Used to be Tania hated taking the bus anywhere. She didn’t want to become one of those people who brought the bus up in every conversation, as if it were part of her life and not just how she got from one place to another. Like her friend Jean, back when she was still living in Reno and working at the Cal-Neva. They’d sit in the smokeroom — back when they still had a smokeroom — during breaks and Jean would always have some story to tell about the bus. There was the time a guy had a heart attack in his seat and died before the bus could even come to a complete stop. There was the time a little girl fell off her seat and bit through her bottom lip and ended up bleeding on Jean’s new shoes. There was even the time Jean swore she saw Bill Cosby on the bus and that he was just as sweet as could be and had asked for her phone number.
Tania wonders now, as she steps aboard the #14 that will take her from her apartment in Desert Hot Springs to the Chuyalla Indian Casino in downtown Palm Springs, whatever became of Jean. After Tania left Reno for Las Vegas in 1985, they exchanged letters for a few months, though Tania quickly realized she didn’t have much to write about other than the weather or various personal calamities: a broken toe that kept her from cocktailing for a week, a winter heat wave that blew out her car’s A/C, her cocker Lucy getting into an ant hill. And so she just stopped writing or responding to Jean, eventually tossing out Jean’s letters unopened. Tania remembers a vague sense of guilt concerning this whole episode, but in retrospect it all seems petty. Just because you’re friends with someone doesn’t mean you have to stay friends with them. Sometimes it’s just easier to be without.
And anyway, what would they have to talk about today if they were still friends? Yes, better all around.
Settling into her regular seat — third from the left — Tania can’t help but think Jean would find Tania’s present condition all very ironic, particularly since back then Tania used to tease her constantly about “taking the limo” to work every day even when Tania offered to pick her up in her Honda when they worked the same shift. She loved that car: a black Honda Accord with leather seats, a cassette player with a detachable face, six speakers. She remembers how important it was that she have six speakers, how she obsessed over the sound quality in her car, how she rolled down the windows on even the hottest days so that passing strangers could hear her stereo. Twenty-three years old then and the thing she was most proud of was a set of goddamned speakers.
Tania closes her eyes when the bus leaves the curb. The ride from Desert Hot Springs to the casino takes between thirty-seven and forty-eight minutes, depending upon whether or not the bus stops at all of the benches along the way. It’s a Sunday morning, so she figures she’s only got thirty-seven today, seeing as the bus is stone empty. She likes to close her eyes for the trip, though she never sleeps, because she knows it’s the only time for the next nine hours she’ll get the chance to see darkness. Cocktailing in a casino isn’t like what it used to be. Back in Reno, they kept it midnight inside the casino: black ceiling, purple carpet, blood red walls. These days it’s all bright lights and warm yellows everywhere. The young girls think it’s soothing, but Tania finds it irritating, wonders why anyone would want to see so much. What she wouldn’t give to have missed a few things. Forty-seven years old now, Tania figures she could unsee ten, fifteen years and be happy about it.
Sometimes, when she’s done looking for her adopted daughter Natalya on the Internet, or chatting about her with other mothers online, Tania tries to find her twenty-three year old self on the Ouija board she bought at Toys R US. She figures if a Ouija board can supposedly talk to the dead or people living in other dimensions, it might very well have the ability to reach back in time, too. It hasn’t worked yet, but Tania thinks that maybe she’s just not asking the right questions, thinks that maybe all she needs to do is find someone else to do the Ouija with her, double up on the spirit power, you see, and maybe that’ll do it. And when she finds herself, she’ll tell her to sell that fucking car and concentrate on getting her shit right because the future is painted in bright colors, baby, and no one will notice you.
In all her years working at casinos in Reno, Las Vegas and now Palm Springs, Tania has only hit it big once. It was 1996, back when everyone had money, and she was working at the Mirage in Las Vegas. After a particularly good night — Tania can’t remember what that means anymore, but when she tells everyone about Las Vegas in the 90s, she tells them she pocketed between two and three grand on a weekend night, though that sounds absurd now, the truth probably a good 50% below the mythology — she put $500 down on a hand of Caribbean Stud and flopped a Royal, and just like that she was $50,000 richer. Taxes took fifteen off the top, leaving Tania with thirty-five; still more than enough at the time to put a down payment on a nice house in Las Vegas, something with a great room, a nice yard, room for a pool, maybe even something on a golf course if she really kept banking at her job. Plus, she still had good credit back then, unlike most of her friends who had to keep changing their phone numbers to stay a few months ahead of the collection agencies, and loved living in Las Vegas.
Five hours into her shift at the Chuyalla Indian Casino and with just $37 in tips, Tania can’t imagine ever risking $500 on paper again; because, really, she thinks now, making her tenth round this hour through the black jack tables, that’s all gambling is: placing hope in colored paper. She wonders sometimes if her life wouldn’t have been better if, instead of betting $500 on cards, she’d taken that money to a stationary store and purchased reams of 25 weight linen resume paper. Maybe that investment would have forced her into a better life, one where success was predicated on having something to put on all that paper.
Tania drops off three White Russians, five beers and a Tom Collins to a kid who is clearly underage, since no one under seventy would have the audacity to order a Tom Collins and no one over twenty-one would even consider uttering it around a pack of their friends. Not when they could order Courvoisier and pretend to be 2Pac. Did kids still listen to 2Pac? She supposed they did, but Tania remembered listening to him when he was alive, before he became some martyr and thinking he was just okay, just another guy with mommy issues, like half the men she’d hooked up with since high school. When she decided to adopt Natalya, she threw out her entire gangsta rap CD collection, figuring it wouldn’t be appropriate for her new role as a mother to be singing along to songs about hustling. Plus, she wanted to like what Natalya liked.
Tania winds back to the bar and hands the bartender Gordon her orders: four beers, a Sex on the Beach, two Johnnie Walkers, three more White Russians. A black jack table full of Marines in from the base at 29 Palms erupts in a flood of loud obscenities just then, prompting half of the casino to turn and stare.
“Classy people out there today,” Gordon says. “Barely noon and people are trashed.”
“I hate Sundays,” Tania says. “People should just go home. Watch TV. Read the bible. Something.”
“It’s algebra,” Gordon says. “In order for other people to have a good time, we have to suffer their stupidity and then someone else will have to hose their puke off the parking lot. All together, we get off pretty good.”
“I’ll be lucky to walk with fifty,” Tania says. “You know what fifty gets you? Nothing. It’s not even worth it to come in for fifty. Once I pay for the bus, get lunch, pick up dinner on the way home, what have I got left? It’s not worth it.”
Gordon places the four beers on her tray and for a moment Tania considers picking up one of them and just downing it, maybe line up a couple shots, too, see how the day passes with a little less clarity on things. Back in Las Vegas you could rail a line and … well … no, Tania thinks, you just can’t compare your life along some arbitrary timeline, can’t think of yourself as a compare and contrast. The past was different. The present is ever changing. No, it has to be about what comes next. About staying focused. Keep yourself together. Gather resources. Find Natalya. Don’t force an apology. Fix things. Get a family. Buy Christmas presents. Move to the city, any city, but get out of casinos and hotels and bars. Maybe.
“How long you lived in the desert?” Tania asks. Gordon is new — she’s seen him a couple of times in the last month, but this is the first shift he’s been on alone — so they haven’t found that rhythm yet, only know each other enough to flirt a little, tell a joke or two. Nothing personal. But for some reason today Tania feels like talking and can’t stand to listen to the other cocktail girls on the floor. They call her “Mom” and always want her to listen to their problems, Sundays inevitably taken up by whatever horror happened at the club the night previous, or whatever drama they have with their “baby daddies,” a term Tania just can’t wrap her mind around. When did people stop being parents? But Gordon seems nice, maybe even smart. Smarter than her other choices, anyway.
“Five years, plus or minus,” Gordon says. “I used to come here when I was a kid, you know? I remember my dad once drove us right up to Bob Hope’s front gate and we got chased off by dogs. Big old Dobermans. I’ll never forget that.”
“I can’t see myself being here that long,” Tania says. Gordon puts the rest of Tania’s drinks down and then re-checks the order. No one ever does that, Tania thinks; no one else here gives a damn if they screw up my money.
“Oh,” Gordon says, “You live here a while it becomes like anywhere else. You find your shit, you know? This town, I can bartend until I’m sixty-five, seventy, and no one would think differently about me. Maybe along the way I find a rich old woman who wants to take care of a hot young stud like me, I hold her hand for a few years, take her to her Botox appointments and then, one day, she dies in her sleep and I’m a millionaire.” Gordon’s laughing now, but Tania sees something sad in his face, like it’s not just him joking around, like part of him believes this might be his best chance for a good life.
“You’ve got it figured out,” Tania says.
“Presuming I don’t blow my head off first,” he says.
“You don’t seem the suicide type,” Tania says.
“They’d just prop me behind the bar. It wouldn’t be much difference. But if you stick around until I get my millions,” Gordon says, “I’ll let you move into my guest house. We’ll sit around the salt water pool all day reading thrillers and sipping cognac.”
“I see myself moving somewhere with a bit more character. A little history. Less tourists. All my life, I’ve been stuck with tourists.”
“Like Maine or somewhere?”
“Somewhere,” Tania says.
“No way for me,” Gordon says. “I’m California bred and spread.” Another girl — Tania can never remember if her name is Cindy or Bonnie, so she just calls her “sweetie” — slams her order on the counter, prompting Gordon to glare at her. “To be continued,” he says. “Don’t pack your bags for Maine just yet.”
Really, Tania was thinking about Russia — Tula, Russia, specifically — but telling Gordon that would mean she’d have to explain her situation and she just isn’t emotionally prepared for that, at least not at work. Talking about Natalya here would make her trivial.
Even still, going back to Russia had been on her mind constantly these days. Maybe Natalya had gone back. Maybe there was an email from Natalya waiting for Tania right this instant telling her to come back to Tula, that she was sorry, too, and that she’d love to see her mother.
Before she picked up Natalya in Tula, Tania imagined Russia would be a perpetually gray country filled with scary Communists, like the ones they used to show marching in Red Square, back when Ronald Reagan used to scare her, too. Everyone told her to be careful, tell people she was Canadian so they wouldn’t kill her, to be as inconspicuous as possible.
But when she finally arrived — she remembered the date exactly: March 22, 1997 — after flying into Moscow and then driving for two hours with an administrator from the orphanage, she couldn’t get over how beautiful the country was, how pleasant the people she met seemed to be, how substantial everything felt. The administrator kept pointing out interesting landmarks between Moscow and Tula, talked about Peter the Great, discussed the rich mining history of the city. And what a city: Citadels from the 16th century. Lush green forests surrounding the Upa River. Museums honoring famous writers and warriors. It was nothing like Las Vegas, nothing like Reno, nothing like any place she’d ever visited. She wondered even then what it might be like to settle in Russia, to raise her child in her home country, to live in such a place! Yes, she’d come back here when Natalya was fully integrated as an American. Adopting a teenager would present problems, she knew that, but Tania thought that later in life they would travel back here together, maybe buy a little house. Tania was 37 then, just twenty-three years older than her new daughter. Young enough that they’d be like friends the older Natalya got, less like mother and daughter.
So foolish, Tania thinks, grabbing up her tray. All of it.
Adopting Natalya wasn’t something Tania planned. It was the money that did it. Well, the money and loneliness. A few weeks after she hit the Royal, Tania’s fifteen-year old dog Lucy woke up one morning and urinated blood; three hours later Tania watched while her vet quietly inserted a needle into her dog’s right front paw to put her to sleep (a term Tania has never liked as the implication is that the dog will someday wake up and be just fine) and just like that, after fifteen years and three hours, she was completely alone.
Oh, she still had family and friends then; people she honestly loved at some point. But when it all boiled away, the fact was that she just didn’t keep people very well. Her parents and older sister Justine still sent her Christmas and birthday gifts, invited her to their homes for Thanksgiving (they even offered money if she couldn’t afford a plane ticket from Las Vegas, since her parents now lived in Spokane and her sister in San Francisco), called once or twice a week and she enjoyed talking to them, but afterwards couldn’t recount a single aspect of the conversation.
She’d had a series of boyfriends, too. Most of them long term affairs, actually, and at the time had just broken up with a DJ at the Rio after he accepted a six-month gig on a cruise ship. All things being equal, sitting on the sofa at home and talking to her dog was preferable most of the time anyway.
That night, though, her dog dead, her parents and sister filled with the kind of comfort people without pets usually provide — “What you should do tomorrow is go to a rescue and pick up an abused dog,” her father said — she sat alone on her sofa and watched a documentary on HBO about the plight of children in Russian orphanages. By the film’s conclusion, Tania decided to make something of her life, to put her Royal winnings to good use, give someone a chance at a better life, allow that money to be more than just a house she’d struggle to pay for night after night. She’d found the perfect place in Summerlin — a three bedroom with a little lap pool out back, Corian counters throughout, a view of the Red Rock Mountains — and was preparing to make an offer, though she didn’t even know what that meant. Either she’d buy or she wouldn’t, and she hadn’t.
No, she didn’t need a house. Tania knew her life was disposable, as if someone could cut her head off and paste it on another girl’s and the world wouldn’t notice at all. She needed to become. She would adopt a child from Russia. She would look into dental hygienist school — several girls she’d worked with at the Mirage were studying at the community college during the day to become hygienists and it sounded like a good job, albeit one spent on your feet all day bent over people, which in concept sounded not much different than cocktailing.
She’d always had maternal instincts. Lucy was more child than dog by the time of her passing and Tania had even been pregnant once, if only for a few weeks. Her boyfriend Clive got her pregnant — this was when she was 30 — and Tania spent an entire long weekend off from work shopping for baby clothes at Target, rummaging through garage sales for baby carriages and strollers and figuring out how to decorate the baby’s room. It was too soon, she knew that, as she’d only just missed her period, but she’d taken an at-home test and had an appointment to see her gynecologist for the following week and felt a great desire to begin this new phase of her life, sure that being a mother wasn’t so much a calling for her now as it was a station: a chance to be a better person. She was certain she’d need to move in order to get away from Clive, who, while he was a fun guy to waste time with, would be a terrible father. It wasn’t that he’d ever hit her or even been particularly cruel, only that he was stupid, and stupid would not do as a role model. No, she decided, she’d just move up to Spokane with her child — who she thought she’d name Corey no matter the sex — and her own father could play that positive role until she found someone smart, someone who didn’t work at a restaurant or bar. When she miscarried a few days later, she broke up with Clive to pay penance for her own conceit; to bring a child into this world, when they couldn’t even save the dolphins or blue whales or whatever, well, it was just silly. A dog would do. Yes. A dog would be enough until things felt more stable all around. But even now, in the small storage locker she has in her building in Desert Hot Springs, there’s a box marked “Corey” that she’s hauled around across two states and several years.
When she woke up the morning after seeing the documentary and couldn’t get the idea of adopting a Russian child out of her mind, couldn’t stop thinking that her life had been lived in service, strictly service, and that this was her chance to actually be a real human, to get off her ass and make something stable for someone else, she knew she had to act. She had to learn to keep something, to not spontaneously rid herself of responsibility.
What Tania didn’t realize was how long and arduous and pricey the whole experience would be. It took just under a year between the day her dog died and the exact moment she stepped off the airplane in Las Vegas with her daughter (her daughter!) by her side. She spent eleven months searching for the right child, filling out the paperwork, getting the approvals, paying the fees — it was $20,000 to the Russian agencies, another $5,000 for lawyers and paperwork stateside — until, in the end, she had to ask her parents if she could borrow another $5,000 just to get to Russia, where she’d need to stay for a month to attend adoption hearings and to get Natalya legal for her arrival in the US. Her parents ended up giving her $10,000, told her it wasn’t a loan, that it was a gift, that they were so proud of her.
Natalya lived with Tania for three years. Three good years, Tania thinks now, dropping off drinks in the slot aisles for nickel and quarter tips, though like everything else about the past, she’s sure that’s just the romantic version. She loved Natalya, though. This Tania is sure of. And if Natalya never really loved her, that’s okay, too. She’d given Natalya the chance and there was worth in that.
After her shift ends at six, Tania walks down Palm Canyon Drive and looks into the shop windows, examining the silly t-shirts and bumper stickers (“What happens in Palm Springs, stays in Palm Springs … usually in a TimeShare”), the gaudy jewelry only a vacationer would find the impulse for, the fancy clothes she never sees inside the casino, but assumes someone must wear somewhere. She’s always reading about these gala charities and benefit balls held in Palm Springs but can’t imagine who the people are who attend such things or where they buy their clothes. Surely none of them pile into the Mercedes and come to the tourist traps to do their shopping.
Tania pauses in front of Chico’s and peers inside at the shoppers, all of whom look to be around her age, but infected with what she thinks of as Realtoritis: their hair about five years past the trend, their tans rubbed on, their heels inappropriately high. And yet they exude an air of success, as if by showing property they somehow glean personal value.
She wonders if she were a dental hygienist — if she somehow managed to finally pass chemistry, which she failed three times while she lived in Las Vegas, twice in the year she waited on the adoption, once in the six months after Natalya ran away (and really, she didn’t run away, she just left) — if people would be able to tell just by looking at her. Maybe she might be mistaken for a doctor occasionally. That wouldn’t be so awful. And maybe people would treat her with respect without understanding why they did it. Cocktailing was never her dream job, but then nothing else struck her as all that compelling, either. When she was young, if there was a chance to fuck up, Tania usually took it, just to see what it felt like. And the result was that she felt, after forty-seven years, that she’d lived, even if she didn’t really have much to show for it anymore.
The idea of being a hygienist was a good one and she really pursued it during that year of waiting, if nothing else because it looked good on all of her applications. She wasn’t just a cocktail waitress, she was “studying to become a dental hygienist” and people at the various agencies seemed to treat that with some dignity. But now, staring at the women trying on skirts too short by a decade, she thinks that it’s all the same in the end. Just a job. Just a way to afford the things you want. Tania doesn’t want anything anymore. She needs to find Natalya, if only to know that she’s alive, but even that has quelled some in the intervening years as she’s learned how frequently teenagers adopted out of Russia simply pick up and leave when they have a little money or the keys to the car or the PIN code to their parents’ ATM card.
Tania checks her watch. She agreed to meet Gordon at 6:30 in front of the statue of former Palm Springs Mayor Sonny Bono that graces a courtyard up the street from the casino. He asked if he could buy her a drink after work and when she told him she didn’t drink anymore, which wasn’t strictly true, he didn’t flinch. “Then let me buy you a lamp. You must like lights, right? I know a great little lamp store. They even give you the shades and bulbs, too. It’s a real deal.”
“You’re crazy,” she said, but agreed to meet him anyway and now was going to be late if she didn’t hustle. Sundays were always sad nights for Tania and the truth was that she was likely to pop some Two Buck Chuck tonight in front of the TV herself, Sundays her night off of the Internet, a night away from her search. Really, it was more a habit now than anything: Check the message board at LostAndFoundChildren.com to see if anyone responded to her photo of Natalya; read the listserv messages from her Yahoo group; scour every search engine, newspaper archive and blog index on the planet for any mention of Natalya’s known names. This searching was her infinity. A bottomless hope. But she gave Sundays up after her own mother told her to start weaning herself, that she had to grasp the idea that Natalya wasn’t really her child, that she’d just been a child who lived with her for a time. “Think of it like a car lease,” her mother said. “That’s how we’ve approached it emotionally; she wasn’t our granddaughter, just a child who lived with our daughter.”
Like a car lease. Tania knew her mother meant well and so she tried, on Sundays, to treat Natalya’s disappearance like an episode of a TV show that she found particularly emotionally affecting, if only for 24 hours.
Up ahead, Tania sees Gordon leaning up against the Sonny Bono statue. He doesn’t see her yet, so she takes a few seconds to stare at him, notices that a few of the passing tourist ladies are doing the same. It’s late spring and the air smells like a mixture of coconut tanning oil and jacaranda blooms and it only makes sense that Gordon has changed from his casino uniform into tan pants and a white linen button down, but for some reason Tania is surprised by this, by how effortlessly casual he looks, how he seems to fit in so perfectly. Even from several yards away Tania can see his tan skin through his shirt, the contours of his body. She wonders how old he is, thinks he’s probably 35, maybe 38, too young for her now, anyway. And what does she know about him? What does she know about anybody anymore?
“There you are,” he says when Tania finally approaches him. He puts an arm over her shoulder in a friendly way and gives her a pat, like they’re brother and sister. “I thought you were going to ditch me here with Sonny.”
“You know I’m forty-seven,” she says.
“How would I know that?”
“I’m just telling you,” she says.
“Is today your birthday?”
“No,” she says.
“Then why are we talking about it?”
“I’m not sure why you asked me out,” Tania says. “What we’re doing here. That’s all.”
Gordon exhales and Tania realizes he’s been holding his breath, that he actually seems a little nervous now that she’s paying attention. “Can’t people go out for a drink, Tania? Isn’t that what normal people do?”
“Are we normal people? All day spent watching people fuck up their lives. Who would call that normal?” Gordon nods, but it’s clear he’s not agreeing to anything, just happy to let Tania vent whatever it is she feels the need to vent. She likes that, though is certain he’s just trying to humor her. Give him a break, Tania thinks, act like a person for an hour. See how it feels. “Where was this lamp store you were talking about? I’m in great need of track lighting.”
What Tania remembers about Natalya is insignificant if looked at obliquely. She’s realized this before tonight, before she saw Gordon’s expression glaze over while she prattled on about the way Natalya used to sneeze every time she ate chocolate, or how Natalya’s eyes were brown on some days and green on others, or how, when she’s feeling particularly sentimental, she’ll spray a bit of Natalya’s perfume on her old pillow and will set it down across the room while she’s watching television or cooking something, so that she’ll just get a whiff of it in the course of doing regular things and it will be like Natalya’s just in the other room, sitting on the floor like she used to do with her headphones on, listening to her English language tapes.
She could blame the liquor on this sudden descent into reverie, but that would be useless. As soon as Gordon asked her, “How did you end up in Palm Springs?” she felt it all bubble out, the whole story, from her cocker Lucy dying to waking up one morning in her townhouse in Las Vegas to find Natalya gone, along with the Ford Explorer, the keys to the safety deposit box (where Tania — like every other cocktail waitress, bartender and stripper in Las Vegas — deposited the majority of her tips so she wouldn’t have to report them to the IRS) and, most disheartening, three full photo albums of pictures taken since Natalya’s arrival.
How did she end up in Palm Springs? She asked herself this question repeatedly and the answer was always the same: It wasn’t Las Vegas. Usually that sufficed, but tonight, sitting across from Gordon, his face getting younger with every passing moment, until she’s certain he’s no more than thirty-two (unless what’s happened is that with each drink and sad detail of her life she’s tacked on another month to her own life, so that she’s now pushing seventy years old), she knows that she ended up in Palm Springs because it was the only place she could run to where she had no memories, no connections, nothing corporeal to remind her of everything lost, but where the world itself was essentially the same. She could do her job. She could breathe the desert air. She could listen to the dinging of the slots, the whooping of the drunks, the crunching of ice in the blender constantly making margaritas, the drone of mindless cocktail conversation and pretend that her life had frozen in place, that she’d imagined the whole sad affair. Yes, she could close her eyes inside the Chuyalla Indian Casino and imagine herself thirty, childless and disproportionate to reality.
“I’ve ruined the night,” Tania says now. She and Gordon have been sitting at the patio bar in front of the Hyatt for three hours now. There’s a man playing acoustic guitar on a small stage a few feet away from them and every fifteen minutes or so he plays “Margaritaville” and another ten tourists stop to sing along. “I didn’t mean to go on like that.”
“No, it’s fine,” Gordon says. He reaches across the table and tries to take her hands in his, but she pulls them back and puts them in her lap before she remembers her own admonition: Be human.
“I should go home,” she says, forgetting that she doesn’t have a car anymore, that she’ll need to call a cab or ask Gordon for a ride, since the buses stopped running hours ago. “I’ll end up telling you about every boyfriend I’ve ever had otherwise.”
Gordon doesn’t smile like she thinks he will. He just stares at her. “Let me ask you something,” he says eventually. “You think you’ll ever find her?”
“No,” Tania says, and for the first time she actually believes it. The truth is that no one has ever asked her this question, though of course it has existed in the subtext of her life all the while; a nagging sense that her search for Natalya was what she should be doing, but the fact remained that if Natalya wanted to be found, if Natalya wanted Tania to find her, specifically, it would have already happened. “I may locate her at some point. But I don’t think I’ll ever see her again.”
Tania stares out her sliding glass door as Gordon’s taillights disappear down the hill, back towards Palm Springs. It’s midnight and though the air has chilled, Tania feels feverish. She told Gordon, as he pulled up to her complex, that she’d invite him in but that she was afraid she caught a bug sitting outside for so long this evening. She shakes her head thinking about it now, how silly she must have sounded, how ignorant, as if she could catch consumption from sitting outside listening to Jimmy Buffett songs on a spring night.
“It’s okay,” he said, and Tania sensed relief from Gordon, though the truth is that she’s forgotten how to read young men anymore. They used to be so obvious to her, so obscenely obvious, but now they’re just mannerisms in her peripheral. “There will be other nights. I know where you work.”
She kissed him lightly on the cheek and got out of his car, didn’t bother to turn and smile or even give a little wave when she got to the top step of the metal staircase that leads to her apartment, though she knew Gordon was watching her. He’d been raised well enough to wait until a woman was inside her home before driving off, but not well enough to be doing something better with his life than bartending at an Indian casino, and that alone made Tania sad for him.
Tania opens the sliding door and steps outside onto her tiny patio. She’s arranged three pots of daisies around a single white plastic chair and though it doesn’t seem like much, it’s all she can do to just keep those daisies alive and the chair clean enough to sit on. Tonight, though, she stands against the wrought iron railing surrounding the patio and stares south towards the wind farms of Palms Springs, watches as light jumps between the spinning windmill turbines, listens for the low whine of the coyotes that often rummage in the dumpsters behind her building and who she sees lazing in the shadows on the hottest desert mornings.
She knows she gave up too much tonight, that things will be awkward with Gordon from now on, but that’s okay. There’s nothing permanent anymore. There’s nothing that says this life has to be lived waiting for the next shame. “Natalya is not coming back,” Tania says aloud and then she says it again and again and again, until her words have lost all shape in her ears, until she feels something rise up inside of her, a sense of confidence, of lucidity, that she can’t recall ever possessing. She sits down in the white plastic chair and realizes what she’s feeling, after so long, after all these years, is relief.