By Antonia Crane
“The women station themselves by the sides of the roads that traverse the undergrowth, weapons at the ready, killing all those that pass.” —Monique Wittig, Les Guerilleres
The women who strip at The Bruiser* travel from Florida, Denver, Mexico, Alabama, Georgia, and Philly because they heard there’s money in the clubs in New Orleans—but they’re too late, the money’s dried up. The Katrina money’s spent and the oil spill is yesterday’s bad dream. New Orleans, the final frontier and last surviving American economy, is hobbling on her sprained ankles. The women struggle. They say they make in five nights what they used to make in three.
Downstairs, on the floor, the room is cold, so smoky it’s like dancing in a chimney. The women’s knees have blue walnut-sized bruises from the marble stage. We wear dresses that aren’t actually dresses. We whisper into ears. We shiver, rattle our beaded glitter bracelets, begging for a $20 yes that leads to a $60 yes. My neck’s out and I’ve nursed two migraines in four days. My thighs burn as I walk across the floor.
The women move like erratic heartbeats, fast and then slow. We swing our hips to dance music and bend over like trees in a hurricane. We belly-flop onto the stage while lights press down on our skin. We climb over men like spiders and we hide our worry.
The women miss their mothers. What fathers? The women are hungry.
“I’m six weeks pregnant,” the woman from Georgia says while smoking a cigarette. She giggles and touches her shiny turquoise belly, to smooth the fabric creased there. “They’re going to fire me,” she says.
“No they won’t,” I say. The woman from Philly walks by.
“The manager said I need to lose weight,” she says. Her forehead crinkles.
“Unless they say you can’t work, you’re fine,” I say. I have an impulse to pet her and feed her chocolate-dipped strawberries. I want her thighs to stay thick, her mouth to stay plush. Thin women aren’t sexy to me. They look small, brittle, and hard like Adderall. They smoke cigarettes and don’t have an innocent ass that jiggles. They’re all sharp angles and tight grins. I’m a wake-up-I’m-a-fat-stripper girl.
The women are in a mostly empty club. They slither between chairs and perch on sets of knees. They say they have lower back pain. The women say, “It sucks. It’s slow. It’s dead.” Philly’s skin is the color of biscuits.
The women frown. “One more dance, then, I’m gone,” they say. They lean against the bar, the women, their buttery skin bulging through fishnets and lace. Their cheeks fat with bubblegum and their purses empty.
The men who come to The Bruiser are from Chicago, Connecticut, Norway, Minneapolis, Montreal, and Florida. They come to strip clubs knowing they’re moving towards death. They’re grasping at life, grabbing at beauty and dancing with it. The intimacy of sorrow forbids a person from fully merging with another. The man in white pants sips a Michelob.
“Tell me something about why you’re here,” I say. When he was thirteen, he was hit by a drunk driver and pronounced dead. A priest began to attend to him and he said, according to his parents, “Get away from me, I’m not dying.” Five hundred stitches later and a rebuilt hip, he’s like new.
“Don’t be afraid to fail. If you don’t fail, you’ll never know what it is to reach your potential,” he says.
“Let’s have a profound dance,” I say.
I consider failure, how easily I feel crushed when literary agents reject me, while at the Bruiser I shrug off rejection and keep moving. I circle my hips and remove my bra and commit to failing. I notice the scars on his face, delicate gossamer strings over the surface and a crooked eyebrow.
“Americans have forgotten how to dream,” he says, eyes closed. He hands me sixty bucks.
“Go out there and fail,” he says.
I walk over to a very drunk fat man who’s yelling something. He tips Philly on stage and waves his arms around wildly. “Do you want to sit down with me here?” I ask. I want to sooth him, sober him and take him to AA. He smells like puke. His shirt is wet. I hear him say, “Touch me like you know me.” He collapses in a chair and reaches out his hand to me. It is also wet but I hold it anyway.
He reaches in his wallet for sixty bucks. I take the money and lead him to the couch for our dance. His pants are wet. We are both failing together—me, in a job I’ve failed to leave, and the puke guy for failing himself. We are all failing tonight, I think, the men and the women. And the drunk guy says, “Touch me like you know me,” like he’s rehearsing the line until he gets it right.
* A pseudonym