End Pose by LB Johnston
“Not those,” I told my housemate Reagan, and snatched the pack of cigarettes away.
“They’ve been in the same place since summer. They’re menthols. Grandma cigarettes.”
“They’re her favorite. What if she comes by?”
Reagan paused at the kitchen counter to find her keys in the jumble of things that land there as we walk in the front door. “If she comes by,” Reagan said in a tone which implied the unlikeliness of the scenario, “then she can smoke her own damn cigarettes, or she can drive to the store and buy some like I’m about to do, if you won’t give me those.”
Reagan didn’t know Lake the way I did, though, or the intricacies of the chess game that was our form of communication. If she dropped by — if — then I needed the cigarettes to still be here, otherwise it would be her excuse to leave. My luck, it’d be the one time she really didn’t have a pack. Gotta go buy some cigarettes, she said as a way to get out of any situation, the rectangular bulge in her back pocket undermining the validity of her words. We started calling it “The Lake Exit” and it became one of those scene things that the other dykes borrow and circulate, so you’d go to a party at Paisley’s Downtown and as the night started to die, the femmes getting a little too drunk and needy, four soft butches in a row would adjust their snapbacks and say they had to go buy cigarettes and you knew none of them smoked. Lake alone smoked constantly, her sexy rasp the proof, and she was the one they were all imitating back then so they’d carry around their packs and pretend to be hard. Mostly they just kept them at the ready to offer pretty girls, that and matchbooks, because it felt more dangerous than lighters.
I heard Reagan’s car start, and I tucked the pack of cigarettes back into their nook in the kitchen, the little slot where the stove met the wall. Lake stashed them there because she couldn’t keep up with lighters — or matches — so she’d lean down to the burner then hold her exhale until she opened the front door.
I met Reagan the day we moved in together. She was desperate for lower rent; I was just desperate. I saw a handwritten note on the board at the community center where I took yoga classes that my mother had signed me up for. The note said ROOMMATE WANTED FOR LAW STUDENT GIRL, pinned next to a pamphlet announcing eternal damnation. When I called the number, an energetic voice told me to meet at the house, a tiny two bedroom on Jefferson Street.
“Hey, Reagan Thomas,” she said, and reached to shake my hand like a real adult. She had long brunette hair and a petite build, and her clothes looked polished, classic. I felt immature in my ratty jeans and obnoxious neon shirt, like I hadn’t gotten the memo that we were supposed to dress like grown-ups now.
“I’m Cara,” I said, and gave her hand a weak shake in return.
“So this is the house,” Reagan said as she walked me through it. “I’m gone a lot. Law school. I never have parties but it’s okay if you want guys to spend the night. I only do pills but if you want to smoke weed out back that’s fine. Just not inside. And don’t let your guys piss all over the bathroom floor. That’s about it.”
Reagan’s head gave an annoyed twitch. “Then don’t let your girls piss on the floor. Either way. The rules are the same.”
I was intimidated by Reagan’s competence, but I was tired of living in my parent’s spare bedroom.
“So you in school?” Reagan asked.
“No. I dropped out.”
“Wasn’t your thing?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
I waited for the lawyer in her to ask me questions but she didn’t pry for specifics. Maybe she just didn’t know me well enough to care. She stacked the lease papers together then tapped them once on the kitchen counter to align the edges. “Well, maybe you’ll return someday. Living here you’ll be close to the university. I can help you fill out paperwork if you ever need me to.”
The sound of Reagan opening the front door snapped me out of my memories.
“Goddamn, it’s cold out there. And my fucking coat won’t fit on the baby bump anymore, I can’t zip it.” Reagan patted her protruding stomach, then removed the cellophane from her cigarettes. She worked as a surrogate to pay for tuition and had to hide the smoking from the baby’s parents. Her last pregnancy was twins, but she got paid extra, and didn’t even have to have a C-section. They just slid right out. “I come from healthy stock. We’re good breeders,” she joked often. She said it was easy money, but sometimes I caught her looking at old ultrasound photos. She tried to pass them off as grocery lists or class notes when I walked in, but the way the flimsy material curled into itself was unmistakable.
“You going to yoga tonight?” she asked as she leaned down to the stove burner, Lake-style. Her long hair was pulled back in a hairband, but loose strands of it flirted with the stove flame and made me nervous.
“I’m supposed to. I quit therapy, did I tell you?”
Reagan stuck her head out the door to exhale, then leaned back in to respond. “Yeah. The deal with your mom was yoga and sobriety or therapy right?”
“Right. But yoga makes me drink,” I said to Reagan’s back.
“It’s the last thing the instructor has us do. Shavasana. We just lie flat on our backs and I panic and then go to the Mexican place next door for a margarita as soon as class is over.”
“Why do you panic?”
“I don’t know. Something about being on my back. I know it’s dumb. I guess I’ll go tonight and see if it happens again.”
“If it’s fucking with your head just quit. It’s not like your mom is going to lock you up or anything. Just tell her to fuck off.”
“She’s just worried about me since Lake left.”
Reagan stubbed out her cigarette then started to rummage through the refrigerator. “You heard from her lately? Lake.”
“Not since August. Well, a text once. But that was it.”
Three months since I’d heard from Lake. It’s not like we were dating, I had to keep reminding myself. But I’d thought we were at least friends. It was all the shit of a breakup, with none of the sympathy, because it was Lake and everyone knew she didn’t do relationships. It was my fault if I had deceived myself about the nature of our connection. We met about a month after I moved in with Reagan, when I was in the transition of trying to figure out how to be an adult again. I was working at a smoothie shop and I liked the simplicity of it, all the monotonous tasks which kept my hands and mind busy so I didn’t have the brain space to worry. Lake was a regular, she ordered a triple wheatgrass most days and sat outside to drink it while she smoked. She was a paradox, the queer poster child for a generation who wants to save the world but party hard. When she asked me to meet her at Paisley’s, I made Reagan go with me even though she’s straight because I still wasn’t going places by myself at night. Lake and I didn’t kiss that evening, just got sloppy drunk and danced for hours. It felt like something important.
“She’s putting me back together,” I told Reagan a few weeks later.
“Just don’t lose who you were becoming before her, you know,” Reagan had replied as she looked up from her case briefs.
“I wasn’t becoming anybody before I met her.”
“Oh, Cara,” Reagan had said, and rubbed her forehead in both hands. “You make me sad.”
I’d just shrugged. She didn’t understand.
My days began to take shape around Lake, and I thought less of things I’d lost and more of the things right in front of me. The lazy way she tugged at her shaggy hair as she smiled at me on the other side of the smoothie counter, the routine we got into of smoking her wooden pipe and watching a documentary every night, the way her tits felt like small lumps of muscle under my fingers. As a voice rambled on about sharks or the meat industry or volcanic eruptions, Lake and I would fuck, smoke, fuck, smoke, then fall asleep with the TV still glowing. We put a wet rolled-up bath towel along the bottom of the door to contain the smoke. I’m sure Reagan had smelled it through the vents but we were dense enough to think our trick worked.
Reagan and I had a routine of housemate breakfast on Thursday mornings, a time we could forget about rented organs and endless smoothies, just be two girls slicing grapefruit and grinding coffee beans.
“Do you ever feel like you’re putting too much on this? Like, building your world around her?” Reagan asked me at one of our breakfasts.
“Well that’s what you do when you’re in love,” I said.
“But all you do is get stoned together. I don’t want you to throw yourself away on her.”
“I’m happy. I’m not throwing myself away. You’re just jealous because you’re knocked up and alone,” I said, feeling mean.
“Jesus, Cara. I know you’ve been playing wifey lately, but don’t go there. It just sucks, you know? You told me you wanted to use your smoothie money to apply to school again and now you’re letting Lake change your plans.”
“Did you ever think maybe I just don’t want to fucking go to college? Maybe I’m not a brilliant one-woman wonder like you are?”
Reagan laughed, but not in the funny way. “I don’t have time for this,” she said, “I tried.” She shut herself in her room to study, and I went to pack a bowl.
But Reagan was right. I started seeing less of Lake, not by choice, she just wouldn’t show up. Our conversations at the smoothie shop grew awkward. I saw her downtown one night with another girl, some big-breasted femme who laughed louder than I could. I ordered another drink.
The bathroom stall at Paisley’s was small and my elbows got bruised on the narrow walls as I pulled my dress above my head.
“That feels so good,” I told the nameless girl crammed into the stall with me, even though I couldn’t feel anything but the pressure in my head and the gag in my throat from too many drinks.
I noticed when she stopped though, pulled away. “You’re on your period. Goddammit, my shirt is white.” I watched her exit the stall and stand at the sink to rinse her fucking hand, the left one. Other girls swished in and I saw the girl in the white shirt leave the bathroom as the door on my stall slowly shut. I pulled the lock then sat down heavy on the open toilet seat and stretched my panties out towards the door to survey the mess. A meaty raw smell floated up to my face. I shoved my hand inside myself and pulled out a chunk of blood, gazed at its wetness with drunk fascination. The toilet paper stuck to my wet fingers and the blood left reddish brown streaks in the dry skin of my hands, around my fingernails.
“Can you take me home?” I asked Reagan when I emerged back into the chaos of the bar. She paused from the conversation I interrupted.
“I don’t have a tampon, I got my period.”
“Can’t you ask someone? There are a million girls here.”
“I want my own. I want to go home.”
My alcohol infused brain began to lash out. It translated into a vocal whine that grated on the ears of those around me, but Reagan was used to it by now.
“I want to go home,” I said again.
“Fine,” Reagan said, downing her drink.
I saw Lake again for a second before I went out the front door of Paisley’s. She was talking to the white shirt girl.
Eventually, she was just gone, and the word on the scene was that she’d moved to a small town in Florida, though nobody seemed to know the name. I quit going out, but drank even more. Reagan would come home late from class and find me glazed over watching documentaries with a stack of beer cans next to me. I quit going to therapy. I didn’t talk about Lake to Reagan because I didn’t want to admit she’d been right, or say out loud that Lake was gone, make it real.
I started to flake out with work and miss shifts so my parents had to cover rent a few times, but then my mother read some book about enabling so she told me if I wasn’t going back to therapy, I at least needed to get sober for a while to sort myself out. “Start going back to yoga,” she told me on the phone. “It’ll get your mind off things, like it did before.” Things was her way of referring to my life’s unpleasant moments, not having to acknowledge anything uncomfortable. Maybe dating Lake was just another thing in a series of things, something that had happened to me instead of something I made happen.
I pulled up to the community center, and saw my usual classmates emerging from their vehicles. There’s the old men who can endlessly balance on their heads with, as the instructor requests, a hint of a smile on their faces. The fortyish mothers who use the time away from their kids to talk about their kids. And then the college girls tumbled in, the ones who reminded me of who I was before Things.
Every week my body slipped along the sweaty mat, toes scrunched up to grip it. I would drench my towel and drain my water bottle, start to feel some semblance of normalcy and connectedness in my body. Sweat means thirst, and thirst means water. Muscles shaking, exercise means exhaustion. At yoga I felt like I was rewiring my brain, the parts that didn’t fit together since freshman year, the cause and effect aspects of bodily life, the pleasure centers and basic functions. An hour in I would feel like a real human but then it was time for the end pose, shavasana, and it all went to shit. It was everybody else’s favorite pose, flat on their backs in blissed-out fatigue. I would lie there and feel each relaxed muscle tense back up, and each little wire of the brain fragment and short circuit again.
When class let out, I was a flash of girlsweat throwing my mat in the back of my car without wiping it down, hurrying towards the Mexican restaurant. I could smell my own body as it mixed with the scent of peppers and alcohol. I’d order an entrée in case I ran into anyone I knew and I’d watch the cheese coagulate on it as I drank margaritas, finally asking for a box to take the food home to Reagan.
I looked at my watch. If I didn’t get out now, I’d be late. I looked through the glass of my windshield into the glass of the center’s windows. My classmates spread their mats, gestured and nodded in a soundless show of friendliness. I focused on the row of college girls. None of them wore shirts and their brightly colored exercise bras were branded with the word PINK. They stretched, grinned at each other, adjusted one another’s straps and ponytails. Images of Lake pushed into my brain alongside images of the girl I was at eighteen. I remembered silly things, like the way my college roommate called me Care Bear and the giddy feeling I got whenever I finished a test, always early, so sure of the things I knew back then.
The yoga instructor walked to the front of the room. Rain had begun to drizzle down my windshield, and I had to turn on my wipers to continue watching the class. The instructor raised her arms up as high as they would go, and everyone else followed. Thirteen bodies began to bend and uncoil as I put my car in reverse.
LB Johnston is an MA candidate at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers.