Issue 13

Fiction

We Are Other People Tonight

by ​T Kira Madden

Bradley forgot his socks again. He used to be the one to remember, but it’s like this now. Here he goes unpacking—a snorkel, navy swimming trunks, SPF 70, crosswords, canvas sandals, three prescription pill bottles, a plastic visor, sugar-free gum, his new leather loafers—the jaws of his suitcase opened wide on the paisley, peach bed. He can’t wear loafers without the socks, his feet too delicate, so he’ll have to browse the gift shop this time. But what if he didn’t? he thinks. What if he allowed the new leather to seesaw itself into his flesh, to swell his feet into something tough looking? What if his new loafers had blood stained into the interior suede? Would peroxide remove it?

Ramona lets him have the closet, the dresser. These days, she likes to keep the contents of her suitcase to herself. She is always looking to make leaving easier. He chose Boca Raton for their anniversary—Boca Raton! Isn’t this a retirement community? Is that what they have become? She removes a bathing suit from her suitcase, a black and white gingham one-piece, and tucks the rest back in: new mail-ordered diet pills, dried up lipstick, an emergency soft-pack of Merit cigarettes, a book of astrology, hair curlers. What is there to do in this place, just the two of them, for an entire weekend? What would they possibly say to one another? Would they laugh, even once? What time is it?

It’s almost four o’clock, says Bradley. Lucky we’re here and the sun pokes out all day. It’s strong so I brought extra block. What do you say we take a walk to the pool, scope out the scene, and then commit to a location? I’ll wake up early to save us two seats. Your choice. As long as it’s near shade because you know I’ll need it come afternoon. The sun, it exhausts me. Makes me hungry. (Bradley laughs. Stops. Laughs again.) The shade, it’s so soothing after a swim. Do you know what I mean? I’ve fit a lot in this little bag, but you wouldn’t believe I forgot—

Ramona is wondering what time the bar closes downstairs. They have reservations at the hotel restaurant at 6 PM, and she is hoping to get loaded beforehand. Go on ahead without me, she says. I want to take a peek at the telescopes in the lobby. One of them is made out of gold.

Downstairs: Bradley checks in with a woman at the front desk. Her name is Elena and her nametag says she can speak Spanish if you ask her to. Bradley wants to know the front desk’s operating hours. He wants to know the weather forecast for tomorrow, and the next day, and the next. He wants to know the percentage of humidity, the possibility of rain. He wants to know how many towels are complimentary at the pool. He wants to know when gratuity is included. He wants to know if there is a gym, and, if so, what equipment. He wants to know how much the concierge can really do for him. He wants to know when this hotel was built and for what, or whom?

Downstairs: Ramona finds the bar in the right wing of the hotel. There is nobody inside except a bartender named Ralph. Ralph is Korean and polite. She asks for a glass of bourbon, and another, and another. Ralph takes one down with her. What time is it? she asks, and Ralph looks as though he’s been asked this question for a million years. The two of them continue drinking. Ramona wants to know when he arrived from Korea and he says he’s been here all his life. In Boca Raton? she asks. Right here, he says.

At dinner, Bradley feels more handsome than usual. He is wearing his new leather loafers. No socks. Rolled trousers. The kids are back home and Boca Raton is just the place to be in December. He orders meat with jelly. Steamed carrots on the side. He sips sparkling water and swallows his stomach pills in just one go. Things are looking good. Bradley wonders how long it will take for his wife to say something, to smile, to notice his new shoes. Well, he says, How about this piano music, am I right?

At dinner, Ramona keeps drinking. She is wearing a tight black girdle and a polka-dotted dress. She brushed her hair for the occasion, clipped it back, and her mascara has flecked splashes of black around her eyes. She is wondering how twenty years have gone by so slowly. What else could she have done with her life? Never once, never once could she stick to a career, never once stay consistent with her likes and dislikes. No wonder her daughter hated her, what a bore she has become. If only she could have something of her own, something for which she could be recognized: horn-rimmed glasses, a special rhythm to her walk, a nickname. She imagines a scenario in which several suited men lean in close over cigars in a dimly lit restaurant. Her name is mentioned. Oh Ramona, one of them would say, And what a woman she is.

Bradley orders dessert for them both: chocolate molten cake with berries. He orders a flute of champagne for her, sparkling water for him. A toast! he says, If life is a verb then you make up all its adjectives. To my compass, my love. To the captainess of the ship on which I have journeyed. Twenty years and so much more to do.  

There is a tug inside of her that wants this moment to be special. She wants very badly for it to be something, anything, for them to remember in their lives. As Bradley makes his toast, she looks down to her lap, her napkin, and forces her eyes open, the irises rimmed white, resisting any urge to blink. She has practiced this method over the years. When her eyes begin to sting sharply enough, she squeezes them shut, feels the tears move. You shouldn’t have, she says, as she looks up at her husband, wiping her cheeks with the corner of the crisp, white tablecloth.

Tears in her eyes! Could it be so that she still loves me? Bradley wonders. He pauses on love, the one-syllable word, the sound of it in his head scraping like a rusty shovel, love, and continues his assessment. Never mind love, could she like him still? After all these years? After all the wrong turns, smashed glasses, the children—their fevers, head lice—his wooden backscratchers? To like, perhaps, would be even more impressive. Were she a stranger, just a woman across the restaurant, had they just met, would Ramona, his wife, have something nice to say about him? Would she consider him handsome? Neat? Would she cross her legs in his direction? Could Boca Raton really be the key to all that?  

You look nice tonight / Thank you, dear / Real pretty dress / Thank you, dear / How were the telescopes? / The what? / The telescopes? / Long / What do you say we take a drive after this? / To where? / I don’t know to where, to wherever we want / You drive / Of course I drive, I always drive / I’m drinking / Drink up / I will / Really, it’s a good dress.

Bradley and Ramona pay the bill, tip twenty-two percent (it’s Bradley’s lucky number), and stroll with their arms awkwardly hooked to the hotel valet. The valet boy is talking on the phone, leaning back in a swivel chair, his feet propped up on the wooden valet stand. He has a bright pink face of pimples. Studs in his ears. A white cap and new sneakers. He is talking to a girl named Yolanda, stretching out her name when he says it, twisting the curls of the phone cord around his index and pointer fingers. The boy does not look at Bradley or Ramona, even when Bradley pinches the ticket in the air, shaking it. Need our keys, Bradley says. No need to fetch it, just hand over the keys. The boy looks annoyed. He moves his right hand to the glittering board of keys beside him, fishing for the right one. Baby, baby, baby, hold on, keep it real, he says. The valet boy snatches a key from the board, spins it twice around his finger, and tosses it to Ramona.

Bradley and Ramona walk through the parking lot. They squint their eyes, looking. Ramona presses her thumbnail into the soft key button and a car beep beeps.

Ramona approaches the navy blue Jaguar and props herself onto its hood. She leans back and spreads her legs. The car is still hot, hissing under her back. Her thighs are milky under the streetlamp. It’s comforting to lie down; the girdle doesn’t pinch this way. Here we are, she says, a song in her voice, staring up at the gray, pollutant sky.

What the hell are you doing? / Just loving on our car / Whose car is this? Are you out of your mind? (Bradley spins around, and again, to see if anyone is looking) / It’s our car now (Ramona shows him the key on her finger, jingling it) / Oh dear Lord, go give that boy the key back / (Later, she will remember this moment as the first time, in years, that she had felt powerful) Make me / This is criminal / How about that drive? / You’re mad / It’s only 7:30, Brad / We’ll be arrested in no time / Special occasion.

Think fast. Four cars down: the Berger’s wheelchair accessible Plymouth Voyager. Yes, they had driven all the way down to Boca Raton, yes with the windows rolled tight, the volume on low. Here it sits in the dark, mud-cracked, the bumper stickers peeling and bubbled as a wet book. Neither one of them can remember the last time they drove a real car. Something sleek and low. If we’re not out for too long, Bradley wonders, could any harm be done? This mistake must have happened for a reason—doesn’t everything?—and perhaps this is the perfect opportunity to be good again, to be spontaneous again, to be a man. When was the last time the two of them felt the fun of anything? He looks at his wife, spread eagle on the hood. He looks down to his new loafers. Get in, he says.

All four windows are down and Ramona’s feet are barefoot in the damp wind. Bradley drives ten miles over the speed limit down A1A. No one is on the road and the whole car smells like salt. Have a cigarette, Ramona says. Bradley gave them up twelve years ago but he laughs, knuckles the steering wheel twice, says Sure. Ramona pulls the pack of Merits and a lighter from the leg of her girdle. She bites two cigarettes out of their pack, the only ones left, holds them between her lips, and lights them. She puts one in Bradley’s mouth. In the dark, with the moon in his hair, her husband looks young again. Someone worth adoring. He inhales, holds the filter as if no time has passed at all. He coughs a little. Ramona’s heart swells with something. In this moment, she remembers who he was, who the two of them used to be, they were still sweet and they were unafraid. They kept jokes pressed between their chests when they fell asleep at night. They loved. We are other people tonight, says Ramona. We are Mr. and Mrs. Grenadine, the third. We’re passing through on the way to Miami. We have folks there. We’re headed to a private awards show, even. We have fans there. A cabana on the beach!

Tell me about yourself, Brad. What are you doing in Boca Raton? (Ramona holds an invisible mic to Bradley’s chin, her seatbelt unfastened, leaning in) / I’m being honored / You’re being honored! / For what? / You’re being honored as the next great American actor! / By gosh, that’s good, an actor / You’re preparing for the Oscars! / I’m method / You’re incognito / I’m training! / You’re a boxer / I’m good! / You’re a gangster / People want me / People love you / This is our night / It’s our night, for now.

Up ahead, to the right, a building glows pale pink.  The place is called The Fontana Farm. The sign pulses in tubes of neon. Members Only is written, in cursive, below a bright green palm tree. The letters dance.

Bradley ticks on his right signifier, slows the Jaguar. What would my girl say to another adventure?

Ramona flicks her cigarette out the window. What is it?

They pull in.

It is dark inside, a deep red. Smells of rubbing alcohol and tobacco. Bras hang by fishing line from the ceiling. Dolls, too—little women made of dried cornhusks with thumbtack bellybuttons and eyes. Samba music plays. The man at the front desk is enormous and his shirt looks as if it will split at the biceps. His skin is an orange kind of tree bark. 

Help you? / We’re just stopping in / This is a ranch, if you want to be sure. A play ranch for playing—members only. You in? / (Bradley Ums, Umms again, astonished by the high-pitched tone of the man’s voice) Out of towners, me and my wife here / I’d like to join / Little lady seems sure. How bout you, fella? / (Bradley looks to Ramona, but she will not make eye contact) I want what she wants / Slow night, you’re lucky, I think we can help (The man reaches under the desk. He pulls out a form) / My husband here is an actor / Never heard of you / You didn’t ask his name / Didn’t need to / Where should we sign? / Pay after.

Bradley pulls his wife by the elbow. They walk away from the counter.

You want to get out of here? / No, Brad / Is this place actually one of those / I intend to find out (Ramona’s lips are bourbon wet. The pupils of her eyes move in little circles as Bradley speaks, as if she is actually happy, as if she is listening) / Swingers club or something? / It was implied / You really want to do this? / Remember our honeymoon? / Sure, well, sure / The next morning, the way we laughed / Sure / We are Mr. and Mrs. Granadine. We’re on vacation. We’re wild (She speaks in a half-whisper) / But this place, (Bradley lightens, begins to laugh) this is real / Exactly.

Bradley and Ramona walk down the hall, hands clasped tight, ready.

In room #8, there is a chain swing hanging by the foot of a king-size waterbed. The bed is made up with black satin sheets, the pillows shaped like diamonds, spades. The candlelight is multiplied by a mirrored wall behind the headboard. Everything about the room is shiny. Two girls, no older than twenty-five years old, sit on the edge of the bed wearing red, rubber noses. This is all they are wearing. The tiny, freckled one, a real teaspoon of a girl, drinks from a bedazzled flask. The larger one with dark, round curls peels away the skin of a banana. They look bored. Perhaps drunk. Welcome to our playhouse! they say in unison. One of them is a little behind with her words, but it’s hard to say whom. Do you want to play? This time they’re more in sync.

The two girls have a few things to explain. One of them is Fat Raina, and the other is Little Raina. Raina means princess, they say, because we are. Please always address us as such. We’re sisters. Best friends. You’re here to respect us, and we’re here to have fun. Before we begin, they say, we want to put some makeup on you. Will you let us? Little Raina opens the top drawer of a Lucite dresser to the right of the bed.

The contents of the dresser are too cluttered to make out, but Bradley is trying. There are wigs, he is sure of that, black clumps of hair like dead birds. He notices what appear to be some glow sticks, frosted over and dull, and behind them, what’s that, a lasso?

Little Raina removes two plastic paint palettes and some sponges. A few sticks that look like crayons. She tosses them all onto the bed. Hop on! Bradley and Ramona sit next to each other on the side of the bed. The water inside of it gurgles and the two of them bob up and down for a moment. Bradley squeezes Ramona’s knee. The girls pop up in front of them with their tools. They say, Close your eyes and Stay still, silly! Fat Raina takes Bradley and Little Raina works on his wife. The makeup feels cold, wet, and it smells like rotten chalk. Bradley keeps his lips in a tight, tucked knot, nervous that his breath might still smell of tobacco. The girls circle the crayons around the couple’s mouths, through their eyebrows, saying things like Yup and Uh huh and Oh, that’s good. Occasionally, one of them licks her finger to smooth a line. Something is strapped around Ramona’s head. All fin! says Fat Raina.

The two Rainas step back, proud of their work, both heads cocked to the side. Bradley and Ramona face one another, and, in perfect unison, as if tied to the same string, the two of them crawl across the bed to the mirrored wall. Their faces are white and they’ve been given large orange smiles. Ramona has three blue triangles painted around her eyes and Bradley’s got golden stars.

They’re clowns. Now we can play proper, the little one says.

Every last detail about Bradley Berger would suggest that he’d panic at a time like this. Every gathered strand of evidence would suggest that he’d run. Yet there’s something dangerous in all of it, his fingernails smelling of nicotine, his face a white glow. His wife, Mrs. Grenadine, his fan, a complete and total stranger. He remembers the first time they made love in a public park in Kalamazoo, just dumb teenagers tangled on the midnight grass. August. He took her breasts in his mouth, cradling the left, then the right, and she let him in, she did, and he’d hoped this would be the last thing he would ever feel in his life. He looks to his wife now, her cheeks already smudging pink, her cheap rubber nose ablaze, and he kisses her like he means it.

It’s so sweet, says Fat Raina. Old people can be so sweet with each other, yeah? The two Rainas pull each other onto the bed. They kiss.

Ramona cannot stop staring at the girls’ breasts. As they kiss, she watches their nipples rub up against each other, their young hands moving through each other’s hair. It’s true, Ramona’s body is not the same as it once was, her stomach has become puckered into kneaded dough, her feet have grown horns, but her breasts, her breasts are still quite good. They could compare, perhaps even impress these Rainas. She begins unbuttoning the front of her dress, squeezes the girdle down past her knees, and throws it onto the swing.

The two Rainas move to the dresser. They pull and push the drawers, throwing its contents onto the bed—a round, rainbow wig, white gloves, juggling pins, a rope—their fingers dangling the items in the air as if tempting two newly trained dogs. The little one stumbles, falls over a bit. Here comes the party! the other one says.

What happens now? Bradley is lying on the bed, loosening his tie, pulling down his pants. His wife is sprawled out next to him, naked, the impression of her girdle leaving deep red lines across her hips like rivers on a map. The Rainas clap their hands as if urging him on. He stares at the rubber chicken on the bed, considers rubbing his wife’s cunt with it. Hey mister, Nice shoes, says Fat Raina, and he feels himself stiffen.

Ramona pulls her husband in by the back of the neck. She kisses him with a forceful tongue. The two of them feel the wet patches of their makeup smearing together, her rubber nose pressed flat into his cheek. The Rainas crawl on their hands and knees toward the couple, touching his thigh, her forearm, his lower back, her ass. Everyone is enjoying it. Fat Raina leans over and kisses Ramona. Above them, Little Raina kisses Bradley. They swap. They swap back. Little Raina places Bradley’s pointer finger in her mouth and sucks on it. She works her lips up and down, up and down, his finger touching the back of her throat, and he is liking this very much and liking it even more just before she says, Hold on.

What’s a matter? says Fat Raina. Just need a second, says Little Raina. She breathes deeply from the diaphragm. The three of them stare at her, wait. They sway with the tide of the waterbed. They listen to it slosh. Need a second, she repeats, pressing her palm to her forehead, squeezing her eyes shut. Her mouth is stretched into a straight, horizontal line. Her throat bobs as she swallows. The tiny girl leans over to the side of the bed, tears off the clown nose, and vomits onto the thick, black carpet. Oh fucking Christ, screams Fat Raina. Again?

Ramona leaps off the side of the bed and pulls Little Raina’s striped blonde hair into a fist. She smoothes her other hand over the girl’s naked back, stroking it gently. It’s okay, she says, Breathe. When the girl’s head quits jerking, Ramona helps her off the bed, holds her slouched body tightly against her chest, and leads her to the open bathroom door.

In the bedroom, Fat Raina begins plucking feathers from one of the satin pillows. She is saying, Lon’s really gonna have her neck this time. Lon’s really gonna chop her up for birdfeed. Who is Lon? Bradley asks. He suddenly notices the girl’s accent. The old meatloaf up front, of course, that’ll be Lon. She does this all the time, Fat Raina says, Drinks like it’s goddamn spring break, all eighty pounds of her ass. Bradley leans back into the headboard, runs his fingers through his hair. He opens and shuts his mouth, feeling the face paint tighten and crack. He thinks of the car. The kids back at home. His wife’s girdle on the floor. An anniversary. The girl, he says, will she be okay?

In the bathroom, Ramona removes a towel from a hook and wraps it around the girl’s shoulders. She covers her. Props her up in front of the toilet. She wets a washcloth with cold water and presses it into the back of her neck, knots her hair into a bun. There is a way in which a mother, no matter where she is, or when, will always be a mother. Too much to drink? asks Ramona. The girl nods. That’s all right, says Ramona, We’ll get it all up. She pats the girl’s back and lets her heave into the rusted bowl. Liquid spills out of her eyes, nose, mouth. The little girl weeps, mumbles an apology, and squeezes Ramona’s hand. I want to go home, she says.

In the bedroom, Fat Raina tells Bradley all about Tulsa. I miss it back there, she says. I miss my big brother, Gary. We call him G-Lightning. I miss the snakes in the yard. Lon doesn’t treat us like ladies here, but you’ll be sure I’m a lady back home. Bradley leans over the side of the bed, looking for his pants. They are covered in a salmon pink vomit. He reaches into the sheets for his clean shirt, pulls it on, begins to button. You know, says the girl, moving his hand to her waist, If you still wanna play, I’ll be glad for the dollar. Bradley sits up onto his knees, takes her face in his hands, and kisses the young girl on the top of her head.  

At the front desk, Lon asks Bradley and Ramona if they’ve had a wild time. He does not notice Bradley’s pants, not in this kind of light, but he smiles at their makeup and gives a thumbs up, approves. Lon collects the fee from Bradley, a stack of sharp, new cash that sticks to itself, and asks if he’s sure about the tip. You’ve got good girls, says Bradley. Take care of them, they’re good. Ramona will not look at either one of these men. Lon wants to chat, asking the couple where they come from, where they’re going, if they’ve checked the weather lately, have you tried the stone crab down here? but it is late for Bradley and Ramona, and late feels later with a stolen car, so the couple politely turn their backs, waving their hands out the exit door. Funny, what these nights do to Lon. The way they expand each year, changing shape with every birthday. And of course there is the word in the back of Lon’s throat when his girls leave in the morning, buttoning up their scalloped blouses for school, kissing him lightly on the temple, hating him. The same word he feels when a nice couple like this one walk out the door and return to a life of daylight, or love, or something better. Sometimes it chokes Lon out of the heaviest of sleeps until his sheets are damp with the waste of him, until his hands cramp shut, until he’s a little boy again, begging it, saying Stay.

In Room #8, the larger girl helps the smaller girl back to the bed. Ramona had wiped down her face, rinsed her hair, and by now she is ready to sleep. The smaller one curls into a ball, moves her head into her friend’s lap, and asks her to stroke the hair behind her ear. You okay? and the little one nods. They haven’t known each other long, but they attend the same community college in Broward. Lon picked them up as a team, said men would give their left nut to take care of them.  Tomorrow, the little girl says, You think we could get out of here?

In the car, the couple barely speaks. They watch the clock on the dashboard. They whisper Left, Right, Was it left at this drawbridge? Ramona checks the rearview mirror every few minutes. She says, Faster. The air is a rotten vinegar inside—it’s Bradley’s pants—and Ramona opens a window. Bradley says, You know I can’t concentrate with all that noise, you know that about me. At the next red light, Ramona’s husband reaches over and closes it for her. Bradley blacks out the headlights before he pulls into the hotel lot. The two of them hush, open their doors and step out. They wait for it, half-hoping, but there are no handcuffs, no sirens. They wait until they don’t.

When Bradley and Ramona reach the valet stand the boy is still leaning back, talking to Yolanda. He doesn’t look at their faces, doesn’t even notice the paint. What time is it? Ramona asks, but the boy does not answer. He just keeps on talking, loving his girl on the phone, his palm open and ready for either one of them to throw him a key.

T Kira Madden is an APIA writer, photographer, and amateur magician living in New York City. Her work has most recently appeared in The Kenyon Review, Tin House Online, Puerto del Sol, and HYPHEN. She is a 2014 and 2016 MacDowell fellow, and the founding Editor-in-Chief of No Tokens Journal.

Illustration by Vivian Shih

Issue 13