The Rose Room, 1973 by Patricia J. McLean

All the nameless men, the Jims and Joes and Davids, at the rail on this training ground. From our vantage point we can not see their eyes, the other girls and I. Light shines against us, but it flows around them leaving their faces blank. It is not for us to see them, not for us to choose. Behind us, Dixie has placed a needle on the first record of the evening and Barbra Streisand, in her perfect clear voice starts to sing about “the way we were.” As the disco ball whirls above the empty dance floor, tiny squares of light sweep across figures of men, illuminating patches of clothing. I catch glimpses of chins and foreheads.

Dixie’s bar is toothless; she doesn’t have a liquor license. Coke, coffee, and potato chips. She has tables where, two songs at a time, a man can sit and rub legs with a girl and watch her eat chips. He pays a dollar for those songs and Dixie keeps fifty-five cents.

Dixie drums the bar with her salon nails. I am close enough to hear her tapping and the man nearest me points at the girl to my left. They move off to the dance floor. Once one of them has begun, the other men begin picking, choosing before the best are gone. As usual I am one of the last and the postman, who came in too late to get his favorite, limps over and motions in my direction.

He hands me two tickets, the minimum. For the next six minutes, I’ll earn forty-five cents, more if I let him touch me. They’re not here for the conversation. They want to hold a woman’s body, feel her breasts beneath their hands.

In the two weeks I’ve been at the Rose Room I’ve danced with most of the regulars, but never with the postman. I’ve been told he’s a good tipper and he doesn’t talk dirty. Up close, his long thin face is marked by deep lines and he reminds me of my Iwo Jima war hero uncle whose face echoes the shrapnel in his back.

He says his name is Jim and asks for mine as he presses one hand firm and purposeful on the small of my back, pulling my pelvis forward against his. I look past his shoulder at the wall. We’re dancing at the edge of the ballroom as far away from Dixie as Jim the postman can maneuver me. Someone goes into the locker room and for a moment light floods across the wall—nausea of salmon pink and turquoise blue, filmed over with nicotine.

Dixie is making the rounds. Keeping an eye on us like a girls’ school chaperone.

Reprieve, he steps back.

Dixie keeps moving and he leans in, his eyes on my chest. I close my eyes and imagine Dixie in service to the war effort as a dime-a-dance girl and all the sailors who were never boys again the way they were boys when Dixie danced with them. I open my eyes again.

The postman has his fingers on my skin.

There are no windows, but I know it is not daylight because I always come here in the dark. Walk up the flight of stairs through the double doors. In the bag over my shoulder, my dress, my shoes, my nylons, my apricot brandy. No makeup. I’ll give up certain things, but you have to take me at face value to get them.

He sucks in his breath. His eyes flicker. His hand has rounded the curve of my ribcage. He whispers in my ear that he’ll give me ten dollars to touch my nipple. What a prize, I think, I have a ten dollar nipple. How much for two? Would that be twenty or is discount de rigeur?

The postman does not wait for my answer. He touches the tip and squeezes it, my eye fling wide. The music stops, his hand drops and presses something into my palm.

I head for the door of the locker room, for the door of my locker, for apricots sticky and sweet and distilled. As I unscrew the cap I see my prize crinkled in my hand, but I take a drink first before I unfold the green. I smooth it out on the bench beside me. Ten dollars. You can’t say the postman doesn’t keep his word.

I know that Dixie will come looking for me if I stay too long. If she catches me with liquor she’ll toss me. I fold the bill and put it in my shoe. One more sip. I’ve just closed my locker when Jeri comes in to freshen her lipstick. She’s the postman’s favorite.

Jeri looks my image in the eye, applies color to her mouth and speaks to the mirror without turning. Saw you out there with the postman, she says and asks how much I got. I tell her. Well, good, then there’s plenty left. She rolls the lipstick down and snaps its lid on, smacks her lips and gives a backward glance over her shoulder at the mirror as she leaves.

Behind the bar, I drop the postman’s tickets in my ticket jar.

Someone’s touching my shoulder and asking dance? As if I didn’t get paid to not refuse. A scent of salt, and sardines mingles with Old Spice. His hound’s tooth polyester cooks his sweat. His hands are soft and thick and wet. And his breath is hot where it hits my neck.

He tells me I am beautiful, but he lies. Sees what he wants to see through closed eyes.

When I put his tickets in my jar, I see he’s written his address on the back of one as if it were a raffle ticket. There is a rushing in my head. I don’t have to walk by him to get to my sweet anesthesia. But I head for him and he grins. As I pass I say to his back, not for all the money on the planet. Ugly bitch, he says and crooks a finger, beckoning another partner to dance.

I don’t care if Dixie finds me, one swallow is not enough. God may keep his eye on the sparrow, but I’ll put my money on swallows. I take the bottle into a toilet stall and drink until I stop trembling.

For the rest of the evening I hold to the center near the record player where Dixie rules and watches. My eyes drift over other pairs. The Tennessee Waltz is under the needle, but the operation is fumbled, the record skips. There’s no concern in the theater, I think and feel a giggle rising. Stifling it brings tears to my eyes.

At an hour past midnight I’m sober with a thin headache inching around my brain. The disco ball stops. The men take no backward glances, nor sideways. All eyes on the door, the floor, the steps and the street beyond. Rapid, silent exodus. Dixie waits until the door flaps closed behind the last one before she turns on the lights.

I’m in my street clothes, jeans and tennis shoes. Ahead of me, Jeri clicks down in two-inch heels. Black satin, stretched tight over her butt and thighs, restricts her descent. I’m taking the steps by twos, holding my breath. I’ll breathe when I get outside. Jeri pushes open the street door just as I catch up with her. We step out together.

A man detaches himself from a lamppost. Jeri slides her hand between his elbow and his chest, casual and smooth. She gives him a smile, a big smile, and calls the postman, Jim.

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