The Girl in the Box
by Sarah Maria Medina
At the Champ Arcade, Mackie, with short cropped hair and a black leather jacket, scowls at Mariá, and treats her like a puta – though Mariá doesn’t speak much Spanish, she knows the cuss word for prostitute, and lets it roll between her teeth. When Mackie unlocks the money box at the end of her shift, Mariá looks down at the gum stained floor, waiting for Mackie to finish counting out the dollars. The ghost-owners never come around. They let the stained red carpeted hallway run threadbare.
“It’s like this,” Violet Dream says, her black bangs cut short over her eyes. “You push the screwdriver in like this,” she licks her lips, concentrating, “and make a space between the lock box and the wall, but not too big, ‘cause then they’ll find it and cover it up again.” She slips the edge of the screwdriver again into the wall, then retracts it, smiling. “And voila! Now there’s just enough room for folded bills to slide through.” She passes the screwdriver to Mariá, who takes it to her box, and attempts to jimmy the screwdriver into the side of her lock box, until she makes a similar hole.
A suited business man steps into Mariá’s booth every Monday during lunch hour, the white skin of his neck red from the exertion of walking up First Avenue from his desk job, his cuffs starched against his wrists. The old red carpeting burns Mariá’s naked knees as she kneels inside the box. She pulls the thick stained curtain shut, and picks up her red phone. The sixties style handle presses into her shoulder as she lets her hands free. When her voice pours into the red phone, it is young and tugging and formed. It is honey and broken and sad. It is soot from coal mines and yellow canary and molting feathers and smoke.
“You all are so brave,” the new girl says staring at them with wide terrified eyes. “I don’t know how you do it.” Then she takes her money at the end of the shift, buys herself a new tattoo, and comes back a week later. She crawls inside the box next to Mariá, their knobby knees knocking against each other.
She names herself Beryl like some pretty gem inside the box. Like it’s a jewel box, and not a cramped claustrophobic box with stained carpeting. With Beryl, Mariá no longer feels alone. They charge double, slip the screwdriver in further, and then share an apartment.
Mariá becomes used to Beryl’s scent that fills the box: salt and perfume; soap and the cheap lotion she buys from the pharmacy down the street that makes her skin soft. They twist their bodies inside the box, careful to bow their heads to the low ceiling. They become shadow boxers.
When their shift ends, they pull on jeans and sweaters, leaving the oppressive heaviness of the lint carpeted dressing room, the wide mirror that reflects loneliness, and the overwhelming smell of bleached hallways.
Beryl watches the janitor mop a slow wet snail like trail across the arcade, then whispers, her hand cupping Mariá’s ear, “I told my father that I’m nannying now.”
Mariá thinks of her own father. He lives in another city, goes to church. Kneels at mass. Her father’s instruments take up the corners of his house, violins hanging from the walls, the drums, and el cuatro, the four stringed instrument he strums with his fingers that carry a scar – stitched after clear-cutting a forest pathway with his machete.
Both her stepfather and father were machete wielders, but her father only cleared forest bramble. Her stepfather in a drunken whiskey haze stumbled to the wet docks to hunt the wild tom cat, came back inside his machete blade smelling of iron. He slipped it back into the maroon leather sheath, his wide shoulders coated in a layer of sweat. Her long blond haired mother had pulled the yellow handmade curtains tight, but the smell of death was recognizable.
After six hours of work, Mariá and Beryl inhale the salt air that rushes in off the bay. They drink it in, until their lungs fill with air that replaces the staleness of the windowless club. They walk two blocks up Pike and splurge on a taxi, a hundred dollars folded into their pockets.
At their apartment off Broadway, they let the clawfoot bath fill with hot water, and add scented liquid soap. They wash their bodies with soap, shampoo and condition their hair, sharing the bath, the silence of water. Billie Holiday’s heroin sick voice, the one record they always play after work, slides in, the sound reverberating off the old tiles. Her voice sings to speakeasies and cheating men and Poplar trees with strange black fruit. Her voice sings to a sorrow that was never placed on Mariá’s light skin – not like her youngest sister who played Pocahontas, though it wouldn’t be until later that they’d discover Pocahontas’s true fate.
Mariá watches soap suds fall down the bird like bone of Beryl’s jawline. She sinks her ears below the bath, but still listens to the voice singing a kind of sorrow that goes way back to a time before the riverboat, to a time before Mariá’s baby teeth were black, before she was a small seed of growing cells. It goes back to the card playing liquor shacks of Mariá’s great-grandmothers, to the gambling and shedding and secrets. To cotton fields and an escape down into town across train tracks to listen to gospel. To the Bronx and factories and sweating in Salsa clubs while the saxophonist howled bitter blood. To making new lives and salting off the old.
Mariá and Beryl soak until the grime and smell of the peepshows comes off their skin, then step from the bath toweling dry their sunless bodies.
In the small kitchen, Beryl starts a pan of water for a box of macaroni, dumps in the hard crunchy shells. She adds butter to the packet of fake powdered cheese, until the macaroni becomes thick and creamy. Silver spoon against the side of the pan, cracking sounds. Sounds from pots over open fires and trucks parked on dirt roads below a sea of swimming lights. Sounds from electric stoves popping hot in the winter when the radiator doesn’t come on. They sit across from each other at the built-in white wooden table on benches that came with the black and white tiled eat-in kitchen. Mariá slides her barefoot under her thigh, and leans her elbows into the table. There are no table manners or wives or thick books with broken rules. There are no yellow curtains or the smell of mutton and potatoes. There is not the sound of crying. They fill their mouths with the saltiness of the boxed macaroni and cheese. And gossip about the boys that Beryl likes, the ones with skateboards and tattoos. The one born with one hand who draws and tags concrete walls.
A quarter clinks the window, and Beryl drops the spare key to the sidewalk. She leaves the hallway door open, and Mariá scowls at the skater punks, their safety pins and bottle caps, turns her shoulders to them. She prefers to sleep in Beryl’s bed, finds comfort in her presence: the softness of Beryl’s skin, the smell of the cheap lotion she lathers over her body, the way she brushes her teeth, leaning over the old porcelain sink in the bathroom. The simple way Beryl moves around Mariá, brushing her hair, then twisting a lock between her fingers before she falls asleep at night, stills the panic inside Mariá, the drifting sense of not belonging. The way Beryl stares off at the television, swaddled in her blankets, gives Mariá a sense of home.
Beryl climbs the ladder that leads to the escape hatch, which opens to the roof. Mariá follows, pulling her wide hips through the square. A cheap bottle of wine pops in their mouths when they swig from the bottle; they both call it champagne. Beryl tells stories as they hunch against the cool night. She tells Mariá about climbing other rooftops with skaters and punks.
“We always say, see you on the other side. Once, a boy fell off, and never made it back. We say it to honor him, you know?”
Mariá nods, likes the tough way Beryl talks, admires the boyish way she has cut her hair, the way she imitates the skaters that sometimes climb into her bed.
They pass the bottle back and forth, looking into the empty sky for the meteor shower, but the sky remains a gray crash of emptiness.
Beryl pulls the sleeves of her worn hoody down over her arms, now almost covered in tattoos, and Mariá tugs the edge of fake fur that lines her thrifted coat, pulling it down around her hips. The wine warms their stomachs and they laugh, then lean in towards each other into the bating silence. Beryl’s soft lips press against Mariá’s wine sweetened teeth. When they climb back down through the escape hatch, they open the door to the apartment, and Mariá tells the boy in Beryl’s bed to find the couch for the night. The couch is fifties and holed and sunken in a corner, but it is ruby red and fine perfumed and soaked with Beryl’s laughter.
Behind the bedroom wall, nesting pigeons shuffle their wings. Beryl breathes into Mariá’s ear, and their warm whispered sounds fill the bedroom. Soft worn sheets cover their nakedness. There is nothing now. There is everything. When Beryl falls asleep in the crook of Mariá’s arms, she listens to the pattern of pigeons, to the soft exhale of Beryl’s breath. The summer night air cools the bedroom through the cracked window. She thinks about how she and Beryl share the same birthday, their connection cosmic in some way.
When Mariá wakes, she finds Beryl making coffee, leaning against the kitchen counter talking with one of the punk boys. Beryl lights a cigarette with her small hand, a flick of a match and turns away, leans out the window to exhale. Smell of sulfur and dread and secrets. Smell of boy and salt and pigeon holes. Mariá runs her finger over the electric stove burner, cold now. She pours coffee, extra cream, spoons white sugar. She returns alone to the rooftop, watches the flight of soot city doves, mimics their winging with her hands. She studies them and applies this to her work.
Beryl and Mariá share a slice of cake for their seventeenth birthday. Beryl looks out from the open window of the kitchen, drags on her cigarette, and says that the lease expires at the end of September. With the back of her wrist, Mariá wipes sweet white frosting from her mouth, and leans out the window next to Beryl. She wants to say something wise, but stays silent instead.
She rents the living room of a drag queen’s apartment in the Central District, and Beryl finds a studio on University Avenue with one of the skater punks. Her eyes become clouded over, her mouth heavy with slowed words; she takes the bus north to work for the Italian mafia that runs the strip clubs past Ravenna, and stops returning Mariá’s calls. Loneliness becomes Mariá’s companion. She shelters it, gives it breath, and writes her name on the window of the 9 bus that threads from her block to downtown.
It’s slow and Mariá sits on a chair in the dressing room, waiting for her turn on stage. Cyprus Hill plays on repeat in the background. Violet Dream paints thick cover-up over the scar on her cheekbone. She’d been absent for a month and then reappeared with a long jagged line down the side of her pale face. Her dark eyes fix on her reflection as she applies another layer of makeup to the inflamed scar.
“Don’t worry, it will fade,” another dancer reassures.
Mariá shifts in the worn chair, its fake black leather peeling like an old scab, the edge rubbing against her bare back. She rubs her ankles with her fingers, her nail polish china-doll-chipped, like the punk rock gay boy with black eyeliner who pulls her to his side for paparazzi style photographs. She sighs, slips on her heels and totters to the stage, accompanied by another dancer with long unwashed hair and smudged satin gloves that cover purple bruises. Mariá slides down the mirror to the thin carpeted floor, as they wait for a window to rise. A slow morning, the arcade gleans emptiness. “Insane in the Membrane” lyrics taunt them as their reflections stare back from the floor to ceiling mirrors. A window rises, automatic in its open-eyed wideness. Mariá stands naked, a roll of dollars wrapped around her ring finger. She moves to the song, mouthing the quiet words, then re-glosses her lips. The shine slacks her lower lip.
Mariá leaves with thirty dollars in her shallow pocket, catches a bus up Pike, toward the Central District, unlocks her apartment, and lies alone on her bed, the only furniture in the living room.
Her roommate’s key rattles the front lock. Alex comes in dressed in worn blue jeans and a white work t-shirt. He smiles his gap toothed smile, pulls Mariá into his bed, whispers into her ear, and kisses her. She kisses him back because she likes the pout of his lips, and he reminds her of Beryl. She kisses him back because she wants to stay in his bed, and not in the living room. She likes the way Alex’s lips feel – slick from Chap Stick. He slips off the condom, because he’s been tested, and she lets him, because she wants to feel close to someone. Tired of the coldness of the peepshow glass, she wants to be held.
No prom dresses, crushed satin and dry mouths from bottles of bootlegged alcohol shared outside the gym turned dancehall. No high school senior photos, hair sprayed back slick. No first loves and going steady and notes passed in lockers. At eighteen, Mariá feels grown up, but not like the woman she imagined she’d become. Her shoulders have rounded over slightly, and there is a bent taste to her mouth. Her toothbrush in the handle of the bathroom is over-chewed. And there is a damp smell to the shower that clings to her hair. At night she sleeps next to Alex, curls her fingers over his lost shoulders, finds his clavicle bone, rests her index finger there, against his vulnerability, against the fluttering.
Cold December makes the trees bare. At the bus stop, she shivers through the morning light. With eyes blurred from sleep, Mariá pulls her coat tighter, then vomits into the bushes. A pregnancy test confirms what she already knew. In the tiled bathroom, she steps out from the shower, droplets of water running down her legs. “I told you I don’t like the floor wet,” Alex says, his voice shifting into a thing of dread. His shined boot thuds against her small swollen belly. She can’t tell the difference between her tears and the shower water that pools at her feet. “I’m sorry,” he says, and Mariá watches the water spread out like a mushroom cloud past her bare toes.
Mariá dials her mother’s phone number, presses the house phone to her ear, the same way she holds the phone inside the peepshows, but this time her voice is just raw. She pushes her fingers across her eyelashes and they come back wet, the tips of her fingers smudged with mascara and coal liner. Neither of them mention her stepfather. She holds the receiver further from her ear when her mother sighs, then sets the phone down on the carpeted floor, her mother’s voice still running. Mariá places her small hands like lost mittens over her abdomen.
The counselor goes through the ritual of sterile questions, her manicured nails clicking against the clipboard. Her nail polish is the color of peach, of salmon, of the perfect little shells Mariá would collect off the beach on Hood Canal in summertime. When the black sand dollars crunched under her bare child feet, she would grit her teeth at the sound that struck her chest bones, until she crossed the muddy sandbar and found dry sand and dried white suicide-sand dollars baked below the sun. The woman’s jacket ironed, white and starched hurts Mariá’s swelling black pupils. Mariá wonders if the counselor’s name is real, stitched in blue cursive: Betty. Mariá listens to her questions, twisting her thumb between her fingers, the same way her mother’s fingers twist. Betty sounds like she’s repeating scripted lines. A forced kindness behind her voice. Her coffee cup chipped on the handle. Mariá thinks about Alex’s capable hands. His laced boots. The way he pulls her into his bed, comforts her loneliness. She presses her fingertips over the electric warm feeling deep inside her belly, places her hand there often. Her hollow voice seems to echo inside the windowless walls.
“Yes, I’m certain,” she says, a hidden lisp.
They don’t tell her she will feel empty, emptier than she has ever felt before. They don’t tell her what it means not to be able to take it back after they tuck a piece of seaweed in her cervix and there is no going back now. She sleeps in her cold bed in the living room, and Alex doesn’t come home. The seaweed makes her sick with loss, as though the salt from the sea has filled her mouth with sea foam. And it is burning her throat. Her tears are burning her throat. And she is biting the worn top sheet of her bed.
The next morning, in a windowless room, a burning cramping surrenders her to emptiness. Bright lights, a heavy smell of disinfectant. Her legs pulled up under a disposable paper sheet on the exam table. Her eyes shine inside a cloud of opium running from a small clear blue tube into her inner arm. Then the absence of the pressing needle brings the waiting room to a white blared corner. When she hesitates on the hospital stairs, she tries to remember what flight feels like, how the city birds feel when they wing through the heavy sky.
At the bus stop, she watches the high school girls behind the fence. Light lipstick and mascara and chiming bells of laughter. Side glances to their best friend and a boy shooting hoops in the cold. Mariá wonders what it’s like for them, sitting at desks, passing notes, planning their escape to colleges across the state line. She shivers below the gray sky. She hovers her hand over her abdomen, the absence aching, protective of what is no longer there.
A loneliness takes residence back inside her ribcage. She’d been waiting for it to return, that heavy edged empty sob from the shy side of hope. She rubs her swollen gray eyes, then notices a wet leaf drift from the sky to the cold sidewalk. Her fingers painful now from the cold, she shoves her hands into her coat pocket.
She thinks about driving to Vegas, imagines the slow desert moon and stolen tail feathers, listens for the constant sound of falling money, and wets her finger with the watered down rum and slot machines. She rummages inside her coat pocket for a penny. Heads she stays. Tails she drives with Alex, abandons the gray city for the dry desert and shining electric lights. She runs her finger over the rough edge of the penny, shivers into the cold, then looks back down at the cracked sidewalk, at the leaf that fell to the ground. Sounds from the lingering teens echo across the high school grounds. A slight copper taste fills her mouth. She doesn’t need to flip. She knows she’s already made her choice, but she watches the penny soar up toward the sky, then fall back into her small open hand.
Sarah Maria Medina is a poet and a fiction/creative non-fiction writer from the American Northwest. Her writing has been published in Educe Journal, Winter Tangerine Review, Raspa Literary Journal, Codex Journal, Midnight Breakfast, and elsewhere. She lives in Mexico with her daughter, and is at work on her memoir, A House by the Sea in Havana. www.sarahmariamedina.com