You didn’t know you’d stare middle age in the face and carry its soggy weight for everyone. And yet, you don’t feel ugly or incapable.
The first time you quit stripping in 2003, you shoved your pink spandex bikinis and black booty shorts into a garbage bag and brought them to a lesbian bar in the Mission and gave them to a leggy blonde with phenomenal teeth. You moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles, away from the strip clubs where it was too easy to waltz in at any hour you wanted and work until 3 a.m. and leave with a wad of twenties in your boot. You gave away three more garbage bags full of sleazy costumes over the next 10 years to baby strippers.
You moved. You quit because of the misery of being mawled by stangers and the slick void it left was too lonesome. You were the most miserable stripper to palm five hundred dollars. And some nights you believed you were only as good as your tits and your sex appeal. So you quit. You waited tables, you cleaned houses. You wore scrubs and drew blood and siphoned porn star piss and stayed away from the nude clubs in the sticky valley.
You’re 44 — which is approximately 187 in stripper years. OK, you’re really 46, but you lie to everyone about your age and have for years: to friends, co-workers, your dad, your bosses, your customers, CNN. You have been working in the sex industry for over 25 years. You wish there was someone you could talk to about it but you don’t know anyone who has clocked in for booty duty this long. You look like hell. You have the shits. You’re dehydrated. The only thing multiplying in your cells are the dark circles under your eyes from zero sleep. Now, when you throw your neck out, it stays out. Your lower back screams. Your knees click.
After your boyfriend lied, cheated, broke up, and moved out, the same month your close friend died from breast cancer, your rent more than triples. The last thing you want to do is flirt with dudes who neither care about you nor pretend to, allow them to hug you with their sweaty arms and squeeze your butt with both hands. The last thing you want to be is an emotional pit stop for sad golfers. The last thing you want to do is grind on cock, song after song, twenty bucks a pop. You feel more like a whimpering dog who was returned to the pound than a sexy stripper.
You’re hungry. You’re out of cat food again and your car payment is 10 days late. You can no longer put off work. You dash to the desert again — to the only titty bar in Coachella Valley.
At the strip club on a Tuesday afternoon, you feel like a hag on a death bed.
Whispers can be heard from the stage. You turn to see Kat, a thick redhead with blotchy black tattoos on both thighs, talking to a short stalky bald customer you’ve seen before. He sips Coors Light and watches you strut toward the stage. You dance to “White Rabbit,” the Jefferson Airplane cover.
“How old do you think she is?” he asks, pointing at you. From the pole, upside-down in a descending angel pose, you see the whole bar and everyone inside. Two girls give lap dances in VIP rooms, the bartender scrolls through her phone, and the front door opens. A blast of aggressive sunlight and hot dust lands on Kat’s naked stomach that glows creamy-white in the red, black club. You remove your flimsy sequins bra and let it fall to the stage. Kat and her customer are a few feet away from you in low soft chairs.
They think you can’t hear them.
“I’d say somewhere in the neighborhood of 45,” she says. She’s halfway in his lap now, drinking his beer. Her knees between his legs. She makes a show of tossing her head back to shake free her red ropey hair that smells like weed. Later you will watch her count your dances, keeping score. She will smile at you angrily through freckled pink glossed lips. You are still one of the top earners in this club. You dance circles around most of your co-workers and they know it. You smile back. Tell Kat you like her lacy top.
She walks into the smoking area outside with one of your regulars. That month your friend died and your boyfriend left, Kat asked you if you were all right because you weren’t. She told you it was going to be OK and she meant it.
A couple days later you saw her pale fingers slide inside your small black purse when you were dancing on stage. You didn’t say anything. Were you imagining things? You bought a brighter, pinker purse so you could watch it more carefully from the top of the pole. She only took a couple of twenties. That day was horrendously slow and all the girls were panicked, but you had a regular give you a couple hundred. Bored desperation followed all of you into an endless, deader night.
Some girls cannot help where they find themselves: lost, grieving, broke, and panhandling in sparkly panties. Stripping at any age is an orgy of change: skin, bones, wrinkles, muscles, and hair. You didn’t know you’d be surrounded by the newer, bouncier products that delight customers — that you’d stare middle age in the face and carry its soggy weight for everyone. And yet, you don’t feel ugly or incapable. Your fingers and toes are an alarming orange red — fucking immaculate. You still work the shit out of the pole. You’ve become more compassionate, sincere, and crafty in your hustling — the way you hold men by their bald heads while they cry during lap dances with their father in prison and mother dead from cancer like yours. Usually the crying men are significantly younger than you.
And youth is so fleeting, it’s as if you’ve never felt it, because years of stripping have raced by. Decades of dancing is so physically demanding, mentally draining, deeply competitive, and ruled by jealousy, and you’ve spent your entire adult life dancing with naked women you envy. You wouldn’t have it any other way.
The stealing doesn’t bother you as much as the whispers.
Customers ask your age and when you don’t reply quick enough, they grab your chin and tilt it toward the ceiling light. They move your head left and right like you’re a statue, a Barbie, a nameless fuck doll. They assume you lie about your life, your long-term sobriety, teaching, writing — all of it. But you only lie about your age.
“Twenty-eight…Thirty-six,” they say. You nod. Change the subject.
Clyde, a regular customer, sits at the bar working on a whiskey neat, probably his third or fourth. You sit next to him. You consider the many times Clyde offered you money to fuck him, the times he got plastered and asked you for a ride to Indio and the time he tazered your security guard. You’d never seen it happen up close until that night: the pow pow of the tazer that sounds like a gun shooting half a dozen fast bullets. Sam, your security guard, convulsed violently then — Boom — face planted on the floor with his arms and legs in a starfish pose on the zig-zagged yellow, gum-stained carpet.
“How much would you charge to murder me?” you ask Clyde. He chuckles, then stares at the men’s watch you still wear. It’s chunky, expensive, maybe worth more than anything you own. He shakes his head. Sips his Jack. You take off your watch, drop it into his shirt pocket.
“I’m serious,” you say. He tries it on but it’s too small. His wiry wrist hair gets tangled in the band.
“I’ll do it for free,” he says. You’re called to the stage. You leave Clyde and your watch at the bar. During your second song by The Black Angels, you wonder if Clyde is waiting for his ex-girlfriend to show up so he can taunt her by flirting with you. He’s a guy with lots of dirty motives. Some say he preys on the weak. That day, you figure, you qualify. This time, when your bra is tossed, Clyde walks up to the stage and leans over, one leg perched on the chair. If anyone else did that, it would feel menacing, but it’s more like he’s being polite — paying his respects. He tosses wrinkled dollars on your stage — around 15 bucks. No one else tips you.
You are Luce Irigaray’s femininely gendered body at work encircling male hysteria. Your very body, your touch, your role acts as sexual oxytocin for men. You are emotional rock candy adept at sweetening the jagged edges of broken men.
You’re little orphan Annie in whore form. You sing, you dance, you make a mean lemon bar. You wash dishes like a motherfucker. Why won’t anyone adopt you?
You have quit dancing a dozen times but it never sticks. Your writing life is about large and small rejections and those rejections echo inside the strip club when you sit on a chair shaped like a leopard print stiletto, waiting for customers while checking your rejection emails.
You hear more flashes of little conversations from the other girls like, “She’s too old to work here.” You look up. No one is there.
Later, you agree to meet Clyde up the road after your shift. It’s a windy, warm night with a negligible bullshit moon. When you get there, Clyde’s sitting in a tacky brown booth with his son, cracking up. He buys you pancakes at Denny’s and gives your watch back.
Antonia Crane: Writer, Editor, Moth performer, Instructor. SFFS Grant Recipient with Silas Howard for “The Lusty” a feature film about the exotic dancer’s union effort.
This originally appeared on The Establishment. Republished here with permission.