As the AC whirled above, and her second – third?- cup of coffee grew cold on her desk, Beth couldn’t help but find herself smiling.
Sure, it was 100 degrees outside and her eyes were burning with exhaustion, but she was buzzing with the feeling of doing something, being someone. I mean, owning a car dealership was never her dream and so what if there were pharmaceuticals being pumped through her showroom for a violent gang? - it was success in her books none the less.
Her mind replayed the past month’s events as she tapped away at the keyboard, reeling through the highlights.
There had been positive buzz in the media about her dealership revamp. “Who knew car sales needed a feminist overhaul? Boland Motors did.” She’d clipped the article and tucked it away in her desk drawer.
Oh! And the desk. The office. Her office. “Only one of us can steer the ship”. She’ll admit – she had rehearsed that line, rolled it over in her mind the days leading up to the big moment but that didn’t make it’s impact any less delicious.
And then there was...well … she was trying not make it into a big deal, which meant avoiding thinking about it pretty much altogether. Even as the thought flashed in her find, her stomach reacted with a quick plummet.
She knows people hook up all the time. Its casual. its NORMAL. Sure, it made their business a little more complicated, perhaps it wasn’t the safest or most logical choice but she had convinced herself that all she needed to be was casual, chill, and it would all pass over. She’s not his girlfriend for God’s sake. Dean was screwing half of Detroit, so what if she took up the chance to blow off some steam? That’s all it was.
The image of his hand grabbing and holding hers as she reached for the duffle bag pops into her thoughts intrusively, as if to offer a counter argument.
Three knocks at her open office door pulls her from her daydreams.
Of course. Speak of the devil and he shall appear.
Lifting her head, she smiled that perfected, professional smile, keeping her tone light, CASUAL.
“How’s the boss today?”
He hummed, pacing around the small space, hands behind his back.
“You got dinner plans ?”
There was a quick nod as his jaw rocked in thought.
“Umm.” Beth glanced to her open purse slung by her feet, a Tupperware of lasagna peeking out the top.
“I was going to stay past closing, maybe grab something on the way home? “Beth silently cursed how high pitched and uncertain she sounded.
“I’m goin out tonight, why don’t you come with? Got some errands to run, we could catch a bite.”
Beth held his gaze. She was flustered and he was pretending not to enjoy it.
“Uh – yeah. Okay.” She moved her fingers, grateful for any distraction from the twinkling in his eyes, she pretended to shuffle papers.
“Cool. Ill come by at 6.”
The door clicked with an exit before Beth could muster a response.
As soon as the coast was clear, she started moving with purpose. Frantic, she dug in her purse. When she finally yanked her phone out it was flipping in her hand from the overzealous grabbing. She had 2 numbers on speed dial, and she clicked one as fast as her fingers would allow.
“Were you asleep?”
“I was napping. It’s different.”
“I need your help.”
"Whats wrong? Is everything ok?"
“He came into the office and asked if I had dinner plans, and now he is picking me up at 6.” Beth’s voice strained in confusion as she explained the situation.
A heavy sigh. “Like DINNER dinner? Gangfriend popped by to ask you on a date?”
“No, its not like that. He was like “I need to run errands, so… come with.” She did her best impression on his gravelly accent.
“It’s not anything – I mean I doubt its due to anything that happened between us. That was just –“
“Casual. Right. The wooord of the week. Got it. Ok so what’s the problem then? Why so breathy and uptight?”
“I’m sweaty, I’m gross from all this heat. I didn’t really wear makeup today and now I won’t be able to go home before going…”
She took a deep breath and tried to envision how their night would unfold. She simply couldn’t.
“…who knows where?”
“Are we sure he’s not going to kill you?”
“Or kill someone in front of you?”
“Yes. Please just bring me some deodorant. And maybe… some makeup. Oh! And your leather jacket.”
“Its hot as BALLS outside. Now is not the time to suit up in leather to impress gangbangers.”
“Just do it. Okay? Please?”
She knew Annie was still angry about discovering that her and Rio had slept together, angrier perhaps that Beth hadn’t confided in her when it had happened. And she gets that, she does. She was here now, needing her help, so maybe that would even their score a bit.
Annie sounded a huff, the sounds of keys jangling sounded off behind her.
“Ill be there in 20. “
The phone clicked off leaving Beth jittery and satisfied.
Time for coffee number 2, no 3. OR was it 4?
Before she knew it, Annie was kicking down her office door. Literally. The door swung open startling Beth and slammed into an adjacent cabinet
Annie whined defensively. “My hands are full!”
“Okiedokie. What look are we going for tonight? We tryna hop on that dick again or what?”
Pushing her chair away from her desk, Beth sighed into her hands. This was a bad idea. All of it. Driving home to her empty house and sipping bourbon in her robe suddenly became irresistibly appealing.
“I’m gonna take that as a Yes. OK… lets see..” Annie started to crouch in front of Beth, zipping open a giant bag of makeup that was straining at the zippers.
“Ok no, hold on. Ill take this to the washroom. Ill do my own my self up. Thank you very much.”
“No offense sis...”
Beth tilted her head expectantly, lips pursed.
“Well…his bar is cool, like top ten hidden gems in Detriot kinda cool. What?! There’s a Vice article about it! Hell, he’s terrifying and murderous, but you got to admit, he is also pretty hip. The piercing, the rings… the black on black. Where ever he is taking you tonight will be dope and again no offense –“
“Just say it”
“You kinda do your makeup like a Mom”
Beth was deadpan. “I am a Mom.”
“Let me do it.”
One last longing glance at the Tupperware lasagna. She could text Rio, say her kid was sick and then pretend this never happened….
“Ok… Just… Don’t make me look like a Drag Queen”
Annie moved her head back in mock offence.
“I know, I know. They’re fabulous… it’s just not what I am going for. PLEASE tell me you understand that that is not what I am going for right now.”
“I get it, gees.” The zipper of her makeup bag popped open, Brushes and powder exploding into the room, catching the sunlight.
Once surrendering to Annie’s demands, Beth let herself enjoy the process. She can’t remember the last time she felt this way- unsure of what the night would bring. After 20 years of predictable dates, carefully managed plans and.. she’ll admit, precariously scheduled sex, this evening felt chaotic. Surprisingly, despite the fact that new plans and patterns typically caused anxiety to vice grip her heart, - she did not hate it. Her life had jumped the tracks and Beth found herself along for the ride.
“OK, Viola! Go look in the mirror. Go! GO!”
As her reflection stared back in the mirror under the sterile lights of the dealership's restroom, she had to admit…
“Whattaya think? "
“It’s pretty cool.” Beth smiled slowly, taking in her subtle smoky eyes. It definitely wasn’t what she usually went for but the charcoal smudging at the corner of her eyes certainly made them stand out. Her lips here were a light mauve, and her cheeks were highlighted and shimmering.
She couldn’t take her eyes off herself. Annie grinned behind her.
“I look COOL.”
“Hell yah you do!!”
Beth looked at her sister swelling with gratitude. As she opened her mouth to express it – Annie beat her to it.
“I love you. I don’t approve of this… of this unholy union. It’ dangerous and gross and I resent that I’ve been forced to visualize it…. but if it’s spicing up your life, which for the record is in desperate need of some spicin’, then I’m good.”
“Thank you.” Beth wrapped her sister in a hug. “But it’s not a date”
“Oh! My! God! He’s into you. Get over it. Ok, here’s your D-O, and the leather jacket. I gotta pick up Ben at 5 so I should roll.”
She turned around to leave, stopping just short of pushing the bathroom door.
“Let me know if you end up jumping on th-“
Two wags of her eyebrows and a smirk, then she was gone.
Beth locked the dealership door, and nervously checked herself in the glass reflection. She was in a form fitting burgundy tee-shirt dress that fell just below her knees. She felt a surge of gratitude that she had chosen this to wear in the morning as it was easily dressed up or down.
The evening had cooled down just enough that Annie’s beat up leather jacket didn’t stick out, in fact it complimented her dress quite well. Her hair was tied up in a loose bun at the nape of her neck.
When she was younger, in her early twenties, she used to watch girls roam the downtown from her small apartment window. Girls that were confident, bold, painted with chic tattoos and cigarettes. She remembers feeling... well, not jealously ... but a strange nostalgia for the way things could have been. There she was, pale and pastel, engaged to Dean and helping a struggling Annie through pregnancy. She was certain she would never feel as bold and beautiful as those girls did in that moment, as carefree and cool. The weight of her sacrifices often pushed down hard on her heart in moments like this, the what-could-have-beens, the what-ifs. What if she had been selfish? What if she drank tequila and gossiped all night? Would it be as cotton-candy sweet and thrilling as she had imagined it was?
Maybe it would be. She grinned internally as she thought of the coming evening. These past months had been such a left turn from the path she had surrendered to, from the life she could see and predict every day of until it’s inevitable end. On good days, that security had made her feel safe and purposeful, but more and more the good days waned, she felt itchy and reckless. She loved her sister dearly, and she wouldn’t change the past for anything but… the future… she was eager to claim her agency over it.
Be it selfish, be it reckless, here she was, headed downtown with smoky eyes, an excited heart and absolutely no idea what would happen. Carefree and cool.
A car pulled around the front entrance and Beth’s heart leaped in her throat. He’s nothing if not punctual, her phone glared a 5:59PM. She walked magnetically to the passenger side, taking a deep breath before hopping inside.
There was shuffling and shifting as Beth hauled her purse nosily onto her lap. It landed with a thud.
“Yo,” Rio leaned his head back on the headrest before swiveling to peer at her with friendly eyes. He furrowed his brow a bit as he looked her up and down.
“You go home before?”
“No. I just um.. freshened up a bit. “
“You look good.” The easy compliments, the slow drawl, she would never get used to it.
“Where are we going?”
He turned back to the road ahead.
“You gonna make this weird?”
“How is asking our destination making it weird?”
“Well how many more times you plannin’ on asking?”
“Why don’t you just tell me where you plan on taking me?”
Rio sighed, but it was peppered with a small huff of laughter. An amused acceptance of defeat.
“Aight, first stop is the warehouse, gotta pick up some things.”
She was a bundle of nervous energy and it was starting to slip out of her in the form of giddy restlessness. He smelled sweet like spices and she “looked good”, it was all rushing to her head.
As they drove she tried to avoid glancing at him, but it was hard not to look. He was driving in a relaxed stance, one hand on the wheel, one resting on the driver side window. Every so often he would flex those hands. The sight of his tan palms stretching out sent her back to the bathroom where those long fingers had bruised her thighs. His guard was down and witnessing it felt both exhilarating and unnatural, as well as something… well.. something that she could get used to. She had to admit, it was a nice view.
The warehouse appeared as the car hummed to a stop. Rio hopped out and in one fluid motion was at the passenger side whipping her door open. The night air rushed in.
Beth eyed him suspiciously while she slowly climbed out.
They headed in side by side. The interior was exactly the same as when she had come alone and left her pearls – empty, cold, echoing.
He marched on, striding to the back where there was a set of stairs leading up to a barebones paneled office space. Rio flicked the lights on and warm glow poured out the windows.
An ornate mahogany desk sat proudly in the center of the room, behind it, a modest bar cart and several boxes stacked neatly. It was a bizarre mix of makeshift and elegance.
Rio floated past his desk to yank a green bottle of gin from the cart. He then bent down to pull open a drawer and reveal two crystal glasses. Never hesitating - as if the whole scene needed no explanation.
Still standing by the doorway, face displaying a slightly confused stare, Beth tipped the heavy glass to her lips as it was handed to her.
She normally didn’t drink gin, she thought the taste was too strong. But right now even the idea of tasting that sharp juniper on his lips, mixing with hers, made her want to down the glass.
He sipped and they held each others eyes for a beat or two. They were, (how did Annie put it?) eye fucking. For the first time, she got her point – but that didn’t make her enjoy it any less.
“You up for a delivery?”
Fear flickered across Beth’s face and she tried to hide it in her glass but Rio raised his eyebrows and chuckled at her.
“All friendly darlin’ no need to worry”.
“I mean… I guess.”
Rio was absentmindedly shuffling through papers, scanning them and stacking them together atop the mahogany.
“This guy tonight, known me since I was a kid.” He was still focused on the sheets in front of him and with that wistful tone Beth wasn’t even sure if she was supposed to respond but her desire to know more was too strong. She moved forward, perching herself slightly on the side of the desk.
“How long have you been.. doing this?”
He looked up and reached for his drink. There was a long pause while he sipped, bottom lip popping as he swallowed.
“Uh, I just woke up one day…. decided to rob a grocery store and now uh… I’m at the top.”
Beth rolled her eyes. “Seriously.”
“My whole life, whatchu think?” He positioned himself beside her, looking forward. “You don’t get to be king just by showin’ up and askin’ nicely.”
Warmth was spreading from her throat into her veins as the dead quiet of the warehouse buzzed in her ears.
“Well there goes my plan.”
Rio tossed in head back in hearty laugh. “Thought you didn’t want it.”
“I don’t know what I want.”
“Can’t picture you askin’ nicely either though.”
“I am very nice.”
Rio swirled the dregs of the liquid and tossed it back before locking her gaze.
“Nah mama, you a bad girl in a nice neighborhood and that’s all there is to it”
Normally, she would scoff – how dare he? What did he know about nice. But the way his eyes were roaming her body was obscene. It was awfully hard not to remember the way it sounds when he chokes a moan in her ear. Heat pooled in her body as she furiously blinked away the rising tide of blush and hammering heartbeat.
He was smiling as he swiftly tucked an envelope under his arm. “Ready? Let’s roll.”
Beth masked a shaky breath by following suit and tossing her drink back. Rio flicked out the lights behind them.
Back in the car, he had shifted his stance so that his free hand was slung over her passenger head rest, with his left on the wheel. She was sure it was meaningless, and felt entirely silly for noticing at all but her the proximity of his arm consumed her thoughts for the first 10 minutes of the ride, at least.
“Here, put some music on.”
He tossed a sleek, black phone into her lap. Her head jerked towards him.
“You know, like a song?”
“Is this your phone?”
She hesitantly swiped and input the numbers, eyeing him incredulously.
“I gave you the keys to the kingdom, what else you think I got to hide?”
The last 2 clicked into place and Beth let out a frustrated sigh as she took in the home screen.
She could already see an impish grin spreading in her peripheral.
There was only one app, Spotify.
“This is only for music…”
He laughed in that throaty way she would never admit gave her goosebumps.
“Aint even got a SIM in that one.”
“You’re a dick.”
“Put a song on, what’s the hold up.”
She scrolled through the app, searching her brain for what could possibly be appropriate for this moment. She liked 80’s girl bands and Shania Twain. She wasn’t exactly up to speed on new music besides the robotic screeching that Kenny blared from his bedroom. There had to be a middle ground.
“You like Cash? A fashion inspiration perhaps?”
Rio jut his chin towards the aux. “Put him on.”
The steady thrumming bass would be good for her nerves anyways and after a couple minutes, Beth found herself humming quietly along.
“My mother loved Johnny.” She said quietly.
Rio lolled his head to face her as they pulled up to a red light. He didn’t respond but something softened in his eyes telling her he’d noticed the past tense.
The car livened up again at green.
“Mine’s more of a Springsteen fan.”
He breathed a small laugh.
“When her and my pop came up to Michigan, they were hell bent on proving to be the most American Americans you ever did see, tryna make it easier for us kids. So we ate hotdogs and listened to The Boss. “
“It doesn’t get much more American than that.”
The rest of the drive was comfortably quiet.
It was around 7:30 when Beth’s stomach started complaining, she wondered briefly how long this delivery, or drop, or whatever it was, would take.
They were rolling into a part of town she was wholly unfamiliar, and far from any food establishments she was aware of, chain or otherwise.
The car parked in front of a non-descript brick building. On either side was a car wash and a temporarily closed convenient store, some brand she didn’t recognize.
“Alright, you hungry?”
Rio moved his head to indicate he’d explain once she exit the car. He put his hand on the small of her back as he led her towards the squat brick.
“This restaurant here's one of mine. The owner’s helps me and my family out from time to time, so it’s all pretty low key. I pay him a visit every so often, keep things moving.”
“Sooo…. he washes your cash?”
"Somethin' like that. It’s a win-win.”
Beth looked on quizzically to the shuttered windows of their destination, choosing her next words in a measured manner.
“Do they get enough…. traffic.. out here for an operation of your .. size?”
Rio glanced over with a Cheshire cat smile as he pushed open the industrial doors.
It was like the wardrobe then Narnia.
The inside was bathed in a warm orange light, coming mostly from the exposed kitchen sitting center floor as well as illuminating from the dusty red lanterns that glowed in clusters in every corner. Fortune cats waved rhythmically, hypnotizing Beth from every shelf. Steam gushed up from giant pots and woks like well-timed geysers. There were worn, gold tablecloths sprinkling the dining room neighbored by a jukebox and a pile of ceramic teapots. On the walls hung lunar calendars and lopsided frames. Halloween decorations accompanied faded Christmas banners with the odd Saint Patrick’s Day green. Every single inch was dripping in atmosphere, coated in charming amounts of chaos and intrigue.
The air was thick with cigarette smoke, and the smell of oil frying. The front room was mostly empty aside from a huddle of older Chinese men smoking in the far corner and a young hipster couple settling their bill. Beth glanced around in awe as she took in the white and red “reserved” sign on every single gold wrapped table.
Her wide-eyes met Rio’s grin, she opened her mouth to speak but the shouting, clanging, sizzling from the kitchen was too loud to think. He gave her shoulder a squeeze.
“I think it lacks character.”
Rio snickered, beaming down at her.
An older Chinese woman with smooth olive skin wiped her hands on her apron as she stepped out to greet Rio. She was short and thin, Rio wrapped her in a hug that seemed to make her disappear entirely. They motioned between one another, he passed her the envelope as she nodded in serious manner. He tilted his head towards Beth, and the woman ushered them both to follow.
They passed a long, narrow fish tank, glowing effervescent in the dim light. An eel slithered alongside them, keeping pace. Eventually, popping out of a presumed office space, a grey-haired man joined their company.
The foursome came to a halt at the end of a back hallway, where a small booth – made private with hanging beads, glowed in the corner. There was a lantern lighting up two twin red leather benches. Photos of previous customers – usually smiling with whom Beth assumed were the owners – plastered every last inch of wall space.
“Elizabeth, meet Mei and Frank.”
Beth nodded at them, smiling through pursed lips. Was it rude to be unsure if they spoke English?
“It’s a pleasure to meet you.” Mei crooned with a perfect American accent, her voice was soft and sincere. “Please, make yourself at home.” She towards the awaiting booth.
Beth tucked the beads back, and slid into her seat. She felt embarrassed slightly, overwhelmed, out of place, exhilarated, excited, confused, nervous and … hungry.
There was a twinkle of laughter as Mei patted Rio on the back, they had been having a hushed conversation on the other side of the beads.
Rio dropped down opposite Beth, and Mei hurriedly returned a moment later with an entire bottle of top shelf bourbon and two glasses.
“You bring all the girls here?”
“And sit out front? Argue over the bill like I aint gettin’ that money no matter who pays? No thank you.”
“So… you don’t tell the people you date…what you do?”
“Too complicated.” He poured a finger of bourbon. “Best not mix business with pleasure.” He winked at her.
“Then I guess I should leave.”
They tipped their glasses up in unison, smirking into the alcohol.
For a brief moment, Beth imagined how she could even attempt to convince Annie that this hadn't been a date. She knows she’ll at least try – Annie is a terribly sore winner, the Queen of I Told You So’s.
No, she’d say. It was totally professional, all we did was sit in a dimly lit private booth and stare longingly at each other. God, It was a date. Beth knew it. Rio knew it. Hell, the old Chinese men out front probably knew it. However, that begs the question-
“Why did you bring me here then?”
“Oh just cause I put a gun to your head a couple times means we cant hang?”
“No – not that I mean – if you don’t bring –“
Mei arrived with food. Beth’s mouth watered as her hunger sprang back to life, shutting out all other thoughts.
There was chowmein noodles, hot soups piled high with glistening dumplings, lotus root, crispy duck and various other plates that Beth couldn't even name. It all was piping hot, and smelled extraordinary. She eyed the fried dough with scallions, plopping one onto her plate.
They ate in silence for several minutes – well, Beth ate in silence, Rio watched her with amusement as she barely stopped to breath.
“Be careful with tha…”
She was digging into a fish stew, swallowing before Rio’s warning reached her ears.
He rubbed his temples with a thumb and forefinger while chuckling.
“Oh mama.... that’s spicy.”
Beth shrugged. It wasn’t like Annie didn’t drag her to that sleazy wing joint every couple Saturdays that only offered three flavors : hot, extra hot and XXXtreme wings. She felt … well versed in the world of spice- or at the very least the world of hot sauce.
Then it hit her.
A scorching numbness from her lips to throat. Mei and Rio were by her side in a flash, milk and water on hand. She gulped the milk before she could even start to speak. Mei was giggling as she patted Beth on the back, soon all three of them were happily laughing
“Those Sichuan peppers, they’ll getcha”
Rio sat back and they finished their meal in a calm comradery. He spoke freely of his friendship with Frank and Mei. His father wasn’t always around, ended up walking out on them, (She never stopped to clarify exactly who “they” were, brothers? Sisters? She bit her tongue) when he was still young. Frank ran a convenience store where he employed Rio’s mother and became a bit of a father figure to little Rio. When he was a teen he worked the dish pit here at the restaurant with Mei, when it was still a small operation.
“They paid me well, way more than they needed to – I guess they just saw another family going through it – wanted to help. “
Beth was listening as she scanned the wall of photos, seeing Mei’s and Frank’s proud faces smile back at her from several stages of the past.
“Don’t look too closely there.”
“And why’s that?”
“I haunt this wall somewhere, a lanky ass kid.”
“Ah! The real reason no dates come back here. The truth comes out.”
Rio laughed. As he smiled at her and the mood shifted. Their chests rose and fell in sequence.
“That was delicious. Thank you for bringing me.”
He hummed. “It’s a nice place, even better with some company.”
Frank and Mei popped in, topping up their glasses as Frank handed Rio a cigar. Rio tilted it towards Beth in a question.
“I’m fine, thanks.”
He turned to light his up on the end of Frank’s, then settled back into the sofa.
“So beautiful” Mei nodded to Beth with a cheeky smile. Beth moved her lips to clarify – oh its really not like that. We’re just colleagues, it’s a work thing – it almost came tumbling out in her perfectly perfect polite lady voice when she noticed Rio hadn’t taken his eyes off her, not once.
She closed her lips.
“Isn’t she?” Rio drawled. To her ? To Mei? To himself?
It didn’t matter – Beth felt every syllable from her stomach to her toes.
Their hosts slipped away as they poured into one another’s eyes. He was leaning back, sipping his bourbon with his face impassive and his eye’s loud.
Beth mirrored him, swirling the amber liquid as she memorized the red light flickering and reflecting off his cheek bones.
The cigar was simmering away between his fingers, filling the air with a thick sweet scent. Smoke swirled around and time seemed to move with it – twisting and twirling in a nonsensical slow wave.
“You’re staring.” She whispered.
“So are you.”
Moments slipped past. Their content silence punctured only by the sounds of patrons coming and going, the clangs and clashes from the kitchen.
Every so often, they'd make a small remark, question the other - but it was always soft and short lived as they allowed memories to pass silently between them. The light dancing off Rio's skin, smooth bourbon swelling in her chest, the smell of smoke, cologne and spice - what's that her grandma used to say? The devil always came good-lookin'?
Rio’s rasping voice broke through in a whisper.
“Come home with me.”
“Is that a good idea?”
He smirked, eyelids still heavy, and shook his head.
It still wasn’t a good idea when they hailed a cab.
Or when he pushed her up against his doorway, keys fumbling behind her back.
It wasn’t a good idea each time she popped a button open on his shirt with shaking, frantic hands.
And it certainly wasn’t when she closed her eyes under the weight of his arms, his steady breath on her neck.
Beth smiled to herself, feeling the cool air of his open bedroom window on her face, humming Bruce Springsteen softly under her breath.
She thought of all the stories she'd been told, about the right way to behave, the right choices - the Good Thing to do. The road to hell was paved with good intentions, and she was already in the dark. She'd already slipped down the slope, and landed on the wrong side of right.
What did she have to show for years of The Right Thing, marrying the Right Person? Maybe it was time to embrace this darkness, to live on her own terms, to dance a little.