Pirates

Kristen Arnett
Photo by Ted Potters, image in the public domain

Naomi was making out with Captain Jack Sparrow on the sidewalk in front of the Applebee’s. They were groping each other and using lots of tongue. Naomi was making out with a pirate, but she was also dressed like one. That was their current employment. Hers as a part-time Captain Jack Sparrow impersonator in front of the Chili’s restaurant on the Orlando I-Drive strip, Carmen’s as a part-time Captain Jack Sparrow impersonator in front of the Bubba Gump Shrimp a little further down the same road. The Applebee’s was their neutral ground. They’d known each other for a couple months now. “Known” in the sense that they had seen each other posed in front of their respective restaurants, hats pulled low over artificially darkened brows, clothes draped suggestively. Both of them swaggering like they were either drunk or looking to fuck or a combination of the two. The making out had become a thing three weeks ago.

Captain Jack put her hand on Naomi’s waist and then slid her fingers below the hem of her puffy-sleeved shirt. Regulation, according to her boss, but that could have meant anything, considering they weren’t affiliated with any of the surrounding theme parks. Naomi wasn’t totally sure what a pirate even wore. Most days it was stuff cobbled together from her closet, with several pieces “loaned” from her job, which she was expected to return at the end of each shift.

“Do I look like a pirate?” Naomi had asked her sister, Lucia, after she’d gotten dressed the first time, and Lucia—a dental hygienist in training who always looked angry, like she was ready to scrape someone’s gums just for fun—said she looked more like a funeral home director.

The Captain Jacks weren’t supposed to interact with each other. That’s what Naomi’s boss had told her that first day, sitting in the back room of the Five Dollars (Or Less) store where they sold tickets to various theme parks and also parking lot passes.

“You’re the only one. Pretend like they’re invisible,” he said. “A hologram.”

Naomi wanted to tell him that holograms weren’t invisible, but her boss was the kind of guy who’d just tell her to shut up and get to work. His name was Miguel and he was a big guy, well over six feet tall, and when they had their meetings in the back of the shop, he had to fold his arms and legs in ridiculous ways just to fit in the chair without bumping knees with her. Naomi hated being in the back with him, hated getting lectured or talked to about any part of her job—“what job, you’re dressed up for Halloween, not real work,” her sister said whenever Naomi talked about it—so she just sat quietly and nodded, trying to hurry out of there as fast as possible.

Captain Jack slid her hand beneath Naomi’s blouse and felt up under the binding that smashed her breasts flat. Though she really didn’t have too much up there to flatten. That was one of the reasons Miguel had hired her.

“No titties,” he’d said. “That’s a good thing.”

Both Captain Jacks had frilly blouses and pencil-thin mustaches and long dark hair—Naomi’s was her own, but Carmen’s was a wig because her hair was buzzed—and they both wore colorful head wraps and the same jaunty pirate hat. They’d talked about it when they first met and discovered they’d bought the same one off of Amazon for fifteen bucks.

Someone wolf-whistled at the two of them and his friends laughed and they broke apart for a second to adjust their pants and belts. Carmen wiped at her lips and fixed Naomi’s mustache for her.

“Just some fucks hanging out next to the froyo stand,” she said, and Naomi adjusted the neckline of her top so her binding wouldn’t show. Gay men often thought the Captain Jacks were men, and they found themselves solicited most evenings out in front of their restaurants after the tourists stumbled out, drunk off bad margar­itas and two-for-one well shots.

They weren’t allowed to tell the tourists they were women.

There were other Captain Jacks along the strip, but Naomi didn’t know any of them. She’d met Carmen by accident. They’d both been drinking in the Applebee’s after their respective shifts and Naomi had noticed the sticky tack of leftover mustache glue over Carmen’s lip. They’d sipped their beers and talked about how they’d both been in school but neither had graduated. Carmen dropped out to take care of her grandmother, who had had a stroke. But then her grandmother had died, and she hadn’t had the money or the inclination to go back to classes. Naomi liked the way Carmen talked, adding emphasis to every other word. The way she leaned in when she spoke, an intimate hand on Naomi’s forearm, as if they’d known each other for years. Naomi liked her confidence. Naomi wished she had better life stories to share, but there was only her family and their boring shared household. She didn’t really have a reason for dropping out of school.

Naomi had never slept with a woman who’d had a girlfriend before, but it didn’t actually bother her that much.

Her older sister was always ragging on her for being lazy. Lucia had been making her own money since she was eight years old. That’s the story she liked to tell, how she’d bought a bag of Blue Razzberry Blow Pops with her birthday money and then sold them to kids at school for triple the price. She’d eventually gotten into trouble after a few months, but their father had been proud. Naomi just wanted to eat the Blow Pops. She’d been one of Lucia’s best customers.

Captain Jack slipped her fingers into the waist of Naomi’s pants. They were tight and she had to really wriggle them to get them in there.

“Want to get dinner later?” Carmen whispered in Naomi’s ear. “My treat.”

“What’s Lena doing tonight?” Naomi asked. Carmen sighed and removed her hand.

“Let’s not talk about that.”

Naomi shrugged and then they were making out again. Carmen’s girlfriend wasn’t a Captain Jack on the strip, but she worked in the Bubba Gump as a bartender. She’d auditioned to be a Captain, Carmen told Naomi, but she was too blonde. Nobody wants to see a blue-eyed Captain Jack, Carmen said, and Naomi was glad for it because it meant she could make out with Carmen whenever she wanted.

They’d only fucked twice. Once in the alley behind the strip mall and the other time in the bathroom of the Applebee’s, pants around their ankles. Naomi had never slept with a woman who’d had a girlfriend before, but it didn’t actually bother her that much. Part of it was that when she was dressed up in her costume, she didn’t feel like herself. Aside from that first meeting, she and Carmen only saw each other when they were on shift, or between shifts, or directly after shifts. She wasn’t in a place where she was looking for a girlfriend, is what she told herself afterward when she was finally headed for home, hands still smelling of another woman’s partner. She still lived with her dad. Lucia did, too, but she was making plans to move out, get her own apartment. Naomi had no plans. Carmen was nice and they had fun together, but Naomi didn’t see it getting any more serious than that, though recently Carmen had started pushing for more. Wanting real dates at restaurants, even though she lived with Lena and they were planning to get married. Naomi didn’t want to date anyone. She just wanted to make out. Why not have this one small thing to get her through the days?

The men across the street were whistling at the two of them again and one of them had begun making lewd gestures. “I have to get back for my shift anyway,” Carmen said, fixing her hair. The wig had gone crooked and was draped over one eye.

Naomi made her way back down the strip toward her post in front of the Chili’s. She stayed a few more hours, posing with the occasional drunk tourist, swaggering and waggling her eyebrows at a couple of cute young teenagers in palm tree sunglasses who giggled at her as they took a selfie with a giant inflatable flamingo. She got paid at the end of the week, but she was already out of money—actually owed her father cash for her cell phone and groceries.

When her sister pulled up in front of the restaurant, Naomi was already back in her street clothes. That’s what Miguel called them, as if the Captain Jack outfit were a real uniform.

“You missed a spot,” Lucia said. She swiped some spit on her thumb and rubbed it briskly along Naomi’s eyebrow.

“Can we stop at McDonald’s?” Naomi buckled her seatbelt and stashed her bag in the back seat. Her phone was lit up with text messages. Way too many, over fifty notifications, and when she opened one it was from an unknown number calling her a “slut” and a “whore” and different variations of that, and when she opened the single text from Carmen, it simply read “can you please call me.” She set the phone facedown in her lap.

“Do you have McDonald’s money?” Lucia replied, but Naomi knew she would stop, it was right on the way home.

Naomi stared out the window as they drove past the strip and down into the surrounding suburban neighborhoods. Lights blinked past faster and faster, and she squinted her eyes shut so that they smeared into a kaleidoscope. They’d been doing this same drive for years, it had become her entire routine, nothing but her father’s house and the strip, back and forth, and it was always at night, and there was never any variation from it.

“Only order off the dollar menu,” Lucia instructed once they reached the drive-thru line. Naomi leaned across the seat and asked for two chicken sandwiches and a dollar french fry, and then Lucia told them that they’d only need one chicken sandwich. This happened every time, her sister correcting her order because she thought it was too much food, even after Naomi told her that she hadn’t eaten all day long.

They drove home in silence while the radio played NPR, something having to do with the “myth of essential oils.” Lucia kept sighing in agreement. She was in school now to be a dental hygienist, but for a while she’d tried to sell those oils and diffusers online. She wound up spending over a grand on them, unable to convince anyone to buy them. She blamed her former high school best friend for all of it.

In her lap, Naomi’s phone buzzed and buzzed. Lucia told her not to eat anything in the car, even though Naomi hadn’t even put her hand inside the bag, and the anxiety about whatever was happening on her phone was making her lose her appetite.

Their father was waiting up in the kitchen. He was frying some plantains as a late-night snack. He put them on a napkin to soak up some of the grease and Naomi burned her mouth eating one he’d just taken out of the oil.

“Those are still hot,” he said, too late to do anything about the burn, and Naomi ate another one anyway. She switched her phone to silent and flipped it on its belly, but she could still see the light glowing out from the crack underneath, blinking angrily every few minutes.

She opened up her chicken sandwich and scraped out all of the mayonnaise and then put it back together again before taking a bite. Her sister was sitting beside her, flipping through one of her textbooks. She’d already eaten half of Naomi’s fries.

“How was work?” her father asked, scratching at his arm and flinging hot oil from the tongs onto the floor. Ever since their mother had left, back when Naomi was twelve, her father had done all the cooking. He wasn’t necessarily bad at it, but he was neglectful and would forget things like turning off the stove when he left the house. Sometimes he’d even forget he was making food and leave to mow the lawn or work on the car and the kitchen would fill up with smoke.

Naomi told him work was fine and then she left the two of them and went down the hallway with her sandwich and a napkin full of fried plantains. Her room looked exactly the same as it had since she was little, which made sense, because she’d never allowed it to be altered in any way. She’d moved out to live with a girlfriend when she was eighteen, but that had only lasted a few months, and then she’d come back home again. The paint was Peppermint Pink, a color she’d picked out with her mother when she was six years old. Dolls lined the shelves of her room. For a long time she’d been obsessed with them: Cabbage Patch, porcelain, puppets, cloth bodies and plastic, ones that wet themselves and ones that you could feed fake food. The dolls were all coated in a fine layer of dust. Her mother had been the one to get her the dolls, had brought them home to her every time she went on a trip for work. She’d done marketing for the theme parks and often got to travel out to visit them. She didn’t even like the parks, and Naomi had always wanted to go, so the dolls were her mother’s way of apologizing for that. Once she abandoned their family, she still sent the dolls in the mail occasionally, but Naomi never opened them. Just threw them directly into the trash. Lucia hadn’t received dolls. She’d always gotten jewelry. That was one of the many differences between them. Lucia could be trusted to take care of nice things, like a diamond pendant or a gold bracelet, but all Naomi could manage were toys.

She lay down on her stomach on the bed and ate her sandwich that way, propped up on her elbows, and then she finally flipped her phone over and looked at the messages. Over two hundred of them, almost all from that unknown number, all variations of the first ones she’d received. Only two of the messages were from Carmen. One said, “please” and the other one said, “I’ll come over to your house,” which felt like a threat, even though Carmen didn’t know where she lived. Naomi called her back.

I don’t want to be here, Naomi thought, but there wasn’t anywhere else she wanted to be.

“Don’t come over here,” Naomi said. Carmen was crying.

“I just want to talk to you.”

“You’re talking to me now.”

“No, I wanna see you.”

Naomi flipped over onto her back and listened to Carmen sniffle into the receiver.

“What does she know?” Naomi asked, and Carmen told her that she knew everything, that Lena wanted to come down to her job and fuck her up, those were her exact words, and Carmen had spent the entire night trying to stop her from calling Naomi’s boss.

“So I just had to sit with her all night while she screamed at me. And I had to tell her all of it.”

“But what’s ‘all of it’?” Naomi was staring at the doll with the broken face. She’d thrown it across the room when her mother had finally packed up all her stuff and left. The most expensive one, the one she’d brought back from Germany.

“You know, how we’re together,” Carmen said. “How we wanna be together.”

“Oh.”

“Can I come see you?” Carmen asked. “What’s your address?”

No one knew Naomi’s address.

“I’m gonna have to move out,” Carmen said. “Like, tomorrow. We should get a place together.”

Naomi told Carmen that she had to go, that her dad needed help with something, and she hung up the phone before anything else was said.

She didn’t think she’d sleep at all, but at some point she must have passed out, because when she woke up it was the next morning and her legs were all tangled in the sheets. She’d been using one of her cloth dolls in lieu of a pillow.

In the kitchen, her sister had a newspaper open and was drinking black coffee from a mug that read YULE LOVE IT with a Santa hat perched over the letter U.

“You read the newspaper?”

“I do the crossword,” Lucia replied and then set the paper down in a puddle of spilled coffee. “Why are you up so early?”

“I’m always up this early.” That was a lie and Lucia knew it. She was never up before noon. Naomi wasn’t sure why she’d said it, other than the fact that she felt prickly this morning. That was the thing about working nights, she stayed up until the sun came out and then she slept until it started to get dark again. Her schedule was strange. It was all part-time work, and sometimes she forgot when she was supposed to be on shift and when she was supposed to be home. The days all bled together, hours smearing into a mess of nothing special.

Their father had already left for his job at the supermarket. He was a store manager. It was the same job that he’d had for close to twenty years. It was one of the reasons that their mother had cited for leaving, that her husband had no passion other than produce. But it was a good job. Not a reason to leave.

Lucia still talked to their mother sometimes. They had phone calls once a month or so, but Lucia had stopped reporting to Naomi about their conversations.

“I’m going to look at an apartment today,” her sister announced. “You want to come with me?”

Normally she would have said no, but she was worried that Carmen would find out her address, so she said yes and went to go put on pants.

On the drive over to the apartment complex, Lucia turned on NPR again. The sun outside was boiling hot and Naomi could feel her right arm cooking up so she moved it so it wouldn’t get darker than the other one. She’d lost her sunglasses a few months ago at the beach and was squinting into the morning light. Her sister sighed in annoyance and reached into the back seat, scrambling around in all the dirty clothes and digging free a scratched-up pair for her. The frames were neon orange and said BUSTER’S WASH N GO on the side in bold white print.

“Thanks,” Naomi said.

“What’s going on with you?” Lucia asked.

She wound up telling her sister everything.

“So you’re a cheater.” Lucia frowned, braking hard and honking at the car in front of them.

“Technically Carmen is the cheater.”

“You slept with a woman who had a girlfriend.”

“It’s not like that,” Naomi said, and Lucia asked her what it was like, then, but Naomi didn’t have an answer, so they sat in silence until they pulled up outside the complex.

“This is too far away.” The building was pretty and new but they’d driven at least half an hour to get there. “How will you make it home for dinner every night?”

“I won’t,” Lucia replied, and then she climbed out of the car and walked toward the leasing office.

Naomi decided she didn’t want to go inside with Lucia after all. There was a big blue pool beside the office and the gate didn’t have a lock on it, so she plopped down on one of the deck chairs and stared at the sun shining off the water. It was still early enough that there weren’t many people. An elderly woman was sunning herself with a white towel draped over her head, swimsuit straps drooping off her freckled shoulders. A mother with a very young, splashy son sat patiently as the boy shot water from a plastic squeezable dolphin down her bathing suit top.

The sound of the water lapping against the pool deck was soothing. Naomi took out her phone and looked at herself in the camera and saw that she had dark circles under her eyes, but otherwise she looked pretty okay. It was nice to be up with the sun for once. She saw that Carmen had texted her a few times asking to see her and talk in person. The other number had given up after one last text message that read simply, “you can have her.”

Naomi blocked both numbers.

She remembered her family going to the community pool together when she was young—all of them, even her mother—and how she and Lucia liked floating around in those inflatable inner tubes that her father brought home from the grocery store. Lucia’s had been a pink elephant, Naomi’s a purple unicorn. They’d hooked their legs together and moved around the pool as a unit. Naomi liked to close her eyes and pretend that she and her sister were an island, an actual physical landmass. The sound of the water splashing off their inner tubes and off their skin made her feel like they were the only two people in the whole world. Naomi wondered when she’d last felt that relaxed.

She startled as someone put their hand on her arm. It was her sister, hovering over her holding an armful of paperwork. “I like it here. I’m gonna put in an application.”

“Did you even see one of the apartments?”

Lucia said it didn’t matter. She had friends who lived out here, anyway, and she’d been inside theirs enough times to know that she’d like it just fine.

“The pool is nice, too. You can visit whenever you want,” Lucia said, and Naomi told her it was only an okay pool.

“There isn’t even a life preserver,” she said. Her sister told her to get in the car.

They drove in silence, more NPR filling the gaps where talking should have happened. Lucia dropped her off at home and then drove off with a travel mug full of lukewarm coffee to her dental hygienist school.

I don’t want to be here, Naomi thought, but there wasn’t anywhere else she wanted to be.

Someone knocked loudly and repeatedly on the front door. She already knew who it was going to be and didn’t want to answer, but then Carmen was yelling, “I can see you through the window, Naomi. Just talk to me for a minute.” Naomi was afraid the neighbors might come outside and say something later on to her dad or, even worse, her sister, so she opened the door.

Naomi could have said sorry, but instead she told Captain Jack that she didn’t think they should see each other anymore.

Carmen was wearing her Captain Jack outfit.

“They let you take all of yours home?” Naomi pointed at the ruffled shirt. “Miguel always makes me turn the employee stuff in before I leave for the night.”

“I bought mine,” Carmen said. “The whole thing.”

“How expensive?” Naomi asked, even though she didn’t care.

“Can I come in?” Carmen rubbed her hands briskly up and down the sleeves of her frilly white blouse as if she was cold. It was so hot outside that the peonies on the porch had wilted in their planters. Naomi was supposed to water them, she remembered. She’d told her dad she’d do it.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” she said. She walked around Carmen and went to grab the hose from the side of the house. Down at the end of the driveway Naomi noticed a car. A woman was leaning against the front of it, propped up on the hood. Naomi wasn’t sure but she thought the car was still running.

“That’s Lena.” Carmen took the sword from the sheath at her side and started swinging it across the grass. “She made me bring all my stuff. It’s, like, in Publix bags in the back seat. All my clothes and shit.”

“Why?” Naomi asked, and Captain Jack rolled her eyes. It looked funny with all that eye makeup, like something the real Captain Jack Sparrow would do, and Naomi wanted to tell Carmen she should start using it in her act if she wasn’t already, but she knew they were supposed to be talking about something serious. Already she’d missed half of Carmen’s response. Naomi turned on the hose and dragged it through the dirt back over to the porch.

“You shouldn’t water them now, it’s too hot. You’ll kill them!” It was Lena, yelling at her from the end of the driveway. Naomi knew it was true, her dad had told her that a million times, so she put up a hand to say thank you, accidentally squirting Carmen in the face and down the front of her shirt with the hose.

“What the hell?” Carmen’s wig had gone askew, and her eyeliner was dripping down her nose. “Why the fuck did you do that?”

Naomi could have said sorry, but instead she told Captain Jack that she didn’t think they should see each other anymore. Carmen grabbed the hose from her hands and sprayed her in the face, too. Naomi just stood there and took it.

I deserve this, she thought, and it actually wasn’t so bad. The water transitioned from hot to lukewarm and then, finally, to cool.

Carmen dropped the hose and struggled through the weedy yard in her wet pants and pirate boots toward the car. Lena got in before she could reach it and backed out into the street. They talked through the window for a minute. Naomi couldn’t tell what they were saying, but then Lena leaned on the horn angrily for a full ten seconds. Carmen stepped back, sword still swinging, and then Lena drove off.

Captain Jack didn’t look back at Naomi. She started walking down the street, following the path Lena’s car had taken out of the neighborhood. She took off her wig and scrubbed a hand through her short hair, and Naomi thought Carmen had never looked more handsome, all wet in that see-through white shirt in the bright yellow sunshine.

Naomi stood over the peonies, letting the water drip from her own long pirate hair and her body down onto the plants. It was just cool enough that they wouldn’t die, she thought. It was enough water that they could keep living.

Kristen Arnett is the author of With Teeth: A Novel and the New York Times–bestselling debut novel Mostly Dead Things. She lives in Florida.
Originally published:
September 1, 2022

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