Wednesday, April 30, 2008

any other name

I haven't worked in a week. I have a sore throat that won't go away. It's never bad enough to see a doctor, and never good enough to make intimate conversation at a high yell over bar music in a smoky room for eight hours.

Last time I worked, I sat with Mr. K. He asked me if I'd seen Rose, his other long-time favorite. He hadn't heard from her in more than a month and wondered if she was OK.

I saw her a few weeks ago. We were back in the dressing room and she was looking at herself in the mirror, pulling her dress flat and turning sideways to see if her belly was sticking out. It wasn't. She is built slim and strong and fine all over, like a British racecar. Her abortion was on Tuesday, she said. She looked tired without her make-up on, but generally OK.

I told Mr. K. I had seen her. She seemed fine, busy.

Good, he said. He had hoped she was just busy. He hoped nothing bad had happened. Last time he'd seen her it had been such good news.

I remember that. A couple of months ago she got engaged to her out-of-town boyfriend, and making plans to move out of state. She would have told K. this. He knows she has a boyfriend. He comes in twice a month like clockwork like he has for years and spends several hundred dollars on whichever of us happens to be there. Whatever illusions he has about dating the girls, he keeps to himself.

So I say, yeah, great news. She seems really happy. I'm sure she just has a lot going on.

Rose was putting lotion on her face when she told me about the abortion. She was brief and matter-of-fact. Maybe I was supposed to ask more questions. The dressing room is not a tearful-hugs-sisterhood rah-rah-girlfriends kind of place. It's a zone of suspended emotion, mostly. It's where you go to get out of the whole chatty, google-eyed gushing sex kitten thing that you do out on the floor all the time. Even the girls on their cellphones breaking up with their boyfriends every day during shift change sound clinical and practiced. The only real raw emotion there is from girls who aren't making money, crouched by their lockers hissing curses into little piles of singles.

Rose and I sat in front of the mirror and put our powder on. It seemed quiet, although it never actually is, with the stage music piped back here and the DJ on the mic hawking five-dollar you-call-em shots. Some people would be saying things right now, because some people show how much they care by saying things. Some people would want to know if she was still with her boyfriend and what does he think and are you OK and where are you getting it done? And maybe those people would be better than me in situations like this. I tend to try to show how much I care by saying as little as possible.

I wish I could let her know just by the quality of the silence that if she needs anything from me it's hers. We're not best friends or anything. Sometimes we sell dances together. Men like to see us entertwined, her slim frame and and spectacular breasts, my pale skin and substantial hips. I love the warmth of her skin and the light gold freckles she's powdering over now so meticulously.

On the floor, she is silly and bewitching, daffy smile and clownish gestures set off against the essential elegance of her -- her classical face, that serious lode of smoky black hair. She seduces me again and again, like she seduces everyone. I love Rose. But of course, there is no Rose. I don't really know this girl next to me, the girl who's legal name is in my phone. If I knew her, I would say more.

We lean into the mirror, examining the specimens of ourselves. We are the same age, born within a month we once discovered. We both have to put the powder on just so, so it covers up the tiny, forming lines without caking up in them and catching the shadows on our foreheads and the corners of our eyes in ways that make us look a million years older than we are.

Are you OK? I ask this finally, and our eyes meet in the mirror. The lights make our skin look green. I'm OK, she says. I'm not going to do a big stage show tonight. I'm just going to take it easy.

She's a pole-trick girl, the best in the club by far. She is an acrobat up there, slowly winding down upside down fixed in a blue spotlight.

OK, I say. Take care of yourself. Let me know if you need anything.

In the mirror, she makes an exaggerated mascara-drying blink. OK, she says. Thanks.

I tell Mr. K that Rose is fine, that he should call her. She and I were just talking about him the last time we saw each other, and she misses him and she would really love to see him. I hope he calls her. He is pleasant and gentle, and she could probably use the money.

Thursday, April 03, 2008


So you might have heard about this. An all-nude club in Dallas employed a twelve-year-old runaway as a dancer for about two weeks last November. The story was in the Dallas Morning News, and all over the internet, for those of us who follow adult biz news.

The girl told police she was given shelter by a 27-year-old dancer and her boyfriend. Dancer and boyfriend took the 12-year-old to Diamonds Cabaret, where she told managers she was 19. She got the job despite having no I.D. and despite claiming to have forgotten the year she was born. On her first day she made $100.

That's not a lot of money for a stripper, but it is a lot for a 12-year-old. Her mother told reporters that the girl had "the body of a 20-year-old."

I don't know what was going on at that little girl's house, or why she ran away. Everything in the world seems wrong with a sixth-grader naked in a Dallas strip club, but I can't tell you for sure that she was worse off there than at home. I mean, I sure hope so.

I think about myself at twelve, with breasts like lumps of unkneaded dough, puffy child's face and birds-nest hair. Paisley jumpsuits and neon socks. (It was the 80's.) I think of how I barely knew my body. It was unmapped terrain, a vast continent I had not begun to push into.

That year, sixth-grade, I had a fierce, sudden desire to shove my classmate David Wilkiss into a corner by the gym doors and kiss him on the mouth. Later, I thought about that urge and felt sick. Grown men were out of my stratosphere. My prinicipal stopped me in the hall one day to give me a compliment about something or other and I burst into tears because he was so tall I had to crane my neck up to see his face, and that made me scared.

I would not even start masturbating for another year. The first time I found one of my father's magazines on top of the bathroom cabinet I read it cover for cover and then went out and hid in the wood behind the house for the rest of the day, grieving for the weakness of humanity and the evils of the flesh.

I do not know if that 12-year-old in Dallas was anything like my 12-year-old self. Some of my friends by 12 were having sex, doing drugs, going to nightclubs with grown men and women. I can't say for sure if they were a different kind of 12-year-old than me, matured somehow by experience, or if they merely carried the magic thinking and fuzzy logic of childhood into a strange, grown-up world.

I don't know what that girl had seen or felt or thought or done before she ran away. I know a lot more about what her life was like after. I can say for sure that the club was dark, and that it smelled of damp carpet and upholstery saturated with 15 years-worth of cigarette smoke and sour bodily excretions, and blizted over with a hundred cheap body sprays supposed to smell like vanilla and tropical flowers. I know that the customers sat against the wall -- heavy-lidded, impassive, impenetrable. I know the other girls walked past her in a sweep of sheer fabric and high-heels and straight-ahead stares.

I hope she wasn't scared. The adult world is scary enough when you're a kid -- with its rules you didn't make, its ambiguous impulses -- scary enough even with all your clothes on. Strip clubs are pretty rotten places to be scared. There is less sympathy than irritation. Less pity than unwillingness to see. No one will sit you down, cover your poor nakedness with blanket, give you something to eat and drink, protect you like children need and deserve to be protected. reassure you of the decency of the world and most of the people in it. Make anybody uncomfortable with your big eyes and your unripe legs and your basic ignorance about the world and they will stare right through you as though they could erase you with an act of will. So I hope she wasn't scared.

I was scared the first time I danced, at almost twice her age. I was scared to death. After my first day I went home and cried for no reason I could have explained to anybody. The weakness of humanity again, maybe, and this time I was a part of what I grieved for.

If being naked in a dark room full of ambiguous strangers was anything near as scary for her at 12 as it was for me at 23, then I don't know what was happening to her at home. Because somehow or other, she preferred the club. A hundred dollars is a lot of money when you're twelve. Jobs of any kind are pretty hard to get.I hope she's better off wherever she is now. I hope she'll grow up big and strong and well-adjusted. I hope stripping wasn't the best option she had. If it was, then all us who made the rules of this game, all of us who could extend our sympathy and do not, all of us who could help and instead pretend not to see, all of us are either going to hell or already there.