For hours, the ticking clock was all he could hear as he sat on the cold tiled floor, staring at the dark screen hinged on the blank wall. His reflection echoed the same sentiment of brokenness, despair and a crushed spirit that wore him down, enough to make him buy a bottle of Jameson on the way. Even the shopkeeper seemed hesitant to sell it to him, given that he only ever sold him soda. The glass was in his hand, the drink waiting on him to partake, but he still could not do it.
“What is wrong with me?” he asked his reflection. He imagined it standing up in the televised dimension, walking up to the screen and telling him.
“You tried, man.”
“What did I ever do to deserve this?” he asked it, imagining an answer.
“Too much, my brother.”
“I didn’t expect anything in return, I was just being nice to them. And this is how they repay me?”
“Take a sip. Loosen up and let me talk to you for a bit,” he heard the other Damian say as he sipped the drink. It burnt less than the last time he took it.
“I know your problem.”
“You do?” Damian asked himself.
“Yes. For too long, you’ve been thinking of others. How to please them and make them happy. What about you? Who’s doing the same for you?”
“I – I didn’t expect them to do anything.”
“Liar, you know you did.”
“Okay, maybe a bit, but I thought I was doing the right thing.”
“And look where that’s brought you. Alone and miserable. The girl you want is being railed by another guy while you get the leftovers. Your so-called friend isn’t really much of a friend, is she? Now, you’ve been a good friend to many people, but who’s ever been a good friend to you?”
“Patricia is still my friend. She just – um…”
“You’re still defending her?”
“No, I’m not. I just…”
“You suspected her for a long time, and when you finally get the answers you sought out, all of a sudden she might have had a change of heart? No, Damian. She made a decision, and she had no regrets. In fact, I’m willing to bet that if you confront her about it, she’ll probably make you look like the bad guy, like you’re the one who deserved it.”
“She would never…”
“No? You heard what that bitch Linda said? They had a laugh about it, Damian. Hasn’t that registered to you yet? They think you’re a joke.”
“But I was good to them. I was good to all of them.”
“Doesn’t matter. Just because she’s your friend now doesn’t mean she’s magically changed her opinion about you. In fact, at this time of distress, where is she?”
“Exactly. You were there for her, but she’s not there for you. Think of yourself for once. What do you want to do?”
“I don’t know.”
“Take another sip, brother.”
He gulped it down this time. Just then, his phone buzzed. He saw Patricia’s name on the screen.
“Don’t pick it up,” the other Damian said.
“I want to know. I just want to know why.”
“Don’t pick it up. You tell her about your day, you tell her about every fucking thing you do. You deserve time off, don’t you think so?”
“I do. I do, don’t I?” he asked himself, nodding in agreement.
“I think so too. But, what do you want to do? Where do you want to go?”
Damian considered this for a moment, and then the memory came back.
“I want to see her again.”
“The dancer? From Bliss Street?”
“I want to see her again.”
“I do too. So, what do you say, Damian?”
He stood up, poured himself another glass and flushed it down, declaring to the screen.
“I’m going to see her again!”
The clock above the TV said 8:30 p.m… He figured that it was still early, so he cleaned himself up a bit, put a few notes in his pocket and left his wallet by his bedside drawer.
“I deserve time off,” he said, stepping out the door to see Patricia, hands held together like a child in prayer. He examined her for a bit, and then proceeded to walk past her before she stepped in front of him.
“I know you’re upset…” she started.
“I don’t wanna hear it.”
“Damian, please let me…”
“I said, I don’t wanna hear anything from you,” he said, almost shouting. His neighbor opened his door to see him staring her down.
“Dame, uko poa?” he asked him.
“I’m good, Greg. I just need a bit of time off.”
“Where are you going at this time of night?” Greg asked him again.
“Don’t worry about it, man.”
“Damian, I get it,” Patricia said, holding his arms, “I get it, okay? I shouldn’t have done those things, I know. I never meant to hurt you, please believe that. Please, let’s go in and I’ll explain everything to you.”
“I really need to go,” he said, trying to walk past her.
“No, no, I’m not letting you go.”
“Step aside, Patricia…”
“No, I’m not leaving you!” she said, hugging him tightly while sobbing.
“Let me go,” he said softly, to which she shook her head, hugging him tighter.
“I need you to let me…” he started, ready to push her away before Greg intervened.
“Damian, just relax, okay?”
“I don’t need to relax, I need her to leave me alone!”
“No, I won’t! I know where you want to go, Damian. Please don’t go there, please,” Patricia sobbed.
“Where do you want to go?” Greg asked.
“Out. Just out, okay?”
“But you don’t like going out. You told me that. Why the change?”
“I need to – um, please Patricia, just let me go.”
“Um, madam, please leave him,” Greg said, gently pulling her off him.
“I just want to…” she started before he whispered to her.
“Look at him. Do you think he’ll listen to you?”
“Thanks Greg,” Damian said, running down the stairs. However, Patricia followed him down to the parking lot, where he saw him standing before Brian.
“Hey, man. How are you?” he started as Damian laughed.
“Ah? You’re here! Thank God, I needed a lift into town.”
“Don’t take him there! Please!” Patricia begged as Brian examined his slightly inebriated friend.
“Sure man, I got your back,” he said as Damian got into the front seat, Brain nodding at a worried Patricia.
“Thanks man. Get me the hell out of here,” he said, being helped into Brian’s car.
“Damian, please don’t go,” Patricia sobbed, following him to the passenger side, “please let’s talk. I’ll explain everything. I promise, no more secrets between us.” Damian leaned back into the seat, rolled down the window and looked at her, a tear streaming down his cheek.
“I trusted you, Patricia,” he sobbed as they drove out, leaving Patricia bawling her eyes out. The guard, who had watched all the drama unfold was beside himself.
“Wa! You young people, so dramatic!” he said, laughing heartily.
“Not always,” Patricia said, walking away before the guard stopped her, saying:
“Give him some time. He’s a good boy, Damian. Ni stress tu.”
“I know. It’s where he’s going that worries me.”
As the car sped down the highway, Brian couldn’t help but look at Damian, who was lost in his own thoughts. He saw him wipe the tear from his eyes and chose not to question his decisions.
“Where do you want to start?” he finally asked.
“Anywhere but here,” Damian said.
“Cool. But just so you know, I get it.”
“I understand why you’re upset.”
“Patricia told you?”
“Yeah, she called me up and forced me to drive to your place.”
“She seems kinda sorry about it, man.”
“She called you?”
“Yeah man. All the way to your place from hers.”
“Hmm, not yours?” Damian asked, looking at Brian. He watched him close his eyes and exhale, the look of being found out.
“You’re a special one, Brian. You wanted me to make your fuck buddy a girlfriend?”
“You know what? Never mind. I’m in no mood to argue with anyone else. I just – I just need a break,” Damian sighed as he looked outside. Seeing him in that position, defeated and desperate for an outlet reminded Brian of his own experience.
“Hey, I wanted to know something,” Damian asked him.
“Sure man, anything.”
“Who’s Linda to you?”
Damian saw his friend frown, grip the steering wheel a bit tighter and drive slower.
“Tell you what, let’s make a deal.”
“You don’t go to Bliss Street, and I’ll tell you everything you want to know. Deal?”
“How do you know where I’m…”
“It’s obvious, Damian. That’s its appeal. Give you a taste of the good life, gets you hooked on it then before you know it, you can’t live without it. Next thing you know, you’re trying to start over with close to nothing, because the only thing it left you with was a broken spirit,” Brian spoke somberly.
“What happened to you, Brian?” Damian asked, his interest fully piqued.
“The same thing that will happen to you if you go there,” he said, an ominous silence hovering over them as they reached the city centre. Brian pulled over at an empty parking lot.
“You don’t go there, I’ll tell you everything. I promise,” he said as he drove away, leaving Damian confused. He walked along a dark street with closed shops on his left, terminating at a crossroad junction, where Boulevard stood on his right.
After the light turned green, he turned right and stood at the entrance, looking at the revelers dashing from one club to the other, without a single care in the world. He stood there for a while, wondering if he should go on or turn back and head home, where Patricia would undoubtedly be waiting for him.
“Just one drink,” he said to himself as he walked on the left of the street, occasionally bumping into one or two people. He finally got to the same tented club he had been in, astonished to see it packed on a weekday, though not as much as it was the last time.
“Hey, look who’s back,” the bartender greeted as he approached her.
“Hi,” he said unenthusiastically.
“I need a drink. Just one, this time for real,” he said.
“Coming up.” She poured him a glass, which he sipped slowly as he turned to see the party people. Many were seated around tables neatly arranged around the dance floor, with only a few actually moving to the beat. He spotted one lady seated alone, and almost spat out his drink when he recognized her. Immediately, he made his way to her table, seeing her holding her glass dearly, almost as if someone would steal it from her.
“Excuse me, do you mind if I join you?” he asked as she looked up, smiling at him.
“I don’t see why not,” she said, pointing to the seat across her.
“Um, I just came here to tell you that you kinda look familiar.”
“Yeah. I saw you in that, um, do I call it a strip club?”
“I have to say, I enjoyed seeing you dancing. You seemed like you enjoyed it.”
“Thanks, I think.”
“No, I mean it. You were into it, more than anyone I might have seen there.”
“Oh?” she asked.
“Yeah. You like dancing, don’t you?” he asked her. Before she could answer, people cheered when the speakers played Woman by Rema. She stood up, pulled him to the dance floor, saying:
“Let me show you.”
As they joined many, she started by cat walking towards him, then as the beat dropped, so did she, arching her back as she got back up, shaking her waist while she turned around. He couldn’t help but smile as she moved; losing herself completely to the music like no one else existed.
Then, she came towards him, wrapping her hands around his neck and whining, eyes locked on his, smiling at his lack of coordination.
“Loosen up a bit!” she said, turning around and backing into him, grinding softly. He eased up and moved in harmony with her.
“See? Just like that. Feel the music!” she said again. He held her waist as she dropped down, hands on the floor as others cheered him on. She then stood up and hugged him, pulling him back to their table.
“Wow!” she said, wiping the sweat off her forehead.
“Yeah,” he said, watching her try to stop smiling. He picked up his glass, but she covered its mouth.
“Careful, someone might have spiked it,” she said, taking it from him.
“Oh, gosh. Thanks.”
“You’re not a regular here. Anyone else would have known that.”
“Yeah, I’m not. I just wanted to have some time to myself today.”
“You want to relax and be taken care of?” she asked, mimicking the song lyrics.
“Ha, yes. Yes, I do,” he said. They looked into each other’s eyes for a while, and then she said.
“You want to go somewhere quiet?”
“I’d love to, but I made a promise.”
“Not to go to Bliss Street.”
“Oh, you won’t have to. I know a short cut. Follow me,” she said. He followed her past the bar to the back of the club, turning right to a flight of steps that led to a narrow corridor with red lighting, walls clad in cloth and doors on either side.
“Where are we?” he asked her.
“The underbelly of Bliss Street. Many people don’t come here because they prefer the houses, but those who do have, um, particular requests.”
“What do you mean by particular?” he asked.
“What isn’t a ‘conventional’ request,” she said, stopping to see whether he’d get it.
“Oooh, ok then,” he said, wide eyed as she laughed at him.
“Ah, here we are.” They got to the end of the corridor, to a room on their right, that stood opposite another corridor.
Incandescently lit, it had a small kitchenette on the left, a queen size bed on the right, a table in the middle and a TV on the wall just opposite the bed. Just across the door, there was a high level window that spanned from wall to wall.
“That’s to outside,” she said.
“What the hell? Someone could live here!” he exclaimed, admiring the room.
“People do live here,” she went on, sitting on the bed, tapping it.
“So, when did you see me dancing?” she asked as he joined her.
“I believe it was two nights ago. I had wandered onto Bliss Street and got into the white place, and that lady showed me around. Um, Fiona, I think.”
“You liked it?”
“I did. The others were ok, but you were really into it, like, um…”
“Like what?” she asked again, leaning in.
“Like you were telling a story. I know, it sounds weird…”
“No, oh my gosh, not at all. Thank you so much! You’re probably the first person to notice that about me.”
“Yeah, the other girls say I’m being too dramatic with my moves.”
“I take it you love dancing.”
“Me? No, where would you have gotten that idea?” she asked, laughing with him, “Yes, I absolutely love it. Ever since I was young. I had hoped that I’d join a group and go doing tours with musicians.”
“Wow, I like that.”
“I know, right?”
“Then, if you don’t mind me asking…”
“Why am I here?”
“Yes. If you don’t mind,” he went, seeing her wear a more serious expression as she spoke.
“I’ve always been here.”
“What do you mean?”
“As in, I was born on Bliss Street.”
“Come again?!” he asked, unable to hide his shock.
“Eish! Easy! You’re acting like I’m a mutant or something. I was born here. My mother was, well, one of those girls outside. So I was raised here while she worked there.”
“Don’t you dare say sorry. I don’t want pity.”
“Say no more,” he agreed, zipping his lips, much to her amusement.
“Ok. Now as I was saying, I grew up here with a couple of other girls. We’d go to school like other kids while our moms worked there while we worked in here after school. Cleaning up and stuff. Then when we grew up, we were ‘encouraged’ to go dancing.”
“Cleaning up? You mean after people after they’re done with their business?”
“Well, I wasn’t exactly waiting tables, was I? That’s against child labour laws.”
“And that isn’t?!” he asked in disbelief.
“It is? I wouldn’t know. I don’t get out much. Anyway, some of us decided to go into the business, much to our mothers’ disappointment. Mine in particular had a fit of epic proportions. She wanted me to make something of myself and not to go into the same life as she did, but I wanted to do dancing.”
“Where did that come from?”
“TV. I’d watch dance shows and practice them every now and again. Personally, I was a quiet kid who kept to herself, didn’t talk much. So, dancing was like a form of expression to me. I even applied to be a ballerina. Still waiting on it, but I wanted to experiment here first.”
“Oh, ok then.”
“It isn’t that bad. All I have to do is dance, get tipped and go on with my life. I’ve never once had to do ‘extras’ for clients, and I’m not about to start anytime soon. That’s how I came to be,” she said, laughing at herself.
“I like that you’re laughing,” he said.
“Well, what do you want me to do? Curl up in a ball and cry? No way! Dancing has helped me say the things I can’t speak out, tell what I can’t express verbally. Plus, I get to save a lot of cash that I plan to use to travel one day.”
“It is. Compared to the experience one of my friends had, I’d say I had it easy.”
“What happened to one of your friends?”
“She was the original child of Bliss Street. Her mother was cold and very distant, and would even abuse her sometimes. She had to grow up really quickly to take care of her mom, especially after her interactions with customers.”
“What do you mean?”
“Many of the girls you see out there are heavily medicated. Helps them cope with reality. This girl’s mom wasn’t any different, probably even worse from what we saw. She knew pharmacists by name and had to liaise with the police just to keep her mom safe, because Auntie wouldn’t.”
“Auntie? As in, Auntie Jessie?”
“Yes, her. She was a cruel one in the beginning, making us sleep in one room while our moms were with customers. My friend would record bedtime stories for us to hear while our moms were working, and one day Jessie decided to take the stories away, punishing her for doing the same by making her clean every room afterwards.”
“Oh my God,” he said.
“I know. It was really bad for her. The tipping point came when a customer went too far with her mom. He had a choking fetish and went a bit overboard. The mom screamed for help, so my friend went to help her, but the guy hit her hard. By the time she came to, her mom was already gone.”
“I know. My friend changed after that day from a caring girl into a rebellious, hateful person. Jessie changed as well, for the better. Our moms were treated better, got security in case things went south and even had the option of choosing. Jessie tried to apologize to my pal, but she didn’t want to hear anything she had to say. So, on the day we were to choose what we wanted to do with our lives, she just left and never came back, though she kept in touch.”
“What happened to her?”
“As it turns out, her mom had saved enough money to get her to go to campus, so she went. But she still had a lot of issues, so she coped the only way she knew how: partying, drugs, alcohol and sex. She used to come here with her pals from campus and get free stuff. It was Jessie’s way of trying to make amends. Then one day, she just stopped.”
“What made her stop?”
“She made a friend. Apparently she started hanging out with some guy from her class and he somehow got to her without knowing it. He never asked her out or anything, but he was good to her, so much that she even started attending church just to be near him.”
“That’s nice of him.”
“It was. She couldn’t stop singing about him, so I asked why, and she said that for the first time, someone didn’t seem to care where she came from, because he never asked. He never assumed, never made any judgments, and eventually, he became her best friend. She’d kill for that boy.”
“Sounds like she really likes him.”
“Very much. He’s a rare breed of guy, according to her. Hell, even I want to meet that Damian.”
“Who?” he asked, his heart skipping a beat.
“Damian. She’s said it so many times that I feel like I know the guy by now. Anyway, that’s my story, or rather my pal Patricia. What’s yours?”
He smiled sheepishly as he struggled to say something, but he remembered how he left her and simply said.
“I had a rough day at work. I needed to blow off some steam.”
“Oh. Are you feeling any better being in a dingy room with me without actually getting it on?”
“Tons,” he said, laughing a bit.
“Where did you want to travel to?”
“I’m not sure yet. I hear Monali is good this time of year. The Sisters’ festival is in full swing, so they’re bound to have celebrations, and dance!” she said, throwing her hands in the air.
“You should go. Get out while you still can.”
“Only if you come with me,” she said. He chuckled a bit, then looked at her smiling face.
“Are you serious?”
“Well, yeah. You seem like great company, plus the fact that you came to a bar to get reprieve tells me you want to also take time off.”
“I do! I’ve been stuck in some routine for such a long time that I forgot what a good time feels like.”
“So, do we have a deal? We’ll escape to Monali by boat.”
“Yes, we will,” he said, high fiving her.
“I need to make sure you’re being serious,” she said, taking out her phone for a selfie.
“What are you doing?”
“Evidence. If you don’t come with me, everyone will know you were here. Now smile for the camera,” she instructed as they smiled, the flash blinding him briefly. She leaned on him as she admired the image.
“We really should get away from here,” she insisted.
“We will, no worries.”
“I mean it. There’s another reason I really want to get the hell out of Bliss Street.”
“What’s that?” he asked. She sat up and looked keenly at him before asking:
“Can I trust you? I feel like I can. Can I?”
“Of course you can. You have no idea what I know about people.”
“What do you know about people?”
“Nothing. I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Damian said, looking away.
“Well, this isn’t one of those. It’s incredibly serious,” she said, her face furrowed. He looked at her for a while before he asked.
“Does this have to do with Jessie?” She hesitated for some time, fumbling with her fingers before she said.
“How did you know?”
“I’ve – I’ve had my suspicions about her for some time now, but I take it she isn’t a good person.”
“Trust me, you haven’t seen anything yet. I saw something the other day, and it’s been eating at me for weeks now. I really need to share this with someone, just in case…”
“Just in case? What do you mean?” he asked. She sighed, then stood up, opened the door and stretched out her hand to him, saying:
“Come with me.”