THE FIRST WOMAN

BY REGINALD BAKER

 

“Your name?”

“Guess,” she said.

“Does it start with E?”

“No.”

“S?”

“No.”

“Q?”

She laughed. “No.”

”I surrender.”

“L,” she said.

“Leah.”

“No.”

“Lydia.”

“Lily,” she said. “My name’s Lily.”

“Of course,” he said. “Lily.”

“And yours?”

“Guess.”

“With a J?”

“No.”

“With an A?”

“Yes.”

“Adam.”

“You’ve named me.”

“Now what?” she asked. “What’s left after the naming?”

“I believe that’s the end. There’s nothing left to know.”

“Hmm,” and she bit her lip. She lifted the frosted widebrimmed glass and sipped at the vodka tinted the slightest yellow. “And you do?”

“What I can. And you?”

“Guess.”

“If I guess too low I look like an ass. So I will say nuclear physicist.”

“Almost. Try again.”

She wore peach. Her hair was brown, curled naturally. Her eyes went to slits when she laughed, drank,

thought deeply. He thought they were blue, maybe a blue close to green. Her cheeks were prominent, fleshy, and he knew brushing her skin would send him into the full body shivers.

“Marketing,” he said.

“How’d you know?”

“A useless talent.”

“Now you. The truth.”

“The truth? I can’t tell you the truth.”

The bartender violently shook a tumbler full of ice and assorted liquids. He listened.

“Do you do anything?” she asked.

“I do lots of things.”

“But none of them are true.”

“They are all true in their own way.”

“So you lie. You are a liar.”

“Yes. I am a liar.”

She stared into her drink, sipped. He drank from his beer.

“I am a liar too,” she said.

“Are you now?”

“Of course.”

He brushed a strand of hair behind her ear.

“Not yet.”

“All right.”

The bartender spilled the contents of the tumbler into a glass. He had underpoured by a third.

There was an intrusion behind them. Adam and Lily both turned and they saw a man in a black shirt highlighted with the bright yellow reflective word POLICE attempting to handcuff a young man in a pastel shirt and jeans. He had the younger man’s face pressed against the wall.

“Why are you resting me?” the youth slurred. “What did I. I didn’t. Why you resting me?”

“Stop,” the officer said. “Keep your hands behind your back.”

“Public intoxication?” the bartender asked.

The officer did not respond.

“Must be public intoxication,” the bartender said.

The young man was eventually handcuffed and led toward the stairs. He tripped but the officer held him by the cuffs. His coupled arms overextended behind him, a vision of ancient tortures, and he yelped. The officer yanked him upright and then took him by the back of the neck, as if he were a cat. Captor and captive disappeared, the receding repeated thump of dragged feet.

Lily looked to Adam. And Adam said, “I’ve been arrested for public intoxication. In Wichita, Kansas.”

“Really?” and through the slits was a shine in her eyes, perhaps from the lowhanging bar lights. The bartender pretended to wipe the fridge where the beer was stored.

“Yes, I have. Would you like to hear the story?”

“Yes,” she said, “I would.”

Adam then told Lily the story of his arrest. He had been detained two nights. He lied and told her it had been four. She drank more and she drank more quickly. She touched her hair, stared with intensity at his lips and eyes.

“Were you raped?” she asked, serious.

“No,” he said, “but as I was leaving a large man with many tattoos joked that I should let him rape me so I could have the full experience.”

“Did he rape you? Be honest.”

Adam laughed. “No. He didn’t rape me.”

“Were you scared? I would have been terrified.”

“Dumb to say, but I enjoyed it. It’s not so bad if you know you’re leaving.”

“That’s wild,” Lily said, softly, slowly, as if to herself. “I’ve never had experiences like that.”

“Of course I did spend twelve hours in a small room with a man accused of murder. That was unpleasant.”

She had drunk to the dregs. She held the glass aloft, looked through the distortion. “My sorority sisters are so sheltered. They get uncomfortable when I talk about masturbation even. I love it. I masturbate every day.”

Adam drank his beer.

“I want to go out and really like experience life, you know?” she said, her voice rising, her cheeks flushed, the same hue of peach as her shirt. ‘I’m so tired of this, this little bubble. I’ve never really faced anything challenging. I want to travel. I want to live raw.”

“Did you grow up in the suburbs?”

“Outside Atlanta. I hate going back. I will never live like that again. It’s so—so—”

“Safe?”

“Dead. You have experienced life. Like, you have been out and done things.”

“My cellmate my first night was a kid named AJ who had been smoking meth since he was 12. I suppose he had some experiences.”

“How old are you?” she asked, intent.

“Too old.”

“No really.”

“Twenty eight.”

“That’s not too old,” she said. “Are you homeless?”

“Kind of.”

She swirled the sliced lemon rind in the bottom of her drink. “That’s all right. That’s okay that you’re homeless.”

He thought to touch her but he did not touch her. “And you are how old?” he asked.

“Twenty two.”

“That’s too old,” he said, and she smiled.

They were the last and the lights came on.

“I’m going to have to start last call,” the bartender said.

Lily pushed her drink away. She swatted at her hair, smoothed her blouse. “You have thirty seconds to finish that beer,” she said.

“Do I?” Adam said, smirking.

“Yes. Thirty seconds.”

He drank slower. He did not watch her face. He wasn’t sure if she was counting.

He sensed movement. By the time he swiveled she was gone.

“You think she left?” he asked the bartender.

“I think she left,” the bartender said.

Adam finished his beer. He got up and walked over to the top of the stairs. They were narrow and black and they seemed to descend and descend. At the end, far down, was the clear glass door showing the bodies and the cars and the hither and yon of the unenclosed world. The door glinted an unnatural orange, like an unholy fire. He clenched the handrail. He did not hurry.

Outside the night glowed with its artificial light, a collusion of lamps struggling to outshine the dark. The sidewalks were thick with the young. They huddled in fives and sevens and they wore their youth as badge and shield. Adam gave them way. He did not try to dissuade their progress. He looked over their heads, at the few spared trees, at the redbrick buildings, at the whitefaced clocktower with its two unceasing hands, at the distant suns brilliant enough to pierce this oppressive firmament, and he remembered. He thought to seek for her but he did not know where to begin his search. He wanted to call her by name but he knew she would not hear his call. He had never been so lost.

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