Sitting in my beat-up car outside the banquet hall, I can see the men standing around. Some talking, some smoking, some peering into the newly-arrived vehicle to try to catch a glimpse of who might be inside. I turn up my music a little louder, savoring my last ten seconds of solitude before I step out into the fluorescent light. The car door opens and I am outside, wearing the black leather dress my boyfriend had zipped me into an hour earlier before I kissed him gently on the mouth and said goodbye for the night. Have fun, he said. I will, I said.
The tiny, sort of squirrely Turkish man who is my boss greets me with a hug as I walk through the French doors into the small lobby. He is thrilled by my outfit, and suggests the only thing that is missing is a whip. Of course, I giggle and laugh, perhaps gently squeeze his shoulders, and continue toward the table to say my hellos to the guests who are already seated, all of whom I have seen here before. They are regulars. They know me. Well – they know Alexa Grace. That’s who I am on these nights.
I wish I could tell you I chose to have a fake name purely for practical measures, as a way to safeguard my own identity from being linked to the game, or the players, or the cash. Certainly, this was part of it. But the reality is I felt my heart swell when the idea of having an alias entered my mind. Mainly, I chose the pseudonym for the thrill of being known to others by a name that was not my own, especially one that sounded so totally absurd and porn star-like.
An iPhone rests inside a plastic red cup, which serves to amplify the sound of rap music coming out of the phone’s quiet speakers. It is an undeniably seedy environment, and the room stinks of Chinese takeout. Still, I walk across the tile floor in my knee high boots with an air of royalty, making the room my stage, because I have one thing in common with these players and that is that I, like them, am addicted to the acquisition of the chips.
The game is close to starting, and my boss seamlessly transforms the players’ hundred dollar bills into stacks of colorful purple and pink chips, engraved with what I’ve always imagined must be his initials, but have never bothered to ask – we only go by first names around here. Don’t ask, don’t tell. Aware of the click-clack of my heels as I strut around the seated men, I take a seat in one of the empty chairs next to Big Eddie, and prop my elbows onto the table, resting my chin in the palm of my hand like a child.
Big Eddie is an older Russian gentlemen with a thick accent and a massive frame which is always adorned with beautiful jewelry and designer watches. Big Eddie is also one of the only players who can successfully pull off winking at me from across the room without coming off as leering. “Hello gorgeous,” he says to me in a thick Russian accent, as if he was welcoming home one of his daughters. I like Big Eddie because he almost never arrives without a fresh box of creme puffs for everyone. Tonight he is wearing a golden Rolex, an onyx David Yurman ring, and a beautiful jade bracelet with a diamond-studded gold clasp. On nights when he has been winning, Big Eddie drinks vodka and cranberry, but he’s been on a losing streak lately, so for right now he sticks to sprite. He always smells of sandalwood oil.
Next to him is Ralphie. Ralphie is a party boy. He is always either coming from Hollywood, or going to Hollywood, and he is frequently high. Ralphie drinks Jack and coke. He’s a good tipper, and he’s sweet. Waiting for his cards to come, he asks me about my weekend. I tell him I went home to visit family, leaving out the part about bringing my boyfriend home with me. Never tell them you have a boyfriend.
The game begins, even though there are still a few empty seats. Throughout the night more people will arrive. It is early. Big Eddie hands me a five dollar chip. “For good luck,” he says with a wink. “Thank you,” I coo sweetly, tucking the chip into my bra.
Superstition runs rampant around here. If I am sitting next to a player and he wins a hand, then he decides that I am good luck and usually asks me to keep sitting with him. They all have their favorite seats, but if a player is continuously losing he may ask to switch seats with somebody else, or have the dealer change out the deck of cards.
I watch the game intently. I am picking up the rules, learning the ranking of the hands, and acquiring an entirely new lexicon through this strange sort of cultural immersion: all-in, blind, flop, kicker, side pot, call, check, check raise…When I first started, Phillip, a handsome but aloof player who rarely speaks or takes his eyes off the game, looked up at me from across the table and asked casually, “You know how to play?” In his eyes I could see he was sizing me up. “Yes,” I stated confidently, giving him the answer he seemed to desire. Back then, Alexa Grace knew how to play, but now, so do I.
My eyes dart over to Vijay as he wins the pot. He pulls nearly a thousand dollars worth of chips towards him and rearranges them neatly in rows of hundreds. Some of the other players compliment him on his hand. I skillfully hide my disdain as he takes a sip of the massive Big Gulp that he keeps underneath the table. The fact that Vijay has the audacity to bring in his own beverage which he will nurse the whole night long, never asking me for anything and never proffering so much as an acknowledgment of my presence is maddening. He knows I work only for tips, and that, like him, this game is my main source of financial support. Not to mention he plays dirty. Cheap bastard.
“A.G., can you get me a Jack and coke?” Ralphie asks. “Mmmhm,” I reply warmly. Never ask them if they want anything to drink before a player asks first. This creates the illusion that I am not there to make money, but rather out of the goodness of my heart and an insistent desire to please. “Anyone else want something to drink?” I inquire nonchalantly, making my way toward the door. I take a few more orders before I slip out of sight into the vast, empty banquet hall.
My boots make imprints on the aged synthetic carpet, and then loud clicks as I skip across the freshly polished dance floor. This is only the first of many times that I will walk through this room by myself tonight. In the kitchen, running my fingers along the steel countertops, silently enticing them to remove the dust and crumbs from their surfaces as I make my way to the back walk-in refrigerator. Before I enter, I make sure to flip on the light switch.
I have visions of being raped back here. Raped, or brutally murdered by someone who might slip into the kitchen through the back door which connects to an alley which leads to the main street. I am so far away from the other men, no one would hear me scream. Or what if it was one of them? Sometimes my boss follows me back here because he needs to get something too. He’s never tried anything with me, yet I remain vigilant at all times since I know that sexual harassment cases can’t exist in workplaces where everything you earn is under the table. My involvement in this game is just as unlawful as his.
I grab a handle of whiskey. Some generic Sam’s Club brand, perhaps the biggest bottle of whiskey I’ve ever seen. As I leave the fridge I make sure to shut the door behind me and turn off the light– My sense of responsibility to look out for this place, and care for it as if it were my own, is something that has developed against my will over the last few months.
Scoop. Pour. Pour. Mix. I prepare the drinks on the cutting-board countertop, next to a huge vat of frozen but defrosting chicken breasts. In a way, the griminess excites me. I can’t help but imagine the shocked expression on the faces of friends and family if they were to hear that this is how I have been spending my nights. Sorry, Daddy. I know I’m not in law school, I know I’m not in med school, and I know I’m not preparing to run for office, but this will have to do instead… I push the thought out of my mind as I run with the tray of drinks, through the double doors and back through the dimly lit banquet hall, towards the lobby.
It is a graceful and calculated display: I slide in between them and place the drink gently in the cupholder with my right hand, aware that my breasts meet their eyeline almost perfectly. Then I reach around and rest my left hand on their left shoulder, as if I might decide to stay resting in that position for awhile. If they are in the middle of a hand I wait patiently by their side until they are done. They hand me a chip or two, and I say thank you with a coy smile, closing my hand around the chips without looking to see how much they’ve given me. Working these games is an art I have now perfected. I have developed my own particular method of seduction, a perfect blend of coquettishness and confidence, and an ability to read in a person’s eyes when I am to be silent, and when I am to speak. Never speak to them when they have a hand.
I never imagined that it would happen, but I have grown fond of some of the players. Most of the guys who come here are sweet and unsuspecting middle-aged married men with day jobs who come once or twice a week to test out their evening luck. Still, privacy is valued here. In addition to not revealing their last names, few even talk about their professions or their wives or their children, yet I have come to know these men in a very intimate way. I know what they drink, what they eat, and how they take their coffee; I know what they look like when they are upset, when they are happy, or when they are bluffing; And of course, I know how their bodies feel, because in addition to serving drinks, I also am responsible for providing massages to the players who will be sitting here all night, many of whom will be driving home in tomorrow’s early morning traffic.
The table is now full so I stand patiently to the side, waiting for my first client of the evening. If no one bites early, I will stand behind one of the guys and run my fingers gently up and down his spine, putting him in the mood. Then I will bend down and say softly in his ear, “Want a massage?” It’s a foolproof technique. But I don’t have to do that tonight because Mel, one of the newcomers who staggered in drunk and ready to play, has flipped his chair to the side and beckoned me over. Mel is a massive man, easily 300 pounds, and giving him a proper massage is not only difficult but also exhausting if not approached correctly.
Leaning all of my body weight into him, I roll my elbows in small circles at the nape of his neck. I discovered the elbow technique by accident. One night, I had been giving a massage to one of the more considerably sized players and because my hands were growing fatigued I began using my elbows to knead the rolls of fat and lumps of muscle that constituted his back. This produced moans and grunts of pleasure from the seated man, and I knew then that I had discovered a signature maneuver, which would set me apart as a favorite amongst the other girls.
I take my massages seriously and make every effort to provide the best quality care that I can. I approach them in a non-sexual manner, yet I am sure that arousal often occurs. Maybe it’s only narcissism, but whenever I am giving a massage to a player and he starts speaking to another player in a different language and chuckling, I assume that he is telling his friend all the things he’d like to do to me, if he could. But as long as he tips me generously, and keeps his hands on the table and off my body, I tune it out. Still, sometimes, once I’ve left the game and I am safe at home a thought creeps up into my head: How did I come to a place where this sort of exchange seems normal?
I massage Mel for a long while, losing all sense of time. I have learned that it is the only way I can keep up my energy and make it through these long nights. While massaging, if I rest my chest against his back it is not in an effort to be sexy, but because it helps me to conserve energy. If I unintentionally stick my ass out, or get down on my knees, it’s not because I am inviting objectification, but because it helps me to get the angle right. But… when I take a pause to role my neck and arch my back, well in this case I admit that sometimes I make this a more theatrical display than necessary. I don’t know why I do this, or why she does this.
After an hour or so Mel hands me a huge stack of chips, enough for me to go out and buy a nice new pair of shoes or treat my boyfriend to a fancy dinner. I thank him by giving him a big hug from behind, and place the chips in my red plastic cup which is steadily filling with tips.
Hours pass. Empty cups are replaced with full ones. More massages are given. Thousands of dollars worth of chips slide across the table, taking up residence with a player for a short while before they are lost, and lost, then won again.
It’s not until around midnight that Little Eddie rolls in. I haven’t seen him in awhile, apparently he gave up the game because he owed too many people too much money, had alcohol problems, etcetera. I’ve never fancied Little Eddie. His white wife beaters, tasteless tattoos, and spiky, gelled hair trigger my vomit reflex. There are some disconcerting characters that come by occasionally, such as Jaleel – a seemingly sweet and gentle man, who drops by every so often. His fetish is for feet. “Oh! You have such nice feet, they’re so little, and beautifully shaped,” he’ll say while I giggle nervously, praying that he doesn’t plan to go home and masturbate to the thought of my dancer’s arch and bubble toes.
Even stranger is Clem, who seems perfectly normal until he starts talking and you can tell that something is amiss inside of his mouth.
“What is that?” I asked when I first met him.
He opened his mouth to reveal that his tongue has been split in two, like a snake. “I did it in prison,” he says sort of shyly.
“A piece of floss.”
And that was that. But at least Jaleel and Clem have sweet demeanors, unlike Little Eddie, who is loud, abrasive, and overtly misogynistic. Fortunately for me, I was never his favorite girl because I’ve never entertained his comments by laughing at one of the many jokes he likes to tell that aren’t funny.
Still, I am friendly towards him when he arrives and I greet him with a hug, masking my disgust. He’s not playing but I imagine the urge to play is strong. He paces around the table impatiently, insisting that he won’t partake, but I feel that at any moment he might relapse, giving in to the temptation of the cards.
I ask him if he wants anything to drink. He declines, and everyone else seems to be fine, so I walk over to my phone to check my messages. I am standing by the front door entrance, scrolling through my emails, when someone comes up from behind me and unhesitatingly sticks his hand underneath my dress, against the inside of my inner left thigh, and gives it a squeeze. His thumb is only centimeters away from touching my vagina. In an instant, I spin around. It’s Little Eddie.
“No.” I say sternly, wagging my finger at him as if I am talking to a child. “You can’t do that.” He laughs and shrugs his soldiers, then challenges me: “Or what?”
I glare at him, hands on my hips, eyebrows raised, staring at him like the piece of dog shit he is.
“I’m sorry, I thought it was ok,” he says.
“No. That is inappropriate. You’re being inappropriate.”
“Well, when you’re wearing a dress like that…”
What enrages me is not that he touched me. What enrages me is this comment. I feel my whole body fill with a cold hatred for this loathsome individual. I have grown comfortable with most of these men, I have even come to enjoy my time here and consider some of them my friends. Yet, in an instant, Little Eddie has taken all of my false senses of security and defecated all over them. I am reminded of my place here, and the role that I willingly subject myself to every day. I am not really safe.
I look around, but the men are engrossed in their game and do not pause to look up at what has just transpired. Did they not hear us? Did they hear but decide it was best not to get involved? Or did they see and hear what happened but somehow come to the conclusion that Little Eddie’s actions were permissible?
I am alone. But I am not fearful. I look him dead in eyes. The words roll off my tongue and shoot out toward him like daggers -
“Just because I’m dressed sexy doesn’t mean you can touch me. If you ever touch me again I’ll chop off your dick.”
“Ok, I’m sorry,” he mutters pathetically.
But I’m already walking away calmly, back to the table to fetch a fresh round of drinks for the thirsty guests, as if it never happened, as if he is no longer in the room. After I’ve demonstrated to everyone that I am not going to get dramatic or tearful about this, about any of this atrocious display of behavior, I head toward the bathroom to check my lipstick. But when I open up the door, I walk into one of the guys cutting lines of coke on the bathroom cabinet. He looks up at me, unphased. Without missing a beat he reaches out his hand to offer me a rolled up dollar bill. “Do you party?” he asks.
After declining politely, I return to the table. The energy is tense, and I’m not sure if it’s because of Little Eddie and me, or because a lot of people have been losing money tonight.
Ralphie asks me to come over and rub his shoulders. “Give me some luck, A.G.” he pleads. Standing at this angle, I notice that the player next to him, Vijay, has dried up bird shit on his shoulder. This could prevent an uncomfortable dilemma if Vijay asks me for a massage later. Of course, I could alert him of the crusty fecal matter, which almost seems to compliment the strange crusty scab on his nose, but I would prefer not to be responsible for making him lose face in front of the other players. It might affect my tip.
Soon it is four in the morning. Big Eddie is long gone after losing all his chips. Ralphie has gone back to Hollywood to some club that is open after hours, and Little Eddie left hours ago, having slipped out the door while I was in the kitchen making drinks. There are only a few players left. Mel is sticking it out, although every few minutes he falls asleep in his chair, his lumps of fat rolling into each other, billowing onto the table…but then he raises he eyelids for a moment, just in time to place a bet. Nothing can stop him from playing, not even sleep.
When the game finally ends, I wait patiently so the lingering players can cash out their tips in my boss’ office. When it is my turn, I go in and shut the door. The chips spill out of my red cup and onto his desk, almost knocking over the portrait of his wife and little boy that he keeps next to his computer. Even after my boss takes a 20% cut, I still have earned enough money to pay my rent for next month.
I say thank you for the money, like a good little underground employee, and I prepare to make my exit. But as I am leaving something stops me. I want to ask him if he saw. I want to see what his reaction would be like, and what he would say to console me. How would he prevent it from happening again? But then I change my mind. Because I know that if I asked him and he did nothing about it, I would never be able to come back to this place because only then would it truly sink in that what I am doing, no, what I am not doing, is wrong.
So I get back into my beat up car and turn on the ignition. Of course my gas tank is now on empty, before I have even left the parking lot. I face a dilemma: do I risk running out of gas on the freeway, or do I stop somewhere to get gas at 4:30 in the morning and pray I don’t get attacked? This would be a bold and risky move for a young woman to make while wearing a black leather dress and carrying over a month’s rent in cash. I can’t help but think of the movie Clueless, where Cher gets mugged in a gas station parking lot. But this is an Alaia! she pleads. Her father had expressed concern that she was going to be in the Valley, as mine would too, had he known that’s where I was. I decide to drive home.
Nearly twenty miles later, I am driving down my street, past the glittery transvestites and the shadowy pimps that frequent my street corner. I have come to think of them as secret comrades, both of us trying to make some quick cash while the rest of Los Angeles sleeps. I breathe a sigh of relief as I pull into the driveway, thankful to have arrived safely to my destination, but there is something blocking my way. A thick telephone wire has fallen across the driveway, and I cannot get into my parking spot without having to pass over it. The wire is frayed and vicious- looking, like a black snake on the hunt for living prey. Confronted with yet another obstacle, I measure out my options. Shall I dare crossing this treacherous wire and hope that currents of electricity don’t pass through my car and into my skull, engulfing me in flames? Or would there be less of a risk in parking down the street and walking the long mile past the slow-moving cars, hiding the faces of men who have been searching all night for a petite hooker in a black leather dress? If someone pulled a gun to my head, what would I do?
No. I will not be a cut-up, cold body found the next day. If I am to die, I will go up in flames. Slowly, I ease my foot down on the gas pedal, holding my breath as the wheels turn forward. But then, victory! I’ve crossed the divide.
In moments I am back in my apartment, the door is locked, and I am tip-toeing into the darkness of my room, where I can hear the soft sound of my boyfriend’s snores from underneath the sheets. When I eventually lay down to rest, I wrap my body around his body, my legs around his legs, and I lie there, delighting in the feel of his warm back pressed against my chest. I am almost asleep when a memory drifts into my head. Yesterday I had met someone, somewhere…a friend of a friend who I had been meaning to meet for a long time. But when I reached out my hand to introduce myself, I had stumbled awkwardly over my words – It’s so nice to meet you, I’m… And for a split second I couldn’t remember who I was on that day, during that exchange, and wasn’t that so strange? But then the memory escapes me, and I am off somewhere far away.