Christina rolls the metal clothing rack around the corner. I’m brushing my hair with my back to her, watching her in the mirrored wall. A few girls scamper over and rifle through the lingerie she’s selling. They cast aside neon rhinestone bikini thong sets. One girl momentarily considers a royal blue flapper dress. Christina says “everything is selling real quick,” and that she can’t “guarantee” any of this will be here tomorrow. Another girl reaches for a pair of clear plastic platforms.
Christina is the more intimidating of our house moms; a wild child in a family of otherwise pedestrian South Jersey Italians. She used to dance too. Now she files papers in a dentist’s office downtown.
My cheeks flush as I struggle to clasp my garter belt to my thigh highs. I berate myself for ordering such cheap lingerie online.
I walk over to ask Christina for a Summer’s Eve wipe.
“Hon, you know I could do your makeup for you. Just a couple extra bucks!”
“Thanks,” I say, “maybe sometime soon.”
I’ve only ever purchased makeup from CVS, or the Dollar General.
“Oh, almost forgot! Here honey, let’s put on your wristband.”
I hate the wristband.
It says, Men can’t buy me drinks.
But sometimes it’s the only thing I’ve got.
Sometimes, I like the wristband.
It says, I’m a teenager.
Leaning on the bar, I lazily drag my straw from one side of my water glass to the other. The Chainsmokers are popular right now. That “Roses” song of theirs is playing and a blonde daytime girl named Dylan is finishing up on stage. Smokey pink fog pumps from the floor and rises to the giant vents, perpetually air conditioning. Motorcycle chandeliers dangle from the ceiling, waiting to inspire awe in drunk customers when lowered to the stage around midnight. I shiver and clutch my midsection.
Around seven-thirty my name is in the stage queue for the second time. It’s early, so only one dancer is on stage at a time. Later, girls will bend smoothly over the glittery staircase, twirling like maple seeds down a pole on the bar, landing their chunky heels dangerously close to watery glasses of Captain and Coke.
On my way to the elevator I halt to let the hostess walk by. She shows a group of suits to a table.
Hostess is the job I actually “applied” for—my application being an email in response to a Craigslist ad about an “upscale and classy” gentlemen's club, hiring all positions.
I parked my car a block away from the club. My resume detailing my various waitressing jobs rested in the passenger's seat. Outside my car window seagulls picked at a discarded hoagie wrapper. The November sky made the concrete industrial park across the street look like a paper cut out.
Inside, Pete, the hiring manager, led me to the second floor bouncer’s podium. He raised a strawberry blonde eyebrow at my paper resume and laughed.
“So, you wanna be a hostess?”
“Well, yes, I host somewhere else, too, but I am available Sunday through Thursday, I can do any nights you need. And if you need someone more for like, Fridays and Saturdays too I can do that, I’ll just tell my other job...”
Pete wasn’t looking at me. He was half listening, half joking and trading cash with girls walking men in and out of private rooms.
“You thought about being a dancer?”
He winked at a redhead gripping the arm of a man in a Carhartt hoodie, as they disappeared behind a curtain.
“Uh I mean, I’m not sure really, I didn’t really… think about that or anything. I mean I don’t know if I really… have the, like, the look.”
Pete turned his head towards me and shrugged his shoulders.
“Spin around for me,” he made circles in the air with his pointer finger, “let me see you from the back.”
He assessed me.
“You’ll do fine, you’ll make way more money as a dancer. That other hosting job? Quit now, you won’t need it after your first week with us.”
I ride the elevator to the second floor. All four of its walls are mirrors. Management wants people to watch themselves want and be wanted, makes it harder to resist spending the money. My hair is curled pin-up girl style and I’m wearing red lipstick. I avoid my own eye contact.
When the doors slide open I rush to the staircase to descend, entering at the center of the stage. It’s a catwalk with a glimmering pole at the end. Beyond the stage, in my periphery, the pink smoke swirls. Men’s dark blue suits fuse into the deep purple walls. Arms are moving, grabbing drinks, caressing skin, counting cash. Faces are dim, blurry, indistinguishable. I grip the pole with both hands and swing my legs up.
At the end of my second song I make eye contact with an older man at the bar. With my eyes I say, “You don’t want to look away.” I say, “But you can look down if you want.” I cup my breasts and flick my nipples for him. He adjusts himself on the bar stool.
When the third song is over my legs strut me quickly from the heat of the stage, through the cool velvet air, to meet the man I’d made eye contact with at the left corner of the bar. He wears Warby Parker wire framed glasses and tells me he’s a pediatrician. He’s dressed casually in khakis and a pair of sneakers. Older men always want conversation so they can tell me I’m too smart for this. The pediatrician seems to like that I’m in college.
His eyes remain fixed on me when the waitress arrives in a pinstriped corset to take his food order. Up close, his face looks the way a grape rots: bulgy, plump, and smooth in some sections but deflated, wrinkled in others. He’s deflated near the seams, where his hair meets his forehead, where his nose meets his face, where his sweat meets his lips.
“Do you want anything?” he asks.
I stare at Chicken Alfredo printed on his cloudy plastic menu.
“Aw, thank you,” I say. “You’re too sweet, but I’m really not hungry.”
My stomach aches bitterly as he orders.
The pediatrician slices up his tuna steak and sweeps greens and balsamic into every bite. By now my hand is on his crotch. Limp and waiting. I tell him how I’m a sociology major but how I’m really enjoying my English classes.
“Mm, okay,” he wipes the corner of his mouth with a cloth napkin, “Let me just finish up here and then I’d like to go upstairs with you.”
The format for lap dances is standard with a few variations.
Some men won’t give up begging for sex. Others want to mix salt on your lips with their lips. But mostly you focus your eyes like you can’t wait to feel his shriveled dick under his dress pants and tell him how sweet he is. Rub your vagina over the bulge at just the right speed. Put your breath just close enough to his face. Pretend you’re just as close to cumming from lap dance room dry humping as he is. You squeeze out one dance, then another. Convince him that after this next one you’ll explode with lust, you’ll have to rush him out back and let him put it in your eighteen-year-old pussy. When he realizes you aren’t really going to fuck him he pushes you off, says, “Okay we are done here,” and walks quickly to the bathroom.
I lead the pediatrician to the stairs and swing my hips like a pendulum, alternating body weight from one hunk of thigh to the other as I ascend. Muddy April air is somehow leaking into the collective fantasy of the club. It latches on to my inner arms. I nod at the bouncer and he shows us to a room a few feet from his desk. As the bouncer pulls aside the heavy velvet curtain to the room I see the pediatrician’s jaw muscles clench. His skin looks leathery under the boiling red lights.
Playfully giggling towards the kidney shaped couch, I bend over to unhook my heels.
“Yes, take those off, horrible for your feet,” he says, still standing.
My hand rubs circles on the couch and I focus all my energy into making big fuck-me eyes.
“No,” he says, shaking his head, “stand up and come here.”
He directs me to face the sparkly granite wall and then uses his left hand to hold my wrists at the small of my back. With his right fingers he begins a rehearsed graze of my shoulders. Phlegm curls around each word as he whispers into my hair.
I think about children in paper gowns. How their chests rattle and their mouths “O” when they cough. The hospital kidney-shaped dishes for vomit, their resemblance to the lap dance room couches.
He turns me around and inspects my collarbones methodically. We’ve been in the room for over two songs. I hear my name on the loudspeaker being summoned to the stage, the bouncers sending someone over to the DJ to alert him I’m in a dance. The pediatrician touches my breasts dispassionately but presses his groin hard against my stomach. His fingertips taste like a jar of coins when he makes me suck them.
The bouncer taps the curtain, Fourth song.
When he has fully finished his examination six songs have passed. Nine crisp twenties are passed into my hand.
“Hah, I just gave you a nice break huh?” he asks. “You didn’t have to do any dancing!”
A suffocating trail of knock-off Burberry permeates the hall on my walk to the dressing room. Inside one dancer is drunk facetiming her boyfriend. Her phone flops around in her right hand, she holds it perpendicular to her body and faces the mirror. Then she turns the camera around and holds it close to her face and mumbles “Mmmm baby did you see that?...Mhm I’m gonna be home real soon baby…yes, yes I’m all yours. No, no, I didn’t do any lapdances. I told you I wouldn’t.”
Christina is nowhere in sight as I reach for another Summer’s Eve wipe.
Later in the week, I pull up to work while the sun is bright and everything that is cheap gold glints green. The outside of the club is trashy greek doric columns with a long red runway carpet.
Downstairs at the bar Christina’s inhaling a cigarette rapidly, tapping her acrylics with her free hand. I sit next to a group of other dancers at the bar, looking at their phones and chomping on ice.
It’s Pete’s birthday. In a few weeks he’ll encourage me to fuck people in the back rooms for extra money. Today, he licks buttercream icing from his paper plate and distributes slices of birthday pizza to “employees only.” So the DJ, the hostess, two servers, three bouncers, the managers, and the back of house staff huddle behind the kitchen’s aluminum doors. The bartender eyes the club’s front doors and then the kitchen. She’s skinny with long black hair, bright blue eyes, and a tattoo of a hot air balloon on her right shoulder. She seems somewhat sympathetic to us, but mostly hungry.
“Fuckin’ unbelievable these people are,” Christina’s gold hoop earrings rattle as she talks.
She dramatically unzips her pink Juicy Couture sweatshirt and drops her chin into her palm.
“Youse are the only reason this club makes any money anyways,” Christina says, “And then they don’t wanna call you employees!”
The bartender refills Christina’s empty glass with Bankers Club gin and seltzer from the squeaky soda gun.
I can’t help but fixate on Christina’s mole. It’s the size of a dime and planted on the left side of her face, in between her cheek and her mouth. Under the harsh lights of the dressing room I’d caught a few baby hairs growing out of it from time to time. She is always so quick to pull them out, interrupting conversations or makeup sessions if she catches the beginnings from a sideways glimpse in the mirror. I picture Christina as a teenager, plucking her bushy eyebrows then dabbing olive tinted foundation around the edges of it, trying to make it appear smaller, like a movie star mole, then eventually giving up and caking foundation over the whole thing.
The bartender turns on her heels and heads to the kitchen to get a slice of pizza.
Some girls chime in, saying “fuck this,” or “fuck that.”
Christina leans both elbows on the bar, eyes gleaming, and says, “Pete offered me a slice and you know what I says to him?”
A Redbull is cracked open, two shot glasses clink together.
Christina purses her lips and informs us. “I told him ‘No way Pete, I’m not eating unless all my girls can eat, too.’”
She slurps up the rest of her drink and glances over her shoulder, making sure no one’s left the kitchen.
“And you know what pisses me off more than anything?” Her eyes pan over each of us. “These rude ass waitresses and bartenders always complain to me about how much money you guys make, saying you don’t do any work.”
Anna, a short, doughy dancer sitting a few stools over from Christina scoffs. Her shoulder length auburn hair is fraying at the ends. A fake diamond heart pendant swings between her breasts, the cheap chain depositing green splotches at the base of her neck.
“Yeah, I’d like to see one of those bitches last ten minutes in a private dance with one of the pervs we get in here,” Anna says.
We all nod. A firm, conclusive, collective nod. I swallow and look towards the kitchen’s swinging aluminum doors.