Alix Perry - Blowing Smoke
The lights dimmed as the host stepped to the mic. Except for one obliviously-loud man, the crowd went silent. He finally noticed his mistake when the host began speaking over him. Carrie pressed their knees together to try to stop their legs from shaking. Instead, the trembles shot up their torso and out of their arms. They didn’t understand why they were so nervous; it wasn’t like this was their first time reading. Though they despised the bitter film alcohol left on their tongue, Carrie debated buying a beer from the event’s makeshift bar.
The host—a petite white woman with a bundle of dyed-black hair atop her head—was going through her usual welcome spiel. In a matter of moments, she would be drawing the name of the open mic’s first reader. Carrie braced against the possibility of hearing their name. “Robert,” the host called. A towering brown-skinned man crossed the room in about four steps and made an inevitable joke about having to adjust the mic. Carrie half-listened to his string of sexual sonnets, imagining how they might react if their hypothetical significant other wrote platitudinous poetry about them. The distraction helped a little, but their arms still trembled from where they’d crossed them atop their chest.
Eight readers came and went and then it was time for intermission. After the ten-minute break, the host explained, the night would continue with its remaining four readers before announcing a special guest. Carrie rose and hurried toward the restrooms, hoping to beat the rush.
It was on their way back to their seat that Carrie saw her standing in line at the bar. She had her arm around another woman and her laughing mouth was open wide toward the ceiling. Despite their surprise, Carrie didn’t need a second look; they’d know that thunderous bellow anywhere. Thankful that the sighting had not happened with their bladder brimming, Carrie bowed their head low and crossed the space that remained between them and their seat. Though leaving now would make the entire night a waste of time, Carrie instinctively started removing their jacket from the back of the chair.
They caught themself. It had been three years since they’d quit their job at the restaurant. And they’d only worked there for three months. In the service industry, people came and went so frequently that they started to wonder if their former boss would even remember them. Plus, this open mic only happened once a month, and Carrie had been so committed to returning to the stage. They reasoned that they could slip out the door right after they finished, in case they were recognized. Willfully unclenching their jaw, if only for a moment, Carrie dropped back into the chair.
After three more readers came and went, Carrie’s name was finally called. They rose and strode through their shakiness to stand behind the mic. Their subconscious mind gave voice to their ghastly short story as their conscious one focused on directing their upward glances away from their old boss. It only took a momentary slip, however, for their eyes to land directly on the face they’d been avoiding. Carrie stumbled mid-sentence as they locked gazes. But their boss’s eyes were dull with the absence of recognition. Carrie dragged themself through the final paragraph and murmured, “thank you,” into the mic. The rush of discomfort propelled them back to their seat where they collected their jacket and purse. They had made it most of the way to the door when they heard the host announce the evening-ending special guest, “Since she’s asked me to let her introduce herself, let’s get right to it. Please give a warm welcome to Ruby Owens!”
As the crowd began clapping, Carrie froze. Of all people, her former boss was the special guest? But how? Carrie had read the emails Ruby sent to her staff. She had no rhythm, no feel for the flow of written language, though Carrie supposed she theoretically could have improved since they had last read her “work.” With their curiosity piqued, it was now impossible not to stay and listen from the safety of the hallway. Ruby thanked the host and explained that she had begun writing a memoir about her twenty-year career as a restaurateur. The drafted first chapter she was about to share would explain the rest.
“People often ask what keeps me going in such a stressful industry,” Ruby read. “I always tell them it’s all about the wonderful and interesting slew of people that surround me. From the regulars’ kids growing up in front of my eyes, to the employees I’ve had the pleasure of working with, it’s truly their treasured faces that get me out of bed each morning.” Carrie could not help but roll their eyes at this, recalling how often Ruby’s cheeks turned as red as her name as she cursed out one employee or another. “I’ve served every mayor who's been elected in this city for the past two decades, had the pleasure of catering a woman’s 110th birthday and even once hired a Juilliard graduate as a busboy.”
Carrie extended their right hand to brace themself against the wall as Ruby’s words ricocheted around in their head: Juilliard busboy, Juilliard busboy, Juilliard busboy... They swallowed the bile that threatened to rise out of their throat. Apparently, Ruby did remember Carrie, or, more accurately, the most tokenizable bit of information about them. Because their actual relationship hadn’t been quite so “wonderful” or “interesting.” Nor had the reality of Carrie’s Juilliard experience, during which they scraped by with a ‘C’ average amid a full schedule of psychotherapy and oversleeping. It did not surprise Carrie when their résumé landed them nothing more promising than a job in Ruby’s restaurant.
With their heart thrashing in their chest, Carrie’s anger demanded they march back into the room and give Ruby a reality check. But what could they say? Carrie realized they had no proof—other than their own memories—that the passage was even about them. Whereas a name or a face would usually do the job, neither of these were held constant for Carrie. They’d known their looks had changed over the years of taking hormones, but they hadn’t considered the possibility of becoming unrecognizable. The strangeness of hiding in plain sight shot a shudder up Carrie’s back.
As Carrie exhaled sharply, the thought of having to preface their confrontation with an explanation pointed them back toward the door. This was not the time or the place. They knew where they could find Ruby when they were ready. A plan was forming in their mind by the time they stepped onto the sidewalk.
It had been the start of Carrie’s third month working at the restaurant. By that time, their hair had grown down to their shoulders, and they tied it back into a low ponytail while working. They hated the fact that they were still going by their old, male-assumed name, but they weren’t sure if it would be safe to come out. On this specific day, Carrie decided to replace their usual plain button-up with a flowy floral blouse in order to gauge their coworkers’ potential reaction. They debated adding dangly earrings to complete the look, but decided it would be best to take things slow. The busy dinner shift passed uneventfully, until the end. Carrie was tossing their apron in the dirty laundry bin when Ruby appeared and pulled them aside. The walk-in freezer hummed just inches from Carrie’s back.
From under a tensed brow, Ruby scoured Carrie’s body, as if she hadn’t gotten a good enough look during the six-hour shift. With a sudden motion, Ruby then hooked Carrie by the edge of their collar and pulled them close. Carrie closed their eyes and willed themself to keep breathing. Ruby’s hissing speech dragged on for what felt like ten minutes, though her main idea was clear in the first five seconds, “Boy, you can’t trick your way into womanhood.” Before releasing them, Ruby made Carrie promise to stick to men’s clothes.
“Just be grateful I’ve decided to let you keep the hair,” she added.
Carrie continued working for Ruby for only a few more weeks until they found another restaurant job. With relief, they ghosted on their next shift, refusing to answer any of Ruby’s dozen calls, texts, and emails.
At half-past eight, Carrie walked into Ruby’s restaurant. They asked the hostess for a place at the bar, remembering that Ruby tended on weekends. Sure enough, when Carrie took one of the few empty seats at the counter, it was their former boss who plunked a coaster down in front of them. Unlike at the open mic, Carrie allowed themself to examine Ruby’s appearance. She hadn’t changed much. Her brown hair was buzzed at the sides and graying at the roots. The fabric of one of her usual dark button-ups stretched to accommodate her wide shoulders as well as the curves of her chest and belly. From under her collar, the crown of a fading skull tattoo peeked out.
“What can I getcha started with?” Ruby stuck a fisted hand against her hip while resting the other on the bar. Carrie recognized Ruby’s trademark smile but realized they’d never before been the recipient of it.
“I’ll have a pint of your seasonal IPA.” Carrie pointed to the blackboard behind Ruby, doing their best impression of a regular bar goer.
“Coming right up.” Ruby turned and reached for a glass. She expertly flipped it from one hand to the other before angling it under one of the taps. Carrie watched the golden liquid emerge until it neared the brim, threatening to foam up over the sides.
“There ya are.” Ruby smiled again, placing a menu beside the glass.
“Our mushroom and squash gnocchi is particularly good.” She pointed to where the dish was listed. “I’ll be back to check up in a few.” She stepped away to talk with another customer. Striving to hide their grimace, Carrie sipped their drink. They have never savored the flavor of beer, though they found it more bearable than any other kind of alcohol. This IPA was particularly bitter, making Carrie feel as if they were licking a rusty fence. But they wouldn’t let a little discomfort deter them from looking the part. They took another sip. While Ruby followed up with the others, Carrie snuck glances her way, awaiting the moment they would be caught. After taking a customer’s order, Ruby gazed toward Carrie, who quickly turned away once their eyes met. It would be poor form for Carrie to assert the intensity of their intentions right away. In the next moment, Ruby reappeared in front of Carrie. “How’s it going over here?” Carrie noted that she was leaning closer this time.
“Good, yeah. I’ll take you up on that gnocchi.” They handed the menu across the bar, ever-so-subtly drawing their right eyebrow upward and feeling themself drop fully into flirtation.
“You won’t be sorry,” Ruby smirked, letting her grip linger on the menu as Carrie did the same. They could feel the tension through the push and pull of the cardstock.
The hands on Carrie’s watch read 10:50, and the only other customer at the bar was settling up. Tapping their fingers against their second glass of beer—something that was, at the very least, less bitter than that IPA—Carrie’s other hand slid across the joint stashed in their front pocket. And, though they despised the smell of cigarettes, they’d gone out of their way to buy a pack of Marlboros, just in case their old boss took poorly to the proposition of smoking weed.
Carrie timed the final sip of their drink to coincide with the other customer bidding Ruby goodnight. Then, as they knew she would, Ruby turned to Carrie with an expectant glance. They’d both been in on the same plan for over an hour, and now it was time to act. “So, we’re going to be closing down soon. I’ve got my server and kitchen staff around to clean up though,” Ruby hinted.
Carrie shifted their eyes away and looked down at the bar in feigned sheepishness.
“Join me out back for a smoke?” they asked.
“Right behind you,” Ruby answered, her voice nearly giddy.
Though it was June, the night air was still cool enough for Carrie to pull on their sweater. A single sconce illuminated the small concrete patio, and a row of waste bins lined the nearby fence.
“I only smoke Marlboros,” Ruby announced, waving her half-full pack of cigs as Carrie reached into their pocket.
“Oh, good because I’m the same way.” Carrie shifted their fingers away from the joint and grabbed their lighter instead. They then brandished the Marlboros from their purse with a flourish.
“My kind of girl.” Ruby placed a cig in her mouth and leaned forward to invite Carrie to light it for her. With a flick, Carrie fulfilled their duty. Exhaling her first puff toward the stars, Ruby handed the smoke over to Carrie. As before, they bore the unpleasant taste with the slightest grimace, hoping the entire act would soon prove its worth. They handed the cigarette back.
“So, you’re telling me a pretty girl like you somehow doesn’t have a girlfriend waiting for her to come home tonight?” Ruby flicked a clump of ash, meeting Carrie’s eyes. “Mmm,” Carrie hummed coyly as they reached for Ruby’s hand and took the cigarette. They inhaled one final drag, looking down at the bright orange tip. Taking a step closer to diminish the already-small space between their bodies, Carrie watched Ruby’s pupils widen. With their hand placed on the side of Ruby’s neck, fingers tickling the skull tattoo, Carrie quickly raised the cigarette and pressed the fuming end against their former boss’s lips. As Ruby recoiled, Carrie exhaled smoke in her face.
“What the fuck?” Ruby yelled, covering her face with her hands and stumbling away. “Just a little visit from your favorite Juilliard busboy,” Carrie cackled. “I can’t quite remember his name, but I do recall he was really too good for this piece of shit establishment.” They tossed the cigarette on the ground and stamped it out with their heel. Before Ruby could respond, Carrie had closed the restaurant’s back door and turned the deadbolt behind them. Still cringing in pain, it took Ruby a few flustered moments to find the right key and open the door. By that time, Carrie was long gone.
Around the corner and down a few blocks, Carrie dropped their pace from a run to a walk and brushed a stray strand of hair out of their face. Overhead, the light pollution hid the stars and glazed the spotty clouds with an orange hue. The distant moan of the highway comprised the entire soundscape of the residential area. That is until Carrie opened their mouth and released a scream more piercing than any noise they’d ever made. The scream filled the street, the neighborhood, then the entire city. When they closed their mouth, the quiet was slow to return.
Edited by Kim-Dan Doan (@a_valiant_attempt)
ALIX PERRY is a white, trans writer living in Western Oregon. Their work has been published in Rogue Agent, Defunkt Magazine, Stone of Madness, and elsewhere. Their pen-named alter ego writes fiction for Scribd. Find out more on Instagram and Twitter @enchantedkeloid and at alixperrywriting.com.