The first time I ever stepped foot in a strip club, I applied for a job. The three o’clock sunshine vanished with the shutting door, and I entered a self-sufficient little world, sealed totally from the outside. All at once it was dark and loud, and I felt the particular way club music jars the body. A man in a three-piece suit led me over garish hotel carpeting to an office just big enough for two standing adults.
“Does your significant other know about this?” he asked me.
“Yes,” I said.
He checked the appropriate boxes on my papers.
“You’ll start this Friday at 10. At night.” He smiled at me kindly.
For three months during my senior year of college, I drove to work at 9:30 p.m., toting a duffel bag that held, variably, black miniskirts, booty shorts, fishnet stockings, garters, and, always, a white corset and a set of patent black heels. At the club, I would skirt invisibly through a packed nightclub to the locker rooms, where naked women smoked cigarettes and trimmed tampon strings. There I stashed my thrift store jeans and Doc Martens, and picked up a fluorescent serving tray for the night.
I told everyone I was cocktail waitressing at a strip club for the money, which was not totally true, although I suppose I believed it then. My moneymakers were rare anyways, the older men who were from out-of-town and came alone and sat quietly. These were the ones who left me business cards wrapped in hundred dollar bills. Besides those, it was hit-or-miss most nights — the other girls who had been there for years told me business these days was not like it used to be.
I knew when I started that it appealed to me to wear false eyelashes and lipstick to work — to be free to present what beauty I had, without embarrassment, in the most extravagant manner I could manipulate. I was unattractive as a teen, which I shed off by a Spartan force of will when I grew older. I lost loads of weight and learned to draw on my eyebrows and stopped wearing clothes that I liked for those that flattered me. I felt I was almost there, at that pinnacle I had dreamed of for years, but it would not be assured except through trial. At the strip club, I would find proof and validation, once and for all, that I was pretty and desirable, and thus fated to live a happy, fulfilled life. Then, I would stop obsessively watching myself through the selfie camera on my phone or taking videos of my outfits to try and determine how thin I looked to others.
The strip club is built to communicate the desires of men. What he desires and how he will desire it is already laid out, in the most distilled version of the timeless formula for sex. In a strip club, a man knows everything he sees is his, in a way, if he only asks for it, and then pays. I could see some of my coworkers found this type of frankness rude — I didn’t. When I began work, I felt all the hidden codes of everyday life fall away. I was no longer required to decipher my level of desirability on subtleties and glances and numbers of emojis sent in a text. There was no possibility of misjudgments because of insecurity or extraneous bravado. If a man fanned out ten 100-dollar bills between his hands, and told me I could have them for a lap dance, then my worth was $1,000, which I could, literally, take to the bank. It was addicting. I kept a count of marriage proposals in my head.
The thrill was short-lived. It did not take me long to weary of it, the competition and hustle of it, and something sinister began to surface. Have you ever stayed long enough at a strip club to hear the music cut off and see the lights turn on? A cluster of men cling to the bar — some of them you know had arrived at 9 or 10 and will leave in broad daylight, almost. Dissatisfaction hangs off of them like an odor. You can tell that they are realizing the night is over and nothing has changed, really, from before the night began. Maybe one of the men walks over to you and begins a conversation. You smile but look to move away. He can’t buy any drinks from you anymore, and, anyway, he does not look like the ones that have money. He senses your intentions and quickly throws a few crumbled dollar bills onto your tray to keep you for a moment longer, to maybe tell you how “this kind of place” is not really where he likes to hang out actually, if you really got to know him.
The uneasiness I felt became harder to ignore. I knew it was not just cash that I exchanged with the men at work. Every time, I felt something unnamable seeping from me, an investment I added against my will, which I would never be willing to fulfill. I thought I could work at a strip club and walk away with zero losses, to come and take my fill of adoration, enough to confirm a future potential for love, a love that would have absolutely nothing to do with strip clubs and the men who go to strip clubs. After all, it was the same. Love is a two-sided thing everywhere, even in strip clubs, and life is a series of trade-offs and compromises.
One night, a man stood up in the middle of the club floor and threw a thick stack of ones into the air. I remember stooping at his feet to pick them up, laughing with my coworkers, while the DJ’s voice rang out over a heavy bass, and the strobe lights went spinning. The man who threw the money watched a beautiful woman pole dance naked as more beautiful women scrambled at his feet. Sex and money and power — it was his turn, then, to feel it. Mine would come and go and come again. In the club, everybody got a turn, if only for a moment.