They meet for the first time in six years in the frozen-food aisle of a Gristedes.
His hair is longer, hers is shorter, they are both sadder than the last time.
Paul recognizes her first. “Quinn.”
He relishes the brief look of polite interest on her face, the raised eyebrows and wide eyes. She sees him and it collapses.
“Oh,” she says.
“Hi, Quinn.” She’s still beautiful, just like she was at sixteen. She filled out a little, maybe, she is slightly taller, and it works for her.
She doesn’t say anything, just stares at him, blankly. She looks like she doesn’t recognize him, but she recognizes him.
(She wishes she didn’t recognize him.)
“Quinn?” He takes a step forward, but maintains the requisite six feet between them.
She shakes her head. He catches a glimpse of a tattoo on the back of her neck, under the veil of her hair, and he is seized with a sudden desire to rediscover her, to see what else about her has changed.
“Are you going to say anything?” he asks softly.
“No,” she says decisively, and she walks away.
Anger bubbles up in his throat and he wants to chase after her, he wants to pin her down and make her look him in the eye.
He remembers himself. He lets her go.
The giant question of Quinn’s existence is how a good Catholic girl ends up working in a strip club called the Church. It’s ironic, really, and she thinks God has a shitty sense of humor.
Dear God, she begins. What the fuck, Man.
She used to think Paul was her savior, before it became so disgustingly clear that he was everything besides holy.
I could use some goddamn guidance, God. I could use something besides silence and sadness.
(God does not reply.)
She prays because she can’t not, because even though God is an asshole, He’s still the only static figure in her life, and she has to respect that.
She takes a cab to the Church that night. She doesn’t want to be alone.
Her cab driver is a blue-eyed Indian man who is courteous and speaks perfect English. She is reassured that he has a gun in the glove compartment.
“May I ask your name?” the cab driver asks politely when they arrive.
“And may I ask your name in there?” he asks, nodding towards the Church.
“I’m the Queen.”
She drinks a lot of coffee. More than she should, she knows that, and more than she wants to. She doesn’t even like it that much; she has to drink it with milk in it, always. She really only drinks it for the feeling she gets afterwards, like what she imagines sex is for other people – it makes her feel alive.
Coffee makes her feel the thrumming of her muscles and the pumping of blood through her veins and the twinges and twitches of her fingers. She is acutely aware of the way she fits in her skin. When she drinks coffee, she feels attached to her body, like maybe she belongs there after all.
Her best friend is Cain, who is the “security” at the Church. He really only stands around with a gun and no shirt and looks vaguely menacing and very attractive. He says he doesn’t go into stripping because he has self-respect.
(Quinn thinks he doesn’t really understand what stripping is about.)
She has a tattoo of a crown on the nape of her neck, because she is the Queen. She is the Queen and the Queen is her, and they are inextricably intertwined and knotted and sewn together and she has to pay homage to the Queen.
Are you ignoring me, God? That’s not really nice.
Quinn pops mints like pills, chain-smoking them, her mouth a constant swirl of red and white and crisp cold breath.
After they close, when the others lean against the outside of the building, against the sign that flashes neon and brilliant – LIVE BEAUTIFUL GIRLS – the others smoke cigarettes and weed and whatever else they can get their hands on, and Quinn stands among them. She does not stand out with her mint in her mouth, but fits so beautifully in a way she never has anywhere else, stretching tall and lean and blonde in her sequined, ostentatious, glorified underwear, so conspicuous and inviting and painfully, wonderfully aloof.
She blows smoke rings with the others, but her smoke does not come from a lighter, her smoke rises thick and minty through her lungs and into the dark morning, her smoke is from the fire in her heart.
She is frigid because she does not lean into their wandering fingers; she does not allow them to touch her at all. She earns the nickname “the Ice Queen,” and she wears it like a crown.
They meet again thirty-four days later, on line at a coffee shop.
(Not that she has been counting the days.)
He makes small talk. She reasons that she cannot scream or flip over a table or run out, so she replies to his probing questions with polite, curt answers. She keeps it brief. She does not want to engage him.
“What do you do for a living?” he asks.
“I am a dancer,” she says warily.
“Ah,” he says knowingly. He has always been able to understand her. “And where do you dance?”
She dances in the world, Paul. She dances. She is always a dancer. “Nowhere,” she mumbles.
She pays for her large coffee and leaves without putting milk in it.
Have you forsaken me, God?
She calls Cain sometimes, when she is shaking and choking and crying.
It only ever stops when Cain splays his big hand over her abdomen, curling himself around her, pressing her face into the crook of his shoulder and crushing her body into his. This is how they make things work.
He kisses her once, in the morning after one of her panics.
He was wrapped around her when she woke up. She opens her eyes and screams and struggles and Cain jumps backwards and takes his hands off of her.
“Hey, it’s me, it’s me, it’s Cain, I’m here.” And then she settles back down and breathes heavily and pulls a mint out of its wrapper.
“Oh.” That’s all she says, just that oh, so soothed and abruptly calm, and all at once Cain knows what she was thinking.
The candy clicks against her teeth. He leans over and sucks the mint out of her mouth.
And she doesn’t say anything, she lets him have this, she doesn’t push him away.
She asks one of the others about this, a boy with thin hips and perfect hair. His name is Honey, and he is pretty and sweet and does good business. She trusts him.
“He kissed you?” Honey asks. They all know about Quinn. They all know not to touch her. They all know that Cain knows this more than anyone. “What was it like?”
Quinn shrugs. “It was like our mouths were touching, what kind of question is that?”
“Well, what did it taste like?”
She sees Paul again on the subway platform at Penn Station, and she wonders why she continues to go in public when this keeps happening to her.
“Why are you here?” she asks.
“At Penn? I take the 3 to work,” and that wasn’t what she was asking, but it still answers her question.
“Did you miss me?” he asks, half-teasing.
She doesn’t know how to say yes or no when the answer is both.
“Why would I miss you?”
“You loved me,” Paul says, like it’s that easy.
“You don’t know anything,” she says.
“I know because I loved you,” Paul tells her. “I think I might still love you.”
“Don’t you dare,” she hisses. “Don’t you fucking dare.”
“I’m sorry,” he says. She can barely hear him because her train is coming and he’s crying now. She doesn’t care.
“Fuck you,” she says, and leaves. It feels like the end, maybe, but she knows it’s not.
Sometimes she lies on her kitchen floor and remembers the feeling of his hands on her.
Paul was a pretty boy. He had soft blond hair and blue clean eyes and he was pure.
– Shh, baby. That’s right. Shh, you’re okay.
– Okay. Okay. Okay. Okay. She whispers it over and over, she feels it in her heartbeat, like maybe that will make it true.
Afterwards, when he was finished, when his bangs stuck to his forehead and he shone with sweat and satisfaction, she thought he was so ugly that she almost threw up.
She told her brothers. She didn’t want to. She had to.
When her brothers were finished, his hair was matted with blood and his eyes were glassy and she thought he was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen.
She sees his face on each of the clients who walk through the door, the shy guilty husbands and cocky fratboys and sweet young men who want their first taste of femininity. He never comes himself, but she’s always expecting it.
She gets her revenge in his absence, with her twisting hips and swinging hair, with the swell of her breasts and the curve of her spine. She draws shapes in the air with her hips. Her body is a revolution. She is strong, she is important, she is not ashamed.
She tells Cain eventually. He’ll find out anyway, and she’s the only one who can keep him calm.
“I’m going to fucking kill him,” Cain says calmly, and he is actually shaking.
“No,” she says. She knows he’s capable of it, that’s not the question.
“He is filth, Q,” he hisses at her.
“How dare he come here. How dare he live after what he did to you.”
“It was my fault,” she whispers, and she knows it is not true, and she holds onto it anyway.
“You shut the fuck up Quinn, I am about three seconds away from smashing my fist into your jaw, shut your goddamn mouth.”
“Okay,” she says.
“I am going to kill him,” Cain says with finality, and he puts his hand on his gun.
“No,” she says.
“Yes,” he tells her, covering her mouth with his hand. “Yes.”
Cain wraps his arms around her and she thinks she might explode if he holds her too tight, but he deserves everything, and instead she burrows backwards into his chest and eventually her skin stops crawling.
(She does not explode, but she thinks a part of her might have imploded.)
Quinn goes to lowercase-c church on Sunday morning for the first time in a long time.
She wears all black and sits near the front and looks solemn.
Her pastor brings her aside after the service.
“We haven’t seen you here in a while,” he says to her.
It isn’t a question, so she doesn’t reply.
“Why have you come now, my child?”
“I thought things would be different.”
She shakes her head.
“What has been keeping you away from God?”
“You know that isn’t what God wants for you.”
“I don’t know what God wants.”
“He will show you His way with time.”
“No,” she says vehemently. “That is not acceptable.”
“Why are you fighting God on this?” her pastor asks her.
“He started it.”
Paul shows up eventually. She knew it was only a matter of time.
She sees him before Cain does, which is the only reason she sees him at all.
He’s a little closer than he’s legally allowed to be, but she is in the middle of a show and this is the part of her life that Paul is not allowed to touch.
(He wasn’t really allowed to touch before, but look how that turned out.)
Quinn is scared. Quinn is sad and confused and afraid and harboring six years of hatred, but the Queen is not. The Queen is, as always, beautiful and powerful and in control.
Paul is irrelevant to the Queen, and Quinn is counting on that.
He finds her afterwards under the pulsing lights.
“You’re beautiful,” he says.
She punches him in the face.
He staggers backwards. She sees he is shocked. He is shocked that he didn’t get away with this the way he had before.
“You shouldn’t have come,” she spits at him.
“I had to see you,” he says softly, and then he falls.
He hits the ground hard and Cain is standing over him like an avenging angel.
Cain is there and suddenly Paul is bleeding and there is blood on Cain’s fist and she likes it. She wonders if this is what being turned on feels like, with the pressure in her lower back and the aching in her stomach. She likes it a lot.
But there is a gun now, and it is attached to Cain’s hand and Paul’s forehead, and she doesn’t like that so much.
Paul’s still laughing, even with blood dripping down his face. “She won’t let you do it,” he tells Cain. “Watch, she’ll stop you.”
“You are worthless,” Cain hisses, and he cocks the gun, and – no.
“No,” she says to Cain, and pushes his arm down.
“Quinn,” Cain says.
“No,” she tells him, and he obliges.
She takes his gun and slides it into the elastic of her underwear. She does not need a gun. She has her sharp-edge mind and her stilettos like five-inch knives and she is not afraid.
So she steps forward and presses the point of her heel against Paul’s throat.
“You are going to leave, do you understand.” It isn’t a question. “You are not coming back.”
Paul looks dubious still, even as his face reddens with each suppressed breath.
“Because if I ever see you again, I will castrate you. I will make you bleed.” She leans down and pushes his hair back from his forehead gently. “And then you will want to die, and I will force you to live.”
Quinn has a tattoo of a crown on the nape of her neck because she is the Queen, she is the Mover and the Shaker, she is the Creator and the Destroyer, she is her own God.
“Let there be light,” she yells. She is high on coffee and peppermints and herself.
The lights flood her on the stage. She is alone. She is golden and glowing and resurrected. Her bejeweled underwear and milk-honey skin sparkle blindingly bright. Her heart is a little lighter.
This is the first day. And it is good.
Clea Woodbury, Age 15, Grade 10, Bard High School Early College, Gold Key