For the two incredible women who walked with me through this year.
This is the introduction to Malina and Grizella, the warriors of my imagination.
Malina was still curled into herself and asleep when smelled the smoke. Her legs started moving before her mind did. There had been fires here before: cigarettes, an iron, and once a disturbed Iranian girl who simply loved the red glow of a client’s gold zippo and what it could do. That damaged girl and her tender scars had also briefly slept on Malina’s couch. She remembered all this before her head left the pillow and her legs started to process the motor action needed to run away. When she smelled the clove beneath the smoke, her body stopped and her eyes opened. The woman and her dark cigarette stood in Malina’s doorway.
“Out in the hallway. Don’t wake her,” Grizella said.
The smoking taskmaster finished her order and then she shut the door. Malina closed her eyes and let her body return to its automatic muscle responses that would get her out of bed and then out the door; let her body face what her brain would ignore. Her arms functioned on instinct to pull on a robe. They weren’t supposed to be in the halls in their underwear.
Grizella had placed herself, all six feet of her pipe-thin frame, only inches outside the door. Malina had to flatten herself, back against the door, to pass through. Grizella wasn’t about to move or make anyone else’s life easier.
“How much?” Grizzled asked, staring down at her. Grizella’s eyes were red and there was a scratch on her forehead. The make-up didn’t mask everything. “How much?” Grizella demanded.
Malina’s mind flipped through the meaning or possibly the translation of this. It wasn’t money. As a legal maneuver, years ago they started sending someone to meet the men outside the rooms. The girls never actually touched the cash or even witnessed the exchanges. So, it wasn’t money.
“How much what?” Malina asked.
“All you girls here, you think I don’t know things?”
The drugs. Malina crossed her arms over her chest, trying to fold herself deeper into her robe. She tried to forge a map in her mind – where her pills were in her purse, how to get to them and then get rid of them in the fastest, most direct route. She’d never make it.
Grizella did not like drugs. Selling them was fine. That was an acceptable income diversification. She usually kept a stash for clients who paid well and wanted an enhanced experience. Clients, of course, sometimes enjoyed them free of charge as her hospitable gift. Her girls doing drugs was different. She didn’t give a shit about the lives than could be wrecked. It was a matter of commerce. Drugs ruined faces, they ruined bodies, they ruined things that would need to be replaced. These men were really only kids, after all, and no kid wants to play with a broken toy. Buying new toys cost money. The other women didn’t know this. Grizella didn’t want them to know anything she thought or felt. But Malina knew. As she knew Grizella didn’t like it, but would tolerate it among most of the girls, but not Malina. Never Malina. She had promised.
“How much what, Grizella?”
And with that, the woman’s needle of an index finger jabbed through the flaps of Malina’s robe and into her stomach. Malina was more shocked at the motion itself than the unexpected pain it caused. She flinched and backed away from the stick of a finger.
“Baby. What do you think? How much baby?”
She knew, Malina thought. Of course she knew. She knew everything.
“I’m not sure,” Malina said.
“Not much yet,” Grizella said. “I already have an appointment. The Jew doctor. Day after tomorrow. To fix this.”
“I’ve never had a girl get pregnant as easy as you. All the time. I’ve lost count.”
Malina opened her mouth to apologize. Like she always did. But she stopped. She said nothing, and only curled deeper into her robe, cinching the belt at her waist.
“Just like your mother. All the time. Another baby. Your cipki taking one thing in or pushing another thing out every day,” Grizella said.
Malina stared at the tall Polish skeleton in front of her. The nose on that face, long and equine, was the same one Malina tried to hide on her own face. He mother had hated that same nose as well. Malina turned to escape back into her bed and the tin in the bottom of her purse.
“I’ll give you two days after. Two days to stop bleeding. Two days to stop the drugs. After three days, if you are not fixed, all fixed, Abraham will take you away in the van.” Grizella blinked when she said his name. No one else would have seen. Malina did.
Malina didn’t remember the cigarette being held out to her. But her eyes were stinging from the strong smoke, as Grizella held it to Malina’s mouth, the moist tip soft and wet against her lips. Malina knew this woman and she wanted to forget her. She didn’t think or feel, but inhaled, held the smoke in her lungs, and let it seep out her nose. She just wanted to taste the smoke.
“But maybe, almost time for you to leave here anyway. Not so good to be the oldest apple left in the store, Teckla. You rot. Then, you’re only good for the rats in the alley.”
Teckla. She hadn’t heard that name spoken in a long time. Her old name. From her old life. Her dead life. Like the one she was walking through today.
The above is an excerpt from my debut novel Drowning Above Water. It is available now at Amazon in paperback and Kindle, and at independent bookstores throughout Pittsburgh.