Songs of Corruption - Book One
I mentally rolled my eyes, if such a thing were possible, and kept my physical eyes focused on the woman singing. She had a lovely voice. It wasn’t quite like a bird, but more like a dozen of them layered one on top of the other. The effect was hypnotic.
I glanced at my brother again. “Excuse me?”
“You just agreed that the Angels were superior to the Dodgers.”
He looked away from her, and I sensed the air between them rip. I hadn’t felt anything but annoyance with his lack of attentiveness until he looked at me again, and his entire face changed from voracious and single-minded to the usual bemused and arrogant.
“Are you even paying attention?” I asked.
“Look, you have six sisters and me. All your sisters will tell you to forget Daniel Brower completely. I’m telling you to forgive him if you have to, but if you’re going to, just do it and drop it. I’m the one you keep talking to about him, and I keep giving you the same answer. So it sounds like you want to go back to him.”
He was in love with his ex-wife, who had left him for another man. Of course he’d be the most forgiving, and of course he was the one I chose to be with.
“I can’t. Every time I look at him, I can’t stop seeing him having sex with that girl.”
“Don’t look at him.”
I folded my hands on the table. I shouldn’t see my ex. Ever. But he’d called, and I had lunch with him, like a damned fool. He’d said it was business, and in a way, it was. We had a mortgage together, and bills, and I knew the intimacies of his campaign for mayor about as well as I’d known the intimacies of his body. But with so much dead weight between us, I had trouble eating. In the end, of course, he’d asked for me back, and I’d declined while holding back tears.
“He keeps asking to see me,” I said.
“Jesus Christ, Theresa. He’s stringing you along.” Jonathan tipped his drink to his lips and watched the woman standing by the piano like a hawk observing a mouse. “I thought I had it bad.”
I felt a sudden ball of tension wrap up in my chest. I couldn’t exactly place it, but it irritated me. “Do you know her? The singer.”
“We have a thing later tonight.”
“Good, because I was going to say you might want to introduce yourself before you slobber on her. Maybe dinner and a show.”
He smiled a big, wide Jonathan grin. After his wife left, he’d turned into a womanizing prick, but he rarely let us see that side of him. He was always a gentleman, until I saw him look at that singer. It made me uncomfortable. Not because he was my brother, which should have been enough, but because of an uneasy, empty feeling I chased away.
“Go to Tahoe or something for a few weeks,” he said. “Slap some skis on. You’re giving yourself an ulcer.”
The musicians stopped, and people clapped. She was good. My brother just applauded with his eyes and tipped his glass to her. When she saw him, her jaw tightened with anger. Apparently, he knew her well enough to piss her off.
He leaned over and whispered in my ear, “I know damn well how not fine you are.”
I looked him square in the eyes, and I knew his hurt matched mine. He healed himself by seducing whoever he fancied. I didn’t think I could use the same strategy. It stopped mattering when the singer made a beeline for our table.
“Hi, Jonathan,” she said, a big, fake smile draped across her face.
“Monica,” he said. “This is Theresa.”
“That was beautiful,” I said.
“You were incredible,” Jonathan said. “I’ve never heard anything like that.”
“I’ve never heard of a man trying to sandwich another woman between fingering me and fucking me in the same day.”
I almost spit out my Cosmo. Jonathan laughed. I felt sorry for the girl. She looked as if she was going to cry. I hated my brother just then. Hated him with a dogged vehemence because not only was he messing with her feelings, he still looked at her as though he wanted to eat her alive. When I saw how she looked at him, I knew he would win. He would have her and a dozen others, and she wouldn’t even know what was happening. I couldn’t watch.
“I’m going to the ladies’,” I said and slid out of the booth, not looking back.
I leaned against the back of the stall, staring at the single strip of toilet paper dangling off the roll. I had a few squares in my bag, just in case my brother brought me to yet another dump, but I didn’t want to use them. I wanted to dig into that feeling of emptiness and find the bottom of it.
You always have a few squares in your bag. And two Advil. And a tampon.
Daniel’s voice listing the stuff I carried for emergencies; his face, smiling as we went out the door for some charity thing; him in a tux, me in something, holding a satin clutch into which a normal woman couldn’t fit more than a tube of lipstick and a raisin.
“You got your whole kit in there?” he’d asked.
“Space and time are your slaves.”
I’d been pleased at the way he looked at me, as if he couldn’t be more impressed and proud, as if I ruled the world and his servitude was the natural order. Pleased as a king opening a pie and finding the miracle of four-and-twenty blackbirds.
But though I’d been with him for seven years, he’d never looked at me the way Jonathan looked at that singer. Never. Maybe that was why Daniel had had sex with his speechwriter. He didn’t revere her; he fucked her.
Daniel had always called me Tink, short for Tinkerbell, because of my curvy, petite frame. A sprightly, delicate fairy. Not someone you looked at hungrily.
I saw the singer in the hall, looking distant and resolute at the same time, as if she was convincing herself of something. She stopped short when she saw me.
“I’m so sorry,” she said. “I was rude and unbecoming.”
I was going to deny it, but I was struck by a distraction that cut me to the core. I smelled pine trees, deep in the forest, damp in the morning after a night of campfires and singing. The burning char and dew mingled in the song-like trails of cigarette smoke, rising and disappearing. And then it was gone.
“My brother’s an asshole, so I don’t blame you.” I regretted that almost immediately. I didn’t talk like that, especially not about family. I took her hand and squeezed it. “We both loved your voice.”
“Thank you. I have to go. I’ll try to see you on the way out.” She slipped her hand away and walked toward the dressing room.
I caught the scent again and looked in her direction, as if I could see the smell’s source. It could have come from anyone. It could have been the gorgeous black lady with the sweet smile. It could have been the plate of saucy meat that crossed my path. Could have been the waft of parking lot that came through the door before it snapped closed.
But it wasn’t.
I knew it like I knew tax code; it was him. The man in the dark suit and thin pink tie, the full lips and two-day beard. His eyes were black as a felony, and they stayed on me as his body swung into the booth.
The smell had come from him, not the other man getting into the booth. It was in his gaze, which was locked on me, disarming me. He was beautiful to me. Not my type, not at all. But the slight cleft in his chin, the powerful jaw, the swoop of dark hair falling over his forehead seemed right. Just right. I swallowed. My mouth had started watering, and my throat had gotten dry. I got a flash of him above me, with that swoop of hair rocking, as he fucked me so hard the sheets ripped.
He turned to say something to the hostess, and I took a gulp of air. I’d forgotten to breathe. I put my hands to my shirt buttons to make sure they were fastened, because I felt as if he’d undressed me.
I had two ways to return to Jonathan: behind the piano, which was the crowded, shorter way, or in front, which was less populated but longer.
I walked in front of the piano. The less crowded way. The longer way. The way that took me right past the man in the pink tie.
I wanted him to look at me, and he spent the entire length of our proximity talking earnestly to the baby-faced, bow-lipped man next to him. I caught the burned, dewy pine scent that made no sense and kept walking.
I felt a tug on my wrist, a warm sensation that tingled. His hand was on me, gentle but resolved. I stopped, looking at him as his hand brought me to his face. He drew me down until he was whisper close. A sudden rush of potential went from the back of my neck to the space between my legs, waking me where I thought I’d died.
I couldn’t breathe.
I couldn’t speak.
If he kissed me, I would have opened my mouth for him. That, I knew for sure.
“Your shoe,” he said with an accent I couldn’t place.
“What?” I couldn’t stop looking at his eyes: brown, wide, with longer eyelashes than should be legal, hooded under arched brows proportioned for expression.
Was I wearing shoes? Was I standing? Did I need to take in air? Eat? Or could I just live off the energy between us?
He pointed at my heel. “You brought yourself a souvenir from the ladies’ room.”
He was beautiful, even as he smirked with those full lips. Did I have to turn away to see what he was talking about? It was that or put my tongue down his throat. I looked down.
I had a trail of toilet paper on my stiletto.
“Thank you,” I said.
“My pleasure.” He let go of my hand.
The space where he’d touched felt like a missed opportunity, and I went to the bathroom to return my souvenir.
After I’d kicked Daniel out of my loft, Katrina moved in. Living alone had thrust me hip deep into depression, and her things around the house changed my feeling of complete emptiness into a feeling that something was right even when everything was wrong.
For her part, she was dealing with a career that had crashed and burned when she filed a lawsuit against the studio that had funded her Oscar-nominated movie. She said there were profits she was entitled to share; they insisted the production operated at a loss. Fancy, indefensible, and legal accounting proved them right, leaving her bank account empty and her career in tatters.
She and I were cars passing on opposite sides of the freeway. As a nearly-but-not-quite-famous director, she was on set at odd hours, and when she wasn’t, she was trying to hold her production together with spit and chewing gum. She couldn’t pay much, so her crew left for scale-paying gigs and had to be replaced, or they dropped out of a day’s shooting with grave apologies but no replacement. Set designers, assistant camera people, gaffers did it for love and opportunity. Production assistants, also called PAs, were the unskilled and barely paid necessities on set, and most likely to drop out.
Her script supervisor, the person responsible for the continuity of the shots, couldn’t work nights or weekends. After Katrina fired her line producer, who was in charge of keeping ducks in rows, she discovered he hadn’t hired a second script supervisor. She shrugged it off as the risk one takes in “the business,” then segued into a long pitch about my attention to detail, my love of consistency and order, and my eagle eye for continuity. She’d asked—no, begged—me to step in for evenings and weekends.
I met her on set under a viaduct downtown at six a.m. The food truck was set up, and the gaffers and grips were just arriving.
“Let’s face it, Tee Dray,” she said, pointing the straw of her Big Gulp at me, “it’s not like they gave me enough money to pay union for weekend calls.” She wore a baseball cap over a tight black pixie cut that only she could pull off. A Vietnamese Mexican with an athletic build, she carried herself as if she owned the joint. Every joint. When we were at Carlton Prep together, she was a bossy outcast and the most interesting person at school.
“You’re paying me on the back end,” I said.
“Sure,” she said with a strong smile. “Forty percent, but I keep the books.”
We hovered over the coffee and fruit. It was still dark, the ambient hiss of the freeway above as low as it would ever be.
“You know what to do?” she asked.
“I have the binder from last time. Track shots, cuts, who’s wearing what, where their hands are, off-book dialogue, et cetera.”