My head bobs like a balloon on the barstool. Alcohol melts and mixes with adrenaline in my blood, swirling like the Spanish conversations sweeping back and forth across my head. It sounds like an audience getting settled.
The theater where I performed is across the street. You can see it through the bar windows. The headliner was killing it when I left. He’s an older Mexican comedian with a TV show in the States. You’ve heard of him. He’s famous for jokes about displacement, being an immigrant in a strange country. I made a joke about that shtick, saying it finally makes sense now that he’s telling the jokes in Mexico. He lived most of his life in California, you see. Maybe I should have explained that. We shook hands as I left the stage and he said, in unaccented English, “Nice job, kid.”
I taste his words now like a weird wine and can’t decide what they mean. Praise? Sarcasm? Was he angry at my jocular slight? Or maybe just indifference. It does sound like something you’d say to a shoe-shiner.
Whatever. Who the fuck cares what he thinks? Only the audience matters. I try and remember their reaction objectively, but my memory is a rage. Fear and despair and adrenaline twist together in a great maelstrom. Which laughs did I invent to make myself feel better? Which silences did anxiety stretch? It’s all aftershocks. I can’t trust my own mind.
But I doubt it went well. I felt drunk up there, the world twisting under my feet. I’d never performed for a crowd that size. Hundreds of people, but they didn’t come for me. They’d never heard of me. My thirty minutes was a prerequisite to the headliner. Price of admission. I knew it, the audience knew it. The only person who didn’t was my manager. “Do you know how much dick I sucked to book you this gig?” Frankie said that when I asked to drop out. He was convinced this would be my big break. There’s no sense moping around Los Angeles. He said I should move on. Forget her. Learn to laugh it off. “You’re a clown,” he said, “and people don’t like sad clowns.” I don’t like Frankie.
My beer is gone and I want something stronger. I flag the bartender with a two hundred peso note. He’s fat and jolly with an impressive beard. Looks like a younger, browner Santa Claus. He rolls over to me and says something in Spanish ending with ‘señor.’
Shit. They speak Spanish here. Obviously. I panic and fail to translate the order I had in mind. Shit. I wish I’d composed the question before flagging him. How did I order the beer? Oh that’s right. I just said ‘Corona.’ I concentrate on college Spanish classes tucked away in a dusty mental nook. The bartender waits with a patient smile. I want to apologize but can’t remember ‘I’m sorry’ either. Eventually I half-speak, half-mime a request for ‘liquor of wheat.’
“Por favor,” I add, over-pronouncing the more familiar phrase. The bartender grins magnanimity through thick facial hair.
“Ah! ¿Quieres whisky?”
He pours whisky and soda into a tall glass and slides it to me. I take a large gulp to hide my embarrassment. The drink tastes strong and pleasingly clinical, like mouthwash. I take time composing my next question. “¿Cómo, um, dice ‘whisky’ en español?”
“Whisky,” the bartender says.
“Oh,” I say, and the bartender laughs. It’s a unique laugh, his head tilting backwards and firing rhythmic barks at the ceiling. I’m very fond of unique laughs. Especially when I perform. Picking them out of a crowd is reassuring. Like a lighthouse on stormy seas.
The laughing music infects me, and I laugh along with him. Except my laughter is a little too strong, a little too frenzied. People around the bar cast curious glances our way. I think maybe I’m not laughing about my language error, but about something else.
The bartender smiles nervously and asks if I’m ok.
“Me llamo Chris,” I say, offering a handshake.
“Marcelo.” He takes it, his massive hand all bone hardness and crushing strength. I down my whisky and ask for another. My mood and Spanish both improve as go, boosted by alcohol confidence. Marcelo guesses that I’m a comedian before I tell him. Comedians, he explains, are the only Americans who know how to drink. I laugh because he’s right, but if I were sober I think I’d cry. My performance keeps popping around in my head, stubbornly refusing a liquor oblivion. I tell Marcelo, almost bragging, that I opened for the big-name comedian. He squints. Is the show over? I lean into my whisky and pretend not to hear.
Suddenly my stool shifts and tips backwards. I grab the bar for support. For a moment my stool is on two legs and my ass protrudes backwards into space. A stranger brushes it.
Straightening, I give Marcelo a ‘Can you believe I almost fell?’ look, which I want him to read as ‘Please don’t ask about the show.’ He makes no comment.
I was supposed to stay after to sign while a kid sold my CD in the lobby. He’ll probably be wondering where I am. Or maybe he won’t. Does it really matter? Nobody will buy anything. They only care about the big-name. Frankie said this festival is a chance to get some exposure, get my name out. I’m not sure. “It’ll be aired on TV,” he said. I’m pretty sure they’ll cut my part out. They don’t need me on television.
I could get a video from the event organizers, but I don’t think I can stand to relive it. My world might twist and spin like it did on stage. God… It felt like standing on a ramp, looking at the audience through a kaleidoscopic peephole. I’ll feel the same way if I watch the video. I just know it.
I can’t even watch my decent performances without cringing. That’s an unhealthy trait in my business. Melissa cared enough to watch the tapes. She’d sit cross-legged on the living room carpet with a notebook in her lap, chewing the end of a pencil. Her laughs would come suddenly, thrusting her chin at the me on the screen. Later she’d spread out her notes on the kitchen table. We’d analyze them carefully, architects conferring over blueprints. Sometimes I’d even find the strength to watch short bits for clarification on this or that point. Melissa watched me hungrily as I did this. The lovemaking was long and slow and intimate on those nights. It’s the kind of memory I’d write about if I were a poet instead of a comedian. But because I am a comedian, I write about things going wrong.
After a few more whiskies I am out of pesos. Marcelo won’t take my American twenties, but he lets me start a tab on my credit card. There’s not much money in the account, but it should be enough for tonight. I lose track of how many drinks I’ve had, detaching from conscious memory.
A surge of people takes the bar and booze is making me chatty. I plunge into the crowd. In my mind’s television I laugh at my own bumbling. I wonder if I’ll write a new joke about this night? Warm whisky smiles flash from my face as I talk to people, struggling equally with English and Spanish. There comes a point in each conversation where the person has nothing else to say. They sidle away and retreat into tight circles. I am disconnected, standing statuesque in the middle of the room. I nod with the music, trading smiles for feigned recognition.
I return to the bar feeling lonelier than before. But Marcelo grins and says something in Spanish. I want to ask him to repeat himself but I can’t remember the word for ‘slower.’
“Uh, retard-ay?” Not right. That’s asking him ‘to retard.’ To retard. I start laughing and can’t stop. I’m sliding down the alcohol-greased road between depression and absurdity. There’s loneliness, but I can’t stop laughing. The empty feeling only makes it funnier. Now I’m in tears, holding the counter for support. I just want to go home and curl up under the covers.
Marcelo chuckles and waits for my fit to pass. Then he says “Se-ñor-i-tas” in slow, annunciated syllables. Following his finger, I see the disco silhouettes of two slender women across the room. One shadow bends deep into the table, her chest teasing the surface. Her ass curves out into the room like an invitation. The second silhouette has one hand on her hip while the other hand hugs a beer against her shapely breasts. I imagine the cold bottle raising goosebumps on naked skin. Suddenly she shifts posture and blocks the light. The women vanish. A second of suspenseful darkness. My eyes adjust, then features materialize. Miraculously summoned into being. Her face is creamy caramel with a doll smoothness and scarlet lips like cherry lollipops. She’s frowning, looking around for someone.
“Hablen ingles,” Marcelo says.
I process the information slowly, dissolving it piece by piece.
I have a shot with one of these girls.
Maybe both of them? My heart flips in the big, deep way of a man when his body recognizes opportunity. Maybe the silhouette is Melissa. That thought lasts only an instant, but I fight an impulse to take off running north. I would run and run until I reach her. And then I would embrace her, and I would feel the full length of her body, every curve of it against mine.
But I know that won’t happen. I’m not that drunk yet. My head nods on a hinge. “Si, mi amigo,” I say. “Muchas gracias.”
Marcelo laughs and slaps me on the back. He fills two margarita glasses and walks over to the girls. They don’t look surprised when he gives them the drinks and points in my direction. The doll-faced girl looks at me, her dark eyes blank and unreadable. Then cherry lips spread into a sumptuous smile. A rush of desire sweeps over me and my crotch tightens. I want to skip the formalities. Skip the introductions and the playful banter and the making out. I want, need, to lie in bed beside this woman. I need her to look at me the way Melissa did. That way a woman has of looking at you that says she wouldn’t trade you for anyone. And somehow you believe her.
The women appear on either side of me. It’s sudden and jarring. One second I’m alone and then I’m flirting. No segue. Doll-Face has straight black hair that parts like a beaded door to frame her soft face. Her scarlet dress drapes light and ghostly on her shoulders. It seems so thin a randy breeze might peel it away. I see it slipping to the floor, falling slow like a feather.
The other woman has plump lips painted with glossy pink. Her springy hair bounces each time she turns her head. A shineless black fabric wraps her midsection, more towel than dress. She smiles, but doesn’t pay much attention to me. She’s scanning the room.
“You are such a gentleman to buy us drinks!” Doll-Face says in accented English. Her palm presses against the crux of my chest and rubs slowly, intimately. Marcelo winks.
Doll-Face’s accent has a sexy sophistication. It’s unlike the Mexican accents I’ve heard back home, slow and greasy with American slang. She speaks with an almost British formality. I picture her reciting English lessons in eighteenth century garb to a tea-drinking governess. An exotic rolling of R’s punctuates her speech, transforming words into music. Her voice is alien enough to be alluring.
I tell her my name and make her repeat it. It must seem ridiculous, but I need to hear my name on her lips. Doll-Face says it slowly, syllable by syllable, tasting the feel of it in her mouth. Her dexterous tongue flicks up and down.
Black-Dress tries too, but her English is less practiced and she can’t quite grasp the pronunciation. Doll-Face laughs and whispers to me, her breath on my ear. Black-Dress shrugs and goes back to scanning the room.
The girls have names, but I quickly forget. All of my focus is on the next thing I will say. I brag about having performed at the big theater across the street. Then, Doll-Face asks for a joke. I should have seen this coming. People always demand a joke when they find out what I do, perhaps as some kind of proof. I want to refuse, but her eyes light up with perky enthusiasm. Her lips part. She looks like a child awaiting presents. Another man might have the willpower to disappoint that face.
My addled brain strains to recall my best bits. Doll-Face waits with adoring puppy face. I remember something. It’s a somewhat dirty joke about trying to get laid at a Los Angeles bar. I’m halfway through the routine when I remember that Melissa inspired it. It’s about the first time we met. I feel my face turning red. My heart thumps and I’m sweating. Abort. Immediately. Pretend it never came up.
But I’m too deep into the joke. My only choice is to finish it. I trip over words in a dash to the punchline. The pace is ruined, but things really fall apart when she doesn’t laugh. I have to backtrack and explain an American slang term which is lynchpin to the humorous wordplay. That seals it. My joke is dead.
But miraculously, Doll-Face laughs. In fact, she shakes with laughter, gasping out a hiccupped chuckle. Her body convulses in gorgeous rhythm. The red dress sways with her like a cape. I’m in awe. A mangled, unrecognizable joke, yet she deigns to laugh. I love her for this. I’m in love with her.
I look into our future, past the fevered sex of this evening. I see us dating. She’s in the crowd at my shows. I see her laughing that hiccupping laugh at a joke she’s heard a hundred times. Afterwards we drink beer at the bar, leaning into each other, trading secret jokes. Fans stumble up and compliment my performance. She smiles proudly, one arm around my waist so everyone knows. Cut to Doll-Face and me watching my first televised special. I scrutinize the little flaws, but she reassures me every time. She says it’s brilliant and I believe her. Montage of my successes. TV show. Movie deals. Talk shows. Cameo on Saturday Night Live. Melissa crying, filled with regret. Then cut to us visiting her father’s ranch – I can’t imagine him not having a ranch – and I meet her gentleman brothers. Her father is hefty like Marcelo, but with the beard groomed down to a neat Mario mustache. I ask his permission to marry Doll-Face – very formal, very tasteful. He barks out joyful laughter and slaps me on the back. Then we both gaze out at the Mexican countryside, a living thing, breathing, like a Cormac McCarthy novel.
A happy squeal interrupts my musings. Black-Dress is embracing a tall and muscular man with short curly hair.
“Her boyfriend,” Doll-Face explains. I swing around to hear her, then whip back to introduce myself. The quick movement upsets my balance. I wobble like a pin before the fall.
A strong hand arrests my shoulder. “Careful, hombre,” the stranger says. He and Doll-Face pull me upright.
“I am Rafael. It is nice to meet you,” he says. His accent is thick and long. Struggling pauses separate his words. “You are trying to pick up my girlfriends. Yes?”
Laughter and a torrent of Spanish explode from both women, half chiding and half flirtatious. Rafael shrugs as if to say, “I can’t help it. I’m just that good.” I am not catching any of their machinegun Spanish, so I just smile and wait to be reabsorbed into conversation. Doll-Face turns to me and confides that Rafael is “stupido.”
Rafael accepts a mug from Marcelo, although I don’t remember him ordering. Half of it falls down his throat – cool, uninterested, like it had nothing better to do – before his butt hits the barstool. Black-Dress sits on Rafael’s lap and puts his arm around her waist. Rafael toasts his glass, webby with residue, towards me and eliminates the second half. I attempt to match this feat, but I end up coughing and spilling whisky on my shirt. Doll-Face pats my back.
Rafael says a few words to Doll-Face. She turns to me and speaks in smoky tones. “We are on our way to a party and I have no one to take me.” She pouts with purest puppy dog eyes, and there’s the hint of an illicit smile behind those lips. I don’t hesitate.
As we walk out the door, I hear someone calling my name. Marcelo waddles out from behind the bar. In his hand is a credit card and receipt. I nearly forgot it in all the excitement. I thank him and leave a big tip. Looking at the final number I regret the generosity, but Marcelo snatches the paper before I can change anything. His smile is corporate as he shakes my hand. “Buenas noches,” he says and blesses us with a wink and a flourish.
We walk across the theater parking lot. A few cars huddle under streetlamps like abandoned children. Earlier it was hectic with people selling and buying and laughing and arguing. Pulsing with the electricity of hope, of anticipation, of life.
An albino man smokes in the bed of a pickup truck. The streetlamp spotlights him. His eyes, old with work and life, follow our approach. I expect him to do something, say something. I’m not sure what I expect, but there has to be a reason he’s here. The man does nothing. Says nothing. He watches us pass the way he might watch a rabbit from his porch.
Rafael’s car is a taxicar-yellow sedan. I think that’s funny but no one else laughs. I climb into the back with Doll-Face. The seats are rough and scratchy, but nobody seems to mind. Doll-Face crosses one leg over my knee and pulls my arm around her. Her smile promises amazing things.
We drift through a city of music swelling and falling. “There is always a party somewhere,” says Rafael, and it feels true on a primal level. Black-Dress passes out lukewarm Coronas. Rafael holds his bottle against the steering wheel with one hand. His other arm hangs out the window and spanks the car in time with Spanish hip-hop on the radio, which is somehow in time with the music blasted from passing houses. The world is in perfect rhythm.
Doll-Face whispers in my ear an intimate and sensual request that you’d only tell a bedmate. Her fingertips move on my pants, first dancing lightly over the growing bulge between my legs and then rubbing deliberately, pumping. Our noses and foreheads touch, her hot skin against mine.
I kiss her. I can’t stop myself. A small wince of surprise, but then her tongue is in my mouth and she’s kissing me hard, with sucking breaths.
She’s rubbing my leg, my chest. I want to run my hand all over her body. Her legs, her breasts and her ass, and I do it. And I feel her liking it, wanting more.
The world outside doesn’t exist anymore, and all I know is this moment. Everything leading up to this moment was worth it. All the pain, loneliness, and mistakes were worth it. I have an unprecedented feeling of being in the right place in space and time.
The car slows back into reality and stops. I look around. There are no buildings, just miles of desert in all directions. It’s quiet. When did they turn off the music? Rafael and Black-Dress get out. “Where’s the party?” I ask Doll-Face.
“Not far,” she says. “But you need to walk from here.” I exit the car and offer her my hand. “Such a gentleman,” she says, almost sadly.
When I turn around, there’s something blurry in my eyes. Some flying insect, maybe a bee or a large fly. I stumble backwards into the car. The fly jumps forward and pins me against the door. It slowly comes into focus and becomes a grey circle. Then a long grey barrel attaches itself to the circle. Steadily the scene snaps into sharp clarity. It’s Rafael. He’s holding a revolver.
I squeak and try to move backwards, pushing against the car. Loose dirt slips underfoot and I land hard on my tailbone. “Argh!” I groan. The three of them start laughing. Harder than anything I’ve heard all night. Hysterical laughter, the kind you can’t fake, can’t control. They’re doubled over laughing, even Doll-Face. I want to give up. I want to curl up and cry.
Rafael straightens himself with an effort and shakes the laughter out of his limbs. He says something to Doll-Face. She giggles that seductive laugh of hers. “He says you are a very good comedian.” Somehow that makes me feel better.
They make me stand and lay my hands flat on the car. Doll-Face empties my pockets. She takes my wallet, phone, keys, and even the pocket notebook where I jot down joke ideas. They leave me my passport, but Black-Dress makes me hold it in my teeth. “¡Perrito!” she says. They all laugh. She commands me to sit and they laugh some more. “¿Perrito quires galleta?” they say. I sit and beg and play dead, and they just laugh and laugh. I don’t think I’ve ever had a more captive audience.
Rafael looks me up and down. He says he likes my suit. Doll-Face begins to undress me, but then a wicked smile comes over her. She dances and rubs against me in cartoonish burlesque. My pants come down. With a succubus grin, she runs satin hands down the skin of my legs, coming close. The others hoot and holler encouragement. Doll-Face sinks to her knees and looks up, her mouth an accepting ‘O.’
“What’s wrong, gringo?” says Rafael. “Isn’t this what you wanted? Maybe you prefer the guys, eh?”
Tears are moving down my face in salty, wet streaks. I can’t say when they started. I move to wipe them, but Rafael warns me to keep my hands up. My sniffing is loud and mucous-heavy. Rafael and Black-Dress laugh at me again, but Doll-Face just smiles. I tell myself it’s because she doesn’t want to do this. Perhaps she’s forced by poverty or threats or peer pressure. Nothing either of us can control. Maybe there’s hope.
Doll-Face is rough and business like as she continues to strip me. She won’t look at my face, but her touch sends pulses of ecstasy through me. I can’t help it. Everyone notices when my erection pushes against my boxer shorts.
They burst into laughter, harder than before. Rafael laughs so hard that he drops his gun. Doll-Face covers her mouth in an amazed sort of laughter and stares at my stiff member. I like to imagine she’s a little impressed.
She raises an eyebrow. “A little too confident. Don’t you think, gringo?”
I shrug and say, “Maybe you’d like one for the road?”
My reply is reflexive. I’m not trying to be funny. The joke simply spews from my mouth like vomit, and like vomit I am powerless to suppress it. It elicits the most hysterical laughter of the night. If this was a set, I think that would be my closer.
My captors lose it. Teary-eyed, gasping, they roll around and pound the street with their fists. I look at them in wonder and recognize my opportunity. I can escape if I want. Grab the gun before Rafael recovers.
But I don’t want to. In this moment, the idea of escape is inconceivable. Imagine leaving during the greatest show of my career! I’ve never had an audience so rapt, so responsive. I don’t want it to end.
The absurdity of it all hits like a punchline and I break into fitful laughter myself. Here I am, giving an exclusive self-deprecating performance for muggers. Here I am, laughing and aroused, nearly naked on an empty Mexican highway. Here I am, laughing because it’s better than the alternative.
Taillights shrink into an aura at the horizon. I sway back and forth, hands still raised. With sudden, bleeding clarity I know I won’t see Doll-Face again.
A midnight blanket smothers the rocks and shrubs around me in blue darkness, creating a weird lunar landscape. The spattering engine noise fades, replaced by the chirps of a thousand alien animals. They are determined to ignore my presence, forget my existence.
Doll-Face’s half-finished bottle of Corona stands by the road where she forgot it. I bring it to my mouth and taste cherry lipstick on the rim. Face upturned, I see the stars. They push and shove one another, crowded and suffocating in the night sky. Lightyears away, they still seem closer to me than Doll-Face. Much closer than Melissa. I reach out, but the stars retreat into their frigid abyss.
I want to hate Doll-Face. I throw her bottle at the shadowy shape of a cactus, and it makes a hollow thud. That’s a little comforting. At least crickets and cicadas will see the bottle and know I exist. Maybe I smashed the tail of a mouse and that mouse will remember me, the giant who hurls boulders from the sky. Perhaps alien explorers will find that bottle in the desert. The last monument of a dead People, they’ll say. They’ll detect the two strains of DNA on it and they’ll say Doll-Face and I were lovers.
After the bottle, there is nothing else to throw. I am tired and depressed and I’m wondering if I’d have ended up here in the middle of nowhere if I was with Melissa. Probably not. I bet we’d have been happy. In fact, I’m sure we would. I know it with a martyr’s faith. I like to believe she misses me. We were perfect together. Couldn’t she see? I just needed a bit more time. Just a bit more.
But fuck it. If I’m forced to die alone, I guess I can do that. I see my future in a cheap armchair, drinking and watching porn every night. I get greyer and greyer, I sink deeper and deeper into my chair until it engulfs me entirely. And then there’s nothing. And then the landlord finds me when I miss rent.
It’s not a great life, but fuck it. It’s better than being robbed while trying to get laid.
It’s actually kinda funny. I bet I could write a new bit about tonight. I walk towards the city lights, composing jokes in my head. Tears are drying on my smile.