to get to the center
Tootsie’s table has three men. A coke, an ale, a seltzer split between them and a platter of cheesy buffalo wings on its way. Tootsie cuts her way around the diner with a plastic tray of appetizers and a handful of bendy straws. The rubber stopper at the back of her roller blades squeals. She stops at her table then mine without bendy straws. She has a hand on her hip. “Mozzie sticks, right?”
I tell her yes, but I want to taste her. She wets her lips and sighs, puckering. The fat man at the bar rings a gold bell and the Kiss Counter goes up under Tootsie’s name. The men with the straws want a taste too, and she wipes her mouth. I never get my mozzie sticks.
She wheels to Seltzer, Coke, and Ale. They come here every day of every week. Coke, he’s balding; Seltzer looks like he belongs in Twinkle’s Toy House up the street; Ale has drugged eyes, a beard and only a beard. When Coke looks up at Tootsie, the skin of his chin hangs like a turkey wattle. Tootsie bends to kiss him and he meets her halfway. She skips a paled Seltzer for Ale, who bites her and grips the back of her thighs. They part with pink spit and he licks her wet chin. The fat man rings three bells. Loud. Seltzer shoves his friend, looks to be apologetic, but Tootsie laughs, kissing Ale’s nose with a quiet smile.
There are other Sugar Babies on the board, but only Tootsie has double digits. Her uniform is white and the others red, pink and sick green. There’s a gold tag welded to the back of her neck, pure metal etched with her name and number. White socks climb up to her knees. Tootsie is still young, a real baby. She still has that fat set in her cheeks and her skin is tied tightly around muscle. When she comes for the check, there’s that excitement in her eyes, a fresh glaze of hope for a big tip, a kiss. When she does kiss you, there’s a moment when you know she’s breathless because she lingers.
Tootsie goes behind double doors to the kitchen and I return to more important things: mozzie sticks. If I had them, there would be seven. I would relieve three tubes of mozzarella from their bread casing and split one, strip half. But I don’t so I refold my napkin six times.
Tootsie comes back to my table. She smiles at me. “Sorry about that,” she says, and plunks a basket of mozzie sticks on the table. I like the sound of the tissue paper rustling. I like licking the grease soaked in.
She cocks her head like a dog, apologizing for nothing like s-OR-ry.
“Ranch. I, uh, wanted ranch as well.” She blinks at me and laughs breathily.
Tootsie laughs a lot. She has a nice smile though I don’t like that her canine teeth look like vampire fangs, or the overlap of the bottom row. They are otherwise creamy and her gums, pink. The big girl, Sugar Plum, has a better smile but her kisses are much too bitter. I like holding Sugar Plum when we make love. She’s all goo and no bones. Her body trips over itself. I’m in love with Sugar Plum to the point of engagement and as such we live together with Penny and Viola, our cats. Sugar Plum works in the kitchen. She’s a red coat, an old timer. She tells me no one but me should see her saggy ass in shorts. I’m not going to say she’s lying.
Tootsie’s smile is puffy. “Be right back.” Seltzer catches her by the wrist as she passes. Tootsie bends down and he whispers something in her ear. Ale sucks on the dull end of a chicken bone. Tootsie pulls back, smiles gently at Seltzer and presses a kiss to his nose.
That night, when I make love to Sugar Plum, she sucks on my knee caps and I tell her to make me bleed. Her blue eyes, lost in her cheeks, roll like marbles. “Why?” In the dark, she’s like a big, fat glow worm. Her sweat soaks up the moonlight, and I suck her fingers into my mouth until the tips flush.
“I want it.”
“You always want something weird.” She bites me and I moan not because I like it. No, I want to pretend so that maybe I will. “You like that?”
“Yeah,” I breathe. She smiles at me and there’s knee hair webbed between her teeth. “Kiss me.”
Sugar Plum doesn’t love me anymore. She told me so when I proposed. She said, “Jimi, it just ain’t right.” But I put the ring on her sausage finger and she smiled to say “Fine.” Every night, I listen to the sound of her sleep apnea machine, her father dribbling over a television, the cats hurling wet hair for me to step in and feel it, the cold ball of cat goo beneath my feet. I endure the life of the painfully irrelevant all for a fat ring, on a fat girl with a fat dad just to sit on my skinny ass and fake. I’m fascinated by Tootsie because her existence is entirely fabricated. I’m in love with Plum because she’s raw like knees on concrete, man coaxing udder, a tongue stuck to a pole.
The next day, in The Candy Shop, I have bright scabs. I sit at the bar and ask for a Dirty Shirley, the sweat of the glass I lick from the table then ask for a coaster. The fat man hands me a napkin. “Thank you,” I say. He nods curtly. The fat man is Sugar Plum’s father. He owns the place.
Someone taps me on the shoulder. It’s Sodapop. She’s cupping a lolli in the corner of her cheek, loose necked. When she knows she has my attention, Soda sucks the lolli slowly from her mouth. Her lips are wrinkly. “Early bird?” She’s sexy and she holds it in her throat. I’m not sure what she means. “Someone had a fun night.” She picks a scab and flicks it like a booger.
“That hurts.” Soda laughs. Her tongue is milky. “Listen—”
“ — that hurts. Stop.” Sodapop curls. Her belly is taut, the cavern carved low and bejeweled. She’s five months pregnant and the skin around the jewelry is like a rubberband ready to snap. Her pink button-up is tied high, just beneath two wet half dollar patches.
“Alright, pansy, I’ll let up.” Her name should be Jawbreaker. “Can I get a kiss? Rent’s due soon.” I kiss her for a long time. The fat man rings the bell twice. It’s so loud. Sodapop tastes like skim milk. When we part, she drags her teeth across my bottom lip and I decide that I like it. “You should probably get a booth, baby. We open soon.”
“Noted.” It’s late in the evening, five minutes before opening, golden hour to be exact. The bar stools look like clown noses. The tables, paint chipped at the corners from unfortunate hip collisions, are glossy with spilled, forgotten soda. The window wall above the booths offers a perfect view of Suburbia: overgrown concrete and apartments on chain stores, pale cars sardining the streets. Sugar Plum and I live in a studio above The Candy Shop.
I visit her before I go to sit. She has her hair in pigtails today. She’s beating a slab of meat when I come behind her, rolling her gum body beneath my hands, relishing in the smell of her neck. “What is it?” she asks. The scrunchies on either side of her head are loose, stray hair sticks to her face and neck, staticky in the light. My hands beneath her folds, I can feel where my teeth have been.
“Nothing.” I want to kiss her cheek. I don’t.
“Well, I’m busy. You want me to get you some mozzie sticks?”
“On the house?”
“Fuck no.” The chef snorts over a fresh pie.
“I’m good.” I lick my hands when I leave her because I’m in love.
I finish half of my mozzie sticks. They cost five dollars and seventy-five cents. If I buy another batch, it will take thirty minutes for Chef to put frozen mozzie sticks into the oven then remember to tell Plum to take them out. It will take another thirty minutes for Tootsie to make her way around to my table since Sodapop decided to take a smoke break.
I decide to get another round of mozzie sticks. Tootsie’s my waitress. “Can I get you anything else?” she asks. She’s empty-handed. No tray, just a note pad she picks from her little black apron. A bell rings. Coke whoops and Seltzer wipes his mouth. Tootsie watches him and smiles. I’m at a booth that faces their table directly under the curvature of a shiny pig. My head is beneath his pregnant belly. I reach up and splay my palm on the base, where all fat gathers around hip flexors. He’s cold and hard. Fake. “Jimi?” Blood that had rushed down my arm flows back through to my fingers. I shake out my hand. Tootsie stares.
I wait for a smile. “Well,” I drawl, flapping open the menu that I know by heart just to feel the lamination. There are distasteful fingerprints all over the gloss. I lick my thumb and turn the page. “Hmm.”
“Need a minute, James?” I look up at her. She’s leaning heavily on her right hip. She must be strong. I drop my napkin and bend to trace the musculature of her calves, her thighs. Her shins look fragile. Something about this feels predatory. Tootsie clicks a pen in her left hand.
“Sorry, what was that?”
“Do you need a minute, James?” she says again. Tootsie reminds me of a golden retriever, much unlike Soda, a sphynx at heart, and polar to Plum, naturally a mother bear.
“Jimi, please. Only Plum calls me James.” And she does it to spite me.
“Jimi,” she says like a curse. I blink.
“No, I think I’ll just have the check, please. And a kiss, if you will?”
“Jimi, you’ve got grease all over you.”
“Everyone needs lube,” I say and laugh. Tootsie puffs her cheeks. She plucks a napkin from her apron pocket, and goes to wipe my face. Suddenly, I’m in a high chair with pea goop down my bib, but she pauses. Straightening her back, she looks over her shoulder at the kiss counter. Her bar is a quarter from being full.
I’ve never noticed how yellow she is. I want to peel her and see if she’ll shine. “Are you gonna be a big tipper today?” Tootsie turns back.
“If that’s all it takes, I’ll pay your rent.”
She blinks. “What?”
“Nothing. Yes. Yes, I will.” She smiles.
“Pucker up, Jimi.”
She tastes like charcoal and orange juice. Coke whistles and Tootsie draws to smile at him. He chokes on something that sounds like a sentence and she laughs. Tootsie makes her slow round of their table. Ale fingers her cheek gently, bares his sterile teeth. She whispers something into his lips, similar to the way she whispers with Sodapop at the bar. Soda spits when she laughs but Tootsie doesn’t seem to mind. She wipes her cheek, takes Soda’s lolli and licks. Sodapop says something to the fat man, and the two girls kiss. He rings a bell. She doesn’t come back, but Soda does an hour later with the bill.
Soda watches me sign a check. “What’s on your mind? Spit it.” I ask her about Tootsie. “She said you’re like a greased pig.”
“But I’m not fat.”
“You should come over tonight.”
“Okay?” Sodapop has conversations like a tennis match.
These are things I half believe because of the baby. If it would feel me, would it hold me in its baby palms and milk in tune with its mother? I gag. Soda leans real close. Her breath smells like sour apples.
“You can call me Sugar, if you’d like. Maybe Momma, if you’re into that.”
I look her in the eyes. “What about Brody?”
“Broke and useless.”
“Are sure about that?” Soda sucks in her cheek and her teeth take in the flesh like a vacuum to a sheet. Her dimples are swallowed. Soda’s hair, blunt along her jaw, sways to still like plastic. I wonder what it felt like to become. I wonder if the baby feels the pressure of the booth edge in its sack when Soda leans. She seems to be unaware of her belly, that spatially she is no longer flat but rather full, protruding, bloated by fetus. I wonder if she’s thinking about Brody now. How he left her. She must have cried or pretended to, told the mirror that he’s nothing but a sperm bank.
I’m fascinated by the ache in Soda’s eyes. “Yes. I’m sure, Jimi.”
“I’m not.” She cups my scabs and tells me to think about it. “I will.”
The Candy Shop feels empty though it isn’t. Tootsie’s making her roller rounds, plunking down chicken strips, the wrong drink. All the while, Ale watches her snake. Seltzer is preoccupied in counting the blackheads on Coke’s nose, but he, Ale, his eyes make patchwork out of her steps, an invisible quilt of Tootsie Tootsie Tootsie. I wonder why he is so hungry. Why he makes a delicacy out of her throat. Does he share my desire to peel her? See what lies beneath perfection? Is it deceit? More perfection?
That night, Sugar Plum asks me to want her. I tell her I can’t and she tucks her hands under my armpits to lift and lie my body between her breasts. It’s warm to be pillowed by fat. It’s safe. Natural. “I want to want you.” To whisper is to lie, she says. Sugar Plum is made out of coal.
Her stomach is firmer, longer than Plum’s. It cares about structure, coherence. Plum is just mindless fat over fat, spilling and creasing. Beneath Soda, I feel heavy and unsure, inferior to the cut of her teeth to jaw, weakened by experience. She calls me by another name in rage. She calls him fiercely, screams “Brody!”
When Plum and I make love, we lie peacefully in our mess. A blissful ignorance, finding purity in our actions rather than the disgust I taste in my bones. In a foreign mattress, my body feels dirty. Down somewhere beneath the sheets, I feel the shape of a chain and I pull to find silver carved into a heart that’s not my own. I think of it around Soda’s neck, lying by her gullet. She sleeps in hard, deep breaths. I don’t want to disturb her. She looks like a child and holds on to her belly. It swells as she breathes. The hair, sharp below her ears, shines like a wig. She looks fake, and I want her to be. I want her baby to be a doll. I want its head to crack, like gentle porcelain, from the pressure of release.
I dream about Tootsie. Seltzer bares his arms as if to catch her, but he fumbles, letting her body cut violently through gravel. When she stands, her skin falls away from her knees. It’s pink, glossy. I knew she was a star. She sways, tilted, curved to catch the wind. Ale grips her face. Tootsie smiles at him. It’s deformed, animalistic, all teeth and gums. He spits in her mouth, eats her tongue. Coke cannot breathe beneath his laughter, fat face blackened. He tears at his hair, cackling, buckling like a child under scrutiny. Seltzer vomits. I watch the tip of their elbows meet. Ale has saggy elbows. Tootie’s skin fits perfectly around the jutted bone, as it does with every curve her body makes. She splits, now beneath him, I can hear the flesh of her throat tear. Is this what true pleasure is? The loss of one’s self in another?
In the morning, I shower with Sodapop. She asks me how I slept and I lie. Her smile is too real, yellowed by cigarettes. Facing the shower head, she kisses between my shoulder blades and giggles when I shiver. I think I could love Soda if she wasn’t pretending to be a stone. Her belly curves into my back perfectly like a human puzzle. Her hands sew knots into my skin. I want them inside of me, to be thinned. I wonder if Tootsie ever thinks about Ale and Coke and Seltzer. Their bodies inside of her own. Her body inside of them.
“Fill me,” I say to the shower head.
“What?” Soda’s finger stalls at the seam of my hip.
“I want you to fill me.”
“Jimi,” she sighs into my shoulder blades. Her breath is hot. “You’re so weird.”
MIRACLE THORNTON is a sophomore Creative Writing major at Interlochen Arts Academy. She is from a small town in South Jersey called Franklinville where she lives with her four siblings, parents, and four cats. Miracle has been published in the Spring 2018 Issue of UpNorth Lit and has received one Gold Key, three Silver Keys, and a total of four Honorable Mentions from the Regional Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. Miracle serves on the editorial team of the Interlochen Review.