“A parking lot,” I said, disappointedly looking at the blue P-sign on the wall. Not what someone would expect for a private, invite-only party to which they’d been cordially invited, and I started to doubt Elena’s good judgement, especially after a three-mile walk in a pair of brand-new wedge heels.
She zoomed in on her map, mumbling, “I don’t understand, it’s where the address leads to.” For once, I believed her. Apart from souvenir shops, the market, the fantastic brewery, and a bunch of restaurants—all closed—there wasn’t much that Granville Island could offer by night outside the summer season.
I slowly walked in, gaze up at the thin, poked ceiling above which the highway roared, and the muffled boom of a bass vibrated through the cracked concrete under my swollen feet.
“Feel that?” I asked. Elena warily followed.
“Yeah. There has to be a door somewhere. I can’t see.” Her voice echoed through the dark nothingness that laid before us, as though she’d split and teleported, reminding me that one Elena in my life was plenty enough. My brows furrowed at a neon arrow, flashing over the endless rows of grey cars, and I shouted, “There!”
Elena squealed, snatched my hand and dragged me all the way down a damp staircase and to a wide wooden door. The fictitious porthole window that throned in its center and the two towering palm trees on each side invited us to travel far from our foggy city this one night. Sleek and efficient.
“Should I knock?” I asked excitedly. She didn’t even have time to register my question that a high-pitched voice pierced through the door, “Ahoy!”
It opened to a very short Jack Sparrow whose pants were missing and provocatively replaced with leather garter stockings. “I don’t think we’re at the right place,” was all I could muster as I took in the irony of his character: a grim, blood-thirsty pirate in a ridiculous attire.
“Welcome to The Love Shack, ladies. I’m Philippe. Password?”
My eyes drifted to Elena for support, since she was the organizer behind our midnight escapade. Her head tilted to the side in an attempt to check under Philippe’s oversized shirt for any sign of underwear. I elbowed her back straight and asked again, “Password?”
“I don’t have a password, do you?” she whisper-shouted.
“Not tonight, apparently,” I sarcastically blurted.
“Come on, you must have one.”
“No, I just told you—”
“Great! So, we’ve dressed up and walked a high-heel marathon, and for what? Nothing!”
Out of despair, my hands tore through the air and landed on top of my skull as I paced around the trees like a maniac. I badly needed a drink.
“Psst, the text,” Philippe said with a fake smile, and gazed up at the surveillance camera above his head. Elena immediately dived into her phone and scrolled down her long list of texts.
“Blah blah blah, address, blah blah blah cheers? Shh? Secret? All aboard?” she tried, each time looking back down at Philippe for a sign of approval, as though she was answering the million-dollar question.
“All aboard? All aboard!” she yelled, prancing in glee.
“Please, follow me,” he said cheerily, and led the way in to a small black-painted room with a luminous counter in the center. His tiny body slid behind it, disappearing from our sight, and his head magically popped up over a wicker basket. There had to be a ladder involved in the trick.
“All personal items go in there, including your phones and any pointy or sharp objects you may carry,” he recited in an automatic, monotonous tone.
I cleared my throat and bit my lip, wondering what kind of objects people could carry to a dark room with neon lights. Where the hell were we?
Philippe checked our IDs with a mischievous smile as we hesitantly stripped ourselves of our jackets, purses and phones, to Elena’s disappointment.
“It’s your first time here, isn’t it?” he asked, amused.
Elena and I shared an uneasy look and nodded.
“Is it…an orgy?” I whispered.
“What? God, no!”
His laugh burst into the room, loud and clear, reaching the highest notes of his tessitura; even Elena’s deafening squeals couldn’t measure up. It contagiously spread on us, but we both forced it down the second we saw him struggle, crawling up on the counter to speak, embarrassment pouring down our faces.
“You’re not virgins, are you? I’ve had too many tears to dry already, I can’t handle it.”
“Ugh, these virgin girls keep coming here for true love. Ding-dong! Wrong place! They’re so naïve…” He rolled his eyes, which I found to be quite offensive. He didn’t know a thing about these girls, and neither did we. Who was he to judge? Somehow, I had a feeling we’d be the topic of his next mockery with other guests.
Crossing my arms across my boiling chest, I snapped, “So, what can you find, then? A bunch of hungry dogs?”
“Ooh, fiery, I like it,” he smiled, waved his paw at us and meowed annoyingly, earning him a grunt from Elena.
“You’ll find all sorts of people, actually, but no dogs. Women and men from different horizons, like you and me, looking for something to rock their world. That’s why there’s a party first, so people can…mingle.”
“What do you mean by ‘first’?” I frowned. He turned away from us to go through a cardboard box and type god-knows-what on a computer keyboard, then twisted his spine to wink at us.
“1307, 1308…Well, you came here for the afterparty, right?”
“Sure!” Elena replied, a little too enthusiastically for him to buy the smarty pants attitude.
“Whatever you do, trust the process. Taara’s developed amazing AI technology, you’re going to crawl out of here asking for more.” He licked his lips in a repulsive way, and I could only hope there wouldn’t be too many people like him at the party. Otherwise, I wouldn’t leave the bar, if there was one at all.
While Elena and our bare-assed matey discussed the fascinating subject of artificial intelligence, I let my eyes wander around the empty room and wished my head was just as immaculate right now. Aaron’s face popped up again, and I yielded to the temptation of firing that one burning question at myself. It was the only way to muffle down the tireless voice in my mind.
What would have happened, had I stayed in that office with him?
“Nothing good,” my head told my heart.
I couldn’t be having second thoughts. Forgetting him was the best decision I’d made in four years, and there was no turning back. At least, I wouldn’t have to worry about people’s lives, here. Married or not, they’d obviously come on their own free will and wouldn’t act on impulses they’d later regret.
A “medical center” sign on the back door caught my attention, and it dawned on me that this place was a sex business. I’d guessed this party would be a chic one where we’d luckily have fun and meet handsome men to spend the night with—although the leather pirate disguise was over the top—but if there was a medical center here, then the casual hook up booths in the most renowned nightclubs of the city would have tough competition: a regulated business which would revolutionize the illegal sex industry as we knew it. Genius. Yet, a business implied that its customers paid for its services. Elena and I would need to discuss that.
“These are your masks and should be worn at all times. On your way in, inside, and on your way out. Never take it off, except…” he wiggled his eyebrows at us—dear Lord—and went on, “They’re connected to your medical file. Off to the medical center, ladies.” He handed each of us a black velvet and gold venetian mask, which covered the entire face. The long silver feathers on top camouflaged a flashing green chip. I placed Lee’s on her face carefully so as not to ruin her makeup and tied it under her slick ponytail. She did the same with mine, and paused to look at me, “You’re beautiful. Your green eyes stand out.” I took in the compliment, winking, “You’re a carnival goddess. Wait, is this—” I reached out to a black straw popping out of her cleavage, but she slapped my hand and scowled.
“Don’t—” she whispered.
“Is that…a camera?” I smiled.
“Shh! I want memories.”
“You’re a bad, bad girl, Lee…” I joked.
“Have a good night, ladies,” Philippe said, opening the door for us.
We executed orders and stepped into a heavenly room that exhilaratingly smelt of alcohol. My stomach hopped as I squinted my eyes, adjusting to the bright, artificial lights. I knew we were almost there: the walls trembled along the rhythm of loud upbeat music. Lee and I both sat on two separate recliner chairs, and as soon as we were comfortably settled, both our masks beeped, and a tablet emerged from our right handrests.
Welcome to The Love Shack, 1308, it read. Make sure you keep your mask on at all times to ensure the protection of your identity. Please complete this quiz truthfully so we can find your best match for the night.First, contraception…
“Ooh,” Elena said excitedly. She stretched her arms out, fingers intertwined, palms out, until her wrists cracked. “Now you’ve got my attention, Love Shack,” she added, and dived into it as though it was a timed test. I sneered at the sight.
It took me way longer than her to answer all those questions about my sex life, including my favorite positions, fantasies, and personal limits. Mainly because I’d never thought about all this. It actually pained me to realize how poorly I knew the most intimate parts and pleasure triggers of my body. Without much conviction, I answered genuinely, but scratched my head and nervously laughed whenever confronted to most disconcerting topics, such as anal penetration.
When I finished, a message flashed on the screen: Please, hold on, a doctor will proceed to blood testing.
“Man or woman?” I asked Lee as we both patiently waited.
“I don’t know, I checked both boxes. If Isaac doesn’t want me, somebody else will.”
“Attagirl!” I cheered.
“Good evening, Miss 1308. I’m Doctor Ascott,” a middle-aged, red-haired woman said. Shit. Not her. Not here. Not now.
She sat next to me on a rolling stool, stretching her gloves up her wrists. She didn’t bother to look at me at first, but my teeth clenched at the idea she might recognize me.
“Please, lay your arm on the rest, and stay still. I’ll just draw some blood for testing.” She pulled up the sleeve of my blue pencil dress and her fair complexion turned translucent when she saw the black and white peonies tattooed on my forearm. My head attempted to flee from her intense golden gaze, but it was too late.
“You remind me of a former patient of mine.” She fastened a tourniquet band around my arm and scrutinized me as she rubbed an antiseptic cotton ball on it. “She had the exact same golden-brown hair as you, and a daughter that should be about your age now. Their resemblance always amazed me.”
I cleared my throat, trying to contain the upcoming whirlwind of emotions. Satisfied with the soft spot under her cold fingers, she thrusted a needle under my skin, on which she clipped an empty vial and sighed, “She passed away,” her tone grave.
I gazed up at the white ceiling when my vision blurred, biting my left cheek. She was trying to get inside my head, her usual, manipulative, and vile method to get her message across—it was working.
“Multiple sclerosis. She was an angel. I’m sure she’s watching over us now.” She brutally replaced the full vial with another empty one, but I didn’t feel a thing.
“She taught her daughter how to respect herself.”
“She sounds like the perfect mother, that patient,” I replied, gulping.
“She was my best friend, too, and she’d be disappointed to learn that her daughter spends her nights fucking around in this—”
That contemptuous tone of hers sounded the alarm inside my head. I lost it, and snapped, “Fucking around, really?” Elena and her doctor turned to us, bewildered. I couldn’t tell if they were both as shocked as me. All the blood in me rushed up to my head, preventing me from seeing clearly.
“Definitely. After all her mother’s done for her—”
“Let me tell you something, Doctor Ass-cold. Hide your frustration behind your old-fashioned and preconceived ideas all you want. But it doesn’t give you the right to judge nor think for others. Self-respect is about acknowledging and honoring every bit of yourself, body and soul, and acting on it responsibly. That’s what my mother taught me. It doesn’t matter how you see or call it, really. If I’m fucking around, then it’s because I’ve chosen to.”
“Open your eyes, you’re just a sex object to—”
“I mean, to those—”
“Thank you, Doctor Ascott for your very interesting insight on female sexuality. Actually, you should come with us. I think you need it more than we do. You won’t need a mask, though. You’re already wearing one,” I vented, and pulled my sleeve down once she finished. I expected another rude comment from her, but she just shrugged.
“Your mask will turn green or red in a couple hours, depending on the test results. If it’s red, you’re out. Take care.”
I stood up, swallowing my tears back in, and flew across the room to Elena, who impatiently waited by the back door.
“If this was such a big mistake, Natalie, then why are you here, testing people’s blood for STDs?”
She sighed again, picked up my vials and left the room without a glance.
“What was that about?” Lee asked worriedly.
“Nothing,” I lied.
“Let’s go, then. I’m thirsty.” She put a hand on the doorknob.
“Wait.” Elena froze. “How much did you pay for all this?” She tossed her head back and gazed upward, rolled her eyes at me and growled, “It doesn’t matter.” Her hand landed on my cheek, and shared an earnest smile.
“Happy twenty-fourth birthday, 1308.” I wrapped my arms around her for a most comforting hug.
Elena had been my closest friend for as long as I could remember, dating back to kindergarten in Alberta. We’d been inseparable ever since, and as we aimed for similar, complementary careers, it always felt natural to share the same roof. Even though we had our tempers and opposing characters, we were family. She was my sail and I her anchor, and that was enough for us. Our bond was unbreakable.
Being far from home wasn’t always a walk in the park, though. So, we’d made a tradition of organizing surprise Friday night outs for each other. After the hellish day I’d endured at work, I was glad to share my birthday night with her, and glad she could keep record of my age for me.
The double doors swung open before us, and we walked through them without a care in the world. People like Natalie could shove their judgement up their ass. We were offered the opportunity to free ourselves from the burdens of our identity for a night and welcomed it with open arms.
We strode down the dark labyrinth of corridors like animals, the music as our sole compass. Empowered, bold and alive, we were determined to satisfy our thirst, whether it be revenge, alcohol, or sex. Masked, there was nothing we couldn’t do.
Our eyes blinked open to a huge concert hall whose floor had been traded for fine sand. More palm trees and treasures decorated the place. Our attention quickly landed on sexy pirate strippers dancing inside the wooden cages that hung above our heads, their bodies oily and reflecting the prism of colors beaming from spotlights on stage. Who would have thought that a regular parking lot could hide such a gem?
The stage—the perfect replica of a ship’s poop—was also the DJ’s booth, our captain for the night.
“Are you ready on the beach? Are you ready in the pool?” He screamed in his mic as the tempo accelerated and the lights went wild over the crowd.
We ordered piña coladas at the mile-long bar while observing the three or four hundred dancers. Philippe was right. Masked adults of all ages, shapes and colors partied together, giving the place a friendly atmosphere. Willing to have my share, I grabbed my drink in a hand, shoes in another, and we both disappeared into the crowd, Elena’s hands on my waist as we weaved in an out of the groups of colorful masks toward the stage. The party was on.
Four or five cocktails later, all thoughts of Aaron finally disappeared as my body hungrily swirled and swayed against other people’s. My feet jumped and glided into the sand in an impetuous need to squish past inhibitions, and my hips wiggled in rhyme with the intoxicating music, as though espousing all the flaws of my scarred body. They no longer held me back, thus temporarily ridding me of all insecurities. My body was mine again. Men, women, I didn’t care. I thrived on the liberating feeling of being desirable.
Until a tall, stinky drunkard shoved his hand under my dress. Uncontrollable, my fist left my side before I could even think. I punched his masked, bearded jaw and dug my nails in his arm. But the man rather took it as a teasing act of defiance. He plunged his hand in my panties and squeezed my butt, holding me captive against his large, sweaty bare chest, his free arm around my waist.
When his fingers dangerously trailed down my slit, I saw red. I scratched, and slapped, and punched, and even bit his arm, but he kept swaying us both from side to side to the song, hidden in the jungle of swarming bodies.
Out of nowhere, two white masks jumped at him. One wrapped his arm around his throat while the other knocked his arm out of my dress. In a haze from all the booze I’d drunk, it took me minutes to register what was happening. Elena had already pulled me out of the crowd and back to the bar.
“Are you alright? What were you thinking?” She yelled, gripping my jaw as I watched my saviors drag the bastard out of here with two security guards.
“I didn’t give him permission to do that!”
“Hello, look around! I know you didn’t give him permission, but the crowd’s heating up. If you don’t want to go all in tonight, now is the time to go home!”
No!” I giggled and sang along, “Oh, I want to dance with somebody!”
“Come on, we’re going home, you’re dead drunk,” she replied.
“Elena Conti, it’s my birthday, my choice! I’m staying, and I’m shagging you-know-who out of my head! Just not with that disgusting pile of shit!”
I took a sip of her drink and raised it for a toast.
“You hear that, people? I’m fucking Aaron out of my head, tonight! Cheers!” I gobbled the whole thing down under the chugs of my supportive audience. But the lights went out, and the music faded.
“And now, ladies and gentlemen. Please welcome the famous, talented, sexy creator of The Love Shack, Taara Bakshi!”
In the ruckus of screams and whistles, Elena gripped my neck—after many blind attempts—and pulled my ear to her mouth.
“Are you sure you want to stay, Ave?” she asked.
Then, thoughts of Philippe, Natalie, my dead mother, the sick bastard, and Aaron washed over me. Did I really want to do this?