You are reading Fiddleblack #18
We’d missed the entrance to the turnpike completely—some wrong turn somewhere; nobody was paying attention—so we stopped at a gas station mini-mart for directions. Plus Joey had to pee. I hung off of Nico’s arm like a little kid as we walked in, but I got distracted by the rows of candy and broke my half-embrace. The next aisle over held shelves of pantry staples—jars of congealing Fluff, dusty cans of dog food. I picked out a pack of Fruit Stripe gum.
The bells over the door jingled, and four or five well-dressed boys walked into the mini-mart. I don’t mean they were in suits or anything, just really put-together. Like they all had new haircuts. Like they went to the gym every day. Their shirts were clean. I looked away, at the floor, the industrial flecked tile, and I saw my shoes—sneakers, old Chuck Taylors, bought in high school. I never thought there was anything wrong with them until the moment I saw those boys. I knew for sure, right then, that I could never be the kind of girl these boys liked. I thought I had dressed all right to go out, thought I had picked out a nice shirt, a good bra, that my skirt looked decent—not slutty, but enough. But no—really, it was a few inches too long. My shirt was a little too baggy, and even though I had on tights, my legs were punctuated by those fucking sneakers. One of the boys made eye contact with me. But then Nico squeezed my shoulder and said my name, and I turned around to pay for my gum and follow the other boys—the three I was with—out to the car.
I could still feel the warmth of the shitty fishbowl-sized margaritas I had at dinner dwelling within me somewhere. I pressed my forehead against the window. I’d just turned 21. The guys had let me pick the restaurant, but there wasn’t any decent Mexican around so we ended up at this tacky faux-southwestern chain. Nico bought me a giant glass of what was basically blue, alcoholic Pedialyte.
“Your first legal drink,” he said as the waitress came with the tray. Before she could set the drink down, he grabbed it. “Fuck, that’s strong.”
I met Nico—and Frank and Joey—in a video production class at community college. Nico was my boyfriend. I’d had a crush on him for a while, half because he seemed like he knew a lot in class, and half because he looked like he didn’t give a shit that he did. And maybe a portion of it, too, had to do with the fact that he was actually very attractive but still wanted to hang around us. The exact start date of our relationship was difficult to pinpoint. It may have begun during a Thursday matinee of a slasher movie when he put my hand down his pants.
By the time Nico and Joey had two or three beers each (Frank had a Coke because he wasn’t even twenty yet, plus he was driving), we were still thinking of what to do next. We moved outside and stood around Frank’s car. Nico sat on the hood and dangled his feet over the side. I was freezing and had lost my gloves somewhere. I wanted to hurry up and settle on something just so we could get going, but they started arguing about a film analysis paper that was due in class the next week.
“I was gonna do I Spit On Your Grave, but I can’t because Holloway says genre like, barely counts as film,” Frank said. “It’s bullshit.” Frank lived in metal t-shirts and collected horror action figures. We went to a convention with him once. It was full of D-list actors and porn stars, all of which looked terrible in person. Frank spent at least a hundred dollars on a plastic Elvira.
Nico took a drag of his cigarette and shook his head, holding the smoke as he talked. “It’s not bullshit,” he said. He exhaled. “He’s kind of an expert, Frank. He studied in France.”
Holloway was a dick and France or not, he was an adjunct at a community college. But Nico looked up to him, so I didn’t say so.
“No, no, no. You could do a lot with it,” Joey said. “Oh—do the revenge angle. That’s a respectable theme. That’s like, literary and shit. You could figure it out.”
“Sound advice from the dude who spends his time editing music videos for such incredible talent as Crucifix Cadaver,” Nico said, smiling. “Sludge-core kings of Kennedy High School.”
Joey sighed. “Fuck you, dude.”
“They had one sort of okay song,” Frank said.
“Jesus, Frank,” Nico said. “Anyway, just ‘cause you guys like something doesn’t mean it’s actually good.”
I pulled on his sleeve. “Stop,” I said, low.
“What?” He yanked his arm away. “Calm down.”
Joey and Frank were looking at me. My face flushed and the ensuing microsecond of silence felt like a dragged-out hour. My eyes were having trouble focusing, so I opened the car door to sit down.
“What’re we gonna do tonight?” Joey said. Unlike me, he was smart enough to just ignore Nico when he got like that, when he thought he was being funny but he was just being an asshole. I think it’s because Joey knew what Nico said was bullshit. He was smarter than Nico, and he only went to school with us to knock some cheaper credits out of the way before heading to state. I felt all the time like he would just leave. And right then I felt a sudden heart-lurch; maybe they’d finally realize what a downer I was, and all of them would leave.
“I know,” I said from inside the car. They looked. “We should go to a strip club.”
Joey sat in the passenger seat reading the directions that the man in the mini-mart had written down on blank receipt paper. He passed a nip of Southern Comfort back to me—one of several, part of my birthday gift from him–after sipping it himself.
“God, this guy’s hand writing is awful,” he said. “We either have to go about 10 or 70 miles before turning left onto the turnpike. I can’t believe we’re actually fucking doing this.”
I drank longer from the miniature bottle than I should have, all while trying not to taste. Nico leaned between the two front seats and moved the rearview mirror to fix his hair. “But do you think it’ll be…weird? I mean, you know. With a girl and everything?”
I leaned up near him, felt the SoCo’s burn in my throat still. “Really? Because I’m a girl?” I leaned my head on the back of Frank’s headrest. “Huh. ‘Cause it seems to me you’re the one with a problem.” The other boys oohed like a sitcom audience.
He turned and met my eyes, lowering his voice. “You really want to, I mean?”
“Yeah,” I said. His face was inches from mine. He smiled a little and looked down at my lips. “Yes,” I said again. “Yes, I do.”
Joey turned to us. “Yeah, man. Let’s just go. We always talk about it, you know, and we never do it. And Frank, I love you, but I fucking hate Queensryche, please stop doing this to us.” Joey ejected a CD, threw it in back at us, and started messing with the radio.
Frank moved the rearview back to the right place, and then hit Joey’s arm.
Nico sat with his left hand on my knee, his fingers tapping slowly, lazily. They were freezing. “I didn’t mean anything by it,” he said. “I didn’t.”
He walked them up higher on my thigh. I let him. He pushed them between my legs, right above my knees.
The boys opened up the windows and argued more about song choice. I sat back and looked out the window, the trees there in the dark somewhere, but blending in for now, everything black. After some time, we pulled onto the Berlin turnpike, and I watched the neon signs fly by in big, bright blurs. I read an article in Sociology class that said human trafficking happened daily on that very stretch of road, but I didn’t see anything suspicious. Just the neon, lighting up creepy old motel signs.
It was a Friday, so the parking lot of the club was full. I looked around at the makes and models of the cars, hoping that would tell me something about the type of people inside. But then again, we were apparently these types of people.
The drinking still couldn’t alleviate the nervousness from all of us. It took us a while to get out of the car. And then it took us a while to move away from the car.
“Oh shit. Wait.” Joey held up his hands like a caught burglar. “How old do you have to be? If it’s 21, this dude’s not gonna get in,” he said, pointing his thumb at Frank.
“You only have to be eighteen, asshole. God forbid my presence should keep you from naked women.”
“It already does,” Joey said. “Asshole.”
“I heard there are two sides to some, actually, like two separate clubs,” Nico said, pulling his jacket tight over his chest. The October wind was getting brutal.
“What’s the difference?” I asked. I wondered how he knew all of this.
“Well, one’s for eighteen and up and doesn’t serve alcohol, and one’s for 21 and up, and does. The eighteen-side shows, you know,” he said, then lowered his voice, “pussy. And the other doesn’t.”
“Are they afraid you’re gonna be so drunk you’ll see it and like, just rush the stage to rape the girl? Because…” Frank trailed off and they started laughing. I thought it was kind of a good question, though. I wanted to know the answer.
When we finally walked to the door, I could hear muffled music. There were a few people in front of us. They looked regular. Just regular people. Only an old man leaving—bent over, holding a tipping wineglass by the rim—only he made me nervous.
The door opened as those regular people were allowed inside. The muffled music suddenly became louder, overwhelming. A big chin-strap-bearded dude was at the door asking for IDs. Not used to the idea of nonchalance, of looking like we belonged anywhere, we already had them in-hand. Joey and Frank paid twenty each.
“Do you have cash?” Nico asked me. “I’ll pay you back.”
I paused as I was putting my wallet back and looked up. “But we had a lot of time before. We could’ve stopped for money.” Nico always did this, and it was usually okay, he usually did pay me back, but it felt shittier than usual. He wasn’t ever thinking about anything in advance.
I paid for us, and the door, painted a dingy matte black, opened.
“Go to your left,” the man directed us, pointing to another door with the number 18 painted on it. So what Nico said was true. We saw the 21 side to our right, the safety of bottom-clad women out of reach because Frank was too young. “Three-drink minimum. Go see the girl at the bar.”
It was sort of like how it is in the movies, but darker, a red glow to everything, lights flashing somewhere, and music so loud and heavy with bass that I couldn’t tell what song was playing. I could only feel it, the vibration buzzing up through my body, like the floor was moving and we were all connected to it. A concentration of yellow light burned above the bar, so my eyes went there first. I turned to whisper to Nico that maybe we should head over to the bar, and I saw that he was pulling out a cigarette. My lips parted to speak, my killjoy reflex kicking in once again, but then I realized that there was an overwhelming smell of smoke in the air. Not only floating, but deep, embedded, in the walls and everything. It smelled like a bowling alley.
I didn’t see any naked women. Did we have to pay more money for that? Panic rolled over me as I thought that maybe we shouldn’t have come, that maybe this was a bad idea. They’d blame me. I always felt like I tried too hard for them, anyway. And here I was, again, casting a line too far out, under-thinking.
I saw Joey and Frank already near the bar. Joey came close to my ear to yell, the only way I’d be able to hear him over the music. I could smell his cologne. “They’re in between sets,” he said. “We can sit over there, but we have to get drinks first.” When he pulled away I felt the air cool the wet heat he had transferred onto my ear.
We made Frank go first because we didn’t know what to say.
“Uh, can I have… What do you have?”
A dark-haired girl in a black button-down shirt replied, not looking any of us in the eyes. “Red Bull or water.”
“Okay. Uh, water then, I guess.”
“Water for all of us is fine,” Joey said.
“Five each,” she said as she slammed four water bottles onto the counter, each dripping with condensation.
“Five dollars?” Frank’s eyes blinked in disbelief.
“Yeah. Five dollars.”
Nico asked if I could cover him. “Really? Fuck. Come on.”
“Hey, I told you, I don’t have cash. I could just ask Frank,” he said, the cigarette dangling from his lips. “But I did buy you a drink at dinner.”
I thought for a second about the mix CD I’d spent a month making him for his birthday, the coffees I’d bring to him at school. And how that margarita—only one of the two I had—was his present to me. “No, it’s fine. Whatever.” I pulled the money from my purse and counted out onto the bar. “I have it.”
He kissed my cheek fast as he took the cash.
We followed Joey through the crowd, trying to avoid the sweat, the smoke, the booze-stink that had saturated people way before they were let into the club. The whole room was filled with a stifling heat. Once we broke through the mass, I saw girls in high heels and halter tops, glittery, shiny, touching the backs of people in little booths that ran around the club. Everyone watched them, bent heads and craned necks to follow the girls.
Once we bypassed all the traffic, I could see that the club was small. There were mirrors on some of the walls to make it seem huge, but really it was tiny, like a speakeasy, like some guy’s living room. A stage jutted out from dark, heavy red curtains like something obscene. It was a long catwalk with a low metal bar running the length of it. We sat in stools situated along one side of the stage and rested our drinks on the edge of the catwalk, underneath the silver bar.
As soon as we sat, a man’s voice roared fuzzy through some speaker, announcing the next dancer, followed by applause and yelling, although it was hard to catch it over the loud music. And then everything happened. Normalcy was torn away like a Band-Aid.
I leaned over to Nico on my left, keeping my eyes locked on the girl walking across the stage in a red thong, and I asked him what we were supposed to do about money, about tips, because I had no fucking clue what kind of etiquette they had here. “Besides the money for drinks, I only have a few singles and a twenty. Do we get change?” I yelled.
“Yeah, go get change,” Nico yelled to me over the noise, not turning to look at me.
“Fuck you,” I said, knowing he wouldn’t hear me. I stood up and Frank, who was on Nico’s left, leaned over to ask where I was going.
“I’ll go if you want,” he said. Frank was always trying to do nice things like that, always asking. He was considerate. Decent.
I said it was fine and went over to the bar, stepping around people who seemed to not notice I was walking, even when they fell into me. The girl at the bar was sitting on a stool texting, and it took three tries of screaming “excuse me” before she heard me. I cashed in the twenty. She was more considerate to me, I think, than she was to Frank. She smiled when she handed me the singles. Maybe someone had just texted her something nice.
When I got back, Joey had his eyes glued to the stripper’s ass in front of him, his mouth slightly ajar, his fingers still resting on two dollar bills he had set under the silver bar. Nico clapped as he watched, and Frank leaned out in back of Nico, seemingly awaiting my return. I counted the singles and his eyes widened. “Holy shit.”
I rolled my eyes. “It’s for both of us.” Frank looked confused, like maybe he didn’t hear me, but then he just nodded.
The girl on stage unclasped the piece of fabric hiding her nipples. She pulled Joey’s head toward her crotch with one platform stiletto, her calf sliding along the back of his neck, the little space of the inside of her knee cradling his cheek. I took ten singles and handed them to Nico. He mouthed thank you and then motioned his head towards Joey. “You see this shit? I think she likes him. Picked him right away.” I watched the girl lie on her back, her milk-white legs crossed and pointing up. She banged her heavy shoes together hard, her ass jiggling in front of Joey’s frozen face.
When the girl crawled away from him, he leaned back in his chair, his face tilted toward the ceiling, and I could see him exhale. Nico got up and went over, slapped his back. I turned to the stage and saw the girl writhe, get on all fours, and slink over to the other side of the catwalk, forgetting completely about Joey, zeroing in on whoever had money out next. She lowered her head to the floor, picking up several dollar bills with her mouth. She brought these up to the face of the man who had put them there. He looked at her like a familiar lover, like this was normal. He seemed neither nervous nor particularly excited, just used to it. To something. She took the bills out of her mouth and pushed them into his hand while pulling him close to the stage. When he was leaned over the silver bar, she pulled her thong away from her body and tilted her ass slightly over the stage. He slipped the money between her flesh and the little string, and she snapped the thong back.
Frank rubbed his face with his palms. Nico came back to his seat and placed a few of his dollar bills, or mine, out under the silver bar, creased down the middle to make them stand up like little green tents.
“Frank!” he yelled. He grabbed a few dollars out of Frank’s hand and slammed them down under the bar. The next girl wore a black bra and black thong with a tiny ruffled skirt around its waistband. She had garters that held up neon-blue thigh-high fishnets. The song she came out to started with even, hypnotic bass drum, her dance more of a burlesque. She slowly unhooked the bra. She had her back to us and bent down to take off her underwear, her knees never bending and her shins crossed. Her ass faced us directly. She turned and came over between Frank and Nico. I drank down the last few drops of my water. She slid both piles of money off the bar. My mouth went dry.
She came closer to Frank. “Stop being shy!” she said, giggling, loud enough that I could hear. “There’s nothing to be nervous about.” But she never kept her eyes on his, or anyone’s. She looked around, like she was waiting for something. I could smell her, she was so close—alcohol, but with a lingering sweetness of something I couldn’t place. She had beautiful teeth.
A few other girls came on after that. I don’t remember them individually very well. It was all running together. The music would be some slow, 90’s R&B, or else it was hard rock, someone screaming. Lights flickered everywhere—strobe lights, black lights—but an ever-present redness consumed everything. I started to notice patterns of dance. The R&B caused a slow slither, an oozing of sex I knew I could never achieve. It seemed so easy for them, so natural. The faster songs triggered more violent movement— quick splits on stage, hair grabbing and hard grinding on guys in the chairs–onslaughts of flesh. I wondered how they didn’t slip or fall or just start laughing during it. But most times I knew what they would do next. They’d come onstage and use the pole. They would do some kind of undressing, of course. Then they would focus in on one guy. They would grab or receive his dollars with teeth or ass or thong or between tits. They would get on all fours and bend over, or roll onto their backs and hold up their legs to show themselves. Spreading everything with French-manicured nails. There was that perverted Wizard of Oz shoe-clicking trick. There was actual dancing sometimes.
Nico yelled something in my ear. His eyes were glassy and I didn’t recognize them.
“What?” I said.
“Do you have more?”
“You used ten fucking dollars?”
“You’re not even using yours every time. It’s your fault no one’s come over to me yet,” he said.
“Are you fucking kidding me? You haven’t even talked to me this whole time.”
“It’s loud in here!” He pointed to his ear, jabbing his finger at it. “You realize that, right? You get that?” He held his empty water bottle by the cap and banged it on the counter in front of him.
But just as I was about to ask him if that was some sign he wanted me to get up to get him more water, if I was supposed to instinctually know that, know everything he wanted, an ugly redhead pulled his dollar off the catwalk and climbed onto his lap. He turned to Frank and Joey and shrugged, laughing.
He stuck the last of his folded dollar bills in the waist of her thong. She rubbed her face close to his, and ran her fingers over near his dick. I watched the entire dance. I waited for him to look at me, but his eyes remained fixed on some point I couldn’t see, his lids lowered and his expression unchanging. He clenched his right fist.
I got up and pushed my way back to the bar to get more water, mainly to just fucking move, and when I came back, I threw the rest of my money, which was probably about eight dollars, onto the bar. I heard Joey saying something like “her tits, man, her tits,” and Nico was groaning. That didn’t seem like Joey. He was in love with a girl at school, a Biology major. He’d talked to me about how he should go about asking her on a date because he liked her so much and was nervous. The man on the intercom said something again. Then this little blonde girl came out from behind the curtains. She had a short bob, so shiny and beautiful that I wondered if it was a wig.
I turned to Nico, to see what he was doing, to see if maybe I was just hearing things, if I was on some precipice between sober and drunk that I hadn’t experienced before. Maybe there had been something awful in my drink and I was imagining things. But when I turned, Nico was already staring dead into my eyes with this weird look on his face, like he was in some kind of shock. Everything was slow. I turned back to the stage.
This small blonde girl was taking my money. She smiled and said hi. She pushed the dollar off the catwalk and onto the stage, and then she climbed onto my lap, grinding herself deep into me. She was light and thin. She looked Eastern European. Her mouth was open a little and she put it to the top of my left breast, just touching it very lightly. While her lips lingered there, she lifted her eyes to me and we smiled. She straddled me, gliding her mouth over me. She slid herself off of the stage, dropped onto the space in front of my chair, rubbed the top of my thighs, up under my skirt a little, and then put her face between my legs. I looked straight ahead. They were watching me. I know they were watching me. The lights burned my eyeballs and the smoke was biting my skin.
She climbed back on top of me then, and put her arms over my shoulders. She rubbed her cheek against mine, like a cat does, and then started the grinding again, moving her chest towards mine. Her hair was in my face, its blonde so incredibly blonde. Her forehead brushed against mine and our hair made curtains, so what we did was secret or private at least a little, even though I know they were watching. But she didn’t look at them once.
She licked around my lips. She moved my mouth to her chest, and I felt that her nipples were pierced, a hard coolness sliding against my cheek.
It went on for a long time. Before she climbed back onto the stage, she brushed her fingers over my arms, all the way to my hands, my fingertips.
I think Nico was talking, someone was talking, but I couldn’t make it out. I got up to go to the bathroom because I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t look at anyone’s eyes or anything, just got up and went into the bathroom. I didn’t ask where it was, I didn’t know where it was, but I got there. I opened the beat-up wooden door and locked it behind me. It shut out the loud music and the red darkness and replaced them with a humming, buzzing fluorescent whiteness. I put my hands on the cool porcelain sink as the water ran down the drain. My brain rolled in my skull. There was no thought involved. I just felt, and felt, and felt.
Emily Costa teaches freshmen at Southern Connecticut State University, where she received her MFA. She is originally from Waterbury, Connecticut, and has been published in Noctua Review and Long River Review.