***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof.***
Copyright © 2014 by Adam Pelzman
Of all forms of caution, caution in love is perhaps the most fatal to true happiness.
— Bertrand Russell
I am ashamed—ashamed to admit that I am so unattractive that I have never kissed a girl. That’s not true. I did once, when I was eight, before the girls knew what ugly was. That was a bright-life moment. But soon the fist of hierarchy squeezed tight and rammed me to the underworld.
My great loves have been unilateral and unknown to all but me. That is why I write, to create voices, back and forth, with Her, where only a muffled soliloquy once existed—a maddening, tortured, silent scream.
Sometimes I dream about a blind girl, but fear that her sighted friend—the one she’s known since third grade—would tell her she’d made a terrible mistake. He’s hideous, she might whisper, just hideous. Or maybe the friend would have mercy on me. Do you think she would? Have mercy?
I once asked a man, my father, if mercy exists. Yes, he said, mercy abounds. And he gave me a tap on the top of my head, a loving yet hollow tap that foretold both the tragedy of a child and the powerlessness of a father, the awful soul-sickening impotence of Our Father. Yes, He repeated, mercy abounds.
But I’m not so sure. I was born in Mercy General, says it right here, right on this piece of paper. But that’s as close as I get.
— Julian Pravdin
He comes in the first time, eight o’clock on a Tuesday night and it’s real slow. White, maybe forty, real handsome in an odd way—unusual—with a crooked nose like some Irish boxer. He’s got sharp clothes and messed-up hair, not sloppy but sort of stylish, and a fancy watch, blue face with gold around the edges, and I’m thinking ooh, that’s a pricey watch.
First thing I do when they sit down is I sit right next to them before the other girls get there, and that’s what I do with Julian. When I started out, I wasn’t so aggressive and all the other girls got the dances and the tips and I ended up spending the whole shift running from table to table—like some dolled-up little girl in her mama’s clothing—late for the party and not making any money. But after a few weeks I learned how it worked. That’s when the girls found out I wasn’t fooling around anymore and stood way back when I was on the move.
So, he comes in and sits down a couple feet from the stage. I see Lopez eyeing him, and she’s a nasty slut. She’s one of those inked-up burlesque girls, with the Betty Boop haircut and the black eyeliner and pierced everywhere. And I know what she’s gonna do to this guy, ’cause Lopez is a skanky bitch and a hustler and she keeps going until she gets their stats and God forbid they’re rich or famous or in politics, ’cause then she holds them up until they pay her off. But I throw her a glance, a mean stare, and Lopez freezes like she’s some animal in the night that just got lit up—she’s all bark and no bite with me—and that’s my opening.
I sit down next to him and say, real confident, my name’s Perla, what’s yours? He tells me Steve, but I know from doing this a thousand times that the way he’s saying it doesn’t ring true, like he hesitated just a second to give it some thought. It’s the smallest details I’m always seeing. But that’s the thing about first names. We use them so much, people always calling us by them, that when someone asks what it is, then no reason to have to think about it. What’s your name? Bob. What’s your name? Rick. What’s your name? Joe. See, it’s real fast. Bob, Rick, Joe. Question, answer. Question, answer. Question, answer.
But a zodiac sign? That’s another thing. There’s so many of them, twelve actually, and sometimes it’s hard to remember them all. When I was little, I wanted to be a Capricorn, the sea goat, ’cause both my parents were born on January third, which I always thought was strange, both of them on the same date. I mean, what are the odds? Turns out it’s one in three sixty-five. Except if it’s a leap year, then the odds are a little worse. But I didn’t get a Capricorn birthday. I ended up Sagittarius, the one that’s half horse and half archer. Which is fine with me.
So I say no way you a Steve. And he looks all nervous and sweating a bit, especially on his forehead, and he smiles and says you got me, it’s Julian. And the way he says it, real fast and self-assured, I know he’s telling the truth. Pleasure to meet you, Julian. And I lean over and give him a playful little peck on the cheek, my signature move, fun and sophisticated, to show him that I got a little personality, a little class, not like the other girls. I look up and Lopez is glaring at me all angry, I guess ’cause it’s a slow night and we’re not making much money and she sees a nice-looking man with a fancy watch.
I ask Julian if I can buy him a drink, which is what I do some- times when it’s real slow and I got a handsome guy. That’s the opposite of what the other girls do. They’re always begging the guys for a drink, which I don’t think is a good idea ’cause it puts the guy on the defensive, makes him think you want something from him. Which of course you do, and he knows it, otherwise what’s he doing here in the first place? But why wouldn’t you just pretend sometimes that’s not the case. Seems like a good strategy to me. And the truth is, he’s gonna pay for it one way or the other.
Anyway, he says I’d love a water. A water, I want to know, you don’t drink? Nope, he says, I used to but not anymore. And something about the way Julian speaks makes me think that maybe he’s not from here—and I don’t mean from some place like the Panhandle or Alabama. I mean from another country. I can’t pick up the accent, but I can tell the pronunciation’s just too perfect, all proper and smart, like he learned it from those language tapes or from watching the evening news.
I wave over to the waitress. She’s a white girl in her forties, a lady really. Jade’s her name and she used to dance here, but it’s too late for that now. She’s had two kids—actually, two pregnancies and one kid—and her body’s all stretched out, red marks around the hips. I hope the same thing doesn’t happen to me, being a cocktail waitress in a place like this at an age like that. So I wave her over and get Julian a bottle of water and get myself one too, ’cause I don’t drink either, and not ’cause I got a problem, but ’cause I need to be in total control of myself at work, reduce the chance that I make a mistake and put myself in a bad situation. Sometimes I treat myself to a ginger ale with an orange slice, but I stick with water this time.
When Jade comes back with the drinks, Julian says thanks for the offer, Perla, but this round’s on me. And that’s the best possible result, when I offer to pay but the guy pays anyway, ’cause I get credit for being generous but it doesn’t cost me a dime. Julian turns to Jade and asks how much and she says a hundred dollars. She gives me a little wink ’cause this is our inside joke, where she makes a new guy think he’s getting jobbed. And you can see on his face that he’s shocked, and you can also see him look over to the bouncer near the stage, whose name is Schultz—yes, Schultz—and who looks like something you’d see in an old horror movie that takes place in Transylvania or Bavaria or some other spooky place like that. And I guess Julian decides that even though a hundred’s a crime, he’s out of his territory and it’s better than having to fight Schultz.
So he opens his wallet and takes out a hundred-dollar bill, hands it to Jade. Well, damned if she ever had someone just hand over the money without a big production, and she laughs and says I’m just screwing with you, sweetie, it’s ten for the two. Well, Julian gets all red and embarrassed and he looks at me, then Jade. He smiles and says I knew you were screwing with me, which of course he didn’t, but keep the hundred anyway. Jade’s shocked and she leans over and gives him a big wet kiss on the cheek, not like my classy peck.
With a certain type of guy, the talk’s awkward, and that’s what it’s like at first with Julian. The drunk college guys, they just jabber away with nonsense and they’re so excited to be near a nude girl that the words just flow out their mouths, like their entire system’s flying. The locals, the burnouts who hang around every night, they don’t say much, don’t even seem too interested in the girls, like we might as well be a piece of old furniture that you throw your coat and keys on at the end of the day. But the mature ones, the ones with some substance, especially the new ones, they’re hard to crack. With them, it’s not all hey, baby, show me some ass. With a guy like Julian, you gotta talk all grown-up, which isn’t easy for a girl like me. I can do it and all, but that’s not a place I like to go in the club. Outside, fine, but not in the club.
He isn’t much for taking the lead, so I start with the usual. Where you from? What do you do? First time here? You married? Got kids? Julian downs half his water before he can answer a question, and when he does answer he’s so vague that what’s the point? I’m from up north, he says. Where, I say? Orlando? No, New York. What sort of work? I’m in business up there. Business? I say. Well, that could be anything, right? What’s not a business? And no, he says, I’m not married. So I take his left hand and hold it up to the light. There’s no ring, that’s for sure, so I’m looking for the indentation. You know, lots of times they take it off right before they come in and the mark’s still there. But if he’s got a mark, I sure can’t see it.
Then he starts asking me questions, most of the same ones I asked him, but it’s worse when it’s the man asking the girl. It’s worse ’cause I’ve answered the same questions a thousand times and the guys really don’t care what I say, and it’s hard as hell to pretend I care. And the worse thing is you know exactly what they’re doing. They’re acting all interested in my life, but they’re really trying to figure out how a girl like me, all pretty and innocent and I don’t have any tattoos or piercings, how I could do this type of work.
There’s also something voyeuristic about the questions, like they’re trying to get into my world, peer inside. Do you enjoy it? Do guys ever get rough? How much a night do you make? Your family know what you do? They want to know the secrets. But the funny thing is, funny to me at least, is that they don’t need my answers to get in my world. They’re already in my world. These fools are part of it. And not only are they part of it, but it’s them, not us, who are the real actors, the lead actors. Me? I only got a supporting role. If it’s not me, it could be anyone. So when a guy like Julian starts asking me questions about the darkness of my life, it’s like a tourist, a foreigner, standing on Broadway and Forty-fifth Street and asking a local for directions to Times Square. And the New Yorker looks around at all the bright lights and the theaters and thinks what the . . .?
Now, the only reason I know that’s how it works in New York is ’cause my dad took me to the city when I was little, just a couple of years after we left Cuba. It’s the only time he ever did take me on a trip up north, and we were standing right in front of the Shubert Theatre and damned if he didn’t walk right up to a taxi driver having a smoke and say sir, you be kind enough to point me and my daughter in the direction of Times Square?
So how does this place work, Julian asks, my first time here. You got three choices, I say. You can sit here with me and talk for free until I get bored and go find someone else who will pay me. How long until that happens? he asks. Five minutes ago. I smile. Or we can go in that room over there with the drapes, that’s the VIP Room. That’s fifty for the house and fifty for me. There’s some privacy there, more than out here on the floor. And then over there, that’s the Champagne Room, behind the black door. And what happens there? he asks and downs the rest of his water. That’s a hundred for the house and a hundred for me, and we got lots of privacy. How long? he wants to know. About fifteen minutes—and I adjust my top to get him focused on my tits. Could be a little more if I like you. Or a little less if I don’t.
Julian takes out his wallet again and hands me two hundreds, one for me and one for the house. Champagne Room it is, and I lead him to the back. There’s a low chair against the back wall. I sit him down then close the door. I stand over him and look down at his face, and he’s got that damned look that drives me nuts, all serious, like it’s the first time he’s ever seen a pair of tits. So I take my top off and hang it on a little hook on the wall that they put up after we complained about not having a clean place to put our lingerie. I get up on top of Julian, straddle him and start doing my thing.
Now, there’s a few ways this can go. There’s some guys, usually the younger ones and real drunk, who can get pretty aggressive. They’ll be grabbing my ass hard, pulling on my nipples, trying to get their hands under my panties, which they’re not allowed to do. That’s against the rules—at least my rules. Then there’s the nerdy types, so shy and nervous that they can’t even look me in the eyes, looking like they’d rather be anywhere else but next to a pretty, naked girl. Then there’s guys who are just so plain middle-of-the-road that it’s real easy. One song, two songs, three songs, four. They move a little, groan a little, rub your tits like they’re petting a puppy or something, and then it’s over. That’s easy money. But every once in a while there’s a guy like Julian, and that’s the most dangerous kind.
I had him pegged for the plain vanilla type, an easy hundred. But first thing I notice about him is the way he touches me, not too hard and not too soft, but right in the middle. Like he doesn’t want to lose me but also afraid he’s gonna leave a bruise or something. He’s holding me the way a boyfriend would hold me, a good boyfriend. Then he starts on my tits with his mouth. Not biting or nibbling, but brushing his lips real tender across my nipples. Now, I got a rule, which is this. If there’s ever a moment that I start to feel good, start to feel a little, well, you know, then I shut it down right then and there. I get back to business.
But I’m feeling a little something with Julian, not just between my legs, but in the chest too. And not in the chest like my skin feels funny, but inside, down near my lungs. That’s happened to me a few times over the years, and like I said, I just shut it down, which is what I do with him. And I’m back to doing my thing, flicking my hair across his face all playful, shaking my ass, even nibble on his ear a bit. But next thing I know, he puts his hands between my legs and presses strong against me, not under the panties but on top, and there it goes again but even worse this time. And he knows just how to touch a girl. Some guys are too clumsy down there, like they’re trying to crush a grape. But Julian? Julian knows how to rub it perfect, just enough pressure and just the right angle. I press my face into his neck. I start feeling tingles in my thighs and then I feel it coming on, an orgasm, so big and deep, so unexpected that I think I’m gonna break apart.
Now, that’s another thing I don’t let happen. All this time at the club, I never did come once. A couple of times I got real close, right to the edge where it almost feels like an orgasm but isn’t, just a little flutter, a tease, and not very satisfying. But I never did make it all the way no matter how close I got. I always, how do they say? Detach. I detach and that makes it stop. I get the hell out of the moment. But with Julian I don’t have time, ’cause it happens so fast, and the problem is that once you cross a line—it’s different for every girl, that line—but once you cross a certain line there’s not a damn thing you can do to cross back. And that’s what happens. So I dig my face real deep into his neck, bite him a little bit ’cause my body’s not following orders.
The whole thing lasts just a minute or so, but who knows for sure ’cause it’s hard to judge time when your body doesn’t behave. But when I’m finished, I go real still, still like a corpse. And that’s the moment when Julian surprises me again, ’cause most guys right then will start pressing against me, grab my hand, rub it over their pants until they get off. But Julian does something different. He puts his arms around me, around my back, and strokes my skin with his fingertips, so light and airy that I get little bumps all over and I feel the tiny hairs stand up straight. And the chills, little shock waves, run through my entire body, and even though the music is pounding loud and our time’s up, I just want to fall asleep right there with the man.
I try to fight the sleep, but it’s hard to do with the orgasm running through my blood. And I’m already so damn tired from being on my feet all day, dancing in these ridiculous heels, that I close my eyes. I rest my head on his shoulder. I go limp and drift off. I don’t sleep long, but real fast and deep, just a minute of perfect darkness before I wake up, before Julian taps me on the shoulder and whispers something in my ear I don’t understand. Just a minute of perfect darkness before he pulls me out of a place I really had no business going.
BLINK, THERE I GO
I’m young, just turned twenty-three, so I’ve only worked a couple clubs so far. There’s different types of places down here in south Florida. There’s the real high-end clubs, like Pink Flamingo or Jubilee, with valet parking and the best DJs, top-shelf liquor and lots of pretty girls—Russians, Colombians, Brazilians, and gorgeous black girls. And those places are sort of intimidating for me. Seems like most of the men who come in are either real rich or pretending they’re real rich, and a lot of those men, for reasons I just don’t understand, are not too nice.
The other reason I don’t like those clubs, the fancy ones, is ’cause I got the wrong look. I mean I’m pretty and all, and I never had a problem attracting men. I got a body that’s better than ninety percent of the girls out there, but compared to the girls in a top place, the girls who are on the circuit, who fly around the country from club to club, compared to them I don’t quite cut it. First thing is I got small tits, and that’s the way I like it. Most of the girls got fake ones, and that’s what the customers want. So when they see me, and I’m standing next to a girl who’s got DDs and they’re pointing to the ceiling, well, there’s no way they go with the girl with the B cups, ’cause that’s what they get at home.
And I got a pretty face, no doubt about it, but a customer once told me it’s not stripper pretty. I didn’t know what he meant when he said it, and I’m still not sure what it means, but I think what he was getting at is that I don’t have a slutty look, don’t look like I’m gonna get down on my knees and suck their dick. What I got is a look clean and serious that says boundaries, which some guys seem to like ’cause it’s safe for them. And not just safe, but a challenge too. But most guys when they come to a strip club they’re not looking for boundaries. They’re looking for green lights.
At the bottom are the hole-in-the-walls, clubs that are real dark and skanky. All the men in these places are felons. The staff and the customers. They’re huddling in the corners, in the dark, exchanging little bags, whispering, maybe showing off the handle of a gun. Every girl in one of these dumps is a hot mess: crack whores, meth sluts, whatever. They dance for a guy, get a twenty, go to the back lot, hand the dealer the cash, and smoke a rock next to the dumpster. Sometimes a nice guy walks in, doesn’t understand the place, and he walks out without his wallet, his money, sometimes his teeth.
The place I’m at, Paris Nights, is somewhere in the middle, and that’s how I like it. Not too fancy and not too sleazy. It’s a small place right off the highway, a few miles from the beach. Best thing I like about it is Schultz, ’cause he’s good with the girls. Lots of places, the head bouncer’s got his hands all over you, groping, grabbing, slapping, asking for a blow job, demanding it really, and threatening your job if you don’t give it to him. But not with Schultz. The man’s a gentleman.
But it’s not perfect, of course. I mean, with this type of job, even at its best, how good can it be? The place is filled with smoke so thick that sometimes it’s hard to see the other side of the room. Now, I don’t smoke, but I’m inhaling that crap eight hours a day, six days a week. Another problem is that they keep the place freezing, blasting the AC, and I’m always chilly, goose bumps everywhere. And it’s not like you’re working in a library, so forget about putting on a sweater or a long-sleeved shirt. But the smoke and the cold, that’s not only for Paris Nights. It’s like that at all the places, though I hear Pink Flamingo just got a new ventilation system and you can’t even smell the smoke there.
And at most of these clubs, even the high-end ones, there’s girls who do a lot more than just dance. Now, I’m a stripper and that’s it. No sex, no hand jobs, no blow jobs, nothing. They can touch my tits and grab my ass, and that’s it. But some of the other girls do more than strip, and they’re nothing but low-rent hookers. They go to the Champagne Room or the back lot and get a guy off. The girls who are tricking usually got their pimps right in the club with them, and most of the out-of-towners don’t know what’s really going on. They don’t know that the guy sitting by himself in the corner sipping on a soda, checking his phone constantly, keeping his eye on just one girl, maybe two, they don’t realize that this guy’s looking after his investment. And those are guys you don’t want to cross. Heartless, every one of them. The pimps are always recruiting, trying to pick up new girls to work for them, so a girl like me has to be careful. I stay clear of them, don’t give them even the smallest opening, and once they learn there’s no chance, they leave me alone. One time, I had a pimp get aggressive with me, so I just had Schultz give him a little talk, man to man, and that was the end of that.
Like I said, there’s all types of customers at the club, some types you never knew existed, and there’s times when I think it’s interesting, this job, ’cause I get to see more of the world than anyone else, except for maybe a pilot or a diplomat. The other day a guy comes in wearing a white turban, mid-fifties is my guess, proud-looking with a long white beard and gold rings on each pinky. I can tell the second he walks in that there’s something regal about the man, and sure enough it turns out he’s a wealthy Sikh. Well, I see Lopez eyeing him, but I’m always one step ahead of that bitch, and I slip my arm around him before Lopez can even get her bony, tattooed ass off the bar stool.
I introduce myself, say my name’s Perla, it’s a pleasure. Now, most strippers use a stage name, and there’s a few reasons why. First is, maybe their real name isn’t so sexy. If you were born with a name like Bertha or Harriet, one your parents gave you when you were a baby and they had no idea you’d end up in this line of work, then I don’t care how hot you are ’cause you’re just not making as much money as a Crystal or a Jasmine. That’s Marketing 101, and you don’t have to go to business school to know that. But Perla’s my real name, I was born with it and it’s just fine for stripping and it’s also good for the real world, so there’s really no need to make a change.
Next thing is some girls change their name for privacy. Now, that’s something I never did understand. True or fake, you’re only giving out your first name, no last names, so how this gives you any more privacy I got no idea. And if someone from your neighborhood happens to walk into the club and sees you shaking your booty on the stage, then it doesn’t matter what you call yourself ’cause they know exactly who you are. Some of the girls even use a few different names in case there’s another dancer in the club with the same one. It happens all the time. You just can’t have three Crystals tripping over each other on the way to the main stage—but that would be real funny to see, a bunch of strippers in their high heels falling over each other, money flying everywhere. So you always need a backup to avoid the confusion.
So, this man in the turban puts out his hand and shakes mine, tells me his name is Singh, and I don’t know if that’s his first name or his last, but I can tell by the way he says it, real quick and proud, that he’s telling the truth. Not that I care, but it says a lot about a man when he tells you his real name. Anyway, I say Singh, it’s your lucky day, ’cause this pretty girl is buying you a drink. And even though he’s got dark skin, I see him blush a bit and he says thanks but I don’t drink. So I laugh. You mean you never drink alcohol or you never drink any liquids? In which case you’ve got some issues you need to be dealing with, serious medical issues. And he smiles and says of course I drink—water, juice and tea.
I wave to Jade and she walks over to our table and says what can I do for you? I give Singh a peck on the cheek and say my turbaned friend here would like a bottle of water. And I shake my head in a way that says Jade, if he offers to pay, please don’t play the hundred- dollar joke on this man, ’cause I don’t think he can handle it. Jade knows exactly what my look means and she nods and says two waters and they’re on the house.
Singh is awkward in the way that an older guy gets around a hot, young girl, and it’s hard for him to make conversation. I see this a lot, so I try to loosen him up, ask him where he’s from. Kashmir, which he says is a region in India or Pakistan, depends on who you ask. You married? He shakes his head, twists his lips and I get no response.
You got kids? Singh’s face lights up and he says three, two girls and one boy, the oldest girl in medical school and the two younger in college and getting straight A’s. His boy’s on the squash team at Harvard, which even a girl like me knows is enough to make a father proud. Though God knows there’s tons of assholes from Harvard and I’ve met my fair share, even fucked one once. (He was a lousy lay, not that he had a clue.) The younger girl’s studying economics in London and has a boyfriend that Singh tells me is too ambitious by half. Too ambitious by half? I ask. And Singh smiles and says the boy just wants too much out of life, never satisfied, and a man like that scares us. He pauses, mumbles something I can’t hear and bites his lower lip. Then he corrects himself. Me, that scares me.
That little slip-up with us and me makes me think there used to be a wife. Now, I want to ask him about her. Did she leave or did he leave or did she die? But there’s certain things a girl like me doesn’t ask. I got my boundaries and the men got their own boundaries and it’s my job to know when to stop, and something about the man makes me back off. A tremble in the lip when I asked the question, vague answers, the mistake with us. I catch everything, you know, but something makes me think that she died and it was probably real recent and maybe unexpected, or maybe it was after a long illness and they saw it coming.
I feel some compassion for the man and I ask him if he wants to go to the VIP Room, maybe even the Champagne Room. I point over to the far wall and tell him I’ll make him feel real good, even give him a couple of songs for free, which isn’t something I normally do. Singh smiles, scratches his beard and says I already feel real good and I have you to thank, and he takes out a hundred and hands it to me, slow and careful, like that kids’ game where you carry an egg on a spoon. And then he gets up, bows real respectful and walks right out of the club. Just like that, he’s gone.
Now, I’ve never been to India or Pakistan, never even been out of the county except if you count Cuba, which I don’t ’cause that’s where I’m from, not where I went. So here I am, getting to meet a real live Sikh and have a nice conversation with the man. And in some weird way I get to travel around the world—virtual travel like in some sci-fi movie. Blink, there I go. Blink, I’m back. Blink, gone. Blink, back. Blink, blink.