I was cleaning out the top lefthand drawer of my dresser the other day, the one where I keep all the junk -- the box of broken jewelry, my will, a copy of my mother's Do Not Resuscitate order. All the way at the back is where I keep photographs I don't want to look at but can't throw away. Me on Halloween when I am 22, with tinfoil antenna and fake blood coming out of my nose. My lover the alcoholic mailman back when he was still handsome, giving the camera his best bad-boy glare. Me and Terry.
I sat down with this one to look at it for a while. I forgot this picture was ever taken, but now I remember everything. It was little Celeste who took it, the fragile blonde Italian girl with the child's body and the husband stationed in Iraq. Out in the tiny, smelly lobby of the Crazy Lady, by the fake palm tree.
Terry was the guy someone who's never been to a strip club imagines when they imagine a Strip Club Customer. He was short and dumpy, with Coke-bottle glasses. A comb-over and dandruff in a cheap golf shirt. He was a club regular, had been for years. He was not the first customer I danced for, but he was one of the first and after that he would come in and sit with me nearly every day.
"Can you sit on my lap?" he would ask.
"I'd love to," I lied. "I'm sorry. I'm not allowed." This was technically true. It was one of the rules the redheaded lady manager taught me my first day. She also taught me how to loop a rubberband across the arch of my stripper shoe and around the heel so I could strap my money there. And then you just walk around and make money and walk around and make money, she said. And she turned me loose.
Terry would look around. "Go ahead," he would say. "You can sit on my lap. All the girls are doing it. Celeste does it."
It was true. All the girls did it. I don't know why I clung to that rule like it was the spar that would keep me afloat.
"I'm sorry. I can't."
Terry would make me wait until the DJ called 2-4-1 dance specials and then he would buy two and give me $20 dollars. On the dayshift, and the Crazy Lady when I was brand new, that was enough to keep me hanging around. I wanted him to give me more but I didn't know how to ask.
When I started dancing I always danced with my eyes closed so I couldn't see their faces. So many people asked me why I closed my eyes, I started to open them. I pretended to look into their faces while really I let my gaze slide out of focus till I was seeing myself in the mirror over their shoulders. I was astonished one day by the sight of my breasts. So pretty. Like apples.
Terry had three little dogs. Some lapdog variety. Terriers, maybe. He talked about them all the time. I learned their names so I could ask after them every day, but of course I forgot them a long, long time ago. "You know why I love dogs?" he asked me one day.
"Why?" By this time I was sitting on his lap. All the girls did it, even Celeste.
"Because they're grateful. You give them just a little bit of food and and a treat now and then and they love you for it."
It startled me that he would tell me what he seemed to be telling me so bluntly. Maybe he didn't mean to be so blunt.
One day Terry brought a camera to the club and asked if he could take my picture. I knew it was a bad idea, and still I watched myself agree the way I was learning to watch myself agree to things. The way I agreed when I turned around one day during a dance and saw my customer jerking off into a cocktail napkin and we locked eyes a long second and then he held up his hand in a little gesture that said, don't stop and don't say anything, and I nodded and I turned back around.
Out in the lobby Terry put his arm around my waist. I had to stoop down a few inches to put my cheek next to his. I smiled, big. Celeste snapped the shot and there it was for all eternity. Then I took one of Terry and Celeste. Then Terry took one of Celeste and me. I wish I still had that one. Celeste was quiet and gentle, never mean to me even though before I started working she was the only girl on the dayshift who ever made real money.
The day the other girls were talking about beating me up back in the dressing room, Celeste brushed up against me. "Don't worry," she breathed in my ear. "It doesn't mean anything. You go home from this place at the end of the day with your money and so fuck all these bitches, alright?"
Terry brought the picture for me to see and I must have said something nice while I pretended to look at it. I hated it right away, like I've always hated pictures of myself, only more. I stuck it in my backpack and then brought it home and shoved it in the back of this drawer. I didn't throw it away. It's hard to throw away a photograph. Something about them -- the glossiness, the precise corners, the officialness -- demands they be kept.
And so I see myself finally. I see that I was tall, and sturdy like a young tree. I see I was so thin back then that Terry's short thick arms wrap all the way around me nearly to the elbow. I see my breasts really were like apples. I see I was smiling. It is my real smile, my goofy big-teeth smile, the only smile I had back then. I look happy and maybe I was.
Terry is smiling, too, and he's just a guy. Just a regular, ordinary guy.
I'm surprised I kept this picture. When I first saw it I couldn't wait to rip it in half, but then I never did. There's nothing here to hate. I put it back in the drawer, at the back, with the others. I don't know why I'm keeping it, but I can't think of any reason to throw it away.