Post Road Magazine #14

Working Nights in the Artificial Day, Working Days in the Artificial Night

by Melissa Petro

The body is a community made up of its innumerable cells or inhabitants.

—Thomas Edison

I don’t remember what I said, but after a while I convinced Rick to let me drop him off at the lab in the mornings so that I could borrow the car in the afternoons. Maybe I told him I was going to the library. Or working days at the shelter. I forget what I told him. I lied. I borrowed the car because I wanted to start dancing again. I knew where. I’d seen the place. Forty-five minutes out of Cincinnati, right off I-75; there’s a dilapidated forty-foot billboard with a cartoon of a woman with enormous breasts and black stars for nipples. Leroy’s Topless Cabaret: exit 42.

Interstate 75 runs across the belly of Ohio like a cesarean scar. I count the churches to pass the miles. Cincinnati smells like spoiled yogurt. I know I’m fifteen minutes out of the city when I begin to smell the factories.

I think of the bottom of Ohio and I think of these rusted-out factories, the Reds and the brown and black-skinned communities. The Cincinnati in my memory is red brown, like a riverbed. Like a heavy menstruation. Cincinnati: industrial boom, postindustrial mess. Abandoned. I drive through the black neighborhoods, past pawnshops, liquor stores, chicken joints. Where every other building is bricked or boarded up, I feel we are condemned tobodies of barbed wire. Where every other doorway is a black eye and there are spring-popping couches on every front lawn, I imagine unattended babies in diapers crawling down sidewalks through shards of broken glass. Yes, this is an exaggeration. A re-creation of fear. Yes, I am afraid of this city. I drive down Martin Luther King Boulevard and I try not to stare.

There are nice parts of Cincinnati. By “nice” I mean affluent, white. Rick and I live just outside the “nice” neighborhood. Rick has an internship at the Vontz Center for Molecular Studies. He goes to work every day in a climate-controlled laboratory. I stay home and play bored housewife. I clean the apartment and watch daytime TV. Jerry Springer and Judge Judy. I take pleasure in the social science of predicting the verdict, sensing which way America’s morality will sway. Some days I walk to the dollar store for cleaning supplies, or to Speedy’s for a pint of ice cream to share with Rick when he gets off work. I sit in the apartment and listen to the cars drive by, bass rattling my living room. I stand in front of the refrigerator with the door open and bathe in its cool drafts. The summer is rotten hot. I gain weight. I practice yoga on a bath towel in the living room. I spend most of my time waiting for Rick to get off work.

Rick and I are always arguing about how disgusted he is with the city. He says things like Why do people live like this? and Why don’t these people clean up their own neighborhoods? I get mad and say things like This city is an aftereffect of its socio-economic history and This city is a study of disenfranchised peoples struggling to maintain and define their sense of racial identity and solidarity. Rick says, Don’t give me that bullshit. You feel sorry for people and You think of everyone as a victim, you don’t hold anyone accountable for their own actions. I snap back Rick, you’re a real asshole and make him sleep on the couch.

The truth was, Rick was right: I did feel sorry for people. To me, Cincinnati was about the saddest place on Earth, next to Covington, Kentucky. Two cities huddled back to back, the Ohio River sewn between them. The Black City and the White City: two gears rusted to a stop. Covington was the kind of city where you saw a lot of Confederate flags and abortion clinics and beware of dog signs. I did feel sorry, and I was afraid.

I had a job that summer at a rape crisis center in Covington. I worked nights on call as a hospital advocate. When a victim of rape, sexual assault, or domestic violence checked into the emergency room, the attending nurse called the crisis center and the operator dispatched an advocate, who then met the woman at the hospital in order to provide short-term crisis counseling. This period of my life was marked by the sound of the phone ringing in the middle of the night. As a hospital advocate, I learned to sleep on alert, because on any given night, at any given time, the phone might ring. When the phone rang, that meant a woman had just been raped or beaten to hell or in some other way violated. It was my job to respond. I learned to expect the phone to ring in the middle of the night. I learned to expect it. Crisis. Pause. Crisis. Pause.

I go through the motions of the work. The phone rings. I answer the call and write down the details. I throw on a pair of jeans, grab the car keys and slip out the front door into the milky summer night. I sink into the charcoal interior of Rick’s car, roll the windows down and turn the stereo up. I drive smoothly on the freeway, over the bridge across the Ohio River into Kentucky and the acute white light of the emergency room, a timeless space of crisis and crisis management. An iodine-eyed nurse leads me to the patient’s room.

Nine out of ten times the woman is drunk. She may or may not look beaten up. She may or may not be sick, crying, disoriented. The “victim” (as she is called until the indeterminate point when she becomes the “survivor”) is always grateful to see an advocate. The advocate informs the victim of her rights. Her right to a medical examination, her right to press charges, her right to shelter after being released. Rape crisis counselors are taught a protocol. You are taught what to expect and how to respond. But you can never know what to expect. You hear horrific stories. Not the usual “boyfriend got drunk and beat the shit out of his old lady” stories, but shit you never think of happening. It happens every night. Two or three or four times a night. In every city, in every state in the U.S., and all over the world.

***


Leroy’s didn’t take itself too seriously, and I liked that. The management told me that they’d hire anybody—for a while they’d even had a midget working there, and she’d done really well. I liked Leroy’s because I could come and go as I wanted. I could make money the way that I wanted to. I’d sit at the stage and watch the long-haired girls dance to rock ballads and country songs. Girls that worked at Leroy’s were tough girls with dirty mouths, pretty girls with souped-up cars. These were girls who changed their own oil and knew clever ways to do shots. I liked Leroy’s because I didn’t have to wash my hair for work. I’d go in greasy headed and still make two or three hundred bucks in a four-hour shift.

Leroy’s had a steady clientele of truckers and traveling salesmen and small-town boys. The soft-bellied teenage boys would come in and order a bucket of beers and sit down right at the stage. I’d go up to them, and they’d tell me how they’d just cashed their checks. They’d buy dance after dance and then sit me down and talk on and on about their cars, tell me about their ex-girlfriends, tell me that they liked my little titties. They’d ask me for my number, ask if they could take me out sometime for dinner or maybe to a movie, quickly bore of this, and ask for more dances. They were all so impatient.

The older men didn’t want dates, or even dances, for that matter. They’d pay me just to talk to them, though I’d rather have been dancing. They’d offer me a Pall Mall and ask to buy me a drink. They’d order themselves something on the rocks and ask me how old I was and did I have a boyfriend. As a general rule a stripper never admits to having a boyfriend. I’d say no, and they’d say, yeah right and chuckle, Pretty girl like you, you must have lots of boyfriends. Work often enough and you start getting regulars. Work often enough and they’re all the same. The eager-eyed boys and the sad old men. The talking and the stripping. By now I was learning, work anywhere in the world and stripping is stripping is stripping.

***


Helpful phrases for working with sexual assault survivors:

I am sorry that this happened to you.

You have gone through a lot.

I think you are very brave to tell me about the rape.

I am glad that you are telling me. This way I can help you.

How can I help you right now?

Is there something in particular that would be helpful to you right now?

People do heal from sexual assault. It won’t always feel this bad.

The rape was not your fault.

You did not deserve to be raped, even if you _____ [were drinking, had sex with him before, trusted him, etc.].

You have the right to feel that way.

You sound really overwhelmed right now. Try taking a deep breath.

Most people who have experienced this would feel that way too.

It is natural for you to feel _____.

You are having a normal response to an abnormal situation.

Some of these statements are untrue. The last one is the biggest lie of all. There is nothing abnormal about a situation that, according to the National Center for Victims of Crime and the National Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center, occurs once every ninety seconds, 683,000 times a year, to one in eight women. And that’s only counting the women that are willing to talk about it.

***


They always asked me how old I was. I was nineteen.

She is sitting on a gurney, naked under a hospital gown. She wants a cigarette. I get permission from the nurse and we step through sliding glass doors into the parking lot. I offer her a Camel from the stale pack I keep in my glove compartment. She wants to touch me; she wants to be held. Her shape is articulated under the transparent gown: U of belly, S of breast. She begins to tell her story. Soon she is crying, shaking, choking, her nose is running. She leans closer; she smells of vodka and perfume. You never offer a client a Kleenex. You learn this in training. To do so would send the victim the wrong message—like you’re telling her to clean herself up. You let her cry. She says things like Honey, you’re so young and You got a boyfriend? He treat you right? You let her talk. You do all that you can do, and then you wish her good luck. You drive home, you write up a report and crawl back into bed.

The next day it can feel as if it never happened.

I sleep in. I wake up and it’s sunny mid-morning. Rick’s already gone to work, the bed is empty and the sheets are cool. Someone’s mowing the lawn a couple houses down. The curtains stir, behind them the window is open. I can smell the cut grass and hear the buzzing of the lawn mower and the sound of a neighbor’s TV muffled through the walls.

***


“You’re new, right?”

“Yeah,” I say. “I mean, I’ve danced before. Just not here.”

“My name’s Harley.” She extends her hand. “This place is a dump. Gotta hustle if you wanna make money. I’m lucky I’ve got a couple regulars. Like this one guy comes in every Monday. Pays my car insurance. He’s a sweet guy, actually. Kind of sad. He hath a lithp.” She makes a face. “He gave me this ring. Thought it was a piece of shit costume jewelry. Looks fake, right? Had it appraised at the mall. That’s a fucking diamond! Anyway,” she shrugs, “it’s not like I can wear it out. My old man would kick the shit out of me if he caught me with something like this. So I wear it here, especially on Mondays.”

Harley’s got a southern Ohio accent, ginger-colored hair, and the worst kind of tit job—hard and swollen looking, like two grapefruit halves sewn in under her skin, a gruesome scar around each nipple. She lights up a cigarette and asks me my name.

“Melissa? That’s a good one. I used to go by Marissa. Don’t know why, but the black guys liked that. We used to have a Melinda working here, but she quit when she got married. Nice girl. Not a lot of girls here got ‘M’ names. Lots of girls here named after cars. Like me, I’m Harley.” She pauses. “Well, I guess that’s not a car. But there’s Lex, and there’s a Mercedes that works nights. She’s got a ‘M’ name. Lots of girls named after precious and semi-precious stones. Like that black girl—the real tall one—her name’s Diamond, there’s a girl that works weekends named Sapphire, and we used to have a girl named Ruby. Then there’s Goldie. But I guess that one don’t count either.”

Harley shows me around the club. Leroy’s isn’t nice enough to employ a housemother, so Harley has made it her unofficial job. She works all the time. “Every fucking shift,” she says and laughs. “Fucking pathetic, right? I ain’t got no life. I come in on my days off and George—you know George? Not the gray-haired bouncer, but the other guy—he buys me fuzzy nipples even though I tell him I can’t stand that sweet shit. Oh fuck, I think they’re calling my name!”

It’s Harley’s turn on stage. I learn that Harley likes to dance to ZZ Top. Everyone knows she’s coming up next when we hear the engines rev. Harley saunters across the stage like a lusty cat. She approaches the pole with a crooked smile. As if sneaking up on it, she pounces, digging her heels into the stage and flipping upside down with all the strength in her long arms. When Harley’s on stage, she gets this dizzy, sexy look in her eyes. You can tell she really enjoys it.

Looks like she’s fuckin’ that pole, the truck driver sitting next to me mutters to himself, eyes on Harley.

She looks good. Better than good. On stage even her bad tit job looks good. When Harley’s on stage, Harley is at her best.

Leroy’s wasn’t too big on rules. Technically, a private dance at Leroy’s cost $20 a song. But if it was a slow shift, a girl could offer a deal. Buy one dance, get the second free. Or one could offer special services. I used to walk around Leroy’s and sell a flash for a buck. No man could refuse a flash for a dollar. Even if he didn’t want it, which I assume most didn’t, he didn’t want to come off looking cheap.

To make the big bucks, you’d offer special services in the private booth. Guys were into different things. Many, of course, wanted to touch. Where and how depended on the customer. The breast, the ass, the pussy, run hands through hair, touch your face. Sit on his lap. Face, crotch, hair, knee, finger, foot. It became a game to figure out what he was into, often before even he’d figured it out, and offer it. At a price. The more creative you were, and the more that you were willing to do, the more money you would make. I was becoming more creative, and more willing. Ass, knee, breast, caress. Do you like that? Of course you do.

What’s a pretty girl like you doing in a place like this?

I’m just here to make a little money.

I’m just here to have some fun.

Mama needs a new pair of shoes.

Will you take care of me?

Tell me where it hurts.

Tell me what you need.

Tell me the scary things.

I can make it go away.

Twenty bucks.

Two for one.

Double or nothing.

You’re my friend, right?

You’ll come with me to the booth, then.

You’ll tell me your fears.

Your fantasies.

Tell me: what do you know about pain?

I’ll make you cum in your pants.

I’m wet for you.

You dirty whore.

See, we’re just the same.

Can I see you again?

Of course, my love, I’m always here for you.

You can do this work and make money. You don’t tell them where you’re from. You never tell them anything about yourself. Most girls don’t even use their real names. You say you’re a student, whether or not this is true. It usually doesn’t matter, most people just want to talk about themselves. You don’t ask them too much about themselves, unless you think that’s what they want, and then you ask open-ended questions. Is that so? Tell me about that… You listen to stories that may or may not be true. It doesn’t matter either way.

I don’t tell Rick I’m stripping. I tell myself that it doesn’t affect me. It’s something that I do— like an experiment, a social study—versus something that I am. Besides I’m not going to be doing it forever. I’m just having fun, making a little money. It’s not me, and so it shouldn’t matter to him. He doesn’t need to know.

This was my life. Working nights in the artificial day. Working days in the artificial night. Coming home from work in the afternoon and smelling like the club. Showering before Rick got home from his job at the lab. Greeting him at the door. Making dinner, going to bed. The phone ringing in the middle of the night. Listening to women tell me stories of their brutalization. Coming home from the hospital and crawling back to bed.

Crisis. Pause. Crisis. Pause.

***


Once a month every advocate works an overnight shift at the shelter. I am looking forward to my shift that night, washing the dishes just after dinner. I like to wash the dishes— the hot water on my hands, the smell of the soap, the sense of completion, a job well done. Over dinner I sometimes tell Rick about the women and children I meet in the shelter. They are like characters to me. Their stories are becoming my stories. Today he asks, “Can I come visit you at work?”

“I don’t think they’d let you in.”

“Why not?” he says, “I’m not a molester.”

“They’re not molested women, Rick. They’re victims of domestic violence.”

“You’re not an abused woman,” he says, “Why do they let you in?”

“Is domestic violence funny to you?”

“You have no sense of humor.”

He’s right. I have no sense of humor. Something’s changing in me, I think. I shove these feelings away. I lean into him coyly and ask, “Do you love my body?”

“Of course I love your body.”

“Do you think I’m sexy?”

“I think it’s sexy the way you do the dishes.”

“Rick. I’m being serious.”

“Of course I think you’re sexy, what kind of question is that?”

“You never say it.”

“Do I have to?”

Yes. Yes, I want to hear it. I hear it from every man but you. Why? What’s wrong with you? What is different about you? Rick isn’t a man, I sometimes think. He’s different. Exempt. We have been in a relationship since high school. Rick met my father, that’s how long Rick’s been in my life. I used to think how sad it was that Rick would be the only man I’d ever date that would have met my father. He’ll be the only man to ever know me that well.

My father lives somewhere in Kentucky. This is true. Somewhere off in all that blue, Kentucky continues in every direction of my imagination. Beyond Covington, I imagine the honky-tonk hills turn into pastures of rolling blue grass, just like they say. I imagine this ugly red city Cincinnati dissipates into a literal blue. Blue ribbons and spearmint skies and slow-talking Southerners with paddocks full of fine-legged, julep-colored Thoroughbreds. I have this picture. When I think of my father now, I think of how he was when I was a little girl, back when he was still racing horses. This image of my father smells like those horses. I remember the scientific smell of mud and fly spray. The smell of leather and polish, and the religiosity with which my father attended to his duties of feeding and mucking and training and racing. He loved his horses.

Some mornings I’d wake up before dawn to follow him to the track. I’d stand in the cold at the rail and watch the horses train, steam lifting off their glossy, lathered coats. I got older and my father quit horseracing. He became a salesman. I don’t know what he sold. I don’t think of this. If I did, I’d see the sad old man in an ill-fitting suit that he became, disenchanted with life. Burdened by his wife and kids. I think instead of an image I have of myself, a little girl with my daddy at the racetrack, mesmerized by the ponies with their sexy names—Triple Lex, Strike It Bitch, Camelot Trot, Dream Come True.

The bell rings and they’re off, a thousand hooves multiplied by a million times the sound of the gallop, mud and whips, the jockeys’ cry, the neck-and-neck, the finish line, the finish, the flash, the winner in the winner’s circle, and the losers, losing, lost— the losing vouchers raining down like a ticker tape parade.

***


“Fall off your bike, Harley?”

We are all in the dressing room before our shift and Harley has just taken off a long-sleeved T-shirt to reveal bruises—what look like handprints—wrapped around both of her arms.

“Yeah, right,” she laughs awkwardly. “You should see the bike. I’ll fucking kill him if he pulls this shit again. Fuck. I ain’t gonna make any money today looking like a fucking crack whore.”

Harley starts yelling that someone’s stolen one of her dresses—the red one with the zipper up the fucking front and she’s going to search every fucking bag in the goddamn room until she fucking finds it. Fucking this, fucking that. She’s talking to her one friend, calling the rest of us skanks, dirty cunts, whores. "This place is fucking trash,”she says. “Used to be you could leave your shit in here without it getting stolen. Now we got a bunch of fucking thieves working here.

“Fucking whores, too,” Harley adds, and looks directly at me. “Think they can get away with whoring in the booths. My regulars tell me what’s going on, they tell me which girls is the skanks.”

“Can’t make no money around here when you’re competing with whores,” Harley’s friend laments.

“George—shit, even Leroy—they see what’s going on. And they don’t do shit. Shit, If they ain’t gonna do anything about it, well then I’m going to fucking do something about it.”

Harley finds the red dress she’d been looking for buried at the bottom of her bag. After she’d changed, her friend helped her cover up the bruises with concealer. The girl does a good job; when she’s done, Harley’s back to normal.

***


The overnight shift at the shelter starts just after dinnertime. The house still smells of warm food and the women are clearing the table; there is the clinking of plates and silverware and dishwashing in the sink. The children, fed and happy, chase each other around the living room. When they see me come in, they topple over one another to get close. There is the rule in the shelter that I am not allowed to initiate a hug and they must first ask permission before hugging me. I give everyone permission to hug me and I’m immediately wrapped up in sticky little hands. Spaghetti-stained faces vie for my attention. They become a garden of children, growing over each other for hugs. This one shows me her scraped-up knee, and that one tells me about the stick bug he found in the courtyard that afternoon. I say Can you draw a picture of that for me and Now, that looks like it hurt! and Honey, go have your mommy wipe your nose and Did everybody get enough to eat? All the little voices chirp Yeah! and lisp Yeth! and some of them stick out their belly buttons and rub their tummies just before they all run off in opposite directions to get their crayons or help clean up their plates or have their noses wiped.

My favorite is a little girl named Jazzy. Skinny and black as a little ant, her head is covered in tight braids, each fastened at the end with a brightly- colored plastic barrette. Whenever I come to the shelter, Jazzy stops me at the door to show me her dance moves. The hair clips click click click with every shake of her head. Today Jazzy proudly demonstrates a dance she calls the Tick. She puts her hands to her hips and gyrates back and forth and left and right in a staccato-style belly dance. Jazzy’s mom calls from the dining room, Jazzy, you best go brush your teeth and settle down for bed and, You hungry, Miss Melissa? We made fish tacos, and there’s two left if you want them.

In shelter there is always enough to eat. There’s always enough hot water for bubble baths and teeth brushing. There are always clean pajamas and extra blankets and books to read and stuffed animals in all sizes and conditions. Everyone shares. When the kids are in bed, the moms have what we call community, a peer-led therapy during which the women talk about their experiences as victims, as survivors, as women. These women can cry if they want to, and many do, and no one hands anyone a Kleenex. Everyone’s in bed and asleep by ten—except, of course, for the advocate. You don’t sleep. This is what it’s like at the shelter. Just like normal. Better than normal, I’d sometimes think.

At ten minutes before every hour, starting at ten to midnight, the advocate performs a security check. It is your responsibility to see that every door is locked, every window shut, every alarm enabled. Night shift answers the twenty-four-hour hotline. You get all kinds of calls in the middle of the night. Lots of suicides. Lots of lonely, misinformed people. Women with questions like, If I’m pregnant and I swallow a bottle of aspirin, will that take care of it? They beg Please you gotta help me, please. Cases like that, you explain to the caller that no, aspirin won’t terminate a pregnancy. You give her the number for poison control. You refer. You always wish the caller good luck before hanging up. You hang up and make a notation in a log. You write down the time of the call, the type of call, and the referral, if any.

Sometimes you’ll get a male caller that claims to be a rapist, and you’ll have to talk to him, too, just like you’d talk to the victim. The protocol is talk to him as long as necessary to prevent him from “acting out,” unless you think he’s jacking off, in which case the protocol is to hang up. You handle every call at your discretion. If you have to use the bathroom, you put the hotline on hold. If you get hungry, there’s leftovers in the fridge and a food pantry in the basement with crackers and cereal and dented cans of fruit. Sometimes one of the kids will wet the bed in the middle of the night, and then it’s your job to tell them that it’s okay, and to find clean sheets in the linen closet.

An overnight shifts ends just after breakfast. The women are putting away the cereal, the juice, finishing their coffee, wiping up babies and high chairs, while the older children play in the sandbox in the shelter’s courtyard. A pair of black crows circle and land in the courtyard, and the bigger kids are tossing Cheerios at them. This particular day Jazzy is wearing a yellow sundress. She’s doing a little dance to a song in her head, pulling up her dress to expose her underpants to me, pulling it back down and giggling like crazy. Jazzy, I’m gonna tan yer black ass if you don’t cut that mess out her mom calls from the kitchen.

I remember this moment and moments like this when I think of the shelter. I think of the shelter as it is meant to be; I think of it as a safe space. A space where I felt not just welcome, but where my presence was necessary, and where my being there was enough.

***


Not every night, but some nights, some nights you get two or three or sometimes four calls in one night. Nights like that you can never get back asleep. I stopped trying. After the fourth or fifth call I’d resign myself to sleeplessness, joining the half-awake world that occupied the streets at 4 a.m. I’d drive to downtown Covington, with its main drag populated by a string of go-go bars. These places had a real appeal for me, the sleazier the better. Just their names made my skin jump: Pokey’s. The Sly Fox. The Den. Jim’s Palace. Windows painted black and winking neon signs promising live, beautiful girls go-going XXX twenty-four hours a day. Outside the bars hookers prowled for johns, drunks pissed on doorsteps and in alleyways, black men in leather coats tried to sell me dope at the traffic lights. Inside those seedy little bars, who knew what was going on.

I’d cruise by slowly in Rick’s Pontiac. I lingered at stop signs. I felt as if I was wide awake in a dreamlike state. But this is not a dream—or a nightmare, I’d think, this exists. Even as the world was sleeping, or denying, this was still existing. I studied the spectacle. During these moments I felt in the middle. I was neither inside nor outside of the scene. I had no effect on it; it had no effect on me. I cruised through, occupying the space between.

Let me tell you where it hurts.

 

Melissa Petro is pursuing an MFA at The New School and writing a memoir about her experiences in the sex industry. She is published in Research on Sex Work and recently presented at Sex Work Matters: Beyond Divides, a conference for scholars, activists and analysts involved in issues surrounding sex work.

 

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