The air was stifling as I rattled my truck into the parking lot. Brad was sitting on his lawn chair in front of his apartment, which was directly under mine, surrounded by his cats. They lay stretched out in the Texas heat, grooming their patchy clumps of fur. The latest in the collection, a burly black scrapper, stared at me with his one good eye. Brad grinned at me from behind his greasy hair. He wore his usual tight cutoffs and nothing else. In his mid thirties, his belly rounded over the shorts he probably purchased as jeans a decade ago. He smoked a cigarette and sat with his legs wide apart. I tried not to look. I knew those shorts had a rip in an unfortunate place. “Hi Brad,” I said as I bounded up the stairs. I had an audition scheduled for that night. I was going to be a stripper.

A few days earlier, I’d been sitting on my milk-crate furniture, eating my cheese and mustard sandwich. It was either that or fried potatoes, but it was too hot for potatoes. I’d spent all that was left of my paycheck on a bottle of Crown Royal and a six-pack of Mickey’s wide-mouth beer. My minimum-wage job at the bookstore didn’t stretch farther than that. I was that kind of poor. The kind of poor that could buy a pack of cigarettes but brought a raw potato to microwave for lunch. The kind of poor that landed me in an efficiency apartment solely because my supervisor told the rental agency I took home two hundred more a week than I really did. “You owe me one,” he said, giving me a light punch on the shoulder. Although a couple of the employees still lived at home, most of my co-workers were like me: in their early twenties, armed with liberal arts degrees, with no idea what to do next. I was scouring the want ads for a second job when I came across the ad for dancers.

I’d never been in a strip bar, but while I was taking ballet lessons in middle school, I was a huge “Flashdance” fan. I figured I could do that bucket of water trick, no problem. All week I’d imagined busting out from a mild-mannered bookstore clerk to a dance dominatrix on stage. As I changed back into my sweatshirt (falling off one shoulder) and glasses, I’d tuck away wads of cash. However, now that it was time to put on my lingerie, something nagged at me. Maybe I wouldn’t be coming back because I’d gotten myself chopped into little pieces. Maybe the ad was just a way to lure “Flashdance” fans into snuff films. I fingered my sexy green teddy neatly lying on the bed, then opened my door to look out over the railing. Brad’s favorite cat, a gnarled tabby named “Snackiecat” looked up at me from where he was curled at Brad’s feet. “Hey Brad,” I called.

He looked up at me and scratched his hairy belly.

“I need to ask you something.” I walked downstairs, pulling up a lawn chair next to him.

“Hey, you got a beer?” he asked. I often hung out with Brad, smoking cigarettes and, in general, doing nothing. He wasn’t a great conversationalist, but he was always there.

“I’m out,” I lied. I actually had four left. Brad never had any of his own beer. I told him my plans while he scratched Snackiecat behind the ears.

“Doesn’t sound very safe to me,” he said.

I instantly regretted telling him. I didn’t want a lecture, I wanted a solution. “I’m sure it’ll be fine,” I said. “I just wondered if you had anything I could take with me just in case. Like a knife or something.”

“I think I’ve got something,” he said. “Just a minute.” He disappeared into his apartment. The one-eyed cat glared at me while I fidgeted nervously. Brad reappeared carrying a small canister of pepper spray, electrical tape fastened crookedly over the nozzle. He explained that the nozzle was broken, but the spray would “bust right through that tape.” I was dubious, but this was clearly all the help I was going to get here.

Upstairs, I threw the pepper spray into my purse and put on the fake silk teddy I’d bought at Target the day before, dropping my flowing hippie skirt into a pile of dirty clothes. I curled my hair until it fell in soft waves around my shoulders. Studying the pepper spray, I tried to imagine the spray shooting through the black tape. I figured I’d better try it out first. I wouldn’t want to defend myself with faulty pepper spray from someone trying to make a snuff film.

Holding it over the sink, I sprayed it into the basin. It did not shoot through the tape. Clear liquid drizzled out from under the tape and down the palms of my hands. I tried again, but more liquid just ran down my wrists and my skin started to burn. Never mind. I just wouldn’t bother taking it. I washed my hands with dish soap until it seemed all the pepper spray was gone. I stood up on my milk crate to look at my ass in the bathroom mirror. From what I could see at that angle, which was not much, I looked pretty hot.

Then I put my contact lens into my right eye.

My eye was on fire. I quickly rubbed the lens out and splashed water into my eyes, but the pain was excruciating and tears flowed down my face. I cupped my eye and screamed, “Brad!” Lurching out my door, I stumbled down the stairs, holding the railing with one hand and covering my eye with the other. “Help!” I shrieked.

Brad jumped up from his lawn chair and cats scattered. “What happened?”

“It’s in my eye!” I howled.

I felt Brad grab me around the waist and push me toward his apartment. “We’ve got to wash it out,” he ordered.

“I can’t see. I’m going blind!” Shit.

He guided me through his cluttered apartment, his hands on the back of my Target lingerie. Something cold and soft squished between my toes, but he dragged me to the kitchen, pushing me down over a sink of dirty dishes. I smelled cat shit and rotten food. He turned on the water and pulled my hand away from my face. I could feel his bare skin pressing against my back as he leaned over me. He needed a shower. A cat rubbed up against my ankle and sniffed my foot. Brad was splashing water up into my face like a maniac. I finally pulled back and squinted at him. He was a blurry figure with water dripping down his chest, and I was soaked. “It didn’t shoot through the tape,” I said.

I made my way back upstairs carefully, unable to see out of my right eye. Maybe I could wear my glasses to drive over to the bar and take them off to dance. I couldn’t see without my glasses. I probably wouldn’t be able to see the pole. I’d fall off the stage. I washed the cat vomit off of my bare foot. Squinting at myself in the mirror, I tried to view my puffy face through my one good eye. My right eye was so swollen I could only open it a slit. I pulled my eyelid up to see it was red and bloodshot through. I wasn’t going to be auditioning tonight. As I took off my teddy and dropped it into a crumpled green ball on my bed, I knew that I wasn’t going to be auditioning at all. I wasn’t going to wear lingerie and go to a bar. I wasn’t going to dance for anyone. I was not the kind of person who does that. I was the kind of person who pepper-sprays herself in the eye. After I pulled my hippie skirt back on, I reached into the fridge and grabbed the four remaining Mickey’s.

Downstairs I sat heavily in a lawn chair next to Brad, feeling defeated. I cracked open a beer and handed it to him. “I found some beer in the back of the fridge.”

“Cool,” he said, taking a swig.

I dropped a Mickey’s wide-mouth cap into the dirt and watched the one-eyed scrapper cat sniff it. The cat and I looked at each other with our good eyes. We were survivors. Tough mofos. I lit a cigarette and leaned back. “You got a copy of the want ads?” I asked.

Naomi Ulsted

Naomi Ulsted is a memoir and fiction writer from Portland, Oregon. She's been published in SALON, LUNA LUNA, and MAXIMUM MIDDLE AGE. She works as the director of a Job Corps vocational training program for under-privileged youth, and is married with two young boys.
Tom Eichacker is an Oregon raised, LA based illustrator. He is a libra. Instagram: @tomeichacker.