Ilya Fleet Prayer cuffs, Coco de Mer
THOU SHALT ENTER NAKED.
The sign’s virgin white plastic winks at me in the bar’s low lighting, as it catches the gleam bouncing off a line of bottles scribble-labeled “Mary’s,” “This is Joseph’s,” and “The Joneses.” I stare at the sign, it’s like we’re sharing a joke, like the two couples congregating across from me, at the other leg of the L-shaped bar.
I can barely hear their laughter over the porn playing on the flat rectangle of TV above me, flashing a man and woman doing what god designed them to do, in the pure sunshine of their own ghetto garden of Eden.
Only I’m not sure the president of the universe imagined they’d manage to twist so many limbs at so many right angles like that.
The camera zooms on a heaving rib cage, trailing down… I look away when another alcoholic apple juice appears in front of me. A woman yells across the bar, “We call this a ‘Holy Roller’ down in Florida.”
I cross myself with the cup, and the couples raise their plastic glasses.
The bartender lifts his drink, too, the ruby liquid flying pass his black shirt buttoned tight to his neck, like a priest’s costume. He offers me guidance for the third time: “So spin like this for cheers…” We all hold our drinks over our heads, and our cups rotate ’round our skulls, the way Christians believed the sun circled the earth just hundreds of years ago.
The last time I joined any other drink ritual was Christmas, when I took communion in downtown Los Angeles’s cathedral. My interest in the Sunday service was less inspired by humility, and more out of the hilarity of watching people donate money they couldn’t afford to one of the richest landowners. And for a hedonist, the church’s architecture was holy. Though the building was designed to house a branch of the world’s second oldest business, it was only heavenly because it was so very earthy and modern–the cathedral was supposedly built without any right angles.
Unless ye eat of my flesh…
I remember smiling as I bowed my head to take a wafer and a thimble of grape juice: I was drinking Jesus, indeed. More like I was getting an undersized, overpriced drink at any other LA bar: I’d donated ten dollars to the passing bucket, which I thought covered my admission to admire the stained glass, not any supposed sins. I was unrepentant for my fun last night, and I knew the boss’s son would understand: Jesus hung with that hooker, Mary Magdalene. And anyway, how was that service any more than a better business, than a larger scale money-maker than the just-outside-Miami, members-only club I’d paid $77 to join, to partake “free” cocktails in?
And unless ye drink of my blood…
I look at the half-naked man across from me, his wine wasting in front of him, untasted. His crotch is covered with a green, tiny towel, like a little leaf over Adam’s evil area after eating a bad apple. His belly bounces with his breath.
I only look away when he meets my eyes; I turn my head, I take a deep sip. This cocktail is so much sweeter than the holy Kool-Aid I’d drunk at church.
“So how’d you hear about E’s Den?” The bartender, who’d also doubled as the doorman, pours another drink for himself as he asks me. In the low lighting, the scarlet liquid looks like blood, even more so than the grape juice that the priest had poured for me.
“I was searching online,” I answer. “I wanted to find a swingers’ club in Florida. I was curious.”
“Seek and ye should find, eh?” He takes a neat sip. The bar’s soft light beams off his baldness, blurring a halo over his head of monkish fringe. “You came on a quiet night. Sunday’s are usually the best day for us. Everyone comes and it’s a real community. A lot of regulars, even a mother and her daughters… We’re all just hanging out, barbecuing.”
In a flash I see an orgy of ugly flesh, and I put down my drink. It was how he made it sound so innocent that reminds me where I am: a Southern all-you-can-eat buffet, only instead of the cheap ribs they served at a restaurant my Bible Belt uncle favored, people here paid for choicer meats.
I clutch my cup again: the liquor had already baptized my brain, and a few sips more could further slur my thoughts. A little devil on my shoulder warns the strange drink might work the opposite of fruit from the tree of knowledge: I’d wake up naked, not knowing what had happened. An angel counters, telling me to just trust for the best: doesn’t it all feel so comfortable, so natural, so right here?
I stare into my cocktail, waiting for an answer, like a lazy prophet. I only look up at a spark of light: the bartender had turned to talk to the couple further down the bar, and the gold cross dangling down the front of his shirt had caught the gleam of the spot-lit stripper’s pole.
The chrome pole stands so straight, a clean line pointing upwards, while stabbing an altar of a scuffed, mirrored stage. To the left of that sliver of silver is the closed door I’d seen as soon as I walked in: THOU SHALT ENTER NAKED.
Just a door knob twist away, it seems sinful not to cure my curiosity…
“Do you mind if I go in?” I take the bartender’s nod as permission to enter clothed, and stand up, still for a second as I find my balance. Then I open the door.
A staircase’s ascent glows under hidden light, and I climb, curious as an old-maid bride. At the top a room blossoms open to me: it has close, cozy walls that somehow seem to stretch up to the sky in the dark, like the cloudy ceilings of a church. Same as the bar below, the room is built of rough plaster logs, and their texture gives the space the feeling of a pioneer Puritan’s cabin. Clean mattresses border the walls, and their soft white cushions any misgivings I have about the beds’ closeness to each other. Towards the end of the room, smaller cots tuck into private places, little family chapels lining an old cathedral.
The space ends with a big bed, its high canopy spiriting around it, blurring my view, till the curtains open wide in a ghost breeze, and I suddenly see: I see wrinkled sheets with bleached stains that might have been blood or grape juice or wine, I see how the drink ritual, that cheesy cheers, had distracted me from how much alcohol they’d bled into me, I see how the cheap humor of the sign had dared me into this, I see how they all wanted me to partake, to belong, to–
“Join us?” asks a pair from downstairs, naked as Adam and Eve as they brush by my black dress, moving towards the bed.
I stare at them: in the glowing darkness, neither young nor old, they’re a vision of the couple at my high school youth group who dictated I wait to be fucked by a man I’d barely know, but that I’d committed to for eternity. That I’d sworn I’d love forever, even if I learned later that truly unconditional love was just another four-letter word. That I’d sacrifice what ever soul I’d sewn together to please the church’s, the state’s, everyone else’s invisible gods.
The woman kneels in front of her husband, bowing her head. His eyes catch mine, and his face creaks into a smile: I’d be fresh flesh for a stale ritual.
He nods his head a little, then stretches his arms out, his fuzzy shadow making a cross. His hands flap down to force his wife’s head into his lap, and bending over her body he looks as broken as a priest watching a pet student.
And the two shall become one flesh…
Her hand grips his thigh, and her wedding ring winks in the low light. That cheap chip of glass, glued to an empty circle of fool’s gold, sparks my flight down the stairs.
I rush out the door without saying good bye. As I drive away, from my rearview mirror I see the weird angles of the club’s steeple, and I offer thanks that I’ll never be trapped swinging between society’s demons and gods, but determined to build my own heaven on earth.
At a stop sign, I text message a friend, whose brain and body I thought worthy of worship. I hit SEND and wait for his response to my digital prayer:
I’m feeling impure. Come over and make me scream, “Oh my god.”