Leaving the Girl
Tina reminded me of Laura Palmer: too beautiful to live. You’d have to comb the globe for a person who didn’t want to fuck and ruin her. But Tina was kind of okay with it because she wanted to fuck and ruin herself. When I first saw her she had a severe part in her long black hair and red lips, like Evita. The second time I saw her she walked into the coffee shop I worked at like a bewildered fawn. She’d chopped her black hair off and gone bottle blonde. It’s hard to describe anything about Tina without insisting you must know how she looked. A great beauty’s beauty pushes itsself forward before all other info. I’ll dispense with describing her now, but know that she had the aura of Greta Garbo or Lauren Bacall. Impeccable, unassailable style. She was the kind of girl who could pull off a Victorian ball gown at the 7-11. She smoked Marlboro Reds in opera gloves. I never saw her in a shade besides black.
That summer we met, her heart had been broken, and she was being trailed by several aged philosophy professors from the university who clearly had ideas about becoming her lover. I was a punk rock sylph with a purple star dyed on my head. I was 5’8″ and, thanks to a diet that consisted primarily of Paxil and cigarettes, clocked in at a little under a hundred pounds. I was so thrilled about this state I was in that I wasn’t threatened by Tina’s beauty. In fact, I made her a PJ Harvey mixtape and left it at the counter for the next time she shambled in looking like she’d been awake all night reading Nietzsche and despairing over this boy (flaxen haired, I saw him once. They looked like a devil and an angel together).
That was also the summer I’d begun supplementing my barista income by nude modeling for artists and photographers. During my time taking naked pictures for money, my thinness was an A+ attribute. It made me “arty” and, as one photographer said, as I straddled a school desk with a projector light pointed at my crotch, “Fantastic! Strait out of Auschwitz!” So when my barista job went kaput (as the Germans say), I made that little leap from nude pictures for money to nude dancing for money. My only hang up was genuine concern if I had enough meat on my bones to look plausible swinging around a pole. So I called the only real life stripper I had ever encountered in my 22 years. Tina.
Tina’s job in our town’s only titty bar was legendary. It was the piece of information that everyone was dying to tell you: “That girl over there, that girl is a stripper.” And like with the girl known for sleeping with every boy at your high school, I couldn’t tell if people relished this fact because they were appalled or because they were dying to try it. Whatever it was, she was given a wide berth, as if she were royalty or had a very contagious disease. As I came to learn, to be a stripper is to interface with the pain and shame of the world in one of the most visceral ways that you possibly can. It leaves you with a patina, and Tina’s patina made her more beautiful to me, more real. After all, I was something of an alien myself. My transformation into a collection of sharp angles inspired awe and fear, it kept everyone at arms length. I felt I understood Tina without hardly knowing her. We could both do things with our bodies that other people could not.
Tina invited me down to the strip club for a preview, and off I went to that black lit land where pale breasts bloom under strobe lights, multiplied and multiplied in a maze of mirror walls and slick reflective poles. When Tina was on stage it was like having front row seats at Cabaret. No inch of her unloved by the many sets of eyeballs in there. I thought, if they expect me to do what she is doing then I am screwed. But no one expects that. They expect you to take your top off and flounce around. The next night I went in to audition. “You’re back already?” Tina laughed. She borrowed me a thong to dance in. Two Stone Temple Pilot songs later, I was a stripper; Tina’s tottering protégé in a bobbed wig and black vinyl boots.
We were fast friends. How could we not be? What friendship would not be eternally forged? “Are you lovers?” people would ask us, “Are you sisters?” I say ‘people.’ I should amend this to ‘men.’ They hoped we would answer that we were both sisters and lovers. But Tina was something beyond me, I always felt. Something to aspire to, perhaps, because at times I felt like her beauty had answered the question I still plumbed my little body for. But she was not to fuck. And we never did. It was sisterhood true blue and I loved her hard and crazy.
She let down the velvet rope around her life and introduced me to her weird coterie of professors, ex-strippers, and admirers. None of her friends seemed to connect with one another in any way. We were nebulous, floating around Tina, our only shared interest. There was a boy among them who left her a mutilated library book, containing a tape inside confessing his true love, which Tina destroyed and dismissed. There was a way to her heart, stupid men, and mawkish declarations got you nowhere.
She had a costume party once. I went as Anais Nin and my cool musician boyfriend went as a pink bunny covered in blood. We stood in a corner and talked to my boyfriend’s friend dressed as Hestia, the goddess of the domestic. This friend of his thought the only reason she was invited to the party was because her boyfriend (dressed as Greed) was fucking Tina and the invitation was some sort of cover up. Everyone thought everyone was fucking Tina and went to great degrees to convince themselves (and you!) that this was true. I knew Tina to be above such pettish accusations and gave Hestia an internal eye roll.
As we were chatting with Hestia, a man came over to me, leaned down and said quietly into my ear, “You know, I always wanted to fuck Anais Nin.” I smiled at him. Nothing bothered me in those days. Nothing bothers the punk rock sylph dressed as Anais Nin; say anything to her! Go on and try! She has a hole inside her heart, a vacuum nothing can fill, but which compliments from men, no matter how vile, seem to abate. You can’t see that vacuum, because her tiny body protects her. For now, it is something only Tina can see, because she too has a swiss cheese heart.
Alas, Tina wasn’t all ball gowns, Nietzsche and stage presence. She had a truly terrible sense of humor, nicely summed up by two bumper stickers she was “saving” for when she got a car. One read: “Do not meddle in the affairs of dragons, for you are crunchy and taste good with ketchup.” The other read: “Imagine whirled peas.” These bumper stickers lit her Raphaelite face with mirth. There are other bad things about her, but they come later.
For now there is this:
I break up with my boyfriend for six months. I spend these six months in the care of Tina. I am devastated and joyous. Free but miserable. I sleep on Tina’s couch and she tries to feed me. I make out with every living human being in a three mile radius around Old Town, where the bars are. Tina pulls me home before I can do more than knock over a few chairs or have my shirt pulled up while lying on a pool table, do more than one tequila shot off someone’s naked breast. She puts me back on her couch.
She is a good German girl and so she makes me tea. So much tea, I can’t drink tea even now without thinking of her. I cry and we talk about our broken hearts and UFOs and government conspiracies and why Tina can’t do anything with her life besides strip, even though she is some kind of math super-whiz. But we are also having the greatest time ever because we are young and darling and wild. And we are together, free from the tethers of men. We are Brideshead Revisited, turned on its ear.
We use our extremely disposable income to buy clothes and blue bottled white whine riesling, which we drink at eleven in the morning. We go out for sushi and martinis. We smoke so many cigarettes. We wear sunglasses at night and link elbows and sing that song about it. We drink for free at the Service Bar most nights and at Tony’s we also drink mostly free and the bartenders sometimes flash us their dicks and we cover our mouths like little girls and laugh about it. We find jukeboxes that play “Fernando” by Abba (my favorite song) and we sway to it, holding each other. We dance together because we’re sex queens who live in the dirty gross sex world and we don’t give a fuck about how anyone sees us anymore.
Whenever anyone tries to take me home, I say, “I’m going home with Angela.” Which is what I call Tina, because it’s her stage name. She calls me Alyssa. She warns boys about me. She say says, “Alyssa’s scrawny, but she’s scrappy.” And thank Christ, I am finally scrawny. I have worked so hard! Forsaken so many meals, and here it is. Finally. Finally saying fuck all. I am drunk, adored, wanted, doing whatever the hell I want to. In the summer. In the heat of black nights and hazy, blue Colorado days, with the girl I love best.
Tina holds it together and holds me together through the horror of my wedding. She does it without question or complaint, she does it though I have made her so sad and I know it and we never speak of it because, why? My fiance says to me: “Tina is a pathological liar. She lies to you most of all because she wants so much for you to think well of her. ” I think back upon ole Hestia at the costume party, all those years ago. Was there truth in those accusations that my love glossed over?
My oldest friend says to me: “I never liked you and Tina together.” And I narrow my eyes at her because what the fuck does she know? What does anyone know of me and Teens? Nothing. But as it turns out, my fiance and my oldest friend are right, Tina and I cannot be friends. Because Tina continues to date guys who hit her (there’s the way to her heart, boy with the mutilated library book) and if they don’t hit her, they abuse her in other ways or are broken in ways that are beyond dealing with. But then, Tina is the same as these boys. And long after we quit dancing, she still refuses to get a real job. Or at least, I think of it as refusal. When I saw her last she was stuffing flyers into envelopes for a living.
All that happened in Denver. But even before we crossed the years it took to wind up in Denver, it was over between us. It was over even before my first major illness and the steroid-induced-weight-gain-horror-wedding that followed. An event that shoved me further down the psychological ski slope of eating disorders; that long white run ending right at your headstone. It was over before the guy who hit Tina hated me so much, he wrote a post on his oft-read MySpace blog about how I was interfering in his relationship because I was fat now. Like fat transformed me into some kind of comic side character; a nosy neighbor eating KFC from the bucket. It was over before I unleashed a wall of rage on all the girls who wouldn’t help Tina with her abuser boyfriend because he was so cool and so good-looking and they all bought weed from him and they all thought Tina was kinda a slut anywayz. I lost friendships with all those girls, and it didn’t even matter. It was all flotsam to Tina’s jetsam. But let’s go back just a little further, maybe about two years further, when we were still in the little town, winding up our dancing careers.
The friendship ended thus:
Tina moved and I moved with her. I tried to live out of my car and I tried to live at my friend’s house but I ended up back with Tina. I knew I was leaving the country soon, so I didn’t want to be anywhere for long. I moved into her little basement apartment and we drank wine from blue bottles and smoked cigarettes all day in the sun and it was the same as it had always been. But soon after, my ex-boyfriend’s band moved into the house across the street. He lived with them now that we were through. He had the front room that was all windows.
And one night, lying in bed with Tina (we were in the final stages of that age where you sleep all-to-one-bed like conked out toddlers), I suddenly got up and put on my shoes and I wandered across our yard and across the street and across his yard and I knocked on his window. I think about that night a lot because as I crossed that street, I crossed something else too, something I could never go back over. It was less my choice than it is the choice of a magnet to suck to metal. And I was going back to him. I was always going back to him. That was my trajectory.
I should have kissed Tina goodbye. Not in a sexy sister-lover way but because I loved her so much. I should have thanked her and hugged her. We should have cried and had a parting cigarette, because that was the moment it ended. She would never forgive me, not even when she was my white clad bridesmaid holding a drink to wash down my vicodin with, not even when she gave me a hundred euros when I moved across the ocean and a fake diamond necklace and the sweetest hand written note I have ever received. She would never forgive me for being a magnet to his metal. Picking the boy and leaving the girl.
Elinor Abbott is a writer in Minneapolis.