~Dedicated to Pondwater, where still water moves to open hearts.

Our dresses are lined up on a rack. Our shoes have to be approved before being laid out. Our hair is decided before it’s styled. The only part I need to do is pick out the color for my lips. This was settled by management when they figured my time is better suited for putting on makeup than finding ways to break the rules.

We all have tricks on how to bend the rules but the money is too consistent to risk getting caught. Sure, we’re all chosen based on our shapes and sizes to fill in the designer dresses- but it’s our job. Plus, they give us what they consider ‘options,’ a chance to still feel connected to our final look.

“I’m going to do this green bandage dress, I’m feeling envious tonight.” Cameron says, resting the hanger on her nearly piercing collarbone.

“Then I’m going to pretend I’m at a beach and my stomach is the ocean” Sandra says, while waving a blue dress side to side causing more wrinkles in the slip style, “What about you Stacy, what are you going to wear?” The two look at me.

“I’m wearing this orange one. Lately I’ve been getting some sun.” I look at my arms and raise the hanger with the halter dress. “Can’t have my coloring go to waste, now can we?” We all shake our heads and saunter back to our specific vanities, lining this hotel suite.

By the time we reach the other girls at our table, the music is chill as the DJ is feeling the crowd. Most of the women are here with friends while a few couples curl up in the corners on this Thursday night. Our table has the suits that checked-in for some conference, each sporting a different color dress shirt as if to help us remember their names. Men can be so obvious and yet so hidden.

I join the table as the bottle service girl makes my standard cocktail, vodka with a squeeze of lemon topped with a splash of cranberry. She hands it to me and I’m careful to not spill in the other drinks balancing on the small table.

“Hi, I’m Chris,” says one of the men in my ear, “I can’t help but notice your lips.”

“That’s a pretty good line,” I say, looking at the light blue squares on his cotton button up, “Makes me think you say that to all the girls with lips.” He smiles.

“Okay, it sounded awkward but you’re so beautiful.” I am caught for a moment. I look over to his hand and see no ring. I look to his face and see no dark circles or obvious crows feet, meaning he’s getting enough sleep. He looks at me and is probably trying to figure out if I’m a pro or not.

“Thanks, maybe we should sit down so I can enjoy my drink.” We walk over to a neighboring table with a few empty glasses. He sits next to me with enough space for me to place my purse down but still have his leg touching mine.

“I hate these conferences. It’s just a long flight to find out I don’t know what I’m doing.” He says. I laugh, “It’s not easy finding out the whole last year was a lie and that you’ve been 3 steps behind the rest of the country.”

“I don’t know, something tells me you’re a fast learner.” I say. I wink and down my drink. Why did I say that? I don’t care about him. He’s just a customer for the club. I really don’t need to help him feel good about himself beyond what I’m doing by sitting next to him. I wave to our server get me another.

“You seem to have more faith in me than my boss.” He says, I nod and reach out for the glass.

“I know the feeling. My boss always tells me that one day I will see what she’s doing for all of us, as if one morning I’m going to have a coming- to- management- moment.” I say. He laughs so hard I genuinely start to smile.

“Good one!” he says and waves for another drink. The girl brings it over, “and what exactly is it that you do?” She clears our glasses and I look at him, his pupils are open like doors, ajar into a mind that I can see. One that is filled with work and good books, not one with pick-up lines and hair gel.

“I do this, meet guys like you.” I take a long sip, “well, not exactly like you, most are the ones who are 3 steps ahead and know it.” He rolls his eyes.

“Those guys who think they know it, don’t know it. Work is a lot like women in some ways, some of us get involved for the challenge, while others get involved for the pride.” I lean over and we start kissing. His mouth is sweet from the red label whiskey where mine is bitter from the frosted bottle. I lean back and finish my drink, we both wave for another.

Maybe it’s the vodka or maybe it’s the molly that staff has to give us girls on our 4th drink to keep the mood up, but I’m starting to feel connected. Maybe he means what he says about me coming to stay at his condo in New York. Maybe he means what he says about joining him on his trip to London. Maybe he means what he says and isn’t like all the other guys who talk themselves into promises and never keep them. Maybe he’s different. Maybe he’s something more.

His phone rings and glows up his side pocket which breaks my focus. I look at the screen glow and point to it. He looks down and takes the phone out. I read his last name on the screen and can barely read her name before he has the call go to voicemail. He drops the phone back into his pocket and reaches for a black sticker chapstick.

“We don’t want chapped lips, do we?” he says. I play with my hair so he can’t see my eyes gloss with water. “You actually have really beautiful lips and I bet they’re all natural too.”

“Yes I’m all natural,” I pout to show I’m fun,.“I’m going to get them sexy for you.”
“Don’t go, you’re very sexy right now.”
“You’re sweet,” I respond while pulling out of his grip and standing over our table, “Like antifreeze.”

“What?” He asks over the music.

“Nothing, I’ll be right back.”

By the time I get to the bathroom I am no longer in the mood to cry nor do I have time to get upset. It’s almost last call and the night is still going. I have a feeling I’ll be asked to work tomorrow so I should probably stick to molly. I open my purse and take out my red lip liner to frame my oh-so-natural lips. I can’t believe I fell for his promises. I don’t know why I thought I should let my guard down or why I thought he would be any different.

One of the bathroom stall doors opens and there’s a man sitting on the toilet. I roll my eyes. No one else is in the bathroom so he’ll probably walk out while I’m applying my lipstick. I finish the first coat and see he’s trying to say something to me. Fuck, I really don’t have time to listen to the rantings of a drunk man on a woman’s toilet. I apply the second layer and know I have to be the one to kick him out. I turn around and face his direction.

“Listen you freak….” I look in.

No one is in the stall.

My phone vibrates.

By the time I step on the elevator the married man is all over me. I can feel the every-other-guy moment after I ask him to come upstairs with me to Cameron’s room. His hands are heavy on my hips and his tongue weaves in and out like how I imagine the sewing needle on the machines used to make this dress. I want to wipe my lipstick smears off  his face but his greasy pores make the red wax glisten like blood. I look and finally see his dark circles like faucet washed mascara and the crows feet like department store eyeshadow.

When I arrive the front door is slightly ajar. I push it open to find Cameron  at the desk throwing items into her purse. The married man comes in and sees the room is a mess and closes the door behind him. I walk around towards the bed to find the man from the bathroom stall sitting on a chair. He’s not trying to talk to me but is pointing to the dead man.

“Where the fuck is my lipstick?” Cameron calls out, I look back to the married man who is standing in shock while she’s frantically putting her items back into her purse, “Fuck it! I’ll get another.”

As I turn to face the chair, the man from the bathroom stall is gone. I look back and see Cameron trying to leave but they are yelling at each other, asking questions I can’t quite make out as my ears start to feel heavy. I tell them I’ll call down to verbalize my actions and give the room some sort of stability in this chaos. But they ignore me. I look down at the end table and sniff the last line of coke. I tilt up and look up to the ceiling. In the corner of my eye I see the dead man doing the same. His dry eyes are also looking up to the ceiling as if he knew it was his last breath. But looking for what or for who I will never know. For all I do know is that this will be the last call I make in this costume of the trade.