“So the Death Star is the woman?” Sam asked.
“Yes!Finally!Someone else finally gets it.I’ve been trying to say that for half an hour,” the stripper said.She had to be a stripper.I had been passively sitting at a table in the back room of the Laff Stop, sipping on a Jameson and watching this nuclear winter of a conversation for the past twenty minutes.
The job of a stripper is to fool people. Fooling men is just one instance. You make believe that you’re beautiful. You, just being there, marketed as such, they are willing to believe. Together, you make believe you are just what he desires. A student. A model. An aspiring actress. Even if they don’t believe your cover story, they want to hear one nonetheless.
The truth is that no one is fooled, but we go on pretending. Sometimes you can tell: no one is having fun. Everyone’s pretending for the sake of the bachelor, the birthday boy or the boss. Sometimes a guy doesn’t even like you, but he’ll buy a dance just the same— just because his friends are watching, or because there’s nothing better to do. You tell yourself it doesn’t matter. You’re there for the money. You’re there having fun. Some nights, you’re not making any money. You’re not having any fun. You push those thoughts away. You go on thinking, your job is to fool people. You fool the men who pay you. You fool the men you work for. The women that you work with, they’re not your friends. You tell yourself: I’m not here to make friends; I’m here to make money. I’m here because it’s fun. It’s sexy and exciting. It’s my little secret. Your family at home, you tell yourself, they haven’t got a clue. Most of all, you fool yourself. You make believe until you’ve made yourself believe until you are convinced. It’s the only way, you tell yourself, to do this sort of job.
The semester ended in London, where I stayed for co-op. It was December, cold and wet. I found a room to rent living with an older lesbian couple and their two sick cats. I arranged an internship at a Somali women’s health organization, a “real” job to count as my co-op. There was no question I would go back to stripping. The internship was unpaid and I needed the money, but it was more than that. After a semester traveling through Europe, I felt decidedly unsexy. I missed the feeling of being center stage.
I started working at a club called Images, a table dancing joint on London’s East End. Images was owned by a middle-aged man named Don and his wife, a damaged looking blonde named Marcel. They ran the place alongside their two sons, twenty-something Donny Jr. and a younger, red-headed kid named Richard. Richard deejayed while Donny Jr. sometimes worked the bar. Images was topless onstage and fully nude in the booth. Private dances were twenty pounds a piece. Images had a VIP lounge that cost a hundred and fifty an hour. Fifty went to the club, a hundred to the girl. There were cameras in the lounge and security to monitor them but, as in every strip club I have ever been in, at Images there were two sets of rules: what was allowed, and what a girl could get away with. I had learned, by now, to like the feeling of getting away with things. I liked working at Images and having to hustle.
At Images, a girl had to hustle. You find a table of men out for a good time, you become their good time girl. Good evening, boys, my show would begin, what are we in the mood for tonight? It was always the same. When you sit down with a table, your goal is to get at least one or two men to buy a dance. To make this happen, I’d pretend they were the most interesting men I’d ever met—perhaps the most interesting men on this planet—and I was so glad to have happened over to their table. If they’re talking about football, I’d become a major football fan. If it was politics, I’d listen, intrigued. Eventually, I’d say something clever and get them all talking about me.
They always asked where I was from. In London, I’d say I was from New York. One of them would ask what I was doing in London and I’d say well don’t tell my mother but… everyone would laugh. Joke’s on mom. “Actually,” I’d say with put-on sincerity, “I’m a student.” What are you studying? someone would invariably ask. Psychology, I’d say. And they’d say, Sure must get a lot of practice in a place like this.
“Wow,” I’d say, “you guys are really fun. You mind if I hang out for awhile?”
When you approach a man by himself, the game is different. Unless it was a particularly busy night— in which case you’d make more money on the floor— when you find a man all alone, you shoot for the lounge. After one or two dances I’d say something like, Boy, I sure wish the two of us could be alone. I’d say I wanted to go somewhere more intimate. I’d look at him like I meant it. This, I understood, was what he was paying for: the look like I meant it. It didn’t matter, I always thought, not even to him, that you actually don’t.
It was Tuesday, a slow night. Josie sat with a regular in the corner. Jessica and Brandy worked a table of men I’d already hit up. Nicole and Marcel were doing shots at the bar. Between the two remaining men in the club—a scruffy looking dude with pocked skin nursing a pint and an obese gentleman in what looked like an expensive suit, I chose neither. I sat by myself waiting for the next rush of clientele. The scruffy looking dude settled up and left. Seeing that I wasn’t going to, Penny went over to the fat man.
At Images, Penny was the “exotic” one—which is to say, black. As a stripper, being a woman of color is hit or miss. It didn’t matter how pretty the girl was, either a guy was into it, or not. Most weren’t. Some clubs, typically the nicer ones, wouldn’t even hire black girls. I watched Penny pull out all the stops. Crossing and uncrossing her long, brown legs, her smile never wavered even as I saw the man shake his head, no.
She leaned in and they both turned to look at me. Penny called me over with a little wave.
“Marcus and I were just saying,” Penny said as I sat down, “how you’re playing hard to get.”
“Well,” I said, putting on a smile, “I guess you win.” I turned to the fat man, apparently named Marcus, “Now that you’ve got me, what are you going to do to me?”
“You’re American?” he asked.
“As apple pie,” Penny answered for me. “Just as sweet, too. Why don’t you take us both downstairs for a dance and let me give her a taste?”
Lucky for Penny, Marcus was into it—that, or he was being polite, grateful Penny had gotten me over to him. Penny stood up first and straightened her dress, her enormous natural breasts hanging like heavy, ripe fruit. We started down the stairs to where the private dances took place. “Ebony and ivory,” Penny joked on the way down. Penny made this joke every time we teamed up, so often that it’d become funny, made not so much for the sake of the client but as an inside joke between us. Penny in the lead, Marcus waddled down the last of the stairs and into the booth where he positioned himself humpty dumpty-like on the cushioned bench.
Penny and I started to dance. Having worked together before, we moved with ease. Penny started getting into it, and she began to sweat. I could smell her body. She smelled natural, musky. Not bad at all, sexy. As we continued to dance, fat drops of sweat rolled down from under her arms. You’d think it’d be gross but, actually, it wasn’t. I liked the way Penny smelled and the fact that her body had become so familiar to me. She sat on our customer’s lap while I danced in front of her, for her. I went down between her legs and put my face so close I could smell her vagina. I looked up to see her smiling at me. She gave me a wink. Marcus, behind her, had all but disappeared. I came up and kissed her stomach, which was flat and cold to my lips. If Penny minded, she made no indication. I kissed her some more, traveling up her body past a little silver belly chain to her breasts, the color of plums and delicious, her skin cold, tight, goose pimpled. She smelled so good. She lifted my face in her palms and began stroking my cheeks, touching my hair. Smiling into each other’s eyes, we kissed, gently at first. Then, again, more for real.
The song was up. Marcus bought another dance, then two more after that. At twenty pounds per song per girl I remember thinking this guy is insane. To think of the amount of money he just blew! And, to think, if I hadn’t just sat there, letting Penny take the bait, all his money would’ve all been mine.
Still, I didn’t mind sharing. I liked working with Penny. I had never kissed a girl before, not like that. Not for real. I could taste Penny in my mouth and still felt the tingly excitement of the dance running through my body as I got dressed. Penny tried to convince Marcus to take us both into the lounge and I wondered, nervously, what might happen if he agreed. If Penny and I would pick up where we left off and how far would it have to go for Marcus to get his money’s worth. Anyway, it didn’t matter. I could tell he wasn’t going for it. Marcus had paid us both and was counting what was left of his money, a wrinkled up five and some singles. Penny, not easily discouraged, told him he could always put it on a card.
When we got back upstairs, Penny disappeared into the dressing room. Marcus took his seat back at the table. I avoided him at the bar. I looked over and he tried to call me over. Maybe I would’ve, had Steven not walked in.
Steven was becoming something of a regular. The first time I met Steven, he’d just gotten into a fight with his girlfriend. He spent the night— nearly five hundred pounds— cheering himself up. The next time I saw him, he spent even more. Steven came in three times after that, straight from work every time, his briefcase swinging awkwardly at his side. Steven was young—my age—and handsome, always in a suit and expensive-looking ties. Always cleanly shaven, he smelled of good soap. Always a gentleman, I enjoyed dancing for him.
Steven’s girlfriend’s name was Pamela. To me, she sounded like a bitch. “She wants to get married. Have kids. The whole works,” he told me the first night that we’d met. “She’s a nice girl,” he’d said.
“But does she excite you?” I asked. “Does she turn you on?”
“She did,” he sighed. “I mean, she used to. Not anymore.”
“Do I excite you?” I asked with a wry smile. The answer was, of course, yes.
“It’s not that she’s not pretty,” he said and smiled smugly. “She’s very pretty.”
“Prettier than me?”
Steven shook his head. “No,” he said, “you’re beautiful.”
That night I walked over and sat down. “I’m glad you’re here,” I said.
“I’m glad you’re here,” he said and smiled genuinely. “I’ve been thinking about you all day.”
Across the table, he slid a twenty.
“What’s that for?”
“It’s for you,” he said. “For being so stunning.”
I reached for the twenty. Our fingers touched. I let my hand linger.
“It’s so good to see you,” he said again. “I mean, seriously, I thought of you all day. I had so much fun with you the other night.” He held my hand. “I don’t know what it is about you. I can’t get you out of my head.”
Steven looked at me intently. I looked across the club. On the other side of the room, Jessica was sitting on a customer’s lap, a pint of beer in her hand, unaware her dress had slipped down, her nipple exposed. When I stopped to think about it, I had to admit: Images was sort of a dump. The carpet was threadbare and stained, the mirrors were greasy. With the exception of Penny and maybe one or two others, my coworkers weren’t all that pretty. I was better than this place, I thought. I was better than the girls that worked here. I was more like Steven.
To Steven, I was beautiful. He told me every time we met. When a man like Steven told me I was beautiful, I thought, I knew just what he meant. He could see it, too, maybe even more than I could. He loves the way I look, I thought. The way I smell, the way I laugh. The way I move when I dance for him. The way I turn him on. Steven, I thought, could see I was special.
From the corner of my eye I saw Marcus desperately trying to get my attention.
“Am I keeping you from something?” Steven asked.
I turned back to meet Steven’s eyes. “Definitely not.”
I liked Steven and the fact that he was becoming familiar, almost like a friend. Not just a customer, but something else. That night, Steven took me into the lounge and the time we spent there was very intimate. Not sexual, but intimate. We talked. I danced. I felt myself begin to reveal myself to him in a new way and the feeling was exciting and relieving and sensual. I looked more and more forward to his visits.
There was a sign above the dressing room mirror: No Drugging on the Premises. At the end of a shift, a dozen or so girls angled for the mirror, borrowing each other’s costumes to wear out to the clubs, going two by two into the toilet stalls.
In the dressing room we girls exchanged hunting stories. I had this guy once, one girl would say, used to bring me two dozen roses every Tuesday.
Had a regular that’d pay me a thousand bucks a night just to massage my feet.
Met a man once who, after one dance, offered to buy me a car. He was serious, I swear.
Seriously, one night I made five thousand dollars in a half an hour off a table of Hasidic Jews.
“What’d you make tonight?” someone invariably asks someone. Rarely do you give an honest answer. If everyone’s complaining they’ve had a shit night, you commiserate, no matter how much you’ve made. What most girls say they’ve made on a shit night is what you usually make, and you can safely figure you make as much as most. If everyone’s saying they’ve had a great night, so did you. You inflate the number you say you’ve earned. Of course we’re all making loads of money—the kind of money we couldn’t make anywhere else—why else are we all here?
Good nights are good. When everybody wants you, you feel diabolical. You feel in complete control. At the beginning of a shift you are eager, hopeful. You hope for a good night, a jackpot. The perfect customer, you think, may he walk through that door. You introduce yourself, or someone like yourself, or someone nothing like yourself. She is beautiful, clever. She is impenetrable. Everybody wants to be near her—the nearer, the better. The men want to be so close as to be inside her. They touch her skin and it only grows thicker.
I am not this person, you tell yourself. This is my act. This is not my name. This is not my body. This is not reality. This is all a con. Who are you then? You are someone else— someone shelled by costumes, scripts and scene, this shifting scene of mirrors, smoke and inebriation. At the end of the night you count your cash, everything equaling out to this moment. This money, real in your hand, totals everything that matters.
You leave the club at four in the morning. The streets are dark and empty. You walk home, alone, sometimes in the rain. It is cold, far and dangerous, but quiet and necessary, like the space between words, these pauses, like sleep. You go home and go into the bathroom and scrub the makeup off your face. You go into the kitchen and leave the light off as you raid the fridge. You eat and eat and eat. Cheese and biscuits and cold chicken, leftovers. Hungry beyond hunger, you are not yourself in these moments either. Tomorrow you will wake up alone in your bed, having forgotten it all and having been forgotten. You will call your mother and tell her stories. You will go to the flower markets on Sundays where men stand in the sleets selling bouquets lady Gadiva, two for a fiva. Spend enormous amounts of cash on flowers—on groceries and taxis, on clothes, more costumes, jewelry, gifts for yourself, whatever you want. You tell yourself, you can have whatever you want. You want everything.
Sometimes Rick would forget the time difference and call in the middle of the night. He was back in Cincinnati, still living in the apartment we once shared, going to a normal college and behaving like normal, going to classes and going to frat parties, doing keg stands, playing beer pong and doing all the other ridiculous things that normal kids do. He’d sound drunk and far away. He’d say things like where are you? And why did you go away? And when are you coming home? He loves me, I thought. He loves in the simple, virtuous way that only he knows how. His place for me is small and open. In these moments I felt that he was flawless. I felt an obligation to protect him, to see that nothing and no one ever hurt him or caused him any harm, least of all me. I will never tell him the truth, I thought: the truth about who I am and what I am capable of. What I am, I thought: something of a monster. A liar. I will never tell him the truth, even if it means being less than true for the rest of my life.
I rode my bike to work in the mornings in the rain. At my day job, I answered the phones and opened the mail. The organization I worked for campaigned for the eradication of female circumcision, what they called female genital mutilation. My boss was an old Somali woman named Fatima. She was small and thin, petite, with a voice like a songbird, soft blue-gray eyes and liver-colored skin. She thought it was funny how I called rubbish “garbage.” I thought it was curious how she disappeared to pray in the middle of the afternoon. The office smelled of her very sweet perfume, even the week she went away on vacation. I wondered what her hair looked like under her scarves. I wondered about the body she kept concealed under her robes. Sometimes someone would send a picture of a vagina, all fucked up from a home-done surgery. My job then was to send a letter back saying I’m sorry but we don’t send money. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be doing for the organization other than that. Grant writing, I think. I sat around in front of the computer al day, listening to the radio. All day, British pop. Drum and Bass. I looked forward to tea time. Earl gray with milk and sugar and butter cookies, as much as I wanted, enough to fill me up.
I was getting fat. Because of the butter cookies. Because of the weather, bleak and cold. Because I was eating in the middle of the night. Because I started smoking pot instead of cigarettes. Because I couldn’t sleep. Because I was lonely. Because I wasn’t making as much money as I used to. Because I wasn’t entirely happy. Because I was getting fat.
You worry me, my mom wrote in an email. Are you warm enough? Do you wear a coat? Boots? A hat? London is notoriously blustery. Are you getting caught in a London fog without proper clothing? Please keep warm and dry.
When I thought of my mom I felt angry and sad. I felt guilty. I felt trapped, like whatever room I was in was losing its air. I felt panic. Like the walls were coming in on me, until I couldn’t think. I’d stop thinking. I’d push the thought of her away. I stopped writing and calling as often.
In the dressing room, Josie was changing into her street clothes. She looked as if she’d been crying. Without her makeup, her hair swept into a ponytail, Josie looked younger, prettier than when she was all made up. She pulled a sweater over her head.
“Are you alright?” I asked.
“Yeah, sure,” she sniffed. “I’m just having a shitty night so Don’s letting me take off.”
A shitty night could mean anything. Maybe she wasn’t making any money or maybe Josie didn’t feel good. Maybe someone said something that made her feel like shit. Josie didn’t elaborate and I didn’t ask her to. I changed the subject. “Josie,” I said, “would you ever date a customer?”
“You mean like for money?”
“No. Well, I mean—yeah—I guess that, too. I mean, do you ever see customers outside the club?”
“I guess if he paid me enough,” Josie said, “I’d consider it. But that wouldn’t be a date. That’d be escorting. If you’re thinking of escorting,” she lowered her voice, “I wouldn’t let it get back to Don.”
“I’m not thinking of escorting.”
Penny walked in as Josie walked out. “Not much going on out there tonight, is there?” She said. She pulled out a compact and began examining her face. I noticed in the light of the dressing room that her lashes were fake. Her foundation was thick and a shade different, lighter than the rest of her.
“It’ll pick up,” I said, trying to assure her.
“It’s half past eleven.” Penny shook her head. “Tonight’s just not the night. This place isn’t what it used to be. Used to be you’d make six, seven hundred pounds and that was a fair night. Last night I barely made my house fee.”
“Even with that fat guy?”
“He liked you more,” she said flatly. “Don’t tell Don, but I’m thinking of leaving. Maybe trying Metropolitan. I’ve got a girlfriend there, she says business is great. Booming. You get more time on the stage. They take that more seriously, at those kinds of clubs. I’m thinking to audition, maybe tomorrow.”
Penny would make it, I decided. Even though she was black, she was a pro on the pole. After an audition, she was sure to be hired. Me, my stage show wasn’t particularly impressive. Besides, I thought, how would my regulars find me if I ever left Images?
I told Penny maybe because I didn’t want to say no. But Penny was right. Business at Images was getting worse and worse. I was getting bored. Night after night, it had all begun to be the same.
That night did pick up. By the grace of who knows what, a table came in celebrating the one guy’s release from prison, or maybe he was going into prison. I forget. It didn’t matter. What mattered as that they had a lot of cash that it seemed like they were trying to get rid of. I cozied up to the one with a babyface, probably not old enough to be in the club, and he gave me three hundred dollars because, he said, he could see “the soul in my eyes.” Whatever, I thought, but it was exciting to be handed three hundred dollar bills for doing absolutely nothing. Not even having to dance. I was feeling good. It was only midnight and, with Babyface’s three hundred dollars plus what I’d made before him, I’d made more that night than what I usually made.
I had been worried, I thought, but business had picked up. I would make even more, I told myself. Tonight was a good night. It would all be okay.
That was the night I met Oliver. He walked in right after Babyface had left. I noticed him immediately, even though the club had filled up. Oliver looked sharp, like he belonged in a James Bond movie, not a crummy strip club on a Wednesday night. I missioned my eyes on him as I walked determinedly across the room. Feeling bold, I centered myself in front of this very attractive man and said, “I want to dance for you.”
Oliver handed me a twenty. I took him by the hand.
In this moment I am beautiful. Everything is going as planned, like a movie. A fantasy. As I begin to strip, all the uncomfortable feelings are lifted from me. No longer do I feel fat. The boredom I feel at my day job, which I sometimes fear is settling within me, dimpling my thighs, encasing me like a boredom sausage—is relieved from me here. In the strip club mirror, the fatness is removed and I am beautiful and free.
I see my body in the mirror behind Oliver. I am wearing a rhinestone choker at least three inches thick with a chain that hangs down between my breasts, which are small and tight. I am small and tight, all of me, with a juicy, fat ass that I know the men love. I have taken to wearing my long brown hair in frenetic crimps. They halo my face like a lion. I feel powerful. My big eyes look even bigger, exaggerated by liner and shadow. I stare into the enormous pools of green-brown-grey.
In the mirror I see myself and I am not myself. Whoever this woman is, I am as much if not more enchanted by her as my customer might be. I stare at myself in the mirror, so engrossed in seeing myself this way that I lose all sense of my customer.
“Look at me,” Oliver directed. I put my eyes back on Oliver and imagined what he saw.
After the dance, I could tell I wouldn’t get any more money out of Oliver. Even so, when he asked to buy me a drink, I said yes. I didn’t typically drink alcohol with clients— especially men I could tell wouldn’t be giving me money— but in Oliver’s case, I made an exception. I’d already made enough for the night, why not make an exception? Take a little break, have a little fun. Oliver and I got to talking. He was a friend of Marcel’s. So not a costumer at all, I reasoned.
When Oliver gave me his card at the end of the night, I made another exception. Instead of tossing it out like I normally would have, I took it back to the dressing room and I tucked it in my bag.