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Greta

The room was a complete mess, every possible surface littered with some type of girl paraphernalia – lipstick, hair ties and mascara rollers. Clothes covered the ground like leaves in autumn. Her bed was unmade, stuffed animals tossed around as though a tornado had blown through their stuffed animal town, most of them missing eyes or ears and leaking foam, slowly bleeding to death. She had pasted a huge calendar above her bed and put hearts around certain dates. Each heart had a name inside it. Glen, Andy, Jim…

“Can I help you?” Greta asked from the door.

I dropped the calendar I had been reading, tracing the owner’s strange tributes to these strange men, as many as five in one week, to face the short, curly-haired girl who had entered the room. She was small and thin, but gave off a sense of impenetrable strength as she walked across the room and plucked the calendar out of my hands. Her eyes were the endless blue of a summer sky and she had the kind of face that always looks like it has something dirty to say, which she often did.

“My new roommate,” Greta said. “They must really think you’re a straight shooter if they put you in here with me.” She threw the calendar on the bed and grabbed an open tube of lipstick from the floor. She turned to the mirror above the dresser and started applying the blood red color to her lips in a careful, smooth circle.

“Can I ask you something?” Greta said, her eyes meeting mine in the mirror for a second before I looked away, startled. The smell of roasting pumpkins wafted down the hall and into the room, familiar and comforting. And I was sure that she was going to ask me about my eyes, or about where I was born or if I spoke any Chinese or about my mother, but instead she opened her mouth and went, “What do you think about this color? Too much?”

“I’m trying to go for seductive, but not whorish,” Greta said. “Like I want the guy to take me home, but not worry that I’m going to steal something.”

“My name’s Greta,” Greta said. “We’re going to be best friends.”

The alcohol is making my heart beat faster and I can feel the warmth spread through my body. I’ve been taking small sips, matching one sip to three for Ryan, whose face is already flushed, the red spots now larger and spreading across his face like smoke. He has already finished his drink and points at mine and laughs, saying he feels like a lush. When he smiles, he has a small dimple in his left cheek that gives his face a sudden burst of charm, brief and surprising. I tell him that we should order another round because I can finish this in no time.

Ryan looks around for the waiter, who is nowhere to be seen, and hisses impatiently. “I’d get us another round but I need to go to the bathroom,” he says. “Where is this guy? Raise the minimum wage, my ass.”

I tell Ryan that he should go ahead, that I’ll order for us. When he leaves, I go up to the bar and tell the bartender that I need a drink right away to surprise my boyfriend. I order the ’86 scotch, oh excuse me, bourbon drink that Ryan was drinking and I take it back to the table. My own drink is about half done and I add water to it. I’m just setting down the water carafe when Ryan walks back to the table.

“Good job,” he says. “You know, I wasn’t sure about this whole thing at first. It was just too weird. A girl being set up on a date by her friend. I wasn’t sure if I was going to be mugged or if a guy was going to show up.”

“Do you do these things often?” he asks me, as I poke the salad in front of me with a fork, mostly just moving the food around. The salad is bright green dotted with red chunks of shrimp. It is artfully arranged on the slab of stone on which it is served. It looks like something you might see in the window of a store where old white ladies shop, rather than something meant to be masticated and swallowed. Despite the work that has gone into its appearance, it does not taste like food. There is something undeniably prosthetic about the entire plate, something glossy and artificial and inherently inedible. The colors stand out in such contrast to our surroundings that it feels like I am eating a giant bowl of paint.

I tell Ryan that this is the first date I have been on in a while. I tell him that I only agreed to this date because I really liked his profile and his personality.

The alcohol has loosened Ryan up and he talks more freely now, telling me about his life. He’s from the area and grew up in a single parent home. His mother died of cancer when he was very young and his father never remarried.

“He did the best he could, but he really just fell apart after she died. It was more like I was taking care of him. And I hated it, of course, so I left to go to college. I got as far away as I could.” Ryan leans back in his seat, the dinner he has steadily been devouring put to rest for the moment, on his third drink for the evening. There is a pensive look on his face, like he is touching something he has not seen for a long time.

“I threw myself into school. I swore I wouldn’t be poor like my father. That I wouldn’t be that weak. Graduated in the top five percent of my class,” he says.

“I never once came back to see my father,” he says.

“My senior year of college, he died. Liver failure. They told me it was preventable too. But he had already given up. I think he gave up the day my mother died. After his death, I realized it was time for me to stop running. So I came back,” he says.

I don’t remember my mother. I don’t remember anything about her. Some of the other kids had all kinds of memories, both good and bad. Of dinner and pies, of warm hands and band aids on skinned knees. Of drug addicts and liars that tried to pimp them out for money or sell them for something to ease the pain. One girl had a mother who came and saw her every week, but who was not allowed to see her any other time. She would just hold her daughter and cry. Another girl got letters from her mother, who was in prison for killing her father. He hit her one too many times and she responded by running a knife into his throat when he was sleeping. She signed her letters Love, Mother. All I had in the way of a mother was a shadow of a look I would catch in the mirror sometimes, or a gesture, or the blackness in my hair.

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