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San Diego boys try picking up bar girls in Orange County

2022 Writing Contest Winner: Non-Fiction

Her beauty left me a socially inept voyeur, and I was caught either looking away or staring completely.
Her beauty left me a socially inept voyeur, and I was caught either looking away or staring completely.

Author’s note: This story is non-fiction, but certain elements are romanticized. Think Hunter S. Thompson.

The sun cut flat over the city, and as it departed, it took with it the last of my time in the Angeleno cesspool. Southbound I-405 was reduced to an obsidian abyss inhabited only by parallel streams of red and white lights. We were headed home to San Diego after trying to pitch a script to a Hollywood type. With still over four hours to go, due to the arterial clog brought on by fellow motorists, my good friend and business confidant Newman sat passenger in my old, beat-up Civic. He poured brandy into his tank of a flask as a wandering ash from his menthol kissed his coat collar.

“This is wholly awful,” he said rather plainly.

“I agree. Traffic is shit today.”

“No, not the traffic, I’m talking about LA: the energy, the breed of people. You can feel the roads and sidewalks molesting your tires and shoes, and I can’t believe not a single liquor store in West Hollywood had any dark liquor. Fuckin’ crime,” he maintained. Me, I never cared much for Los Angeles or dark liquor; they both left an awful taste in my mouth. They felt more like an illness, creeping into my body and beating me down if I took in more than I could handle.

Newman finished pouring brandy into his flask and tossed the glass handle into the back seat before handing me a cigarette. I let the Zippo hiss as the traffic in my lane lumbered to a halt.

“We could’ve been doing one-ten on the 73 by now,” Newman griped.

“I cannot morally pay tolls to Orange County.”

He chuckled a bit as he lazily tossed his glowing butt into the ashtray. “Fair enough,” he smirked.

“It’s strip mall hell, man. What’s even there, huh?” I demanded.

“Not sure,” he muttered without thought, before biting back into the conversation with “Well actually…depends on what you’re looking for.”

“Nothing that ain’t in Daygo.”

“Well, there might be an overwhelming presence of certain qualities.” He was coy.

“Qualities? The hell you talkin’ about?”

“You know…necessary facets of the modern metropolis might be in excess.”

“Such as?”

Newman beamed with the excitement and pride of a schoolteacher about to open a child’s innocent eyes to some hidden aspect of our fascinating world. He then educated me on the demographics of the business population in the region, specifically with regard to how a statistically fascinating majority of strip malls in the area contained gentlemen’s retreats, where scoundrels and yuppie scum alike could partake in a form of tensile release and relaxation.

I pushed up my glasses and cut a few lanes left, trying to bypass traffic, but was met with more gridlock and boredom. The ember of my cigarette crept towards my fingers as I stared at the sea of traffic. To the right of my Civic, a slew of motorcyclists passed, their loud engines revving, each stroke of a piston driving metal into metal — and me deeper into a fog of ire.

“Huh, must be from Long Beach,” Newman noted.

“Fuck this, we haven’t moved in over twenty minutes. I’m taking the next exit. Still got that deposit from the hotel?” I asked.

“All three hundred. Why?”

“What was that you were saying about ‘certain necessary facets’?”

We cruised down one of Irvine’s many forgettable commercial roads. My phone was dead, and although Newman was perturbed, he found comedy in the peril that came from my forgetting our one lifeline to the entirety of human knowledge, back in the hotel suite: my phone charger. “How the fuck are we even gonna listen to music now?” he scolded. “Or navigate? I’m on five percent. Come on, Windows.”

“Do you at least have the directions?” I asked.

“Says a few miles down the road.”

“Maybe you can ask one of the girls for a cable after you pay twenty dollars to not touch her.”

Newman coughed out a laugh as he tried to contain his drink, but the revelry was cut short as the phone light illuminating the cabin suddenly vanished. Newman sighed as he holstered his phone, a sarcastic smile parting his face.

“Relax,” I eased, “it’s only a few miles, like you said.”

“Shit, I don’t know, man. I’m kinda sautéed, and I’m not driving. Me saying a few miles ain’t shit to me, man.”

“So how many is a few?”

“Like ten. Maybe twelve.”

I let out a sigh of disappointment, realizing the traffic would’ve been easier to endure than the feeling of desperation that comes with being helplessly out from under from the digital cloud. After what seemed like an eternity of either listening to the drivel of NPR or flipping through a binary reality of low-fidelity mariachi music and static, we finally arrived at our destination: a dilapidated pink building with endlessly chipping stucco and a look that screamed “put me out of my midlife crisis.” The parking lot was the size of a one-bedroom apartment, and was filled with more potholes than Baghdad after the invasion. I turned sharply into a tight space and lightly brushed the side of the building with my front bumper. Newman shot me a glance.

“You couldn’t have done it better,” I snapped.

Newman lifted his flask and shook it in my face: “Not right now.”

Glancing too long at the building’s rooftop neon sign was enough to leave retinal scorch residue. My gaze fell slowly to the dark horizon, still marred by a haze with the shape of the signage text: “The Pink Kitty Boutique.” A smiling cat face crudely painted next to the sign looked down on us like an Orwellian figurehead. I stared into the cat’s lifeless, cartoon pupils, daring them to come to life as Newman and I finished our cigarettes in silence. It was at this point that I shifted my standards with regard to alcohol and let the warmth lease out a portion of my stomach for the evening.

What was supposed to be a grand entrance into a Garden of Eden suddenly became a Great Flood of sobering reality. In place of fine females were phallic figurines. No alcoholic arsenal, instead a collection of out-of-date media and Stone-Age pleasures. A recycled Spotify jazz playlist chuckled at us from a poorly maintained speaker in the corner of the room, mocking us for not reading the online description of the business. The garden gnome of a man who ran the operation from his fortress behind the counter looked up at us, the sole patrons, before aloofly returning to his vape and video poker.

“What you fellas looking for?” the gnome asked.

Newman approached the counter with what appeared to be confused expectancy but was more likely a consequence of his inebriation. He straightened his coat and puffed out his chest a bit. “Excuse me, my man, but where are the chicks?”

Without looking up from his computer game, the counter gnome pointed towards the left wall.

“Over there. I got DVDs, mags, and even a few VHS.”

Who the fuck still uses a VCR? I thought.

Newman looked at the counter gnome in disbelief as he began to pose another question.

“Nah, nah, like the live things, you know? The ones you see at parties sometimes? We’re tryna get poppin’.”

The gnome’s index finger shifted down as he pointed to an impulse-buy rack at knee height in front of the counter.

“Amyl nitrate’s right here.”

Good Christ, I mused. How much longer could this go on?

I decided to alleviate my secondhand embarrassment by being as direct as I could: “Sir, where’s the nearest titty bar?”

“Ecstasy Theatre. Five miles. Go back down Main, left on Warner.”

“Thank you. Let’s go, dog. Nothing for us here.”

“Hold on, hold on, serious question,” Newman said to the gnome. “You got an iPhone charger back there?”

“No. I got a Blackberry.”

The certain orchestral hum sung only by used tires and a worn fan belt continued as decrepit streetlights flickered past. Uncertainty can make five miles seem like an odyssey. Fortunately, our gnome-like oracle was correct, and through his guidance, we successfully discovered our nighttime sanctuary. The club’s iridescent lights gleamed over the parking lot like a mini Las Vegas, with a shameless luster reminiscent of the illegal grass stores in southeast San Diego.

“Now this. This place is great,” barked Newman.

“This place is a shithole,” I replied.

What at first seemed like music rolling into the streets from inside became a muffled dialogue as our tires crawled toward the main entrance and parked us across the lot, facing the building. We watched as a sturdy gentleman, with the physique of Mr. Potato Head and a mustache to match, dragged a brunette woman out through the front door, her toes barely touching the ground as she writhed in his arms. His shirt read “SECURITY.” Following these dance partners, the darkness of the interior spat out a blonde, haphazardly stumbling in our direction and fighting for her balance with a handbag in each fist, and a Mr. Clean-type, who, it seemed, had shoved her.

She was completely topless.

For a moment, she and I were alone in the universe, and neither windshield nor breath separated us as she stood wide-eyed as a doe in my Civic’s headlights. I felt as though empires could be raised and razed by her gaze, and, for a heartbeat, I knew I wanted my children to share her image. Then she scurried after the improbable dance partners. The two ladies and the Misters were in some sort of shouting match, their conversation becoming more audible as Newman and I approached.

“You two are outta ‘ere. Finished. Get da ‘ell out of ‘ere,” exclaimed Mr. Clean through an accent that was generically foreign.

“Fuck you,” Topless snapped back with the raspy voice of a child who had cried too much for one day.

“Touch me, you piece of shit? Didn’t do nothing you haven’t done, bitch,” the brunette screamed in the face of the security guard.

“Get outta ‘ere! Go! Don’t come back!”

“We’re the main draw at this shithole. Eat my ass!” The brunette was livid.

“You’ll miss us by twelve, you bald fuck,” Topless taunted. With a twirl, she and the brunette marched past us toward an alley at the far end of the parking lot.

Newman and I stood in complete silence watching the encounter crescendo. We slowly approached the entrance and looked at the security bros. We were in shock, staring at them blankly, unsure of what to say.

“Fuck’s wrong with you two?” Mr. Potato Head demanded.

Newman quickly shot back, “Got a phone charger, dog?”

We were promptly told to piss off. That was when we noted the two lovely evictees perched on a parking block next to our car. Topless was barely covering her chest with her hands as the brunette went through one of the bags, frantically looking for something. Newman motioned for us to approach and inquire as to their well-being. I took off my glasses to appear less frail as Newman removed his coat and extended it to Topless.

“How you ladies doing?” He was always better at introductions than me.

“Hey girls,” I said with limited confidence.

The women responded with a look of ferocity that eased as Newman’s friendly mannerisms worked their charm and they stood to greet us. Topless smiled at me with tired eyes as mine crept up and down her lanky frame. Even through near-sighted obscurity, her wrists and collar bones were gorgeous enough to make my palms ache. Neither Pygmalion nor God would dare change her. She reached for Newman’s coat. “We’re good baby,” she sighed, still forcing a smile while slinging the coat over her shoulders without care, as though she owned it.

Newman conversationally ensnared the brunette while placing a cigarette to her mouth and lighting it for her. She let out a seductive puff, like one of Bogart’s femme fatales; he wasn’t even hiding what he wanted from her. This left me standing across from Topless, shifting my weight at random intervals. Her beauty left me a socially inept voyeur, and I was caught either looking away or staring completely. She then extended her hand and we shook.

“What’s your name?” Her soft voice came with a confident undertone.

“They call me Windows.”

“Cause of those glasses?” she giggled.

I blushed. My glasses were visibly poking out of my shirt pocket.

“Y-yeah and my last name.”

“I’m—”

Newman, open flask in hand, brutishly cut her off, “Do any of you fine women have a phone charger, by chance? Kinda need it to get home.”

“Nah, I usually charge my phone before work,” said the brunette. The word ‘work’ passing between her lips brought with it a tension that she relieved with a sigh.

“What was all that about?” Newman appended to the end of a swig.

“Stupid shit, you know...men. No offense,” is all Topless cared to offer.

“None taken. Giving you shit over money?”

“Yeah,” the brunette cut in, whining, “Farhad takes our tips in exchange for snow on the cheap but gets pissed when we’re geeked at work, even though he’s always off it, and his wife stopped giving me a discount at the bar because I was ‘costing them,’ so I had a fit, and RJ never changes his security uniform, even though he sweats through it every shift because of his Adderall—”

Topless hip-bumped her friend, “Okaaaay, Remi. We don’t need to bore the boys with details.”

Newman flashed me a grin with raised eyebrows as if to say, Hooray! Fellow fiends!

“Look,” Topless continued as she lifted one of the purses from the ground. “Y’all needa iPhone charger, right?” She pinched one end of a wire between her thumb and middle finger, gradually raising it out of the bag until the free end then danced in the air. “We could help each other out?”

“Please, please don’t make me bang ya for it!” Newman jokingly croaked with comical desperation.

Topless giggled. Knees pressed together and swaying, hands deep in the coat pockets, she countered, “How about something more like you take us home so I don’t have to ride the forty-seven like this?” She pointed at Newman’s flask, “And let Remi get the drink that got us kicked out.”

“Ah,” Newman clicked his tongue, “I just drained the damn thing. We’re gonna have to pour up in the car on the way to your pad.”

Any line can be strung with bait and cast into water, but it is ultimately the fish that decide to be caught. This is how women drive natural selection. Not through predation, but rather through choosing. This selection drives trends from fashion to facial hair, from passtimes to political views. Any man would grow a beard and take up rock climbing to be granted a chance with his infatuation. Remi, as it happened, was one to favor suitors based on their taste in alcohol. She sat with her knees on the passenger seat facing backwards, pouting at Newman in an attempt to revise his liquor preferences.

“No. No, no, no,” her speech became more infantilized with each shake of her head.

“Aren’t you tryna get live? This juice is delicious! It tastes like...” booze sloshed as Newman brought the handle into his lap. He turned on the rear cabin light and put his face to label on the the back of the bottle, inspecting the text with a jeweler’s posture, “...apples… blueberries… and oak. Don’t you like blueberries? C’mon, who doesn’t like blueberries?”

“Turn that light off, man! That shit’ll get us pulled over. I ain’t tryna catch an open container because of your ass,” I challenged. Topless draped her hand over my headrest, her fingers playing with my hair and fueling my insolence.

“Yes, Coach!” Newman joked as he pressed his knuckles back into the dome light, returning us to darkness. Newman, embalmed with spirits, and Remi, a mysterious cocktail of chemicals surely flowing through her, seemingly left their inebriants behind as they bartered like Wall Street traders over the terms surrounding how Remi would consume Newman’s E&J. Neither saw liquor as a joking matter. His first offer was that it be consumed neat so that its natural flavors, along with the delicious metallic aftertaste of his flask, could be savored. She proposed a stop at a liquor store so that he could fill his flask with her drink of choice — Malibu — which she would happily consume. This was a nonstarter for Newman, his reason being that the sugar and acid present in the drink would ruin his precious vessel. Additionally, he proceeded to inform her through a medley of curses that he found her abhorrent for associating so closely with rum. Finally, it was decided that he would pour his brandy into some sort of mixer and let her drink that.

“It’s gonna go best with some green tea,” Newman unloaded from his plethora of brandy knowledge.

“There’s a 7-Eleven on the way back to our place that we can swing through,” Topless readily informed me as we continued down an empty frontage road.

Through a silent agreement, Topless and Remi — now successful in collapsing Newman’s alcoholic hubris — decided to change seats, leading to an impromptu in-car fire drill. A sequined pump kicked my forearm, and I swerved.

“Whoa! Watch the drink, girls,” Newman barked.

“Just getting in the right seats,” Topless laughed as she plopped down into the passenger seat and caressed my arm. Remi let out a cackle as she snuggled up to Newman, who was about as plastered as a construction site.

“Chickies sure know how to party, eh Windows?” he slurred.

“Yes we do, baby,” Topless interjected.

She continued to stare at my side and, though I knew my focus should be on the road, I followed the streets mindlessly, enraptured by the idea that her consciousness was taking even a moment to register me. I felt my heart pounding as Newman decided to pass the menthols and lighter. Remembering my manners, I promptly offered Topless the cigarette that I had lit for myself.

“Yeah, I’ll pass for now,” she scoffed. “I used to smoke a ton, now I mostly just do other things...” The ambiguity around her grew, and my intrigue along with it.

“Like what?”

“Fent!”  Remi shouted before unleashing another hearty cackle.

“Shut up, Remi!”

Remi let out a belch of laughter. I couldn’t quite tell if they were serious.

“Ah, fellow adventurers,” Newman muttered with a sarcastic drawl. “Got any on ya?”

Topless interjected without paying him any attention, “I was gonna say stealing.”

Two feminine squeals of laughter assaulted my ears. Through the rearview mirror I attempted to exchange a worried look with Newman, but he was happily sedated with Remi in his arms. I continued to wonder: just who were these women?

Following Topless’ directions, we continued our exodus toward the sinfully boring city of Garden Grove. Through the silence, the fiends decided to reminisce, providing us with tales of mischief: pickpocketing, shoplifting, drug muling, carjacking, stabbing. These women had done everything except pay their debt to society. Topless continued to look at me, but the excitement that once came with feeling her eyes upon me slowly turned to fear. An ominous tension built in the car, drowning out the chatter. Her gaze became that of a leopardess sizing up a meal.

Realizing I had lost myself in worry, I tuned back into the conversation to find Topless complaining. “I wanna get home and get drunk. That alc you have is shit!”

“Are you joking!?” Newman cried before asking, “What do you have at your place?”

Topless spoke up, “Ooh, I’m a tequila girl, so, some Cuervo.”

“I’m not impartial to a good silver myself. A little salt and a lime? Fuckin’ A,” I chimed in.

“I’m a slut for silver,” Topless seductively replied.

I blew through a stop sign, watching her tongue dance against her teeth.

“Me, too, especially with an orange juice chaser,” Remi added.

I had been eager to show these girls a good time, but when the charger finally did its work and the phone screen illuminated the cabin, it reminded me that I was still lost, and now in close quarters with two women who were not above flaunting their willingness to commit violent crimes. As if sensing my dread, Topless turned to face the road, but replaced her eyes on my face with her hand on my thigh. Thus pacified, I eased back into my seat and found myself on a grocery run with three friends — or perhaps even a double date.

As we pulled up to the 7-Eleven just south of SR-22, a herd of cop cars draped the houses across the street in vibrating hues of red and blue. An acrid stench of urine snuck into the car. Teenagers sat on the corner in handcuffs, their bikes flipped upside down, the cops standing above them. We carefully pulled into a parking space in front of the store. Topless scruffed my hair as she leaned into me and whispered, “Thank you.” Her moist breath sent goosebumps over the side of my face. The girls collected their purses, and Remi checked her bag one last time before climbing over Newman to exit the car from his side, deliberately provoking him.

Topless looked back at Newman and asked, “Mind if I wear your jacket?”

“Please. And take your time.” He turned to Remi, who was barely out of the car, and bit her ass.

She giggled as she made her way to the store’s entrance and waited for her friend. Topless looked at me and, with a wink, leaned in as if to kiss me on the cheek. But she stopped just before our faces touched, abruptly disconnecting her phone charger and putting it in a coat pocket. I could hear her snickering as she shut the car door and met her friend at the store doorway to enter in tandem.

“Smarter than she looks, I guess,” Newman thought out loud.

“I’d say so.”

He reached over the middle console and clicked on my stereo. Don Julian and the Larks came over the speakers, and the sweet melody of “I Want You Back” filled my car. I peered through my windshield, the window of the 7-Eleven, and the glass door of the cold beverage section, and noted that, against Newman’s recommendation, Remi had decided on an Arizona Mucho Mango tea. He would not be pleased.

Then, as my gaze shifted to Topless, things began to move in slow motion. The bright lights of the interior removed the veil of mystery in which, until now, the evening had shrouded her. Her true complexion and form became clear: she was a goddess pacing the aisles, looking for nothing in particular. I didn’t care if she used me, and I was glad that it was me wearing the rose-colored lenses and Newman wearing the beer goggles. She remained a goddess as she waited to check out, finally approaching the clerk after everyone had exited the store. Remi sloppily rolled her can of Arizona across the counter, reminding me how grateful I was that she had chosen to buddy up to Newman. But Topless was a goddess, tapping the counter inlay to signal which lottery scratcher she wanted. I watched an arch form in her back as she leaned with her elbows into the countertop while the employee disappeared below to grab her selection.

That’s when Remi reached into her handbag and pulled out the largest handgun I’d ever seen. But Topless was a goddess, flashing me her teeth with the same look of the leopardess from earlier.

“Jesus, fuck,” Newman uttered to himself.

I was too incapacitated by romance to register any worry as I watched my newfound deity go behind the counter and violently shake down a twenty-something Filipino who worked for fourteen dollars per hour. The store lights flickered, and through the glare of my windshield, a golden aura formed about her. For the first time, I was looking at a woman and did not feel either cynical or satirical, only elated. Her slender digits eased cash from the register, which seemed to thank her for her time. I lost myself in a daydream, imagining my life with this wandering muse of ill-repute. We would be the new Bonnie and Clyde, the screenwriter and the stripper, a love story to grace the silver screen like the classics of a bygone era.

I was suddenly shaken from my trance by Newman, who had slammed the passenger door after moving up to the front seat.

“We should get the fuck out of here,” his words were frantic.

“Yeah.”

To be a romantic is to be fickle. As our dates came running out of the store, I had already reversed through the parking lot and was accelerating toward the highway. I watched in the rearview mirror as lips moved to berate us and middle fingers were thrust toward us. Police officers peeled away from the group that had been detaining the teens in order to chase after the girls; as we rounded the far corner of the block, I realized that the leopardess was now the prey.

My infatuation was gone, but her brief presence was powerful enough to reshape what it is that I enjoy about women. Though her touch and glance were now revealed as obvious tools, used to facilitate a necessary element of her plan, they still came from her hands and her eyes. The flirtatious gestures acted out by her perfection were enough to slay the semi-ironic misanthrope in me and cause him to be reborn as an aesthete. Every woman I saw from now on would contain a piece of her beauty, but none would ever contain the whole thing. My life would be driven by comparison.

Newman and I did not speak for the next hour on the road, instead letting Spotify fill the empty silence until my phone died again and the local radio stations took over. It was around midnight that we reached Oceanside and found ourselves once again at a dead stop in traffic.

The stillness of my Civic prompted Newman to speak up as he sank his window into the doorframe: “Fuckin’ nuts, man.”

My window followed his. “It wasn’t so bad. They didn’t try to rob us.”

“Not that we know of. But yeah, I guess. I still got probation though, bruh. I can’t be caught up in any of that shit.”

“Yeah, I’m not tryna start catching cases.”

We were silent again. Newman took an opportunity to pour the remainder of the glass handle into his flask.

“What are these next few draws for?” I asked.

“In loving memory of the coat that I loaned that bitch.”

I couldn’t help but laugh. “Regular knight in shining armor, Newman.”

“Shame, I always saw myself as more of a ‘Bukowski’ type.”

“You mean a cynical alcoholic and a smoker?”

“Don’t forget ‘poet,’” he chuckled.

He reached into his back pocket for the menthols. I let the nighttime ocean breeze rush through my nostrils as I inhaled a freshly lit indulgence.

“Hope that producer douchebag calls us back,” Newman stared out his window toward where the blackness of the sky and the Pacific became one.

“Yeah, me too…”

I took off my glasses and slumped back in my seat as traffic continued to pile up behind us.

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Her beauty left me a socially inept voyeur, and I was caught either looking away or staring completely.
Her beauty left me a socially inept voyeur, and I was caught either looking away or staring completely.

Author’s note: This story is non-fiction, but certain elements are romanticized. Think Hunter S. Thompson.

The sun cut flat over the city, and as it departed, it took with it the last of my time in the Angeleno cesspool. Southbound I-405 was reduced to an obsidian abyss inhabited only by parallel streams of red and white lights. We were headed home to San Diego after trying to pitch a script to a Hollywood type. With still over four hours to go, due to the arterial clog brought on by fellow motorists, my good friend and business confidant Newman sat passenger in my old, beat-up Civic. He poured brandy into his tank of a flask as a wandering ash from his menthol kissed his coat collar.

“This is wholly awful,” he said rather plainly.

“I agree. Traffic is shit today.”

“No, not the traffic, I’m talking about LA: the energy, the breed of people. You can feel the roads and sidewalks molesting your tires and shoes, and I can’t believe not a single liquor store in West Hollywood had any dark liquor. Fuckin’ crime,” he maintained. Me, I never cared much for Los Angeles or dark liquor; they both left an awful taste in my mouth. They felt more like an illness, creeping into my body and beating me down if I took in more than I could handle.

Newman finished pouring brandy into his flask and tossed the glass handle into the back seat before handing me a cigarette. I let the Zippo hiss as the traffic in my lane lumbered to a halt.

“We could’ve been doing one-ten on the 73 by now,” Newman griped.

“I cannot morally pay tolls to Orange County.”

He chuckled a bit as he lazily tossed his glowing butt into the ashtray. “Fair enough,” he smirked.

“It’s strip mall hell, man. What’s even there, huh?” I demanded.

“Not sure,” he muttered without thought, before biting back into the conversation with “Well actually…depends on what you’re looking for.”

“Nothing that ain’t in Daygo.”

“Well, there might be an overwhelming presence of certain qualities.” He was coy.

“Qualities? The hell you talkin’ about?”

“You know…necessary facets of the modern metropolis might be in excess.”

“Such as?”

Newman beamed with the excitement and pride of a schoolteacher about to open a child’s innocent eyes to some hidden aspect of our fascinating world. He then educated me on the demographics of the business population in the region, specifically with regard to how a statistically fascinating majority of strip malls in the area contained gentlemen’s retreats, where scoundrels and yuppie scum alike could partake in a form of tensile release and relaxation.

I pushed up my glasses and cut a few lanes left, trying to bypass traffic, but was met with more gridlock and boredom. The ember of my cigarette crept towards my fingers as I stared at the sea of traffic. To the right of my Civic, a slew of motorcyclists passed, their loud engines revving, each stroke of a piston driving metal into metal — and me deeper into a fog of ire.

“Huh, must be from Long Beach,” Newman noted.

“Fuck this, we haven’t moved in over twenty minutes. I’m taking the next exit. Still got that deposit from the hotel?” I asked.

“All three hundred. Why?”

“What was that you were saying about ‘certain necessary facets’?”

We cruised down one of Irvine’s many forgettable commercial roads. My phone was dead, and although Newman was perturbed, he found comedy in the peril that came from my forgetting our one lifeline to the entirety of human knowledge, back in the hotel suite: my phone charger. “How the fuck are we even gonna listen to music now?” he scolded. “Or navigate? I’m on five percent. Come on, Windows.”

“Do you at least have the directions?” I asked.

“Says a few miles down the road.”

“Maybe you can ask one of the girls for a cable after you pay twenty dollars to not touch her.”

Newman coughed out a laugh as he tried to contain his drink, but the revelry was cut short as the phone light illuminating the cabin suddenly vanished. Newman sighed as he holstered his phone, a sarcastic smile parting his face.

“Relax,” I eased, “it’s only a few miles, like you said.”

“Shit, I don’t know, man. I’m kinda sautéed, and I’m not driving. Me saying a few miles ain’t shit to me, man.”

“So how many is a few?”

“Like ten. Maybe twelve.”

I let out a sigh of disappointment, realizing the traffic would’ve been easier to endure than the feeling of desperation that comes with being helplessly out from under from the digital cloud. After what seemed like an eternity of either listening to the drivel of NPR or flipping through a binary reality of low-fidelity mariachi music and static, we finally arrived at our destination: a dilapidated pink building with endlessly chipping stucco and a look that screamed “put me out of my midlife crisis.” The parking lot was the size of a one-bedroom apartment, and was filled with more potholes than Baghdad after the invasion. I turned sharply into a tight space and lightly brushed the side of the building with my front bumper. Newman shot me a glance.

“You couldn’t have done it better,” I snapped.

Newman lifted his flask and shook it in my face: “Not right now.”

Glancing too long at the building’s rooftop neon sign was enough to leave retinal scorch residue. My gaze fell slowly to the dark horizon, still marred by a haze with the shape of the signage text: “The Pink Kitty Boutique.” A smiling cat face crudely painted next to the sign looked down on us like an Orwellian figurehead. I stared into the cat’s lifeless, cartoon pupils, daring them to come to life as Newman and I finished our cigarettes in silence. It was at this point that I shifted my standards with regard to alcohol and let the warmth lease out a portion of my stomach for the evening.

What was supposed to be a grand entrance into a Garden of Eden suddenly became a Great Flood of sobering reality. In place of fine females were phallic figurines. No alcoholic arsenal, instead a collection of out-of-date media and Stone-Age pleasures. A recycled Spotify jazz playlist chuckled at us from a poorly maintained speaker in the corner of the room, mocking us for not reading the online description of the business. The garden gnome of a man who ran the operation from his fortress behind the counter looked up at us, the sole patrons, before aloofly returning to his vape and video poker.

“What you fellas looking for?” the gnome asked.

Newman approached the counter with what appeared to be confused expectancy but was more likely a consequence of his inebriation. He straightened his coat and puffed out his chest a bit. “Excuse me, my man, but where are the chicks?”

Without looking up from his computer game, the counter gnome pointed towards the left wall.

“Over there. I got DVDs, mags, and even a few VHS.”

Who the fuck still uses a VCR? I thought.

Newman looked at the counter gnome in disbelief as he began to pose another question.

“Nah, nah, like the live things, you know? The ones you see at parties sometimes? We’re tryna get poppin’.”

The gnome’s index finger shifted down as he pointed to an impulse-buy rack at knee height in front of the counter.

“Amyl nitrate’s right here.”

Good Christ, I mused. How much longer could this go on?

I decided to alleviate my secondhand embarrassment by being as direct as I could: “Sir, where’s the nearest titty bar?”

“Ecstasy Theatre. Five miles. Go back down Main, left on Warner.”

“Thank you. Let’s go, dog. Nothing for us here.”

“Hold on, hold on, serious question,” Newman said to the gnome. “You got an iPhone charger back there?”

“No. I got a Blackberry.”

The certain orchestral hum sung only by used tires and a worn fan belt continued as decrepit streetlights flickered past. Uncertainty can make five miles seem like an odyssey. Fortunately, our gnome-like oracle was correct, and through his guidance, we successfully discovered our nighttime sanctuary. The club’s iridescent lights gleamed over the parking lot like a mini Las Vegas, with a shameless luster reminiscent of the illegal grass stores in southeast San Diego.

“Now this. This place is great,” barked Newman.

“This place is a shithole,” I replied.

What at first seemed like music rolling into the streets from inside became a muffled dialogue as our tires crawled toward the main entrance and parked us across the lot, facing the building. We watched as a sturdy gentleman, with the physique of Mr. Potato Head and a mustache to match, dragged a brunette woman out through the front door, her toes barely touching the ground as she writhed in his arms. His shirt read “SECURITY.” Following these dance partners, the darkness of the interior spat out a blonde, haphazardly stumbling in our direction and fighting for her balance with a handbag in each fist, and a Mr. Clean-type, who, it seemed, had shoved her.

She was completely topless.

For a moment, she and I were alone in the universe, and neither windshield nor breath separated us as she stood wide-eyed as a doe in my Civic’s headlights. I felt as though empires could be raised and razed by her gaze, and, for a heartbeat, I knew I wanted my children to share her image. Then she scurried after the improbable dance partners. The two ladies and the Misters were in some sort of shouting match, their conversation becoming more audible as Newman and I approached.

“You two are outta ‘ere. Finished. Get da ‘ell out of ‘ere,” exclaimed Mr. Clean through an accent that was generically foreign.

“Fuck you,” Topless snapped back with the raspy voice of a child who had cried too much for one day.

“Touch me, you piece of shit? Didn’t do nothing you haven’t done, bitch,” the brunette screamed in the face of the security guard.

“Get outta ‘ere! Go! Don’t come back!”

“We’re the main draw at this shithole. Eat my ass!” The brunette was livid.

“You’ll miss us by twelve, you bald fuck,” Topless taunted. With a twirl, she and the brunette marched past us toward an alley at the far end of the parking lot.

Newman and I stood in complete silence watching the encounter crescendo. We slowly approached the entrance and looked at the security bros. We were in shock, staring at them blankly, unsure of what to say.

“Fuck’s wrong with you two?” Mr. Potato Head demanded.

Newman quickly shot back, “Got a phone charger, dog?”

We were promptly told to piss off. That was when we noted the two lovely evictees perched on a parking block next to our car. Topless was barely covering her chest with her hands as the brunette went through one of the bags, frantically looking for something. Newman motioned for us to approach and inquire as to their well-being. I took off my glasses to appear less frail as Newman removed his coat and extended it to Topless.

“How you ladies doing?” He was always better at introductions than me.

“Hey girls,” I said with limited confidence.

The women responded with a look of ferocity that eased as Newman’s friendly mannerisms worked their charm and they stood to greet us. Topless smiled at me with tired eyes as mine crept up and down her lanky frame. Even through near-sighted obscurity, her wrists and collar bones were gorgeous enough to make my palms ache. Neither Pygmalion nor God would dare change her. She reached for Newman’s coat. “We’re good baby,” she sighed, still forcing a smile while slinging the coat over her shoulders without care, as though she owned it.

Newman conversationally ensnared the brunette while placing a cigarette to her mouth and lighting it for her. She let out a seductive puff, like one of Bogart’s femme fatales; he wasn’t even hiding what he wanted from her. This left me standing across from Topless, shifting my weight at random intervals. Her beauty left me a socially inept voyeur, and I was caught either looking away or staring completely. She then extended her hand and we shook.

“What’s your name?” Her soft voice came with a confident undertone.

“They call me Windows.”

“Cause of those glasses?” she giggled.

I blushed. My glasses were visibly poking out of my shirt pocket.

“Y-yeah and my last name.”

“I’m—”

Newman, open flask in hand, brutishly cut her off, “Do any of you fine women have a phone charger, by chance? Kinda need it to get home.”

“Nah, I usually charge my phone before work,” said the brunette. The word ‘work’ passing between her lips brought with it a tension that she relieved with a sigh.

“What was all that about?” Newman appended to the end of a swig.

“Stupid shit, you know...men. No offense,” is all Topless cared to offer.

“None taken. Giving you shit over money?”

“Yeah,” the brunette cut in, whining, “Farhad takes our tips in exchange for snow on the cheap but gets pissed when we’re geeked at work, even though he’s always off it, and his wife stopped giving me a discount at the bar because I was ‘costing them,’ so I had a fit, and RJ never changes his security uniform, even though he sweats through it every shift because of his Adderall—”

Topless hip-bumped her friend, “Okaaaay, Remi. We don’t need to bore the boys with details.”

Newman flashed me a grin with raised eyebrows as if to say, Hooray! Fellow fiends!

“Look,” Topless continued as she lifted one of the purses from the ground. “Y’all needa iPhone charger, right?” She pinched one end of a wire between her thumb and middle finger, gradually raising it out of the bag until the free end then danced in the air. “We could help each other out?”

“Please, please don’t make me bang ya for it!” Newman jokingly croaked with comical desperation.

Topless giggled. Knees pressed together and swaying, hands deep in the coat pockets, she countered, “How about something more like you take us home so I don’t have to ride the forty-seven like this?” She pointed at Newman’s flask, “And let Remi get the drink that got us kicked out.”

“Ah,” Newman clicked his tongue, “I just drained the damn thing. We’re gonna have to pour up in the car on the way to your pad.”

Any line can be strung with bait and cast into water, but it is ultimately the fish that decide to be caught. This is how women drive natural selection. Not through predation, but rather through choosing. This selection drives trends from fashion to facial hair, from passtimes to political views. Any man would grow a beard and take up rock climbing to be granted a chance with his infatuation. Remi, as it happened, was one to favor suitors based on their taste in alcohol. She sat with her knees on the passenger seat facing backwards, pouting at Newman in an attempt to revise his liquor preferences.

“No. No, no, no,” her speech became more infantilized with each shake of her head.

“Aren’t you tryna get live? This juice is delicious! It tastes like...” booze sloshed as Newman brought the handle into his lap. He turned on the rear cabin light and put his face to label on the the back of the bottle, inspecting the text with a jeweler’s posture, “...apples… blueberries… and oak. Don’t you like blueberries? C’mon, who doesn’t like blueberries?”

“Turn that light off, man! That shit’ll get us pulled over. I ain’t tryna catch an open container because of your ass,” I challenged. Topless draped her hand over my headrest, her fingers playing with my hair and fueling my insolence.

“Yes, Coach!” Newman joked as he pressed his knuckles back into the dome light, returning us to darkness. Newman, embalmed with spirits, and Remi, a mysterious cocktail of chemicals surely flowing through her, seemingly left their inebriants behind as they bartered like Wall Street traders over the terms surrounding how Remi would consume Newman’s E&J. Neither saw liquor as a joking matter. His first offer was that it be consumed neat so that its natural flavors, along with the delicious metallic aftertaste of his flask, could be savored. She proposed a stop at a liquor store so that he could fill his flask with her drink of choice — Malibu — which she would happily consume. This was a nonstarter for Newman, his reason being that the sugar and acid present in the drink would ruin his precious vessel. Additionally, he proceeded to inform her through a medley of curses that he found her abhorrent for associating so closely with rum. Finally, it was decided that he would pour his brandy into some sort of mixer and let her drink that.

“It’s gonna go best with some green tea,” Newman unloaded from his plethora of brandy knowledge.

“There’s a 7-Eleven on the way back to our place that we can swing through,” Topless readily informed me as we continued down an empty frontage road.

Through a silent agreement, Topless and Remi — now successful in collapsing Newman’s alcoholic hubris — decided to change seats, leading to an impromptu in-car fire drill. A sequined pump kicked my forearm, and I swerved.

“Whoa! Watch the drink, girls,” Newman barked.

“Just getting in the right seats,” Topless laughed as she plopped down into the passenger seat and caressed my arm. Remi let out a cackle as she snuggled up to Newman, who was about as plastered as a construction site.

“Chickies sure know how to party, eh Windows?” he slurred.

“Yes we do, baby,” Topless interjected.

She continued to stare at my side and, though I knew my focus should be on the road, I followed the streets mindlessly, enraptured by the idea that her consciousness was taking even a moment to register me. I felt my heart pounding as Newman decided to pass the menthols and lighter. Remembering my manners, I promptly offered Topless the cigarette that I had lit for myself.

“Yeah, I’ll pass for now,” she scoffed. “I used to smoke a ton, now I mostly just do other things...” The ambiguity around her grew, and my intrigue along with it.

“Like what?”

“Fent!”  Remi shouted before unleashing another hearty cackle.

“Shut up, Remi!”

Remi let out a belch of laughter. I couldn’t quite tell if they were serious.

“Ah, fellow adventurers,” Newman muttered with a sarcastic drawl. “Got any on ya?”

Topless interjected without paying him any attention, “I was gonna say stealing.”

Two feminine squeals of laughter assaulted my ears. Through the rearview mirror I attempted to exchange a worried look with Newman, but he was happily sedated with Remi in his arms. I continued to wonder: just who were these women?

Following Topless’ directions, we continued our exodus toward the sinfully boring city of Garden Grove. Through the silence, the fiends decided to reminisce, providing us with tales of mischief: pickpocketing, shoplifting, drug muling, carjacking, stabbing. These women had done everything except pay their debt to society. Topless continued to look at me, but the excitement that once came with feeling her eyes upon me slowly turned to fear. An ominous tension built in the car, drowning out the chatter. Her gaze became that of a leopardess sizing up a meal.

Realizing I had lost myself in worry, I tuned back into the conversation to find Topless complaining. “I wanna get home and get drunk. That alc you have is shit!”

“Are you joking!?” Newman cried before asking, “What do you have at your place?”

Topless spoke up, “Ooh, I’m a tequila girl, so, some Cuervo.”

“I’m not impartial to a good silver myself. A little salt and a lime? Fuckin’ A,” I chimed in.

“I’m a slut for silver,” Topless seductively replied.

I blew through a stop sign, watching her tongue dance against her teeth.

“Me, too, especially with an orange juice chaser,” Remi added.

I had been eager to show these girls a good time, but when the charger finally did its work and the phone screen illuminated the cabin, it reminded me that I was still lost, and now in close quarters with two women who were not above flaunting their willingness to commit violent crimes. As if sensing my dread, Topless turned to face the road, but replaced her eyes on my face with her hand on my thigh. Thus pacified, I eased back into my seat and found myself on a grocery run with three friends — or perhaps even a double date.

As we pulled up to the 7-Eleven just south of SR-22, a herd of cop cars draped the houses across the street in vibrating hues of red and blue. An acrid stench of urine snuck into the car. Teenagers sat on the corner in handcuffs, their bikes flipped upside down, the cops standing above them. We carefully pulled into a parking space in front of the store. Topless scruffed my hair as she leaned into me and whispered, “Thank you.” Her moist breath sent goosebumps over the side of my face. The girls collected their purses, and Remi checked her bag one last time before climbing over Newman to exit the car from his side, deliberately provoking him.

Topless looked back at Newman and asked, “Mind if I wear your jacket?”

“Please. And take your time.” He turned to Remi, who was barely out of the car, and bit her ass.

She giggled as she made her way to the store’s entrance and waited for her friend. Topless looked at me and, with a wink, leaned in as if to kiss me on the cheek. But she stopped just before our faces touched, abruptly disconnecting her phone charger and putting it in a coat pocket. I could hear her snickering as she shut the car door and met her friend at the store doorway to enter in tandem.

“Smarter than she looks, I guess,” Newman thought out loud.

“I’d say so.”

He reached over the middle console and clicked on my stereo. Don Julian and the Larks came over the speakers, and the sweet melody of “I Want You Back” filled my car. I peered through my windshield, the window of the 7-Eleven, and the glass door of the cold beverage section, and noted that, against Newman’s recommendation, Remi had decided on an Arizona Mucho Mango tea. He would not be pleased.

Then, as my gaze shifted to Topless, things began to move in slow motion. The bright lights of the interior removed the veil of mystery in which, until now, the evening had shrouded her. Her true complexion and form became clear: she was a goddess pacing the aisles, looking for nothing in particular. I didn’t care if she used me, and I was glad that it was me wearing the rose-colored lenses and Newman wearing the beer goggles. She remained a goddess as she waited to check out, finally approaching the clerk after everyone had exited the store. Remi sloppily rolled her can of Arizona across the counter, reminding me how grateful I was that she had chosen to buddy up to Newman. But Topless was a goddess, tapping the counter inlay to signal which lottery scratcher she wanted. I watched an arch form in her back as she leaned with her elbows into the countertop while the employee disappeared below to grab her selection.

That’s when Remi reached into her handbag and pulled out the largest handgun I’d ever seen. But Topless was a goddess, flashing me her teeth with the same look of the leopardess from earlier.

“Jesus, fuck,” Newman uttered to himself.

I was too incapacitated by romance to register any worry as I watched my newfound deity go behind the counter and violently shake down a twenty-something Filipino who worked for fourteen dollars per hour. The store lights flickered, and through the glare of my windshield, a golden aura formed about her. For the first time, I was looking at a woman and did not feel either cynical or satirical, only elated. Her slender digits eased cash from the register, which seemed to thank her for her time. I lost myself in a daydream, imagining my life with this wandering muse of ill-repute. We would be the new Bonnie and Clyde, the screenwriter and the stripper, a love story to grace the silver screen like the classics of a bygone era.

I was suddenly shaken from my trance by Newman, who had slammed the passenger door after moving up to the front seat.

“We should get the fuck out of here,” his words were frantic.

“Yeah.”

To be a romantic is to be fickle. As our dates came running out of the store, I had already reversed through the parking lot and was accelerating toward the highway. I watched in the rearview mirror as lips moved to berate us and middle fingers were thrust toward us. Police officers peeled away from the group that had been detaining the teens in order to chase after the girls; as we rounded the far corner of the block, I realized that the leopardess was now the prey.

My infatuation was gone, but her brief presence was powerful enough to reshape what it is that I enjoy about women. Though her touch and glance were now revealed as obvious tools, used to facilitate a necessary element of her plan, they still came from her hands and her eyes. The flirtatious gestures acted out by her perfection were enough to slay the semi-ironic misanthrope in me and cause him to be reborn as an aesthete. Every woman I saw from now on would contain a piece of her beauty, but none would ever contain the whole thing. My life would be driven by comparison.

Newman and I did not speak for the next hour on the road, instead letting Spotify fill the empty silence until my phone died again and the local radio stations took over. It was around midnight that we reached Oceanside and found ourselves once again at a dead stop in traffic.

The stillness of my Civic prompted Newman to speak up as he sank his window into the doorframe: “Fuckin’ nuts, man.”

My window followed his. “It wasn’t so bad. They didn’t try to rob us.”

“Not that we know of. But yeah, I guess. I still got probation though, bruh. I can’t be caught up in any of that shit.”

“Yeah, I’m not tryna start catching cases.”

We were silent again. Newman took an opportunity to pour the remainder of the glass handle into his flask.

“What are these next few draws for?” I asked.

“In loving memory of the coat that I loaned that bitch.”

I couldn’t help but laugh. “Regular knight in shining armor, Newman.”

“Shame, I always saw myself as more of a ‘Bukowski’ type.”

“You mean a cynical alcoholic and a smoker?”

“Don’t forget ‘poet,’” he chuckled.

He reached into his back pocket for the menthols. I let the nighttime ocean breeze rush through my nostrils as I inhaled a freshly lit indulgence.

“Hope that producer douchebag calls us back,” Newman stared out his window toward where the blackness of the sky and the Pacific became one.

“Yeah, me too…”

I took off my glasses and slumped back in my seat as traffic continued to pile up behind us.

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