FICTION: Gold Ambition by A.J. Stainsby

You could make out the pink ring around her nipple through her dress, each bud rippling the silk in brail-like formations. She hadn’t taken off her nightgown since she’d slipped into it to leave in, the white silk tainted at the pits with the black of my imitation leather.

The lace- the frilly ivory that grazed her thighs- had taken flame four hours ago, leaving it to fall dismembered, tickling the cap of her knee as she slept. That too, had blackened.

Gold was beginning to seep through the curtains- the pale blue linen stained in ashes, the scent of illicitness woven into each thread- pooling itself against the side table. The imitation oak shone. Nothing was on the table besides a pack of cigarettes, and we’d finished the last one at five. Only the corner- the plastic wrapping that had never come off- gleamed. The rest was in the dark.

I threw the bed sheet off my legs and walked towards the window, my feet sinking into the plush carpet. It was blush and soft and yet terribly off-putting. It was the carpet of 3 dollar a night motel.

I checked my watch. I could already decipher a tan line on my wrist where the metal clung to my skin. That was the beauty of an eternal summer- a golden glow and dewy skin.

“Kitty, it’s nine.”

She moaned and rolled over, her arm reaching for the empty pack of cigarettes, without ever opening her lids.

“Don’t you remember what happened to the last?” I said, climbing into bed beside her, lifting her ashen slip. She squirmed and let her hair fall to cover her pink face. It was thick with grease but in a way that suggested the epitome of cool-girl, the one who didn’t have time to groom and pamper, and yet whose hair fell flawlessly flawed.

Catrose and let her silk puddle around her ankles.

“You know, I’m still very upset about my nightie.” she said, pulling half of her hair into a bun, leaving the rest to dangle around her cheeks. “But fascinated at how fast silk catches fire.”

She stepped into cut offs and my white tee. She tied a bandana around her neck- the red one with the stars- pealing her hair off her own condensation. A purple bite stuck out from behind one of the 5 points. If I remembered, it would only take a small slip of the shirt for the other bite to reveal itself in all its redness (that one was older).

I slipped into pants and a t-shirt- both black, nondescript. It was much simpler to confine my wardrobe to black. There’s something to be said about the success of uniformed individuals. Albert Einstein had a neutral uniform and so did Steve Jobs. And I was raised on a healthy dose of superstition.

I swung the curtain open, just fast enough to watch a veil of silver dust float down before me. I flicked it away with my hands. Light poured in to drench the room.

There was pool out back but we hadn’t used it. Nobody had used it in fact- at least not in the past 18 hours we’d been here. It was all pink and blue- pale again, from the sun and the rain and the time that had drained it of all saturation- only the turquoise slates at the bottom of the water had retained an illusion of color that made it all seem inviting.

There were snow-white picnic tables lined up around the water, each stabbed by umbrellas. And then there was the slide- the small excuse of a slide that would have made me run ten years ago.

I went to the bathroom to brush my teeth. The plush followed where the floor should have been tiled. Cat’s eyes jotted down as her mouth foamed with paste. The smell (the grimy 3 dollar a night smell) began to fade once I set the mint onto my tongue.

“Could you imagine if it hadn’t been negative?”

I turned to her and she pointed to the silver and white stick on the sink. I wondered why she was so adamant about keeping it, the urine stained dodge of a bullet, propped on the ledge pointing upwards to reveal the deep red dash. She took it the day before we left. I brushed a few more strokes and spat out the icy mint into the sink. The little blue crystals in the paste rushed down to the drain. I rinsed them away.

“Quitting smoking would have killed me before my parents would have gotten the chance!” she said, her laugh higher than usual.

I didn’t acknowledge her comment. She knew I wouldn’t.

“We wouldn’t be here.” I looked down at her. She was hunched over to spit. “We would have been all right, though. You know that.”

She lifted herself and wiped the corner of her mouth with her palm. “I’d rather be here,” she smiled. “than just all right. You know that, too.”

Then she kissed me, her peppermint coated lips still wet.

***

The waitress – Sally – as her excessively curly nametag indicated- skated towards us to take our order. We were at one of those terribly tacky diners that require the servers to wear wigs and poodle skirts and red and white rollerblades.

“We’ll have one coke and a Big Breakfast, please.”

She looked at us from under the ivory of her glasses, held up by a strand of imitation pearls. I was sure the lens was pure plastic.

“Two straws please.” Cat said, biting at the flap of white skin on her lip. She licked it clean and smiled.

Sally slipped away behind the counter, yelled the order to the kitchen and skidded off to another booth with another couple that I could only bet would be splitting a meal, too. It wasn’t that L.A was expensive (in comparison to New York at least- our original plan) but it wasn’t cheap either when all the money you have is tied in small wads around dirtied elastic bands, split up between the bottom of the closet, the back slip of Cat’s Moleskin and the underneath of the mattress. It was a matter of precaution.

Cat started talking about tomorrow- what we’d wear, how we’d speak, what songs we’d play. The whole time her eyes were glossy with ambition, jotting around the room, peering out the window onto the street as cars whizzed by. She wanted it to go smoothly, for the meeting to play out the way it did in our heads, the conversations matching the ones we’d come up with standing under steam and water. Of course we want to sign you… It’s rare to find a couple- such a young couple- with such musical talent and so in synch with each other! It had to be perfect.

A few minutes later (between Cat’s vocal debate of a braided scalp – with her being on both sides of the issue–and what time we’d plan to arrive) a platter of a meal made its way towards us, held up by Sally’s two hands, her arms bent rigidly to not let the pancake stack topple over onto the checkerboard tile. The tater tots rolled around pooled in sizzling fat and bacon oil. She set down a basket of toast and jams beside the plate.

Even if our budget had allowed it, we couldn’t have ordered two.

“Enjoy, darlings!”

Cat sliced into the pancakes, the whipped cream rushing down to dribble over the insides of each layer. She shoved a bite into her mouth. I set one of the straws between my teeth and sucked at the pop.

“You know, I didn’t use to like that you only wear black.”

“That’s not true. I have that white shirt.” I said, pointing over the palpable sweetness of the pancakes. Cat doused them in more syrup.

“Well own it now.” She smiled and licked the pads of her fingers. “Anyway, I like it now. You look like a real rockstar.”

I smiled and reached across the table to kiss her. Her hair dipped into our food. That was her artful way of attempting to somehow sway whatever power it was that would determine what would come of our trip. If she repeated it enough it would come true.

We made our plans for the day: explore, see the (free) landmarks, busk, and then rehearse until we were raw and bloody from our music. According to Cat, my fingers should be calloused enough to demonstrate devotion, and her voice just a hint raspy enough to sound cool. “If anything, you can just chain-smoke a bit before we set foot inside.” She laughed.

We wiped the plate clean of grease and syrup and left a few bills on the table. I tossed my guitar across my back and let the strap hug my chest. On our way out, Sally wished us good luck. Cat thanked her and I smiled a smile that was only a little too strained. I wondered how often she wished that.

Cat grabbed onto my hand, as though she could unspool my brain with her eyes.

“You all right, Nick?”

“I’ve never played anywhere but home.” I said, lying only a little, grabbing onto the strap of my guitar. “It’s a little unsettling, that’s all.”

She shook her head and assured me we’d be fine, trailing her fingers up and down my arm. Little scratches were our way to comfort each other.

***

We found the biggest street we knew, Hollywood and Vine, – our mecca, the place that would make or break us, that we would show up to tomorrow morning- was only a stone’s throw away.

Mr. Francis wouldn’t be in on Sundays. No one at the label would be. Cat and I were free to roam for the day, to discover why this incubus of heat and sand was one of the most sought out cities in the country- strike that- in the world

We roamed around saw the hotels (the candy coloured ones that better resembled Disneyland condos than glamorous lodgement), the buildings, the historical monuments, and the hills gleaming like emeralds as our backdrop.

We’d go to the Hollywood Sign- another landmark stuffed with tourists, but one that we’d reserved post-meeting, still giddy with elation. It would be a celebratory hike. It was Cat’s idea, so the metaphor and the cliché can be put on her.

We trampled on 300-pound coral stars, stopping every so often to read the gold inscription. Cat placed the nail of her thumb between her teeth, chipping the red paint off with each nibble. It was her attempt at concealing her excitement- her envisionment of her own name engraved in gold above a tiny phonograph record. It was like the way her heart would race every time she saw neon lights.

It was beginning to feel worth it.

The writing, the re-writing of the music, the countless envelopes and the agonizing months of waiting, the months in between spent stuffing coins into a manila envelope and trading them in weekly for bills in hopes that we’d spend it they day we heard back from someone. So once we heard from Sean Francis, owner and manager of one of the biggest music labels in Los Angeles, we left. The same day, so our parents couldn’t stop us. If it sounds cliché it’s because in part it is. The pyjama-clad escapade, the juvenile ambition, Hollywood itself seemed corny. It wasn’t that we didn’t recognize it, but we also were presented with an opportunity. It would have been stupid to turn it over for the sake of not falling victim to a stereotype, a statistic.

We had enough for our tickets (one-ways only) and a week at the motel (the one we had settled on after walking around the city for forty minutes).

We sat through 41 hours of painful confinement within cigarette-permeated seats and a walkway no wider than a foot. Still, we paced, hips facing the sleepy passengers, shuffling back and forth until the numbness had gnawed at Cat’s back, with the curve in her spine that had robbed her of an inch or two, ached the whole way. She never cried, she never uttered a complaint with her words- but she’d moan and pant and curl up on my lap and present her back to my hands to knead for as long as I could.

We had prepared twelve songs for Mr. Francis. He’d only want to hear two maybe three. Four if we were lucky, which of course we hoped we might be.

I set my case down and flipped it open. The busking was really only a rehearsal for tomorrow in front of more people. We’d run through the twelve songs, pull out a few oldies, do a few covers and start all over with a fresh batch of people. That was the beauty of live performance in front of passer-by’s. You could go on foreversince no one stayed long enough to listen to the whole show.

Cat and I played for five hours. Crowds came in went in little clumps, smiling at us, tossing in loose change. The people who stayed longer than a song (a few out of town couples, two families, a small pack of day drinking teens) tossed in a few bills. We only had to run from the cops once. Luckily Cat was blessed with good stamina and I had long limbs. They didn’t chase us longer than a block anyway. I don’t suppose we presented as much of threats, only that perhaps we were a bit too loud.

As we sped away, my guitar flying behind me like a cape, our fingers intertwined like rope, a sensation that I hadn’t felt since I was a kid overwhelmed me.                                                   

***

We made enough for dinner at In-N-Out Burger and another week’s rent. That night, once our stomachs were bowed and oily, we bought a 40 of Malt liquor at the corner store, along with a box of Raisinettes and a Chunky bar. It was our thing it seemed- chocolate and liquor- and it always hit the spot.

The pool was still deserted. I wondered how many people were staying in the motel. There were no signs that it had been used at any point during the day- no empty cups, no forgotten sandals, no outline of a wet footprint…The air was only beginning to cool by Californian standards – it was the tropics for us.

Our 40 was still tucked away in its brown paper bag. The concealment probably only criminalized us further, but no one was out to notice. Neither of us said anything for a while. We contented ourselves with passing the bottle over the little round table, shoving a piece of chocolate past our lips every few seconds and gazing off to the East side of the motel, staring the pink walls down, challenging its tenants to give us some proof that we weren’t the only ones here. The water rippled with the wind.

“Let’s go in.” Cat placed a chocolate-coated raisin on her tongue and shuffled down to the bottom of the sun chair.

“I don’t have my suit… Let run in and change.”

“Nick, no one’s here.” She said, shrugging out of her shirt, pulling on the knot of her bandana to release it. I didn’t move. Cat spun around herself, as though she’d told me a lie to convince me and had to double-check. It was still deserted. Her shorts fell down to her ankles.

“Unclasp me.” She turned around. I grabbed the metal part that held the lace together and snapped it open. From the side, I could see her breasts fall half an inch. She plunged in, head first.

“Oh come in Nick, it’s so warm!” she kicked her feet up, making an ivory star of her body, her red underwear the only color atop the water. I laughed and shook my head in a binding way to her, that I would follow, but against an amount of my own good judgement. I stripped down to my boxers.

A waft of salt floated up towards me as I approached the edge of the deck.

“Does all of L.A smell of the ocean? Is it some West Coast thing we haven’t been warned about?”

Cat let her legs fall out from under her, the brown of her hair darkening into a deep black as she laughed. A tiny line of makeup drew itself on her lower lashes.

“Nick, it’s saltwater. They’re cheap here.”

I dove in, drowning my laughter underwater, the salt burning my nostrils and spilling into my brains. I stood up to a split in my head. My pain induced laughter from Cat- the kind that becomes apologetic in time once it’s controlled, and ends in a tommy gun of kisses. I tried to avoid the first few- an attempt to feign offence- but couldn’t help to succumb to her.

She pressed herself up on me, wrapping her hands around my neck. Her chest spread like dough against mine.

“I can barely believe we’re here, you know.”

I swallowed. “I know.”

Cat unhooked her arms to fall backwards, and kicked herself over to the ledge, right where the slide twisted into the water.

“Doesn’t it make you a little sad?” she said, stroking the lip of the slide, the last bit of it that jutted out over the water. She continued to tread.

“What?”

“The slide. The pool.” She had that dream-clouded look on her face, the one that took over whenever we talked about our music.

“Oh all right, my poet,” I said, grabbing onto her waist, my eyes rolled back white, swaying her around as fast as the resistance would allow. “Tell me more about their meaning- childhood innocence? Nostalgia?”

Oh shut up, Nick!” she was red from laughter, her palms pressed on my forearms- a poor attempt at escaping my grasp. I hoped to God she never found herself in an altercation that required any amount of self-defence. “Just for that you’ll never know!”

I pressed my lips against her neck, reviving the plum hue on her skin. That distracted the both of us from slides and pools for long enough for me to slip myself inside her. No one was there.

***

As I lay on the bed, flipping through the television channels- the only thing that tied us to home since we left- I couldn’t help but think of what my mother would think of the linens. At least 400 thread count, Nicky. Those were her directions whenever we replaced our sheets.

It seems a little stupid- a little juvenile doesn’t it? To leave home without a phone. But it was the product of a rapid yet thought-out decision- no international phone bills to burden our parents with (it was perhaps the least we might do), no distractions from our work. We’d figure something out once we got settled. Until then, we’d left our parents the number of the label. After tomorrow, they’d be able to reach us there. The thought alone set a ball of led to pull my stomach to knots.

Cat showered off the saltwater and came out of the steaming bathroom in her towel.

She began lathering her arms in pasty white cream- those sticky, alcohol scented lotions with only enough cream for half your body (the fun part was getting to decide which one to subject it to). It smelled like vanilla- overly sweet and slightly tangy. I wanted a cigarette to distract my nose. I pulled the plastic flap of the new pack’s wrapper till it unraveled, bringing with it a chunk of ripped plastic. The lighter was in the beside table, side by side the New Testament, like matching black and gold friends. I pulled the drawer out and began smoking.

“There’s something so calming about a cigarette. Its smell, its texture, its orange tip…” The poet was re-emerging. I placed one between her lips and lit it.

“Its taste?” I asked, the tip ambering. She smirked and pulled at it, blowing the smoke out above her head.

She pursed her lips to keep it from falling it as she pushed herself off the bed, reaching into our duffle. Cat pulled out her Moleskine.

“Wanna work on Bleachers?” That was what we’d named the E.P, an ode to high school and the place we’d write.

I tapped the blackened tobacco with my index into the ashtray (motels seemed to have no rules about indoor smoking) and let it sit there. It was time to callous my hands.

***

We stayed up writing, our breath hot with alcohol and smoke. It seemed that was the only way we knew how. It worked, too.

Cat wrote, sang what she’d penned to the guitar, crafted it until it bled with ink and black lines. It was illegible to anyone but her, not that it mattered.

We both wrote our songs- hers were better; they rolled off her tongue like melted honey. Mine were rougher around the edges, the rhymes always too soft, hinting at a meaning a little too ambiguous. But she hacked at them, hard but ever so sweetly until it was done – familiar still in spite of its discernible improvement. The marrow of it was never lost.

Sure enough, Cat managed to include the little white slide in a song.

***

It might have been because the alcohol had stuck to my blood or because it was so late (in general either were to blame for honesty) but once the lights had been turned off and I’d lain for forty silent minutes, I asked Cat what she, and I corrected myself immediately, we, would have done had the test been positive.

“I don’t know.” Her voice was clear- apparently she’d been lying wide-eyed, too.

“Kitty.” I said, wrapping myself around her. I thought perhaps if I was endearing she might be candid.

“Nicholas, I’d rather you drop it.” I suppose I’d overused the nickname- it wasn’t endearing anymore.

“I’m sorry I just mean you kept the test, I’m just trying to get into your mindset here-“

“I kept it because it means that we can do what we came here to do. There is absolutely nothing stopping us. Nick, can’t you just see this as serendipitous?”

I nodded.

“Right. Now, I want to be rested for tomorrow, so tire me out so we can both sleep.” She snaked her leg around mine and pushed her underwear to the side. Once we were done, we fell asleep- tired out by each other’s heat.

***

I seldom resented having to share a bed with Cat, especially one that was actually long and wide enough to allow for us to roll away from each other after the initial post-sex embraces, but even laying naked atop a thin cream sheet, I was oppressed, completely oppressed by the heaviness of the heat.

“Nick…” Cat’s voice was husky, mid-sleep, and bothered. It matched what I imagined the air might look like if I could have seen the steam in it. “Open the window, will you…”

If I hadn’t already been awake, I would have grunted and rolled over until she got up herself or deemed the temperature just tolerable enough to suffer through.

But I pulled my legs up to a fold and set them down onto the floor. It was still dark outside. The sky was a shade of cobalt only hinting at the idea of ever lightening, suggesting we might have another three, maybe four hours of darkness to lie under. I cranked the window open, letting fresh air rush in through the miniature holes of the grey screen. It wasn’t cold, it was cool and even that might have been an overstatement for early morning L.A.

I crawled back into bed.

“Thank you, baby…” she said, kicking the sheet off so it wouldn’t cling to her dew, still in that land between dreaming and reality. Her breasts pressed against the mattress, hot and swollen from the heat. Without opening her eyes, she kissed me on the neck and rolled over on her back.

The soft purr that rolled through her throat and up through her cracked lips had never upset me. It had tired me, it had rendered me sleepless, and resentful morning come, but in the moment it never upset me to be kept up by her breath. I wondered if I’d ever woken her up, too, and if she ever watched me sleep. I don’t think I snored. She continued for a while and I began going through the little baggy on the dresser for my red pick. I didn’t want to forget it in the morning.

I watched her chest rise for a while, until it gradually slowed to a rhythm that brought me back to a sleep that didn’t break until nine.

***

“Good luck, baby.”

It was time. Cat put her hand in mine, her fingers clad in silver, hotly pressed against mine. She had never looked cooler.

We had gotten up like kids on Christmas morning, our mouths almost watering with anticipation. Cat was in her white lace dress, her jewellery ornamenting her body, her eyes peeking out under the black of her lids. She looked like a rock star. I had changed my shirt to another black tee. Dress for the job you want, I suppose.

I was ready. I kept my pick in my right hand (the one Cat never grabbed, since she always stood to my left) the plastic moistening, ready to strum. The walk was all an infantile gallop, soaking in the sweet air, my limbs beginning to weaken- not the sickly kind, but the kind that invades your body before a performance. Especially one this important.

Once we got to the building, we stood outside for a moment, our necks craning up to the roof, in awe. Cat kissed me and we stepped in.

Ready.

The whole place was seeping with success. The sleek doors, the marble floor, the gold accents… A pair of security agents directed us to the wall of buzzers. I scanned the buttons and their adjacent labels. The words in the letter flashed before me, as though they’d been branded into the entrails of my brain. Sean Francis, Manager, Sixth Floor. I pressed the gold button.

“Good luck to you too, Kitty.” I could have sworn I heard Cat’s heart, and if it wasn’t hers, mine had begun to pound in my ears. She smiled. A hint of fear flashed just as the receptionist answered. I introduced us. I thought she might have heard our names around- office talk, project plans.

“Mr. Francisis in meetings all day, and I don’t see that he has any appointments. He’s too busy for unsolicited material at the time.” Her voice poured out clearly from the intercom. In the corner of my eye I could see the security guards turn to each other.

“But we sent over a tape. He wrote to say he was interested, and if we were ever in L.A-“

“We have just signed two new artists, things happen very quickly here-”

“But we came all the way here!”

“We’re no longer interested in anyone new. I would suggest you try elsewhere. Hollywood is full of studios you know.”

The buzz ceased and then there was a click. Just like that.

***

We skipped the Hollywood sign. We’d go tomorrow. Or the next day. Or maybe we’d wait until we had actually reached our mountain to climb it- for symbolic purposes. We were still artists right?

Neither of us talked much that afternoon. We strolled around, and played for an hour, maybe two. All covers. We made enough for burgers at In-N-Out again.

In that moment, dousing my cheeseburger in ketchup, staring at Cat and the heartbreak in her eyes, half of me wished the silver stick had drawn a cross. That we would have been all right with, I knew that. But this. I had no idea. She barely ate.

We brought home our leftovers and Cat and I nibbled at our cold fries and watched the sun tuck itself away by the pool.

“I’m sorry, Kitty.” I said, wiping away a piece of hair from her mouth.

“I’m sorry, too.” She placed her ear on my chest and shuffled to rest against me. “We’ll try again tomorrow. And the next day.”

Her brows were furrowed, the way they did when she’s trying to figure out a song. She always says, “figure out” as though it’s an equation, a problem she has to resolve- as though it already existed.

I looked down at the pool as the water rippled in silent diamond glints, bereft of life.

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A.J. Stainsby is a writer and poet based in Toronto. She is currently studying English and French literature at Queen’s University, and is working on a collection of short stories. A.J. was recently published in the Literary Review of Canada and is looking to place her first novel.

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