Monica bustled up to the bar with her usual energy, sniffing at her cigarette as she searched for a lighter, waved a hand for the bartender, and commandeered the seat next to Teresa.
"Hey bitch how the hell ya doin!" Teresa laughed with just as much animation and surrounded Monica in an explosive hug with Budweiser waving in one hand and Marlboro Red trailing in the other. "Sit your ass down, girl, I already got you a drink!"
Monica laughed loud and short, grabbed at the sweating Budweiser Teresa had motioned towards and swung it at Teresa's own to clash in an ear-rattling clank that could be heard even above the noise of the jukebox. She took a deep swig and sighed. "Here, lemme get that for you," Teresa said, motioning towards Monica's menthol.
"Mmm- yeah!" Monica mumbled, sticking the cigarette in her mouth and leaning forward to cup the flame of Teresa's lighter. She puffed once, twice, three times then leaned back, sighing misty smoke out her mouth.
"God, girl, I don't understand how you can smoke that shit," Teresa scowled. "That crap burns my throat from the first cigarette til three days after. Only time I ever been able t' smoke menthol was when I was high as a kite and couldn't feel it."
"Yeah, well," Monica leaned forward conspiratorially with a gleam in her eye, "I won't say I am, but I will say I might be gettin' some after."
Teresa raised her eyebrows slightly. "Yeah? What you gettin'?"
Monica got evasive and sat back waving her cigarette. "Later. What about you, girl? Look at you! Puttin on some pounds, damn!" She laughed that explosive laugh again, and with a jealous note to her face Teresa assayed that Monica had lost weight herself. A surprising amount of weight, she realized, seeing as how she had seen her last only five months before. No matter what diets she went on she could never lose that much in such a short amount of time. She checked herself from staring and took a swig of her beer.
"You bitch," she growled half fondly, half seriously at Monica. "Well, you know, what can I say: Fat and happy!"
"Mmmhmmm," Monica drawled nasally as she took a drag of her cigarette, then breathed out the side of her mouth as she stared at Teresa. "That true?"
Teresa shifted uncomfortably a second, then took another pull at her Bud. "The fat part, yeah!" she laughed, then shrugged. "Well, I gotta place. I gotta man t' take care of me. I only gotta deal with those brats'f his once e'ry other weekend and on some holidays." She paused, dragging on her cigarette. "Yeah," she said after a pause. "Life's pretty good!" She laughed, exhaling the smoke out the side of her mouth like Monica had.
Monica looked seriously at her. "Really? I mean, if you say so you say so and I'll believe you. But come on, now, girl, you know me better'n to lie to me...I know you better'n that. You got that look to you again. Seems lately you keep having that look e'ry time I see you."
Teresa was beginning to get aggravated, and her eyes sparked black as she took another swig. "Don' know what the hell you talkin' bout. I'm a married woman! I got security...." She trailed off. Monica said nothing but raised her eyebrows at Teresa as she drank her beer. Teresa angrily breathed in the smoke from her cigarette and blew it out with a curse. "Goddammit," she said, jerking her head from side to side. She sighed, shook her head, then stared off at the pool tables. Monica waited. She had known her long enough to know what was coming next.
"I caught the motherfuckin' bastard cheatin' on me!" Teresa exploded finally in a flat snarl. "With that goddamn bitch he was dating before I got him! Can you believe it?!" She blew out smoke again, her red hair and flashing near-black eyes giving her the impression of a fireball in motion. "All his shit I put up with, all the shit I let him do to me just to get a little security for myself and my son, and he runs off and does this shit?! Ungrateful bastard!" Teresa paused, letting the bitterness settle in her mouth a second. She took another drag and practically spit the smoke out again. "I am damn good at sex, too! I made sure he always got what he wanted, whatever, whenever...and he got the balls to go off and do somethin' like that!"
Monica nodded her head in agreement. "Piece o' shit," she concurred, raising her beer.
"Piece o' shit," Teresa growled, and clinked her bottle against Monica's.
Monica laughed, pulled a swig, then looked seriously at Teresa. "And you're still a married woman?"
Teresa hissed angrily. "Shiii- what can I do? I found her clothing in his car, but when I confronted him 'bout it what's the shithead do? Lie. Like he always does. I knew he was cheatin on me- I knew it! I had to deal wi' that shit with Ryan's daddy, too! I know when I'm being played, an he was playin me like a fiddle! Shiiii-" She hissed the curse through her teeth like a snake, turning her head away in disgust. She was silent a minute, smoking. Monica stared down at her nails as she waited. Sometimes, with Teresa, it just took time. It took time, but eventually all would be revealed. She had never been good at keeping her mouth shut.
"The fucked up thing? I'm still with him. He swore up an down he never did, he never would- 'Baby, baby, please, I'm sorry, you know I love you, I would never do anything to hurt you. Whatever you want me to do to show you I love you and would never leave you, I'll do it!' 'Course it's all a load of bullshit," Teresa smirked bitterly as she took another drag, looking over at Monica. "But at least for the time bein' I got things under control. I don't trust the bastard, but I can't afford not to be married to him. For time being, he spoils me too good to stop being his wife. He's a good daddy to Ryan, which is what Ryan needs. He even swore he'd adopt Ryan as his own son soon as he works up the extra money for the paperwork...." Teresa trailed off again, looking unsure of herself. She sighed, then shook her head. "Why we talkin' bout this shit? I'm thru talkin' bout this. Now what're you up to, ho? You gotta man now? And what's all this bout getting high later? What you got planned- spill the beans shuga I gots ta know!"
Teresa cackled playfully, slapping Monica's arm with her beer bottle. Monica arched her eyebrows in a 'wouldn't you like to know?' face as she took a sip of beer. "Well, now, ain't nothin' much been goin' on with me," she drawled, fishing around for another menthol to stall for time. She sniffed at her purse, then pulled out a new pack, peeled the cellophane off the top and began packing it against her wrist.
"Bullshit," Teresa called her bluff, lighting another cigarette of her own. "I know you too well, bitch! Now what's been goin' on?"
Monica laughed and ripped the paper off the top of the pack, delicately choosing the first corner cigarette and turning it over so the filter end was at the bottom and the open end stuffed with tobacco peered out like a reddish brown eye among the white rows at the top. Without pausing she picked its twin next to it and began to light up.
Teresa noticed and motioned with her eyes towards it. "Still tryin' to get lucky?" she laughed.
"Not tryin' anymore, bitch," Monica said slyly as she lit up. She exhaled and crossed her legs coyly as she leaned against the bar. "I already did."
Teresa shrieked over the background noise of the bar. "Get outta here!! Look at you girl! Aw hell, now you gots ta tell me ev'rything!"
Monica smiled and blew out another stream of smoke. "Well....his name's Marcus. And it hasn't just been once," she added with a triumphant look over at Teresa. Teresa gulped down her beer in surprise and slapped at Monica.
"Go'on, git outta here. What's he like- do I know him?"
Monica suddenly looked uncomfortable. "Well...I, uh, I don't really think so. Prob'ly not."
"You sure?" Teresa frowned. "Baton Rouge is a small town- I thought I knew of ev'ry handsome motherfucker in these parts."
"You're married now, and must be slippin', cuz this handsome muthafucker slipped clean underneath yer radar!" Monica laughed. Teresa smirked and finished her beer.
"You're such a whore." She stood up and bellowed over the noise for the bartender. With her short stylish red hair, pale skin, and abrupt movements she was like a beacon warning sailors away. Since she was a good tipper, however, the bartender ignored the signs and moved towards her end of the bar. "Two more Budweisers here," she shouted. He nodded, and as he turned away Monica put her hand on Teresa's wrist.
"My treat this time."
Teresa and she argued over the tab, and by the time the bartender came back with their beers Monica already had her wallet out and had slapped a twenty on the bar before Teresa could say anything. Teresa made a move to snatch it away and put her own money down, but while Monica was grabbing the money out of her wallet the corner of a tiny clear plastic bag had appeared and caught her attention. It was so small at first she didn't notice it but the reflection of the plastic against the black of Monica's wallet had drawn her eye. She could only see the top of it, but the inside looked as if it had some sort of powder film on it.
Teresa's high spirits immediately settled into the pit of her stomach. A bone-deep sobriety blossomed out from her gut, sending chills down her spine and forcing her to stab out her cigarette with a jerk before she froze or exploded. So that was what Monica was doing these days. Distracted, she fished in her purse for another cigarette. She glanced over at Monica who was settling back down with a look of triumph into her chair, clutching her beer like a trophy. It might explain the recent weight loss, too, but she would have to be doing a whole lot of it for her to lose as much as she had in the last few months. Unless it was actually meth.
But those were usually the blue bags. ....Weren't they?
Teresa lit her cigarette and leaned back to look more seriously at Monica. She had only tried cocaine once, and she had hated how it had made her feel. Besides, she had seen too many friends go down that road. She wasn't naive, or some sort of prude- she had done plenty of drugs in her time, and Monica had been the one she usually did them with. They had always been light drugs, though: acid, weed, and most recently ecstasy (courtesy of Chet's lawyer friends). However, she liked to think there was a line she would never cross with certain drugs, and it hurt her to think her best friend had crossed it already. Monica had never even hinted to her that she was starting to get into that stuff. Maybe it was because she knew what Teresa's reaction would be that she had stayed silent, but at least now her suggestive comment from the start of their meeting made more sense.
Monica noticed the change in Teresa but figured it was because she had beat her to paying. "Aww, come on now, don't be such a sandy vagina Teresa!" she laughed as she took a swig of fresh beer. "'Sides, you got a kid and a husband at home, it really is too much to ask you to pay for four beers." Her olive green eyes sparkled with laughter. "But if you really want to, I won't object to you paying for the next round. Me? I'm a working girl and gotta watch my funds too!"
Teresa played with her cigarette for a second. She had never been good at being graceful. "Yeah, so you can blow it all on your cocaine high later?"
Monica froze, mid-sip. Slowly she lowered the beer bottle from her lips."'Scuse me?"
"Goddammit, Monica, don't play dumb. I saw the baggie in your wallet while you were paying! What the fuck are you thinking? And why didn't you tell me?"
A cluster of emotions argued across Monica's face, but anger seemed to be winning over the rest. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"Oh, don't play so innocent with me. You know exactly what I'm talkin' about. What is it? Cocaine? Or meth?"
Monica looked around and hissed at Teresa to keep her voice low. "Shut up! It's just a little coke. God! You're actin like I just committed some sorta big sin, Miss Almighty-Righteous-Married-Woman! What, did that stint as a born-again really get to you? Since when did you get so uppity? Yeah, so I do a little coke e'ry now and then. Big whoop! It's just an occasional thing, something I do now and then to relax and let go a little bit- something mebbe you should start doing!"
Teresa's temper flared up like her hair. She tried to cool it down by taking a deep gulp of beer and counting to ten before lashing out. It didn't work as well as she had planned. "Your boy toy know bout this?" she asked in as mildly disapproving a tone as she could manage.
Monica snorted. "He's the first one I did the stuff with. And let me tell you, honey-" she leaned forward conspiratorially, "Sex on coke is A-MA-ZING."
Teresa snorted back. "No it ain't. You never come. You just go for hours on end without ever having an orgasm, but because you can go for so long without stopping people claim it's some wonder drug." Monica leaned back with a glint to her eye. "And yes, I do know, so you can stop giving me that goddamn smug look. I only tried it once, with that one guy who used to deal back in school. You know, the one- Jacques? Jacques Pirie? Yeah, him."
Monica exhaled long and low through gritted teeth. "Well, no wonder you don't like the stuff. Foolin' round with him's liable to make anybody learn to not even like sex."
"That's not the point, goddammit! Listen, Monica-" Teresa leaned forward, but Monica cut her off.
"No, you listen Teresa. Drop it. We came out to enjoy ourselves and catch up on what's going on in our lives, not to get into another fight. That's what did us in before, 'member? I appreciate the concern, but I'm cool. I got this. It ain't a thing, and I don't need you motherin' me. Leave that fer Ryan and fer Chet's kids." Monica sighed and leaned back, swinging her head around. "God, what happened to you? It's like you've lost all your fun! Like you're losing you! What happened to the Teresa I knew who was down to try anything once? The Teresa that was always the life of the party- that Teresa, who I was thinking might enjoy a little fun, a quick pick-me-up after our drinks? I mean, God knows girl, you need it."
"Yeah, well, I got responsibilities now, " Teresa said shortly, avoiding looking at Monica. "But go ahead, if you want to. Tell me everything. Tell me all about this Marcus who's so great and all the coke you two do together in bed."
"Tsss!" Monica took a deep drag on her cigarette. "Miss High-And-Mighty..." she growled as she exhaled. "Since when did you get a stick up your ass?" Teresa's eyes flashed black, and Monica knew she had hit a spot. "You know what? Sure. I'll tell you about Marcus. I'll tell you all about Marcus, since obviously you got man problems enough as it is and need to hear about mine."
"Oh, shut the fuck up, Monica. Just shut the fuck up and drink."
They drank in silence for a while, a gulf of noise filled with the sounds of pool, laughter, shouts, and honky tonk separating them. It always seemed to end up like this lately with them. This had been the reason they hadn't seen each other in five months. The last time it had been worse- Teresa was still attending David Diamond's church and had insisted they meet for coffee instead of a beer. Monica had laughed at her that she was trying to escape her destiny as the Budweiser Queen, and Teresa had blown up at Monica that at least she was on the right path with a husband that took care of her, a good job, and God in her life. Five months later and she had been the one calling up Monica to apologize and admit she had been a stupid ass. They'd arranged a peace meeting over some beers at their old favorite bar they used to work at. So much for peace.
As they sat smoking and drinking neither looked at the other. Each tried hard to pay attention to everything else in the room but the woman sitting next to her. Teresa was just about done with her beer and debating leaving once she had finished her last draught when there was an odd lull in the bar. The jukebox program had stopped playing and was searching for a new song. With a static humm close to the realm of subsonic a new melody began to unfold, then sent out as ambassador the first harmonic chords of "You Don't Know How It Feels" by Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. The melody wailed out over the subdued noise of conversations and glasses clunking on wood to greet her heart like an old friend.
Teresa exhaled, trying to fight the battle within her chest. Finally she took a deep drag of her cigarette, knowing she had lost. She loved that song. From the first time she had heard it she had loved it and could never be upset while listening to it. So many memories attached to a few simple chords, and a lot of them were with Monica; all it took was a few howls from that harmony and she was back to high school days, staying out past curfew and driving fast down Siegen Lane, windows down with this song blasting as she and Monica screamed along to it. She glanced over at the old friend that she had been trying to ignore for the last ten minutes, and from the expressions on her face Teresa could tell Monica was traveling down similar lanes of memory herself. Monica caught her looking her way and smiled at her. She laughed, then shook her head, holding up her hands.
"Leave it to Tom Petty," Teresa sighed, then held out the bottom of her beer. "I could never be pissed off while listening to this song. Truce?"
"Truce," Monica agreed and tapped the bottom of her bottle to Teresa's.
"Sorry for being such a bitch," Teresa grudgingly added.
"Why? You've always been one, why apologize now?"
"Naw, naw, you're right," Teresa conceded. "It's your life, you know what you're doing. I just....worry about you is all. You're my friend, Monica. One of my oldest friends, too. We grew up together- I have to worry about you. We just wouldn't be friends if I didn't."
They both drank in silence, lost in the music and their own separate memories.
"So...." Teresa hazarded after a minute. "What is he like?"
Monica chuckled and smiled. She nervously fiddled with a new cigarette. "You mean Marcus? He's amazing. A real man." She shot a look up at Teresa, then back down again. She pulled out her lighter and puffed on the cigarette until it was lit, then went back to rolling it between her fingers. "He owns his own landscaping business. Does mostly lawns and such- edging and trimming- but he also plans out an designs landscapes. He just started up recently, but business has been good for him so far. We been dating for about a month now, and so far it's been heaven."
Teresa nodded as if she expected nothing else. "Yeah, and-?"
Monica looked over at her. "Hmm?"
"Come on, girl, he sounds perfect, but what's he look like? You said he was handsome! Well- details!"
Monica nervously laughed. "Yeah, he is. Real handsome..." she trailed off as if having second thoughts.
Teresa laughed deep from her belly. "Come on now, the way you're saying it you make it sound as if you're trying to convince yourself of that! Don't worry, I won't judge you if he's ugly. But I might steal him if he's really good-lookin'!"
Monica shot a look up at Teresa, then smiled warily and looked back down. She took a drag from her cigarette.
"Would you judge me if he was black?"
For Teresa, the whole bar suddenly lost all sound. No Tom Petty, no laughter, no noises of pool balls clacking- nothing. She couldn't hear anything, only the sound of her own mind trying to make sense of what Monica had just said. Her face froze in the half-smile she had been holding when she heard the words, as if it hadn't yet gotten the message her brain was screaming. "What?"
"He's black. Marcus is black." Monica looked more and more certain that this had been a bad idea.
Teresa shook as if coming out of a spell. "You gotta be fucking kidding me. You're joking, right?"
Monica sighed. "No, Teresa, I certainly fucking am not. He's an amazing man, best man I've ever met. He's strong, caring, intelligent, funny, and I mean, he owns his own fucking business for Chrissakes!"
"You're dating a-" Teresa spun her head around. "A fucking nigger!" she hissed in a low voice.
Monica's fist clenched around her beer bottle as if ready to swing or to keep herself from swinging. Her pale milky-olive face turned a bright pink. "Don't you dare call him that! Don't you dare call him that!!" she hissed in fury to defend both her honor and his.
"Well I'm sorry, but it's true! What were you thinking?! What are you thinking?!"
"You know what- I don't know. I knew you'd react like this, I knew it! But I kept hopin' you wouldn't! Stupid me!" Monica slammed her purse on the bar. Thinking it a sign the bartender sidled over to her with a question on his face. Angrily looking up Monica was suddenly struck with inspiration. "Wild Turkey, double. Make it fast." And she slapped another twenty on the bar.
Teresa was looking at her like she had just told her she had AIDS. She was looking at her like she had just told her she had AIDS and was infected with leprosy, and if she stayed any longer she might get it too.
Monica took the shot and her change, threw the tip on the bar, and downed half the glass in a gulp. It burned all the way down to her stomach, lighting on fire every tissue it touched and bringing tears to her eyes, but it was exactly what she needed right then. She gasped as soon as it was a safe ball of embers spreading throughout her stomach, then debated doing it all again as soon as she saw the look on Teresa's face.
"Y'know what?" Monica said, the whisky calming and loosening nerves that had been twisting since she made up her mind to tell Teresa about Marcus, "I really wanna know: What're you thinking, Teresa?"
Teresa's face already said all that she was thinking, and Monica knew it. Teresa began to open her mouth but Monica interrupted her:
"No, I mean, what are you thinking? Marcus is a wonderful guy. Believe me. He's the first real man I've been able to find in this godforsaken place! And yeah, he's black. So what?"
The patrons close enough to hear their conversation eyed her with a similar look to Teresa's and subconsciously inched further away. One or two eyed her as if she were a new species of woman they might like to try sometime, but only after a good hosing down. The bartender, at that moment coming back down to pick up his tip, pretended not to hear but made a mental note to not habit that end of the bar too frequently while Monica was finishing up.
Teresa pulled her down to sit. "Have you lost your whole mind! Are you high? Sit your ass down before you get us both kicked out!"
Monica finished her whiskey to calm herself and winced in pain as it corroded all the way down. She sat staring at her glass. This hadn't been the first time she came across this. It had been eating at her since she and Marcus started dating, and she knew it got to him, too. It really wasn't so incredibly terrible, or at least this was what she kept trying to convince herself of. She could deal with it more when it was just the noticeable sideways glances and twisted faces of strangers when she and Marcus were holding hands, or the reactions of cashiers when they went to grab coffee together. But when it was her own friend, someone she trusted like a sister, actually coming out and saying what everybody else merely insinuated, it burned in a way she didn't think she could handle right then.
Teresa still didn't know what to say and told Monica so, but Monica went ahead and filled the silence herself anyway.
"You know, I just don't get it," she said in a voice so low Teresa had to strain to hear. "I don't understand why me liking and dating- and yeah, maybe even loving, go ahead, look at me like that- a black man is so wrong. What's so wrong about it?" Monica turned her glass around in her hands, staring down at the drips of alcohol twirling around the inside. She stopped her musing to take out another menthol and light it.
"It's just.....dirty, is all." Teresa made a face.
Monica's head snapped up. "What?" A thunderhead formed on her forehead and lightning flashes burned her eyes as she stared down Teresa. "Why?"
Teresa shrugged, looking somewhere else. "Just...because. It is." She shuddered. "It's disgusting. I could never... They're just dirty, is all. They're different."
Monica hissed, disgusted. "What's so dirty about it, huh? What's so different? I've been dating Marcus for a month. Yeah, I had my reservations at first myself, but I never met a man I get along with so well. We like the same things, we eat the same food, grew up in the same places, have the same family problems, speak with the same accent and use the same slang, have similar loves and hates about work, and he can be just as conceited, neurotic, or gentle in bed as any other man I've had- so what's so different? What's so dirty?"
Teresa couldn't answer, and she didn't like that she didn't have an answer. She wasn't racist- at least, she had never seriously considered herself one- but there were just certain things you did not do. Using the word "nigger" around a black person- at least unless you were sure you could win the fight- was one. This was the other. Flashbacks of her father and mother- of her entire family, really- telling her harshly, reasonably, or finally that she should never go near "niggers, chinks, or beaners" blazed in her memory. Her sister Kitty jumping on her bed while teasing her for liking Prince because he was black. Words associated with deep-cutting shame and embarrassment burned neon-bright in her mind. Impressions of danger, anger, and fear naturally seemed to associate themselves with the reactions people she grew up around had to words like "black" and "colored," and through them these responses rooted themselves deep into her own psyche. She couldn't say why Monica dating Marcus was wrong, because she didn't know herself. It just was, and that had always been reason enough.
"I mean, think about it: what's it that's so different, really? Almost e'rybody in this state is related to one 'nother in some way, and that includes us and black folks, and yeah, even a whole buncha others! We're all related! We grew up here, our families have been right here together for sumin' like five hunnerd years! All of us, somehow, are related in some way."
Now that was going too far. "I don't have no nigger blood in my fam'ly!" Teresa insisted. "We're pure white, and we've been that way for generations, so don't you go bringin' shit like that inta this!"
"Are you sure about that?" Monica smiled slyly. "Absolutely?" Teresa said nothing. "No relation whatsoever?"
Teresa gathered up her purse. "I don't wanna hear this bullshit. Look, cocaine is one thing. And if you wanna go fuck some, some nigger on your time, that's fine. But don't be shoving that shit into my face." She swallowed the last of her beer and made to move off. "When you come down offa those drugs an come to your senses gimme a call. Monica. I love you, girl, but you done gone off the deep end."
Teresa stormed off to leave Monica to the cold shoulders of the other people at the bar. Teresa left, convinced that the drugs had taken her friend's mind to a point beyond return and kicking herself for not intervening sooner. When she left, Monica stayed behind sitting at the bar toying with her glass, trying to debate if she should have another drink or not. After ten minutes of trying to wave down the bartender and of being studiously ignored by everybody in the bar out of the corner of their eyes she picked up her purse and left.