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Hagerstown, MD

jrlewis's picture

“There wasn’t a lot happening in Hagerstown, Maryland, you have to remember that,” I told my sister, Willow.  “It’s a glorified transportation hub, the junction of two major highways and an airport.  Throw in a little Civil War history, an outlet mall, and you have it.  A town too quiet for a coffee shop.”

“Why would you go to such a place?” she asked.

“We wanted somewhere halfway between West Virginia and here.  I wanted to go to Baltimore.  He didn’t.  He found out that the local Super 8 had a suite with a hot tub and was sold on it.  The room was very expensive so we agreed to make it our Christmas and birthday presents to each other.  I felt simultaneously relieved and mature, “ I explained.  “There wasn’t any trouble until the third day, New Years Eve.  We had exhausted the town; there was nothing left but civil war history and gentlemen’s clubs…”

“I’ve never been so desperate that I went to a strip club!” my sister exclaimed.  That surprised me coming from a lesbian surfer with a degree in mycology from Humbolt State.  Willow is the adventurous sibling, not me.

“I drove across the Potomac River into West Virginia; the strip club was half a mile off the interstate.  Like a child, I was excited about crossing the state line into and unfamiliar territory.  The bouncer took our cover fee, stamped our hands and returned our drivers licenses.  I thought it was sweet that he carded Vance, because bald guys are generally legal.  He had to card me because every bartender to date swears that I look sixteen.  (Despite my twenty-five years.)  I paused at the entrance, trying to take a measure of the room.  From the bar at my left, a woman approached me clad in a blue crocket bikini top and mismatched bottoms.  Offering her hand to me, she said,

“I’m Sunshine.”  Taking her hand, I replied,

“Jennifer, nice to meet you.”  I was so busy second-guessing the formality of my greeting that I didn’t catch what she said next. 

“I’m sorry could you repeat that,” I asked.

“Are you here to dance?” she repeated.  Dance?  I thought.  I couldn’t imagine what she was talking about.  Who dances in a strip club?

She went on to explain that the stage could be approached from the stairs by the bar or the changing rooms in back.  She pointed out the disinfectant spray and towel in the corner.  Her advice was to wipe down the pole at the start of my set because one shouldn’t take the other women’s cleanliness on faith. 

My set???  She thinks I’m a stripper.  Why would she think I’m a stripper?  I don’t look like a stripper, do I?  I’m the only woman present clothed in more than their underwear.  A minority of one.  “You are either somebody’s mother or somebody’s whore;” I remember John Irving writing.  I’m living in The World According to Garp.

She interrupted my reverie with, “they are announcing my set, got to go.”  I nodded her away.  Then, I was standing alone in the entrance to a strip club. 

Suddenly, Vance stepped out of the shadows and guided me to the bar.  Was he really lurking there this whole time?  He offered me a beer but I declined, too uncomfortable.  I won’t drink unless I feel safe.  My best friend’s first taste of vodka led to her date rape as an eighth grader.  We blame the alcohol.  I ordered a diet coke, hoping the caffeine will help me think my way out of this insane situation. 

“Aren’t you going to watch your friend?”  Vance questioned.  I turned to look at him for the first time since we entered.  His fair skin was betraying some emotion. 

“I didn’t know what to say when she approached you,” he admitted.  “It’s fantastic that she thinks you’re a stripper,” he continued.  Swiveling on my bar stool, I turned to watch her set.  I’d never seen so many tattoos on a woman before.  Black ink marked her right breast, abdomen, left shoulder, and she had what people call a tramp stamp. 

“Great hips,” Vance commented. 

“Mhmmmm,” I assented.  Thinking, that not unlike my first girlfriend, she knew how to make use of her ample hips.  The sets sort of blurred together in a stream of pumping hips, flashing tattoos, and legs above heads.  The most remarkable moment was a woman who moved her legs like a cricket.  She was half of the couple Vance had described in one of his horny poems.  I whispered into his ear,

“How does it feel to see your writing realized in a West Virginia strip club?”  Turning towards me he smiled and said,

“That’s a great line.  I’d like to start of poem with that sentence.  And say something about her breasts.  She has the best breasts here!” 

“I hate to break it to you, honey.  Those are implants,” I retorted.  Not unconscious of the insult to my body.  “They are way too perky for a women who spends all day swinging her breasts about.”

“But there aren’t any scars!” He protested. 

“They make the incision right around the areola to minimize scarring,” I replied.  “It’s the same technique for augmentation and reduction.  My college roommate was thinking about reduction surgery because she suffers from terrible neck aches.”

“How about a lap dance?”  He asked. 

“For both of us?  That’d be really interesting.   On the spectrum of threesomes, no?” I responded.  Ever my father’s daughter, the chair of Gender and Sexuality studies at a liberal arts college. 

“It would probably be too expensive.  I just want you to have a lap-dance,” he said. 

“But what about you?” I questioned.  What I meant was- what do I want alone in a room with a stripper when my boyfriend is about? 

“I want you to do this,” he asserted.  And so I acquiesced. 

“Now pick out a woman,” he instructed.  Instantly, I said,

“Sunshine.”  That confused creature, I felt strangely beholden to her.  She had sought me out.  What does it mean to befriend a stripper?  Is this like requesting your friend as a waitress when you go to the restaurant where she works?  I hoped it was a compliment. 

“You really like her?  Ok, I’ll go set it up,” he told me.  I tried to enjoy the other women’s sets, but it the repetition had become hypnotic.  Blond, brunette, black, bleached blond, how many more I wondered.  It seemed as though Vance had been gone a long time.  If each woman danced to three songs, then approximately fifteen minutes had elapsed.  I looked over my shoulder to see Vance and Sunshine deep in conversation.  How complicated could a lap-dance be?  I turned away before they noticed me. 

“Hey honey, ready?” Sunshine asked me.  I followed her into one of the curtained off rooms.  She let the red velvet fabric close us off from the rest of the club before asking,

“So what’s the deal with you and the guy you came in with?  Is he your boyfriend or what?”  There is no bigger buzz-kill than a stripper questioning your relationship status.  Especially, when the guy has just bought you a lap-dance.  It confirmed that I wasn’t the only one who thought it weird that Vance didn’t want to join me. 

“He said, ‘my friend wants a lap-dance,’” she offered by way of explanation. 

“Yeah, he’s my boyfriend,” I responded.  “Just sort of shy, you know, the awkward nerdy type.  Well, we both are really.”  I searched for something else to say, anything that would make me sound less sexually suspect. 

“He was acting like your boyfriend at the bar, but his words confused me,” she said.  I thought about what she said.  His words, these were the words of a poet.  Weighed against sound and sense, I would expect every syllable to say what he meant.  Did he mean what he said?

“Why don’t you have a seat?” Sunshine asked.  I sank into the corner of the couch. 

“It’s better if you sit in the center of the love seat and rest your hands on each arm.” A love seat in a strip club seems more than a little ironic.  She went on to explain that it would allow her a free range of motion and prevent accidental contact by the customer.  Her recommendation was to choose lap-dance as opposed to the private show option.  They were both the same price and time duration.  The private show was exactly what it sounded like the stripper performed her set, naked, for the lone patron.  For the lap-dance the stripper wore underwear, but made contact with the customer.  I opted for the latter.  

So I sat on that love seat, a sponge soaking up instructions on the art of arousing a patron.  Slow motion was the key to tantalizing the customer, because anticipation enhances pleasure. Even pulling away from the customer should be sluggish to evoke the appearance of regret on the part of the dancer.  It was certainly convincing to my body.  I noted my own physical gratification with the detachment of an observer.  The lesson continued the value of eye contact, the sensuality of long hair, and the instruction to start working on my flexibility.  Flexibility and creativity are the two characteristics that set strippers apart from regular women. 

A knock at the door discreetly signaled the end of our time.  She explained that the club bouncers timed and viewed all private dances on cameras.  It was the bouncers’ responsibility to put an end to any inappropriate behavior by patrons.  Not all bouncers were as conscious as the ones at this club, Sunshine explained. 

Looking down at my purse I worried over the tip.  What is the correct percentage to give a generous tip?  What was the price of the lap-dance?  Why did I let Vance buy me a lap-dance???  Looking into my wallet settled the issue; I had twelve dollars and some change.  It didn’t seem like nearly enough, but I was afraid that quarters would be insulting.  I thrust the money at Sunshine, not daring to look at her disappointed face. 

She held the curtain back and we walked out into the club.  Vance was sitting at the bar nursing his beer.  I wrapped my arms around his shoulders and kissed his cheek.  I didn’t want to be alone anymore. 

“You girls have fun?” he asked, his face earnest and hopeful.  It was the face of that twenty-year old boy who was excited to find a girl Trekkie.  My fellow black sheep at the hotel; the man I loved. 

“We had a great time,” Sunshine replied.  I tried not to show my surprise.  I wanted to be happy because it would make Vance happy.  Smiling, I took a seat beside him at the bar.  He passed me a fresh diet coke.  Thoughtful, I thought. 

“Its good that you’re not drinking,” Sunshine told me.  She continued, “Its important to keep alert in a job like this.  I can’t tell you how many women I’ve seen drunk or high hurting themselves on the pole.”

“What’s the worst injury you’ve ever seen?” I asked.

“Woman falling from the top of the pole and hitting the floor face first.  Broke her nose, cheekbone, jaw, and bled through all our towels before the ambulance got there.  She couldn’t work for months; it was terrible,” Sunshine’s voice trailed off. 

“Don’t ever go up high until your thighs are strong enough.  Start low, like a foot off the ground and work up,” she explained.  “It’s just like learning to walk in the heels.”  We both looked down at my feet, black leather boots with a two-inch heel.  I was too embarrassed to tell her that I spent a week practicing walking in them, not wanting to fall on my face in front of Vance.  I only bought the heels because they looked good with the black dress.  The dress was for New Year’s Eve, Vance and my first time having anyone to kiss at midnight. 

“It took me almost a month to get back to my full height,” Sunshine offered encouragingly.  “I took a break from stripping while I was married.  It was nice staying home with my kids.  My husband wasn’t a nice man.  He used to take my ponytail and wrapped the hair around his left hand; he held me that way and beat me.  It got so bad one day I took the kitchen scissors to my head and hacked off the hair.  When he came home and saw what I had done he asked me what I had done.  He just kept saying ‘what have you done’ and crying.”

“But the beatings didn’t stop, I ripped my favorite pair of jeans when he got his fingers through the belt loops.  Later that day, I was walking through Walmart in my sweatpants, looking for a new pair of jeans.  Then, I hear this whistle and turn around, two guys catcalling.  I realized that I’m still attractive to men no matter what.  So I made up my mind to return to stripping.  Inside the club, I’m in control.  I decide when the clothes come off.  I make my money off guys being horny.  You know?”

Yes, that was a familiar feminist argument; so legitimate, I had read it in a philosophy class.  I knew it too, from watching the L-Word with my father, sister, and a bowl of popcorn.  The main character, Jenny Shecter, was the victim of a gang rape and briefly worked as a stripper to explore her sexuality.  I was familiar with the theory, but never expected to see the real person.  Her brown eyes were the same color as mine.  It made me wonder if my pain was so obvious.  Was it her perception of a shared wound that made her open up to me?  Did she see herself in me as I saw myself in her?  I didn’t just understand her intellectually, I understood her viscerally. 

Suddenly, Vance’s maleness made him a stranger before my eyes.  Someone permanently cut off from our conversation.  Once upon a time, I thought Vance was my twin, the outcast intellectual.  

 “Yes, you are making the best of a bad situation,” I told her.  She smiled.  I heard the DJ announce her next set.  She stood up, clasped my shoulder, and headed toward the stage. 

I turned to my right and saw Vance staring at the stage.  He was my silent partner, so I thought. 

“Are you ready to go?” I asked him. 

“If you are…” he replied.

“Yes!” I told him.  It was imperative we leave right away because I didn’t know how to say goodbye.  This woman had shared her life story with me.  And me?  I hadn’t told her anything about myself.  She had created her own story for me. .  I was a fiction before her eyes, her own interpretation.  She might think differently, if she knew my oversized shoulder bag contained my laptop, journal, and John Irving Novel.  It wasn’t for holding my clothes while I danced.  The black leather knee-high boots?  I got them to make Vance feel young and attractive and hot and thankful to be with a woman like me.  The clothing was part of my contribution to curing his midlife crisis.  So my performance today was just as much for my boyfriend as it was for Sunshine.  We three were entangled until I pulled my thread from the braid/slunk out. 

When we reached the car, Vance broke the silence saying, “Did you really enjoy your dance?” 

“Yes,” I replied with all the enthusiasm I could pretend.  The possibility of alienating Vance with my feminist theories was terrifying.  I couldn’t stand to be alone right now.  “I learned a lot about the art of giving a lap-dance,” I admitted. 

“Maybe you can show me when we get home?”  He asked. 

“Home?” I questioned. 

“Symptom of being a nomad, anywhere I crash is home,” he replied.  Where home is comfort, I thought.  I wanted to get home then. 

“You must be really excited to strut your stuff, huh?” he commented.  I looked down at the speedometer and was shocked. How many people can honestly say that they accidently pushed their Prius up to ninety-six miles an hour? 

“So she wouldn’t give up the idea that you were a stripper,” he said.  “I tried to talk her out of it when I arranged the dance.  I guess she just couldn’t understand a pretty girl in a gentleman’s club.  You’re a different species from her, a sophisticated woman, city-slicker.  I had always imagined myself a country mouse.  I lived on a farm for three years. She had such white trash attitudes,” he declared.  I bristled at that statement.  Who would dare look down on a battered woman?  The pain was plain to read in her eyes.  Was this man so hard-hearted?  Was the empathy I felt only a feminine construct?  I’m not sure what was scarier, the distance I felt to my boyfriend or the closeness I felt to the stripper. 

For what reasons had I chosen him over her?  It couldn’t be his compassion.  His similarity to myself?  Who was I today?  Where did Alice go after her encounter with the caterpillar?  I was lost.  I was alone and lost.

“OK, OK, you don’t need to drive that slow.  You’re living up to the stereotype of women drivers today,” Vance told me.  Seriously? Another stereotype.  The horn of a passing Mack truck rang in my ears.  Great, I can’t make myself understood to a stripper, tell my boyfriend how bad I’m feeling, or even communicate with other drivers.  I’m a lonely failure. 

We did manage to get back to the hotel in one piece.  I claimed the need for a shower before my lap-dance performance.  Nothing will make your clothes feel dirtier than a stripper’s body glitter.  Burning the entire outfit wouldn’t have felt wrong at that point either.  I was hoping to soap myself back into sanity. 

Emerging from the bathroom, I instructed Vance to wait in the other room.  A lace thong and matching charcoal gray pushup bra was my outfit.  I might call myself a Gap kid, but it’s their lingerie I love.  Pausing at the door, I steeled myself for the performance.  It would be exactly like jumping a horse around the show ring, I imagined the entire sequence in my head.  Where to turn out my toes, when to shift my hips, and lastly, to remember to keep my back arched.  It was just me. 

I stepped into the room and began my performance.  In the afternoon twilight, the room turned gray and it was easy to imagine I was back in the strip club.  Face in shadow, a ray of sunshine illuminating his lap; the man on the couch could have been anyone.  I instructed him to place his hands on the armrest so that I would have as much space as possible.  I wonder what Sunshine would have thought of the dance. 

Not surprisingly, the dance ended with Vance and I having sex.  There was one pornography worthy moment.  The transition from me straddling Vance on the sofa, to Vance topping me on the floor; the physical connection was unbroken.  He was very impressed with us.  I made the requisite comment about how such a move would be impossible with a smaller man.  We decided to end the afternoon in the hot tub.  I still felt dirty.  In the hot tub, surrounded by copious white bubbles, I pulled my knees to my chest and wrapped my arms around my legs as if I was cold.  That was my position on the beach in winter, all tucked into an extra large sweatshirt.  I wanted to be a child again, savoring their last day of winter break. 

From the hot tub we moved to the bed to watch a few episodes of Californication.  A favorite show of ours because it portrays writers as sexy.  I would have been happy for a few more blankets on the bed.  I like to burrow myself in, if the mattress is too hard to merge with, there is always the comforter.  We ordered pizza for dinner and waited.  And waited until they were forty-five minutes late.  Vance called, yelled, and muttered about customer service.  All the while, I continued to be a larger than life burrito in the bed. 

The larger problem was that we were planning to go to a concert that night; it started at nine and the pizza wouldn’t arrive until then.  I didn’t mind missing the start of the concert, however Vance started worrying about logistics.  We’d need a taxi, but he found there was a ninety-minute delay according to the only cab company in town.  We would be so late to the party was it worth the effort, he wondered.  In my head, I was screaming yes!  I spent my Christmas money buying shoes and a dress just for this occasion.  I subsisted on rabbit food and ran through the holidays to squeeze myself into a size 0.  I imaged this night being special.  It was supposed to be my first New Year’s Eve with someone.  Yet, I lay there, my beef wrapped securely in the tan hotel blanket.  At last, Vance asked me what I wanted.  I looked up at him with black olive eyes.  Searching for the hard pit, for a Neruda to my Chile. 

Vance rolled out of bed and headed for the bathroom.  I followed him with my eyes.  The tomatoes in my stomach turned to acid.  Finally, I got up and listened at the door, sounded like he was showering.  I thought about joining him and tried to turn the handle.  It was locked.  Who locks themselves in the shower, when the person on the other side of the door is their lover? 

The handle turned and Vance emerged in a cloud of steam.  If he had showered, I supposed I should too.  This was my third shower of the day, a bad omen, if ever there was one.  How could this day get any worse?  What if we didn’t go out? There is nothing cheesier than a black lace thong on New Years Eve.  I know, but who can honestly resist a melted Monterey Jack and cheddar cheese mix.  It’s that greasy orange glue that holds the contents of your stomach together on a drunken night.  The protein on your home fries the next morning too.  Cheese is the cliché of the food groups.  My dream of the perfect New Years Eve was crunching like a taco shell under toe.

The water shifted down a degree in temperature, it was time to get out.  Wrapping the towel about myself, I quickly checked my stomach.  A few beans there, they would show in the black dress.  I bought that dress for my boyfriend, but the guy I was with would rather let people think I was a stripper than his girlfriend.  Was I his girlfriend at all?  Was I really single?

“What are you thinking about going out tonight?” Vance called out.  

“What do you want to do?” I asked.  This was totally his call.

“Don’t you try to pin this decision on me.  You always do that!  Come here and tell me what you want,” he commanded.  Vance was sitting on the couch in boxers and tee-shirt.  I seated myself in front of him, on the carpet. 

“Um,” I started.  But I was choking on a chunk of beef, tears sprung to my eyes.  Have you ever seen a burrito weep?  Liquid from the salsa seeps out of small tares in the tortilla shell.  Ugly brown drops of fluid leak out of the body.  I was that unattractive while crying. 

“What’s wrong?” Vance asked. 

“You would rather people think I’m a stripper than your girlfriend,” I replied.

“What!  This is coming out of left field,” he replied.  “I mean, I guess we are overdue for a relationship talk, but this is a hell of a time for it.  You couldn’t wait until tomorrow?”  I just stared up at him, hoping that the white rice would proclaim my innocence. 

“OK? Here goes,” he said.  “I can’t be in a relationship with someone who doesn’t want children.  You’ve been very honest about your lack of desire for kids and marriage.  You have commitment problems.  You’re not emotionally stable enough to start a family.  You’re shaking!” he exclaimed.

“That’s it, then?” I squeaked out. 

“Yeah, I guess so.  Kids are my number one priority.  I’m not getting any younger.  It’s important to me to experience family life.  Think of the Californication episode we just watched, where Hank imagines his life 1950s style.  I share that desire for the white picket fence and daughter who kisses me before bed every night.  That’s what I want.  It’s not what you want.” 

What the hell? I thought.  We are two generations removed from the 1950s. Has he been hiding the suit and tie in the back of his closet for my whole life?  A fantasy like a 1950s family doesn’t just fall out of the sky, you have to co-create it.  I was just part of the prologue to the main story, that’s what he was saying.  Our story was spending summers living in the land of the super rich and the hippies.  In the thick Nantucket fog, we fell in love.  Hybrid summer people-hospitality workers, we hung out at the Brotherhood of Thieves in the fall.  We dreamed about wintering there and writing a bestseller with more literary merit than an Elin Hilderbrand novel.  I loved the ambiguity of the Grey Lady. 

In snow-covered West Virginia, the world became black and white.  This zebra brained state was Vance’s birthplace.  His first understanding of women was that they “are either somebody’s mother or somebody’s whore.” Couldn’t Vance hear how ridiculous that proposition sounded? I see every duality as a straw horse.  How much had his mind evolved over the years?  I don’t mind dating older guys, but this was just old-fashioned. I was on the wrong side of the binary in Vance’s mind. 

I felt myself breaking apart, rice, beans, lettuce, and salsa spilling onto the carpet.  I couldn’t help it.  It was the loneliness.  Americans didn’t even know how to eat burritos in the fifties.  The guacamole was turning brown in the air, disgusting.  As gross as a burrito left in the refrigerator was I.  I was full of self-loathing and sour cream that white pretend purity in Vance’s expression. 

“Say something, Jen!” Vance implored.

“You are either somebody’s mother or somebody’s whore- or fast on your way to becoming one or the other,” I finally said aloud.  That book had been on my brain ever since we stepped into the strip club.  Prostitutes, rather than strippers are a favorite character of John Irving’s.  So my life was a John Irving novel half a century late?

“It’s driving me crazy!  You were misquoting the novel,” exclaimed my sister.  “I swear that’s relevant,” she said.

“’In this dirty-minded world,’ Jenny thinks, ‘you are either somebody’s wife or somebody’s whore- or fast on your way to becoming one or the other.  If you don’t fit in either category, then everyone tries to make you think there is something wrong with you.’”’ Willow recited effortlessly.  John Irving was a favorite author in our family. 

“Really?  I can’t believe I screwed up that quote, ” I said.  

“You are lovely, little sister.  Guys are dicks, and chicks are crazy; it’s a causal relationship,” she told me. 

“Thank you,” I replied. 

“And I want to beat him up,” declared my beanpole skinny sister.  A statement absurd as a lesbian dressed in a bear suit raping the guy who had gang banged her lover in high school.  In her abnormality, my big sister was supreme.  But none of that mattered, because she was on my side.  Willow was with me against the world.  I wasn’t alone, and I loved her for that.

“I’ll never look at a stripper with short hair without wondering…” she finished.