Authors: Emma McLaughlin
Emma McLaughlin & Nicola Kraus
Our Loyal Readers,
who have made all the rest so worth it
The day I finally put Tallyville, Florida in my rearview my skin prickled from the anticipation of how different my life was going to be. As Diego’s car sped down the interstate in a hot tunnel of sunshine I let my apron from Kath’s Catfish Heaven fly out the window and thought, this is it.
is what I’ve been waiting for.
But South Beach, where cooling off was impossible and hydration fleeting, quickly conspired to make my twenty-first summer indistinguishable from those that came before. Counter to every hope my days in Miami were mounting in a string of stifled yawns. Showing tourists to their tables for hours on end left me restless. But the overpopulated motel room where I was living offered little chance of sleep.
Or so I told myself as I followed co-workers to the strip, where we made dinners of umbrella-speared garnishes from drinks so strong the edges of the club gradually softened. Tucked inside the velvet banquette of wherever we landed, the air conditioning evaporating the sweat from between my shoulder blades, I’d tip the waitress as much as I could afford. And, with blunted senses, I could tolerate the thought I swatted away all day—that I had made a mistake. That, after all my efforts, I was in the wrong place. That this city, this job, this life offered no more promise than Tallyville.
I had no idea that I was about to be proved wrong. That the people who would radically alter my life were on their way to me right were I was. Would both arrive, in fact, on the very same day.
By August I thought I was a seasoned hangover veteran, but I was shocked by the pain radiating behind my eyelids that Saturday morning. I was immediately aware from the thread-count of the sheets that I was somewhere I shouldn’t have been. I just prayed to the face on a dollar bill that I wasn’t already late for my hostess shift.
Whipping upright on the king-sized bed, I braced my head with my fingers, my eyes focusing on the fading blue Sharpie blob next to my belly button—the vestiges of the flower my ex, Diego, had been trying to convince me I should get tattooed. The marker he’d used had outlasted his devotion. I angrily scrubbed at it every morning in the motel shower while I tried to make sense of his abrupt departure. He’d left me with an apartment I couldn’t afford, a security deposit I couldn’t get back, and one wheezing Honda hatchback.
Forcing my eyes to stay open I realized where I was and it wasn’t good. Beside me, in the mess of deflated pillows, a tan frat guy with rooster boxers was splayed as if on a floatie. I stood, compelled to pause for a second until my balance returned.
Hunting for my dress I took a squinting survey of the trashed penthouse suite. The Raleigh hostess and Fontainebleau waitress whom we’d met up with the night before were sprawled on the couches in the adjoining living room. One of my roommates from the motel, Alicia, was curled beside them. The recently reddened tips of her hair made it look like a wild fox had found its way inside. Alicia had been the one to convince me to leave the club to for that new place where she knew the bouncer and I had blindly followed her behind another velvet rope damp from the salty air.
A guy stirred from the flokati at the girls’ feet just as I spotted my dress in a discarded heap by the glass doors to the balcony. Swiping it up I stepped outside through the billowing curtains and into the sun banking off the white tiles. A breeze as refreshing as a close-panting dog rippled the Jacuzzi. A flash of the evening came back to me while I retrieved my bra from where it’d been discarded with the other girls’, as if my fifth grade teacher’s rainbow rubber band ball had exploded. Dropping my dress on the baking stone, I cinched the yellow lace above the thong I was mercifully still wearing.
I was bending to grab my dress when I spotted him on the far end of the vast terrace. He was leaning on his forearms, blowing out a stream of smoke that dissipated over the ocean thirty floors below, his khakis and caramel skin and hair giving the impression of camouflage. He looked bemused as I fought the instinct to clutch my dress in front of me. Did we hook up? I would have remembered that. I darted my eyes for a changing spot that didn’t involve dealing with whoever was inside. You’d think a terrace of that size would at least have had a potted palm.
“I’d offer you one,” he called over.
“A cigarette. But I know how you feel about that.”
“Do you.” Fuck it. I dropped my dress to step into. I wasn’t about to shimmy-tug it on with an audience.
“Yeah.” He hung his head, his hair sifting over his cheekbones, his muscular shoulders rolling leisurely forward. “I don’t recall much from last night, but you made your opinion on smoking pretty clear in the limo.”
I remembered. He’d rolled in behind a crowd of guys with coldly appraising eyes and monogrammed money clips. I thought he was an asshole. All of them were. But that was my last clear memory from before we accepted their bottle service. I nodded and slid my arms through the straps of my dress as if this was just another day. Flicking the cigarette over the edge he circled his fingers around a pale mark on his wrist.
“I lost my watch. My Dad’s. Which kind of sucks.”
“I’m sorry.” I spotted my heels and strode over to push them on.
“You sound surprised.” I glanced over my shoulder to see him staring at me.
He shrugged. “Didn’t expect your sympathy.”
“Just my opinions.”
“Yes. Got a full tank of those last night, thanks.”
Whatever. “Well, you don’t really have it.” Where the fuck was my clutch? “My sympathy.” I stepped back and tried to nonchalantly search under the row of chaises.
“Looking for your bag?”
“Target would like you to think so, yes.” I finger combed my blond hair, the sun-bleached ends still damp.
“Powder room by the front door. You left it there when you, uh—” He averted his eyes. “Went in with Trevor.”
Uck. Rooster shorts. Awesome. “Thanks.” I nodded and clicked toward the escaping curtains.
“Now you sound surprised.”
“Didn’t expect your assistance in my departure.”
“Well.” He grinned. “You don’t really have it.” We held eyes for a moment across the mess of white furniture. If my brain hadn’t been screaming, it would have been a cologne ad. The wash of blue behind him, his tanned hipbones arching out from those sagging pants. The instinct to prowl my way across the chaises flickered.
But I couldn’t be late to work.
And there was the unfortunate fact of Trevor.
I managed one more assuredly nonchalant step through the billowing drapes before I flat out ran past the sleeping partiers to the powder room, then the hall, where I tucked my head against the security cameras and remained tucked all the way down to the lobby’s side entrance, then out to my car. Jamming my key in the ignition, I tugged my gas station sunglasses from the glove compartment and then slammed it a thousand times to get it to stay closed. I had exactly twenty-three minutes to get back there.
Minding my dragging muffler, I cleared the South Beach speed traps, past the hotel signs and out to the motel signs. I’d been staying at the inaptly-named Majestic with its rickety railing and cemented fountain since Diego announced he was going back home to Columbia (the country) via text, which I received while standing inside our emptied apartment. Everything, including my makeup bag full of tips, was gone. Thank God for my job. I’ve always had one—and held onto it like a gator with a goat. It made me not my mother.
Inside the motel room, the curtains were pinned shut with a hair clip and five girls in two beds were deep in the hungry sleep of those fleeing warlords or working back-to-back shifts in heels assigned by a sadistic hotelier. I darted to the shower where I scrubbed off the chlorinated Jacuzzi film still clinging to me. Finding that my towel was staunching a sink leak, I pointlessly patted off with disintegrating toilet paper. I tugged on the gold “brunch” dress designated by said hotelier, who seemed to only employ those with a C cup—or higher—to lean over his customers in said dresses—and was back on the road in under seven.
I scrounged change from the floor mats for coffee, which I mainlined while screeching back into the exact same parking spot I’d left less than thirty minutes earlier. Leaping over a sunning gecko, I ran through the kitchen door into a blast of Spanish music and whirring fans, where the frenetic pace of the crew matched mine. I inhaled a roll from the warmer and then stepped out into the bossa nova of the pool-side hotel restaurant as the rattan banquettes were just starting to fill. My manager, Kurt, waited for me with a raised brow.
“Mandy will take you to your table.” He handed me two menus as I arrived, surreptitiously swiping the sweat from my temples. “Number thirteen. Thank you, dahlink.”
“My pleasure. Right this way, please.” We exchanged smiles as I took the couple to their table, but I knew he was displeased. Kurt idled there.
“I’m sorry I didn’t get here earlier,” I told him after I returned, our foreheads almost touching while we peered down at the seating map as if it were worthy of study. “But I was on time.”
on time.” His German accent made him sound like he was perpetually auditioning to play a
villain. I liked South Beach because it was full of foreigners who gave off a waft of far-off places mingled with their high-end sunscreen and couture cologne. I did not like Kurt.
“You’re right,” I affirmed. Remaining on the safe side of Kurt’s binary good graces required constant affirmations.
“You vant to be Head Hostess you have to act like it. I am trusting you, Mandy. You have a head on your shoulders—unlike zese booby twigs.” He flicked a finger at a waitress gripping a tray of cappuccinos as a brusquely passing businessman nearly felled her. “I have to make a shit. You seat zese fatsos,” he murmured as he smiled invitingly at the portly reddened family approaching the stand. I smiled at the nanny who trailed them, given away by the maid’s uniform she couldn’t have been voluntarily wearing to the beach.
As Kurt went to relieve himself, I commenced my repetitive loops of the restaurant floor. You could have fit three of Kath’s Catfish Heaven in that place. I had started picking up after-school shifts when I was fourteen and all of us who worked there, including Kath, did everything from scraping the fryer to scooping potatoes. But, as physically grueling as the work had been at Kath’s, I never found myself counting down the minutes. Certainly not while staring at girls my own age hunched beside beach totes that cost more than Mom’s trailer. Here I’d watch as, sunglasses covering half their faces, they gazed at the pool-side menu, debating if a thirty-dollar salad of micro-greens would tide them over. They would raise a slim arm, encased in a gauzy cover-up, to finger their statement necklaces, and discuss the stress that limitless leisure inexplicably induced.
The lulls between meals were the worst part of the day. They left me with too much time to think about what I’d left behind. I missed Grammy. I worried my eight year-old brother, Billy, was skipping summer school. That, without me there to buy it, there wasn’t enough peanut butter for him to make himself a sandwich. That I wouldn’t have enough gas to get to and from the Majestic before Kurt flipped my check at me at the end of the month. That South Beach itself was a mirage where everyone was just as aimlessly close to the edge as Tallyville.
But on that Saturday there weren’t any lulls. The restaurant was half-staffed because there was some big event in the ballroom, a fundraiser for the senate race. Kath’s Catfish Heaven style, every one of the staff was running around doing every thing.
At some point I passed through the kitchen and the apoplectic head of Room Service grabbed me. “You! Take this up to the Penthouse!” She swung me toward an order as a server wiped away a drip of hollandaise from one of the chargers. Putting my back into it, I shoved the laden cart onto the service elevator and opened the check to find my destination, only to read that it was the penthouse. At which point that breakfast roll I’d eaten threatened to return into the mop bucket.