WOMEN WHO DRINK AND SMOKE

A short story by Angelina Wong

        It is just past four o’clock in the morning. A woman lies on the bloodstained covers of a rich man’s bed, her flesh against his. Looking on, one might mistake the cigarette ashes on the bed sheets for dust. A piece of shattered glass from a vodka bottle digs into her hip, making fresh wounds where there are already long lines of dried blood. The night before, she gave up her last ounce of pride and traded it for what the man likes to call “pennies on the dollar”. Now, she thinks, I have lost all face.

        Half a block away, a woman chuckles to herself. She sits in the basement of her cousin’s apartment, mulling over a table of unpaid bills and unfiled taxes. A paper bag from the next-door grocery store is spread out beneath her feet, giving them the warmth of about a torn sock, had she been able to afford a pair. She peers over the calendar on the table, store-bought glasses falling off the bridge of her nose, a cigarette dangling from her lips, a bottle of ginger ale within hand’s reach, a red pen in hand, threatening to make a mark any moment now. We'll have to cut a hundred bucks from your daily meals, she tells herself. And save up those food stamps, 'cause we're gonna be needing them next month.

A city away, a woman laughs. A month ago, she had quit college to live under the wing of a man twice her age. Now she sits in a cafe, revising the manuscript for a screenplay that no agent has not rejected. An ashtray sits beside a candle on the table, and her hand is circled around a cup of vanilla latte. She is saving the booze for the dinner with her guardian tonight. You should head home to get ready now. We want to make sure he’s completely satisfied with you.

Far, far away, a woman bursts into a fit of laughter. She is at the tennis court watching a friend prepare for the Queen’s Club while she herself sits under an umbrella, sipping champagne in the shade, conversing with another politician’s wife. True, it is a bit early in the evening for a drink so fine, but she has not a care, for her husband is the mayor of the town, and thus owns all the town’s bottles of champagne. A splash. A stone’s throw away, the wife’s son dives into the deep end of a clear blue pool. The woman continues to smoke her cigarette, stopping only to whisper a joke to her fake friend.

That same night, the first woman lies again in a bed. This time, it is not in the bed of an indulgent man’s home that she lies, but in the district hospital. An hour ago, the doctor told her that she had been “diagnosed with a terminal illness”. Even through her haze, his words were clear. I’m going to die.

A week later, the second woman is in an alleyway behind a Chinese restaurant. Her face is buried deep into a dumpster. Her nose touches a piece of broccoli, and she drools. The last time food tasted this good was when I lived with my parents.

In another month, the third woman is out on the doorsteps of her guardian’s apartment, a duffel bag in hand. Earlier that morning, she made the mistake of raising her voice at him. Now she must find another man generous enough to house her for a single night. Good luck with your writing career now.
        
A year passes, and the fourth woman sits in a lounge-chair at a beach resort half a world away. Later that evening, she will be attending an event in celebration of her husband’s nomination for congressman of his state. She looks out to the green waves, a cocktail at her lips, a cigarette at her fingertips—and she smiles.