My name had been amputated when I was young from two syllables down to one. I fancied myself a Marilyn or a Belladonna – something you could really wrap your tongue around, something you could pronounce with pouty lips. My angular body had kept its skinny shape from adolescence, and it jutted out in the wrong places. What I wanted was an hourglass figure, a shape you could make in the air with your hands in one soft movement.
I started thinking about the end of my life – where I would be, and how heartbroken. I thought maybe I could be working as a lounge singer. Some place with a name like The Pink Flamingo, or Pearl’s, or The Salty Dog. There’d be an old white piano and a dusty spotlight on stage, pink neon signs out the front, everything inside draped in red velvet. I’d wear a blue sequined dress and powder my face white – draw on my eyebrows like Edith Piaf. No one would even have to be there. The place would be half empty, always a slow night. And the waitress would walk around the bar at her own bored pace, collecting glasses, pouring shots and opening beers. Maybe she’d look up every once in a while during a Nina Simone number.
I’d already be a broken woman, so I’d know what I was singing about. I’d do Aretha, Dionne, Billie, or Lena, depending on the mood. At this age I’d be past the most painful part of losing in life. Three husbands would have been and gone, my slight drug habit waning, none of my expectations met. Midnight til close would be my hours. Sometimes I’d sing til six in the morning and walk home while the sun was coming up.
Anyone who’d found someone to hold would be out front on the street, kissing in the warm breeze and wanting a bed to lay down on and undress. Only the lonely ones would stay until the very end, the ones who wanted a warm body pressed up against them, or the ones who were married but avoiding home. And then there’d be the type of man who just wanted to drink until he couldn’t stand up anymore, until he blacked out. Until he was so drunk he could fall in love with any woman that would smile back at him.
He’d be an older man, so old his skin sagged more than mine, his grey beard rough and bristly on my face whenever we’d kiss. He’d be an ugly man, one who loved his liquor too much – a man just like the last five, but new, more gentle this time and just as bruised as me. So that maybe we could both settle and be happy – not head over heels, but comfortable. And maybe I’d realise late in life that I’d always underestimated comfort.
If we were still in love when the time came he’d die in my arms, and I’d feel a longing I’d never felt before. I wouldn’t go back to the Flamingo. It would have to be some new place, a bar with a name like Loretta’s. I’d switch to country and do numbers that just touched on sadness – now wary of drowning, and careful not to catch the eye of any man in the audience because Loretta’s would be full of cowboys, and I’d always liked cowboys.
The thing is – where I was living, there weren’t any cowboys, only farmers. Men with shrivelled faces and necks, red and raw from the sun. They were quiet but stern men with bony, milk white wives. I saw them all around, sitting in restaurants eating their meals together so quietly you could hear the food mashing against their gums. They’d been to war and they’d taken it home with them – this is what my mother would tell me when I was young. Don’t be fooled by their pensive stare, she’d say, there’s fire behind those eyes. And what the hell did I know about real cowboys anyway, she wanted to know.
If she was still around now I’d tell her that all I ever knew about cowboys or whiskey or a place like Loretta’s came from the movies. Where else but the movies would they let an old woman sing on stage, and pay her to do it. I’d seen every American classic at our local cinema when I was young. And there was always this person, this woman that sang on stage for money, or attention, or just because she wanted to. The type of woman who wore sequins, a woman with big hair and dramatic hand gestures, the type of woman I couldn’t be in this town because here, everybody knew me as a man.