Leslie Santikian has an MFA in fiction from CSU, Fresno. Her work has appeared in the Santa Clara Review and San Joaquin Review. She lives in Fresno, where she teaches college composition and rhetoric and fiction in CSU, Fresno and Fresno City College.
An Old Fashioned Voice
I perform in a lounge in the Central Coast every Wednesday and weekend, a place constructed of wall-length windows that make it look like a transparent, breakable jewel box. Right now, I forget the words to a song. It’s old, from the 60s, and involves drinking brandy in the morning. I knew the words an hour ago. I rub a finger along the edge of Mike’s piano, and to make things extra hard on myself, try to remember what the brandy represents in the song—heartache? A way to stop sadness? I know the words to most songs by now, since my profession, last time I checked, is “singer.” I adjust the mike.
Outside these windows, the ocean churns, choked by clumps of seaweed and bright streaks of foam. If I look to the right, past eucalyptus and fragrant red dirt, I see the smoke that curls from the chimneys of the lounge’s adjoining hotel, the Highwoods Inn, where each room has a fireplace and logs to burn. A lot of couples honeymoon here. When I think about that, it reminds me that forgetting the words to a song isn’t the worse thing I could do. I could be married and stuck in a bedroom with someone when I really want to be alone.
Tonight, I’m not drunk, despite the fact that it’s Saturday and I’m sometimes drunk on Saturdays. Alcohol hasn’t yet sunk in, its sharp, clean scent wafting from my skin like an invisible fence, like a warning, similar to the way skunks use their smell to scare away predators. In other words, I look better than usual tonight. My hair, combed then curled with an iron, looks good. My dress with its strips of emerald fabric and sequins—a torn mermaid look—was like this when I bought it. Despite what Louis, the manager of the hotel and my boss, may think, I didn’t tear my dress while in a boozy rage before coming to work like I did with that white dress I loved last summer.
The smeared lipstick, though, is newer for me. It happened a few minutes ago, when I was making out in a bathroom stall with Jeff, a waiter seventeen years younger than my 41. We make out a lot: in the bathroom, in the kitchen when the cooks go home and turn off the lights. He plays the drums in a band and calls himself a musician, though I think he still has some growing to do. Jeff’s one of the few things in my life that’s both easy to start and easy to end. We made out for half an hour tonight, and then I walked out here, ready to “perform.” Ready to be on. I need a drink.
Mike catches me staring at the piano.
“About ready, Gabby?” he says, his voice amused. It tells me I don’t have a choice in my answer. His eyes are gentle, though. He’s always been good to me, Mike.
He’s been my piano player for a few years. We’ve been together so long—Gabby and Mike—that I know he checks his reflection in the mirror and smoothes his hair, still dark and thick despite his middle-aged years, before every performance. I like having him around because he doesn’t comment on my life, and talks music with me. A father figure, you could say, since my dad left and mom is dead. She’s been dead 10 months ago today. Pancreatic cancer. I remember the last time I held her hand in the hospice. It was as if her bones were strung together with air instead of skin, hollow like a bird’s.
“Yeah, I’m ready.” I do a little flourish with my hand, as if I were saying “ta-da” in a magic show. “Warm up the keys.”
Mike laughs. “Sure, kid.” He knows I’m good, even if I can’t remember the brandy song words right now. I’m a soprano, know all the good big band songs old people, or young ones who romanticize the past, like. I sing about moonlight or stardust, “The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.” I know all the good songs. What I don’t always know is how sober I’ll be, but I’m working on it.
Despite what people—Mike, Jeff— try to make me believe, it’s not a simple thing to be an alcoholic. It’s not easy. I used to think I was a social drinker, before I got smart and accepted the truth. Two bottles of wine with dinner when I’m eating alone. Gin or vodka with tonic, scotch on the rocks in one of my mom’s aluminum cups from the 30s. Amaretto or sambuca when I want to pretend that alcohol isn’t a drug but a dessert, something I could drink with friends late into the night. This assumes I have people like this in my life, which I don’t. Just Mike and Jeff. And the audience. Songs aren’t people, though, and nothing new happens when I sing them.
With me, it’s the same information. Sometimes, I sit up in bed and all I want to do is carve open my chest and pour some alcohol inside. It’s humiliating, being so weak.
Talking and laughing, the sound of heels on the floors and booze being poured, hums all around me. It’s deafening.
I look at the clock: 8 p.m. Time to start. I want a gin and tonic to ease my throat into singing, but Mike’s watching. He’s been harder on me these past few months since I’ve stopped rehab. I’ll take a sip here and there, especially if someone cocky and handsome in the audience buys, but nothing serious. I need a paycheck to make rent, buy groceries. It’s not like Mom can give me money anymore.
Mike nods to me, his fingers hovering over the keys.
“Well hello, ladies and gentlemen,” I say to the crowd. I force my voice to sound husky—the opposite of frustrated.
I still can’t remember the words. In my head, I panic. My body feels sluggish.
Forget the brandy song, I tell myself. I’ll just start with something else.
I adjust the mike until it’s even with my mouth. Tonight’s crowd is a mixture of newly-wed or engaged couples (the Highwoods Inn boasts a reputation for elegant weddings and receptions); old patrons with old money to spend, a few out-of-town travelers, some of them families.
One of those families sits a few feet from me, and all of them have the glazed look of people used to getting what they want: a mom and dad, three girls of different ages. Two of the girls have a cocktail in front of them—a French Peach Bellini; a Kiwi Lemon-Drop, rimmed with sugar—so I assume they’re 21 or older. Still, I could be wrong. Most of the people who come here have money and are returning clientele, so the lounge doesn’t deny them, or their offspring, anything. Same for spouses, partners, etc.
The third girl with a cocktail holds a wine glass with either water or vodka, and crushed ice. Condensation runs down the sides, drips onto her dress like weak rain, leaving splotches.
“I’d like to begin with a love song,” I say. “It’s called ‘Time after Time’.”
As I sing, grasping the gangly body of my mike, I look towards the back of the room and see Jeff lowering a platter of buttermilk-batter calamari onto a table where three pristine old women sit, glasses in their hands. He’s wearing his black pants and pressed white shirt that creases in all the right places. His hair looks shorter; neat, clean. Did I tell him that I like men with short hair? I might have said something last week, when he was clearing dishes from tables and everyone was gone, and I leaned close to his ear and whispered “Hi.”
The song’s finished. People clap. I say the requisite couple of words—“Thank you”—and start another song, this one about being on a train and missing someone. It’s a tear-jerker with the right crowd, especially for those who’ve seen combat.
A couple sits close to each other in the front, near enough to throw things if they wanted to. Newlyweds—I’m sure of it. Their faces have the same dumb look, and they hold hands like they’ll evaporate if either one of them lets go. I smile at them so they don’t think it’s odd that I’m staring while I’m singing, and they smile back. Then I notice that the guy is no longer listening to me.
Instead, he rubs his nose against his wife’s neck, rubbing his lips all over the soft place behind her ear. The wife looks like she wants both their clothes gone and the varnished wood and glass and light from this room to melt into a bed, sheets, moonlight, darkness. I want a gin and tonic so much that I don’t know how I’m going to get through the next song.
I tell the audience I’m taking a break. The husband lifts his face long enough from his wife’s neck to call me over. My emerald dress sashays a little, but my body’s buzzing and uncomfortable. I don’t want to deal with this “please the customer” thing now. When do I ever want to deal with a “please the customer” thing?
“You were so great,” he said, reaching out to shake my hand. Not a bad looking man, kind of like a young William Shatner with darker skin. Muscles, too. I can tell.
“Oh yeah,” says his wife. “I really love these old songs.” I nod. She looks a good ten years younger than me, with one of those blonde bobs that almost no one can pull off, including her.
“Thanks so much” I say, my smile stretched tight. Their compliments and clean, grateful faces kill me. Customer kindness, even when sincere, is always patronizing. Thanks for wowing us with your old-fashioned voice! Thanks for being our night’s entertainment! Thanks for giving us the opportunity to applaud or not depending on our mood, thereby reasserting our power over your self-worth! My body’s buzzing again.
“So, when did you guys get married?” I say. I can feel Mike watching me, shaking his head in amusement at my attempt to be civil with this couple.
“Two days ago,” says the wife. She’s beaming. “Or, should I say, two nights ago?” She laughs low, and eases her hand into the crook of her husband’s arm. “We got married at night.”
“Aw.” I want to mean it. I do. Or not.
“Hello again. Would either of you like more champagne?” Jeff’s next to me, holding both his hands behind his back and standing straight. His voice is a wonderful tenor, a smooth, warm sound. He’s trying to act like the perfect waiter to make me laugh. I smile down at the floor, holding it in.
The couple says yes, and Jeff goes to the bar to get it. I have ten minutes left of my break, so I follow him.
“Well, that was nice,” I say.
“Better than you were.” He grins, leaning against the bar cut out of one giant redwood. He’s waiting for Tony, the bartender, to open a fresh bottle of champagne—the stuff with the nice label that slides down like water, too good to give you a hangover. “Even I could tell you didn’t want to talk to them.” He touches my waist with his hand, his touch so light that if I close my eyes, I almost wouldn’t believe I was feeling anything.
“How do you know? Maybe I did.”
I shrug, tucking a curl behind my ear. “Not really.”
“Is anything wrong? You’re acting funny.” His eyes are bluish-green, like seaglass. They make me want to look at him more than I already do.
“No, I’m fine. Just tired I think.” I smooth my dress with my hands while Jeff watches, even though the fabric is wrinkled on purpose. It’s the look.
Jeff grabs the two glasses of fresh champagne and places them on his tray. “Well, just keep it real up there. Maybe we can do something after.” He runs his fingers down my waist to my thigh, touching it with his fingers before breaking away. The heat from his hand disappears instantly. “You know, I didn’t want to talk to them either. But it’s my job.” He sounds playful, but the implication pisses me off.
“Right.” My throat feels dry, like cracked earth. I ask Tony for a glass of water, and drink it in four swallows. I wipe my mouth, and gesture to the warm golden champagne in two crystal flutes, which Tony poured and put on Jeff’s tray. “Hey, sneak me a glass of that.”
He looks at me, then laughs, as if anything I just said surprised him. “Right, Gabby. I’ll give you champagne.”
“That’s the spirit,” I say. I sound like the woman in her 40s that I am. Like I’ve seen it all.
I walk back to the piano and the rest of the show.
The first time Jeff and I made out, we were in a stall. That’s the clearest memory I have. Arms, lips, and the small, confined space that felt oddly comforting.
He sat on the toilet in his waiter’s uniform while I straddled him in a black dress with diaphanous see-through sleeves. We’d locked the ladies room door so no one, not even the older women with their heavy perfume and propriety, would come in.
It was my first week working in lounge—about eight months ago, a time when I still wanted to give up drinking and rehab was an option.
He kissed my collarbone. I grabbed his hair as my legs clenched around him.
Part of me wanted to push him back, away from me, that I remember; but I needed something for the feeling that I was disappearing. That numbing feeling, the not drinking-cold. It was as if everything tangible about me—skin, bone, muscle, hair—was evaporating into a fine mist over my head. I’d only been sober a month.
Jeff kept my body there. He kept me in my skin.
I moved his face up from my chest and kissed him, my hands clutched around his face. Towards the end, I wanted to cry. The kisses weren’t working, and I knew what would.
My performance ends. The last song—“Moon River”—finished, I take a bow and let the applause surround me. It doesn’t come in a tide like it would in the movies, but at least there’s enough that I can feel it vibrate the air.
Mom used to love “Moon River.” It’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s fault. Mom was a romantic. She owned a used bookstore in Mountain View that she started with my dad, which she kept for 20 years after he left her. She watched Travel Channel, then planned trips for us to places like Tokyo and Croatia. She went antique shopping one day, and came back with a locket that had someone’s hair in it. She even wore the thing.
Sometimes when I drink, it’s like I’m telling her I’m trying to care about the world again. She’s dead and I’m still telling her things in my head.
I can’t start crying now.
Jeff walks by, so I grab his arm. Some patrons look at me.
“Hey,” I say. Under my eyes, my eyeliner feathers to the edge of my dark circles. I know what my liner does after a night of singing.
“Hey,” he says. I swallow.
“So we should—after we’re done here tonight. Do something.”
He looks at me like he did before, when I wanted the champagne: like he understands some, but not all, of the words I’m speaking and has to translate it all in his head before answering. Like he’s afraid of getting it wrong. “Uh, sure. Sounds good to me.”
“We can go out, find a place.” I lean closer. “We can be even more alone than we are right now.”
He thinks I’m crazy, but I know what I’m saying. I leave him to the audience, then walk to the bar, where I ask Tony to pour me a gin and tonic. I fight to keep the brokenness out of my voice. A strained voice needs lubricant, so I’m getting it. Tony doesn’t need to know about strain: he can just take my money. I have twenties in my clutch.
“You’re sure?” asks Tony.
I get the drink into my hands and sip, and a lushness falls over me. My skin feels extra smooth, like velvet.
“I’ve widened my repertoire, did you notice?” I say. My lips are rubber and can say anything. “Gershwin and Porter, Mancini.”
“That’s some good stuff. I was getting tired of the older tunes.”
I finish my drink then ask for another.
“Wait a bit, sweetheart. You know. Give it time.”
I slide a twenty on the counter, and my cheeks hot. It feels so good to have someone call me sweetheart that I fight the urge to cry all over again.
I want to grab the bottle from Tony’s hands and run in my stupid heels to the bathroom—no Jeff to kiss, no bodies or mess. Now I’m crying for real, and Tony freezes, not knowing what to do.
Mom called me sweetheart, at a time when my hair still curled on its own. I remember her taking me to Golden Gate Park for my fifth birthday, when she bought me a soft pretzel and let me ride the merry go round horse with rusted knobs of gold on its bridle. A band played in the park that day, and I sat in her lap on the grass, listening to drums and voices and trumpets, watching the people dressed in red and white stripes like candy. She called me sweetheart then. Be careful, sweetheart, walking with me to the playground. Riding down the slide’s hot metal. Getting ice cream. Ten months, and I still can’t let her be gone.
I’m having trouble breathing. “Oh God,” I say. Voices swirl around me—people talking to other people, glasses being clinked. I couldn’t care less if they exist or not. I reach into my clutch, dig another twenty from inside. “Tony, come on. I’m paying you double.” He hesitates, but eventually starts pouring, like I knew he would. Jeff’s probably behind me somewhere, watching my glamorous torch singer meltdown, the tray shaking in his hands.
Tony slides my gin and tonic to me without a sound.
I down this one, too. My fingertips melt into the wood.
“I need to tell Mike something,” I say, talking to no one in particular. I meant to say Jeff, but the names of the men in my life—father figure, fling—get jumbled. I don’t even know what I want to tell Jeff. But I need to talk while I’m drinking. I need to talk to someone and not be alone.
Jeff’s in the kitchen, I guess, because when I turn around, I don’t see him. I don’t feel lush anymore, or strong, or whatever I thought drinking would make me feel. My liner’s everywhere, streaked down my cheeks.
“Stay calm,” I say to myself. “Be cool.”
I fall onto a bar stool, but don’t quite make it. My body hits the ground, hard. I’m on my back.
I don’t care who sees me. Look at this, audience.
Ten months ago. Mom in the ground, a cold dead body. Mom, in the ground. It hurts too much to breathe.
I need to stay calm, so I picture all my bottles at home, pretty in their cart. I think of what I’ll do with them while playing some blues, and the thought overwhelms me. I want the idea of going home to be like Christmas morning, so I focus on the bottles. Christmas without candy or lights strung along the house, winking through trees. Christmas alone, the opposite of Christmas when I was little. Mom not there to make me go to bed early, making me wait for the good things I stayed up all night for.