The bouncer who was checking I.D.s, without a word, waived us in.
I guess we looked old. I followed Samirah into the club – a small row-house sized bar on the fringes of the strip. It was packed tight with a mostly older crowd and there was no entry fee. The live band was playing 70’s soul and the air pulsated with a bottom-driven heartbeat.
We were relieved to find at least one spot on U Street that still catered to the soulful generations that helped create it.
The band’s bass player was entirely in control. He was an eccentric looking fellow in a cowboy hat. His leather jeans looked to sap all air from his body, his Fender Jazz Bass was his life support.
He was connected to the groove, as if by umbilical. The others were tethered to him, unable to move or escape. There was something both sexy and predatory about it. Whether they wanted to or not, they had all agreed in some unspoken way that they would go to the bottom with him. And he reveled in this power.
“We got that funk for y’all tonight! Y’all ready for that funk?!” The band leader screamed into a microphone that was unnecessary given the cramped conditions. Inside the club was simple. The front of the club doubled as the stage, the players faced the audience, while their backs were to the front of the building and the windows behind them, which were at least two feet above, allowed people on the street to look down and see them work.
Beyond that, tables were set up along one side of the thin room. The bar was on the other, leaving about three feet of space between for people to stand or wait for a drink: this area was shoulder-to-shoulder packed.
In the back of the club was a dark corridor that led to the restrooms. Drunken patrons stumbled back and forth, mostly one at a time, with their flies undone and skirts tucked into their stockings.
Yes, this was a slice of the muddy decadence. Here, the funk lived, tenuously kept alive by the electronic pulse of an automated external defibrillator, hanging by a strap, over the shoulder of a feral bass player.
The band launched into a rendition of James Brown’s, “I Got That Feeling,” which gyrated into an Earth Wind and Fire set.
I maneuvered myself to the bar and ordered two drinks. Samirah asked for a Melon Ball, and for whatever reason I asked for absinthe. The woman behind the bar looked at me like I had just been caught drowning kittens. She took a bottle of something labeled absinthe that looked colored and flavored and poured me a shot, then went on making her regular two-ingredient cocktails.
I paid and Samirah and I pushed our way into the back of the club, away from the rhythm and ruckus into the shadowy hall.
“What’s the deal with your wife?” She asked as if the topic was an elephant, she had grown sick of feeding. “You seem like a nice guy, despite what I may have said earlier.” She sipped her drink, avoiding my eye directly.
“Like I said,” I sipped. “There’s been a sickness in our family. Someone close to her, to the both of us, is sick. I’ve been down lately, so I decided to take a break from worrying. My wife’s a homebody and I’m not, so...”
“No, you said that already. I’m sure you’re lying, but whatever.” She leaned in close, so as not to compete with the music, “Let me rephrase, why are you here…with me?”
The question shocked me. Not because she asked, I’m sure most women would. It shocked me because all night I’d been consumed with the mystery of why she was with me. I had never thought to ask myself why I was apparently perfectly fine to ruin every relationship in my life, whether personal or business, for the company of a strange, possibly insane, woman.
I didn’t have an answer, “I thought you just wanted to get away and forget about what’s-his-face. Why do you care all of a sudden?”
Her face was silhouetted by dancing shadows, but I could see her frown, “I do want to forget about Lawrence, but I also want to know what I’m getting into…and why? I just don’t buy these excuses you’re giving. There’s something more.
“So, what is it? Let me guess. She doesn’t respect you as a man. Or maybe she emasculated you in public once? Hmmmmm…That’s it, isn’t it? … She hurt your little male ego somehow. Didn’t she? What is this, ‘get back’?”
“Do I look like the type of guy that cares about a ‘power position’?”
“All men want power. It’s why your boys back at the restaurant wake up every morning. It’s why they liquor themselves up and slave through mindless, corporate busy work every day. And it’s why you played tag along for their night out tonight; even though you didn’t fit in. You’re just like every other man.
“You want to take over the world. You want power. Admit it.”
We were nose to nose. I could smell the fruit scented alcohol on her lips.
“You,” I began, breathing deep as I spoke. “You are a very bitter woman.”
“I’m not bitter,” she quietly reassured. “I just want to know why a guy, a married guy, would choose to risk so much over someone so unimportant as...me.”
“You know what I want? I don’t want to die who I am now. I hate who I am now.”
I said it loudly and with a frustrated, almost angry conviction that surprised us both.
“I hate who I’ve allowed myself to be. … I’m despicable. I’ve allowed life to creep up on me, run me over and then pass me. I didn’t even look up when it happened; I didn’t even notice. I was too busy with my head in the damn ground, trying to drag myself along with everyone else that I didn’t realize everyone else is going straight to shit. Everything is going straight to shit. I was just following along because I thought that’s what I should want out of life and…I hate that now, because for a while…it was what I wanted.
“Do you know I fucking begged those fuckers to invite me out tonight? I begged them. Every day for a week, I begged them until they caved. I was so sure that they were who I was supposed to be, I didn’t even take the time to notice who they actually were. Chris beats his wife…regularly. Everyone knows. And then there’s Silas…he does coke. Like a lot of coke. He’s ruined every relationship he’s ever been in but he’s successful and fuck me, I wanted to be just like him. I don’t even know their fucking last names.”
The club was loud. No one heard us, and things were still rowdy enough that I questioned whether Samirah had heard anything I’d said. Her reactions said she got the point. She walked up to me and placed her forehead to my chest. I took a deep breath and enjoyed the feeling of her weight against me.
We leaned against a wall, letting the human traffic move back and forth to the bathroom. We began the evening standing about an arm’s length away from each other. Throughout the night, we had moved closer until she was now at a distance where her breath still felt warm even after traveling across space, from her lips to mine. I nestled my face into the small of her neck where I could smell her.