Most of the men who come to see us just sit. They sit with their legs spread, their faces contorted into this uncomfortable leer, one eye on us and one eye on their wallet.
They watch me dance, trying their best to push thoughts of their wives, their girlfriends, out of their heads. Some of them hope their boyfriends will understand what they have to go through just to fit in, as they reticently allow their colleagues to push them into paying for a dance.
The bald men with tattoos who seem at peace with themselves act as though, on account of their lack of sweating self-consciousness, I will dance for them for free, maybe even fuck them. That’s nonsense. To me, they’re no different, all of them, and thinking that I could be attracted to them because of their easy, confident mannerisms is like saying a shop clerk could fall in love with a customer because they make effortless small talk at the till.
These men all come, flocking towards the club, for the third, sixth, eighth? show of the day. I take the stage, do my thing. Someone— not acquainted with this age of contactless—leans over the stage. Neon-pink and shadow falls over his face. He tries to put some notes in my knickers. A bouncer comes over and ejects him.
The Mail Gaze is the name of the club. A poor pun, on account of the building’s past— a post office— and its current inhabitants.
I finish my dance— almost like a ‘coming soon’ feature here— and, after a spritz-up with deodorant, I wander around the club with the rest of the girls. There’s something egalitarian about this place. Colour, class, creed, it all melts away as the men try to feed us martinis. The barman serves us virgins and we pocket the remainder of the cash later.
The men I dread the most are the ones I call the grief tourists.
The grief tourists always pay for a private dance, sit there while I brush lightly over them. They’re always tremendously well-behaved, and feign this sort of passive disgust, as though they would rather just give me the money without having to suffer through the dance. Which, of course, they could, if they only asked.
The grief tourists are always the same: young, white men— 21 to 27 is the usual age demographic— travelling across Europe on a month-long rail ticket they saved by cutting back on coke for a few weeks.
Their rucksacks are stuffed with their favourite paperbacks (Hesse, Kerouac, a dog-eared copy of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, a few Japanese staples such as Osamu Dazai and Kenzaburo Õe, some James Baldwin essays, so no one can accuse them of a monochromatic reading list) that are worked in around the top-of-the-range sleeping-bag.
The grief tourists wince at my gyrations. They keep their hands folded on their laps. Some even stuff their hands into their pockets, hoping a façade of casualness will cover up the fact that they’re ill-at-ease in this neon-striated environment. They jump at shadows, remember their friends’ warnings to never get ripped off with drinks in these places.
The grief tourists are usually writers, hoping to stuff a little more worldly experience in their pockets before careers, broody girlfriends, family businesses, come beckoning. They pay for another dance, invariably, and ask me what time I get off.
I always tell them, once they’ve trotted out the usual staples: not a creepy thing, I swear; just want to get to know about you; I’m a writer, you see?; I can make it worth your while.
They think it’s the thought of money that makes me meet them in late-nite cafes and, sometimes, in kid-besieged fast-food places. It’s not. I really have no choice.
The grief tourist brings me to a restaurant modelled in the style of an American diner. Leather booths, hamburgers and French fries, a waitress in candy-stripes taking orders in a notebook, a hayfever-riddled chef spluttering asthmatically over beef patties. Our city’s idea of popularising its own culture is, of course, to homogenise, draft in something from somewhere else. An astute observation, socially and philosophically incisive, exactly the kind of bucking-the-trend the grief tourist wants to hear.
The grief tourist is the perfect gentlemen, of course he is. Waits until I’ve sat to sit. Doesn’t order for me. Assures me it’s on him. I know what he’s thinking: that, if not for his act of charity, I wouldn’t eat right for weeks. He probably thinks I splurge all my cash on heroin, or I’ve got a baby to care for.
They all want a hooker with a heart of gold. I always want to remind them that I’m a stripper, not a sex worker.
I order a Texan, which is southern-fried buttermilk chicken in a floury bap, served with fries, etc. etc.
−So, the grief tourist says, −tell me about yourself.
The grief tourists are all so progressive, they think. They look past the tits, the finely-formed calves, the gym-bought bellies, the expertly-applied pigment and highlighter, they look past all of it and just want to see the real me, you.
Which, in their minds, is always some impoverished waif struggling their way through an inequal socio-economic system, or a sister supporting her family and putting her own dreams, nobly, to one side, or maybe just a college girl with no one to depend on. Extra credit if you can sneak daddy issues in there somewhere.
Some of us are like that, and some of us just like it, and some of us get off on the attention, and some of us just see it as a job, and some of us don’t think about it, the same way others flip burgers, wait tables, teach history, without thinking about what got them into it.
The grief tourist asks me about myself, and I tell him. He punctuates my story with lots of ‘yeah?’s and ‘shit’s, the latter just to show me how down-to-earth, salt-of-the-earth he is. He nods sagely, respecting my story. I never know is it what they expect, or is it somehow too sanitised?
He offers me a cigarette. I tell him I don’t smoke, and he seems surprised. He asks me to wait while he heads outside. I do. I can see him outside the window, tapping absently at the screen of his phone. Maybe making notes about me?
The food comes. I slide the tomato out from under the oppressive weight of the sauce-sodden crown. I dig in without the grief tourist. He comes back, smelling of smoke, as I lick some sauce off the web of skin between my thumb and forefinger.
He sees me like this— an accident that could have happened to anyone— and it doubtlessly bolsters his ego no end. Gets him thinking how fortunate I am, bumping into him, as I eat an inherently-messy meal with savagery.
He sits, bites into his own burger. Drops of blue cheese and crumbs of beef clatter onto his plate. He dabs at his mouth with a napkin, smiling apologetically, with a bashful self-consciousness he knows occludes me from internally criticising his slobbishness, and resumes eating, more carefully this time, wanting desperately to be seen as some sophisticated writer-in-exile, a la the two Jameses in his backpack. Cultured artistes don’t have ketchup dripping from their lips.
He’s heard about my early life. Now he wants the important bit, the bit he most decidedly won’t sleepwalk through. The bit his short story or poem hinges upon.
−How did you start…. you know?
I laugh. Stripping, does he mean? He nods, shy, as though the word will somehow bring him to my level. Perhaps Mum and Dad raised him to not speak of sexual matters in front of women, or maybe he’s just sexually/socially dysfunctional. Who knows? Certainly not him, and thus certainly not me.
I tell him how I started stripping. Go into the technicalities, explain the process, for fear he’ll get something wrong in his story. The least I can do is ensure he gets it all right, protect him from Internet critics, fingers itching to point out inconsistencies.
He’s trying to retain everything I tell him. His eyes flicker across my face, making associations that he can use to recall every detail.
We eat the rest of our meal in silence. His interest in me has waned now his curiosity has been sated. We dip shoestring fries into hillocks of ketchup. We both sit with our hands folded across our swelling bellies. He looks down with satisfaction at my plate, empty except for a few sesame-seeds.
He pays. I thank him. We step out into the summer evening.
He lingers on the steps. I await another question, but I know he’s really just trying to build up the nerve to kiss me, or at the least to ask me when we’ll meet again. To capitalise on our supposed ‘connection’.
He doesn’t. They never do, thank God. They always gulp down mucus, wish me the best of luck in my future life, uttered with this almost parodic tone of solemnity. Then they turn away, after giving me a long look-over, doing their best to remember the image of me in my jeans, cardigan or purple polo-shirt, reminding themselves to do their best to do me justice, contrast the sultry nakedness with this image of citizenship. Someone’s daughter, someone’s sister, they probably end their stories with. They never reference their sources. They take everything and make it theirs.
Even these. These words I speak, they’re not mine. They’re extrapolations. Some 23-year-old, at his kitchen table, got an idea for a story based on his one-time foray into a burlesque show while on a lads’ holiday. He was struck by the shadows made on the stage as a girl danced, slid around a pole, whatever, and decided to make a story. Struck by how alien it seemed to him, a young attractive woman stripping— the word itself, stripping, rusty and tacky in his mouth, needing to be said by someone else, the same way he utilises we was and could of through the lens of the working-class—and utilising her body in a way that seemed almost anthemic to our young Romantic, he chose to exorcise these demons but couldn’t figure out how.
Too pusillanimous to ask me to talk to him, to go for a burger after my night’s work, for fear of being ejected for solicitation and made a laughingstock of, he instead used his imagination. Crafted my life. Even rejigged the Dutch name of the club into The Mail Gaze, a sneeringly postmodern play-on-words that has appeared in several unfinished stories and has finally found a home: the womb in which I reside.
A lot of self-loathing, a lot of judgement calls, a lot of personal problems and a lot of imaginative leaps have gone into these words, tinging my very being. I dance— or, maybe, I don’t— in Amsterdam, Eindhoven, wherever, unaware of how I’m here also, trapped between ‘most’ with a capital ‘m’ and ‘infinitum’, the simulacra of my body only as defined as my coy artificer makes it, my voice— authorial, that is— only as informed as his fingers are. The writer left the strip-club with the unpronounceable name with only measurements to create me from, loading me down with a past derived from bad crime-dramas and Pygmalion adaptations.
My references— Hesse, the Japanese writers, etc.— come from a quick glance at my writer’s office bookshelves, as he urges himself to introduce a little intertextuality into his piece, enriching me with association to the lives of other captives, while simultaneously impressing the reader with his varied canon.
Very little in the way of Roxane Gay, Kathy Acker, to be found on these shelves, a fact which is duly noted, written down with the same self-effacement he used to wipe ketchup from his mouth.
The moment we met, my essence was stripped from me, from this place, infused into a Word document.
Having had to sit through over 2000 words now, you probably want to know about my life? Hear about the abuse, the poverty, the fumbling hands groping my body in the dark?
My life begins on stage, ends with confession. Temporarily ends, I might add, as it’s repeated forever, a ravenous ouroboros. Nothing else. A kind of purgatory for half-lives.
I get up on stage, shedding my jeans and my conservative wear, press myself to a greased pole. It’s cold against my sweating skin.
The men sit there, watching. They’re far enough back, in the shadows, that they all salivate at leisure, not worrying about what one stripper thinks of them.
Someone in the audience is struck by the look of impoverishment on the face of a working-girl. After my dance, a grief tourist will approach me. Ask me to talk. Tell me he’s a writer. Ad infinitum.