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In spite of the fact that I was back in New Jersey, I had two things going for me: it was summer and I was down at the shore. If you absolutely have to be in Jersey for any reason whatsoever, it's always a good idea to avoid those brutal winter months. You definitely don't want to be cooped up with a bunch of people who haven't seen the sun for five straight months and who are all suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder. Of course they're all in a state of denial about their condition and won't admit to it. I should know. I grew up there and I used to be one of them.
I had just flown in from LA the night before (or "La-La Land," as they like to call it here) for my biannual visit to the old home front. It's a ritual I endure in order to keep them from flying out to visit me. The way I see it, my life is my own and nobody from my "growing up years" needs to know that I make my living as a stripper.
In contrast to my sixteen peers who work alongside me at the Pink Pussycat in LA, I'm the only one who doesn't try to sugarcoat the facts by calling herself an "exotic dancer" or a "performer." Whom do they think they're kidding? Taking off your clothes, even if you dance around while doing it, is still stripping in my book. Unlike the rest of them, I'm not the least bit ashamed of what I do. If I don't strip, I don't eat. For that matter, if I didn't strip, I wouldn't be driving my coveted BMW or living in Brentwood either. It's as simple as that. Besides, I don't see anybody else paying the mortgage on my condo or making my car payments, so whatever I do to survive is my business, right?
Of course, if you saw me when I had my clothes on, you would have quite a different opinion of me. The way I see it, I don't get to wear clothes often enough, so when I do, I wear only the best. I know good things, and I don't hesitate to buy them for myself.
I must admit, I'm the only one of the bunch who looks like she was born with a silver spoon in her mouth instead of in her nose. Drugs, that's one thing I never got into, and that's what separates me from all those losers who work and hang out at the Pink Pussycat. I work too hard for this perfect body to ever consider handing it over to the demon of drugs. No, sir. Instead, I prefer to spend my money adorning it with Chanel suits, eighteen-karat-gold jewelry, and Ferragamo shoes.
Speaking of Ferragamo shoes, I looked down at the one I was dangling a bit seductively from my perfectly pedicured foot as I waited at the bar for my ever-tardy friends. I suppose you can take the girl out of the strip joint, but you can't necessarily take the strip joint out of the girl. I slipped the shoe back on my foot in spite of the admiring glances I was getting from three guys at a nearby table. I had to clean up my act and remember that I was back in my hometown now. Temporarily, thank God.
It was a little past midnight here on the East Coast, but my body clock said it was only nine, so I wasn't even close to peaking yet. Three of my girlfriends were supposed to meet me here in this beachfront dive for a little "welcome home" get together, but as usual, they were extremely late. That left me only one choice: to sit alone at the bar, sipping my white wine and thinking about my life and how it measured up against the lives of my cronies.
To begin with, we are an unlikely group of friends. We have very distinct personalities and interests, and we all grew up in different towns. About the only thing we have in common is that we all spent glorious childhood summers at the Jersey shore with our families, and that is the glue that holds us together.
Maria and Barbara are "Bennies," which of course means they live north of exit 117 on the Garden State Parkway. Crystal is a "Shoe-bee" from Philadelphia. I think they call them that because, for some unknown reason, people from Philadelphia never seem to take their shoes off, even when they're on the beach. You always see them walking through the sand with their milk-white legs and old beat-up shoes. I am the only "Clamdigger" in the group, so called because I live several exits south of 117 on the parkway near Asbury Park, which makes me the only one who lived at the shore year-round when we were all growing up.
Now, in case you haven't noticed, I'm not exactly the most politically correct person you'll ever meet, but at least I say what's on my mind. I've been accused of a lot of things in my life, but mincing words isn't one of them.
So there I was, hanging out in this somewhat "hip" little dive, waiting for my friends to show up so we could all tell each other how good we look and make up stories about how successful our careers are and how we all have boyfriends or fiancés who adore us. I'd heard that both Maria and Crystal had just become engaged to their boyfriends. I knew because my mother sent me the clippings from the newspaper announcing the joyous news. Why do mothers always send their hopelessly single daughters newspaper clippings of other people's engagements? Do they really think we want to read that stuff? Not that I couldn't be married if I wanted to be. That's hardly the case. It's just that, from what I've seen, who needs the headache?
The worst part, of course, was that I would now have to run out and buy some very expensive bridal shower and wedding gifts. After all, I had a classy image to maintain, and buying the costliest gifts and presenting them with a gracious smile would only enhance my already enviable social status in these parts.
Nonetheless, bridal showers are one ritual I never thought made much sense. I mean, why is it that when your girlfriend finally finds someone to support her or at least to help her pay the bills, all her single girlfriends who are struggling to survive on their own have to run out and buy her presents? I can't tell you how many irons and blenders I've grudgingly bought for people who could finally afford their own. The world's a very cruel place for us single people. At least these days I could afford it, but is it any wonder that I took off for the West Coast years ago to make a better life for myself?
Well, at least my life sounded a whole lot more exciting than Maria's and Crystal's mundane existence of beer-drinking construction-worker boyfriends who would turn into beer-drinking construction-worker husbands. For years now I've had them all convinced that I work as a makeup artist on the movie sets of Hollywood. I always enjoy the envy in their eyes as I embellish my LA lifestyle and make it all sound exciting and glamorous. I have a real flair for storytelling, and I knew I could paint a fabulous and enticing picture of life in Tinsel Town. The best part is that I never have to prove my story, since I live three thousand miles away, so they simply have to take my word for how glorious a life I live. Besides, the truth might only disappoint them.
Fortunately, I really look the part of the "oh-so-cool" California hard body. I'm tall, five feet ten, to be exact, and the California lifestyle of healthy eating and constant exercise has made me much thinner and more muscular than I used to be. This "buffed" look apparently creates an optical illusion of increased height, and you won't hear me complaining about that. Tall women seem to intimidate men, and I often find great pleasure in that, especially when I'm onstage at the club.
Speaking of clubs, where the heck were my girlfriends? They were at least half an hour late, not that this was unusual for them. I took a sip of my white wine and looked up at the still empty stage, searching for signs of this Jim MaGuire character, the musician who was featured here tonight. Wherever he was, he'd better be good because I had just paid a ten dollar cover charge to hear him and I expected him to earn his keep. I was feeling surprisingly relaxed and maybe even a bit like dancing if he turned out to be any good. Call it a busman's holiday, but I really do like to dance.
I scanned the room one more time for my friends and came up empty, though I couldn't help but notice an odd little scenario taking place down the bar.
There was a guy and girl leaning against the bar, engrossed in a seemingly very heavy conversation. The girl looked to be in her early to mid thirties and was dressed in jeans, a white T-shirt, and white high-top sneakers. Immediately, I knew she was a nurse. Don't ask me how I know things like that, I just do. Reading people is just one of my many talents. Besides, she had that aura that nurses seem to have, you know, obviously more concerned with other people than she was about her own appearance. Give me twenty minutes with her, the right clothes and makeup, and I could probably make her into a knockout. Butshe wasn't the one who intrigued me. He was.
He wasn't suave enough to be a New Yorker, but he was no Clamdigger or Shoe-bee either. Whatever he was, he was saying something that made the girl cry. I watched him tenderly wipe a tear from her face (that's when I was certain he wasn't a New Yorker) and then anchor a strand of honey-colored hair behind her ear. She said something to him then, and he smiled and kissed the tip of her nose. There was incredible affection between them, and it was apparent that they shared some very special bond.
At that moment, a feeling of almost unbearable loneliness swept over me. Whatever their relationship was, a lot of love and tenderness was woven through it, and suddenly I ached for the lack of it in my own life. That kind ofsentimental yearning is completely out of character for me, and I was a little unnerved by it. It didn't keep me from feeling sorry for myself though. For some reason I started thinking about what would happen if I died in a plane crash on the way back to LA. Who would identify my body? Probably the only one who could would be Peter, my manicurist, who would know me by the "French pedicures" he's been giving me lately. How sad is that?
I was grateful the lights went down at that moment, engulfing the room in darkness and mercifully blinding me to the loving scene I had just witnessed. I turned my full attention to the stage instead and to the sinewy, graceful form of Jim MaGuire. I must admit, I was immediately mesmerized by his music. Fragile strains of it drifted through me, delicately penetrating some long-forgotten place in my heart, and I marveled that anyone could coax such absolute magic and beauty out of a saxophone. Wasn't I the sensitive one tonight?
I put my empty glass on the bar and stood with my eyes closed, drinking in the magnificence of the moment. I didn't even care if anyone saw me in such an entranced state. It was worth it.
Without even opening my eyes, I knew he was standing beside me, and I also knew that he was smiling. It occurred to me that this clairvoyant thing was a little spooky, yet I didn't feel capable of fear in his company. He just had a kind of presence that seemed to transcend closed eyelids, and what was so scary about that? As long as he stayed quiet and didn't interrupt this blissful moment, I really didn't care what he did. But wait a minute, maybe I should be scared. After all, how did I know that someone had just walked up beside me if my eyes were closed? And how did I know it was the same guy who had just kissed that girl on the tip of her nose? I don't know. Maybe it was that incredible talent or sixth sense of mine. I'm always sensing all kinds of things that other people never seem to notice. What I didn't understand was, what kind of guy makes his girlfriend cry and then saunters off and stands next to someone else?
I stood there ignoring him, totally immersing myself in the music. Every once in a while I stole a peek at him from the corner of my eye, and every time I did, he was staring back at me. What was with this guy? Not that I'm surprised when men stare at me, but you'd think he could have been a little more subtle about it. I figured he had to be some kind of wacko or something, and I should know. I tend to attract that type. I don't know what it is about me, but put me in a room with a hundred people and if there is one nut among them, he will make a beeline for me. It's not just because of the way I look either, although being a tall, lanky blonde with a fondness for spandex doesn't exactly make me inconspicuous. Something more mysterious than that attracts them.
I think it's an energy or some weird vibration they must pick up from me. I know for a fact it's not my kind and sensitive heart, because I don't have one. I learned long ago that feeling sorry for someone, especially if it's a man, is the beginning of my own demise. So this guy could just forget it. He'd find no warm and sympathetic heart here.
I had a major insight into this phenomenon one night when I was watching America's Most Wanted. I watch that show faithfully every Saturday night with the phone right beside me. I study the perpetrators' pictures very carefully, ready to spot any of my old boyfriends so I can dime them out. Sooner or later, I just know, one of them is bound to show up there. Anyway, this one night I was watching the show and the police were using dogs to help them hunt for a missing person. They gave the dogs a sniff of her blouse and then followed as the frantic hounds went into some kind of hunting frenzy, leading police to the exact spot where the victim was buried in a shallow grave. Then it all made sense to me. That's why nuts are always attracted to me. They must pick up some kind of special scent like those hunting dogs and know exactly where to go.
I sneaked another glance at the man standing beside me, and I had to admit, he looked harmless enough, but then, don't they always? He seemed lost in the music now, so I figured it was safe to study him while he wasn't looking.
His body wasn't bad as men's bodies go, but it showed no sign of long hours at the gym working out to impress the likes of me. I like men to have extremely muscular arms and shoulders. It shows they care. It shows they've really worked at their bodies. The way I see it, with their natural abundance of muscle mass and bountiful supply of testosterone, men don't have to work half as hard for a great body as we women do. I slave to keep my body in great shape, and I expect them to do the same. A fat, out-of-shape man is much more inexcusable than a fat, out-of-shape woman.
Don't get me wrong, now. It's not that this guy was fat or out of shape, not by a long shot. It's just that he obviously wasn't concerned about sculpting his body into a work of art, and being the enlightened person that I am, that was a major turnoff. My old boyfriends may all show up on America's Most Wanted sooner or later, but believe you me, they'll look damn good on television.
He must have been more than six feet tall, because I was wearing heels and he was still taller than me. I looked down to see if he was wearing those boots with a stacked heel that you usually see short men wear, you know, so they can trick women into thinking they're taller than they really are. Not a chance. This guy was wearing sneakers. Spotless white Nikes.
Next, I studied his clothes because a woman can tell a lot about a man by the clothes he wears. His jeans were just the right combination of used enough to be cool, but not so well worn as to look like he needed to blow himself to a new pair. I kind of liked that.
His belly was nice and flat, and I couldn't help noticing the belt that slinked around his trim waist. I couldn't be sure, but it looked like genuine snakeskin. Was this guy a cowboy or something? In a way, I kind of hoped so. Those renegade, bad-boy types always get my attention.
Now I was up to the white T-shirt he was wearing that did nothing to hide a broad pair of shoulders and muscular chest, which had to be genetic, since I'm certain he wasn't the type to work out. Though his skin was evenly tanned, he didn't seem like the sunbathing type either, so I figured him for the outdoorsy, maybe motorcycle type.
Even though it had to be at least eighty degrees outside in spite of the midnight hour, he wore a black leather jacket with the sleeves rolled up. He didn't seem to be the least bit aware of the heat, but that sleeve thing made me wonder about his sexual preference. It was kind of a borderline thing, and most women probably wouldn't even think twice about it, but being the astute and experienced person that I am, I had to wonder. Not that it mattered at all to me. I wasn't the least bit interested in a relationship with this guy. I was just curious.
Last, but certainly not least, was his face. Now, normally, that's the first thing I look at (after I make sure they have a perfect body) because faces, to me, are fascinating. He had a rather large head, but it was nicely shaped and seemed to "go" with the rest of him. His hair was dark and thick and cut perfectly to flatter his masculine features. Obviously the man had confidence, because his hair was styled back from his face, revealing a slightly receding hairline and emphasizing a nose that, though prominent, matched the rest of his features in an appealingly masculine way. His hair was conservatively short in the front, then fell into a rather long and roguish look in the back. His eyebrows were dark and thick, and they shaded smoldering brown eyes that lured me to fall into them. His cheekbones were high (I was jealous) and the side of his face curved down to a mouth that was almost pretty. There was a hint of a heavy beard peeking through his olive complexion, and it added a sense of masculine balance to his flawless skin. I've always wondered how men get that rugged, five o'clock shadow without going over the fine line of actually growing a beard. They must know exactly how many hours in advance to shave to give them just the right look by midnight. However they do it, this guy had it down to a science.
The music ended and the ceiling lights went on again, causing most of us to squint as our eyes adjusted to the sudden brightness. I learned long ago that bright, unshaded lights are the enemy of any woman over the age of twenty-five, and I was already four years beyond the cutoff point. Not that I'm especially vain or anything; it's just that in my business, a woman's youth and good looks are essential to making a good living. I was trying to avoid squinting because everybody knows it contributes to the development of those dreaded crow's feet around the eyes, and I certainly can't afford that. I noticed, though, that he never seemed to blink or to squint. He just stood there with this kind of calm and steady gaze. It was most peculiar.
Even more peculiar than that, I was finding myself immensely attracted to him.
At least, that's what I thought it was at first. You know, the fluttering heart, the sudden bolt of tension that shoots through you, and that sensation of feeling choked up. Then with absolute horror, I realized those were not the symptoms of attraction, but rather the advent of one of my god-awful, unpredictable panic attacks.
Oh, God, no. Please not here. Not now. But I knew better than to expect an anxiety attack to listen to reason.
The room began closing in on me, and my heart raced faster than one of those bloodhounds who'd just got a whiff of the victim's clothing. It became difficult to catch my breath and my throat began to close. I was paralyzed with fear and could think of nothing else but gasping for my next breath and fleeing from that room.
I knew I had only a minute, maybe just seconds, to reach into my purse for the Xanax that sometimes helps abort these attacks. I had to take it quickly though, or I would not even be capable of placing it under my tongue.
Hands trembling almost violently, I somehow managed to find the little bottle in the bottom of my purse and shake one of the orange pills out into the palm of my hand.
The first one slid uncontrollably between my shaking fingers and nose-dived to the floor. More panicked than ever now, I desperately tried to shake another one out, but this time all twenty-four remaining pills sailed through my quivering fingers and scattered hopelessly in all directions.
I spotted one that landed next to my shoe and somehow managed to scoop it up. I stood up and tried to get it to my mouth, but just as it was only millimeters from my eager lips, a large, warm hand settled on my wrist, then closed gently over my fingers.
"Don't," said a kind, soft voice close to my ear. "I know a better way."
I looked up to see that the man I'd just been studying and judging so intently was smiling down at me with enormous sympathy in his eyes. "Your panic is your friend," he continued gently. "It loves you and it's just trying to protect you."
I couldn't answer because I was still immobilized by anxiety, but apparently he wasn't expecting a reply. He simply continued to calm me in a low, soothing voice as he placed his other hand ever so gently on the side of my face.
"Don't try to fight it," he said comfortingly.
"Terror isn't the enemy you think it is. Your body loves you, and it would never do anything to hurt you. Embrace your fear. This is your body's way of rescuing you from something that it thinks might hurt you." He stroked the side of my face with a touch soft as a feather.
His words had a miraculous effect on me. I'd never before thought about these panic attacks in a positive light, but when I heard this stranger telling me to love my panic and to embrace rather than resist it, I felt my heart lift its foot off the gas pedal. Within a few more seconds, my breathing became regular and easy again and I no longer felt like I was choking. My vision cleared up next, and I was able to turn to him and look into his lovely face.
I wanted to throw myself at his feet and thank him profusely for what he had done. I wanted to tell him how terrifying these attacks were, but somehow I think he already knew. I wanted to ask him a million questions, like who was he and how did he know to do that and how could I learn to do it for myself? I was overwhelmed with gratitude and curiosity, yet I was surprisingly unable to verbalize any of what I was feeling.
He pressed a long, graceful flnger on the pulse of my wrist and held me rapt with his eyes. "You're all right now." He smiled. "Everything's going to be fine." Then, looking to the far corner of the room, he added, "Your friends are over there waiting for you."
I looked up and sure enough, there they were, waving wildly and making their way toward me. I was stunned that this stranger had also known who my friends were, but when I turned to confront him, he was gone.
I looked down at my wrist where he had felt my pulse, and something sparkled there. It looked like a little piece of silver glitter and I brushed it away.
Oddly, goose bumps raced up my arm.
Copyright © 1997 by Joan Brady