We boarded our plane with minutes to spare and I fidgeted impatiently in my seat. “I’ve never flown before,” I whispered to Dillon. “Is it scary? I’m scared.”
“You’ve been in four fights now with God knows what those things are and this is what you’re afraid of?”
“Yes,” I squeaked.
He took my hand gently in his and turned it over so my palm was facing up.
“Close your eyes,” he instructed and I complied. “Now focus on your hand and only your hand.” He began to slowly trace each of my fingers with his, recapping the things we did together that morning.
He started with the cafe, then talked about the walk through the U of M campus; how gorgeous it was in the summer when the trees were full and the grass lush. He told me that he wished we could have spent all day there, picnicking on the lawn, and listening to the impromptu live shows that the music students put on almost every night.
Dillon continued to trace my fingers as he moved on to the stolen moment we shared in a quiet garden, built in memory of some important patron of the arts. He kissed me quickly, the memory alive in both of us and moved on to our adventure in the airport with the nosy ticket taker.
“That’s an awful long way to go with no bags,” she had said.
“Just going back to visit our folks. We’ve got things there, so why lug around heavy bags,” Dillon had lied smoothly.
The plane bounced, shocking me out of my reverie and I gripped Dillon’s hand. He smiled indulgently at me and put his free hand to my cheek, guiding my head gently to his shoulder. He ran his hand soothingly through my hair, effectively calming me. He told me stories about college and classes for the rest of the flight. The landing was a bit jarring, but we made it in one piece.
Dillon called one of his high school friends to come pick us up from the airport. He had chosen to fly into Vegas after he found out that I had never been out of California before. Apparently deciding that I needed to experience every cool thing all at once. I wasn’t about to object. Vegas sounded like a ton of fun. I wished I were in better clothes, though.
We took a taxi to Dillon’s friend Tim’s house on the outskirts of Vegas. He was living with his girlfriend Kelly, also a girl from our high school, but they hadn’t gotten together until after we had all graduated. When he brought us inside, Kelly was ecstatic to see Dillon again, but gave me some shade. I had no idea why until I heard it from Tim when he teased her about it. I guess she had a crush on another of the basketball players, Justin, at the same time that we had hooked up the summer before senior year and still wasn’t over it even though Justin was now fat and had two kids.
We made plans to go out that night to some of their favorite bars and clubs. Kelly graciously insisted that I borrow one of her “clubbing outfits,” as she called it; I called it a work uniform, but I had every intention of keeping that little tidbit of my life to myself. Mostly because I didn’t want to embarrass Dillon. I was really beginning to like him, and I was determined to do everything I could to be good.
“Girl, you are so lucky you have me tonight. I just got a shipment of makeup samples and you and I are just about the same size,” Kelly said dramatically. We were alone in the only bedroom of their apartment, while Dillon and Tim played video games in the living room.
“You’ve got makeup, too?” I said excitedly. My weakness. I loved getting to put on all kinds of crazy makeup for work. The only good thing about my job.
“Oh girl, let me show you the plethora of fabulousness.”
I laughed at her impersonation of a jersey girl. Without makeup Kelly was covered in freckles, but she styled her dark hair in such a way and wore so much makeup that you’d never know. Part of me wished she would do a side by side comparison because the difference was unreal.
By the time Kelly deemed us “presentable” she dramatically opened the bedroom door and strutted out to show off her clubbing look. She had on a black leather miniskirt, a neon green tube top with a wide fishnet crop top over it. Her hair was down and stick straight and her bangs were perfect. Her black biker boots and torn up fishnet tights completed the look, and she was stunning in a punk-meets-Christina-Aguilera kind of way.
I opted for a more subtle pair of high wasted faux black leather leggings and a cropped black halter. I felt a bit like Sandra Dee after her big reveal. The red lipstick and red pumps completed the persona.
Dillon stood abruptly, eyes wide, mouth hanging open. I smiled sheepishly, and he snapped his mouth shut and cleared his throat, blushing deeply.
“Boys have it so much easier than us girls. I bet all you did was change your shirt and run some water through your hair.”
“And gel!” Tim said defensively making us all laugh.
“Ugh, let’s go!” Kelly announced and we followed her lead.
The night passed in a blur of cocktails and dancing and more cocktails. I spent most of the time at the first club laughing at Dillon’s inability to dance, then attempted to help him at the next one, but when we got to XO, I couldn’t contain myself. I squeaked like a kid in a candy store at the stage with a lighted backdrop. Kelly convinced the bartender to let us behind the backdrop, so we could dance as silhouettes. It was incredible. I will admit that I showed off some of my best moves, hoping that Dillon was watching.
This night was going down in the history books as one of the best nights of my life. I forgot all about my broken ribs, broken toes, and battered body. The alcohol loosening my muscles and lowering my inhibitions.
Kelly and Tim offered to let us stay with them for the night, so we all headed back together in the wee hours of the morning sweaty and exhausted. Dillon and I collapsed on the couch, falling instantly to sleep.
I jolted awake to the too-bright sun. Blinking, I looked over and saw Dillon’s sleeping form on the opposite end of the couch. Thank the heavens for a reprieve from the Shadow Men.
I climbed over him to snuggle in next to him, taking advantage of the small bit of privacy we had for the moment. He mumbled a contented, “mm” and wrapped his arms around me. “We made it through the night,” he said sleepily.
“We did,” I said. “Kelly and Tim are going to bring us back home as soon as they’re up. I guess they want to visit with their own families anyway, so we’re not going to be too much of an inconvenience for them.”
“The beauty of all being from the same neighborhood,” he said.
We all decided to skip breakfast, too hungover from the night before. Kelly and Tim eyed Dillon and I snuggled up on the couch, but didn’t say anything to us about it.
It was a fairly quiet ride back to the California desert. All of us too tired to feel much like talking. Dillon absently played with my fingers, while he and Tim swapped basketball stories from their glory days.
I quietly asked Dillon if it would be okay to be dropped off with him at his house. He frowned at me but didn’t question it until after Tim and Kelly had driven away.
“I just didn’t want to embarrass you,” I admitted.
“What? Embarrass me how?”
“I know what everyone says about my apartment complex. ‘Felony Flats’ ringing any bells?”
Dillon made a face at me and waved it away. “Come here.” He held open his arms and I walked into his warm embrace. “I don’t know what’s going on between us, but I do know that there’s something here. Something strong. Something soul deep. We are both very, very different people than we were in high school, and that’s a good thing.” He leaned back and gently tilted my head up with his hand so that we were looking into each other’s eyes. “You have been through more than anyone I know and you’ve always come out on the other end of every shit situation stronger and more resilient. Now that I have first-hand experience with what you’ve been going through and completely alone, I am in awe of you.”
I was speechless. All I could do was stand there and frown at him. His eyes were so warm and his embrace so comforting. How did someone so good end up with someone like me?
“You deserve so much better than me,” I finally said. I had done everything wrong. I truly believed that I had been cursed and was now reaping the “rewards” of that curse. The Shadow Men were my punishment for all the bad shit I had done during my short 21 years of life.
“I don’t believe that,” Dillon said fervently. “I choose who I let into my life. We’re connected somehow and I, for one, consider it a blessing.”
“How can you even say that?” I said defiantly. “You just got your ass beat because of me.”
Dillon sighed deeply. “Let’s go to your place. I’ll explain when we get there. My mom and dad are inside and if they see you, they’ll insist you stay for dinner, so just give me a minute to get some things together.”
I nodded silently.
“Can I stay with you tonight?” he added almost as an afterthought.
I nodded again.
“I’ll be right back. Stay here.” He quickly kissed me on the forehead and went inside, leaving me alone on his front porch. I sat down on his porch swing and rocked back and forth.
Everything was so confusing. This was, without doubt, one of the darkest times in my life, but out of the blue, there’s Dillon, a bright ray of sunshine, throwing me completely for a loop. I thought things couldn’t get any worse and yet here I was, pulling Dillon into my mess, too. Despite what he said, that just made me feel worse. Resigned and determined, I got up from the swing. I had to let Dillon go before he got too attached. He had everything to look forward to. The Shadow Men could not have him. I deserved what I got. Dillon deserved all the good the world had to offer. I would only ever pull him down. It was time to go.
Just as I reached the closed gate, a hand reached out and held the gate closed.
“I know what you’re trying to do, Eleanor.”
I spun around. Dillon’s dad was standing there with an accusing expression on his face.
“I’m trying to leave,” I told him holding my chin up toughly.
“Good,” he said with a sneer. “You’re kidding yourself if you think you’ll ever be good enough for my son. Don’t forget that I know what you are.” He practically spit the words at me.
Not just, “I know what you do, or I know what your job is.” No, he said, “I know what you are,” as though the way I paid my rent defined me. I knew what I did was frowned upon by many of the more privileged members of society, and yet they were 95% of my most loyal customers, including this man standing in front of me right now, condemning the very actions he enjoyed several nights a week.
“You’re just jealous that I took the past few nights off and away from you,” I said defiantly.
His eyes narrowed menacingly. “It makes no difference to me. You’re expendable. You could be gone tomorrow and no one would notice. No one would care.”
I hated to admit it, but he was spot on. I had been warring with those same thoughts myself.
“Please let me go,” I tried politely, but he kept his hand firmly on the gate.
“Let me go, or I show Mrs. Rockwood exactly what you’ve been doing for the past month. I think she’ll be surprised to see that those late meetings were not even remotely work-related.”
His jaw clenched so hard I thought he might break some teeth, but he finally dropped his hand and I tore out of there as fast as my broken toes would let me. I barely registered the honking horns and screeching breaks as I blindly crossed the busy highway.
I had never been more relieved to shut the door to my tiny little apartment.
Everything Dillon’s father said was true. He was being protective of his only child. And I knew what kind of girl I was, but I also knew what kind of man he was. Wholesome men don’t come into a strip club three nights a week for the wings.
Grass isn’t always greener. Sometimes it’s just as diseased, hiding just under the surface.
I sat on my couch with my head in my hands as I listened to Dillon pounding on my door asking to be let in. I had to let him go now before I fell too deep, but I was already feeling the effects of his absence like a hollow ache in my chest, made doubly painful by the heart wrenching pleas coming from the other side of the door. He said he was free to choose, well so was I. I was choosing to let him go have a better life. One he had been working toward his whole life. One that could never include me.
I called Ya-Ya and got myself put back on the schedule. Dillon could just stay out there all night. I had work to do.
I took extra care picking out my outfit for work and doing my makeup and hair. If Dillon’s father thought stripping defined me, then I’d be the best damn stripper in this godforsaken desert.
Dillon had gone silent some time ago and when I opened my door to leave, he was mercifully gone. I was both relieved and heart-broken as I made my way down to my car. I climbed in, noticing that the overhead light didn’t turn on. Frowning, I put my keys in the ignition and turned. Nothing. Not even a click.
“Great,” I said slamming my hands on the dash. It had only been a few days since I’d driven it last, but I knew it was on its last legs. Just another thing to add to the growing pile of things I’d never be able to afford.
I called Ya-Ya for a ride, and she said she’d send Kristy of all people. The hits just kept on coming. Kristy: the shining star of the Velvet Room Strip Club with the personality of a hungry viper. She may be a petite little blonde bombshell on the outside, but she was about as fun to be around as a scorpion den.
I sat on the trunk of my car, content to wait out here for Kristy and what was sure to be a night full of fun. I wasn’t disappointed. Kristy pulled up in her red mustang convertible without a care in the world. Stolen from an ex-boyfriend without the balls to try to get it back, Kristy lorded that mustang over everyone. Her most prized possession that didn’t even belong to her.
“That old hunk of junk giving you problems again, Elly?” she called, adopting a fake southern accent. Save it for the customers, Susan. Yeah, that was her real name. She doesn’t know I know. I’m saving that little golden egg for a rainy day.
“Dead battery,” I said simply and climbed into the passenger seat.
She chatted away the whole way to the club, but I tuned her out. When we parked in the back lot, I thanked her and told her I’d send a customer her way as repayment.
“Oh, honey, that’s sweet of you, but I have a reputation to protect. I don’t want any handouts.” She smiled sweetly and strutted inside.
I ground my teeth in frustration. Guess we’re going with my angry playlist tonight.
I glared at Ya-Ya as soon as I saw her and flipped her the bird for sending miss perfect to rescue me. Anyone else, Ya-Ya, anyone else.
I went to the back to change and touch up my makeup. We each had our own stations, much like the dressing rooms for theater actors. Mine was decorated with pictures of my mom and me during happier times, as well as some drawings I did of the other women who worked with me. I had done Ya-Ya, Crystal, Tisha, and Candy so far. Kristy has a drawing too, but I didn’t want to get fired, so that one stayed in my makeup case for me and the girls to peek at whenever we needed a pick-me-up. Let’s just say I drew what she looks like on the inside.
Ya-Ya came back just as I was finishing my eyeliner. “There’s a younger man here to see you. He requested a private room and paid upfront,” she said matter-of-factly. None of her words surprised me. This was an almost daily occurrence. Richer and more powerful men wanted the experience without the shame of being aroused in public. We even had a private entrance for these types of men, who didn’t need their subordinates seeing them in a place like this. They always paid good money and tipped even more for our discretion.
Bill was one of these types of men, one of my regulars; a fit and admittedly handsome forty-something CEO of a financial management company. He was nice enough to me, a little grabby for my taste, but he usually spent most of his time on his phone, preferring to have me there as background entertainment. It would be much cheaper if he got himself a TV, but I would never suggest as much. I’d lose out on his amazing tips.
The private rooms were dimly lit and tinted blue with a circular navy-blue leather couch against the wall, a pole in the middle and mirrored on all sides. I entered through the side door, not looking at my client. My playlist was already running, currently in the middle of a song about a nasty breakup. I kept my eyes down as I slowly and seductively made my way to the pole. I shut my eyes, moving my body on autopilot.
“Please look at me,” a soft voice sounded. The music had changed to a slow and sultry song. Definitely not on my angry playlist. Trey must have changed it. The traitor.
I took a deep breath, grabbed a hold of the pole, spun around it, and walked over to my customer. I climbed on top of him, and began to move, finally looking up at who I was dancing for.
I stopped moving for a split-second, my eyes wide, my pulse rapid. Quickly remembering the cameras, I started moving again and whispered, “You shouldn’t be here,” trying not to move my mouth too much. Ya-Ya didn’t like us talking to our customers, and she definitely didn’t want personal business in her club. Boyfriends and ex-boyfriends and husbands could keep their drama out of her club. That was practically rule number one.
“You wouldn’t answer the door,” Dillon said quietly, getting hint quickly that we couldn’t have this conversation here.
I climbed back off him and sauntered to the pole, grabbing hold as if it were a lifeline. I put my free hand up to my hair and tapped my ear quickly, hoping he would understand that either Trey or Ya-Ya were most likely listening in. Dillon wasn’t the usual middle-aged businessman who always requested these private shows. Guys like Dillon seemed to prefer staying out in the open club area for the wide variety of women rather than paying for just one.
“I told that woman I’m the son of a CEO and wanted the best. All I had to do was point at your picture.”
I nodded in time with the music. That’ll do it. Play the spoiled son of a rich daddy. Dillon looked enough like his father, so it wasn’t that far-fetched. Dear old dad was a regular after all.