The Uber ride from the Southern San Diego Campus to Tucker’s seemed terribly short in the face of how much time Manny felt he needed to prepare himself. It was Sunday night. Stepping out of that car alone and into the odd, mingling figures outside the restaurant was ten times more frightening than it had been with Israel there. The Uber drove away, leaving Manny on the curb in the neon lights.
It had to be after dark. Though Manny would have strongly preferred daylight, he was fairly certain Angel would not be here in the daytime. Maybe Cali and Brice had picked him up on Lafayette Street after his shift at Tucker’s. If it had really been around two in the morning, Angel worked a night shift.
The restaurant door felt heavier than it had last time. A similar mix of people sat at the bar, all older men, but of different ethnicities. This time, two employees were visible—one was wiping down tables in the far corner, the other was the same bartender Israel had spoken to. Manny walked up to the bar.
“What can I do for you?” She was wearing her hair in a ponytail just like before, large hoop earrings swinging against her neck as she dried clean glasses with a small towel.
Manny’s hands twitched at his sides. His eyes shifted around the bar, settling for a moment on an old man in a gray hat. “I’m looking for Angel,” he said finally. For a few fleeting seconds as the girl looked up at him, Manny hoped she would say Angel was not working that night. He had no idea how to face that beautiful boy. Most of a day and an entire Uber ride had not provided Manny the time to figure it out. But then he was backtracking on his wish, under the threat that it would mean he would have to come back another time. He needed this to be over. He needed peace of mind. Some kind of consolation.
“Angel’s not working tonight.” The words broke easily from the girl’s lips, almost as if saying them had become routine.
“Oh. Ok.” Manny started to turn towards the door. But he hesitated, eyes on the girl’s turning wrist as she wiped each glass dry. “Uh…so…what nights…does he work?”
The bartender’s eyes flashed up at Manny, then lowered to her work. She finished drying the glass she was holding, then set it down. She sighed. “Honestly, I dunno.” The girl made a small toss of her hand. “Look kid, he works every night when he’s here. But he hasn’t been around. I don’t know when he’s coming back. I don’t even know if he’s coming back.”
“He…he might have quit?” Manny’s brow furrowed. Then, quickly, “D-do you know where I might find him? An address, or something?”
The girl’s hand moved to her hip, and she gave Manny a long, dark look. “Well, who the hell do you think you are, asking for his address?”
Manny blinked. Almost involuntarily, he retreated a step from the bar. “I—I’m sorry. I didn’t realize…that was a problem…” Get out, his mind told him.
The girl shook her head. “You were here a few nights ago, weren’t you? With that other kid?” She shook her head again. “I don’t even know how the hell you kids even know Angel. Drake doesn’t let him take younger tricks out of house, and I’d never seen you or your friend before.”
Manny’s throat went dry. His muscles suddenly went weak, and it felt like his heart stopped for five seconds. “Tricks?” Manny’s eyes flickered across the tattoo above the girl’s eyebrow. “Drake” written in bold, black, cursive font.
“Clients. Johns. Whatever the fuck you wanna call them!” The girl tossed her hand towards the doorway. “Look, kid, he’s not working tonight. If you don’t want anything else, then just scat, alright?”
Manny felt himself turn and start obediently towards the door before he even realized he was doing so. He pushed past the door, then took off down the sidewalk. Hands in his pockets, he walked past the dark figures in front of the restaurant. Clouds of condensation formed on the air at every breath he let out, only becoming visible when he was away from the smoke-misted air surrounding Tucker’s.
He should have known. It seemed so obvious, now. Angel had a pimp. Tucker’s was not a restaurant he worked in as a server or a cook. Tucker’s was where he went to meet customers of a very different kind. And the gatekeeper of said customers was someone by the name of Drake. Drake, whose name was tattooed over the bartender’s eyebrow.
The bartender was a prostitute, too, then. If not that, she was certainly someone in Drake’s questionable employment. Perhaps all those shaded figures standing in front of Tucker’s worked for this Drake person. And on a normal day, Angel might very well stand among them.
“He’s not being trafficked, is he? He’s doing this by choice, right?” Manny muttered aloud. He pulled out his phone and opened the Uber app, halting in his steps for only a moment to type in his location. Angel did not have a tattoo above his eyebrow. His involvement with Drake was not deep to that extent, then. Or maybe even a cold-hearted pimp had realized what a hideous shame it would be to scar that flawless face with permanent ink.
I have to find him, was Manny’s only coherent thought through the panic of his racing heartbeat. First, I have to find him. Then, I have to apologize. Finally, I have to convince him to let me help him: whatever he needs.
He did not want to remember. As the sun rose on another Monday, it became even clearer to Manny that he did not want to remember what had happened that night at the frat house. Whether real or fake, what had come back to him in a dream was quite enough. The only thing standing between Manny and completely losing the confidence to keep looking for that beautiful boy was not knowing exactly what had happened.
Manny was a distracted mess all day. Israel worried he was still sick, even after Manny assured him otherwise and ate a full lunch to prove it. Then late afternoon came, and there was nothing left to do but face the imminent question: how to find Angel. The strange boy with the breathtaking eyes had apparently abandoned his old place, and possibly even his pimp. That could be a good thing. But remembering how Manny had seen Angel washing his bloody forearms in a gutter did not make it seem like a good thing. Was he homeless, now? He could be anywhere if that was the case: wherever he could find a decent place to sleep.
Back in his dorm room, Manny opened his computer and pulled up a Google search. He had intended to look up homeless shelters close to the university, but he ended up typing in, “bird tattoo with a rose in its mouth.”
Several suggested searches popped up. Some images of people with bird tattoos loaded at the top. Nothing that looked quite the way Manny remembered Angel’s tattoo.
But Manny could not shake the feeling. After realizing the name tattooed over that girl’s eyebrow was the name of a pimp, Manny had begun to suspect the detailed tattoo on Angel’s shoulder was another kind of tag. It was too coincidental, Manny felt, that the bird was holding a rose, and roses were so closely associated with love. Besides, Drake clearly liked to mark his prostitutes. If he was going to be so bold as to claim something as beautiful and priceless as Angel as his property, he would surely mark it too.
“Prostitution tattoos,” Manny changed his search to. Then he added two words. “In California.”
Bar codes, dollar signs, number sequences, lip imprints, things in Latin, pimp names…All kinds of tattoo designs were associated with prostitution. Manny scrolled through image after image, then finally stopped over one with a bird. It was different from Angel’s—but also bore marked similarities. This tattoo was on someone’s hip, and it was of a bird in a different flying position—but holding the same half-crumpled rose. “She’s getting it off today. I couldn’t be mor…” the caption title faded into ellipses. Manny clicked the link, and a blog page loaded.
“She’s getting it off today. I couldn’t be more happy. Just thinking about how far she’s come, I know the journey has been hard.”
The writer’s daughter was getting a tattoo removed, Manny gathered from the rest of the text. Though the exact meaning of the ink was never mentioned, the mother clearly associated it with her daughter’s past sex work.
“Tattoos are used both as a way of marking sex workers and as a threat to control them,” another article read. “Tattoos are usually placed in areas that can be concealed by clothing—the chest, back, and thighs among the most common areas. However, placing a tattoo in a less discrete area, such as the face, is often used to deter or punish disobedience.”
Manny dropped limply back against his chair. He was under slept. He was too tired to regulate his emotions, and that was why he was—again—feeling like he was about to cry. So this was what Angel’s life was comprised of? Threats, threats, and more threats. “Younger tricks.” Why would Drake not let Angel take “younger tricks out of house”? What did “out of house” even mean? Were they holding a sex market right there in Tucker’s? And if “younger tricks” meant people Manny and Israel’s age, then what was older “tricks”? Men like the ones that had been sitting around the bar? Graying hair and gold fillings?
Manny gripped his arms around his shoulders and tried to still an involuntary tremble. What could possibly be the reason for making him take older clients?
A sharp knocking startled Manny out of his downward-spiraling thoughts. He flinched slightly, then stood up and walked over to the door. Was it an RA, this late in the evening?
Manny pulled the door open, then abruptly froze. Eyes widened slightly. “B…Brice?”
“Manny.” The guy stood there with arms drawn across his chest, staring down at the shorter student. He got straight to the point. “You owe me two hundred bucks.”