen minutes.”
The crowd laughs. Kath tries to smile, but her face feels tight. She looks at Janice for help.
“No,” Janice says, a little too loudly.
“No?” Faye cries, turning to Janice. “So where are you from?”
“New York,” Janice says. Her jaw is set. Kath loves her at that moment.
“Where in New York?”
“Born and raised?”
Anger replaces determination on Janice’s face. “No.”
“Where were you born and raised, sweetie?”
Janice looks down at the table. “New Jersey,” she says.
The audience roars. Janice, for some reason, glares at Daniela. Daniela turns her head to Kath and mouths the word “bitch.” Janice or Faye? Kath wonders.
“What brings you to BarDo, Miss New Jersey?”
“It’s a bachelorette party!” interjects Tracy, drunk off her ass. She points unsteadily at Abby. “She’s getting married!”
“Married!” Faye loses interest in Janice and turns to Abby, holding out a honey-gold hand. “Darling, let’s see the merchandise!”
Slowly, as if she can’t disobey, Abby lifts her left hand.
Faye takes the hand and inspects it closely. The entire bar is silent, waiting.
“Honey, that is a rock!” he pronounces at last. “Ladies and gentlemen, the pussy is good here! The girl has a rock!”
Everyone in the bar roars. Abby’s ring glints in the light as she pulls her hand back. They all look at one another, encouraging themselves to laugh.
“It is a rock,” Tracy says loudly in Faye’s direction, as if contradicting her. She looks around at the others.
But Abby really is laughing. She puts the hand with her ring into her other hand and falls back on the banquette, giggling.
“The pussy is good here,” she repeats, softly, to herself.
“Where’s that waitress?” Janice says.
Another drag queen comes out and sings two songs. Then another one sings a song where he gets the audience to sing along. Kath doesn’t recognize the song, and she feels almost like she has fallen asleep for a while, even though her eyes are open.
The second time Barry put on a dress, he wanted her to tie him up. He even had a set of bondage restraints, leather on the outside and soft fake fur on the inside. He showed her how to work them, attaching them to each corner of his bed. Suddenly she knew that was why he had a four-poster bed. She did it the way he told her. When she was done, he couldn’t move.
“You look like a splayed chicken,” she heard herself say. And then the oddest feeling came over her. She could say anything to him. Do anything to him. “You look like a possum dead in the road.”
He frowned a bit. She could hear him breathing heavily.
“Take off your shirt,” he said, and she did. She slid out of her skirt, too, but then she went and stood just out of his reach.
“I don’t think I feel like doing anything you want right now,” she told him. “What I really feel like is a snack. I think I’ll go make myself a sandwich.”
She left him and went into his kitchen. She opened cupboards and dug around in the fridge, where there was some leftover pizza. She sat at the table and ate it, feeling a hard anger settle into her. Was this a relationship? Was this love? The pizza was greasy, and she looked around for napkins, but she couldn’t find any. She went back into the bedroom. Barry lay there, immobilized. He lifted his head to look at her.
“You don’t have any napkins,” she said, and wiped her greasy fingers on his stomach.
“Kath,” he said, “I have to pee.”
She went to the window and looked out. She thought about walking out the door and never coming back. Who would find him eventually? His neighbor? The department secretary? He had a sister who lived way up north, in some part of Vermont called the Northeast Kingdom, whatever that meant.
“I don’t feel like untying you just yet,” she said without turning around. “You’re going to have to wet the bed.”
He groaned behind her. “Oh, God,” he said. “You’re really good at this.”
The singing has stopped. Kath reaches across the table and grabs the cherry from Janice’s Manhattan glass. When they were in eighth grade, she and Abby used to practice tying cherry stems into knots with their tongues. Stupid girl tricks, they called it. When they did it at parties, guys always laughed and encouraged them.
“That’s what I like to see,” she remembers somebody saying. It made her feel good at the time. Now it makes her angry, but there’s no one to be angry at anymore, except herself, for playing along.
Faye turns her back on them and starts singing again. The Lady is a tramp. . . Kath turns to Abby. “Let’s go,” she says. But Abby is singing along and drumming her hands on the table. Her drink sloshes in its glass. Across from Kath, Tracy is sliding down in the booth. On her other side, Daniela is waving an empty glass at the waitress.
“Shouldn’t we be heading back?” Kath says to her above the noise, but Daniela looks at her blankly. Kath turns back to her own glass. She doesn’t remember drinking it. She wonders if it spilled. She slides her hands down the vinyl under her skirt, checking for moisture.
“Let me out,” Abby hollers in her ear, and Kath realizes she’s said it several times already.
“Let Abby out,” Kath repeats to Daniela, and Daniela slides out of the booth. Kath wonders if Abby’s going to be sick. She feels a little queasy herself. But Abby is still singing. She gets to her feet and, teetering a little, goes over to Faye. She turns to the audience and raises her arms over her head, dancing as she sings along. Kath sinks back onto the seat without putting her knees under the table. Daniela stays standing. They both watch Abby in silence.
Faye sings on, raising an eyebrow in theatrical surprise and gesturing toward Abby. Abby doesn’t know all the words, but she chimes in on the chorus.
Kath imagines Greg, sitting at home with the TV on, waiting for Abby to come in. Perhaps he’s fallen asleep by now. Greg is an okay guy, normal, not too much of an asshole. The other guys called him Dagget for some reason. She wonders if Abby will be happy, or act like she is.
“I’m a tramp!” Abby yells at the end of the song, her arms in the air, posing.
No, you’re not, Kath thinks, watching her.
The others are laughing. “Abby, you’re crazy,” Kath hears someone say. She thinks of her cell phone. As soon as they get back in the car, she’s going to call Barry.
Hey, Barry, she’ll say. When are you going to show me your novel?