Nicky walked down the hallway. Girls stared at her, pulled gum from their mouths, winding its pink flesh around slow, lazy fingers, leaning against lockers, following her with their eyes as she walked down the hallway. Boys stared at her, punched each other in the upper arm; they were jungle animals, they felt things in their groins, they stirred and barked and made kissy faces as she walked down the hallway.
Her face was thin and freckled. Her hair was sprayed sky high in the front, a wall of deep brown hair like a shield, like armor. Don’t fuck with me. She wore her stone-washed jeans tight, cuffs pegged, a pink plastic comb lodged in the back pocket. She wore high tops with the laces untied.
She, Nicky, did not chew gum. She smoked cigarettes on the corner during lunch. She sat in boys’ laps while they smoked. The boys had mullets and smoked Marlboro Reds and so she smoked them too. They borrowed her comb to comb back their hair. She pulled the pink plastic from her back pocket and reached it out to them; when they reached for it, she pulled it quickly away and laughed her hard, loud laugh, taking a drag from her Marlboro Red.
She wore the same shirt to school almost every day. I can remember it perfectly even now: black, a cross and five skulls, each skull with long hair, and banners, tattoo-like, above: “GUNS *N* ROSES”; below: “APPETITE FOR DESTRUCTION.”
Nicky was a legend.
“Do not fuck with Nicky,” said a gum-chewing girl, turning back to her locker to pull out her algebra book. They said she lived in a trailer park on the north side of town. They said she fought like a boy. She didn’t pull hair; she punched faces. I leaned into the lockers and watched her walk down the hallway.
I’m at work. It’s March. I work on the fifth floor of an anonymous building downtown, in a small cubicle where I mostly shuffle papers around a desk. There are numbers on the paper that blend together and fade into other numbers. I wear a suit to work, drab, gray, anonymous. Every day I bring a brown paper bag to work containing a yogurt (strawberry-banana) and peanut butter on wheat bread, eating it silently at my desk between the hours of noon and one.
Down the dim, beige hallway, I see a woman approaching. She has deep brown hair pulled back into a ponytail and held in place with hairspray, and a thin, freckled face; she’s wearing a tailored wool sports jacket over pants that fit her tightly. My co-workers watch her walk down the hallway. A woman twirls a phone code around a finger; a man punches another man in the arm.
She walks down the hallway, past me. She smells of Tom Ford’s Fucking Fabulous and cigarette smoke.
I follow her outside.
“Hi… Nicky?” She looks up. I can see her eyes, like the bluest skies. “We went to school together?” She straightens her jacket and tucks her hair casually behind her ear.
“Nicole,” she says. She pulls a pack of cigarettes out of her purse: Marlboro Lights, not Reds, I notice.
“We weren’t friends, but I remember you. You used to be really into Guns N’ Roses,” I shift in my suit; she doesn’t remember me.
She looks at me with a furrowed brow, clicks her lighter for the fifth time and the flame finally emerges; she holds it to her cigarette, inhales, then exhales a thick cloud of smoke into the graying air.
“Maybe you’d like to go for coffee sometime,” I suggest.
She remains silent.
“We don’t have to talk about the past.”
“Why the fuck would I care if we talked about the past or not?” she shoots back, glaring at me through a haze of smoke. She doesn’t pull hair; she punches faces.
I’m not offended by this. I look her in the eyes and see that she’s wavering, soft. She’s not really offended either. “Anyway, I just thought we could have coffee sometime.”
She doesn’t agree or disagree, she just smiles, so I leave it at that.
The girls’ bathroom is where they sprayed their hair. I could hear them talking. I was frozen inside of a cubicle, my knees tucked to my chest, holding my breath, playing a ghost. I could hear the hiss of the spray can; it sounded like Izzzzzzy.
“Axl Rose is from Indiana,” said Nicky. Indiana was just across the border, a line I knew they sometimes crossed late at night in shitty cars, smoking cigarettes with the windows rolled down. The border was invisible on country roads, sometimes barely felt when you hit a bump as you crossed the state line, where one road’s taxes were shittier. I knew this fact made her feel close to him. Like she could touch Axl Rose just by crossing that state line.
“Duh, they’re from LA,” said the other girl, punctuated by the hiss of a spray can going Duffffff. LA was foreign, with different vegetation, palm trees, bougainvillea. It was a mythical place; it involved plane flights and fantasies.
“Who gives a fuck about LA?” Nicky didn’t give a fuck about LA.
Nicky put on her headphones. Through the foam ear covers I could hear Axl howling “Because you’re crazy, hey hey, You’re fucking crazy, oh my, You know you’re crazy, oh child, I said you’re crazy, ay, ay, yeah.”
I wondered how crazy Nicky was. If she would really punch someone in the face. I imagined Nicky crossing state lines, kissing boys. I imagined Nicky in LA, walking down the Sunset Strip punching people in their faces. I pulled my knees closer to my chest. The spray can went Slashhhhhhh.
Two days later, I bump into Nicky outside again. She’s at the end of her cigarette, picking the skin around her thumbnails.
“Hey,” I say. “Coffee?”
She furrows her brow, slowly puts out her cigarette in the metal ashtray between us, and follows me.
Nicky lived in a trailer park on the north side of town. Her father worked in the porno industry and her mother was on heroin. She let guys do things to her in exchange for cigarettes. She didn’t pull hair; she punched faces.
No: Nicky lived in a small house on the north side of town. Her father worked at a warehouse and her mother was a night nurse. She kissed boys sometimes, but mostly she listened to Guns N’ Roses alone in her bedroom.
No: Nicole lives in an apartment on the north side of town. She works on the fifth floor of an anonymous building downtown, pushing paper with numbers on it.
No: Nicole lives in an apartment in Paradise City where the grass is green and the girls are pretty.
No: Nicole: Address unknown. Workplace unknown.
“Why are you so obsessed with getting coffee with me?” We’re sitting across from each other in a booth of one of those nostalgia diners. Neon runs along the ceiling, bright and glaringly turning our faces pink and blue. It’s strange to see her sitting here in front of me, real, in the flesh. A song plays quietly in the background: I see you standing, standing on your own, it’s such a lonely place for you, for you to be…
“I… used to want to be you. You were a total badass.”
“You thought I was a badass?” She gives a sort of half-smile at the idea. She pours another packet of sugar into her coffee and stirs it slowly.
“Everyone did. No one wanted to fuck with you.”
She looks up abruptly when I say the word “fuck.” I hear how it doesn’t sound right coming from my mouth. I’m wearing a suit. I belong in beige hallways. She sips her coffee, still staring at me. “So you just wanted to get coffee to tell me that people used to be afraid of me?”
“I don’t know… I…” I look down at her thumbs, the skin around the nail gnawed red. Without thinking, I nervously bring my thumb to my mouth. “I used to look for you on the internet, to see where you’d ended up. You’re impossible to find.”
She stops stirring. “Where… did you think I’d end up?”
“I just wanted to see who you turned out to be.” I think about you, honey, all the time… I think about you, darling you’re the only one.
“Look,” she pauses and leans in towards me, “I don’t know what this is, but I’m not the girl I was in high school, and even if I was…”
I twist my napkin around my finger.
She looks me right in the eyes. “Your version of me, whatever fantasy you came up with, it’s not me.” She leans back, finishes her coffee, slides a couple of dollars under the empty mug, and walks out the door without looking back.
“Did you hear about Nicky? She died in a house fire this summer.” “She got into a bar fight and now she’s in prison.” “You know that stripper bar? She works there.” “You remember Dave? She married him and they have like five kids.” “Did you hear about Nicky? You still don’t want to fuck with her.”
Open search window.
Results: A grainy picture of a girl in tight stonewashed jeans, head cocked to the side, wearing a Guns N’ Roses shirt.
I walk back to my cubicle. There are new papers on my desk with new numbers fading into other new numbers. I open a playlist on my work computer. I find the song I want and put the earbuds in my ear.
She’s got a smile that it seems to me
Reminds me of childhood memories
Where everything was as fresh as the bright blue sky
Now and then when I see her face
She takes me away to that special place
And if I stare too long, I might break down and cry
I open the brown paper bag, pull out the yogurt, peel back the foil lid, slip in my spoon, and take a slow bite. I open a new tab and search her name. Nothing comes up. It’s as if she doesn’t exist. I search again.
Nicky. Refresh. No results. Nicky. Refresh. No results. Nicole. Refresh. No results. Nicky.