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Love on Concrete Island
Here is a tale of the only time I've ever been to a strip club. It's set in Houston. In his short story Mexico, Rick Bass writes that people don't fall in love anymore in Houston. "It's just the pelvic thrust, and occasionally children as the result. There's no love, and that's the surest sign of death." he writes. This is perhaps why I ended up at a strip club. Nothing but pure pelvic thrust.
My only friend at that time was a realtor I met at a meet-up. Every couple of days he'd text me, "How are you dude?". I'd sincerely reply and enquire about his well-being until he hit me with, "So let me know if you are in the market for a house." I'd stop replying and go back to eating cinnamon toast crunch straight out of the box to soothe myself. He'd text me again a few days later, "How are you dude?."
Then, one morning, it all changed. A whisper network of Indian aunts informed me that a childhood friend and neighbor lived in Houston. Indian aunts function the way conspiracy theorists believe secret cabals work. They are always there pulling the strings behind the scenes - arranging marriages, providing thick descriptions of family drama, and ensuring all Indians eventually end up in Houston. The aunts do all this with plausible deniability, so I'm unable to recollect which aunt informed me of my childhood friend being in Houston.
Even though we lived a single block from each other for over a decade, it's hard to say that I knew him in any meaningful way. Sure, we spent almost every day of the summer playing cricket on the street and getting in fights. Still, I did not know anything existential about him. I knew he was a gritty cricket player, which is a way of saying his game lacked any kind of joie de vivre or elegance but got the job done. The games happened at the street intersection right beside his home. His family was the only one that was curiously fine with things in their yard getting smashed by a cricket ball once in a while - lampshades, pots, his mom. His father watched all of this unfold from the only chair on their verandah, smoking a cigarette. He was always smoking cigarettes. Rumor had it that he sent his son, who must have been 13, to buy cigarettes for him. He smoked four packets a day they said. He also never went to work. The story goes that he worked a cushy oil engineering gig in the Gulf, which is how we referred to anywhere in the Middle East - The Gulf. Then he got into gambling and playing cards. He owed the wrong people a lot of money, and so he had to flee. I've never asked my friend about all of this. I'd like to believe this rumor is false. It's a decoy. What actually happened? His father owes the wrong people a lot of money, so one day, he decides to have one final score, one final bet. If he wins, he will pay everyone back and disappear into the night. If he lost, it was going to be his final night. We all know what happened next. This is why he does not work. This is why the man smokes four packs of cigarettes a day - it scratches a fixation, the kind of fixation that wants to get back in the game again. Alas, he must not because he's the only man in narrative history to have quit after the one final score.
My friend picked me up in a Dodge Charger on a Friday evening. This should have foreboded how the evening was to unfold. On our drive to his apartment, he told me that we were going to wait for his friend driving up from Lake Charles, Louisiana. Lake Charles to Houston is a stretch of I-10 lined with factories gurgling and spitting out thick smoke into the atmosphere. There is not a single tree on that stretch - it's all pure concrete, steel, barbed wires. Driving along it makes you pray that you never get one of those "real jobs" working in one of these structures. To the friend driving up from Lake Charles, going to Houston must have felt like going to Disneyland.
Once the small crew gathered, the next question took me by surprise: "So what you want to do - eat buffalo chicken wings or go to a strip club?." It was also the type of question you were not supposed to answer. The collective consciousness of the group, reflected in my friend's Dodge Charger and the Mustang that the friend from Lake Charles had driven in, would lead us to the strip club.
The Dodge pulled into a strip with a set of buildings that looked like they could be anything. Their fate only limited by the demands of the neighborhood. This one lay beside a stretch of Interstate 35 that had heavy truck traffic. Thus, it became a strip mall of strip clubs. Once inside this establishment, you should cosplay being rich until being found out otherwise. Doesn't matter where you are from or what you look like; inside a strip club, everyone treats you like you like you might be the answer to all the world's problems. For me, this cosplay lasted for a brief moment - from the time I ordered a beer to the moment I said no thanks to a lap dance. I was invisible thereafter. The other men were aware of how things worked so they made their moment last longer. They took their single dollar bills and placed them on half-naked women slowly, painfully slow. The action unfolded in Matrix slow motion. They stretched subjective time to its limit. Unsurprisingly, the women subjected to these motions looked bored. You could see the space-time continuum break down in their eyes. Naturally, as one does in a strip club, I fell asleep. I spent the night at my childhood friend's apartment. The next morning I made an excuse to leave as early as possible. The guy from Lake Charles insisted on giving me a ride in his Mustang. As he sped through the freeway, I knew what the news would say if we died in an accident - two young Indian men crash a Mustang and die after a night at the strip club. The secret cabal of Indian aunts would have a field day. I haven't seen my friend since. Sometimes, it's better to not know people existentially.
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