A Sort of Happy Ending
Travel Stories: David Farley was 15 when his older brother took him to a strip club in Mexico to make him a man
06.08.13 | 1:34 PM ET
Within an hour of checking into our hotel in Ensenada, my brother Bob and sister Diane, eight and five years my senior, respectively, were strolling down bar-flanked Miramar Street. The scent of day-old oil from fish taco carts mingled with the salty seaside air; neon signs for Pacifico and Dos Equis helped create the feeling that I’d just stepped into a circus of vice. Already blitzed beer-bellied gringos, wearing Corona tank tops, shorts, and sandals, wove down the sidewalk. We popped into bars, drinking a beer or doing a shot of tequila, then moved on to the next. After the fifth or so, these dimly lit norteño-packed bars all began to blend.
I knew, though, the second we entered El Pescador that this place was different. Maybe it was the lace-clad servers who were dressed like they’d raided Apollonia’s closet before a Prince concert. Or maybe it was the bare-breasted woman writhing against a pole on a catwalk in the center of the room.
Bob held up three fingers to the bartender and mouthed cerveza over a thumping bass line while Diane headed for the bathroom. I was 15 and this was the first time I’d ever seen a woman’s breasts in the flesh. I stared. So much so I didn’t notice Bob was about 10 feet away chatting with a woman.
“Okay,” he said when he returned to the table. “Diane and I are going to check out some 18-and-over bars. And you…” He paused. “That woman I was talking to is going to strip in a few minutes and then you’re going to go with her.”
“Go with her?” I asked. “Where?” Instead of answering me, he said: “Everything’s taken care of. Have fun.” Then they walked out of the bar.
I was an acne-spotted, guitar-playing 15-year-old living in suburban Los Angeles. When my older brother came home on a two-week leave from the navy, he had something in store for me. We were never very close. In fact, I grew up terrified of him. In addition to the frequent threats he’d level at me, he exuded a fearlessness that I both trembled at and admired.
Bob would often pressure me to ride into the hills with him, shotguns loaded up in the back seat, so that we could shoot birds and other small animals. I didn’t like doing these things—I’d much rather have been riding bikes with friends or playing my guitar—but no one in my family could control him. On the other hand, I was fairly obedient and open-minded. For whatever reason—perhaps because our dad was at work so much and generally emotionally distant—I identified more with the women in my family, my mom and my two older sisters. I never thought I was gay but I just felt more comfortable around them than my brother and my dad. My brother’s interpretation, though, was that I needed an education in manliness. “I’ll toughen him up,” I once heard him say to our mom.
So one day during his visit home from an aircraft carrier in Japan, I encountered him in the garage. I was parking my BMX bike and he, as was his wont, was tinkering with some car part. I sighed when I saw him, thinking a trip up in the hills to kill animals was suddenly in my not-so-distant future.
“You been laid yet?” he asked.
Since I’d gone through puberty two years earlier, girls had a serious stranglehold on my thoughts. All I wanted in life was 1) to be a rockstar and 2) to have a lot of sex. And preferably 3) to be a rockstar who had a lot of sex.
I shook my head no and my brother replied: “Well, before I go back to Japan, I’ll see if we can change that.”
“Okay….” I said. I knew exactly what he meant without saying anything further. A prostitute. I have to admit, I was a tad ambivalent. Did I really want to lose my virginity to a prostitute? Not really. But at the same time, yeah, really.
That weekend, Bob and I drove down to Hollywood, about 25 miles from the crappy suburban town we grew up in. We cruised the streets and when we’d see a woman with big Aquanet-cemented hair and a short skirt standing just down a side street, Bob would swing our dad’s red Mustang over to the side of the road. Each time, though, the women would take one look at 15-year-old me in the passenger seat and walk away, the clink and tap of their tall stilettos echoing into an unusually quiet Hollywood night. By the seventh or eighth time Bob was ready to accept defeat.
“Oh well,” he said. “We’re going to Ensenada next weekend. We’ll do it there.”
So there I was, 15 years old and sitting alone in a strip bar in Ensenada, Mexico, nursing a bottle of Corona, and waiting to have sex for the first time with one of the bar’s middle-aged employees. I was two or three years removed from playing with Star Wars figures, being afraid of the dark, and pissing the bed. As the music shifted from American to Mexican pop and the gringo crowd let out a roar for the next dancer to emerge from the beaded curtain, I gripped my now-warm beer, feeling like some kind of man-child, suddenly forced (somewhat willingly) into these adult vices before my time.
That next dancer, in fact, was Margarita, the woman I was supposed to “go with.” She was in her mid-30s with bleached blond hair and high cheekbones. She was thin but slightly big boned, giving her a vague—but not necessarily off-putting—masculine essence. I think my mouth fell open when she unbuttoned her lacy bra; my thoughts shot to an image of my hands on her medium-sized breasts. She embraced the pole, rubbing on it so sensually she seemed to be trying to make it more erect. This went on for a few more minutes, until, her mini-skirt still on, she walked back through the beaded curtain. I wasn’t sure if Bob meant to go with her right when she was done or to wait for her. I took one more swig of my warm beer and launched myself onto the catwalk. I felt my face redden, as everyone in the room certainly thought I was so taken by Margarita’s act with the pole that I couldn’t resist running after her right then and there.
When I got backstage, there was movement everywhere: women applying make up in light bulb-framed mirrors, women going in closet-sized, white-stuccoed rooms to presumably change, women spraying themselves with large perfume bottles. Most surprising was that no one even reacted to my presence, as if a teenage boy chasing one of the strippers backstage were a perfectly normal occurrence. Every dancer seemed to be jammed into this living room-sized space. Except for Margarita. I walked back through the curtain and laughter echoed through the room, guys taking joy in what seemed like my defeat.
Five minutes later, I looked up and Margarita was walking toward me smiling, a gap between her two front teeth.
She led me into the Ensenada evening where smoke rose from a line of taco carts and Corona signs flickered. I could smell the cologne from a group of Americans getting into a taxicab across the street. Margarita, now with her arm locked around mine, took me into the street and flagged down a green and yellow cab.
She spoke Spanish to the driver, ignoring my inane small talk for most of the ride. I watched the road instead; with each passing block, it became narrower and the neighborhoods more desolate. There were no longer streetlights in this part of town; one corner of an intersection was illuminated by dancing flames in a metal trashcan, the other side by a Coke sign, the familiarity of the red and white logo easing my nerves slightly. But when we rounded a corner into the dark, my nerves ramped up again.
I didn’t know if 5 or 25 minutes had gone by but we finally stopped. Margarita turned to look at me, which I took to mean I should pay. I pulled a wadded up peso bill from my pocket and handed it over. The driver offered no change and Margarita nudged me with her knee to get out.
The inside of her second-floor apartment was modern. I’m not sure why but this surprised me. The décor seemed like it had been chosen by a Hollywood set maker, or as if Margarita had followed every word in the “Prostitution for Dummies” chapter on interior decoration. A slow, swirling red lava lamp lit up one of the purple walls and a couple of pink shag rugs covered the tiled floor. I stood in the middle of her living room, paralyzed, illiterate in the ways of seduction. Margarita approached me slowly until her face was inches from mine. That gap between her two front teeth now looked as big as the doorway through which I wanted to flee. She stuck out her tongue and licked my upper lip.
“You want to smoke a joint?” she asked. I shook my head. Instead of smoking one herself, she began caressing me, eventually working her hands below my waist. I let out what felt like all the breath in my body the second she touched me.
“You like?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I said, in between my increasingly heavy breathing. I nodded for much too long.
I took this as an invitation to reciprocate. My only experience with sex hitherto was a couple years ago when Diane’s boyfriend stopped by and popped a porn film into the VCR when my parents were on vacation. This is how I imagined it would be for me when I finally got the chance. After the requisite and reciprocal oral sex, we’d try out four or five positions before I’d—finally—pull out and release on her stomach. And so, quickly remembering the choreographed sex in the pornography I’d seen, I started with Margarita’s breasts, which were about big enough for my young hands to fully cup. My sweaty hand indecisively rotated between the two of them. With my other hand, I quickly moved down, letting my fingers graze her stomach, and stopping at her waist. Now was the moment I’d been waiting for, I thought.
I lifted her skirt and slid my hand up. But I was met by a rubber pad.
“Oh no, honey,” Margarita said, shaking her head from side to side. “Not tonight.”
“Ah,” I said. “It’s that time of the month?”
Instead of responding Margarita fell to her knees in front of me. She’d had most of me inside her mouth for approximately five seconds before I released into her throat. She pulled back and looked shocked. I shriveled, embarrassed.
“Why you don’t tell me?” she asked, wiping her lips with her forearm.
I didn’t know. I just shrugged and zipped up my pants. At that moment, I didn’t care. I was just happy it was over. Margarita grabbed her keys from the top of the dresser and said, “Vamonos.” The cab was waiting for us when we got down the steps to the street.
On the way back, passing the still burning trashcan and the lonely Coke sign, I didn’t try to make small talk. I would have sounded like a Tourette’s syndrome sufferer with all the thoughts sprinting through my head: “Yay!” “Whew!” “Oh my fucking god!” “Wait, did I just get blown by a prostitute?” “Where the fuck am I?” “I can’t wait to talk about this at baseball practice on Monday.”
When the taxi stopped in front of the strip club, we went through the same motions as before: Margarita looked at me, I paid, and she nudged me out. She strutted back into El Pescador without saying a word to me. I considered following her but I wasn’t sure why. Instead, I walked back to the hotel, looking into all the packed bars, wondering if I might see Bob and Diane.
The next morning while my sister was in the shower, Bob looked at me, that wry smile back on his face. “So,” he said. “How was it?”
I told him what happened—and what didn’t happen.
“What?” he said “I paid her to do everything with you. Fuck!” He bit down on his lower lip and turned away. He was thinking. I didn’t like this. “We’ll stop in Tijuana on the way home today and do it there.”
“Um .... it’s okay, Bob. Really.”
“What, are you a fag?” he said. “We’re stopping.”
That’s when I realized this had nothing to do with me. It never really did. Bob was just projecting his own insecurities onto me. And, at 15, I wasn’t brave enough to resist him.
A few hours after my brother demanded we make a special stop on the way home, we were strolling the streets of TJ, passing tacky souvenir stands and the sad white donkeys painted with black stripes (“PHOTO WITH ZEBRA! $1!”). We walked into a bar and took a seat at an empty booth where we were instantly enveloped by four women. In what seemed like seconds, I was in a back room with one of those women—a frumpy, middle-aged lady who had not uttered one word to me. She put a condom on me and sat with her back to me, going up and down for about 10 minutes until my moans indicated I was finishing.
When I walked back into the room, I nodded at my brother. He nodded back and we walked through the streets of Tijuana in silence, past those lonesome donkey-zebras, who seemed sadder now than ever; past several guys trying to lure us into strip clubs and brothels. I was now apparently a man.
Fast forward 23 years. For my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary, my oldest sister, Cathy, flew the entire family—including Bob and Diane—to Los Angeles and paid for everyone to go on a three-day cruise to Mexico. To Ensenada, to be precise. During our one day off the boat, we went on a sort of pub crawl through town. About midway through the cerveza-drinking extravaganza, my 29-year-old niece put her hand on my shoulder and leaned into my ear: “Want a pot brownie, Uncle David?” I devoured it. When it kicked in, I began aimlessly walking, pausing at taco carts to eat, gazing at the compendium of offerings affixed to the façades of pharmacies while wondering if I should take a few euphoria-inducing souvenirs home. I decided not to and wandered on, thinking I’d slowly make my way back to the boat. But then, as if a light from the heavens had been cast down, beaming onto a store-front sign, I saw it: El Pescador.
I went in. As I fumbled my way through the dark room, all I could make out was the familiar sound of thumping dance music. I sat down and when my eyes adjusted to the light, I realized there were three guys sitting next to me on the banquette, each one with a stripper on his lap. It was more than two decades later, but somehow I kind of expected to see Margarita and her pretty, gap-toothed mouth prowling around.
She wasn’t. Instead, an attractive, thin, barely dressed woman tried putting herself on my lap. I’d never had a lap dance, and I was too stoned to start now. I brushed her off. She strutted away and as soon as she went through a door, another woman was dispatched toward my lap. I quickly and nervously cut my hands through the air, indicating I wasn’t interested.
Seeing these women, their particular feminine curves, their thin hands, the soft voices, and in this very particular, familiar context, I had an epiphany. The raspy voice, the masculine essence, the big-boned body. And then there was that rubber pad. Unlike when I was 15, I now know something about what goes on during that time of the month. And it has nothing to do with a thick rubber pad. Margarita, I realized at that moment, was no woman.
I’m pretty sure now that my first sexual encounter was with a transvestite. A Mexican transvestite prostitute. And I was—and still am—totally okay with that. Growing up I was pushed by my brother to be the man he wanted me to be; and Margarita—in a much more extreme way—was trying to be the woman she wanted to be. Because I didn’t like shooting animals or watching football, I didn’t totally fit in with the men in my family. My family, in fact, didn’t really know what to make of me. So they did what they thought was best for me, what they thought I needed. And Margarita had issues with fitting in and doing the “right” things her society prescribed for her.
Sitting there, watching the three men next to me fondle their lap-ladies’ breasts, shooting aren’t-we-cool looks at each other, I realized I really didn’t fit in here, either. By the fifth stripper who paraded out, I finally decided to say something, the only thing I could think of saying that would be convincing enough to make them stop. To just lie.
“Yo soy gay,” I said.
“Ah,” the short-shorts-wearing woman in the stilettos said. “I respect you very much, meester.”
Then I took one more swig of my beer. No, this time I didn’t run up the catwalk through the beaded curtain. I walked out into the Baja California sunlight.
Another version of this story first appeared in Nowhere magazine.