The rooftop bar jutted out of the smog like a mist-bound island that night, one of those hazy L.A. numbers when the dingy air seemed to sink into your skin, into your head. Speech became slurred, faces blurred, and bad decisions lurked on the periphery of your consciousness like be-tentacled Lovecraft horrors. The fireworks didn't help any, booming and blooming every so often, ulcerous flowers that glowed dully amidst the bulbous, black rainclouds overhead. The red, white, and blue wisps floated for a moment before scattering in the sour wind and falling back toward the earth.
It was going to be one of those nights, and Trudie knew it.
Or maybe it was just the shots. They'd been drinking since sundown—college friends she rarely saw anymore. Trudie had lost track of how many they'd had. Clink, shriek, down the hatch, repeat. It wasn't until the third or fourth round that she began to recognize who they'd once been, and only one or two more to remind her why she rarely saw them now.
"I need a smoke," she said to the painted gallery of cocktail dresses—greens and blues and reds like a row of lesser Rothkos. She ignored the narrowed eyes and wrinkled noses of the yoga instructor, the vegan, the mother of two.
She weaved her way through the crowd—skinny ties and high heels—toward the bar, where she ordered something "tropical," as if the pink and orange hues would make the night feel less oppressive. They didn't, and the flimsy paper umbrella wouldn't help if it did decide to rain. The plastic sword embedded in a maraschino cherry would be even more useless against the cosmic fiends that circled closer and closer with each shot.
Taking a tart sip of her cocktail, Trudie found a spot away from the crowd and leaned against the railing. A gust of wind bestirred a miniature typhoon in her tiki glass, sending twinkling droplets spilling down toward the city streets. Scattered cheers from the parade made their way up to her, but she could see nothing except concrete and flickering lights in the windows of the other buildings. Above the party, the fireworks continued popping every few seconds, glittery bursts that glimmered in the glass faces around her.
She put the drink down on a nearby table, where its garishness became apparent, an awkward bouquet as out of place as she was, like sunflowers at a funeral. After taking another sip to wash the dreariness away—or try to—she slipped a cigarette between her lips and a book of matches out of her purse. Cupping her hands against the wind, she struck the match head to the matchbook. The flame flickered, but was soon blown out. Even the air seemed to stymie her tonight.
"I'll get you lit if you let me steal one," came an appropriately smoky voice followed by the click-clack of high heels.
The woman was tall, taller than Trudie—with the heels and the wavy spiral of chestnut atop her head, she loomed over her almost Olympian-like. Pearls hung from her neck and a sleek black cocktail dress from her shoulders, the sparkly garment rustling with the sway of her breasts and hips. But the classical look was belied by the tattoo, a tiny woman with rough stitches on her back where wings surely used to sprout. She peered out from under a dress strap with a caustic smile.
A lighter floated up in front of Trudie's face, held by graceful, gold-tipped fingers. Trudie leaned in and inhaled the musky perfume rising from the woman's neck. Thumb and forefinger snapped to spark a flame to the waiting cigarette. Once lit, Trudie offered the crumpled pack, palm up, but it was empty, a burst cocoon.
"Sorry," she enunciated around the cigarette. "Last one." She took a deep drag, drawing in the nicotine, the fog of the city, and exhaled out the side of her mouth.
"That's okay," the woman said, weaving two fingers around the stem and plucking the cigarette out of Trudie's mouth like a loose thread. "I don't mind sharing."
Momentarily unraveled by the gesture, Trudie drank while she watched the woman smoke. She wasn't what you'd call beautiful, no—not in ways that could be proven with proportion and symmetry—but the faint glow of the fireworks against the night sky lent her a dusky allure. She wore shadows well and her silvery eyes always seemed on the precipice of a wink. They closed as she inhaled, lilac curtains descending over museum gemstones as she arched her shoulders in nicotine ecstasy. When she exhaled, the smoke hung about her face like wintry whispers.
"You smoke like a movie star," Trudie heard herself say through her own daze. The smoke-framed woman looked like a Godard muse, a print from a forgotten film given life.
"It must be the pearls," the woman said, rustling them with her little finger. "And thanks. I needed that." She passed the cigarette back.
Trudie ignored the scarlet splotches and inhaled again.
"I'm Kendra, by the way." She stretched her hand toward Trudie. Wrist loose.
She took the outstretched hand, exhaled. "Trudie."
"I like your dress."
"Thanks. Yours, too."
They traded the cigarette back and forth for a while, their exhalations commingling in the air between them, above them, a conversation of sorts, brumous and gray and silent.
"So how'd you end up on top of the world tonight?" Kendra said. She leaned back on the railing, propped up on elbows. One knee bent forward, foot on the bottom rail. A black-enmeshed leg slid out of a crease in the dress. A movie poster pose.
"Old college friends. We get together once a year or so."
"Ah. And what do you do when you're not avoiding your friends?"
"Photography" is all she said as she ashed over the railing, burnt offerings to the city below.
"What kind of photography?" Kendra smiled, an upturned crescent moon shining through the carcinogen haze.
"Freelance work, mostly. I'm working for the LACMA right now. Marketing. Sometimes I do work for the local alternative papers. Weddings as a last resort."
"Aren't they always?" More moonbeams through the smoke. "I think photography is so cool. I took a class at SMC once. I wish I still had my camera."
"Photography is easy—there's beauty everywhere, just waiting for someone to find the right angle, the right lighting. The right perspective on the world. That's easy enough. It's making money that's the hard part."
"I see. And what's your perspective on the world?"
"Depends on how many drinks I've had."
With that, Kendra slinked a hand into the air, bangles jangling, and waved someone down from halfway across the party. Young, fashionable stubble. He scurried over to the women.
"Ricky, two Black Velvets, if you please." She stuffed a bill into his vest pocket. "For the cigarette," she said as Trudie reached for her purse.
"Thanks. And what do you do when you're not buying drinks for strangers?"
Kendra exhaled, her lips remaining pursed as the vapors dissipated. "Let's just say we don't all get the night off, honey." There was a lilt in her voice now, like petals falling from a rose. Exposing the thorns.
The women smoked in silence, away from the crowd in their little enclave, huddled around the shared cigarette, like disaster survivors around a dying fire. Several men glanced their way, but none approached. Soon, the cigarette was burned down almost to the filter, the scarlet lip-prints deepening to maroon as the ashes floated lazily on the heavy air.
Then the bartender—Ricky—appeared with a tray held aloft. Atop it were two champagne flutes filled with a dark, shimmery substance. A creamy froth bubbled down the side of each glass. The women each took one, then Kendra grabbed the cigarette out of Trudie's mouth, took a final drag, and flicked it over the railing. They both watched it fall. The tiny ember was soon snuffed out by the stifling night air.
Trudie held her new drink up against the night sky. It looked like her head was starting to feel—murky, uncertain. Still, it glowed prettily in the light of the fireworks. She caught Kendra smiling at her. Also prettily.
"Here's to the night." Kendra dropped the cliché the way a bad actress would. She cocked her glass toward Trudie.
She obliged. They clinked glasses, but the dull chime was quickly lost to the raucous crowd behind them. When she raised the glass to her lips, the drink seemed to bleed into the night sky, as if she were sipping from the ether itself. As she drank, the brew rolled pleasantly over her tongue—fizzy, smooth, and sweet. But she knew what it would mean in the morning. Elixir now, poison later.
Then the drink, and the moment, was over. The women had shared something—a cigarette, lipstick, a drink. A coterie of two at the edge of the party, new confidantes, kindred souls. But now an older man appeared at the edge of their haven, an interloper with a tailored suit, showy watch, and annoyed expression. He didn't say anything, fidgeting hotly with his cell phone, his cufflinks, but Trudie knew he was there for Kendra.
"Listen," she said, already caught in the pull of the man's glare. "I want to give you something." She produced a business card from a small clutch—where she had been concealing it, Trudie had no idea.
"Call me sometime. Maybe you can take my picture. I'm very photogenic." She leaned in, fingertips brushing Trudie's wrist as she handed the card over. "Or if you're looking for a little extra work."
She half-smiled, like an old movie print stopped between frames. But gone was the vamp from the Godard picture. This was an altogether different film, a different woman. Norma Desmond after the fall, perhaps. The close-up revealed severe mascara covering the lines at the corners of her eyes. A too-thick coat of scarlet coating thin lips. Still alluring, but the studio varnish had long ago began to fade.
And then she was gone, the click-clack of her heels and the sparkle of her dress engulfed by the crowd, her sweetness and her sadness blending into the night, as if it were somehow taking her back.
Trudie turned away from the party, looked once more upon the hazed-over city. She turned the card over in her hands. Glossy. Sharp edges. Not unlike the woman featured on it—Kendra, with her lips pouted, shoulders arched, bra strap falling over one shoulder. Her tattoo was exposed, leering up from the bare shoulder. Looking straight at Trudie. The tattoo-woman, not Kendra, whose eyes looked away, shadow-rimmed pools that suggested passivity, submission. The bottom of the card read not Kendra but 'STEVIE NYX' above a phone number, all in looping, italic script. Aslant, like Trudie felt as her eyes traced over the curves of the woman, the words. It wasn't just the alcohol, she knew.
Extending a hand over the railing, she let the card slide out of her fingers and into the opaque night. It fluttered like a moth with no flame, tumbled end over end until it vanished, another offering to the city that swallowed women like Kendra up by the thousands, night after night after night. Maybe some poor soul below would find the card, but Trudie had no use for false goddesses. This city was full of imposter deities with expensive clothes and grandiose disillusionments, always eyeing her from tabloid magazine covers and towering billboards. Glossy business cards. But they would never have the right perspective on the world from a vantage point like that.
Trading the champagne flute for her still-unfinished tropical drink, Trudie tucked the umbrella behind one ear, her shield against the rain and anything else the city could throw at her. The sword she left in its maraschino scabbard in case any nocturnal horrors reared their heads before the night was through. Then she reached into her purse and pulled out one final cigarette. Her emergency stash, crinkled and bent, but intact. As the final fireworks of the night exploded overhead, she struck the match head and hoped for flame.
BIO: John W. Buckley can't seem to stop writing about California despite having not lived there for the past six years. He can currently be found one state over in his native Arizona, where he teaches composition and literature to community college students and edits technical documents at his "day job." (When he's not writing or sampling fine craft beers, that is.) His work has been published in the Menda City Review, The Los Angeles Review of Los Angeles, and Spark: A Creative Anthology.