The Strength Card

Art: The Enchanted Tarot

“I swear to God, if I pull that fucking Strength card…,” she says, and picks eleven from the spread. Sara asked me to read for her.  “From the deck I like,” she said. That means The Enchanted Tarot, a Victorian theme with positive outcomes. Sara always pulls Strength, the blond angelic sylph taming the lion with her gentle touch.

The boys walked out to the dock together to look at the bay. They are still small, but big enough to watch out for each other.

“Hold hands,” Sara called as they went out. It is dark outside now. Spiderman continues in their absence; Peter Parker learns that with great power comes great responsibility. He misses Mary Jane’s performance.

“I’ve figured it out,” Sara says. “Scott’s Spiderman.”

This was a sudden visit. She called, said she was heading down from Atlanta, see you in five hours. Sara runs when something serious is going on. It is summer on the Gulf. I make margaritas on the rocks in blue plastic fluted glasses with salted rims, sit on the front porch in front of the pink apartment. A canary tweets from a white cage. It is not my bird. It belongs to a woman who stayed with me for a month with her daughter before she flew to the UK to be with a guy. I have a feeling she’ll be back.

“It makes no sense,” Sara says. “We got that purple dream house together. He said he wanted it. Do you know how expensive it is for a house like that, in Cabbagetown? Then says he’s not sure he wants all this. After he bonded with Blake. Just takes off. He came back last week. Said ‘I missed the way you look in those pink panties’. Said he still needed to do some soul searching. I said ‘You fucked a blond. That’s not soul searching’.”

She gets woozy, breaks two of the blue glasses. “Where’s Will anyway?”

“He’s in jail. He broke in again.”

“What about the restraining order?”

I shrug.

In the late afternoon we take the boys out, across Cinco Bayou Bridge, check out the ink parlor, drive to the beach. I take pictures of the boys holding hands by the water, Levi a shaggy blond, Blake’s long dark hair. I take pictures of Sara drifting.

Sara came rolling into the ATL in a banana boat of a 1970’s faded yellow Camaro when I was waiting tables at the French Quarter. She was down from New Jersey looking for a job. It was the most bizarre mix of people you could hope to come across, kind of like the tarot deck, the filthiest kitchen, the most delicious Cajun food. Sara was everything that I was not. She was blond, mildly curvy, and funny in a loud way. She already had her writing degree from Oglethorpe. She was good with money and reality.

When she pulled up and asked if we were hiring, I knew this was Johnny’s new girl.

Johnny and I had been making eyes at each other over the industrial hot plate for years. There was nothing I could do about it. I was with Will. I figured if I waited long enough, I could tally up Johnny’s faults until I didn’t want him anymore. It almost worked. He was emotional, but in a self-centered kind of way. When he went around back to smoke with the boys on breaks, he came back too stoned to understand what you were saying, laughing, shocking blue eyes red around the edges. He listened to too much reggae and ska, bitched about his ex in Jacksonville, who had custody of their two girls. He was an ok painter. Every time a new girl showed up, he got a crush on her. He was desperate and needy, despite his looks.

Which, to be honest, were pretty good. Light brown hair pulled back in a braid and hidden under that knitted cap, a goatee that was getting a little out of control. He had five piercings in each ear, pierced nipples; he was pierced everywhere, if he was to be believed.

He was far too shy to be forward with me, until I came back from a year in Reno. It must’ve been Friday. We were closing down the night shift. It was summer, because I was wearing a gauzy blue dress that was way too short, heeled sandals. I was wiping down the bread drawer when he came in the side door. He had to have smoked, to be so bold — he came up behind me and just barely grazed the dress with his fingers.

“What is this?” he said in my ear. “You and your little dress.”

When I got in my car for the night and backed up, he ran out and slapped the sill of my open window. “You ever decide to leave Will, you let me know.”

After that he makes me a mixed playlist that could mean something and could mean nothing, that I listen to in the car.

Nobody knows the truth of Will and me, and I won’t tell. It would be a betrayal. And then, in winter, there was Sara.

“When I saw him, I thought, holy shit, he’s a god,” Sara says. She is bartending that day, wiping down the bar. I sip an icy beer. We are allowed one beer or wine after lunch shift. The French Quarter is the only place that has these refreshing Louisiana beers flavored like lemon or apple that taste clean and not shitty. The bar area reeks of stale, spilled beer.

“Yah. I’ve liked him for a long time, but I have Will.” I don’t know why I am confessing to a blond stranger something I’ve never said aloud.

Her face falls. “Oh.”

Then, she flips her hand.

“He gave me this.” It is a tiger’s eye ring, the kind that is supposed to bring power.

Valentine’s Day rolls around, guaranteed to be the coldest, shittiest day of the year. One of the customers brings in a box of truffles for us girls, a surprising act of kindness that makes the chocolate taste like heaven.

After we bus our tables, Sara follows me out to clean the tables on the patio. The patio is very close to Peachtree Street; the sidewalk runs right through it. When I was in Reno, Johnny sent an article with his letter where a car veered into the front window and took out part of the patio.

“I want to talk to you,” she says. We sit.

“So…if there’s anything going on with you and him, tell me now.”

It feels like something is about to be set in motion. I can’t put my finger on it. He chooses this moment to come outside and invade us.

“Hey, can one of you give me a lift home today? I’d take the train, but my daughters are supposed to call soon.”

Sara and I look at each other.

“You go ahead. I have to head home soon.” What have I been doing all this time? What right do I have, to anything?

“You girls want to pop in next door for a drink first?” he says. “Carl and me are buying, for Valentine’s Day.”

Carl is the fry cook. Sometimes our boss hires people off the street. Maybe all of us are off the street. Carl looks like he just got out of prison — he’s short, built, drinks glasses of beer through his shift. Sara and I are the only ones who tolerate his moods.

I have never been in the hole-in-the-wall next door. It is dark, like a cave, and cold because the door is always open. It reminds me of a smarmy bar in Reno. I drink my drink on the stool that is splitting so the foam comes out and question why I would rather watch this scene unfold than go to my own home. Going home fills me with dread. Usually there is school after work until nine or ten, but not today.

Flirting happens, back and forth between them. Carl teases the giggling couple.

“Why don’t you two just go home and get it on?” Carl says.

“I have to go. Really. Bye guys. Have fun.” I did, and I’m sure they did.

I have not gotten anything for Valentine’s Day. I have no clue anymore what kind of thing would please someone like Will, but I’m sure he expects something.  There is nothing in the stores, certainly nothing I can afford. I grab a single red rose that is left over from the buying frenzy. I tell myself I have to thank him. He has been my hardest teacher.

I walk in the door, take off my coat. He confronts me in the hall.

“Where have you been?”

“Worked a little late.”

He is practically in my face.

“On Valentine’s Day?”

I offer the pathetic flower. He snatches the stem. “That’s fucking original.”

I feel the velvet slap of petals on my face, taste the hothouse perfume. I can’t say I blame him.

I don’t see much of Sara outside of work. She spends a lot of time at the loft. Another waitress lives there. Cynthia takes photography at Georgia State. Josiah, the plump farm boy waiter from Iowa lives there, the adorable rosy-cheeked prep cook from Lithuania, and Johnny. The rooms are tiny cells with no windows. The loft is in the old slaughterhouse, and has an authentic meat lift elevator that goes to the top floors and roof. Cynthia had me over to shoot photos with Johnny and Carl, and once to do a film project. Now Sara stays over and Johnny bakes blueberry muffins in the morning.

Sara comes to my place and we split a bottle of wine because you can’t know someone until you’ve split a bottle of wine. Will retreats into the basement apartment, which I am thankful for, but it surprises me. Will never misses a chance to humiliate. It is her power. She must intimidate him.

“Johnny didn’t want me to come,” she says, three glasses down. “He said to be careful. Because Will has guns and because he thinks you’re bi.”

“What? Why? I didn’t go out with him and now I’m gay?”

She waves her hand, takes a pull on the wine.

“I said to him ‘I have one friend in Atlanta. I don’t care if Will has guns or if she’s bi.’ Besides, I’ve indulged.”

She continues “It’s tedious. I just don’t know about this. He talks about that girl he was seeing. He talks about his ex. He talks about you. I feel like I could be anybody.”

“Yah.”

Maybe Spring came. It would have been humid. We are standing on the patio at the French Quarter while the bike couriers grab onto bumpers and spin by. The male prostitutes in the gas station parking lot next door call out to each other. I never pictured Sara crying, but she is.

“I’m so sorry. I didn’t have anyone else to ask. He doesn’t have a car and the driver has to sit there the whole time. You can’t leave. I’m sorry. I don’t know what happened. We were safe. He told me to ask you.”

“Don’t be sorry.”

“I can’t. I just can’t, you know? He doesn’t want me to, but it’s ridiculous. He’s already supporting two.”

“I’ll request off that day.”

She hugs me, clings. I put my arms around her, pat her back, feel fake. The fog of the surreal drops, like I am just a compassionate figure in a movie. I feel nothing, from head to toe. Maybe another car will veer off the street and take me out.

They take her in with her plastic bag of goods after we fill out forms. I have three or four hours to sit with Johnny while he mopes. About eight other people are in the waiting room, crappy-looking people, but they don’t raise hell. All sound is muted here. The carpet is sterile blue. I expected screaming, signs waving out front. There was nothing, just an unmarked brick building, perfectly square.

“She says she wants to leave. I’m afraid she’s going to leave,” he says, tone muted by the crush of silence.

“Says she’s going to the desert to teach on the reservation or something. I asked her to stay.”

“She might not go.”

“I hope not.”

Three hours of this. My false compassion. His intensity. The silence. Why’d you have to be so goddamn fertile anyway? She’s going to leave.

They are holding her arm when she comes out. She’s pale, a little green. She trips and we run to grab her. She can only mumble. We put her in the back seat and drive her to her apartment. He goes in, comes back.

“She’s not talking. I said I would get more stuff at the store. And soup or something?”

We have to stop at French Quarter for our paychecks. He is miserable.

“They’re going to think it’s funny,” I say. “All of us taking off today, you and me showing up together. Especially when she can’t work next week. Put on a regular face. For Sara. She doesn’t want them to know. ”

Back at the apartment, he grabs the bag of soup and other stuff.

“I have to go to class. You staying with her tonight?”

“Yes,” he says. He stares at my face. I blink away.

“Look, thank you. I don’t know what we would do… .”

His goatee scrapes when he kisses my cheek.

“Ok.”

He gets out and goes inside.

You only get what you want when you don’t want it anymore.

When they close down the place to build a parking lot, everyone kind of scatters. It’s how those things go. I dream of formaldehyde. She calls every couple months from the reservation. I get knocked up first, before her.

“This time for keeps,” she says. The man is a border jumper. They camped in the desert. There was a storm that split the sky, a Navaho prophecy, all very poetic. She moves to New Jersey. We describe the progress of things — her writing, my interrupted school, our huge asses. She goes back to Atlanta, doesn’t run into Johnny. I hung out with him a bit, rode around and watched serial killer movies, until I got pregnant. I finish school. Move away. Come back through on my way to New York. I always thought she had her shit together. She is getting a tattoo. I’ve been invited to band practice. Our sons are in preschool. Nobody knows what they are doing. She shows me around her loft at the Cotton Mill. The raw beams. Her bohemian bed in the living room. She brags on it all day.

“Maybe I’ll move to LA,” she says. She shows me a video of the purple dream house, her abandoned life with the new guy, the voice behind the camera.

“Now my son and I live in a factory.”

This was after her impromptu visit to the Gulf. I had one tiny bedroom with half a wall, a bunk bed for grownups that Will put together, bigger on top, our son’s bed below. Sara and Blake sleep on the bottom. Her dark son curls his fingers through her light hair. The sun slots in through the blinds. She looks so damn pretty, like some portrait of Madonna and child. I pick some of the yellow wildflowers outside the apartment, check them for bugs, leave them beside her face so she can see them when she wakes.

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