If There Is No What

Ruth Blank

I just light up a cigarette. It’s a "no smoking" floor and there are no ashtrays and Meg hates cigarette smoke. If she smells it, she’ll complain to Mom and Dad, and Dad will start with smoking and then run down the list of all of the things I do wrong. Of course, “not speaking to your sister” will be on the list, but “not reading” won’t, because it’s too much for him to have a junior that doesn’t read, that might never read, that might be signing his name with an "X" forever. He pretty much subscribes to the notion that if it’s not talked about, it doesn’t exist.

I'm lying down with a soap dish on my stomach, and smoking a Rothman's.

There's a Sesame Street style show on TV that’s working on the alphabet. They’re focusing on the letter “w.” I hear them sounding it out, “double-u,” and I see the shape that’s on the screen, but I can’t hold onto it. They're going through a whole list of “w” words. Who, what, when, where, why. Wolf. Watch. Word. Well well well. Maybe instead of spending three so-called hours a week with you I should just watch Sesame Street.

Mom just called, "We’re going to Bar Boulud for dinner. Wear your sport coat.” I hate going to fancy places because Dad takes it personally when the service is slow. So many times he’s blown up in a way so the whole restaurant hears him and everyone looks at Meggie and me with pity as we follow him out of the restaurant. It makes the food hard to digest.

*  *  *
I met Mom and Dad in the lobby. Meggie wore new clothes, a short red dress and pointy-toed boots. She must have gone shopping and changed in their room. We took a cab to the restaurant which is so fancy that it’s casual—no tablecloths, an open kitchen, good-looking servers and bussers wearing some kind of designer t-shirts and tight black pants.

We just ordered. I’m standing outside again and it’s freezing. There are a bunch of Italians at the next table and one of the guys has been staring at Meggie and then saying things to the guy sitting next to him. Over and over he uses the word pissona or bissona—I can just imagine what it means—while he’s looking at her and I’m ready to punch him. But I see that Meggie’s kind of smiling at him. Mom and Dad are halfway through their evening drinking cycle and they’re very amused that Meggie is flirting with some Italian guys. They think it makes them sophisticated. I want to go back to the hotel and get away from all of them but I have oysters coming and then some tuna thing that I knew they have because I saw them bring it out for someone when we first walked in.

Now two of the Italian guys come out to smoke. They’re tall and way too old for Meggie. One of them is wearing a blue and yellow-striped shirt with the cuffs rolled up to show off his hairy forearms. The other one is wearing a grey sweater buttoned up that on me would look feminine but on him looks cool, of course. They’re talking loud and laughing and I wouldn’t be surprised if Mom and Dad let Meggie go off with them, even though they look like professional soccer players who probably have four or five girls a night.

*  *  *
I’m sitting on the steps of the cupid statue in Piccadilly Circus. There are pigeons everywhere. I found one of the few spots where I could rest my ass so it wouldn’t be in pigeon shit. There are pictures being taken everywhere even though it’s the middle of the night. It’s pretty bright because of the billboards. I can’t read, but I recognize a bottle of coke on one of them. I recognize the McDonald’s arch. I can’t read, but I’m not spared the obnoxious ads that pollute Piccadilly. I’m in a lot of the tourists' pictures. A year from now, when that Japanese couple or the African kids look at their London trip pictures, they’ll see a guy—me—talking into a phone-like thing and looking right at their camera, blowing smoke at them, and definitely not smiling.

As it turned out, the Italian guys from the restaurant actually were soccer players, though not for one of the big teams. They introduced themselves and asked if Meggie would like to join them to go dancing. Their English was really good. The taller guy said to Mom, “of course we would love you to go, too” and she was as flattered as he wanted her to be, then said it would be OK for Meggie to go as long as I went with her. Meggie actually looked at me for the first time in a long time and didn’t say anything. I think she was figuring out whether going with these guys was worth having to be in the same place as me for a whole evening.

I said OK as though I was doing her a favor. The truth is I wondered where you go in London to loosen up, not that I like to dance but I like to see where girls go and you don’t find that out by reading the guide in the hotel room.

Four of us got in a cab: Paolo, Bruno, Meggie, and I. I sat in the little fold down seat and faced the three of them. Paolo and Bruno looked like grown men and Meggie looked small between them and I think she looked a little nervous. I could smell the cigarette smoke on the two guys and wondered if that would turn Meggie off enough to ditch them.

Paolo gave the driver an address and then began talking to Meggie. I doubt he knew she was just fifteen.

“Where are you from?”


“Ah. Allen Iverson.”


“Do you know him?”

“I’ve never met him.”

“You’re very pretty.”

I wanted the ride to end in a hurry but there was a lot of traffic. The two guys spoke to each other in Italian.

“Your sister has many boyfriends?” Bruno asked me.

“You’ll have to ask her.”

They laughed as though I had said something funny. In a foreign language, it’s harder to detect anger and disgust, so they missed it from me.

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