Like a Lunar Rainbow
I met her walking home from the bar where I worked. She had long, shiny red hair and bright green eyes. She sat on the corner of the street, gently strumming her acoustic guitar and vocalizing quietly. Many had gathered to listen to the professional-sounding improvised tune, including me.
The music seemed to change feelings--first it was a nonchalant bored-sounding melody, then it suddenly got faster. From the fast tempo went to a melancholy slow one, changing pitch all the while. One of the men that had been listening for about five minutes checked his watch and then dropped a bill into the case. The music stopped, and the red-haired girl looked up at him.
"Sir," she called, standing up and snatching the bill. "Sir, I can't take your money."
"Oh, no, please keep it. You were doing a wonderful job." He replied with a smile, pushing the bill into her palm. He glanced at his watch again. "I wish you luck."
And with that he walked off.
The girl stood there for a moment, staring down at the bill. She turned back to the case which she had left sitting on the ground. "Sir..." she murmured. The crowd dissipated, but I remained. I approached her quietly.
"That was beautiful."
She jumped at the sound of my voice. "Th-thank you," she said, looking up. "I've been practicing." The red-haired girl looked at the bill, and I sneaked a peek at it. It was $20.
"I can't keep it. I don't deserve it." She said, clenching her hand and the dollar with it. I put my hand on her shoulder. "Come on. You do so deserve it. He wanted you to keep it; he didn't take it back. You should be happy!" She smiled slightly. "I'm Niobe." I raised my eyebrows. That's a...bizarre name, I thought. I wonder if she's foreign. "Well, Niobe, I'm Lolita. It's nice to meet you." I stuck out my hand and she shook it. I paused, not knowing what to do next. Niobe released my hand and began to load her guitar back into its case.
"I should be getting home," I announced. "I have some business to tend to." Niobe nodded and slung the case over her shoulder. "I'll be seeing you...Lolita." she said in a whisper, though putting an emphasis on my name. The heels of her shoes clicked on the cobblestone pathway. What a queer girl.
The door to my apartment room shut with a slam, although I hadn't pushed it very hard. "I'm home," I whispered to no one. I had lied to Niobe about my "business". The situation was so awkward, I was willing to say anything to get out of it.
But the strangest thing was, Niobe never made a comment about my hair--or rather, my lack of it. My head was completely shaven, and many people pointed and stared. Quite a few asked me if I was a cancer patient. I always smiled politely and shook my head, saying that it was my own choice to become a skinhead. I learned to ignore their stares and whispers. I learned to ignore the wind on autumn days.
But no matter how uncomfortable I was, I refused to wear a wig or let it grow back. Actually, I loved and craved the attention I got from my baldness. I don't think I ever want to blend in again.
I dropped my bags onto an armchair and sank into my sofa. I rested my head on the armrest and opened and closed my eyes sleepily. I knew I couldn't fall asleep in the middle of the day, but I usually end up conking out anyway.
Niobe invaded my sleepy thoughts. Her beautiful red locks were gleaming in the light like the sun itself. She smiled brightly when she turned toward me and chirped "Miss Lolita." And I couldn't help smiling myself. "Niobe." I returned her greeting. She smiled even wider. "Miss Lolita..." she whispered, drawing out the last syllable. She leaned forward...
My dreams melted away when there was a sharp rapping at my door. "Miss Owens! Miss Owens!" called a voice. I groggily dragged my feet to the door, peeking through the peephole. It was the manager of the apartment complex. "Miss Owens! Your rent is late!" I mumbled angrily. "How much do I owe, again?" I called through the door. "$712." He answered. I grumbled again and fetched my checkbook.
I hurriedly scribbled out the check, opened the door, and handed it to my landlord. He gladly accepted it. He was a scrawny young man, with a buzz cut and thick glasses. His nose was always pinched up as if he was smelling something rotten and his skin was the color of mayonnaise. "Thanks," he said quickly, then turned on his heel and left.
I slammed the door and went back to the couch, but I was wide awake now. I grumbled once more and stared at the empty room. Nothing covered the walls; I had no television, no radio, no nothing. The only way I kept up with the news was using fifty cents of my small paycheck to buy myself a newspaper every Sunday, which sat on my counter for days before I actually bothered to read it. I sighed. My life wasn't as wonderful as it used to be.
After a day of waiting on rude, drunk men who insisted on pinching my buttocks every time I walked by, I headed back to the street corner where Niobe had performed, hoping to see her again.
The corner was as empty as a desert. What a waste of time, I thought reproachfully. I really wanted to see this Niobe again.
"Hello," said a familiar voice. I spun around, only to see Niobe's smiling, freckled face, shining green eyes, and glossy red hair. "I thought I'd meet you here again." I noticed she had her acoustic guitar strapped on her back. "Hello, Niobe. Do you plan on playing again today?"
"Nope." She smiled warmly and I stared blankly at her. "Then why are you carrying your guitar?"
"Do I need a reason?"
I chewed my lip thoughtfully for a moment, and then replied, "Well, you must think it looks a bit silly to walk around with a guitar case on your back."
"Don't you think walking around with a shaved head looks "a bit silly"?"
She had me there. I sighed and she grinned mischievously.
"Want to go get some coffee or something?" Niobe asked suddenly. I looked at her. "Uh, sure, why not?" She smiled even wider and chirped "Great! I know a wonderful place just up the street!" Niobe took my hand in hers and led me away. This is so strange, I thought. Niobe seemed like a quiet, shy girl who performed on street corners for extra cash. But now she's an energetic pixie, leading me away to a coffee shop.
"Lolita, we're here." Announced the pixie-girl, pointing up to a petite, stone building with a sign that read "Hava Java". I raised my eyebrow, confused at the new name. Niobe took note of my confusion and explained, "It's a small, family-owned coffee shop. I like it better than the rest of those corporate businesses." She led me inside. The strong scent of coffee beans filled our noses.
The young woman, now looking as excited as a small child in a candy store, ran to the front counter. "Hello, Linda! Me and my friend want two cappuccinos!" she informed gleefully, holding up her index and middle finger. Linda, an old, plump woman, smiled at Niobe's energy. "Right away, dear. You and your friend just go sit down and I'll call you when it's ready, okay?" Niobe gave her a nod and grabbed my hand once more to lead me to a table.
"I love this place," she said, pulling out a lawn chair from plastic table. "It's so nice and peaceful." I looked around. Plants of all sorts decorated the room; tulips, roses, posies, and all sorts of trees with leaves so glossy they looked false. The walls were painted yellow with white stripes each about fourteen centimeters thick. Linda and another younger woman worked behind the counter. I could hear quiet classical music--Mozart, I think.
"Do you like it here, Miss Lolita?" Niobe's sugary-sweet, soft, gentle voice made me jump. I managed a weak smile. "It's...nice." I answered. She smiled. "I think so, too."
"Girls, your cappuccinos are ready." Announced Linda, holding up two milky-white ceramic mugs. Niobe hopped up to fetch the coffees. I exhaled and leaned against the wall. The music and the strong scent of coffee and flower petals were relaxing.
"Hey," Niobe's voice startled me and I looked up at her. She had a steaming mug in each hand. "No sleeping. We're going to talk, remember?" She gently sat down, still holding the cups. She slid one over to me. I don't remember her saying anything about talking, but okay. "Talk about what?" I inquired. She smiled and brought the cappuccino to her lips. "It smells so good, the coffee does." She sipped it, licked her lips, and set the mug down again. She stared straight into my eyes, as if examining my very insides. "T-talk about what, Niobe?" I repeated.
"Tell me about your work."
I looked at her as if to ask why, but she only smiled wider, closing her eyes and cocking her head ever so slightly to the left. She was acting like a little girl for some reason; perhaps she thought it was cute.
Damn it, it was.
"I-I'm a waitress for Paul's 24-Hour Sports Bar." I stated, drinking my coffee as well. My eyes narrowed a bit. "I hate it there. The management makes me wear this tiny little skirt so that when I bend over, all the men there see my panties. They hoot and holler, grab my butt, and never leave me alone. Constantly hitting on me." I paused to take another drink. "A bunch of pigs, all of them." I muttered bitterly. I looked up at Niobe, who was grinning wider than ever. "Why don't you wear hose? Why don't you quit?" she questioned. "Because I have none; because I can't keep mooching off my father. I've already taken enough from him...He practically pays my rent for me every month. Rather unwillingly, might I add."
Niobe ran her finger around the rim of her mug. "Oh," she said quietly. We sat in a pregnant silence, drinking slowly, examining the walls. Niobe looked up at the ceiling. "Hey," Niobe began. "Why do the guys hit on you so much if you're...Ah..."
I shrugged. "I don't like to, but to get more tips, I wear a wig. And tons of makeup. If you ask me, I'm at my sluttiest before I leave that horrid place." Niobe nodded, and traced the rim of her cup again. "Why do you dress up like that if you hate the way they treat you?" Niobe asked. This girl has so many questions, but I don't blame her. I don't usually explain anything unless someone prompts me to. "I need the money. The rent for my apartment is $712 a month. $712 for that crappy place. Not to mention food and junk."
"Hm. Okay. Now you ask me something, 'kay?"
I sighed, thinking of which question to ask first, or if I should let them all spill out of my mouth at once. "Is Niobe your real name?" I decided, asking a simple question at first. "Yep. Silly, did you think it was a penname or something?" She laughed a bit.
"Okay...So, how old are you?"
"What would you say if I said eighteen?"
"I'd say, what a coincidence, I am as well."
Niobe flashed me her teeth and chirped, "Eighteen." I snorted, holding back laughter. "What a coincidence, I am as well." Niobe reached out and gave my hand a squeeze. My grin faded and I stared down at out linked hands. "Oh," she mumbled and let go of my hand. "I-I'm sorry, Miss Lolita." Niobe blushed and finished her cappuccino. "Sorry." She repeated. I blinked. "Quite all right."
"Okay. Umm, where do you live?"
"Here. Well, downtown."
I squeezed my eyes shut in frustration. I couldn't get any conversation out of my questions! Maybe I'm just too talkative. "What do you do for a living?" I demanded suddenly. Niobe tapped her lips thoughtfully. "Nothing,"
"Nothing specific. I do a lot; volunteer, tutor children, take classes, maybe teach a class. I don't have a permanent job."
I furrowed my brow. "Don't you parents, like, yell at you? Tell you to get a real job?" Niobe smiled. "Nope! They like what I do. Maybe they're envious that I like what I do; going from job to job to school to job." She laughed. "I really hate being stuck in one place; repetitive stuff. I move a lot." She closed her eyes and leaned back. "I never leave the state though. I love the city. So many people. So much noise. So much life! Don't you love it here? I mean, sometimes terrible things happen; shootings, gang wars, blah blah blah, but it's wonderful here."
"I never knew someone could be so, so passionate about this place." I said. She sat back up. "Where do you want to go now, Miss Lolita?" I raised my eyebrow at the sudden change of subject. "I don't know. Let's see your place," I suggested. "Ooh, that'd be great! Let's take a taxi!" I smiled at her childish enthusiasm. Niobe again grabbed my hand and led me out the door. "Taxi! Taxi!" she called, cupping her free hand around her mouth.
When a taxi finally pulled over, the driver asked "Where to, girls?" in a thick accent. "54th street, please, sir!" I stepped in and Niobe scooted over. "You live on 54th street? What a place." Niobe grinned, flashing her almost flawless teeth. Their pure, ivory color made me a bit ashamed of my yellowing ones. "Thank you. If you don't mind, my mother's visiting. 'Kay?" I nodded. "It's fine. I should like to meet her. Does she have your red hair?" Niobe nodded enthusiastically. "Yup-yup! But my dad's the one with the eyes." I smiled again at her, then turned to look out the windows. So many lights, so many sounds. It's almost like Las Vegas, except without the casinos and such.
"What'cha lookin' at?"
"The cars? Why?"
I paused. Why was I looking at them? Why couldn't I just look at Niobe?
"I-I dunno...I...It's what I always do."
I heard her snort softly, as if she didn't buy my story. I couldn't blame her; I stammered and hesitated too much.
"Yes, Miss Lolita?"
"Why did you act so shy before? When I first saw you; when you played for the crowd."
"Hmm. I was surprised then. I've never been paid for playing. Really, I don't want to be paid. Especially not that much. $20 is a lot for a tip, you know. I don't even play so good! They all just think I do..." Her voice got soft and sorrowful during the last sentence. Maybe she has an inferiority complex, I mused.
"You play wonderfully! Don't say that about yourself! I..." Before I continued with my compliments, I saw the driver looking at us in the rearview mirror. "Miss? We're here." He informed us, pointing at the street sign which, sure enough, read "54th street". "Oh," we said in unison. "$53.95, please," said the cabby with a cough. "Right," Niobe took out her wallet and pullet out three bills, nine dimes, and a nickel. "Here. Thanks for the ride, sir." She and I climbed out and the cab sped away.
"We'll have to walk the rest of the way there. Sorry. It's not far, though." Niobe swiveled her head around and around, looking for the right way to go. "Aha!" she cried, pointing to the left. "This-a way!" And with that Niobe was off. I followed her, making sure to stay right behind so I wouldn't get lost. I didn't know where I was.
"Here we are, Miss Lolita! My house!" It was a beautiful, old-fashioned red-brick building with the number 528 on it in silvery number plates. The door was wooden and had an iron knob with the keyhole right above it. Niobe dug around in her two front pockets to find her key, a simple-looking golden one. She stuck the key in the lock and attempted to twist it one way, then the other. Niobe withdrew her key, turned it around, and inserted it again. The lock clicked. The inside of the house was as beautiful as the outside was. It was simple and elegant with family pictures decorating the lavender-painted walls, faux plants scattered about in a random yet somehow organized manner, and spotless white chairs, sofas, and love-seats.
"Mom! Mom, we're home." Niobe called to her mother, who must have been somewhere close. An old woman, probably in her mid-fifties, with greying red hair and a wrinkled face poked her head out of a door, looking at Niobe and I. Niobe grinned widely and waved. "Bebe! You're home!" She shouted, bursting out of the room she seemed to be hiding in, wrapping her skinny little arms around Niobe's neck. I smiled at their relationship, so happy and seemingly-perfect. "Oh, and you brought a friend! Hello, dear, I'm Mrs. McGuirk, but just call me Gladys." She released her daughter and heartily shook my hand. Niobe leaned over to whisper in my ear, "She's just a wee bit eccentric." I nodded my head and mouthed "Oh."
Mrs. McGuirk hugged her daughter again and looked me over from head to toe, even though she was pumping my arm up and down happily just a second ago. "Bebe, dear, who is this?" she demanded. "She's Lolita, Mother." Mrs. McGuirk stared at my head, obviously realizing the fact I was a skinhead. "Dear, she's bald," I'm so flattered you noticed, Gladys, I thought sarcastically. "Well, that's okay, I don't mind." Niobe stated
"Young women are not supposed to be bald,"
"Why is she bald? Tell me right now, Niobe."
My face reddened as I tried not to shake the woman by the shoulders and scream at her; It doesn't matter, it doesn't matter. "Be-because she wants to be. She never told me exactly why." I wondered if Mrs. McGuirk thought I was the devil and wouldn't ask me herself.
"Ma'am, I'm bald because it's a side-effect of the meds they gave me when I had cancer," I lied, thinking I might get a shred of sympathy from this old hag if she thought I survived a lethal disease.
Apparently, it worked. The old woman's face softened and she patted my shoulder benevolently. "I'm so sorry, Lolita, was it?" I nodded and she continued; "I didn't know."
"It's quite all right, Ma'am. Not a lot of folk do." Niobe elbowed me in the stomach and whispered harshly, "You don't have cancer! Don't lie." I pushed her arm away and replied in the same tone,
"It's fine, just a little lie."
"You told her you had cancer! That's not a "little lie", Miss Lolita!"
Gladys raised her eyebrow at our angry whispering and we smiled back at her. Niobe wiggled her fingers in a kind of wave. "That is not something to lie about." I snorted. "It's fine, Niobe, fine." Niobe stuck her bottom lip out just slightly and scowled, like a little girl arguing on the playground. I rolled my eyes and looked back at Gladys, who somehow had gained a fluffy little feather duster and was dusting a few family portraits.
"Mother, do you mind if Miss Lolita stays for dinner?" Niobe asked suddenly. "Oh, sure, dear. It's all right with me." Mrs. McGuirk said airily, as if not paying attention to anything Niobe said at all.
Dinner with Gladys and Niobe? Oy vey, what a night this'll be.