My mother said she saw Luze today, maybe the first time in three years. “I almost didn’t recognize her,” said my mom. “Her hair is shorter for one thing, shaved on one side, pink tips on the other. Plaid shirt, leather pants, and lots of black-pink makeup. Acting like she does not know me. I said Hi Luze, you forgot me? Meera’s mom?”
That’s my mom for you. When we were friends, Luze and I, she thought Luze was a terrible influence on me. Now that we’re not, she’s striking up conversations with her in the supermarket.
Still, I’m glad it was my mom at the supermarket checkout and not me. I wouldn’t have known what to say to Luze anyway.
We used to be friends. Not close, but she was friends with my best friend from band. Then our common friend shifted to a different school, and Luze and I were thrown together without consciously trying to become friends. It’s the friend-in-law effect. Given a choice, Luze would not even pick me for her entourage, I’m sure of that. But it’s spring 2015, May, maybe early June, and we’re hanging out and doing things together on a fairly regular basis.
Probably a week, ten days before school let out after our sophomore year, something happens. It’s a day like every other day, except — the way she walks, her skirt flouncing, hands on waist, stopping every few moments, I can tell she has an itch. We are in the cafeteria. Her eyes look every which way, sizing up which clique’s table we should crash into.
When we walk past this kid named Bay, he whispers under his voice, but loud enough for Luze and me to hear.
Luze stops. Pivots and faces him.
Oh lord, I’m saying under my breath. I don’t like Bay very much, because he once walked over to our table at lunch time, lifted my container, and looked at the turmeric-lemon rice my mother had packed, and said, “What this? PISS RICE?”
Ok, that “once” was actually the previous day. Everyone in the cafeteria had looked up. Everyone started laughing. When he set the container back on the table, I dug into the “Piss Rice” as though he had not just made me want to puke out all my lunch.
Bay is an idiot, everyone knows that.
“You said something?” says Luze, standing square in front of Bay.
Bay looks up at her and then back at his lunch tray. He separates his lunch trash from things he wants to keep. Green apple slices – trash, Utz potato chips – keep. That sorta thing.
“Repeat what you just said.”
“I said nothin’.” He keeps at his lunch.
“You just fuckin’ called me a fuckin’ slut. Apologize.”
Bay just stares at her.
“You better apologize to me. Also my friend. You owe my friend here an apology too.”
“Her? For what?”
“You called her food Piss Rice. Do you not know it’s culturally insensitive to say such things, you moron?”
I can’t believe she did that, drag me into this fight with Bay. Though she was there yesterday and said nothing, Luze has decided that Bay will pay for his mouthiness today as well as any past transgressions.
At this point, I don’t want trouble of any sort. I had almost forgotten the Piss Rice thing. Not quite forgotten maybe, but at least forgiven. If he thinks it’s Piss Rice, I’m ok with it. As long as I don’t have to hand it over.
“I ain’t apologizing to no one.” Bay balls up the trash, takes aim at the trash can by the wall, and throws an over arm toss.
The moment Bay’s trash missile lands in the can is the moment Luze jumps him. She’s across the table, knocking trays, kicking with her sneakers and knee length socks. Her hands grab a fistful of Bay’s brown curls and pull. The rest of the cafeteria has stopped eating. Everyone is crowded around Bay’s Kingdom, as he calls his lunch table.
Most kids cheer with every blow – Luze’s punches, Bay lashing back. They don’t care who’s right, or what this fight is about, as long as it’s entertaining and it’s free.
Me. I don’t have a choice. I do have to care. Since this battle is being waged on my behalf, and I’m no Gandhi (which is another name that Bay calls me), I jump in too. I smack Bay a few times. Just because. And then I put my hands between Luze and Bay and try to physically come between them. But you can’t stick a paper between these two, she’s gripping him that tight. A 90 lb, 5 foot nothing Indian-American can’t wedge in between these Amazons.
My mother has only one piece of advice when she picks me up from the principal’s office. “Stay away from that Luze. She’s trouble.”
Two hours later Luze is ringing my doorbell, telling me that we have to babysit the Winston kid. Mrs. Winston called for our usual Friday evening thing. My mom only says yes because she’s on a conference call with her Seattle team and she wants to get rid of me.
The Winston house is on the top of Southdown Shores cul de sac. To walk down to their pier, you have to take close to a hundred steps. It’s a large house designed to look like a villa, all stone walls and bougainvillea. The interiors are all gilt in the bathroom, gold trimmings on the ceiling fans, and those curvy couches with the claw feet and more than four legs. There’re two staircases on either side of the sweeping foyer. They merge into a landing about halfway and then proceed upwards in a single wide sweep. Very Hollywood ballroom scene.
The door is open, and Mrs. Winston is sitting on the bottom stair, car keys in one hand, lit cigarette in the other when we arrive. She’s dressed in a figure hugging bodycon dress, short, about mid-thigh and high stilettos. Baby Dorian has run of the floor next to her, scooching around on his bottom and chasing after his runaway ball that rolls just out of his reach when he nudges it.
“The envelope is on the kitchen counter,” she says.
Technically Luze is the only babysitter on payroll, but Mrs. Winston says having two girls on the job makes her feel more relieved, for some reason. There’s always a little extra something in the envelope. “Since there’s two of y’all.” Wink-wink.
Today she doesn’t wink. She’s out the door even before we gather up the baby and his toy.
We like Mrs. Winston. She’s a decent woman, not the type of person who has too many rules for us, pays well.
We have some self-imposed rules we follow in the Winston house. Like don’t call boys over. Or use the house phone to make prank calls. No smoking in the building, not even in the toilet with the exhaust on, and even though Mrs. Winston clearly smokes indoors. Except for the smoking rule which I made up specifically for Luze, these are really my mom’s house rules. Though she complains, Luze mostly agrees with what I say.
We’re lucky that Baby Dorian is an easy baby tonight. I feed him his Gerber formula, and put him to bed while Luze calls in the pizza order. She tiptoes into Dorian’s room and beckons to me.
“Bedroom?” she whispers.
I follow her into the master suite. In three months of babysitting Dorian, we’ve managed to look through a large part of the Winston house. We know where the booze stash is (Mr. Winston’s study) and where the cash is (Jar in the kitchen. I didn’t let Luze take anything.)
“Let’s start with her dresser,” says Luze.
I don’t know what she expects to find. There’s loads of lingerie – lacy and skinny. A couple of bottles of perfume – a Burberry and a Chanel. In the bottom drawer, we find a picture of a man, tucked under her control-top underwear and tak tops.
“Doesn’t look like Mr. Winston,” declares Luz.
“Ex-boyfriend maybe?” I say.
“Or an affair!”
I say the man could be a younger and not bald Mr. Winston, you never quite know with men how they will age.
“Then why is it in the dresser?” Luze says.
Luze continues rummaging. She finds a lace teddy and the Winston wedding album in the bottom drawer.
She tosses me the album, then holds up the teddy. “I call dibs.”
It’s has red a push-up bra and a black polka dot silk train. Very pretty. Very adult. The price tag is still attached to it.
I don’t know that she has to call dibs on this outfit. I wouldn’t dream of putting the thing on. It’s too… flimsy. Not my color. Not my style.
She’s smiling at me, raising one eyebrow. “What do you say?”
“Stop me,” she laughs, tossing her curls back. She strips down to her bra and panties and puts the teddy on.
Weirdo. I head back into the bedroom, taking the album with me. I lay on the bed, flipping through the album. Even ten years ago, 2007 when they were younger, Mrs. Winston was the beauty. She’s laughing in every picture, pearly teeth and swept up hair. Mr. Winston looks slightly bemused and shocked. As if he’s won the lottery unexpectedly.
Luze is right. The picture we found looks nothing like Mr. Winston.
She comes out of Mrs. Winston’s closet and clears her throat.
When I look up, she’s standing there, striking a model pose in the doorway for a second. She catwalks up to the bed wearing just the teddy, silk panties, and a pair of really high heels, with clear lucite heels that she’s borrowed from Mrs. Winston’s collection.
She stands in front of me, waiting for me to admire her. She looks kinda slutty-cute, though I will die before I tell her that. She already thinks no end of herself, does Luze. Too many compliments will go to her head.
She’s standing with her hands in a look-at-me pose, feet stuck out in front, it doesn’t feel like a bedroom, but a beach or a catwalk.
The light is on her face, she’s smiling with a sparkle in her eyes, and she looks like a younger version of Marilyn Monroe. Bigger, taller, and with messy hair. But — infinitely sexier.
I’m about to say something dismissive, when the doorbell rings.
“Fuck! Pizza!” I toss the album aside to one side of the bed, and run out. “Put your clothes on.”
The Ledo’s guy is new. Someone who used to go to my school, I’m positive on that. He gives me a surprised look, as in I didn’t know you lived here. I go to the kitchen and open Mrs. Winston’s envelope.
What? She forgot to leave the money? I don’t have any cash, I don’t think.
I walk to the door, and show the empty envelope to the pizza guy. “Let me check with my friend if she can pay. Luze!”
Luze saunters out of the master bedroom, and stands at the top of the stairs. She’s still in the teddy. What in the world –
“What seems to be the problem?” asks Luze, a hand on her hip.
I look at the pizza guy. He opens his mouth to say something, and then shuts it. Then he starts to talk again, before shutting his mouth and turning to me.
“There’s no money.” I wave the empty envelope at her, but Luze isn’t looking at me.
She’s half smiling at the pizza guy, and proceeds to walk down the staircase – slow strut, hand on waist, smiling that same smile — and I am furious. Luze likes to create scenes, draw attention to herself. But mostly it’s at school and it’s always been when she’s wearing more clothes. I want to drag her back into the bedroom and tell her to dress up.
The pizza delivery guy just gapes.
“Mrs. Winston forgot to leave cash. You have any on you?” I draw Luze’s attention back to the cash problem.
“Unfortunately, no. But I’m sure we can work something out with.. what’s your name?”
The pizza guy sputters to life. “Sam. My name is Sam.”
“Sam. We can work something out with Sam. Can’t we, Sam?”
Every time she says his name, Sam seems to be perking up.
I don’t like the sound of where this is heading. “Let’s send the pizza back. I’ll make us sandwiches, Luze.”
“I can’t take it back. They’ll dock it from my pay.”
“And I don’t want sandwiches. I want pizza.” Luze’s voice becomes a babyish whine. She picks up the pizza and walks with it to the island.
Sam’s eyes follow her receding backside. I watch Sam.
Luze sets the pizza down on the island with a thud, and turns around to face us. “Tell you what, Sam.” She smiles when she says Sam. “Since we don’t have any money to pay you, do you want to just eat with us?”
“I’m.. uh.. not sure that’s a good idea. No eating with customers. Ledo’s rules,” says Sam, even though he’s not really behaved like we are his customers ever since Luze appeared on the stairs.
“Come on, Sam. it’s a great idea. Leave the pizza here, take it back, it’s the same thing. Stay and enjoy this.” Luze waves her hands about. “Meera, you tell him.” She looks towards me. I keep quiet.
“It’s a shame to waste all this good pizza, Sam.”
“Pizza for dinner it is,” sighs Sam. “Just don’t tell my boss.”
“What happens in Southdown stays in Southdown.” Luze winks at him.
Sam follows us into the kitchen. He’s kinda cute, this guy, even in the standard green and black Ledo’s uniform. He sits next to Luze, who plonks herself in the middle.
I’m about halfway through my third pizza square when I hear a cry from the baby monitor.
“Dorian’s up,” I tell Luze.
“Be a dear and go check on him.”
I sprint up the stairs two at a time, to get to the baby and pacify him before it becomes a full-on crying session. He takes a while, but I soothe him back to sleep.
By the time I get downstairs, the pizza is almost fully gone. But really, pizza is the least of my worries, as I find out.
Luze is literally on Sam. They’re on the same bar stool, making out. All tongue and hands, and in Luze’s case — boobs. This isn’t the first time she’s made out with someone in my presence, nor is it the fastest time on record. Luze’s body language telegraphs all sorts of mixed messages. Don’t mess with me, along with I’m a slutty girl. It drives guys wild. I’m icked, but not surprised.
I head to the living room and turn on the TV. Soon I’m simul-watching the original Dr. Who on BBC with Honey Boo Boo reruns. The kissing sounds are getting louder, and there’s some fumbling and zipper sounds. I try very hard to block out the romance action in the background. I turn up the TV volume to as much as I can bear. No complaints from the couple in the kitchen. If I were five, I’d be sitting with my fingers in my ears going, nene nene ne, just to block everything out.
And that is probably why we don’t hear the Winstons until Mr. Winston is already inside the house, dragging his wife along. He looks drunk too, red eyes, dragging his feet. Almost as bad as her, but at least he can walk upright on a somewhat straight line. They walk into the family room, swaying, and Mrs. Winston flops onto the small couch next to me.
Luze and Sam spring off the barstool, which I think may actually be a worse idea than them clinging and making out. At least Luze’s semi-nakedness was not on full view the way it is now. She has a deer in the headlight reaction to the Winstons. She’s standing there looking petrified.
“Look, we have a party going on here,” slurs Mrs. Winston. “Why, they even got you a stripper, Gerard,” she says, pointing to Luze.
Mr. Winston just grunts and looks briefly at Luze. For the first time in the evening, Luze has nothing funny or saucy to add.
“Gerard, isn’t it wonderful, they hired you a little stripper? She looks young, doesn’t she? How very considerate of the baby sitters to get you a baby stripper.”
Luze isn’t the sort of person who wears her emotions on her face. A blank expression, maybe a sneer – that’s what is permanently plastered on her face most of the time. But her face turns red now – the tips of her ears, the apples of her cheeks.
“Elsie, I think she’s our baby sitter.”
“Whatever you do, don’t break any laws, Gerard. This isn’t Thailand.”
Luze steps up to Mrs. Winston, bends down close to her face, and holds her hands in both of hers.
“Mrs. Winston, it’s me. Luze.”
“Who?” Mrs. Winston squints at the face in front of her.
“Luze. Dorian’s baby sitter.”
“Oh dear, I didn’t recognize you. Not in that outfit. Which I must say, looks especially fetching on you. Doesn’t it, Gerard?”
Mr. Winston looks for a long moment at Luze, sizing her up.
“She’s a Lolita, isn’t she, Gerard?” Mrs. Winston starts giggling at this.
I look at Luze, who looks ready to burst into tears. “Go upstairs,” I whisper.
Luze nods. The teddy strap is slipping off her shoulder. She smooths her belly and straightens up. The price tag pops out under her arm.
“Stop!” Mrs. Winston puts out her hand to Luze. “Are you wearing my teddy?”
Mr. Winston places an arm on her shoulder but she smacks it away. “Don’t touch me, motherfucker.”
“I’ll go change,” offers Luze.
Hallelujah, I think. The first good idea she’s had all evening.
“You will not touch my things again. Am I clear?” Says Mrs. Winston to Luze. “I’m sick of people eyeing my things. Today it’s my teddy, tomorrow my baby, my husband, this house.” She’s crying by now, loud, copious tears.
Luze turns and flees up the stairs. Sam, who has been inching his way to the door, takes advantage of the confusion to sneak out too. It’s just the three of us now, waiting for Luze to come back down. Mr. Winston turns the TV off and sits on the edge of the couch next to his wife.
I get up from the couch and face the Winstons. “We fed the baby Gerber chicken rice,” I say, hoping this will placate them.
“Good,” says Mr. Winston. He turns to Mrs. Winston. “Babe, if you want to crash, let’s go upstairs.”
Mrs. Winston tries to get up, falters, and flops back into the couch. She’s mumbling something but it’s hard to make out what she’s saying.
“Come on,” he says and puts his arms under her armpits to get her off the couch. And that’s when Mrs. Winston gets up like one of those dormant dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. She lumbers into her full height and lashes out with her arms. “Get away from me, you bastard. I don’t want you touching me again.”
“Fine.” He abruptly pulls his arms from under Mrs. Winston, and teeters to the bottom of the stairs. “Lock the door on your way out,” he tells me.
Mrs. Winston tugs at my sleeve so hard I fall into the couch beside her. She leans forward into me, close I can smell the alcohol on her breath. I can’t tell what she’s had, but it’s strong and cloying, almost like a force field.
“You wanna hear a secret, dear?”
I say nothing. I run my fingers over the length of her hands. My mom does this when I’m fighting with her and she wants me to calm down. It always works on me, but I’m not sure it’s working on her.
“He knocked up his secretary. I said to him, how much more cliched can you get, Gerard? Wife at thirty, partner by thirty five, affair at thirty eight. Milestones in the life of Gerard Winston. Except surprise surprise. There’s a bonus baby on the way. He only wanted the fun. He didn’t bargain for a baby, did you Gerard? Didn’t want no bonus baby, our Gerard.”
I still don’t know what to say.
“Not a one woman man. He’ll fuck anything in sight, will Gerard. He’s probably going at it right now. Fucking your stripper friend.”
This is when I realize I haven’t seen Luze in a while. It can’t take that long to get out of a teddy and back into your jeans.
“I have to find Luze,” I tell Mrs. Winston. “You lie down here.” I put her feet up on the couch.
“Luze?” I call from the bottom of the stairs. Not sure it’s my imagination or what, but I think I hear a moan from upstairs. Oh no, not again. And not with Mr. Winston.
I run up to the Winstons’ bedroom. The double doors are closed. Locked. Damn.
I knock a few times. Tentative at first, then harder. There’s a muffled sound from inside. And then a moan.
“Open the door!” I push at it. No luck. Run forward and shove into it. The door gives.
Inside I see the craziest scene I’ve ever witnessed. The light is off, and the room is dark, though some white light streams in through the blinds. I can make out Mr. Winston on the floor, curled up on his side in a fetal position. There’s a crumpled lump on one side of him.
Luze is in her jeans and bra, swinging at Mr. Winston with something. I realize it’s the wedding album. She’s holding it with both hands, and swinging — thwack. Thwack. She smacks Mr. Winston on his butt. The album is unwieldy, but she keeps at it. Throws in a few kicks.
Mr. Winston moans.
“Stop!” I yell. “What’re you doing?”
She doesn’t answer me. She keeps hitting him.
I yank the album from her hands. “Have you gone crazy?”
She looks at me, gasping for breath, and unsteady on her feet. She stares, eyes unfocused, as if she’s not really seeing me. Her hair is wild, pulled free of her band, an aura framing her face. The blinds cast a shadow across her face, so she looks weird. Half dark, half light. Angry, but also beautiful. Like a goddess.
I shake her shoulders.
Luze looks around the room, at Mr. Winston on the floor and back at me.
Luze does not answer, and as if just realizing it, covers herself with her hands briefly. “Where’s my shirt?”
I look around for the light switch, but she says, “Don’t.”
I last saw her clothes in Mrs. Winston’s closet, I remember. I search for her discarded items in the semi-darkness, and bring it to Luze with her sneakers. She puts on everything and says, “Let’s go.”
I look at Mr. Winston, still curled up, not moving on the floor.
“You think he’s dead?”
“Only one way to tell,” she says, and kicks him in the stomach.
Mr. Winston groans.
“Still alive. Unfortunately.”
She turns around and picks the teddy up, and tosses it to me.
On the drive back, we’re both quiet. When we drive up to my house, I ask her if she wants to come in. She shakes her head.
Why? I ask before I step out of the car.
“He called me a stripper.”
She reaches into the backseat and hands me the teddy. “Keep this with you. Don’t lose it.”
I look at it when I get inside my room. It’s ripped at the top where the strap came off. Did she refuse? Did he try to force-strip her?
It’s all so confusing. I ball up the teddy and stuff it into the bathroom closet with some towels.
My mother really gets on my case the next morning. She says I was grounded, and even if she didn’t remember that I was grounded, I was supposed to remember this shit and act accordingly. It’s the honor system. She also doesn’t think I should hang out with Luze any more. I should cut off Luze slowly and steadily, she says. “Nothing drastic. You don’t want her to question you – why’re you acting stand-offish, why aren’t you talking to me? Just do a slow fade, ok? No hard feelings anywhere.”
It’s too much to focus with my mother’s constant buzz in my ear. I’m hesitant to step out of the house. What if Mr. Winston died during the night? Do fingers leave prints in cloth covered albums? What if she calls the cops on us, crazy Mrs. Winston who’s no lily-white lady herself, boyfriend picture and all. I think about all the things that would work in our favor. We weren’t paid. We weren’t out to steal or anything. Mr. Winston assaulted a 17 year old. That’s practically statutory rape. Surely Luze’s action would be considered self-defense. Maybe I should come clean to my mom.
I think of the dim light from the blinds, on Luze’s face. The way she looked – not a grown-up, not a child, between standing on the edge and slipping off it. If I hadn’t shown up in the bedroom, no saying what she’d have done to Mr. Winston.
I keep listening for the sirens and flashing blue lights. They never come.
That evening was the last I ever saw of the Winstons and baby Dorian. One afternoon, a few weeks after this incident, Luze got a check in the mail from Mrs. Winston. We heard some talk that they moved out of town. There were even rumors that they had divorced, but we didn’t know anything for sure.
When someone witnesses the worst of you, you can pretend it didn’t happen at all, or cut off the witnesses to your disgrace. For most people, the cognitive dissonance of denying what happened is too big to sweep under the rug. Instead, it’s easier to cut off the people who saw you at your worst. That way you can continue your charade, whatever it is. At least that’s my theory of why the Winstons avoided us and us them.
You could say the same about me and Luze. She gave me my share of what Mrs. Winston gave her. That I think was the last time we ever spoke. By then, we had already started sitting with other people at lunch.
When we graduated high school, she and I had completely different sets of friends. People said she was drinking, even dealing drugs. I went off to University of Maryland. I saw her a few times around town, with her crew, which now included Bay. Once I saw them – her and Bay – at the drugstore. I half expected Bay to call me Piss Rice, but he was looking at some herbal supplements.