stripper-pen-3

 

In the strip club, we watched the girls dance and Ben told me they were molested as children. Ben will move soon to study law in Virginia. He was above it—all those dancing girls. He said that without saying it. What he did say was that he couldn’t get into it about them, because he just knew what most of them have been through. No need to discuss. Then he bought his friend Dave a lap dance. Then he began to rub my leg.

“I don’t even know how we ended up here,” I shouted.

This was how I expressed feeling uncomfortable in a strip club—one that we had walked into through an alley. The alcohol wasn’t wearing off but it was turning inside me. The lightness of the first part of the night always gave away to the dread, the magnification of all the bad things. We did more shots as all the others bars had closed up shop. We smoked cigarettes. We were in the club because we ran into people who had better ideas than we did about where we should be.

Ben rubbed my leg, cranking his intensity way up. A type of build-up, actually. Intensity. Intuition. External stimulation. Ben didn’t hear me say I was uncomfortable. Or he did and didn’t care.

Dave, totally relaxed, told the girl who was lap dancing him that he wanted to fuck her. The girl had thick dark hair, and knew how to move her body to make men like Dave say things to her like, “I want to fuck you.” I watched her move because I wanted to move like that. Because Ben was still rubbing my leg and Ben doesn’t usually rub my leg. Ben and I often had involved conversations about how bad an idea it was that we were together, how having sex was totally a bad idea, too, because sex complicates and he didn’t want complication at that point in his life. Agreed.

The stripper’s eyes looked away from Dave’s, but livened up as he stuffed money into her panties. I shifted around. New drinks arrived. I excused myself to go to the bathroom and left Ben to watch the damaged girls dance. We walked for a long time from downtown to get here. During that walk, Ben said he had mentioned to his mom that I was a girl he was seeing. He didn’t elaborate on this.

“Guess that means we’re getting married,” I said and took his hand.

I made the marriage joke because it was the most extreme thing I could think of to say to counteract what might have been a real moment between us.

allety-1I didn’t find a bathroom, but I did find a dressing room inhabited by the dancers. Strippers. They wanted to be called dancers but who cares what anyone wants for themselves?

“I thought this was the bathroom,” I said.

They weren’t naked, which was unexpected. Had I actually thought that strippers are always exposed? One girl had a long fishnet body suit on and another was just in regular clothes. She came to work to take off her regular clothes and put on sexy clothes to then take off the sexy clothes.

Clothing is the fourth wall.

The dressing room looked like a broom closet converted as an afterthought. Glitter and grown-up Caboodles were strewn about while girls looked in the mirror at themselves, various stages and layers of make-up reflected.

“You can use the one in here,” they said.

One girl took off her shirt because she was acclimated to public display, and I tried not to look as I scooted by her. “I’m sorry,” I said as I headed to their bathroom. “Sorry.”

The toilet was one of those toilets that’s probably been cleaned but it went through a period where it wasn’t cleaned, so it would never be not-stained.

On my way back out, I thanked them and felt obligated to say more. “My guy friends think all you girls are hot,” I said. I wanted to compliment them, I think, to say they were appreciated. Not one of the guys I was with had said the girls were hot. Actually, I felt like someone even said they had low-end faces but nice tits.

Back at the table, Dave’s lap dance was done with. Anxious and consumed, he looked for his dancer who was now someone else’s dancer.

This big dude—who the fuck he was, I don’t know—laughed. “Fuck her, man,” he said. “She doesn’t want you, you fucking idiot.”

Big dude. Bluto. He’s large.

Dave said he had drinks at his house, and we should all go there. He and I walked out together. “So you and Ben, huh?”

Ben had told his mom that we were seeing each other. Ben telling his mother of my existence was meaningless. We were seeing each other at night at bars and we got drunk together and he told me he couldn’t let me meet his roommates, who were a couple, the girl being his best friend or something, because he promised the girl he wouldn’t date anyone so he could recover from his long-term relationship that had broken up a few months earlier. He bought me ice-cream the first time we went out, and I got super-obsessed with him because he was the first guy I’d been out with who offered to buy me something other than booze.

Dave said, “I always thought Ben was gay.”

 

***

 

The seven people sitting around the table look down and flip through pages. A guy too into DFW uncaps a pen and writes in his Moleskin. Of course he does. A lengthy discussion ensues about how my story might be better with a third person narrator who could offer a more detached outlook. Final thoughts before we turn it over to the writer?

“I get it,” the workshop leader says, “it’s fun. Drinking and smoking and going out to party is easy. It’s fun to do, and it’s fun to write about. But damn, it gets old. Isn’t there more young people have to write about?”

writing1I look down at my own pages the same way I look down at my hands when I walk past a homeless person. Pretend you don’t see, because if you don’t see, then you don’t have to deal with your own contribution to the downfall of humanity.

This is workshop. Well, now it’s the end of workshop. This is a fictionalized/non-fictionalized event. Aforementioned, first-section events happened as I wrote them.

“The writing is fine, but I just don’t like the narrator,” one guy opinions. “I know I keep coming back to that, but the narrator is annoying.”

Inside workshop, we’re not supposed to use simple terms like what we like and don’t like. We talk craft. We say the voice is strong/not strong and why. We say the plot is weak and how can we make it stronger. We don’t rewrite people’s stories. We don’t add vampires unless we’re home alone. In workshop, we’re not supposed to take it personally.

Outside workshop, it rains.

A woman two seats away from me falls out of her chair super randomly, like she’s been asleep and let her body go limp or something. Everyone turns to look. She doesn’t stand up and shake it off. And since she isn’t laughing, we can’t laugh with her. The woman looks dazed and out of focus, then she rights her chair and sits back in it. The teacher is concerned. When she started to go down, he reached out his hand toward her, though he was too far away. He wouldn’t have been able to catch her anyway.

 

***

 

At Dave’s house, I immediately went into the bathroom to throw up. At 21, I couldn’t figure out how to consciously shut it off, so my body did it for me. Needing to mask, I found some toothpaste in a drawer and spread some across my finger. I held onto the sink for balance and ran my finger along my teeth trying not to slip and gag myself, thinking about how I would go home and go to sleep, alone, spinning, feeling like I wasn’t me anymore but a dark, useless smudge.

Ben was in the living room. I sat down next to him. We’d met in a writing class my senior year of college. The first writing class I’d taken, though I took it only because I wanted an easy credit. And there was Ben. Ben who liked my hair. Ben who was nice to me during class breaks.

“Do I smell like puke?” I asked him.

He smelled the air in front of me. “Did you puke?”

“No,” I said. Then. “Yes.”

“We should go. I should take you home.”

He meant alone.

 

***

 

stripper-penThe girl to my left will get a book deal like three seconds out of graduate school. The DFW guy will self-publish because the world will see his work regardless of fucking editors and awesomely enough, he will eventually field real offers from agents. The quietest person will start  a literary journal because there’s always one person from the workshop who will start a lit journal and whose “About” section starts off like this “Blank Press started as a conversation between two people and eight beers.”

These people exist. Existed. Memories are stories on loops and when they are recorded, they blur. We change names. This is how you objectively discuss your life. This is how you say, I fucked up a lot, and I’m sorry. I was drunk, and I didn’t mean it. Fiction offers you a place to hide just like alcohol. Just like the boys who didn’t want you.

The unwritten last line of every short story: I’m vulnerable.

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STEPHANIE AUSTIN's short stories have appeared in The Fiddlehead, American Short Fiction, Washington Square Review, the South Dakota Review, Eclectica, fwriction: review, and Extract(s), among others. Her nonfiction has appeared in the New England Review,'s Digital Series "Secret Americas" and at Used Furniture Review. She is a Community of Writers at Squaw Valley alum and has an M.F.A. from the University of Nebraska.

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