The room was run down. Filthy carpet; the walls were worse. The bathroom and kitchen, if you could call it that, were both so ghastly that they were nearly identical. It wouldn’t matter which one you decided to take a piss in. He took out a cigarette and let his hand-held flame graze the paper. His lighter reads “Keep It Up!”: scrawled on its side in yellow text. They were made to look like the petals of a sunflower. Tossing it onto the bed, his eyes draw slowly closed, the gray smoke dragging its way to his lungs. The rain last week flooded the car. Still won’t start. Wendy’s hadn’t called back, Home Depot hadn’t either. His money was running out. There were arguments going on between his friends. They weren’t real friends anyway. More like figments of his imagination. Mom was looking worse by the day. He hated the overbearing lights of the hospital. At least there was Margaret. He opened his hazel eyes. Dennis sat on an armchair stained with splotches of liquid that shifted and grew darker, then lighter, like fading ghosts. The original royal blue of the fabric was hardy visible. It was ripped everywhere. God-knows what went on in this fucking chair. It might have once been beautiful. She was staring straight at him when he looked up.
“You haven’t called me in a while,” she said playfully. The words left her soft pink lips like clouds rolling across the room. They were a glimpse of serenity amongst the ugliness. “I thought you forgot about me, Denny.”
He winced at the nickname and drew again from his cigarette. His chest felt heavy as he exhaled the smoke. It twisted in coils, suspended in the airless room.
“I’m not a shitty breakfast joint,” he replied.
“Oh, hush. I’ve been calling you Denny since the first day we met. You’ve never complained before,” her blonde hair laid in ripples on her shoulders. She twirled a strand in her bony fingers. Her hands were filled with cuts. Dennis traced his eyes slowly down to her arms, then her torso, then legs. There were fresh purple markings on her skin, sickly green surrounding them. Her knees knocked together.
“Whatever. I think it’s cute,” she added.
“Why are you barefoot, Margaret? And those bruises.” He took one last pull of his cigarette and snuffed it against the armchair.
“No wonder this place is a dump,” she replied, looking around and then back at him, “you aren’t exactly helping things.”
“Why are you barefoot?”
“Oh, it’s nothing Denny. Sorry, Dennis. I just couldn’t find a pair I liked.” He knew it was a lie, but forced himself to paint an empty grin across his face. He closed his eyes again.
He had to re-enroll in school. If that was even worth it. Going into slaver’s debt to listen to ideologues twist knowledge didn’t seem appealing. His mother was hoping he would be the first in the family to graduate college. Start eating right, working out. Renovate the nothingness he called a life. The sedentary tinge of nihilism coating his insides from his brain to the muscles in his feet. Books by every great thinker that has ever lived filled the backseat of his car. Those were the ones he saved; half had been destroyed in the flood. He didn’t read them anyway. Their old words couldn’t help him, he thought. Lying to himself came easily.
Margaret shifted on the bed. She was dressed in a black corset, her Hello Kitty panties showing underneath. It had frills running down its side, and little silver tassels on her breasts. She was braless. The pallid tone of her skin was like marble, her body curving like an artist’s rendition of the perfect female body. Her shoulders sloped down gracefully. She was wholly feminine. He saw his hands grasping hers, outlining her thighs, running through her hair. He saw sweat gleaming on her like diamonds sliding down her bare skin. Her bare feet were dirty, the left one housing an enflamed blister. Bright green paint on her toenails showed the stresses of wear. The discolored patches of skin leered at him as if they were alive. They had hollow faces, taunting him, shouting obscenities in a perverse version of her golden voice.
“If you don’t tell me they won’t shut the hell up,” he said calmly, opening his eyes and sending Margaret a serious look. Another cigarette found its way to his mouth from its shell. It limped in his lips for a while before he lit it.
“What?” Margaret replied, perplexed.
“The bruises. They’re like little demons. They keep yapping and yapping and yapping. If I don’t know why they are what they are, then they’ll never shut up.”
Margaret laughed. It was airy, as if the stories behind the markings on her skin were memories she held dear. “You sound like my therapist, Denny. It’s kind of creeping me out. Actually, it’s really creeping me out.”
“I never ask,” Dennis replied. “But now I want to know.”
“Yeah, I like when you don’t ask. I’d prefer it if you didn’t care, sweetheart. You know that I’m a tough girl. Besides, this is your time.”
I know, he thought to himself, I know all too well. His chest grew heavier and tighter. Start something. Stop something. That’s how the world worked, wasn’t it? You start and you stop, and the in-between is filled with girls forced to be tougher than they should be and men wallowing in wastefulness. We were all born in the desert. You start digging for water or you dehydrate. You dig too far you drown. Start and stop.
“Ya know, I kind of just wish you were fucking me right now,” she said. The words meant less than nothing, or more than anything. Dennis couldn’t tell.
He inhaled his tobacco. He felt the chemicals shuffling their course through his airways. Before exhaling he took another deep hit.
“Hey? Did you hear me? I said I wish you were fucking me.”
“I heard you. I believe you,” he replied solemnly. “Margaret, do you ever wish for other things?”
“Ok, Dennis,” she was becoming agitated, “what the hell is wrong with you? We’ve been meeting up for two years now and you’ve never been like this. Do I wish for other things? Why would I?”
“I mean, don’t you ever wish for something more than what we’re doing?”
Margaret’s eyes drew into slits, they grew darker. She stood up and threw her purse against the bed. A package of birth control pills and some wrinkled bills fell from its mouth. Her bare feet began to pace around the room, leaving imprints in the dingy carpet. After a while, she whirled around and pointed.
“Do I wish for something more? What about you?”
“What about me? Of course I do,” he replied. Her eyes narrowed again.
“Oh, bullshit! You’re the smartest guy I know, what do you do with it? Some of us don’t have a choice, but you do. Blow your wishing out of your ass, Denny. There ain’t anything to wish for. You just do and you don’t, and it keeps going forever.”
Dennis snatched his cigarette pack from the table. It sat in his hand instantly forgotten as it was picked up. Visions of an unattained goal, unnamed, formed like an apparition in the corners of his eyes. They shifted and vanished, only to reform as some new shape. They were stains on the royal blue armchair. It might rain again next week. That had to be prepared for. His little brother was struggling in school. The poor kid needed life advice. Advice Dennis easily gave but never took. The green and brown in his eyes began to slightly shimmer. April 27th was coming up, his birthday. He was turning twenty-seven. Of course he had wishes. She wasn’t the only one that had problems beyond her control. At times, you just can’t start. No matter how talented or intellectual, a red light glows in darkness above your head. He wished that it could be different.
Margaret quickly moved in front of him, grabbing his cigarettes from his motionless fingers and pushing her hand into his chest. Her fist balled, grasping a handful of fabric. After a moment of silence she leaned down and her lips touched his. The touch felt to Dennis like lava, melting everything around him away. It burned through his blood and his skin became hot. He grabbed her hip and pulled her in closer, kissing harder. Her porcelain hand slid up his legs, over his stomach and up to his face. They were right, Dennis understood. The thought made him jerk his hand up and grab her hair roughly. She let out a playful gasp, pushing her breasts against his chest in response. His head craned to engage her lips again, but this time she pulled away. She stood up and took a cigarette out of the pack. Dennis handed her the lighter, and the brief flame lit her face like spotlights against the Mona Lisa. She closed one eye and held the lighter up to the other.
“Keep it Up!” Her voice burst forth joyfully. Her teeth shone under reddened lips.
“Why did you stop?”
“Well,” she held the L sound, letting it spread across the room. “That’s two hours, Denny.” She laughed again, tossing the lighter onto his lap.
Dennis looked down at his watch. It had been two hours and thirty-four minutes to be exact. He sighed and reached underneath the rotted chair. He withdrew a travel bag and unzipped it slowly. He retrieved two-hundred dollars hidden beneath his underwear. Mostly twenty’s and ten’s, bundled together with a rubber band. With hesitant hands, he held it in front of him. Margaret smiled and palmed the money, shoving it in the purse now slung over her shoulder. The ash on her cigarette fell to the ground.
“Next time, when I say I wish you were fucking me, fuck me!” She said, only half-joking.
“I wish you didn’t have to go,” Dennis replied.
“Dennis,” she paused, “I don’t know what is wrong with you tonight. Promise to call me when you can, ok? You know I love seeing you the most.”
Before he could reply, she leaned over and planted another kiss on his cheek, then another on the nose. She turned around and walked to the beige, dented door. Opening it, stepping halfway out, she turned around.
“I’ll tell you the story about these bruises next time,” she said smiling, throwing a kiss at him through the air. The door shut and she was gone.
Dennis reclined back in the armchair. It swallowed him whole. The sickly-sweet smell she left behind beat the stench of the room back. Looking into his cigarette pack, he noticed that she had taken the last one. It stared emptily back at him. He let it fall to the ground and his lips spread back into a smirk. His insides were still warm. Images of Margaret lingered like phantoms in the room. He started to think about what he would say when he called her next week.