Lola Spencer had the sort of breasts that define a woman; they were big and she was small; they were gorgeous perfect things, pink-nippled, shaped like cantaloupes, firm and white. The rest of her seemed to exist to accentuate her breasts; her hips were narrow, her waist a tiny circle, her little pale legs ended in feet not much bigger than a child’s. Her head was small and heart shaped, her features pale and slightly receding. It’s as though every other part of her got out of the way to make way for her breasts. Yes, Lola’s breasts were the sort of breasts that made a girl feel special, feel as if she were not destined for an ordinary life. So when she dropped out of high school at the age of sixteen and took a bus from Detroit to New York City, she had high hopes. Vague hopes, but high hopes.
It was 1986 and it was the end of June. New York was a shithole; the filthy stink of summer had begun to descend and crack addicts or frightening men in suits alternately ruled vast parts of the city, depending on where you were. When Lola got off the bus at Port Authority, she grabbed her duffel bag and her fake white patent leather purse that she’d held primly in her lap the whole ride, and with these two worldly possessions, she snaked her way through the dark tunnels until she managed to take an escalator up to the street. The sun slapped her face with a hot hand, and the air was rich with the stink of urine and car exhaust. She blinked and froze, momentarily. Large people, big people, loud people, people towering over tiny Lola—were walking and screaming and going in every direction. Blindly, she marched forward. She had the address for a YWCA, but she also had other ideas. Vague ideas, but ideas nonetheless.
In her white fake patent leather purse—a clutch—she had five hundred dollars. She’d made the money quickly, working the drive-through at a McDonald’s in Detroit, where her enormous chest strained against the polyester shirt of her uniform. Occasionally, she popped a button, and the white lace of her cheap bra would spill forth. There had been an older gentleman who came every morning for an Egg McMuffin. He drove a beige Cadillac and when his window rolled down with the touch of a button, the smell of leather and cologne wafted up to Lola. It was the best smell Lola had ever smelled. It smelled of money, of course, but of something else, too. He thanked her solemnly and gave her a dollar tip. And in those two words—“thank you” —and in his dark eyes and dark skin and hair, she sniffed something very exotic, very foreign. The dollar tip turned to five and soon enough, she couldn’t wait to hear his voice in the telecom, asking gruffly for an Egg McMuffin. She’d unbutton her uniform just a little, and she’d wet her thin lips. The months went on and at Christmas he said his thank you, his voice thick with appreciation, and gave her two one hundred dollar bills. She never saw him again, but by June, yes, she had five hundred dollars in her purse and was on her way.
As luck would have it, Lola just so happened to march downtown as she marched away from Port Authority. Her little feet were encased in tight, strappy sandals with four inch heels, her infantile toenails were painted a cherry red. She marched and marched. A man stopped and watched her walk by. A few blocks later, another man yelled something in Spanish at her. Lola, a brave soldier, went onward. A few more blocks later, an overweight man sitting on a beach chair in his doorway said, “Nice tits.” Yes, she was special. She’d been special in Detroit, at her high school. The looks, the lewd comments, the occasional grabbing. But what good was that, being special at John Adams High School in a run down section of Detroit? She was in New York City. She’d come to the right place.
Her feet began to die on her. The sun had begun to set, the cement everywhere turned a cooler shade of gray. She marched forward, more slowly now, but there was blood on her feet and her arm ached from carrying her duffel. How long had she been walking? At one point, she turned left, and she found herself surrounded by the sort of people she always imagined she should be surrounded by. Skinny guys with spikey hair and bad pockmarks, weighed down by the metal in their belts. Girls with breasts like hers, tightly encased in tank tops, their dyed red hair the color of a clown’s nose. The make-up! The cigarettes! She was in the east village, but she didn’t know that yet. What she did know was that she was going to cry if she had to keep walking and cry she did not want to do. No, not Lola. She was tough. She wasn’t going to cry just because her feet were bleeding.
On the corner of Second Street and Second Avenue was a small bar. Lola liked it immediately; she liked small things, being small herself—well, for the most part. She went in and sat on a barstool, dropping her duffel bag to the dirty ground, her white clutch in her hands.
“What can I getcha?” said a muscular, dark-haired girl.
“I’ll have a peppermint schnapps, please.” This had often been the drink of choice when cruising the strip in Detroit.
The girl raised her eyebrow, literally. Lola noticed it was a very thick eyebrow, thick as a cigar.
“How ‘bout a bourbon?” Then she leaned forward and whispered, “I’m helping you out here. You can’t drink peppermint schnapps.”
Lola sat up a little straighter. “A bourbon, then.”
It was a welcome burn and Lola quickly had two more. Her feet were feeling better already. Men came into the bar. Women, too. Occasionally, Lola waved at someone, but nothing seemed to happen as she thought it would. Four more bourbons later, the bartender had taken her upstairs to where she lived and laid her out on her futon couch. Lola had never seen a futon. She immediately threw up, but the bartender handled it well.
The next morning, Rebecca, the bartender, made some tea and toast.
“Where you from?”
“Detroit. Thanks for the tea.”
“You can stay here until you find a place.” Lola sat up.
“You know, I’m not hungover.”
“Great.” Rebecca got down on the floor and started doing sit-ups. “But if you keep waving hello to strangers like you did last night, you’ll be dead before you’re ever hungover.”
“Strangers are all I have here. You’re a stranger.”
“You’re not in Kansas anymore, Lola.”
“Detroit ain’t in Kansas.”
“You know what I mean.”
Lola thought for a minute. “No, I don’t.”
Rebecca was silent, finishing her sit-ups. When she did get up she went to Lola on the futon, and held her face gently in her hands. “You don’t know what I mean, do you?”
“That’s right. I don’t know what you mean.”
Rebecca kissed her gently and Lola felt a fluttering. She’d had a boyfriend briefly in high school. But this felt different. Rebecca picked up Lola’s swollen, blood stained feet and began to lick them. This went on for a surprisingly long time, until Lola began to get very, very sleepy. Then Rebecca took off Lola’s shirt and pulled down her bra, leaving it hanging there awkwardly, around the bottom of her breasts. “Damn,” Rebecca said, and then she was lost in them. Lola leaned back, and let the fluttering feeling go on.
Lola worked Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights and Rebecca worked the rest. It had been easy to get Tom, the other bartender, fired; he was rude, stole from the register and drank a bottle of vodka a night.
The first thing Lola did was buy a pair of sneakers, but this proved too painfully realistic; she didn’t look like a lot of the other East Village hipsters who wore high tops, she just looked like she was five with huge breasts. So she found a pair of boots with a nice sized heel on them and that did the trick.
Mondays and Tuesdays she made about two hundred dollars. Wednesday were better. That first day she walked from Port Authority, when she felt she’d brought her breasts to the right place, had faded to quaint memory in little over a month’s time. She was glad to be where she was, but she was surprised she wasn’t getting bigger tips, better offers. Men had looked, men gave her money, one even offered her a job to dance naked at a dive in Tribeca. But nothing felt right. Nothing had felt right since the day Rebecca took her in, and she was getting restless. Lola appreciated Rebecca, very much. But she knew it wasn’t forever.
Four weeks into the job and it was heading toward August, the July heat giving way to a numbing, stifling weather and filth that was, well, August. The bar had no air-conditioner and the two fans whirred on in astonishingly loud fashion. Lola tied her pale hair back in a ponytail; otherwise, it whipped around and stuck to her face. Clear tear drops of sweat dripped into her cleavage. It was Wednesday; the beginning of her shift, but her mind was already on the night being over. She’d have four days off to read magazines and shop. She’d clean up, too, which Rebecca liked her to do.
“What do you have on draft?” He said and she stood up right away, as if she were in the military and he’d just barked an order.
He sat and drank and looked at her breasts.
“Wipe that lipstick off you face.”
Lola took a white bar napkin from the neat pile she’d just made and rubbed at her mouth.
His name was Christopher. He was six foot three and thin. He had black hair and black eyes and a tattoo of a dragon on one forearm and the name “Marcy” tattooed on the other. His father was in jail and he was grumpy about this. He had a motorcycle and he smoked filterless Pall Malls. He took her home that night and it hurt, but it was the right thing to do, she knew. She woke up the next morning in an apartment very much like the one she shared with Rebecca, and only a few blocks away, but she her life had changed forever.
He left that day, without saying where he was going. She got to work cleaning up his place. It wasn’t too much work—he didn’t have much there to clean. When he got back around four, he did it to her again, but this time it felt good. Not as good as Rebecca, but it didn’t matter. She was his now and that’s the way she wanted it.
Lola sat next to him on the couch as they both held bowls of canned raviolis on their laps, and let her knees gently touch his.
“We’re going to rob that bar you work at. Tonight.”
Lola thought for a minute. The only thing she could think was, “Rebecca’s working tonight.”
“Who fucking cares? You got the keys, right?”
“Well than we’ll have to do it before she closes.”
They drank on Avenue B. Occasionally, he leaned into her and she thought that he smelled a lot like that man in the Cadillac, the man who made her move possible, the man who helped fuel her dreams. Where was he now? Driving into his driveway in Grosse Pointe, or some other posh Detroit suburb. Going home to a family? A wife who loved him? College aged children with futures? The music in the bar was loud. The air conditioning felt great; Lola’s nipples hardened up into little hard puckers of kisses. She leaned against the bar and arched her back a bit. Yes, Christopher had that smell, the smell of a man, the smell of something exotic, foreign. It was destiny she told herself, it was out of her control, just like the size of her breasts.
It was nearing four AM and the bar was closing. It was only four blocks away. Four blocks, and everything would change. She’d have that future she always dreamed about.
Lola skipped along behind him, trying to catch up with his long strides. She was wearing her boots, but it still wasn’t easy keeping up with him. But she liked the view from behind, yes. His filthy black jeans, the nunchucks sticking brazenly out of his back pocket. The way he stooped over. Did he have a gun? She doubted it. It was all about his hands, his large, hairless hands. A few feet from the bar, a black man, a seemingly homeless man, white spittle around the corners of his mouth, the stench of rot coming from his body, a tiny little crack vial in his hand, tried to stop Christopher.
“Man, man, can you spare some change, I’m hungry, man…”
They were seconds from the bar. The lights were out. For a moment, it was as if New York had gone dark, and the only thing glowing were the white of the black man’s eyes. Lola saw Rebecca pulling the gate down, but she hadn’t locked it yet, no, not yet. Christopher was a bit ahead now, she scurried to catch up. She saw the nunchucks come out of his pocket and for a moment, she wasn’t the woman she thought she was. She was afraid. She looked away, in fact, she looked down, and she saw that she, too, was glowing, her pale breasts glowing, and with a little effort she could hide her face in that whiteness, with just a little effort from her arms, she could close herself up in all her luck, in all that beauty.
Paula Bomer is the author of Inside Madeleine, called “riveting” in the Paris Review blog, the novel Nine Months, of which library journal said “Mommy lit lovers will be horrified” and the collection, Baby and other Stories (Word Riot Press), which received a starred review in Publishers Weekly and O Magazine called a “brilliant, brutally raw debut.” She grew up in South Bend, Indiana and now lives in New York. Find out more about her at http://www.paulabomer.com.
“Breasts” originally appeared in Everyday Genius.
The novella, Inside Madeleine, originally appeared in the Long issue (TLR Fall 2012).