Los Angeles 2007
“When are you coming home?” Mom’s voice sounded as if her mouth was stuffed with Kleenex, the muffled hymn of giving up. I needed to talk her out of it in person but I was speeding on the 210 Freeway, lunging towards Pasadena. I considered jumping lanes and swerving into oncoming traffic, smashing into an eighteen-wheeler so my outsides would be as mangled as my insides felt. That’s when I spotted Pleasures.
I drove into the parking lot of that was next to used car dealership and across the street from a Von’s grocery store. My gas tank was below empty. Gas prices were astronomical, creeping over four bucks a gallon and it’s a twelve-hour haul to Humboldt from Los Angeles. Sink or swim, I thought, knowing that the best swimmers always drown. It’s the panic and fatigue, not mechanical skills that cause good swimmers to drown.
When Mom’s cancer returned, I quit my assistant gigs. I couldn’t pick up anyone’s dry cleaning or dog food. I couldn’t remember to pick up toothpaste for myself. I showered rarely and wore mismatched socks. The toothpaste could wait. Mom couldn’t.
“No more hospitals,” she’d said. Earlier, I’d managed to brush my hair and turn on my computer and found out that Pleasures was the only topless bar in Pasadena. I knew I could strip with the same numb determination as the other girls if I could find a place in LA that would hire a thirty-seven year old grad student with tattoos. I’d already been turned away from a sports bar in West LA.
I lugged my pink vinyl Victoria Secret bag full of costumes through a door that was propped open with a brick. There’s something awful about entering a strip club with the bright Los Angeles sun still blazing overhead. It’s like wearing a down ski jacket in hundred-degree weather or sitting in a hot tub wrapped in a fur coat. It’s just wrong.
Pleasures was larger than it looked on their website. Inside was a stage in the middle of the room with a rusty, slim pole and a pool table near a long bar, big as a swimming pool. The only way to the dressing room was through the kitchen so I held my pink bag to my chest in order to fit through. It stuck to my sweaty arms and made a ripping sound when I pulled it free and dropped it on the floor.
“I’m here to audition,” I told a short guy who was frying meat in a long-sleeved black shirt. Later he would try to sell me a copy of his self-published book “Beyond the Pole.” He flipped a burger and grabbed a thick ceramic plate off the top of a stack, set it on the metal surface. He sliced a pale, mealy tomato wedge, poured salt on it and looked at me.
“Get dressed then bring me your ID,” he said. I went back into the dinky dressing room where there was a desk with baby wipes, Aqua Net and Victoria Secret Strawberry body spray. I pulled off my jeans and checked out my naked flab in the cracked, spotty mirror. It had been four years since I’d stripped. I grabbed my Lucite shoes, in their smelly, scuffed six-inch glory, which helped with the fat problem since taller is the optical allusion for thinner. Next came the hand-me-down sparkly pink bikini that was outdated. I squeezed into until my thighs and hips bulged over the top.
I was heavier and older than the two other dancers there. They had legs like snake grass and slim, pointy ankles. They were both under twenty-five but their fake reading glasses, white knee socks and plaid mini skirts screamed teenage porn star. They had names that dripped sex like “Hennessey” and “Bijou.” One had braces. She grinned to the mirror and picked something from them. I smeared on gloppy pink lipstick and found the short guy in an office next to a silver metal file cabinet confiscated from a garage sale in the seventies. I handed him my California license and he made a copy.
“If you get on stage now, you can work tonight.” He gave me back my ID, looked at his watch and walked towards the bar. I was relieved to be one of the only girls to work at 4p.m. on a Monday and introduced myself to the DJ as “Angelique,” the equivalent of punching a time clock at a nine to five gig.
Each time I worked at Pleasures, I left with exactly one hundred and eighty bucks, a fraction of the green I’d stacked while stripping back in San Francisco. Although I was livid about the anemic cash flow, the nipple-phobic city of Pasadena was more ticked off than I was. They attempted to shut down Pleasures several times during my stint there.
The first night I worked, dancers had to wear pasties made out of flowered wallpaper in the shape of hearts. We pressed them on top of our nipples with a glue stick before dancing on stage. Next, they enforced the red line rule: we couldn’t be topless beyond a line of red tape marking the legal yardage between our naughty nipples and the customers seated at the stage. After the last police raid, we couldn’t take our tops off anywhere in the club.
In January of 2008 the city of Pasadena finally won in court, and Pleasures was shut down for good denying marines and felons the privilege of shooting pool, eating an overcooked steak and getting a table dance under one roof. I never understood the marriage of cafeteria food and strippers, a combination specific to Los Angeles, but my regulars did. They took up a lot of skull space because Mom’s illness made me vulnerable and anxious. I became a cuticle biter with a handful of regular clients and I peeled the skin from my fingers and chewed them during lap dances while they munched on cheese fries.
One of my regulars was old Jo, who showed me pictures of his ex wife who stabbed him. He liked me to choke him while he said, “How did you know?” My hands around his throat gave me some place to put my bloody fingers. “I got nothing in my head but marbles,” Joe said over and over while he drank whiskey until his pockets were empty.
“I’m barely here,” Mom’s voice echoed while I choked Joe, frustrated by my uselessness to stop the cancer. I found comfort in the strangeness that became commonplace at Pleasures.
For instance, one night a guy was drinking with another guy in a wheelchair. The friend introduced me to the wheelchair guy. I walked up to them.
“This is “Tripod,” the friend said.
“Because he has two long arms and a huge hard on,” the friend answered. Tripod had polio so his arms were knobby and long and his short legs disappeared under his chest that jutted out in front of him. I liked him right away because he was cocky and unfazed, determined to enjoy himself. His greasy beer smell came from a bender that had started in Vegas, and that bender was petering out during my shift at Pleasures.
“Tripod, What’s the situation here?” I asked. “How about a dance?”
“Do whatever you want with me,” he grinned sideways. I hoped to make a hundred bucks off Tripod.
“Step into my office,” I said. I led him to the lap dancing area, a room with gum-stained black couches and red carpet with wet spots. Dancers writhed in front of their customers and gave me looks when Tripod rolled his wheelchair next to them. He did another shot while I waited for the next song to begin. I rubbed my chest in his face and imagined driving up the coast to Humboldt as if I was already in my car twisting around the redwoods, flooring it through the fog. If I made three hundred bucks, I could pack tonight. Leave in the morning.
After my dance with Tripod, I went to the bathroom where I counted my cash. I sat on the toilet to escape the loud music and determined how much longer I needed to remain at Pleasures. In the stall next to me a girl in plastic heels scuffed the floor, then snorted. “Shit,” she said. The girls got really fucked up at Pleasures.
Taped on the bathroom stall door was a Xerox copy of a girl’s driver’s license with a scribbled note that said she was killed in a drunk driving accident and there would be a memorial. According to the date on her license, she died when she was twenty-three. I looked closely at her dark eyes and petite nose while I counted bills but her features were so blurry, she could be anyone. None of the girls mentioned the dead girl and they all got plastered and drove away from Pleasures anyway.
I counted a hundred and twenty bucks. I needed more, so I approached a guy in a Bob Dylan t-shirt whose name was McKenzie. He swerved standing up and finally settled in the smoking area, where followed him. “Let’s get out of here,” he said. I decided to meet McKenzie in the parking lot across the street at the ATM. He wanted me to fuck him in a Catholic pre-school that was under construction where he claimed to have the keys to the building. We’d done this before, a while back, for three hundred bucks. He wouldn’t give me the money beforehand and I’d refused to ride in his car with him, so I followed him to the quiet Glendale neighborhood where he turned off the porch light so the neighbors wouldn’t know we were inside.
A wooden crucifix was nailed to the wall and a bible was on top of a long table, with short seats for toddlers to sit down and color; nibble turkey sandwiches they lifted out of lunch boxes, prepared by Moms who didn’t have bile duct cancer.
“I’ll follow you,” I said. I drove across the street by the ATM until I saw the white construction truck pull out onto the street and towards the 210 Freeway. I followed him for about ten minutes until the familiar exit dumped me out onto a street with parked hybrids and dead jacaranda blossoms splattered on the ground.
I parked and watched him maneuver into a tight spot. The man got out of the white truck and glared at me. He stood on his porch with fists clenched to his side then disappeared into the house and slammed the front door. Only, the man wasn’t McKenzie. I drove away with my one-twenty from Pleasures and laughed until my gut hurt and turned up the radio to drown out the sound.