The bar had no sign.
Cheryl said, “This place is, like, Tinsel Town or Tinsel Bar.”
The basement stairs swelled out into a mucky alley. Keisha held her breath as they descended. At the bottom a hallway, two bathrooms, followed by neon signs with flashing arrows above two rooms: one said “drinks”, the other said “dancing.” The “drinks” room was all black and buttons, soft leather stools, chairs, love seats. The “dancing” was stark, silver balls, probably spray-painted Styrofoam, hanging above duct work. Dancers swayed to a beat. Colored light shone up from the Plexiglas floor squares as carpeted feet pounded the energy of fifty moving souls.
“I wanna dance,” Keisha yelled into Cheryl’s ear.
“What?” Cheryl leaned in smacking her ear lobe into Keisha’s flushed cheek.
Keisha grabbed her face in both hands as her purse strap fell into the crook of her arm. “I want to dance,” she said more quietly, but mouthed the words slowly. Cheryl nodded, smiling as she mouthed back, “Okay. Drink?”
Keisha shook her head. Cheryl did not know her well. As the thump diminished, Cheryl slipped in an audible sentence. “We’re at a bar, like, you gotta have a drink.” “No I don’t,” Keisha replied. “Thanks anyway. You go ahead.”
Cheryl was an art brat. Her mom owned a tiny gallery of exclusive Spanish art. She hung out at the museum and sketched Spanish masterpieces then posted the sketches on her mom’s blog or Facebook page twice a month, sometimes less. That was Cheryl’s “job.”
Cheryl momentarily considered renewing her objection, but Keisha was already swimming into the dance floor. She hoped that Cheryl danced terribly, otherwise she didn’t think they could hang out again.
There were a few multiple race couples around them. Of course, the most common configuration was black guy with white girl. One couple featured a stacked brother with a Michael Jordan hairdo and a tiny raven-haired girl, ala Winona Ryder, with large brown eyes and a waist smaller than Keisha’s thigh. They danced badly, but naughtily, against a column of square, gray wood in the middle of the room. They sucked on lollipops.
“You are hard to find,” Cheryl sang to the music as she walked up.
“Me, hard to find? Ha!” Keisha shot back.
“Here.” She handed Keisha a drink with bubbles.
“Like I said, we’re in a bar, you gotta drink. We took the metro, so don’t give me that driving bullshit either. Cheers.” She clinked her glass against Keisha’s. Some of Keisha’s drink splashed on her wrist.
Keisha eyed Michael Jordan and Winona, still grinding away. She sniffed the drink as Cheryl took a swallow of her appropriately clear, probably vodka and tonic, concoction. Keisha’s right cheek twitched. She closed her eyelids as the earthquake of rhythm invaded her. Small ripples ran through her drink. Keisha sniffed the Bacardi Rum mixed with the tangy artificiality of diet coke. A ridiculous lime wedge clung to the rim of her rocks glass.
“No thanks,” she said.
“Come on, that security work’s very stressful, Keisha. You, like, need to unwind. Tomorrow is your day off. Live a little,” Cheryl said.
“Thankfully, I’m having a hard time deciphering all your clichés. You should not have wasted twelve or fifteen dollars on this drink because I’m not drinking it.”
Keisha tried to think of some good excuse, then remembered what Trey said she should say: “I have an allergy. Actually, I have many.”
Cheryl searched Keisha’s face like it was a treasure map. She snatched the rum and diet coke away, splashing Keisha’s wrist again, then took a healthy swig.
“Okay girl, I guess you, like, don’t have to drink when you’re in a bar. You’re missing out on some good inebriation,” Cheryl said with very fake, but hearty cheer. ”Will you at least dance and act like you’ve had a drink? How else will some sleazy guys try to dance with us, giving us the, like, chance to reject them, and feel better about ourselves?” Her white teeth glistened as she swallowed more vodka.
“You are a straight-ahead kind of chick, huh?” Keisha said.
Cheryl clinked the two glasses together and drank from each.
They danced next to another group of girls that included two Asians, a Nubian princess, and a girl who looked Middle-Eastern, which was the white girl’s version of a light skinned black girl.
They danced and danced for nearly two hours. Cheryl wasn’t as bad as Keisha hoped, but Keisha was a better, more sensual dancer. Cheryl was twenty pounds Keisha’s junior, so that made them desirable to different men. The mixed couple had started making out and then went into the black room. They had probably left, but Keisha’s mind couldn’t help picturing them getting busy in the bathroom. His face turned into Kendrick’s and his date turned into that white girl from work he now slept with, Geraldine. Who names their daughter a guy’s name with -ine at the end?
“I’m going to the restroom,” Keisha said to Cheryl, who was swishing her head around like that one-armed drummer from Def Leppard. Keisha repeated herself, then headed into the hallway when Cheryl didn’t respond.
The bathroom was also black, but surprisingly clean. Women groomed themselves in the mirror while a girl in black and whites forced cloth-like paper towels aggressively onto each wet-handed patron. Keisha doused her face with water, staring into her dark brown eyes in the mirror. She looked under the closed stalls to find only one set of lady’s shoes under each one. “Was there a white girl and black guy in here?” Keisha asked the attendant.
“I don’t let guys in here,” she said. “Is he your man? He creepin’ with a white chick?”
“No, he’s not my man. My men don’t creep with white chicks,” Keisha shot back.
“Sorry, sister, just tryin’ to support. I know the disease.” She held up a sucker. “Lollipop?”
Keisha sucked and walked. The lollipop was watermelon, but all she could smell was that rum, that Puerto Rican Bacardi that clung to her wrist even after she washed. A slower song played and Cheryl had latched onto the nerdiest nerd in Nerdsville. Keisha had new respect for her since this was not your typical club hookup. She sauntered up and tapped Cheryl on the shoulder. She gazed around at Keisha with blood-shot eyes.
“I’m outta here, you gonna hang or what?” Keisha demanded.
“Oh, hey Kesh, this here’s…what’s your, like, handle, dude?”
“I’m Bobby, Bobby Sullivan. Nice to make your, uh, pleasure, Kesh.”
“It’s Keisha, Bobby. So, Cheryl, am I riding the metro solo or what?”
“Just chill and like have a Shirley Temple or virgin-something, chick,” she said as she playfully patted Keisha’s cheek. “Bobb-o and I are cutting a carpet, right Bobb-o?”
“Yes, we are cutting a carpet,” he said grinning.
“See? Hey Bobb-o, you got any friend-o’s for Kesh to like dance with?”
“No, I don’t have much in the way of friends right now, I just moved here for a job,” Bobby said, still grinning.
“Cool! Hey Kesh, how about that, like a clubber who works!”
“I work,” said Keisha.
“I know, it’s sad.” Cheryl drooped her lips like a fish and looked at each of them. “Worker bees.” “Look, I’m outta here. Nice to meet you, Bobby.” Bobby pushed his glasses up his nose and squinted. “Likewise,” he said.
Keisha walked up into the alley. Steam slid out of a grate at the end of the block, obscuring the downtown lights of Los Angeles.
As she neared the end of the alley, she saw Michael Jordan and Winona stumble out from behind a dumpster. The girl straightened her bra strap beneath her lace top. She stared at Keisha. He wiped his forearm across his lips and spit in Keisha’s direction.
“Whoa, sorry, didn’t see ya there, baby,” he said. Keisha kept walking. She crossed through the steaming vent. Humidity caressed her skin, the closest thing to human touch she’d felt in months. She reached the metro station and dug in her purse for her pass.
A homeless guy held up a cardboard sign that read, “Anything helps. God Bless.” She fished a quarter out of her rubber coin purse and dropped it in his hat. She read the graffiti that littered the walls of the metro stop. A shiny yellow cab idled next to the sidewalk. She dug through her purse some more and found her last twenty. She stuck her head through the cab window. “Will this get me to Manchester and the four-oh-five?”
“Sure, honey, I can find a route for that, maybe less.”
“You’re a prince,” she said.
At home, she pulled out her favorite art book, A Pictorial History of European Art: 1880-1914. The book fell open to a large color photo of her favorite work by Vincent van Gogh, Reaper in a Wheat Field. The reaper worked alone in brilliant sunlight under a lime sky. She had recently seen the painting at a LACMA exhibition. She found every opportunity to station herself in that room while on duty. The photo didn’t do it justice. She fell asleep next to the book, her hand covering the amber halo in the green sky.