In an upscale restaurant overlooking Santa Monica Bay, I’m standing behind a long table. Every seat is filled with PICU nurses, and staff from other departments celebrating Kris’s bridal shower. Above the chatter and laughter, Kris holds up a scanty piece of lacy lingerie, a gift inciting a round of cell phone photos from the group.
Gerald sidled next to me, “Hey girlfriend, you’ve been working that same drink for an hour. Can I bring you something fresh?”
I smile at his thoughtfulness, “No thanks, this is fine.”
“How are you holding up, Niki? I’m worried about you.”
“Huh? I’m fine. Why are you worried about me?”
“I’m thinking how you might feel: Kris is getting married, your ex-husband is getting married. And Corey moved to Seattle with his family. You know.”
I didn’t know Gerald knew.
“You knew about me and Corey?”
“It was pretty obvious, especially when our group beer breakfasts ended.”
“I’m sorry Gerald. I haven’t been a very good friend lately, especially to you and Liz. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry Niki. I’m thinking you’re the one who needs friends now.”
Liz joins us. She’s carrying her purse.
“Leave it to Kris to live large,” remarks Liz. “I wish I was as fearless about life.”
“Why do you assume that quitting your job, and marrying a rock star to take care of his mother on tour is a risk?” asks Gerald.
The three of us pause to think about it, and then bust out laughing.
“So Niki, when’s Simon getting remarried?” asks Liz.
“How are you doing? Does it feel weird?”
“A little. Maddie’s so excited about it. Amber took her shopping for a dress, and I realized she has a stepmother now. I’m trying to see it as a positive, you know, like another adult caring about my daughter’s welfare, but sometimes I think Maddie’s comparing us.”
“You’ll always be her mother, Niki. Nothing will ever change that,” says Liz.
Someone pops a bottle of champagne, while Kris cuts pieces of cake passed around to the guests. A server brings the check. I notice Dr. Polk takes it and places his credit card into the leatherette folder without looking over the bill.
“You leaving Liz?”
“Yeah. I gotta get home, and check Nathan.”
“I was just telling Niki that the three of us should go out this weekend. Have drinks, some fun, and get our group back together. Are you in Liz?”
“I’d love too, but Nathan’s grounded, which means I am too. He’s been in some trouble lately, so I’m staying close to home.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. Anything I can do to help?”
“No,” says Liz, “but thanks for offering.”
“Well Niki, it looks like it’s you and me. Do you like cabaret?”
“I don’t know.”
“Meet me at the Raleigh on Saturday night, and let’s find out. Prepare for a good time.”
* * *
At the Raleigh, I hand my car key to a valet, grateful I don’t have to search for parking. Gerald’s at the club’s entrance, wearing a black v-necked tee, designer jeans, a grey sports jacket slung over one shoulder. His hair and light beard are neatly groomed. He smells nice when I hug him. I’m glad I decided to wear a little black dress, and pumps.
“Gerald, you clean up real nice!” I kissed his cheek.
“You too darling. I don’t know how toned your legs are when I only see you in scrubs. Love the heels.”
Gerald holds the door, and then takes me by the elbow, guiding us to a small table near the stage. A server in black slacks, and bow tie, but otherwise shirtless, instantly sets a scotch rocks in front of Gerald, and then waits for my order. “I’ll have a gin and tonic please.”
“Put it on my tab,” says Gerald, handing the server a bill, which he tucks into the waistband of his pants before walking away.
“I’ve never been to a male strip club,” I admit. “Or a female strip club either, for that matter”
“There’s a first time for everything,” laughs Gerald. “I think you’re going to have fun.”
Looking around, I agree. The dimly lit lounge is spacious. Couples and foursomes of men and women occupy the small tables surrounding the stage. Beyond the tables the bar is bustling and a small wooden dance floor already teems with people dancing to the heavy beat of music. Others stand around with drinks in hand, talking. In the far back a large group of women appear to be celebrating a birthday: gift wrapped packages and bottles of wine in velvet bags are piled in front of one of them.
The server returns with my drink, and places a small plate of cheeses, sliced meats, and bruschetta on the table. I notice there’s glitter on his chest.
“On the house,” he says.
“Tell Rubio, thanks,” instructs Gerald.
“You know the owner?”
“Yes. That’s how we scored a reservation for this table.”
The rest of the evening is almost a blur. The entertainers performed individually and then in groups. Our server keeps bringing us drinks. Buzzed, Gerald points out that if I look towards the stage through the bottom of his empty glass, “Things will appear larger.”
Laughing and nearly as buzzed, I wonder out loud, “What does it mean if you and I find the same dancers attractive, Gerald?”
“Does it matter?”
“No, it doesn’t matter at all.”