"Like sisters," Alma had said about us, to me. She'd said it after I tried to kiss her. I just wanted to taste her ferocity, and she seemed the bi-curious type: A tattooed girl with a snarl on her lip. The way she'd said it, like sisters, was so sincere that I'd forgotten to be embarrassed for my wandering lips. I put her hand on my heart and repeated her declaration of love. "Like sisters."
Alma and I met waiting tables at a club in Santa Monica; it was the sort of place university students with fake ID's drank until they vomited. We were the two brown girls in a front of house staff comprised mostly of short, angry men. People always asked, “Are you two sisters?” Yes, yes we were. I didn't like the place, but when you look queer, a job is hard to come by. And I looked queer with my faux-hawk and lip rings. I stuck around there for years. Better than working at nonprofits or call centers. I'd done that. Alma didn't have to stick around; she had the sort of face that people hire: full lips (snarl and all), an elfish chin, hypnotic glassy eyes like ocean swells after dark. It didn't matter that she had holes in her jeans or drew ugly geometric shapes on her sneakers with a Sharpie. She got away with it. The bartender always tried to get a rise out of Alma, tried to incite her to flash him with anger. One time, he palmed her ass as she balanced a full tray of pints in her hand. She swung around, long black ponytail slicing the room, and then, gently, as though sending a bird into the sky, she released the tray, and the beer, froth, and glass poured down on him. A tremor of fury, a tiny victory. That night we toasted to a sisterhood of victories.
She quit not long after that and began a career in webcam pornography. "I've been going into debt fucking myself," she said, "turns out I could have been getting paid."
I told her I'd briefly dated a porn star, Van. We broke up because, according to Van, I confuse love and sex—it isn't true, but she called me a petty romantic so many times, I thought about getting it tattooed across my chest. I went to one of her video shoots when we were going out. She hung from the ceiling by a rope knotted around her ankle, while her orifices––ever-expanding gyres––were gorged until I thought she'd rip apart. Later, she told me she could have taken more.
"Cool," Alma said. "When can I meet her?"
Reluctantly, I introduced them. We met at a bar and Van told us about her new friend, Beth, who was getting her bizarre gigs. The money shot was her naked on a kitchen floor covered in some variety of food products: champagne, yogurt, ham. "I think you're confusing sex with food," I told her.
"Last night, I laid on a table for two hours, covered in gravy. Like an English roast," she said and looked at us expectantly. Her hair had grown out since I'd seen her last. It was still shaved on the sides, but a long swath of fawn-brown curls hung seductively between her eyes.
"What kind of gravy?" I asked.
"I don't know what kind of gravy, it was gravy, brown gravy. Anyways," Van looked over at Alma from her barstool perch, "what are you doing next Wednesday?"
"Wednesday?" Alma said. "Pretty sure I'm free."
"Beth and I are doing a shoot, and we need a third. Pies this time."
"Pies. Huh. Is that really your thing?" I asked Alma.
"I mean, sure," she said.
I realized that they were going to hook up, and I hadn't filled Alma's saltshakers, and bussed her tables to offer her as a human sacrifice to my ex. "Well, I'm going too," I said.
"You want to watch?" Van asked. "I'll even let you pie me."
“I don't know what that means," I said. And I didn't.
Van's friend Beth looked like the sort of girl you think of when you think porn star: blond, a Botox smile; better looking from further away. Apparently, she also moonlighted as a classical pianist. She picked us up at 10 am, and the four of us drove into the Valley, blasting Rachmaninov the whole way. Interstate 5 transported us onto suburban boulevards and past corporate parks with their dark ribbons of lightless windows. Simon, the director, waited for us outside a eucalyptus-lined housing complex. He waved his keycard and the iron gate rolled open.
"Hey, Simon!" Beth shouted out the window, her golden hair tangled in the breeze.
Simon leaned in and gave Beth's hand an intimate squeeze, then directed us to a parking space. He was a small-framed white guy wearing a Polo shirt and khaki's, his skin freckled from too much sun. He introduced us to his girlfriend, Jackie.
"Who are you?" he asked me.
"She's just here for the show," Van said, laying a hand flirtatiously on his shoulder.
"Beautiful day, isn't it?" Jackie said with a distinctly New York sound and scratched her head. She had the sort of dye job that's unnaturally red, like she soaked her head in a barrel of Merlot.
Jackie and Simon ushered us into the "lounge" which turned out to be a community recreation room––the sort of place where residents throw baby showers and holiday parties. It reminded me of the rectory at church when I was a little girl. Something about the smell: Medicinal. Drafty.
"This is it," Simon said proudly.
"We're shooting in here?" Alma asked, wrinkling her nose.
Beth snorted. "What were you expecting, a movie set?"
Alma shrugged and followed Van and Beth to the bathroom to change, leaving me leaning awkwardly against the doorframe. A narrow kitchen separated the room by a low counter, on which twin rows of empty pie shells sat, so perfectly molded and uniform––with their ridged tops and their tapering tan skins. Simon and Jackie unrolled plastic sheets across the floor and took an industrial-sized roll of Saran Wrap to the sofa. Jackie had bright pink nails on her wrinkled hands that kept tearing the plastic. The way they were giggling, I wondered if this was their idea of a hot date. Simon tasked me with mixing the food dye into the vats of whipped cream, plastic tubs of snowy peaks, that he hoisted out of the fridge. "It’s like human tie-dye," he said.
I hadn't planned on being put to work, but I was glad to have something to do. I reached a finger in and let the cold sugar dissolve on my tongue. I mixed red, yellow, blue and green; the colors came out muted, delicate pastels.
"Where's the tape?" Jackie asked.
"Well, don't tell me we're out," said Simon. "We've got to tape the plastic or we'll be steam cleaning the carpet for weeks. There's no explaining that."
"Don't fuss, Simon. I have some in my apartment," Jackie said and turned to me. "Want to come?"
I peered down the hallway and heard laughter coming from behind the closed bathroom door, and put the spatula down. We walked along the cement pathway past the identical wood- shingled townhouses with chimes and wind fans on their porches; past a sky-blue pool with a few visored patrons reclining on lawn chairs.
"Do you do this often?"
"Go to porn shoots?" I asked. "No, do you?"
"This is my first shoot," she said. "So, is the one with the curly hair your, girlfriend?"
“My ex,” I said, more sullenly then I intended.
"I knew there was something between you two," Jackie said. She spread her arms wide as though offering her breasts to the sun. "I moved out here from Long Island five years ago, and I'd never go back. It's so calm here... and the weather."
She went to look for the tape while I stood smoking a cigarette on her porch and peered through her sliding glass door. Her living room was cluttered with exotic looking junk: wood-carved elephants, brightly painted plates, a large wooden cage on a pedestal with tiny blue porcelain birds.
"I got that in Laos," Jackie said, a roll of masking tape around her wrist like a bracelet. "I used to travel a lot with my ex-husband. Now I've got my Simon. He lives right there," she pointed to an identical building on the other side of the walkway. "We're having a blast. At my age, I'm almost sixty, I thought I was destined for loneliness."
"So what's with the pies?" I asked.
"What?" She turned and looked at me favoring one eye, like a bird, "Are you offended?"
"No," I said, "Are you?"
"If you’re upset, just say so."
"Well, it is a little strange, right?" Jackie said. "It's just fun. He told me it all started with the cartoons when he was a kid. You know, the old pie in the face shtick? He makes some money off the website too, but mostly it's a hobby."
She locked her door, and we headed back to the lounge. From Van, I knew enough about the industry to understand a thing or two about hobbyists. Their videos were less about money than about community validation. The directors share a little piece of their sexual imagination (however limited)––they share the proclivity, share the desire: see this pie? See this girl?––and the community of like-minded fetishists gratefully accept the director’s vision with one hand while the other hand yanks their genitals.
"All the guys have their things," Jackie said. " It could be worse. It could be a lot worse."
I agreed and put my cigarette out in a garden planter.
Van and Beth sat on the couch wearing summer dresses. I envied the way that Van could morph from androgynous to high-femme, with a smear of lipstick and a change of clothes. Alma wobbled in after them, looking vampiric in her white button down and black skirt we'd bought at the resale shop on Melrose. Her warm brown skin glowed against the bright red of her lips, and I wondered if I'd ever seen anyone more beautiful than her. I knew she’d only called my sister to let me down easy.
Simon fiddled with the lighting. The hot yellow glow cast dramatic shadows across the small room. "We're ready to start filling the pies, too," Simon said.
Jackie, who was squatting over a seam on the floor with the roll of tape, looked up at me, "Just two scoops in each, honey."
I reached into the vat and ladled out two scoops. Simon looked over his shoulder and said, "Two and a half. Two and a half scoops."
Simon, the little dictator of the pies. I ladled half a scoop more and plopped in the cream.
"Okay, girls, let's start by saying what it is you're looking forward to, all right? And say it into the camera." Simon motioned his hands like a traffic guard.
Van put a hand on each of their legs and said, "I can't wait to eat."
Van's glossy lips curled into a dark smile. I rolled my eyes. Van and I had only dated for a few months. I'd be lying if I said there wasn't still an ache of attraction. Dating her, I realized that in all my previous relationships, I'd crouched in the shadow of my partner's insecurities about sex. Always quick to establish a routine where we both knew exactly the road to travel on the other's body. With Van, there were no shadows, the terrain spread wide open, capable of swallowing whole any offering I might lay before her.
"Yeah," Beth said, "I'm ready for dessert."
"Ummm," said Alma, tugging on a length of her thick, black hair. " I like pie?"
I kept scooping as Van started pulling at the buttons on Alma's shirt. I felt my face turn red, but I didn't look away as they stripped each other down to their underwear. Beth and Van were lean and muscular, professionals, trained for endurance, capable of pushing their bodies to new limits of contortion, expansion, and excitation. Alma––her soft arms and legs, and her wide belly––shared little of their athletic looks. She fidgeted with her hands and flashed a sultry glare at the camera.
"Now for the fun!" Simon said, rubbing his hands together, and reaching for a pie shell I’d filled whipped cream. "I'm going to throw a pie at each of you, one at a time. It's like a guitar solo. Any of you girls like music?"
"I'll go first," Beth said, throwing up her arms, and she did have long fingers, piano fingers. She posed in front of the couch with a wide smile. From behind the camera, Simon pitched a pie. The filling was pink and I watched––a little mortified by the speed and force of the throw—as the pie hit her square in the face. Most of it stuck, but wads of rosy frosting and crust flew off almost like she'd been shot, and bits of fluffy brains were sent splattering behind her.
"Nice aim!" yelled Jackie. We all chuckled.
The fat blobs of whipped cream slid down Beth's face, she licked her lips. "Yummy," she said.
Van went next. Simon lobbed a blue pie; it smacked her on the forehead.
"Take two," said Simon and threw another pie, this one green. "One more," he said, and a yellow one slopped against her left cheek. Temporarily faceless, blue, lemon, and minty green, her naked body looked like the stick of a lollipop. She wiped the frosting off with her hands and shook them.
"Careful," Simon said, "Let's try not to get any in the kitchen area." She wiped the rest of the icing across her ribs.
Then it was Alma's turn. She got up from the couch, naked except for her patent leather heels and a pair of tiny underwear. She stood with her fists clenched looking like a nervous child about to jump into the deep end of the pool.
Simon launched the pie at Alma, but she darted out of the way and it exploded on the couch. We all laughed, and Simon threw another. She ducked it, too.
"Okay," Simon said, "try and hold still." But the next pie Alma swatted with her hand.
"Relax," Van said, smiling through the smears of frosting, "it doesn't hurt. It's like getting farted on by whipped cream."
"It's not that," Alma said, "It's just a reaction."
I think at first, that was true, just a natural instinct to avoid objects hurtling towards one's face.
"Let's try it again," Simon said, smiling encouragingly, his long front teeth protruding beyond his lower lip, but she dodged it again, and then another time. With each successive pie, Alma's smile became tighter lipped and the evasion became about something else.
"Everybody has to get a pie in the face," Simon said, as though lecturing a disobedient child. "That's the rules."
Alma exhaled sharply and raised her eyebrows in a silent "fuck you." I figured out then, and I admit I can be a little slow, but the slapstick cartoons, getting pied in the face: the joke’s on you, literally. I could see fury under Alma's skin. As if there weren't always some guy standing in the wings waiting to throw a pie in all our faces. I felt responsible. I had introduced her to Van, which is why she was there, but more than that, as her self-proclaimed sister, I wanted to shield her, take the pie for her, or better yet, take down the pie-thrower.
She looked at me with a fierce question in her eye that I couldn't quite articulate. I looked away.
"I don't want to waste anymore," said Simon, "Girls, why don't you hold her arms?"
"You're fussing," Jackie called, pulling more shells out of the freezer, "we've got so many in here." She set them on the counter, and stood next to me, patting my hand.
But Van took one of her arms anyways and Beth took the other, and they held them behind her back; their hard, angled bodies: restraints. I picked up a pie and held the smooth, waxy crust in my hand; it felt weightless. I bit my lip and told myself that I would throw it at Simon, that I would hurl it at his thinning grey hair and his drawn back cheeks. We were young, we were beautiful; our bodies, or at least their bodies, were economically powerful, sexually powerful, were they not? Who was he to make the rules?
Beth said some cutesy thing into the camera, I don't remember what. I was too furious with Van at that moment, for her complacency, her "professionalism," for not telling Simon where to put his game and his rules, even as I stood there mute, palms sweating against the pastry crust.
Simon threw again and this time, it hit her. Yellow frosting stuck to her long black hair.
"Incoming," Simon shouted. Alma looked up and stared straight into him, daring him. A purple pie struck her and she became violet, her face vandalized in a lavender cloud.
"Not bad," Simon said, standing back admiringly with his hands on his hips. "She's a feisty one, isn't she?”
And they laughed. Not me, but they all laughed. Van and Beth and Simon because it was supposed to be funny.
I waited for my cue. I waited for the ground to tremble, for the sugar, the shiny heels, and the pretty girl skin to fall away and reveal the devil and the victory that I knew lived beneath. The frosting dropped from Alma's brow.
Before I had a chance to register what was happening, Jackie pulled the pie from my hands. I watched it projectile over the counter and explode in the shiny center of Simon's skull. Somebody gasped, maybe we all did. I heard a low giggle come from beside me.
"I couldn't help myself!" Jackie hooted, pink nails splayed over her open mouth. "I'm so sorry."
Simon turned slowly around, a pile of blue frosting on his head, like dandruff shampoo.
And then we were all laughing, trying to hold it in, but failing. A brown hand on a pale muscular leg, golden curls tumbling over whip cream cheeks, floral panties bunching, piano fingers full of fluffy brains. Simon, crowned king of the pies.
"Okay," Simon said his face set in a horrified smile. "Very funny."
Then Jackie handed them all pies and they smashed them in each other's faces, slathering themselves. Whipped cream in their armpits, their ears, whipped cream running down their backs. And so began an awkward dance of manufactured sex. Alma lay with her back on the couch and Van and Beth climbed on top of her. They seemed to respond to the stimulation but their eyes never lost focus. They kept their plucked genitals angled towards the camera, their moans struck the air in a rhythm of exclamation points.
A pie burst across Alma's tits. Van looked at me and winked before licking it away.
I watched, but not with lust or jealousy, just curiosity. It wasn't true, what Van had said about my confusing love and sex. After Van, I had dated a girl for about a year; I thought I really loved her. But, since we'd broken up, I'd found no pleasure in arousal. I got off on love.
Their three entangled bodies shimmered as the sugar mixed with sweat and enameled them in a fine glaze. Bodies in motion, communicating through clenched muscles and sharp gasps; no exchanging unspoken secrets, no fingers grasping at comprehension. Watching them, they reminded me of my own disengaged masturbation. I'd curl my fingers between my legs and think about all the things I needed to do or hadn't done that day: read my emails, cancel an internet subscription that I never used and had overdrawn my bank account. The ghost of pleasure would stab at my muscles, my spine, fill my mouth. The ecstasy of orgasm ricocheted across the halls of my body, but the halls were empty.
Alma: Her movements a little stiff; reluctantly vulnerable, her patent leather heels reflecting the amber light. I looked for signs of the rage that had so entirely consumed the room but found none. I wondered if she'd let it go, let the rage evaporate off her skin. Or perhaps it had slipped into some dark crevice to hide. I wanted to see the rage, I wanted to reach in and pull it out of her, set it before the camera, a bloody, vibrating mass. But I stood there, leaning against the counter and realized that she had offered me that rage. The question that she'd asked me with her eyes was: sister, will you hold this rage with me? But I looked away. Now, all these years later, when I long for the burn, I wonder if I swallowed too much, before I even got to taste; swallowed it down, when I could have just reached out my hand and held it.
For the climax, Simon started throwing pies as quickly as he could, like the finale of a fireworks show. I looked over at Jackie, and she nodded her head towards the door. I grabbed my cigarettes and followed her outside. She asked me for one; we lit up. She looked tired, the skin around her mouth hung slack.
"Very fun," she said, "who knew?"
"Who knew?" I replied. "Not me."
Cecca Ochoa serves as Managing Editor for Apogee Journal. Her fiction has appeared in Art XX, MAKE: Literary Magazine, and is anthologized in Pariahs: Writing Outside the Margins. She is a 2014 Alumnus of Voices of Our Nation's Artists. In 2011, she received the Astraea Foundation’s Lesbian Writer’s Award.