Number-One Earthly Reason
By Lindsey Gates-Markel
inspired by loving female friendships, bars, country music, and text messages in Every Kiss a War
Jenny and I are bent over at the jukebox again and the waist of her pencil skirt is pinching at her. We’re studying song titles in the blue light like we don’t always play the same ones. The men slouched at the bar and in the dark corner booths are watching. I don’t think he respects how young and beautiful I am, she says about her man, who is much older, old like a dad. Jenny loves being wanted because of course her flaw is sexy. Lately we’ve been working on our flaws.
You’re being way too nice to that guy, I tell her. My thing to work on is that I act too tough. Jenny says it’s because I’m afraid of vulnerability. But I don’t need to love any man like I love the smooth old-fashioned weight of quarters, the lightness of slipping them into the jukebox slot. Three of them play “Ring of Fire” because Jenny punches it in even though I wanted a slow song. She’s already back at the table purring more change from the old man’s pockets. I want her to tell him the truth, which is that that guy is too gray and greasy for her. I lean on the jukebox and rest my head on my arms. The neon lights stir up the whiskey sours in my gut and make me flush and warm as a fever. Other old men are up and strutting around to the music. I can tell they all think they’re Johnny Cash, cool and mean. I lift up my cotton tank top and arch my back to stretch. The men watch because they always do.
Jenny doesn’t even look at me. I get out my phone and text her the dancing girls emoji a bunch of times in a row.
I saw a letter once that Johnny wrote to June where he told her she was the #1 earthly reason for his existence. I don’t know if I’m broken or normal or what but nobody will ever love me that much.
I stomp in my sparkly flats right to Jenny and put my hand around her small wrist and say to the old man, Hey, Jenny isn’t interested in you, just so you know, and then I walk away with her before he can say anything back, pretending that’s bravery. Every boy I’ve loved has wanted to be Johnny, but I am June Carter Cash, sashaying away.
Look at you, says Jenny.
Don’t be mad.
This fucking skirt, she says, tugging at her waistband. The old men’s laughter is wet and wide open. She shuffles toward the bathroom in the yellow flats that are actually mine.
Ever since I was a little girl I’ve assumed that men are watching me. That if there is the slimmest hint of a window, there is a crowd of silent men in the darkness, rubbing themselves through their jeans.
Last night I gave Troy a handjob. I’d left the party with him because we’d been kissing and I felt like it, no other reason. All I knew about him was that he was a senior at Spanish Fort and wrestled. He switched on the interior light with one hand and took out his dick with the other and asked me to please just touch it. Finally he said, Just look at it at least. When I saw his hungry mouth I told him I’d touch it through his underwear. He looked at me a long time and then said fine and tucked it underneath the cotton.
His tighty whities purred up close to my hand. I kept my fingers flat, like when I petted a stingray at the zoo. Our reflection in the window was distorted and bright, our bodies the same brown-black as the world beyond the window, the shadows of the trees and sky and fields all reflected in his open mouth.
I glared past our rolling reflection into the dark field. I made eye contact with whoever was watching so they could see I wasn’t afraid.
Don’t stop, Troy said, like he was mad, then softer, then the sounds melted into one another and made new words that meant nothing. He grasped my wrist, speaking that secret language.
Jenny’s smudging her eyeliner with a wet thumb, standing over the only sink that isn’t clogged with paper towel bits and hair. I whisper that I gave Troy a handjob and she looks at me with her finger still stuck in her eye. Jenny is the prettiest girl I know and I’m not even saying that because I love her. I can’t believe you didn’t tell me that before, she says. And that’s all she says for a while until she asks if he liked it.
He liked it, I said.
Did you like it?
The mirror’s all cheap and foggy and there are a hundred of me going blurry at the edges. It was amazing, I tell her. She tilts her head and tugs at her waistband.
That’s so awesome, she says.
He said I was really good at it.
Handjob queen. Teach me your ways.
It was easy, I say, because it was.
“Sister Christian” comes on the juke outside so we sing even though there are other girls peeing, yanking the cheap toilet paper, making the metal walls thunder. Jenny ropes her arms around me and we watch ourselves sway in the dreamy mirror land.
At her house, we crack the back door and see light in the kitchen. We’re a little drunk and Jenny tries to say What are you doing, already mad, but her parents, in long pajamas and uncinched bathrobes, hush her with their hands and wave us over. Her mom squeezes our shoulders and whispers hi to me. Their dog is spread on the tile floor.
Dad and I think it’s time, her mom says, he’s been seizing all night.
Jenny falls down next to him and pulls his old furry body into her lap. The zipper on her skirt splits. I uncross my arms and watch her round downturned face. She hugs his grumbling grey torso to her like a stuffed animal and inhales his fur. She hums on the exhale like she’s got a crying baby. Then the hum turns into Night Ranger and it’s the loneliest song, like she’s singing it to herself and nobody else can hear. Jenny nuzzles her little face into her dying dog’s leaky one and holds him closer than close. I press on my bruise to make myself hurt, too, so she isn’t so alone. Her mom starts to say something but her dad says Honey and takes her mom’s hand so they’re both quiet. We stand around, and we watch.
Lindsey Gates-Markel (lindseygatesmarkel.com) was born in Illinois in 1983. Her work has been most recently published in Hobart, Counterexample Poetics, and Sundog Lit and is forthcoming in Little Fiction.