It always amazed Wren that Tricks could be so busy, no matter what time of day he stopped in. Today, for example, it was three in the afternoon, a Friday, yes, but still, three in the afternoon. And yet the stripper bar was crowded, mostly with older guys, but some like Wren, too. Younger--wearing snarky 'what am I doing here?' expressions on their faces even as they cast furtive glances up at the two buff guys dancing in G-strings to the latest Lady Gaga anthem.
Outside, Chicago in summer was in full swing, but once you entered Tricks, you forgot all about the city and the season. The traffic sounds at the intersection of Belmont and Broadway, the rumble of the el a few blocks west, and the voices of many pedestrians mingling on the street, disappeared. Tricks was a world unto itself; a universe where nearly naked men, alcohol fumes, colored lights, dirty floors, the clinking of ice in glasses, the husky music of men propositioning men, and mirrored walls all conspired together, creating something that was one part sleaze, one part gay, and one part home--at least for many of the men who frequented Tricks.
Tricks was all about escapism. Its dancers allowed you to free yourself from the shackles of your own body issues. Too skinny? Too fat? In-between but nowhere near remarkably ripped? It was okay at Tricks because the dancers were beautiful and one could imagine they got their ripped and muscular physiques effortlessly, from hanging out in bars, consuming copious amounts of alcohol, and tricking athletically with a parade of handsome strangers. The magic might work for you one day, too.
Or at least that was the fantasy they were selling at Tricks.
And...if your self-esteem tank was running a little low, a wink or a smile from one of the dancers was enough to kick it up a notch. The hunky bartender calling you 'Gorgeous' or 'Stud' didn't hurt either when he asked what he could get you. This kind of behavior from those who worked at Tricks was hard to swallow, yet easy to cling to, making you believe, if only for a second, you were hot. You were wanted.
It was all part of the make-believe. And sometimes, it was enough.
Wren Gallagher, all of twenty-three years old, today needed some of the escapism Tricks offered. Yes, he required it even at three in the afternoon. As the crowd jostled him, Wren kept his eye on the one open stool at the bar in front of him. It was like some sort of prize, an alcoholic holy grail, a place where he could park his skinny ass and maybe, just maybe, forget for a few hours what a crappy day he'd had.
Just as he elbowed his way through the laughing and chattering crowd of mostly middle-aged men and had managed to get within inches of the vacant stool, a heavy-set guy with a bottle of beer in one thick paw materialized out of nowhere to claim it. He was focused intently on the blond Adonis gyrating on the bar, so he did not see that there was a competition for the stool.
Wren stopped and regarded the man with his brown eyes, hoping his telepathy was in good enough working order that the man would feel the force of his gaze. At least one thing would go right on this shitty day, Wren thought, and that one thing--all I ask--is that this character makes eye contact with me.
Lo and behold, he did. Wren smiled prettily, trying to buoy up the older, balding man's ego with the combined force of his slightly gap-toothed, turned-up-at-one-corner grin and his shock of red hair, his slender hips encased in denim, and the geek allure vibe he knew he gave off. He knew because he had been told he was a sexy nerd on more than one occasion.
The guy did a bit of a double take when he saw Wren trying to make eye contact, smiling. He looked up at the dancer and back at Wren, as if he had to decide between one or the other. As if he had a choice...
That was all it took. The older man stepped back, away from the stool, and gestured with his hands, the perfect gentleman, that Wren should take it.
Score one for Wren. He hopped up on the stool, smiling at this generous daddy who should have, by all rights, been sitting down right about now, and turned to try and catch the eye of the bartender.
"What do you want, handsome?" The balding man pressed in close, thinking, Wren supposed, he now had some sort of advantage. The man had placed a hand on the small of Wren's back. Wren leaned forward and away from the guy, assailed by the potent aromas of alcohol and tobacco that emanated from the man's very pores.
The man repeated, "What do you want, kid? I'm buying."
And now Wren found himself perched precariously upon the horns of a dilemma. Should he let the man buy him a drink and further encourage him, knowing fully that all Wren wanted, in spite of being placed squarely within arms' reach of one hundred or more gay men, was simply to be left alone? Or should he gently, but politely decline the man's offer and make it clear he was not interested?
His wink had led the man to believe otherwise. The simple, yet eloquent, signal had been used as a flirtatious device by gay and straight men alike for centuries. And it wouldn't do to inform him that the wink had not been for purposes of sexual solicitation but to procure a measly stool. How craven was that? Wren now regretted taking the stool, wishing he had just let the man have it. The cost was too high. He contemplated getting down from it and walking right through the exit, heading toward the Lake Michigan waterfront, and licking his wounds there.
But Lake Michigan did not have Absolut vodka, nor did it have the seeming bliss of these dancers before him.
And he would be too alone at Lake Michigan. The old saw was true--one was never more alone than when in a crowd. He liked how alone being around all these other seemingly happy human beings made him feel.
"Kid? I'm talking to you."
The guy was getting insistent and, Wren presumed, tired of being ignored. Wren could almost hear the older guy's hopes being dashed. The hopes hitting the floor sounded like glass breaking.
"Sorry," Wren said, looking up at the man. "I'm waiting for someone." He turned away so the man could not see the heat rising to his face, red as his hair, or the shame he knew must somehow be displayed in his eyes.
"Well, what the fuck were you winking at me for, then?"
Thankfully, the guy did not wait for Wren to answer. Wren was not the kind of person who could be so cruel as to inform the guy he winked at him for the selfish reason--so he could sit down. And he was also not the kind of person who thought he deserved the stool because he was younger and prettier--even though he was. If pressed, Wren decided he would have smiled at the man, told him he found him irresistible and that the wink was just an uncontrolled, unbidden response to his desire, even though he knew his boyfriend was on his way. He thought it might at least make the guy smile and in that, Wren could find a measure of forgiveness for his behavior.
But the man had wandered off into the crowd. Wren hoped he wasn't hurt by Wren's unwitting tease of a wink.