Amber is unsure where to go from the juncture. There are so many archways funnelling off to so many different places. It is folly to assume that she will stumble upon Quinn by accident. Marcus said they were going to have a game of pool, but where are there pool tables here? Why are there pool tables? Like so many others, she struggles to reconcile the pastiche of options.
She takes out her phone and sends a text to Quinn, asking where he is. People pass her. Guys look at her appreciatively. Several flirt with her. She retreats to the lobby, where at least it’s quiet enough that she can ring Quinn. But the call goes through unanswered. The automated message tells her that his phone is somewhere out of range or that it’s been turned off. She cannot fathom a reason Quinn would turn the phone off. Perhaps it’s just the reception.
She wanders from the lobby, back into the juncture and ducks her head into the restaurant, then each Lounge, then re-enters the juncture and takes another course, thinking it must lead her through to the gaming rooms. Instead, she re-emerges into the Gallery, but from the other side.
The crowd is tightly knit, the way people huddle around accidents. Amber knows she should continue her search, but curiosity gets the best of her. She tries to push through, and when she can’t, tries to detour and, when that fails, retreats, ending up at the South Bar. But here she can see the object of the crowd’s attention.
She’s dancing with a man, her crotch thrusting upon his, the satchel slung around her shoulders bouncing on her right buttock. The crowd cheers. Her dance challenges and invigorates and shocks them all at once as she gyrates to her knees as if she were going to fellate her partner. She undulates back to her full height. The man runs his hands down her side and onto her butt. Joy swings her arms outward, sending the man’s arms windmilling, then pivots, grinding her buttocks into the man’s crotch.
Amber knows they are dressed, and that dancing like this is simply dancing, but she feels she is caught in something perversive. Just as Holly’s story shook her, she is surprised anybody could exhibit such abandon. She still struggles to make love to Quinn with the lights on.
‘Are you all right?’ a gentle-faced older man asks her – Rupe. The concern in his eyes is genuine. It grounds Amber. He sips from his martini.
‘Just trying to find somebody,’ she says.
‘I’m sorry I cannot help,’ he says. ‘My attention has been riveted.’
‘I’m not surprised.’
‘She is the love of my heart.’
‘She looks like she’s the lust of everybody else’s.’
‘Why don’t you cut in?’
‘It’s part of the game.’
‘We stalk one other, neither knowing who’ll lunge first.’
‘Why do men always play games?’
‘We all play games,’ Rupe says. ‘Even as she dances, don’t you think she’s aware I’m talking to you, considering whether to intervene or not?’
Joy’s back is pressed to her partner, one arm tossed over her head, her hand running through his hair. The man’s arms are folded around her, his hands crossed over her belly. Their hips sway in tandem.
‘I don’t think she’s aware you exist,’ Amber says.
‘Ah, it would seem,’ Rupe says. ‘But it’s all part of the game.’
Now Amber grows frustrated. ‘Good luck with that.’
She hurries back into the juncture, this time making sure she’s choosing funnels she hadn’t before. The gaming rooms are like each link in a spider’s web. As just about everybody does, she’s sure she’s wandered from the club into a completely different establishment. But while others let the marvel take them away, or proceed curiously, she grows agitated. It reminds her of snorkelling with Quinn, and once diving so deep she was worried she wouldn’t have enough air to get back to the top.
In some rooms, people play interactive arcade games, shooting at targets on screen, or dance frenetically to a rhythm; in others, air hockey, and other table-based sports; then it’s games Amber’s never encountered before, but which must be cutting edge technology, as the players wear virtual reality helmets and wave glowing wands; and then it’s simply plain old pool.
At first, Amber doesn’t notice anything odd about the latter. It’s two people at a table – a man and a woman – and a crowd watching them. She marches on. But the atmosphere is wrong. In each room, the celebrations are too shrill and intense. Why would anybody be this fascinated in pool?
She stops in one of the rooms. The crowd is all women. Some look older than those in the Gallery – in their thirties, if not forties. Amber sees the faces of housewives and mothers. They are tired but made up to look their best, some of the hair-styles products of bygone generations. Their faces are bright, their manner – the way they tilt their heads back and laugh, or lean into a friend to joke exuberantly – unburdened.
Amber sees her own future. This is what it’ll be like in twenty – or even ten – years for herself. She and Quinn will be married. They’ll have children. Every now and again, she’ll have a night out with the girls. Away from home, from responsibilities, she’ll be able to relax – however briefly – and long for a time that was unencumbered, although only now does she realise such a time does not exist. Fear and worry have always restricted her.
The woman playing pool pots the black ball. She throws her arms up triumphantly. Her opponent is Noah. He approaches her tentatively. The woman peels off his vest. The other women cheer. Amber watches, but feels she shouldn’t.
She darts from the room and into the next. Patricia balances her foot on the bank of the table. None other than Dante peels her fishnet stocking down. The other leg is already bare. Guys cheer. Amber sees Marcus loitering in the corner and confronts him.
‘What the hell are you doing?’ she asks.
‘Having fun,’ Marcus says.
‘What if Holly saw this?’ Amber says.
It feels wrong, like cheating. Worse, Marcus is doing it oblivious to Holly’s feelings. Then Holly’s confession rings in Amber’s mind. Who knows the people Marcus and Holly are behind closed doors? They are still new friends. Holly is sweet, but Marcus has an edge that threatens to cut at any time. Amber has talked to Quinn about whether they’ll remain friends after the holiday – with Holly, it’s a yes; with Marcus, she’s not so sure.
‘You hope!’ Amber says. ‘And what if Flavia saw Dante stripping this bimbo?’
‘It’s a show!’ Marcus says. ‘Lighten up!’
Marcus shrugs. ‘We split before we even got in here.’
‘What the hell has been going on with him?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘He’s been … I don’t know. Jittery, I guess.’
Marcus holds up his hands, as if to say he can’t help her.
Amber strides from the room, and bumps into one of the buff waiters, his only attire – a set of leather briefs – barely containing him. His body is hard and muscular, and has been sprayed with oil to glisten. Amber doesn’t know where to look. She’s sure now she’s now not only in a new establishment, but also a new world.
‘Whoa!’ he says. ‘You okay?’
‘Yeah. Sorry. Thanks.’
The waiter holds up a book of raffle tickets. ‘Five dollars a ticket or five tickets for twenty dollars.’
‘Sure,’ Amber says, pulling a twenty from her pocket.
She does it because back home she is always buying raffle tickets, albeit for good causes – to raise money for research into an illness or something like that. Her actions come unthinkingly. It’s only after the waiter’s taken her money that she realises a cause is unlikely to be the case here.
‘And your name?’ he asks.
The waiter scribbles her name down on the tickets, then gives them to her. ‘Have fun!’
Once he leaves, the room opens to Amber – another one filled with women. A bronzed man, his head shaved – except for a flowing topknot of hair bound in a gold ring – twirls his hips as a middle-aged woman pulls off his vest to reveal his chiselled physique. This is Savage – one of our top Icons.
Once, he’d been studying to be a nurse, and had taken work here to pay his way through school – an old cliché, but one that holds truth for many. But then he found he could make a good living just doing this. It exhilarated him – the adulation, as well as the power he held over an audience. He declined offers to move from Icon to bartender, which would be the normal progression. But all that was years ago. Now he pulses in the malaise of his choices, and is unsure where he goes from here. The chorus of shrill cries do not impact him in any way. He finds a sadness in that, although he does not let it show. His performance is exuberant and captivating.
‘All right, ladies!’ he says. ‘I’m determined not to make it easy for you!’
Amber shakes her head and starts for the door. A thirty-something red-haired woman grabs her by the arm. She is attractive with big green eyes, but Amber can see make-up masking the lines in her face. There’s something familiar about her which Amber’s sure she should know.
‘Hey, where’re you going?’
‘What?’ Amber says.
‘Where’re you going?’
‘I …’ Amber falters.
The red-haired woman thrusts out a hand. ‘Gabriella!’ she says.
Amber shakes her hand. ‘Amber.’
‘Don’t go yet, Amber. You just bought tickets.’
‘Tickets?’ Amber blinks at them in her hand. ‘Tickets for what?’
Gabriella gestures at Savage, who’s pulled a ticket out of a hat. ‘Red twelve!’ he calls.
A short-haired blonde woman leaps up exultantly, waving her winning ticket.
Amber sinks into a chair, dumbfounded.
A waiter passes with a tray of beverages. Gabriella snatches two tall glasses of beer from the tray and hands one to Amber. Amber takes it without thinking, just as she meets Gabriella’s toast without thinking. Then Amber takes a long drink, gulping down half the glass. A foam moustache forms on her upper lip. She brushes it off. Holly was right. It is too hot in here.
‘That’s the spirit!’ Gabriella says. ‘You’ll love it!’
Amber says nothing and takes another drink.