Let me say straight off that I don't do booths. The windows are one-way and the girls don't really have to see anyone, but the space is so tight you can barely stand up. There is always a sleazy, smelly carpet beneath your bare feet, and the show to be done, the one the customers want, is usually just too kinky for me. Girls—we're all mirrored boxes.
Here's another thing that might surprise you: most of the girls who strip are nice. I avoid those, though, who will only dance to Ricky Martin or songs like "My Heart Belongs to Daddy," and those who don't dance, the ones who sort of just stand there in glittery thongs and pasties and jiggle and do horribly executed cartwheels or sit in giant champagne glasses. I mean, if you're not dancing, you're not moving, you're not living.
I should probably tell you I drive a Dodge Dart with bumper stickers that read "Piss Off" and "I'd Rather Be Dancing" and "Eve Was Framed." Dancing is not a self-imposed handicap, as so many people believe.
Men like to watch me dance, except most Japanese. Those guys either don't appreciate art or prefer another kind of butt. That's O.K.; the Japanese aren't good dancers themselves. I think it's because they are so business-oriented. "You really know how to close a deal" and "You have good Wa" don't usually inspire me.
I once gave a private dance to a man from Kobe who was obviously high, the neon lights pouring over my tanned body like liquid rainbows. I enjoyed moving, breathing, sweating, arching, watching myself become the music, so much so that I forgot about him. Then he grabbed my breasts. Over the music, I said, "You can't do that," and he left, and I made $300 in five minutes. The song continued and I just kept dancing, even though nobody watched.
My name is Delacorte. I forgot to tell you that. I'm not dancing for love or to pay the rent or because I hate men and like to taunt them. The customers all think my stage name is sophisticated, clever, exotic. Maybe because they all have names like Harry, Joe, and Sam; men whose lives have become trekked-out and stable, tucked in at the edges like the corners of a scratchy sheet. So they come, come to watch me grind against a sweat-stained steel pole in the heart of New York while outside, neon signs flash with purple cave-like cadence, beating like a million hearts, calling them back. Girls, girls, girls. The closed-air theater of sweat and dreams and strong inner thighs.
"Delacorte, come sit on my lap." "Delacorte, rub your tits in my face." "Delacorte, you have such a great ass." Comments like that don't bother me; they run over my flesh like water or the steady, punching beats of a drum. I'm kind of used to it, actually. I might even miss it if I had to work in a halogen-lighted office cubicle.
The strip club is the perfect place for me, a girl whose real name is Sherrybeth. Flesh bathed in a shifting shimmer of artificial lights. As a young tart of a girl with Cherry Coke-colored braids down my back, I started telling people I was French. And, aw, they just all thought it was so cute. I'm from Hoboken. Unlike my sister, now gone, I've never been to Paris, with its Claude Monet prints and orchestra seasons and fancy Metro station names. Paris, which shakes and twinkles and dazzles and pulls people in from all over the globe—it is, after all, the birthplace of the can-can and probably the perfect city—and the idea of it holds everything for a windmill of a girl like me, who's been raised on cheeseburgers and Gap jeans and Bruce Springsteen and Donna Summer.
The music thumps loud and hard in the club; it moves up my thighs, wraps itself around my middle, grabs at my chest, makes me move like nothing ever made me move before. And it's just me when I'm like that, a girl beneath a pool of lights—green lights sprouting like new grass, pink lights running across my belly like smeared lipstick, men leaning against a cocoa colored bar in the chocolate dark—I'm a dancing girl finding my candied center. I'm in a primal place where confrontation and attraction merge, and I love that kind of tension. Let me tell you something. I'm the kind of stripper you most want: I love to dance and I love music so much that sometimes I forget to pick up the money. Don't tell anyone, but I'd get naked and dance for free.
Standing behind the red curtain that leads to the dance floor between the U-shaped bars, the DJ calls my name. "Now coming to the stage for your enjoyment, Delacorte..."
There's whistling, clapping, flames of lighters held high in the dark.
It's a three-part set, and the first song is the tease; the Black Crowes cover of "Hard to Handle" starts pumping from the speakers. The music is loud, too loud to hear someone unless you're in their bubble. It helps create that instant intimacy.
I dance in a silver shorts suit with a belt and silver thigh highs. I don't lose anything during the tease, but the bar starts giving up some of its brick and mortar walls and neon beer signs, the red brick becoming red velvet; the signs transforming into an aurora borealis. The magic starts when my body synchs with the music.
For the reveal, the DJ slows it down with "She Talks to Angels." The reveal is my least favorite part of the three-part set, and it is true for many other girls as well. The flirting is done and now you're peeling away your lacy shields; now you're being judged. If you've got any insecurities, the reveal is when they'll stop whispering and start shouting into your ears. There are times during the reveal when my body and the music are at odds. My hips miss a beat so that I can unsnap a garter or a belt buckle and the stained glass window of St. George and the Dragon becomes Marty the bouncer lifting a drunk who just spilled his tallboy lager all over the mahogany bar top. Taking off my panties is the toughest. I'm thinking about trying the breakaway G-string. It's not that I'm embarrassed to show anything; it ruins the rhythm.
Once the reveal is done I can rejoin the music, the third song, a live version of "Remedy." I twist and turn until the notes of the electric guitar start to bend at my command. For this part of the set, my body is an orchestra. I'm no longer moving to the beat; my body is the beat. My limbs are strings; my nipples the magic wand and hand of the conductor. My hair is wind. The sharp details of reality fade completely to colors and sounds and emotions. There is a part of the song where the loud guitar chords are pounded three times and then all instruments go momentarily silent. My braids whip violently during this, knock about in a thousand different directions, and on that third beat they're thrown to the four walls, then drop to my shoulders and go still in the silence.
When I'm not dancing, I'm a girl who always feels a little outside herself, the edges and berms of my being scattered like TV snow around my body. When I'm not dancing, it's like I'm hovering and watching myself, like I'm somebody else. My husband understands this. Yes, I'm married. Are you surprised? I hooked him with a table dance.
He—my husband of four years—doesn't mind that I have my regulars. "Delacorte, you weren't here last night. Where were you?" they ask, like a demanding spouse. "Where were you? Who were you with? What were you doing?" Mile by mile is a trial. Yard by yard is hard. Inch by inch is a cinch. Coins in the couch. A dead twin sister. No real family within miles. So I dance.
I don't want to become like those other women, the ones who wait for their husbands to come home from the strip clubs stinking of liquor and sweat. The husbands who will peel off their sweaty dark work socks, leave them on the floor, and climb into their marriage beds next to their slumbering, exhausted wives who've given up the questioning routine long ago in exchange for the gullible peace of not knowing. Inch by inch. It sounds corny, but I think, no matter what she looks like, every woman should dance on a table. Only then she will truly know how powerful and beautiful she is.
Right now I am gyrating, pressing myself against the hard, shiny pole. I squat down slowly, flip my long Cherry Coke braids over my shoulders, arch my back, feel the base drum in my kidneys, press my breasts up toward the ceiling, let my body express the ancient yearning of how it is meant to open itself to a man, think of my husband, how I like to swallow all of him into me. I feel the levels of humanity jammed into the club, the neon lights outside striping my skin like a strange zebra, smell the rotgut liquor and beer and onions from the steak joint across the street. I inhale. Arch. Inhale. I dance. The walls drip steam from my body. The theme from Star Wars plays loudly between sets. It inspires me.
Once, a long time ago, I feared becoming one of those other women. One who corralled her sexuality and filed it away like a Country Living magazine in a rack by the couch. Tight as glass. The stopper on a perfume bottle. One who'd never dreamed of Paris. Gare Saint Lazare, Paris' first train station. Where cars bumped along steel tracks, grinding lives together, stolen kisses in the breath of a night-shrouded city where anything could happen.
"Delacorte, you're far away tonight, babe."
I focus on my elderly male customer whose white, white hands with their hairy knuckles keep trying to find my ass. In the deep indigo stench of the club, the hands on my thigh where they aren't supposed to be, like windblown snow across a frozen lake.
Harry is drunk. He probably went bald when he was twenty. "C'mon, little Delacorte. You're so sexy." Beneath the fabric of his tired work pants, he is hard as a kitchen counter. Words seem difficult for him, dribbling from his lips like juice. "C'mon, just one little feel. You won't get in trouble."
I throw some French at him, which essentially amounts to "You've put on weight." I've learned a few useful French phrases and speak them in a pinch. He never has any idea what I am saying. He licks his thin lips. "That's it, honey, talk dirty to me, talk dirty. My wife won't ever talk dirty to me. She thinks it's, um, dirty."
I continue in French, this time saying, "You've got a face that would blow off manhole covers." I learned some of the phrases from postcards, which I keep tacked up on a small corkboard in our small apartment in an overcrowded city that is not Paris; no, definitely not Paris.
The postcards are old and bent now, having crossed from Paris to New York, having come from my twin sister. She was a world famous ballerina, and danced too, before she overdosed. She weighed ninety-eight pounds when she died. I was always the "other" one, the one people were disappointed in.
Later, in the apartment that I share with my husband, the only light coming from the common hallway, sliding beneath the door like broken egg yolk, I easily forget about all the Harrys and Toms and Joes. I think instead about Paris and how my imperfect body is more perfect than any Metro art. I don't mind that I grew up in hotels and motels—I even miss them sometimes. My mother was a maid who gathered dirty sheets and emptied ashtrays (we always lived in hotels that allowed smoking) and my dad a traveling poker player. They'd thought I was stupid and cute at the same time.
"You want to be a damn dancer?" my dad would ask, a six-pack of beer dangling from a thumb. "What kind of shit is this? Kid, you have to have grace to be a dancer. Grace, like your sister." He'd rub my head and pull my braids playfully and plunk down in front of the TV and soon he'd be snoring drunk. He'd never known how to dance.
I climb into bed next to my slumbering husband and dream about the Paris Metro at night, the sighing of the closing doors, the constant clink and hum of strangers going somewhere and nowhere at the same time. I dream about dancing at the top of the Eiffel Tower.
The next night, I'm back at the club with Harry, who is drunk again, and still trying to put his bear paws on me. It is so easy to make the man happy. To speak French to him, to say, "My God your children are ugly" with a sophisticated, tumbling accent.
"Yeah, baby, that's right. That's right. Talk dirty. You are so sexy." He stares at my body and completely misses the irony.
"You ever been to Paris?" I ask, while squirming in my sparkly thong and hovering just above his lap and the part of him that would eat me alive if I let it. I dance some more.
"Paris? Ha! Paris is for fags who like those chateaus or castles or whatever they're called and fancy wines and stupid hats. Besides, I don't need to go to Paris to get an erection as tall as the Eiffel Tower, babe. And you're dancing too much."
"It's called a lap dance for a reason, Harry. You know, when it was first built, everyone thought the Eiffel Tower was an eyesore."
"They thought it was ugly."
I turn and face him, dipping my breasts low and close to his face.
"God, you have nice tits."
"Do you like turtle soup, Harry?"
He laughs. "You're in a strange mood tonight, Dela." He shortens my name to Dela. I don't mind. "No, I don't like turtle soup," he says. "I think it's cruel to pull a shy, little creature like that out of its shell and mash it up."
This surprises me. I didn't think Harry was the type of guy to care about a turtle. And I was sure his wife was the kind of woman who did everything as prescribed in women's magazines. The kind who went completely mental if she missed an episode of Oprah or Dr. Phil.
"Harry, do you think we're ever too old for fun?"
"Fun is where you find it," he says, reaching for my ass again. I slap his hand away this time, hard. He puts both hands up in the air, as if to say, O.K. I was out of line. But no words come from his mouth. Just a knowing smile. Then he gives me a wad of cash. I turn my back on him but keep up the lap dance.
"I heard they have an ice-skating rink at the top of the Eiffel Tower. Fifty-seven meters above the glittering city. With colorful lights. Bubble gum pink and baby blue and heart red. You don't even have to bring skates. You can rent them. I've always wanted to go there."
Harry makes some kind of half-masculine sound in his throat. "Well who's gonna want to climb all the way to the top carrying a pair of ice skates? Anyway, c'mon honey, don't take this the wrong way, but I'm not paying you to talk."
After the lap dance is done, I stand up. I give him the names of some good moisturizers for his hands. Then I say, "Goodbye, Harry."
His eyes briefly light on my face before returning to my breasts. "Yeah, babe. I'll see you tomorrow. Same Bat Time. Same Bat Channel."
Tight as glass. Corralled in their own late-for-class, can't-remember-my-locker-combination skins.
When I get home, I count the cash, then recount it, dumbfounded at how much Harry had given me. I step out onto my little balcony and smoke three cigarettes in a row, inhaling the taste of New York with all its neon life and hard men in hard suits, with their wet, work-stained socks, their ice-like wives at home crocheting their days into Jell-O salads and PTA meetings and reasons to increase their use of antidepressants.
"I made good money tonight," I say to my half-asleep husband. I never have to reassure him I'd made it legally. "We're going to Paris!"
"O.K., honey," he says, throwing an arm gently across my body and pulling me close.
Later, we pack only the bare essentials. It takes me a long time to remember who I am: a famous ballerina's sister. My bones are still delicate and strong. I'd be back to dance for Harry again, probably many times. But now I am going to dance in Paris. It won't be on a stage, like my sister had done, for well-dressed ladies and gents who clapped their delicate, diamond-studded hands for thin, disciplined girls, but that doesn't matter.
Before I board the plane, I undo my braids. On the flight over, I put headphones on and listen to all kinds of music, absorb it into my corpuscles and sinews and heart. Girls, girls, girls.
I feel my blood move and thud the entire time with my little girl dreams, my little girl splits and back flips and tumbles.
I am not bitter when I think about Harry, the Harrys of the world. I smile to myself. They give me a reason to do what I love. Hours after I get off the plane, me and Brian—that's my husband's name—we climb that Eiffel Tower like it is a giant bar stool and I dance in the electric, yellow glow of its blinking lights, drawing strength from its sturdy beams and endless lattices, white-knuckled with the sweetness of my dreams, my movements to song. I don't know if Brian notices. When I am finished, I hear people clapping. Someone even throws a rose. It is Paris, after all.
Copyright © Kelly Jameson 2007.