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I was naked.
I looked at my reflection in the dressing room mirror. At five minutes to the hour, I noticed faint sweat beads on my forehead. At four minutes to, I patted my face with flesh-colored powder. With three minutes to go, I remembered that I was supposed to punch in. I slipped my time card into the clock, which gripped it for a second, made a loud clunk, and let it go. At two minutes to the hour, I brushed my hair for the fifth time and stepped back into the black shoes that I had kicked aside.
When the clock ticked over to seven p.m., I was supposed to climb the three steps through the narrow bottleneck between the dressing room and the stage. I hesitated, and April, who had been having a smoke down the hall, materialized in the dressing room, liberated herself from a sarong and jean jacket, then strode past me and up the stairs without so much as a glance in the mirror. Venus came the other way, out of the bottleneck, and paused on the landing to punch out. Clunk! Even in my apprehension I admired the efficiency. Then Georgia came down the steps, a leggy brunette in a pearl necklace. She didn't punch out; it was her turn to take a break.
The clock was "on the zero," as the managers said, so with one last breath I mounted the stairs and entered a dazzling scarlet and silver womb. The stage was a rectangular room about the size and shape of a hallway in a modest suburban home. The floor was carpeted with red velvet, and every other surface, including the ceiling, was mirrored. The space was lit by hot theatrical lights covered with pink and red gels, giving the three women who were already in it a rosy glow. I joined them with the sense that I was stepping into a well-oiled machine.
Onstage were Sasha, a creamy-skinned redhead in black gloves and thigh-high boots; Satin, a tall, caramel-colored woman in a curly bobbed wig; and April, whose wavy blond hair cascaded to her thighs. And then there was me, Leila, five feet seven inches tall, in black knee-high stockings, my lips painted "plum wine" according to the label on the tube, my body pale, my blond hair shiny from multiple brushings. I was surprised to realize that I didn't look out of place. From a quick, sidelong glance at the mirror I could barely pick myself out of the group. I was just one of the naked women, and the anonymity was reassuring.
While the stage had only one entrance and exit, which I had just come through, it had twelve windows. Each window was covered with a mirrored screen when it was not in use. I heard the clink of coins hitting coins and then the low whirring sound of a lifting screen. I turned my head to where the sound was coming from and saw a man appearing on the other side of a pane of glass. First his waist, then his chest, and finally his face appeared as the mirror lifted away. He was white and middle-aged and wore a beige jacket. If he had disappeared a second later, I wouldn't have recalled a single detail of his appearance. He stared at me expectantly. I glanced around at the other dancers for guidance, but they were all looking elsewhere, so I approached the man, trying to exude confidence that I didn't feel.
I needn't have worried. I watched his eyes follow my different body parts as he decided where he wanted to settle them. He seemed to be a breast man. Closer to the window now, I looked down as he undid his pants. I danced for about two minutes, he came, the screen went down over the glass. Whirrr.
That was how my hours on the red stage began. It wasn't my very first time onstage; I had danced for about eight minutes during my audition. The only difference now was that I would do this for the next three hours. The strangest thing about it was that it wasn't very strange. I had never done this work before, but it felt like a fragment of a dream coming back to me. There was the music, and I was dancing to it; that wasn't new. There were the mirrored walls, much like a dance studio or a health club. And there were men watching me. Always, it seemed, men had been watching me, assessing, surmising, deciding. Even the masturbating strangers weren't without precedent--I had run across public masturbators before. Once a taxi driver had done it in front of a friend and me, and we had yelled at him and made him stop. I felt onstage as though a combination of different experiences had been scrambled in a machine and come out as something familiar but new. My only fear was that three hours of this would make my legs ache.
Half of the windows were two-ways, through which I could see the customer on the other side. The rest, the one-ways, reflected my own image. The one-ways were easy, like dancing in front of a mirror at home. The two-ways were harder to get used to. I watched the men behind them watch me, and sometimes one of them looked up at my face, even up beyond my mouth, and made eye contact, and it was hard to say who was more disconcerted, him or me.
Through the two-ways I saw their heads bob and swivel, their attention flicker around the stage before alighting on a particular body. Most of them smiled, and some even tried to talk, but I couldn't hear them well and didn't much want to anyway. Some tried to communicate with facial and hand gestures, only some of which I could decipher. One made frantic licking motions, another did a miniature breaststroke intended to convey "spread your pussy."
"Just tell him you don't want to go swimming," called Georgia from across the stage. She was back from her ten-minute break, and now Satin had disappeared.
One guy pointed his finger in the air and circled his forearm, possibly asking me to turn around. My first instinct was to comply--I was in the habit of being accommodating when I was in a new job--but then I remembered that I didn't have to, and stopped midturn.
"You think you get to tell a naked lady what to do for a quarter?" Georgia asked a man in the corner booth.
The company of the other dancers, and Georgia's levity, put me at ease. For a while I became so absorbed in watching the other women that the men seemed incidental. I watched Sasha kiss a customer through the window, both of them touching the cold glass with their lips in a bizarre facsimile of affection. That proximity looked perilously intimate to me, even across the glass. It was like approaching a tethered pit bull: intimidating even if you knew it couldn't escape.
Even so, it wasn't until the first break in the music that I was hit with a vertiginous jolt. A silence of several seconds filled the stage, during which time we had to keep moving. When the quiet hit, I suddenly felt exposed. The comforting veil of sound had been ripped away and with it my pretense of dance. It was all I could do not to freeze. I felt ludicrous, but everyone else seemed indifferent. The customers continued their movements, supplicating with pursed lips and squinting eyes. The women kept dancing, their mirrored reflections tangling with my own, until, after an eternity, the next song came on. Before the end of my shift I had learned the trick of keeping a rhythm, any rhythm, playing inside my head.
My coworkers were politely friendly, neither gushing nor taciturn. They didn't talk much; the managers discouraged excessive talking onstage. Having worried that I might, somehow, have been different from these other women, I was relieved that they seemed to accept me right away. But I was also disappointed. I wanted acknowledgment, maybe even congratulations, for getting myself to this glass-walled room. When I told them it was my first day, I expected more of a response than I got, like maybe a knowing roll of the eyes, or a recollection of someone else's first time. But I was just another new girl in a profoundly egalitarian trade. The only reaction came from Sasha, who, leaning her upper body back against the mirrored wall, rolling her delicate white hips, and keeping her eyes leveled on the window in front of her, said softly, "Welcome to the fishbowl."
Almost a year after my first day at the Lusty Lady, a Seattle peep show, I left my job, my boyfriend of four years, and the city where I had lived on and off for seven years. I moved from Seattle to New York, went back to school, and later got a job as a reporter.
At first, after leaving, I talked about my short career as a stripper with a few carefully chosen acquaintances. Sometimes I enjoyed the unsettling effect the subject had, and sometimes I was eager to share a glimpse of what it was like. But I soon stopped mentioning it at all. It was an unnecessarily hazardous topic, likely to cause confusion or unwanted titillation. It was one of those things that others either got or didn't. There was a certain kind of woman, the kind I gravitated to, who would say, "Of course you did. I always wanted to myself." But I discovered that most people didn't understand, and that I was incapable of explaining. For many, it didn't seem to fit in with the more palatable pieces of history that I put on display, like a fortunate childhood or a college degree.
I have always been terrible at revealing anything of myself. I think I was drawn to journalism because I was shy about expressing myself and it offered a sort of refuge. I wanted to ask other people prying questions and then tell their tales. I might splay my name promiscuously across the top of a story, but it exposed others, not me. Journalism never called for me to say, "Here's what I think"; the most impassioned words I wrote always came out of the mouths of others. Somewhere behind my desire to be both a reporter and a stripper lay an impulse to conceal. Stripping--in competition with acting and espionage--is the ultimate job for someone who's instinct is to present different facades of who she might be. There is nothing more illusory than a woman pretending to be a sexual fantasy for money.
But though I went silent about my one-time job, stripping didn't go away. Certain things continued to vex me. One was the collection of facile stereotypes persistently applied to strippers. These ideas seemed so hackneyed as to be barely worth my irritation. Yet they did irritate me, always surprising me out of my wishful thinking when they turned out to be widely and deeply held. To name a few: Strippers are dumb. Abused. Desperate. Amoral. Sexually available. And one stereotype especially bothered me. A professor remarked to me that I had "gotten out" of stripping, while others had not. I had never considered it a job to escape. I thought it shouldn't be assumed that strippers lacked free will, or that they were trapped. I hadn't felt that way. Part of me even thought I might someday go back.
I also began to see echoes of stripping in my personal life. After quiting the Lusty Lady, I entered and then left relationships, all the while slightly bewildered at my own behavior. It had become a strange mix of submissiveness and aggression, and I often felt that I was watching myself play a role. It was a feeling I had often had as a dancer.
And three years after I left the Lusty Lady a question still hounded me. Why did I do it? It was an aggravating, unjust question. When it was put to me by others, I wanted to reply: "Why not? You tell me why you didn't, and I'll you why I did. You might as well ask me why I am the way I am. No one torments insurance salesmen or surgeons or data-entry clerks with questions of why, though I could think of a few I would like to ask: 'How can you telephone strangers all day? How do you stomach being up to your elbows in blood and guts? How do you keep from getting bored? How do you live with a job that gives you no passion, satisfies no curiosity, gives you no sense of higher purpose?'"
But there I was again, deflecting attention from myself. I had always preferred to shine a light anywhere but on me. But now I really wanted to know: Why had I felt driven to do it? How had it affected me? And what did the existence of strippers say about sexuality and society? Was stripping as seductive a dead end for the dancer as looking at her was for the viewer? Could it be said to be right or wrong?
With these questions in mind, I quit my job and went back to Seattle. I worked again as a naked girl. I looked up the women I had known from the Lusty Lady and put questions to them that others had put to me, far more comfortable pressing them for answers than dredging up any answers of my own. Eventually, though, with their help, I did.
I learned that no one is neutral about female bodies. If they aren't sex objects used to sell every conceivable good, they are political objects, causing bitter debate on how to manage their fecundity. And where not sexual or political, they are imbued with society's ideals and fears, turned into Miss Liberties, Virgin Marys, and Wicked Witches. Everyone has an opinion on what to do about female bodies, and sometimes it feels as if the only people who get in trouble for holding such opinions are young women themselves.
Some of us, though, have to live in them, and we each get by in our own way.
From the Hardcover edition.