The desire to dance possesses me immediately as I cross the threshold from the grey Portland afternoon into the hyper-color strip club I left behind two months ago. The bass strikes my core as I strut into my old club and fight the urge to sashay up the backstage, peel off my conservative dress, and swing from the brass pole. I’d kick up my left foot and hang upside down in perfect sync to “Milkshake” by Kelis right fucking now. I’d slide down the metallic phallus like vanilla ice cream slides down throats on a hot summer day. But I refrain and waltz over to the bar and order a club soda instead.
The strippers outnumber the customers, which is typical at 3 p.m. All five dudes stare at me as I wait for my virgin drink at the bar. I squeeze my lime into the bubbly water, look around and try not to laugh at the hungry eyes undressing me. They remind me of one of the reasons I quit—the symbiosis of vampiric desperation.
I sit at a booth, the seat covered in swaths of duct tape. I inhale a cloud of baby powder drifting off of a nearby dancer. I open my laptop. A middle-aged dude with a ponytail tucked under a baseball cap pushes his palms on the table and talks in my face, “How ya doing? You look busy.” “I am,” I say. He keeps talking, but I ignore him and type. He’d be an easy target if I was Lux, the hustler, right now.
The interaction evokes a realization—only an illusionist can veil the cold hard fact that strip club goers personify cold hard cash.
I wasn’t just a stripper; I was a fucking magician. A postmodern alchemist who transmuted sexual energy into bank notes. I’d make guys feel special. Significant. Worthwhile. And they did the same for me every time they bought private dances or spread fives and tens on my stage.
Money equals self-worth in the Church of Black Lights. I thwart the urge to strip with that dangerous equation in mind.
I see it right now. The petite blonde onstage small talks with a guy who plays bad techno on the jukebox. Her slouched posture and drooping eyebrows reveal her fatigue and inner dialog to the initiate. “Just shut up and pay me” is what she really means when she outwardly says, “Thanks, sweetie.”
I know because I did the same thing. I hid behind giggles and ass jiggles. I’d zone out on the club lights scattered across some dude’s face as he blabbed about himself. His job. His kids. His car. I’d nod my head and calculate my fluctuating hourly wage while pretending to listen. I’d kick my eight-inch stiletto in the air at 300 beats per minute as I anxiously awaited the next private dance.
Part of why I lasted only two months as a stripper after coming out of my 10-year retirement was that, out of all the men that came into the club, only one regular customer genuinely kept my interest—John. Our cynical conversations energized me. He was my oasis in a desert of devo. He was the only client who didn’t make me feel like a blow-up doll with a pulse.
But John wasn’t enough to keep me there. As the club died with the changing seasons, so did my motivation to strip.
A steady stream of wallets walked through the door when I first started. I marveled at how little I had to do to make money. Be coy. Smile. Actually dance. Tell a joke. Be nice.
But as autumn took hold, the club slowed down, and the demands from the few guys coming in were too much for me to handle. They wanted a dry hump. Ass checks slammed against their noses. A mouthful of titty. Or just to touch me whenever they felt the urge.
I sat next to Chet at the bar and edited an essay. I noticed a white crust encircled his nostril, and beads of sweat gathered in the wrinkles on his forehead and streamed down his temples. He had an arm around the stripper to his right. They laughed. He interrupted me.
“Just don’t write about me,” he said. That’s narcissistic code for “please write about me.”
“Don’t worry,” I said.
He dropped his hand from the bar and onto my thigh. Black gunk caked every fingernail. I lifted his five-fingered filth from my leg and threw it back at the bar.
“I never said you could touch me,” I said.
“You’re so uptight,” he said.
I slammed my laptop shut and stood up from my bar stool.
“My body isn’t free rein just because I’m a stripper,” I said before leaving.
My detachment and tolerance dwindled along with my self-esteem. I showed up later and later to each shift, even though I respected the manager. I scheduled myself less and less. When I did work, I’d count my money and check the time every half-hour and assess if it was worth me being at the club.
Eventually, I decided it wasn’t. I panicked because I was done but had no instant way out.
And shortly thereafter, I had good timing for once in my life and finally landed a worthy day job.
“Thank you, but I quit,” I told the sweetest strip club manager in the world. “I’m so grateful for all you’ve done for me.”
“Come back any time,” he said.
And here I am. Back as a spectator. The cotton candy body spray and neon hues envelope me. They welcome me. They tempt me.
They also remind me that I’m so grateful I can strip if I have to, but I’m even more grateful that I don’t have to. At least not right now.
This essay originally appeared in Exotic Magazine, December 2017.