April 4, 1980
“I’m always asking myself, why I’m here,” she tells me, the way many people tell me things, one of the strippers who sits down next to me at the bar because I’m the only one with my nose in a book and not tipping her.
Her hair shimmers in the bar light as is oiled. Her too-strong cologne overwhelms me, even over the overpowering scent of cigarette smoke around us, men mostly sucking on cigarettes for each sip of their drinks, like little dragons on stools breathing fire until the next dancer goes on stage.
She tells me she feels the earth move under her feet when she dances, and means more than just loose floorboards, it the weight of the room and the intensity of lust she feels.
In her mind, she is alone, although the boy in the denim jacket – who keeps buying her drinks and keeps giving her tips – clearly doesn’t intend for her to go home alone.
She laughs when I point this out.
“He’s only a boy,” she says. “But he reminds me of a man I knew.”
Then she says she remembers that man’s arms around her, lips on her lips, and their parting words.
“He said nothing would happen,” she says, recalling her face and his shape, outlined by his uniform. She said she pictured his weapon,. Even though she’d never see it, and recognized a pride in his eyes she’d not seen prior to his joining the arm.
She was 18 then, he was 21.
“He told me nothing would happen, nothing can happen, and yet it did,” she says, shuddering without saying directly how he died, except to curse “that damned swamp” by which I suppose she means, Vietnam, his body recovered from some slaughter not meant to happen.
She says she dances every night now because she can’t forget, trying to erase his face from her memory by having other men lust after her, but it doesn’t work, she can’t get his face out of her head, his epitaph written in stone or in her heart.
“The more I dance the more I remember him,” she says. “I look out at the men around the bar and they all look like him. But he’s always coming back in boys like this one, none of them half the man he was. But I go with them anyway. I keep hoping maybe one of them will hold me tight enough where I might forget.”
But this never happens, and she keeps recalling that day when he said good bye to her at the fence, a dusty airfield behind him, some sergeant screaming at him to come alone.
“He kept telling me not to worry,” she says. “He kept promising me he would come back. And he does come back. Every night. All of them different. All of them the same. Sometimes I wake up with them and start screaming, because I don’t see them. I see him as he must have been after – you know – after the thing in that damned swamp, blood or something coming out of his eyes or mouth, I don’t know. Maybe that’s why I never see the same man here twice. But there’s always someone. And I always go.”
Later, when he set is over, she lets the boy in the denim jacket take her arm, and I watch over the lip of my notebook as they leave together, wondering when it will all end, knowing deep in my heart, it never will.