It wasn’t Blake’s fault that the stripper music stopped. You go to these establishments for constants, promises kept. We sat beside the glowing stage. Blake had been droning on about thermal imaging and circuits, trying like everyone else to be cautious with me, but kind of mechanically, as he massaged his temples. Thirty years of friendship, around work, around better obligations, was one of the constants we brought into the club with us. He’d done that rubbing when we were teenagers, worried about exploding into seizures. Tonight he added an irritated yell: “Why get naked in public if you’re that fat?” The song had just disappeared.
The circling dancer froze in the silence and her hot spotlight. She was the primary promise this place made, I guess, for a femininity that you were allowed to use your own way. Take what she gave you high, or go down low; the customer’s always right. I peered behind us into the darkness at a pink-haired bartender in a Mickey Mouse bikini top; the mountainous, tattooed bouncer limping our way; a pockmarked, pointing dwarf with spiky, graying hair, running in place, huffing and puffing, and wearing a charcoal suit with a wide, silver tie that swung like a medieval blade over his laptop, beneath him on a table for two. I hated being noticed. It was Tuesday.
And the popular songs blaring so loudly your ribs rocked and made you imagine what it might feel like to borrow a heart that beat better than yours—that, too, was a promise. My own heart scares me, everywhere but here. My daughter’s mother is heavy. I’ve gotten heavy—gut, thighs, neck. Sometimes the fat’s oppressive; sometimes, for me, it’s insulating. If our girl had lived, we could have argued over the influence of genes and bad habits, pretended that only good souls and focused intellects mattered; pretended that overcoming was worth believing in. Blake’s wife and boys are like him, lean, boney, and balanced. The composite stench here, of drinks, cleansers, and human fluids, and the colored light, as false and corrupt as sugared food or Halloween’s children or every pathetic good intention there ever was—they’re expected here, too, as part of what’s due.
The booming track started again in a few seconds, without explanations for the breakdown. The few patrons at the bar and spaced around the stage registered no offense, no trauma, and continued to glare at the girl. She seemed imprisoned, and the most disturbed, but never slouched or supported herself with the pole. A smooth white belly sagged a bit over an aqua thong stretched across significant hips laced with white, scratchy scars. Shoulders and elbows constricted just enough to advertise an unexpected modesty. A jagged, pillar-like crystal in a gold claw, beside a clashing, sterling ballerina charm, rested against her throat. Thin ankles quivered, more stressed keeping her stationary than they’d been propelling her, in sea green, satin, stiletto pumps, toward scattered dollar bills. Her flushed face twitched, and crayon-pink lips convulsed like candy worms in a child’s dream. Dirty blonde hair stuck to her sweaty forehead. An unmerciful air conditioner triggered goose bumps. How goddamned heartless we were to make a world where anyone had to be that alone.
Now Blake couldn’t move. He was a vegan, for control, I guess. Since he stopped eating things that shit, he said he had fewer seizures. He was an engineer at Eternal Electric. Now he felt stricken, under attack—more like the rest of us. Grounded. Ground down. He shouted: “I can’t see her eyes. How can you keep coming to these places?” I tried to focus on that tinge of embarrassment I thought I’d read, in her body, in her face. I tried to remember that once I believed I had poetry in my heart; once I used to come here for what their faces said.
I pulled Blake up and we strode through the resumed, palpable music, out into the hot, forgotten night.
“Let’s ride, “ I pronounced.
“You have to grow out of thinking that car can carry you away, Nick.”
The beach’s scent of salt and vegetative decay impregnated the traffic’s gas fumes. My baby died last August. I probed my pockets. Sunlight and blood on a sky blue bathing suit. Baby’s blood. Some things no one should ever see. I tugged at the door handles. Car accident. The keys dangled from the ignition. I wasn’t there. Another man was driving a stunted Honda, a man who hadn’t read “Dover Beach” to my almost-wife until she cried, back when she was skinny, and hungry for living. My erased little girl. The blood had aged into black by the time I got to her empty suit.
Glass exploded. My fist had flown. I heard the stripper shriek. I didn’t know how she’d gotten there. Sweat down my back, inside my jeans, stole all my focus. The crackling sound and the tinkling kisses of safety glass on my skin got me hard. I limped around my perfect red Mustang. I growled with each shot I took. Sweaty arousal, when it helped no one; love, too late to matter: that was me all over. Only one more window broke. My bleeding fist ached. The mostly naked woman yelled for an ambulance. I felt, if not bonded to her, at least sympathetic, and composed, in my head, a worthy line.
Yeah, hon, out here it’s hard to be on time.
Blake ruined the scene. Coming around the front of the car, ready to attack the windshield as I delivered my words, I tripped over him. He was thrashing on the hardtop like a shitting fish out of water. The shrunken, hyperactive manager was zigzagging around the entrance, calling 911. The dancer squatted, tottering on her hellish heels, to hold Blake’s head. Car horns honked, and boys hooted, as if she were a miracle. Maybe, sometimes, even inside, if the music didn’t stop, adoration could make her forget about the money and feel like a miracle. Blake became still. I reached into the backseat, pushed grammar books, syllabi, and puzzle pieces of glass off the folded pink blanket with the Frozen sisters on it, and held the offering out in my palms. She wore it like a scarf. I looked again, in quiet moonlight, for the color of her dry eyes. Root beer would have been my guess.
“I can’t watch that movie anymore,” she whispered, but pronounced her words with such shocking articulation that I couldn’t decide which need, to disappear or to be understood, was primary in her.
“Why are you here?” I asked.
“Do you know what chakras are? I wanted to heal people. We all come from . . . . Nursing. Mothering. But everyone stays so far away. And they’re mean. You were so mean.”
“No, it’s just seizures,” I said. “Stress. He’s always been sick, and I made him come. He doesn’t like to break his routine much.”
“You come all the time. I said you were mean.”
“Yes, I do. But I wasn’t the one who said it. I like heavy women. I like dancers. He’s like a child, or used to be . . .”
She wasn’t listening. She had started massaging Blake’s temples, as if she could feel more trouble coming, or as if she loved him as a fellow creature. Blake and his big income and societal contributions and his perfect family and his condition and his stupid, rude outburst: why not pick him over the guy who knew what real pain was, over the guy who respected what people had to do to survive, and experienced life, instead of insulating himself from it? And Blake’s cell phone started ringing from his pocket. He was always in demand. The girl was zoned out, trying to imagine, maybe, that she was floating around in another dimension. I was the only one stuck in reality, deciding whether to answer the call and tell his wife what was up, and fighting off the ocean stench, and remembering dropping gritty shells into a pink plastic pail, and bleeding, and hating them for getting to be as lost again as we all were earlier, inside, for a little while.