The 1st time you meet Jackie she asks if you date then offers to suck your dick before you answer. You’re on the late night shift, leaned against the late night entrance smoking when she approaches. 6 feet of platinum blonde, wide shouldered working girl standing between you and the darkness. It’s not your pay week. You give her a cigarette.

The 2nd time you meet Jackie she’s all cocoa butter sheen and lava red lipgloss. All eyebrow arches and promising bulges. She doesn’t mention blowjobs but asks for a cigarette anyway.

The 3rd time you meet she tells you her name because you ask. Because you figure if you’re going to be giving up motherfucking cigarettes every time you walk past her motherfucking block you should at least know the motherfucking name of the motherfucker you’re giving them too. It’s been a long day and you’re tired. She’s in a good mood and laughs. She gives you her name like a gift and her upturned lips make you stand up just a little bit straighter.

You wonder why she chose the name-Jacqueline. A name so thick with syllables that sits heavy on the tongue and excites the lips like a kiss. You wonder about the process of naming yourself truly for the 1st time. About stating to the world that this is how you will address me. About how the names we choose for ourselves define how we see our future. You wonder how much the world respects our choices. If Jackie’s situation is an indicator, not much.

The 4th time you meet Jackie it’s looks like she’s been ass fucked by anger. She’s wearing a dirt colored sweatshirt and a smell. Her face a cracked mask of mascara and concealer.

Most days you just trade smoke and short talks and footsteps under the wild overgrown trees and in front of the church a couple of blocks before the bright danger of downtown.

You hope she sees you as someone she can depend on. Someone she can see coming and not have to be afraid of what comes next.

“They killed Kiki out here last week. Shit don’t make no sense.” She says one afternoon as the sun is setting. You don’t ask who killed Kiki or why Kiki is no longer with us. You don’t get too deep into secrets. She walks with you smoking over the bridge into the west but stops at the light and doesn’t move into the crosswalk.

There are rules for girls like her. Stay close to where the other girls can see you but not close enough to snatch their trade. Find a place to pee and a place to throw your shit if you need to run. Be findable but not obvious. Don’t spend too much time in the light. Don’t fuck with the D Boys by the corner store two blocks down. Don’t ever go past the bridge at night.

One night Jackie runs past you, just as you’re turning into the dark cluster of trees around her usual spot. Your “hey girl” falling into the rapidly expanding space between you as she shoots down the sidewalk in heels not meant for such quick steps. She side dips into the small park just as 5-0 rolls up behind you like death and slows, shines their sickle of white spotlight on your too masculine clothes, judges and drives off slowly like they’d gut you if there wasn’t bigger fish just up stream.

Another night you see her halfway down the block, recognizing her shape and slouch. As you walk out of the shadows she tenses, moves her hand behind her back with purpose. “Oh hey” she says exhaling smoke, tucking the razor and leaning back against the brick.

“Fuck these niggas out here” she lifts her chin slightly towards the direction you just came. Her right hand holding the cigarette and shaking and still just itching to cut a motherfucker. You don’t ask for any more details, those are the rules. But you do stand beside her by the blood colored wall for a minute and fill the air with twin smoke columns. Neither one of you says anything until you’re ready to leave and you pull the cigarettes from your back pocket and gesture in her direction.

“I’m good tonight. Thank you.” and turns back to watch the darkness.

You’re on the train one weekend heading somewhere when Jackie sits in the seat in front of you and stares.

“You don’t recognize me do you?”

You turn to the man across the aisle wearing the Raiders jacket, blue jeans and white tee shirt. It takes a few heartbeats for you to place his face and imagine him in a blonde wig and red lipgloss.

You’re slightly amazed how much she looks like the guys that hang in front of the corner store. How she looks like your cousins, your uncles or friends you haven’t seen since they got sent upstate.

It’s been a while since you’ve seen each other and she tells you about how things are going good and how she’s moving back to Vallejo to be close to her family and how her man is getting out of jail soon and how she’s trying to move into an apartment so she can get custody of her son and how nice the day is and how she feels so good and how good it is to see you.

And you don’t think she’s high, but you do wonder how good she really is but she’s smiling so you’re smiling and you get off the train half hoping that this is the last time you see Jackie so when you think of her in the future there’s some hope that her life really did get better and she really is somewhere in Northern California with her family and her son and her man and her apartment planning for a future that doesn’t include crumpled 1’s and late nights with some strange man’s dick in her mouth.

The next time you see her is about a year and a half later. About a block from where you 1st met. You’d actually been just thinking about her and wondering if her man had made parole when you saw the tall skinny figure walking towards you. Wouldn’t it be funny-you thought-as the leggings and baby doll t shirt shuffled closer.

“Hey. You got a cigarette for me?”

Seeing her is not funny. There’s no punchline for the dark meat of her swollen eye. Her face is like old leather and you can see the sweat and the stains from 5 feet away. You don’t ask what happened to her new life because you still want to believe that it exists somewhere a few cities over and that she’s not heading down to her corner to clock in for the night.

You reach into your pack and think back to the 1st night you met. When she had offered to get on her knees in front of you. The way she’d probably sized you up in the dark behind the buildings. Deciding you were safe enough, deciding she could probably beat your ass if necessary. Decided that it was worth the risk.

You remember how she looked that 1st black night. Her hair a synthetic blonde crown defying all shadows. The way her pink tipped nails lifted the cigarette to her lips as she leaned in. The way she lit up as she closed onto the fire. The way she burned. The way she shined in the flames.