It was almost two weeks gone past when he brought it up. There had been no conversation about it at all, just that night’s lovemaking. They hadn’t said anything about that either. But there seemed to be thinner air between them despite the silence.
He reached a hand over to hers at the dinner table, while chewing spaghetti, and looked at her. Then finally, “You could go with me, you know. Lots of wives do. It’s good for…” The crinkle growing on her brow stopped him. He released his grip on her, but not completely. His eyes pleaded. She must have nodded slightly because a smile washed over his face and then he went back to eating.
He had promised her that they wouldn’t go on a crowded night, never a weekend or a holiday. She couldn’t handle the crush of strangers she worried aloud. What she didn’t say was the danger she felt even talking about the possibility of entering a strip club. She couldn’t get a handle on the exact fear. Gangs accidentally stabbing her, or being forced into some filthy back room to take a hallucinogenic drugs, seeing sex acts by strangers right before her very eyes? None of it was quite logical – he dissuaded her from the worst, assuring her that nothing bad would happen. But then she was no longer sure what his definition of bad was.
So, it was a peaceful Tuesday evening, around 8:30 pm when they walked through a wall of hanging beads. One heavy strand snagged on her hair, pulling a pin out. She clutched her purse tightly as a large black man, the bouncer/host, led them to a tiny table in a corner. She had a preternatural fear of being seen by someone she knew. Of course, in the many years they had lived in Southern California she had made few friends, the best of whom was Betsy, an 84 year old woman who lived catty-corner from her house and was most certainly asleep by now. She couldn’t think of anyone else she might care about, or might know her on sight. And then there was Britney. She’d be horrified if she knew her father visited such places. Nancy was sure she’d think they were both completely nuts if she knew about this.
She kept pressing her hair, trying to avoid a trip to the ladies room to fix it, but after Frank ordered himself a scotch and soda and her a white wine, she couldn’t take it any longer. She grew hot around her neck and chest. Frank sat so close his knees touched hers and his teeth glowed eerily in black light. She excused herself to the ladies room.
The bathroom was brightly lit. She squinted as she stepped inside, it took a few moments to adjust, even though they had been in the club only some ten minutes. Sure enough a tuft of hair stuck up on the right side of her head. She blushed thinking that the cocktail waitress had seen her. Women were always so cruel about another’s looks. And this one was so young! What she must think, this ancient woman stepping into this place.
She decided to use the toilet first. Each second was a torture, so sure was she that someone would come into the bathroom at any moment. Minutes passed. More than was normal for her to take care of business. Washing her hands she suddenly realized no one was coming into the restroom, she was the only lady in the place. An involuntary deep suck of air entered her lungs and she brightened. Her hands dried she flattened her hair, repined it, and resolved to go back to the table more cheerfully. Remembering her husband sobbing into his hands so many weeks ago, patting his shoulder it seemed to make sense then. There was no fear, no judgments, just understanding of his need, and… acceptance. Nancy took a long deep breath and walked into the black lit club.
Frank was sitting facing the stage. A long legged girl was just finishing a pole dance and her silver mini-skirt dangled pleasantly around her rump Nancy noticed. Something tickled inside her. Frank stood when he saw her approach and pulled out her chair. She smiled at him and he smiled back. She released her grip on her purse and took a sip of wine. They began to chat.
Nancy saw the legs before she realized what was happening.
“Hey, Daddy! Where you been. I’ve missed you,” Nancy heard the girl say as the legs flung over her husband’s lap. Frank’s face flushed and he shifted slightly but enough so that the girl looked back at Nancy. “Oh, sorry baby, didn’t realize you were with a date. How’re you tonight, sweetie? Sorry, didn’t mean to encroach, but he’s so delicious, isn’t he?”
The ease Nancy had conjured was frozen right out of her body when she heard the girl laugh. Frank, not looking Nancy in the eye, motioned to her and introduced her.
“Hon, this is Ginger. Ginger, this is my wife, Nancy.”
She was beautiful, that was true Nancy had to admit. She couldn’t stop looking at her face. She caught a swift glimmer of shock when Ginger heard the word ‘wife’, but she reached out a cold moist hand to Nancy and shook it limply as she dislodged herself from his lap and took a chair. Nancy couldn’t remember the last time she had felt a woman’s hand, years? Decades? It was one of her great and infrequent joys to hold her mother’s hand as a little girl. The touch of Ginger’s lithe fingers prompted this memory. She couldn’t reconcile this girl with her mother’s memory, except, she thought the only common denominator was herself, and the pleasure in touch. Nancy pulled her hand away, though to a small degree she didn’t wish to.
Frank was saying something in his justifying bluster. Nancy made herself stop looking at Ginger and listen to her husband. But the DJ put on a loud rap-ish kind of song, she didn’t know what they called it, all she knew was that the song seemed to be yelling at her, admonishing her. Frank kept talking, “friendship”, “sweet girl”, “boy trouble”, on and on. Nancy gathered he was talking about Ginger, but she didn’t care. Another girl got up on the stage and Frank stopped talking to watch her and clap. Then excused himself to the restroom.
Nancy looked back at the stage behind her for a moment and when her head turned round Ginger was sitting in the chair next to her, looking her right in the face. Nancy forced-smiled at her and looked down at her hands in her lap. She started to giggle, they looked like her mother’s hands. She tried to stop herself and then realized she was giggling out loud and Ginger had joined in.
“What’s got you tickled?”
“Nothing,” she choked out, took a sip of wine, but she couldn’t stop. Ginger waved to someone across the room and in an unreasonably quick time another glass of wine appeared and her empty disappeared. She was still giggling.
“I’m just thinking, if my mother could see me…”
Ginger joined in and nodded with a “mine too”. They laughed for a moment and Ginger asked Nancy what kind of woman her mother was, was she still around, where did she live. Nancy took a bigger gulp of wine than she meant to as the questions made her titter all over again.
“Oh, she was a bitch,” popped out of her mouth and she screamed with laughter. Ginger’s forehead crinkled a bit, no doubt wondering if this woman was crazy. “I’ve never said that! I don’t think I ever let myself even think that. She’s dead, thank god, the bitch.” And she howled again, hugging her sides. She had possibly never laughed so hard in her life.
“What’s going on here?” Frank’s expression was confusion and delight and fear all at once.
“Catharsis,” Ginger said before Nancy could respond. She was right.
Frank looked at Ginger and nodded to her as if conspiring. Ginger grabbed both of Nancy’s hands. Her purse dropped to the floor and Frank swept it up. She caught his face and he looked so hopeful. She didn’t understand, but Ginger was pulling her up and asking her to go with her. She had never felt so loose. She felt at that moment that whatever Ginger asked her to do she would.
They weaved between chairs towards a little platform. More bead strings surrounded it, like the front entrance. Ginger pulled the curtain of beads apart for her, shielding her hairdo. “Watch your step” she said softly and placed Nancy in a chair. A little giggle came out as she sat down, as if it got dislodged from her belly with the motion.
“I’m just going to dance for you. Just let me know if it feels too close,” Ginger said. Before Nancy could speak Ginger was writhing and twisting before her. Nancy thought, I wonder how she does that? It didn’t register until several moments later that she was being given a lap dance. A hot poker shot through her belly and chest, but was gone in an instant. My mother, thought Nancy, and laughed again. Ginger smiled and Nancy settled in to watching her. She was warming up, heat spreading from her loins through her legs, up into her face. She wanted to touch her. She wanted to touch Frank. Where was he? Watching? A rush of fury caught her and took hold. Then panic. Sharp, rancid panic swept over her body and lodged in her head. He wants a threesome. He’s slept with this girl. She started to feel a grip on her chest, she couldn’t breathe. Ginger stopped suddenly. Nancy almost knocked her down as she stood up and furiously scampered out of the club.
The night was crisp but couldn’t break through the heat that had engulfed her. The heat, she realized, that had smothered her from the moment she set foot in this place. A greasy, thick heat, like hot cream soup sticking to your skin, burning. Why was she here?
It took her minutes to find their car. She tried the door and then realized she hadn’t driven, Frank had. She didn’t even have her purse. Suddenly Frank was behind her. In the near distance behind him she saw Ginger, the deep concern on her face clashing with her hot pink outfit. She looked out of place in the parking lot. Frank was opening the back seat and laying Nancy down. She could hear words from him but couldn’t make out what they were. He put a hand on her forehead.
“You feel cold.”
“I’m hot. I’ve been so hot. I want a coat. I want to wear a coat. To be cold and protected.”
“You almost passed out Ginger said.”
She didn’t remember. She couldn’t remember anything.
The light was so bright. She wondered why he brought her back into the strip club. And why they had turned on all the lights. She knew, because there was Ginger in the hallway and Frank, and a string of light between them.
When she woke, Britney was near her. She was talking but Nancy wasn’t hearing. There was other noise she had to take in first, a beep, traffic, sound of scuffling feet, honk of horn way off somewhere in the distance passed a few buildings, through glass and concrete, a constant, irritable honk honk honk honk honk. She knew just what it meant.
“Stoke,” Britney said and Nancy finally heard. Stroke.
There was Frank in the hallway again. There was Ginger next to him. She didn’t wonder why, so fascinated was she by that silver string that was strung up between them. It hummed with light and vibration, she could see it. And it said “comfort” as it travelled back and forth between them. She wondered if anyone else could see it, hear its word.
Britney slid her hand into Nancy’s. There it was again, that pleasure. Nancy felt herself spread out wide into the universe at the soft warm hand of her child. Peace.
The night was dark though it seemed like all the lights were still on. Dark night of the soul. Is this that? She couldn’t muster up any feeling, any indignation, or worry, or even any judgment. She just lay there. Britney was somewhere off in a corner beside her. She could sense her there even though, for some reason she hadn’t quite worked out, she couldn’t turn to look at her. But she was there, breathing. She would know that breathing anywhere.
One night when Britney was 6 or 7 Nancy woke in the middle of the night in a panic. There was a police car flashing lights down the block and the hubbub and blue and red light leaked in through her bedroom window. He first thought was “Britney’s gone” and she leapt out of the bed like a crazed woman and was in her daughter’s room in less than a second. It was early in the morning and the adrenaline rush kept her alert, so she sat on the little Winnie the Pooh step stool by Britney’s bed and listened to her breath. She wished she had told her about that.
Now she was home, but not home. There were plans being made, about what she couldn’t make out. She heard her daughter and her husband in the kitchen talking. She didn’t know where she was. But one word jumped into her consciousness, “Sonoma”. Then Britney was yelling and Nancy was thinning out, disappearing. Her last thought before she travelled away was, “Britney has taken up the mantle”. Of bitterness and judgment, but oh well, there was nothing Nancy could do now. She knew this but she wasn’t sure why. Maybe she ought to try harder to get Britney’s attention, but she didn’t seem to have a voice. Where had it gone?
And then it was as if she was being split into a thousand tiny little pieces, being thrown into the wind. There was the breeze and she knew she was flying off a cliff into the air, some of her into the ocean, some of her in the wind. Sand and salt and water and wind and me, she thought, all together.
“Love you, mom” she heard Britney say and in that phrase was love and hate – and she knew her daughter would never forgive her father, just as her mother had never forgiven her sister, not really – and Nancy knew everything it seemed. It would all be awful and lovely and wonderful and weird and here she would be, on the coast of Sonoma, in the sand and in the wind.