Jessica Pishko

Kim and I are standing outside, smoking cigarettes. We stand shying away from the lights of the house, in the shadows in a yard in the middle of a suburb of Houston, the kind of suburb where, in the middle of their yards, people have plastic Virgin Mary figures; they make me uncomfortable, as if the unearthly scratched plastic statuettes see inside of me and are menacing me with painted beatific eyes. Carlos and Daniel are inside with their friend Tony, drinking beers that we’ve picked up at the drive-through beer stand which we’ve hit on the way home from the club. I can hear their cheers and shouts of “Gooooooal!” They are watching a game on Telemundo.

The night is warm and hazy, but like in a ghost town, like in a graveyard. Kim and I are standing on the dried-up lawn next to Daniel’s pick-up truck, which is mostly white, but has been outside too long, so parts of it are rust, dirt, and what I like to think is the original material of the car beneath, the metal beams constructing the pick-up bed yearning to be free from their coat of badly-maintained white paint. I don’t want to lean against it because it is dirty and I know I would be covered in grease; I imagine the stains on my pants after I'd wipe my palms on them.

Kim is wearing jeans and a cut-off t-shirt that shows most of her stomach; the shirt says “flirt” on it in pink rhinestones. She’s tied her hair into a loose ponytail and put the ends of her hair back through the elastic so that it forms a loop that sticks out jauntily from her head. Kim is crying.

“I don’t understand why Daniel has to be such a jerk,” she says. Tears are running down her face, which she wipes with the back of her hand. Then she wipes her hand on her jeans—streaks of wet, black liquid eyeliner. “Damn, Claire, I wish we had a fucking tissue.” The tissues are inside where the boys are, and neither one of us wants to go inside and get any, since we would then be seen. Outside, smoking, we could be talking about shopping, makeup, Brad Pitt; we are invisible. Kim takes a deep drag from her cigarette, and blows a cloud of smoke into the air. She can blow smoke out of her nose, too, and I’ve never learned how to do that.

My cigarette has burnt down to a hot little nub in my hand, and I drop it, taking pleasure in crushing the butt with the heel of my shoe. “He’s a fucking asshole, Kim,” I say. “They all are. Mother fucking assholes.” I accept another cigarette from the box she offers me. My eyes prick with unshed tears. In the porch light I see Kim’s shadow; I see her tanned skin against the edge of her shirt, the glint of her many silver rings. Then I quickly look down, away from Kim, to instead concentrate on my cigarette, as if we'd suddenly been caught kissing each other. The door to the truck is unlocked. Even though I am very drunk, so drunk that I can’t remember how I got that way, I think about getting into the truck and driving home.

I wonder what my parents would think if they saw me. My mother, I imagine, would be horrified to see her piano-playing, French-speaking daughter wearing plastic shoes, standing in a yard watched over by Virgin Marys. Even more upset, I think, that I’m smoking; she would probably make me change in the garage before I'd spread the cigarette scent that pulsed from my clothes. I start to wish that I could call my dad and be picked up, like he used to pick me up in his Oldsmobile whenever I called him from a party in high school. He would come and get me often when I was drunk and it was late. He would maneuver the car through the streets silently, turning up the radio, which was always on the classical music station, playing Mozart piano concertos that blended together smoothly. He said nothing during these times, our times together. Of course now he is dead, and he will never pick me up again at night when I am tired and afraid. I never asked him then what he thought, gliding home like Mozart’s major chords, firmly, confidently, while I tried to wipe off my makeup before he could see my face in a streetlight.

I look up at the sky, and there are stars. Kim says, “I just don’t understand what I did to make Daniel so upset and so angry.”

I do not know. I say, “Maybe it was because you were dancing with the other guy at the club?” My mind is spinning and I can’t think straight.

“No, Claire, you stupid bitch, that was you. You were dancing with the guy, and Carlos got really pissed off at you, remember?”

I do remember. In the middle of the loud and sweaty and crowded club, a boy with a gentle face asked me to dance. His eyes were warm and brown, he smelled so clean, unlike Carlos who always seems to have an unwashed and putrid smell. Carlos was drinking in a corner anyways; he didn’t even notice me. I had arrived with Kim to meet him and Daniel; Daniel took Kim’s hand and whisked her off to the bar for a drink, while I stood there, looking at my feet, adjusting a bra strap.

When Carlos did see me, he grunted. “You look fat,” he said, and walked away with his friend Tony, after giving me a half-hearted swipe of a hug around my waist, pinching the flesh above my jeans. I pulled my tank top down over my belly which was sticking out, and it did look fat and white, like a dead fish, like a clump of maggots. My jeans felt too tight, like a corset, my tank top itched and felt skimpy, the underwires of my bra were cutting into my chest.

I went into the bathroom to use the mirror, and I saw an ugly girl—I looked tired. The Maybelline liquid liner Kim had persuaded me to put on that night was smearing under my eyes, like gigantic false eyelashes, or an oil spill. I wiped under my eyes with toilet paper. My face seemed wrinkled and haggard, and I had to look away, my eyes filling with tears. I looked like a body wasting away in a hospital bed, maybe an old man being eaten alive by cancer. My dad wasn’t old, though; it was like he lived the whole second half of his life in six months.

I take a drag of the cigarette; I like the way it is warm in my hand. Even though the night is balmy, I feel chilled, and hug myself. I like also that the cigarette is bright, even though the yard is lit by a floodlight that shines on Kim and me as if we are the stars of a new rock band. I look at the sky, and there's some moonlight through the humid haze, which gives everything a mysterious cast, a glow, almost supernatural -- or as if I am very drunk. But I don’t like the taste of cigarettes, and they make my mouth dry, like it could crack and split open.

“I don’t know why you date that fucker,” Kim says. “I mean even Daniel, he thinks Carlos is an ass, and he’s his friend.”

“I don’t know,” I say.

“Well, damn it, bitch, you need to show him what he’s got!” Kim puts out her cigarette on Daniel’s truck and stands tall. She doesn’t seem that drunk, and I wonder if she would drive me home. “Tony thinks you’re hot, why dontcha fuck Tony and piss Carlos off?” Kim sniffles and wipes her nose with the back of her hand. “Damn it, I don’t want Daniel to see me like this.” I cough. “Claire, you always tell me Carlos is a dick, but you don’t do anything about it. You really don’t fucking get it, do you? I know, it’s not like Daniel is a prize either.” I cough again. “Anyways, Tony, the fat ass, why don’t you fuck him instead?”

I don’t tell Kim that I knew that she and Carlos hung out while I was in French class, and that once I saw them kissing in her car.

Last night, after we got back from the club, Carlos pushed my face towards his penis, his belly swelling slightly above it. I hesitated. My skin felt itchy, and I wanted to get up and shake the sheets, as if they were full of needles or bugs.

“What the fuck is your problem?” Carlos asked me.

“Nothing,” I said, “I just don’t feel well.” I really wasn’t in the mood to give him a blow job.

“I told you not to drink so damn much, stupid bitch. What the fuck,” he said, and I felt uncomfortable, like all my clothes were too tight, the waist of my jeans cutting into my flesh as if pins were poking me.

After he came, Carlos fell asleep on his back, snoring loudly—because he was drunk? I pushed him aside so that I had a space to lie down on my side, curled in a fetal position. I closed my eyes and tried to think of something soft, soothing, and sweet-smelling. Like Mozart concertos in the night sky?

Instead, I had a dream that I was being eaten alive, from the inside out. It started in my stomach, and mercilessly destroyed me. I couldn’t cry out or ask for help. Like my dad just before he died, unable to move or speak, his eyes were crying out in fear, Nononononononono, I’m not ready to die.

I had been afraid to look at those eyes, I had to turn away and sit in the waiting room. I thought of all the times we didn’t speak, but I knew that he was there, a solid mass in a khaki windbreaker, not looking at me, but seeing me.

After taking another drag of my cigarette and looking at the sky, I start to wonder what it is like to be on a star. “How would it feel to be in space?” I say to Kim.

“What the fuck are you talking about? You are so fucking wasted, bitch.”

“No, for real. Space is just so big.”

And it is big, a vast and unending emptiness. Before I was born, before I stood here, in this yard, with Kim and these cigarettes, I was nothing. I didn’t even know I was nothing because nothing can't feel anything—nothing.

It’s a dizzying paradox, and I grab the side of the truck, which I know I will regret, but just then I relish surrendering to the dirt and grime under my palm, to keep myself from falling over with the overwhelming intoxication of nothingness. It’s as if nothing is buzzing in my brain, making my body feel light and free. “I think I’m drunk,” I say to Kim.

Kim flicks an errant hair out of her face and leans into mine. “Good!” she says.

I look at her face and her lips as she speaks and think about what will happen that night. I know that I will not go home just then. I know that Kim and I will go into the small apartment Tony rents from his parents; that there will be a mattress for her and Daniel and one for me and Carlos. I know that Carlos will be so drunk that his breath will smell sickly sweet, that he will bob and weave around as if he were on a sinking ship, that he will grab at my shirt so forcefully it might tear, that he will pull down his pants and steer his penis towards my face; all the while Kim and Daniel will be having sex in the other corner, her sighs and moans gentle purrs reaching deep into my ears.

Jessica Pishko lives in New York City. This is her first published story. Her award-winning 2007 story "Izzy Accepts a Bagel from Her Mother" also appears on

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