Platonic Play

At a swingers club, the customers trade more than memories

It's 2 a.m. on a Saturday at Plato's Repeat (321 W. Sunrise Blvd., Fort Lauderdale), and the long, softly lit Jacuzzi room next to the bar is crawling with eight nude bodies. The Asian-themed space is filled with an almost impenetrable haze, but when a loin-wrapped, soft-fleshed couple in their mid-30s saunters in, a peculiar scene becomes visible. A woman with dark, wet, shoulder-length hair is sitting on the edge of the kidney-shaped tub, leaning her head back in apparent relaxation while a man's face takes the C-train downtown to the intersection of her thighs.

Plato's Repeat owner, Claire Pernice, is sitting at the end of the bar outside the Jacuzzi doors. Her big, blond, curly hair tumbles down around her rimless, tinted glasses while she talks to a tall, thickly built, bald man in a floral print shirt. They are not distracted in the slightest by the sex. People do the same thing here, and more, most nights of the week.

This is, after all, a swingers club.

There are and have been many people, notably the Broward Sheriff's Office under the direction of Sheriff Ken Jenne in early 1999, who find this behavior far more distracting than Pernice and her friend. Back then, deputies went undercover in two local swingers clubs (Athena's Forum and Trapeze II) and observed romping flesh. The subsequent raids on those two clubs led to the arrest of tens of participants. Hundreds of thousands of tax dollars went into prosecutions; reputations were ruined, but all the charges were eventually dropped.

That seemed like a lot of fuss over something that is not technically illegal, but there is something off-putting about the idea of entering a swingers club, which is exactly why my curiosity led me inside: to see whether it was as shocking as BSO and others once seemed to think it was.

So late last month, I ventured into one of the many centers of profligacy that advertise in local newspapers (including this one). When I heard that the upbeat, funky, Miami-based rock band DC-3 was to play a gig at Plato's Repeat on Wednesday, March 25, it seemed a good opportunity to baby-step into that world.

Accompanied by three other women, I drove toward the mysterious, upside-down-horseshoe-shaped sign that is propped up on a pole out front. Just as we were about to pass through the gates of the little, beige, nondescript building on the north side of Sunrise Boulevard, Betty, a decidedly nonprudish woman with vamp style, said: "I'm feeling sick. Let's turn around and go home."

"No, you don't get off that easy," the Night Court mobile seemed to huff as it dragged its sorry ass toward the valet.

Betty and I looked around wide-eyed as we entered the club's antechamber. There was a window, and we each passed $5 through to the lanky woman with short, dark-brown hair. She pressed a buzzer, and a set of tinted double doors opened to reveal the interior. We handed our six-pack of Michelob Ultra Light (BYOB, boo-yah!) over to a man with long hair and sunglasses, and he took it to the large, U-shaped bar.

Fifteen or so people were mingling beneath a television. It seemed surprisingly normal at first. On one side of that bar, a mixed-gender crowd of people -- swinging patrons, apparently -- from their 30s to middle age were talking quietly. Most of the men were grizzled, well-dressed chaps, and most of the women were blond, dressed in skirts and sexy tops.

On the other side of the bar, the crowd was far younger. And there, amid some long-haired ladies who'd come expressly to see the show, stood Tony Medina (guitarist) and Fernando Perdomo (bassist) from DC-3.

Betty and I strode up to the bar, cool as cukes, asked for our cold ones, and cracked them open. After a few sips, we realized that the television was showing some seriously hard-core porno. A blond woman whose breasts were propped up by a linen strap was bouncing around the screen, enduring the kind of thrusting that only bull riders and porn stars know. The episode ended, and another began, with a woman getting filled out like an application.

"This is serious shit, huh?" Betty asked.

"Yeah."

We headed to the dance floor in the spacious, red-brick main room with wood beams and a large fireplace that, quite appropriately, makes you feel a thousand miles from home.

When the band went on at 11 p.m., we crept down the hallway that leads to the back to get a peek at the three private, bed-to-ceiling-mirrored rooms, which were big enough only for the zebra-striped beds that occupied them. Across the hallway from the rooms was a large, black-lit rumpus room -- the "Luvnasium" -- with about 16 beds of various sizes, also zebra striped, that were pushed together to accommodate heaven knows how many couples. There were leather couches and a couple more beds on the other side of the room. At this hour, all the rooms were empty.

We headed back to the front as the band began insisting that everyone get up and dance. When it broke into ABBA's "Dancing Queen," about ten sets of hips were winding, but only three of them were in real time. The other sets were involved in the on-screen orgy above our heads. Derek Cintron, the DC of the 3, threw his curly brown hair back as his amused, boyish face belted into the mic and his hands threw the drum beat.

They were tossing out plenty of sleazy disco songs like K.C. and the Sunshine Band's "That's the Way" and cracking lame jokes that put everyone at ease. When they switched instruments, Perdomo took the drums and Medina the bass to play one of their originals.

Cintron quipped, "This is our version of swapping."

"I'm feeling frisky," remarked 23-year-old Perdomo.

"Come on, what do you guys want to hear?" Cintron asked, gesturing impatience with his sticks. "Oh wait," he interjected, his attention turning toward the screen. "The money shot."

We all stopped to look at the girl with the milk mustache that wasn't milk. Whoa!

Later, I asked Medina: How did he feel going in to the club?

"It wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. I thought couples would be banging each other against the pole while we played. No pun intended, but the place gave me a warm feeling."

DC-3 gave Plato's a warm feeling too, which is why, according to Medina, they were invited back to play once a month.

When I went back on Friday to see what the club was like in full swing, no pun intended myself, it became clear that there was a bit about Plato's that DC-3 didn't see.

A crowd of 40 or so people gathered around the bar in the corner of the room for a wet T-shirt contest that included eight women who ranged from the hot, young, and stylish to the middle-aged and slightly overweight.

After a fairly typical display that involved a minipool and some cold water, the three hottest girls were deemed the winners. All of the contestants paired back up with their partners, and several started trailing off toward the back of the club and the hot tub.

One hefty man wearing light slacks and a black shirt, clearly in his 30s, was staggering around the dance floor, tapping girls on the arms to initiate contact. He must have tapped my arm four times in passing before he finally started making out on the dance floor with a heavyset woman with brown, curly hair. He followed her over to one of the leather couches and started petting her over her underwear as her slight, mustachioed male companion looked on.

Then, he got down on his knees in front of the couch and put his face to her crotch for a couple of minutes. The brief encounter ended, and he started cruising again.

Meanwhile, the female half of a tall, thin pair was leaning back on the edge of the small, nearby stage, with her partner kneeling between her legs.

Surrounded by people who were so comfortable with what they term the "lifestyle" made me forget what had seemed so shocking before I walked through the door. I was watching live sex, and it somehow didn't affect me one way or the other. I was neither turned on nor grossed out. After a few hours in the club, the charged inner space had become my temporary reality, but I still could not identify with the participants engaged in the activities.

Orgies, partner swapping, and exhibitionism don't signal the end of civilization. Many people I've known have participated in such activities and whisper about them during cathartic games of "I Never," but they don't sit around boldly expressing their illicit sexuality like the topless and leashed pixie-haired brunet who was sitting over at the bar awaiting a partner during my second night at Plato's.

I asked Claire Pernice to help me understand the "lifestyle." Inside her office, behind a well-kept kitchen, she told me that she took over the club when her husband, Frank, who opened its infamous New York predecessor, Plato's Retreat, passed away. Then she folds her hands and drops her chin on them and says: "Now, let me make this clear. Most couples who come to Plato's are married for five, seven, maybe ten years. They get out of the house; the wife dresses sexy. Other people are looking at them, and usually they get to see each other in a different light. They come here to enhance the relationship, and many of them never go into private rooms. But when they go home, they tell me, they have the best sex of their lives.

"And another thing," she adds, leaning forward, "these marriages last. In the end, it's all about honesty."

Come 3 a.m., the dressed were outnumbered by the white-toweled crowd. And it was honestly time for me to do what every nonparticipant in the alternate sexual lifestyle should do. I ducked out and put the fleshfest out of my head.

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