On her first day of work as a Stuck Girl, Tracy Bernardoni stood in the dark bedroom of the diner in her underwear and listened to her body. Still good, her tits said, nestled in the blue bra in their usual way. But her chest cavity and thigh fat had been thunking all night, like drive the car then turn it off. Her mind was swampy. His fault. His idea to get that Sauza and go down on her until the light began to show beneath the door.
It was Wednesday, an odd day to start a job. And what to wear? Tracy surveyed the floor, the contents of her one duffel bag now mixed with his clothes in an impressive ground cover.
Nothing mesh, the friend who had gotten Tracy the Stuck Girls job had told her. Nothing plunging. This isn’t porn. The guys pay just to watch a regular girl who happens to get stuck.
Tracy pressed first one foot then the other against the dresser and shoved her calves into boots. She jangled down the apartment stairs, then leaned against the open door to the diner kitchen. He stood at the crotch-high metal prep table, gloved hands mushing a bowl of ground beef pale as brains.
Clompa, clompa, clompa, he said. You’re always clomping in those boots.
Tracy made a gun with her finger and fired it at him. That’s right, she said. How else will you know I’m still alive?
Her boots made satisfying noises all the way down the alley to Viola Street. They were brown leather boots with a stack heel, the only thing she had left from her aunt. She clomped over the railroad tracks and past Howland Croft tower towards the bus stop on South Broadway, where she stopped and looked back. Beyond the diner’s squat aluminum frame and across the river, Philadelphia looked smoggy and half-built.
The metal bus pole flapped with posters, their torn nubbins long since nabbed. help us gone cat, one said. romantic boat (just 2 holes) 4 sale, read another.
Hey pretty girl! a voice called out. Pretty girl, hey!
From one of the row homes behind her, a girl with two fat arms was hanging out of the top of a ground-floor window. The arms hung over the edge of the window, making them especially fat where the arm flesh pressed.
You’re so pretty I could picture you, the girl called to Tracy. I am picturing you.
The girl could have been fifteen or she could have been twenty-five. She spoke wetly, like she had too much mouth moisture or a kinship with Daffy Duck. Her head was smallish, her blonde curly hair hung down inside the window. Tracy could see it moving faintly behind the glass.
The bus leaned into the curb and Tracy bounded in, found a window seat, and hugged her brown bag.
That girl just catcalled me! she wanted to say, and for someone to take it away from her by laughing or making a weird face, but there was only the white Vietnam vet with the African straw bag and nothing behind his eyes.
Outside, the girl wagged her hands back and forth from the wrist like a beauty queen.
The Stuck Girls studio was a warehouse among a strip of warehouses in the touristy Aquarium district along the Delaware River. Tracy had never seen so many trees all in the same place. Across the water, Philadelphia was clear now; the tops of its buildings glinting and pointed as pyramids.
A tall man in a tight orange long-sleeved shirt sat at a round plastic table and sipped diet soda through a straw. His teeth were perfectly straight and too white to be real. Behind the man were movie posters printed on shiny sheets of plastic. Girls in red vinyl dresses pushed sports cars out of snow. Tracy’s friend and two other girls stood thigh deep in water, struggling to get a boat back up onto the shore, the strings of their green bikini tops straining from the effort. People got off on this? Tracy downshifted a laugh into a cough, and shook the man’s hand.
Your friend told me you were pretty, he said. He introduced himself as Jackson. He spoke breathlessly, taking sucks of soda in unexpected places.
But she did not tell me you were so. So, strange looking, the man said. The black hoodie, the black bangs, the tight black pants, those insane boots, your huge eyes. Too much eyeliner, but we can fix that. I can see it. You’ll be. Urban Stuck Girl. Usually we take a more pastoral approach, my brother has a dairy farm in south Jersey. But you. Will be on a scooter. A fancy one for the motor fetish boys. Yellow. No. Pale blue. The warehouse behind you. Raining? Yes. No. Too expensive. A mud pit. You are on your way to work. You are? A medical student. Scrubs. Your scooter gets stuck. The scooter falls, and you have to lift it with your bare hands. It is very slippery. And muddy. Do you get covered in mud? You do.
Do I get out? Tracy wanted to know.
Eventually, said Jackson.
Jackson led Tracy to a fenced-in area down the riverbank where it was already muddy. Three guys in jeans and short-sleeved button-down shirts were standing around drinking coffee and hitting each other with the backs of their hands. Tracy wondered what it would be like to see her body on the rickety diner computer later, or on the phones of the guys from the recycling plant. In public, they would laugh about it, a joke. But later, when alone? There was no telling what they might do to her.
Jackson gave Tracy a pair of black stilettos and a pile of blue cotton scrubs. The scrubs had been cut into a tank top and shorts, and she changed behind three cardboard screens which formed a flimsy triangle of privacy. When she went to slip on the stilettos, Tracy noticed a small price sticker still attached to the slick underside of one of the shoes. The sticker was orange and one side of it was beginning to come unpeeled. She left it there.
Jackson handed Tracy a Jan Sport backpack stuffed with newspapers and a fake Rutgers–Camden ID tag. This was ironic, as Tracy had spent a season homeless, living in the women’s locker room of the Rutgers–Camden gym. She’d seen a lot of naked girls that winter, not all of them pretty.
One more thing, Jackson said. He came towards Tracy with a shiny red ribbon, thick as a wrist. He tied it tight around Tracy’s ponytail and bowed it. The ends hung down strangely into Tracy’s ears, tickling her.
Seriously? Tracy said. I look like a Christmas present.
Look kind, Jackson said. Look good. Look like a regular girl on her way to learn who simply happens to get stuck.
Someone had primed the mud pit with extra water and it glugged and burbled, expecting her. The camera crew took their positions, one camera where she began, one holding the boom mic, that black feather duster, and the third stationed at the mud pit with a handheld camcorder.
Jackson crossed his arms over his chest, showing his muscles. He was looking at her in the way that always lit Tracy up with pride and rage. Always, always, men were looking. Was she looking at them too? Sort of yes, but also no. More like she was looking at them looking at her, or else she was deliberately not looking. Tracy wondered if Jackson might like to fuck later. She thought he probably would. Bad, bad Tracy. Always slutting it up. But really, it wasn’t that bad. After all, it was not an exclusive thing with the diner guy, he just let her stay in his room. He looked at her too, when she took out the trash, the bags bumping along her legs. If you were pretty you could fuck who you wanted, her aunt had said, if you were smart you could get what you wanted, and if you were pretty and smart like Tracy was, you could do both. Which allowed her, through one means or another, to become a new person every few years.
Jackson brought her the blue scooter.
Had she ever ridden a scooter before?
Yes, Tracy said, though she had not.
OK, Jackson said. And. Go.
Tracy turned the hand control and the scooter lurched. She let the hand control go slack completely, dead stop. Just a little gas, there we go, she was moving. OK. Towards where the man with the camcorder stood at the mud pit. Tracy closed her eyes, all air, all wind, no sound, no body.
When the mud pit came, the front wheel went in, ba-chunk, and then the back one, clop, but the bike was still moving and then the front wheel was rising over onto solid ground again. She was muddy, but not stuck.
Again, Jackson said. But the same thing happened. This time, she remembered to grip the brake, but still the bike only slowed, making a lazy track through the muck.
I think it needs to be deeper, Tracy said. Or thicker?
Disappointing, Jackson said. Very disappointing. Do you have what it takes to be a Stuck Girl? I am no longer sure.
On the bus home the sky was grey, on its way to black. Rain slapped against the windshield and was wiped away by blades as big as canes, water blowing across the sides of the bus in dainty angled lines.
Two career women in skirt suits and enormous sneakers sat side by side. The one in the window seat tapped the glass.
See that house? She said to the other woman. Those people are gonna die soon.
Out the window, a fire engine streamed by, a colorful wheel spinning on its face. Tracy watched it lean around a corner in front of a Crown Chicken shack.
Camden, Camden, Camden, Tracy thought, hopping off the bus at South Broadway. Let it motherfucking burn.
Tracy heard the sounds of Madonna behind her, no end and no beginning, before she saw the girl who had catcalled her that morning standing on the stoop. The girl stood in the open doorway, the row home dark behind her, and swayed to the music. She wore a stretchy pink bra with straps thin as string and matching underwear. When drops of rain fell on the bra, they were absorbed by the stretchy material and then spread into splotches. The girl’s thighs were rippled like someone’s fingers had been gripping there. She patted her ass slowly, first right hand to right ass cheek, then left hand to left ass cheek, then swayed slowly again side to side, the fat of her stomach jiggling to the beat.
Tracy stopped clomping. The girl seemed too slow, her neck looser than a neck should be. Was she retarded? She was retarded. The girl smiled and repeated the ass patting moves.
Hey hey, pretty girl, the girl said again.
I have a name, Tracy said, recovering her usual street snap.
So do I, the girl said. It’s Serena.
The rain was falling harder now. It fell on Tracy’s scalp and rolled down into her eyes.
Come inside, Serena said. She cocked her head, popped out a fleshy hip, then whirled around, turned her back to Tracy, and disappeared into the house.
Here was a brand new thing. Tracy had never seen anything so delightfully brash in a girl before. She clomped up the stairs.
Inside, the living room was dark. An air conditioner churned beneath flowered drapes. On the TV, Madonna threw herself against an iron gate. Serena sat upright on a brown leather sectional couch, and clutched imaginary bars of her own, which made her pointy breasts lean towards each other. They were ridiculously small for such a fat girl. A jar of marshmallow fluff sat on the couch cushion next to her. A brown cat lay on the floor near Tracy’s feet where she stood, still in the doorway.
Serena made a sudden lunge, following Madonna’s lead, and the fluff toppled over, spilling thick white into the couch crevasse.
Ack! Serena said. Ack! Serena said again. She began to cry. She stood now, looking down at the mess. For shame, she said. Shame, shame, shame.
It’s alright, Tracy said, stepping forward. Do you have something? A towel?
In the kitchen, Serena said, pointing the way with her eyes.
Serena stood aside as Tracy wiped a cloth between the couch cushions. Tracy’s aunt had spilled a lot too, when she was close to the end.
There, Tracy said. Like it never happened.
The clock tocked. Madonna played. Tracy clutched the wad of now sticky paper towels.
You’re here by yourself? Tracy said at last.
Yes. Mom. Goes to work for God.
At the church?
No, the hospital, Serena said. When a person is about to die, she goes.
Dance with me, Serena said, placing her hands on her hips and turning energetically at the waist. You can’t wear that though, Serena said. Not fancy. Dancing means fancy. I have lots of fancy things. My room. Upstairs. The one with the lime green walls. Bring me also a dress.
Tracy found Serena’s room up the thickly-carpeted stairs. There was a bed and a full length wooden mirror that had been painted pink and an overhead fan-light which whirred so fast it shook the bulb.
Tracy opened Serena’s closet and looked at the clothes: mostly dresses, and in ridiculous colors. Magenta. Turquoise. Sequins. What a waste. It was so sad when unpretty girls tried to pretty themselves up. Prettiness was a spectrum, Tracy knew. She had drawn it out once on a piece of paper in middle school, with a German supermodel on one end. She had imagined the ugliest girl possible at the other: Dana Wilkins – pear shaped, huge thighs, a chain that attached her keys to a belt loop on her baggy jeans, and a backwards baseball cap. But Serena wasn’t like Dana at all.
Tracy touched the clothes. They seemed like clothes for another kind of girl, the real Stuck Girls, the ones on the posters maybe.
Tracy took off her black jeans and hoodie and tank top and let them fall on the ground, also carpeted. She looked at her body in the mirror. She turned to the side, patting her own ass lightly. The flesh absorbed the impact, but did not jiggle. Well-proportioned, a guy had called her once, while she’d been tanning in the park. She pulled down one bra strap and then the other, and then pulled the bra up and off so her heavy breasts flopped against her stomach. They were too big probably, with big weird areoles (was that the word?) that looked at Tracy from the mirror like eyes.
Taking so long! Serena called. Now it was Serena who stood in the doorway, and Tracy who was yelling Ack! Tracy clutched for her hoodie and covered her breasts with it.
Sorry, Tracy said. Sorry, she said again.
Sorry sorry too, Serena said.
They looked at each other. Serena was closer to twenty-five than to fifteen, Tracy saw, in the lines around her eyes and the stretch marks on her upper arms.
Serena crossed the room then and stood in front of the closet.
Did you pick a dress? Serena said.
No, Tracy said. I don’t really wear them.
Hmm, Serena said, drumming her fingers against her chin cinematically. She pulled out a blue silk dress from the closet. Here, she said, thrusting it towards Tracy. It feels nice. Try.
Tracy turned away and slipped the dress on over her head. Behind her, the clacking of hangers. Serena had chosen a dress too. Velvet, but red with puffed up sleeves.
The silk did feel good on Tracy’s breasts. As she followed Serena back down the stairs, she sort of shimmied them side to side. They stood on the hardwood floor in front of the brown couch and followed the moves of the girls on the TV. From the windowsill, the brown cat rotated its head side to side like an owl. Every so often the air conditioner would go off, and then minutes later cycle back on.
Serena went into the kitchen and returned with two juice boxes. She handed one to Tracy. Tracy was sweating and panting, trying to get the moves right. Tracy unwrapped the small enclosed straw.
You poke it, Serena said. Like this. With a pop, she jammed the straw through the thick silver seal and began making sucking noises.
I’m not stupid, Tracy said, out of habit. But her heart wasn’t in the jab, and the tone came out sing-songy.
That’s what I am, Serena said.
Yeah? Tracy said.
I don’t know, Serena said. That’s what they called me.
The people at the school.
Maybe you are, Tracy said. And maybe you aren’t. What do you think?
They sat on the couch watching MTV and sipping on the juice boxes. It was apple-sweet and clean. The rain hit the air conditioner. Tracy noticed she did not want to go back to the diner.
Serena walked over to the front window and began watching the street.
Look, Serena said. Look out my window.
Tracy went and joined her. Cars slid by but no one walked the sidewalk.
Serena turned and faced Tracy. Serena reached up, her thumb and forefinger open like an alligator. Tracy thought Serena might pinch her cheek or touch away an eyelash, but instead she clamped her fingers around an end of Tracy’s red ribbon and pulled until the bow came undone. It released unevenly, one side resting on top of her ear.
Kiss kiss, Serena said. Serena lifted her mouth and kissed Tracy’s ear where the end of the red ribbon sat. Then she kissed the skin of Tracy’s chest. The satiny finish of the red ribbon. Serena’s breath in Tracy’s ear was herbal, spicy, like weed smoke or ginger when you chew it straight. Tracy bowed her head, the thunking sound in her body got louder then very loud, she lowered her head further and felt her ponytail swipe against her back.
Serena’s eyes were large and fixed upon Tracy.
I don’t know, Tracy said. I don’t know, she said again.
I see you, Serena said.
I see you, Serena said. From my window, every day. I see you when you’re happy and I see you when you’re mad. I see you when you’re angry. And also when you’re sad. Most people are only one way, Serena said. But not you. Sometimes you’re one way and sometimes you’re totally different.
I’m not, Tracy said.
But it was true. She was one way in bed with the diner guy and in the Stuck Girls studio. But when she was alone, or like now, she was another.
So what? Tracy said. That doesn’t matter.
It matters, Serena said.
Tracy did not move. Tracy saw the line of the part in Serena’s hair, burned slightly pink, felt the weight of Serena’s big head against her. She felt taller, larger, above Serena. It was a feeling she had not known before. It was not necessarily good. It felt acute. It felt squirmy. Tracy had the funny thought that it was both too early and too late for this feeling. Tracy thought of the sticker on the back of her heel at the Stuck Girls studio, a thing that loses its stickiness and begins to peel, little by little, away from its backing.
It is possible to forget a feeling for years when you have no words for it. The next time this coming-unpeeled feeling came, Tracy would be twenty-six and knocked up in Philadelphia. It would set in when she was eating shaved meat across a red metal table from a woman who had eyelashes straight as the bristles of a broom, and it would last for ten years.
Upstairs, Tracy pulled on her pants and hoodie, careful to keep herself covered. Serena sat on the bed and watched. On the stoop, Serena held the cat and wagged a paw goodbye.
Serena looked young and stupid. Also pretty.
You must believe, Jackson said, back at the Stuck Girls studio the next day. You must commit.
I’ve committed, Tracy said.
Tracy climbed back aboard the scooter, a new ribbon in her hair – green this time. Her mind was clear, light. She’d walked the whole four miles to work, her boots making extra-loud clomping noises on the pavement.
When the scooter wobbled then tipped and Tracy hit the mud, the brown wave coming towards her a kind of beautiful. She kept her eyes open. The mud gunked up her eyelids, clogged her ears. She crunched sand between her teeth.
Tracy stood and turned towards the camera.
Oh no! she said. She lifted her shirt to wipe the mud from her eyes and tried to look afraid.
Photograph © Coggleswort00