There was Hope, and her little stooge Jessica. Hope was the one with the ideas, with the vivacity, and Jessica went along with everything she said and did. Hope filled the apartment with laughter and sex, and if Jessica used sex as a way to feel better about herself, at least Hope showed her how to have some fun with it. They were the babies, only sixteen and seventeen when I moved in.
Amber was also seventeen, but unlike the other two, she had a bit of a plan. She got herself declared an emancipated minor so she could get out of the foster system, took her GED, and was taking classes at a community college to get her AA until she could figure out a major. There was Kathryn, a couple of years older, who never, ever talked about life before the apartment. Or about much of anything, really. Kathryn could sometimes be prevailed upon to go with the rest of us to do something, but she never did anything on her own. If someone lined all eight of us against a wall and asked who was running from something or someone, a person would point to Kathryn every time. We didn’t ask her, though. One of the basic rules of the apartment was that we didn’t push on personal history. We all had baggage.
Whitney I mentioned, she of the periodic breakdowns. She was a grad student in psychology, but was so fucking high-strung. Not in a bad way, just in an “I don’t react to stress well” kind of way. Between semesters she was fantastic. During semesters we all took turns getting her to chill the fuck out. Noémie was also a student, getting one of the most useless degrees known to man. Really, I think the only reason she was going to college was because she had scholarships and getting an English degree gave her an excuse to read a lot. Luckily, she was very generous in sharing her books.
Noémie was the one who mentioned the apartment to me my second week at the restaurant. It was my third week in the city and I was still living at a hostel, bringing all my worldly possessions to work with me every day. We were in the tiny staff room, changing out of our uniforms. I kept mine at the restaurant just in case my stuff got stolen while I was sleeping, so at least I’d still be able to work. Everyone else changed there because the uniform—a long dress and heels—just wasn’t the sort of thing they pranced around in on their way home.
“So, um . . . you’re pretty trustworthy, right?” she said with no preamble. “I mean, you don’t stiff the busboys or hostess, you don’t steal anyone’s stuff from the staff room. You never smell of drugs or anything.”
“Does this have a point?” I pulled on my bra and fastened the hooks behind me, rearranging my breasts to fit. Living in a hostel gave you a certain lack of modesty, one reinforced by the tiny staff room and the number of female employees who had to change there.
“Rebekah said you’re just a step up from the street. You know a bunch of us live together, right? Well, we’ve got an extra bed.”
“She’s serious,” called Whitney, fluffing her red-gold hair out of its braided bun. “It’s a bed.”
“And a footlocker,” giggled Hope.
“But we’ve been talking about it and wondered if you’d like to move in. Rent would be three hundred a month, includes utilities.”
I hadn’t been in the city that long but even I knew that was impossible. “Three hundred? The hell you get for three hundred?”
“Rent is two thousand,” Sophia corrected. “Share of rent would be three hundred. The extra is what covers the utilities.”
That sounded about right, except . . . “How many of you live there?”
“You would make eight.”
Which wouldn’t make it that different from living in the hostel, really. “Can I stay with you tonight and see it, and decide tomorrow?”
“Sounds great!” Hope handed me a denim skirt that looked barely long enough to cover my underwear.
“That’s not mine.”
“I know, but I think it would look really cute on you.” She was already one leg into my overlarge corduroys, so rather than argue, I shimmied into the skirt and decided to be very careful in bending over. Hope was curvy as hell, running a little to plump, so I could pull the skirt low on my hips for a little extra length.
The owner’s eyes lit up when he saw me leaving with the girls. “You live with them now, yes? You be safe?”
“The customers are gone, Guilian.”
He dropped the Italian accent and clapped me on the shoulder. “They’re good girls. I’m glad you’ll be with them.”
His opinion went a long way toward convincing me even before I saw the apartment. My first impression of Guilian had been hard but fair, and he proved me right when he offered a trial week to a girl with a duffel bag and a suitcase beside her at the interview. He pretended to be native Italian because it made the customers somehow think the food was better, but he was a tall, heavyset ginger with thinning hair and a moustache that had eaten his upper lip and was now seeking to devour the rest of his face. He believed a person’s work was a better judge than their words, and he appraised people accordingly. At the end of my first week, he simply handed me the schedule for the next week with my name inked in.
It was three in the morning when we left. I memorized the streets and the trains, and wasn’t nearly as nervous as I should have been when we walked into their neighborhood. On feet aching from hours of high heels, we trudged up the many flights of stairs to the top floor and then to the roof, weaving through various patio furniture, covered grills, and what looked to be a flourishing marijuana garden in one corner, and down one flight on the fire escape to the large bank of windows. Sophia worked the key into the lock as Hope giggled her way through an explanation of the drunk pervert in the hallway.
We had a few of those at the hostel.
It was a huge space, open and clean, with four beds lining each sidewall and a group of couches clustered together in a square in the center. The kitchen had an island counter to separate it from the rest of the room and a door led off to the bathroom, which had a huge open shower with ten different heads facing different directions.
“We don’t ask questions about the people who lived here before,” Noémie said delicately when she showed it to me. “It’s just a shower though, not an orgy.”
“You convince maintenance of this?”
“Oh, no, we fuck with them all the time. That’s half the fun.”
I smiled in spite of myself. The girls were fun to work with, always tossing jokes and insults and compliments around the kitchen, venting about irritating customers or flirting with the cooks and dishwashers. I’d smiled more in the past two weeks than I could ever remember doing before. Everyone dropped purses and bags on their footlockers and many of them changed into pajamas or what passed for them, but sleep was a long way off yet. Whitney pulled out her psychology textbook while Amber pulled out twenty shot glasses and filled them with tequila. I reached for one but Noémie handed me a tumbler of vodka instead.
“The tequila is for studying.”
So I sat on one of the couches and watched Kathryn read through Amber’s practice test, one shot glass for each question. If Amber got the question wrong, she had to drink the shot. If she got it right, she could make someone else drink it. She handed the first one to me, and I tried not to choke on the nasty-as-shit mix of tequila and vodka.
We were still awake when daylight came, and Noémie, Amber, and Whitney all trundled off to class while the rest of us finally crashed. When we woke up early in the afternoon, I signed the agreement they had in place of a lease and paid my first month from the past two nights’ tips. Just like that, I wasn’t homeless anymore.
“You said this was your third week in the city?” Victor asks, running through a list of cities she might mean. Her voice is clean of larger dialect markers, no regionalisms that could help identify her origin. He’s fairly sure that’s on purpose.
“Where were you before that?”