The car I’m borrowing during my visit home comes complete with tape deck and telescoping radio antennae that I broke by listening to NPR while going through the car wash. I listen to NPR constantly—not so much because of intellectual curiosity these days, but for the soothing distraction of other voices. I avoid my music because almost all of it is sad—Sharon Van Etten, Perfume Genius, Cat Power, PJ Harvey sad. Only the what-I-refer-to-as “bad bitch anthems” have the ability to momentarily snap me out of my forlornness, and I’ve overplayed Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money,” so that it no longer serves its purpose.
Driving past the STI clinic where I was tested before having bareback sex with my first love makes my sinuses throb. I am pre-cry, which is similar to pre-vomit in its emotional and physical discomfort, and in the semi-relief that comes post-purge: relieved it’s over; anxious it might happen again. He was my first real relationship: first love, first person I would do almost anything for, first one over a month long. I was his first love too, though I’m not sure what that means to him.
It should be noted that I initiated the breakup. I was being forced out of my ridiculously cheap home, and it didn’t make sense to stay in Sonoma County, engaged in the adjunct teaching struggle where I had no intentions of laying down roots. When I informed Shayne of my decision to relocate, his reaction was downright rosy: “I think it’s a good idea for you”; “I always thought you belonged in L.A. (backhanded compliment?)”; “I support you in whatever you do”; “I love you.” His cliche, preconceived notion of L.A. prevented him from even considering coming along.
The next morning at breakfast, he remained unaffected, as always. I marveled at his beauty and attempted to revel in what was left of our coupledom that I had often been flip about. Being valued romantically had enabled me to move through my days with the air of a beloved actress, with a kind of arrogance I quite enjoyed. Over an omelet, the tears began—I am not a regular crier (well, at that point I was not a regular crier)—and I hid my face behind a menu. “Aw, babe. It makes me so sad to see you cry,” he said.
A few days passed and I was noticing that Shayne seemed completely unmoved by the fact that this was ending. “I don’t see the point in wasting time dwelling in bad feelings. Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened,” he said, all but quoting Dr. Seuss.
“I wish we could’ve mourned this together,” I blubbered. “I think that would’ve been most ideal for me.” That had been the plan—that he would be as distraught, if not more so, than me. That he would suggest a long-distance arrangement, which would remain in effect until it organically petered out on its own, or until I met someone new, let’s be honest. That was my plan. His plan entailed not just moving on, but moving the fuck on, and quickly.
He has a new boyfriend; I can tell they’re well suited for each other. I peeked at his boyfriend’s Facebook page (once, I’m not a masochist): He works at a farm, does yoga on the beach, takes bong hits, is tall and svelte. I saw a photo of him resting his head on my ex’s stomach. A friend commented that she “love[s] you two!” I wondered how long they had been together so that they were now a “two.” I often imagine what the two are doing on the Friday nights when I’m at home alone watching reruns of The Real Housewives of New York City on my computer, which is somehow more pathetic than watching it on the television. This particular Friday night, though, I’m on my way to a gay male strip club for the first time, and I’m not exactly sure why.
I drive and toggle between my Grindr and Scruff accounts. It’s a death wish on a few levels. I feel a certain urgency to hook up when traveling, as I have the benefit of being a new face on the grid. Not everyone is replying to my messages, so I am busy reviewing the reasons why. Number one is that they don’t like my B face. (I’m a teacher, so I’m prone to letter-grading.) Second, the profile photo I use only does a decent job of masking my femininity, which, in my experience, is a turn-off to a majority of potential suitors. I apologize to myself for the betrayal, then take comfort in the fact that it will not matter how I look at the strip club. I don’t have to feign confidence or masculinity; I can waltz in with my purse on my sad slumped shoulder and these men will act attracted to me.
It’s 10 PM and the parking lot at the strip club lot is nearly full. I park next to a pedophile van—a white Chevy G20—complete with curtains. On the way up the ramp to the club, there’s a NO FIREARMS ON PREMISES sign on the wall. A duplicate of the sign is posted front and center on the main door. I assume this has been a problem in the past. A surly-looking heavyset bearded man, who is every surly-looking heavyset bearded man, sits smoking at a receptionist’s desk. The over air-conditioned room combined with the cigarette stench reminds me of any casino. There are no double doors blocking you from the action until you pay the ten-dollar entry fee—just look to your right and there it is: the I-shaped stage with four dancers peacocking, most of the tables around the stage full of patrons. Dancers? Strippers? I don’t know exactly what to call them, but several are walking around shirtless with armbands—their piggy banks—on each bicep.
I go to the bar and order a greyhound with Ketel One. “It is real Ketel, isn’t it?” I smile, only half-serious in my snobbishness. “Promise me you’re not filling a Ketel bottle with well vodka.” The bartender laughs and assures me it’s real. He hands me a large plastic cup with the concoction. “Let’s give it up for Aspen, Tyson, Russ, and Trent!” orders an invisible Ryan Seacrest over the loudspeaker.
I’m sitting on the sidelines sipping my greyhound through a straw and taking in the room. I dread the way my clothes will smell later, but am enjoying the scene: The clientele appears diverse; no single ethnicity dominates, which is indicative, I think, of the club’s location in a major city where approximately thirty-eight percent of the population is white, fifty-four percent is black, and eight percent is classified as “other.” The dancers—no, you know what, I’m calling them strippers—are also seemingly a refreshing mix. Their bodies meet general societal standards of what is hot, but I tend to wonder about the guy with a six, seven, or eight pack—and those V muscles, the “dick muscles” that point downward toward the penis. How narcissistic do you have to be to put that much time into sculpting your body? My ex had a four, five, or six pack (I never counted) from avid cycling—a side effect of sport, that makes sense to me—but when your goal is this cheesy representation of extreme maleness, well, count me out. That said, I wouldn’t mind snapping my fingers and possessing toned arms and legs in homage to Tina Turner.
A few strippers are giving naked lap dances. It’s just bizarre to watch the dorky middle-aged man in the red button-down shirt in front of me engaging in what is essentially frottage with a naked stripper in plain sight. The room is loud, full of revelers, and here he is out in the open, in the throes of ecstasy. The stripper is nuzzling his face into his client’s neck; they are grinding into each other. The stripper pauses and holds the man’s face, looks earnestly into his eyes, and says something to him with the expression I felt come across my face the time I told my ex how glorious it was that we were best friends and lovers. They’re planning something—either a visit to the VIP lounge, or an empty promise from the dancer of an outside date.
This is a gay male strip club. Bachelorette parties are prohibited; women can only enter with a male. A woman approaches a stripper on stage, places money in his armband, then rubs her breasts against his bare dick. “This is a dick-on-dick club,” Fauxcrest shouts over the loudspeaker, “not a dick-on-tits club, ladies. Nobody wants to see that.”
One stripper currently on stage is playing with his cock in the least sexy way—like a child stretching it, cartooning it. Apparently he’s the funny one, the Lucille Ball of the bunch. He goes from penis balloon animals to pulling his cock back between his legs so that it looks like a vagina whilst giving knowing winks to audience members. I kind of want to yank him off the stage and remind him that “this isn’t the drama club” as my seventh-grade soccer coach scolded me when, in a rare moment of making contact with the ball, I was simultaneously kiki-ing with my girlfriends on the sidelines. He should be up there doing that stupid dance that male strippers do when they’re trying to dance in a sexy masculine way while wearing only underwear, socks and tennis shoes. Yeah, he should be doing that dance. Perhaps he is so confident in his looks and masculinity that even the appearance of a faux vagina won’t hurt his sales.
Another stripper on stage is quite effeminate, with a gorgeous twink face. He has one of those offensive “onion” hairdos—shaved on all sides except for a ponytail atop his head. His face is lovely, though, and he—he is a dancer. He stretches lithely against the pole; he pirouettes; when one female patron brings him cash, he drops into a split to accept the tip. He’s working. I wonder if his effeminacy impedes his earnings. I have to think it does, or perhaps I’m projecting.
One short, scrawny stripper is making rounds. He’s more my type, so I approach him. “You have a good thing going,” I tell him; Calvin’s his name. “You’re niche.” He looks at me, confused. “Do you know what I mean by ‘niche’?” I’m aware of the unintentional condescension in the question, so I say it in the least condescending way possible, like when I carefully correct my students so as not to crush them. “It’s like having something that nobody else has that you can capitalize on.” I continue, “You’re shorter and…more petite than the others. I happen to prefer your body.”
“And I’m sure you have lots of return clients that do as well.”
I change the subject to pricing because I want to know if it’s in the cards for me to go to the VIP Lounge and maybe even get a private dance ([singing to myself] a dance for money, do what you want me to do). One hundred and forty dollars for fifteen minutes in a private room, he tells me.
“Fifteen minutes?!” I balk. “At that rate, I better come.” I know that, for whatever reason, ejaculation is technically against the rules here. “So, does that ever happen?”
“I’m sure it does,” he says slyly.
“What about the strippers? Do they ever come?”
“I’m sure they do,” he says.
“Well,” I say, “I just can’t in good conscience spend that much money.”
He says nothing.
“I mean, that’s a lot to pay when I can have sex with hot guys for free.”
Unwilling to budge on the price, Calvin says he needs to continue making his rounds and leaves.
A dandy who appears to be in his early seventies—dressed in khakis secured by belt, a carefully tucked oxford shirt, and wearing Dominique Dunne-type eyeglasses—walks past me, arm-in-arm with a stripper, towards the VIP Lounge entrance. They seem like old friends, or an affectionate grandfather and grandson. What goes on back there that could be worth paying an additional ten dollars? Nothing intriguing is going to happen for ten dollars. Raise it to twenty-five and guarantee everyone a blowjob and I’m game.
“Give it up for Miller, Tristan, Tyler, and Brendan,” Seacrest calls out. These names.
A stripper next to me playfully sticks his tongue out at a clique of his colleagues who are all puffing on e-cigarettes. Their jobs don’t seem so bad, actually. The atmosphere here is upbeat and fun, not dark and hypersexual. The sexual seriousness that one would find in your average gay sex club is diminished because getting off is not the goal unless you’ve got one or two Benjamins to drop. This is an interactive good time with a live show and strippers flirting with you in hopes of coercing you into at least a solo dance. I’d love to come here with friends and get drunk and smoke blunts and be ballers.
A divine-faced stripper sneaks up behind me. “You’re on Grindr,” he says, glancing at my phone. “You must be horny.”
“I’m really just perusing,” I say.
“Seems like most people on there do that.”
“Oh, I fuck,” I assure him. “I usually fuck.”
He introduces himself as Vince and asks my name.
“Guess,” I say, playing the coy vixen.
“Sir Licks-A-Lot,” he replies. I pretend to think it’s funny.
“Might I interest you in a solo dance?” he asks. A solo dance consists of a naked stripper humping the patron in a variety of ways. A patron is not supposed to touch the stripper’s penis, and the patron’s genitals cannot be exposed. It takes place out in the open, costs twenty dollars, and lasts the length of a song.
“Are we talking an extended dance remix or a radio edit?” I ask. Each song is somewhere between three and five minutes, he says. Again, I repeat the sentiment that at that rate I want to come.
“I would make you wet.”
“Make me wet?” I reply. “In my vagina? I don’t think I can get wet.”
“I like missionary position,” he continues. “I’ll put you on your back.”
He’s puffing on an e-cigarette as I conjure an image of what this act would look like to the other patrons.
“What flavor is that e-cig?” I ask.
“Milk,” he says. “It tastes like milk and cereal.” He offers me a puff. It’s sweet and gross.
Vince suggests that we go to the VIP Lounge where there are fewer people. I say that I’ll go, but that I’m not agreeing to a solo dance. On our way, he tells me that ninety-five percent of the strippers are straight. “A lot of them will do movies (porn) and some clients will fly them out to places like California (escort).” I don’t buy his ninety-five percent heterosexual statistic; I suspect that for unfortunate sociological reasons, the same reasons why I feel I need that ambiguous Grindr photo, the fantasy that these men are straight is appealing to the patrons and therefore more profitable.
The VIP Lounge is less populated than the main room and has its own stage and bar. Vince plops me down on one of those black leather couches you find in young bachelors’ apartments. He’s positioned himself in between my legs wearing only underwear and is rubbing his dick on me. In the VIP Lounge, he tells me, you can get away with touching the stripper’s dick. Apparently that extra ten dollars is a dick-touching service fee.
“Let me show you how big this black dick can get,” he says, waving his junk from side to side in front of my face like a hypnotist. I’m blushing and giggling and looking in other directions hoping that he will get off of me.
“So, which one of those guys do you like the least?” I say, changing the subject to the three strippers chatting nearby.
“I like that one on the right, don’t really know the one in the middle, and I don’t like the dude on the left.”
“Is he a prick?” I ask. I’m more interested in workplace gossip than I am in being molested.
“Yeah, he’s cocky as hell and just an asshole.”
Vince pulls me even closer to him by my spread legs while I’m still trying my best to desexualize the interaction via chitchat. In my direction, I hear someone say, “What you doing there, Mandingo?” I look to my left and I see the stripper who Vince dislikes, who appears to be white, waiting for Vince’s response.
“What?” I snap, glaring and scowling. “You don’t say shit like that. Go to college.”
“What the fuck?” the stripper says to his colleagues and me. He’s pissed.
“I had your back,” I say to Vince while sitting up. “Did you see that? You shouldn’t allow him to call you that.”
“Go to college,” the stripper repeats imitating me in a fey voice. I’m reminded of what I sound like and how it hinders me with other men and it stings. In this moment especially, I long for my ex who, as hot and butch as he was, loved me as I am. I fear for my future with men.
I might have accidentally tapped into the trope of the mal-educated stripper from a small rural town who had no access to good education so that he’s led to this profession. I have no idea why telling him to go to college was my go-to. What’s more, I’m not even completely sure if it offended Vince. What if it is an accepted inside joke between the two? Perhaps I should’ve stayed out of it. Having managed to cause a mini-scene, I thank Vince and make my way to the bar.
Patrons are lined up on a row of stools receiving solo dances. A man beside me nearly falls off of his stool from the intense writhing and gyrating going on between him and the naked stripper who must be forty years his junior. I watch his stripper’s face. When he’s not facing his client, he looks positively bored and disinterested. I acknowledge that there might be a day, maybe ten or twenty or thirty years from now, where I will pay to have a young fit man with a not-so-great face wriggle on me and let me touch his penis for the duration of one song.
A stripper who introduces himself as Hollywood (there must be one Hollywood in every strip club) sidles up next to me. Perhaps the name was bestowed upon him because he slightly resembles an acne-scarred Matt Damon. I ask if he’s straight. He says he’s “recently bi” since working here and leaving the warehouse where his job entailed “shipping shit out.”
“Me and another dancer make out after work,” he says proudly.
Among many gay men, there is a perceived implicit masculinity in the bisexual man that will work to Hollywood’s advantage. The bisexual hasn’t fully crossed over yet. He is still man enough to enjoy having sex with women. I remember when my ex told me how much he liked “eating pussy.” It made me jealous and turned me on.
He’s brushing his leg against mine and doing a tip-top job seeming enthralled by me. If we were on a date, I would think he wanted to fuck me. I allow myself an irrational mini-fantasy that he will fall for me—after all, my ex did. The mini-fantasy dies as soon as Hollywood asks me to purchase a dance with him. I go into my I-don’t-have-to-pay-just-to-touch-a-dick spiel and I wonder if he believes me. Do I appear to be someone who has to pay simply to touch a penis? Please, God, no. I’m thirty-three and I have a respectable Body Mass Index.
“It’s just a dick,” I tell him. “I can touch hot dick any old time. I can touch it for free.” I had hot dick for a year and a half. It was at my disposal. I loved hot dick. Well, what I loved, who I loved, was Shayne. I no longer have hot dick or Shayne and it pains me more than any Sharon Van Etten ballad on my playlist can express.
I encourage Hollywood to go find some moneyed man so that he can get paid.
“Well, you can’t judge a book by its cover,” he says shrugging his shoulders. I suppose he means that even in my t-shirt, jean shorts, and sandals, and with my adjunct professor’s salary, I look moneyed. Perhaps I have an average-looking patrician face. That’s fine with me as long as I don’t look like someone who has to pay to touch a dick.
“Can you at least buy me a drink?” he asks.
I feel my expression switch from apathetic to annoyed. He sees this.
“…or just a shot?”
“Why?” I ask flatly.
“Well, I came over here and talked to you and you don’t want a dance,” he whines.
“I was fine here by myself. I didn’t need anyone to chat with.”
“I’m sorry to make you mad,” he says and disappears. He wasn’t entitled to a reward for interacting with me, right? I certainly don’t have to pay to chat with someone. But perhaps he has such a good hustle, one that provided me with a mini-fantasy of connection, that, in the moment, I lost sight of the fact that these men are like used car salesmen of body and intimacy. I wasted his time and time is money and, as Rihanna says, “bitch better have my money.” I suppose I did unwittingly owe him a drink.
Another stripper approaches me. His name is also Calvin, and he is also short like the other Calvin. I guess Calvin no. 1 is not so niche after all. I ask him about the gay/straight ratio of the strippers. “I’d say sixty percent are straight,” he tells me. That sounds more like it. He wants to know if I’d like a solo dance. The spiel. I sigh.
“But it’s not necessarily that you have to pay for it—it’s about the experience,” he tells me. That resonates with me.
I close my eyes as Calvin #2 is squirming on me. I’m not going to achieve horniness in front of all these people and I don’t want to see them watching me. His touch—and anyone’s touch over the past year—evokes Shayne. He would do well as a stripper here: that A face, that A body. The new boyfriend with his A- face and A body—he would also take home decent cash. Me, with my B face and B body, I wouldn’t fare so well.
“Give it up for Riley, Hunter, Baker, and Rhys!” Seacrest demands as I slink out of the club, dejected, imagining Shayne and his new love in a variety of pleasant situations. I have no messages waiting for me on Grindr or Scruff. On the way home, NPR plays in the background. All I can think to do is get in bed and watch reruns of The Real Housewives of New York City on my computer.
Photo by Vito Fun