Tobacco Road Bar, MiAMI, by Philip Pessar

Nobody’s Stranger

A Miami Noir love story. Part 1

Our first meeting was a second-rate noir film: curt, sexy, infused with the suggestion of violence, ultimately mystifying. As she walked through the door, her long red dress fluttered in the shock of air conditioning. Heels pushed her calves into high, tanned knots. A gold revolver charm hung between her breasts, right where I wanted my face to go. This wasn’t the kind of girl you generally met at Wolf’s. The other guys were staring, and even Patience, the bartender, a pretty, worn-out blond we’d all spent the past eight years hitting on, perked up and smoothed her hair a little. “What a Wonderful World” was soon playing on the jukebox — the jokebox, we called it.

When I ordered the girl a martini, she sucked it down through a swizzle straw that she fondled with the tip of her tongue. I took the glass and set it on the bar. “Another of these?”

She ran a hand through her hair. “No, something harder this time.”

I put my cock in its place by running alphabetically through prepositions in my head. Aboard, about, above, across — sometimes the things you learn in school really do come in handy. “Like a whiskey?”

“Like a vodka double.” Her brow was unlined, but her solemn blue eyes gave her the aspect of a much older woman. Her name, she said, was Mandy.

After a second vodka double, she invited me home. It was one of those old Florida houses: jalousie windows, pull-down awnings, white wrought-iron gate over the front door. Three cats ran out from under the porch as we approached. Inside, a rope hammock stretched across her living room. It swayed in the wind from the ceiling fan, which gave a thump with each go-round. Half the track lights shone down onto the knotty swing and the others tilted sideways, toward a psychedelic banana spider painted on the back wall. In their natural habitat, suspended in webs between trees, the arachnids seemed artificial and gaudy, like dime store candies or my grandmother’s brooches. But this one glowed with ferocity. Its trunk was fluorescent yellow; its fuzzy, striped legs were longer than Mandy’s and nearly as breathtaking. Its giant, awful skull-head could’ve stood center-stage at a death metal concert. I averted my gaze.

Apart from these eerie details, the apartment seemed empty. I didn’t see a stick of furniture or so much as a potted plant.

We stood in the shadows near the front door. Mandy’s face was hard to make out, but as my eyes adjusted, she turned so that the whites of her eyes caught the light. She was looking at me.

“Takes a special kind of girl to hang a hammock in the living room,” I told her.

“Wait till you see how special,” she said.

Swear to God, that’s what she said. She slipped out of the dress and flicked off the lights and started swinging on the hammock. Soon I was naked too and joined her there. Light through the jalousie slats hit her face. Her lips pulled back in a kind of grimace. She handled me roughly, forced me into different positions.

“Like this,” she said, pulling me down on her. No sooner did I brace my feet against the ropes and get into that groove than she pushed me back and straddled me. “My turn now,” she said. She draped her breasts over my mouth. They were long and full, like clusters of grapes. No, that’s not right; my similes have gone to shit this last year, but her tits were deep, soft things, with nipples you could dip in paint and keep the aureoles dry.

Suffice it to say, she knew what she was doing. I hadn’t had a half-hour like that in a good long time. Maybe not ever. She rode me hard, and when I came, she reached down and scratched the hell out of my chest. Ten claw marks, five on each side, all bleeding. She made a small, sharp noise, like something out of a cornered animal. Then she stood, flicked on the lights and said, “Okay, you can go now.”

I laughed.

She didn’t. She held her ground, scowling like a Bond girl after she’s turned on you. Her eyes were actually gray, I noticed. Gray, and completely expressionless.

“Honey,” I said, conjuring up my father’s best Florida cracker drawl (the trick is to pretend you’re talking around a toothpick), “after that performance, you gonna have to give me a minute to catch my breath and slide my briefs back on.”

She crossed her arms, and the little revolver jiggled. The banana spider leered out from the wall. The situation seemed increasingly ridiculous—even, possibly, dangerous.

She threw my shirt at me. “I said, get the hell out of my house.”

Back at home my bike lay sideways on the front porch. Inside, my bathrobe was draped over the armchair and some misshapen Cheerios were stuck to the coffee table. There was no telling when they had fallen — hangover or no, I ate the same thing at the same time every weekday morning. Normally I was impervious to clutter and filth, but the austerity of Mandy’s living quarters had sensitized me to it. I was ashamed to see the box of dental floss lying in the hallway, the empty beer bottles crammed along the bookshelf.

Novels and bills and notebooks and magazines strewn across the table covered all but one bronze thigh of the latest Playboy centerfold. Print monthlies offer such a quaint, virtuous sort of boner in the Internet age that happening upon the magazine in this way always made me feel like a decent guy. Thinking of Mandy, I reached for it and a burning across my chest reminded me of the ten red lines fanning out from my heart, now patchily bleeding through my shirt. The medicine cabinet was sorely lacking in antiseptic options, so I dabbed some whiskey on my chest and went to bed.

Eight o’clock the next morning, the alarm went off as usual. The wounds were dry and puffy and red, like cat scratches left untreated. With every stretch, I felt my skin threatening to tear. Giving up on work, I watched a soap opera, answered email from one of my few remaining fans, saw that in the past two weeks there had been only 217 new hits on my blog, only three mentions on Twitter. Around 4 p.m. — the sun well over the yardarm — I went over to Wolf’s, one of the few bars where U.M. coeds coexist with the rest of humanity, and where I was, consequently, a regular.

Sliding onto the same stool where I’d sat with Mandy the night before, I ordered a few rounds from Patience, who lived up to her name. She fended off upwards of two-dozen suitors and their Axl Rose impressions a night. “You and I got what it takes to make it,” I sang to her, along with the tune some joker had put on three dollars’ worth of repeat, but I only did it out of habit. I was watching the door.

When Mandy still hadn’t shown by 7 o’clock, I drove to her house, parked out on the street, and started up the walk. Her sportscar pulled into the driveway before I could knock. She wore office clothes: a navy skirt and white blouse and brown pumps that reminded me of ones my mom used to wear.

Adjusting her purse on her shoulder, Mandy strode purposefully toward me. “Don’t come around here,” she said.

I wished I had a hat to take off, like they did in the old days, to show her my good intentions. “I just want to ask you to dinner. Get to know you better. I’m not proud of the way things started off between us.”

She fished in her pocketbook for her keys. “Get lost,” she said. “I handle my own dinners.” Her eyes revealed nothing when she closed the door. They were blank as dolls’ eyes. They were the deep gray of the gulf on a cloudy day.

Dark storm clouds billowing off to the west blew in quickly. The tiny awning over the steps didn’t do much to shelter me when the downpour started. I pressed against the wall, up next to the window and behind the shrubs, and could just make out the spider glowing in the dim light inside. Mandy herself was nowhere to be seen.

Just as I started up the truck, she emerged from the house carrying an umbrella. Her hair fell in waves just past the top of her short blue strapless dress. When she bent over to unlock her car, I might have been able to see her underwear, if it hadn’t been raining so hard. It was that kind of dress.

I followed her out US1, up 95, all the way to Winston’s, the most incongruous bar in Little Haiti. It’s filled with aging emo kids and British soccer fans and overweight burlesque enthusiasts. (Avoid the shepherd’s pie if you go.)

After she disappeared inside, I sat in the car trying to figure out what exactly I wanted from her. If it was just sex there were other ways to go about getting that. I didn’t have trouble meeting girls. Not normal ones, anyway. Okay, at least no more trouble than your average once-decent-looking guy with white hair and the beginnings of jowls.

The rain slacked, then stopped. Mandy emerged from the establishment arm in arm with a guy about my age, early forties, I’d say. He wore a sport coat and tie and stumbled a bit. Like me he was tall, thin, and prematurely craggy. She pulled a paper from her purse and leaned against her car to write. When she handed the page to him, I could see she’d drawn a map like the one she’d given me the previous night. She pulled the guy against her, then pushed him away. He staggered toward a black Jeep Wrangler.

“Don’t get lost,” I heard her call to him.

Exactly what she’d said to me.

I went into Winston’s, threw back a whiskey. It was open mic night. A raven-haired girl in a leather bra several sizes too small was reciting dismal poetry on-stage. Obviously Mandy thought some tie-clad, SUV-driving jackass could give her a better romp in the hay than I had. But why? Did he have bigger feet? Some lawyer job downtown? Was he, god fuck it all, a bass player? Could his smile remind her of her daddy’s? As a boy in short-short cut-offs sang “Take Another Little Piece of My Heart,” I downed three more shots in quick succession, paid my tab, and stumbled back out into the muggy heat of the evening. The humidity settled on my skin like a damp sweater.

I weaved my way back to South Miami. Her house was dark. The bastard’s Wrangler sat out front, in the spot I’d already come to think of as my own. Parking farther up the street, I walked back, stopping to pull leaves from under Mandy’s windshield wipers and dust cat prints off her hood with my sleeve.

A neighbor across the way was rolling garbage cans out to the curb. I lifted my arm in greeting. She hesitated, then waved back. Once she’d disappeared behind her fence again, I ducked around Mandy’s shrubs and looked into the living room. I could only just make out the iridescence of the spider and a blur of flesh. The light was all wrong; to my right, a porchlamp glowed. Could they see me?

Ducking over next to the door, I unscrewed the fixture and loosened the bulb until it went out. Back at the window, everything was much clearer now. There was, after all, some light in the room: a small dime store night light in a socket on the far wall. It cast a circle of illumination over the hammock, where Mandy was swinging her magnificent nipples over the guy’s mouth. He was crazed with desire, moving his head back and forth just the way I had, holding his tongue out.

Every time he tried to touch her with his hands, she thrust them back against the ropes, and tucked them under. Her neck was long and slender, like the rest of her. She had a mole on the small of her back. Her ass was impossibly round. It was like something out of a pornographic cartoon, it was so perfect. As she eased herself down on him, I ached with longing and rage and a strange kind of sorrow that manifested itself in laughter I couldn’t choke back. My bad arm throbbed and I stood there, guffawing, until she turned to look at me.

Then I ran off.

The next night I showed up at Mandy’s place with roses around the time she got off work. She parked her car, marched right up to me, threw the flowers on the ground and crushed a few of the blooms into the concrete at the foot of the stairs. She held my gaze with a look so icy I felt the cold in my bones.

“I don’t care how you get your rocks off,” she said. “But if you ever laugh while I’m with someone again, I’ll put a bullet through your heart.” She paused, ground another flower against the pavement, went inside and slammed the door. I stood there, tingling pleasantly from her threats, trying to coax one of her cats, a grey tabby, out of the shrubs, and waiting for her to come back and order me to leave or threaten me more, but she didn’t. After fifteen or twenty minutes had passed, the neighbor ventured out to roll her empty garbage cans back behind the fence. I waved hello; she didn’t acknowledge me this time. I returned to my truck, put the keys in the ignition.

Mandy sashayed out in a low-cut yellow sundress.

I couldn’t help myself. Followed her to some sad strip mall bar out in Cutler Ridge. Dispensed with the quartet of whiskeys after she picked the guy — blonde, medium height, with linebacker shoulders — up. Tailed them back to her place and watched everything through the window. Had she left the porch light off for me? Or did she not realize or not care that I’d disabled it the night before?

This dude had a short, skinny dick, but she betrayed no disappointment even when his erection flagged. She licked it and sucked on it, and when it rose again in its stunted glory she rode it as enthusiastically as she had mine and the other guy’s. A flush spread across her face. As he shook with orgasm, she bared her teeth and slashed his chest with her fingernails.

“Get out,” she said, moments later. “Now.”

The linebacker obeyed. He hung his head—was he shamed by her patience with his near-impotence?—stepped into his jeans, grabbed his shirt and shoes, and ran to his old Honda clutching them. Feeling a little sorry for the guy, I hid behind the bushes as he drove off into the night. Mandy looked out, and closed the blinds.

You probably can’t tell, but I’m a writer. I write — I wrote — novels for women, books that were a mix of mystery and what used to be called chick lit before the term became unfashionable—books that, to the delight of my publisher, were shelved in two sections at your local Barnes & Noble. Once upon a time my blog got 25,000 hits a day. My audience grew by 10% with each new novel I churned out.

To women the country over, I am known as Scarlett Minaretta. You wouldn’t believe how much market research went into that name. I preferred Violet Lamb, but focus groups revealed that “Violet” was too depressing and/or reminiscent of a character who turns into a blueberry in a children’s movie, while “Lamb” connoted an innocence wholly out of step with the Sex and the City demographic. Obviously I don’t — didn’t — do book tours.

My protagonists were your prototypical desperate single women. They wore size 10 dresses and had tedious office jobs and took cruises to the Bahamas with gay best friends who told them they deserved better than the boss they were sleeping with while his botoxed wife played hide-the-salami with his business partner. In due course my heroines would stop a bank robbery or find a stolen Rembrandt or prevent another Enron from happening. A strange man would turn up to tuck a flower behind her ear or slide a ring on her finger and walk her down the aisle in a pat tearjerker of a finale.

My books, to be frank, were bucketsful of crap that used to cause me no end of grief with my buddies. I’d sit with those guys, Friday after Friday, playing Hold ‘Em and sipping Maker’s Mark and saying that I only wrote the things so I could have an easy paycheck and get laid regularly. “It don’t take much to convince Miami girls you’re an artist,” I’d say, shifting a toothpick from one side of my mouth to the other.

They’d chuckle uneasily and adjust themselves.

I guess I must have bought my own stories more than I realized, because I can see now that, when I started up with Mandy, I judged the situation like one of my plotlines. She was the girl before her luck turned, before she became giddy and grateful and had sex with her tall, dark stranger on the beach under the moon. Except Mandy was more beautiful and complex than my heroines; she was the model who’d play one in the TV movie.

But a woman had to be crazy to fuck a different guy every night. Especially at her own place, with the blinds open, in full view of the neighborhood. Hadn’t Mandy heard of stalkers? Rapists? Serial killers? And more to the point: why would a girl who looked like that play sexual Russian roulette? Was she a bona fide nymphomaniac? Did she have a death wish?

Most nights I waited at her doorstep until she arrived with the man of the evening. In my defense, I would like to point out that my vigil was not without irony. I stood holding a bouquet of flowers—the more garish and enormous the assortment, the better—while she led the guy up the walk. I winked at her. “Hello, darling,” I said, “I’m home.”

Generally Mandy ignored me. If her companion started to say something, she put her finger over his lips. “C’mon, baby,” she’d tell him. “We got better things on our agenda.” Occasionally she’d threaten me: “I’ll call the cops if you don’t get in your junky little truck and go home.” From time to time there was mockery. “Hard up fucking loser,” she’d say. “This guy’s going to fuck me while you stand there holding carnations.”

The routine was essentially the same every night, with slight variations that depended on the needs of the man. Some were too clumsy to fuck her on the hammock, so she had to do all the work. (In retrospect, I realize, I was one of those.) Some responded less well to her breasts than her back end, and those guys got their fill of exactly what they wanted. While I watched, I tried to figure out which, if any, gave her actual pleasure. It was impossible to tell. There was no pattern I could discern. Finally, between fifteen and forty minutes later — even my stamina, it seemed, had been average — the man would stumble out just as thin lines of blood were beginning to seep through his shirt.

At home I gave up on Playboy and spent hours trolling porn sites for girls who looked like Mandy. I took epic showers, went through bottles of lotion. I went at it until the thought of orgasm became nauseating. Then I’d wake up at 3 a.m., and do it again.

One night, after several months, Mandy came out of the house after the evening’s victim had departed. A burly fellow with a pink Oxford shirt and enormous balls, he’d bellowed like a carnival barker when she scratched him.

She took my flowers. Yellow tulips, that night. “You win,” she said, “and I don’t even like tulips.”

“What kind of flowers do you like?” I asked her.

“I don’t like any of them.”

We went to a 24-hour diner and she ate French fries and fried shrimp and drank a chocolate malted. She didn’t say much during dinner, mostly just responded to my questions. Her people came from Texas. She’d flunked out of FIU. Now she worked as a paralegal for a law firm. The hours were long, her weekends were shot, but aside from being custodian of the lottery pool money, she didn’t mind it.

“The partners must make half a million bucks each,” she said. “But you have to remind them three or four times a week that they still haven’t put in their dollar.”

At last, I thought, something to connect with her on! “Those rich bastards,” I said. “What’s a dollar to them anyway?”

She shrugged. “Nothing. Nobody gives a damn about what they have too much of.”

She ate neither too fast nor too slowly, neither with relish nor listlessly. Her eyes stayed on my face. She poured out more ketchup without really looking whenever she started to run low. “Are you in love with me?” she asked, after she folded her napkin and placed it on her plate.

“I think so,” I said. “Yes, I believe I am.”

“Even if I could love you back, it wouldn’t matter,” she said. “I only fuck strangers, and I only fuck them once.”

I wasn’t sure what to say.

“After that, they’re not strangers anymore,” she explained. She laughed, a joyless laugh that did not reach her eyes.

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