You can learn a lot about yourself in places you never thought you'd end up.
Antonio passes me a warm Sol from the backseat, where he’s cuddled up next to Rachel, whispering in her ear. I watch as he pulls her into him and snarls, “Why you make me feel like a piece of shit?” as she cackles wildly and pretends to fend him off. His English is nearly perfect. Ask him and he’ll credit CSI: Miami for the free, and dramatic, education.
It’s our third night on Isla Cozumel with this group of locals. Rachel and I are wearing black dresses and glossy false eyelashes, which we’ve donned to mock-mourn Kim Kardashian’s marriage — today we learned of her separation from her husband of seventy-two days, and the subsequent uproar from America. We tell the boys we’ve come to Mexico to escape the “Kardash backlash” and they blink at us in the darkness. Both of us are fresh out of dead-end relationships, and so we’ve really come in search of adventure, of meeting new people, of risk. Each afternoon we snorkel the island’s famous reefs and drink pina coladas while tanning and taking turns reading aloud the preposterous sex advice proffered by Cosmo. We’ve come to let go.
Eduardo’s behind the wheel. By day, he leads scuba tours from the resort, but he studied accounting in college and also does freelance bookkeeping for a few local businesses (including a car-rental agency), so he’s pulled a few strings with the manager to charter a cherry red ‘70s Volkswagen Bug with which to spin us around the small island for the week. I’m secretly infatuated with him, his cinnamon skin, warm to the touch, and his broken English, which I find endlessly charming. “Your eyes,” he keeps repeating. “So clear, like I see your brain.”
We careen down Carretera Costera, iguanas peeking from the thicket. “Where are we going?” I ask. It’s so dark I can’t make out the lines in the road. Only Raul answers me, squeezed in the back next to Antonio, still pressed hotly against Rachel. “I want to take you to a place where the girls work,” he offers. I think "strip club," then doubt myself. Raul speaks English well, but I wonder if maybe he means something else. He dictates directions to Eduardo in Spanish and I wince as the VW creaks and moans around every corner.
I finish the beer just as we pull into a small parking lot. There’s an outdoor staircase leading into a storefront with no discernible signage, no indication of where we might be. Faint Spanish dance music thumps into the night, all horns and beats and words I can’t decipher. We scramble from the car and hide our empties behind the stairwell. Eduardo takes my hand and guides me up the steps and into a small club. The first thing I see is a paltry stage, about seven feet wide, with a gleaming silver pole stretched from the middle to the ceiling. From the smoky haze a heavy-thighed woman twirls, grinding against the pole, bending so we can see the black lace g-string that disappears in her ass, which I must admit is admirable. Poured into a too-small black bra with pink lace piping, she wears a creamy see-through lace robe over everything, her lips big and fuschia, her heels clear and Lucite.
We sit next to a table of Mexican men in blue jeans and cowboy hats. When they divert their attention to Rachel and me, the dancer eyes us warily, and I feel a twinge guilty for that, but it’s the too-small bra that evokes in me something more ― pity, almost.
“You like?” Antonio asks Rachel. Her eyes widen, but she’s smiling. We order beers and the waitress sets down a plate of limes and cubed jicama coated with chili powder. There’s a few disco balls churning from clear wire, but otherwise the joint is desolate. A curtain, made from what looks like an old bed sheet, denotes the back room. I imagine the dancers’ costumes hanging from a clothesline tied to the old plumbing, and lap dances performed in rickety chairs next to the kegs and boxes of empty bottles waiting to be recycled.
I’d never been to a strip club before this. I’d pictured it — a glamorous night out with the girls, champagne, a limousine — probably someone’s birthday or wacky bachelorette. The décor would be fabulous, with dark velour drapes and glittery lighting, and there would be slutty but elegant lingerie paired with costume baubles we’d probably buy ourselves from Forever 21. And I’d always envisioned this trip to the strip club as a bonding experience between women, coming together to watch some seductress let loose in public as only our private selves do. It would be safer this way, without men or boyfriends or husbands, all of whom might cheapen the experience with their crude jokes belied by furtive horny glances and boner cover-ups. Most importantly, without the shadowy but perceptible insecurity we’d all face and which would spawn a thousand future fights — that we women were not good enough.
But nothing about this club is glamorous. The makeshift stage — a slab of old wood glossed black with paint — while cute, is not part of my fantasy. Nor is the sad lingerie or the presence of my potential Latin lover, his eyes hypnotically melting into the gulf of the dancer's thighs.
A new song cuts on, a slow Spanish number, and the patrons clap. I find myself clapping too, though I’m crawling with anxiety. It’s official: I want to leave. But now the dancer is removing her robe, and the men are clapping louder. Eduardo, too. I laugh nervously and scan the transfixed faces of every man in the room. Something about it all thrills me, but also embarrasses me — I’m insecure, because for the first time in three days, Eduardo’s attention is not focused on me. I’m jealous of a stripper.
Raul leans in, “I’m sorry, Sarah. I thought you’d like it.”
“I do! I do!” I feel myself blushing, and I never blush. “Don’t worry, it’s fine,” I tell him as the dancer unhooks her bra, flinging it offstage only to have it swooped up by the manager. Then, off comes the thong, and I swear, the men have all stopped breathing as she whisks herself up by her knees onto the pole and begins to climb slowly, because everything in a strip club happens slowly, deliberately. It’s the tease, the anticipation that makes me take Eduardo’s offered cigarette. Even I’m watching now, mesmerized, as she reaches the ceiling, her muscular legs stretched in an unbreakable V, sliding in this position all the way down, flashing everything, the pièce de résistance of her performance. I could never do that, I know, and as the club erupts with fanfare, even I manage an appreciative smile at the stripper, who (I think) I see smile back. I’m relieved that it’s over.
The lights dim, and the music halts suddenly. The club manager rushes over to the girl, drapes her in a dingy towel and ushers her offstage in a flash.
“Did you see that?” Rachel asks. “So weird.”
The music cuts on again, and we pool money for the bill.
It’s still early as we pile back into the VW. Antonio passes me another warm Sol, and I chug it, flushed and glad to be leaving. Eduardo shifts and the car thrusts and creaks onto the road. “You okay?” he asks, and takes my hand. Tonight, I will let Eduardo lead me to the rooftop of his building and unwrap me like a tamale.
“I’m fine,” I say, and watch hotel signs flicker goodbye in the dirty side mirror. Raul dictates directions in Spanish and we’re off to someplace else, somewhere I’ve never been and may never return to again. “Where are we going now?” asks Rachel. Eduardo shrugs, and there’s no one on the road but us.