When the stripper strutted into the library, she couldn’t hide her dismay.
Probably, she and her bodyguard expected a bachelor party or investment bankers celebrating a big deal at the mansion overlooking the Newport Coast.
She wouldn’t have anticipated a pack of teenagers gathered to celebrate Faraz’s 16th birthday. All told, more than a hundred of us waited in the library, which felt old and grand, the kind of place where kings signed treaties. Her burly, bald bodyguard threw open his arms. “Get back, get back!”
The stripper was Chinese like me, or at least half. I could tell by the tilt of her eyes and the duskiness of her skin, which glittered like she’d been dipped in diamond dust. When she glanced at me, something flashed across her face. She must have danced for Asian customers, plenty of times, but I might have reminded her of her kid brother, a cousin, or someone in her extended family she’d sat across from at a Chinese banquet.
She looked away so quickly, I wondered if I’d imagined it.
A camera flash went off. “No pictures!” her bodyguard shouted. With a meaty hand, he grabbed the phone, deleting the photo before returning it to its owner.
Even from yards away, the stripper was the closest I’d ever been to someone about to get almost naked. Tiny, she perched on clear plastic heels that must have felt like walking on stilts.
I wasn’t naïve; I knew Asians could grow up to be strippers and porn stars. Yet each time I watched the Jasmines, Jades, and Alexxxas online—and I know this sounds weird—I felt if people ever saw me and the actress standing near each other in line, they’d assume we were related. Not together, like dating, but as if we were brother and sister.
This article appears in the Summer 2021 issue of Alta Journal.
Despite the bodyguard’s warning, my friend, Nick, began filming, shooting from hip level. He was always pushing it, though I suppose we both had crashed the party, which was mostly juniors and seniors and a few lucky sophomores like us. In the cafeteria, Faraz had issued an invitation to some friends, and we’d been in the vicinity.
Our high school had a handful of Chinese and Koreans, Indians and Pakistanis too. In the AP and honors classes, you might think you were in Irvine or Fullerton, with an occasional white guy, but there was only one other person like me that afternoon at Faraz’s: the stripper.
The air was swampy with body spray and deodorant. We weren’t the most enlightened bunch. Last spring, the seniors had run a prom draft, ranking the hottest girls in school and asking them out in the order of their draft numbers. Afterward, every male student had been required to attend sexual harassment training. Clearly, it hadn’t worked.
Nick pocketed his phone. “What’s your stripper name?” he asked.
“Stripper name?” I asked.
“The name of your first pet and the first street where you lived. I’m Kit Van Tappen.”
My parents didn’t allow us to have pets, but I used to cuddle a stuffed panda bear. “Oreo Arroyo.”
“What do you think her name is? Rainbow? Star?” Nick asked. “ ‘Me so horny. Me love you long time.’ ” He was quoting from that Vietnam War movie.
He’d noticed she might be Asian too, which made me feel defensive and possessive all at once.
“Yo, Rossi,” Boyle called out and fist-bumped Nick. He didn’t say anything to me.
My family had moved here when I was in the eighth grade, while everyone else seemed to have known each other since kindergarten and Little League.
The crowd parted, and Faraz presented the bodyguard with a wad of cash, with a flourish that was casual and showy at the same time: to him, big bills were no big deal. He’d go down as legend for the stripper party. His dark wavy hair crested like a wave, gelled to perfection, and his cologne smelled like black pepper and leather. His parents were out. They often were, for weeks at a time, shopping trips to Paris and fashion shows in New York, and it was said his family was descended from Persian royalty.
He’d reached almost the highest levels of popularity. Last year, he’d been voted sophomore class prince, and at the pep rally, the crowned couple were supposed to kiss. A questionable tradition that Mrs. Jansen—the mother of Suzy, the sophomore princess—had ended when she’d complained to the principal that “her daughter couldn’t kiss an Arab.” “It’s against our religion,” she’d told him. She must have thought it was better than what seemed the true reason: Faraz wasn’t white. Suzy must have told a friend who told a friend, but no one seemed to hold it against her. Maybe they secretly agreed.
“You think the bikes are OK?” Nick now asked.
We’d biked here and tucked them under the sage bushes. There was nothing we could have locked them onto, and besides, we were late because of the giant hill we’d had to pedal up. Who here would want a bike, I’d said, if they had a car or two or three? Faraz drove a sedan with a Formula 1 engine and the heft of an armored tank.
It was late afternoon, though you couldn’t tell from inside the windowless library. Wingback chairs were pushed up against the floor-to-ceiling bookcases packed with leather-bound volumes, their titles embossed in gold, beside a black marble fireplace big enough to lie down in. I paid attention to such details, pored through design and architectural magazines much as other guys my age might memorize the curve of a pair of tits or the shade of a centerfold’s nipples.
From early on, my parents had taught me and my brother, Albert, to respect wealth, to decode the secrets of Wall Street, to figure out intrinsic value and compounding interest and make our family’s fortune. With enough money, we’d be protected from most reminders that people didn’t think we belonged here. On weekends, my parents hauled me and my brother to open houses where they pretended they were in the market for a $20 million five-bedroom home by the beach.
The real estate agents with their blond helmet hair were always polite—offering us cookies, miniature bottles of water, and glossy brochures and leading us through the wine cellar, home gym, entertainment room, great rooms, and mud rooms, even though they could tell we weren’t those flashy, new Chinese who arrived with suitcases of cash.
“I want to live in a Versailles,” my mother had recently proclaimed as we drove to a showing. She didn’t care much for the rustic farmhouse look so popular now, shiplap and dull peasant stoneware in gray, cream, and tan. She wanted the shiny opulence of gold, crystal, and marble, the gaudier the better. Just like Trump, who was running for president.
Though my brother had rolled his eyes, I knew he was filing it away. Because he worked as a bank teller, he acted like he had inside financial knowledge, but I had no idea how to find a job someday that would make near enough to support our parents. To him, it posed a challenge; to me, it seemed a prison sentence.
Most places had been staged, and I came to recognize the couches, thick rugs, end tables, high-thread-count bedding, vases, and paintings of a lighthouse, sand dunes, and sailboats. Eventually, I would understand the furnishings were supposed to exude good taste and prosperity, yet also had to be as impersonal as a hotel lobby, with no family photos on the walls or the end tables. The homes that remained occupied were showroom neat, no dented rice cooker on the counter or spattered aluminum foil under the burners. Still, I sensed the life bulging behind those locked closet doors. If the other visitors weren’t hovering nearby, I searched through the teenagers’ bedrooms in search of pot, pills, or porn—not to take, but to slip into a drawer in the master bedroom or leave on top of the toilet tank.
I couldn’t wait for their parents to find it. They would blame each other, ground their sons and daughters, send them to therapy or reform school. After I rearranged his belongings, Faraz would deserve any punishment that came his way.
A couple weeks ago in French class, we’d divided into groups to film our skits of “Le Petit Chaperon Rouge.” Faraz’s husky starred as the loup in his video. In the credits, along with the roles of Little Red Riding Hood, the Woodcutter, and the Grandmother, he and his friends included the Big Bad Wolf, but instead of listing Jet, Bolt, or whatever the dog’s name was, the credits displayed Helen Wong’s name. They all snickered while she stared straight ahead, her froggy eyes glittering with tears, as she—we—realized they were saying she was a dog, less than a dog. I could have called out Faraz, could have tried to catch her eye to let her know how much it sucked, but instead I did nothing.
Actually, I laughed, too, along with everyone else, until Madame Brodeur summoned the next group. I didn’t have a crush on Helen—we weren’t even friends. I understood that it could have been me, that it would be me or Nick next, targeted if not by Faraz, then by another bully. I couldn’t stop thinking about it until we heard about the party.
I came here to mess with him. But—sure, OK—I also wanted to see the stripper.
Trying not to fidget, I dug my hands into my pockets. The stripper and her bodyguard bent their heads together, and a moment later, he announced that too many people packed the library. “Outside—now,” the bodyguard said. “The tennis courts.”
The tennis courts? If the library had been a strange setting for a striptease, the courts were even less appealing. The gloom inside would have kept us anonymous, and the daylight glare would expose us. Though Faraz couldn’t have been happy, he couldn’t argue with the bodyguard—even if he had paid.
He acted as though he’d planned it this way all along as he led us onto the balcony and down the wide stone stairs to the infinity pool, past the guesthouse, mosaic-tiled pizza oven, herb garden and beehive, and to the clay tennis courts.
We waited 5 minutes, then 10. Would the stripper set up by the net or in the corner by the benches? I hoped I’d have a chance later to slip back into the mansion. Nick didn’t know what I was planning.
“Go Sea Kings!” someone yelled. Our school mascot. Everyone burst into nervous laughter. Faraz, in his sunglasses, was trying to keep his cool, though I could tell he was getting impatient. He sent a buddy back to the mansion.
Nick asked if he could see my phone. His battery was dying, and he wanted to check something.
“But the bodyguard said…” I said.
He held out his cupped palm. “He’s not even here. I’ll be quick.”
Another moment passed, and the news ripped through: the stripper and her bodyguard had taken off. A vein as thick as a worm pulsed on Faraz’s temple. In minutes, he’d gone from all-time legend to all-time joke. Then he noticed Nick, who was filming him with my phone. My phone! I tried to snatch it back, but he’d started to move away.
“Who the fuck are you?” Faraz asked.
He advanced toward me and Nick, flanked by three yoked friends.
“Fight! Fight! Fight!” Denied the stripper, the crowd wanted another spectacle.
Faraz grabbed my phone and hurled it to the ground, the screen shattering with a crack and tinkle. His fist smashed into my cheek, and soon more blows followed as Faraz and his friends pummeled us. It felt like I’d been caught in the undertow at Big Corona, smashed and scraped against the rocks, unable to figure out up or down. Like I was drowning, heaving, gasping for the air that wasn’t coming.
The fight ended after a minute or two, maybe less, and I emerged with a busted lip and bloody nose, and Nick with a swollen eye that would bruise into black. Though my shoelaces were untied, my hands shook too hard for me to tie a knot. At least my sneakers were still on my feet. Nick had lost a checkered Vans, and his foot seemed pale and vulnerable, like it belonged underground.
As a final insult, someone lobbed Nick’s missing shoe at us. Wincing, he bent over and put the shoe back on. I blinked, woozy. I hadn’t landed a single punch, and I suspected Nick hadn’t either. We shambled away, zombies in the apocalypse. Out by the pool, Boyle wheeled over a keg, and a few guys started vaping.
Out on the street, footsteps pounded behind us: Bijan, who held up two water bottles. My hands clenched into fists. I couldn’t remember if he’d jumped us too. His fitted black T-shirt and dark denim jeans remained clean and unwrinkled. Maybe he felt like I had in French class: guilty. When we didn’t reach to take the bottles, he cracked the seals. “Go on. Take it,” he said.
I gulped mine down, but before we could thank him, Bijan had loped off.
At the security gate, we discovered our bikes had been stolen. Nick rustled his hands through the leaves, as if he might conjure them, stirring up the sharp, sticky scent of sage. Mine was a beater, a hand-me-down from Nick’s older brother. Nick, though—his bike had had a flat, and he’d borrowed his brother’s without asking, one of those sleek Japanese models worth almost a thousand dollars. He hung his head, his shoulders hunched.
I kicked a rock, which landed with a soft thump. Searching around the bushes, I discovered a gray leather wallet, camouflaged in the dust. Inside, I found $500 and a driver’s license for a Lily Wang. In the photo, she had a doll’s bangs, the tips of her shoulder-length hair had been dyed cobalt blue, and her lips, pressed into a thin line, were as black as a cadaver’s. She wore a nose ring, just like the stripper. She looked young, because she was young. According to the date of birth listed, she was 19, the same age as my brother, and living in Anaheim.
Maybe Lily had spotted the bikes and told her bodyguard to stop before she tossed them into the trunk. She could have dropped her wallet then. Maybe the bikes had pissed her off, reminding her that she’d almost performed for boys who couldn’t yet drive, who didn’t yet have facial hair, who would have showered her with crumpled one-dollar bills left over from midnight runs to Taco Bell. Or she could have wanted the bikes for her brother, for her neighbor—for her son?—and ours had been there for the taking.
I tapped my finger on her address. “We have to get our bikes back.”
“Anaheim?” Nick asked.
You would have thought I’d proposed going to a war zone. “You scared?” I asked.
“What if she didn’t take them?” he asked.
“She’d know what happened to them.” I counted the bills again. It could be Lily’s cut of the fee she’d split with her bodyguard, and wasn’t the money ours as much as hers? She hadn’t performed, after all. We could mail her the wallet, minus the cash, and we’d still be doing her a favor.
I looked back toward the mansion. If we brought the wallet back to Faraz, we could suck up to him. But we’d also lose the last of our dignity.
During the fight, I’d been dimly aware that people were filming us and that our humiliation would replace Faraz’s. So much for getting him busted.
Nick lifted his chin. “Fuck Faraz. The look on his face…”
When he imitated Faraz’s expression—stunned, open mouth—the moment he learned Lily had fled, I had to laugh. We laughed until we were wheezing, until our bruised ribs throbbed like beacons.
Three hours later, after a long walk and a bus ride, we sipped cherry slushies at a discount superstore near Lily’s. Holding the sweating cup against my face, I grimaced, but the cold felt good. I wanted to duck inside the walk-in freezer, sit on a case of sodas, and let the chill settle over me.
If we could rescue our bikes, we’d avoid a lot of trouble. It also felt like we were getting back at Faraz. With Lily’s license, he could have tracked her down, and by keeping it from him, we’d done her a favor. Not that she owed us. Well, maybe a little, I secretly hoped, enough where she might seem impressed when we returned her wallet.
Our faces were lumpy, like potatoes spotted with mold. A toddler in pigtails had burst into tears after seeing us, and her mother had hustled her off. We planned to tell our parents that we’d gotten into a bike accident, tumbled onto the sidewalk to avoid a driver who had been texting on his phone. The driver left before we could take down his license plate, we’d say.
Wandering around while we finished our slushies, Nick grabbed a pack of bubble gum, the kind shredded to look like chewing tobacco. “New flavor,” he said. If I were to guess, he’d try a few bites and dump the rest, which always bugged me though I couldn’t say exactly why.
In the clothing section, Nick flipped through a rack of logo tees and pulled out two. He gestured at our shirts. Mine had a ripped sleeve, and the neckline had been stretched until it hung off my shoulder. Dried blood spattered his.
A few people lined up for the fitting room. When my turn came, I was a little surprised Nick followed me in, but the booth was handicapped accessible, big enough for the both of us. While trying on my shirt, I glimpsed his furry chest in the mirror. The hair was dark and curly along his pecs, and a strip ran down to his belly button and into his waistband. I had none.
I pulled at the neckline. “What size is this?”
“Baggy clothes make you look like a little kid,” Nick said.
I straightened. “Like you know.”
“Lily knows,” he said. “Lily, Lily, Lily.” He smirked. “You hoping she’ll…thank you for the wallet?”
Neither of us had much experience with girls. It didn’t seem that long ago when I’d first jerked off, when I’d solemnly realized, “I can make a baby.”
“I’m just trying to get our bikes back,” I said.
“If you’re not interested…” He smirked again.
“You’re high,” I said. My hands had balled into fists, though. I realized then how much it had bothered me when he’d said “Me love you long time” at the party, how much it bothered me he might say it again. It was just a line from a movie. But no one would ever mock the way that his mother talked. No one would ever say something like that about his sister, not that he had a sister. I couldn’t really explain it to myself, let alone to him.
In the sporting goods section, I studied the price tag on a dirt bike, black with orange accents. Were we stupid to turn over our windfall? My brother would be the first to tell me that. We could split the proceeds and go home.
But then, we’d never recover our bikes.
But then, we wouldn’t see her again.
I heard rumbling, and Nick rounded the corner, whooping. He was pedaling a Big Wheel, his knees almost up to his ears. As a kid, I’d wanted one after seeing the commercial featuring mop-topped boys cruising down a leafy suburban street, the boldest among them spinning out like a Tokyo street racer. My parents could never afford one, and besides, we wouldn’t have had any room to keep it in the apartment. I might never have learned how to ride a bike, either, if Nick’s brother hadn’t given me an old one rusting in their backyard. Nick had taught me how in an empty parking lot at a church. Our rides had been rickety, but in the past two years, ever since we’d partnered up in freshman bio, the bikes had extended the limits of our world, taken us to the beach, to this party, to every mini-mart and taqueria we couldn’t have reached on foot.
The oversize plastic tires of Nick’s Big Wheel rattled on the scuffed linoleum as he raced past me. Grabbing the handles of another Big Wheel, I ran with it and then hopped on, letting the momentum carry me past him.
When he tried to edge around me, I blocked him. As I spun out, I leaned into the centrifugal force, the shelves blurring around me, until I realized I was about to crash into a wall of tortilla chips. Though I braked hard with both feet, I hit the Cinco de Mayo display at almost full speed.
A few blocks away from Lily’s, the neighborhood started to look familiar. Last month, I’d been in the area with my parents for an open house at a three-bedroom ranch, the sort of stepping-stone that my brother and I could buy before getting them a mansion. The house had had an air of bad luck, all avocado and mustard, shag rug and intercoms, but even it had seemed out of our reach.
Now the sun was low in the sky, and our shadows had turned long and slanting. Lily’s house, the next street over, was a tidy tan bungalow. Solar-powered lights lined the walkway beside a dead lawn. “Feng shui, no good,” my mother would have said, though. It was on a T-intersection, and every car driving down the street would shine its lights through the front window.
No car sat in the driveway or at the curb. She might not be home, or could refuse to return our bikes, and sic her dog, her boyfriend, or her bodyguard on us. When the granny answered the door, she recoiled at our battered faces. She was short and stout, and I didn’t see much of Lily in her. A television blared inside, and the scent of soy sauce and sesame oil and musty herbs hung in the air. It was the smell of my family’s apartment, too.
“Ni hao,” I said. “Lily, zhai…bu zhai?”
Her reply was rapid and hard to understand. She might have spoken a different dialect, or maybe I didn’t understand because my Chinese sucked.
“Nai Nai,” Nick said, calling her “grandmother,” one of the few words he knew in Chinese.
She gaped at him in wonderment. “Ta hui shuo zhong wen!” He speaks Chinese.
“Wo ye keyi,” I said. So do I.
She acted like she hadn’t heard me. After I pulled out Lily’s driver’s license and showed it to her, she shook her head violently enough to give herself a concussion. When I displayed the cash, she slammed the door.
We walked away. “What did you say to her?” Nick asked.
I shrugged. “Nothing.”
“It sounded like she was cursing you out.” He glanced over his shoulder at the house.
“That’s just how Chinese sounds,” I said.
We peeked into the alley and didn’t see our bikes. Nick swore under his breath.
“We could say when the car almost hit us, that your brother’s bike fell into the street, under the wheels of a semi, and it got dragged down the block,” I said.
He didn’t answer. He didn’t have to remind me that I’d convinced him to leave the bikes unlocked, any more than I would remind him what had happened to my phone. If Nick hadn’t borrowed it, if he hadn’t been filming, Faraz might not have come after us.
Back on the sidewalk, I weighed the wallet in my hands. “Maybe we should leave it,” I said. “On the doorstep or in the mailbox.”
“The money, too?” Nick asked.
“Why don’t you think her grandma wanted it?” I rubbed the leather with my thumb, picturing Lily’s hands on it. A light had gone on in the front window, glowing behind gauzy white curtains. “She wouldn’t even look at the license.”
“How do you know that’s her grandma?” Nick said. “It could be some random Asian lady who moved in. Maybe Lily doesn’t live here anymore.”
My lip throbbed, and my back felt kicked in, crushed like a soda can. Trudging to the dented aluminum mailbox, I hoped I might find something inside that proved Lily lived here. It squeaked open—empty.
Nick checked his phone, which he’d turned off to save the battery. He had an hour until curfew, though both our parents let me stay until later as long as we were under his roof.
“Tell them you’ll be late,” I said.
He kicked a pebble. “I’m already fucked. We lost the bikes. I can’t break curfew, too.”
By Monday, we’d be the joke of the school. Maybe we already were, after the videos and photos posted online, the freeze-frames and close-ups turned into memes. Even Helen, the girl they’d bullied, the girl I’d been trying to avenge, would be secretly glad they’d moved on to us.
If I told my parents that we’d been attacked, they’d never let me out of our apartment again. It also would confirm their profound mistrust of the world, their belief that everyone was out to get them, especially if they weren’t Chinese. I didn’t want to live that way.
“Why’d you have to use my phone?” I blurted.
Nick gnawed on his thumbnail. “I’ll get you another one.”
“You always act like that. Like everything is yours,” I said. The video game system we played, his brother’s hand-me-down bike, the endless frozen burritos and gummy snacks stocked in his house. His family wasn’t rich, but richer than mine.
“Take the money then. All of it,” he said. “Fuck Faraz, fuck Lily.”
I turned my back on him and went through the wallet again. I didn’t find any photos, only her driver’s license, an ATM card, and the cash. I slid out two punch cards from an inner pocket. In the fading light, I couldn’t read the addresses.
By Lily’s house, I squatted down to hold the cards under the walkway lights. Nick stood beside me on the lawn, the grass crunching under his feet. One card was for doughnuts, the other for pupusas, both on La Mesa Avenue in Anaheim. Each only had a couple punches missing, and the cardboard was crisp, not frayed. It was strange to picture Lily peering into a glass case at crullers and fritters, or scarfing a pupusa after her shift. At least she’d figured out how to find a job, even if it was a shitty one. At least she was worth something.
“I bet she’s nearby, and the bikes…” I said.
“Won’t be there either,” Nick said. “We’re lucky that old lady didn’t knock us around. We might not be so lucky next time.”
“I’m going,” I said.
My parents had said that Chinese should stick together. “Then why don’t you hang out with the neighbors?” I’d asked my mother. The ones across the street, or on the corner.
“Shanghainese, you can’t trust the women. Cantonese, all they care about is money,” she’d told me. She didn’t have to tell me: the more Chinese around, the less you needed them. There were Chinese everywhere, but plenty of times there weren’t, either, like at Faraz’s party. And when you were the only one, you longed for someone who might back you up.
“Don’t worry about the bikes,” he said. “I can fix it with my brother.”
“It’s not about the bikes,” I said.
Nick looked at me.
“It’s Lily,” I said.
He shook his head, as if to say not a chance.
“It’s because she’s Chinese,” I blurted.
“Because she’s Chinese?” he asked. “Why does that matter? You’re not Chinese. Not that Chinese.”
I shoved him and he shoved back. We stared at each other, our shoulders squared off, ready to charge.
“She’s a stripper,” he said. “You’re in high school. You can’t even drive. You think you can help her?”
“Maybe no one ever tried,” I said. I felt the sound before I heard it, the vibration deep underground, then the whoosh and whir as the sprinklers sprang on.
We jumped off the lawn, but we were already soaked. The curtain flickered in the front window of Lily’s house, and I wondered if the granny might have turned the sprinklers on us. I couldn’t help but admire her for it. Nick doubled over, laughing, and I threw back my head and roared. Then we both went quiet.
Nick handed me his cell phone. “In case you need it.”
Loud music thumped from the Taboo Gentlemen’s Club, located across the street from the doughnut place and next door to the pupuseria, a seedier block of Anaheim than most tourists would ever see.
My clothes had dried for the most part, though my socks squished in my shoes. Wiping my sweaty palms on my cargo shorts, I limped toward the entrance, a pair of steel doors. I handed the bouncer the driver’s license. It wasn’t the bodyguard from the party. “Lily Wang?” I asked.
He looked at the license and then at me. He didn’t seem to recognize her in the photo, or perhaps he didn’t know her real name. Maybe he didn’t listen to my question because he’d already decided to turn me away.
He laughed. “This looks nothing like you.”
“I’m looking for Lily Wang.” I enunciated each syllable.
He nodded. “She your bae?” he asked. “Or your sister?”
“I have her wallet.” I showed it to him. When I tried to retrieve the driver’s license, he slipped it into the pocket of his blazer. “I’ll get it to her. The wallet, too.”
“I need to give it to her,” I said. “There’s a lot of money in there.”
He grabbed the wallet out of my hand. “I’ll send her your regards.”
Without thinking, I headbutted him in the chest. A button on his jacket knocked against my chin, and white lights flashed in front of my eyes. The scab on my lip had torn open, and I tasted blood. Startled, the bouncer dropped the wallet. Scooping it back up, I ran. The bouncer grabbed me by the shoulders, spun me around, and took the wallet.
I pulled out Nick’s phone. “Wait—wait. I can show you where I met her.”
“I don’t give a shit where you met her.”
“At Faraz’s sweet 16,” I said. “Where she forgot her wallet.”
The bouncer raised an eyebrow and let go of me. Turning on the phone, I cued up the video Nick shot in the library, blurry backs and shoes, the ceiling, and Lily eyeing us.
The bouncer burst out laughing. “Lily likes ’em young. Real young.” Grinning, he swiped and tapped at the screen. I could tell he was texting himself a copy, probably to taunt her.
The screen flickered. “You got a text,” he said. “From your mom.”
Nick’s mom must be looking for him, and I hoped that he was almost home by now. The bouncer returned the phone and flicked his wrist to shoo me away.
I slunk off, and had reached the edge of the parking lot when I checked the phone and noticed an alert for another text—from me. From me? From hours ago, I realized, while we were at the party.
In the video attached, Faraz discovered the stripper had taken off, followed by the gasps and snickers of the crowd, and then sky and tennis court as Nick backed away. Just before Faraz had destroyed my phone, Nick must have sent the video to himself.
I watched the videos again. If they went viral, if his parents found out, Faraz might get what he deserved after all. I glanced up at the sky, half expecting a meteor to snuff me out in a fireball. My chest bubbled with an unfamiliar sense of hope.
A clank and thump echoed from nearby, the sound of the lid of a dumpster getting slammed shut. Though I couldn’t get past the bouncer, the strip club must have a back exit. I crept around the building and found the door, where the scent of industrial detergent and smoke machines wafted through the metal grating. Slipping into a hallway by the restrooms, I was debating what to do when Lily rushed past me, still in the zippered black jumpsuit she’d been wearing at Faraz’s party.
I followed her outside, where she dragged on a cigarette, her eyes closed. Her mascara had smudged, ringing her eyes like a ghoul, and her nails were bitten down to the quick. She seemed so tired, and I wanted to wrap a fuzzy blanket around her.
She turned her head at the sound of the squeaking door hinge, but didn’t open her eyes. “Give me a minute,” she said. She smelled like baby powder and fruity candy. The nose ring I’d seen in the photo on her driver’s license glinted in her left nostril. It made her look punk, and I wondered if getting it pierced had hurt.
A song came on, all synthesizers and drum machines. “When I was 17…let my mother mold me…never gonna stop. Control!” the chorus repeated. I felt myself nodding along, but she held still. Her lips twitched. Was she mouthing the words? No. Maybe she’d danced to the song so many times she’d gone numb.
“Lily—hi. Hi,” I said.
Her eyes flew open. She looked me up and down, her expression wary. She didn’t seem to like me standing between her and the door.
“It’s me. Rich. Richard,” I said, not that she would know my name. “From the party. At the mansion. I wanted to make sure you got your wallet back. The bouncer has it.”
She didn’t reply.
“I talked to your grandma,” I said. “At your house.”
“That wasn’t my grandma,” she said coolly. “That was my mom.”
As she tossed the cigarette butt onto the ground, I haltingly asked if she knew what happened to our bicycles.
She glared at me. “Go away. Go away or I’ll scream,” she said.
I had more to tell her, everything I’d thought we might have in common, but the words snagged in my throat. A pop-pop started up, fireworks over Disneyland. I’d never been. If we’d been higher up, on the bluffs above Newport Beach, we might have seen the bursts of color blooming over the amusement park, the stutter-stop of explosions trailing smoke across smoggy skies. We were too close, too low, though, to do much more than listen to the distant thunder.•