I'm not sure who I am looking for, so I sit in the darkest part of the room, which is in the back, at a small two-person table behind everyone else. I expected the hundred or so people to be largely middle-aged creepers and sketchy greasers. Instead, they are fashionable men and women. Mostly couples and groups of couples clustered around tables. Very respectable, upscale. I am here alone.
The first performer steps on the small stage promptly at midnight, with the nightclub now completely dark but for a single spotlight on her. She begins dancing to bumps and grinds music, wearing a turquoise bodice, bikini panties and garters with black sequined hose. She's also somehow balancing a two-foot high feathered headdress. She has a killer body. Her moves are suggestive, jutting her hips from side to side. She shimmies, makes her breasts quiver. She smiles and winks.
After several minutes of mildly naughty poses and moves, the buttons open, the bodice comes off. She shakes her ample breasts that are covered now only by nipple pasties of some sort. The song, I think, is "Every Baby Needs A Daddy." Her breasts are so heavy they swing from side to side. Whistles and yells erupt in the darkness. Her name is "Velvet Valentine."
She isn't the one. So I sit through more five-minute routines of the seven-member Bon Ton Burlesquers, who are resurrecting strip shows from vaudeville's golden years. Most of the performers -- they are young, glamorous and busty -- finish in pasties and minuscule panties. In the audience, the men of course are ogling. The women look on with secret envy, wondering what it would feel like to parade on stage, like Velvet Valentine, under a white hot spotlight with bare breasts sweating and swaying, their naked ass in full view of a hundred pair of eyes as they bend over and show themselves. Each woman is thinking, if they were on stage, would the men have to shift in their seats, as they're doing now, to hide their growing arousal at seeing them nearly naked?
For me, even more erotic than looking at the sequined performers is watching the women watch the performers. You can see their hesitancy, mixed with shameful desire. These women, at least some of them, are sweating nearly as much as the dancers.
And then she finally comes on, next to last. I know it's her the second she steps into the spotlight. She's different. The crowd applauds politely, but they, too, sense something askew. For one, she's a little older. Instead of a burlesque costume, she wears a simple black mini-dress, barely long enough to cover the top of her thighs. Something you'd see on the dance floor at a late-night club. She's sporting a black wig, fishnet hose, fuck-me heels. Though attractive, she's not bosomy or curvy, at least not enough to match the other dancers. And the dress doesn't quite fit her, a bit too large and loose for some reason. It's all just slightly off.
She begins dancing, not to a traditional burlesque number, but to M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes," a loud but catchy urban down tempo rap song, with anarchistic lyrics, where about every 20 seconds, a heavy and loud drum beats four times quickly -- dum, dum, dum, dum -- which is meant to mimic gunshots in the song. On each drumbeat, she arches her back and pushes her pelvis out lewdly. The only problem is that her timing is off by a half second. The audience applauds anyway.
But something else. The other performers make daring dips, sways and naughty bend-overs, all the while teasing with completely innocent "Who Me?" smiles. Her look -- and it seems as if she's peering intently into the eyes of each audience member -- is coolly non-committal. There is only a slight smile. Nonetheless, her eyes get the point across: "Watch me."
She sits down in a straight-back chair at the very front of the stage, picks up a sheet of white paper from the floor, crosses her legs and, though seated, continues moving in rhythm to M.I.A's song. She folds the sheet into a paper airplane, taking her time as the audience waits, then cocks her arm back and launches it, sailing into the darkness over their heads. Everyone chuckles. She holds her index finger up, clearly indicating "Wait a minute." She picks up another sheet and does it again, still rocking to the beat of the song. The audience seems confused, a little uncomfortable. She lifts her arms out from her sides, parallel to the floor, with her palms up, and shrugs her shoulders, arches her eyebrows at the crowd. The look on her face says it all: "This is what I do. This is who I am. Accept it."
She flies a few more paper planes into the audience, then stands up, and with her back to us slowly pulls the short black dress over her head, inching it above her arms. She turns and her breasts, somewhat small, are bare but also tipped off with nipple covers. She dances harder, taking few steps, mostly just swaying and rocking, then jutting her pelvis out four quick times with each new dum-dum-dum-dum. She's moving so fast, those small breasts, which droop and look surprisingly heavy, move all over the place, weaving quickly right to left, and then up and down. At times blurridly bouncing before us. She isn't teasing. She's putting it out there for everyone to see. Each man in the place is fantasizing about peeling those sequined nipple covers off her creamy white breasts with his teeth. Maybe some women are too. As the song winds down, there's no grand finale. She calmly slips the dress back on over her head, kisses the air to say goodbye and walks off stage.
I can see it in their eyes. Most women in the audience, in their Jovani cocktail dresses with Charlotte Olympia clutches, are shocked at someone so average in endowment giving us such a tawdry display. She's defying the rule: if you don't have it, don't flaunt it. But it's envy that's really eating at them. She's not slick, not as graceful, nor as pou-pou-pi-dou as the other dancers. There's no pizzazz. What she has is something else, a subtext, a sexuality that's not playful. It's raw sex. Rather lewd. The women can see that. She will do what they are too afraid to do. She's dangerous. And they know it. They talk among themselves quietly because their dates and husbands wouldn't understand.
Her stage name is "Moist Lips." I slip out after her performance.
* * *
It's two days later, a rainy Sunday morning, and I'm still thinking about "Moist Lips" as I sit in Mellow Beans, my favorite coffee shop in Hoboken. I live only a few blocks away in an apartment. I'm reading The New York Times and waiting for Alexandra, hoping she won't stand me up. This place is a favorite of mine, partly because of the front window view: on this morning a foggy Manhattan skyline across the Hudson River in the distance.
At 27, I'm already a creature of habit. I like cozy coffee shops like this, which is why, when I met Alexandra some three months ago, it was at this very table on an identical foggy, rainy Sunday morning. By 10 am, its wooden floors and simple tables are always crowded with families, along with old men who live by themselves and drink their coffee hot and black. Then there are young couples usually sitting beside me, sipping vanilla almond lattes. You can tell they stayed up all Saturday night having ridiculously raucous sex. It's written all over them. I can smell their sex. Or maybe it's just that I can tell because any and all raucous sex has escaped me for a long time.
But everything has changed now. I have met Alexandra. Life has become complicated.
On that morning three months ago, my table had the only vacant chair when she came through the front door. She asked if it's okay to sit. Since I'm painfully shy and haven't really talked to an attractive woman in weeks, I'm already flustered. "Well, sure," I say, moving my newspaper to make room for her. My eyes are on her briefly, then back down on the article that I'm now only pretending to read.
She said I look like a regular, so what could I suggest to drink? I panic. What if I pick something awful. "The Guatemalan Chajulense is a decent fair-trade drink." Excellent, she says. But I'm totally guessing. She heads to the counter to order it and a vegan muffin.
It gives me a chance to check her out since she's preoccupied. Everyone else, I realize, is doing the same. It's because she's like something from a Greta Garbo movie of the 1930s. She's a good 10 years older than me, maybe a little tall, a little thin, has sandy blond hair, pulled back behind her ear on the right side, but on the left side falling down her face beside her eye, hair that's covering up the entire left side of her head. And this side of her hair is in finger waves, very popular in those early talkies. She has only one earring, something large and dangling on her right side, bright green lipstick and heavy kohl around her eyes, that ancient cosmetic made of lead sulfide fancied by Egyptian queens. It's what Jack Sparrow wears in "Pirates of the Caribbean." Keith Richards too.
She's wearing a low-cut, knee-length vintage dress, slightly exposing her smallish breasts. The dress is thin, she has on no bra, so you can see her nipples protruding through the fabric from 50 feet away. And her fingers are in skin-tight, black leather gloves running up to her elbows -- all very bohemian, a bit art deco and in a strange, almost eerie way, seductive. We all look because we've never seen anything quite like it. Not on a real person. And, in truth, taken as a whole, her outfit looks careworn, a little shabby. She was strangeness, indeed.
We are such opposites. How did this mismatch happen? I'm average, conventional, one to blend into the woodwork. I wear glasses, live alone, teach American history at a community college, but admittedly am only part time. I know what you're thinking. I'm not very successful and probably don't have many prospects. The women I wind up with are much like me, a bit boring if I have to be honest, and that's always been okay. At least until this moment.
Over coffee that first day -- and she did like the Guatemalan Chajulense -- she introduced herself as Alexandra. She sees that I appear to be poring over a story about the stock market.
"Are you a player?" she asks.
"Not much. I have a little invested. Don't move it around much though." I'm proud that I got the words out without stumbling over them. I give her the rundown of my portfolio. Before I even finish, she's shaking her head in disapproval. "Get rid of the first three stocks you mentioned." She writes down two others to buy instead. "And start paying close attention to the Consumer Confidence Index and invest in Brazil. Anything in Brazil." And keep in mind, she says, "The S&P's P/E is now 13, well below the 20-year average of 19."
I stare at her.
"You don't have the faintest idea of what I'm talking about, do you?" she asks.
"You're right. I don't." She laughs. I laugh. But she's laughing with me, not at me. I liked that -- a lot.
We both looked at each other and knew. We would become fast friends, despite the age difference. We just clicked -- kindred spirits. The conversation flowed. We began by meeting here once a week, then gravitated into Manhattan for Sunday brunches, jazz clubs on Monday nights or some off-Broadway productions during the week, maybe a few art galleries.
We were lolling on a steamy summer evening, I believe it was a Wednesday, at a sidewalk cafe on the East Side, having chilled white wine to cool us down. It's kind of a hipster place. This was our third date. She's wearing a vintage dress, as usual, something very thin, The table is small, so she sits with her legs crossed and sticking out from the table, so that I can see. We are talking, looking at each other eye to eye.
Every few minutes she slowly uncrosses, then just as slowly crosses her long legs, each time showing me her thighs, almost to her panties -- if she has any on. Each time I glimpse down at her. She keeps talking but she knows. Twice she bends over, to fiddle with her shoe, each time letting me see down her scoop neck. She's not wearing a bra. Her breasts hang down. I catch a glimpse of her nipple. It's all on purpose, to arouse me. It worked.
At the end of our date, I tried to kiss her. She set me straight.
"Oh, Albert, I absolutely adore you. You know that. And I just sense you'll become the best friend I've ever had. But there's one thing you have to know. I don't want you to physically touch me. It's my rule. You just have to accept that. Don't ask questions. And don't delve too much into my past. That's rule number two. Just accept me for who I am right now. With me, one has to live in the moment. But being in the moment is what it's all about anyway, right?"
A shattering night for me. Standing there on a street corner as we flagged her a taxi, I realized these weren't dates. Just friends getting together. I was, in her eyes, the equivalent of her gay best friend. Only I'm not gay. Maybe she sees me as her "asexual" best friend. It hurts even more because I'm rapidly falling in love with her.
As she was getting into the taxi, she stopped, turned and told me: "You can't touch, Albert. But remember. I'll always let you look."
Is that why she put on the show for me at the sidewalk cafe?
Despite all of that, I still see her. I simply can't help myself. These days, we go late into the night talking, talking, talking in bars and restaurants. We always meet in mid-town Manhattan somewhere. Never at her place or mine. Incidentally, I've already made $3,000 from the stocks she suggested on that first morning.
I know I should back away. This will lead to nowhere. How can you have a relationship when you can't kiss or touch -- much less, make love? But it may be too late. She's the most exciting woman to enter my life. I am absolutely captivated by her eyes and mouth, the contour of her face, the curve of her hips. The sex is always there, she exudes it. But it's just out of reach. There's a kind of madness in me for her exotica. I want to inhale her, to absorb her into me.
We have such fun in the city on our days and evenings together. We laugh, we confide, beat a quick path to any off-beat movies, we read obscure books and marvel over Gustav Klimt's paintings, all of that. She's smart, has a wicked sense of humor, tells the bawdiest jokes. She, in fact, talks a lot about sex -- she tells me she wakes up almost every morning with "girl wood." Never heard that before. She lives out her dream to be herself, no matter what others may say. She cares not the least if they look at her fashion statement in disbelief. Let them laugh.
She loves to be photographed, so I take pictures of her often on my phone camera and on a Nikon I bought. In the park, on the street, in The Village, in the subway, on city buses. On all of our sojourns, she is dressed in her usual early-talkies attire with an old, rumpled fedora on to boot, which she now wears everywhere. Since I have known her, she is seen only in black and purple. She is strikingly photogenic, sometimes more attractive in photos than in real life. I download, then print out the photos and keep them in a scrapbook.
I cannot stop seeing her. But I have kept my distance physically, not asking too many questions. To this day, I still do not know where she lives. I've considered following her home, but can't bring myself to deceive her like that. I don't have a clue as to where she's from, who her other friends might be, or what she does for a living. Maybe she's a married. Maybe a Park Avenue call girl. She ought to be an investment banker.
But I do know one thing, a secret of hers. And she doesn't know that I know. Just about every Friday night you can find her somewhere around town, on stage as a member of a group called the Bon Ton Burlesquers. Her stage name is "Moist Lips."
* * *
It's early evening and we -- Alexandra and I -- are taking a night flight from Newark to Norfolk, and from there will rent a car and drive to Hatteras Island off the North Carolina coast for a long weekend at a rental condo overlooking the ocean. I do this every summer, sometimes with girlfriends if I'm lucky, sometimes by myself. I was surprised that she accepted my invitation. But I knew it might happen after she began complaining about the Manhattan summer. We were taking a sweltering summer Sunday walk recently on the High Line from Gansevoort Street.
"What awful heat, Albert! I feel like these sidewalks and buildings are closing in on me . . . . I'm truly weary . . . . I need rejuvenation . . . . We have to find a way to flee the city -- somehow." So I told her about my upcoming plans, inviting her to go along. "It's two bedrooms and two baths, so you'll have privacy."
Now off the plane in Norfolk, I'm driving the rental car in the darkness, heading to Hatteras Island. Alexandra, beside me, is using a small flashlight to read erotic French poetry to me from a paperback in her hands. Of course, I understand not a word of it, but love listening to her read in a sultry voice, and what sounds to me like perfect French. Sometimes she halts in the middle of a stanza, with a long pause, and I just know that she's timing out to imagine the sex scene she is describing that is so unknowable to me. As she reads, she's turned toward me, one leg bent at the knee and resting up on the car seat facing me. She's showing me her thighs again, up her skirt, just occasionally a glimpse of panties. But I can't see much in the dark, just enough. She planned it that way. Just a peek. It has both of us aroused.
The next morning, after we've slept in our respective bedrooms in the condo, I fix breakfast for us, then walk by myself on the beach for a few minutes. I come back to the condo and see Alexandra with a one-piece swimsuit on in the living room. Even her legs look beautiful to me now. Only she's let the top part of her swimsuit covering her breasts fall down to her waist and she's rubbing lotion across her chest, massaging it into her exposed breasts.
She looks at me. I look at her.
Does this bother you? she asks as each hand simultaneously strokes a breast, ending by pulling on her nipple. If it does, she can do it in the bedroom, she says. "But I told you that it's okay to look, Albert."
No, it's fine, I say, trembling a little. "I'm just surprised at how beautiful you are. I'm sorry. Didn't mean to stare."
"You're welcome to stare," she says. "That's what I mean by the rule we have. Looking is fine, if you like what you see." And with that she is spreading the lotion -- it smells of coconut, which I love -- over her stomach now, which makes her soft white breasts and rather sizable brown nipples jiggle. It flashes through my head that these are the same breasts those of us in the audience saw her shaking violently, almost obscenely, that night at the club.
I know about the nightclub only because some weeks ago she was again telling me several stocks to buy and others to sell -- quickly, she says. "Do this right away." But I can't remember them all, so she hurriedly pulls out a small card from her purse and scribbles the names. It's only after she left that I turned the card over to see that it's a business card for the Bon Ton Burlesquers and their upcoming club dates. A sixth sense told me to go see the performance.
But I'm not telling her I watched "Moist Lips" dance. Best not to, given rule number two.
"My breasts are small, I know, but I still like them," she says as she fondles them tenderly after rubbing the lotion in. "They suit me. And I like massaging them. Do any of your old girlfriends have tits like mine?"
I don't know what else to do but sit down on the sofa and watch. "Some were small, but none in the same league as yours," I say.
"You're so diplomatic," she says back. "I'm not fishing for compliments." Her breasts really are exceptional. They hang heavy but are perfectly round. Their smallness is actually quite striking. Her skin is flawless, the nipples a dark brown and hard, sticking out noticeably from her caresses.