buzzer

Thursday Night Special
by Chandra Steele

“If I was writing this story I would start at the red door,” he said from the top of the steps.

She wrapped her arms around her and rubbed her hands against her thin sweater. It was a May night; average warmth for New York, no precipitation. The sweater, filmy black sleeveless dress, and ballet flats that made up her outfit were meant to go from work to work-related happy hour. If it had been too cold or too rainy or too anything she could use it as an excuse not to be on the sidewalk for another minute and turn and walk home. But not so much as a breeze swung the carved-wood sign that hung from a pole above the door. Le Lumiere it said in fancy lettering but shed no light on what went on inside.

Even though he was about to press the buzzer, he’d had his own reservations earlier. “Let’s just see who goes in,” he’d said when they’d approached the building. They made a pass but on the entire block there were just two women, one concerned with hailing a cab and the other with curbing her wiry dog. They kept walking until both were gone and then retraced their own steps.

“In 30 minutes we could each be at home watching Netflix.” He looked at her to gauge her reaction. “Or we could be in there.”

The flat red of the door gave off a sudden intensity and they moved slightly closer. They locked eyes in a nonverbal dare. He broke. “Let’s do it,” he said and strode up the three shallow concrete steps. She was behind until she noticed a very tiny window that had been covered up by a sliding metal gate whenever she’d passed by during the day. It was sort of charming in its diminutive size, even with the tacky sheer purple curtains parted around a small shaded lamp. A small red lamp.

“There’s an actual red light,” she yelled up to him but he was oblivious now that he had done the thing that would get them inside, so she joined him. Their anticipation was all that filled the silence. Then suddenly, a high-pitched whirring started up.

“I think I hear vacuuming,” she said. “Do you hear vacuuming?”

“At least it’s clean.”

“Well that’s what you want in a sex club,” she said. A buzz and a click and a turn of a knob later and her skills of audio identification should never have been in doubt because before them an older man was stooped over an upright vacuum that was as much of a relic as he was. He moved the cord so they could sidestep him up two stairs whose carpeting had received too much of his attention over who knows how many years.

It was hard to tell if the foyer’s swank was past its prime or just poorly executed. There was a small booth with a black faux-marble counter and some red velvet curtains held back by braided mustard-colored ropes. A small gold bell to ring for service sat there but wasn’t needed, though the booth’s occupant barely moved her eyes from her phone. “Welcome,” she said. “Tonight it is a hundred and fifteen dollars.”

“Oh, the Thursday night price,” he said, his voice trying to sound knowing but cracking as he placed fresh, uncreased bills on the counter.

They’d stopped at a Chase on the way over. “I’ll pay,” he’d said earlier outside the bar, with an air of graciousness, like it was the accepted and gentlemanly thing to do when you suggest to an acquaintance that you visit a sex club together.

There’d always been something unexplored between them and when everyone else had parted ways outside the bar they’d hung back. He was charming and sharp and funny and that was as big a warning to her as a rotted lung and 24-point type on a pack of cigarettes. They’d unwind from conversations with others and drift together at all such get-togethers. Not that she was smooth in every social situation, but she’d trip over her thoughts when she talked to him, echoes of a thing she said reverberating as the alcohol she consumed retreated from her brain later.

His jokes would often touch on his being Muslim, and they caused an ache of the familiar in her chest that increased her attraction to him. They were no different than the shtick her relatives used as a shield when they were ghettoized and targeted for genocide. Her own humor could never stick a landing with finesse in response, ungainly as it was from the sympathy it came loaded with. She unfortunately had a very sharp recollection of the time she told him very sincerely that she hoped one day the tenor in the country would change so that he could enjoy the sort of turnaround Woody Allen had, going from being banned from the New York Athletic Club to enjoying the aegis of white privilege. “May you one day live happily married to your stepdaughter in Paris and continue to enjoy critical accolade with impunity,” she’d said. It had seemed normal when it left her mouth but then she’d seen the look on the face of her friend who was at her side.

She’d appointed that friend to keep an eye on her at these events. To make sure she never accepted his offers to share a cab, to instead slip her arm through hers and steer her toward the subway so that the worst that happened was a little twinge of regret that would pass along with her frozen margarita haze. The only thing about him that was indelible was the image he made standing in traffic in the blazing pink and orange of the city-street sunset, one hand stretched out with a cigarette to hail a cab, a wisp of smoke drifting against the deeper gray of his custom-made three-piece suit, dark black hair and eyes luminous. She’d spend half a block looking back at him while she chatted about other things with her friend. But the friend had since moved.

The sex club had been a thing they’d all been talking about over drinks that night. A week earlier she’d been searching for a spot where they could have the happy hour when she’d come across a Yelp review. Though it was under nightlife, it didn’t seem to be a bar. Three reviews in she realized it was a swingers club and so she quickly chose a spot, sent out an invite and then spent the rest of the afternoon consumed by how many stars swingers gave for things like clean towels.

It was good for conversation that evening when a quiet moment reminded them all that work friends are not friend friends. They looked up the reviews on their phones and read out loud the most amusing ones. He was sitting next to her and showed her the site for the place. The pricing list showed that Wednesday was the cheapest night of the week and things got progressively more expensive from there. “It says if you’re a guy, you need to have a woman with you to get in,” he said. She gestured to the ignored line of women standing behind all the men at the bar who were fixated on televised sports. “You’ve got your pick.”

“What about you? Would you go?”

In the bright lights of the bar with relative sobriety and the practiced steadiness that comes from being around people you know professionally, she wasn’t so much in his sway. But even removed from his proposition, visiting the club intrigued her.

“I’m curious about it. But I don’t want to be pawed at by creepy men.”

“We’d go together. We wouldn’t do anything with anyone. We could have a safe word if things get uncomfortable.”

“What would our safe word be?”

“Mattress.”

“I don’t think mattress is the safest safe word in a sex club.”

“Let’s just go see what it’s like.”

She didn’t answer in any way really. They resumed conversation with everyone else but soon talk strayed, as did their friends, and there they still were.

“Should we go?” was all he said and they set off.

Now here they were in the lobby, money already exchanged. The hostess saw their uneasiness and put down her phone.

“I promise you, you won’t regret it in the morning,” she reassured them. She opened a ledger. “What’s your name?” she asked him.

“Asa Phillips.” That was not his name.

“And yours?”

How did she not have a fake name for these situations? Why did he have such a readily available fake name for these situations?

“She’s Liza.”

“I’m Liza.”

They walked inside to what looked surprisingly identical to a VFW hall. An empty VFW hall. Small faux-wood tables with cheap metal and leatherette chairs dotted the room. Along one wall were covered chafing dishes with sternos and a folding table held tremendous Costco tubs of pretzels and Nilla wafers, as well as pitchers of water and juice and dinky plastic cups. The TV screen above the buffet table showed sports, while on the one across from the entrance a POV blow job was in progress.

Tucked in the corner was a bar that had no alcohol on display. A man in a burgundy vest stood behind it, tending to nothing, his eyes as mysteriously empty as the shelves behind him. “Can we get alcohol? Is this a real bar?” they asked. “We cannot serve alcohol,” he said. “But I can get you whatever you like.” This confounded them and so they were quiet.

“Would you like a tour?” the barless bartender asked with no inflection in tone. “Yes,” they both said in relief. This was ideal. They’d see everything there was to see, maybe have a drink of – juice? – after, and then leave. A story but not one so sordid that they couldn’t tell it at a party.

The bartender left his post and walked them down a hallway with three doors on either side. He opened each as he went. They peeked in but there was nothing to see except dingy flat mattresses that filled the entire floor space in all but two of them. “These are private rooms. You can go in there and shut the door for privacy or leave it open if you want people to watch or join you.” “Oh,” they said and nodded appreciatively, trying to match his detachment as though he were telling them how many miles per gallon a car they were considering buying got. They reached a large plate-glass window that gave a view of a room with a soft pink glow and a pillowy floor that shone with cheap satin. Next to it was a smaller version of the same. “These are the orgy rooms,” he said. “If you go in, you can wear only underwear or a towel with nothing on underneath.” For orgies, the rooms were distinctly lacking in participants.

“Where are the people?” he whispered to her. With no one around, the bartender could hear him though he gave no sign.

“I don’t know,” she whispered back.

“Um, so where is everybody?” he asked the bartender.

“We don’t open till 9,” he said.

How was it not even 9 yet? It felt like he middle of the night.

“Oh, I hate to be the first one at the orgy,” he said but the bartender just turned and led them to the locker rooms. It was as humid as if hundreds of people had already been having sex in there all day. “This is where you can change. There are towels if you need.” And the tour was over.

“We’re just going to have a seat out there for a minute,” he told the bartender and they all walked back down the hallway together silently. They both sat at a table in front of the Nilla wafers and the bartender stacked and unstacked plastic cups.

“What do you want to do?” he asked her.

“Well there’s no one here. How much longer are we going to wait for people to show up? We already did the tour.”

“I mean, do you want to go into one of those private rooms?” He paused. “With me?”

It seemed absurd but this she had not thought about. She’d been so focused on not doing anything with anybody when they got there that she never considered that something would happen between the two of them.

Just then his phone rang. It didn’t just ring, it flashed multicolor lights around the room. He held it up. “Mom,” it said in tall white letters. It seemed to mean every mom everywhere and she thought of her own and then tried not to.

“Does she have an alarm on you? Does she know you’re in a sex club?”

“I have to take this. I’ll be back,” he said and walked off.

“Don’t leave me alone…” she called out to him but he was gone. “In a sex club,” she said to herself. She focused on the sports screen but that seemed too pointedly to be ignoring the situation, so instead she watched the blow job. The girl was so blonde and so eyelinered and had such round enormous breasts and the penis that projected from the bottom of the screen was so smooth and slender and pink that it was almost anime.

She hadn’t noticed that he’d sat back down next to her. “So…” he said.

“I’m not sure.” She hesitated. She thought of the rooms that were mattressed to the door, where there was literally no room for debate. “I definitely don’t want to go into one of the ones where there’s not even room to stand.”

It would be like when she learned to drive.”Turn right here,” the instructor said and she did. And there she was on the Jackie Robinson Parkway, the twistiest, deadliest way to vehicularly travel from Queens to Brooklyn. She had hugged the car as close as possible to the high stone walls and prayed for a rapidly approaching exit.

“But I don’t want to be out here anymore,” she said.

“OK,” he said to her, and to the bartender, “Uh, we’ll take a room.”

The bartender put down the cups and picked up a ring of keys and they followed him. She pointed out one of the rooms that had some allowance for standing.

“Don’t take long,” the bartender said, looking at her.

“What does that even mean?” she said and then closed the door in his face and locked it.

One bare red bulb illuminated the room and whatever switch controlled it, there was no accommodation for it to be turned off in there. Is red light flattering? She looked around and then finally up to check. You would think a sex club would have a mirror but no.

The smell of air freshener was overpowering, a scent that was olfactory-gland-numbingly sweet with no distinguishing notes. She knew she’d smelled it in all sorts of places before but never had it defined an experience like this. “This smells just like a sex club,” is a phrase she knew she’d have to stop herself from saying for the rest of her life.

They leaned against the wall facing each other. Between them was a vaguely African painting that looked like sand art from the 70s but they hadn’t even wasted money on using sand to make it. A faceless couple touched feet.

“What’s this?” he said.

“Foot sex?”

He kissed her and they awkwardly made out for a minute. He stepped back.

“What we do is up to you. I don’t want to pressure you into anything.”

In considering their surroundings, she was disgusted by what she saw but terrified of what she didn’t. Bodily fluids that would light up the room in blacklight and bedbugs and crabs and microorganisms whose names she did not even know probably. But she loved an experience and that bug was bigger than the others.

“Do you have condoms?”

“I do not,” he said slowly as he realized he had not considered this on their walk over. “They must have condoms here, right?”

“Jesus. What brand are they going to have?” she said. “Probably some ineffective generic one that already comes with diseases pre-loaded.”

“Let me go see.”

A minute later he returned with a comical armload of bubblegum-pink-packaged condoms and a bewildered look.

“Did you ask for this many?”

“No, I just asked the guy for condoms and this is what he gave me.” He threw them in a heap on the bed. She inspected a wrapper.

“I guess this is OK.”

Her attention was still on the farcical pile of condoms when she felt his hands steadily maneuver her against the wall. He pressed into her. “I’m going to seduce you now,” he said and she laughed at the absurdity of saying such a thing so that her mouth was wide open and their teeth clicked when he went in to kiss her. But he was serious and his lips steadied hers and she was soon overcome. Where he had been tentative before he was now deliberate. His hands and mouth and tongue were well-calibrated as they traveled her face, her mouth, her neck, and her chest. She loosened her dress.

He sat down on the edge of the mattress and carefully removed all but the pants of his expensive suit, his starched white shirt, his heavy silk tie, his gold cuff links, and the tie clip etched with his initials and carefully laid them out. She’d often thought of him as an entire Wes Anderson movie in a single person. And so he struck her again, surrounded by his very particular accoutrements in that cinematic oversaturated red room.

“I’m not looking for human affection,” he said as he finished placing everything down.

That he had to qualify it as human struck her as strange. She pictured that rhesus monkey experiment where they took the baby away from its mother and gave it a horrifying-looking plastic-head and terry-cloth-body substitute. You could see on the frightened monkey’s face that it knew but it had no choice for survival other than to cling to the wire shell.

“OK,” she said as he stood up and kissed her throat, wrapped his arms around her and lowered her to the bed.

“I’m not looking for a girlfriend. I’m really happy with my life the way it is.” It sounded like a conversation he’d had with himself before.

“We’re in a sex club,” she said. “So I didn’t think you were looking for a girlfriend.”

She could feel the sheets leaving tiny scratch marks against her skin.

“These sheets are all I can think about.”

“They’re a worry,” he said.

“Maybe they were just cleaned because we’re the first ones here.” The false hope in her voice was for herself.

“Today,” he said. “Do you want me to put my jacket down?”

“No, it’s Brooks Brothers. Forget it.”

He covered her with feathery kisses and then moved his tongue so deftly and gently that thoughts of the sheets were extinguished. “Your skin is so soft,” he said. He traced his way back up to her mouth. He tasted sour and bitter, of her and tobacco, and as he slowly dry humped her, the curve of him became more apparent as it strained against his pants.

“Do you want to take them off?” he said.

She did. Underneath his navy-and-white patterned boxers were of such good quality that they transcended what you would think was possible of cotton. He removed them less carefully than he had everything else. She slid her lips over him and he arched back and gently brushed her face and hair with a startling tenderness. She sat up and kissed him.

“This mattress,” she said.

“So gross,” he said.

But they really had no choice but to move fully onto it. There were some pillows that had never seen sleep and she picked them up by just the very ends and tossed them off the bed, along with a wedge that she tried to barely touch. It was then that she realized she only had one shoe on.

“I lost my shoe. I hate to think of where it is.”

“You’ve got your shoes on?”

“I’m not risking my feet touching the ground in here.”

“Good point.”

At the bar her shoe had also fallen off while her feet were dangling from a bar stool. He had retrieved it from the floor and tried to slip it on her foot but she swooped her hand down to take it from him and put it back on herself, unwilling to be some cliche.

“Forget the shoe, I’ll find it later,” she said now.

It was more to herself than to him because he was lost in kissing her, breaking it up with small licks and deep bites to her neck. She had the disconcerting thought that she’d been in entire relationships with men who had never displayed such ardor in similar moments. “You smell good,” he said.

“You, too. Like cigarettes. But I like it.”

“And cologne,” he said, though she couldn’t smell it.

He stopped suddenly. “What was that?” He lifted his head for a noise she could not detect. All she heard was his heart as it pounded against her chest.

“What is it?”

“I heard someone.”

“So? What do you think is going to happen? That you’re going to get busted for having sex in a sex club?” She laughed and he waved his hands in front of her face, part in jest, but partly from real panic.

“What are you afraid of?”

“They’ll send me back to Guantanamo Bay.”

If he had tried to quiet her laugh before, it was impossible now. Fear another Holocaust or find it hilarious. Get mad that you could get thrown off a plane or fly in the face of it. She saw in his face that he was making one of those decisions. The alarm left his expression. He pressed his lips to her and his voice was thick as he said into her ear, “Fuck it, we paid our money.” Of all the thoughts she’d had about why he took such care with his appearance and spent money with such profligacy, this one had never occurred to her.

The temperature between them had gone up a good 20 degrees and as he came she could smell his cologne in a warm wave. It was bespoke but the perfumer had cleverly hidden within it the provoking memory of high-school boys and department-store Polo.

She let go and gave in and when her eyelids flicked open she saw him sitting astride her with his beautiful mussed-up hair and a sweet and goofy smile on his face. There was something like enlightenment. She searched her mind for things that she knew would be painful, those behind her and things that she had not yet faced. She knew this relief from her always anxious mind would pass quickly and so she took one moment and kept it still and to remember tied it to that image of him.

She took a breath and then set about to find her lost shoe and her clothing and all the things she owned that she would run under scalding water and harsh soap, whether that was advisable for the fabric or not.

He struggled with his stiff Italian leather shoes that he had once told her were polished daily at his desk by a person who came around to his law office.

“I didn’t expect this to be my Thursday night,” he said.

“Me neither.”

“I would do this again. I don’t mean here.”

“Me, too.”

She found her sweater and as she put it on, he came up behind her and nuzzled her neck.

“I wish we could leave here without going back out there,” she said. “There must be people by now.”

He gestured upward. “Oh. These walls don’t go all the way to the ceiling.” He was right. They were false furniture showroom walls.

“Everybody heard us,” she said.

“Us and our hypochondriac routine about how gross this place is.”

“You go out first. I’ll walk behind you. Don’t stop for anything until we’re outside.”

He opened the door and she tried to fix her gaze on his back but she saw an elderly nearly skeletal couple sitting on a bench facing the room they’d been in. Their dead eyes and stilted movements made them unreal, like a set from an amusement-park horror tunnel, until the man made eye contact with her as he fondled his companion’s bare breast. She ducked her eyes down until they were in fresh air.

They didn’t speak until they were several buildings away.

“Well,” he finally said.

“Well.”

“I’m going to go get some cigarettes. Want to come?”

“Sure. Then I’m going to get a cab.”

“OK.”

He seemed to want to unburden himself of something. After half a block he said, “My dad had a heart attack the other week. That’s why I had to take that call.”

“I know something about things like that,” she said.

They stepped into a 7-Eleven. The cashier smiled at them, which was an uncharacteristic move for a 7-Eleven cashier, and she felt like he could tell. Really she felt like everyone could.

“Parliament Lights,” he said to the cashier.

“Do you want anything?” he asked her.

“No, I’m fine.”

He looked around as he was rung up. There was a hand-cream display next to the register. “What about Nivea? Do you want some Nivea?”

“I’m good.”

On the sidewalk he lit up and then hailed a cab for her.

“I think that cashier knew,” she said.

“He probably goes to my mosque.”

A taxi stopped, and he opened the door and kissed her on the cheek. As she stepped inside the car, she heard him call out to her as he walked away.

“Where we were is under NDA,” he shouted. “But if you write about it, start at the red door.”

 

Chandra Steele has been published in Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Newtown Literary, been a finalist in L Magazine’s Literary Upstart series, had a novel make it to the semifinals of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, and won the MTV Write Stuff competition. She’s drunk kvass and eaten Jesus Harvest Seeds and lived to tell people about it on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. Rick Moody once said she wrote the best description of a racetrack he has ever read. She has never been to a racetrack. Find her on Twitter at @ChanSteele.

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