“Watch later tonight. When the lights go on, they scatter like cockroaches.” I shiver at the way PJ draws out the syllables in that last word. From my vantage point in the raised DJ booth, I can see how it might be an appropriate metaphor. I think of the sick feeling it used to give me in my old apartment when I woke up in the middle of the night for a glass of water and turned on the light only to see what seemed like hundreds of the scaly vermin waddling their fat stoic little bodies across the countertop, the oven range, the floor, and disappear. A righteous human disgust made unpleasant only by the accompanying suck of terror at catching what hides in the corners in the act of not caring about you. Then I think of the moment in the nights when the lights switch on, exposing pores, smeared makeup, stretch marks, basic imperfections that the black-lit darkness smooths and sculpts into the impossible aquarium perfection found only in subterranean places. The way we all walk in those ridiculous stilt-like shoes, like our hips are disjointed from the rest of our bodies; the way that might look if someone were doing it fast; scurrying for a safe crack to hide from the light.
“This never stops being surreal. It doesn’t matter how long you stay. I know you’ll try to intellectualize the whole thing, it’s how you are, but you won’t be able to. There is no rationale for any of it. It’ll always keep moving out from under you.” He spreads his hands out, palms down, in the direction of the stage, where legs and hair sway, gentle as seaweed, accompanied by the grinding guitars of Marilyn Manson’s “Dope Show.” He looks at me. I look at him. I don’t know what I’m thinking; it’s all visceral recognition, the kind you get when someone makes it impossible for you to write them off.
“Okay, I think this has gone on a little too long; people might catch on,” he says and I’m surprised, although he’s probably right. I don’t want to leave. I also don’t want to be having this conversation with him here. Something about standing in the DJ booth at a strip club, dressed in wisps of glow-in-the-dark violet leopard print and struggling to connect with someone in a healthy, humanish manner strikes me as both absurd and some less weighty synonym for tragic. “Oh, am I being dismissed?” I ask.
“You and the vocabulary words,” he says, laughing.
“Well. Thanks for the dialogue,” I say, and he smiles. I leave and retreat into the dressing room, feeling my little tendrils of feeling retreat back into the flesh armor I use to keep everyone else here off the important stuff.
“No, you come to the club where I work tonight. It’s so slow and I miss you. I need you start driving your car here right now, okay?” I’ve never seen her here before tonight, but her name is Genie and her high-pitched, strident voice is every imaginable stereotype of an asian girl talking loudly in public on her cell phone, complete with switched L and R consonants. I’m back in the dressing room alternately brushing my hair and staring at the wall. There are a bunch of us back there doing more or less the same thing: Alexis, Kiki, Keisha, and Sincere. Slow, boring Friday night. Having been dismissed from PJ duty, I have nothing better to do, but now I’m glad for it. “You come to the club right now? What you mean you can’t? You get in your car and drive here.” Then Genie’s voice picks up an added register of low-grade menace: “Oh, you little fucker! You fucker! This is good cookie, mister, good cookie, and you don’t even know what you getting, dumbass!”
Alexis catches my eye in the mirror. We raise our eyebrows at each other. “Is she for real?” Alexis mouths. I nod at her like, I think so. When I look over at Keisha, she’s smiling into her eyeshadow palette. Kiki’s got a hand to her forehead and the strained expression of someone holding on to their composure by a thread. Only Sincere is doing a good job of pretending she’s not listening to this, but she probably actually isn‘t.
“Look, dumbass, what I tell you when I meet you and you don’t know how to do pussy-eating? I tell you I show you how and you do pussy-eating okay now. I teach you fucking, before you don’t even know. You get another heart attack now I take away this good cookie. You fat and bald and you already have one heart attack. I give you another one, fucker!” I can’t help it, I start laughing out loud and can’t stop. Alexis plasters both hands over her mouth, shoulders shaking helplessly. Sincere looks up from an In Touch magazine and her eyes go wide. That pushes all of us over the edge. We are howling like monkeys.
“I may be stripper but I am no stupid. The pussy, it come with me when I leave you sorry fat bald ass, fucker. I know things. I know about art. That was my ex who sell that painting at garage sale, dumbass. He don’t know what it was, he don’t know who I am. And I need sewing machine. Go to Wal-Mart and get sewing machine for me, sewing machine’s cheap. I gave that one to my teacher. She had no sewing machine so I have her borrow. Dumbass, just go to Wal-Mart! Not like sewing machine going to break your house!”
“Oh my God,” Alexis yelps between spasms of laughter. Kiki puts her head down on the counter, moaning. I can hardly breathe and my stomach hurts and it feels good, like something I needed tonight.
“What are you thinking about?” asked PJ. I was looking at his three gray eyelashes and mentally turning them into something far more profound than they actually were.
“Just looking.” Pause. “What are you thinking about?”
He bent down and kissed my left nipple so cinematically I was sure he knew I was watching this and thinking it was beautiful. “Okay, I’m leaving in five minutes. Unless you want to kick me out now,” he said.
“I think I like the company,” I said, burying my face in the pillow. I stretched out next to him and he spooned me, head on my shoulder, hand artfully arranged around my waist. It felt so good I toyed with the idea of kicking him out right then, before I had the dangerous chance to get used to it. I listened to him breathe for awhile, feeling my heartbeat slow down and my thoughts fade out into a lulling static.
“All right, I have to get out of here,” he said. “Places to see, people to do.”
Yuck, I thought. He got up and put his shirt on. I turned my face to the wall. “Are you letting me out or am I letting myself out?” I got up and put a big shirt on over my underwear, and we walked out of my apartment, down the stairs, half-blinded in the hazy morning sun. I wasn’t ready for it to be morning yet. On the doorstep, my half-naked self half-obscured by the door, we kissed. PJ smiled at me. I smiled back. “See you next week?” he asked and I nodded. I shut the door right as he was looking back to see if I was watching him go. I slitted my eyes against the hollow darkness of the hallway.
“This is good cookie, mister,” I whispered to myself as I walked back up the stairs.
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