"What clubs did you dance in?" Tom wants to know. Just small talk, before the dancing starts.
Tom is some kind of attorney. He got divorced two years ago and has lived in this apartment ever since, which is weird because it doesn't look like anybody really lives here. There's a couch and a coffee table and a big TV and that's pretty much it. Nothing on the walls. No smell. This whole place is as bare of personality as a nice hotel.
"A few," I say. "But I started at the Crazy Lady."
I always milk this line for laughs. The Crazy Lady was a dump, a dive, squeezed into a little strip along the access road, between a porn store and a discount coffin outlet.
"No shit?" Tom says. "I used to go there in college. Wow. The Crazy Lady. I should have met you back then."
Yeah. Except back then there was no me. Back then there was only a scrawny stripper named Jordan in a ratty wig and before that there was nothing -- a tired teenage waitress on the late-late shift at a diner by the highway. Everything else sitting on this couch tonight, the long red hair and the gym body and the glossy lips -- all this I made up in the meanwhile.
My first day of dancing I walked out of the dressing room with my wig pinned down to my head with bobby pins. I'd filled out a W-9 in the office with the lady manager, who inspected my thong to make sure it was "legal" -- i.e. not transparent or break-away. And then she'd turned me loose.
There were only three or four men in the club, and they were all sitting with girls already. All except for one guy, about my age. Curly hair, I think. I walked up and stuck out my hand and said my name and then my mind went blank. Until this very moment in time I had had approximately three modes of social behavior: invisibility, impassioned earnestness, and -- method of choice with possibly attractive members of the opposite sex -- weird sarcasm. None of which was going to get me anywhere.
So I sat next to this young guy, this boy, although he hadn't exactly asked me to. I must have asked some questions, must have tried to make what I thought was small-talk. I guess I asked him if he went to the university; campus was just across the highway. I remember he said yes. I told him I went there, too. I wanted him to know that I was smart, that I could be anywhere I wanted right then, and I was there because I wanted to be. Not nervous. Not desperate.
I thought I saw him eyeing me, weighing me -- judging, and discarding. It didn't occur to me that he might be uncomfortable, embarrassed, or shy. In my panic, it was all, all about me. I saw his mouth turn thin and smug. I wanted to wipe that look off. I cared, suddenly, what he thought, this absolute stranger whom I would never know. I wanted to change his mind. I wanted to make him want me, make him know he was fucking lucky to have me sitting there, jumping to take my dress off for the low, low price of $20.
We ran out of things to say. There was an awful little pause. I asked him if he wanted a lapdance just to put and end to it. He looked at me sideways. "I think I'll pass," he said.
I got up. The club was so small. There was nowhere to go but back in the dressing room, so I went. The "dressing room" was really just a short, cramped hallway behind the stage with a row of decrepit high-school gym lockers pushed up against one wall, covered in graffiti and torn, glittery stickers that said "99% Angel" and "Princess" and "Boys Suck." It smelled like mildew and cheap make-up and it was always cold. In those first weeks, I spent a lot of time back there.
I didn't give my first dance until the end of that first day, and I was so desperate by then to be giving one that I barely remember it. His name was Neil and he was pretty fat. When I was dancing at the Crazy Lady, I used to say a good day was a day when I didn't remember any of their faces.
The men there on the dayshift were guys who didn't have anywhere else to be. They were plumbers and electricians stopping in between jobs, day laborers who didn't get hired that day, retired guys living on fixed incomes. They didn't have much money, and all any of us girls wanted was to take that little bit away. Relations between the dancers and the customers were tense at best.
We knew they would give us the money, sooner or later -- not because they like us, but because we are the only option they've got. They knew if they waited till we were desperate we would beg the DJ to run a 2-4-1 special. Resentment and discontent hung in the air there like a smell. I taught myself a basic hustle of big eyes and persistance, my face wiped blank like a slate. Smile, nod, play dumb but not too dumb: a bubble-gum naivete -- just smart enough to understand your jokes. Like me. Please like me. Feel sorry for me. Give me your cash.
The guy in the suit who walked in that one summer afternoon stuck out like a sore thumb. Aaron. He said his name was Aaron, and he said he only stopped in because the club is right off the access road to the highway and it's rush hour and traffic is standing still.
Sure. Whatever. I don't care. I just hope he brought some money with him, because it's getting boring sitting back in the dressing room watching little blond Celeste dreamily run her hair-dryer up and down her white arms and legs.
He is tall and thin, and going bald, not in a bad way. He has a nice smile. He does not seem to be angry at me for having breasts and charging money to look at them. When I ask him to dance he says yes right away.
I dance. In the dark, I look pretty. They always keep this club so dark, and my pale skin glows in the blacklights. Even my wig looks great, if you don't look too close. I have just learned how to glue false eyelashes to my upper lids. I made $42 on my first day, and I went to the dollar store and bought lipstick.
After the dance, Aaron keeps talking. I like him. He's funny, and smart. He also gives me $20 to sit with him while he talks. I like him even more. He starts telling me about himself -- his job, which sounds impressive. His house. The trips he's taken. I understand that this man in his suit is trying to impress me. Behind my stripper smile, I am really smiling.
I have an imperfect but solid understanding that this is probably not real. When he starts asking me out, I smile and shake my head. Bubblegum. Big eyes. I say, "You don't even know me."
He is leaning forward. His body is taught as a wire. "Listen," he says. "I'm a really great guy. I swear. I wrote a book about bicycling in Mexico. I'm awesome. You owe it to yourself." He's funny. I laugh. It feels -- interesting. I have a sense of having been handed a kind of power, but I have no idea what to do with it. It's not really real. It feels kind of real, though.
I remember him saying, "Please." I remember him pulling a pen out of his pocket and writing his name down, first and last. "Please, I have to go. What can I say or do in the next five minutes to convince you to come with me? Listen, I'm going down to the coast. I have a boat down there, a little sailboat. I want you to come sailing with me this weekend. Please."
I keep shaking my head. I run out of things to say. Finally, I take the napkin. I tell him I'll call. I feel guilty. My palms are sweating. At this point in my life, I have done very little lying.
"You will? No, you won't. Will you? Jesus."
He does leave, finally. I take the napkin back to the dressing room and tuck it into the front pocket of my backpack. Later I take it out and read his name to myself silently, first and last. It is a beautiful, alliterative name.
I see myself sitting at the prow of a little sailboat, dangling my feet down so the spray of each wave as we crest it slaps up the inside of my thighs. When I was small, my family had a little boat like this. We took it out in the summers, and had sandwiches with pimento cheese spread. Big motorboats would go by us, throwing up huge wakes that made our tiny boat rock and yaw.
But I am not ten and these are not the yellow-green waters of the Chesapeake. This is the gulf, and the waters are blue as steel. I hear seabirds and cracking canvas. My arms smell like sunlight and salt. At this time in my life, I do not even own a bathing suit; if I want to swim I wear cut-offs and a man's undershirt. They'll kick you out of the city pools like that, so I go to the greenbelt and wade down the muddy banks to swim. On the deck of Aaron's boat, my bathing suit is two-piece, yellow with white polka dots.
Aaron is on the boat somewhere behind me, at the rudder, but I do not see him. Later I will go back and he will be there. My mind never goes any farther than this.
"Are you ready to dance?" Tom asks.
"Born ready." I put the music on, stand up and put my hands on his shoulders. I start to sway. I start to pull my shirt over my head, and teasingly turn away just at the moment when my breasts would pop out.
"Wow," Tom says. "You're great. I wish I would have met you at the Crazy Lady. We should have met then."
I laugh and finish taking off my shirt, toss it at him. Sure. We should have met years ago, when I was young. You were married then, of course, and I wouldn't have left a club with a customer to save my life, but if this is your dream I'll dream it with you: We would have been the ones to save each other and neither of us would be here now, in this barren room that still smells like paint making this transaction of skin for cash, survival for survival.
Sure, baby. Sure.