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EMBARKING UP THE RIGHT TREE (Chapter Thirteen)

I feel the warm air rising up from my bedroom vent as I hold my hands on top as homeless men do over huge oil can fires in movies. As the heat flows back into my body, the scenes from last night form like Sea Monkey crystals into my consciousness. Sprawling out like a gummy octopus on the broadloom I grab my white, eyelet pillow and rest my poor pounding cranium. My shift at Have-a-Java isn’t until 3:00, so I’d have plenty of time to lie here recovering from my guilt, shame and anger. 
 I go over last nights events in a mini-monologue: maybe last night was a test. Why had I mixed my booze? There was no sense in asking these questions, like there’s no point in asking why my mouth tastes like someone has left a gasoline-and-vodka soaked pinecone in it, and yet ….still, I do. Why? It’s Martinis. Proper Martini’s in Martini glasses with olives. Last night was my first official night drinking a Martini! That makes sense. After our work party I left with Taylor to meet his friends at another bar. I hate olives, but I drank it anyway. God…again…why? It only figures that after a work dinner I’d latch on with the one person who’s as much fun to be with as Hilary. Could I be attracted to Taylor? I question…maybe. He did look great last night; much cuter wearing a non-work shirt.

My index finger gets pulled up to my teeth as if they are magnetically charged. Biting on my nail I grind it up into a paste so I can swallow it. The whole process is soothing for me. I try to remember more about last night. Taylor was kind of wasted too. I begin to chastise myself. Everything would be so underhandedly brilliant if I didn’t get trashed last night and blabber on about mine and Hilary’s plan to strip. I panic slightly, did I hit on him a lot? My mind clicks on the expression on Taylor’s face in his apartment. I could see myself opening my shopping bags and pulling out the slips and shiny, lollipop-red, slut – length, negligees from Eatons and The Bay wanting to get a reaction out of him. When I told him they were to wear stripping I remember him saying stuff like: “You can’t be serious. Please tell me you’re joking.” Did that impress him? Holding onto a little sliver of nail between my teeth, I bite down on it, experiencing a little more relief from the sound.
 I think back to last nights work dinner and me picking a seat between Laura and Jenny. Rolling slowly onto my back, I can picture myself with both of them when our pesto-sundried-pasta came to the table. I try to hear pieces of what I may have said. Certain shards of our conversation slice my brain into clarity. Like I told Jenny how much I respect Courtney Love for stripping and then making a huge name for herself in Rock and Roll. I’m not sure if I told her or Laura that I was planning to strip. I remember being really chummy with my manager Georgina at the table and getting the waitress to bring her Long Island Iced Teas.

I was making sure that she didn’t suspect that I was going to leave my job with her and Tom and start stripping. If I wasn’t so anxious about this plan, I wouldn’t be drinking as much, I reasoned all this and more feeling embarrassed of my actions. Why was having all my co-workers, and boss in the same place so stressful? This was supposed to be my week to try out my new job, and still continue to work at Have-a-Java during the day. What if Taylor tells someone? I contemplate calling Taylor that very second and then I realize I don’t have his number. 
 Curling on my side like a shrimp my eyes focus on the shopping bags at the foot of my bed. My badly attacked fingernails reach out to the bags for my goodies. Using them as a distraction from my horrid memories, I look down at the lingerie we bought. Everything appears so dangerously beautiful to me. I hold the shiny ruby red g-string as if it were a gun, turning it around in my hands looking at the way it reflects the light in my bedroom. As I feel the slip I remember the acting exercises we used to do in Drama. We learned to use props to form a character. Costumes can give you so much to actualize a real, believable, rocking character. I start feeling resentful. All those classes, auditions and plays for what? Maybe those techniques will be useful to me now as a stripper, I hopefully pray. Carefully cutting off the tag, I take off my mud splattered bells and put the g-string on. Ewww!, I reel back in disgust, as my pubic hair sticks out from the sides. Am I going to shave this craziness, or get waxed? The idea of waxing scares me as I know it involves someone dumping hot wax on your crotch and then quickly ripping it off before you can scream. I don’t even know how long that lasts too. I turn around in front of the mirror and see how insanely large my bum looks wearing a g-string. It feels like I have a wedgie stuck up there. Now I know why I have always stuck to wearing “Bubbie underwear” all these years. These do not feel comfortable at all. Good thing I can take them off on my third song on stage, I think in relief.

If I owned a stereo that had a CD player in it I could put on my new CD’s, I reflect, but instead I only have a crummy tape player. Plucking a Nirvana Live in Bancock bootleg tape out from my shoebox I press play. Hearing it start on the song Polly, I stop and flip it over, making a mental not to share that joke with Hilary later, as that’s the song some kids played when raping a girl in a trailer park somewhere in the states.

Dun Dun Da-Dun, “Hey Wait! I’ve got a new complaint!” Kurt’s swollen vocal chords move me to dance in front of my mirror. My nausea and head-achey feeling is immediately overshadowed by my motivation to watch myself naked in front of the mirror. My arms become goose-pimpley from knowing I will soon be doing this on a stage in front of strange men for lots of cash. I will make a lot of cash, I promise myself. My lips need coating of what I’d call: Lustful Disguise: the perfect rock n roll red, and swing over to my white wicker make-up table to put some on. I need to feel like Courtney Love or Debbie Harry. My slept-in mascara smudges brilliantly, giving me that effortless smokey-eye affect, I admire my eyes, and my gaze goes downwards towards my lips. A little pot of silver glitter amongst the make-up collection sticks out and I dip my finger in it to apply it to my bottom lip to give it a disco-ball shine.

Tossing my head back and forth like I saw the girls do on stage, I get myself hyped up. Trying to imitate the way the other strippers had moved on stage feels phony to me, so I allow the song to move me in ways I’d never explored before. Lip-synching Kurt’s words I’m filled with newfound strength, I only wish I had a guitar strapped around my neck and a mic in front of me. Getting excited I start to find other songs I could practice to. Just then my phone startles me with its ringing. Breathlessly, I manage to say hello as it falls from my hands. It feels like I’m caught stealing cookies from the pantry. I hear Bubby Esther’s voice and for some reason I become angry.
 “Bubby! I … how are you?” I ask hoping that this call will be quick. 
 “Annie, I miss you, what are you doing? Did you eat lunch?” Her questions normally wouldn’t agitate me this way, but at this second I wished I didn’t have her on my phone. Pushing aside my feelings I try to sound alright.
 “Bubby, I miss you too, I was just putting make-up over my bad skin, it’s still not that good.” 
 “Oy, Mamalah, did you call that doctor’s number, let me give it to you again – Doctor…uh…uh…Sher-something-Stein … hold the line, I’ll go find it.” The loud echo of her receiver thudding against her kitchen counter rings in my ears. I can almost see her food-encrusted receiver as she always talks and eats. Picking it up again she spits out his name, “Doctor Sherman, he’s good. He’s very good…a specialist who for sure will help your face.” She’s more enthusiastic as I hear it in her sing-song voice. Thinking quickly, I know the only way to get her off the phone would be to tell her I had just sat down for something to eat, or that I’m starving and have to prepare something to eat. Wanting to get back to my planning, I rush all my words,
 “Okay bubby please give me the number tomorrow. I’m going to toast a bagel. I’m so hungry, I feel like I’m going to pass out and should have something to eat before I go back to work. I love you and I promise to come visit soon!” I finish up hoping that I don’t sound too cold

“Okay, Mamalah, go eat, go eat, but when you come I’m going to make the most delicious barley soup for you, and it’s very good for the complexion.” She makes the soup sound magical in only the way she can.
 “Thank you Bubby – I love you, bye!”
 “Okay Annie, love you!” Hanging up I push away my guilt and dial Elaine’s number hoping that her answering machine picks up so I can just leave her a message. I feel like cheering when it does. 
 “Hey hon, I want to apologize on behalf of Hilary yesterday – you know how she can act weird sometimes because of stuff, and there’s something that we’re planning that I do want to talk to you about but maybe I’ll get a hold of you later on cause I’m heading out to work – bye!” I also want to call Hilary and tell her about my getting a little too drunk and possibly blabbing to the others about our plans, but I just can’t right now. When I could tell her is the question. Completely loosing my dancing-fantasy mood I clean up and sort out my back pack for dancing. Putting that new world away in the corner of my closet, I begrudgingly get my black polo shirt and cords on for work. 
 The entire subway ride downtown I sweat and itch at my skin as I’ve already convinced myself that my secret got out. Playing the scenario in my head I see the news spreading like coffee beans spilling from the bag when it tears. I see Laura whispering to Sandra who laughs, “Oh my God! Annie is going to start stripping? For real…that’s so crazy.” And of course, Tom and Georgina will know all about it. I imagined their disapproving and disappointed glances directed towards me. Would I say that I was drunk, and simply talking out of my ass, or would I cover up with pointing out the incredulousness, “How could you even conceive that I would do that, totally ridiculous. Really, isn’t it obvious by my lack of fake boobs?” I’d laugh too. 
 Okay, just go in there and hold it together, I think. I see Tom pouring Toranni syrup in soda water. I cheerily greet him. 
 “Hey Tom, are any of those Eye-talian sodies for me?” I pronounce Italian the way he does hoping that he’d laugh. He gives me a weary attempt at a chuckle, making it hard for me to guess if he knows. 
 “Sh-shure, you may need a drink after last night.” Jenny says laughing. Kevin looks up at me from the bean bar.
 “Annie, I didn’t know if you were going to make it after that last one.” Both of them are shaking their heads. I feel myself blushing.
 “Yeah, talk about ringing in the holiday season with a bit too much cheer, I try to joke.
 “Well, we all had fun, and I also woke up with a killer hangover,” Kevin pats my back.
 “Y-y-you get ho-home okay?” Tom asks me refilling up the espresso machine.
 “Sure she got home okay…”Jenny says winking at me and exchanging looks with Kevin.
 Maybe they don’t know. Maybe they just think I was drinking a little bit more than them, and that’s the worst of it. Heading into the back room I bump into Taylor.
 “Hey T! I hope that you’re not…” He interrupts me and puts his hand on my shoulder. I continue talking feeling embarrassed from his gesture.
 “I’m sorry about,” I try to think about the right way to explain my behavior last night and get cut off.
 “Trust me I have a hangover the size of this fridge, and I just want you to know I don’t care if you’re going to strip, or whatever. I can’t stop you but at least do it with a friend.” He uses the same tone of an older brother making me feel somewhat looked after. 
 “I’m guilty of drinking a lot last night, but please, please don’t say anything to the others about me trying stripping.” I wait for his expression to change, and when he smiles I feel better. His smile is genuine and Taylor is a good guy, and I don’t doubt that he’ll keep our talk private. 
 “Okie-Dokie,” he jokes breathing out heavily while tying his apron on, “I still think the dancing thing is totally unbelievable but if it’s worth anything I know you’re going to go through it no matter what I or anyone else tells you, and be smart about it.” I hear what he’s saying but have to respond with another explanation.
 “It’s just to see what it’s about. That’s all. We’re cool right?”
 “Yeah.” His smile makes my stomach flutter, and again I wonder if I do have a crush on him.
 “On a side note, my friends thought you were hilarious,” he says and I roll my eyes and give him a goofy grin. If there’s one thing I truly enjoy it’s how much a group of strangers appreciate my drunk humor. 
 “Right on,” I consider telling him how hot he looks without his shirt on, but am interrupted by the door opening and being accosted by Tom’s ugly head. He brusquely directs us, “L-l-lu-look, I’m g-g-gonna get stock from the storage room and when I get back I n-n-need you to focus on cu-customers, okay?” Taylor nods a “sure thing Tom,” as I too agree and silently fume about again being told what to do. Tom chooses to work the evening shift when he could just as easily go home and not be missed. I can’t be the only one who thinks we get more done without him slowing us down. 
 Taylor and I start working behind the counter. Every time our sides touch or bump slightly I look at him and smile. The chat we had made me feel better, so I start joking around with Kevin and Jenny.
 After a few customers had cleared out and we’re back to replenishing stock, I approach Kevin and ask him what I was really like at the party. 
 “An animal. Total animal.” He tells me in his best Schwarzenegger accent. Slight panic comes back and I want to grill him like cops do in detective shows, but Jenny’s ears perk up and she slides between us to make me feel better, “Hey, she wasn’t that bad. You were just loud, and then you said the waiter was hot, but he really wasn’t at all. You didn’t do anything that isn’t already what we’re used to.”
 “Did you think I said anything else that tripped you out?” I ask while casually fixing some paper bags under the register.
 “You just had fun, and I was glad you didn’t go home alone after cause Taylor offered…you know we always got your back.” She tilts her head. For some strange reason I toy with the idea to reveal my plan with her later today and just as quickly as the thought pops into my head, I push it away knowing that if I tell anyone at work, not only would everyone be talking about it, but what if I didn’t want to leave Have-a-Java cause I don’t like my new job? 
 “That hot waiter wasn’t half as hot as Kevin,” I say covering up my relief with a joke. 
 “Shucks, lil old me?” he fakes a bashful look and grabs the J-cloth throwing it in the air playing hackey-sack with it.
 “Tom and Georgina didn’t care that we were a little wild eh?” I ask Jenny while I slip a rice krispie square in a bag for later.
 “I don’t think they care, they’re leaving after tomorrow for their vacation, and guess who they put in charge as manager? Ground control to Major Taylor” We all look over at Taylor, whose the only one out of us that bothers to wipe the seats down. 
 “Hey that’s right, so T, now that you’re the temp manager, will you gimmie a raise?” Kevin puts out his hand. Now here’s a perk – no Tom and Georgina for a few weeks. There must be a God, I think. 
 “Annie the ph-phone’s for you.” Tom says shooting me a glare. I watch him leave with his milk crate in hand to go out to the storage room. 
 “Sorry Tom,” I half-heartedly apologize. “Hello?”
 “Annie? It’s me, Carrie – can you talk?” she asks anxiously. By the sound of her voce I guessed that she’d already heard from Michelle that Mark showed me around the club. 
 “Can’t really talk now, but I think I’m going to start at Charlie T’s tonight” I tell her in a whisper looking over at the gang busily doing their jobs. We exchange some more words and I hang up the phone feeling excited and ready to never think about cleaning up the bean bar again.
As soon as I unlock the front door I hear my parents arguing. Their voices carry from their bedroom all the way to the front hall, busting through my mothers theory that everyone would get their privacy in this new place, as no door was thick enough to soundproof their yelling. It sounds like they were mid to near finishing this fight by the way their words sped up. I decide to not head upstairs into the noise, but stay safely inside the kitchen where I plan to grab some juice. Just then I hear my fathers feet heavily pounding down the stairs. Each time he steps down I think the step will crack under his weight. He calls back to my mother,
 “Just shut up willya? You live in a fantasy world.” He’s heading to the kitchen which only has one entrance and a balcony on the other side leaving me without an alternate way out. I feel trapped when I see him blurt out,

“Your mother doesn’t understand shit. We can’t afford to live this way. She expects money to fall off the fucking trees, so we’re bound to lose this house.” Feeling anxious I take in his stature. From his beet red face to his ugly army-green overalls and Teva sandals he wore as slippers I can’t help but see him as a grown figure of a cartoon Ogre. Whenever he gets into fits of rage or arguing with my mother, he starts talking to me as if we were comrades, which the truth is I can’t tolerate being in the same room with him raging mad or not. Forcefully pulling open the fridge I watch him grab the big container of orange juice shaking it furiously to let out his anger. As the juice fills his special frozen glass he always keeps in the freezer, he spits out,
 “You want some advice? Marry rich.” He swigs back the juice. I try to hide as there is nothing that is more disturbing and unpredictable than my father in a bad mood. 
 “Move!” he shouts at me. Why I stop at that exact place in the room, I don’t know and just scramble to get out of his way like a fly but I’m too late and he swings his arm towards me like an ape, pushing my body away from him so he can get through. Some people say they just don’t know what their force is capable of when they’re driven by rage, but he definitely does and just doesn’t care who’s in his path when he gets on a rampage. Rubbing my right side to prevent a bruise, I push all my feelings of hurt, fear and anger to the back of my stomach, as now I really don’t have a choice. I need to start dancing to get out of this hell house. He swipes again at my head and I run up the stairs. Whenever I tell my mom to leave my dad, she talks the same old story about not being financially able to. The real deal is obvious, she’ll stay with him as long as she gets to live in the house she wants. Our stupid furniture-less house. I call Mark’s number.
 You’ve reached Mark’s pager. Key in your number and press the pound sign. I keyed in my number thinking how I only knew one other person with a paper and that was Carrie’s ex-boyfriend who sold weed to club kids. Pulling the backpack with the shoes, license and costumes out of my closet I decided that I’d wear my hair up, maybe after curling it with my mom’s rollers. My phone rang and I jumped for it.

“Hello Mark?” I anxiously asked. 
 “Hello?” Instead of Mark it was Hilary. I didn’t expect to hear from her, but I feel relieved in a way that she’s calling me. 
 “Hilary, hey, are you at home?”
 “No, I’m still downtown at Kendal’s – who’s Mark?” 
 “Remember I told you about him? Michelle’s brother who showed me around the club and is a driver? I think I’m ready to go in tonight, but …I’ll wait for you if you want to come to Charlie T’s with me tomorrow evening.” As much as I’m pissed that she’s over at Kendal’s, I still want her to come work with me the first night. I hear her breathe slowly and then clear her throat.
 “Hilary…what’s going on?” I ask in a panic.
 “I’m really super high. I’m so high it’s insane.” Great, fucking great, I think. Without trying to act as if I’m not angry about feeling abandoned by her, I still can’t help but hate that she did heroin again. 
 “Thanks a lot Hilary. Thanks for leaving me to do this on my own. What were you thinking?” I hope that she feels guilty, straightens her shit out and comes back up here from the city.
 “What?” She is spacing out.
 I understand how easily she can be overtaken by her newfound obsession to try and keep trying heroin, but didn’t anticipate that she’d be staying with Kendal all the time and doing it when we had plans. I didn’t anticipate that this new drug obsession would carry over so long. 
 “I will work with you, sure I’ll go to that club with you – but not now. Not while I’m in the city with Kendal. How about we do it next week?” She says this in a voice that is totally not hers. Maybe I’ll just settle for that, as it’s easier than once again telling her how hurt I feel about messing up the big plans. 
 “Yeah, sure, we’ll start next week. Are you going to be in okay condition? I ask her choosing something a television character would say in my situation, rather than discussing my concern for her ‘using’ with Kendal and practically leaving this planet. 
 “I’m totally okay, are you?” she asked sounding like she meant it.
 “I’m…” my eyes locked on a rectangle, green and purple Guatemalan print coin purse I got as a birthday gift from a high school friend. I see it lying beside my shoe-box of tapes. Plucking it up I unzip and zip it up again, back and forth, finding comfort in the motion. 
 “I’m going to call Mark to arrange for him to drive me, and then you can come with me the next time I go okay?” I get cut off hearing my call waiting beep knowing it’s Mark. “But Hilary, you need to be at your house, not downtown cool?” I tell her trying to quickly finish up to get to the other line. 
 “Hello Annie? It’s Mark.” I could hear his voice coming through a phone from a busy street. 
 “Mark, are you driving girls tonight?” I ask him hoping that he would take me home after my first shift. 
 “Yeah – are you ready to go in?” he asks me. I don’t know if I want him to take me there. Really, I’d just need a drive home after. 
 “Yeah, but I’m going to just need you to take me home when my time is done, I’m going in on my own, now without my other friend who also wants to do it.” Hoping that he’d be okay with that, I pause.
 “Okay, yeah, I’ll take you home tonight at 2:30am. It’s fifteen normally, but ten for your first big night. Don’t forget your license and to check in with the DJ. I’ll tell Danny you are coming in tonight to freelance.” Mark’s voice came through calm and clear helping me to take in these details easily. It was a refreshing change from all the chaos around me. 
 “Yeah cool. Thanks – see you later, bye.” I hang up knowing that I had to try to make money this way. I was focused on my eyes shadow and blush to put in a makeup bag for tonight. There was something pushing me on, filling me with a defiant confidence. Repeating to myself, that I don’t really need Hilary by my side to try freelancing one night shift, I got ready. 
 Even though, I repeat this thought, another message came clear to me; take someone else along. Taylor’s words of bringing a friend prompted me to call up Elaine. So after calling her and getting her to bring me a Mickey of Smirnoff when she meets me at Finch Station to grab the bus, I was really set. Moving back to my closet I reach into the pocket of my winter coat and take out the rhinestone purple daisy ring she gave back to me. Slipping it on my finger I feel like a female version of Hercules. Hey Ho, lets go.

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