~This essay was previously published in Pivo (2003).
“So what do you do?” I ask, because he already knows what I do, we’re at my work.
“I’m a musician,” he says, and we both know that’s not all, that the twelve people in the private room and the tension in the dressing room on his arrival don’t have a lot to do with music. But we pretend it is, pretend we can have a normal conversation, pretend there’s lots to find out about each other and that we both care.
He’s nearly forty now, or perhaps on the far side, it’s hard to tell grey from blond. In the poster on the wall of my rented one-bedroom, over where the funky part of Dallas becomes a bad neighborhood, he’s thirty, or maybe a drugged-out twenty-five, fronting a band that will be famous always but always a little less famous than him. He’s drinking brand name gin and tonic, three green olives on a plastic sword balanced on the edge. I’m drinking champale, which is house code for a six dollar cranberry juice and ginger ale. I’m underage, my Poloroid’s on the Do Not Serve board in the back hall, but I don’t drink anyway. He’s either a boobs man or a brains man, because if he was an ass man, I wouldn’t be here, being a little softer around the backside than the rest of the Dallas girls. My bet is on brains. I’m hoping it’s brains. I figured out pretty quickly I wasn’t a Barbie body, was never going to be the tightest girl in the bar no matter how many reps I did, my money comes from conversation and climbing – they’ll pay twenty bucks for the fun of watching me climb two stories up, wrap my high boots around one of the cage bars, lean back and slide down, squeezing my thighs to stop short when my hair brushes the platform. Sometimes thirty.
We’re supposed to do two sets in the cages after two songs on stage, but he’s had a word with the manager, or rather, his manager’s had a word with my manager, and a girl who never liked me to begin with and now is into full-blown hate is taking my sets. Lock my locker for sure tonight, or better yet, take everything home, shoes, dresses, makeup, anything that can be ripped or cut with nail scissors or smashed on the tile floor. I learned in Florida never to leave money in a locker, as fast as you can make a hundred and eighty bucks it still burns to lose it. Dallas is better, there are house mothers who police the dressing room and iron and bandage and pass out cups of liquid latex in the clubs inside the city limits, where if the cops come in, your fake nipples have to peel off in one piece and be opaque to a dollar bill. Here outside the city limits, we’re bare up top, but in the Cabaret we’re also in dresses “appropriate for street wear” when we sit with the customers and we don’t cross the invisible wall in front of their knees, the barrier between us and their groins.
I’m not even supposed to be here. I work next door, in the less-exclusive room of this two-club complex squatting beside the ring road, fronted like a mansion with pillars and a fountain and a circular drive where even the dancers use the valet. In my room, Club Concert, the girls can wear lingerie on the floor and the men don’t have to have ties. We are also less pretty. They call it “a different look,” which means we have smaller or possibly real breasts, softness in the belly, baby fat still around our cheekbones. My placement in the second room seems to me a logical extension of high school, the punchline of finally finding out I am pretty and I can be popular, as long as I leave school at 2:30 and work the 3-to-10 shift.
In Dallas, it’s 7 to 2, but there are so many girls here they check our ID cards when we come and we leave when we’ve made enough. It’s Sunday, slow, but Sundays have always been my lucky night. Tommy closed our room at midnight, told us, “Since it was so slow tonight, you can go over to the Cabaret if you want. Don’t forget, ladies—” and we chorus back, “Appropriate for street wear.” We are a mixed blessing to the girls in the other room. More girls means less time on stage, where no-one makes money, but it also means more competition for dances on the floor. I go up to the same two songs as always, and near the end while I am getting bored and cursing the lack of pole on the main stage, a man comes to the edge of the stage.
“He would like you to join him in the VIP Suite.” I know who “he” is. Even in the other room, we knew he was here. Bulletins came through the dressing room mom—he’s here, he’s in the Suite, he’s not buying dances, he’s sending people down with tips, no, they’re going on their own, no, it’s his money. The DJ finally locked his door and announced that he wasn’t going to play the song, that song, his song, for anyone, so could everyone please stop whining?
I tell the man at the edge of the stage I have to do four more songs in the cages before I can come up, and he nods and goes to arrange something because the room manager comes to me before Annie Lennox finishes her final “hey” and tells me that Dani will be covering my cage sets and would I please put on my dress and go upstairs immediately. Backstage, I struggle into my dress as Sassy waits for her music. “Good luck,” she says, because nothing is secret, and I am grateful that she’s a nice person who talks to the new girls in the dressing room and just laughs when they ask her why she’s called Miss Six-to-Eight.
The door to the VIP Suite is shut, and I don’t know whether to knock or just go in, finally deciding to knock on the grounds that servants don’t. The man who came to the stage opens the door, asks me what I want to drink, and motions to a wing chair by the window. It takes a moment for my eyes to adjust, the lights are lower here, so we can watch the floor through the glass window.
He leans back in the wing chair, watching the girl on stage through plate glass. The music is piped in, the DJ announces Crystal who is one more whining voice refused the song, the song we all want to dance to tonight, his song. Crystal plays to the floor crowd, refusing to look to the second level, ignoring the window we’re watching her through, you can either be starstruck or you can pretend he isn’t here. I’m with Crystal – I’d rather act like everything’s normal, as normal as the VIP Suite can be, just like oil money or software money or Cowboys money, only it’s famous money. In the end, what matters is that it’s money.
He’s telling me about his wife, he misses her, it’s hard being on tour without her, she couldn’t come this time. I have seen their wedding picture. She’s in a red dress, on horseback, the lead rope falling to his hand, both laughing. He is at this moment unfamous to me, one of many, working on Topic #2, My Significant Other, after a quick slip through Topic #1, My Job. There are only three topics. I pray for the sake of being able to listen to his music forever after this that he will not get to #3, Will You Go Home With Me. As Sassy says, why would you leave the bar for a hundred-dollar blowjob when you could stay here and make six to eight? I do not know if he would offer money or expect fame to pay, but I also do not know if I cost enough to say no.
“Would you like to dance?” he asks, and it takes a moment to realize that that means for him, not with him, because my brain is remembering the Prom and thinking, yeah, you fuckers, look at me now. “Next song, so you get a whole song?” I say, realizing, I am rationing out pleasure to the face from my poster.
The DJ is psychic, or perhaps Sierra has blown him in the booth because as she walks on stage he puts it on, the song, his song. The guitar is laying down the rhythm and every girl on the floor is up, arms overhead for good breast position or hands on the parts we want to emphasize, never bending over past the ninety degree limit set out in the training video that also showed us where the line was and how not to fellate our drinking straws.
I drop my appropriate-for-street-wear dress to the floor around my ankles and give the eye to a hanger-on, who turns away. It is just us. I would like to pretend that it is just us, that we are alone in the suite, alone in the club, alone in the world. What rock star would you like to be on a desert island with? I turn away, I arch my back, I brush him with my hair, I turn back. He is mouthing the words. His eyes are closed. So I dance for twenty bucks, and for me.
THE STORY BEHIND THE ESSAY
From the time I was a senior in high school until I was twenty-three, I worked on and off as an exotic dancer (back then I really cared about not calling it “stripping”). It’s one of the best things that ever happened to me. As a teenage girl I learned that I could talk to anyone from mechanic to rock star, that I could get money from people by telling them they should give it to me, and that I could be the most powerful person in the room while naked. As a writer, those skills have served me well.
Stories from those days have ended up in my one-woman show and a couple of essays, but this was the first one, written while I was a grad student in Prague, the first year I’d stopped carrying around a pair of heels and a combination lock just in case I wanted to work, the first time I admitted stripping probably wasn’t an option any more.
There are just enough clues to figure out who the rock star is, if you Google really hard.
ABOUT ALLISON WILLIAMS
Allison Williams has written about race, culture and comedy for NPR, CBC, The Christian Science Monitor and the New York Times. Her fiction has appeared in Crossed Genres, Smokelong Quarterly and Deep South; essays in The Drum and Brevity. She is a two-time winner of The Moth StorySLAM and the Social Media Editor of Brevity. Her forthcoming memoir is The Year of The Whore. Find her at www.idowords.net