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STRIPPING  (In which I learn how to charm and seduce, how to dance and how to undress.)

I did it drunk the first night, drunk in black underwear and a sheer silver dress.

The bar was almost completely empty – just a few men huddled around the television in the corner and the megatouch video game.  Joanne, the ancient and wrinkled owner of this fine establishment, kept her eyes on her solitaire game and ignored me.

“Is Candy here?”  I asked, leaning against the bar, cigarette awkward between my fingers. I didn’t smoke but hoped it would help me look less nervous.

“Candy hurt her foot.”  Rough and gravelly, her voice didn’t match her hair-sprayed into frozen precision bouffant.  “She won’t be dancing tonight.  Are you gonna take her place?” She nodded in the direction of the dance floor as if I might not know where it was.

“But I’m supposed to dance with Candy,” I replied, sounding as idiotic and childish as I probably looked. I could hear the whine in my voice, and I hated it. I hated feeling weak. I hated being scared. “She was going to train me.”

Joanne laughed, her eyes still focused on the solitaire game blinking on the screen beside her.  “You don’t need Candy, just do it yourself.  There’s no one in the bar tonight.  No one’s going to laugh at you.”

I hesitated.  I’d come here to dance, but not alone.

Contrary to expectations, the town’s only strip bar did not attract college kids. That’s how run down and seedy it was. There were no stereotypical blinking lights, no advertisements to suggest that there were naked girls dancing within.  No windows for anyone to see inside.  The sign simply said Valentino’s Café, but everyone in town knew exactly what went on inside the dingy bar. Like most illicit sexual things, they just weren’t discussed.

The first time I had come to check out the bar, I was transfixed by the pulsing sounds from the jukebox, the vacant celestial smiles of the dancers, the drugged looks of the men around the stage—and then there was Candy.  She kept shaking her long blond hair, pulling off what would become a blur of skinny summer lingerie, winking at anyone brazen enough to make eye contact.  It wasn’t just that she had a great body, or that she knew how to move it—it was that she seemed to be having fun.  As she laughed and talked, her eyes weren’t glazed or empty.  By the time she came on stage in leather hotpants, she was definitely my favorite—and everybody else’s.

As the only girl in the bar not half-naked or on stage, the dancers and the men kept looking over at me, suspicious and curious, but Candy was the only one to approach.  She flirted and giggled as she danced, trying to convince me to get up on stage with her.

“You could borrow some of my clothes,” she murmured temptingly, tugging ever so slightly on my arm.  I couldn’t believe how much her blue eyes sparkled.  Was I in love like every other man in the room? How did she do it? She even managed to make Valentino’s feel less trashy.

“Maybe some other time,” I said, trying to figure out if I could even make myself do it.

“How about next Tuesday?  That’s my slow night.”  She paused, looking straight at me.  “I could train you.”

The thought terrified me—and yet, I kept thinking about it. I had braved my way in tonight as part of a sociology research project on the striptease. I was comfortable behind the pen and a notebook. I could analyze gender relationships, I was good at organizing text on a page, but I had zero experience dancing erotically on a stage, and I certainly had never even contemplated taking my clothes off for money. And yet, for reasons I did not understand, I wanted to see Candy again. I was used to understanding things. I was used to evaluating my needs and desires and making sense of them. But this, this had gotten under my skin. Something in me needed to know if I could pull it off, even if I could not justify why.

I nodded, smiling back at Candy. “I’ll come back Tuesday.”

* * * * *

And so here I was, finally, full of alcohol and fear, with no Candy in sight.

“What are you afraid of?” asked the old man to my right, clearly bored by my anxiety and indecision.

“I’ve never done this before.”  Wasn’t that obvious?

“But you’re all dressed for it.”

My tits were hanging out of my dress, my lips were red and glossy, and my heels were high.  I could smell the alcohol on his breath as I stared at his white hair and the lines around his mouth. I wondered how often he came to Valentino’s. He looked like a regular.

“I’ll make sure no one laughs,” he said, staring back at me, as if challenging me to come up with another excuse.

I lit another cigarette and didn’t answer.  Was I going to do it?  Was I finally going to suck up my fear and cross that line?  Was I going to disappoint my father, devaluing my liberal arts education by turning myself into a sex object?  Trading shots of pussy for dirty dollar bills?  Was I completely crazy?

“Would you like a drink?” he offered, eager to expedite the process.

I shook my head and slowly smoked another cigarette, realizing that there was no way I could go home.  I was too worked up and too drunk to do anything else.  I had to try it.  I couldn’t run away scared. I’d feel like more of a loser than I did already. Taking a deep breath, I turned to the old man.  I needed more alcohol.

“Buy me a shot of whiskey?”

“Sure thing, little lady,” he said, already gesturing to Joanne before the words were out of his mouth.

What the hell was I about to do?  I knew wasn’t a whore (with my pretty chaste past, I was anything but), and yet I was about to shake my ass for cash.  In my head, at this point, there wasn’t much of a difference.  These men were going to see every inch of my body, even if they had to pay for the privilege.

I took another deep breath and walked over to the jukebox.  The stage lights began to flicker and pulsate, large squares of different colors that lit the stage from below—an image straight out of Saturday Night Fever. I programmed a string of songs at the jukebox, trying to remember which ones had worked well for Candy the week before.  Black Velvet was by far the best—with its slow, sexy groove no dancer could go wrong—plus the requisite dance music favorites to give my hips an easy beat to follow.

I took off my coat and climbed up on stage.  The men instantly left the bar and took seats around me, ready for some live action.  I began to dance, closing my eyes, trying to lose myself in the music.  It worked too well. I was so drunk that I started getting lost the second my eyes closed.  I had to keep them open in order not to lose my balance.  I tried to remember to shake my ass, to touch my breasts, and to smile.

When the next song came on, I began to pull my dress up, exposing my g-string and bra.  I teased a bit, feeling like a pro—a little glimpse, then I’d push the dress back down. Coax it up, flash a tease, then back down. I found a rhythm, a bit of technique. I let the strap fall, linger for a second, and then I’d push it back up into place.

This part was easy.  I wasn’t showing any nudity at all.  I wasn’t stretching my legs in an awkward manner to allow crotch shots, or crawling on the stage to stick my ass in people’s faces, but I knew I had to, and soon, or my customers would get impatient.  So, by the next song, my dress was off.  I slipped out of it, kicking it to the side of the stage.

The men stared at me.  I stared back, trying to smile.  Left foot, right foot. Touch ass, breast, other breast, ass again.  Smile.  Don’t fall. Smile more.

My bra slid off.  I dropped it on top of the dress.

There I was, little girl dancing alone on a multicolored lit table in a small Connecticut dive bar covered with wood paneling.  Topless.  Tits out.  More men watching my body than had ever looked at it during my virginal life.  I smiled.  Ass, breast, ass.  Smile. Don’t fall over.

I tried to remember the dancers’ moves from the week before.  The men, in a concerted attempt at sympathetic encouragement, began to put dollars on the edge of the table.  I knew I’d have to do something more to make them feel like they were getting their money’s worth, so I sucked it up and sat down on the stage, spreading my legs.  They approved.  The dollars increased.

I touched myself and writhed about, trying not to think about how dirty the stage was.  I ran my fingers over my pussy, down my thighs, around my nipples, pretending to be aroused by my touch and by their stares.  The dollars kept coming.

Some men left, some men came.  I began to get into the routine of it.  I didn’t spend too much time in front of any one guy.  I opened my legs.  I bent over and winked.  I rolled around.  I shook my hair around.  I pulled my g-string aside, permitting brief glimpses of my pussy — a clever way of avoiding Connecticut law, which prohibited full nudity in an establishment with alcohol distribution.  I tried to remember to smile.

“Wow, look at your smile,” they said.

“I’m having fun,” I replied, licking my lips.

I kept dancing until there were only two men left.  They both knew it was my first time, and they kept telling me what a good job I was doing.  One was sixty-seven and the other guy was twenty-eight.  I told the sixty-seven year old that he looked much younger.

“My secret’s young pretty girls.”  He looked at me meaningfully and placed another tip on the table.

In trade, I gave him a glimpse of my pussy and a look at my ass.

I told the twenty-eight year old how cute he was.  He told me about his wife.

“She left me last week, taking our son with her.”

In sympathy, I gave him a glimpse of pussy and a look at my ass. It was okay until I started feeling sick.  The twenty-eight year old had bought me another shot of whisky, and it might have been that. Or it might have been the cigarettes I kept smoking because I didn’t know what to do with my hands.  Or it might have been the way they were looking at me.

I went to the bathroom and began throwing up in the only stall.  It had never been so easy—it just kept coming, on the floor, in the toilet, on my shoes, and on my face.  The other woman from behind the bar came in.  She introduced herself as Jeanie through the bathroom stall door.

“Are you doing a line?” she asked.

“No,” I told her, surprised.  Couldn’t she hear what I was doing?  “I’ll be out in a few minutes.”

Eventually, the puke stopped coming, and I let her come in the stall. She had bangs, long brown hair, tough, weather-beaten skin, and huge, swaying breasts.  She talked as she peed in front of me.

“You shouldn’t stay in the bathroom for so long or you’ll lose your customers.”

I didn’t tell her that, at this point, I didn’t give a fuck about my customers, and I didn’t think they wanted to see me like this, anyway. Should I be throwing up in public?

She also pointed out that I had puke on my face.  I washed it off and stared in the mirror.  Everything kept spinning.  Everything looked too blurry for me to tell if I had any more puke on my face.  I certainly couldn’t see to clean up the stall.

I staggered out of the bathroom.  The twenty-eight year old had left.  I grabbed my coat and put it on.  Some black guys asked why I was leaving, but I ignored them, trying to find all my stuff as the room kept spinning—only now in red and yellow. It was a John Travolta nightmare. Saturday Night Fever on acid.

Joanne came over.  “I need another dancer for Friday.  So far Candy’s on her own.”  Her voice sounded like it was being dragged through cement.  If I still had puke on my face, she didn’t seem to notice.

“I have to think about it.  Let me call you.” All I wanted to do was get home.

“Call me by tomorrow night if you’re interested.”  I couldn’t believe she’d ever want me back—but then she still hadn’t seen the bathroom.

I left the bar and walked back up to Main Street.  I got in my car, locked the doors, put on my glasses, and took a deep breath.  I was still intact.  I might be filthy and stained with puke, but I was okay. I was still me. I drove cautiously home, parked atrociously, staggered into my house, lay down on the bed, and threw up until four in the morning.  The room wouldn’t stop moving.  I had never been so fucked up. I pulled off my clothes, letting the dollar bills scatter on the floor. When I woke up the next morning, the taste of Valentino’s mixed with stale vomit in my mouth, and the smell of musty cigarette smoke was everywhere.