I sit in the bathtub and stare at the burgeoning bruises on my knees and shins while the water slowly rises. Another month, maybe two, and I’ll have enough set aside to let me quit dancing for good, find a desk job with an HR department and health benefits. Something long-term, with fewer job-related health and safety risks.
Four weeks. Twelve shifts. I can do this.
My husband, Joe, comes in and hands me a cup of tea before sitting down next to me on the floor.
“Tough day, huh?” he asks.
I nod and take a sip. This is part of our ritual.
“Tell me about it,” he offers.
I think about where to start. With the seven guys in a row who refused to tip or buy a dance because they’re “just here to watch the game, honey.” Or maybe with the knock-down-drag-out fight that started in the dressing room and ended with one girl fired and another girl in the hospital? Maybe it would be best to start with the guy who said he wanted a dance but only if it involved a blowjob, but didn’t mention that part until I was already in the back with him.
It all comes out at once, in a rush, yet somehow, he understands. He always does.
“I’m so proud of you,” he says, once the flow has stemmed and my tea is gone. “You work so hard.”
I smile. He trusts me to tell him the truth about my day; I trust him to tell me I’m not a terrible mother.
It’s all part of our ritual.
We sit in silence for a minute, while I try to soak away my anger and the smell of cigarettes and body spray.
Stripping started out as a dare in college, but the instant cash reeled me in for the long haul. Occasionally, acquaintances would ask me, “What if your husband finds out?” Like I was doing something shameful, something I should have to lie to my spouse about.
“He’s known from day one,” I’d reply honestly.
“And what does he think?”
“About me having a job? He seems fine with it.”
“It just seems disrespectful.”
“What about your husband? What does he think about you being a social worker?” This last bit said in a hushed, scandalized whisper. I was being petty, but I didn’t care.
I didn’t have a lot of close lady friends outside the club.
The fact was, stripping helped get my husband through his degree. It helped us buy two cars (used, but in good condition). It allowed me to work on my writing. It kept us afloat when Joe suddenly lost his own job.
And stripping did more than pay the bills – it made me feel good about myself. I felt strong. I felt sexy. I felt confident, and that extended beyond my body to my personal boundaries, my emotional wellbeing, my willingness to drop people who disrespected me.
Like the man in the Champagne Room who begged, “Come on, baby, nobody needs to know. I’ll pay you, like, $200.”
I smiled and held out my hand. He handed me the money and unzipped his pants at the same time. As soon as I had the cash in my purse, I flipped him off and went home.
* * *
“Your mom called again,” Joe says.
I sink lower in the tub, until only my nose and eyes are above the water line. I can see my daughter’s rubber ducky reflected in the surface, and it makes me so sad.
“About the loan,” I say. She wouldn’t have called otherwise. Friendly chats aren’t really her thing.
“She says she’ll pawn the car if she has to.”
“Our car,” I say, and all the good of the bath, the tea, the entire fucking ritual is destroyed. I’m just as angry as I was 30 minutes ago, only this time, it’s not because of some dude’s entitled attitude.
“I know,” he sighs. “I don’t know what to do, babe.”
The way he says this makes me sit up and really look at him. His hair – his pride and joy – is a thoughtless mess, falling out of its ponytail and straggling down his back. Dark circles rim his eyes, and he’s been biting his fingernails again. Aside from this bullshit, our daughter has been sick, and he’s taken the brunt of the overnight care, since I’m with her all day.
“Let her,” I say.
He frowns at me. “What?”
It’s hard for him to understand, I know, because his parents worked so hard to raise their children in a healthy home.
“Let her pawn the car,” I repeat, pulling the plug. “Let’s see what she does.”
My relationship with my mother could be illustrated with a single word: control.
When I was little, it was control via physical abuse – like the time she grabbed me by the hair and threw me into a wall, because I wouldn’t go to bed.
When I was a teenager, it was control via unnecessary medication, for a mental illness I didn’t have. Three psychiatrists, two involuntary hospital stays, and more antipsychotic pills than you could shake a stick at.
When I became an adult, it was control via money: promises to help with bills suddenly revoked because I upset her, credit cards taken out in my name because she needed it and I “owed her.”
We’d been playing this control game my whole life, but every month I spent working in the club, learning the power of the word “No,” made it easier for me to hold onto my boundaries with her, too.
At least one shift a week, some guy would grab my arm to get my attention. Last week, for example, it was Steven. Steven was the sort of customer who always had more beers in his belly than twenties in his wallet. All the girls avoided him when he came in.
“Scarlett, right?” He grinned at me, in what he probably thought was a sexy way. He seemed so proud of himself for managing to remember my stage name. There were only four dancers that shift.
I nodded, unimpressed.
“How much for a dance?” he asked, tightening his grip.
I raised my eyebrows at his hand, and he let go, muttering something that could have been an apology.
Normally, I’d be more willing to work on the sale. But this guy wouldn’t buy anything. He was a “time-waster.” Someone who came in for the $1.50 beer specials and the chance to harass women without getting called out for it.
“That’s too much,” he complained. “You’re a pretty girl, but I want my money’s worth.”
Oh, you poor sonofabitch, I thought.
I was worth it, and I knew it. Maybe his “negotiations” would have worked back when I was still a Baby Stripper – someone who was still in love with the mystique of the job, who hadn’t yet been burned or assaulted or injured while working the floor. But at six years in, I was a veteran. The grip on my arm, the “negging” suggestion that I was worth less than $20, the pathetic attempts at flirtation…I saw through him like titty paint.
I knew how this game would play out, and I was too fucking tired to deal with it that day. After some cajoling, he would agree to go back to the lap dance area, and then would hem and haw about actually handing over that $20, trying to get me to beg for it. He would insist that, for the price, he should be allowed to put his hands here, his fingers there…
I shrugged. “Sounds like you’re shit outta luck.”
* * *
Six months after our daughter was born, my husband was enjoying his programming job, I was back at the club, we were able to pay all of our bills, plus set aside some small amount each month. We were happy, and stable.
So, when my mother called me late one night, panicking, near bankruptcy, I didn’t hesitate to offer her our older vehicle, still in better condition than her own. The theory was that with a better car, she could travel more for her sales job, and make more money. She accepted it gratefully and that, I thought, was that.
A month later, when I mentioned getting my car back, she brought up the idea of me and Joe taking a loan out. The loan would be in our names, she explained, but she would absolutely make the payments on time. Our credit was better, she reasoned. This time, I hesitated. I’d known deep down that there was no other way this conversation could go, but I’d hoped that, maybe, she’d changed.
I told her I needed to talk to Joe, but I knew our answer would be “No.”
A week later, Joe got a text from my mother: “Is she still stripping? She needs to be careful. Lots of women lose their kids because of shit like that.”
There it was: the escalation in the game. The threat that Joe – with his healthy, normal childhood – could not hear, to have our daughter taken away if we didn’t do what she wanted.
I’d found my line in the sand. And she’d just crossed it.
Still sitting in my empty bathtub, I explain the “control game” to my husband, and the move she’s just made.
He opens his mouth to protest, but I talk over him.
“So the way we win is by calling her bluff. She’s counting on us to be worried about money. She’s counting on us to do what she says, lest there be ‘consequences.’ In this case, since threatening to pawn the car didn’t work, she’s threatening to call CPS, because she thinks that my job will get Kay taken away automatically. She’s trying to make it so that taking out a loan is the lesser of two evils. But things have a way of ‘coming up’ with her when it comes to repaying loans. So we tell her to pawn the car for the money. If she does, then yes, she ‘wins’ by showing us that she’s not afraid of follow-through. But it’s a short-term win, because she is still without a car. If she doesn’t pawn the car, though, then her threats are seen for what they are: a power play in the control game. And that gives us the chance to wash our hands of her. Meanwhile, she’s still without a loan to get herself out of the red.”
“But…what about CPS?” he asks, his voice shaking.
“On what grounds?” I say, waving my hand around the apartment, secure enough to see my mother’s empty threat for what it is. “There’s food in the fridge, we’re not living in a dump, the apartment is clean, Kay is happy, healthy, clothed, and spoiled. They’ll come by, see everything is fine, list the report as false, and that’ll be that. Our next step will be moving and not leaving a forwarding address.”
He lets out a deep breath, which ruffles the hair in front of his eyes. He still won’t look me in the eye. “Are you okay with staying at the club for a few extra months, in case the worst case scenario happens?” he asks, like he’s ashamed of this most obvious question.
I nod. We could get another car. And while my joints are much less forgiving now in my 30s than they ever had been in my 20s, if it meant keeping our daughter clothed, fed, and spoiled, I would keep dancing forever.
He relaxes and begins to make plans and counterplans. I tune out. I’m sore, and exhausted, and I’ve had a long day, dealing with people who think they deserve every inch of me.
Yes, it’s hard and draining, but far from the exploitation-and-misery version of sex work that I’d heard while growing up, stripping gave me the physical, emotional, and financial confidence I needed to walk away from my mother’s games. It taught me to enforce boundaries and recognize power plays, my mother’s go-to methods for getting me in line. And it gave me the edge to finally break that cycle.
And that’s worth any number of bad days at the office.