Djuna secured their favorite, private, high-backed booth in the empty afternoon dining room and ordered a Manhattan up. She didn’t order for Yvonne, who rarely drank before work. Besides, with Yvonne there were always two choices: most of the time, Kentucky whiskey, Maker’s Mark usually, neat, water back; but when savoring life, Remy warm in a snifter.
Fishing a cigarette from her purse, Djuna glanced out the window and noticed the rain had stopped. Sun shining through dark clouds made new spring leaves glow like a moment from the first days of the world. If only life could change as quickly as sun emerging and you could run free of a million small decisions that had led you to become a person you had never envisioned and didn’t particularly like. Djuna figured you could do that, leave everything and move to a place where you knew not a soul, had no entanglements, no expectations, where you could invent yourself anew. It was delicious thinking, which brought an unaccustomed moment of peace. But she sensed Yvonne’s presence - they had a spooky connection that way - and turning, saw her ordering from the bar, her short black Open Door skirt hidden by the huge, ugly, gray thrift store sweater she wore to hide herself. She made her way to Djuna’s table, carrying both a double whiskey and a water back in her left hand. She kissed Djuna lightly on the lips (a thing that did not quite satisfy) and slid into the booth with a grace that Djuna envied. Yvonne said, “Funny you should call. I was thinking of giving you a Bangs. What’s happening?”
“Paul.” Djuna spread her hands wide. “I can’t decide. At least with Johnny, I know what I’m getting. I’m twenty-five. What would I do with a nineteen year old, a cook of all things?”
Yvonne took a slug of whiskey, let herself feel it. “Have some good, clean fun. Get a little lovin’. Isn’t that what you’ve been waiting for?”
The sound Djuna made might have been a laugh or a sigh or a snort of derision. “He’s a boy,” Djuna complained. “Besides, there isn’t enough of me left to fall in love.”
Yvonne nodded, stifled a smile. “Not a boy, a young man, and you can almost tell what sort of man he’s going to be.”
“What sort?” Djuna asked, gray eyes alight.
Yvonne contemplated her whiskey. “Sweet, demanding, maybe in a hard way, maybe not. Hilton was talking at the bar last night, you know how he gets after a few, and he said Paul is pretty much running the kitchen, and I’ll bet you didn’t hear about his fight.”
Djuna leaned forward. “Tell me.”
“He was over at Hilton’s playing basketball when some guy pulled a knife. Paul destroyed him.”
“Destroyed him how?”
“Like kung fu. His dad was some heavy-duty commando in ‘Nam.” She pitched her voice like Hilton’s, ‘Bet your ass, we got us a fiery grillman, for sure.’” Djuna laughed; Yvonne caught her eye, “He navigated his way around the two of us okay.”
“He was very polite.” They shared a smile. Djuna peered into Yvonne’s dark eyes and set thin, pale fingers on Yvonne’s long dark ones. Yvonne let them lay for a moment before she pulled her hand away to sip her drink. Djuna reflected that the drink fit her perfectly: brown and beautiful, rough, raw, dangerous in large quantities. They had been best friends for years, occasional lovers and occasional rivals. She always seemed to leave Djuna longing for more.
“He loosened up. Come on, Djuna, admit it. You like him. He’s handsome as the devil and that body.” She licked a fingertip and shook it, like she had just been burned. Djuna couldn’t resist a smile.
“I do like him but it just feels wrong, like yet another mistake.” Djuna’s romantic mishaps were legendary and frequent and now seemed to lie in an unsavory pile on the table between them.
Yvonne sipped whiskey before she spoke. “Maybe, but it might be a chance for you. You say you want to be in love, and you can’t keep on like you are with Johnny. What are you worried about? He’s nineteen. In a few months, he’ll have his eye on some hostess or one of those hot bus girls Mitchell’s been hiring and you can bow out gracefully.”
“Then where will I be?”
“Rid of Johnny. Seriously. You guys are poison for each other. If it were me, I’d jump at the chance. Paul would be fun to play with. I thought he was sweet, and I can see why Raina wants to kick your ass.”
Djuna sighed. “That’s why it’s so hard to decide. By the way, you were perfect. It wouldn’t have happened without you.”
Yvonne dug in her purse for Sherman’s, extracted one, tamped it on the table, didn’t light it, didn’t speak for a long moment. “Sure it would’ve. He’s in love with you. I think he’s afraid of me.” Yvonne frowned. “So, how are you going to juggle them?”
Djuna had also once been afraid of Yvonne and sometimes still was. It wasn’t just the scar that ran along her jaw from cheekbone to chin, it was the hard look in her eyes, her habitual scowl, her sudden temper, and the sense, often confirmed, that she knew no limits, that she might do anything.
“I’m not. We talked when I took him home. He won’t see me out of respect for Johnny. We ‘snuck up on him’ is what he said.”
“And pounced.” Yvonne laughed and finished her whiskey, wearing a satisfied, wolfish grin. With one finger, she made a circular motion to the waitress, calling for another round. “Respect for Johnny? That’s a line you don’t hear much. By the way, did you notice how Paul kissed me good-bye? That was respect, too. You could work with that.”
Djuna couldn’t help but smile. “I feel ridiculous, like we got him drunk and seduced him.”
Yvonne said, “So what? Sometimes you’re gettin’, sometimes you’re got. That’s the game, and he wanted to play. After all, he’d been with Raina for a month.”
“To think of him with her.” Djuna gave a mock shudder.
“Does he know how she is after work, after a drink or four?” Yvonne asked.
“Johnny told him, then he found out about that construction guy, and that’s why he was with us, why he moved out. He’s innocent in that way.”
“Innocent?” questioned Yvonne.
“Maybe romantic is a better word.” Djuna pulled on her cigarette, thinking that wasn’t quite right either. She didn’t know him well.
“So, how do things stand?”
Djuna exhaled from the corner of her red-painted mouth, crushed the remains of her smoke. “Dicey. He thought I was going to leave Johnny, and Johnny knows. The first thing he said was, ‘Ah, you got Paolo. How was it?’ But now, he’s figured out it’s not just a one night stand and that Paul really likes me, so he gives me shit, and Paul gives me wounded puppy eyes when I’m with Johnny. It’s gotten so I don’t even want to go to work.”
“I noticed. So, you’ve got two. You’ll probably end up with the one you should.”
Djuna glanced out the window. The light outside had faded and the world had returned to tired and dark. Her six silver rings had grown tight, uncomfortable, constricting. She fought the urge to twist them from her fingers, to pull them off one by one. It would seem frantic and desperate to have to lick her knuckle to pull off the tightest of them, her amethyst, yet she found herself doing just that and dropping the lot of them in her purse. She noticed Yvonne watching her, tapping her unlit cigarette against the table. Djuna hurried to fill the silence.
“If I mess up, I could lose them both. Last time I worked, Raina sat down in the break room while I was doing my check out, blew smoke in my face and said, ‘I can’t decide. Should I go after Johnny or Paul? Seems like Johnny is getting restless. Maybe he doesn’t like all your catting around. And Paul, he’s single right? What do you think Djuna, the older guy with all the moves or the kid who can go all night? Is one of them yours? Cause I’d hate to take your man.’” Djuna lifted her empty glass to drink, set it back down. “I couldn’t think of a damn thing to say. Then she started talking about Evan. There would have been blood and ambulances if a couple of waiters hadn’t come in.”
The waitress arrived with their next round. They watched her serve in silence, and Djuna knew they both found something to criticize – her fingers touching the lip of the glass, how she dumped the ashtray instead of covering it with a clean one, then switching the two. “Anyway, Mitchell asked me to bring Paul to the employee party. Guys from corporate will be there, and Paul wants to get into management. And that ‘s the thing. If I bring Paul and leave with Johnny, she gets Paul, and if I leave with Paul, she gets Johnny.”
Yvonne spoke with quiet certainty. “Paul won’t go back to her.”
“I wouldn’t put anything past her, and Paul will be done with me if I drag him down there and walk out with Johnny. Johnny and I have always had our affairs, but I don’t think he’d take being jilted in his own bar, and Raina is just the kind of wench he’d use for payback. So, I’ve got two days to decide. Djuna shrugged. “To the idea angel.” They clicked glasses and drank.
Yvonne’s sweater was far too big, moth eaten with three gray diamonds woven into the front, light gray descending to dark. It was clothing she wore as armor, as camouflage. The way she seemed to disappear into it reminded Djuna that her friend also had trouble. The scar on Yvonne’s face sometimes gave her a devilish, predatory look but now made her look sad, defeated. “What’s up with you?”
Anger rose then fell in Yvonne’s dark eyes. “Charlie came, took his shit.”
“That night with Paul, and then Dana Barber, you know that bitch he works with at Salty’s?”
“Vonnie, I’m sorry.”
Yvonne said, “Maybe it’ll give me a chance re-think my pathetic life,” and drank off her whiskey. “I need to find a big strong man, get righteously laid and blow the past right out the window.”
Djuna lit another cigarette then immediately put it down. “I’ve got an idea.”
“Oh, Djuna, no.”
“My last idea worked.”
Yvonne shook her head, examined her unlit cigarette. “If you mean jumping Paul, I’d have to say, ‘sort of.’”
Djuna wore an encouraging grin. “But you’ll like this one. You sleep with him.”
“Me?” Yvonne laughed, and Djuna saw the side of her friend that she liked best, wry, fun loving, a glimpse of tenderness in her smile.
“It’s perfect. You need to get righteously laid, so you sleep with Paul, who needs to get righteous laid and distracted from Raina. It’ll give me another week to figure things out.”
“Why don’t you?” Yvonne asked, eyes intent.
Djuna spoke with certainty. “Johnny will know and pay me back with Raina or someone even worse. Come on, Vonnie, we’ve played tougher situations than this. I’ll take care of Johnny; all you have to do is play the kid.”
Djuna had pale gray eyes, the lightest, most colorless eyes Yvonne had ever seen, eyes that were sometimes cold and devoid of feeling, but now sparkled with delight. Yvonne drank water, looked at the table top for a long moment. “I don’t know. ‘Playing the kid?’ Not really what I had in mind.”
But Djuna smiled, enthusiastic. “Come on. You said it would be fun, said you’d jump at the chance. You said he was sweet. And like you said, he’s nineteen, no attachments. I’ll make it easy. While you and Johnny are working, I’ll get him all hot and bothered. You just step in at the end.”
Yvonne said, “Are you sure about this?”
Djuna loved her ploys and plans and wanted to sell this one. “I mean, seriously, anything, as long as Raina doesn’t get him. If she sets her sights on him, give him a ride home or take him to bed or beat the crap out of her, whatever it takes. But you’ll do it, for me?” Then Djuna flashed the wide movie star smile that opened doors wherever she went.Yvonne lit her smoke, nodded.