I read memoirs because I love reading about a life splayed on the page as an art form. Eileen Myles’ “Cool For You” was sulfuric. It reminded me of soaking in rotten egg water in the woods right after my Mom died. “Cool for You” was the medicine I needed on my tongue in the dark new alone. Myles took memoir structure and made it round, circling back to her mother, my mother, love and memory.
Joan Didion’s “Year of Magical Thinking” caught me in her butterfly trap of silent violence. Didion’s grief was a silver word sabre that left a scar where time froze in sudden death. All streets led back to that moment.
Michael Greenberg’s “A Writer’s Life” was clever, humble and vulnerable. He wrote the struggle from under a bridge in New York and emerged winged. He collected days like war paint swirled in his father’s palm.
Mary Karr is my favorite scrappy, gun-toting Erato. In “Lit” she’s a word wrangler and swallower of poisons. She’s a human love letter to sons and sisters with her sentences that smell like horses, chewing tobacco and lonesome dusty afternoons. “Lair’s Club” stomped the glitter from my sentences, by shining naked on the dirt.
James Brown’s “The Los Angeles Diaries” was a patchwork of vital moments that hammered the heart to the page and reminded me of the sadness that leaks through families and the stubborn love that punches through.
Lidia Yunavitch is a deep sea diver in the blood sea of words stroking her prose on the page in “Chronology of Water.” Her howl is a child death encased in a skin water song; Her pain is a familiar father hole girl pain. I forgot I was suffocating until I read her memoir and her words were air.
Know what annoys me about stripper and hooker memoirs? They end all neat and tidy and hetero-normative and buttoned up. They end all Pretty Woman and diamond-ringed and Pottery Barned with the damaged girl who finally found mister perfect. Mister P fixes her and they buy a house and a puppy in a sweater and write thank you letters on monogrammed stationary.
The first problem is I can’t relate. I’m not the type of girl anyone has ever wanted to rescue. As memoirists, we tell ourselves things to comfort and flatter and forget; hardened brittle girls who long to land softly. But that’s not what really happened. If I were that ending, it would go like this:
You are like new. You’ve got soaring self-worth and you’ll never strip again. You never wanted to do it in the first place. You never even think about it. You’ve swept the part of you that was for sale under the welcome mat in front of your reformed whore digs. The transactional psychosexual hard drive of your mind has been erased. You tell yourself this as you cut out your stripper heart. You toss it down the garbage disposal where it howls and you hope Mister P doesn’t hear the sound of stripper heart guts being massacred in your fancy kitchen.
Down the drain: is the night in the club in San Francisco where you stripped and fucked the young hot coke dealer with the neck tattoos and motorcycle helmet for five hundred bucks in the private room because you fucking felt like it.
Down the drain: is the time the man’s wife ate your pussy for half an hour in the VIP room. And you came. And you were paid handsomely. And afterwards you fucked your boyfriend in his bed.
Down the drain: are the hundred lies you told about where you were, what you were doing, who you were doing it with, and those acts stoked a fire in your pussy that is very hard to put out. That’s gone too.
You tell yourself none of it happened to you. You scratch it away like some other skin. The friends who stood shoulder to shoulder with you in clubs and hotel rooms for years? You disappear them like a snuff film.
You walk away with French manicured hands and your husband’s American Express card in your purse and forget how your pussy gushed when a wad of sweaty hundreds was shoved into your fist while undulating on a man’s boner who fantasized about the tip of his cock between your slick lips in a room of electric need, probing you like a strobe light on your girl parts, making your spine vibrate.
You deny that you were drunk on their desire for you.
You sprinted out the exit all right. Left the dark bars in your stripper wake, saved from the big bad sex industry wolf, now that your self esteem has been restored. It appears as if you found love in the right places. You’ve retired the Pirate. You’re Snow White now. You’re white now. You tell yourself this. Clean.
This is not that ending. But it’s mine:
The dark bars appear in dreams. They’ve erected tents in your bones and you feel them burning holes, trails, sweating through your clothes, climbing up your throat and hips, waking up the heat in your crotch. They’ve been busy building fires.
You left the club. It never left you. At the grocery store you see a man’s neck and have an impulse to climb up his legs and lick his ear lobe. You watch him open his wallet and you count the bills out of habit. He looks you in the eye.
The smell of coconut lotion and bubble gum makes you see red lips, chest, nipples, pudgy thighs; the girl who clenched her asshole on stage to the beat of the music. The one with her locker next to yours; the one whose pupils were big as planets and she made over twenty-six hundred dollars that you watched her count at 4 a.m. A dancing asshole, you thought. If only I had a dancing asshole. Vanilla, bubble gum, coconut lotion.
The Disney endings are not only written by high priced ladies from low places, I’ve read the same endings in male hustler memoirs. The let-down endings are all toweled off and group-therapied. The boys enter fancy rehabs and private schools. It pisses me off because it feels fundamentally dishonest. It makes me mad because I love reading memoirs and it comes across like a big fat, old-fashioned Americana-glazed donut dipped in bullshit.
This is not that ending.
I’m forty years old, stripping and giving handjobs to pay my rent. I’m lonelier than a leper at a DAR meeting. I have no clue how to leave this industry and enter the work force. The longer I stay out of the workforce, the harder it is to get into. I know how to do school, but I don’t know how to do a life. This is no one’s fault but my own. This is where it’s at: I’m still doing this. I still want out.
I thought I’d end in the dark, fighting for my life in Los Angeles, with three bucks in my pocket, less than a hundred in my account, owing everyone I know money. I figured I’d get arrested again. “Once you start getting arrested, you keep getting arrested,” my friend P said. I completed the diversion prosecution program and am no closer to a teaching job.
What would Kathy Acker do?
Try harder. Scrape your way out of the spider den until your fingernails are bloody stubs. Rebuild yourself. Apply to PHD programs.
Maybe she’d say, “Fuck it. Strip and write your ass off.” Then she’d say something confrontational and genius about desire that I barely understand.
Desire is a fickle motherfucker. So are endings. I’ve written mine. It ends like it begins, with my heels in the dirt, looking up at the sun.