Tenderloin

The first time she called out, he pretended not to hear her.

"Awake?" she said again, louder this time. Her body gave a convulsive shiver under the too-thin blanket of her bed.

A groan, muffled by covers.

She reached out an arm and a leg until she made contact with the other bed, three feet away. It was the lava game you played as a kid: touching the floor meant you were burned alive. The carpets here wouldn't burn, but they were sticky and unpleasant underfoot, coated with the residue of decades of the hotel's former residents.

She pushed off, bridging the gap. On the first day, they'd tried to push the beds together, but they were bolted to the floor. She slid under the covers.

"Your feet are like ice," Caleb complained.

She pressed her hip into his side: an invitation.

"You'll be late."

"There's still an hour before the alarm goes off."

He pulled on his jeans and padded into the bathroom.

The rejection stung, but it was a familiar pain, like the re-opening of a wound. Things would be different in Korea.

She leaned over the edge of the bed and took her teaching cards out of her backpack. The blanket became a patchwork quilt of emoticons, pictures, and words. First the conjugation, then the adjectives . . . She murmured the sequence of her lesson, loud enough to be heard over the comforting noise of Caleb’s morning routine. A toilet flushing; running water; the tap of a razor against the sink. When they got to Seoul, they'd find a little apartment, somewhere outside the city. She'd spend her days teaching, and her evenings with Caleb. They'd make love to the bumblebee hum of traffic outside the window. The experience of otherness would shape them, mold them closer together. After a year or two, they'd return to the States and stand together at parties laughing and telling stories about that time in Korea when . . .

The bathroom door opened with a burst of warm steam.

"All yours."

She scooped up the cards and put them away.

The bathroom's interior was pleasantly warm, the cracked, water-stained tiles slick with moisture. The mirror had fogged up, but she could see herself in the spot where Caleb's fingers had wiped it clear. She drew her hair back into a tight bun, examined the results, then added a quick swipe of mascara on each eyelash. Today, she would look the part of a teacher: stern, but nurturing.

She was nervous about the test, yes, but more nervous about what would come after. Caleb had said it would take time to square everything away at work. He knew they'd always talked about traveling together, but he wasn't sure if he could telecommute for that long. It was already difficult enough getting away from the San José office for just a few weeks.

She'd done everything she could to sell him on the idea. It would be an adventure! They would scald their tongues on Bi Bim Bop and ride motorbikes on crowded city streets. It would be the last hurrah of youth, before the seriousness of adulthood began: marriage, children, a mortgage.

After you pass your test, he'd said.

Before she left the bathroom, she put on the bracelet her friend Hyun had given her. Leather, with little metal studs reminiscent of a dog collar. It would be invisible under the sleeve of her blouse, but maybe it would bring her luck.

 

 

They stepped out, blinking, into a bright San Francisco morning. Most of the potholes in the road had crusted over with a thin layer of ice. The people in line for the AIDS clinic across the street stood with sleeping bags draped over their shoulders; they stamped their feet in a futile attempt to stay warm.

Bibi recognized some of the faces. In the six weeks she'd been in the Tenderloin district, she'd seen the same few homeless people over and over again. They circulated the neighborhood like migrating birds: foraging for food, panhandling, waiting in line at the clinic, sleeping.

She curled her fingers into fists inside the pocket of her coat, trying to warm them. She'd forgotten how cold it could get this close to the Bay.

 She and Caleb walked side by side, without touching. Sometimes, it bothered her that he was never affectionate in public. People who didn't know them mistook them for friends. But love required sacrifices. Her mother had been unwilling to sacrifice, and Bibi's father had abandoned them when Bibi was seven. Now her mother lived alone in a small house, tending a garden and several stray cats.

No one ever talked about all the people who ended up alone. The thousands who died every year never married, without kids. Unloved. Bibi was determined that she wouldn't end up like that. It simply required compromise. Parts of the self had to be sheared away, to make more room for the combined entity: the couple.

She'd met Caleb at a friend's birthday party. He was a computer programmer, tall and thin to the point of gauntness. His hairline had receded, but his broad, pale forehead gave him a distinguished air. They'd bonded over bucket lists—all the places they wanted to go, and all the grand adventures they would have when real life stopped getting in the way. It hadn't been difficult to coerce him into having sex. Bibi wasn't particularly attractive—eyes a little too close together, a square jaw that veered towards the masculine—but that had never been an obstacle when it came to men. Moving beyond sex to a monogamous relationship had been a challenge, but Caleb, apathetic by nature, had come to accept the arrangement.

They'd been together one year and twelve days, but they'd never lived together. He'd originally suggested she attend the six-week teacher training program alone, until she told him that the only place she could afford to stay was the Tenderloin. She read him an online article about how it had the highest concentration of parolees in the nation. "It might not be safe," she'd told him.

Now, she was comforted by his resolve to walk her to and from school every day. It was a nod to chivalry, proof of his concern for her well-being. It was also pleasant departure from their habitual parity—separate apartments, separate checks, separate beds.

 

 

The school was on the eleventh floor of an aging high rise off Market Street, each floor occupied by some small business or other: a law office, a chiropractor, a real estate bureau. Whenever a business failed, another would-be aspirant came to take its place, lured in by the promise of downtown. The school had been there five years, long enough to provide the illusion of permanence.

Caleb gave her a quick farewell peck in front of the double doors, his lips dry and papery with cold.

She took the elevator up. The doors opened on a large, grey-tinted window that made the city take on a drab sameness. In contrast, bright, amateur paintings of San Francisco landmarks—the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz—hung at intervals along the hall, pastel-hued idealizations of the real thing. Behind the hall's wooden doors were tiny classrooms, barely big enough to fit five or six students. They'd once been offices, but the school had knocked down some of the walls to join the separate spaces.

She was the first to arrive. She made coffee in the common kitchen, and drank it out of a chipped mug with "I Teach Therefore I Am" printed in red on the white ceramic. In the lounge, two sagging couches faced a coffee table. A large plastic placard with the words "Saint Andrews International Academy" dominated the far wall.

She spread her teaching cards out on the table.

"Last day," a familiar voice said. Hyun was wearing an I-heart-NYC t-shirt with a fist-sized cleavage hole cut into the front. Her black hair was shaved on one side to reveal a metal-studded ear.

Bibi wasn't surprised that her friend hadn't dressed up for the test. It was what she most admired about her: the art of Not Giving a Fuck, perfected. The woman's brusque exterior was paired with a disconcerting niceness, and the contradiction drew people in like a gravitational force.

Bibi wasn't immune. She came to revel in her position as wing woman, as if she might absorb Hyun's specialness into herself over time, as through a process of osmosis.

Their friendship had been born out of shared circumstances. They'd both been interested in going to Korea, and in a month's time, they would fly together to Seoul. A technical school in Nowon-gu had already agreed to hire them, assuming they passed the test and got their teaching certificates. Hyun, who was half-Korean, had already reconnected with some distant relatives who lived near the city.

"You're here early," Bibi said.

Hyun rolled her eyes. "Last-minute cramming. You still coming tonight? Everyone's going to be there."

"Wouldn't miss it."

"Damn straight. By the way, I have a present for you." She took an envelope out of her pocket.

Bibi lowered her voice to a whisper. "You got them?"

"I told you I would."

The envelope was light pink, small, the kind of thing you might find in a Hello-Kitty-themed store. Hyun waved it in the air with a magician-like flourish, then dropped it into Bibi's open palm. "Your wish is my command," she said, then grimaced. "I'm dying for a coffee. See you later."

When she'd gone, Bibi unfolded the envelope's flap and peeked inside. Three yellow pills, each stamped with a smiley face. She closed the envelope and stuffed it into her bag.

The ecstasy was part of the plan. For weeks, she'd sensed Caleb's growing restlessness. Sex had become an afterthought, and their conversations had dwindled to essentials: work, food, duration and quality of sleep. The party would bring fresh energy to their relationship. It would show him that she could be someone more like Hyun. A force of nature: the kind of girl who would embrace everything Korea had to offer and return to the States sophisticated and worldly. Or, at least, she could at get better at pretending.

Little by little, the others trickled in to the lounge. Like Bibi and Hyun, they were all in their mid-20s, fresh out of college, craving novelty but lacking the altruism required of the Peace Corps. Most would go to Asia, where they could make enough to pay back student loans. A few had dreams of Europe. All would return home in a year or two, after collecting enough fodder for a lifetime of nostalgia.

"Miss Stern?" Hastings called. It was time.

The three Polish women were waiting in the classroom. They had dressed up for the occasion—pantsuits and plastic pearls, their round bodies spilling out of the tiny, hand-me-down desks. The women came every day, ostensibly for the free English lessons, although none of them could speak English with any real fluency, despite years of steady attendance. The school was a way to pass the time: they'd all outlived their husbands, and their children had fled the city for the suburbs decades earlier.

"Good morning," Hastings said. His accent was educated and British; it gave him an aura of haughty superiority. He was wearing his habitual grey suit. Today’s tie was mauve, with a diagonal pattern of little yellow rulers. "You may begin."

Bibi placed her cards in a pile on the table in front of her. Nervous sweat was already pooling under her arms and breasts.

"Good morning, class," she began.

"Good morning," the women echoed. Their manicured hands were folded on their desktops, like the drawings of model students in textbooks.

"In this lesson . . . we will learn to conjugate the 'to be' verb." Her own voice sounded frail in her ears. She cleared her throat and stared down at her cards. She had the sudden, terrible realization that the cards weren't in the right order. Had she been that distracted?

"Um, let's see…" She shuffled through them, looking for the first card: a smiley face. She thought of the pills in the envelope, and for the briefest of moments, she imagined holding out one of the pills to do her lesson.

Hastings' face might have been carved from stone. Only the slightest twitch of his pen over his notepad belied any impatience.

Where is it? It's not here, oh my God, what—

She found it. She held up the card, triumphant.

"I am happy," she said.

"I am happy," the women repeated, speaking slower than she had, enunciating each syllable. How many times had they learned this same lesson?

Bibi pointed at the card, and then at Hastings.

"He is happy," the women said, in unison.

Bibi moved her finger in an exaggerated circle.

"We are happy," the women said.

More cards. We are sad. You are old. He is tired.     

Bibi introduced some adverbs. Very. Really. So.

"We use these to, um, show emphasis. You know emphasis? We use it to . . . add. Meaning. Right?"

The women shifted in their seats. When had she started saying um after every word? She regretted not practicing this part of her lesson. She forged ahead, but dread sat like a hot stone in her chest. Her mouth was too dry, and it was difficult to swallow.

"We say, 'I am very happy,' because we want to be more than happy, right?"

The explanation was lost on the women. "More happy," they parroted.

Bibi grimaced. "No, very. Very happy."

"I am more very happy!" one of the women exclaimed. The others tittered.

Bibi gestured wildly, trying to bring them back. I am very happy! I am so sad! Hastings' pen scratched furious rhythms on his notepad.

She wrote the conjugation on the chalkboard. The women started whispering to each other in Polish.

"Ladies," Hastings chastised. They fell silent.

Bibi's blouse was plastered to her lower back. She thought again of the lava game. She had touched the floor, and she was being burned alive.

"How are you?" the women said, oblivious to Bibi's distress. They laughed and shook hands and pretended to be strangers.

"I am really tired."

"I am very happy."

Bibi took out another notecard. "Now we will conjugate 'to be' in simple past tense," she began.

"That won't be necessary, Miss Stern," Hastings interrupted. "You may leave now."

Bibi went out to one of the windows along the hall. The skyline blurred. She didn't understand how it had all gone so wrong. She'd studied. She'd done everything you were supposed to do. She tried to convince herself that she was overreacting, but Hastings' voice echoed in her head. That won't be necessary, Miss Stern.

She went to the bathroom and splashed cold water on her face. Some loose tendrils of hair had escaped her bun; she pushed them back into place. The results would be mailed next week, but everyone expected to pass.

She slipped out the side stairwell, without saying goodbye.

On the street, she shivered as gusts of wind evaporated the sweat on her skin. She texted Caleb that she was done, and ducked into a bus shelter to wait. The interior stank faintly of urine, and the Plexiglas was scarred with decades of overlapping graffiti.

A bus came, then another. She watched people surge forward onto the buses, eager to get warm. Then Caleb was strolling up the sidewalk, his back hunched, his collar turned up against the wind.

"How'd it go?" he asked.

She forced herself to smile. "Great," she lied. "No problem."

"Congrats! Knew you could do it." His phone buzzed in his pocket. He took it out and glanced at the screen. "Sorry, crisis at work. Lunch?"

"Yeah."

They got takeaway sandwiches at a Jewish deli down the street. On the walk back, Caleb fielded calls. Bibi hid her disappointment by pretending to be busy herself. She answered a week-old email from her mother—asking her when she'd be back to visit—and scrolled through her Facebook feed. Pictures of babies and vacations and family dinners fluttered past her fingertips.

"You did that with one method?" Caleb said into his phone. "That should be easy to maintain."

He left her at the front door of the hotel. He had to drive back to San José to deal with an issue at work, but he'd make it back in time for the party.

"Are you sure about the address?" he asked, before he left. "Google Maps shows it in the middle of nowhere."

 "It's the right place," she said.

We are happy, she thought, watching his back recede from view. She mouthed the words once, and then again, each time changing the inflection until it solidified in her mind.

We are HAPPY.

We ARE happy.

"Did you say something, hon?" It was the old man who often sat on the stoop of the hotel. Bibi shook her head and went inside.

 

 

She spent most of the afternoon in the residence hotel, alternating between watching movies on her phone and staring up at the cracked ceiling. Water damage had formed dark yellow stains on the asbestos. There were layers within the stain, as leak after leak had formed an accumulation of damage, like the rings on the stump of a freshly-chopped tree. She went to the convenience shop down the corner and ate candy bars and chips for dinner. The room grew darker. A text from Caleb said he was running late; to save time, he would meet her there.

It was time to get ready. She took out the new outfit and makeup she'd bought for the occasion—little black dress, high-heeled boots. She complimented this with black eyeliner and dark red lipstick the color of blood. It was the kind of thing Hyun would wear, but Hyun wouldn't wear it for a party or a special occasion—she would wear it on the middle of a Thursday, because fuck it. She thought about taking off the studded-leather bracelet Hyun had given her, but on a final impulse, she kept it on.

At a quarter past ten, she tucked the little pink envelope into her bra and went downstairs.

The taxi driver took the Bay Bridge. The lights were already coming on in the downtown high rises. To her left glowed the yellow and orange lights of Alcatraz. Bibi had taken a tour on the island once; she’d been struck by how many prisoners had died trying to escape by water. The city must have seemed so bright and close, but the Bay had unseen currents that kept swimmers from ever reaching shore.

The warehouse was located across the Bay in an industrial complex made up of blocky, windowless buildings. This late, there were no workers, no sounds beyond the unmistakable thump-thump-thump of amplified music. She paid the driver and moved quickly towards the entrance. She hadn't brought a coat.

Warm air, infused with the smell of cigarettes and spilled beer, wafted out from the open door. A bouncer waved her in.

The interior was a vast, rectangular space filled with people and a heady mixture of real and artificial smoke. A stage had been set up on the far side, where a deejay bobbed his head over a turntable, one hand holding large headphones against an ear. Speakers placed at intervals around the room emitted an endless, resounding bass.

Off to the side, metal staircases led up to platforms where people drank and talked and smoked and took selfies with their friends. There had to be hundreds of young people here, all dressed in garish costumes that were at once shapeless and too revealing. Women gyrated in tube bras, parachute pants, bikini tops under sleeveless tees. Glow sticks dangled from necks and wrists. At once, Bibi realized her mistake. Her clothing was too serious for this sea of hipsters and ravers.

Hyun appeared from out of the mass of dancers. She was wearing loose-fitting khakis and a crop top that bared her flat midriff. Her skin was shiny with glitter body makeup.

"You look amazing!" she said, no trace of insincerity in her voice.

"Thanks. You, too."

Hyun's teeth glowed green in the ultraviolet light. "I can't believe it's over! No more Hastings lectures, thank the All Mighty."

"It's over," Bibi echoed.

Caleb was already there. He waved them up to the upstairs balcony, where he stood with his elbows propped on the metal railing.

"Oh, wow," he said, taking in Bibi's outfit. "You look . . . you didn't tell me we were going to a rave."

"Isn't it great?" She put an arm around his waist, squeezed, then dropped her arm before he could pull away. "You remember Hyun."

Hyun gave a two-finger salute and began digging around in her purse.

"Did any of the others come?" Bibi asked her.

"One or two. I think they're around here somewhere. Ah! Here they are. Cigarette?"

She took out a pack and waved it in the air between them. Caleb shook his head, but Bibi took one, bending her head to let her light it.

"You don't smoke," Caleb said.

"I do now." She took a drag. She almost coughed, but she exhaled slowly until her throat eased. A pleasant light-headedness washed over her.

She took the envelope out of her bra and opened it for Caleb to see.

He grinned. "God, I haven't done molly since I was fifteen." He grabbed her wrist and pulled her aside, out of Hyun's earshot. She exulted in the possessiveness of the gesture.

"This isn't like you, Bibi."

"You don't know me as well as you think," she quipped, taking another drag on the cigarette. She was careful to hold it between the tips of her index and forefingers, the way she saw women do in movies.

He shrugged and released her wrist. Hyun came over and took each of them by the hand. "Come on!" she said. "Let's party like it's 1999 all over again!"

They each took a pill from the pink envelope. Bibi had expected the ecstasy to taste sweet, like candy, but the coating was unexpectedly acrid. Hyun stuck her tongue out at them; the smiley face on the pill's surface had melted into a grotesque yellow smear.

 

 

At first, Bibi didn't feel any different. She was uncomfortable in her new clothes and shoes. Hyun undulated as if she'd been born to dance, while Bibi and Caleb had the awkward, side-to-side bounce of self-conscious people. They stood in triangular formation, as if subconsciously putting a barrier between themselves and the other partiers.

She couldn't pinpoint when the shift occurred, but all at once, her nervous energy was transformed into love. The separation between herself and others dissolved; she was more alert, more aroused, than she'd ever been in her life. Her reservations became tiny, insignificant voices drowned out by the music, the beat that seemed to vibrate the air and the surface of her skin.

Hyun laughed and kissed her with too-soft lips. Caleb wrapped his arms around her. She pressed her ear to his chest, but she couldn't hear his heartbeat over the bass from the warehouse's speakers. I am happy¸ she thought, and laughed. This time it wasn't a lie.

They let the world in. She was swept away by the tide of music and warm bodies. She hugged and kissed strangers, eager to touch and be touched. It was wonderful, wonderful. Why had she never done this before?

An incalculable time passed. She became aware that she was dancing in a crowd of people she didn't know. Not that it mattered—these were all her friends—but where was Caleb? She wanted to share this with him. She waded through the crowd. People touched her hand, her arm. A blonde man with blue eyes took her hand. "I love you, sister," he said, before drifting away again.

She craved touch, and the crowd obliged. She kissed a strange man on the cheek. "You're beautiful," she told him, and continued on.

She traversed the entire warehouse twice before she thought to go out back. A row of Port-o-Potties had been set up in a courtyard behind the warehouse. This time, the cold was a caress. A line of people waited in line for the bathrooms. They huddled in tight circles, smoking to stay warm. The air was rich with marijuana smoke.

Beyond the frail circle of light emanating from the warehouse door, people writhed and moaned in the dark. A few blankets had been spread on the ground, and bodies moved beneath them. Bibi wanted to join them, to make love to everyone—but especially to Caleb. So he hadn't really wanted to go to Korea. What did that matter, now? They could still be together.

She circled the courtyard again, and was about to leave when she saw Caleb's white t-shirt, reflecting the dim light. He was standing by the side of the building, talking to a woman. She was tall, with diagonally-cropped blonde hair that accentuated her narrow cheekbones.

Bibi almost didn't recognize him. Caleb's face was bright with interest, his chin bobbing vigorously with every word the woman said. As she approached, she caught hints of a European accent—German, or maybe Swedish.

Something gnawed a hole in the center of her chest. This was the kind of woman who drank wine with every meal; the kind who wore vintage clothes and read Nietzsche in coffee shops and slept naked. They're only talking, she told herself. Only talking.

Bibi's feet were leaden. She walked up to them, and Caleb seemed startled, as if she'd woken him from a trance.

"There you are," she said. She was out of breath, as if she'd been running, even though she hadn't. "I've been looking all over."

"You found me," Caleb said.

"What were you guys talking about?"

"Oh, politics," the woman said, waving a hand. She didn't elaborate.

"Come dance with me," Bibi said to Caleb.

"Yeah, okay," he said. He smiled at the woman. "Nice meeting you."

He didn't look back at the woman, but she was sure it was only because he knew Bibi was watching.

 

 

The warehouse's interior seemed too loud and too bright after the stillness of the courtyard. Bibi longed to recapture the joy of mere moments earlier. The feeling of loving and being loved. The purity of it.

She wrapped her arms around Caleb's neck, but he didn't move. His arms hung limp at his sides.

"What's wrong?" she asked. "You said you wanted to dance."

Slowly, he removed her arms from his neck. His hands were gentle, but the gesture was as effective as a slap. "Bibi . . ." he began.

She hated the seriousness in his voice—the tone of a doctor about to deliver fatal news.

"Don't," she said. "Don't even."

She put a hand over her mouth to stifle a bitter laugh. She already knew what he was going to say. He would natter on about how he was so happy for her, and how he was sure she'd have a great time in Korea. How she would move on. The words were lost in the noise.

"Bibi—"

"No."

She couldn't breathe—she needed air. She pushed her way through the crowd. He didn't follow.

Her face was wet. Strangers reached for her, but she shoved them away.

"Hey!" A hand grabbed her arm. Hyun's face swam into view. "Where are you going? The party’s just getting started." She wrapped her arms around Bibi's neck, her skin clammy.

"He was never going to come," Bibi said.

"Did you say something?"

Bibi wrapped her fingers around Hyun's chin and pulled her forward, until she could feel the other woman's breath on her face. Hyun's eyes—dilated into bottomless pools—stared into hers in bemused perplexity. 

Their lips touched. This time, Bibi took the other woman's lower lip between her teeth and bit down.

"What the fuck–?" Hyun jerked back, one hand cupped her mouth. The gaps between her fingers revealed teeth red with blood.

The sight gave Bibi a visceral pleasure. She licked her lips, tasting copper.

Hyun turned her back in disgust.

 

 

Outside in the frigid air, Bibi was feverish and wild. It was strange, to be so aware of being out of one's mind. I don't want to be high any more. The thought came, but it was too late for that. She was burning up.

"Why don't you let me call you a cab, honey?" the bouncer said.

She ignored him and ran down the street. She ran faster and faster, convinced that if she moved fast enough, she might even lift off the ground. She had a memory of flying like that, when she was a kid. It might have been a dream. There was no such thing as flying—and where would she go, even if she could? The heels of her boots clacked loudly on the silent street. The industrial buildings loomed, blocking her view of the sky.

The road ended at the water's edge. She slowed, stopped. Ahead, wide concrete piers jutted out into the bay. The light of a distant orange streetlamp caught on the ripples of the black water, its surface swirling with unknown chemicals. She had to cool off. She was burning alive; at any moment her fingers would be caressed in flames.

The dress and shoes came off first, followed by her socks and underwear. Her skin became gooseflesh; her nipples hardened into tiny pearls. Still, she burned.

She stepped to the edge of the pier. Her toes grasped the hard, cold edge of the concrete. Across the bay, the San Francisco skyline gleamed.

 

 

The second after she stepped off, she realized her mistake. The impact forced all the breath from her lungs. How had she ever thought she was burning alive? The very concept of warmth was alien now.

The water closed in; it had no beginning or end, and for a dizzying moment, Bibi wasn't sure which direction was up, or down. If she drowned here, no one would save her.

Panicked, she began to flail about in the water. Her feet hit the slimy bottom, and something—a rock, or a piece of broken concrete—dug into the soft flesh of her foot. She pushed off, kicking frantically until her head broke the surface.

She had to scramble up a concrete block to get back up onto the pier. She fell once and scraped her knee, but there was no pain. Motion was difficult. Her limbs were slow to respond, numb. The word came: hypothermia. She needed to get warm.

She became aware of her nakedness. Her gasping breaths echoed like sobs. Maybe they were sobs—she didn't know. She dressed in hurried movements. She didn't look back at the city across the water. When she got back to the warehouse, she kept going.

She walked until the sounds of music and people faded again. Unsure where her feet were taking her, she could only hope that—this time—it would be somewhere different. Somewhere new.

 

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