What Money Can’t Buy

The perfume she wore was overbearing, much like her presence after her performance was over. As she turned around, I saw her flashing the same reassuring smile to another man. It was the kind of smile that would make a man want to come back home after a hard day’s work. It had the shine of bourbon, the warmth of a blanket needed on a chilly morning and yet everything about it, was fake. Powered by the scent of fresh money, she swung her bottom and lifted her sarong again. I gulped down the last of my drinks and decided to step out.

My head was lighter and I knew it wasn’t because of the shots that I had. Perhaps, it was the realization of the fact that someone else around was more pathetic than I was. I couldn’t tell who amused me more the dancer who kept jiggling her body and thrusting herself at anyone’s face for as low as two bucks or the old silver haired lecher seated across me who kept sticking one dollar bills into the strings of her bikini in a vain attempt to grope any patch of her skin. The dancer kept swaying about the pole with the same practiced glossy red smile and I kept watching trying to figure out what hid behind that faux grin and shiny eyes.

What went behind those closed doors where neon signs and ultraviolet lights flashed patches of white skin gyrating behind loosely drawn curtains wasn’t something that I had not known or anticipated earlier. What I had not known was who I would run into behind that grimy door in a room reeking of cigar smoke and trucker’s sweat.

I had just emptied my last glass after flinging my jacket over my shoulder and was ready to leave the club when the DJ announced the next performer on the stage. It was not the name by which I knew her once but perhaps the resonance of it made me turn around to catch a glimpse. It was then that time froze. Even in that low colored light and through her patches of heavy makeup, I could recognize those eyes.

God, had I not lived through all these years dreaming about those eyes I would have never recognized them upon seeing them here in this run down gentleman’s club on the corner of 82E. Yet there she was, swinging around on the pole like a true performer, honest to her core and bare, both in her soul and her body. I stopped in my track waiting for my brain to make a decision for me. What should I do? Run away and perhaps lose all chance of seeing her again or sit down and wait for her to finish her routine and then question her on how and why she landed in this rat hole and what was her sob story?

She continued swinging to the lousy track for a while and moved on from one end of the stage to the other, shedding her itsy bitsy clothing one by one along the way. By the time she got around to the end where I was sitting she was not wearing more than a thick silver chain around her neck and her smile. She was moving along with the music and engrossed in her routine and perhaps did not realize who she was looking at, until she really sat down right in front of me to shake her bottom to get me to part with a few singles. Her eyes met mine and for a brief moment her smile eloped from her face.

My worst fear was confirmed that instant. It was her indeed. Years ago, I knew her as that coy little girl, who plaited her hair and lived across the street in front of my grandmother’s house. I would meet her often crossing the road or going down to the municipal library in the afternoons. We often exchanged smiles on such occasions, acknowledging each other’s presence from across that distance. I remember on one of these days I found her with welled up teary eyes right outside the library and for some unknown reason mustered up enough courage to go right over and ask her about her troubles. I was hoping to make myself useful somehow, prove my knighthood and rescue her from a tower maybe and I don’t know till date why I was so dejected when she said it was because she had hurt her knee after banging it with a jutting corner of a table while coming out. I was hoping it to be something more sinister, something more torturous, something which would make me cut open my chest and offer her my being. Sadly, something as trivial as that did not need any knight on a shiny white horse. So, I did the next best thing and cracked a joke about it and got her laughing with me.

The next few days saw us walking down the road together, going on bicycle rides by the river, skate along the pavements, confess our love for each other and share the first kiss of our lives. Life was all a big sugar baked episode of ‘The Wonder Years’ until one of the days her family decided to move to the States. By the time I got to know this, she was three days away from flying away to a new alien country, I had only seen in TV shows thus far.

It was hurtful and I felt cheated. She had no real reason to hide this fact from me. The day she moved away, I kept standing at my doorway fighting my urge to meet her. Finally, she went away without meeting me, without sending out a word or giving me her address. Couple of days later, I got a letter which said ‘It was good while it lasted, but it is perhaps for better that I should move on, like she had’. She wished me luck and urged me to forget her. I tore the letter up. Years went by and I forgave her. I just could not forget her and yes, I pasted the letter back and saved it between leaves of an old book.

Two decades and two failed marriages later, here I was sitting in this shoddy tramp club gulping down pale ale to while my evening away only to find her shaking her torso at fat, stinking truckers who could just put forward their arms and grope her for a dollar each.

All my love I had for her came rushing back to me and swelled in my mouth. I picked up another pint and gulped it back inside. I eased back on my chair and spread my legs. It was about time I decided that I would show the girl her place. I smiled at her and nodded. She evaded any further eye contact.

I held out a ten dollar bill and signaled her to come over to my side. For a single buck broad it was a reasonable bait. And no, she could not resist. She came by and flung open her legs and played on like girls her clan should. She lingered on doing her bit till I flung the money over her. She picked it up and stood up straight and with a practiced ease, smiled back and whispered a ‘Thank You’ before moving onto the other side again.

I couldn’t let her go like that. I had spent years and days which felt longer than all those years questioning myself if it was my fault. I couldn’t let her walk all over me again. After all she was the one who was naked not me. Right? So, I pulled out my wallet again and flashed in a twenty this time. And yes, she came over again. A twenty is usually hard to come by in such joints and I guess it didn’t matter to her anymore where it came from. She came around and moved down. A twenty entitles the person to use his hands instead of eyes to see such girls. She came in close, waiting for me to get value for my money. I kept my distance and threw the note over to her again.

I can’t say if she would have felt more humiliated had I gone ahead and become all touchy-feely with her or by the way I threw money at her with spite. But, she kind of wrapped her routine quickly after that and stepped down from the stage. As she was about to head for her room backstage, I came across and stopped her.

“How much for a lapdance princess?” I scoffed.

There was no room for pretence left any more. She was a pole dancer in a rotting pub and I was a creepy old man, alone in an alien country, on pretext of work and looking to just vent it out into some trash can. We both understood each other well. Time had peeled the old plaster off and the naked bricks were both ugly and primeval.

“Twenty”, she paused and then added ‘Mister”.

“How much for a VIP treatment?” I pretended as if my wallet was bursting at seams.

“Hundred Fifty”. She quipped and proceeded to light a cigarette.

Her eyes met mine and she looked up and pierced right through me. It was a gaze that looked down upon me. She was the one who was standing there holding her underwear in her hands and I felt ashamed at my nakedness in front of her even if I had three layers of clothing over me.

And then she did the most unusual thing I ever expected. She smiled at me. The same old smile which she gave when she won an argument with me – the same smile she had on when I had seen her in front of her house the first time ever two decades ago. I quivered. Her smile had unsettled me. I didn’t know what to do.

“Do you want it?” she asked nonchalantly and pointed a finger to her bust before blowing a smoke ring on my face. I felt flushed out. I was hoping she would break down or something and cry out her story to me. Maybe there was a tragedy, maybe she was destitute and was doing it all for much needed money perhaps for an ailing parent, husband or worse a child. Her brazen behavior left me gasping for words to fall out of my mouth. Perhaps I had failed again trying to be her knight in the shining armor. Maybe I was the one who wanted to be rescued here.

“Why..?” I began my sentence but could not complete it.

“Go home, you don’t have the money to buy me.”, she added. I was surprised she could still read me that easily.

“Why..?” I tried and failed again.

She let out a sigh and then a short laugh and shook her head. “You are such a loser…”, she guffawed and waved me aside and went back inside backstage.

I stood there stupefied just like the day she had taken off, not knowing what to do again.

“Excuse me, do you have to go in?” a male voice behind me asked.

I looked back to see a short bald man looking at me with eager eyes. His hands had a few bills sticking out of them. Perhaps he was the next in line for her ‘special service’.

“No”, I replied, stepped aside and let him in.

“I don’t have the money to buy her” I muttered under my breath before taking the exit door.

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