While the first half of the book was quite unique and engaging as we get to know the characters and see their correlations to the story: Alex as Alice, Steven as the White Rabbit, Dinah the girlfriend/cat, a drug dealing caterpillar, and the Tweedles: Jesse and Colton. Set up as a promise from Alex to Steven that he will stop indulging in the various devilish delights that are to be found at the club, Wonderland, I was excited to see where the story would go. Possibilities seemed endless, even with some fairly cut and dried stereotyping of the secondary characters.
And then Steven is kidnapped and the mystery ensues. Well, that is, if Alex can ever get his head or body out of the multiple erotic and drug-induced diversions provided for his ‘healing’. Sadly Alex stopped growing, lost his tenuous connection to my empathy and my patience with yet another stereotype was exhausted. What could have been something wonderful and unique held on to only shards of brightness as the promise of the story as set up in the first half is shattered in convoluted, repetitive and often mindless acts: sexual and ‘mystery solving’. I still am uncertain as to who the killer was, and the kidnapper was just as unsettling. Early on in the story, Browatzke managed to solidly establish the sexual preferences of his characters, giving them emotional depth and showing the similarities and differences in homosexual choices to hetero readers. Then, he goes off on tangents that seem designed only to reinforce the extent to which the characters are homosexual, delving into stereotypes that felt, to me, slightly homophobic and dismissive to the community as a whole. I was disappointed and saddened: expecting more and getting less.
With a unique premise that works nicely in the first half, it felt as if the ideas had fled, and the author needed to add words to reach some unknowable goal. Missing the promise of the premise is always a disappointment to me as a reader, especially when Browatzke’s writing skills are SO apparent throughout the story. But, writing is not all that is needed for storytelling, and that is proven in this book.
I looked around the club and couldn’t believe no one seemed to care. The party was still going on! In the booth, the Hatter was on the decks, spinning away, without a worry in the world, and below him, on the dance floor, it was a sea of bodies, shirtless, glittered, glistening. Strobes flashed and lasers wove among the crowd, and heads were thrown back, hands in the air, in ecstasy. On Ecstasy, maybe. Who knew? Sure enough, the Caterpillar was at his table, and people visited him briefly, their money for his drugs, and then they were off to the bathroom, to snort, to drop, to bump whatever he’d sold them.
The air vibrated. It was the bass pounding off the dance floor, it was a hundred conversations being yelled out over the din. Here, the twins, in their matching tanks, eyes closed, muscles bulging, as they gyrated together in a cage. There, a flock of mindless twinks, fluttering about in the drama of the moment. Didn’t they know? Didn’t they care?
I sipped my gin and cran, and shook my head. I wanted to scream! Wanted to grab some passing boy and shake him till he understood. Maybe he’d only mattered to me. Maybe I was the only one who really loved him. Maybe to everyone else, he’d just been a face in the crowd, just one nameless pretty boy among all the other nameless pretty boys.
From the first moment I laid eyes on him though, getting into his white VW Rabbit, he had been so much more to me than just some nameless pretty boy. Sure, right then, he’d just been nameless and pretty, but for the brief second his gaze met mine across the parking lot, we connected. In those few seconds, I imagined a hundred scenarios, and in all of them, we ended up with a white-picket fence, happy-ever-after in Suburbia, away from this sea of smooth bodies, fast beats, and hard drugs.
Away from Wonderland.
But no, now he was gone, and the party was still going, and I was still sitting here, on my perch at the bar, where I sat night in and night out, watching the freak-show train wreck I called my life. And no one in this club could give a shit. Give a bump maybe, or get shittered, but actually care? Actually reach out and genuinely connect with another human being?
The Hatter spun, and the Caterpillar sold, and the people danced, and I sat there, staring at my ice cubes, thinking it was time to go home, knowing I would order one more. It was a Friday night, and that’s what I did. What we all did. We left our real world, our nine-to-fives, our condos in the sky, and we came down here, under the traffic, to a dirty little hole that lit up with beautiful lights, and even more beautiful people.
It was Brandon, beautiful and blond, all abs to the front, all amazing ass to the rear, and he was leaning across the bar. His eyes were blue, and my drink was empty.
“Sure.” His fingers brushed the back of my hand as he took away my empty, replaced it with another.
“On me,” he said, and he was back to the lineup. I watched him for a while, doing the graceful dance of the bartender. He spun about, pouring shots, cracking beer, dispensing drinks and flirts and seven-dollar ounces of happiness.
I twirled the drink around in my hands. I really had had enough, and I knew I should go, but I hoped he’d come. Still. Even though the Hatter had already announced last call for the first time. Even though the last thing Steven had said to me was that he never wanted to see me again. He couldn’t have meant it though. It was the heat of the moment and when he calmed down, when we’d both calmed down, we’d work it out. He’d come down those stairs, and through the crowd, and he’d take me by the hand and lead me to the dance floor, and with our bodies pressed together, we would kiss under the strobe, like we did that first night, and everything would be the way it was.
“You have five minutes left until last call,” the Hatter counted down on the mic, and Kesha mixed with One Direction, and the twinks squealed and the dance floor, already full, bulged with more people, one big writhing mass of beautiful, tragic homos. And not one of them knew or cared that he was gone, and it was over, and my drink was empty again.
“Brandon!” I yelled as he spun past me, dropping drinks down at the other end of the bar.
“Make it two,” I said, and slid a twenty toward him. He dropped off the drinks and my change, and I took the drinks, left the change. It was just money. And his ass was easily worth the tip.
I pushed back my stool, lurched to my feet, drink in each hand, and fought my way through the crowd. Eyes went up and down me, in that judging homo way. My eyes went up and down the people I passed, just as judging. I wove my way through fat straight girls and their skinny gay best friends, past the plaid-wearing lesbians playing pool in the corner, my eyes on the Caterpillar. I knew I shouldn’t. I knew Steven wouldn’t like it.
But he hadn’t come. And if all these people didn’t care, why should I?
“Alex!” I heard my name as an arm wrapped around my waist. An arm attached to the gleaming torso of one of the twins. He pulled me into him, and I lifted my drinks over his shoulders as we hugged, as we kissed each other’s cheeks. “How’s your night?”
“It’s a night,” I said, sipping my drink, my eyes darting past whichever twin this was to the table in the corner, where the Caterpillar watched and waited. “Yours?”
There it was. His name. Hearing it made my chest tighten. “He didn’t come out tonight.”
“Too bad! Come dance with us!” He went to take me by the hand as his look-alike came up and grabbed me by the other. I felt my drink spill down my arm.
“No, I was just headed home. I—”
“One dance?” Two matching smiles, four matching dimples, four sparkling green eyes, so much muscle. How could I say no? And with Steven not here, why should I say no?
And then we were on the dance floor, hands in the air, and I had one in front of me, grinding back into my crotch, and one behind me, grinding into my butt, and all around me, people danced and laughed and drank, and the lights were bright, and the music was wordless and fast, and faster and faster we danced, and I finished my drinks and threw back my head, and let myself get lost in the moment.
Steven hadn’t come. I had waited and waited and waited, and he hadn’t come. He had made his choice. The twin behind me was kissing my neck. I tilted my head back and met his lips with mine. He tasted like berries.
I twisted around so we were facing each other. Behind me, the other one lifted up my shirt, and I let him take it off. His lips were on my shoulders, and I paused briefly, thinking how I must look between their tanned and toned bodies. But then the one behind me slid a hand into my pants and I stopped thinking. And we danced and we kissed, sweat and skin and sweet sweet sin.
In the mirror that ran along the dance floor, I saw us, and what a sight we were, the three of us, three among the many, and it was wonderful and it was beautiful and it was wrong. It wasn’t Steven. And there, at the end of the mirror, I could see the Caterpillar’s reflection, as he sat there, beer in hand, and watched and waited.
Waited for me?
I squirmed out from between the twins, and their hands followed mine until the crowd separated us, and I looked back at them. Their hands had found each other, and they were kissing, and people watched as they danced, because the twins were beautiful and shirtless and gleaming, looking enough like actual brothers to be forbidden, taboo, exciting. I wound my way across the floor and up the stairs, and sat down across from the Caterpillar.
He smiled at me, raised his beer in salute. I raised an eyebrow in question, and I could feel the desperation on my face. It was late. What if he was out? He nodded, and I could feel the relief and the guilt and the excitement all mingle inside me. I slid my hand across the table, money hidden in my palm. He shook my hand, and I could feel the money disappear, feel the familiar little plastic Baggie.
Away from the Caterpillar I went, and back through the throng, now even more frenzied as the Hatter announced, “Last song of the night.” People were flooding onto the dance floor, and I was going against the stream, headed to the bathroom, where the strobes and lasers and swirling color went away, in an ugly fluorescent glare. I locked the stall behind me, ignoring the water all over the floor, the clumped toilet paper, the unflushed bowl.
I held up the Baggie, flicked it to loosen it, opened it up. I dipped in my key, scooped out some powder, and inhaled. My body tensed and then loosened. I was floating on fire.
Tucking the Baggie into my jeans, I checked my reflection in the mirror, looking for any telltale signs of drug use. Finding none, and not really caring either way, I went back out in the club, where everything seemed more real now. The music was just a little clearer, the lights were just a tad brighter. The twins were still lip-locked on the dance floor. I fought my way toward them, and reached them just as the song faded away into the silence of a hundred conversations, laughter and shrieks and disjointed words.
I was high and alive, and I had a twin on each side, and as the three of us found our way out of Wonderland and into the world above, I looked around the club one last time, and right then, I didn’t care either.