BEHIND DAVE, the tall Marine in a Cowboys t-shirt signed his name with a blue Sharpie on the wrinkled American flag that hung on the wall behind him. Marines came and went from Desert Showgirls. Their home base was Twenty-Nine Palms, up the road. This group appeared to be back from Afghanistan, and Dave always asked them to sign our flag. They crowded the DJ booth and tried to convince him to play the music they wanted to hear: Tim McGraw, Eminem, or Bon Jovi.
That night I walked into the club with a migraine —the seizure kind that turned the world into rainbow prisms. I waved at Dave and walked past him into the dressing room where it was so bright I thought my head would explode. I popped my last two migraine meds dry and waited for them to make me stony and numb while I pealed on my favorite work uniform: a turquoise lace bra and skirt that I’d bought off another stripper at Cheetah’s on Hollywood Boulevard six years ago for $15.
Dave’s head appeared in the doorway. “You’re up in five, Prowler.”
I’d been called worse things. Prowler was better than lazy. Prowler was better than drunk-ass bitch. I took it as a compliment. I overheard Dave coaching greener strippers from his DJ booth last week. “Watch her,” he said and pointed at me. I tried to show a newbie how to sell dances by talking the customer into a double but soon gave up on her. Not everyone is built for big game hunting.
On the floor, my vision was still blurry but I felt the Marines in the corner, sitting close together. Beer bottles clanked in a circle like a fence of sound blocking out the horrors they left back in Kabul. I smelled buckets of Coors Light. Polo by Ralph Lauren. They had buzz cuts. Motorcycle jackets. My heart raced. According to certain self-help books about successful dating rituals, a woman should approach a man with a mindful grace. I circled them like a cheerful jackal lunging at a fragrant carcass.
The tall one, Cole, was older in the face than the others, so I talked to him first. I favored older ones because I felt less like their mom. Cole talked about his sons and his wife who cheated on him. Many soldiers have this same story: They are deployed overseas and come back to another man’s truck in their driveway. A seasoned tanker for over twenty years, Cole was learning Farsi in order to teach the Afghans to fight and was going back to Afghanistan the next month. Said he didn’t have PSTD and would never quit. When we talked, the other Marines served him beer like they were his peons and he was Hurt Locker. I never gave Cole my phone number. I told him which nights I worked at Desert Showgirls. He met me there on Saturdays and held my strong, veiny hands in his huge tanker hands where I was tiny and protected— not something I’d felt before with a man.
Back home, I waited on the front lines for my boyfriend to love me again, but he drifted further and further away. As my small kingdom crumbled, Prowler was on the rise. I stepped into Desert Show Girls, wild like a neglected adolescent diving into a warm chocolate fountain, open-mouthed.
Someone was going to fucking love me.
You Marines. All of you.
Around the time Cole was my customer, my boyfriend accused me of having an affair. Cole knew I loved my boyfriend but right before he was deployed to Afghanistan, I kissed him and promised to write because that’s what you do when your loved ones go off to war. A year later, Cole still writes but doesn’t say much.
Just, “Are you there?”
After Cole came Gary, who served in the Corps for over ten years but he didn’t like to talk about it. He had some successful businesses and was selling them one by one to pay for his daughter’s college and his wife’s health problems. I sat on the smoke patio in a silly white robe and listened to Gary talk about his daughter who was suddenly speaking to him again and his wife who stranded him sexually as she battled multiple autoimmune diseases. He coughed violently between cigarettes and I stared into his patient green eyes behind studious glasses. He was in his sixties and overweight. All of us are prisoners of our secret wars.
“You should quit smoking. Your daughter wants you to stick around,” I said. I held Gary firmly and caressed him. I kissed his neck. I wanted to swim around in his soft parts and be held there. And if this was not love, it was close. I knew Gary’s secrets and his weaknesses, and I didn’t have to hear him fart in the kitchen or do his laundry. We kept going, song after song, dance after dance. I purred in his ear. When he finally put his palm up to stop, he led me away from the lap dance area to the bar and put his face very close to mine. Our noses touched. I smelled his breath: Marlboro Lights.
Then a couple of guys walked into the club and stood at the bar a few seats away from us. One of them had a long, frizzy beard and “White Pride” tattooed across his chest.
“If you walk away right now, I will die inside,” Gary said. I rubbed his back and shoulders. He paid me in stiff twenties.
On stage, a dancer with very straight black hair was so high up on the pole, it was like she was an astronaut floating in space. The guys next to us ordered a pitcher. I sensed them watching me. I bent over slightly, to show my g-string under my turquoise skirt and walked away from Gary towards the bearded one with the “White Pride” tattoo.