The following is from Paula Whyman’s collection of short stories, You May See A Stranger. Paula Whyman's writing has appeared McSweeney’s Quarterly, Ploughshares, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Washington Post, and The Rumpus. A music theater piece, “Transfigured Night,” based on a story in this collection, is in development with composer Scott Wheeler. A native of Washington, DC, she now lives in Maryland.
Pogo wants to pay for everyone. It’s a big night for him, and he’s taking us to the country club. Cheever and his girlfriend are coming, too. Cheever is Pogo’s younger brother. Their father’s name is on a plaque somewhere in the building.
“On a bar stool,” Pogo joked.
“His name is the same as yours,” Cheever told him.
Pogo has wads of cash in his pocket. I have a small square of paper in my purse. It’s proof of something that I don’t quite believe. When the doctor said it, I thought of an incubator and chicks, my body as a holding area, warm, but like everything else, temporary. Pogo will eventually show everyone the cash. I don’t plan to show anyone the paper. This is Pogo’s big night, not mine. One big night at a time seems like a good philosophy.
Cheever and Natasha are already at the bar when we arrive. Natasha’s glass is full and sweating in her hand. She swirls the yellow straw between her fingers. Cheever orders a gin and tonic for himself. He and Pogo don’t look like brothers, but they look related. They slap each other on the back with friendly hostility, which leads into a wrestler-grip hug held a little too long.
“I’m proud of you,” says Cheever. He tries to mess Pogo’s hair, but Pogo blocks him. Pogo tries to mess Cheever’s hair instead, except he can’t because it’s short and bristly, so it ends up looking like a plush carpet you stroked in the wrong direction.
Pogo orders drinks for both of us. He’s had two already, before we got here. One before we got in the car, and one he finished on the way to the club, while I drove. His cheeks and his nose are pleasantly red.
At the bar, I hold up the car key for him to take, and he shows me his pocket. I reach over to slip the key into his khakis, and he grabs my fingers.
“The other one,” he whispers in my ear.
I put the key in his other pocket, on the side facing away from Cheever and Natasha, the side without the wad of cash in it. I reach all the way in to stroke him through the lining of his pocket. He isn’t wearing underwear. I can feel the hard curve of him. If I try, I think I can feel his blood rushing. He keeps talking, leaning up against the bar. He leans toward Natasha. While he talks, he touches her with his hand that holds the drink, as if he might rest the glass on her shoulder. I squeeze a little. He flinches in a way only I would notice, and he has to stop my hand and shift himself. All this he does seamlessly, while holding the drink in the other hand and expounding on the vagaries of the market.
* * * *
Pogo has an old Mercedes. His father has one, too. His affection for old things confuses me—some are quality, and some are just old. The idea is to look like they don’t care about money, or even think about it. If you’ve had enough of it for a long enough time, say, generations, you don’t think about it in the same way as other people. But that’s someone else’s money, and whenever Pogo manages to get his own, he wants everyone to know. In my family, what modest funds my parents earned were spent on my sister’s doctors and life-skills counselors, and on the annual summer jaunt to a nearby mountain lodge, where Donna and I counted dead flies on the windowsill and held our noses against the smell of the septic tank. We’d never had the luxury to act like we didn’t worry.
* * * *
On the way to the club, Pogo and I stopped in the parking lot of Broder’s, the gourmet grocery store. We shut off the car engine, but left the radio on. We parked at the far end of the lot, but I could still see people coming and going, pushing their carts, which were smaller and daintier than the carts at a run-of-the-mill store.
I didn’t want to mess up my skirt by hiking it up to my waist, so I took it off. Pogo tilted the passenger seat back as far as it would go, and I straddled him. It was cramped, and I had to hunch my shoulders to avoid hitting the ceiling. At one point, I leaned forward all the way and lay on top of him, and he pushed me up with his pelvis and shouted “giddyap.” He can be a goof that way. I was so high up, I thought later about my naked bottom and the car’s moon roof, and shouldn’t I laugh about it? But I wasn’t exactly thinking about it at the time. A vibration was beginning inside of me, like the background hum of an amplifier. Clapton was singing, Nobody’s lucky till luck comes along/Nobody’s lonely till somebody’s gone. That’s when I came. Pogo already had, a moment before. It was still daylight.
I wasn’t into it at first, doing it outside of Broder’s, or even at all. Pogo could nearly always persuade me; he knew and I knew that I would end up feeling like it before he was done. After that, I drove us to the club. The thrumming in my body continued to reverberate, in seeming rhythm with the rattling diesel engine. I wanted to be still for a while longer and let it finish whatever it was doing to me.
Pogo said, “‘You, in the cheaper seats, clap your hands; the rest of you just rattle your jewelry.’” This was John Lennon at the Beatles’ Royal command performance, Pogo was fond of reminding me.
“Am I the queen?” I asked.
“You are the queen of all you survey,” said Pogo.
“The Broder’s parking lot?” I said.
“Are you my serf?” I asked.
“I serf no one,” said Pogo.
“Ugh,” I said.
When we got to the club, I went to the ladies’ room. There were hand towels made of the same fabric you’d make cloth napkins out of, folded in rows on a table near the sink. I wanted to bring one into the stall with me to clean up from preceding events. I couldn’t though, because there was a black woman sitting on a chair in the room, wearing what looked like a nurse’s uniform. She was an attendant. I wasn’t sure what she was going to do for me, and I didn’t have time to figure it out. My insides felt shaken up and rearranged, and standing in that dim room with the slightly antiseptic odor tipped the balance toward one arrangement rather than another. I bent over the toilet, my bare knees pressed into the knobby floor, and waited. I threw up, and then threw up again. After a while, it stopped on its own, and I sat on the rim in a weakened state, leaning to one side so that I could feel the cool wall tiles. I could fool myself that I was empty, if only for a moment. I had a vision of my body turned inside out, gleaming pink, pristine. So much for that. My knees hurt, as if I’d knelt in pebbles. I sat for as long as I thought I could, awaiting with dread the attendant’s tap on the stall door, or Pogo’s voice outside the ladies’ room calling to me. At that moment, nothing seemed more difficult than leaving the bathroom.
Finally, I emerged from the stall. The attendant handed me a cup with green liquid in it. I looked at her questioningly, but she kept her face neutral and turned away. I smelled it; it was mouthwash. She probably thought I was drunk, like the other girls who men try to impress, bringing them to the club for drinks before they get them into bed. But Pogo had done things in reverse, as usual. He didn’t have to get me drunk first. He didn’t even have to impress me.
After I washed my hands, the woman handed me a towel. There was no place for tips, so I figured that wasn’t done. There was a large wicker basket where I finally realized I was supposed to put the used cloth after I dried my hands. I smiled at her and said, “thank you” when I left the bathroom.
She must be keeping things clean between customers. For some reason, I imagine that she’s never permitted to leave the building; perhaps she can’t even leave the ladies’ room. I wonder if anyone on the outside knows about this, or if it’s a secret the members are expected to keep. She’s the only black person I’ll see at the club tonight.
* * * *
At the club’s bar, I don’t touch my drink right away. I’m not sure how much I want to drink. Same way I was unsure about having sex earlier. I’m resolutely not focusing on the possible reason. Pogo puts the glass in my hand: “Drink the potion,” he says. He’s always paying attention to how much other people drink. I know I’ll oblige. I wonder if Pogo would still give me a drink if he knew. I can’t imagine him suddenly becoming responsible. This is, after all, what I both want and don’t want about him.
Pogo’s ten years older than me. Most men his age are married. He thinks that I won’t push him. I play along. I’m only a year out of school, but it’s as if I’m the grown-up. Pogo wants to be a kid forever.
My doctor asked me, is the father someone you’re serious with? I said yes. Then he’ll do right by you, the doctor said. I laughed. The doctor looked at me sadly then. If that were the case, I wouldn’t be pregnant. Or I suppose when I forgot to take my pill, I could have said no. When Pogo said, just this one time, please? We’d been dating a year, and up to that time I’d been very good about remembering it. I thought one time would be okay. And maybe it would have been. But if I’m honest I’ll also admit it was not just one time.
If we had a boy, first Pogo would teach him how to pee on the side of the road. Then he would teach him persuasion. These are not bad things to know, just as it’s not bad sometimes to let yourself be persuaded.
* * * *
I stare at the coaster my drink has been sitting on. It’s the most substantial paper coaster I’ve ever seen, as thick as a whole pad of paper. Someone spent a lot of money on those. Worth it? I imagine the talk: “Our golf course is first rate, but you should see our coasters—a well-kept secret.” Along with the black woman in the bathroom. The club’s fleur-de-lis symbol is embossed in gold in the center of the coaster. There’s a wet ring where my drink was. But the water doesn’t get absorbed, it sits on top. The fleur-de-lis reminds me of something. Sex-flower. Flower of lascivious pomposity. I make these phrases in my head; I entertain myself that way. The same symbol is on the hand towels in the bathroom. I almost cleaned myself with the seal of the King of France.
It’s easier to talk to Cheever and Natasha when they’ve had a couple of drinks, as if they discover their personalities. Maybe they think I’m the same. They’re talking about Pogo’s big news, except he doesn’t want to tell the whole story yet. He’s waiting for the moment of utmost drama, so he only drops teasers like, “Do you know how much cash I have in my pocket right now?”
I make a face that tells Cheever and Natasha that I know the answer, and won’t they be impressed? Pogo winks at me, commiserating. We’re like Penn and Teller.
“I hope it’s more than you have in your bank account,” says Cheever.
* * * *
Pogo showed me the money when we were in the car. He used the same line with me: “Do you know how much cash I have in my pocket right now?” This was right before we had sex.
The money was rolled into a thick wad held tight by a rubber band. “I thought you were just happy to see me,” I said. “How much is that?”
“Six thousand right here,” he said, squeezing it in his fist. “The rest is being held at the firm. Earnest money. The importance of being earnest.”
“Are you supposed to have all that?”
“It’s mine, all mine,” he laughed maniacally and sipped his drink, which was in a real glass he’d brought from home. He’s the only person I’ve ever seen do that, bring a drink in an open glass in a car that isn’t a limo. But I never saw Pogo or any of his friends without a drink, a wisecrack, or a woman. They were not-quite Southerners in the not-quite South, pretend gentility and bad behavior coexisting without any apparent discomfort, like Pogo’s dress-code-correct pressed khakis with no boxers underneath.
“This is chump change,” he said. “After the sale, I get more. A lot more.” He unfurled the wad and started peeling off bills. There were fifties and hundreds. His pants were on, but my skirt was already off. I was stretched out next to him, reclining as best I could in the driver’s seat, the steering wheel preventing much range of motion. He laid one bill after another side to side, flat on my thighs, all the way to my knees. I stayed very still. Then, he lifted my blouse, and tried to put bills on my stomach, going up to my breasts, but my stomach was too fat, and only one of them would stay, the one covering my belly button.
“Pizza,” said Pogo, smacking my stomach a little too hard.
“Look who’s talking,” I said. He was giving me an opening, but I was waiting for the right moment, too, and this wasn’t it. I thought of what I would do. And I thought, for the thousandth time, of what he would do. Would he look at that inky print-out, which resembled nothing more than a galactic cloud, an obscured thumbprint, his and mine together, and would he, like always, say just the right, wrong thing? I thought of taking that square of paper with my future printed on it and placing it over his crotch and saying, ‘Here. How much is this worth?’
“I thought you said I was cute,” he pouted, the insult to me already forgotten.
“The Pillsbury dough boy is adorable,” I said. Pogo had a round face, and he was flabby in the middle, but tall enough that he came off as sturdy and strong. Would his baby have his baby face? His cheek was smooth to the touch. I imagined a tiny hand reaching out to it. I felt something tighten inside me. When I was a kid, what did I imagine about having a baby? Why do I only remember playing with dolls that looked like little adults? What would Pogo do? How could I know him for this long and not know the answer to that?
“Nya-nya ‘doughboy’ nya-nya. Very funny. You’re not as funny as me,” he said. “I’m the funniest of all.”
“You’re the King of Comedy,” I said. “Throw some more money at me, and I promise I’ll say whatever you want to hear.”
“I’m deeply, deeply wounded by your sarcasm,” Pogo said sarcastically. He attempted to put a fifty over my mouth. “You promised,” he said. I breathed out through my nose and the bill fluttered down to land on the floor mat. He snatched it up.
“Beautiful money,” he said. “I’ve mistreated you.” He stroked it and reinserted it in the stack he held. He collected the bills from my thighs, along with the others that had landed on the floor of the car, and folded the wad back into his pocket. He leaned over the gear shift and kissed me. Slowly, he kissed all of the places where the money had been. When we were having sex, his pants were pushed down around his knees, and I could feel the bulging cash rub against my ankle.
From YOU MAY SEE A STRANGER. Used with permission of Northwestern University Press. Copyright © 2016 by Paula Whyman.