This bright yellow shirt. God knows how it ended up in my closet; figured it was some impulse buy or hand-me-down from back home. My friend suggested that I wear it, saying it would be perfect for a night out like this. The sleeves were cut off—the sides of the fabric had been sewn tighter together, so that it hugged my thin body like a second skin. The hem was cropped a bit too short, showing any passerby my bare waist. I kept pulling at the bottom of the shirt, straining to keep my skin covered.
A woman had dragged me into the crowded room. Her grip, strong and iron-like, crushed my pliant hand. Would she notice how sweaty my palm was? I trailed a step behind her—up the stairs and passed the couples all around us—seeing only her bright yellow hair and then the flashing lights from within. The men with the women—women with the men. The pairs all in various stages of foreplay, various states of undress. I wanted to close my eyes, keep the couples out of my sight. It made my chest vibrate in my just to look at them. Eventually, I decided on keeping my eyes on my shoes.
My own heartbeat got lost in the bass of the music, but the blonde girl tried to find it anyway, pressed as close as she was to my chest. Music throbbed against the walls of the nightclub, a force demanding to be heard. No one else bothered to fight it—they all got lost in the sound, rapidly falling in sync with it.
I didn’t quite know where to look. Up? Down? At her? Closing my eyes only made it feel like I was going to fall. Settling on looking at the woman instead, I caught a glimpse of her smile between the strobe lights. Bright violets, greens, reds—all radiated from every corner of the room, giving way to faint outlines of other bodies. And her smile, shark-like in how it threatened to bite, threatened to pounce; it felt weird to look at. Not a good kind of weird either. Red lips coating teeth that gnashed—all sharp and pointed. She wanted to rip through me, lap at the blood beneath my skin. People talked about feeling butterflies at the thought kissing, but I could feel no fluttering butterflies, just raging locusts. It was terrifying to look at her; the locusts would just swarm in my gut.
She seemed like a nice enough person, hanging around the bar, making eyes at the men that walked by. We hadn’t even spoken before she bought me a drink—a whiskey sour—and led me upstairs. She looked about my age, probably a student too. Not that age really mattered here, not now, not tonight.
I think she was from Sweden.
Those teeth of hers vanished for a moment, lost amidst the dense crowd. Locusts settled in my stomach and the music made it difficult to think, but I figured I could try and forget the strange sensation in my gut—a quivering of my ribs that made me want to puke. I was so afraid, and over what? There was nothing to be scared of. There was only fun and the Swedish Girl and the alcohol. I never was any good at dancing, but the whiskey sour melted my reluctance and hid the fear. Before long, an older woman kissed my cheek. Another cupped my crotch, which I returned with a playful smile, but all I could think about was how her long fingernails looked like talons—like a bird’s—grabbing at any flesh that passed by. Could she smell my fear? I spun away, pressed between bodies, and headed towards the small bar counter in the corner. The buzz from the whiskey began to fade, so I ordered another one and swallowed it down while the bartender started saying something, though she wasn’t easy to understand —the music was too loud or she said it in some foreign tongue. The drink climbed down my parched throat like an icicle. Was that normal for my mouth to feel so dry?
The Swedish Girl found her way back and so did her shark-smile. She sat on my lap and took the drink from my hand, making a nearby couple wiggle their eyebrows leeringly. I didn’t bother looking at them; I just felt annoyed that she took my drink. But the whiskey soon came alive again, burning through my veins, so who cared anyway? Swedish Girl jumped up onto the bar, showing off her short skirt and those sensible heels. She grabbed my hand again, too rough to resist, so I went up with her.
The people in the bar cheered along as we danced. I felt like a king on top of that small, wooden platform—imagined a jeweled crown on top of my head and Swedish Girl as a queen. The bar had become my throne and, looking up for the first time, I could see all the faces from inside that packed room. Even the bartender clapped along and whooped at us. At Swedish Girl and me. Together. She turned to me, pressing her waist against mine and leading my hands up her sides. The locusts weren’t there anymore, all having been burned away by the whiskey.
It was a good enough time as any to say something to her.
“What are you called?”
Swedish Girl looked into my eyes for a moment, no doubt trying to translate the English in her head. Her blue eyes glittered and flashed under the vibrant lights.
“Heidi,” she said back.
Heidi. Heidi sounds more like a German name, as did her accent. German Girl? Didn’t sound right. Neither did Heidi. Swedish Girl sounded better in my head anyway, so Swedish Girl she remained, though I would never tell her. We jumped back down from the bar after a while and rejoined the rest of the crowd, like drops of water merging with a puddle. She never returned the question, asking for my name, though it didn’t really matter. I probably would have come up with a fake one anyway. Something like Vincent, or Oliver, or James. Those were cool names. Grand names. Names of heroes from storybooks or gentlemen from older times.
She breathed into the shell of my ear. I always imagined my spine would shiver in a situation like this, or heat would throb through my cheeks. None of that happened.
Before I could say anything else, she grabbed my face and kissed me. Swedish Girl’s shark teeth flooded my mouth. How could someone respond to that? A cold sweat ran down my neck; nothing felt natural to me. I kissed her back, but knew I was not doing it right—all I could think about was hoping she wouldn’t notice. She grabbed my face—my shaking fingers tugged her blouse—she stuck her hand down my pants—I gasped in her mouth. Did I like this? My head pricked with needles and I thought I would throw up; I was her victim, caught between her razor teeth. She tugged my hair when my lips touched her throat. It hurt. It hurt enough to back away from, though she didn’t seem to think much of it. At that moment, I knew: I was just prey to her—a poor creature caught between her hunger. The kiss ended, but she just laughed, losing herself in the beat of the music again. I wasn’t lost, no matter how hard I tried to be. My body tried to mimic her, tried to lose itself, to forget itself—none of that happened. The butterflies stayed far away, not bothering with me with excitement or pleasure. All I felt was an awkward shame, a vague humiliation. What went wrong? Why was I so uncomfortable?
“I’m going to the bathroom,” she said, pointing to the back of the room. She skipped through the crowd, with everyone’s eyes watching her as she passed them. Their smiles followed, as did several of their hands on her ass. A man actually joined her inside the small stall, the bright light of the bathroom standing out in the sea of neon. She beckoned him in with her gaze, and just like that, the sliver of light disappeared. It seemed so easy for everyone else; why did I find it so difficult? So terrifying?
Her yellow hair was gone as were her shark teeth. I didn’t miss her. Not really. Thought about trying to—trying to make myself miss her and seek her out again. She was fun company—a distraction if anything, as long as she kept me out of her teeth. I did not want to be her prey again. Before that could happen however, another body came into my view. She was pressed close, too close to be without intention. Her coconut perfume stuck out against the smell of sweat and alcohol, and her skin was darker—her hair long and curly. Within her mane hung yellow, golden earrings that shimmered in the bouncing light.
I think she was Italian.
Italian Girl had no ceremony—no dance of her own to claim her prey. She dived in, touching my arms and my chest, and smiled. She didn’t have shark teeth, but her mouth was more like a cat’s—a jaguar perhaps, or maybe a puma—and she kissed like a cat. I responded to her, feeling always a step behind.
Shark-like, feline, gentle, slow, fast, languorous, messy—always different. I tried catching up to her, tried to stay even. Italian Girl figured that out and liked it; she kept kissing, kept grabbing at my face and neck. When her hand grabbed mine, and when my mouth was on her neck, I didn’t pull away like for Swedish Girl. Italian Girl didn’t pull at hair, and I hate when people pull my hair.
Her lips were putty in my mouth—soft and smooth, like mud or quicksand. But her tongue was rough like a cat’s and her thick hair tickled my face like fur. Not liking the idea of kissing a cat, I pulled away. Just like before, just like always, no butterflies came. Only those weird, ugly feelings that couldn’t be explained. It didn’t feel right. None of it felt right.
“I want to take you home,” she said aggressively, not expecting to be refused.
And so Italian Girl left.
Solitude fit well, better than any partner I encountered before. It felt good to be alone, to dance alone, without a partner to focus on. The strangers that surrounded me melted into the walls—not worth seeing or paying attention to. Only myself. Only the magic of that feeling, of being alone in a room full of a hundred other people. No locusts were left—no fear to keep me from losing myself in the beat. Skin touched skin; hands touched waists; eyes sought out other eyes. The partiers spun all around, with strobe lights bouncing across their clammy skin like moonlight. It was easier to enjoy without Swedish Girl or Italian Girl. No pressure—no expectations. No hair pulling or being groomed like a cat. Just dancing.
But solitude didn’t stay long. Swedish Girl came back, her eyes finding mine from across the dancefloor.
“We are going to go,” she said, holding the hand of the random guy that followed her into the stall. Swedish Girl’s skirt was lopsided, but I didn’t say anything.
“Here. This is my phone number.” She reached into my pocket and typed the number into the phone’s keypad. “You call me, yes?” Her thick German accent made it difficult to understand.
The number looked foreign. The European area code was unrecognizable, but I nodded anyway. She left, kissing my cheek as she passed, but the guy didn’t look up at all. He only stared at her back, with a shark smile of his own.
Solitude didn’t seem so sweet anymore, having grown restless with the noise and the heat. Everyone still danced and shouted and sung, but I stopped trying to join them, figuring it was time to finally go home. Hopefully, the nice bartender was still downstairs. She was a native, born in Greece and lived here her whole life. I liked listening to her stories more than dancing, so I thought about waving to her before leaving the club.
But I wanted a cigarette.
Never smoked in my life. Not once. But it felt right to try one, to see what it was like. I went up to the bartender, the same woman that had cheered us on up top of the bar before, and asked for a cigarette. She held one out between her long fingers. They were soft to the touch; perhaps not much different from my own. No claws, no teeth, no talons. Her smile was calm, reassuring, a human amidst a sea of sharks and tigers.
There was a small balcony outside the room. Beyond the pale blue curtains, the glass doors had been swung open to let the music out into the night. A breeze almost frosty to the face lured me outside, out of the sauna, out of the rainforest. A change of scenery—a chance to pause. Many of the other dancers had stepped out as well; it was a place for people to smoke. They sheathed their claws, hid their fangs, furled their feathers—all holding cigarettes. I figured I could pretend to be a smoker alongside them, having already pretended so much that night. With no claws or fangs of my own to hide, I crawled out of the jungle into a cool lagoon.
The sea air felt delicious on my face. I was hot and sweaty, stepping out onto that terrace. How many hours had passed? Didn’t matter. None of that mattered anymore. I had seen the forests, encroached on their territory, mingled with the beasts inside, and now I could go home. I leaned against the white railing, watching the older folks walk by, avoiding the nightclub like death. They probably partied like this in their youth. They probably were jealous of our youth, of our exuberance; their fangs and talons had all been cut off.
The air smelled like salt. Salt and smoke from the tobacco that floated all around. The cigarette was already at my lips before I realized there was nothing with which to light it. The bartender might have a match, so I turned back around.
But something plucked the stick from my mouth. Snatched it from between my teeth before anything could be said. A stranger—a man—had taken it. Hornets buzzed inside when I looked up at him, swarming through my ears, rushing all over. Mixed emotions flipped through my head. Pain? Not exactly. Terror? I felt awkward, but why? I felt unsure, but why? What did I have to be afraid of? His eyes penetrated every part of my body—burning through skin and flesh and muscle. He looked past my yellow shirt—past my mock hides and false fronts. All that remained was anticipation, a blend of surprise and smallness—doubt and fear—perhaps pleasure too?
“Let me get that for you,” he said.
He pulled a lighter out from his jeans and put the butt of the cigarette between his lips, lighting the tip with the little orange flame. A breeze fluttered between us, bringing with it the briny taste of the sea.
“The air smells like salt,” I said shakily, unsure of what to do or how to react. My body trembled. My cheeks burned. It was the fear, the numbness, the uncertainty. It was the alcohol. Perhaps, it was also the pleasure. He was handsome. He was polite and calm—another human in the jungle. Looking back inside the club was like looking through the bars of a cage, and we were both beyond it.
“Must be the houses,” he shrugged.
“Do you see how they are all white? They’re made of salt. Salt bricks—salt wood—salt mortar. It’s all salt.”
He winked. All I did was smile. I wanted to touch him. I wanted to kiss him like Swedish Girl kissed me. But I was not a shark; I was not a tiger. Would he think I was one if I just reached forward and stroked his cheek? Would I want him to think of me like that?
He wore a black shirt, tightly pressed to his chest. His pale features were flushed from dancing, sweaty from the heat. He was staring at me through the smoky haze. Blue eyes engorged with alcohol and lust. He released the lit cigarette from his lips after taking a long drag from it; his red mouth puckering over the end, torso swelling with air.
“Can I kiss you?”
Was he asking? Nobody else had asked. Nobody else had even bothered.
I wasn’t afraid anymore. I had no fangs to lash out or claws to pull him towards me, but I had hands to put around his face and legs to close the gap between us. My mouth was soon around his, and my hands around his neck. We breathed together, inhaling breath and salt air. The tobacco filled my lungs and ignited my blood. It was almost painful, almost too much—but this time, I didn’t pull away. It felt right. It felt good. It burnt away the hornets and they vanished, taking my doubts with them. All that was left was the smoke from his lungs, until something gentler simmered inside. They awoke from their chrysalises, wings unfolding, shimmer blooming, and delight washed over me as I stepped back and looked up at his face.
I felt certain at last, for the first time that night.
He ran a hand up my shirt, peeling away the bright yellow fabric from my flesh. It fit so tightly that I imagined a layer of skin was being shed. His hand, large and warm, slid around my waist and towards my back—a thought came to mind. I remembered where the shirt came from. From some second-hand store years ago, intended to be worn for a spirit day in high school. I hated the shirt. Didn’t like it because of the color yellow. Too bright, too aggressive. It wanted to be noticed but I never did—never cared to stand out; never cared to be looked at. Yellow got you into trouble. Yellow got you noticed by Swedish Girl with her shark mouth and Italian Girl with her cat fur. Yellow woke locusts in your gut that only died when you were alone. But the yellow was going away now. He made sure of that. He tore away the scales, ripped apart my hide, but it was all fake anyway; none of it was me. He still tore that yellow off anyway.
“Do you want to come home with me?” he asked.
And so we left. Moonlight and salt was all that trailed behind us, and the butterflies came at last.