A coming-of-age tale featuring beer, strippers, and a transvestite pickpocket.
I was taking a bubble bath when my dad first told me about sex. Without warning, he hunkered down on the toilet across from the tub and began hurling words like “vagina” and “stimulation” my way, as my bubble cover quickly evaporated, leaving me naked and pruny in the tepid water. The awkwardness of this sex talk set the stage for our relationship on that subject.
Like nearly every other teenager since the dawn of time, I did not talk sex with my dad much. Not that he didn’t want to. It was he who tossed a box of condoms in my lap one rainy afternoon after picking me up from school. “I can teach you how to get those on,” he told me as I quickly shoved the golden box into the glove compartment and changed the subject. Though my dad was open to the subject, we rarely discussed sex—I was busy with other things, like not being creeped out. Over time, I think my father began to see his drama club son as a prude, and so set out to do something about it. That is how we ended up in Tijuana.
To my dad, who loves his family and unchecked debauchery in near equal amounts, a family vacation to Tijuana, Mexico, was a natural. You may not think binge drinking and family fun go well together, but my dad can squeeze them into one happy snapshot. Tijuana, for those planning a trip with the kids, is the place revelers go when they want to shake the puritanical shackles of Bangkok and Rio. If whatever happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, whatever happens in Tijuana makes unicorns cry. The city has always held a special power over my dad, its gravitational pull drawing him southward with the promise of discount tequila and illegally obtained penicillin. And of course, fun for the whole family.
On this trip, my dad seemed particularly interested in getting some guy time in with me—a little father-and-son bonding before I went to college that fall. So once we crossed the border, my stepmother immediately shanghaied my brother and sister away to satisfy their back-to-school needs with knock-off products like Reebork shoes and Gnucci handbags. My dad put a hand on my shoulder and held me back. “Cole, why don’t you and I head up the road and grab a beer.”
I followed, and soon, spread out ahead of us, was an avenue of nothing but unpretentious strip clubs as far as the eye could see—brown and ashy tenement buildings, slumping forward with no intention of overselling the erotic wares contained within. In front of every unassuming club gathered groups of men leaning on wooden posts, carnies barking at us. Insinuations of the coldest beer and hottest chicks smacked from every direction. The pitchmen stretched far out over their posts, braying, berating, and shaming us to “come see something sexy!”
“Hey, mister!” one of them howled to Dad. “Why don’t you come in and make your boy a man!” I had to shrink away from the remark, being a freshly minted 18-year-old. Dad tossed back, “Oh yeah? What does your place have that the others don’t?”
“Mmmm,” the barker moaned, rolling his eyes back in his head and rubbing his stomach as though he’d just finished a meal. “We got the best ladies in the world right here.” My dad had to appreciate the plucky bravura of this man’s pitch, the sheer hyperbole. He steered me toward the entrance. A rickety staircase meandered its way up to the club. This sudden detour in the vacation itinerary made me anxious.
The fact is, I don’t see the allure of strip clubs. Getting drunk with a bunch of guys and having erections together seems a little weird. I don’t need to have my stimulation encouraged by close friends, shouting, “Dude, you horny?” and capping it with a fist bump. Often people say it’s “entertainment.” No. Movies are entertainment. Watching a game is entertainment. If a stripper wants to entertain me, then while she is naked she should tell me a story. Play a little tune on the recorder. Do a magic trick.
Maybe I’m resistant to this sort of male bonding because as a young boy one learns to be as guarded and stoic as possible or risk being found “gay.” Though they have no informed concept of homosexuality, there is nothing little boys enjoy more than attempting to out one another. As a result, their gaydar is a bit off. Talk about spending weekends with your grandpa? You’re gay. Like your sandwiches with the crusts cut off? Gay. Then those same little homophobic boys grow up to become guys who sit in dark rooms and excitedly share their boners with other men.
I can’t quite wrap my head around it.
The club was about the size of a studio apartment, darkly lit with a smattering of sticky tables. Dad ordered us beers and a waitress brought them over. Hands full of drinks, she straddled my thigh, negotiating her hips precariously close, practically sitting right down. “Cole, put your hands in your pockets,” my dad ordered. “She’s trying to shake you down for change.” How did my dad know? Where had he picked up this kind of arcane knowledge? If this woman could extract my change without the use of her hands, she was welcome to it. I wasn’t about to ram my fists into my pockets in a strip club.
The entertainment looked remarkably tame. The strippers weren’t naked—just in their underwear, which I found both bizarre and comforting. They marched robotically back and forth, running their fingers under their bra straps, staring a hundred miles away. After years of waiting tables, I now recognize the look. It’s the dead stare of those toiling their lives away in the service industry. There is nothing erotic about that look. I sucked down my drink and searched for something interesting about the ceiling, trying not to make eye contact.
This was to be a seminal moment between father and son. These gyrations were meant to bring us closer together. So where was my enthusiasm? Lord knows I couldn’t normally control my libido. Every other waking minute of my life I spent chasing after girls Wile E. Coyote–style, constantly running off cliffs and getting blown up. Why should the old sex drive take a siesta now? Why couldn’t I shout “Show me your boobs!” just once? You know, for Dad.
Dad picked up on my lack of interest and suggested we go.
“This place sucks,” he said. “They’re not even naked anyway.” I knew he was letting me off the hook and I felt like I let him down. At the top of the staircase, our waitress dashed out of the club. She took a hold of my dad and lip-locked him, running her hands all over. Then it got weird. He spun her around and pinned her against the wall. Hard. I blinked dumbly, trying to figure out what the hell was going on. When the haze cleared I saw in her hand, the one pinned against the wall, his wallet. He had done it in one quick, cat-like motion, unexpected from a portly, middle-aged father wearing a Hawaiian shirt. It was the coolest thing I had ever seen my dad do. (Not that one should make a practice of manhandling people of foreign lands, but it was pretty neat.) My dad was like James Bond with a fanny pack.
A thick guy popped out of the door.
“Hey, what do ya think—”
My dad cut him off. “She tried to rip me off. We’re outta here, chief.”
Whoa, I thought, my dad just blew off a Tijuana bouncer! And he meant business, too. You’re not screwing around when you call someone “chief.” On the way down, I kept an eye behind me to make sure the bouncer wasn’t bringing reinforcements. Dad didn’t. “Incidentally, Cole,” he said, “did you notice our waitress was 5′ 11″ and had an Adam’s apple? Gotta watch out for stuff like that.”
The information hit me like a cherry bomb flushed down the toilet of my mind. KA-BOOM! My first transsexual.
Back on the street, sunlight fried my eyes. I squinted in my father’s direction. For the first time since I was a kid I saw him as something more than just Dad. More than the guy who wore floral ties and penny loafers. More than the guy who waited up to chew me out when I broke curfew. We caught up with the rest of the family. My stepmother asked where we had been. “Just took Cole to see some strippers.” She shrugged. (This is why my stepmother makes such a good match for my dad. Statements like “went to see some strippers” do not faze her.)
On the way back to the states, I wondered where my dad had picked up those kinds of survival skills. My mind wandered: secret foreign adventures, raucous sexual exploits. Maybe he wore an eye patch. There was some mystery left in the old man. Was I impressed he could take on a stripper? No, but I was intrigued by all the things I still might not know. Somehow pornography, not to mention violence, had brought us closer together. Not in a dark room, but in the light of day.