Beyond Palace Walls

    Drunk, I staggered down a Tijuana alleyway. A moon bent like a finger nail clipping lit my way. I watched a mangy brown puppy eating old tacos from a tipped garbage can as I dragged my tired feet back towards the U.S. border. I had just been drinking, laughing and dancing with friends at one of our favorite bars when that familiar anxiety came over me. I had to leave. I told everyone I was taking a taxi back to the border, but I had something else in mind.

    One thing I craved the bar wasn’t serving was a shot of adrenaline. I loved the excitement of Tijuana streets at night. The drunken brawls, the prostitutes strutting in mini-skirts, the music blasting from cantinas, the men in sombreros blowing whistles while pouring tequila down tourists’ throats. There was always that chance of being mugged by Federales, or caught on the wrong side of town, but fear just opens the adrenaline flood gates and fueled my thirst for adventure.

    A few weeks ago, a friend of mine was walking around this same place trying to find a bar, when a man stepped out from a shadowed walkway, grabbed him from behind, and held a blood filled syringe to his neck.

    “Give me your watch and wallet or I’ll stick you with AIDS.” My friend complied and the man ran off into the night.

    I had never ventured down this alley before. It was off the main strip and all the shop windows were dark. I thought about turning back, but I heard melancholic music streaming from a building, and my curiosity pulled me into its magnetic force. At the end of the alleyway I was greeted by a black door. The paint was peeled, and red light beamed out of a little circular window like a porthole on the side of a sailboat. I stared, entranced by the bright light for a moment, listening to the Spanish melody that floated from the cracks in the door. Charmed, I creaked the door open and slithered inside.

    A red carpet walkway covered with dark splotches from spilled drinks lead me to a stage surrounded by empty pleather seats. In the corner, a bartender wiped a glass with a dirty rag; his pocked face beat like the door out front. Beside him, a bouncer twisted the tips of his unkempt stache. He slouched against the bar. His gut slumped over his belt, eyes fixed on the same thing as mine.

    On stage was a girl in black lace panties with closed eyes, her back against a brass pole. She rhythmically rocked her hips side to side to the beat of the singer’s sad Spanish voice. She reminded me of a buoy out at sea moving to the pulse of incoming waves. My attention shifted from the song that lured me in, to the movement of her body. As she swayed down the pole, her raven hair lightly brushed against pale shoulders. Her only audience was the bouncer, the bartender, and I.

    When the song stopped she looked at me with brown, bedroom eyes. Her soft smile drew me in. My heart pounded, rattling my ribs as I walked to the front row. She sat beside me. The bouncer approached us.

    “Would you like to buy the lady a drink?” He smelled sour, yellow swaps under his pits.

    “Sure,” I said, “And give me a Dos Equis.” She smiled and grabbed my hand.

    “I’m Victoria,” she softly rubbed the top of my hand with her thumb.

    “You’re beautiful a dancer, I’ve never seen anyone dance like you before.” I scooted closer.

    “Thank you, now how-a-bout a private dance?” She squeezed my knee and inched her black high-heel up my leg.

    Before I had a chance to respond the bouncer was back, “That’ll be fifteen dollars,” he handed us our drinks. I rummaged through my pockets and found a five and some crumpled ones. I panicked. Where did my money go?
Did I really spend it all at the last bar?

    “I only have eight bucks man. How is it fifteen for two drinks anyways?” I handed him the wrinkled bills. He stared down at them, his upper lip gnarled.

    “The lady’s drink is ten; yours five, you ain’t got money then get out.” He grabbed my arm and I started to stand when Victoria put her hand on him.

    “Let him stay, no one’s here, just take what he’s got and I’ll get the rest,” she said. He snatched the money from my hand and walked back to the bar. “How old are you anyways?” She dipped the cherry in her drink, the ice tinged the sides. “And isn’t it late for an American boy to be out alone around here?”

    I had begun to ask myself the same question. I couldn’t even remember why I left the last bar with my friends and wandered off into the night. I didn’t know what part of TJ I was in anymore, and had no money to take a taxi even if I wanted to.

    “I’m eighteen in three months. I was with some friends partying, but I needed a walk. How long you been dancing?” I squeezed a lime into my beer and sprinkled it with salt.

    “I just turned eighteen myself, I’ve been dancing for two years.” Her brow wrinkled, she stared at the stage.

    I slammed my bottle on the table, “What? You’ve been stripping since you were 16? Why didn’t you go to school? What did your parents say?” She smiled at me the way my mother used to when I was a child.

    “Well, my father left when I was eight. Mom went to make toys in a factory.” She leaned back and some silver glitter sparkled on her chest. “Sometimes she brought home men to fuck for money. I hated hearing them through the walls. I told her to stop, that I’d drop school, and start working. It kept happening so I moved in with my boyfriend. I got pregnant, and had a baby boy.” She sipped her drink. The bartender and bouncer mad-dogged me, neither said anything. I peeled the label off my beer. I couldn’t believe she was spilling her life to me; a complete stranger. She knew I didn’t have money, and her tone didn’t beg for sympathy. What could she want?

    “After a few months, my boyfriend sometimes got angry and hit me. He’d say the baby wasn’t his. I had never been with anyone before him. I think he was just scared of being a father.” She breathed deep and shrugged her shoulders. She looked up from her glass, smiled and shook her head. Her story was like smelling salts beneath my nose.

    “I was afraid,” she said softly, “So I did what pretty girls do here; I went to the strip club. I talked to the owner; he said he’d get me papers to show I was eighteen.”

    “God, I mean, who watches your baby while you’re working?” I put my elbows on the table and leaned forward.

     “A nanny. I make just enough to pay her and for us to eat. The owner still lets me stay in a room here. He doesn’t want me to leave. I make him too much money.” I realized how petty my life in suburban America was. I was disturbed like the youthful Siddhartha the day he ventured from his palace walls and realized life is not so beautiful for everyone.

    Curiosity and excitement had brought me to TJ strip clubs since my sixteenth birthday. They rarely carded my friends and me. As long as you had money they were at your service. So for almost two years I watched these girls dance. I stuffed bills down g-strings. I palmed breasts with greasy fingers. I whistled when panties hit the floor. These young girls became women so fast, made to lie on their backs while hairy chested men mounted them, grunting and rained down sweat.

    I didn’t know how to respond, it’s not like I could say I understand. I couldn’t relate to one day of her life. I hadn’t known any real struggles like Victoria. And besides, I had parents or my country to fall back on if life went awry.

    At that moment, I had the urge to throw her over my shoulder, fight off the bouncer and bartender, and deliver Victoria and her son to safety across the border. All those Disney movies and fairy tales from my childhood instantly projected onto the big screen behind my eyes. The ones where some gallant knight storms a castle surrounded by brambles, duels guards or ghouls, and somehow manages to rescue the beautiful lady locked away in a cold tower. These familiar stories made me feel well equipped to be a hero.

    “I know this sounds crazy,” I grabbed her hand, “But I’m going to help you.”

“What do you mean?” She laughed and shook her head like I was nuts.

    “I know I don’t know you, and you don’t know me, but the second I saw you dancing up there- you’re just so beautiful, and you had to deal with so much shit, and I know I could make things better for you.” The bouncer said something in Spanish to the bartender and pointed at me. I didn’t care. I was ready fight for her.

    She smiled and laughed again, “Thanks, but you’re just a drunk American boy. After tonight, you’ll probably never see me again.” Her throat muscles constricted as she tilled back the rest of her drink. Red lipstick painted the rim of her glass.

    “Look, I only live like an hour away, and I come to TJ all the time. I mean, I’m eighteen in three months. I’ll come back and we could get married, and you could go to school again, and after a few years you and your son would be U.S citizens.” I pounded my beer and held her hand tight.

    I was fired up. I knew she was the one. I painted a picture of our future in my mind, how it was all going to work. How I would buy us an apartment, work all day while she went to school, and she would make dinner, and we’d sit around the table laughing while our son ate whatever babies eat, then we’d watch a movie on our cozy bean bag chair, and after we put the baby to sleep, we would make love, and not the kind she was used too. There would be no exchanging of currency or dirty hotel sheets. There would be no guilt afterwards. No need to scrub until her skin was raw. I would give her a new life, the kind she dreamed of having as a little girl before she experienced the ugliness of this world.

    “You’re a sweet boy,” her eyes welled up; a slight smile appeared on her face. “OK, when you’re eighteen, if you still remember me, we’ll get married and you can take me back to America with you.”

    “Oh, I will remember you, just wait. I know you probably don’t believe me because I’m drunk, but I’ll be back in three months, Victoria.” We stood up and she held my hands.

    “I’m sure you will, I’ll be waiting for you,” she whispered in my ear and kissed my cheek. I turned and walked down that worn red carpet, through the beaten door and out into the TJ night.

    When I finally reached the border my shirt was drenched with sweat. The drunken clouds in my mind had passed, and I kept playing back my promise to Victoria. An old man peddled tacos from a rusty cart as I took a seat on a brick wall. I watched a boy no older than six juggling a handful of balls for a group of drunken Americans talking in line. As the colorful spheres arched through the darkness it looked like a rainbow shining over him. When he finished his performance, he tugged on a guy’s shirt and held out his hand for spare change. The man shook his head and went back to his conversation. The boy nodded, stood up straight, and began juggling for another group of Americans.

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