Why, by Toby Leah Bochan
Because when I was little, my mother paraded around the house naked. I could too until I reached a certain age, until it didn’t seem right for my father to see me naked. I never in my life saw my father fully naked. That was my childhood. Mother dressing and undressing, father in a suit. So this place seems like the natural order of things.
Because I wanted to get over my modesty. Because I’m an exhibitionist. Because I’m an actress. Because I love to dance. Because I’m not talented. I was bad at ballet, tap, modern, jazz. There weren’t many options left.
Because my boyfriend wanted me to. This boy was prettier than me — slight and pale with thick straight black hair and very blue eyes. The eyes were really what did it. Grey blue surrounded by thick black long eyelashes, sharp at the corners and wide in the middle, like some kind of boat. Dazzling.
He whispered, “Do you think you could ever do that?” while we were watching Striptease. In the dark of the movie theater, I couldn’t tell if he thought I could or not.
I said, “I’ve never even been to a strip club.”
So he took me to one. I wanted to see what it was really like. Because it seemed like fun.
Because I needed a part-time job. Because I needed a summer job. Because it was summer and I’d be shaving my legs everyday anyway.
Some guy once asked me if I shaved everything. I said I kept a little bit. He said, “A Landing Strip.” I liked that — that’s how I always think of it now. Right here, right this way, boys! Fasten your seat belts and prepare for take off! There’s even a club called that, but until then I thought it was because the place was close to the airport, and the whole joke was the word ‘strip.’ It’s not as if I was raised to be a porn star or something. Just because I’m a dancer now doesn’t mean I was born with some kind of innate ability to understand that a man giving you a ‘pearl necklace’ isn’t necessarily going to give you a piece of jewelry. But then again, now sometimes he does.
Because of the money.
Because I lost twenty pounds and I wanted to show off. I’m a show-off. I need a lot of attention. I was an only, lonely child.
Because I was raised without religion and I’ve modeled my whole life on the question: What Would Madonna Do? I mean Madonna the singer, of course. I’m going to get bracelets made.
Because the boy dared me to do it. The boy was the first one to take me to a strip club — that was a dare too — we went to this all-nude strip club. I wasn’t twenty-one, but the place didn’t serve alcohol so you only had to be eighteen to go there. And male. They only let female customers in with a male escort. This is true almost everywhere. The excuse they give you is that they don’t want prostitutes soliciting in the club. But the reason is it’s a boy’s club. The boys want the girls to stay out, so they can have their dirty, mudpie fun.
Because I don’t like to be kept out of places. Because I was a thousand miles away from my family and they would never find out. Because out-of-state tuition was so high.
My first time out I was high as a kite. The boy wasn’t, so he drove. I was going to be in an amateur night. Before the amateurs they were having some kind of competition called the “pole-lympics.” The boy laughed when a girl would do something particularly impressive, sliding upside down the entire length of the pole or swinging around by her knees. He had a loud, high laugh. I told him to go give a dollar to his favorite girl. I gave him the dollar.
He chose this curly-haired, Shirley Temple type, Angel. Angel came by our table and gave the boy and me both a kiss on the cheek. She giggled.
“You dance?” Angel asked.
The boy told her I was there for amateur night. She wished me luck and squeezed my shoulder. I felt the tips of her acrylic nails on my skin.
“I’ve only been dancing three weeks and if I can do it, you can.”
Angel got second place, three hundred bucks.
Did I mention the money? Because the money’s important. I thought it would be entirely under the table, but it’s not — of course, no one ever declares all their tips in any service job.
I had to fill out forms, even at amateur night. The manager checked my driver’s license as the boy went to find us a table. He photocopied my license and handed me a piece of paper to sign, swearing I’d never been arrested for prostitution or drugs and another form, for tax purposes.
“We gotta report if you make money, honey,” the manager told me.
There would be a record of this, I realized. I never planned on working in politics anyway. I signed my name. I was going to dance by Jezebel but it was taken. I put down Rose — the perfume I was wearing that night.
Because I was failing biology and wanted to be good at something that had to do with the body. Because I had a great body. I wanted to see what I was worth.
This is how it went: After they had crowned their pole queen, the manager told me I could go and get ready. But I was already ready. I hadn’t known if I’d get a chance to change or anything. How would I know? Striptease wasn’t exactly realistic. I came in all tarted up — I just had to take off my sweater and put on heels. But I went backstage. It seemed like the thing to do.
I talked to the only other girl who was really an amateur, Cocoa. She had rich dark skin and long thin braids which swayed as she talked. Cocoa was the perfect name for her. I started thinking Rose was a stupid choice for me.
“Don’t worry,” she said to me. “The guys like the real amateurs, that’s why they come.”
Even Cocoa had done amateur night two or three times before. One of the regular dancers there was shaving in front of the mirror with a cordless electric razor. She was very thin and beautiful, like a lingerie model in a fancy catalogue. Most of the girls at that club were. But it was the only strip club I’d ever been to, so I didn’t know there were other kinds of places.
Because I wanted to know. Because there were things I already knew. I was a good flirt. I had a good smile. Because I liked to get done up — to put on my face. I liked the idea of having something to get fancy for every night. If it couldn’t be Christmas everyday, it could be Halloween.
I sat in front of the mirror and put on more lipstick, to look busy. I adjusted my body in the black bustier. The bustier was tight and my breasts quivered, white and pale, from the top. I felt fat. My high heels were too short — only a few inches in a club filled with heels as long and sharp as steak knives. I was afraid of falling anyway, in my short heels. I wasn’t going to swing on the poles. In between songs, the DJ sang the praises of one girl after another, what Joy could do, Leah’s long legs, Desire’s dark beauty. Naked and totally exposed. I was really nervous.
The boy was sitting out there in the audience, watching the other girls and waiting for me. And so were other men, strangers. But they didn’t worry me as much, somehow, even then. They were strangers I would never see again, that didn’t know me from Eve, that never would.
Because I loved the boy. Because I wanted to be the best he ever had. I wanted to be incomparable. I wanted to do things with him that no one would ever do again.
The regular dancers barged in and out of the dressing room, seeming very loud and sure and crazy to me. The girl shaving with the electric razor kept saying things like, “I had to come back and trim my bush,” to the other girls. I tried not to stare, as she lifted her leg to shave her labia, it seemed rude to stare, even though the whole reason she was shaving was because she expected people — men — to stare all night. I had no idea what I would say to this girl if I wanted to start a conversation. She seemed about as different as anyone could possibly be. At the same time, I knew she wasn’t that different at all. There was something about her I admired.
Because there’s something about being the focus of attention. Because I watched myself dance and I was good at it, at this type of dancing. Because I wanted to be a girl who was full of surprises. Because I wanted to be a girl who could do anything. Would do anything.
When it was my turn to go on stage, I was shaking. My first song was “Erotica,” by Madonna. I couldn’t look at anyone. I tried to remember how it had been in my room, watching myself in the closet door mirror. The whole stage was surrounded by mirrors but I didn’t want to look at myself in them. The manager had told me to take off my clothes on stage during the first song, except for my thong which I saved, he said, for song two. I stretched my hand up and threw my bustier aside. I unzipped the skirt and kicked it off.
That was a mistake — I slipped. My legs were unsteady. I started to fall down, but half-managed to make it look like I was trying to do some kind of back bend. The guys were all quiet, watching me. I almost lost it. The beautiful boy let out a long whistle. I knew it was his, the way I knew his laugh or his gait from a mile away.
Because I loved the boy. Because the boy loved me.
The second song began, “When Doves Cry.” I had been practicing to that song since the first time the boy had brought me to the strip club. Because the truth of the matter is, I wanted to do it. I was glad the boy had dared me. From the audience, it looked like a sexy, beautiful world. It sounds silly now, but it did.
Because I wanted to be that woman: that flesh in the sunlight that made a man’s heart rush down. Didn’t every woman want that? I thought so then. Object of desire. Eternal, lusty desire. I wanted to drive in a car with a man’s hand between my legs. I wanted to pull over down a side road. Ten feet away at a party, I wanted the way my dress shifted to call his cock to attention. There was a time when that seemed like a good goal to have, something to achieve.
Touch if you will my stomach, Prince sang. I opened my eyes. I took off my black thong. In the mirrors, I saw myself from unfamiliar angles, dancing, bending. There was my nape, my hair brushing the floor. In the reflection, I looked for the boy. He was staring at me with his blue, blue eyes, smiling. I reached for a pole and leaned back, watching myself. I thought, le arch de triumph.
Because later, we sat in Denny’s and the boy said, “You should have won,” even though we both knew it wasn’t true. “You were amazing. Did you practice?”
“Well–” I said, looking into my coffee, “a little.”
“You’re a natural,” the boy told me. And I saw that it didn’t matter if it was true or not. He believed it. “You’re every guy’s fantasy come true,” he said, and I saw that he believed that too.
“But I only care about yours,” I said, and that was true too, but less so than it had been before, hours before.
Because you came in looking one way and you changed into something else, and as simple as that sounds, it’s also true.