Being single means going to strip clubs. Even if you hate them. Because every last one of your married friends needs those weekend “getaways” twice a year. They bullshit you about the good old days, about catching up, but three beers after they’ve landed they’re asking about the best peeler in town. Friend? You’re a chaperone.
Tom was my old drummer, and the only one from my five-pint a night past that still talked to me. Mostly about the good old days of bars and strange girls he’d thrust on me for laughs. The hangovers laced with guilt so savage it damn near drove me to suicide? I kept that off the record.
Tom went into banking and I kept getting degrees. He’d become a classy guy and I still dressed like Nirvana was in town, opening for Sonic Youth. He married his high school sweet heart, Amanda, a great gal, but had never been with anyone else. And now that he was ripped and styling, it was killing him. “It’s so easy, man,” he’d say when I was in town doing research, dressed in crisp shirts and pants as if he’d stolen them from the back pages of Maxim. “So fucking easy. I can talk ‘em up, get ‘em to move the way I want…” he whistled high to low, lip curling into a smile. “But I can’t break my word.” He’d knock his ring against his beer, and I’d try not to hate him.
He visited once. My plan was the usual “weekend bachelor” schtick: get drunk at the Headless Goat, laugh, eat shit food and talk about me making an ass of myself back in the day. Three drinks in, he asked, “You seeing anyone, man?” Tom was being a harry dick. For all the years he’s been with Amanda, my love life had been pretty famished beyond one night stands that I lied about. But his face twitched when I said, yes, indeed, I’d been “seeing” someone. “Details, brother,” Tom said, jesting, and ordered us a fresh round, import for him, Rusty Nail for me. “Details.”
I spilled them because, fuck, for once in our friendship I had bragging rights. His eyes glazed over as I told him the boring shit like her name (Reena), her job (admin at the school), where she was from (local), how she was divorced (with a kid), how we meet. “She used to flirt with me when she was married.”
And Tom was back.
But I didn’t share that her marriage was loveless, her ex violent, and she’d been starved for human affection for years. I told him what he wanted to know. “Fucked like a rabbit,” I said, and Tom grinned, bitterly. “Single moms are like that. Insatiable. I was sore every week. Two sessions a night, three times a week. I think I’ve lost ten pounds in ball juice alone. She was so sensitive that if I even say the word ‘fuck’ she’d be rubbing her legs together and I could basically get what I wanted. Back of her car, blowing me in a line up for McDonald’s Drive Thru. Any which way but anal. Even convinced her to do a three way with a slutty friend of hers when I found out she liked girls when drinking tequila.” That last line was a half-truth, but whatever. I grinned and grabbed my glass. “It was awesome.”
“But she’s gone?” Tom said, worried, as if he’d expected me to call her tonight. I nodded. Anger pinched his face, swirling his pint of amber lager. “Fuck, Sid, only you could screw that up.”
The truth wouldn’t work. Not all of it. Rena was abusive. Enjoyed making fun of me, calling me worthless and an asshole faggot whenever I would insinuate for a split second that maybe, just maybe, tonight we could talk instead of fucking like rusty machines. That always invited a lecture about my arrogance, how much better I thought I was because I had a couple of “bullshit” degrees. Asking her about her feelings, her divorce, anything human beside grabbing her crotch during American Idol was somehow a pimp slap. And she loathed that I only ever had one beer when we went clubbing with her friends, but was I going to tell her kind poet’s soul that every beer was another coin toss between being the life of the party or so fucking depressed she’d be lucky if I could get an erection with Viagra and crazy glue?
The truth? “I don’t want to keep hurting you,” she’d said, crying. Sweetest thing she could have done. Because with that much ball smacking, joy-and-anger-fucking, there was absolutely no way in hell I could dump her without blowing my head off. Hell, my shaft was still raw from the booty call she asked for last weekend, where she baked a lasagna and before we could eat it I had her on all fours while she screamed at me “murder that pussy, you fucking faggot!”
“Just another notch on the belt,” I said to Tom, grinning. “Besides, I wasn’t in love. Not like you and Andrea.”
He smiled, then polished off his pint. I sipped my Rusty Nail, and it was too sweet. “Want to order some suicide wings?”
He put the glass down, then his credit card. “Nah. This place is stale. Let’s we pub crawl.”
He paid, I gulped my drink, and we hit the street. Tom was fuming because I was ahead of him for once, so I asked the usual questions about home life and work. He relaxed some, told me the usual stuff, about his job, raises, cars, and about a young exec who he’d been working with, who looked like Ann Hathaway but with a righteous rack. Amanda might as well have been dead. But when he was done wolf whistling about himself, I let the questions end, to see if he’d pick up his end of the discussion, maybe ask me about my shit, my degree, my life.
Silence held us for a five minute walk while he fussed with a cigar, and I finally asked “Wanna hit the Iron Triangle? It’s a Scottish pub.”
“Nah, champ.” He was using his Rat Pack voice, as if he was about to meet up with Dino and Sammy for Chinese food at The Sands. He handed me a stogie from a silver tube. Cuban, Dominican, I didn’t know, but was glad for something to fiddle with. “How about somewhere with a floor show?” He used an engraved cigar clipper to cut one end. “If you dig?”
“Subtle,” I said. His lighter cost more than my rent, and lit up the money sticks in our mouths. I puffed. “Well,” I said, a more up-beat Joey Bishop. “For that kind of action, there’s only one game in town. Follow me, Chairman.”
Truth was, we had five strip clubs, but the Mad Hatter was closest, and I wanted this “old times” weekend to end. I’d chaperoned friends to the Mad Hatter Club five times in the past three months. Last two times, I saw my barber, Gregory. He bought me a pity beer while my friends attended private booths, inspecting a stripper’s bona fides. My next haircut, Gregory shaved my neck with a straight razor and laid a life lesson, about falling in love with strippers. “They’ll eat an hour and a thousand bucks out of your hand and you’ll thank them for it. Learn from my mistake, Sid. Never, ever go to the Champagne Room.” Why? I thought they were make belief. Gregory smiled “Right. They make you believe you can touch them. But you can’t. Trust me.” The haircut was great.
The Hatter was stuck on a corner of Queen St., just off the main drag, with a “hotel” above run by the owners as part of a brothel. Tom didn’t see or notice the neon sign for “Hotel Siesta.” Whew.
The classiest thing about the joint was the oak panel doors. No bouncer on the street. Just heavy door. It’s an act of commitment to pull its weight. I spared Tom, yanked the warm metal handle, and he walks on in with cigar blazing and smile high. A 250 lbs. monster in biker tats and a golf shirt yelled to put our cigars. We did, and Tom pocketed them in metal tubes, as if he was prepared for just such a contingency. Most days I’m lucky if I remember to zip up my fly.
“Suck My Kiss” blared, as did the balloon-breasted blond on stage, to the roar of a frontline crowd of jocks and soldiers in matching shaved heads, babies trying to crawl back in the womb. “You grab a seat!” Tom yelled over the bass. “I’ve got the first round.” He slapped my back as if he was doing me a favor, since even a bottle of beer at this place was eight bucks. I didn’t want another beer. I’d drank too fast at the Headless Goat and my mood soured. But Tom was gone before I could change courses. Fine, I thought. I’ll just nurse a lonely bottle until he gets bored of wasting his money and pressing his luck, looking but not touching. Fuck, I should have never bragged.
The front row was taken, which was good. I found a booth against the wall to the left of the stage while “Fat Bottom Girls” started and the yea-haws followed. On the opposite side, in the darkest corner of the room, were the diehards. Men who had favorite girls. And, of course, Michelle, in ball cap and fingerless gloves. Michelle was madly in love with Toni, a local ginger who worked most weekends before the headliners from Toronto, Montreal, and Buffalo. But for Michelle, Toni was the shit. When Rena came to the Hatter with her girlfriends for a bachelorette party in Spring, the bouncer had warned the drunkest of the lot not to touch Toni, or Michelle would cut her. She was fine with guys oogling, though.
A familiar bald head shone in the dark. Gregory, eyes hazy and smile wide, listened to stories from a lap dancing girl with a fleur-de-lys tattoo on her left ass cheek. Plus ςa change.
Startled, I shook. She had curly brown hair up in a messy ponytail, silver bikini, panties, and six-inch platform heels. Eyelashes curled up like two gaping Venus fly traps. Older than the headliners. Mid thirties, but working it. The muscles on her arms and legs were round, fierce, and lovely.
I smiled. “Can I help you?”
“You look bored!” Every word was a bright, big smile. Eye contact hard and unwavering. Every other stripper had been happy to pass my sullen ass by.
“I’m just waiting for my friend,” I said, and thumbed toward the bar.
“I hate to be a buzz kill,” she said, thousand watt smile still beaming, “but I think he’s found a new friend to play with.”
A raven haired goddess, slim, weak, wearing black knee-high leather boots and a pink Playboy tank top three-sizes too small, led Tom into the dark, two beers in his hand, past the stage, even past the private booths. Into the hallway of the fabled Champagne Room.
I laughed, and shrugged. “Well, how can I compete with that?”
“He’s going to be awhile,” she said, still smiling hard, and still friendly, still… sincere. “No one spends less than three songs with Veranda. C’mon, we can talk in the back, keep an eye on them.” She winked.
Of course she was beautiful. She looked better than most of the slutty nurses, teachers, and secretaries I drained my balls to each morning. But I wasn’t one of those guys. Champagne room guys. “I’d love to,” I said, loud and clear over Brian May’s annoying guitar solo. “But I’m so broke my debt needs to look up to see the ass-end of bottom! Sorry.”
She put her hands on her hips. “I can’t take no for an answer. And before you say you’re broke again.” She leaned down, smelling of fresh sweat, jasmine and hairspray. “The manager said it’s okay. I’ll tell you why when we get there.”
Her ripe, mature, and very real breasts rose slowly, cresting my face. Then she presented her hand. Her fingers were long and well lined across the palm.
I took it.
We walked through the darkness. Past Gregory, lost in his own hypno-erotic disco trance, toward the back room he warned me about, her well cultivated ass sashaying with each step. Most strippers look awkward in heels. Her hard, muscled legs seemed poured into them.
It was stupid, but after three Rusty Nails and no dinner I had a ripe case of the “fuck-its.” Yet again, a friend had used me as a facilitator, an excuse, a means to an end, and just when I had some actual bragging rights of my own to share, he fucks off. Jealous shithook. I’d just make sure she knew I had zero dollaro and keep my hands tucked under my ass cheeks. No matter what she said, not one dime would drop away from my corpse, and our skin would not touch.
Down a hallway with two doors on the same wall. She opened the last one and wordless soul music played, all bass, keyboard, and one tight snare. She entered. A single purple bulb, clothed in red shade, hung over a plush and lonely chair. “Inside, please,” she said with a mock official tone, then spun on her heels and did the arm-crossing bit, push up her tits. In purple light, the silver of her limited apparel was sparkling and her skin was the hue of crushed cinnamon. As the door closed on its own, her smile returned. Not seductive. Friendly. And a lot more effective. “Sit.”
“So,” I said, ass hitting cushion, the room moist and cool where I was expecting fetid and hot. “Why did the manager say I should come here?”
Her head tilted to one side. “Promise not to get sad?”
I laughed, head hurting. “This doesn’t sound good.”
Her doe eyes were fixed like her smile, her steps measured and firm. “The manager’s seen you here. A lot. But you’re not a regular. In fact, every time you come in, it’s like you’re sitting on broken glass.” A worried look emerged. “And that’s not good for business.”
I blinked. “I’m a cooler? For a strip club?”
She laughed, clapped those warm, strong hands, but kept moving forward. “That’s great! Yeah, a cooler, just like in a casino.” She lifted her chin and crossed her arms again, flexing one foot on its heel. “We do a lot better business when you’re not hiding in plain sight.” Her smile broke out a few extra watts.
I nodded, rather taken with how easy she spoke. Training. Not stage and drama. TV or trade show. Whoever she was, she was good. “Wow,” I said, “you caught me. I’m not a fan, just a chaperone,” I raised my hands and nodded my head, “but I mean no harm. I’ll leave, you can find a rich guy worthy of your time, and everything’s jake. Just let me text my friend that I headed home.” I reached in my pocket and she straddled me, hovering above my lap. Most of me froze. Her musk was adrenaline, lips so close I could see creases beneath the dirty red cover-girl smear.
“You’re not gay.”
I shook my head.
“So, why don’t you like the Hatter?” She kept that friendly look. Not an ounce of sultry. As if she was talking to a friend. Tone of concern, and control.
I spoke like a dummy without moving my lips. “I thought there was no touching here.”
Her arms descended behind my head. Her voice softened into a sexy tone. “Is that why you don’t like us?”
From fresh lust, resentment burned. I shook my head. “Wrong move.”
She leaned back. “Not from here it isn’t.”
I smirked. “You’ve been friendly. Your eye contact was impressive, considering I look like a baked ham in a concert T‑shirt. You made me feel connected. But this?” I looked around. “Cheap.”
“Do you like us cheap?” But her façade crumbled. She wasn’t used to losing, so didn’t know how to recover.
“Please,” I said, disdainfully, “you’re outrageously beautiful, but you’re embarrassing yourself. I liked the bit about being a cooler, though. Made being depressed sound like a super power. You’re good at reading people, but you broke the bubble. Went from being a person to an object.” Her nostrils flared. “Bet Veranda can buy a car each night with that routine. But you’re smarter than that.”
The erotic mask shook and faltered. She stood and turned, heels clomping as she kicked the ground like race horse with a bad shoe. Crying. I inhaled hard and fast. I didn’t want to say I was sorry. She’d use it. Pull me back to being a customer. “Why?”
She sniffed. “You are bad for business.”
“Why you?” I said. “The bouncer could have tossed me out for any reason. Why take this plum assignment?”
She sniff-laughed. “Honestly? I’m late with rent and there was a bet. But no one else wanted you.”
I chuckled so hard my belt buckle stabbed my gut. “Was it my cookie dough complexion or relaxed attitude toward personal hygiene that made me the worst job tonight?”
She laughed, wiping her cheek. “You come in here and… fume. That’s scary to us.”
I nodded. “Well, sorry I wasted your time.” I stood.
“Sit down.” I fought gravity. Her smile coiled up both sides. No smirk. She was regrouping. “Just sit. All you have to do is sit until your friend is done. Two more songs at a minimum.”
“If I leave now,” I said. “What happens?”
She walked toward me, hands behind her back. “This will be a lot easier if you sit.”
I stepped back, mouth dry. “I’ve done nothing—” I shook my head. “Forget it. I’m gone.” I reached for the door.
“I’ll scream you grabbed me.”
I retracted my hand. “What?”
She lifted her hands, palm up. “Just sit.”
“Look,” I took out my wallet, fat with receipts, coupons, and bank statements, “I’m ten different kinds of poor—”
“I am not kidding,” she said, voice hard as her nipples. “Sit. Or I’ll say you grabbed my tits. Trust me. You don’t want what happens next.”
Fear and lust trip-hammered my heart, blood raced everywhere, and the dark spot in my head throbbed. There must be cameras watching. But that was only in my favor if I died and there was a murder trial. I sat.
A new song, mid tempo, started.
“See how better it is?” she said, playfully, eyes trying to rekindle the kindness she’d assaulted me with earlier.
I clenched my jaw.
“Speechless?” She pulled a towel from behind her like a magician with a dove, smile radiant. “I’m flattered, but you like to talk.” She laid the towel across my lap. “You want to talk.” She landed in my lap. “Don’t worry. The only rule here is no touching.” He arms wrapped around me. And then the grind began, her eyes gripping mine. “Say anything you want.”
My lip trembled. “I hate you.”
She tongued the space between lip and teeth. Eyes still friendly. “Liar.”
“This isn’t dirty talk,” I said, slow and weak. “I hate how you tricked me, threatened me. I hate how easy you made me feel like you gave a shit. I hate the steroid fueled apes in the front row more, but not by much.” She closed her eyes, still grinding away, but her body tensed. “For a split second, I wanted to help you. But it was an act. You’re not human. You’re a fuck puppet. I don’t get to take home, and someone else pulse your strings.” The grinding slid too one side as she lifted her right leg up and over my face and spun around my lap, towel twisting in my crotch. “Your broke, I’m broke. If I had money, I’d give it to you to stop.” She raised her ass to my face and spread her cheeks, the heat and tang from her thatch infected my tongue, fattening my words. “I hope the money is worth treating me like a slave. Guess I know how you feel, huh?”
She strutted away and turned.
Her nose twitched. She sniffed. This time, mascara splintered down her face. She was older. And absolutely beautiful. “Why can’t you just sit there and enjoy this? Please?”
“Enjoy being a joke? You’re nuts.” She sneered. “What? Isn’t the joke over?”
She shook her head, jaw clenched. “Not yet.” The third song played, and rage pierced her smile. “Here’s the punch line, you fucking shit.” She dove and kissed me violent, chair rocking back as her teeth gnashed mine, biting, my lip splitting and wet redness filled our mouths with iron. Her fingers dug into my skull like knives. Hands locked a my sides, my willpower screamed to grab her ass, drive her into me, but she did all the work until my teeth tasted of blood and glitter, claw marks tattooed on my scalp. When the song ended, she pulled back and the door slammed open.
She sat up, spat my blood back on my face. “He bit me.”
Dragged like a sack of dirty laundry, I was dumped out into the club’s alley. “Wrong move, shithook.” Boots crashed into my gut and bile licked my throat. “We got rules. Now hand over your fucking wallet.” A kick in the kidney made my eyes blister with stars.
I handed it over. Paper hit the earth like origami boulders. “What the fuck is all this?”
“Proof I’ve got no money?” I whispered.
“And you went to the Champagne room?” Another kick killed my witty rejoinder. “There’s a tax on that kind of stupidly, retard.” Shock waves rattling through skull and brain, and the trenches she’d made in my scalp stung fresh. Lip fat and leaking, my next breath was wet. As I got on all fours, below was a tiny pool of blood with a single spark of glitter. Another drip and it drowned. “That faggot friend of yours better be able to cover your ass, or I’m selling your goddamn kidney.”
Needless to say, Tom came to my rescue and we took cab back to my place, kidney bruised but intact.
“What the fuck happened in there?” Tom was breathless, fresh sweat staining his fine blue threads, and angry.
I shrugged, lip leaking, gripping my guts as if that would help me from spewing. “I tried to resist,” I said, spitting blood. “I really did. But she started kissing me—”
He shook his fists. “No, no, stop, don’t! You are so full of shit, you know that? Like that load about your ex being a goddamn porn star. Like I believed it? Sid, why do you make up shit like this? I just wanted to have a good time. And you totally ruined what I was working on in there.” The rest of the ride was a soliloquy on how he got her to do his bidding, and how she was totally into him, followed by a drunk confession, “I had her number, I was going to rock that chick but then you go off and do something so fucking stupid, something you know you can’t do…”
I nodded, until I started laughing.
“What’s so fucking funny?”
I opened my mouth to say what I thought, but puked so hard and violently, laughing in between the gushes, that the words were burned out of existence. And all of my sick smelled of jasmine and glitter.