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House of Pearls

Start at the beginning, if you think that would be best. 

She likes the idea of doing this, of maybe trying to shock someone. So she

finds someone more likely to be shocked. 

The young man across the quiet little office is younger than her, likely fresh out of

training. She wonders what drove him into the waiting arms of this profession. The money is likely very good. She knows she’s paying him more than enough, for what hardly counts as honest work. But she will get her pound of flesh from him. She always does. 

Tell me how it started. 
That wasn’t hard. 
She was seventeen. Seventeen and newly awake to herself. If she were prettier, or

richer, or otherwise more gifted in the wealth of the world, things other people valued, she never would have been aware of it so soon, or embraced it so thoroughly. 

Embraced what? 

Dykedom. Embraced dykedom. That wasn’t a road that beautiful girls with

promising futures chose to walk down, in her experience. Not ever. It’s not a path pursued by those who are otherwise set up for heterosexual success. If they did, it was out of jealousy, and maybe a little morbid curiosity. That’s what they talk about, when they talk about “experimenting.” When they talk about “once or twice, in college.” We’re the lab rats. And she makes a pinched rodent face, thrusting out her foreteeth and wrinkling her whiskered nose. 
           Is this too much? 
           No, you can keep going. 

           (It is too much. She can see it on his face. She continues.) 
           That was probably where it started, she goes on. Envy. Curiosity. A fear of being

excluded from something exotic, or being robbed of cultural currency. Bethany was like that. She had everything girls like her ever aspired to, were heir to, but it wasn’t enough. Bethany Bing, beauty queen. 

Her parents ran an orchard. Apples and peaches and sour cherries, mostly. It was

the flashiest outfit in the county, host to thousands upon thousands of suburbanites who flocked to it every year, bought cider and popcorn balls and lingered over the corn maze and the petting zoo. The growing of apples turned out to be an ancillary business, ignored in favor of other ventures with higher margins and lower inputs. 

To make up for this, and to kill off the yellowjackets and stink bugs that proliferated

in the unmown grass and the uncleared avenues of trees, they were forced to radical management strategies. They sprayed heavily, and often, and ultimately resorted to cheap ersatz pesticides. Maybe they bought bad stuff, or mixed it improperly, or tried to doctor it up with the wrong things, but one day Bethany’s father returned home from their acreage in an awful wet state. The coroner’s report was unequivocal, if unilluminating: “an overdose of cholinomimetics.” 

They looked it up later, together, she and Bethany, to learn what that meant.

Overactivation of the parasympathetic system. Which was a fancy way to say that he sweat, drooled, and soiled himself to death, or at least until his heart gave out, because the local urgent care had no idea what they were looking at and never thought to offer him the widely-available antidote. 
          Still not too much? 
          Actually it’s very interesting. 

          Hold on to your nutsack, then. It gets worse. 
          We swam together. That is, we were both on the team. I was so god awful, I’m

surprised they even let me practice. We’d drill in circular laps, four or five girls to a lane, and no matter what there was always a traffic jam behind me whenever I was in the water. I can’t tell you what it does to a young ego, having to change and condition on the deck in your suit in front of so many of your beautiful peers, when every moment of your life is dominated by self-consciousness and shame. In retrospect I didn’t look that bad, but that’s never how it feels in the moment, you know? 

I do know.
But it was worth it to get to see her in next to nothing. To see her, perfect. There

weren’t words for it. And I fell in love all at once, all of a piece. 

She kept me on the hook for months, in the way women do. People want to be

wanted. And I think it gratified her to have me mooning after her, felt like a special distinction. I wasn’t the only lesbian in the school, but I was the only one who kept myself aloof from the others, who wanted what the pretty girls and boys had. I never cut my hair short. I never dressed the way a dyke should dress, if she has any respect for herself. I did not respect myself. 
          I’m not sure that’s— 
          I’m not saying it’s right. I’m just saying it’s what happened. 
          Fair enough. 
          Can I keep going? I can skip to the good shit, if that’s easier. 
          Whatever you like. 

We liked to hook up in the tall grass. I got to be a real sop and asked to eat her out in

the cut flower garden. The farm had half an acre of sunflowers and zinnias and cosmos, all grown from cheap seeds, where families liked to come to take pictures for their Christmas cards.

The closer we got to getting caught, the happier she seemed to be. We would have

been so much more comfortable in my room, had privacy, but that wasn’t what she wanted.
           What did she want? 
           That’s an excellent question. That’s probably gonna be the best question you ask all
day. I’ll tell you what she wanted. She wanted it all. She wanted to get a thrill out of me, to read the shit poetry I wrote for her, to feel like she was something special. And then she wanted the safe, bland status of dating the State Champion flyer. 

Mark Parker was the real thing. A nice guy, a good student, came from a good

family and had deltoids like cantaloupes. I never hated anyone the way I hated him. Even now I can’t say his name without feeling an overwhelming impulse to violence. In fact I’d be gratified if you could offer me a pencil from that cup over there, so I can snap it in half and pretend it’s one of his little finger bones I’m breaking. 
          I’m not sure that would be a very good idea.
          Sure, fine. Anyway. Nothing ever got resolved. I left, I sold out. Jumped into the

right industry at the right time, working for a software company under heat for sexist hiring practices who stood to lose a lot of business. I spent half my time being photographed and interviewed for marketing material. I think they liked that I was so dull, that I didn’t shave my head or pierce my eyebrows or wear combat boots to the office. They loved to say what a “good fit” I was. 

I did well. I made money. Then our little outfit was bought out, and I made lots of

money. Enough to come back here, buy the old place and the spreads next to it, to set myself up nice. 

I had what I always wanted. I had my big house all to myself, enough land that I

need never see my neighbors, a satellite hookup. A dog. I looked around at the people I had gone to school with and saw a lot of bullshit sob stories, and I couldn’t be happier. 

But do you know what the best part was? 
I got to buy the House of Pearls. 


She needed only to speak its name; it retained its solemn incantatory quality, its

power of conjuration. All at once she could see it, before her investment was made, when she was only a patron.

The establishment had been there since they were children. They all knew what it

was, what happened there, whose mothers were on the payroll, whose fathers were regulars. A steel barn, set in a small sea of gravel. White paint flaking away from the corrugated sides of the soaring walls. Nothing distinguishing it from the utility buildings and storage sheds that filled the county except for the hand-painted sign above the door; cream paint on a black board. The letters stumbling into each other, crowding tight at the back end. HOUSE Of pearls.

Inside, a bubble of timeless space, like a casino, or a nightclub. There were no

windows. Anyone who entered was taken out of the old world and into a new one, a better one. 

Why had she gone, and why that night? The moment of choice was lost in a haze of

memory. Maybe she’d gotten drunk, gotten lonely, determined to scratch this secret itch. However it was, she drove her father’s truck down one hour before last call, staggered in through the door, paid her cover charge, ordered another drink.

And she was there, Bethany was there, her body limned by a spotlight yellow as

moon-cheese, so hers was the only face in the room easy to see, the only one worth looking at. In that place, in the Camel smoke haze and ammoniac reek, she stuck out like a splinter under the nail. 

She wore a parody of the district cheer uniform; a pleated skirt that ended four

inches from her hips, her long midriff bare. From her free hand she dangled a coach’s whistle, which she whirled around at intervals in time to the music. At one moment she held the cord taut between her two hands, then leaned forward and licked along the length of the polypropylene, so the wet flash of her tongue caught the light. 

Had she expected to find her there? Had someone told her just how far the golden

girl of her distant past had fallen? She couldn’t remember. And yet, would she have ever felt the compulsion to go to the House of Pearls if she hadn’t known what she’d find?

The morning after, she hadn’t wasted any time before getting on the phone, makin

the kind of call she always imagined movie mobsters making. 
          I offered to invest. I thought it would be worthwhile to make some improvements.

That had been a most amusing meeting, sitting beside old Pete Parkiss over beers.

She pulled out her checkbook and wrote out a figure right in front of him and then pushed it across the bar at him, reveling in the cliche. 
           I’ll tell you what, it felt like a real victory for equality, watching him take my money,

my big city butch money, watching him realize he would have to be crazy to turn me down.

There’d been enough in that check to replace the old galvanized roof, to fill the

pockets of enough tame cops to keep the liquor flowing after hours. And the contract she’d made him sign? Water tight. 

Finally, across the little office, her therapist’s face grows a lambent red. She’s found

his limit, at long last. 
          And you did this, why?
          It was business.
          No, it wasn’t. You did this, why?

          She knows she’s burning a bridge. She knows she’s torching whatever willingness he might have had to help her, to make her different, to help her heal. But she isn’t interested in being healed. She tells him the truth. 
          For the perks, she says. 


 A private room, curtained off at the back, still smelling like propane and motor oil.

No music, except what came filtered from the mainstage. One red-curtained lamp, one chair, where she sits, and waits, hands gripping the arm rests. She doesn’t have to wait long. 
           A figure slips inside, platform heels clicking against the bare concrete like beetles’ wings. She takes in shapes, the suggestion of form under stretched satin — is it the same as she remembers? Is it better? Worse? 
           The pulse of music transmitted through the steel joists and the roots of her teeth sets the beat of Bethany’s body. Her spine is a slow ocean wave. The glazed tips of Bethany’s fingernails scrape along the surface of her forearms where they strain against the arms of the cheap vinyl chair. A new smell on the air dropkicks her straight into the past; DKNY, spritzed from a poison-green apple-shaped bottle. The combined effect, cliched as it is, does the job. 
           “Look at me,” she says, in the midst of it. 
           But Bethany doesn’t. 


C.G. Dominguez is a proud queer Boricua working and writing on the margins of Appalachia. Her work has or will soon appear in BRUISER, Muleskinner Journal, Hofstra's Windmill, Paddler Press and elsewhere.

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