You can find hope in the strangest of places, in the darkest of corners. Clutch it close, my darling. It’s yours and no one else’s.
Lemon Fair, the Queen of Meringue
The Platinum Pearl was bustling. I took a seat at the same table I’d sat at two nights before and ordered a beer from the cocktail waitress. “Do you know when Crystal’s performing?” I asked. The dark-haired server who brought my Miller Lite leaned over farther than necessary to set my beer on the table. She appeared confused when I held eye contact instead of looking down at her breasts thrust in my face, staying in the bent position a beat longer before standing up straight.
“I think she’s up next.”
My heart thumped faster as I turned to the stage, waiting for the next song to start. I had been shocked when she called saying she’d changed her mind. Shocked and slightly bewildered. I wondered what had changed her mind. Wondered what had compelled her to look me up and call me. I’d almost told her to forget it entirely since I’d decided the whole idea was terrible. But once I heard her voice over the phone, I hadn’t been able to bring myself to turn her down. The truth was, I was both scared and excited, and it was an exhilarating feeling—one I hadn’t experienced before. I wanted … more. And I thought that was probably a positive thing for me, to want at all. But what about her? I kept coming back to that.
The lights flashed and then dimmed and the music started, a steady bass rhythm that had my blood pumping in time to the music. I frowned as I looked around. There was a bachelor party sitting near the stage, and they were practically falling out of their chairs they were so drunk.
When the lights came back on, Crystal was sitting in a chair wearing a tiny silver bikini with fringe hanging from the edges of the top and the bottom and a pair of tall silver boots. I was so intent on her that the cheers that went up around the room startled me. I took a sip of my beer and watched as she began to dance.
Her long hair moved around her beautiful, slender body as she performed, catching the light, a color I didn’t recall ever seeing before—sort of a combination of blonde, red, and brown. It made me think of light shining through a bottle of honey. And there was so much of it. I wondered what it’d feel like to run my fingers through it. Her body moved to the beat, her eyes closed, that cold, distant expression in place, seemingly as immovable as armor.
Crystal. No, not crystal. Crystal was perfectly clear, transparent. A person could see right through crystal as if it were glass. Not the girl up there. Not crystal—nothing even close.
What’s your name? Your real name? God, I want to know.
“I’d fuck that pussy like a jackhammer!” one drunk bachelor-party goer yelled out to the delight of his friends, who guffawed and held up their drinks in cheers to him. His lewd statement jolted me from my thoughts. He stood and started drilling his groin against the chair in imitation of the sex act he’d just described.
This whole scene opened up some void inside that made me feel angry and sad at the same time. I stood up, throwing a tip down on the table, and headed to the back to wait. I rounded the corner to the hallway where I’d waited for Crystal the first time, and saw that the bouncer, Anthony, was sitting on a stool. “What can I do for you?” he asked in his deep baritone.
“I’m here to see Crystal after she’s finished dancing.”
“Yeah,” I said, surprised. I hadn’t expected that she would have given my name to Anthony.
“I’ll show you back.”
I followed Anthony to a different room than the one where I’d talked to Crystal the first time. It was dim and had purple velvet fabric hanging from all four walls. There was a black leather couch against one wall, a few scattered velvet ottomans, a sound system in the corner, and a large-screen TV hanging on the opposite wall from the couch.
“Go ’head and take a seat,” Anthony said. “Crystal will be in after her performance.”
“Right,” I said, moving deeper into the room.
I heard the click of the door closing behind me and let out a breath. I sat down on the edge of the couch, fighting anxiety. Shadowy. Locked door. Soundless. This room felt like a cave, or a dank basement. My eyes landed on the door, and I reminded myself that I could leave anytime I wanted to. This wasn’t the same. Not at all.
I wondered, though, if this was Crystal’s version of a dank, locked basement.
I wasn’t exactly sure why I questioned it, but the thought sat there like a rock, the weight of it pushing on my conscience.
A few minutes later, I was startled from my thoughts when the door swung open and Crystal stepped inside. I started to stand, but she gestured for me to remain sitting and so I did. She had put on a long sweatshirt that came to the middle of her thighs and fell off her shoulders, but was still wearing the silver boots. I smiled at the outfit. She sat down on the couch, turning toward me. My insides twisted. God, she was beautiful. Too beautiful for this room. Too beautiful for this place.
She’d put her hair up in a huge, messy pile on top of her head. It looked darker in this light, more brown than gold. Her almond-shaped eyes were heavily made up in black eyeliner and ridiculously long, obviously false eyelashes. “I wasn’t sure you’d come.” She smiled, the one that didn’t meet her eyes.
I massaged the back of my neck, feeling strange, shy, out of my element, and … guilt ridden. “I’m not sure I should have.”
Her face fell slightly, and I rushed on. “I’m just … I guess I’m having a pang of conscience.”
Her gaze moved over my face for a moment in that measuring way of hers before she raised an eyebrow, standing and walking seductively toward the sound system before turning back to me. “Well, my goodness, that sounds painful. It’s not contagious, is it?” She put a hand on her hip and smiled sweetly at me.
I laughed, a burst of warm humor mixed with a bit of surprise filling my chest. It felt good. “No, I don’t think so.”
“Well, good.” She put on some music, turning the volume down low, and walked back toward me, sitting on the couch again. “How about we try out one session, and if it doesn’t work for you, if it makes you feel …not good, we’ll call it quits, no harm done.” She gave me a small, teasing smile, and it felt like bird wings had begun flapping between my ribs.
One session. She really was thinking of this as therapy. I supposed that was accurate enough. I sucked my bottom lip into my mouth, still not sure, but not wanting to leave, not really.
I liked her. I liked the way she looked at me, the way she teased, the flash of keen intelligence behind her eyes, her quick wit, the way she seemed so hard, and yet was somehow soft at the same time. I did, I liked her. Oh, Gabriel, you idiot.
“We should agree on a fee first.”
“You just name the price,” I said. “I’m fine with whatever you think is fair.”
“Fair,” she murmured. “Well, the club takes the cost of a lap dance while we’re in here, so in order to make any money for myself, I would have to double that. So fifty.” Uncertainty passed briefly over her expression, as if she was nervous she might have asked for too much.
“Fifty dollars?” I repeated, trying not to wince at the knowledge of how little she got paid to do what she did. The club takes the cost of a lap dance. Jesus.
“If that’s too much, I could do forty-five,” she said in a rush of words, a tinge of desperation in her tone. Ah. That explained it. She needed the money, small amount though it was. That’s why she had decided to do this.
That pang was back again—even sharper this time—causing a stabbing sensation in my gut. I shifted in my seat. “When I was a teenager, I used to go to this psychologist in Middlebury who charged a hundred and fifty a session. I wouldn’t pay you any less.”
Her eyes widened very slightly before that unaffected look came over her face again. “Oh, okay. Well, great. Should we start with kissing?”
I blinked and then chuckled softly. It turned into a grimace, and I rubbed at the back of my neck again, embarrassed. “I might not have been totally clear about the extent of my discomfort with having people in my personal space. If I was ready for kissing, I wouldn’t be here.”
She frowned slightly, tilting her head as she measured me again. She nodded, that bare hint of softness coming into her eyes, but no judgment. I released a breath, grateful for that small mercy.
“I can teach you what I do when someone gets close to me. I remove myself completely, and it makes it bearable.” She bit her lip, her brow furrowing as if considering something. “I think I can teach you how to do that.”
My body stilled as I stared at her. Her words caused my heart to ache. Oh God. “That’s not what I want, though. I know how to remove myself. I know how to do that. I want to stay present. That’s what I need you to help me with. Staying.”
Her cheeks flushed, and she stared at me for a moment before looking away. “Oh.” She picked at a fingernail, her brow creasing before her eyes met mine again. There was something in her expression I was having trouble reading. Was it fear?