THE TACO BELL IN THE CENTER OF THE PENTAGON

In Memory of Ruslana Korshunova
Вечная Память

“The Three Disgraces!” Olamide yelled across the hotel pool. “Beauty, elegance…mirth.” 

He carried his shoes as he walked towards the hot tub, muttering virtues to himself. Mila sank her shoulders underwater, crossing her arms over her chest. Ksenia rolled her elbows back onto the rim, doubling down. 

“I should be a medium. A psychic. I should read palms in a strip mall, like a gypsy.” He breathed heavily as his big feet slapped against the tiles. He said this is the last time he catches us topless and drunk off Henny and hot tub fumes after hours. He said that if we were his daughters, he would be in prison. I’ve seen his daughters. I’ve seen their yellow eyes, their knock knees, calves splayed out in an X. Jiminy rickets. Growing up in basements, hidden away from the equatorial sun. 

“Last time, we promise.”  Ksenia offered him a drink. The diplomat. In 24 hours, she’d be proven right. I watched his hand dwarf the amber bottle and got a feeling. A greedy feeling that we were going to run out and the demon seed would gnaw on my soul with its yellow rodent teeth unless I poisoned it to sleep. 

There’s war on the border. Not this one. The other one. Someone shot a plane down over Donetsk. Mila had texted me. My flights have been canceled for the week. I’ll text you when I get on the shuttle from Dulles. 

“Ten minutes. I’ll be checking the cameras.” 

“Those cameras don’t work. The only real cameras are behind reception, in the gift shop, and–” Someone kicked me underwater. Probably the diplomat.  

The three of us reeked of chlorine and Angel, the only perfume to persevere through hours of nightswimming. Our six legs in a row, breaching in and out of the froth, were pink from the hot steam. We stained three towels and the bath mat when we dyed my hair that morning. Some kind of brown-black from CVS. ‘Velvet Cardamom,’ ‘Midnight Macadamia’ or something.  I couldn’t stop playing with my new braids. I love the shiny, heavy feeling of freshly dyed hair, a new glassy sheath around every strand, unfamiliarly contrasting against my skin. 

I was the last Disgrace still working at the rooftop bar atop the Pentagon Marriott. Mila quit to work for Aeroflot. Olamide fired Ksenia a month ago for smoking behind the bar. She always smoked up there. It calmed her fear of heights. One day she ashed into a woman’s fish and chips. “I thought she was done! Slow eater.” She never needed the job anyway. She has an entire room just for clothes in her adoptive parents’ five story house near Chevy Chase Circle. She bartends until she gets fired or quits or decides to travel. It doesn’t bother me much. She’s a slippery koi in a heated pond. Why should she suffer? It’s not her fault she was too young to remember her plastic cup on the pet store shelf. 

Mila had to sell her mother’s opal earrings to make enough money to leave Brooklyn when her adoptive parents found out she was 22, not 17. She thought she’d find someone sympathetic in Brighton; the Russian dollhouse slapped together by bitter immigrants in the Fascist 40s. Where tourists swished around a replica of the Nylon 90s. Where expats spat between their Nike slides and swore they’ll never return to Eastern Ashtray, while they fully recreated it on every block. She left Ischild Jewelry & Watch Repair with $150 and a Rockville address. The jeweler told her to go check on his niece who never calls and ask her for a job. 

Back in the hotel room, we passed around a bottle of grenache I stole from the roof and watched TV in our king bed. I swore I saw a glimpse of Braveheart and Ksenia was flipping through channels looking for Mel. A man was stuffing dryer sheets into his wife’s mouth on Lifetime. She lingered on it for a bit and started to laugh.  Mila threw a tissue box at the TV and growled for a channel change in Russian. Ksenia ignored her, like always, sensitive about her monolingualism. Mila grabbed the remote. Their quiet rivalry was flaring up and I slid deeper under our big white comforter.  

She flipped through channels hungrily, barely giving anything a breath, until she saw a cross legged Buddhist engulfed by flames on Discovery. Mila grabbed the bottle, still hoarding the remote, and told us about the last time she ever saw her mother alive. They were riding the bus, right after the default. She doesn’t remember what her mother was saying or how she looked that morning. She was watching a Korean man self-immolating with paper rubles and samogon

Her mother bought fake documents to knock five years off her age and get her into one of the best boarding schools in Moscow. It closed after three years and she transferred to mine, an Orthodox boarding school for priests’ children and orphans in Podmoskovye. On her first day, I stole her gold and opal earrings during gym so no one else would. I gave them back to her later that night and taught her where to hide things and who to hide them from. We whispered until 2 AM and our friendship had been mostly nocturnal ever since. 

I dragged her out to the balcony to cool off. 

Our view faced the highway, Reagan Airport, and the Potomac. Cars, planes, and the river breathed movement into a city with notoriously bad circulation. Humidity and red tape. Gua sha over concrete. 

Ola was kind enough to let his Disgraces have one of the nice rooms for free, the ones blocked off for week-long conferences. Balconies and king beds to jack up the cost, gringo prices for the federal government. 

“What if I was in that plane that got shot down.” 

“That would never happen to an Aeroflot vessel.” 

She saluted the river and laughed. 

“Malaysia Airlines is really having some bad luck this year. Aren’t Asians supposed to be the luck experts?”  

“Maybe they’re obsessed with luck, because they’ve never had it.” 

“Alan Watts. Law of negative. Too many fortune cookies and joy luck clubs.”

“As if Russians aren’t the most superstitious people on the planet.”  

“We are. But blessed are those who mourn–

“Do you ever get used to flying?”

“No. The only time I pray anymore is during takeoff and landing. Lord save and protect me, a sinner.” She crossed herself. 

“When you die in a plane crash, do you suffocate midair, or do you die on impact?”

“It depends on the speed of deceleration. Eyeballs out, eyeballs in…”

“What are you two talking about?” Ksenia spanked me with the remote. “Signs is on.”

I slept until noon the next day, the first one up. I wanted them to come make work bearable. But M+K take forever to get ready. I tried to button Mila’s stewardess uniform onto her stiff body and recreate her velvet-matte mile-high makeup. She always traveled with her little Aeroflot portable mirror and nylon mesh travel bag sitting in a crescent on the laminated desk. Three perfume bottles standing in front of their boxes like prom dates. Nude stockings and her silk airline scarf hanging over the rolling chair. Two Aeroflot uniforms in orange and blue. I could never remember which one she was wearing on any given day. They seemed identical to me, like a negative photo, or a sun-blinded glance. She was one of those people who checks into a hotel and actually uses the dresser, actually hangs her clothes up in the closet, and might even break out the ironing board. I live out of backpacks that crouch in the corner. 

The bed creaked under my knees and makeup brushes spilled out of my apron onto our bed with a small racket. Ksenia grumbled and twisted in her sleep. Concealer oozed over our sheets. I twisted Mila’s silk scarf with my index and picked up her tiny bleached head to snake it behind her throat and around. I tied it under her chin with two tails flowing to the right, tighter until her eyes flicked open and she bucked me off the bed onto rough carpet. I stayed there for a moment, winded, staring at the ceiling. I opened the mini fridge with my big toe and cooled my feet against a row of aluminum cans. 

“Next time I’m this hungover, drown me in the bath like a kitten.”

Mila stepped over me to get a shower beer.  After a few minutes I heard her smash a can against the tiles like a Camry. I stretched on the floor dreading work, dreading the rooftop. Mila promised she’d wake up before 2:00 and come entertain me. 

“You made my eyes look so beady!” She washed off the makeup I carefully brushed onto her little green eyes. I’d dabbed concealer onto her nose, cheeks, and chin, the parts of her face that get pink after she’s had a few. The stewardess uniform that took so long to fasten onto her was crumpled on the carpet.

I went back to work, flinching at every flash of blue and orange in my peripheral vision, waiting for Mila to show up, one foot in front of the other, knees almost knocking, pencil skirt trapping her gait like a belt buckled around her thighs. She loves wearing her uniform off duty. 

“Her uniform is so gauche.” Ksenia would say, rolling her eyes. “Watch her eat it up.”

“You don’t seem to mind when it gets us free rounds.” 

Jack gave me a ticket as soon as I got upstairs and warned me about a busy night. Some DOD conference. He was working an Asian woman reading at the bar. Red glasses and long straight hair. 5 olives in her martini. He was leaning too far forward, she wasn’t making eye contact. “Guess it’s not that busy,” I grumbled in earshot. 

“Could be worse, some of them are partying in their rooms. They like their privacy.” 

I backed off. He’d be occupied for a while, and I could easily sneak away after an hour. There’s something sweet about a reluctant yet captive audience. Being ignored really sticks to the ribs. 

Every night I was surrounded by slick mouths and stained teeth and flushed cheeks. The sun was going down and the empties were stacking up and the mouths were opening wider and wider. Whenever I bring the mouths their drinks, I catch whiffs of mildew, yeast, stillness, emptiness, and neuroticism that goes everywhere except into a box of floss. I moved aside a basket of fries to set down Striped Polo’s fifth beer and when he thaaanks me I could see that his tongue was stark white. A carpeted closet. Candida swarming around his gut with power tools.

Have you ever watched incense burn from across the room, given a little gust of breath in its direction, and watched how the smoke bristles and dances, how you’ve changed the current of all the air in the room without leaving your bed?

Ever scattered a flock of seagulls with one stomp?

I pick someone to stare at for too long until their chin drops to check their front. They look down to check for spills and pinch their shirts to loosen it up over their guts. Telekinesis

Jack is always upselling the beers here so he doesn’t have to mix drinks. They’re all “easy drinking.” I scratch a tally into my itchy palm every time I hear his tagline. I wish he would try pretending not to hear the guests. I just nod and pour rail vodka sodas and shift my weight. Humans are so reluctant to confront. Men are so reluctant to disappoint women. They nod once, shrink their necks into their chests, and go back to their tables holding that little black napkin underneath that little clear drink they didn’t ask for. 

My back always hurts. 

Sometimes the rooftop din starts to shoot through my shoulders and neck until my veins harden with black sludge. 

I get impulsive–

I get greedy–

I hit cruise control–

I think of money– 

Cloth-paper in my mind–

Cotton-linen in my hands–

A stack of bills folded like sedimentary rock down a highway–

I once heard someone call it–

Coyote blasting

I look for unattended boyfriends and unsupervised husbands–

They buck at the mercy of my attention span–

I hide their tips in my apron–

Turn and shift into neutral–

The keycard I stole from housekeeping hasn’t been working so I’ve been more of a hunter than a gatherer this week. But sometimes these moods send me into the elevator, down into the corridors of the hotel. I would only steal from rooms with the door hanger turned to Do Not Disturb. Those coy things. Wish they would just print ones that say I don’t want spics touching my shit, thanks, have a nice day. Or please don’t knock because I’ll think you’re a cop or my wife and you’ll have to scrape my corpse off the sidewalk. I check jackets and coats for cash, and if I find a fanny pack, well, you have no idea how much people entrust to those things. 

Downstairs with a handle of whiskey in my waistband. Passed 805 and I already heard Mila scolding someone. Her shut off all electronic devices voice. A hint of something Transatlantic lived beneath the Slavic accent, a remnant of learning English from perfumed and powdered lace collared Russians. Drunkenness draped a fur coat over her stuffy boarding school diction. 

The housekeeping cart and Mila were blocking the doorframe but I squeezed through. A short barrel-shaped woman in a blue apron hurried past me and Mila threw something heavy at the bed, whining about being robbed. 

“Yeah, no shit. Trying to rob you of your dirty towels.” 

I flipped the door hanger to Do Not Disturb

In smaller font: No Molestan. Heh. 

I sat by the desk, smelling her perfumes and listening to the little clicks of their smooth glass lids. The heavy purple Givenchy bottle, Ange ou Demon, is my favorite. The atomizer stares at me like a lens whenever I douse my neck and jawline with tuberose. I tied her scarf over my head like an executioner’s hood and breathed in the musky vanilla silk as I fell back onto the bed next to her. Boozy sweat rose from the synthetic fabric of her uniform. The something heavy dug into my back. A crystal whiskey glass that wasn’t the kind we use on the roof. 

“Where’d you get this?” 

She whimpered that she got too drunk with some guys Ksenia met on our floor and lost her keycard and hadn’t eaten all day. 

I took the pins out of her blonde chignon and braided her back into a sleepy civilian. She whispered gratitude into the pillow, one side of her pink and black makeup rubbing off onto white. A cheaper hotel would charge you for that. 

“Come eat something upstairs.” I tried to lift her off the bed. Her pink mouth went slack as a baby in the backseat. I searched her pockets and purse for a keycard and gave up and left the door propped open by the deadbolt. 

“Hello? Hola?” 

A refrigerator sized man called to me from down the hall near the water fountain. He was sweating through his button down, swaying. His disproportionately small feet were splayed apart. He was built like a claw foot tub. He swung his big red bottle upside down and sucked it like a calf. The bottle’s empty squeal pleaded against the squeeze of his grip. 

He blocked my path and squeezed the bottle in my face again. And again. Close enough to smell his sweet stink and dissect the laminate swinging from his neck. A smaller version of his face gaped at me; trout lips hooked by a lanyard: Asher Cohn. Another defense contractor. I’ve never seen anyone DOD who I could trust around a freshly baked pie. I can only wonder how huge these guys would be if they could smoke weed. 

“No trabajo.” he pointed to the fountain, catching his breath, all heavy o’s and r’s. The drunken shrillness of his voice made me grind my teeth. 

“It hardly ever works. You can call someone to refill your mini fridge.” 

“I’m not paying for water.” 

“Try the one by the gym.” 

“I saw you looking at me on the roof.”

I got a last glimpse of him as the elevator closed. What remained on his head was thinning, spat upon by the triumph of the hair gurgling up from his neck and back. His socks and belt cut into his body the way Mila’s fingers were clutching her pillow in drunken slumber. 

With my black hair, hoops, and apron staring back at me in the elevator door, maybe I did look Latina. 

The supply closet on the 14th floor has jars of pickles, hot dog buns, and clear boxes full of ketchup and mayo packets. HEINZ HELLMAN’S HEINZ pressed up against the plastic. I figured that with the correct posture, I’ll look like I’m working as I head back to the room with my loot. 

There’s something comforting about the smell of bleach. Even animals are drawn to it, I’ve noticed. The janitors have a boxy little TV in here that’s always on. Always on cop show reruns. Dull, milky 90’s blacks. Those gray-green dried out marker blacks, asphalt and detective coats the color of my apron. I’ve never seen this TV without a layer of cashmere dust. Cobblers and children and so on. 

I slumped into the camping chair behind the shelf of plastic cups and cocktail napkins, swaddled by thick green canvas. I settled in to watch John or Tom get clipped on his morning run. Only I saw it happen. Viewers like you

His scent calls upon the attention of a dog walker’s tight-leashed terrier: blood and sweat and I’m guessing Aqua de Goia, the rest of which remains in a bathroom cabinet in Bethesda. I think about the free apartment. Cardboard boxes and permanent markers.

If you peeled down his collar you’d see the tag of his bloodstained crewneck sweatshirt boasting ring-spun cotton, authentic Hanes, American-made. It’s generous in the shoulders and nipped at the wrists. As seen on Jerry and Diana and the feather-haired blonde families who wear them tucked in. 

Zoom to a drop on his Styrofoam-white Reeboks, a little red pearl you could pick up with tweezers. 

Pan to his tennis-toned calves sticking out of the kudzu, Kennedy parted hair resting on dry leaves.

Cops have started to swarm Rock Creek. I count their big blue jackets like sheep. 

In the countryside, I imagine, you can stash a letter in the knot of a tree for your lover and know he’ll find it. He’ll brush off the dirt and ants with his rough hands. He’ll tuck it safely into the breast pocket of his big practical coat and smile on the walk back to his truck. 

In the city, nothing is ever how you left it. There’s no telling how many hands could have touched it, photographed it, stolen it.

You can’t expect a stewardess in a hotel room propped open by the deadbolt to be exactly how you left her. 

I sensed a stink familiar to me from a few hours ago. A sickly sweet humid smell that could only emit from a man’s sweat glands or a pile of vomit. Strawberry banana smoothie left in a hot, musty, cloth seat car. 

The lobby was swarming with police. Olamide told me to go back upstairs and find Ksenia. The paramedics ignored me too, busy keeping people from going outside to look. I knew the other exits. 

More paramedics were standing around a tarp on the sidewalk. One of the cab drivers lining the street told me a girl jumped. He saw the whole thing. 

“Was she wearing blue?”

“Maybe orange. Too dark to tell. You think you knew her?”

I ran back into the hotel through the exit I’d propped open with my balled up apron. Our room didn’t face the cabs. It faced the highway. Olamide wanted the cops to leave as soon as possible. I could tell by the way he turned his ear to them. 

I spent the night alone in our hotel room. Ksenia wouldn’t answer her phone. She probably saw the cops and cut out. Back to Chevy Chase, back to her nest. I kept the TV on and took three showers. I couldn’t sleep more than five minutes at a time. Her nude stockings scared me awake. They looked like a broken arm hanging off the chair. I balled them up and boxed the perfume. 

The next day, I packed up all of Mila’s things and took the bus to Rockville. 

Apartment 716: Zinaida Ischild. A name so Jewish my teeth hurt. Sucking lemons sitting Shiva. I’ve never come here by myself. Whenever I dig my chipped nail polish into this buzzer, Mila’s right behind me, her hands busy with a delivery of groceries and paper products. The first time I came here, I expected an old lady in an apartment full of doilies, not a young Barbra Streisand lookalike.  

The air in Zina’s apartment was always heavy with incense, smoke, and fried food. The smell hit me as she opened the door in her blush robe, scolding me until I took my shoes off. I gave her my ugly no-slip shoes and told her about Mila in a run-on apology for coming over empty handed. Her nose, cheeks, and chest burned pink. She sat down and hugged one of her beaded pillows, rocking cross legged on the big pink couch. She threw the pillow on the Persian rug and pulled me into her arms. I rested my chin on her cinnamon roots, parted in the middle, growing out, pushing against the bleach. Her head smelled sweet and oily like the croissants the hotel puts out for breakfast. I pulled away first and wiped the bottom of my face with my sleeve. I pulled one of Mila’s perfumes out of my backpack and offered it to her. 

“I’ll never be able to wear this. But it’ll look beautiful on my vanity.” 

She pulled the cigar box from under the coffee table and rolled us a joint with her long nails. I pictured Mila pulling her head back, crinkling her nose and fanning my smoke, reminding us how often she gets drug tested. She always perched a little further away, on the big red ottoman, drinking red wine out of a mug and licking it off her teeth before speaking. She never drank out of anything clear. “Plausible deniability.” Zina whispered to me once. “My babushka was an alcoholic, always drank out of a plastic Disney World cup. Anything opaque, say it was sweet tea.”

The tree loosened me up and I was able to stop crying and tell her about the bad smell, the wrong window, the man in the hallway. “He saw me leave her alone in our room. He watched me get on the elevator and then went in and took her. He needs to be dealt with. Disfigured. Discarded. Disposed of. He is not capable of anything better. He cannot control himself. He needs to be shot between the eyes like a 10-year-old Golden Retriever.” 

She looked past my eyes with blank pity. “When was the last time you took a shower? Let me braid your hair.”

I watched our reflection as her bent fingers ran over my scalp, gently parting my hair, like a bee collecting nectar. Her nails were hard and slippery with polish.

“You are very beautiful, if you look closely. Pity about that waitress uniform. And who talked you into this dye job? Black is too harsh for your complexion.” 

When I started to cry again Z patted my head and went back into the kitchen. I heard the refrigerator door swing open, bottles clinking. I heard screw top wine get poured into two glasses. I heard a heavier, porcelain-like chink on the counter and then I heard her put it back. 

After a few hours, we were crossfaded and indiscreet, listening with our shoulders and speaking with our hands. She’s a chatterbox bouncing on her haunches. I’m splayed out on the various embroidered pillows she keeps on the floor. The hem of her robe has disappeared into the cleavage of her big pale thighs. 

“Women are rock, and men are sand…that’s why they call it the sand-man… and you’re an island. Picture Shutter Island, where’s the sand? Just waves crashing forever, water to rock, and all you can do is be cute, aloof, unaffected, with a short memory….rock has the longest memory of anything on earth. You can point to a stripe from a million years ago, a primordial grudge. We fossilize shit. Have you been to El Dorado National Park? It’s divine…have you been getting your beauty sleep? Sometimes, we get too sandy…what’s the word? Sedimental…it dams our rivers…obscures perception, whittles you to a trickle, dials you down to your most basic instinct….til you can’t do anything but curl up somewhere safe and sleep…your eyes are so red…”

Zina’s analogy almost made sense to me so I took a swig of pink wine from the bottle while she rummaged in the bathroom. 

She pulled the childproof lid off of a bottle of eyedrops and weaved her fingers through the base of my braid.  

“Let me do it so you don’t ruin your makeup.” 

“Don’t get any in my mouth.” 

My lids shot open in epiphany and Zina scolded me for wasting her Systane. Tears, artificial and otherwise, scattered down my cheeks. In the balcony door’s reflection I could see mascara hitching a liquid ride to my chin. 

“I figured it out, Z. Jews don’t do autopsies. It’s against your religion. Right?” 

“Rewind.”

“We poison him.”

She cocked an eyebrow. “How feminine. With what? Arsenic?” 

 “Eyedrops.”

“I saw that Forensic Files.” 

“It could work. Are we going to hell?”

“We don’t believe in hell. Just let him eat himself to death.”  She poured us another glass. “You ever meet a healthy Jew over 40?” 

***

The service was in an Episcopalian church; all three Orthodox cathedrals refused to hold a funeral for a suicide. A Russian stewardess leapt out of an 8th floor balcony in a drunken stupor. Case closed. 

Her hair was parted to the side to hide a large contusion on her forehead. Someone had dressed her in a starchy white shirt and slacks. They’d brushed dark eyeshadow on her lids and heavy blush on her cheeks. I imagined her gasping in the mirror and hurriedly wiping it off, like she did the last morning I saw her. 

Ksenia wore a beautiful long sleeved lace black dress and I knew this was how I was going to remember her, the last memory I would have stored. She held her breath when I hugged her. A toothy American woman was filling Dixie cups with Koliva. A gaggle of stewardesses sat demurely in the third row, only identifiable by their perfect makeup and neat chignons. Black and sleek, arms like the necks of geese. A redhead named Martin who I had never seen before was touching paper icons to Mila’s body and passing them around. A custom reserved for bishops, in the event that they become ordained in the future. A beautiful mistake. I took three of the icons for my wallet. 

I recognized Zina’s puffy hair, sunglasses, kerchief, and cleavage, the only way she would leave the house. She stood alone in a black trench coat, scanning the pews, a television mourner. 

“Let’s get out of here.” I whispered and hooked her arm. 

We walked through the neighboring streets, big houses with deep green front yards and long driveways. The type of neighborhood with little free libraries full of trendy novels and foreign policy tomes. A squirrel stuffed its face sitting on an engraved bench. It shrieked as we sat down. Zina took off her scarf and glasses. Her forehead was sweating and she looked afraid, rodent like, flinching at every passing car and dog walker. 

“I haven’t seen so many people at once in almost 6 years.”  She started.  “I used to be married. We lived in New York, not too far from Washington Square. Have you been to New York?” 

“Only to the airport. When I moved here. But I’ve seen Seinfeld. And Sex and the City.” 

“Isaac and I lived on 4th Ave. We had a big Jewish wedding, all four grandmas, endless wine, an ad in the paper, everything right.” She took a water bottle full of white wine from her purse and took a big sip. She licked her teeth before continuing. “Isaac started to drink more, work less, gain weight, pay Filipinas for sex, skid marks everywhere… ”

“What’s a skid mark?”

She waved her hand and laughed. “He became an ogre, basically. But one that was constantly telling me that I was a fat, hairy hag who stole his youth and ruined his life. Meanwhile, he never wanted kids, he never wanted me, his best man told me that Isaac married the first JAP to give him the time of day.”

“Who divorced who?”

“Whom.” 

I dug my nail into my palm. 

“I went to my dad’s firm and drafted a settlement. It was a bold proposal, honestly, asking for a lot of alimony, but the Ischild letterhead has some sway. I figured, he stole my 20s. I can’t put a price on that.” 

I thought of Mila changing the channel from Lifetime in a fury. I wished she was sitting at my feet. 

“How much money?” 

She gulped more wine. “Enough for Isaac to tell me he’d only sign off on it if I took off all of my clothes, all of my jewelry, all of my makeup, and walked down three blocks of 5th Avenue at 11 AM, completely naked.” Another sip. “And I did it. In nothing but flip flops.” 

“No shit?” I jumped up and scared a flock of birds picking at the grass nearby. “He Lady Godiva’d you?”

“I took the money and left New York. I came back to Maryland, moved less than a mile from my Hebrew school.” 

“Did anyone film you?”

“Of course. They were vicious. They called me a mental hospital escapee, a homeless woman, a lost prostitute. My family, my friends, they get me work sometimes, they send girls to me, girls who need help. They think if I spend time around someone worse off, I’ll wake up, I’ll start being a person again. But it never lasts.” 

“Why do you live in that apartment? Why didn’t you buy a house?”

“A house? I can’t even maintain my leg hair.” 

“If I had money, I’d buy land and guns. Some place with a porch and no neighbors. Walk around naked in my yard.” 

“I’ve had enough of that.” 

I grabbed the Deer Park bottle of white wine. A man walked by with two small dogs, too fat for their short legs. He waved at us. We waved back. Zina pulled out a velvet box and set it on my thigh. 

“You proposing to me?”

She smirked. “Open it.” 

Two gold screw back earrings with teardrop opals. Their orange hearts flickered in the sun. 

“My uncle never had the conscience to take them. He mailed them to me a week after meeting her. I never remembered to dig them out of my dresser and give them back to Mila. I thought there would be another time, a better time, her wedding, her child’s baptism. Something.”

A champagne cat sat in the driveway of the house across the street. No collar. It watched us with its paws carefully tucked under its stomach. I held her until my shoulders grew sore.

“I’ve been asleep.” She cried into my unwashed hair. “I never thought I could outlive her.” 

***

I chewed around my manicure swiping through five different dating apps in a sports bar on the top floor of Pentagon City Mall. I’d decided to look for him. I got a wave of paranoia as an ad for JDate played on three TVs at once. I called Zina from the bathroom. 

“They have to put their phones in lockers after going through security. He’ll only have it on the commute there and back. Forget it. Enjoy your night. Flirt with someone.” 

“We have to find out where he lives. Are you sure you don’t know him? Is there a database?”

“Of Jews? I could check my yearbooks. Don’t get your hopes up, though. There are more Cohns in here than a Baskin Robbins.” 

I heard her breathing heavily, looking through a bookshelf. I wanted to give up and go back to the hotel and watch cop shows with a bottle of wine between my knees.

“I could befriend someone who works in the food court and get them to poison him. Hang around the metro, looking for Taco Bell uniforms.” 

“Fast food employees take the bus.” 

She was right about that. For an agoraphobic, Zina knew plenty about human nature from hours of smoking on her balcony. I sprayed myself with Mila’s Givenchy, changed into her blue uniform, and started walking to the bus station.

— Anna Krivolapova has been featured in APOCALYPSE CONFIDENTIAL, Maximus, C22, and Road Dog Books. You can find her on Twitter, @AnaKrivolapova.