Whiskey Tango Hotel – Jillian Luft
July 25, 2021
I often smelled him before I saw him. A scent so disarming, one whiff would flay me, raw and pink, open to infection. He smelled like a boy’s adventures gone stale but sweet. Like mown lawns in autumn. Like Marlboro Lights, drugstore soap and something medicinally pure.
In a sad office space in Orlando, I performed data entry tasks for a two-bit cable contractor. I was paid 10 dollars an hour. And he was my boss.
At first, he barely greeted me. Instead, he’d pace the hall bordering my desk, the one between his office and the equipment shed. He was a sullen blur calling out the names of men who worked for him: Luis, Bobby, Randy, Dennis. Sometimes an amiable Hey, brother. Each officious whoosh of him flooding my nostrils with his stupefying musk.
The shed was a shadowy realm beyond my sightline. But the ever-present noises piqued my curiosity: modern rock radio at ear-splitting decibels, husky laughter, a groan here, a grunt there. Dulcet tones of testosterone. A few weeks in, I ventured out there for some forgettable but professional reason. Although everyone called it the shed, it was a glorified garage. Cardboard boxes piled high. Stray wires and discarded modems strewn in disarray like dystopic insects. A few card tables and folding chairs. No ash trays but a shitload of cigarette butts. And the techs, the motley gang of warm-hearted pill poppers eyefucking me in plain view. Between service calls, they ordered opioids online from Canada—a replenishing stock of back melters and grin givers. They were mostly decent dudes.
I learned the language to converse with them when they were out in the field. I memorized call letters, gripped a banana walkie-talkie between my bubblegum nails and spoke like the military. Alpha. Bravo. Charlie. 10-4. Over and out. When on dispatcher duty, I obtained their ETAs, gave them directions to their next trouble call, tolerated their constant bitching. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, they’d mutter. And I’d scan the sheet, trying to spell out a home address, not able to decipher the code. Jesus Christ. It means ‘what the fuck’, Jill, they’d laugh. My girlish ignorance, a welcomed distraction from all those rabid assholes demanding their premium packages.
Most days, I typed strangers’ contact information into obsolete database software, and passed off my mindless labor as respectable work. Sometimes they’d send me to company headquarters, but only if I was dressed appropriately. No mini-skirts, no tank tops, real shoes. The rest of the time I blasted internet radio from my computer’s tinny speakers: Hair Metal and 80’s New Wave. I hit up friends on instant messenger, fooled around with my social media profile until it was time to leave.
After work, I masturbated to my married boss. My fanatical weekday ritual. A pillow deep between my thighs, continually stunned by my own desire. Shortly before I’d come again, I’d question whether he was deceptively clean-cut, or I was just lonely. I pictured his sketchy facial hair, his dark, dark eyes, his white polo tucked into chinos, the Nextel bulging in his back pocket. I tried to picture the framed photo of his children on his desk, the gold band on his mammoth hand. But it was no use. I panted and heaved, my broken futon’s wooden frame repeatedly creaking as my crotch flailed against the mattress. Like a kid scrambling to stay afloat in the wave pool.
He sent me on beer runs. I drove across the street to the mini mart, lugged a half dozen sixers back to the office. My platform wedges wobbled, bottles clanging against my sun-slick shins. The raucous appreciation of all those men worth the risk of falling. On the clock, I smoked cigarettes at my desk, ashed into my empty Corona. I was 22 and I was lucky.
One day I felt his stare brand the back of my neck. It could have been the fit of my jeans or maybe my caged heels. When I turned around to face him, I knew I’d been marked. For what, I didn’t care. Whatever it was he wanted was what I wanted, too. I remember the way the light appeared to change in the room. How the burnt blue of the July sky seemed to fill and float across the turd-colored carpet.
Minutes later, he sent an instant message: Sup? What brings you here? What’s your story? My fingers flew across my keyboard like nimble adrenaline junkies, like Bodhi and Utah in Point Break, pirouetting in the California clouds. I’d just graduated from college in Sarasota with a Literature/Gender Studies degree. (While I submitted my resume for this job, I don’t believe anyone read it. And I still hadn’t completed my thesis, but that was a technicality.) I’d recently moved into a ridiculous apartment complex with my childhood best friend and her co-worker. It had its own restaurant and two Olympic-sized pools. Between the three of us, the rent was surprisingly affordable. I wanted to be a music journalist, or some kind of writer, but I needed money. I liked reading and movies and rock-n-roll. I liked whiskey and was nostalgic for things that happened before I was born. I believed in love at first sight and astrology. Florida could be lame, but adventures happened anywhere. Some of these things I told to impress him. Some of these things I told to impress myself. Maybe I wasn’t as hopeless as I sometimes felt.
Every available moment, we chatted to say Hey, to say Hope what I said about your jeans didn’t make you uncomfortable, to say Not at all, I liked it, to say Wanna smoke?, to say Wanna go on a Walmart run together?, to say So…, to say You like Zeppelin?, to say Yeah! Wow, we have so much in common! To say anything at all but what we meant. Pop songs from the past gushed through the internet radio, scoring our awkward intimacies. We were sentences without punctuation, promising the infinite. We were digressions and intimations and hesitations. Heavy on subtext, pregnant with possibility, but surrendering nothing. We were faceless icons, the shape of toddler toys, trapped in windows of exchange, hoping that with a singular phrase, the other would become our streaming sun, filtering through to reveal us as we really were. High definition but without flaw.
In person, we were less coy. Strolling the toilet paper aisle of Walmart, his hand grazed my ass without apology. And I asked him to do it again. But there was a limit we tried to respect. We implicitly understood how far this could go. Until one day, he said: Have a drink or two or three with me tonight. And I said maybe someday, although not in those words. Instead, I stammered and rambled until my throat went dry and then pretended I had to pee so I could escape his naked want, the irresistible reek of it. Words were a way to halt the embarrassing and candid story my body told—its neon throb blistering bright for all to hear.
Later, on a smoke break in the shed, he restated: Have a drink or two or three with me tonight. Please. And this time I inhaled his plea, let its longing burn up my lungs until I coughed out my pride. I passed the smoldering nub back to him and he flicked it across concrete, caressed my knuckles—his large pupils making future demands. I was all baby fat pink, glowing and grinning. Eyes twinkling: Yeah, sure. What the hell.
That day, I didn’t see Freddy vs. Jason with the straight edge vegan I’d met on Match.com. That day I sent the straight edge vegan a bullshit email saying that I’d come down with something and could we reschedule, so sorry. That day I didn’t tell anyone where I was, not even my best friend. That day I forgot about post-graduation plans and writing aspirations and the clean smell of bookstores. That day I gave into romantic caprice like the girl in the movie who sticks her head out the window of a speeding car. Her serene smile goading the molesting winds to do their worst, to try and compete with the dangerous man behind the wheel.
I waited at my desk for everyone else to leave. For the overhead lights to die in that business plaza suite, for its dull beige gloom to succumb to crushed velvet darkness. For my one and true life to begin. His smell enveloped me before his hands did, before they took hold of my neck, my shoulders, kneading and kneading me until I was just flesh screaming his name. A cliché rendered high art. He murmured against my carotid, Did I want to go somewhere and talk, and I wondered if he’d been listening at all. What was left to say that blood and breath hadn’t conveyed? But I nodded and grabbed my purse.
At the dive bar I never could find again, he ordered us Jack Daniels neat and Goose Island IPAs. We played pool and chatted like friends, free and easy. The jukebox confessed so caught up in you, little girl and I felt so seen, like the girl in the movies, the shy one whose defenses dissolve because that one special song plays and the world tilts, placing her at the center of the story, the center of the frame. I chugged my whiskey with an animal automaticity, mesmerized by his billiards stance, the way he pocketed the ball, smooth and assured, an unlit cigarette dangling between his lips. You’re the one that’s got me down on my knees.
I wore unflattering gray slacks from Banana Republic, a white Express V-neck with lace trim, black Target sandals, overgrown highlights weeded into a ponytail. I don’t know why on this day of all days I dressed like I had a real job. He tried to tell me I was beautiful. He said someone must have really screwed me up for me not to see it. How to explain that I never saw myself at all unless someone else was looking, How the rare instances I’ve felt beautiful were when I forgot my face entirely or convinced myself it somehow prettified when pressed against the rapacious mouth of another. How to explain that I was a dull angel even though I tried my best not to be. How my face decided my fate. How my cherubic cheeks and small mouth read as merely adorable—a solid 5 on the 1-10 scale. How my sharp nose and teeny tidepool eyes only read as intriguing in the right light, at the right angle. How the modesty of my tits always eclipsed the bombast of my ass. How all my attributes combined read as solidly cute on the best of days and would never transcend into the realm of hot. No matter how much I drank, no matter what I promised into the excited rose of his ear, I would always wake up the good girl.
We sat outdoors atop a picnic bench, beer bottles drooling into our fists and onto our business casual thighs. Summer’s hell drench causing everything to waver. Our view was the weedy I-4 underpass, rush hour traffic whizzing in a hydrocarbon haze. Sunset bleeding tangerine. I hemorrhaged my composure but steadied my gaze. He confided he’d read my music review in the Orlando Weekly. A trifling piece on some crap electroclash band, my first time in print. He quoted it verbatim and lauded my talent. I thought him sincere because he appeared so vulnerable—forehead perspiring, brown eye whorls dilated. Chris Cornell with a crew cut. His face, a pallid vista of recklessness and ruin. We emptied our beers, pasted our hands together in the heat, and watched as dusk scabbed up the sky. There had been more to say after all.
Back at the office, he intended on dropping me off at my car, both of us going home. But then he said he could unlock the doors and we could talk for a bit and didn’t we both wish this night would never end. So, we continued drinking. Long pulls from the whiskey stashed in his desk. We smoked and swiveled in office chairs—one in each blank white corner where I and three other women (Kathy, Gina and Gothy Girl) sat each weekday, performing menial administrative tasks in between bouts of daydreaming. He turned up the stereo in the back of the shed, the default modern rock station quaking the plaster like the swirl of feelings straining against my ribcage. We shared family losses (my mom’s death when I was 13, his dad’s death when he was in his 20s) and current hardships (his marital woes, my financial worries). He said his wife and him slept in separate beds, they were strangers with nothing in common but the kids they’d created. And yet, somehow, he still loved her. Of course you do, I replied, sitting cross-legged on my desk, taking a drag of my cigarette. It wouldn’t be natural if you didn’t. Now he’d know I wasn’t the jealous type. I prided myself on accepting things: life’s great and unjust tragedies, its small and senseless obstacles. He witnessed my undaunted, worldly demeanor, my stoic repose in the face of difficulty, the sweet sadness that blanketed my tiny, deep-set eyes. This is how I made myself beautiful. This is how I made myself indispensable.
In Kathy’s chair, dry humping his lap to orgasm, I saw him for who he truly was. He was the man with bloodshot eyes raised to the starless sky. He was the man trying to score coke at last call, intent on injecting his bloodstream with the last vestiges of meaning before sunrise. He was the man with the pure heart whose circumstances soiled everything, the man arrested by his own passions, the man acquiescing to domestic boredom because he considered complacency a virtue. He was the man sleeping off ephemeral ecstasy in the backseat, blacking out in bed just to do it all over again the next night in the hopes of finding someone like me. Someone who understood this insatiable need for the new, the more, the better. Someone who traveled through darkness in search of it. I traveled my mind’s recesses while he let his body roam toward risk. We both wanted the same thing: For every damn day to feel like your favorite song playing on the radio, the ocean breeze kissing your face while you hurtled down the open road, no end in sight. We wanted to love ourselves into living. Really living. Maybe together we could.
That night, the moon was a benevolent God. His Grace shining through the office plate glass windows, imbuing our porno tableaux with more romance than it probably deserved. He propped me up on his desk, a half-clothed doll, while Josh Homme sang from the shed about something sweet to throw away. He shed my Banana Republic pants, but briefly kept me in my underwear, fondling their sheer beaded surface like braille, before discarding them and replacing them with the complex textures of his face. I’d entertained this image countless times before—his dark head bowed into the depth of me while I lay supine and satisfied, sprawled across faux wood like some domineering vamp. I peered down at the bobbing mass of hair in disbelief. For a moment, I pictured myself in aerial view: body, lithe and glistening, legs, a radiant V. A good girl no more. With eyes shut, I vowed to wait and wait for whatever came next.
That night was a dream realized. It was the precipice of love, the cusp of desire you straddled until the ache consumed you. Or you consumed it. I slept with his scent clinging to my skin, fearing yet hoping he’d wear off by morning. My body, rotating in my dreams like a gas station hot dog, slowly, gingerly, deadened and dampened by the heat of its own making.
The next day, a Saturday, my inbox bulged with his yearning:
We can’t do this but I want to.
God, I want to.
No, nevermind. I don’t want to involve you in this mess…I miss you already.
And then the last email with its bold sans serif implorings:
…it’s over…Need to talk to ya… Please.
I don’t remember what I wrote back but by early Sunday afternoon, I’d windexed the kitchen counters and recounted the Hotmail saga for my roommates. He’s gonna confess his love for you, they teased while I scarfed down Taco Bell in our crummy eat-in kitchen. I laughed and shook my head, but when he knocked, I opened to find love at my doorstep. A sunglassed wreck of a man. All mine.
I gave him the tour: broken futon; framed image of Iggy, Bowie and Lou I printed from the internet; beat-up TV; outdated stereo, the new Radiohead album occupying the 6 CD changer. He stood in my bedroom, a bulwark of silent tenderness. We weren’t ready for this part yet, so he cleared his throat and mentioned he was hungry. I didn’t tell him I’d already eaten.
We drove to a sub sandwich shop next to my neighborhood Publix. An oniony smell permeated our stilted conversation. We didn’t talk about what he’d alluded to in his email, but I imagined it anyway…Two toddler boys with mouths agape and mucousy tears, a door slamming, the start of an engine. Her, a faceless woman. Her, a wet slump. Her, weeping with restraint. Her tripping over a toy truck and cursing before collapsing against the back of the sofa. Her children wailing harder when witnessing her distress. In the silvery dust of the living room, her hushed but primal sounds of despair drowned out by commercials for household products… Under the oily booth, baked bread in the air, he took my hand and murmured my name. He held me close in those eyes that seemed to know me better than I did and the image of her vanished.
Our bodies disappointed in their efforts to make it all worth it. Maybe it was the condom. Or maybe it was what he kept repeating in the dark: You’re so goddamn gorgeous. But something wasn’t working. He apologized for not getting hard, claimed intimidation, rationalized anxiety. I didn’t care if he was lying because as I stroked his back, he stroked my hair and it was the sincerest touch I’d ever felt. We cuddled, bathed in the anemic light trickling through my bathroom door. Part of me wanted bad sex to be the death of us. But somehow, I knew we’d die just to live again. And again.
We got dressed and retrieved a joint from his glove compartment. Opposite the parking lot, an illuminated fountain frothed candy shop pinks and purples, erupting from the sudsy surface of a canal lapping against its man-made borders. A whitewashed bridge loomed over this glorified pool, leading to the complex’s bar and grille. We smoked, huddled against his pickup bed, and watched with fuzzy interest as family after family trampled across the man-made behemoth to chow on spinach dip and Buffalo wings. The sky was a predator green fading into evening murk. From a distance, my hungry neighbors shimmered like tacky watercolor art. We laughed at their absurdity and convinced ourselves we weren’t a part of it while the fountain continued its Disneyfied gurgle. Everything you need, all right here, the apartment complex brochures read. Stoned in his arms, I knew this to be true.
Back in my apartment, we discussed old rock albums (Boston’s debut, Tesla’s second album, Metallica’s Ride the Lightning). We revealed all the thoughts we had about each other when he was just my boss and I was just his employee. He told me about how nervous he was, at first, to say hello in the mornings, how he sat at his desk and could think of nothing else but me sitting outside his door. I told him about how I cranked up certain songs that made me think of him, slinked around my apartment, writhing against kitchen cupboards. A few Newcastles or my roommate’s Stoli inspired the mood. George Michael’s “Father Figure” was a repeat play. He laughed and rubbed my leg like kindling. It’d been five weeks since he’d hired me.
The next weekend, I met his brother visiting from New Hampshire. Ready to offer support during the impending separation, ready to sunburn his redheaded flesh. Not quite ready to find me in tow. We shared a beachside hotel room in Daytona. The brother went on long walks. While he was gone, we screwed tons albeit much less awkwardly than before. The three of us went to outdoor malls and chain restaurants. We shared appeteazers and bought new jeans. I cajoled us into a matinee of Freddy vs. Jason. The brother gave me shit, but I already knew what he thought of me. A stupid girl in hoops and high heels, googly-eyed for a slightly older man. A sweet piece of temporary action, a wince-worthy mistake in the clear light of day. I wanted to justify our connection, defend the ways fate was responsible, the ways I related to his brother as an “old soul,” as an intuitive caregiver, as a natural sympathizer for the ways the heart outran the mind. I’d witnessed it before with my dad cheating on my mom and my mom wanting to cheat on my dad. Sometimes following your heart felt like a selfless act. Sometimes love rendered you powerless, ordained you as its supplicant. Sometimes your intentions remained unclear to you but still compelled. Sometimes you let your heart lead you because it almost felt like freedom, like honoring the purest version of yourself. Instead, I admitted the movie sucked and offered to buy him a beer.
We did nothing at work to hide our relationship. Most were cool with it and congratulated us. But one cable tech, Bobby, quit in a coke-addled rage because he planned on asking me out. Behind closed doors, he harangued my boss. Audibly and mortifyingly so. Bobby stormed out, eyes bugging, jaw grinding. I braced for venom-laced saliva. Instead, he clucked his tongue at me like an old aunt and said, Good fucking luck. Meanwhile Gothy Girl was a grim hump of pleather, kohl tears streaking her face complexion-colored. You’ve smeared the perfect frosting flowers on my birthday cake, she sulked. I assumed the flowers were the once-blooming possibility of fucking our boss.
One day on his lunch break, he went home to tell his wife he was in love with someone else, to tell her he was in love with me. As an Aries, spontaneous acts of havoc were in his stars. He’d moved out weeks ago, but he owed her the truth. Don’t pick up your office phone, he ordered, keys ringing in his fist like a death knell as he headed out to say the irrevocable. I studied my unwrapped Wendy’s #5 and picked at my nails, frightened but excited by his dramatic impulse.
After he returned, she called and called for days. Sometimes Kathy covered for me. Sometimes Gina. Sometimes we silently watched the glaring red eye on my phone blink itself into a dumb fury and then asked each other what’s for lunch.
That summer, we rode up and down I-50 in his Dodge Ram. Windows down, AC/DC on the radio, Red Bull and smokes on the dash. I kissed new parts of him at each stoplight, viewed myself through those knowing eyes of his and saw that I was happy. Together we were white-hot and immaculate, gleaming like Daytona sand. Together we were new and more and better. The highway flowed like the languid skies above and the sun’s pure light caught our flaws sparkling like so much magic. Together we were free. I reached out and grabbed hold of him. I reached out to remember before I forgot again.
That summer I submitted to acid-colored strip mall splendor. Poetry in the prosaic, paradise in the profane. That summer I didn’t once pick up a pen to write but stories collected in my veins, my innards, on the tip of my tongue, in the hollows of my memory. That summer we snorted Oxys at dawn, popped mid-day Vicodins to soften the edge. My skin flushed in a manic itch; my stomach ejected everything in a halcyon flood. That summer we survived a few pregnancy scares, laughed through several hangovers, gritted our way through numerous relapses. That summer we hosted dinner parties for friends, for my father. That summer we attended weddings post-ecstasy comedown and still lit up the dancefloor. That summer strangers admired our oxytocin fugue. That summer he’d detect a faint scowl on my lips or a slight eyebrow crinkle and accurately surmise the childhood incident or toxic self-talk responsible. That summer we told each other things we’d never told anyone. That summer he called me his free spirit, his wild one and everything else I’d ever dreamt of being. That summer was Yeah, sure. Let’s live like we’re in the movies. And we meant it.
In the fall, what we meant no longer mattered. In the fall, I’d break out in hives and beg him to recall the summer between snot-sticky sobs. In the fall, he’d tell me to hold out hope, to just hold on while he figured out how to live with the guilt. How to live as a family man and also the man he wanted to be.
But in August, with nothing but a bag of fast fashion and the latest issue of Us magazine, I moved into his downtown luxury apartment. My books, TV, stereo, VHS tapes and CDs all went into storage. We formed an ideal domestic arrangement: He cooked us dinner and I greeted him at the door wearing nothing but one of his button-downs and a smirk. A cold Budweiser in each hand. We knew what roles to play.
We lounged on the love seat once purchased by his soon-to-be-ex-wife. We narrated our future, plotted our cohabitating bliss: weekend shopping at the organic grocery; weekday cocktails at the dive bar down the block; nights dancing at the goth club he thought he was too old to frequent. I would read on the balcony and write my first novel. He’d introduce me to his kids, treat me to real vacations.
Then he stopped making plans. Instead, he squirmed for days in withdrawal before inevitably using again. His skin, a seafoam sheen. His gleamless eyes closed to the sight of me. I coped by logging onto a recently launched social networking site. I scrolled through the profiles of college friends living in Brooklyn, in L.A., in Miami. Cities for the young, the ambitious, the unfettered. Internships in fashion, media, and publishing. Pixelated photos of sideswept bangs and careful but heavy eyeliner smolder. No one lived in Orlando besides my best friend. No one worked minimum wage jobs unless they promised a lucrative career path. No one dated men with young children. And certainly no one considered marrying said men before they’d officially divorced. But who cared what everyone else advertised through their calculated lists of obscure rock bands and kiss-ass testimonials from friends? The internet lacked verisimilitude and was boring anyway.
I signed out and climbed into bed. Nestled deep into his clammy chest. Breathed him in. Beneath his body’s acrid stench, that same smell that got me hooked. Today he was broken but tomorrow he’d be new. My head atop his heart, undulated with every shallow breath. My arms clung to the impassive heat of him. As a good girl, I knew then what to do. I’d wait it out like everything else.