Mei flips his thumb to show his latest prize to Lon, Joel, and even me: girls of every shade leaning toward a camera, the good parts working hard to pop off the three-by-five cardstock they’ve been assigned. This particular three-by-five—called the Rainbow Dragon—squeezes six girls in the frame at once and is what Mei pimps today. It’s the bitch of having doubles of a Card that saturates the market, a collector’s burden, and I’m well aware of the hustle when I see it. Mom thinks it's smut that keeps us going. On KRON 4 News they say, "Just one more crazy, degenerative thing out of San Francisco: Vintage Porn Star Cards. Players’ Porn Cards, they’re called, found in a box of condoms near you. Like Garbage Pail Kids of the ‘80s and meant to mimic baseball cards, they’ve moved debauchery from skin magazines right into our kids’ lockers." But neither my mom nor the KRON 4 News speaks for me. Screw Angry Birds; Halo. Baseball cards are for weaklings.
When I've got the latest—thanks to Tommy Morris in 2A who buys three boxes of Mother Load Condoms at a time—I rush to my room—well, the one I share with my sister, Tamala—and tear off the aluminum wrap, so gently, to preserve the mint cardstock waiting inside. "Look—it’s black girls, it’s white girls. Freakin’ Asian girls,” Mei is saying, standing back from the picnic table where all our trades go down. He’s shifting his feet as if he’d actually leave. “See the redhead. Do you see the redhead? C’mon! You know every guy wants a Rainbow Dragon."
Won Hei Park’s about one-third tables, perfect for trades, plus a few lonesome benches and a gazebo for the seniors in the neighborhood. It’s all playground after that, where I met these boys somewhere between kindergarten and now, seventh grade.
Joel tries to grab at Mei’s stack. "Man, whatcha have that's new?" He's been duped by Mei too many times, even sold doubles and triples, including the cards in the 2000s. Collecting the 2000s is like collecting things from now and we can get what’s out there now anytime, downloaded, pasted, and all do-it-yourself. It’s about the polish of vintage, baby. Anyway, the Rainbow Dragon isn’t so rare that we have to stoop to buy it from Mei.
Or at least not for what he’s asking.
"How much?" Lon—that fool—asks. He’s the tallest amongst us, the skinniest, and he knees the table so often we know to grip our cards if they’re on display. He’s the one the girls are friends with but not friendly with (not like Mei). Lon’s been building his collection slowly, with preferences none of us can sort out. And he never stops looking at his cards. Not while at the table, not in pre-Algebra, not even in the bathroom. Don’t even ask how I know this.
"Dude, you didn't want it last week," I interrupt, sighing, wedged in the constant cycle of amateur collectors at Won Hei.
Players’ Porn Cards are to be treated better than this, than what my boys do. I'm the real collector, an appreciator of the fine art of The Industry, of what these girls—and guys—have done for mankind. I know their stats, birthdays, favorite meals, hometowns because I know them as people, like Lon, Mei, and Joel. Even Helen, the girl who keeps staring at me in English class.
Sure, the Cards are mostly naked people, but I'm coming to appreciate the honesty. You see, I know Trisha Tender as well as the big names, like Shannon Tweed and Jenna Jameson. I’m no snob about hair color or film cred or shaved bush or whatever it is my boys snipe on about. I’m telling you I know them. I know the ones that are retired and the ones that lost the cash. They work managerial positions in L.A. department stores, I imagine, I hope. A dude named Reuben Sturman from a place called Cleveland started it all, the whole real porn trade en masse (bet-ya didn’t know), paving the way for videos then DVDs, and now the chat and amateur mess that clogs the Web. I know this because I research everything I can on the industry like some people dig up their family history or hunt at two A.M. for their missing dad or girlfriend online.
From the back of each Card, I know that in 1992 or 1989 people’s biggest wish was most often for a farm or for a three-way and their favorite position was always from behind. While I know what that means, I haven’t been there—hey-yo, I’m 13, all right?—but that’s not what the Cards are about. There are also these trends, if you look at the cards by years. Like: In the 1970s the words were coarse and raw and horny and hungry, like they were just starting vocabulary, like cave folks coming out and pounding their chests—or other parts. But in the 1980s, the words were sweeter and pretending—like supple, amorous—as if they’re being whispered in a room meant only for innocent Peeping Toms. The only difference in the 90s? Everybody’s the same as before, just more restless and the pictures get all glossy instead of hued like an old-time photo. And what girls say most often on the back of the Cards, no matter what decade, is that they like men that care.
"Dude, fuck your Rainbow Dragon." Joel says this as the Card passes from Mei's hands to Lon's, cash exchanged. He says it with that spit of jealousy we all have when Mei makes a sale. It may be related to the fact that Mei's girlfriend spends a lot of afternoons at his house after the trades. But I called him out. Once we were at Mei's house, since he was claiming he’d gotten the whole hologram set and Myra’s virginity all in one day. Joel and Lon congratulated him—mostly, on Myra—with high fives and blushes into their fists, and non-stop recitations of “Aw, boy; aw, boy.” I told Mei to show me the hologram set. Still hasn't come up with them. I’ve only gotten one hologram, the best: Shannon Tweed, 1991. I haven't shown the boys yet and the power’s a trip.
Mei laughs, pushing Lon’s cash into his back pocket. "Gonna love, love, love ‘em." He wiggles his tongue.
I slap Lon and Joel on their arms, trying not to look at Mei. "Can we go?"
Mei holds up his hands. "No reason to leave the playground, kids. I'm heading off to meet Myra. You fools stick."
A thick wad of Cards in the back of his left pocket (idiot!) and cash in the back of his right pocket heaves as Mei jogs away, zigzagging past kids headed to the playground behind us. Lon sits cross-legged on our thick green picnic table, sifting through his whole collection, a breeze floating his bangs.
Joel stands up behind him. "Dude, we didn’t touch them." But Lon isn't listening. Joel ogles the slow-mo pace of Lon's cards counted below him. We try to hide the Cards when we’re in public, especially since Joel's mom threw his out. She tossed them in the trash along with freshly chewed Dentyne Sugar-Free she takes for her diabetes--meaning Joel had to dig through a chewing gum-stuck trash bag. His Cards are nothing but half wet and bent bodies now, some parts peeled off, and you can't really read the back. He doesn't like to talk about it and I can’t even look at Joel’s mom when she holds up at the bus stop across the street, no matter how many times she waves and calls,“Hell-o! HELL-oh!”
I feel change jingle in my pocket. Yeah, I was going to offer something for the Rainbow Dragon, figuring it’d depreciate by today. But Lon scooped me. I’m a collector, for real, so I shake it off, never let it show. Lon has that folded-in lip thing that means he won't be talking for a long while. One of Lon’s cards slips away to stick to his heel so Joel swipes it ‘cause you gotta build the collection any way you can.
I come out the way I came in, under the huge arch of the little park, more kids climbing the monkey bars than when I arrived. I walk through Ping Yuen gate on Washington to the alley behind the fish and vegetable shop that our landlord owns. The stairs are nothing but one deep, non-delineated shadow. The landlord never got around to putting a light in there. After thirteen years of living here, I don't need to feel around or even count steps. My body knows where to go.
"Hey-yo," I call when I step into the apartment, knowing like always I’m only talking to myself. Tamala’s after school again, doing extra homework because she confuses it with fun. Mom’s at job one of two. During the week, in the mornings, Mom works at Everything Right’s Market and then does double shifts at the medical center on weekends. I pass the TV and tap at its hood, but there’s nothing I’m into. The Internet’s only available at the library.
“Why pay for that?" my mother always says, before going on and on about every cent of every bill.
My father's been dead now or living in the South Bay with some other family for ten years, but nobody talks about that. I can’t decide which is worse. By now, I don't even care. This is my only hour in our room without Tamala and I’ve got to take the shot to review my sets without the critics.
I grab the pillows from our mattresses that rest on opposite walls. I pile the pillows against the door to provide a time delay if Tamala tries to enter. I kneel on the carpet, reaching behind the head of my mattress, poking at the thin space between it and the wall. I pull out the portfolio—a binder with eleven sheets of nine slots; the 99, I call it—and lay my hand on the first plastic sleeve. Unlike my boys who throw their Cards in drawers or boxes, I make sure all the Cards are set up by year: one card to a slot so I can read the back anytime, starting with 1985 and stopping at 1999, with only four slots left. And I'm telling you, the quality. They were the kings and queens then. The ‘80s and '90s names make you want to hold them in the nook of your elbow, let them watch a little TV with you, get to know them better. They’re innocent like I remember first grade, maybe even fifth, but definitely before now. I look at Lisa Love, hair sprayed in huge hoops of curls and head bowed, eyes playing with you, a large V running down her body. See what I mean? Lisa Love. Love. We’ve just got no class now. There are the occasional Bones Hard and Fellatio Felicia but most of the names on the old cards just sound real. Like your neighbor. Like some girl or guy in class. Rebecca Stones. Harry Wallace. Mom thinks instead of all the hours on the cards that I should have paid more attention in English or science or any class.
Pillows come tumbling down.
"Hey-yo," Tamala cries, tossing a pillow back to her mattress and leaning over to flick the bridge of my glasses.
The shop’s called The Magazine; its subtitle “Old Magazines and Ephemera.” Every week, I check old editions of Playboy, etc. against my Cards. Authenticate. Stamp and coin collectors have their things; baseball fans have encyclopedias and almanacs. But the Industry, the porn people, has nothing, so one day I’m creating “Pornopedia!” They’ll be Cards, industry maps, history of the filmmakers, Behind the Porn. Stuff like that. Barthelme, the cousin of the owner, is the only one who lets me in. He wears a trench coat every day, even inside. He’s bald and partially toothless so it makes me laugh when he smiles. His cousin always shoos me back onto Larkin, with its pissing homeless men, hustling and barelegged prostitutes, and twice used hypodermic needles. Today, I see the trench coat and tap the pane.
“Hey, buddy!” Barthelme calls, clapping and rounding the counter, heading to the door. I cower in the entryway and peek down Larkin.
“He’s in Bermuda or some other bullshit for why I gotta work all day and night,” he mumbles. “Get in here.” Barthelme waves me in, checking the street for KRON 4 News stalkers. There was a lock-up of the CVS guy who sold condoms to middle schoolers for the Cards and it’s been all the rage on ABC, NBC, KRON, Fox, WB, KOFY, and even the local Spanish, Vietnamese, and Chinese broadcasts. The Magazine is a collector’s paradise! 10x13, the shop’s piled to the ceiling with used editions of every fashion, pin-up, music, movie mag out there. “Cheap smut” as Mom might say. There’s this tint to the shop like the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s aren’t really yellowed or dusty but glisten in the sun. And the 2000s barely make an appearance here, thank you very much. Tried to show the place to Joel but he nagged, “Just Glamour Shots of glory shots, yo,” and wouldn’t read anything I showed him. Though he looked at the pictures longer than anyone I know . . .
A couple guys hustle in and hustle out real fast, checking the rising hardwood shelves, labeled with signs like “Swingers” or “Girl on Girl.” One of them stands over me. He points from me to Bart, Bart to me to a sign that says “Fetish.”
“It’s school research, motherfucker!” Barthelme slams the counter until the guy puts down his edition of Cheerleaders and treads straight out.
A lot of the other men who frequent the shop —older, gray, hunched, sometimes smelling of things I try to ignore—try to sneak past me. They pretend not to see me, as if I’m not a version of the boy they think they’ve grown past. Like I’m worth less of their time than vintage Hustler and I guess I can’t argue. Soon it’s only Barthelme, some other dude in a—I swear—ironed tweed jacket with patches and all, and me. We’re each taking our time through different stacks. Even with the three of us completely still, it gets mad hot fast. Barthelme removes his trench, revealing an aqua polyester top with a collar that reaches his chin.
“Hey kid,” tweed jacket says, clutching the end of the shelves we both man. He’s standing between boxes of used Juggs and Hustler. “What are you looking for?”
“He’s into those cards, John,” Barthelme hisses, leaning over the counter revealing more hair on his chest than the eyes of John or I can absorb.
Ironed tweed jacket John laughs to himself. “I toss ‘em. Nothing like the real thing, man.”
“You using that many condoms?” Barthelme snaps. John huffs in his jacket, which rises with his shoulders but you can see he’s pissed.
“Probably more than this little fucker, right?” His laugh reverberates on the shelves and I adjust the box I’m digging into: International Swingers Unite. All ads, more amateurs, something I was hoping the past was devoid of. Bart pulled it out to show the error in my rendering of porn history. I’d take out my red pocket pad of Pornopedia ideas and write: “Amateurs always abound.” But that dude John watches me. I read a story in an Adam March ‘82. On the cover is a man hugged by two girls. They’re kissing at his ears while they lie on a wide green and empty field. One girl’s eyes are engorged as she looks down at his package.
“Are you reading?” John moves closer from his end of the shelf to my box, bending his neck under my hands to check out the cover. He moves his arm to box me in. I can feel his breath move from his nose as he turns his head to inspect my activity. I ignore him, flipping through Adam for more details. The story is thin, the identities of the people on the cover—not characters, but people—never shared. They could be anyone and I hate that. I put it aside. I’ll look in a minute, when tweed jacket’s gone; these guys are always gone fast. I reach for the next in the box: Playboy, Christmas 1976. Harry Reems, Marilyn Chambers, and the French soft core queen Sylvia Kristel.
“The foreign stars are the hardest Cards to get,” I say out loud and I don’t know why.
At least I don’t say that I bust through each Mother Load Condom Players’ Porn package, only to find that everybody’s American.
I spot George Gregory. I have his Card. Authenticated!
John lifts the arm that boxed me in and flips through a copy of Adam I’d pulled aside. I can still smell his pit and the cologne he thinks is working. He points at twins. “What about them?” He leans in to whisper as if it isn’t perfectly clear what’s going on. I push at the bridge of my glasses, which are plastic and always sliding when I look at the page and from my sweat when I get excited at finally being able to use my studies.
“Those are the Minnie twins. One became a centerfold, like a year after this. Her sister did two films before buying a dance club somewhere. Maybe Texas. And that’s Lisa Love. There.” I show John. “Do you remember her?” John shakes his head, his mouth and cheek cocked and rising. His eyes narrow like he’s waiting for his memory to come up with an answer or like he wants to see what I can deliver. I bet he’s a Jenna guy. John’s hair, what’s left of it, clings to his cheek. He could have been one of them. Maybe not Harry Reems or George but in his younger years, yeah, I bet John could be on the Cards. I do this now, I wonder who used to be a star but maybe we just don’t know it. Maybe we’ll never really know who’s who, unless they’re on Cards.
“Lisa was in it for years and years. She started the whole aerobic class of guys in the background thing. Um, what else? She retired in ’99?”
John’s ignoring me for another photo of one man, surrounded by girls, girls, girls, showing almost all the girl’s parts and none of the man’s.
I want to get him back to Lisa. I count off with my fingers each thing I know about her. “She’s from Newport News, Virginia. She really likes creativity, imagination, people that are passionate, you know, sense of humor, not all judgmental—”
“Give me the dimensions,” John asks, pausing at a cartoon.
I’m trying not to scream at my palms that keep on sweating, trying to give me away, as Adam trembles in my hand. Did you know the Cards don’t show action, but just the still? It’s the best part. It freezes everything and is kind of beautiful, stopping time while dreams create the rest—the sounds, the breath, the smell of the air, whatever you think should happen or not happen with a girl or guy or leaving it to the person in the picture to decide and you get only this one blink, this one shot. They’ll give you no more of them. John seems like a dude more into the action, all laid out for him, and it’s kind of lazy, like my boys. All 36-24-whatever. But I’m not going to say that and I’m sniffling, sure, so I lift the magazine closer and bow my head.
“Oh, come on!” John says, shoving me and letting Adam fall to the ground. “That shit matters.”
Barthelme pushes a new stack at John and I glance at the top one: Penthouse Letters. John’s a reader, a romantic in these parts.
“Boy has no shame,” John mumbles into his new stack as he heads to the register. “How you get away with no shame, boy?” John calls to me, throwing the door behind him as he leaves. “How? I’d like to know.”
I look at Virginia and Viola Minnie, whose cards I have double of in the back binder pocket, tucked deep and barely visible. Who needs two sets of twins? They don’t count toward the 99. I’ll sell them to Mei one day, to teach him, I think, wiping the wetness from my lens.
It’s Throwaway Day at Won Hei. All the guy Cards are stacked on the picnic table, some spilling onto the bench. Nobody ever wants the guys. Mei has tried pushing them off on Myra but she always shoves them back and squeals, “Hell-no!”
“You’re the collector, man. Come on!” Mei whines, palming my jacket for my wallet.
I jump back as his hand pats close to my nipple and pit. “Man, I’ll give them to you.” Lon and Joel nod in agreement. “Seriously?” I ask. “They’re the same as the other Cards.” It’s art, I want to say. It’s history. They count, you know.
“I only use the cards for one thing,” Lon says, smiling into Mei and Joel’s stare. The guys fall into laughter, scattering more Cards to the bench, to the ground, the tabletop nearly empty. I heave a sigh and reach to save what I can. Myra and her friends, including Helen who never stops looking at me, even outside of English class, are hanging outside the park, on the side with a chain-link fence. A tall man in a tight white shirt, jeans, and a Fedora slows down to walk beside them, his eyes piercing through the fence, and I don’t know if he’s looking at them or looking at us. Helen’s running a finger along the spaces between the wired gate and Myra stops to glare at Mei. The girls, now, they’re all looking at us.
“Take ‘em, buddy,” Mei says, loosening his belt to drop his jeans, moon the girls.
Mom’s working this morning (because the Everything’s Right Market owner likes it when she opens) plus Tamala starts her SATs today.
“Round one,” Tamala says, stuffing papers into her bag. “You have to take it so many times. Just in case.”
I nod. “Oh, yeah. Like verifying the Cards in more than one source so – “
Tamala rolls her eyes.
“I ensure their value,” I call after Tamala as she slams the door.
I’m so relaxed I sit between the two mattresses with my back to the open door. I unfold the portfolio and try to decide which of the new fourteen guy Cards, my boys’ remainders, will get the open spots, gleam behind the plastic. But staring at the slots to make up my mind doesn’t work. And I’m not putting Cards back to front. It’s way better to see through the sheen: their stats, their history, what their eyes say when no one’s at their back. It isn’t fair to the guy Cards but Throwaway Days always muck up my order, pressing the vital collector question: how much is too much? Ninety-nine of the highest value cards, that was my deal, and not just because I don’t want to go down to Walgreen’s and buy a new sheet, faking like they’re for baseball cards. And not just because Mom won’t buy me another binder and asking for one would draw the wrong kind of attention. I don’t want to be a glutton, building some wacky storage facility straight up the walls from the floor of my mattress for all the Cards out there, overflowing like The Magazine, where there’s so much, too much, and men become numbed, and I begin to do it like habit, like I really don’t care, like I’m nothing but a gatherer. I’m not that guy. I want to pick the right ones, the ones that mean something to me. Like the kind of stuff I bet older men cling to because there are so few—unlike the crap flooding my generation, all open 24-7, looking the same, one after the other, and you could choose one here or one found in San Jose (right Dad?) and it really doesn’t matter.
Look, when I’m done with this, maybe I’ll make a whole Pornopedia volume on the Men of Porn, the Boys of Porn, and call it “Men Can Do It, Too.” I’ll make it fair. My plan: Tamala leaves (check), I decide (almost check). Then I’ll invite my boys to see, get that Rainbow Dragon, and sell the doubles. Half-off, fine.
When I flip across my pages to decide who stays, who goes, I notice there’s a bigger issue: somehow, I have more guy than girl Cards. . . which barely seems possible. If I can just pull it together, come up with some criteria or something, I can officially move from the title of fan and amateur—like my boys—to connoisseur, collector, capital M, Man.
So, I spread each page across the floor and pull out every guy Card I already own, lying them atop the plastic sheaves they once rested inside. I’ve never looked at them all at once. Sure, I’ve seen Lon’s and Mei’s and Joel’s—what’s left of Joel’s—but I’ve never just laid out mine. George Gregory nearly stretches off his 1985 Card, right after Lisa’s spot that opens the bunch. I turn it over:
Birthday: November 3rd
Hometown: Mobile, Alabama.
Likes peach ice cream, cycling, rubdowns, the Jets.
I was born in November, too. So, I decide to give the other guys, always in the shadow of our attention to the girls, their due. Something Lon, Mei, and Joel can’t handle. They won’t even turn the guys’ Cards over, not even to learn. I read on, grazing my hand over each image before flipping the men over. I find that Keith Rollins, Capricorn, prefers breasts over thighs. Danny Wu, 5’9”, was a dancer all his life, swinger, hip-hop lyricist in L.A. Mark Kennedy, 1992. He’s the thinnest but has the largest package. At least from what I can tell. Mark Kennedy is wearing the tightest underwear, white. Even twenty years later, I can see everything. The Cards never hold back.
I decide to take them all off the plastic sheets—Keith, Mark, Danny, George, five guys named John, Maurice, ten guys named Bobby, Lucas, Michael, David, Dave, Davey, Tommy, Charlie, Henry, Spike, Chris, Joey, Wade, Freddie, Jay, Jim, Tony, Benji, Derrick, Lewis, Danny, one called Dwayne, Jerome, and eleven others whose names I don’t always remember but whose stats I know by heart, and I’ve carefully chosen them to be there. I leave the sheets and the portfolio, pages half full, girls in waiting, alone, on the carpet. I lay the Cards I’d removed in staggering rows, like a stairwell, across the end of my mattress, toward my pillows. I stand above them and move my belt out of each loop, careful and slow. When I do this, my jeans fall a few inches until I push them off. I leave my T-shirt on and scan the remaining space on the mattress. I think about arching my back—why not, it’ll help. I grab Tamala’s pillow and square it beneath my hip as I lay on the mattress. My pants are thrown to the door, like I’ve thought about doing a hundred times. And I do more of what I thought about, looking at the stairwell of Cards, of Tony and Jim and all those Johns. I do it and do it and do it, tugging hard sometimes and sometimes soft, until I have nothing left, until Tamala’s pillow loses its filling.
Lisa Love pokes out beside me at some point—how’d she get there?—and I turn her over. “I’m sorry, honey.” She was the only girl there from the plastic sheets. But it doesn’t feel like sorry. It feels good, really good. It feels true and right, and most of all free, like they called “Come on down!” to me on The Price is Right, that show I used to watch with Mom when I was sick from school and she’d stayed home. They’re calling for me; come get it, come get it. You’re up. And I’m giving it to them and everything has conspired to give me this. My clothes are gone, even my T-shirt now, and I don’t know where my underwear went. But the men are still there, looking at me. I smile as I’ve never smiled before and the sock I used is settled at my thighs, spread wide, some men between them.
Sunlight from the hall window reflects on my stairwell, my sea, of Cards and into my thighs. It shifts with a cloud hovering into the shape of my Mom at the open bedroom door. I don’t know for how long because I can’t stop blinking at the silhouette. I can’t figure out if it’s a shadow or my imagination or my memory. The cloud pirouettes with a turn of the hour and the change of the sunlight in the hall, and the men and I lie, alone.
On Monday, Mom’s one morning off, she’s not there. Not like she usually is. The only time I saw her this weekend was sleeping, her head into the couch cushion. A bowl of rice is left for me on the card table, with no note, no mother, no Tamala. I twitch my way through classes and halls, every touch of a passerby causing me to leap until finally, I take a route that sticks close to the lockers and the cold aged white brick of Francisco Middle. I make it to biology, the last class of the day, my stomach jumping.
That girl Helen still watches me—I think she just changed to my biology section—and I watch the door and the clock, hoping it’ll wind backwards.
“Can I see you after class?” Mrs. DeMarco asks.
After class, when she asks what’s wrong, I say the classic. Something I’ve heard my boys say whenever a mom or a girl asks the wrong question. “Nothing.”
At the park, the boys are joking and I am quiet. They leave too soon for me after I’ve watched them cheat each other and I’ve watched cards exchange predictable hands and boys behave in predictable ways: Chump exchanges by Lon, too caught up in Mei and the girl Cards to notice; Joel, seething to take what Mei has; Me, pretending I’m above it all; and Mei pretending he does it for the Cards and not my boys’ attention, not to pretend he’s king, “the center of the circle jerk” he likes to say and I’m starting to get it.
None of us are original. We’re not like the Cards, we’re not all our own: I have no idea what anyone’s favorite color is here. Or even my own. But it’s no crime, right? We just don’t know yet . . . Right?
I forgot my Cards today. I was going to try to get that Rainbow Dragon, maybe trade some guys for it with those extra Minnie twins. I didn’t want them to think I didn’t want the Rainbow Dragon, that I wasn’t interested, because a collector is always, always interested. I’ve just been waiting for the right moment. But my boys leave and I sit until the lights come on in the park. I watch the last children scooped out of the playground and the last old man fall asleep on a bench. I head out under the arch.
“Hey, wait up!”
It’s Helen, who lives across the park, and she moves in to walk beside me.
“Is this your usual route home?”
“It looks like you’re taking the long way.” She stumbles over a wedge of sidewalk on Jackson that I long ago learned to avoid.
We walk together in quiet. I don’t know where I’m going but it isn’t home.
“Do you think we can hang out sometime?”
I’d call this hanging out and hunt down Pacific Street for another detour. I can feel Helen staring at me, her eyes locked and searching mine and I want to tell her to be careful not to trip again.
“Maybe you can show me your collection. I’m starting one, you know? Would you look at what I have so far?”
She’s having a hard time keeping up and we’re at the landlord’s fish and vegetable shop, out of lies, out of detours.
“Maybe, maybe,” I say and it is one of the only times I’ve really said anything since Saturday, besides telling Mrs. DeMarco that it’s “nothing.” Because “Nothing” and “maybe”
are all I’ve got.
Helen smiles, kisses my cheek, and runs up the street.
Tamala isn’t home yet and it’s dark enough that I should turn on a light. I flip on the lamp in the living room, beside the couch Mom always crashes on, but I can’t bring myself to turn on anything else. Something in me doesn’t want to look around, doesn’t want to be there, alone or otherwise.
My portfolio is on my mattress, out of hiding. I’d stuck it, after everything on Saturday, after sleeping with it two nights in a row, between the stacks of my clothes, folded and pillared next to the bedroom door. I pace toward the mattress, the room darkening as the day’s light sprints away from our building. But I’m not turning on a lamp here. I wait until my eyes can stop confusing me. I open the hard binding and know the answer as the first pages spread.
I flip, page by page, pulling and unsticking those that have come together, exposed to the air outside of the wall and the mattress and my old T-shirts where I thought they’d be safe. My fingers tremble against nothing but hollow and cheap plastic sheets in a beat-up binder that never was a real portfolio. Just rings and a cracked spine. I have to see that now and I don’t want to—I won’t. I won’t.
I throw it to the opposite wall, towards Tamala’s mattress. Her pillow is missing as well. There were 99 of them, women and men with lives, and the ten extra fellows I promised to house. Lives. They had a history and a future they didn’t know yet. I saw it in their eyes. They looked like me. Like me. Like you, Mom—just the same. They worked for a living. I kick my mattress. From the shaken sheet emerges the top corner of Lisa Love. She must have been missed or hidden there on her own. I wish I could say I saved her.
I run to the kitchen. The trashcan is gone so I open every cupboard. Nothing but a stack of cheap white plates and the blank faces of mugs. I lift the kettle, my mother’s favorite, from the counter—nothing—and I throw it in the sink and follow it with all the tea leaves Mom stacks. Black tea and Ginger and Ginseng and Orange Spice and they’re all down the drain now and the kitchen smells like the tea peddlers and tourists on Grant.
I race back to our bedroom, flipping Tamala’s mattress until it shatters a lamp and I’m on my knees, searching between the busted pieces of lamp and bulb. I don’t feel the Cards where her mattress used to be and a piece of bulb bites my hand. Should have turned on a goddamn light. I dig into our stacks of folded clothes on either side of the door and, when I’m done, Tamala’s perfect shirts and mine, my pants, and her skirts, they’re all strewn in an ugly huddle above a mattress and a broken lamp. I’ve less in me—I can tell parts of me think they’re gone now and parts of me refuse that bull. I march to snatch the cushions from the couch where Mom often sleeps and I kick them to block in the apartment door. I stand and pant in the living room, the naked couch and tealess house feeling different, like I didn’t live here.
The TV sits quiet, not surrounded by anything that I can pretend is a Card. The last thing I see that I haven’t checked out is the mirror at the entrance of our apartment. I lift it—just to see, because you never know; you can find amazing things, things you’re really into, anywhere—but there’s only a bare wall and I’d smash it except for what? I can’t find anything that used to be mine and a broken mirror won’t help. I lay the mirror down soft. I’m running out of things I want to break. I walk to the kitchen—this place needs more light—and the dying buzz from the ceiling lamp stings my eyes. There’s a new device, plugged into the wall, sitting in the dead center of our card table.
It’s a gadget. Mom never buys functioning mechanical things, and maybe, sure, I don’t care, but today I care. I care about everything she does and doesn’t do. We’ve barely got a thing around that needs electricity; Mom’s bill collector cries wouldn’t have it. We’ve barely got a thing that’s new but this, this thing is new. It has a mouth at the top and a thin slit, with a wastebasket below to catch things. A near-empty wastebasket.
Wedged below it, against the table, are two pristine cards, the Minnie twins, and their doubles, staring up at me. There are more girls stacked on the chair. There are only girls and only a few, all from the sweet years, with tops on, which is also rare with the Cards. The tops are green and red and blue and yellow—their own Rainbow Dragon. I kneel on the chair to peer into the machine and the girls scatter to the floor. I see only shards of skin inside the machine, a piece of a man. The apartment is silent—the mugs, the lamp, the mattress, and mirror. Complicit. And only I can remember that he was once a man.