Watching A Stripper Get Ready For Work

She is in my apartment getting ready for work.

For her, that means she hauls in a bag or two full of sparkles and spangles and fringe, tiny outfits and brightly colored thongs that are just strips of fabric, no substance. Eyelashes and perfume and fake nails to press on. Costumes.

I know her in her real life, know her face devoid of makeup. I know her name, her real one, not the one she uses at night. I know her mom. I know that she went to school for art, that she puts the feminist magazines in front of “Cosmo” when we go to the bookstore. I know that she likes “Long Island Medium” even though it makes her cry. I know that she acts outgoing around strangers but that she’s really shy, that she can’t sleep at night and is just waking up when I’m finishing my shift for the day. I’ve seen her fall in love and get her heart broken and dance drunkenly at a bar and I’ve seen her cook dinner and snap photos and paint canvasses pink.

But the men don’t know any of this. They know her as someone different, a girl who places a flower coyly in her bright blonde hair, tucked behind an ear. They know her as a perfect perfumed goddess in red, in pink, all lipstick and eyes and meandering conversation. They know that she’s a lightning bolt onstage, moving her entire body in ways that most of us can only dream of and try when we’re drunk in our kitchens at night.

I can imagine how they see her, towering above them in her shoes with a spiky heel like a weapon. They see her as a sculpture of womanhood, the swish of her fringed skirt lulling them into hypnosis as she sways her hips. They worship her skin, the big natural boobs, each motion she makes as she dances. She climbs up that metal pole and slides down it and they lose their shit. They offer her dollar bills, crisp and new or limp and warm from a pocket, like churchgoers giving a tithe to their church. She’s the church of stripper, the kind of girl men write songs about, the girl you can look at but can never touch.

But right now she’s only halfway there. She’s getting ready at my house instead of in the humid femininity of a strip club dressing room, all hot curling irons, sweaty feet, MAC eyeshadows crumbled on the floor. I’m watching her brush foundation across her already perfect skin, tint her brows darker, slick on bright pink lipstick. She takes care with her face when she’s preparing for work, when in her real life she barely needs any makeup at all.

She lines her eyes dark, a little bit retro with a flick of a cateye. The persona she often dons at the club is a pinup, cute but still glamorous. It’s part of who she is on the street, though she tells me that some days, all she wants to do is hide from the world. She started stripping because she was tired of people staring at her body; she wanted to harness that power for herself.

Some nights she comes home covered in money, bouquets of money, and some nights, defeated and broke. You never know.

I know that her customers lust after her, find her amusing and charming. She’s funny and smart. I know that they think of her long after they’ve left, that she makes an impression on them and often, they return just to see her. They remember her name. They ask for her.

But this does not define her. She’s the girl onstage, but she’s more than that. She’s the kind of friend who takes you out for Dairy Queen when you’re feeling sad, who loves babies, who watches her little sister dance the Nutcracker at Christmas. She’s the one all the men want, but she’s lonely at night.

She clips in the extensions that take her from pinup to Barbie-bot, a million strands of someone else’s hair to give you someone else’s courage. I know, because I’ve had them. It takes some finesse to do this; she uses a hand mirror and a tiny brush to arrange them around her scalp. It’s fascinating. I always tell her she’s prettier without this long hair, that her short bob enhances everything lovely about her face, but I understand the need for long, porn-star hair. It’s armor. It hides things. It swings about your shoulders and silences men. I love to watch the transformation, witness on someone else’s face how a sweep of bronzer and some mascara can make you lethal.

I look her over when she’s ready to go. She’s perfect: shiny nails, long swishy princess hair, the big eyes, the lips. And I get jealous. I want to be that pretty girl onstage with all those eyes on me, clinging to each bounce and slip of my body. I want to be worshipped and asked for, I want a man to offer up the contents of his wallet for me to take at will. I’m jealous of the curves and swerves of her body onstage. I want to be that comfortable in my skin, that brave, that willing. I want the friendships with the girls in the clubs, who can bond with each other in ways that other girls never can. She loves this job. She’s a bombshell, a firecracker, she knows what she’s doing and she loves it. I envy her for this. TC mark

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