The Guinea Pig
“Es-tu prêt?” Shiva said coming out of Maloe Melo’s restroom after changing into her street clothes, a burnt orange maxi skirt and a black shirt covered by a blue jean vest. She’d put her hair in a messy bun and had a wrap choker cord necklace tied around her swan-like neck. No longer the banshee, what Walter thought was a dream was becoming more real.
“Prêt comme je serai jamais,” he replied.
In the taxi, he learned La Lune Rouge was a Parisian cabaret, but with an Amsterdam twist. While not technically a brothel, there was a hotel above it, and if performers, who were often times either off-duty sex show workers or prostitutes, wanted to take someone up there to exchange money for sex off-premises, they could and did. Most, however, came to the cabaret to practice routines they put together themselves or with others.
“The cabaret is where I met Mags,” Shiva told Walter. “She did this routine to Bowie’s ‘We Are The Dead’ as Halloween Jack and I was floored. I don’t like everything Bowie, but that song and Diamond Dogs are all-time favorites. We spoke after about doing a show around the album, and it didn’t take long before we became best friends.”
“Where’s Mags tonight?” Walter asked.
“Working as always. She enjoys work more than anything else because it’s not prostitution to her, it’s theater, a world she’s in control of away from the one she’s not . . . She’s a dominatrix. Although when I first met her, the only money she made for sex was just for fun at La Lune Rouge, but then she found a character, Lady Duc de Glace, and a niche crowd there where she could express herself in ways she couldn’t on a cabaret stage. Now ‘La Duc’ not only dominates most of her life, but the Amsterdam BDSM audience. She has a waiting list over a month long.”
“Quite an interesting best friend you have.”
“Yes, but best friend doesn’t always mean good friend, just whoever happens to best reflect you at a moment in your life, and I have to say my moment in reflection with Mags has come and gone. But I have no one else in Europe, so she still holds my best friend card. It’s rare we see each other more than once or twice a week though. She’s effectively moved into the ‘lair’ she rents for ‘theater’ now.”
“How long ago did you meet?”
“Right after luna hunny went to shit. I was barely twenty and a lot more nihilistic since everything I had to live for had just been taken away, and Mags, being ten years older than me, had long before climbed into bed with nihilism and brought me right in with her for a time. I dropped out of the art school I was attending, became a borderline alcoholic, cocaine was my morning coffee, although morning was usually about sunset. But I rationalized it all because we were ‘saving’ lives, so why care about mine?
“But after Maria and meeting death in-person, I began questioning whether living in nihilism was a life worth living, while for Mags it was only more justification. Since then she’s only fallen deeper into drugs and ‘La Duc’, and although we still say we’re best friends, we’ve been drifting in opposite directions for a while. However, since I’m an illegal alien now because I overstayed my student visa and she’s an EU citizen, I’m anchored to her for almost anything I can’t acquire legally, including a place to live and most of my money. The money I lived on before came from a college trust fund set up in my mom’s name after she died, but once you overstay a visa, immigration authorities are alerted and monitor your bank accounts.”
“Why not just go back home?” Walter asked.
“It’s more complicated than that . . . Anyway, ” she continued on, “the cabaret was originally built as an underground nuclear fallout center.”
Eventually Shiva directed the taxi driver to an alley that seemed to go nowhere. The surrounding streets were soulless and veiled in darkness.
“Are you planning to murder me?” Walter asked looking out the window as they stopped.
“Yes,” Shiva said opening the taxi van’s sliding door. “But only because I want to show you the fun side of hell after, which is down that alley. Besides, if you still think this is a dream, nothing can actually kill you. So what do you have to lose other than waking up?”
“You, that is if this is a dream.”
“True. But wouldn’t I be also killing myself by killing you?”
“Well, how else are we supposed to get to hell together?”
She laughed. “You are clever,” she said then stepped out of the taxi. “But truthfully, all we need to do is walk down that alley.”
They walked to the end of the alley where a red, nondescript door was. Above it were seven stories of small, barred windows, three to each floor, all softly glowing like candles behind sooted glass. From the other side of the door, Walter could hear a muffled ruckus of shouting, stomping, pianoing, and fiddling. Shiva pressed a hidden bell fleshed into the door frame. Two minutes later it opened and a female hostess with short brunette hair and a foxlike face greeted them.
“Bonsoir monsieur, la dame,” she said, giving Shiva a knowing glance. “Le mot de passe?”
“Audaces fortuna iuvat,” Shiva replied.
“Welcome to La Lune Rouge,” the hostess said smiling.
She opened a door behind her to a sleepy piano bar with a few patrons scattered about as some lazy piano jazz chords settled over some still enigmatic ruckus wallowing the walls. Shiva then took him to a corner of the bar where he found the source emitting more loudly from a tightly descending corkscrew staircase drilled into the floor. “The real fun is down there,” she said.
They entered and spiraled thrice, then went through a dimly-lit tunnel into a small foyer with a drink stand from which they got two beers before entering the small, but filled and riotous cabaret room.
The room looked like a cave made from the belly of a whale with candlelight dancing along its bleached and uneven rocky walls. The whale’s brick backbone and ribs supporting the ceiling were greased by many hands over many years being easily within reach when standing on the long and wide wooden table that divided the room in two, which many people were. That’s why upon first impression it was hard to distinguish audience from performer, for the table in the center also doubled as the stage, but many of the patrons were also partaking in the bedlam of the performance. One plain-looking woman with glasses had even taken her shirt off—but left a bra on—and was wheeling it over her head like a flag of insurgency, while another couple was laid out at the end of the table-stage, dry humping each other as if no one was around.
At the other end of the table-stage was a small platform carved into the wall just big enough to support a saloon-style piano with player, a furious fiddler, and a small and stripped-down drum set with drummer. Two singers, a dandelion-haired drag queen about six-two and a tuxedoed woman with a fake mustache almost the same height were charging and chirping up and down the table-stage knocking over drinks singing an anthemic number in Dutch while bumping and grinding on the audience members who were also dancing on it. Shiva said the song was a local soccer favorite, “Blood, Sweat and Tears”.
While not perfectly fluent in either, Shiva spoke as much Dutch as she did French and switched between them and English as she greeted staff, performers, and other apparent regulars she knew while moving throughout the room with Walter at her side like an accessory not many people seemed to notice.
Once the song ended and the mood calmed, the dry humping couple at the end of the table-stage rolled off and staggered out to assumedly continue in the hotel above, leaving open the two best seats in the house.
“Shall we?” Walter asked Shiva, pointing to the seats.
“Sure, why not?” she said grinning enthusiastically.
“This next song…” the drag queen said in a French accent from the other end of the table-stage as they sat, “…is a song I wrote in English about the man who tore out my heart only to steal it away. I love you chéri,” she blew a kiss to the mustached woman who had taken a seat amongst some of the other apparent performers in the audience.
The drag queen then settled sideways into a chair she’d placed on the table-stage and her red silt dress opened revealing a long and elegant leg. She gave a passing glance to the piano player, then brought the microphone to her lips as a bleary, burlesque jazz number began playing. At first her lispy voice lumbered low, then soared into a tiny, tinny timbre, like that of a child on the verge of crying, enchanting the air with every sorrowful color of life:
Blood-drawn rain on a desert’s skin
That’s when I kissed your lips and found no end
But what is love without your design?
Does it feel? Does it laugh? Does it even know how to cry inside?
What did it mean to you?
For you to throw away my love like you always do?
So now instead my love hovers just above your heart
Like birds of prey waiting over a dying art
Oh Mother Myth and Father Fear
Throwing arrows through my ears
When do you think you've had enough
Of trying to press diamonds from the ashes of love?
At this point, the drag queen had walked from one end of the table-stage to the other and was now cloaked over Walter like a backwards coat as fleshly mechanisms began working at him through her thin underwear.
“Love is like a tiger cub,” she sang, “a good idea until it grows up. Crush to being crushed, crush to being crushed. So let me put on a show fer you tiger cub, let me show you my love...” she sang until the song’s end.
“Forgot to tell you,” Shiva said laughing after the drag queen relinquished him. “These two seats see the most action all night.”
As the show wore on, they were honored with a program in several languages from the whole of the world and sexual spectrum, a gathering of fetishists, misfit toys, artists, and exhibitionists featuring cabaret and sex show routines, poetry readings, and mime and comedic pieces. There were more lap dances and more stage-table dances in which Walter and Shiva’s singing voices and bodies got to familiarize themselves for the first time while grabbing ahold of the ceiling with one hand so they weren’t knocked over by all the other singing and familiarizing bodies they shared the cloister with.
After a rousing hour or so in the never-ending cabaret show that went into the daylight hours, they went upstairs to decompress in the piano bar. Upon ascending, the piano was playing a tune Walter knew well.
“Oh you pretty things...” he couldn’t stop himself from singing along to the melody only the piano was singing.
The piano player, looking a little like a latter-years Serge Gainsbourg, smiled back at him with a tobacco-stained grin and waved Walter over as he began singing along in a low, gravelly growl as Shiva teased the upper register, untangling something in Walter every time their eyes met while singing. The sleepy bar then woke up and nearly everyone was singing the choruses toward the end, which the piano player repeated over and over to stretch out the song.
“Do you know any more Bowie?” Walter asked when the piano player finished.
“Some,” he said in some Eastern European accent Walter couldn’t distinguish, “but I haven’t had cigarette for hour. I’m dying for air. You play?”
“Yes he does,” Shiva answered for him.
“Then you play. My voice is shit anyway. You two sound like angels.” He then grabbed his suit coat and vacated the piano to smoke outside.
“More Bowie?” Walter asked Shiva as they sat together on the piano bench.
“No. I want to be serenaded with the cheesiest love song you know, Bowie’s cheesy love songs excluded.”
Luckily he knew such a song, the first song he ever learned on piano actually, “November Rain”. So he began bellowing and playing the nearly nine minute ballad—guitar solos and all—but only in the style of Axl Rose at impromptu moments just to make Shiva laugh and snap her out of the trance he kept catching her fall into when he sang in his natural voice. Because the piano faced away from the crowd and their eyes were so distracted with each other, they were surprised by the loud applause when the song ended. They turned around and the bar was twice as full as before.
“Not bad job,” the piano player said returning, soaked in the stench of cigarette smoke. “You’re really good. You want to play more?”
Walter looked to Shiva who was trying to subdue a stubborn smile. “I think I’ve had my fill of cheesy love songs for the night,” she said to him. “Unless of course you want to.”
“No,” Walter said standing, “I think I’ve taken up enough spotlight for the evening. All yours again my friend.”
They left the piano and sat at a table, however, once the energy and patrons drained back downstairs Walter and Shiva found themselves restless.
“Do you want to dance some more?” she asked him.
“No, alone. On a houseboat.”
“Don’t ask questions. Yes or no?”
Walter smirked. “As long as it’s only dancing we’ll be doing,” he said.
“Of course,” she replied. “However, when is life not dancing? If you’re not dancing you’re dead.”
“See that boat up there?” Shiva pointed to a small houseboat about a hundred yards up on a lonely canal. “The owner is my friend and he’s out of town right now.”
“And he’s okay with you using his houseboat?” Walter asked.
“Yeah, fellow Deadhead. We’re very generous people.”
Taking her word, Walter followed her aboard, even though to open the cabin door she had to pick the lock with his credit card. “He always locks the easy one,” she said sliding the card into the doorjamb, “but leaves the deadbolt unlocked for friends.” Seconds later the door was open. “Welcome aboard Mister Huxley.”
Inside was a miniaturized kitchen and living room with a miniaturized couch and chair and even a miniaturized acoustic guitar hanging on the wall. Shiva went for the guitar and took it with Walter in tow and a bottle of wine from the kitchen to the only bedroom in the back of the boat with a skylight above the bed and a sliding glass door leading to a deck.
Keeping the lights off, Shiva cranked the skylight cover open and a ghostly moonbeam streamed in making the white bedding sparkle like marble. She lit a few candles around the bed before drawing the curtains and sliding open the deck door, letting the almost full moon peek in.
“Come hither Mister Huxley,” she said, “our dancefloor awaits outside. And I lied a little, I didn’t bring you here just to dance with you. I want to serenade you with a cheesy love song also, but I wanted to do it in the moonlight. You’ll see why.”
The wooden deck outside was the length of the boat with wooden trellises banking its edges for partial privacy. There were two canvas deck chairs and a hammock spread across one of its ends, which they opted to share bottoms in.
“I never actually want to be married,” Shiva said strumming the nylon strings of the small guitar as she tuned them, “but I always said this would be my first dance song if I ever have a wedding. It’s a Neil Young song. I hope you don’t mind.”
“Wow, you really are cheesy,” Walter said grinning. “‘Harvest Moon’ in the moonlight? If I didn’t know any better, I’d think you were trying to seduce me.”
“Not cheesy and not seducing,” she said smiling back, “I’m just a romantic opportunist and you just happen to be the right guinea pig on the right night—actually, last night during the full moon would’ve been a little more fitting, but I’ll take a slightly waning gibbous.”
“Well, your guinea pig is waiting.”
Suddenly she turned bashful and had to restart twice before slipping into the song. But once she did Walter became completely unraveled in her voice’s soft crystalline timbre and the silky patter of the guitar’s nylon strings up against the rippling water. In the luminous dew of the moon Shiva appeared powdered in starlight and her silvery eyes flickered like brightly polished coins every time she flashed them his way.
Too perfect for a dream, but too real to believe, Walter thought.
“Well guinea pig,” she said after, setting the guitar by her side, “what did you think?”
“I’m not sure,” he said. “Shouldn’t a first dance song be danced to?”
“I can only do so much holding a guitar.”
“I don’t see you holding one now.” Walter stood, then offered his hand to her.
“And what? I’m supposed to re-sing the song while we dance?” she asked.
“No, that would spoil the song for your first dance because it’d only remind you of your guinea pig. And what would your future husband think if he discovered your first time was not actually your first? No, I only need you and your feet. The sound of life will provide the music.”
Charmed, she accepted his hand and he brought her to the water’s edge. They laughed as they began to dramatically pirouette over the deck, mocking their absurdity, but every time their eyes met, they seemed to speak more seriously. At last their eyes clasped and wouldn’t let go, bringing their dancing silhouettes into communion in front of the falling moon.
Warm cheek to warm cheek, their quickening breaths stroked each other’s ears and neck, sending an exciting tension they could feel in each other’s firming bodies. Walter’s hand then slid to the small of Shiva’s back while the other swept aside a stray ringlet of red hair from her face. She then reached behind her head and undid her hair, sending it cascading down like a coppery lava flow over his fingers which proceeded to weave and run themselves through it. His hand on her back then pulled her closer as her hands around his back did the same. Now with foreheads pressed, their breaths tickled their lips and trickled down across their jaws, eyes locked and wide on each other. Then with one last caress their eyes shut and the space between their lips closed, immediately releasing the restless tension like a bungee cord recoiling, leaving them to reel and float in a careless air of mad peace as their mouths began dancing wildly to the music of the freefall. Losing feeling of the ground beneath them, they fell to their knees with lips still smacking.
“We’re fucked aren’t we?” Shiva asked through their kissing.
“Yes,” Walter replied, “but we can worry about that in the morning. Tonight, we’re only dancing.”