Outside it could be thirty below, but this room breathes sweat and work and bodies. We’re painting the McClatchys’ master bedroom dark red, a faux finish somewhere between marble and leather. Sexy as fuck. Rich people always want these deep reds smattered all over their huge houses, and I always wondered why the color of a slit wrist would turn anyone on. Now I see it. Being surrounded by these colors feels like sneaking inside a body, secret and warm and blood red. Red in a kitchen or a bathroom, an accent wall in a living room white as an asylum, those walls still make no sense. But this I get. Stowed inside this red bedroom with my boyfriend Hector I have what I want—a room for us and no one else.

I hate the word boyfriend. But like red walls, once you’re in them, they feel like home. You stop fighting, embrace sappy because it feels right. Cynicism is for those entitled brats at school who never had to worry about being so poor you spray paint your mom’s shoes black to camouflage your giant hand-me-downs. Cynicism is for those who never had to worry about losing their home, who never saw yellow envelopes turn pink and then turn into foreclosure, and then the bank lets your dad rent the house he owned last month.

Right here, for now, I have a red room with Hector, a home that’ll last as long as our workday. He mashes a plastic baggie against the wall next to me. He’s churning out a brown-red vein of marbling. It slithers from the top right corner, splitting into two directions, and then merging to find its target. Maybe Hector doesn’t think about the direction of his paint. I never know what he’s thinking. He’s concentrating on the wall, eyes boring into the sheetrock. His tongue curls at his thin black mustache. His forearms flex and slack to the rhythm of his hands. Blood-red flecks dapple his sweat-slicked wrists. My dad would say he’s a natural, would hire him in a second. But I found him first. I fuck him and I might love him, and my dad can’t stop that. Dad can’t make a wall look soft as leather, hard as marble. Can’t turn a room into sex.

Hector catches me staring at him. He bends to the paint pan to dip his baggie. Instead of putting it to the wall, he slashes it against my chest. “I’m docking you for that shirt,” I say.

Paint drips cold down my skin. I yank the shirt over my head, toss it on the dropcloth. The wet-heat of the room feels better against my bare chest. I wish I could always work like this, without a shirt, in just my bra, shirtless like summer painters. But it is winter and I have tits.

Hector keeps glancing. They’re not big tits. But when I’m quoting jobs for dad, they get me in the door and I always land the bid when it’s the Mr. at home. When it’s the Mrs. they act like they get it, like they owe me something because I’m out there working like they aren’t. These little tits work for me, and they’re working now, drawing Hector’s brown eyes even though he’s seen them a hundred times.

I dip my baggie into the paint, cup a handful of red, and splash it against his shirt. He makes like he’s offended for a second, then peels off his tank top.

We jab wet paint baggies into chest and hair and legs. He smears red over my mouth. Tastes like bitter. I spit, wipe my tongue, punch him in the stomach. He grips both my wrists. I jump and swing my legs around his waist, twist and yank him to the ground. He falls like I want him to. Hector always follows well. It’s what he does best.

He flips us over so he’s on top. His dick stabs my thigh. He pushes my wrists to the dropcloth until my fingers tingle. His hips slide as he tries to center his dick. He smiles like we’re still playing. I hook my toes in the waistline of his shorts, yank them down. His tongue glides against his thin black mustache again. He’s concentrating, his eyes narrowing, getting all bedroomy, all dopey and half-closed. Guys get so serious when they’re about to put their dick into something.

I swing him over so I’m on top, and then I stand over him, unhook my bra, slip off my shorts. I walk away. Back to the wall and the paint pan, wearing just black panties.

I know he can’t stand it, know he’s squirming, fiery red, chest thumping. I go back to painting. This feels like control. This feels like I own my life, like I choose what happens next, not my dad or the bank or the cardboard boxes of photo albums filled with me and my sister at every age. Mine: Hector sucking my clavicle, Hector’s arm wrapped hot around my ribs, Hector’s pelvis pressing against my lower back, Hector’s dick against my spine. He cradles my ribs, rocks me, rests his chin on my shoulder. His chest rises and falls to my rhythm, my breaths. He’s testing what it feels like to live in my body. Following the lead of my lungs, my heart, my blood. It’s killing me not to turn around and pull my panties to the side and slide him inside me. But I want this to last as long as it can. Fucking doesn’t last. It’s paint fumes. It’s a cursive-scrawled love letter lost under primer and two layers of top coat.

The bedroom window rattles, clinks. On the other side, Tack smashes his lips and tongue while he raps at the glass so hard it should break. I wish it would, wish shards would slice his tongue clean off. Hector’s arm shoots over my breasts.

Tack jimmies his finger under the cracked window and swings it open. He squeezes his own fat tits. “You worried I’m gonna see your girly’s clementines?” he says.

I squirm out of Hector’s cover, turn my back to both of them. “At least I’m not dragging around a pair of saggy fucking watermelons,” I say and scoop up my shorts and bra, but can’t find my T-shirt.

“You said you were coming later, at dark,” Hector says.

“Well, it’s fucking dark, man.” Tack picks up one of our extension poles and aims it at the window. “Look outside.”

We all look, and of course it’s dark. It’s almost 6. Winter in Michigan. The sun has as much chance as a match buried in a snowdrift.

“Shit, I don’t even remember seeing the sun today,” Hector says. He’s standing there talking to Tack naked. His dick sways when he scratches his ass.

“Maybe you should quit smoking so much pot and jacking off until 4 in the morning,” Tack says. “I was up and out of the house by 7. I did more before 9 than the goddamn army.”

“You didn’t do shit,” Hector says.

“Sold an eight-ball to Sherman. Fueled up the Corsica. Stole a Big Bite at 7-11.” Tack pokes the extension pole into Hector’s chest. “And I banged your momma.”

I find Hector’s shorts and throw them into his face. While Hector’s leaning over to put them on, Tack rams the extension pole into his right ass cheek. Hector laughs, hops away on one foot. Tack follows him, propping the pole in front of his crotch and jabbing it at Hector. I wish Hector would get mad, like I am. I wish he’d hate this asshole for hijacking our almost-fuck, our time, and turning it into one of Tack’s games of humiliation, but nothing bothers him, like usual. Hector just stumbles along to Tack’s lead. I kick the pole out of Tack’s hands. Hector pulls up his shorts.

“You broke my cock,” Tack says. “You better kiss it and make it better.” He leans over to pick up the pole again.

The paint fumes scorch my lungs. The room has become smaller, hotter, burning. “What the hell is he doing here? This is a customer’s house.”

“That’s what I told Tack, that no one would be here. We can do whatever we want.”

The pole drops between Hector and me. My shirt dangles off the end. I reach for it, and Tack pulls it away. He lowers it, wags it in front of me, but I won’t reach again. I’m not his fucking joke. The shirt hangs there stupidly. And there’s my dad’s business logo crinkled in the draped shirt: googly eyes and a big idiotic smile pasted on a paint can. A brush dips into its hollow tin head. I used to love that logo when I was a kid. Dad made it for us, this cartoon version of the work that gave him a chronic cough and forced surgeons to tear open his rotator cuff three times. That stupid paint can never paid the bills that Dad pretended were as surreal as a cartoon until collections came for the house. Now when I look at that logo, I imagine the brush lobotomizing that goofy bucket. Only way to stay sane is to have half a brain. I won’t do this long enough to ruin myself like Dad, to need some fantasy version of work. Just long enough to make enough to move out of this town and get a real home with Hector in the city.

Instead of grabbing at the shirt again, I grab the pole, jam it at Tack, aim for his nuts. He gasps, reaches at his crotch.

“You’re lucky you missed,” he says. He holds his fingers together. “By that much. I’d of punched you right in the cunt.”

“Your dick’s so tiny I’d have a better chance finding a dime in your momma’s giant snatch.”

“You don’t get to talk about my mom.” Tack stomps over to me, pushes his gut against my chest. He glares with squinting blue slits.

Hector laughs. “Why would a dime be in her snatch?”

Tack backs off. “I keep telling her to stop keeping her change there.”

I pull Dad’s shirt over my head. Hector lights a joint. I open another window. Cold blasts into the room we heated. The smell of paint and sweat and us sucks out, and I let myself forget. Hector offers the joint to either of us. I let Tack take it first. I don’t care if I’m second. I don’t care if I’m anything, I guess. I hired Hector to paint with me. I let him love me, fuck me, but there’s always Tack, that giant mass that sucks everything good we have into his pile of shit. I’d hate him less if Hector didn’t become blind to me when Tack’s around. They already live together at Hector’s mom’s house. If I were Hector, I’d be dying for a second alone.

Tack takes a few puffs, exhales, takes a few more. His giant lungs devour the joint, fill the room like a fire. He passes it to me, and Tack’s spit squishes in my fingertips. I take a hit, take two and three and four, show Hector I can fill a room just as good as Tack. Even if this is my job, my responsibility, my money to lose, my lungs are just as deadly. Hector shakes his head, says, “Damn, April. You’re the champ.” Tack clicks his tongue in agreement. My head feels scooped out already.

I’ve only been smoking pot for a few months, since I met Hector. On our third date skipping Mr. Feldman’s geometry class, Hector lit one up at Conservation Park, back by the Girl Scout cabin while I chucked stacked firewood on the roof. I sang Tiffany songs at that cabin when I was ten and the sky was dark and a dozen girls in Guess jeans surrounded me at the campfire. I was the only one without the right pair of jeans, because my mom said my dad wouldn’t give her the money, but I knew she was keeping it again, stashing more cash away in coffee cans she’d bury in the yard. There was darkness that night to hide my Wrangler jeans, but also the betraying glow of campfire, the logo-hunting eyes of cruel little girls. With Hector, there was just a tiny ember in daylight. Hector could see everything. His fire was just for me, and he’d never given a shit about Tiffany or Guess jeans.

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