Studs Terkel claimed that “We become the work to which we dedicate ourselves.” But how do we undo the work to which we are no longer dedicated?
I was hiking up a mountain near Occidental College, deciding whether or not to hire this girl.
“I’m not comfortable dancing topless,” she’d said. I tried to remember which girl I was talking to and hoped it was the brunette with big lips laying on the beach, not the one who’d sent me a video clip of her slithering to techno music on top of a lime green Pontiac GTO, whose meth drip I could taste through my computer monitor. I couldn’t ask which one are you? So I asked “Can you dance in a bikini top?” I was casting for a background role that involved stripping for pretend customers for fourteen hours in tight Lycra g-strings and precarious shoes. “I can dance, but not on a stripper pole,” she said. I heard shuffling as she dug for her cigarettes, Prozac, a handgun or ancient jaguar beads found on the floor of a 13th century Mayan temple. I felt queasy. “It’s just that, I hate myself when I do these hundred-dollar jobs—especially the nudity ones,” she said.
“What is your name?” I asked.
“There are lots of clothed, better roles out there, Monique.” I said. I knew if I hired her, she’d complain about her costume showing too much of her ass, whine about having to eat granola bars and warm apples from craft services while the regular crew nibbled tri tip. I wanted to tell her she would make it out of here alive.
But, she won’t.
Monique was already losing her backbone. It was evaporating disc by disc in the face of pressure: her no-matter-whats were sliding into so-whats and I wasn’t about to shove her down that slippery slope. Go away, Monique, I thought. The late afternoon sun melted as I climbed further over the ridge, dodging gopher holes and jagged rocks. Discarded green beer bottles poked out of the dirt, free of their labels. I kicked one.
Then she told me she could dance. She offered to show me.
I was at the top of the hill now, looking down at a pile of cigarette butts near a wood bench with graffiti carved into it with a pocketknife. I saw distant flames gobbling the San Gabriel Mountains and imagined Monique dancing for me on the ledge where I stood, twisting into a pretzel of compromise. Smoke swirled in the distance.
Fuck. What a fire. Helicopters circled above the 134 Freeway and airborne water would soon spill from above, leaving blackened branches and steam.
“No. That’s okay,” I said. She sighed the miffed sigh of a girl used to being picked.
“How long do I have to be topless?” she asked. I flashed back to the time I made the decision to do more than I wanted and how hard it was to go back. I remembered being frantic to be picked and, years earlier, kicking meth only to watch strippers snort lines off the yellow dressing room counter with dollar bills they collected from stage. My mouth watered.
Exactly one year ago, I quit my job at the massage parlor where I worked. Ever since then, I see my handjob name in blue sparkles whizzing past on white water delivery trucks, at bus stops and on billboards. My handjob name is a ringtone I can’t escape. Now my monitor is filled with pictures of naked girls with similar names. It’s tempting like a dare to jump across the river—just this once.
Here comes the girl with glorious brown skin wrapped in a leopard print silks made by a tiny barefoot woman from a dusty remote sub-Saharan village, the land of her grandmother whom she only met once. Here comes the girl gyrating on a beach in a turquoise bikini right before the Atlantic waves reach her ribcage off the shore near Sao Palo. In the picture her smile is a shriek and she has her father’s pointy nose. Here come the full frontal vag shots cluttering my inbox.
“I have my Aunt’s nose,” she said.
“You deserve better,” I said.
Monique and all the ones after her said they were twenty-seven, the age I was when I started giving handjobs in the strip club where I worked back in San Francisco; the same club where a stripper allegedly lit herself on fire upstairs in the studio apartments where some of the girls turned tricks. I heard about her from strippers who wore a little too much black eyeliner to be a hundred percent credible. I wondered if she left claw marks on the dressing room walls to warn us; if her claw marks glowed under black light like dandruff. I wondered if she had shiny, black ringlet hair and gray teeth; if she danced to Massive Attack in a fishnet shirt. I wondered how many of us would burn and how many would rise from the ash, rebuild ourselves from the chalky bits and cross over onto land.
The week before the strip club where I danced became a handjob factory, I snubbed girls who cranked the shank while they snickered at me for being a “clean girl” and paid their $180 stage fees in less than fifteen minutes. Every night, I left the club at 11:15pm with my wad of come-free bills that I extracted song after song.
During my shift, I leaned against a wall right underneath suspended TVs that played porn on a continuous loop and studied the backs of necks and tassel loafers flopped over knees. My heels stuck to gum on the floor. I glanced around and realized every single stripper in the club was in the back doing the rub and tug with my regular clients. I was the smug, empty-handed sucker. Naked dances happened in tiny rooms that were more like Motel Six shower stalls with beige plastic antibacterial gel containers fastened to the wall instead of showerheads. A man gestured to me with his fingers and the gesture meant come here.
“Do you do more in the back?” He said. I nodded and hurried him down the snaky black hallway into one of the dinky stalls and unzipped his pants and made one-sixty for a three-minute song. I didn’t analyze production levels or consider marketing strategies. I didn’t say to myself, “Tonight you’re going to get with the jack-off program.” I was a dime-a-dozen girl doing a customer service job, and that job demanded more and more of me whether I liked it or not. The system won the night I offered handjobs. Of course, I had choices. I could touch dick or walk out, find another club to work at and be told:
Let me see your body.
You’re on stage in two songs.
I’m not suggesting doling out handjobs like Altoids was morally wrong, or that receiving money for that service was offensive. It’s just that as a young woman, I didn’t want to have be a handjobber. In that club at that time, I kind of did have to be a handjobber. If a woman had given me some maternal bullshit about “deserving better,” I would have told her to go fuck herself and found the next pole to climb, the next John with a comb-over to nuzzle up to.
Desensitization its own kind of death; the absence of feeling a very distinct feeling. My skin twitched like I was watching a movie that was making me fall asleep. I jerked awake with crumpled Kleenex in one hand and sweaty twenty-dollar bills in the other. Hundreds of faces were a blur but my body knows things I don’t know:
The sting of bleach.
Walgreen’s Peach body spray.
Black Suede Cologne.
I recall the surge of power I felt with money in my fist and the horniness I felt when I got aroused by the porn playing on a continuous loop. The hours dead and dark then gone for good, mornings became extinct. I remember the day when giving handjobs didn’t make me ache anymore. That was the day my feelings were burned in the fire, impossible to excavate.
We were the girls who crossed our own lines and were altered slightly, but fatefully. We were the girls from dairy farms and foggy dusks that have our mothers’ chocolate chip bar recipes stuffed in drawers and our fathers’ tennis calves. We wore animal beads from temples in Gujarat and hoped they’d bring us luck.
We were the girls. We are the girls.
We like to think that work is this other thing that we do to pay bills. I wanted to believe that my job was not the real me; the real me existed outside the club. I had a body double doing handjobs while the other counseled homeless teenagers and wrote stories. I hiked back down the mountain and slipped on loose dirt. I grabbed a branch and pulled myself up. It was getting dark and I still hadn’t booked all of my stripper extras. As I write this, I feel the pull of stripping tugging at me like the leper kids in Bombay who once hung on my shirt until I poured all of my coins into their open palms. I heard about a club about an hour away. Girls I know say it’s pretty good right now. I’m thinking about my car payment. And I’m thinking about my health insurance, wondering how I’ll come up with it all. I need money and am holding a buzzing ball of power in my hands — Me, in charge of hiring these vulnerable young women who will have to decide for themselves whether or not to burn.
Photos by Romy Suskin.