“Jumbo’s” by Wendy C. Ortiz

After spending most of the night at Frank & Hank’s playing ‘Crimson and Clover’ and ‘Shotgun’ on the jukebox, and all the while with no running water, we decided to head to Jumbo’s Clown Room. Kathy had taken a liking to Jumbo’s. She told me she’d gone in alone on a Tuesday night. She’d meant to just have a drink and watch the women do their thing but ended up feeling downright harassed by the man, the barker for all attempts and purposes, who kept yelling at the people to tip the girls. Kathy, I’ve witnessed her, tips all the women, and even gives you money to tip if you don’t have any. I wondered if it was because she used to be a lesbian, back when I first met her years ago, a thousand miles north of where we both lived now. On our first excursion to Jumbo’s together she had us sit right at the stage. We have to tip here, I warned, mostly because money was tight in those days, but she knew that and handed me a wad of ones.

It’s not a mystery to Kathy why I’d join her again. It was a week after her last visit when she’d been harassed into tipping even though that’s what she’d normally do as she enjoyed her Long Island Iced Tea. Kathy knew I was online dating, something no one else we knew was doing at the time. Kathy knew I’d ordered a subscription to a lesbian porn mag and had a dirty screensaver on my computer. The guy I was dating knew this also.

We walked in and I immediately assessed the energy of the place. It was dark enough that I didn’t want or need to notice any of the other patrons. The musty shoebox in a mini-mall was bumping nonetheless. We sat at the bar where hardly anyone sat. I turned, using my hands to help me pivot because we were at that point in the night where movement was becoming more of an undertaking. I glanced at the chair against the wall, the throne, the place where someone would enjoy a lap dance. It used to be more private but had some portion of its primitive wooden enclosure removed. Oh well. I took a deep breath and righted myself because every moment required I not slip to one side. Every once in awhile I’d glance in the mirrors behind the stage and see myself and it looked like I had dark circles under my eyes until my attention shifted back to the hindquarters of a woman who had tattoos of zippers on the back of her cream-white legs, thigh to ankle.

It was not as if I needed another drink. I’d lost count at Frank & Hank’s. I had to work the next day. But Jumbo’s was dark, the bartender looked like she wanted us to occupy her and I cannot resist a bartender who calls both me and my companion Mama. She got us our drinks and made sure to supply us with plenty of dollar bills in change. I turned back to the stage where long wavy hair bounced above a small set of buttocks and some men were moving amps and cords out of the bar.

It hit me that I finally had a chance at running water, so I got up and went to the bathroom. You never know if a stripper will be in there putting on lipstick or tearing at her fishnets or if one will emerge from the bathroom that resembled a closet with a toilet. Someone did come out of the bathroom but neither her face nor her outfit registered for me. I let my hands enjoy the lukewarm water of the sink and the luxury of cheap, pink soap. I returned to my barstool and Kathy flashed a smile. It’s good to live within walking distance of this place, I thought, and then I said the same out loud to Kathy who agreed without taking her eyes off the dancer. So far I’d seen two girls in the time we were there and two more in the audience chatting up customers and since this was Tuesday and it was one o’clock in the morning, I realized these were, in fact, all the girls that would be working until the bar closed.

The music was astounding and the beer hummed down my throat. Without a word, Kathy and I pushed back our bar stools and seated ourselves at the foot of the stage. I clutched a wad of ones Kathy gave me and sang along to ‘Warm Leatherette’ as much as one can sing to synthesizers, as one woman I remembered from a previous visit slowly prowled the stage. She had short dyed blonde hair and had a compact, tight little body. She made a lot of eye contact with me and probably Kathy. We began tipping extravagantly. I watched the little knot in the center of this woman’s chest where her micro-top was tied together. The little knot looked like it was trying very hard not to bust open. She came up very close to the edge of the stage and eyed us, pushing her lips out. I wondered if they were injected with collagen. When she sat on the pole separating the stage from the audience and undid the knot, I licked my lips. Her pasties made me want to laugh. She got up and danced to the other end of the stage. I know she noticed my licking of lips and she continued to flirt from afar.

I kept the four dancers separate in my mind as I had the umpteenth drink of the night because I knew I wanted a lap dance. My reptile mind, the one behind the mind I bring to the table, to my friends, colleagues and others, was trying to remember how much money was in my bank account and whether I had an ATM machine in my neighborhood. I pulled my attention away from the stage after a round of especially nice tipping to go ask the bartender, How can I get money here. –It’s 8%, she said, –we charge you 8% of whatever you ask for. Want money, mama? How about 40, I said, because my reptile mind had already figured out that I needed about that much for a lap dance, a drink, extra tip money and money to pay back Kathy. –$3.20, she said. Not bad, I decided, and handed her my ATM card. Luckily it was a night when I could keep track of the i.d. and the ATM card because there have been nights at Jumbo’s when this was a struggle.

I’m going to buy myself a lap dance. I was handed my card on a little tray like I was in a restaurant. The bartender gave me a felt tip pen and I signed in that queer left-handed way I have. I knew at that moment that I’d be lucky if there was $43.20 in my account. –Wow! Kathy said. –Are you really? Yes, I said, feeling the courage vibrate in my arm when I put my card back in my pocket. It was not a revolutionary thought, just a silly thought on a Tuesday night, when I was decently employed, turned on, and with my friend Kathy.

And so it was decided.

The money was in my pocket when I looked at the stage with renewed attention. Mecca, Lola and Bonnie were not there. Or was her name Colleen and not Bonnie. Anyway, the woman with large lips who could dance to ‘Warm Leatherette’ was here, so when she wandered by to thank us for the tips, I asked her for a lap dance.

She said yes. Of course.

Reptile mind completely climbed into my body, thrashed around silently with the sliver of sobriety I still held, and filled me up with its distinct scaly ambiance.

I shed all the parts of me that had traipsed through this drunken night: the part that worked at a prestigious university; the part that dated men half-heartedly; the part that was scared and yet ecstatic about living alone in my perfect studio in East Hollywood.

I floated to the chair. She pushed me with one finger so I sat at attention.

In the darkness, this woman’s cheeks nuzzling my chest, her ass pushed up into my face, I was prehistoric, galvanized, thick with desire.

Eyes wide open, with a film of unknowing covering each like a milky membrane.

Sweet scent of beer accenting every breath as I heard my heart beating in my head.

It was one of those many moments when I thought, I never want to die, though, in fact several parts of me did, and had to, as the night wore on to morning, and the dates with men continued, and the commute to the job wore on, and the trajectory of that part of my life moved slowly, painfully slow, from water to land, and back again.

Wendy C. Ortiz has most recently been published in  The New York Times, PANK, and Spillway. She co-founded and curates the Rhapsodomancy Reading Series at the Good Luck Bar in Hollywood.