Author’s Note: Some details have been fictionalized for the privacy of all those involved
Parking lots are where we spend some of the most pivotal moments of our lives. Or at least that’s true for me anyway. I took virginities in them in high school. I slept in them between classes in college. And they’re where I’ve done a good amount of life contemplation. Do I actually get out of the car and face whatever sorry collection of individuals that awaits me? Should I throw myself into that core-shattering abruptness of sudden company, armed with nothing but my own uncertain consent? Or do I feel the comfort of the solid plastic as I turn the key backwards towards my escape to a new life?
That’s where I, Marina, found herself awaiting her debut night stripping off Route 50. I had already been parked for about ten minutes, just a few spots down from a mustard yellow semi head. The air was becoming hard, streaked with the scent of the strawberry soy yogurt I had forced myself to choke down. 95.5, D.C.’s greatest hip-hop, had hit its automatic shut off. I was being evicted, but my hands continued to tremble as I mindlessly flipped through world’s hottest elementary school teacher who had been blowing up my Instagram feed. I tried to take solace in the fact that for once in my life, I would actually be dressed appropriately for work. But the anxiety refused to be pacified. On the contrary; it was only hitting hallucinatory levels as the 16 ounces of Red Bull began coursing through my nauseatingly translucent veins.
I locked my phone, closed my eyes, and wished I was nervous for the reasons most girls would be. But I wasn’t. Dollar bills raining down on my naked body. That wasn’t shit. It was the thought of being the new girl, clueless, bad dancer, awkward, bumbling with customers. I flashed back to my single night as a server at a sports bar. I remembered coming home after being berated for my fuckass performance by my manager, who was just unoffended by my presence enough to cop a feel, and gazing in the bathroom mirror. Two bloodshot eyes looked back at me, clearly terrorized from the stress of having to talk to strangers about inanities…or maybe it was the fake lashes I thought I needed to make tips. Even though they carry different stigmas, serving and stripping require pretty similar skill sets. Finesse, the ability to schmooze, and a high tolerance for BS, of which I possess zero.
But, I go out of the car. Driving to a new life yields a better outcome when it’s accompanied with a lump sum.
I entered through the doors boasting Wednesday wing night and Miller Lite into the eternal night, a single girl glowing in a neon bikini on the pole. It was the to-be-expected modest Monday crowd, aka a spattering of dads in polo shirts, nervously clutching their beer bottles. The bouncer was too busy on his phone to pay me much mind, so I went straight to the corner office as I had been directed to during my audition the week before. If nothing else, I didn’t have to worry about rustling any jimmies with the Down patch on my backpack.
From into the darkness to into the light, I found house mother, Nance.
“Hiii,” I sang stupidly. “My name is Jenna…I start tonight? I’m not sure if Don had mentioned me.”
Her eyes lit up.
“Yes, honey. So do you know what days you want to work?” Her creped arms looked like they were about to tear as she reached for her clipboard.
As I stood there dictating my own schedule, I could see the appeal of this life beginning to emerge.
“And have you thought about what name you want to go by?”
“Marina,” I said. “You know, if you don’t already have one.” I clearly still had the haggle in me from my more straight-laced work history where a funeral attendance came at a fucking premium.
Nance scanned her list.
“Nope, no Marina.”
I had intended for it be Marina Star, but I felt like a jackass being so presumptuous.
One of Nance’s male cue-balled minions escorted me to the back dressing room denoted by the hardware store-bought “do not enter” sign on the door.
“Hiiii, Chrissssss,” one stripper cooed as we walked in, her high piled eye and her eyeliner slightly smeared. He pretended like he didn’t hear.
Hot iron sizzles, bag zippers, bitch cackles. Sensory overload. Despite the floor length mirrors and makeup kits cluttering the counters, the printer paper signs warning about the cash out penalties of being late to the stage or reminders that we were on surveillance made it a far cry from any kind of Moulin Rouge shit. I could feel the blood pumping through my eye vessels, but I tried to stay focused. I was told to pick out a locker and return after a quick change.
No stranger to the 1-2-3-glam process, I silently primped while voyeuring into the world of dressing room banter. Sore from lifting boxes at her day job. Insecurities about the evening’s lingerie looking a little too jenky. Trying to laugh away the stress of a DUI after a night splashed in Hennessey. My dad has always said that a group of women can talk about anything. I was brought back to days of tampon talk in the junior high gym locker room. When blood clots start descending from in between your legs like clock work I suppose you might as well accept yourself as an open book.
Finishing off my nearly nude body with the shimmer gel I had once impulse bought on clearance, I felt nothing. Staring back in the mirror I saw her – everything those late night Girls Gone Wild infomercials I had watched as a sleepless wide-eyed girl had taught me about what it meant to be a woman, except my pale skin, dark hair, and cellulite-sculpted ass presented a slightly downgraded version. Luckily I found myself in a position where merely identifying as woman was enough.
Fearful that one of the ladies fiending for a fix would make use of my phone or Remington curler, I stuffed my bag of tricks into the first open locker I saw. But when I closed it, it wasn’t as open as I had hoped. cHyNa dOll, it read in sparkly gold stickers. Hopefully Chyna wasn’t going to break her hand on my face. The anxiety flared up hot, but I tried to remind myself how very much I was overthinking things.
I grabbed the Big Boyz Bail Bonds pen that was hanging off the corner bulletin board and jotted my name down on the dancer roster. Carissa was written above me. In a rare moment of bravery, I called her name out so I’d know when it was about to be my turn. A green haired girl on the nearest stool raised her hand without eye contact. Green hair, furry boots, I tried to burn in my brain.
I left to seek the safety of Chris, and he continued where he had left on the tour of my new stomping ground. The main attraction was the stage that the bar wrapped around, and the tables, TV’s, and games dotted along the sidelines seemed to be mostly for show.
“And this is the jukebox. It’s about a dollar a song, but if you come see me before you dance I can give you some quarters to throw in.”
I actually perked up for a second at the thought of getting to pick my own music. A petite
but perfectly proportioned girl stood at its grips, flipping through artists. She looked to be Pakistani and had the prettiest Kylie lips.
“Hi, I’m Lilly,” she said turning to me with a genuine smile. I couldn’t have thought of a more fitting name.
“I’m Marina,” I managed to get out before Chris ushered me to the back room.
“This is where we have private parties, bachelor parties…you know, the big money,” he said, arms crossed cockily.
That was what I was scared of. I had consciously avoided dancing on the block to avoid any pressure to hook. I peered in the doorway. Although the lights were off, what I made out was surprisingly elegant looking for a highway joint. It had its own backlit mahogany bar, leather couches, and sparkling pole. Don had advised during my audition I could do fully nude for parties if I wanted to, which I’m sure he assumed since I had a pussy lip refusing to stay in my panties when I showed him a dance. What can I say, I like to approach life labia first. Just as long as nothing would be penetrating it, I told myself it would be alright.
“Lap dances are $40. House gets $20, you get $20,” Chris said, leading me back out. “And yeah, that’s pretty much it. Just come see me at the end of the night to tip out.”
And just like that, he was gone, leaving me standing alone in nothing but my finest leopard panties and a million and one unanswered questions.
With nothing else to better to do, I took a seat towards the edge of the bar, awaiting my turn and freezing my ass off. It was the lack of clothes, but it was also the flu-like chills that like to accompany my bloodshot eyes. I needed a drink, bad. But I was scared of committing the cardinal sin as a stripper; drinking (or otherwise ingesting) all your money away, like a dealer getting into their own supply. I knew I needed to do something, though. I had already been going through a bottle or two of wine a night at home for weeks, and I knew approaching my debut in withdraw was only a recipe for full-on fetal position in the parking lot.
I attempted to make eye contact with the bartender, but she couldn’t seem to bring herself to pay me much mind despite the fact there wasn’t exactly a Superbowl Sunday crowd. Decked out in her sequin PINK finest, denim cut-offs, and tired eyes, she was a Barbie who had fallen into disrepair.
“Squeeze your thighs!” She shouted to the girl on the pole, who was attempting to try a new downwards slide move. She yielded Barbie’s advice and her back gracefully met the stage.
“There ya go!”
I took a mental screen shot in the hope I would be capable of going airborne during my go. Maybe the whiskey sweats would provide some natural lubrication against the pole.
“Hey, I’m Marina,” I said, finally commanding Barbie’s attention, trying to master the right proportion of assertiveness and sparkle. She returned a hi, looking at me as if I had three heads.
“Could I get a whiskey and diet? Just rail,” I continued, knowing full well that the five spot I came in with wasn’t going to be getting me any Jameson.
She pretended to look around the bottom of the bar.
“Uhh, let me find some.”
Twenty jittery minutes later, I was finally drinking.
“Marina!” I heard someone call. I whipped my head around out of paranoia that I had been oblivious to my turn up, low key amazed that my new name was garnering my attention with the same ease as my real.
“Come sit with us!” It was Lilly calling from down the bar, patting the empty seat next to her.
Relieved to already be making a friend, I joined her, along with the “other” alt girl, Kimdracula, and a customer who spoke about five words of English, which seemed to be stirring up a conversation about world languages. I told the girls about how in my high school Chinese class we would bully our teacher into just putting on Jackie Chan movies and how the only Mandarin I learned was “fuck you” thanks to the ubiquitous native speaker who was just in it for an easy A. Astonished by the fact that I actually made them laugh, I could feel the ice of my chills start to crack.
“Do you like my knickers?” Kim asked us in a phony British accent. “You know in England they say knickers instead of bra and panties.”
“Ahhh, uh huh,” I said shaking my head like I had just learned something fascinating, when really it was more out of excitement that judging by her Manson heart tattoos on her ribs, I might have someone to talk music with.
“Did you just call me a knicker?” Lilly laughed. Some sort of racial dialogue ensued that I chose to stay out of. I shifted back and forth, my eyes intent on the girl on stage. It didn’t take long for her dancing, or lack thereof, to actually start sinking in. It was the curvy, Ariel red-haired girl whose fishnets and lace up boots I had been admiring in the locker room. As I watched her absently two-stepping around the pole, I wished I had gotten the memo that the more elaborate the outfit meant the less I had to try with my dancing.
“Wow,” I said, turning to Lilly and Kim and then tilting my head towards the stage.
“Yeahhhh,” Kim said rolling her eyes. “We’ve got some girls up there doing gymnastics and then we’ve got other girls doingthis…”
She stood up from her stool and lazily shook her hips and grabbed her imaginary pole as if she was pantomiming a firefighter on Xanax. As she stood up straight again, I reached out and patted her Mason hearts. She felt so impossibly soft for being such a slim girl.
“I love your tattoos.”
Her eyes got brighter than the strobing black light.
“You know he’s going to be in Pennsylvania next month, right? I’m totallyyyy going to go see him. It’ll be my eighth time.”
I heard the customer mumble something to Barbie.
“He said he wants to do another round of shots,” she translated. “Do yall want one?”
“Sure,” Kim and Lilly said in unison.
“Marina, did you want a shot?” Lilly asked.
“Yeah, why not.” My whiskey wasn’t even gone yet, but as Red left the stage and Green entered, I knew I had to act fast.
“He’s only buying three,” Barbie said glaring at me.
“I’ll buy hers,” Lilly shot back without hesitation.
Clearly, there was no such thing as some sort of fixed personality among the girls. As much as dancers are pigeonholed, “prototypical stripper” seemed to be an oxymoron.
A silence fell among us until finally, it was time. My Manson queued up in the jukebox, I bravely teetered on stage, grabbed the pole, shut my eyes, and spun.