The following is an excerpt from SPENT, a memoir, which comes out Tuesday on Barnacle Books/Rare Bird Lit.
FROM THE OUTSIDE, Pleasures was larger than it looked on their website. Inside it was a typical shithole titty bar with a stage in the middle of the room, a rusty, slim pole and a pool table with a long bar. The only way to the dressing room was through the kitchen. I held my pink bag to my chest in order to fit through the entryway that was cluttered with pans and white plates. It stuck to my sweaty arms and made a ripping sound when I pulled it free and dropped in on the floor of the dressing room. I peeled off my jeans and checked out my thirty-seven year old flab in the cracked, spotty mirror.
It had been four years since I’d stripped. Four years, and my edges had blurred; my hipbones covered with cellulite. The shock of seeing my flaws under fluorescent lights filled me with embarrassment. I squeezed into one remaining pair of shiny booty shorts like I’d done a thousand times before, but never after such a long hiatus. I’d been busy bulging out while Mom had been shrinking from bile duct cancer. My thick softness betrayed how I felt: sharp, tight and breathless. I faced the mirror next to girls young enough to be my daughters.
I grabbed Lucite shoes from my bag in their scuffed, six-inch glory, which helped with the fat problem. Taller is the optical illusion for thinner. Next came the faded sparkly borrowed pink bikini that smelled like stale bubble gum.
I was not only chubbier than the other two dancers, with their legs like blades of snake grass and slim, pointy ankles. I was older, much older. They were maybe twenty-five but their fake reading glasses, white knee socks and plaid miniskirts screamed teen porn star. They had names that dripped nasty barely legal sex like “Hennessey” and “Bijou.” One had braces. She picked something from them, showing bright green rubber bands that stretched the length of her wet, open mouth. Another girl would look icky doing such a thing. But she looked luscious. I wanted to put my whole hand in her mouth, just to prop it open, peer inside of her. I smeared gloppy pink lipstick over my lips and pressed powder over my face to conceal the dark circles under my eyes. I pressed foundation into the tiny lines along my temples and prepared to dance.
Pleasures reeked of rat shit, Pine Sol and frozen hamburger meat. I walked around the empty room in the darkness, looking for a lap to fall into. It was like I’d never stopped.
Three hundred bucks and I could pack tonight to be with my mom. Leave in the morning. Catch a flight through San Francisco. I introduced myself to a bald guy who called himself Old Joe. He drank neat whiskey and told me he had nothing in his head but marbles. Old Joe introduced me to the guy in a wheelchair.
“This is Tripod.”
“Because he has two long arms and a huge hard on,” Old Joe said. Tripod had polio. I liked him right away because he was cocky and unfazed, determined to enjoy himself. His greasy beer smell came from a bender that had started in Vegas, and that bender was petering out during my first shift at Pleasures.
“Tripod, what’s the situation here?” I asked. “How about a dance?”
“Do whatever you want with me,” he grinned lopsided. I was determined to make a hundred bucks off Tripod.
“Step into my office,” I said and led him to the lap dancing area, a room with gum-stained black couches and red carpet with oil spots.
Dancers writhing in front of their customers gave me looks when Tripod rolled his wheelchair next to them. He did another shot while I waited for the next song to start. I rubbed my chest in his face and imagined being in Humboldt with my mom in the redwoods. I remembered summers spent with just her and I and our books, sun bathing in Willow Creek, leaving only when the shadows grew long and dark. I needed Tripod to hurry so I could get back home because I didn’t know how much time Mom had left.
After Tripod’s hundred and a few other dances, I went to the bathroom where I sat on the toilet to escape the loud music. I counted my cash and decided how much longer I needed to stay at Pleasures. In the stall next to me a girl in plastic heels scuffed the floor, then snorted. “Shit,” she said. The girls got really fucked up at Pleasures. Taped on the bathroom stall door was a Xerox copy of some girl’s driver’s license with a scribbled note that said she died in a drunk driving accident and there would be a memorial. She was twenty-three. I looked closely at her dark eyes and petite nose while I counted bills, but her features were so blurry, she could have been any of us. None of the girls mentioned the dead girl, and they all got hammered and drove away from Pleasures anyway.
I needed about a hundred more. I approached a guy in a Bob Dylan t-shirt who said his name was McKenzie. He swerved standing up and finally settled into the smoking area, where I followed him. “Let’s get out of here,” he said. “I have a place.” I thought of my mom’s soft voice saying, “I’m barely here.” My skin rattled to the beat of the bass. I was anxious to get enough dough to bail and if that meant doing more then to hell with it.
“Let’s discuss it in a dance.” I pulled McKenzie towards the red vinyl couch and he collapsed. He handed me a crumpled twenty.
I spread his knees apart and wriggled between them.
“Tell me about your place,” I said.
“I have keys to a preschool where I’m doing construction,” he said. He slurred his words. He looked like Daniel Day Lewis, but fatter and drunker.
“Where’s the school?” I danced around him. Brushed my hair in his face.
“Just meet me at the ATM across the street,” he said. And then, “I’ll give you three hundred.” I looked around, panicked someone heard us. “It’s in Glendale, a couple miles from here,” he said. I looked at my watch. It was nearly midnight.
“One more dance,” I said. I needed to think about what I was about to do.
“No. I don’t want another dance.” He handed me sixty bucks. “Meet me across the street.” I took the cash.
“Give me fifteen minutes,” I said. I checked out and paid my stage fee. My impulses weren’t familiar anymore, a new desperation had settled into my bones. In my car, I drove slowly across the street into a shopping plaza, where there was indeed a Bank of America ATM. I looked around nervously.
McKenzie smoked a cigarette. He seemed more sober suddenly. He took out the cash. I was right next to him with my hand out. I reached for it. He snapped it away. “After.” Then he said, “Ride with me.”
“No way.” I was not about to crawl into a drunkard’s truck even though I daydreamed about lunging into oncoming traffic so my outsides were mangled like my insides felt, but not before seeing Mom.
“Follow me.” He walked away. I waited in my car until I saw him pass in his white flatbed construction truck and I followed him to Glendale.
We exited onto a quiet suburban street with parked hybrids and Jacaranda blossoms splattered on the ground. I watched him parallel park and step out of the white truck. I parked half a block behind him. He walked to a porch and turned around. Only, this man wasn’t McKenzie. He clenched his fists to his sides and opened his door and slammed it shut. I drove away with my one eighty from Pleasures and laughed until my gut hurt.
The next day, I was applying eyeliner in the dressing room at Pleasures, when my phone rang.
“What now?” I asked Mom.
“I’m back in the hospital,” she said. Her voice was raspy.
“What do we do now?” I asked. Something raged in me.
“Take me home.”