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Baby

When things were slow on the floor, I liked to duck into the locker room and study the clipboard. To me it was like poetry, this ever-changing list of all the girls on that night. Angelina, Kitty, Buttercup. I tried to memorize them all. Who could make the whole world bend to her? Scarlet, Candy, Foxy, Grace.

I guess when someone drinks your piss, you feel like they know you a little

Brittany Shepherd, Skins. 2022, oil on panel. 20 x 24". Courtesy of In Lieu and the artist.

I had been stripping for three weeks before I met Simon. A lot happened in those three weeks: I changed my stage name (from Daisy to Baby), lost a hundred-dollar bill in the bathroom, developed ketchup-hued bruises on my ass cheeks and thighs, got locked out of the Victorian I shared with my ex and woke up his dogs with my knocking.

Ruth! he shouted, finally coming to the door. Is that you?

No, I shouted back, it’s Baby. My arms hurt from carrying my three pairs of shoes.

I don’t know a Baby, he mumbled, but I could hear him fiddling with the locks. Finally he let me in and I collapsed on the couch, dogs swirling around us. Dino eyed me. Good night or bad?

I dropped my bag to the floor and money spilled out, along with some burger wrappers and loose lipstick caps. It’s relative, I sighed. A lot of the girls at the club had designer purses; I, unaware, was stuck with a lime-green Jansport I’d found under Dino’s bed, mysteriously stuffed with receipts. On my first night of work, I’d transferred the receipts to an empty Folger’s can and claimed the backpack as my own.

Dino was leaving the room. He was a ketamine dealer who worked even weirder hours than me. You smell like a Vegas casino, he said. Try to get some sleep, love.

He wasn’t wrong. Ever since I’d started dancing, I couldn’t shake the smell of the club from my hair. The other girls didn’t seem to have this problem, and they drifted around in clouds of patchouli and Victoria’s Secret Love Spell, with a hint of tequila and jojoba oil. I, on the other hand, reeked of cigarettes, hotel sheets, cramped male sweat. I smelled like an airport bar, the tang of the lonely with hours to kill.

The only thing that half-masked the smell of the club were the French fries I ate in my car. Dancing made me ravenous. No one had warned me about that. They’d warned me about shitty dudes who try not to pay, about the inconvenience of getting your period on stage, but not the radical, tectonic hunger I felt when the club closed at 3. I knew every 24/7 fast food joint in San Francisco. I paid all in ones and winked at the sleepy-eyed senior manning the drive-thru. It would take me an hour or more to stop flirting with everyone, to stop being Baby and return to Just Me, Ruth in her clogs and thick socks. Ruth didn’t flirt. Ruth was a chick with bad dreams and blisters, requesting extra pickles with her Happy Meal.

I would eat until my stomach hurt and then drive straight home, urgent as a man with a wife in labor. That’s how I thought of myself, swerving past cars as the sky turned pink: I gotta be there! Get outta my way! Though what I was so eager to return to is difficult to say. My life at that point, 27, semi-single, was hazy and bland. It felt loose, like panties with the elastic stretched out. It was somehow both chaotic and boring, full of glitter and TV. I was either in a rush or staring at the ceiling. Sometimes I felt excited when it was time to get ready for work, shave my ankles, et cetera. I guess I just liked having somewhere to be.

The night I met Simon was a slow one. There were eleven girls on; Nikki and Gemini were the only dancers to break $300 while the rest of us wiggled to Drake for handfuls of ones.

The club was purple-lit and horseshoe-shaped, with the stage at its center. Making my rounds, I resisted the urge to dislodge my wedgie. At work I often felt like a fish in a giant aquarium, floating from the stage to the bar and back again. I wore clear plastic Pleasers and a Barbie-pink bikini cut high in the hips. Cute, I’d been called. Approachable. On a good day: Sporty. My breasts were the size of a Hostess cupcake. My ass had the slight curve of a lowercase b; the swirly club lights hid the stretch marks across my hips and thighs. I looked like an exclamation point and I tried to make that work for me.

Simon materialized by the bar, nursing a seltzer. It was 11:45 PM, neither early nor late by club time. He wore a rust-colored sweatshirt and baggy pants, which did not mean he wasn’t rich. Rich men lived by different rules. He waved me over, scooped me up and put me on his knee; I sat there, feeling like a salt shaker on a café table.

Hey baby, he said. He sounded nervous.

Funny, I said, that’s my name.

He acted like he hadn’t heard me. How’d ya like to make some money?

Up close, he was clean. Clean, in fact, as a baby. His clothing was ratty but the squares of skin I could see—his wrists, his throat—gleamed. His body reminded me of a bar of Dove soap. I smiled in a way I hoped was beguiling. That would be nice.

He gave me his card, which was actually an envelope on which he’d written a phone number. I folded it up and tried to fit it in the strap of my shoe. I’d seen seasoned strippers keep their money there, but mine always seemed to fall out.

Simon and I talked for a little, then he said he had to go. Call me, he said, emptying his glass. I’ve got a gig for you. He sounded congested. I felt disappointed until I noticed the hundred he’d slipped under his glass.


My sleep schedule was totally fucked by the club. It had never been consistent but now it was doomed. I would get home at 4, fizzy and erect as a trick birthday candle. Since the breakup I’d been staying in Dino’s guest bedroom. Counting my ones hopped me up even more. I would empty my money bag and make stacks of bills, big fat beautiful stacks like sub sandwiches. I did the thing from the movies where I covered my bed in dollars and fell backwards into them, pretending they were autumn leaves. I got a bill in my mouth and it tasted like ass, reminding me of something the house mom, Minnie, had said on my first night at the club: There’s nothing in this world more dirty than money.

She was eating a Cup-o-Noodles, stirring it in a somehow magisterial way. While we changed in and out of neon bikinis, Minnie always wore the same Abercrombie hoodie and butt-toning sneakers. She had a little desk in the corner covered with printed-out inspirational quotes, plus one of those bouncy balls instead of a chair. Name one thing, she’d said, more dirty than money.

Men? joked Dallas. She had infamous hair that fell down to her knees. When she went upside down on the pole, it unrolled beneath her like a black yoga mat. I didn’t feel envy; I felt, as we all did, soft awe.

Minnie didn’t laugh. She threw away her noodles cup. No, she said. Wrong answer.


It was a trip to be constantly surrounded by beautiful women. I’d had many jobs before stripping: bartender, waitress, overpaid babysitter for a rich Marin family, Red Bull promoter, test subject at UCSF (they filmed me while I slept for a month and I still don’t know why). None had required me to be in the company of innumerable babes. I felt lucky each time I walked into the locker room, shy and alert as a foreign exchange student. It’s not that I felt attracted to the other dancers. It was more that felt like a fraud, not of their league. I had no illusions about my status with men: I was fresh meat, a 7/10 at my finest, the waitress you call honey because you can’t remember her name, the friend of a friend of a friend. The most marketable thing about me was that I was new and white. Our club had a bleak reputation for keeping the roster of dancers 75 percent white. I was hired immediately and given good shifts because the manager owed Dino a favor.

I called Simon the following afternoon. I’d slept until 1 PM, then dragged myself to 7/11 for a jumbo iced coffee and package of white powdered donuts. I sat in bed watching YouTube until I couldn’t procrastinate any longer.

He picked up after the first ring. Howdy, he said.

Hello, Simon.

Long night?

I feigned a laugh. Yup.

He got right to the point. I have certain tastes, he said. He was trying so hard, I could tell, to sound brave. You might call them kinky.

That’s good, I said dumbly.

Is this something you cater to?

Sure. I felt like I was being honest. At that point in my life, most things seemed kinky, if kinky meant specific and charged with weird light. In my first month at the club, I’d had my fair share of foot dudes. The foot dudes were well-regarded by most dancers, as they paid for a private room just to check out our feet. We got to take off our Pleasers and shoot the shit for an hour. The ones I’d encountered had been mousy, demure, cowed by the weight of desire. They wore their fantasies like girdles, an everyday secret. It must have felt good to finally exhale, alone in a room with a beautiful girl. That was our job at the club, or so it seemed to me then: to make men feel OK about whatever moved them. What could this man possibly want, I reasoned, that would shock me?


When things were slow on the floor, I liked to duck into the locker room and study the clipboard. To me it was like poetry, this ever-changing list of all the girls on that night. Angelina, Kitty, Buttercup. I tried to memorize them all. Who could make the whole world bend to her? Scarlet, Candy, Foxy, Grace.

One night I asked Arabella how she came by her name. She was scraping the bottom of her boots with scissors. She didn’t look up. It was my stepmother’s name. She was naked from the waist up, her breasts resting on her knees as she examined her work.

Oh, I said. That’s sweet of you.

Sweet? Arabella snorted. Fuck that bitch.

Oh.

She spritzed the bottom of her boot with hairspray. I wanted a name that started with A. If shit’s alphabetical, I wanted to be at the top of the list. 

Simon told me he wanted a favor here and there. Really, they weren’t favors. The word made me laugh, as if I was giving him a ride. We agreed on $800 a month, sent to me automatically through PayPal. He’d come to the club every now and again, and whenever I saw him, he’d tell me what to do.

The night of the first favor was a busy one. Some big soccer game was playing, Mexico versus Croatia. Men divided their attention between the women on stage and the TVs over the bar. When Simon waved me over, I felt a flash of relief at a familiar face. He was sitting at the bar and drinking a beer from a tall, frosted glass.

Howdy, he said. I’d never be able to get a read on Simon’s sobriety, whether he was totally plastered or just sat there drinking for something to do. It was rare that he would finish a drink but sometimes he bungled his words, betraying internal confusion. He smiled and pushed the beer toward me.

No thanks, I said. I don’t really like beer. The truth is, I loved it, but I didn’t want to be bloated in my little lace set. After work I often drank a Corona with lime in bed, letting my tummy slope over the waistband of my shorts.

He smiled. Me either. He ran a finger around the glass’s rim. But I think you should take this. I think you should go to the ladies’ room. After a long beat it dawned on me: he wanted me to pee in his glass.

I picked up the glass and hurried to the most remote bathroom. I didn’t want management to see me—was I breaking club rules? I locked myself in a stall, dumped the beer in the toilet and squatted over the glass. I closed my eyes and thought of sprinklers, tsunamis, big bruised-up peaches splattering juice. Finally, a modest stream of piss came out. I managed to fill up a third of the glass, then diluted the rest with tap water. I washed my hands and returned to the bar, where Simon appeared to be studying the seam of his jeans.

He didn’t look up as I placed the glass on the bar-top. I sat down beside him and felt a bit shy, as though I’d written him a poem and was waiting for him to review it.

Well. I folded my hands in my lap. There you go.

There was long tense pause in which we avoided eye contact; then he reached out and downed the whole thing in one go. I could hear the cartoonish glug as he swallowed. When he looked up, his eyes were ablaze.

Delicious. His zip-lipped machismo was gone; he now wore the expression of a little boy on his birthday. Thank you so much.

The club lights hid my blush. No problem. There’s more where that came from.

He licked his lips. Really?

Well . . . no. I didn’t think I could pee again for at least an hour. Not now.

He nodded. That’s OK. Now that I’d fulfilled his favor, I felt some distance between us. He wasn’t cold or mean but it seemed like he wanted to savor these feelings alone. I could relate; in my early twenties I was the type to get high alone, to withdraw from the afterparty and tuck myself into a stranger’s bed. I wanted to swaddle myself in good vibes, hoard them all for myself, and I feared that mindless socializing—playing Never Have I Ever, watching prank videos online—would somehow reduce or pollute my high.

I’m gonna go powder my nose, I said. I slid off my stool and he stared at the grain of the bar. The bartender swept up the now-empty glass. We said nothing as she walked away, dunked it in the sink.


Things the other dancers told me: there was a girl named Horsie who named herself after the drug. There was a girl named Penny who never made shit. There were two girls named Unique who got in a fist fight over the name. There were two sets of twins named Molly and Holly, Lola and Lila. There was a girl who had her regulars call her Trash Bag. There was a girl named Patience who was so very beautiful, so beloved by all men, that no one has dared use that name ever since.

For my second favor, Simon asked to see inside my mouth.

We were sitting at the bar, ignoring our drinks, when a look of misty consternation came over him.

Do you mind . . . He spluttered, looked down.

Spit it out, I said, squeezing his knee.

He smiled. No, he murmured, you.

Me what?

You spit.

I shrugged and began to summon saliva to the front of my mouth. To do so, I imagined I was sucking a Lemonhead. Simon watched me intently. He leaned closer and said, Let me see.

I couldn’t speak without losing the saliva I’d gathered, so I scrunched my brows to communicate uncertainty.

He smiled and said it again. Let me see.

I puckered my lips into the shape of a bowl and opened my mouth so that he could peer inside.

Perfect, he whispered. Now swallow.

I did so with a melodramatic gulp. If I had an Adam’s apple it would have bobbed.

Oh god, Simon said. Oh my god. He looked winded and wowed, like he’d spent the day at a museum. I wish that was me in there. I wish you could swallow me.

But you’re too big.

He nodded sadly. I know. Though half-naked women twerked all around us, we spoke to each like children, blunt and believing. I knew what he meant: he wanted to be the size of grape, of an aspirin, maybe even a gumball, that thing you’re warned your whole life not to swallow. But that’s precisely what he wanted: to be eaten alive, to glide down my throat, to disappear into wetness. I imagined my belly like a room with the blinds drawn on a summer day. He wanted to enter that room and lie down in the dark. It was a desire both pure and absurd.


I didn’t tell Dino about Simon. Our arrangement as exes was low-key, so it’s not like he’d be jealous. Sex had never been very important to us. Our relationship had pivoted on a blend of risk and routine. We loved to get freakishly high and melt into the sofa, not moving for days on end, more blanket than body. We would mash our foreheads together, hold hands so hard our fingers tingled, a child’s idea of hot sex. We showed love by taking turns getting the mail.

Some people thought Dino was slimy, but they didn’t know what I knew: yes, he owned nunchucks, yes, I was forbidden from being alone with his friends, but he also loved Disney movies and Celine Dion. Despite his dark appetites, he was a softie who cross-dressed. He would wear leopard-print leggings around the house, Agent Provocateur lingerie under his gym clothes. More to the point, his shit was good, he never cut it. His drugs were expensive and he took pride in his work. He kissed his rescue dogs on the lips and named them after ’90s supermodels. Linda was a hellraiser, Cindy was chunky, Naomi slept in his arms every night.

I liked to ride with Dino whenever he made house calls. It was fun to drive around the city together, watching the bars empty, parking out by the beach. His clientele was mainly young men with money. They spent thousands of dollars on weekend-long music festivals and wore socks that were supposed to be invisible. I think they were intimidated by Dino’s size, the ropy forearms and throat tattoos, the coconut oil in his hair. If they ever noticed me in the passenger seat, they never let on. If he’d happened to catch them looking, Dino would’ve snapped his fingers and said, Don’t be rude! Ask my lady her star sign.  

I think the reason I didn’t tell Dino about Simon is because I didn’t want to explain it to him. It seemed taxing to put our relationship into words. I didn’t want Dino to worry. The truth is, I felt great. I felt purposeful, driven: here was someone who needed me and appreciated my work. Simon was a satisfied customer. Unlike with my other regulars (a widower who told me good pussy should taste like cream soda), it felt good to make him happy. I guess when someone drinks your piss, you feel like they know you a little.


I would estimate I saw Simon once or twice a month. He drifted in, sometimes fifteen minutes before close, ordered a drink he didn’t finish, tipped Sadie the bartender handsomely, and waited for me to be free.

Throughout it all, his vibe never seemed hypersexual. Our very first encounter, when he sat me down on his lap, was our most flirtatious exchange. After that, his dudely act seemed to soften. If my initial impression of him was as a cowboy, now I saw him more as a cow. Dependable, hefty. Big brown eyes, staring at nothing . . .

Yes, he got off on the favors, but in a muted, private way. Whatever he gained from them was his business and he didn’t need to spray me with it. Over the course of our arrangement, I pissed in his beer; spat in his mouth; stepped on his toes; gave him my used panties in a Ziploc bag; twisted his nipples until he cried uncle; called him many, many names. He alternated between wanting to be praised and torn down. I called him ugly, pitiful, unlovable, rank. I tried to use my imagination to come up with new words: reprehensible, lugubrious, toady, fink. I told him about my wild sexual exploits (which of course I made up), stressing how irresistible I was to the captain of the UC Berkeley swim team, a freckled beefcake I named Rocky.

Sometimes we did our thing quietly at the bar; for the more physical stuff, Simon paid for a VIP room where I was free to abuse him. Nothing major: I spanked him, pulled his hair. One time he asked for a used tampon but I wasn’t on my period. Another time he bought a room for two hours and told me to ignore him. That was a great night. I watched YouTube on my phone and pretended to text Rocky while Simon trembled and sighed in a corner.

Something I liked is he never got hard. At least, as far as I could tell. I never had to dance for him or take off my clothes. He never called me sexy or pretty or foxy or cute. The closest we came to that type of behavior was one night when he asked me to slap him. I was standing in front of him, leaning down, wearing new heels I’d failed to break in. I slipped on the beery floor; he put a hand out to steady me and grazed my breast in the process. There was a long, dense pause before he snatched his hand away.

I’m sorry, he mumbled, looking down.

I stepped back. It’s OK. I felt inexplicably furious.

At last, he stood up. Thirsty?

Yes, I lied.

He moved toward the door, not disguising his haste. Let’s get you a Shirley Temple.


I recited the list on the drive back to Dino’s: Jezebel, Brandy, Kitty, Veronique, Natalie, Harmony, Arabella, Dior, Gemini, Roxie, Fiona, Elite, Saskia, Gigi, Delaney, Maryjane, AJ, Paris, Dallas, London, Raven, Lola, Lana, Lux.


It was hard, at first, to know what to do with my money. I tried different avenues: online shopping, beauty treatments. It all felt forced. I didn’t want or need more clothes; the only place I ever went, besides the club, was Trader Joe’s and the public pool. I didn’t need knee-high boots or complicated halter tops to shop for chips. My one sartorial outlet was the lingerie I wore for work, the virginal teddies and psychedelic bikinis, schoolgirl skirts and short-lived stockings. Dino always had a say in my work clothes. There was a boutique called Candyland where we’d shop for lingerie together, Dino walking slow as if in an art gallery. But was it weird to use my stripper cash to buy more stripper clothes? That felt like a mean joke, a glittery ouroboros. Instead I washed my old stockings in the kitchen sink and filled a coffee tin to the brim with balled ones.

On Minnie’s suggestion, I went to the Korean spa during the day. I was surprised to bump into a gaggle of girls from the club. In fact, the only people there at 2 PM on a Tuesday were other strippers and a smattering of spaced-out grannies, all at peace with nudity. Gigi saw me and gave me a hug. She was the club’s biggest earner, though you wouldn’t know it here. Hey Baby, she said. She looked sleepy and small. Ready for that TLC?

We soaked together in the hot tub until it was time for her full-body scrub. She walked away with her hair in a frazzle.

I wandered upstairs and lay down in the clay room. It was a pink-lit closet filled knee-deep with small clay balls. They were smooth and hot. It reminded me of a children’s ball pit at McDonald’s. You were supposed to wear your underwear but I was alone, so I took mine off and hid them in a corner. It felt amazing to roll around in all those hot little balls. I buried myself as deep as I dared. For a moment, I thought of Simon. Was this something he would like?

Then I pushed him from my mind. I made the motion of snow-angels, humming to myself, until an employee came in and chastised me for not wearing panties.


A litany of nouns, lifted from their humdrum meanings: Daisy, Opal, Lyric, Karma, Olive, Poppy, Destiny, Sapphire, August, Serenity, Diva, Faith, Rosemary, Crystal, Angel, Diamond, Fawn, Savannah, Princess, Fate.

 My favorite dancer was a girl named Harmony. She liked to bake and brought us gluten-free treats in Tupperware containers. Harmony wants us thick! we cried, mouths full of blondie. She had a wide, dimpled ass and, I swear to God, the most beautiful pussy that I’ve ever seen. I kept looking, discreetly, for someone to rival her. But for however beautiful other pussies may be, none held a candle to our Harmony’s.


I could never have predicted the last favor Simon asked from me.

I was working a day shift, which I rarely ever did, thanks to Dino’s connections with the club manager. I had somewhere to be that evening. I can’t remember where but it must have been with Dino. He was the only man I saw outside work; I didn’t bother with dating. My sexual energy was used up at work. By the time I put my civilian clothes on, I was all flirted out. Dallas likened it to being a doctor.

It comes with the territory, she said. When you see this stuff all the time at your job, you just get desensitized.

To death? I asked.

She gave me a look. No, she said. To nudity. 

That Sunday Simon sat at his usual spot at the bar, not-drinking a Bud Lite. He looked the same as always: grubby clothes, shifty eyes, little smile. On my request, he’d started growing out a mustache. It made him look even more likely to jack your car.

Hey there, I said, slinking up. 

Hi.

I was thinking of you.

Really?

It was true. I’d just finished a private dance for a fidgety frat boy. As soon as we were alone in the room, he turned around and bent over. Frothing out from his jeans was a lacy pink thong. So literal, I thought to myself. Why did all the sissies like the same things? Always frilly, always pink. Barbie dream-house bullshit. Why couldn’t they be sleek like Dino or quiet like Simon? It would be more realistically girlish to display yourself shyly, with a hint of remorse.

Cute, I said.

They make me feel pretty, he’d said. Pretty like you!

It was then that I thought to myself, where is Simon?

Back at the bar, he smiled into his drink. That makes me happy to hear, he said.

Well, it’s the truth.

His tone darkened. Too happy, actually.

Hm? 

He ignored me, staring into his beer. I waved my hand at Sadie to order a seltzer and waited for him to speak. This wasn’t abnormal for Simon. Sometimes he got tongue-tied; his shyness and desire clashed.

At last he opened his mouth. I have another favor to ask you.

OK, I said.

I want you to delete me.

I put a hand on his shoulder and said, Come again? I thought perhaps he’d said feed me.

You heard me, he said. I want you to forget all about me.

Simon, I said, heart quickening. Did I do something wrong?

He shook his head. Quite the contrary.

I thought maybe he was teasing me. Well, OK—I reached for my hair. But won’t you miss me?

When he looked up, his eyes were hard. That’s the whole fucking point. I’d never heard him use this tone before. It revealed his age, the spectral reality of children or wives he addressed in the same manner.

Fine, I snapped. You’re the boss. But I just stood there, arms crossed. I felt fizzy with anger. I thought briefly of throwing a drink in his face, but that’s the problem with masochists—they like it rough. Instead I forced myself to smile and play with my hair, that armor of girlhood, until he came to a stand.

When he put a fifty on the bar, I knew he meant business. He kept his eyes on the floor as he zipped up his coat, a body-erasing parka the color of gravestones. If I saw him from behind on the bus or the street, I’d never know it was him.

The last thing Simon said, called out from across the room, was, Keep the change. I blinked, confused, until I realized he was talking to Sadie. I overheard her chatting with Gigi later that night as she broke down the bar. Never underestimate the quiet ones. They always have money.

So true, Gigi said, raising her glass. She wore a tie-dyed UCLA sweatshirt. Here’s to them.


I could never sleep after a shift. I’d crawl into bed with my phone and get lost online. I liked Quora, a website used by old people and tweens. Users uploaded questions for other users to answer.

What’s the worst thing you’ve done for money?

Which celebrities are infamously bad kissers?

Do you have any memories from inside the womb?

I read until I heard Dino’s dogs waking up. They circled the living room and whined for their breakfast. His voice was often the last thing I heard before drifting off.

Come on little girlies, he sang. In private he spoke to them so gingerly. Sometimes I found myself missing that tone; it used to be familiar to me. I was once his little chickadee. It reminded me of when we first met. I was 25, still in the habit of drinking three coffees a day. I was riding the bus to the library when he plunked down beside me. I remember his rings, one for each finger. He seemed expansive, full of light. Like a shoplifter with a microwave under his jacket, that’s how full of light he was. He was irrefutably beautiful, a big-boned angel planted on the bench seat beside me. At last he said, Going somewhere?

Now I lay in this man’s guest room and listened to him putz around in the rude hours of morning. His thighs would have goosebumps, bared in a nightgown. You’re telling Daddy that you’re hungry, he murmured. Daddy’s on it, don’t you fret. Daddy takes good care of you.

I looked down: I had goosebumps too. I fell asleep with my phone in my hand.


The payments kept coming, every month on the dot, but I never saw Simon at the strip club again. I would sometimes see men dressed like him at the bar and my heart would leap. But no, it was just some other lonely fool, hiding in his hoodie. I was surprised by how much I missed Simon. We were twinned in a deep, mysterious way, like two people who survive the same plane crash. Loneliness was our destiny and we didn’t try to deny it. We were each other’s child bride, linked by something more lasting than lust.

The only person I talked to about Simon was Minnie. It was a packed night and we were alone in the locker room. By then I’d been dancing for almost three months—an eternity. I’d seen every color of bruise on my thigh and been called names I’d only ever heard on TV. I’d also made a lot of money. That night I’d ripped my baby-blue teddy and gone to Minnie for a new outfit. I had to be on stage in five minutes; I could see my name on the list.

This is the one! Minnie said, combing through her crate of clothes. She pulled out a long-sleeved black bodysuit made of wet-looking material. This will make you look bossy. Boss bitch! Boom!

It wasn’t something I would normally wear but Minnie was right: it made me look powerful.

Minnie slapped me on the ass. Baby’s not a baby tonight!

I smiled. Simon would like this.

Que?

I told her about our arrangement, recurring payments, the piss in his beer. It spilled out of me like an overturned drink. She nodded as I spoke, nonplussed. You couldn’t shock Minnie. Gigi once described her as Sex Work Santa Claus: generous, jolly, nocturnal.

Plus that bitch keeps track of who’s naughty and nice, she’d whispered. It’s best to stay on her good side.

When I was finished with my account of Simon, Minnie stood behind me and ran her fingers through my hair. I became unrecognizable as she yanked it into different braids. We were quiet as she worked. Finally she looked in the mirror, speaking not to me but to my reflection.

Isn’t it funny? she said. Sometimes shit feels so good we can’t bear it.

I nodded, not really understanding.

These men! she sighed. They think we’re the only ones who show ourselves. But of course they think that. If not, they’d kill us!

What?

She laughed merrily, pulling me out of the chair. I’m kidding! she said. Now go work.

OK, I said, feeling a bit unsteady. What girl was I tonight? What did men think of her, what did she keep in her purse? Candy and love letters; sticks of beef jerky and chapsticks without caps . . .

As if reading my mind, Minnie pinched me and said, You got this, OK?

OK, I muttered, then walked onto the floor.


On Dino’s 36th birthday, we went to his favorite restaurant in all of San Francisco: the Cheesecake Factory at Union Square. We sat on the deck, drinking gigantic pink drinks. We’d cleaned up for the occasion, him with his Prince-tight trousers and unisex cologne, me in a black velvet bustier that looked almost normal when paired with blue jeans. I no longer knew how to look nice without also looking slutty.

We ordered like tourists in love: calamari, crab cakes, steak cooked rare, French fries in a wire cone. We asked for a sharp knife to split everything. The night felt festive and bright, as if we hadn’t seen each other in a very long time. We got tipsy and accidentally flirted. He read my palm and didn’t return my hand, holding it against the damp tablecloth. I couldn’t remember the last time we’d gone out to dinner. I was too lazy, Dino too tired. On my days off, I liked to lounge around in my boxers. I would wake up at noon then walk to the public pool where I wore myself out, doing laps with the grannies. We were all required to wear a swim-cap and goggles. I liked this unbecoming costume, how sexless I became. It was relaxing to surrender to irrelevance after a weekend spent arching my back, laughing at nothing.

I swam until my belly ached, then trotted home. I took a bath and listened to a podcast on economics or murder. Sometimes Dino would cook for me, vast Dominican feasts; we played chess while we digested. We always walked the dogs together after dinner, talking about everything but our work. If he was doing his runs that night, he kissed me on the forehead and left me on the couch, surrounded by animals.

Be good, he said, taking his keys from their bowl and clipping them to his belt. A bit of burgundy lace peeped out from his waistband.

Or what? I asked, laughing, but he was already gone.


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