Leering men, sweaty and bloated, shoved bills at her.
I hated them. They didn’t deserve to look at her, to throw money at her. She wasn’t like the other dancers. She didn’t look cheap or trashy. No fake tits. No bruises poorly disguised with concealer, or thick makeup that melted when she began to sweat. She looked like someone I would see in line at the grocery store leafing through magazines or hurrying down the street to catch a bus. I was almost ashamed to see her naked.
When I was young, some kid told me that if you cut off a snake’s tail it will grow back and the snake will be fine. One day, playing in my back yard, I found a snake, severed its backside with a shovel. I stood and watched it squirm in the grass, waiting for it to grow its tail back and wriggle away. It thrashed back and forth in the same spot, opening and closing its mouth. I began to get embarrassed watching it. For the first time, God was no longer working invisibly. I could see Him in every twitch and spasm, every opening and closing of the mouth. The snake’s entrails began to leak out of its back. I was seeing something I shouldn’t be seeing, God obvious and exposed. Watching her dance felt like that.
I took a mouthful of Scotch as she left the stage.
* * *
She came back out a few minutes later and started working the floor. For ten dollars you could buy a girl a drink and she would talk to you until it was gone. I put a ten on the bar and nodded at her.
“Vodka tonic,” she said to the barkeep and sat on the stool next to me. She was wearing a sequined bra and g-string. On her hip was a tattoo. It was of a boat emerging from one of those Tunnel of Love rides they have at carnivals. Inside the boat were two vampires, kissing.
“Thanks for the drink.” She adjusted her seat, leaned in close to me. I could smell her sweat and her perfume. She smelled good.
“Why are you here?” I said. “You’re not like the other girls.”
“I don’t know.” She put her hand on my thigh. “Why are you here?”
“For the drinks.”
She laughed. “There are plenty of other places to get drinks.”
“I know, but everywhere else you have to worry about someone trying to start a conversation. Here, they’re all too busy staring at the girls.” I paused. “Plus, this guy makes his drinks stiff.”
She laughed again. I wasn’t sure if she meant it, or if she was just humoring me. I pretended she meant it.
“You don’t like talking to people?” she said.
“You’re talking to me.”
I didn’t say anything. I took a drink to fill the space between our silence. “When do you get off?” I said.
“I’m usually out of here a little after three.”
“Will you meet me outside at my car? I can’t stand being in here anymore.”
“I’m a stripper, not a whore.”
“I don’t want to fuck you,” I said. “I just want someone to talk to until I’m sober enough to drive home.”
She looked at me. I could tell she was considering it. “I’ll think about it,” she said. She ran her thumb across my cheek before she left.
* * *
I’d been sitting in my car for almost an hour. I sipped whiskey from a flask and listened to Frank Sinatra on the radio. I know there’s a chance, he sang, you won’t be leaving with me.
I chuckled at the coincidence. “You’re telling me, Frankie.”
Finally she came out. Mine was the only car left in the parking lot. I rolled down my window and she waked over, leaned in. “Hey, stranger.”
“I’m glad you showed up,” I said. She got inside and closed the door.
Neither of us said anything for a few moments. I passed her the flask of whiskey.
“I’ll bet you get a lot of guys that want to save you,” I said finally.
“You know. Men that want to get you away from this life, these people. That want to make something better for you.”
“Yeah, sure.” She passed the flask back to me. “I think every guy wants to save someone.”
“I don’t want to save you,” I said. “For a minute I thought I did, but I don’t.”
“I don’t want to save myself.” I took a long hit from the flask, trying to buy enough time to make the words come out right. “I want to get drunk,” I said. “Every day. I want to get into bar fights and fuck women I barely know. I want to pass out on park benches and wake up in places I’ve never seen. I want to pack up all my belongings and drive across the country searching for something I’ll never find.”
She was looking at me now. She actually seemed interested in what I was saying.
“I can’t handle jobs, and wives, and kids. I can’t handle piano lessons on Wednesday and church on Sunday, customers, or bosses, or paperwork. Life,” I said. “I can’t handle life.”
There was a slight pause before she spoke. “You asked me why I’m here.” She put her hand out and I gave her the whiskey. She took a long drink.
“My father raised me by himself,” she said. “And that’s not an excuse. He did as good a job as anybody could. Better, probably. My mother left right after I was born. Just packed her bags and took off, didn’t say a word. Daddy never once complained about it.” She took another drink. “He always told me that I should never rely on anyone else. That no matter how much I loved or trusted someone, I was the only person I could count on. I should have listened to him, but I didn’t. I had to learn it for myself.” She passed the flask back to me. “I’m here because I don’t want to rely on anyone else.”
And then I go and spoil it all, Frank sang, by saying something stupid, like I love you.
I took a drink. I could feel her looking at me, but I stared straight ahead. My headlights illuminated the forest across the street. In the wind, the naked trees wriggled like snakes without tails. She leaned over, cupped my chin in her hand. We sat in my car, two vampires, kissing.