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May 3, 2017 | Nonfiction

Open Your Heart

Erika Kleinman

Open Your Heart photo

When we first met, we had stage names. She went by Mia and I went by Olivia. We were dancers at a peepshow in Seattle called the Lusty Lady. On our side, it was a stage surrounded by windows and mirrors. On the other side was a separate booth for each customer. For only one quarter, he could gaze at live nude girls for two and a half minutes through glass. The dancers called the enclosed stage The Fishbowl, to describe the look, the feeling of being admired behind glass. Music hits of 1994 played through the speakers, onstage and into the booths. “Creep” by Radiohead, Salt ‘N’ Pepa’s “Shoop,” Madonna’s “Erotica.” Everything by Prince. Quarters clinked constantly, like a video arcade, like slot machines.

When I think of it now, I can only see the women in glimpses, blurs. The swells of their bellies, their breasts. Their movements, their hair, their pussies, some shaved, some au naturel. I picture the women and the word that always comes to mind is nubile. My breasts were high, my hips slender. I’d watch myself in the mirror as I danced. I’ve never looked at myself more than I did then and from so many angles. But I looked at the other women too. The variety in their bodies was astonishing. I had no idea how many different types of nipples there were in the world. Some stuck out like bullets, others were large and dark, some were so light they seemed to blend in with their breasts. I snuck glances at the women in the mirrors. There were so many different ways to bend our bodies toward the windows.

I hung around a clique of bisexual women that I ingratiated myself into but never felt quite the sense of belonging I hoped for. The alpha bisexual, Elle, and I had some friction. I admired her because she was seductive and mysterious. She thought I was too open and effusive. “You wear your heart on your sleeve,” she said. “You’ve got to figure out how to hold back. You want people to love you too much.” I always felt tacitly rejected by her so of course I tried even harder to get her to respect me. We were both attracted to butch women with powerful personalities. We were both fascinated by Mia’s persona. 

We probably talked about Mia every time we saw each other. She seemed like a collision of both of us---introverted, reserved, but if you connected with her, she lit up, all of her attention on you. Her eyes were blue, blue, electric blue.

Like me, Mia was barely twenty years old. She had dark brown hair, which hung in loose, thick curls down her back and across her breasts. Her thighs were creamy and thick. She had a hearty look to her---she wasn’t overweight, just sturdy and pear-shaped, with high breasts and a full butt. Brunette Boticelli Venus.

 “Doesn’t she look like the schoolgirl stripper from the movie Exotica? Her vibe, I mean.” Elle said. We were at the bar at The Easy, a dyke bar on Pike Street. They hardly ever checked IDs. “When I told her that, she said she saw the movie ten times and that’s why she does the schoolgirl thing. She wants to be her.”

“I could see that, actually. Now that you mention it.” I was drinking vodka and soda with cherries. It was the closest thing to a Shirley Temple. “She emulates her perfectly.”

“It’s kind of creepy,” said Elle. “She’s so beautiful, though. She also looks like Desdemona from Othello. Did you see it, with Lawrence Fishbourne?”

“Yes. Different voice, though. She sounds more like Mariel Hemingway in Manhattan.”

“Oh yeah, she does, totally.”

It seemed impossible that she could remind us of so many women. “What do you think it is about her? The men are so into her. Maybe because she’s a natural beauty?”

“No,” said Elle. She was drinking Maker’s from a whiskey glass. She was wearing a tweed vest. It made her look glamorous, like a Djuna Barnes character. “It’s more esoteric than that. We’ll never be able to put it into words.”

I felt drawn to Mia but I only saw her at work, usually onstage. Mostly I remember the way she moved, slowly and soulfully, from her hips. She made intense eye contact with the customers. She had that schoolgirl routine, wore the skirt and knee socks every time. Men would wait in long lines to see her in the Private Pleasures booth, a one-on-one show with the dancer of your choice, behind glass.

I never had regulars. I didn’t even try to be popular with the customers. I wasn’t disgusted by them like some dancers were, they just didn’t interest me much. I talked a lot onstage and tried to crack people up with my one-liners. The only makeup I wore was MAC Viva Glam lipstick. I didn’t really have a persona, I was just a slightly exaggerated version of myself. The other dancers called me Betty Boop. I felt proud of that nickname. I’d always wanted to be a cartoon.

“I was always a little jealous of you,” Mia told me later, when we became friends. “You seemed so playful and fun, and you connected so naturally with all of the women there.”

“That’s crazy, I was totally fascinated with you,” I said. “You seemed so authentic and seductive. So unique. Everyone was obsessed with you.” We both felt like outsiders, in our own way.

Some of the windows were one-way, so you couldn’t see the guys but they could see you. The idea creeped me out immensely. What if they were filming us? What if it was someone who was related to me? My brother? My dad? That weird neighbor who always seemed to be in the Laundromat at the same time as me? “I actually liked the one-ways best,” Mia said. “I didn’t have to worry about what the guy was thinking. I could just focus on myself.”

The one-way windows were like dark mirrors. If you were close enough, you could see the customer’s movements on the other side. You could see the shine of their belt buckle, the glint of their wedding band, from the soft glow inside the booth. Sometimes you could see a ghostly wave of their hand at the window, to see if they were really invisible.

***

Almost twenty years later, I heard Mia’s voice again. It was at a five-year-old’s birthday party, a friend of my daughter. When I turned toward her voice, I knew immediately that it was her. Mia. She carried herself the same way, reserved, cautious. Her face looked the same, but wilder, more intense, framed by short curls.

I watched her for a while, from across the room. People came up to her every few minutes and asked her questions or chatted with her, but she connected more easily with the kids. I decided not to say anything unless she recognized me. I didn’t want to puncture her space.

My daughter, Madeleine, was meticulously decorating her cupcake with different bags of pastel-colored icing. Mia was standing near her. I walked over to her with my newborn in the baby carrier, one of those canvas ones that holds the baby against you. “Hi,” I said, looking at Madeleine. “Wow, she is really into this.”

“It’s fun to watch her,” she said. “She’s being so careful and intentional.”

“I like the way you have it set up here,” I said. “They all work on their own but it’s relaxed. Not easy to find that sweet spot.” I smiled at her. I don’t think she’s going to recognize me, I thought. Oh well.

She nodded, then leaned toward me, and said, searching my face: “Do I know you? You look so familiar.”

“You actually do know me.” I raised my eyebrow. “From Seattle.”

“Oh my god,” she said, “Olivia!” We laughed and hugged. The women’s names came to us like epiphanies: Indigo! Marilyn! Cinnamon! Persephone! Candygirl! We had lost touch with all of them. I saw that Mia had lines around her eyes, but still that heavenly blue. After a while she said, “Wow. I’m so glad we did that. Danced. I totally miss those days.”

The next day, I looked up her website and emailed her.

 

You were one of the yummiest strippers there

and there were some real hotties

I think you’d agree

I feel you when you say it’s hard to remember

What it was like

when you’re momming around

all loose ponytails and stained shirts

 

She emailed me back the same day.

 

I am seriously so thrilled you wrote me

I had to laugh today

 when I thought of how excitedly I told my husband

that I ran into ‘someone I used to work with at the Lusty Lady’

 It probably conjured up an image of a standard ex-stripper

not beautiful you

 

I read the last sentence again and felt a wave run through me. Excitement. Gratitude. Beautiful you.

***

When I saw her at that birthday party, I was in a hazy state of mind. I had just finished grad school, and had given birth to our youngest daughter. My new career as a speech language pathologist filled me with uncertainty. It seemed like I’d like doing speech therapy, but a lot of my co-workers seemed more zealous than I felt. They wore high heels, makeup, youth. They spent a lot of money on professional materials, extra licensure. They had mugs that said, Proud to be an SLP! It went against my underachieving nature. “It’s good if it’s done,” was my mantra in grad school.

Since having kids, my marriage had gone from intense and passionate to soft, friendly. We were always friends first, but now it seemed to be where we spent most of our time. Our attention was divided, focused on the kids. My breasts dripped all day, even without a baby latched on. My husband wasn’t a big titty man or anything, so it wasn’t that. It was a shift in priorities. A new phase.

My friendships at that time were based on similar interests and proximity. After kids, it felt like our choices in friends had become limited. The criteria had changed. Did they have kids? Were their kids the same age as ours? Were either of the spouses boring assholes? It felt like we had to make friends with the entire family.

The moms from the Montessori school Madeleine attended shared an apprehensive, research-based approach to parenting. We spent way too much time on Huffington Post Parents, read too many parenting books. Should we be more like French moms? Chinese tiger moms? Should we never say anything about anything they do and just let them do their thing without interfering, like that one dude says we should? What time do yours go to bed? We don’t eat that stuff. We like to know where our food comes from. Wanna meet up at the Farmers Market? We’re on a delayed vaccination schedule. We’re planning to unschool them, actually. I’ve got a book on it you can borrow.

A to-do list from around that time:

Get estimate for popcorn ceilings removal (DIY?)

Price Costco membership

Get cloth maxi-pads (Etsy?)

Cull tupperware (price Pyrex ones or at least BPA free)

Cancel CSA or find someone to split it with

I told some of the Montessori moms I used to be a stripper. I mentioned it at the slightest provocation. A vague derogatory comment about exotic dancers, a stripper’s boob job, a bachelor party. The usual.

“I used to be a stripper,” I would say.

“Really?” they would say, swaying with their baby on their chest. “Seriously?”

Is it that hard to believe, that we all had lives before children? “Yeah,” I would say, smiling. I liked to see their titillation. It’s like a Throwback Thursday photo. Look, I used to be pretty and thin, I used to confuse men, I used to dance wildly at parties, I used to have folded dollars in my g-string #tbt. I used to dress up like a cowgirl, bare midriff and braids, all gingham and denim. I used to ride with Dykes on Bikes with extremely tattooed women #tbt.

“Please don’t tap the glass,” we used to tell the customers, wagging a finger at them. “You’ll scare the fish.” We were proud of the double entendre. The carpet was red, the lighting was golden white, the rest mirrors and acrylic bars. One of the dancers said that the carpet color was selected because it was the exact shade of red men found sexually arousing. She said there had been studies on it, how if you wore that color men would instantly want to fuck you. They wouldn’t be able to help themselves.

“What was it like to work there?” some of the Montessori moms ask me.

It was like Madonna, circa 1986. Where she’s dancing for all those men, lip-synching: I’ve had to work much harder than this. The men stare at her from their separate windows, so still they look like portraits. She struts around the tiny black stage. For something I want, don’t try to resist me. She’s got short platinum hair, fishnets, golden tassels twirling from her pointy bra. It’s not a perfect comparison. I don’t bring up how the men used to jerk off while they watched us, that we were nude. I just say, “It was like the Madonna video. The one where she’s dancing in front of all those windows.” They always know.

“Oh yeah,” they say, still swaying. “Open Your Heart.”

 

image: Erika Kleinman


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