In Florida there is a law that two establishments dealing in pornographic matters cannot be within a hundred yards of one another. At least this was the case some ten years ago, as I remember it. Or maybe it was never a law at all, simply another topic for people to trouble their conversation with around the bar. It doesn’t matter, except to show this particular stretch of US highway was an oddity. And that oddity became apparent, lent prurience to the air, a good half-mile before one passed the uneven pock marked parking lot. The lot contained an adult bookstore of warehouse proportions and, set back further from the road, a small black-windowed club called Divas.
These two establishments, while similar in intention, were opposite in appearance. Whereas the repository was built tall and boxy, Divas was squat, long and unassuming. The Adult Books Warehouse beamed an ecstasy of electricity and activity; Divas was dark, hidden somehow while remaining in the open, with clientele who went through great pains to mask their comings and goings. The only neon determining the presence of the club existed as a glowing woman, perhaps a caricature of some former Diva, some piece of her trapped in the light, and in the memory of the establishment’s former owner. Poor girl had found herself unwittingly bound for eternity to the front of a Floridian strip club. As for my own relation to each institution, I never once set foot in the Warehouse, but there was a time when I found myself occupying Divas on a daily basis.
Let me first say it was all my idea. Ten years of telling myself otherwise, but let me now admit while maybe I didn’t drive the car, it was certainly my own quiet utterance that set the car in motion. I remember lying on the bed with Taylor at the window, wanting badly to please him, no more this day than any other, but always wanting it so bad. Our drug use had gotten out of hand. The money I skimmed from my pathetic job at the ice cream store was no longer enough to support both our habits; my boss was suspicious, both about the missing money (usually a hundred dollars at a time, hardly concealed) and about my deteriorating appearance. Taylor threatened to rob houses again, something he had already been arrested for numerous times, charges he dodged over and over by playing the remorseful addict, too sick to really be responsible for his own actions. Doubtful he’d be able to talk himself out of another conviction and as it was, he was beginning to nab gardening tools and bicycles from open garages, bringing the items home and coaxing me to pawn them. Of course he could not have pawnshops running his name. Anyway, when I say it was getting out of hand I guess what I really mean is we were already all in.
“He’s gotta know.”
“Hmmm? What does it matter?”
“My boss. He’s gotta know. I can’t get any more.”
“It’s not enough anyway… The neighbors… their gate is open. Might be something back there. What time is it? They’re probably at work.”
“I could work… at Divas....” and the phrase more closely resembled a question than a determination. If I had expelled the words in the form of steam their strength would have barely made even a small teapot whistle. But by no mistake, Taylor heard me, and his pallid complexion lit brightly with the prospects of my timid proposition.
“No you couldn’t. Could you?” He became brighter still, and translucent yellow, like the obscene rays of Florida sun slicing through the blinds. I pushed myself to a corner of the bed, where no light touched.
“I mean, Selena did it, right?” I remembered Selena had been fired for giving blowjobs on the clock, shortly before she gave up, and started selling raw chunks of herself in an apartment, where the electricity had long been shut off. I shook the image of her away, the last time I had seen her, in that dark apartment, so thin as to be lost in a child-sized t-shirt. I continued with my fumbling suggestion.
“And Cynthia, right? No, not Cynthia. Daina? No, not her. But somebody else I think, right? Phoebe, she worked there. I could do it, maybe. I don’t know. Maybe not.”
Those girls, those names. The girls who already had tattoos by the time I had only just worked up the nerve to start shaving my head. Two years too late. I was out of fashion before I even began. And these were the girls who let me know it, Cynthia, Selena, Phoebe. I think Daina spit on me once, outside a club in Fort Lauderdale. I idolized those girls, and hated them all at once. In the end, it was much the same way with Taylor. Lapses in judgment brought us together and transgressions blurred the lines between us. The living dead resemble each other and not themselves, so we might as well have all gone by the same name. Whatever the proper name of wanting, that was the title we shared.
“Yeah, you could do it. It wouldn’t be hard at all. If I was a chick, I’d do it. I mean, I would already be doing it, if I was you. It’s so easy. And it’s so much money. Fuck those guys, if they wanna give you money, take it. I mean if I could, I would do it. But, you know, I can’t. Yeah… you should definitely do it. I bet we could go there now even, and you’d have money for us by tonight…”
Within moments he ushered me through the contents of my own closet, finding the appropriate skimpy dress, of which I had none, and the appropriate shoes, of which I had only sneakers and imitation combat boots. Awkward not only in the clothes I was wearing, but in my skin, under the weight of my thin purple hair, on my way to a parking lot that the irremediable found by instinct.
Taylor dropped me off in front of Divas, asserting his take on the situation by locking the door behind me and vowing not to pick me up again until I had money, and a lot of it, in my hands. He drove away, in what was my car, leaving me behind, there in that parking lot. I think I cried. I had never been in Divas before, or any other strip club. I was barely eighteen. I wasn’t comfortable looking at myself in a mirror, I often picked at my face. My body was as much hidden from me as it was everyone else, masked usually in baggy clothes. I was scared. Yes, I think I did cry.
But maybe it didn’t happen like that at all. Maybe it’s just easier to think Taylor locked the door behind me. Anyway it was my idea. I remember that now.
Or if I don’t remember, it didn’t happen, like making a fool of myself while blacked out drunk, or my mother’s face ten years ago, or the five before that. If I refuse to remember I will stay in that parking lot till Taylor comes back, I mean he’d have to come back. Eventually he’d have to unlock the door. Or I could stay standing in one of those weathered potholes until the rest of the parking lot and all that was in it turned to dust or discount stores around me. I don’t remember what the door to Divas looked like. An awning jutted out unusually far above it, reaching into the parking lot. In my mind the door is a dark shadow with no handle, but I know I made it inside. I know because all that comes after makes it so.
It’s not important what Divas looked like on the inside. The appearance of the place seems only to unfold around the memories contained within. I see myself on the stage and I know there is a light there, sunk in the middle, a spot shining upwards, embedded in the floor. Once I cut my knee on the edge of that light, and kept dancing with blood dripping heavily down one leg. I remember because I still have a scar.
I am in the parking lot and then I am in inside. I must have asked the first person I saw for a job. I was nervous. I stumbled. I must have been directed to the back office, to the owner. I don’t know his name anymore. He was a seedy bastard, always laughing at his own jokes, under the greasy ridge of a badly receding hairline. His office was in the dressing room. I had to walk through an unorganized pack of tragically beautiful women and girls. I was either over or underdressed, perhaps obviously both. I used to think I remembered the conversation that got me the job. A few years ago I realized that my memory of it had been one I adopted along the way from a movie I once saw. Stock image of the interior of a strip club office, sleazy boss with cigar and gold chain; his voice comes from a raw place in his throat. It wasn’t a lengthy conversation. He told me I needed to wear ten-inch heels; I could begin immediately.
The other girls laughed at me, pulled off my over sized black slip, all hastily put together skin and bone underneath. They pointed at my scuffed up boots, pulled everything off until I was naked before them, naked in a way I had never been, a coward before the image of my own pale body.
That is a lie. No one paid attention as I undressed, only a room lined with mirrors and lockers, as if it existed alongside a perverse high school gym. It was my own eyes multiplied by the mirrors that created the sick feeling of being watched. There was only one girl who noticed, a little older than I, and she watched not to mock, but out of pity for my obvious lack of sophistication in these matters. She gave me a worn out pink skirt and a pink halter that tied between my breasts. Both were pulled from the back of her locker, both were satin. We wore the same shoe size. She lent me an old pair of black high heels, with a broken strap. I remember the heels were thick and square because I was thankful for that. I imagined myself walking in shoes that high, looking more like a drunken toddler than an image cut from a men’s magazine. An image not of beauty, but of sex. She gave me a pair of her underwear, mine being threadbare and besides that unrevealing. Putting on something that had once been so close to her, the way she freely and gently shared this bit of herself, was the most genuine exchange of intimacy I had experienced in a long time. She took me to the stage and taught me how to roll my hips by standing behind me, pressed against me, moving me with her hands. She made me laugh, broke my stiff posture. I don’t remember her name either.
How do you remember people who don’t have names, who keep that part inside? Everyone had a stage name at Divas, another persona to bear the responsibility of a fall from grace. Or maybe it was illustrious to play another part, any part that was not the self to which they went home. But lofty hopes were quickly diffused by the constant hum of the smoke machine, a device whose existence I knew of only by bearing witness to its effects. I spent months caught in that haze. Obscured days spent indoors, not leaving until well into the evening; I recall no daylight from that time.
There were two shifts—the day shift from two until seven, and the night shift from seven until two. Each of these time slots elicited its own type of dancer and patron. Early the club was sparsely populated with men on business lunches, or those ditching work prematurely, on their way home to dinner. Or the lonely and unemployed, slowly divvying government checks between a particular chosen sweetheart and a favorite flavor of firewater. Among the girls who worked the early shift were a few otherwise struggling students, including the girl who had shown me kindness that first afternoon. There was a single mother of two and many more who were simply confused, passing through this club or another, moving steadily up or more often steadily down.
The passing of the day was marked by a subtle increased feeling of disconnect. The place became busier as the day wore on into night. Packs of men, still boys, filled out the corners, circled tables. At night there were more career strippers, savvy saleswomen well skilled at selling their commodities in three-minute slices. Objectification exchanged for mere objects. Middle-aged men flashed wealth in cheap suits, occupied every bar stool, looking to atone for social inadequacies by purchasing supervised companionship. Men like this remained in attendance all times of day, though. At night it just seemed a little more obvious no one cared about your name. Not customer or fellow dancer. The atmosphere became more competitive and cold. The bar was full to the doors most nights, but even more were the number of girls bidding for attention. The music grew louder at night and the lighting in the already dark bar was dimmed further.
It is easier for me to imagine the night shift consisted of a more salacious environment since I worked during the day. But there existed no softer air in the afternoons, no window to the outside. It could have been raining and probably was. I was self-centered, hardly aware of matters that extended past my personal borders. Six months previous I graduated in the top five percent of my high school class. The state tried to give me a scholarship. Yet growing in me all the while was a foolishly rebellious spirit, bent on challenging all those conventional avenues of knowledge and experience. But that doesn’t tell you anything. Four of my friends died my senior year of high school, one of whom was very dear to me. Very dear. The three others were more of acquaintances, with which at different times I had had friendships of varying depth. Two died in a car accident, two died of overdoses, one possibly a suicide. All four died of youth. It became clear my experimentation up to this point had failed me. Imbued with a romanticized view of a pernicious subculture, I set out to redefine my frightened and fragile self-image. I didn’t want to be the chubby girl with the crooked teeth anymore, the one whose friends were no longer invincible. But it was easier to focus on the more tactile aspects of life, an ignorant want to simply feel good, whatever that means, and so the edge of the world might as well have made up one side of the Divas parking lot for all I knew. My own immediate necessities were my only concern. Always I stayed until I had enough money for both Taylor and me to make it through another day without fear of sickness and often this meant staying well into the later shift. In the end, all that made the night seem more unsavory was the way the ending of day drew in a bigger crowd.
I remember the stage names of only two girls. I suppose they were women, but in the shadows and smoke provided by the club’s interior, everyone looked young, sounded young, as if perhaps there was yet time to become more than simply a stripper in a two bit bar. The harsh locker room bulbs shattered our mental indulgences, and made even the most compelling sirens more closely resemble bruised fruit. But Angel was beautiful in any light, and she retained a measure of naïve innocence to her features. She compelled men to take care of her with a look, and many tried in vain to keep her immaculate form from ever wilting. She possessed the impossible proportions of a child’s doll, complete with heart shaped lips and thick mane of tangled red hair. Her unnaturally large bust seemed impossibly balanced atop legs that could have passed for thick stilts. Since freckles can hardly be called a flaw, her skin was without blemish.
As Taylor and I were each day plagued with threats of impending withdrawal symptoms, I never went a day without working and remained a constant presence within the club’s walls. Angel was the only other individual, besides the owner, who spent as much time there. I got the impression she had been a club draw long before my introduction to the scene. She ought to have been a millionaire by the time I met her. But every girl had her addiction, be it concrete or intangible, a battle with substance or phantom. This battle was each girl’s secret, guarded as closely as her true name. Clouds formed in a tight orbit around Angel, cloaking her emotions with a veil. I never figured out what her deal was. Maybe she was just unlucky, though in the end it is never that simple. All I know is each day when Angel came in complaining of another broken down car, another misanthropic landlord, another set of busted pipes, a pout set off her high cheekbones just so, adding immeasurably to her allure.
Everyday she worked, and most other days just to be sure he didn’t miss her, a simple man with a simple name came in to see her. I say a simple name because though I don’t remember it, his name sits on the edge of a memory, and I recall its composition being of few letters. I remember that much. He said hello to all the girls. He behaved politely, and around the club politeness was akin to the highest degree of kindness. I imagined him to be some sort of engineer or other studious type, his complexion seemed dulled by days spent indoors, and he gave off an air of gullible intelligence. I might guess the time he spent in Divas was the only time he spent around people who were not in a suit and tie, let alone scantily clad women. I believe he honestly felt as though he loved Angel, and maybe had few other social interactions by which to compare such emotions. It was no secret he wished to marry Angel, steal her out of the place, take care of her—many of the dancers busied their chatter with jealous gossip.
When he was low on cash, Angel would have to dance for other customers while he watched, fixedly from across the room. On more than one occasion, he lost his cool and had to be asked to leave. But he always came back for Angel, and I think in this way she needed him, more than for the money he gave her, the things he bought for her, the bills he paid for her. I don’t think her self-image could have functioned without the esteem he bestowed upon her. It’s hard to say from the standpoint of my observations if any of this is how either really felt in the end. Maybe one day he just didn’t come back. Maybe he was not as neat and kind a character as I’ve framed here. People rarely are. And most everyone has his or her limits.
If business was slow, Angel would offer to dance with me. We would take the stage together and split the tips. She consistently drew in more money than I, and as two girls on stage together always elated the crowd even on the slowest day, she was doing me a favor. We must have looked ridiculous up there. Angel was head and shoulders taller than me, and my head veritably wedged itself between her two perfectly inflated breasts. She had a very generous nature. The money just seemed to slip through her hands, I could not account for where it fell.
The only other name I recollect, perhaps due to its voracity and candor, belonged to a woman almost entirely composed of legs. When I wrote earlier this was a career for some girls, none took the business venture as seriously as the dancer who went by the name Scandalous. Scandalous suffered from no perceivable weaknesses, and stood firm on two of the most well formed bronze pillars I had yet seen. If anything she was too sleek, her features a little too cold, too smooth, a perfectly cast sculpture. Scandalous was without a doubt the sexiest creature to ever cross that floor on ten-inch heels. I do not mean that word “sexiest” in the sense it has come to imply. I mean her tightly wound ink black curls, which fell throughout the evening with the grace of her every movement, lent the woman a raw and commanding appeal. She took to the stage with only the most provocative musical accompaniment.
Scandalous embraced a façade that inspired uncultivated lust, at least so far as it benefited her monetarily. Men put their hands on her, but they did not touch her. It’s hard for me to describe the effect her form had upon my sensibilities, the refinement she seemed to hold even in the midst of the unceasing catcalls and sweat, all the sick smoke and violating sleight of hand. Scandalous remained as distant as the creased regions of a magazine centerfold. It was a quality I endlessly admired. To me, every breath of stagnant air in the club was formed of a dense and poisonous gas, and my own exhalations only added to this. The repetitious music wore my skin to the bone. Every unchallenged, and indeed invited, yet none the less inappropriate, grope and grab, sneering striking hands, left indelible marks on my framework.
I imagined something terrible happened to Scandalous in an earlier life, so as to make her stony modifications so unmoving. I envied the repercussions of such an event, for the qualities it and time produced in her. Then, as now, it has been my way to hide under a false cloak of perception. Even as I sit here and recall these visions so long castaway, I cannot help but be aware of a struggle between distance and description. I do not trust my mind to release all the mephitic memories contained within, to allow them passage from unconscious to conscious, then further freed, from pen to paper. I do not trust my own thoughts.
Like now, I think Scandalous must have worked the night shifts; her character and demeanor fit that category in my mind. As I write it, I know it is not true. Her countenance is as etched as a portrait in my skull because she worked the long and unthankful daytime hours with us, baring more than just her flesh, baring all, for a paltry and tainted payment. Each time the door opened, it allowed a shard of daylight to shine clear on all our fears and transgressions, till momentum slammed it shut again, leaving all inside engulfed in smoke and delicate illusions. The momentary introduction of fresh air served only to make the barroom seem more suffocating in its wake.
Perhaps Angel and Scandalous are names I remember because the summoned attributes of the women who bore those names so easily adhere to my own preexisting compartments and stereotypes. Or their embodiments compose the foundations of these chambers. Perhaps the details that bewitched me are collaged, rather than engraved, in my mind. I should remember the name of the girl who helped me that first day. And another dancer, a woman over forty, endowed with all the motherly inclinations her age implied, if only a bit contused. A particular breed of client sought her presence for excitement and comfort. She opened her arms to all. Certainly hers is a name that deserves to be remembered, but names have always escaped me. However flawed these depictions may be, time can lend truth to falseness, I know this, and these women, Angel and Scandalous, did breathe.
This has all been a cover. Memories of the dancers come to me easily compared to the images of men I try to suppress. Swirling effigies of faces and fingers; I cannot distinguish my faults from these appendages. It is the men I remember best, for their tyranny and generosity, those I pity and those who caused me to pity myself. It is the men I must speak of now. But let me avoid the memory of them another moment. There is one other matter I must speak of first and one other name I remember. This name will be the only detail omitted, and of course the stage name I speak of is my own. I keep that one detail for myself. My stage name has woven itself into my character, alongside all the other nicknames and playground slanders. I am not able to purge myself of its influence. I ache for this young girl whose name shall remain unspoken.
As I said, I was immediately hired and immediately began that day. I finished undressing, and stepped back into the barroom, the second time my feet had ever grazed Divas’ floor, this time as an employee, a dancer, a stripper. Almost immediately, the DJ asked my name. I told him.
“No. Your stage name. You don’t want anyone knowing your real name, do you?”
I shook my head. Nothing came to mind, aside from the sight of me teetering over. It took concentration to balance myself in a standing position.
“All right. Just get up there. But give me a name as soon as you think of one,” he said impatiently and glared at me through wire-rimmed glasses. The thickness of the lenses suggested an academician hidden beneath the dissembled garments of a pale-faced thug.
“How about I play something gothic? You look like you like that sort of shit,” he called after me.
“That’s fine, thank you,” polite out of habit, too quiet to be heard over the loud bass in the room. It didn’t really matter what I did or did not like anyway. It was his job to spin the records and introduce the girls, work up the crowd. He played what he wanted, and I’ve just now remembered his name was Matt. I took the stage without any introduction.
The first dance, a three-minute song, time passed quickly. I don’t remember the band’s name. I used the momentum from a constant state of falling to propel myself in circles. I was dizzy from spinning around the pole. I didn’t know what else to do. I walked along the top of the bar, collecting tips, kicking over a glass by accident. An old man in a stained shirt laughed at me as I came around. When I stopped before him, he put his hand on my leg roughly. He breathed low, and commented on the texture of my skin. What he said became my name.
Jessica Rogers, a writer of both poetry and fiction, resides in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. She received a BA in Writing & Literature from Naropa University, and an MFA from Long Island University's Brooklyn Campus. Currently she is completing a novel on memory while compiling a manuscript of prose poetry on the immediate. Jessica teaches at Queensborough Community College, CUNY.