by M.L. Paige

The dancer twirled, unleashing a cloud of glitter and perfume as she turned her back to Isabelle. Then she folded over at the waist, coiffed hair hanging between studded stilettos, fake breasts stretching the nylon of her bikini top, and shook her ass in Isabelle’s face to the cheers and howls of the patrons of The Velvet Chain. The suits with their loose ties and undone collars on either side of Isabelle threw fans of cash in the air as Isabelle pulled her grimacing face away, her nose wrinkled in disgust.

With her eyes clenched shut, Isabelle–”Izzy” in her own head and to her friends–took in a deep breath and sucked down the wafting mix of sweat and sex and shea butter. She fought the urge to do what so many of her coworkers had done and plunge her face straight between the gyrating, shaking buttocks in front of her, the worst part being that the dancer would likely let her get further than any of the men who had tried a similar stunt.

But that would ruin the theater of it all and would ruin the game, for good. Izzy knew that the senior bankers only took her out to The Velvet Chain to delight in her looking aghast at the sight of the half-naked women, to laugh and egg the dancers on as they flirted with Izzy, and then to ogle silently as the dancers used her as a sort of proxy doll for what the men wished would be done to them, stroking and teasing and seducing Izzy until the dancers were content with the money they had milked out of the bankers.

Without those nights at The Velvet Chain, Izzy was just another mousy junior analyst putting in 60 hours a week to make a tenth of what the senior bankers did. During her first week at the firm, a female managing director had approached her in the cafeteria, took her aside, and warned her that the only way a “good girl” like her would get the corner office was to become shrewd and calculating.

“Play their games,” advised the managing director. “Ride their coattails. And for Christ’s sake never tell them you’re a lesbian.”

“Excuse me?” asked a frazzled Izzy. “I’m sorry, but I’m not a lesbian.”

The managing director smiled with her shadowed eyes and painted brows. “Sure you aren’t sweetie,” she said out of pursed lips. “And I’m not a power bitch who buys a new apartment every year.”

“Seriously,” insisted Izzy. “I’m not.”

“That’s the spirit,” said the managing director. “Just make sure the boys believe it and you’ll be fine.”

Before Izzy could respond, the managing director took off to make small talk with a couple of ashen-haired men wearing large watches and suit jackets that shined under the cafeteria lights. They chatted like old friends, the managing director bursting into laughter at even the slightest joke.

By definition, Izzy was no lesbian–which is to say, Izzy had never been with a woman. The most she had done was a bit of sloppy, drunken kissing in college, nothing more than the stupid antics of a girl trying too hard to fit in at a party scene that was never meant for her anyway. But Izzy’s eyes told a different story, their gaze drawn again and again and again to the angelic crimp of a woman’s face or the tight gulf of her cleavage or the sculpt of her ass as she walked in front of Izzy on the street. In the half-dreams Izzy experienced in the space between late night and early morning, when she could direct the flow of imagination just enough without dictating the script, Izzy saw herself entangled with other women, their faces stolen from those glimpsed while out walking or spotted in the dark corners of the dive bars Izzy frequented when she wanted to be alone in a crowd. During the best dreams, Izzy could taste these women and feel their flesh hot on her palms, and when she woke from such dreams there were always a few genuine beats of wondering if the whole sordid scene had actually occurred.

Then came the realization: No. Made up. Fake. And then Izzy would get up and begin another day of being someone she wasn’t.

The dancer swung her hips away from Izzy’s face and spun around, her excited eyes searching out those of the men who had just carpeted the club’s floor in bills. Izzy inhaled again but already the smell of the dancer was gone, lost in a swirl of a cologne and whiskey.

“Izzy, honey!” roared the beer-bellied VP sitting next to her who went by “Big Matty”. “You took that like a champ!” He clapped her on the shoulder, holding on longer than he had to. “If it was me…” he shook his jowly cheeks back and forth and made a motorboating noise. The other men laughed.

“That’s more like Nixon, BM,” said a bearded giant on Izzy’s other side. Alex Kensing Jr. was his name, and despite the bed of wrinkles on his face his beard was blacker than those of men twenty years younger. He reached out a long arm and brushed the dancer’s hip. “Let me show you how it’s done.”

The dancer stepped away from Alex’s fingers, making the move look like her improvised routine. Then she began shuffling back towards The Velvet Chain’s stage, turning one last time to show the room her ass before she disappeared behind dark, heavy curtains. The thumping music faded and the lights were cut in dramatic fashion, the entire room pitch black for a few seconds before an announcer came on the mic.

“Ladies and gentlemen of the legendary Velvet Chain club, thank you all for coming out tonight!”

The crowd wooed and wailed and Izzy was grateful it was dark so that she didn’t have to watch as the pent-up patrons of the club realized she was the only woman there.

“We are pleased to welcome a very special guest tonight: the quixotic, exotic, and erotic Mistress Embers!”