He hides in the closet, between sundresses and black miniskirts. He inhales through his mouth, his regular breaths sounding more like wheezes than exhales. His sweat often soaks through his shirt and the face towel beneath it. All this he endures to catch a glimpse of her naked body under the sullen moonlight. It is Wednesday, her day off, and he is all too familiar with her routine.
Stella is awake. She is humming a tune under her breath, a melody from too long ago. I recognize it almost instantly. She closes her eyes and her right hand ducks quietly under the covers. You can see her writhing in bed, one hand on her sex, the other fondling a breast. She seeks pleasure nightly, her regulars coming before she can even think about getting turned on. Her neck relaxes as she finds the right rhythm, the right pressure for pleasure. He shifts from within the closet, the wood creaking at his weight. Stella's eyes fly open as she lets out a quiet, little scream.
"Surprise!" they exclaim as she enters. And to think she had prayed they'd forgotten. All the girls are there. They transformed the tiny dressing room into a little corner of home. Makeshift streamers and condom balloons line the walls. Stella is breathless. She didn't want to make a fuss of this day but one of the girls had overheard her talking on the phone and the passing of her 25th birthday was too tempting, too delicious to ignore.
This would be her final birthday at the bar. Girls just tend to disappear when they become too old for the patrons and it was decided long before her time that 25 was the right age to retire.
"Who's there?" she asks, clutching the blanket close to her chest. "Who's there?!" she shouts.
The closet door opens slowly and she sees a dark figure emerging into the light. He looks embarrassed, like a little boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar. But this was no regular cookie, he would soon find out.
"What the hell do you think you're you doing? How long have you been watching me?" He doesn't answer. Instead, he gets up to leave. He looks at her one last time, his eyes full of regret, then he walks slowly to the door.
"So, what are your plans after this?" Hazel asks.
"I don't really know. I'm probably just going to eat my cake then go home," she answers, playing dumb.
"You know what I mean. You've had a long career here. Surely, you've thought about this at least once." Stella could tell that this was her idea. With her out of the picture, Hazel would inherit her regular customers. But she didn't think she'd be smart enough to orchestrate this blatant reminder of the bar's policy on how old the talents should be.
"Well, we can't all be rock stars," she says. "Any day now, Bookie will ask to meet with you about your options. What are you gonna do then?"
"I don't know," she dismisses, a blank expression on her face. "I'll figure something out." And something in me knew she would. She always does.
"Bookie," she offers. His hand on the doorknob, the door ajar. "You don't have to go." He looks at her from the dark hallway. She seems smaller than before. Something has changed. You could see it in her eyes.
"Get back in there and watch me." Her voice is warm at first, like the beginning of surrender. He refuses to move. Her dark brown eyes pierce through him in the darkness. She commands him once again, this time louder, harder. He closes the door and gets back in the closet. Stella resumes.
I'll figure something out, she answered. And something in me knew she would. She always does.
The girls sing her a song and Stella blows out the candles. She takes a large slice of the cake and sets it on a paper plate. She picks a sugary flower, the largest and brightest of them all, and plants it in the middle of the slice. She walks slowly, carefully like a cat about to pounce, and knocks gently on the manager's door.
"Bookie?" she beckons, her voice low and gentle like a purr. "Bookie, I have something for you."
He comes back every Wednesday, her one day off work. He knows her routine all too well. One week, he is in the closet. The next, on the bedroom floor. One week, she lets his hand rest on the bed. The next, he lays there quietly with her. He doesn't touch her. He wouldn't dare to. But on a particular Wednesday when the moon was at its dimmest, Stella raised her final white flag.
"Hold me," she whispers, desperation in her voice. Bookie's eyes light up with anticipation. He puts his arm around her and rocks her gently to sleep. I look away.
And I have seen all this through my eyes in the walls. I move undetected, like a shadow in the darkness. I am here because love compels me. I am here because the light has denied us.
My name is Bryan and I am not here, No, not really.
♫: The Killers | When You Were Young (2006)