The following excerpt is from Vodka Sunday. The complete short story can be read in issue 140 of the Edinburgh Review.
We first kissed in the bathroom of a film set. Just after she wiped ketchup from her cheek and put her finger in my mouth.
Rufina was cast as a girl addicted to fast food, hiding bags of KFC and McDonald’s around the house. I was playing the angry husband who’d forced her onto a diet. It was a stupid short for some hot shot director, a kid with a camera who had me walk through that apartment door about a dozen times before he was happy with the take.
But I needed the hundred dollars. Apart from being told I’d be kissing a girl, the scene was that I come home, discover fries and fast food wrappers on the floor, and search the apartment till I find my girlfriend hiding in the bathroom.
That was the fiction.
The fact was that I’d flown from London to New York, run out of money, and then run out of friends to borrow it from. I planned to waltz into talent agencies with my accent and waltz right out onto film sets. But a few other actors from England had exactly the same idea. Instead I was taking gigs for student directors, sorting casting calls from porn shoots, and eating dollar pizza slices from a place where tramps paid with handfuls of begged nickels and pennies.
Though I always had enough money for a drink.
Before arriving on set I’d nipped in to a local happy hour and necked a couple of vodka cranberries. It was one of those dives you see in 80s films, the kind with neon Bud signs and a barman with rolled up sleeves wiping down the counter, one eye on his tips and the other on a football game. The cliché pouring my drinks nicknamed the vodka cranberries ‘thumbcuts’ because he topped up the vodka with a splash of juice no bigger than a drop of blood.
Too many thumbcuts and my glassy eyes would give away my drinking. But the two liveners worked a treat for the second scene where I gleefully kicked in the door as instructed, stamping through the splintered wood to find Rufina crouched in the tub eating a cheeseburger.
I had to yank her out by her long blonde hair, and we’d worked it that Rufina grabbed my wrists and stood herself up.
“Still looks tame,” said the director after the third take, pushing his cap further back onto his head.
Rufina arranged her hair in the mirror and talked to my reflection. “As long as you grab a big handful you can just pull me out.”
She had high, sharp cheekbones, a slightly crooked mouth that she’d tried to paint symmetrical with cherry lipstick, and blue eyes like cerulean at the edge of space.
I told her it’d hurt.
“But this will look better, no?”
She squatted down with the cheeseburger. I paused while the cameraman set his focus, and stood very still over a ketchup-smeared woman in an empty bath.
I did what she asked, took her full weight by her hair and slung her onto the tiles.
“It’s nothing, really.”
I helped her off the floor while the director watched back the take. He stared at the monitor, pulled his cap forward, and then told us we were “Awesome.”
“See, it was worth it.” Rufina was straightening her clothes, smiling. “Anyway, I like having my hair pulled.”
What she meant by that, I wasn’t sure. But we shot more scenes of me pushing her around, holding her against the wall and shaking her, before I notice some red on her cheek. I think it’s blood, feel guilty and beg for forgiveness, pleading that I was only trying to help kick her addiction.
After she puts her finger in her mouth and says, “It’s ketchup,” she puts it in mine. And then we kiss, sugar and tomatoes. All mixed in with the taste of her and a hint of vodka.
“Cut,” interrupted the director.
Now Rufina had lipstick and ketchup smudged around her mouth. And so did I until she reached out with a tissue and wiped it away.
“How was my ketchup kiss?”
I doubt she needed to ask. Blood was pounding around my body.
“Makes me hungry. But not for a burger. The smell of McDonald’s makes me sick.”