Cleopatra took care lacing her gladiator stilettos. Leather ringlets wrapped around the length of her leg snugly enough to keep her ankle braced. The shoes offered little in the way of physical support — hardly practical for nights on her feet — but they helped her look the part. In her industry, looking the part made a world of difference. Her clients, for all their intoxicated stupor, noticed the finer details on fine women. What they lacked in their ability to touch they made up for by creating memories for themselves. Never whole recollections, just bits and pieces of each woman, curated and reimagined, each to his own liking.
Cleopatra imagined. She dreamed of backpacking across the mountain’s edge, the taste of clouds, seaside voyages on cruisers that could take her anywhere. Anywhere farther than the gaze of The Pyramid. One day she would float past the cracked pavement, past the railway, past the grime of the valley. One day she would reclaim her crown.
But for now, she remained a glorified bottle opener, a play wife, a mother. Though Rickie hadn’t married her, hadn’t even hinted at proposal, she wore a ring. Not that it made her clients any less handsy, but at least the symbolic gesture made her feel more wholesome… more whole.
Unlit and cluttered, the living room constantly proved a hazard. The only light emanated from the TV screen, a soft glow illuminating Rickie’s profile. Cleopatra breathed to calm the annoyance rising toward her mouth. Instead, she headed to the counter where Rickie had faithfully stored her batch for the night, like he did every night.
“Come get Babe?” Rickie hadn’t looked up. Not to acknowledge Cleopatra, and not to attend to his crying infant. He was pawing at a documentary with supermodels and hotrods.
“I’m on my way out, Fredrick.” I should have fed her earlier, Cleopatra thought to herself. I could have avoided this.
“She hungry, you need to feed her,” he said, still glued to the channel.
“She’s not hungry, she’s tired. Did you lay her down at all today?”
“My daughter reachin’ for your nipple cuz it’s time for her to eat,” he insisted, this time sitting up. “I can’t do nothin’ for her when she get like this.” At his own admission, he slumped back, too easily ready to give up.
“I’m more than a nipple to her. She’s reaching for me. Tell daddy, ‘I haven’t seen mama all day. I miss her.’” She took the baby in her arms for a moment, the one jigsaw holding their pieces together. Each time Cleopatra held her, the baby seemed just slightly heavier and longer. As if she watched her baby grow through a series of snapshot after rapid snapshot, rather than continuously. For all her trouble, she’d never be able to see all of her daughter.
“Be a good daddy. There’s formula in the back,” she said.
Cleopatra knew all the right ways to stroke his manhood. When the time came, he folded neatly into her pocket. “Yes, ma’am.”
Drives to the Pyramid stretched longer each trip. Perhaps she drove slower, purposefully wedged herself behind red lights and freight trains. She didn’t enjoy the trains, either, but at least they were predictable, their weighty girth easing along a predetermined course. No veering to the left or right.
Rickie used to work the rails stoking the engine. One day, without warning, he told her just as boldly that he decided to quit. Said he’d found something better, something that would allow him to be closer to Babe. He promised things would be better for all three of them.
Winter had begun to melt away, and with it its perpetual darkness. Men kept their brooding to a minimum in the spring. She willed it to come quickly as possible. Cleopatra still spent nights wide eyed and vigilant, so that by the time morning came, all she could manage was a brief glimpse of the sun brushing the horizon. Her entire winter consisted of darkness, rays of light just on the outskirts of her grasp. Before bed, she’d slink into the tub and let the warm water cleanse her of her darker dealings.
She had only just arrived at the Pyramid, though. She tugged and smoothed her black velvet dress into place, preparing to perform.
As much as the floors cracked and her clients oozed sweat, Cleo knew how to work the place. The bouncer unfolded his arms as she approached, greeting her with a knowing nod. She moved past her scantily clad girlfriends, past the leering patrons at the bar, past the VIP section. They waited for her.
She took her time in this back room, the only spot that could pass as a woman’s domain at the Pyramid. On one side of the room, women dressed for their stage performances, toying with ther wigs and shimmying into spanx. On the other side of the door, women prepared entrees for the night among half-mixed bowls and searing pans. Cleo usually somewhere in the midst of them, neither a dancer nor a domestic.
Cleo usually spent minimal time here – her spot, she had always been told, was among the VIPs. As a bottle concierge, her job was to entertain moguls and their entourages, pointing them toward the pricier spirits. For that, she had to maintain an air of charm and allure. Not too sleazy, but wanton enough for eyes to wander and minds to wonder. The dancers begged to do her makeup and flat iron her hair, but she’d always firmly refuse. Besides, only under special circumstances did she allow others to touch her head. After so long catering to the semi-famous, flashers, and fuckboys, some things had to remain sacred.
A scan across the VIP alerted her to a new cat in town. At a glance, he looked like one of the guys who went out to fluff their feathers: loud, handsy, just a few years too old for this sort of place. She sauntered over, meaning to size him up. His hand darted out, seizing her. Air left the room as quickly as it came, the regulars immediately recognizing the situation.
She leaned into his ear. He expected fun. The others knew better. “Don’t mess with the one over your drinks,” she smirked, letting her sing-song voice mask her disdain. He released his grip.
“Sorry, you’re just one gorgeous piece that’s all,” he said, leaning back as if to get a better look at her.
She twirled to her left, addressing the group. That smarted him, she knew. “What are you all having tonight? Our bottles on special are sure to deliver what you’re after,” she said.
To be held against her will, physically or psychologically, didn’t bode well for her demeanor. Still, she had a job to do. These types usually carried cash on hand.
“We’ll start with three of your flavored Cirocs and see where the night takes us,” the first man said, recovering from his earlier gaffe.
“Straight away,” she managed. Oftentimes she wondered if her clients could see through the smiles and giggles to her true face. Then again, she knew even if they could, they wouldn’t care. They didn’t come out for her. They were here for something else, something that didn’t exist. Not really.
She passed her manager on her way back, caught his attention.
“VIP is riled up. One of the guys grabbed me,” she said flatly.
His face twisted for a moment. “You’re acting green,” he commented.
Green? This one had started less than three months ago and had the nerve to talk about green? Green was wearing loafers to a strip joint. Green was the tufts of scraggly pubic hair coming out his face. She noted the insults and filed them away for later.
Cleo did what she had to in order to maintain any amount of autonomy she could. She resented being backed into a corner, couldn’t stand the way it made her feel small and useable. That meant she acquiesced to the demands placed on her, but did so on her own terms, in her own timing. If she could do something before someone else forced her to, it helped her feel more in control. She could set tempo even if she didn’t choose the song.
As much as she wanted to, she knew she couldn’t quit. Not now. Not with the cash flow so easy and the routine so knowable. The more knowable a situation, the easier it was to control, she reasoned. She craved control — not over others, not necessarily, but over her own life.
Back in the changing room, she hurriedly searched through her oversized and overstuffed bag. She pushed past Rickie’s mixtape, past her makeup bag, past the “business” cards to the common college application packet she had finished a few weeks ago. For a moment, she allowed herself to dream of sunny afternoons and thick textbooks. No, not now. She started in on the pills, two bottles. This crowd seemed ready to party. She always brought the party with her. Cleopatra loved to control the high.
In the VIP, the party had started without her. Light up, pass the blunt — those were the only rules that governed this section. Everyone turned a blind eye to Cleo’s dealing tabs of molly. The small pops of artificial ecstasy were welcome by those who had left their dreams long ago. Now they lived for the high, oblivious to the opportunities that rested at their feet.
In a few hours, Cleo turned back around to go home. Home. She chuckled a sarcastic laugh. Whatever started at work continued in her home. The cycle went unbroken. As much as she tried to keep the spheres separate, they leaked into each other, magnetic liquid.
And again with the steam engines! She seethed, though really, she couldn’t complain. The trains were the lifeblood that brought customers to their abode, the only reason for a thriving economy in the valley. Without them, folks would be left jobless, optionless. She wouldn’t complain for long, but damn, the trash it brought through. Vallians kept to a basic code of conduct, but outsiders of the empty meadows considered the sparsely populated stop a free-for-all. Just another stop on the road to fame and glory. The desolate population amounted to more than that. Cleopatra made sure of it. Each contact, each card put her that much closer to breaking out, to putting the valley somewhere on the map. She kept in contact with her James’ — men she had went slower with and more intentionally than Johns — and kept her ears and eyes open for opportunity. A job opening here, a club opening there — anything to keep her girls front and center, and the business rolling.
The braying train caught up to her. On her way back, she took every shortcut and roundabout she knew of to stay away. She had avoided them for weeks on end — this time, unfortunately, was her time to hit. The train brambled onwards on its track, unperturbed by her desire to return, undisturbed by anything but the track itself.
Steam circled the conductor’s booth, cut through and wispy. That train bound to who knows where. Somewhere on the east coast, maybe. Toward the sunshine. That’s where she would go, if she could. But the train, just like her, was bound on a set course. After the train passed, she arrived at her house, a quaint hole in the wall between a liquor store and a weave boutique. This is my home. Be happy to have a home, she encouraged herself.
“Cleopatra,” Rickie breathed, his dick buried deep inside another woman. “Wait,” he started.
But she didn’t need to wait. She smelled the sex long before she entered what passed for a house, like incense burning on a long, flimsy wick. He had planned this. He wanted this.
“This? This is what you want? Some drugged out nigga who can hardly pay his bills? That kid in the corner? She’s mine, and comes before any bastard you plan on having. You bet on a broke horse,” she said, face as calm as the midday sea. “Now get the hell out,” she sneered, voice seething with venom. Rickie could only watch as his booty slipped away, shoeless.
“Rickie,” she started again. “Why do this to me? You’d bring a tramp in here to my house, in front of my Babe? Get your ass out, too. You don’t pay a damn bill, get out.” she had grabbed the nearest object, she didn’t even know what, just knew to advance on his sorry ass. The closer she stepped, the freer she felt. Freedom felt too good.
Rickie grabbed his pants from around his ankles, turned to the door, “She’s nothing she–”
“You went inside her,” Cleo accused. Nothing would reverse that. How long did he wait to penetrate her? It took months, she remembered. She would always remember his nerdish ways, his boyish prudeness. All that gone now.
“Sor-ry!” he dragged out, a little too little a little too late.
Babe lay in her cradle, oblivious to the mayhem that had taken place on her behalf. As much as she had hurt him, Cleopatra still wasn’t winning. A full rent payment, a whole baby, and the rest of the world now lay on her already-burdened shoulders. What small part of the world she laid hold to was slipping between her fingers.
It might have been easier, manageable almost, if Rickie would have told her he wanted to see other women. But to be blindsided like this… intolerable.
Cleo started to clean the house, disgusted at any mention of Rickie. Hallways vacuumed, waste bins emptied, under furniture cleared away. Every spic, every span, every pot and pan would be cleared of his disgusting remembrance.
As she purged the household, a tick of paper caught her eye: congr—
Congruent? Congregation? Lord knew she needed to be in a church somewhere, but somehow the severed word spoke more deeply than that. She scavenged the pile of refuse for the rest of the letter. Piece by piece, the message emerged. It read:
Congratulations! It is with great confidence that we extend an invitation to Stanford University’s Undergraduate Studies program.
That was all she needed.
In that moment, she seemed to be whisked over the gouge in the body of the earth that separated the worlds of the haves and have nots, transported by the few words stitched together on a piece of paper. Congratulations, she read again, trying to find balance on the phrase, we choose you.
Never mind how the letter ended in the trash. The words themselves carried her over vindictiveness into a land flowing with milk and honey. Congratulations, it repeated, we choose you.
At this point, all she could do was reach out to them, figure out her options. But what options could she possibly have with Rickie gone and Babe on her hip?
Not enough time, never enough. Not enough money, certainly never enough. Only more time to hustle, more time to think about her plan. She was tired of thinking. How could she get out now? How would she get away…?
One avenue presented itself, one that Cleopatra hesitated to take, because who knew where it would lead? Still, given the option of a corner and a potential exit, she’d choose the exit every time. Her mother lived not too far away.
From a young age, Cleopatra had learned to steer clear of her mother during her episodes. One moment she would be fine, cooking dinner, singing around the house, then the next — it was as if a truck had reamed into the side of her house, crippling her ability to speak or move. She’d cry out at times, but nothing, no consolation, no promises, could keep her outpour at bay. In those moments, Cleo learned to let her have what she needed: time. In such short supply, her mother took every spare minute and second for herself. Cleo, left to fend for herself, took up evenings at the Pyramid. By her junior year, she had quit school altogether. Regardless of her mother’s mental status, they still needed heat, still had to have gas in the car. The job paid luxuriously, she naively thought at first, until the bills rolled in. Every creditor, bill collector, and loan man wanted a piece of her mother it seemed. So Cleopatra continued to work, staving off the money hungry scavengers month after month. Eventually she saved enough to get away. She still kept tabs on her mother, whose condition seemed to improve every few months, only to come crumbling back down once more.
Standing in her front yard, having knocked on the entryway door, she knew not what to expect.
“Cleo, baby! And Donnae, baby! Come in!”
“You can take babe for me while I figure things out?”
“Take her? I’m her grams, I’d love to have her with me! We’ll get her nails painted and — do you mind if we get her little ears pierced? They do them for free at Yellows,” she said, fawning over the sleeping child.
“I just want to know that you’ll be okay.” She drifted over that last word, not really knowing the meaning of it anymore.
“Clee.” Her mother’s voice dropped, “I have to tell you.”
Cleopatra braced herself. At some point in time, between a breakdown and a stable time, she’d read about a condition: manic depression. She had readied herself for the news, almost breathed a sigh a relief that finally, finally her mother might seek help. She prepared herself to offer console, already prepared herself for nights back at the Pyramid.
“Your cousin, Emeral? He… he died. Fiona isn’t being forthcoming on details, but they want us to attend the funeral.”
Emeral? Big chested, loud mouthed, hearty Emeral?
“Why?” The question escaped before she had time to censor it.
“Sometimes you just do it for family,” she sighed. Cleopatra hadn’t noticed the smell of alcohol on her mother’s breath, barely caught the slight slur of her words. She’d been drinking. Again.
“You know, maybe we should go. Me and Babe, we can leave–”
“No! I mean, no. Please. You just got here. She’s going to stay, right?” Her mother searched her face, pleading. I need her, she seemed to say.
And I can’t, Cleopatra admitted. Babe lay somewhere in a dark corner, while Stanford comprised the underpinning of her brightest dreams. Between a corner and a fire exit, Cleo knew where she prefered to stand, every time.
“I’m trying,” her mother said, feebly.
Long ago, Cleopatra had told herself it wasn’t a matter of trying. It was a matter of doing. Still, she couldn’t hold her mother to her standards. If she did, she would end up just as pathetic.
“I believe you,” she answered. And with that, she exited, leaving her baby, leaving her worries. Cleopatra had clouds to chase.