By Paula Bomer
What does it mean to have no plans? To be on the lam? Sonia stops at a branch of her bank in Connecticut. She withdraws everything in the savings account. Seven thousand dollars. Then she keeps driving. It's dark, she's not a great driver in the dark, that's what living in New York City does to you, but she has a feeling she's about to get better at it.
She checks into a hotel, a cheap Holiday Inn Express in Brighton, on the outskirts of Boston. Brighton still had a sort of Irish and immigrant vibe to it when Sonia lived in Boston, all those years ago, when she was actually free, free because she was young and had no real responsibilities, not free as she was now, because she was abandoning very real responsibilities. Ironically, when she was actually free, it felt just like life, not like freedom. But now that she was stealing it, it felt exhilarating and much more real and visceral. She felt it, coursing through her body.
Nineteen. At first, she hadn't been very good at being young. She was too earnest, too serious. She read anti-pornography feminist tracts and existential philosophy. She painted dark, morbid figures, writhing in pain and blood. Then she met Katrina. Katrina changed her life.
Katrina. Beautiful, fabulous, irresistible Katrina—men were sucked down into Katrina as if she were some wild, inescapable drain. And yet, she had a big nose, occasional acne, tiny breasts, and she was barely 5'4". How? Katrina, who had painted swirly, psychedelic things. Elaborate sixties druggy paintings while listening to scratched-up Robert Johnson records. Katrina, who taught Sonia that being female wasn't weak. The woman—girl, really, they had only been nineteen, the both of them—that taught Sonia that lying on your back with your legs spread open was a kind of power, especially if it felt really good. The one that taught Sonia how to wear a short skirt, how to shake her ass when she walked in said skirt, and how to turn every eye in the room, even if you don't have tits, because Katrina didn't have tits, either. What was it about her? Fearlessness. Confidence. She used to say to Sonia, "You are only going to be nineteen once in your life. Just once. Why not enjoy it? Why not really make the most of youth and freedom?" And she was right. She was so fucking right. Prior to meeting Katrina, she threw herself at her painting with a humorless dedication. After meeting Katrina, her whole relationship to life, and to art, changed. After meeting Katrina, she started getting seriously laid. She started fucking with abandon. Whomever she wanted. Little art boys with their hairless faces and permanently hard cocks. Rock drummers were a specialty for a while, too. And her instructors, oh yes, her instructors. Particularly Philbert Rush. Tall, startling dark hair sticking up on the sides of his head like a cartoon of a mad scientist, handsome largely due to his arrogance, not any conventional good looks, a great deal older, thin and grumpy. Loved pussy in a way no twenty-year-old can. Katrina had no time for older men, but Sonia had time for all sorts of men. Yes, Sonia started to enjoy herself, really truly and wildly, enjoy herself for the first time in her life. And had that been the last? Was that it? Had Sonia peaked in college, like some girls—cheerleader types—peaked in high school?
Sonia met Katrina while working at an Italian restaurant on Newbury Street. It was a decent job in some respects. The money was good, the work wasn't so horrible, though the man who owned the restaurant was completely crazy. He cooked, too, and his wife helped on weekends, and often they fought so horrifically—screaming and throwing pots and pans, and really, really screaming—that Katrina and Sonia would have to turn up the radio very loudly so as not to freak out the customers. They would smile at each other when this happened. It was the conversation opener between the two of them. Because Katrina didn't like Sonia at first. Sonia knew that. Katrina didn't like "college" girls. Katrina didn't go to school. She went to rock shows. But Sonia had been insistent. And funny, without trying to be so. Katrina laughed at her, not with her, but that was OK with Sonia. At least she wasn't being totally ignored anymore. And Sonia was just so intrigued. Who was this woman, this mildly weird-looking woman, who thought so highly of herself? Who sashayed around the restaurant like everyone should lick her toes?
After work, Sonia would go home and dream restlessly of waiting on tables. The next morning, she'd wake tired, her neck and arms hurting from carrying trays of food. She was often too tired to paint in the mornings. One night she asked Katrina if she had the dreams, too.
"They're called waitressing nightmares," Katrina said. "Dreams isn't the right word."
"And you're always carrying food and can never get it to the customer?"
"You can never find your table. It's waitressing hell in your sleep. Waitressing is haunting work. I've been doing it for three years."
"Here? Three years here?" Sonia had just started a few months ago, right before the spring semester ended.
"No, you crazy college girl." Katrina laughed at Sonia. But it was all right. Sonia didn't mind amusing Katrina. Because honestly, her attraction to Katrina was piqued by a curiosity that was somewhat objectifying. Everyone Sonia knew was at a college. Beyond not going to college, Katrina hadn't even finished high school, and Sonia had never hung out with a high school dropout before. "What do they teach you in that fancy school? That people often work at the same place for three years?"
"Well I'm sure it has happened before. And I study painting, not the work habits of the American people."
Katrina smiled at her. Again, it was a bemused smile, not completely friendly. At this point, Sonia hadn't yet understood the magic that was Katrina. She looked at Katrina and she saw a shaggy-haired, wide-bottomed short girl with a long nose who didn't go to college. Katrina said, "Do you want to go out with me after work? I'm going to the Paradise to see a band. This bass player I know put me on the list plus one. My sister was going to be my plus one, but she can get in by herself. She knows the guy at the door. Rock 'n' roll is a great way to make sure you don't get the waitressing nightmares. It clears the head of all waitressing things before sleep. You'll dream of other things, I promise."
And so it went. Free drinks, backstage passes. Small- time bands and then the bigger ones, visiting from LA, from New York, from Chicago. There was Lemmy from Motörhead. There were endless hair bands. Katrina got banged by everyone, by Slash, the guy from Warrant, Chris Robinson from the Black Crowes, Tommy from the Replacements, the guitar player from the Chili Peppers. Katrina knew everybody, cool or uncool. Sonia never had a waitressing nightmare again. Granted, she got stuck with whomever Katrina didn't want. But that was fine with her. Because it was all experience. They were all people. Well, men actually. And it was all fun. Lighthearted. It was adrenaline rushes and loud-ass music and sweaty men and drugs and alcohol. It was short skirts and tight shirts and the power of a well-shaped nipple. A nineteen-year- old nipple. What was more beautiful than a pink, swollen nineteen year old girl's nipple? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. And Sonia learned that there was no shame in that, only joy. Only joy in the beauty of youth, if you were brave enough to feel it.
But that was years ago. Over ten years ago. Fucking fifteen years ago. Now, Sonia's nipples, well, they weren't outrageously bad, but they were darker, not as pink, a little wider. She turns on the TV in her sterile Holiday Inn Express room. She flips through the channels. She lies down and it feels good to put her feet up, After an hour or so of resting like that, she begins to feel restless, hungry, a little alarmed at herself. She even calls home and Dick answers and she hangs up. He was alive. They were all alive. They. And then she calls information in Boston, and then the greater Boston area, and then she finds her, with a hyphenated last name, Katrina Nelson-Allen, in Harvard, Massachusetts. But she chickens out and doesn't call her. Instead, she puts on the one dress she brought, a babydoll dress from years ago, from Betsy Johnson, when babydoll dresses were fashionable among rock chicks, and it works when she's pregnant, making her look not so pregnant, and her swelling breasts hang out the top nicely, all cleavagey. She leaves her hotel, getting the desk guy to call her a cab and decides to go the Kenmore Square, to go to the Rat, her favorite club from her years in Boston, the best fucking rock club in the world.
The Rat. Where she danced to the Pixies, the Neighborhoods, the Bags, Ultra Blue, Jawbreaker and, well, a hundred other bands. Mitch had worked the door, Mitch who had a hole in his throat and this little microphone thing he put up to it when he wanted to talk. Not that he talked much to Katrina and Sonia, as they sashayed by him, letting him feel their asses, not asking for the cover charge. Mitch was a huge man and had tons of gray hair and a gray beard and he really was an institution, he was in charge, he could bounce out anyone, the Del Fuegos when they got too drunk, frat boys who weren't regulars but were trying to slum it and he just didn't like. He had power. Rock 'n' Roll power. And he loved Katrina and Sonia, because what was not to love about them?
The cab stops in front of the Rat, which looks exactly the same and this delights Sonia beyond all belief, as if the world was truly wonderful and made for her happiness. She puts on some lipstick, checks her face in her compact, and then as she walks toward the Rat, feeling self-conscious of being pregnant—although, man, she's really carrying so nice and small, but pregnant is pregnant—notices something is wrong. There's a big football-player-looking guy at the door, all steroid muscles and tight shirt with a leather jacket and spiked hair.
Sonia walks sort of slowly up to him, peaks in behind him. The bar looks the same. It's crowded, but not too crowded, loud, louder than she's used to these days but probably not louder than it was back in her day. But where's Mitch? A sort of panic sets in.
"Hi," Sonia says.
"Hi," football player says, with a reassuring Boston accent. "The cover's ten bucks."
"Oh, of course." Sonia reaches in her bag, finds a ten in her wallet. She can't believe she's paying a cover charge. Her face goes red. "You know, I never had to pay a cover here before. Where's Mitch? Mitch... well, Mitch... "
"Mitch is dead."
Sonia swayed, put her hand on the door to steady herself. "What? Mitch is dead?"
"Yeah, the throat cancer came back and killed him." Stunned, Sonia barely notices the guy take her ten dollars, her anger overwhelmed by grief. Mitch was dead. Mitch, who made her feel special, like she was in the club of hot girls who got to bang hot rock boys. Mitch, Mob connected, the man who put up with nothing, who protected all the girls he loved. Sonia remembers the time he beat up Ike Wagner, a local rock hero, because he tried to rape some poor girl in the men's room. And he beat the shit out of him, movie-style blood and action, right in front of the Rat. Wagner would never press charges, not with Mitch's connections. He was a hero, a legend.
She gathers herself, walks first to the upstairs bar, rather than going down in the basement where the bands play. She sits up on a barstool and gets the attention of the the bartender and orders a beer and a burger. He brings her the beer and she catches his eye.
"So when did Mitch die?" she asks.
"Mitch? Who's Mitch?"
"Oh boy, forget it." This makes her feel even worse. It's one thing for Mitch to be dead, it was a whole other thing when someone working at the Rat doesn't even know who he was. It was like not knowing who Jesus was or something.
Sonia, stunned and quiet, spaces out until her burger arrives, and arrives it does. Greasy, huge, hitting the spot. Sonia sips her beer and manages a moment of being super grateful to be eating large quantities of food. Then, a man sits next to her, and she's midbite—a big-ass bite—when he says, "Hi, Sonia. Jeez, long time no see," and he goes in for a hug. Sonia worries she might dribble on him so she doesn't say anything, just makes a muffled sound, and doesn't pull away from the hug, because, well, it must be someone she knows.
And it is, but it takes her a while to recognize him. Because it appears life has not been kind to him. It was Katrina's boyfriend, the one she lived with for a year, the bass player for many bands, most notably the Neighborhoods. Stan. Stan Donato. His hair is still mostly black and still cut in the same shag haircut. He'd always been thin, but now he's rail thin, and his skin—his face—good Lord. Not that he ever had good skin, but wow, he has not aged well. He's positively gray and although he'd never been a tall man, he now seems shrunken, like half the size he had been. And yet, it's great to see him.
"Stan! It's good to see you. What a surprise," Sonia manages after swallowing some burger.
"You're the surprise, Sonia. What are you doing in Boston?" Stan croaks, like an old man.
"I'm not sure what I'm doing here."
"You look great." He looks down at her stomach.
"Are you married? I think I heard you were married."
"Yeah. I am." Sonia clears her throat from burger. "Tell me about yourself while I wolf the rest of this burger down."
"Oh same old, same old, but all good. I'm playing bass with this really great new band. I think we could be huge. We got some labels interested but we might go the DIY way, just put out an album." Stan scratches his face in an elaborate and familiar way. He's jonesing for a fix. Sonia recognizes the particular way of face scratching heroin addicts have. "I'm still living in the same apartment in Allston. I got a great new girl, she's awesome. So much better for me than Katrina was. Are you in touch with Katrina?"
"No, no I'm not. I looked her up, thought about calling her."
"I wouldn't bother, she's married with a kid and goes to AA and is like totally a different person. Although personally I always knew she was a bitch. I just loved her anyway."
"I wouldn't call her a bitch. She had a lot of attitude but that was something you liked about her. Wow, though. To think of her settled down. I find that, hard. Maybe disconcerting."
"You have no idea, Sonia," says Stan. "I visited her a few times because we stayed friends."
"I remember that now. I was always amazed. I've never stayed friends with any of my exes." Dick flashes into Sonia's mind but she quickly refocuses.
Sonia thinks of Katrina walking off with Lenny Kravitz in a smoke-filled club, or dancing, arms outstretched to the Black Crowes. "Well, I looked her up and wussed out on calling her. But I think I will. I'd like to see her even if she's into AA. I'm married with kids. But I don't feel like a different person. Maybe that's the problem. I feel like I have different things to do now, but otherwise, I feel the same, I think." As Sonia says this, looking over Stan, who was the same, just a fifteen-years-older version, which wasn't pretty, she wonders if it's true, if she does feel the same. And what does that mean anyway? Young? Free? As if the whole world lay ahead of her?
"Is your whole family here? What are you doing here, did you say?" Stan scratches away, dragging his fingers down his face, from his forehead to his chin and back again.
"I didn't say. I... I guess I'm on a vacation. Or on a mission. A find-myself mission. I don't know. But no, my family is not with me."
"Where are you staying?"
"At a Holiday Inn Express in Brighton." Sonia is done eating. "Hey, should we go check out the bands below?"
Stan shrugs. Sonia can tell he's just looking to score, but she can also tell he needs money to do so.
"Let's just check them out."
The band is called Let's Go Radio! and really does have an exclamation point in the name. They seem to be imitating bands from the '80s, bands that she had grown up listening to, like Men Without Hats and Flock of Seagulls, but their look is less colorful. Sonia and Stan stand in the back, and Sonia eyes the young girls, with tons of eyeliner and bright tights, jumping around, wagging their asses, hands grasping the edge of the stage. That had been her. Shameless. But why not have been shameless? Why not, when so young? The real problem right now is she hates this band. They suck. It's as if they didn't even tune their instruments. And something about being here felt wrong, like she's staring into her past and missing it and yet this is not her past, this is now and it's not nearly as haloed as her past was. Not to mention there's no going back. And then she turns and looks at Stan and thinks, at least I'm not in the same apartment, fifteen years later, still trying to make it and, worse, a junkie to boot.
"Let's get out of here," Stan says. "These guys suck."
"I know, they really do."
They walk down Commonwealth Avenue, and Stan shares the news of some of her ex-boyfriends—one in San Francisco making art rock, another disappeared in New Hampshire with a waitress and no one knows where he is. A bench presents itself. The night feels nice, airy and cool, but comfortable. They sit.
"So listen, Sonia, I have a favor to ask you."
She knew this was coming. Stan drags his fingers down his face again, his body twitching in a way that reminds her of Mike, her toddler, trying to sit still and then she banishes the thought of Mike and looks at Stan.
"Can I borrow sixteen dollars?"
What was it with junkies? They always came up with the strangest amounts of money to ask for. I mean, not a hundred bucks or something round and significant, it was always some weird specific amount, the amount of half a bag, because they had the rest in their pocket or something? Who knew.
"I can pay you back next week. We've got a gig and I'll get paid and I can... I can send you a check." He looks straight at her, wringing his hands.
"Stan, since when do you have a checking account?"
"How about fourteen dollars? Or fourteen fifty? I'm begging you."
"You're just gonna buy drugs and I don't feel right about that."
"No, no!" Stan's eyes widen in an enormous effort at sincerity. Sonia knows drug addiction isn't funny, but watching his face attempt to form itself into some wide-eyed semblance of innocence is making it hard for her not to laugh. "I just need it to, to, get home and buy some dinner. I'm just broke! And I owe some money. I need to pay back a... a friend."
"Stan, no. You know, it's been so great running into you. Hearing even a bit about Katrina, about my exes. It was really great to see you, but I'm going to catch a cab back to my hotel." Sonia leans in and hugs him. And he hugs her back. He doesn't even smell that bad. They pull apart and she stands to find a cab.
"Sonia, wait, Sonia." Stan remains sitting, desperate. She feels for him but no, she's always had a rule about junkies. Junk was just so nasty.
He grabs her hands and pulls her head to his and says, "I'll give you head. I give great head. Just fourteen dollars...."
Sonia pulls away and starts waving, "Oh no, no, Stan. Take care, man. I mean, thanks, but no." She starts walking as fast as she can and turns and waves at Stan, who sits slumped on the bench, waving half-heartedly back at her.
Back in the hotel, Sonia contemplates calling home, if she's allowed to call it that, and hanging up, but thinks better of it. Katrina, dear Katrina. The thing is, nothing about Katrina could ever really surprise her. She was capable of anything, going in any direction. And Stan, oh boy. He was so hugely talented and now look. Exhausted, even as her mind races, she turns on the television and before she knows it, she's falling asleep so she gets up, rips off her clothes and begins passing out, inhaling the clean bleach smell of hotel sheets and right before she loses consciousness, her last thought is an ache for the warm, dirty flesh smell of her bed.