When she had had no luck for an hour, and I was in too much misery to sit there alone any longer, I went down to see if I could pay for her myself. Company, any company, was preferable to the blaring Spanish channels and peeling wallpaper that only exacerbated the despair that tried to drag me back into a pit.
Her presence kept my demons at bay that night. I held her close as if she were Corabelle, and took the pills when she said it was okay to do so. In the morning, she left after asking only a pittance, and the next night I waited for her to close up the shop before I approached her to come again.
Her frightened face made me hang back as the man behind the counter came out and took off down the street. I figured the score pretty fast — he had no idea she was hooking and might fire her if he knew.
When he was well away, she turned back to me. “Better today?”
“I will be if you come with me.”
She glanced down the street, her black curls blowing across her face like her hair was the wind itself. I suddenly understood the concept of transference. I couldn’t love Corabelle anymore; I had cut myself away from my old world. So I would love this girl instead, in some new and different way, one that got nowhere near any tender or vulnerable space.
“I need to go home first,” she said and glanced up at the hotel. “Room is same?”
She slung her heavy black bag on her shoulder, trapping a swath of the wild hair. “I will come.”
We turned from each other, and I trudged with my old-man walk across the street and up the stairs, then back down to a liquor store next door, buying a bottle of wine, and up again.
We hadn’t done anything that night either, as the wine on top of the pills knocked me out cold not long after she arrived. I had pulled her against my chest on the lumpy bed, both of us fully clothed. I didn’t want her in any other way, not then, not so soon, my groin still searing from the stitches and Corabelle still so close in my memory.
When had we gotten busy? Within the two months? The ten jacks?
I stood up from the bench, restless, angry. Surely I hadn’t made so stupid a mistake. I headed back to the garage, racking my brain for the memory. How long had it been?
I’d stayed a week in that hotel, then moved on. I didn’t see Rosa for a little while as I searched for someplace to live while I took the GED and got enrolled at UCSD. I got a job as a night stocker at a grocer.
Then I remembered. Graduation night, a couple weeks later. I’d been lonely and feeling pent up. I didn’t know a soul and hadn’t talked to anyone but the uptight night manager of the store, who kept all the employees on different aisles as we worked so we wouldn’t waste time.
I knew Corabelle was walking across the stage and that they wouldn’t be calling my name. I wondered if she’d think of where I should have been, the people I would have stood between.
I drove back to the border about the time my classmates would be tossing their caps in the air. I waited across the street as Rosa locked up the farmacia, and this time I followed her a block before calling out her name.
When she turned, I saw something about her was different. Instead of looking at me with concern and patronizing patience, she actually seemed happy.
She ran down the street to me, but stopped a few feet short. “Gavin! You are here!”
I took one step toward her, and she lost her shyness, throwing her arms around me. I didn’t understand it, but just having someone who knew my name and was excited to see me made everything better.
“No hotel now?” she asked, glancing back the way we’d come, to the shabby place I’d called home that first week.
I shook my head. “I got a job in San Diego. I live there now.”
She smiled and led me farther down the street. “I live close. We go there.”
“You sure that’s okay?”
“I live with my brother, but he is not home.”
Something about her joy at walking with me put a little lightness in my own step. I followed her into the gap between the buildings and through the foyer I would later come to know so well.
The first time we trudged up those dirty stairs, I remember wishing I could do something to help her, get her out of these terrible conditions. But when we were inside her apartment with the colorful wall hangings and paper flowers, I realized she was happy there, close to work and making her own way.
I walked around her place, looking at the pictures and statues of the Virgin Mary, candles, and trinkets. She got two beers from her fridge, and we clinked the bottles together like we were old friends.
When I sat on the sofa, she perched awkwardly at the other end. I remember thinking that was an odd way for a prostitute, but she’d always had that innocent quality, even on the street, and of course, the other times we’d been together, nothing had happened. Maybe she didn’t know quite what to make of me.
I drank the beer and smiled at her, wondering what you said to a hooker you were ready to make a move on. I had zero experience. I hadn’t been with a single girl other than Corabelle, and we always made things up as we went along.
“Come over here,” I said to her.
She shifted over and laid her head against me like we had before. I thought of Corabelle again, her big night, probably no longer really caring that she’d lost the top spot to Charles, maybe not even listening to his speech. I wondered if she would give one after all. When Finn died, nothing else seemed to matter anymore. Little things like a commencement speech held zero meaning.
My mood plummeted and that ache I’d felt in the hotel on that first night threatened to overtake everything else. I couldn’t go back, couldn’t change things. I just had to charge forward.