Every Thursday night Birdie sat in the corner booth and ate two sunny-side up eggs with a side of breakfast potatoes before she fucked whoever sat across from her in the Motel 6 down the street. If her client was late, she would order coffee.
“Could I get a cup of black coffee?” she’d say, prefacing “coffee” with “black” as if there were any other way to serve diner coffee, as if she wasn’t going to immediately subdue its bitterness with a dozen packages of Half-and-Half creamer and Sweet-n-Low. Her client was late again.
I thought it was rather rude to be late to anything, although I suppose infidelity is a difficult thing to be on time for. Not that I knew if all of her customers were married. The dentist, Dr. Clifford, certainly was. So was the mayor. And the mayor’s wife.
I wondered who it was this time that was sitting in their car just outside, maybe smoking, certainly shaking, as they weighed the worth of an orgasm against their reputation. Was it worth more or less if it was induced by the captain of the high school volleyball team? More or less if you had children? If you were fucking miserable?
I was refilling Birdie’s mug for the third time, imagining Dr. Clifford hypocritically puffing on a cigarette in the parking lot, when suddenly I was sitting across from her.
“I’ll pay you double your hourly rate,” I said. Birdie’s stirrer kept up its circular motion around the rim of her cup. I was almost offended by her lack of reaction.
“You don’t even know my hourly rate,” she said. She was right — I didn’t, nor did I really think I could afford it. Not with a wage from Mama’s ‘Merican Diner, for whom “rush hour” meant a few extra truck drivers. But there was broke and then there was teenage broke, soon-to-be-college broke, turning-to-sex-work broke.
But Birdie was damn good at sports, was on a full-ride scholarship to some far-away university. It was all her parents and coaches ever talked about, as if her glimmer of potential was a direct result of their decades of lived mediocrity. Maybe she needed a new car, new clothes, a new something to get high on. All were causes I was willing to donate to.
I rambled on.
“You don’t even have to do anything.”
Now Birdie looked up. Where I expected to find relief I instead found a smirk.
“Why? You think I haven’t been with women before?” she asked.
“No.” The women, if anything, were more memorable than the men. The women were my banker and hairdresser, my former classmates and former friends who always struck up a conversation so they could explain why they were there with Birdie, as if opening a savings account was something that needed to be discussed over chili fries.
“Then you haven’t been with a woman before,” Birdie said.
“No you haven’t? Or ‘no’ I’m wrong?”
“No, I’m just trying to help you out.”
My words bounced around the booth until they soured, reeking of pity and disdain. In response, Birdie piled more than enough bills in the center of the table. She was always one of my best tippers.
“What am I supposed to tell Mr. Hewitt?” she asked. She casually relinquished his name as if that couldn’t ruin his entire life.
“Say you’re sick. People get sick,” I said.
“What about your shift?” Birdie asked.
I wish I could say that the mention of my job, my livelihood, made me pause.
“I’m sick too,” I replied.
Birdie glanced out the window, and I discreetly did the same. Mr. Hewitt’s jacked up Ford was nowhere in sight. I wondered if he drove a less notable car when he was screwing a barely-legal teenager.
“Meet me at the Motel 6 in five,” she said, smiling at the cleverness of her own phrasing.
“And could I get a to-go cup for this?” She tapped the side of her mug.
“Oh, of course!”
I returned wielding a paper cup with the word “Pepsi” emblazoned on its side — “Be careful, it’s not really made for coffee,” I cautioned — and watched Birdie flit out the door and into a trashy white Buick.
The swinging door that led to the kitchen was propped open, as Mr. Baxter complained he was too goddamn hot working next to the grill all day and needed the air. I stood in the doorframe watching him scrub salt-encrusted silverware until he sensed the restlessness radiating off of me and glanced in my direction.
“I just threw up in the bathroom,” I said. Mr. Baxter turned off the faucet and cupped one ear.
“I just threw up in the bathroom.”
“Oh.” He dried his hands, staring intently at the tattered towel as he did so. Those hands always looked cartoonish-ly massive to me, as if he were a child playing in his diner dollhouse.
“Is it a — a menstruation thing?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“Alrighty, well, you go on home. I’ll probably be closing early tonight anyways.”
I flashed him a smile, not too cheery because I was sick, and carried myself and my purse to the door. I nearly collided with Mr. Hewitt, who took several gentlemanly steps sideways.
“Hi Mr. Hewitt.”
“Well hey there, Lyla.”
I could feel his eyes on me as I shuffled past, like he already knew what I’d done.
I walked all of the way to the Motel 6, convinced that if I got in my car I would just drive home. Birdie stood leaning against the hood of a pick-up that wasn’t hers, pinching a white key card between her fingers like it was a cigarette. When I got near, she wordlessly strode to room 112. I changed course to follow.
“Doesn’t the manager get suspicious?” I asked. The door beeped, clicked, and opened.
“No. I’m fucking him,” Birdie said.
We stepped into the room. I liked motel rooms. They were always exactly what I expected.
“To be honest, I’d wish I’d thought of this,” I said.
“Thought of what?”
“Your … business.”
Birdie shrugged, not so much with humility as with acknowledgement. Doesn’t everyone wish they thought like me?
“I bet it pays pretty good,” I said.
“What’s it all for?”
Birdie cocked her head to one side, looking like a bird, I thought. A birdy.
“You have to be savin’ up for something big. Don’t you?” I forged on, stacking my queries between us like concrete bricks. If I asked enough questions, I’d be safe for a little while longer, safe from that insufferable second of tension that preceded the first touch. I wanted the touch. But I couldn’t stand the tension.
“No,” she said. Then, “Not really.”
The conversation I’d painstakingly charted in my head — which car dealer? who to call for Vicodin? — disintegrated. Luckily Birdie picked up the pieces, chewing on the inside of her cheek.
“I always looked forward to this time, right after graduation. Thought it would feel different, like I was finally bigger than this town. And better.”
I’d tried to forget that bloated, hot summer between high school and college. I didn’t have a full-ride scholarship to anywhere but Mama’s.
“Everyone knows I don’t need the money. Not for school, at least. But they’re ready to hand cash and everything else to me.”
Birdie laughed uncomfortably. I didn’t know she could do anything uncomfortably.
“It’s like, if I can’t be bigger than this town today, then at least I’m going to be the biggest thing in this town.”
That she was.
“And you?” she asked. She slipped off her shoes, slipped off her jacket. Each item fell to the carpet like it knew its ceremonial presence was no longer needed in this dingy temple of curled fingers and folded cash.
“What do you want? To kickstart your divorce?”
“No. Not really,” I said.
I’m sure Birdie thought I was mocking her, or flirting with her, but I just liked the mystery those words left in the air, even if it was manufactured. I didn’t have a husband or a wife at home, or a toddler from a long-gone lover bouncing on the hip of a teenage babysitter checking the time right about now. No, here I was with someone who could’ve very well been that babysitter and no one to notice my absence.
What’s worse, this wouldn’t ruin me. Fuck, we could elope tonight and move into her parent’s basement without worrying about my lost status. Once the town got over our mutual female-ness, they’d move on. “Birdie could do better,” they’d scoff behind their coffee cups. They’d come to my work just to see who landed that pretty blonde girl, to see what dyke was holding back the only promising thing to ever come out of this community. But they’d let me keep my job; maybe it’d even increase the diner’s revenue. Maybe I’d get offered a position as a dental hygienist to ensure I didn’t divulge Birdie’s former clients.
I wished I had a life that could be ruined by this. I wished someone would find out and spread the word of my deviancy until I was forced to move to a new ghost town. A fresh start, I’d say. I’m so sorry honey, I don’t know how it happened. It will never happen again, I swear. I love you. There’d be marriage counseling and secrets kept from the kids. Birdie would text me when she passed through. I’d politely decline drinks — I can’t destroy my family again, Birdie — but masturbate in the bathroom to the explicit messages she’d send.
No one should be able to act so impulsively with no consequences.
I’d stopped talking. Birdie started moving towards me, slowly and soundlessly, like she was approaching a feral animal that was just as likely to bite as it was to run.
“Why breakfast potatoes?” she asked.
“Why does your menu say breakfast potatoes? They’re just hash browns.”
“Oh. Because Mr. Baxter doesn’t think anyone knows the difference. And we can charge more when we say breakfast potatoes.”
She was inches from me, so close that I wondered if we were actually touching and my skin was betraying me.
“Sounds fancier,” I said softly. Just as softly, Birdie kissed me.
When I pulled away, her eyes stayed closed. They didn’t open until I stumbled into the bathroom door. Then those green things watched me, curious, drowsy, amused, as I fumbled with the knob and apologized repeatedly for I don’t know what until I was safely on the other side of the door.
Tile. Toilet. Toilet paper. I made a mental inventory of my grimy surroundings as I tried to bring down my blood pressure with sheer willpower. I glimpsed myself in the mirror and was surprised to see a normal face — not flushed or blotchy or sweating — peering back at me. If anything, she looked unaffected. I washed my hands before I began to masturbate.
I left the door unlocked the entire time, some sick part of me hoping Birdie would walk in, that she’d do again what she’d done moments before. She never did, because what kind of person barges into an occupied bathroom? — but just the thought of it was enough.
I stepped out, hormones flooding my veins. Birdie was sprawled on her back, staring at the television although nothing was playing. She didn’t move when I laid down next to her and put her finger in my mouth, or when I undid the top button of her jeans. She just looked at me and didn’t look away.
Birdie returned to Mama’s ‘Merican Diner only one time after that, on a Tuesday instead of a Thursday. She ordered two sunny-side up eggs with a side of hash browns and left a tip that was more than her hourly rate or even double her hourly rate. I had just finished brewing a pot of coffee when I discovered the empty corner booth. I towered over the table, one hand stupidly dangling by my side, the other stupidly clinging to the pot of unordered coffee.
“Why was that pretty blonde here today?” Mr. Baxter asked, peering out from the kitchen.
I sat across from Birdie’s pile of dishes and cash and poured coffee into her untouched mug. I finished the first cup and had three more, using plenty of Sweet-n-Low.