Mei the waitress has been at the club for 15 years. She is fifty, plain-faced and shrewd, with a me-love-you-long-time accent that 15 years in a titty bar have barely touched. She has a million regulars and probably makes as much money as anyone there. She is funny, too; her occasional dark asides can make me spit a drink, but it takes a long time for her to warm up to you. She sees so many dancers come and go.
One of my last nights waitressing, Mei and I are perched on an empty side stage looking over our shoulders at an empty club.
"Bad night tonight, baby," she says.
"Tell me about it."
"Even last year was not this bad. Last year, on a Thursday night we have customer at every table. Every table, baby."
"Things are tough all over, huh?"
"Bad time," she agrees. "We not going to make no money tonight. You should have keep dancing. Me, if i could dance right now, I do it."
She throws her hands in the air and does a little boob shimmy in my direction. I crack up.
She's not done with me, though. "Baby, why you stop dancing? You don't need money no more?"
"Something like that." I don't like this question. I don't like it from civilians, who like to assume that I've stopped dancing because I finally acknowledge that dancing was evil all along. I like it at work even less. But Mei is cool, so I clear my throat and give it a shot. "You know, my boyfriend's tuition is saved up, so I don't have that pressure anymore. I want to do other things. I guess I'm just done for a while, you know?"
Her eyes narrow. "You pay for boyfriend's school?"
Shit. "Um, yes."
She starts shaking her head, goes on shaking it. "Bad idea. Bad idea, baby. He get through school, he going to leave you. I know. I see it, so many times. Girl is helping man and man is just take, take, taking. Men don't care. They don't care about you."
"Well, uh, I've known C. for a while. We've been together for five years. I really trust him. He's a good guy."
She's still shaking her head. "Yeah, you say that. You think that now. Maybe you right. Maybe you will be lucky. Me, I have never been lucky, so now I don't trust no-one. I don't trust no man no more."
"Well, you can't be too be careful. But this guy is a good guy."
"OK," she says. "OK, you say so." She looks over the club and then back at me. "But you never know. It happen when you least expect it. He leave you, baby. I say this because I care. He leave you with nothing."
People say this kind of thing to me all the time. And other things. I've been told that I lack self-respect. People who don't know either of have called my boyfriend a pimp. I guess because I'm a girl and he's a boy, and probably because I'm a stripper.
I get it. I know where it's coming from. When you trade in affection as a commodity, your ideas shift. You see how money can tie a person to another person, how it creates complacency. You see how you can put a dollar value on every gesture, and how money can stand in for gratitude, for admiration, for approval, for joy, for love.
You can think that someone who isn't paying you doesn't really love you. You can think that giving something away means you must be one of those losers who has to pay for love.
I think this way only at my worst, my most frightened and desperate. And then I think: you don't deserve this. It will be taken from you. You are not loved. You never have been loved. Tricked again, stupid. He will use you up and leave you dry as a husk. He will leave you with nothing. He will leave you.
When I am well, medicated, rested, stable, I don't believe these things. I think: You love him. He loves you. You are lucky. You are a good judge of character. He will never let you down. He would rather die; you see it in the set of his shoulders, the set of his lips. You will never let him down, either. You would rather die, too. You will have a long and wonderful life together, with many adventures, and one of you will be next to the bed when the other one dies, telling them it's OK, go ahead, go, I'll catch up with you later.
This is not to say that we don't have our differences:
C. is optimistic to the point of insouciance. I am apprehensive to the point of madness. When I am in the grip of my worry and I look over and see him smiling, I think he doesn't care. I want to yell at him until he cares.
When I met him he lived in someone's basement and owned two pairs of jeans and several thousand dollars worth of musical equipment. He was the happiest person I had ever met. He has that rare quality -- yogis would call it santosha -- where whatever he has at the moment is always enough. He has never had a bank account.
I opened a bank account when I was eleven, after I made my first serious money selling my bottle-raised show-lamb to slaughter. I've always been a hustler. All the worry about having things, nice things, enough of things, those are all my worries. I am a predator. I love the chase. I love the kill. And I am afraid. I am so afraid of running out, so afraid of dying.
Be calm, C says. And I say, You don't care. You don't care about me. You don't care about anything.
We have argued and given up and tried again, and in the end we have compromised for each other like neither of us has ever compromised for anyone else.
But then the questions. I hear my own answers and I know how ignorant they sound-- I love him. He loves me -- like I don't even know that people who say "I love you" are fucking over the people they say it to left and right all over the world right now.
I know that. I do. It's just that I think I'm different. I am sheepish, but I can't budge. I wonder if other people are asked to explain their love as much as I am.
On a night like any other night, I am talking to a guy like every other guy. We are negotiating a business transaction.
"So," he says. "Married?"
"Silly. No one in here is married."
"Why, are you proposing?"
"You have a boyfriend though. Every girl in here has a boyfriend."
Shrug. "No one serious." I lie without a second thought. Not because I don't care about my boyfriend, lying in bed at home waiting to hear me pull into the driveway. Because I don't care about this guy. In fifteen minutes his face will be a blur. By the end of the night I won't remember his name.
"That's good," he says, approving of me. "I hate to think of all the girls here...supporting some man."
"If you were mine, I'd take care of you. You'd never have to work in here again. You could just stay home and take care of me."
"A woman ought to be at home," he says. "A woman ought to have a man to look after her. I think that's right. I think that's how it ought to be."