Marcus circles the table, exaggerating his calculations to sink the black. It sits in the middle of the table, the cue ball not ten inches from it, and perfectly aligned with the corner pocket. It’s the simplest shot.
Some of the women jeer. Holly, arms folded across her chest, sniffles, her eyes brimming. Any protectiveness he might’ve felt earlier, any compassion, is gone now. He’s enjoyed the tussle with her. More importantly, he’s enjoyed beating her. He sees himself fucking her bent over the table while everybody else watches – a crowning glory to his victory. He knows he won’t – at least not tonight. Perhaps it’s another fantasy to pursue.
He rises, and leans on the table with one hand. ‘It was inevitable,’ he says. ‘This result, that is. You come at me with your indignation, but maybe your embarrassment is simply that I know you better than you know yourself – I know better what you want than you do.’
‘You’re so full of shit,’ Gabriella says. ‘This way that you rationalise it.’
Marcus cackles at her. ‘I think it just clicked in me that it’s not a rationalisation. You come here, you watch a guy play strip-pool – you pay him, so you can beat him and undress him. You leave your little lives to do this. What about you? Who’ve you got waiting at home?’
‘How dare you—!’
‘Tubby hubby? Squalling kids?’
Marcus grins as she splutters indignantly. He’s nailed it. Of course he’s nailed it. The memories of his own upbringing are heavy in his mind – his father’s cheating, his father’s drinking, his father’s abusiveness. And his mother just took it all, smiling, weak, and pathetic. He does not want to emulate his father. But that dichotomy showed him that people will go to great lengths to fool themselves into the belief that their lives are better than they are.
‘What about you?’ Marcus points at the brunette. ‘Bet you’ve also got a family back there somewhere. Bet most of you have. What about you two?’ He approaches two teenage girls who’ve made themselves up to look as old as possible – all of nineteen or twenty, at best . They’re waifs and blush when he addresses them. ‘Just a night out and wanting to be naughty, huh?’ He turns to the twenty-something women having the hen’s night. ‘Or, you, wanting to live it up one last night before you take the plunge? How far will you go?’ He spins dramatically, his arms outstretched to encompass everybody. ‘How far would you take tonight – the lot of you? Wanting to pretend to be the big bad. You want to give it up. Like she did!’ He thrusts his finger at Holly. ‘How many of you will go home tonight, fuck the old man, but think of whoever you watched play? Or just fantasize and pleasure yourselves?’ He directs this at the teenagers. One bows her head guiltily, the other (on closer examination, he’s sure she’s seventeen, at best) covers her mouth, aghast. ‘Or maybe there’s one last fling left!’ This is cast at the hen’s night party.’ Marcus laughs, lifts his hands, and gyrates his hips. ‘How many of you discover vicariously in this room that you want to ride a big bad that has nothing to do with your lives outside these walls? You want to be fucked senseless. To fuck senseless. To let go. You ought to be thanking me. All of you! The reality is, I’m just your liberator.’
‘You’re a bastard,’ the brunette says.
Marcus’s grin broadens. He approaches her, and juts his hips so his left buttock is pointed at her. ‘Touch it,’ he says. ‘Go on. You know you want to.’
‘You …! You …!’
Marcus thrusts his crotch at her. ‘Maybe you want to unwrap me – just for the hell of it,’ he says. ‘I have to admit, I’m so hard it hurts. Maybe you want me in your mouth. I’m tasty.’
‘Come on, ladies! You can’t tell me not one of you is turned on.’
‘It’s not enough that you’re a cunt, but you behave like a cunt in front of your fiancé.’ This comes from the teenager he thought was seventeen.
Marcus goes up to her, and moves to put his fingers under her chin. She knocks away his hand as if she’s swiping away a punch.
‘Fuck off,’ she tells him.
‘Awww.’ Marcus overplays it. ‘So tough.’
He shakes his head at her as he returns to the table. Holly’s no longer brimming. Her exhalations are hisses, and her arms are down by her side, her fists clenched. Marcus must give it to her: she’s so cute when she’s angry. That is as sophisticated as his appreciation gets.
‘You know what’s a shame?’ he asks. ‘Gonna be a seven-ball victory and you’re,’ he flashes a grin at Holly as he bends over the table, ‘bottomless. But maybe this whole episode’s just been instructive.’ He lines up the black and turns back to face Holly. ‘I think you really just need to learn your place.’
Without turning from Holly, he strikes the cue ball hard. It thunders into the black. The black hits the corner pocket, jumps into the cup, but sinks the way a chipped golf ball will sink into a hole. Marcus grins at Holly. But Holly – and the eyes of the other women – are fixed on the cue ball, which cannons into the bank, bounces off the two, clips the one, then rolls toward the three.
Eyes widen. Some of the women gasp. Marcus spins, his look of celebration turning to one of horror. In his extravagant showmanship, he’s hit the cue ball too hard. It kisses the three, which sits in the mouth of the pocket. The three teeters on the brim.
Then drops in.
A loss. He sunk his opponent’s ball in the same shot he pocketed the black.
Marcus rises and shrugs at Holly. ‘Hey, come on,’ he says.
Holly steps up to Marcus. The women in the room array behind her, the way a troop of soldiers might fall in behind their drill sergeant. Every one of them cross their arms over their chests. Marcus’s eyes dart to the archway. It’s empty. Security’s gone.
‘Game over, Marcus,’ Holly says.
* * *
When Amber closes her eyes, she’s sure she could drift off – not just fall asleep, but drift off into another world, although she thinks maybe she’s already there. The night started so innocently – a night out with new friends as a final hurrah on their travels. Then there was Holly’s revelation and Flavia chasing Edan LeBeau. Amber still cannot reconcile the way she behaved with Savage. What began as a simple holiday has continued unravelling.
‘So who did you forget?’ Savage asks.
She opens her eyes. Savage sits so close, his hand on her thigh. He’s smiling and that absurd topknot ponytail flows down the back of his head. What would that look like when he’s fucking somebody? Amber’s cheeks grow hot at the thought, and she’s surprised to find that when she pushes it out, she does so with a sense of regret.
‘What?’ she asks.
‘I was saying that when I perform in that room, I want to make my audience forget their husbands, forget their boyfriends, forget all their problems. What did you forget, Amber? Who did you forget?’
‘I…?’ Amber sips from her Long Island Iced Tea, not because she’s thirsty – she’s already had more than enough – but out of nervousness. ‘I didn’t forget anybody.’
‘Everybody forgets somebody.’
‘I have a boy—’
Amber’s protests die as Savage’s hand slides higher up the inside of her thigh. She catches his wrist. It’s thick enough her hand can’t close around it. He doesn’t force it. And while she’s stopped him, she doesn’t want him to withdraw either.
‘Who is he?’ he asks.
‘We sorta started something back there, don’t you think?’
Savage’s mouth brushes her own, and closes on her lower lip. Amber shuts her eyes, hearing Gabriella screaming in her ear, Go for it! Go for it! Go for it! Gabriella would surrender here; Gabriella, with her tales of discontentment and lack of fulfilment that suddenly seem all too relatable.
Savage eases back by inches. His eyes are deep and inscrutable. There’s a flush of warmth between her legs. Savage’s hand has continued to move up, under her dress, his forefinger nestled in the cleft of her crotch. He is everything Quinn is not: assured, decisive, and exotic.
‘Can I tell you something?’
Of course. She wants to say it, but doesn’t. Nonetheless, he goes on.
‘When I perform, I pick who the victor’s going to be from the start of the night. I rig the draw. When I saw you, I knew you were going to be my conqueror.’
Savage brushes her cheek. She leans into the caress. He brings his mouth down her neck, and traces a solitary finger down her chest through her cleavage. ‘It’s not just that you’re beautiful,’ he says. ‘Prudence is filled with beautiful women. But they’re vain. Or they’re needy. You, you radiated with something genuine. But there’s also a sadness there.’
‘There’s no sadness …’
‘Maybe I just imagined it, but after being an Icon for so long, I’d like to think I’ve developed some ability to read my audience, and that’s what I read in you: a sadness. Maybe it’s a lack of contentment, not being where you want to be. God knows, you wouldn’t be the only one. But it shines out in you.’
‘I’m in love,’ Amber says.
‘Is that what makes you sad?’
‘Why would being in love make me sad?’
‘Because some people cling to the thought of love, too afraid to admit it’s really nothing but familiarity.’
‘No.’ Amber shakes her head. ‘I’m going to marry this man.’
Amber draws herself up. Savage’s scepticism annoys her.
‘It’s just a matter of time,’ she says, her voice a little too shrill.
‘Do you know what you’re getting yourself in for?’
Again, Gabriella’s stories resound in her mind. But surely it doesn’t have to be like that. A pit opens in her midriff and her heart plummets. Maybe it is like that, though. It’s not like her and Quinn have nurtured some great or passionate love. They just are. Maybe they’ll become Gabriella and her husband. Maybe all marriages are like that. Maybe she’s already Gabriella.
‘What’s to know?’ Amber asks.
Savage sits back, then takes a swill from his Asahi. ‘I would only ever get married if I could only never live without my partner.’
Amber snorts. ‘That’s just fairy tale love. It doesn’t exist.’
‘I don’t know. It’s not realistic.’
‘I don’t have time for the cold pragmatism of life,’ Savage says. ‘I know it exists. I know there are ugly necessities that drive us all. But if I was to be with somebody, if I was to commit to them for the rest of my life, then my desire would be that my life could not exist without them. They would be the first person I would want to see in the morning, they would be on my mind until I got home, they would be the last person I want to see that night. They would nurture me through the inanities and requirements of everyday life. And they would do it not with a word or a gesture or an act, but just through existing because they are mine. They would make me soar, make me feel like I could do anything, because they saw in me the best person I could be, rather than just the person I could be for them. Maybe it is a fairy tale. If so, then love and relationships are overrated. But maybe it’s true, and that’s simply what too many of us don’t have, and don’t pursue: true love. Maybe we just settle because we don’t dare to know any better.’
He speaks with honesty and sincerity – this is not something that can be faked. He believes in what he’s saying and he does want it. But this pursuit has only seen him find one emotionally unsatisfying relationship after another. The sex has always been great, but physical attractions can only mitigate other relationship deficiencies so long.
‘What do you have, Amber?’
Amber utters a short, desperate laugh. It’s unusual that when she has become so cynical, this stripper has become the romantic. It shames her. Some people still believe, and she fleetingly imagines those couples as happy and fulfilled and living happily ever after.
But she doesn’t want to explore that question as it applies to her own relationship. She does love Quinn. But, now, she doubts how genuine that love is, because here she is. Is this just a symptom of something she hasn’t wanted to face? She is confused. She is inebriated. She is at a loss, and she doesn’t want to be. The sadness emerges – almost a mourning for what she believed her relationship was.
‘I don’t know,’ she says.
Savage leans back in towards her, his right hand resting on her hip. ‘Let me give you something tonight that’ll make you forget everything else.’ He kisses her; his teeth tug at her lower lip as he disengages. Amber leans towards him almost unconsciously. His left hand traces her cheek. Amber nestles into his caress. ‘You are so beautiful,’ he says.
Savage rises, grabs her wrist, and pulls her up to him. She catapults from the chair and spins into his embrace as if they were performing the tango. His body, hard and muscled, envelopes her own. She remembers how powerful he was before, holding her. But all these things are physical attractions. She does not truly know this man. The irony is that while Savage yearns for that emotional connection, Amber begins to think that perhaps all that exists is physical attraction. Perhaps love is simply the ability to remain attracted to somebody despite their flaws, despite their actions, despite whoever they reveal themselves to be.
But, at cross purposes, they find that moment where they intersect and reside – for a little while, at least.
‘Well, what do you say?’ he asks.