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UNTITLED STORY ABOUT A STRIPPER
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MY GIRLFRIEND IS a stripper which implies a sort of fierce otherness. In the morning — or in the early afternoon, which is when we wake up — she is only five percent strippery, at most. During breakfast, this figure ups itself to around eight percent: there is an angry come-hitherness to her eyes as she sits at the table, sipping coffee and brushing toast crumbs from her lips. As I clean up the table, I hear her in the shower, singing songs with a certain sinuous undercurrent: songs that I recognize from her nightclub. Her voice is high and little-girl-serious. As she belts out “Bawitdaba” by Kid Rock, or “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns n’ Roses, I get a warm, funny feeling, almost as though I am in church.
As the afternoon progresses, she becomes more and more remote, veiling herself in shadows and mystery, preparing herself for her job. I know her less and less. Soon she is at twenty percent, then thirty.
While I slip dishes into the sink (I lost my job two weeks ago, and so now most of the household chores fall to me), Myna practices what she calls her “attitude readjustment” in front of the mirror. She tries on and rejects a series of thongs and high heels. She dusts her face with powder and applies heavy layers of Kohl eyeliner and mascara. “I hate you!” she says, staring into the mirror. “I hate you!” She wiggles her hips back and forth.
“Myna, have you seen the–”
“I hate you! I hate you!”
She is speaking, not to herself, of course, but to her customers.
There are happy strippers and there are angry strippers. My girlfriend is an angry stripper. Happy strippers giggle, flirt with the customers, tousle their hair. My girlfriend, on the other hand, rips off her tear-away thong and throws it to the ground — like that, unhh! — and then just stands there, suddenly exposed, her eyes saying to all and sundry, How dare you look at me like that, you motherfuckers.
“Oh, Andy,” she says now. “I hate it. I mean, can you imagine a more inappropriate job?”
“Inappropriate job. For me.”
I bite my lip and think of the alternatives: Cattle Rancher. Banker. Industrial Engineer. Myna dropped out of school three credits short of graduation. Her proposed major: Art History. What else, besides stripping or waitressing, is she supposed to do?
“Oh,” I say. “It’s not so bad…”
“I hate it. It’s so awful. Like my name.”
In addition to hating stripping, Myna also hates her name, which was given to her by her father. This is a recurrent topic with her.
“Do you know what he used to call me?”
“He used to call me Myna-Myna, his Myna bird. Accent on the mine. ‘Myna Merlot.’ ‘Myna Miriam Merlot,’ my full name, as you know. Honestly,who names a girl something like that? It’s like something out of a 1940s musical.”
She pauses and thinks. “I blame my father.”
“I blame him as well.”
“His hands always stank of chemicals.”
I only met Myna’s father once, two weeks after we started going out. Carl Merlot was a Vietnam vet who did his tour of duty on a gunboat. He returned from The ‘Nam unscathed, but with a sudden irrational passion for animals of all kinds, especially tropical animals. He opened a taxidermy business in Western Pennsylvania, and it was there that I met him, in his house which also served as his place of business. He was pot-bellied, long-haired, raspy-voiced. He shook my hand without standing up and inhaled a lungful of smoke from his Camel Unfiltered. All around us, on the dusty shelves of his study, were stuffed animals: weasels, broad-winged hawks, red foxes, and many different kinds of tropical birds.
Carl welcomed me to the family and mentioned how he was dying of emphysema. We all sat down and sipped coffee. We talked casually for a while about the weather. Carl coughed and offered me a beer. He then proceeded to dissect his daughter’s personality and rip it to shreds. (“Dropped out of school now, is she? Another waste of potential.” “See those hips on her? Those are what you call child-bearing hips.”) Myna just sat there, a smile plastered to her lips. (“Her sister, now there was a joy. Almost a completely different type of girl. No comparison between the two of them whatever.“) I sat there until I could stand it no longer, then rose too quickly and shook his hand again, congratulating him on his life’s work. Then we left. Myna was silent for the duration of the three-hour drive back home. I have always felt that there was a second story hidden within this story; a story that explains Myna’s unique personality, temperament, and behavior. But I am not sure what it is.
“What happened to your father, anyway?”
“Oh, he died of course,” she sing-songs. “Ridiculously, horribly, tragically.”
“Really? How did he die?”
“It was… so… tragic.”
“A blimp accident. He was hit by a blimp.”
“Do you know that approximately five people are killed in blimp-related accidents in the United States every year.”
“How did he die? Go into detail. Delve.”
Myna leans against the door frame in a classic story-telling stance. “The sky was dark that day. Not a storm coming, but rather a bluish-grayish heaviness to the air, somewhere to the West. The blimp entered the scene from the left. My father, a pitchfork in his hand, a straw hat on his head, leaned against the wooden fence that demarcated our property from the neighbors’. He leaned against the fence, chewing on a piece of straw, considering the term demarcate, which means, according to Webster’s… to demark. Ha.”
Myna stares into the mirror, rubbing makeup in circles beneath her eyes. I step forward and watch her, fascinated. Then I walk back into the kitchen and begin preparing her lunch.
“My father leaned against the fence, considering the term demarcate. He thought of boundaries, historical and non-historical. Hadrian’s Wall. The Great Wall of China. The Magnot Line. He thought of the boundaries in his own life, that kept him from other people.”
“This is amazing,” I say, but Myna is already past all hearing. She is at 75 percent now. Her face is road-house waitress tough and weathered, her features compressed, like a china doll’s.
“A noise behind him. A bird. Then the blimp drops silently from the sky. He sees it coming, the shadow expanding around him, a darkening oval at which he is the center.”
“What then?” I say.
“All the standard clichéd thoughts occurred to him. He regretted trips he hadn’t taken, things he hadn’t done. He remembered kissing Mary Jo Krupat behind the bleachers of his high-school, when he was sixteen years old. Just a vague memory of divots on the turf and the taste of Mary Jo’s clove gum.”
Is it any wonder that I love this girl?
“And then?” she says abstractly.
She is lost, dazzled by her own story. 85 percent. “And then the blimp hit him. Key-rash. It drove my father halfway into the ground. A passing motorist screeched his car to a halt, got out of the car, shook his head and stared, shook his head and stared.”
I lead Myna into the kitchen, where, like a good den mother, I hand her a paper bag in which I have placed a banana, a can of Diet Coke, a tub of tuna fish, and two piece of rye bread wrapped separately so that the bread doesn’t get soggy.
Of course Myna’s story is complete garbage. Her father is still alive, still living in Western Pennsylvania, still claiming to be incapacitated by emphysema, still collecting checks from the V.A. hospital. Myna loves him passionately, irrationally. She calls him every week, sends him little cards. I suspect that she sends him some of her stripping money as well.
“Are you going to look for a job today?”
“I might. I might also go down to Fat Joe’s, try to sell some of my comic books.”
“Good,” she says.
I kiss her cheek. My mouth comes away sticky with powder. I stare at her, my girlfriend. Telling horrible stories about her father’s death is her way of psyching herself up, preparing for five hours of tearing her clothes off in front of virtual strangers. She also likes to discuss traffic accidents, earthquakes, mass floodings, the imaginary suicides of family and friends, vicious gossip, and personal injury. Anything negative helps her for work. Previously, I used to read newspaper headlines to her, reading the paper in the kitchen and tearing off a chunk of words, lobbing the headlines into the bedroom like they were some new experimental type of hand grenade. “All-Night Session of Congress Approves Special Tax Cut,” I would read. “New Wave of Immigrants in California.” “Tax cut!” she would scream back. Our apartment is very small but Myna and I enjoy shouting from room to room. “I’ll give you a fucking tax cut, buddy!” Or, “Those fucking immigrants, ruining our fucking country again!”
These days, we stick mostly to family and friends. It works better and is less confusing for Myna, who, like most strippers, is in fact a bleeding-heart liberal.
“Why do we like these sad stories so much?” I say.
“I don’t know.” She sets the paper bag on the counter.
“Now for the final attitude adjustment,” she says.
“This is my favorite part.”
As I watch, my girlfriend empties herself of all vestiges of her original personality. Ninety-six percent, ninety-nine. Goodbye, goodbye. “There,” she says, and shivers like a dog throwing off water. I no longer know her. One hundred percent. Her face is as blank as a vacant lot, moonlit and bereft. Now she is a product. Now she is pornography.
Despite her hatred for stripping, Myna has, unfortunately, the perfect body for it. She is neither tall nor short. Her torso is skinny. Her red hair brings adjectives such as spitfire to mind. Her breasts are surprisingly large, size 36-C. Her face is sad and lunar, with a vague hint of meanness.
I reach out and pull her close to me, overcoming my natural fear. “Honey,” I say experimentally. “I love you.”
“Uhmm…” She is staring off into the middle distance.
“Oh!” she returns. “And I love you too.” But there is a formal, custodial air to her words. She is just giving me payment back for my time and my money. She shakes her head. “You look fine,” I tell her. “That’s what I’m afraid of,” she says, and in less than five minutes, she is gone. The quickly slammed door shivers behind her. After she leaves, I sit down and drink a cup of coffee. All rooms retain a trace of their departed owners, and for fifteen minutes after Myna is gone, the living room is still hers. There is a faint feminine odor: the scent of roses and of lip-gloss.
Myna has left a yellow bra hanging off the back of a chair and I pick it up and sniff it, inhaling the musky scent. The following statement is true: I love Myna Merlot passionately, hopelessly, with the same fierce tribal love that she bestows upon her father. I put the bra back on the chair. I roam around, tidying and rearranging. Then a bad thing happens; a pre-expected thing. As I am sweeping the floor, I find, half-under the couch, a metal tin of hair wax, not mine, and not hers. I pick it up and stare at it for twenty seconds without a single thought it my head. I lost my job two weeks ago. For the past ten days, I have been finding random items scattered around our apartment. The items all seem guy-ish, or at least, it is difficult for me to imagine a girl owning them. A guitar pick. A rubber Ace comb. A pair of over-sized fuzzy novelty dice.
I find these things behind the couch, under curtains, next to chairs. Who is Myna entertaining when I am not around? (I squeeze my eyes shut and try not to think about it.) Instead, I concentrate on the objects. One blue flip-flop. A plastic figurine of Rocky the Flying Squirrel.
In the course of psyching herself up for work, Myna has said terrible things about her mother, her father, her siblings, distant relatives, the United States Congress, the League of Nations, Socrates and Aristotle, Jesus, Buddha, Samuel Beckett, John Ford, Irving Berlin, Suzanne Somers, the New York Yankees pitching staff, and three Supreme Court Justices. But she has never said anything bad about me. Not once.
What does it all mean?
I straighten myself up and tuck the can of hair wax into my pocket. I force myself to whistle. I grab a portion of my comic book collection and stuff it into my backpack. I walk toward town. As I walk, I cannot help tapping my hand against the can of wax in my pocket. I love Myna Merlot passionately, hopelessly. One Rocky figurine. One fake-wood guitar pick.
Please consider the following statement: All stories are stories about sadness.
If you agree please continue. If you do not, please go back and read again.