Taking off your clothes may be demeaning, but it makes you feel like a queen. Second of two parts.
The Bungalow was tucked away at the back of an industrial park. I swung open the blacked-out glass door with the sign “No Fat Women Allowed!” The darkened pit gobbled up the bright noon sun, and the cool damp smell of liquor snuck up my nose. I leaned against the bar railing and a blond man’s head popped into sight.
“Hi, my name is Kyrea. I’m supposed to ask for Billy. It’s my first day.” Did that name sound stupid? Was I supposed to say my real name instead?
“Hey, it’s nice to meet you! I’m Nick. The dressing room is down there — I’ll let Billy know you’re here.” He pointed off to the right and continued lifting boxes of beer to the bar.
I turned and saw it for the first time, a long L-shaped stage with Christmas lights strung along the edge, surrounded by chairs. I stumbled into the dressing room thinking I must have made a mistake; it was just a bathroom with a gold star on the door. There were three stalls (one without a door), a sink and two broken wall mirrors. I plugged in the space heater and it whirred to a start. I had expected something more glamorous.
I pulled on my costume and tried to puff up my hair and squeeze my 34-A breasts as high as they would go. I looked too young.
I click-clacked my way back to the bar in my undies and high heels, wondering if I should have covered myself up or if I was supposed to be as nude as possible at all times.
The owner now sat at the bar, drinking a small bottle of club soda. He was in his late 20s and had long golden hair.
“Wow! You look beautiful.” I could feel my face getting hot and red, just like my bra and thong. I felt like a gigantic tomato, but both Billy and Nick said I looked great.
“You might want to put on a robe when you’re not onstage, though. I don’t want you catching cold.” Now my face got redder, but Billy gently squeezed my shoulder.
I showed them my forged permission note. They glanced at each other and Billy thanked me.
I relaxed on a wobbly stool and leaned my elbows against the rail. A few men started strolling in, so I tried to look as demure as you can look when you’re the only woman in a bar and in your underwear.
I could feel eyes staring at me from across the bar. I tried out my most seductive smile, but I couldn’t tell if he smiled back. My ice water slid down my throat, causing my nervous belly to ache. No more smiles for you, mister.
I sat there for half an hour, wondering when the other dancer would arrive. Johnny had said I should watch her first and then imitate her moves. It was almost noon, which was when the shows were supposed to start. The clock churned on and men kept entering. They were talking about me and pointing, in between going to the cooler at the back end of the bar for a sandwich and gulping down their beers. Billy said, “Whenever you’re ready.”
My feet carried me past the catcalls and whistles, past the pool table and the TV. I dropped my plastic purse into the giant tip basket at the corner of the stage.
Two wilted dollar bills from the bar started the jukebox and I picked out my first set of songs — fast ones so that I wouldn’t have time to slow down and be aware of what was going on. I turned to face the crowd and smiled at the few men who sat by the stage. Their eyes were eye level with my calves; they couldn’t help staring up at my crotch.
Oh, my God, what should I do now? I sashayed down the stage and grabbed a metal pole that stuck out from the middle of the stage and stretched my legs. The music began to beat out from speakers all around me. Male eyes peered through the hazy smoke, heavy-lidded with the effects of liquor.
I rotated my hips slowly, bent over and extended my legs. I danced like molasses sliding down a wooden banister and swung my long hair, letting it land and brush against my ass.
Men were watching me from all sides. I saw two guys leaning against their pool cues, drooling. All other action in the bar had ceased. The walls were lined with mirrors, so I could see myself dancing. I looked firm and shiny and perfect with the rosy lights playing on my body from above.
I’d stop dancing long enough to take the dollars held out to me. The men wanted to know my name and how old I was. They wanted me to stop dancing to talk to them. But I didn’t want to get in trouble, so I tried to never stop moving.
“I must know your name!” A man in a blue suit squeezed my hand as he handed me a five.
“Kyrea!” I shouted over the music. I turned my back to him and undid my bra. The smelly air clung to my curves. I caught a glance of my white breasts in the mirror and I felt really naked for the first time.
“Perrier? What kind of a name is that?” I laughed at the suit and kept dancing.
It was funny how safe I felt. No one tried to grab me or said I was a whore. All they said was how beautiful I was. I felt like a queen on a pedestal with control over the men. I only had to dance for a customer about a minute before I’d see a flash of green being waved somewhere else. I decided when to dance away from one guy to the next. I was the one with the power; the men were helpless in my womanly spell.
This was much better than selling doughnuts.
I noticed another woman standing by the stage. I scooped up my dollars as the men applauded and scurried back to the bathroom, clutching my bra to my chest. Men stopped me along the way, wanting to buy me a drink. I just smiled and rushed past them.
I plopped down on the bathroom chair and pressed out my dollars flat. Some of them had been crumpled into little balls and thrown to me, and others had been folded into little bow ties and swans. I had earned $32 during that set. Not bad considering that my doughnut job had paid $5 an hour.
I mopped off my body with hard brown paper towels and yanked on my next outfit, a yellow thong leotard with pink hot pants. The muffled sounds of pool balls being smacked, men laughing and coughing and hard rock music pulsed through my ears. A whoosh of powder on my damp skin and I was all set. I wanted to get out there to study the other dancer.
I ordered an orange juice and settled in at the bar to watch the show. Kelly did a lot more talking than dancing. She also had her own repertoire of moves. She’d bend over and look at a guy between her legs, pick up dollar bills by squeezing her breasts around them and slap her butt and make a squealing noise. Her performance was not a striptease, really — it was a half-naked woman walking from man to man and wiggling.
Billy sat with me and reviewed the club’s rules, which were strictly enforced. The Bungalow was strictly topless and no flashing (pulling your G-string aside) was allowed. Physical contact with the customers was grounds for immediate dismissal. Any problem with a customer was to be handled by the bouncers. “If anyone should proposition you, come and tell me.”
I looked Billy in the eye and nodded.
“I run a clean club and I don’t want to get closed down.”
“You can count on me.”
Billy smiled and touched my arm.
I danced a total of six half-hour sets that day, keeping up my energy with a ham sandwich from the cooler and a lot of ice water. I used the ice onstage by running it down my body. It kept my skin cool and my nipples hard. The men loved it when I did something spontaneous like that, because they could tell I was discovering the moves for the first time.
Kelly was older than I and you could tell she’d been a dancer for a long time. She wore the same costume all day long, while I liked to change my outfits so the guys would have something new to look at. My whole mood changed when I switched my costume from white lace to black plastic.
I must have warded off a dozen date invites. The men seemed to be asking me out seriously, not like I was a prostitute. What did these old fat guys think? That I would want to go out to dinner with them? That they were going to make a love connection with a stripper? Of course, there were some who wanted something else and were very clear about it. As soon as a man’s words began to sound like a proposition for sex, I’d flip my hair and dance away.
The guys got rowdier and more offensive as the day wore on. Some guys would look away when I approached, so as not to have to give me a dollar. Others got pissed off because I wouldn’t flash. They told me that everybody else did it, but I had no intention of flashing. There were plenty of customers who were more than happy to watch me do an actual striptease dance. I used a lot of eye contact and found that the men liked to be teased. They watched my face as well as my body. My acting skills were really coming in handy.
Kelly’s dancing got bawdier and she spent a lot of time at the far end of the stage. She would bend over and fiddle with her thong while customers leaned in close. She’d flip herself up all of a sudden and shoot a look to the bar. I pretended not to be watching her, but she must have known I was.
After 5 o’clock it got really busy and Kelly waved to everyone. One fat guy threw a matchbook onstage and the guys went wild, screaming and clapping.
“What’s going on?” I asked Nick.
“You’ll see. It’s her signature move.” I looked toward the stage again and was bewildered. Kelly was inserting matches in her nipples. The audience got louder as she lighted the matches and carefully swung her flaming breasts in circles. The stunt lasted only a moment, but customers were throwing money onto the stage. It was bizarre, but I guess the men liked the novelty of it.
The second-shift dancers began arriving around 5:30. It was my first opportunity to speak with other women all day. One dancer with long blond hair started quizzing me as soon as I walked into the bathroom after my last set and counted out my dollars.
“Wow, you made a lot.”
“Yeah? It’s my first day.”
“Your first day at this club or you mean your first day dancing ever?” She was slipping on a cheerleader outfit.
“Oh, my very first day.”
“Mmm, well you better watch yourself around these other women. You’re young and pretty — a lot of dancers are going to be jealous.” She brushed her hair up into two ponytails.
“Oh, I don’t know.”
“Seriously, you should put a lock on your suitcase and watch your back.” She checked herself out in the mirror one last time and then whipped around and left the dressing room. She had not sounded friendly in her warning. In fact, she sounded downright hostile. Perhaps she had been talking about how she felt, and I decided that I should try to stay out of her way. I felt a twinge of panic at the thought that she had actually threatened me.
I hurried to leave because I had a dress rehearsal for Neil Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs” at 8 at a local Playshop. I wished that I could take a shower to wash off the sweat and smoke that clung to me, but instead I dumped on some more baby powder.
I left the club at 6:30 with $275 in cash. Wearing sweats, I slipped out completely unnoticed; I’d become totally invisible by putting my regular clothes back on. My mind was spinning, my legs ached and I had a pounding headache, but the cool evening air refreshed my tired body and brought me back to the real world. By the time my Sundance hit Interstate 95, I was feeling like Sheila again. Kyrea drifted away into the black night somewhere around exit 40.
As I drove I wondered how long I’d be a stripper. I could feel that bar darkness beckoning, a place where I could escape the pressures of being a superwoman. In the club, my only responsibility was to be sexy. I knew the crowds of men had no respect for me. It didn’t matter who I was or what I was about; they only wanted to look at my naked body.
I spoke to my reflection in the foggy rearview mirror. “I’m Sheila now. Kyrea is back in the bar.” I brought my attention back to the road and as the white dashes flicked by I realized I had no idea who I was or where I was headed.
And the road stretched out very far in front of me.
Sheila Hageman is a writer in New York. More Sheila Hageman.
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