So: the dirty stinking truth.
Like Ellen, I used to be a little piggy, oinking for love. There was a man, the usual kind: tall, handsome, terrible. We’d worked together; he wasn’t my boss, but his pay grade was higher. I’d found something sexy even then in the art of the conquest. I’d wanted him so long, been waiting so long for him to notice me—trotting out all the obvious tricks, flouncing past his desk in my highest heels, the ones I could barely walk in, wiggling into tighter and shorter skirts every day—that when he did, I made it my mission to become exactly what he wanted me to be.
One word of criticism, one night begged off from my company, even one lukewarm look, and I pretzeled myself to become better. I could laugh harder; I could crack dirtier jokes; I could play the lady, be meeker, sweeter, sexier; I could change and change and change and change. I could do it, I could be the dream girl. And I was proud of it, how good a chameleon I had learned to be. You could keep anyone if you tried, I thought. Most women just didn’t try hard enough.
Did I love him?
The day that Lou found me, after it had all gone bad, I was a different woman, one on intimate terms with tears. She found me sobbing inside an unlocked car. Later, I’d find out she’d been with a mark on that street. But I didn’t know any of that then.
When he told me it was over, that it had been fun until it wasn’t anymore—and it was a real shame because I was a sweetheart and a helluva lay, but he had to be honest, even if it hurt him to say it, even though he knew it was the best thing for me—it hadn’t been only the end of our relationship. It had been the end of my career on the straight and narrow, too, although I didn’t know it at the time.
I’d moped around the office for days, bursting into tears at my desk at the sight of him. Trying to imagine which coworker he was fucking now, what she had that was better than me. And the whole time, he never seemed bothered. After all, he’d known the score all along.
Two weeks later, I got a summons to a conference room with him and the big boss.A dip into the petty cash here and there, change from an errand that covered a drink or two at happy hour. I never thought of it as stealing, because no one ever checked.
Everybody did it, so I’d never thought twice. A dip into the petty cash here and there, change from an errand that covered a drink or two at happy hour. I never thought of it as stealing, because no one ever checked. And there was no way my boss, a man with the wounded entitlement of family money he expected everyone to respect even though he didn’t, would have thought to look through the petty cash drawer on his own. That was clear to me immediately. He’d had guidance.
“I’m so disappointed in you,” my boss kept saying, looking from me to my ex-lover and back again. “I’ve been so good to you. How could you do it?” When I hadn’t said anything, not trusting myself not to cry, disappointment had turned to rage. He told me I was fired, that he wanted me out of his sight, that I’d never work again in this town if he could help it. And he had the connections to help it.
And the whole time, he’d sat there in the conference room, a little smile playing across his face. Letting me know that he knew he’d won, in every way possible.
And I’d thought he had, too.
I drove around for days. Being constantly on the road felt better than staying put. All I could do each morning was get behind the wheel and drive and drive, telling myself I was looking for Help Wanted signs, telling myself I didn’t mind serving jobs, fryer grease in my hair, as long as it paid the bills, when really all I was doing was driving in circles, passing by my old office too often even for my own liking.
I even saw him escorting a group of people to lunch, or, once, chatting outside the lobby with a fresh new penny of an intern. Probably some young girl who didn’t know any better than I had.
So even though it was expensive and my bank account was turning from pink to crimson, I kept driving until I couldn’t anymore, until I was choking on the tears and I couldn’t see. Then I’d park the car on a street and put my head down on my steering wheel and sob for a few minutes.
That was how Lou found me, shuddering all over and parked next to bushes sprouting tubed white flowers, beer cans clustered near the roots like mulch. Heaving sobs into the air like questions.
Two fingernail taps on my window. “Everything okay in there?”
“Go away,” I wailed. I waved my fingers in the direction of the Good Samaritan.
“It’s just that”—the voice was soft and low, the way you speak to a startled pony—“you’ve blocked me in.”
I looked up. I was blocking a driveway. The tubey little flowers belonged to someone’s garden. Amazing how fast even heartbreak gives way to embarrassment. I scrambled for my keys, spewing apologies and snot all over my dashboard.
Another fingernail tick at the window. I looked up, finally. The Lou I didn’t know yet, coiled auburn hair and bright friendly eyes, smiled back at me, a pretty crooked grin, the unevenness making it all the more special since the rest of her face was so symmetrical. She bent down and leaned her folded arms against my side mirror, so we were face-to-face.
“My name’s Lou. I think I could be a little late to work, if you wanted to grab breakfast or something. Maybe talk?”
And then I was crying again for another reason, because there were still good people left in the world, because I was still a person in the world and someone had seen that. I unlocked the passenger door and she climbed in. Still crying, I let her guide me two miles down the road, left, right, right, parking lot, to a stop in front of a hot-pink neon sign that blinked Paulette’s Slices 24/7.
“I hope you like pie,” Lou said. “It’s my favorite breakfast.”
I did not. Especially for breakfast. “That sounds great,” I said, hiccuping.
I followed Lou into the diner, smoothing out my jeans to have something to do with my hands. Lou looked fresh and cool in checked-plaid culottes and a swingy cashmere cardigan, no makeup on her face. She had a loop to her hips somewhere between a sashay and a hula dance. When I sat across from her in the booth, she smiled at me and darted a quick look up to my eyes before she pressed a menu into my hands.
“Apple cheddar,” she said, like she was telling me a secret. “Can’t go wrong with it.” Then she swiped at her face, beneath her eyes. “A little smudge, there and there.”
I dabbed at my face with the napkin. I’d had girlfriends back in high school. Girls on the spirit squad who invited me over to their houses after class to watch their older brothers’ friends flex muscles. I was on passing acquaintance with our school’s homecoming court, most of whom married those same muscle flexers. They sent me Christmas cards, with pictures of their fat naked babies tucked inside. I didn’t even throw away the pictures. I guess you could say we were close.
But it had been a while since I’d been really seen by another person, and even longer since I’d felt anything like sisterhood. I opened my mouth to thank her and the whole sordid story tumbled out. A waitress came to take our order, but Lou waved her away, her eyes never wavering from my face. Around the time I was telling her about the way HR had called for security guards to escort me out, salt in the wound, she grabbed a cigarette from her purse and offered it to me with raised eyebrows.
“No thanks,” I said, trying to catch my breath as the full spread of my misery unfurled before me.
Lou lit the cigarette. “By the way,” she said, “I didn’t get your name.”
And it was so ridiculous, so sad, that I lost it laughing, whooping, donkey-braying laughs, until I snorted the tears trailing down my cheeks back up my nose. Lou sucked on her cigarette and watched me across the table, that big dopey smile on her face.
“It’s A—,” I said.
Lou nodded. “You can think about that and tell me again later if you want.”
I wasn’t sure what she meant, but then the waitress was back. I ordered a slice of cherry pie, à la mode, even though I didn’t like vanilla ice cream. Lou ordered two slices of apple cheddar—“one to go if I don’t finish them both”—and eyed me some more.
“That’s a sad story,” she said finally. “I’m sorry to hear it. What an asshole. But they’re never the ones who pay, right?” She shook her head. “Asshole.”
“Yeah,” I said, uncomfortable now that my volcanic spill was done and cooling between us. The waitress clunked three dishes down, and we sat and chewed our pie in silence. The whole time I was wishing I’d kept my big fat mouth shut and that I could leave, leave now, before I started crying again, but I’d driven her here and somehow, even in my embarrassment, the idea of going back to my car and the radio and no one else . . .
So I stayed.
Lou was halfway through her first piece of pie when she cleared her throat and put her fork down. I thought she was going to make some excuse, say she had to leave, and I’d know that I’d embarrassed myself beyond measure, that I’d ruined any chance I had of being her friend. Instead, she told me a sad story of her own.
The details don’t matter much—they’re always the same. A big town and a well, he’s not so bad man and too much love that he didn’t want, a hard fall from grace. When she was done, she finished eating her slice, and I ignored the fork quivering as it came up to her mouth. Some hurts don’t let you go.
Later, with the girls, she’d coach me how to win trust. “Use her own story in a pinch,” she’d say. “Change the details but give her something she can relate to. Then think of your saddest birthday. Tears, right away.” And it was true. Not one of my girls noticed when I spoon-fed her own story back to her, if I did it right. If I smiled, if I touched her hand gently and told her, without words, I hear you, I care. And by the time they left our business, they had a new story—a better story—to tell. I’d helped give them that.
I surprised us both by reaching out and touching her wrist. She nodded at me, fast, like we’d established something. Lou rubbed her wrist, then held my gaze for a beat too long, long enough for me to wonder if I’d done the wrong thing by touching her.
“You know,” she said, tapping the ash from the cigarette onto her gooey, empty plate, “you seem really sad about it.”
“Are you going to tell me I’m better off without him?” My voice was more of a squeak than I wanted it to be. It sounded like the sort of thing my mother would’ve said, all well-meaning sugar in her voice, ignoring the fact that I couldn’t stop crying.
“I’m saying I think you’ve got a lot to be pissed off about,” she said, her eyes very green through the plume of smoke drifting toward me. “It seems to me like you should be angry, not sad. You’ve got nothing left to lose here, y’know? That makes you dangerous. Especially if you’re angry.”
I didn’t know what to say to that, so I shrugged and dipped back down into my pie. But I couldn’t get those words out of my head. Dangerous? Me? To who?
When the bill came, I fumbled in my purse for my wallet. My share was four dollars, but I was down to my last ten. Lou must have seen the panic on my face, weighing the half-uneaten piece of pie on my plate with the last few dollars I had and the prospect of rent in a few weeks, and all the meals until then.
“Let it be my treat,” she said, smiling again, like it was no imposition, like it was nothing. But I liked her. I wanted to be her friend. That meant equal.
I slid the bill out of my wallet, watching it all the way down onto the counter. The cards were nearly maxed out; the cash was running thin. Part of me said I needed that ten dollars more than I needed a friend. Part of me said I should grab her money and run.
But I was different then, so I passed her the ten dollars and tried not to stare at the fifty she laid down. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to have nothing smaller, to have to pay for pie with Grant’s face.
Lou asked me questions, but my eyes kept flicking down to the tab. I couldn’t help it. It was a crawly panic at the back of my neck, the idea that I’d wasted something I needed. I could feel tears pricking my eyes. She had to keep repeating her questions before I answered. All I could see was the little tear in the top right corner of her bill and the faded red scribble over Alexander Hamilton’s left eyebrow on my own. Like someone had used it as a coloring book.
The waitress swung by, reached for the tab. But Lou was quicker. She trapped the bills between her nail and the table.
“One more minute,” she told the waitress, flashing a high-wattage smile. “We might not be done yet.”
A stone dragged down the pit of my stomach. I opened my mouth, about to say that I was full, thanks, when Lou stopped me.
“What are you,” she said, “about a 34D?”
“I’m pretty good at this,” she said. “Am I right?”
I could feel color creeping into my face, but more than that, I was disappointed. This was it, the reason she’d been so nice to me out of nowhere. People aren’t just nice; they always want something. I should’ve known better. I crossed my arms over my chest.
“Tell you what,” Lou said. “How about neither one of us pays for breakfast.”
I shivered, and my nipples got hard against my elbows. “You mean leave? Without paying the bill?”
Lou snorted. “No way, this is my favorite diner.” She jerked her head toward a booth on the other side of the diner. “You see that guy over there? Glasses, too much forehead.”
It was a kind turn of phrase. He hadn’t had hair in my lifetime. In the booth directly across the restaurant, nothing between us but miles of black and white tile, a lone man was reading a newspaper but really watching us. I’d noticed him when we’d arrived. A thick paunch rode over his waistband. If he’d been much sadder, he’d be flat on a pavement somewhere. He made me cross my legs, and not in a pleasant way.
I told her I did. “He’s been looking over here pretty regularly.”
“Very good,” she said, pleased. “I have this idea he might be lonely. I bet he’d love to buy a girl like you a nice breakfast. Maybe you walk those 34Ds over there and see what he says.”
But my face—I’d been crying, I hadn’t slept, I wasn’t wearing any makeup.
“You’ve probably looked better,” Lou said. Another thing to like about her: kind honesty. “But so what? He’s no prize himself.”
It was true, but I’d thought only of the way he’d see me, not how he’d want me to see him. As my savior. My hero. And then Lou said something that stuck with me, even years later when I’d developed my own style, so separate from hers you’d never guess Lou trained me, that she taught me everything I knew—I was that good; I took to it that completely. Three years before all that, Lou said to me:
“You’d be shocked how many men want to save a wounded woman. For a certain kind of man, the worse you can make that pretty face look, the better.”
I made my way over to him, trying to channel the hypnotic way Lou had walked through the parking lot. I forced myself to think of figure eights and the dance of Salome and the push and pull of the tide until I had a handle on the rhythm. Everything was manufactured and self-conscious then.
For so long, I’d tried to be the woman my lover wanted me to be. I did it quietly, taking down notes in my head of what he liked, what he didn’t. If he smiled when I cooked, I Betty Crockered him with mountains of muffins until he couldn’t button his pants. If I held onto him too hard and he became allergic to my touch, I backed away for weeks, pretending that my every surface was made of ice and one hot touch would melt me dead. It didn’t matter if this was my death by a thousand paper cuts. I could be better. I could be perfect. If I noticed the right things, I could learn to be exactly who he wanted.
I tried to notice things about this stranger. He was eating eggs, no pepper, no ketchup. Nothing else on his plate. Coffee, black. I’d seen the waitress refill it at least twice while Lou and I were eating. So maybe he was stalling. Maybe he didn’t want to leave the diner and go back to whatever waited for him outside.
He buried his face in his eggs when I reached him. A man like that, a man who doesn’t even pepper his eggs, has no business trying to play it cool. He did try, though. Even though he might as well have been a billboard advertising loneliness, he did his best not to notice me for a good twenty seconds.
I didn’t say anything. I waited until he looked up. When he did, I smiled at him. I traced a figure on my collarbone with one fingertip. I pressed my measurements together and tilted forward a little. I figured he liked a direct woman.
“What’s your name, handsome?”
He shriveled into the eggs. A miscalculation. It was all a lie; I’d never been good at reading men. No wonder he left me. I couldn’t unsay what I’d said, and the words got bigger and bigger and I saw myself as Plain Eggs must’ve seen me—some blowsy burnout, messy hair and loose hips, trying too hard to be sexy. Panicked, I looked for Lou, who was watching me, thumbing that cigarette, her face a big blank.
Of the three of us, I was probably the most surprised when I burst into tears.
“I’m sorry,” I said, sobbing. “I don’t know what I was trying to—You seem like a nice man, God, what am I doing? I’ve been driving for days and I don’t—I can’t—”
“Jesus Christ,” he said, his voice rising high on an alarmed note. His eyes were watery and the color of weak tea. They say you never forget your first. “Jesus Christ, sit down.”
It was more surprising than the tears. I sat. I let him feel useful and hand me some napkins to use as tissues. I told him a story, but not the same one I’d told Lou. A breakup, a broken heart, an empty checking account. I thanked him profusely. I told him I was there with my sister, and she said I should go talk to him—didn’t he look handsome in that silk shirt?—but I didn’t know what I was doing anymore, and he seemed like such a nice man, I needed a nice man, so—
In the end, he threw a bill down on the table. I told him I couldn’t possibly take it, but he insisted. I think he wanted me to leave him alone. I pressed a hug on him, lingering with a swipe of the 34Ds, and hoped that’d be enough of a cheap thrill that I wouldn’t feel guilty about taking his money.
But to be honest: I didn’t feel guilty at all. All I felt was relief—it hadn’t been pretty, but it had worked and now I could save the cash. I wobbled back to Lou, trying not to swagger, swiping at my eyes and feeling, for the first time in a long time, the freshness of being somebody I liked.
When I got back to the table, Lou was chewing on the end of her unlit cigarette. I plunked the money down as I scooted into the booth.
“Not great,” she said.
Lou nodded. “You think on your feet pretty well.”
“I didn’t plan that!”
“Then you have good instincts. Or you got lucky. Either way, I think you’ve got some sort of potential.”
Later, she’d take me shopping. She’d buy me red lipstick and six thousand pairs of stockings and pumps and handbags and filmy little undernothings. Later, she’d explain the importance of style, that I was selling a desire made flesh, and that it was our job to figure out the marks once we got them. The Lady Upstairs gave us the orders, and it was the better part of our job to learn to not ask questions. Later, she’d give me cases and walk me through them. The first step: tailing the mark, figuring out all his likes and dislikes, followed by the meet-up, something so manufactured it was able to appear totally serendipitous. The last stage: the sting. Learning to shake off the end like water off a dog. It was a three-act play, she told me, except we were also the playwrights and the director and even our own audience.
But she didn’t tell me any of that over the sticky pie plates and the sweaty crumpled twenty-dollar bill I’d pried out of the man who took his eggs plain.
Instead, she plucked the drooping cigarette out of her mouth, smiled at me, and said: “I think I have a job you’d be perfect for. But first, I’ve got an idea for how we can make him pay, this asshole who hurt you.’
From THE LADY UPSTAIRS by Halley Sutton, published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons., an imprint of the Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2020 by Bear One Holdings, LLC.