by Sarah Rose Etter
Illustration by Adam Vieyra
(From Black Candies: See Through)
It’s before curtain time, and it smells like powder in the dressing room. I am doing the thing with the lavender oil on my temples, the stretching of both calves, the touching of the toes. Tonight it’s the black sequined dress.
In the mirror I say the same thing I always say: “Be careful out there. We’re counting on you.” And in the mirror, my mouth says it back to me and I get the bittersweet feeling in my chest that comes from existing.
Paul comes in when I’m putting on my blush, points with his hairy knuckles, and says “Knock ‘em dead, kiddo.” The grease of Paul settles a rock in my stomach, but I pull lips tight and muscle a smile.
Outside on the marquee, it says it all lit up, says it in big black: COME SEE THE GIRL WITH A THOUSAND SCARS.
I tried it one-on-one first. I tried it in Cadillacs, tried it when I was in love. I tried it because I thought it was the right thing to do.
The men sat on the other side of the gear shift, or we were in the back seat, just an expanse of leather for our bodies, our hands flesh-colored twine. It was always at night.
“I need to tell you something,” I said a thousand times, genuine heart-love stabbing at my ribs, a constant want for each of them in my blood. How many mornings spent waking up on sheets, wishing for their smell, their warmth, their mouths, their hands, their scuffed jaws, their hungover breath on my breasts?
“I really care about you,” I’d say. “But I need to show you something before we go further.”
In the cars, I would untwine, turn to the men, and slide up the hem of my skirt until their eyes burst, ready to be sick.
The scars started there, on my upper thighs, red hard tissue streaks, the result of so many blades. From thighs to ribs, I was a field of those scars, an abacus of ache pressed down into skin. I had made the pattern on myself every time my heart was broken, had added to the collection, had become a master whittler of myself.
In my head, I would hum: Look and still love me, look and still love me.
In the cars, my scars bright, pale under street lamps shining through the windows, the men would vomit between their knees, shake their heads and say “I’m sorry, I can’t,” slam the wheel and slide further away on the leather, scream, or all of those, in succession, always in the car, a grand ending.
And then I would sit alone on the sheets, empty-chested, bloodless, shaking sobbing snotting or clawing at eyeliner, or all of those, grinding my body into the mattress, always a dead puddle, a constant wanting.
And then I would get the blades, the ones in the desk drawer, and draw another line, another hash mark in the skin, pressing the silver down until my blood blossomed up to the surface, until I had added to myself, until I was creating red drops on the wood floor.
I used to call the scars “the girls.” It was easier to just hide them, fuck in the total dark, let the men love me that way. I stopped sleeping in the nude, would find my clothes to hide myself after we joined.
The ad in the paper said: PAUL’S FREAKY DEEKY BOUTIQUE WANTS GIRLS. I put the cup of coffee down and felt a sureness in my chest. I picked up the phone.
“Paul’s Freaky Deeky Boutique,” the voice said.
“I’m calling about the ad,” I said, chest banging, veins all lit up.
“Come in for an interview tomorrow.”
Paul’s office was painted red and Paul was a bastard. He had a skinny face but fat fingers and he smelled like the floor of a McDonald’s. I stood in front of his desk in jeans and a gray t-shirt.
“Nice to meet you,” Paul said. “Please take your clothes off.”
My body went flush, but I stared at Paul and pretended I loved him. I said to myself “I love him and we are in a car and it is scar time,” and in that minute I did want him, I wanted to become part of him, crawl inside his trash and understand the smell of his sheets.
And then my limbs remembered how to move, how to unbutton buttons, how to unzip zippers. I shed the denim and cotton and stood in my bra and panties, scars blaring under the flourescent lights.
“Goddamn,” he said.
There was a hard silence in the room—me just there in barely anything, the truth out there in front of us both, the stupidity and madness of the world on my body, and I thought “How did I get to this point?” but here I was, here we were, and I was hired.
Tonight isn’t a sell out. Tonight is a few hundred. Usually we hit a thousand, but it is almost winter.
I stand on the side of the stage before the curtain opens. Paul stands near me, a microphone sunk into his fat oily hand.
“MEN, WE ALL KNOW WHAT YOU HAVE BEEN WAITING FOR!”
There is a roar of man sounds, man hands slamming together to create boom claps.
“SHE’S THE ONLY WOMAN IN THE WORLD THAT WILL SHOW YOU HER TRUE SELF.”
This is the worst moment—a strong doubt swells in my soft place, and I have to work to reclaim my chest, battle it out of my ribs, push it down until it dissolves.
“BE AMAZED, BE HORRIFIED, BE DELIGHTED…”
My feet twitch, my heart races. I feel hyper-anxious, the swirling pressure of panic behind my forehead and eyes, blood flaming through my veins until it happens.
“…BY THE GIRL WITH THE THOUSAND SCARS.”
When the curtain opens, the dazzling bright light takes over and I know all of the pupils in the room belong to me.
I stop thinking and move, take my body with the time of the music, with the time of the man pounding on the piano, move my limbs like silk butter water, shimmy myself before the eyes, before their shouts.
I know what everyone wants and I am going to do it. It takes a special kind of strength to be able to provide and I am providing. I don’t have to tell myself to love the shadowed heads of these men, I don’t have to pretend we are in a car. I am already in love with everyone.
When the piano hits a certain note, I know it’s time and I move my hands to the fabric, start removing pieces, let them float to the floor, bit by bit, the sequins still shining when they hit the stage and then shining more.
Then it’s just me, bare, there on the stage, the audience mine, the whole truth of me in the flesh, out in the air, open, theirs for the taking, the swirl and stretch of my scars for their consumption, the slow spin of my body as I continue to dance as the piano slows down, a little my hair on my shoulders, the thunder of applause, love, horror, terror coming down from the crowd to clothe me.
There is no car. Nobody throws up. Nobody moves further down the leather seat.
“ISN’T SHE LOVELY?” Paul says, and the house almost comes down, the roar of boom claps, the climax, the exact moment when I am perfect beneath the lights, the exact moment when it feels like I am standing inside of a diamond, the exact moment when all the men see the whole truth of me.
Sarah Rose Etter‘s chapbook, Tongue Party, is available from Caketrain Press. Her work has appeared in Salt Hill Journal, Black Warrior Review, Green Mountains Review, Barrelhouse, Hobart, and more. She hosts the TireFire Reading Series in Philadelphia. You can find out more at www.sarahroseetter.com