Friday, June 19, 2009

no experience necessary

"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.

Friday, June 05, 2009

not now, but soon

Jim found my blog and read the last post. He e-mailed me and we had one of those largely pointless exchanges singular to people who spend too much time online.

But my very real chagrin -- because nobody should have to read another person's uncensored opinion about themselves, ever -- was squelched for good around the time he envinced to be shocked (but shocked!) that I would publish something as private and personal as our lunchtime conversation online. Given that the culture of review-posters more or less revolves around the online airing of intensely private moments -- who does what and for how much and will she take the condom off -- this seems just a little rich.

So, Jim, this is what it's like to be reviewed. I don't blame you if you don't like it. I'm pretty sure I wouldn't either.

Enough of that. But it is a good reminder that times have changed and the days are over when I can blithely talk a ton of shit about whoever I choose (names and identities properly obfuscated) with the security that no one is really listening. It's been a year since the Boing-Boing folks showed up, and once I got over the initial shock, it has been a hell of a party.

Still, times have changed. Blogging has been a lot like dancing in a certain way, with the mirror-twin pleasures of exposure and anonymity. The perfect drug for shy exhibitionists like me -- naked on a lighted stage in front of a house of strangers, and no one knows my name, or anything about me, really, except what I choose to show.

But the island of my privacy is getting a little smaller all the time. If you've been reading for a while, you know I don't post as much as I used to. I have to think harder before I do, every time. For months, I've been thinking about quitting. I went out and bought myself a journal, the real kind, with covers. It's good, but it's not the same. I've thought about running away and starting a new blog, but I'd miss your tiny voices, my old imaginary friends.

So I don't know what I'm going to do, but something's going to have to change. Maybe not quite, quite yet. But soon.

Monday, June 01, 2009

the hobbyist

There is something preposterous about Jim and at the same time something mysterious.

Jim was a customer of mine. Sort of. Not a great one. He never bought many dances, and he talks a lot -- softly, quickly, continuously. There never is a good moment to get up and walk away. You just have to get up and go. Then again, the things he says are fascinating, whether they are true or not. Some of them seem like they could not possibly be. Others I know for myself are fact.

I used to ask him to tip me for my time. "Oh my God," I would say. "I could just sit here and listen to you talk all night." (True.) "I've totally lost track of time." (Not true. I am a cyborg with a digital time-keeping device implanted in my lower left eyescreen. I know exactly what time it is all the time and every ten minutes an alarm goes off that says you owe me money.) "I could have made a hundred dollars by now if I was working!"

Gee whiz mister, and he would reach deep into his pocket and pull out a money clip stuffed with cash -- now who on earth carries a money clip stuffed with high-denomination bills? I have to think that the bottom 3/4 of it is all ones with just some Bens and Grants and Andies dressing up the outside -- but he peels off $100 and gives it to me. And I open up my eyes like tin cups, Gee thanks mister.

A friend who works at another club he frequents told him I was dancing privately now. He e-mailed me. We agreed to go to lunch. I did not think Jim would probably be very interested in getting private dances from me. Jim's extracurriculars are at another level. He is what you call a hobbyist, one of those men for whom paying for sex is not only an expediency but a lifetsyle and an all-consuming passion. They hang out in the Locker Room forum on ASPD and coin the acronyms -- DFK, GFE, DATY -- that make some of my favorite sex acts sound like something being traded on the NYSE. They have elaborate personal scoring systems for the women they pay for sex, based on their age, their looks, whether they are pro or non-pro. They have ATF's. They have types.

Jim's type is young. Not dancers -- waitresses. New waitresses, green but not innocent, knocked around a little bit already but still fool-hardy. He takes them out to lunch and opens the door for them. He treats them to the hair salon and the nail salon and Nordstrom's for a pretty dress and a pair of shoes and then to a comedy club downtown and then back to a hotel room where they fuck, for about the price she would have made in tips that day if it had been an average-good day.

Jim tells me all this over lunch, explicitly. Some of it I knew or guessed before. He describes his last girl for me, tells me her name and I remember her: a pugnacious little cocktail waitress with glossy, dark corkscrew curls and pale, slender arms and legs. She was 20. Jim says she used to meet him at the club and leave with him, ditching her car in the parking lot so her boyfriend would think she was at work.

He says she's a dancer now, but not doing well. She called him up a few nights ago, panicked, begging for money. He met up with her and gave her a few hundred bucks. "I told her she shouldn't have started dancing," he said. "She's the kind of girl you want when you can't have her."

As always, I am appalled and transfixed. I feel like I'm talking to an invented character. He can't be real. Maybe he is a woman. Maybe he is a pathological liar. Maybe he is a kingpin of the underground. I just don't know. And always so open with me, I don't know if he is confessing, or oblivious, or truly, gloriously unashamed.

"I like girls who've never been anywhere or done anything," he told me once. "They're easier to impress." And another time: "I want someone I can't picture myself with in real life." And again, "I don't want someone who might make me feel insecure. You know us men, our fragile egos."

I can't say I've known a lot of men with egos quite this fragile, or haven't known them well. I try to be a little careful with the kind of men I know.

He says things like that, us men. He speaks for all men everywhere. He speaks for men everywhere now when he tells me that I'll never make a living doing what I'm doing, just dancing. "You know guys are going to be disappointed when they find out there's no desert menu," he says.

"Everybody knows that up front," I tell him. "I make it really clear. The only guys who do business with me are the ones who want what I offer."

He shakes his head. He tells me it will never work, and when that doesn't get me, he leans across the table, whispering, covering my hand with his: "Listen, honey, it's not safe. Sooner or later you're going to get raped. It happens to all the girls. Can't you just work for an agency? At least you'd have somebody looking out for you."

I am pretty confident there is no agency out there that would screen as obsessively as I do, that would look out for me as well as I look out for me. With all that, I know there is a non-zero chance that something bad will happen to me, but that's true every time you leave the house. Or even if you don't leave.

Besides, I can't really work for an agency because I don't do sex.

"I can't work for an agency. I don't have sex."

"I know, honey, I know. Say anything you want, but sooner or later some guy is going to make up his mind he's getting laid and he's going to get laid, understand? It always happens. Listen to me. I used to be part owner of an agency in Houston, and it happened to one of our girls, and it was a guy we all knew, a guy who was part of the community. It happens, you know. Guys are guys."

Which is not a particularly great argument for agencies and the screenings that they do, or for references, or for the so-called community, or for Jim. I don't know what to say. I'm still deep in the empathy-space I go into when I'm working, even though it is perfectly obvious to both of us by now that we are not doing business together.

I'll think about this story later and I'll want to say, Fuck you. Fuck your part-time pimping and fuck you for getting your girl raped. You are a lousy pimp, maybe lousier than most pimps, because you're really a mortgage broker or something and it's only a hobby to you so you don't even give the fuck you would give if it was your livelihood.

I shrug, fork up a cluster of salad. I tell him I feel about as safe as I've ever felt.

"But, sweetie, can't you at least go to a modeling studio or something? Somewhere you'd be safe. Somewhere somebody would look after you. I'm just worried about you, OK? You're a fantastic woman and I would really hate to hear that you got hurt."

I think of the modeling studios you drive past as you leave town: Mardi Gras, Ramses, Foxxies, The Doll House. Weird little storefronts tucked into shady little strip malls, next to porn stores and sex shops and the cheaper kind of nail salons. I've never been inside of one, but I imagine it's a lot like the lower-end clubs I've worked in -- the Crazy Lady or the Glass Slipper in Boston. It's small. The carpet is damp and smells damp, so at the end of the day you need a thirty-minute shower just to get the smell off you. People come and go in dark hallways lit with black-lights to make your white G-string glow like some kind of underwater fish. It feels like 1 a.m. at every time of day and it's always hovering over you, the silent pressure of everyone else is doing it and if you want to make money you will too.

"Nah," I say. "I think I'm pretty happy with the way things are going."

He throws his hands up in a heavens-what-will-we-ever-do-with-you gesture. "I guess you know best," he says.

I sneak a look at him over my next tine of salad, sopping with thin vinagrette. This is not really a very nice restaurant. I don't care if the menu is in French.

I would not have sex with Jim for any amount of money the two of us could ever agree on. Not just because he's ugly. I stopped looking at people's outsides a long time ago. It doesn't make sense when you're a dancer. What people looks like doesn't matter. What matters is if they will look in your eyes and listen when you say no and touch you like they would like to be touched instead of fondling you and rolling you around like a melon at fruit stall.

It's not just because Jim's skin looks like the top of my kombucha jar. I'm not that shallow. Or maybe I am. And if I am, well, then I wouldn't make a very good escort, even if I wanted to. God knows I haven't got any moral or ethical dilemma with it. The two main components of escorting -- money and sex -- are both things I like a lot. But goddamn if I'm not just picky.

After lunch Jim walks me to my car. "You know," he says on the way, "I've always thought you were one of the bravest women I ever knew."


He makes a fluttery gesture with his hand over his belly. "You know. The scar."

Oh. That. I don't even think about it anymore.

"You never covered it up. You were just out with it. And all the other girls worrying about how to pay for their boob jobs."

Smile. Laugh. Shrug. Hug. I don't have anything left to say.

One time he told me he'd never ask a woman to sleep with him if he didn't know she'd say yes. "I don't want to be shot down," he said. "Men hate to be shot down."

Everybody hates to be shot down, not just men. He comes close though, as he's hugging me goodbye. "If you ever want to do the professional girlfriend thing, you know who to call first," he says. "When you're ready for somebody to take care of you."

End hug. Disengage. Smile again. Still deep in empathy space, although we no-sale'd so long ago I couldn't even find you the receipt. So maybe the empathy thing is not something I do for the customers. Maybe it's something I do for myself.

I roll the window down to wave as I pull out of the parking lot and then he's gone except for the smell of his cologne which will make it with me all the way home.