About a year into dancing and shortly after the development of my stripper persona, Belle, I fell in love.
With a customer.
Truthfully, I’ve only admitted this to a few people. Falling in love with a customer goes against every rule in the stripper book. But I couldn’t help myself, and as I tell the story… I think you’ll understand why.
It was late at night, maybe 1:30 in the morning. I remember the club being pretty busy, so it had to be a Friday or Saturday night. I had just gotten onstage for my set when he walked through the door.
He walked over to an empty table and sat down by himself. He was wearing jeans, a crisp button down shirt with the sleeves partially rolled up, a pair of cowboy boots, and a black cowboy hat. From what I could see through flashing lights and the haze of cigarette smoke, he was strikingly handsome. An anomaly at this club.
I continued dancing my set, trying not to make my glances in his direction too obvious.
He came up to the stage and tipped me a $20 at the end of my first song. His face was serious. He didn’t smile but his eyes were soft. Up close, I got to see how handsome he really was. He didn’t say anything as he set the folded bill on the tip rail and returned to his seat.
I was intrigued.
I continued dancing into the second (and last) song of my set. There were several tippers at the stage. I paid them enough attention to be courteous, but was far more interested in Cowboy. And then he came back up, this time with a $50. Without saying anything, he slid the bill into my garter, this time with just a hint of a smile. He didn’t linger at the stage as most men did – he simply went back to his seat.
In a strip club, money is not just a capitalistic transaction – it is also a form of communication (as well as a complicated exchange of power… but that’s a dissection for another day). I don’t care what club you’re at, a $50 tip is meant to get attention. It says “I’m interested in you.”
Cowboy had gotten close enough for me to catch a whiff of his cologne. He smelled good. I loved when a guy wore a nice, bold cologne. It screamed man.
I’d been dancing long enough to know two things: (1) dancers should never give their real information to a customer and (2) for the love of God, they should never catch feelings for one.
I was about to break both of those rules.
When my set was over, I stepped off stage and slipped through the door adjoining the stage to the locker room. While I was straightening out my tips, Kate, the female manager and co-owner of the club, came rushing in.
“Oh my God, Belle!” she exclaimed. “Did you see him? That fine man in the cowboy hat?” She was fanning her face with her hand, trying to cool down from his hotness.
I laughed. “How could I miss him?”
I liked Kate. She was nuts, a bit of an alcoholic… a 50-something wild child who decided to open a strip club on a whim. She ran a tight ship and was very protective of her dancers. She always referred to us as “my girls.”
“You’re going to go talk to him, right?” she asked, continuing before I could respond. “You have to! If you don’t, I’m going to smack you upside your head!” She was leaning against one of the lockers, her eyes as wide as her grin. I suspected she had done some blow.
I had been sitting and chatting with Bob, a regular of mine, for about an hour. If I didn’t return to the seat next to him, I knew I could lose him as a customer (and this was a customer I definitely did not want to lose).
“Yes, I will… I just have to figure out a way to pull myself away from Bob before all the other girls swarm Cowboy,” I said.
Kate laughed. “If anyone can manage that, it’s you.”
Kate left the locker room as I slipped back into the burgundy gown I was wearing that night. I made my way around the club to thank everyone who had tipped me. I always did this to get a feel for who I was going to sell next. I winked at Bob so he knew I was coming back, and then I walked across the room to Cowboy.
He was gorgeous. I don’t know if I’ve emphasized this enough.
As I approached, Cowboy pulled out the chair next to him. I walked behind him, placed my hand on his left shoulder and leaned around to kiss his right cheek. It was a stripper kiss — a cheek-to-cheek touch accompanied by the lip smack of a kiss (another stripper rule: never leave evidence). My hair fell around his face as I thanked him for the tips. Admittedly, this was a move I’d perfected. Men couldn’t resist it.
“Please,” he said, nodding toward the seat next to him, “join me.”
“I will, but I have to say goodbye to one of my regulars first. Hold my spot?”
He nodded. “Of course.”
I rushed back over to Bob to have a few more sips of my fake drink. Guys often wanted to get the dancers drunk, so they’d happily buy $20 drink after $20 drink – which the clubs loved. But I had platform stilettos to dance in and a focus on business, so once I was old enough to actually drink, mine were usually fake. As a sign to hold the booze, I’d throw the bartender a wink when I ordered.
Good regulars like Bob were precious – I wanted to keep them around as long as possible. They typically had a shelf life – eventually, they’d want to meet me outside of the club. Coming to the club was a sort of fantasy courtship for most regulars. Dancers referred to this as the “girlfriend experience” — creating the illusion of a relationship. Like most of my regulars, Bob would come in and pay me to just sit and talk with him.
As I chatted with Bob, I watched dancer after dancer approach Cowboy. One by one, he turned them away. Once I finally felt like I’d given Bob enough attention, I wished him a good night and walked over to Cowboy’s table.
He saw me coming and pulled out the chair… again. I sat down.
“I thought you were never gonna come back,” he said, this time with a legitimate smile. He was drinking a bud light. He had tattoos on his forearm – it may have been a sleeve but his shirt was blocking my view.
“I told you I would… and I always keep my word.”
“I like that,” he said.
I suddenly felt nervous. Lost for words. My chest felt tight as we engaged in small talk. I wanted to kiss him. I couldn’t tell what it was, but I felt this overwhelming, magnetic attraction to him. It was like something I’d never felt before. He told me his name was Eric.
The DJ announced last call, which meant it was 2:45. The club was about to close.
“You came in too late,” I said. “We didn’t have enough time.”
“I know. But I didn’t know you were going to be here.” He smiled. He was a heartthrob. “I sure hope we run into each other again.”
“Yes, I’d like that.” With that, he got up and pushed his chair in. I gave him a hug and he walked out the door. I wanted to watch him leave but I didn’t.
As I made my way to the locker room, I kicked myself for not telling him my schedule. I’d never given my number to anyone I met at the club, but I was really wishing I had given it to him. I genuinely felt… I don’t know… disappointed. Like I had just let something good slip away. I immediately chided myself: he’s a customer, Jessica. He probably has a wife and kids and a perfect little picket fence country home. Let it go.
And so I did.
I was at work about a week later when he walked in the doors again. Okay, so maybe I hadn’t really let it go. I didn’t waste any time approaching him this time.
To shorten a story that could go on for several posts — we fell in love. I broke all the rules. I gave him my number and we went out for dinner. From that point on, we were inseparable.
Eric was rough around the edges, a streak of bad boy danger, but with a big heart. For all his tough-guy-ness, I could see the truth about him when I looked in his eyes. He was the type of man who would pound someone’s face in if they even looked at me the wrong way, and I loved that. I felt protected, loved. I couldn’t tell where the bad boy layer was, or what had caused it, but it was definitely there.
Eric had suggested (very carefully) that I quit dancing. He didn’t have a problem with it, but he was concerned I felt like it was something I had to do. I knew he made enough money to take care of me, but the thought of being taken care of made me want to vomit.
I told him I loved him but I wasn’t going to quit dancing. It worked too well with my schedule as a student. I remembered the time I spent at Bally’s, meeting clients at all hours for training sessions, stretched so thin that it was hard to keep up with my classes. All of that stress had disappeared when I started dancing – and I wasn’t having to scrape change together to fill up my gas tank anymore.
I kind of jumped on Eric at the suggestion that I stop dancing, defensive that he was trying to take away my independence. But he knew me well enough to back down, and he was secure enough to not be threatened by my dancing. The topic never came up again.
Our romance was a whirlwind. About four months into dating, we were sitting on my couch talking one night when he pulled out a ring and proposed. “Marry me,” he said, holding up a beautiful, simple, 2-carat diamond. There was no long speech about how much I meant to him or how he couldn’t imagine the rest of his life without me. I wouldn’t have liked that anyways – it would been too mushy and over-the-top. I also liked the confidence of his proposal. It wasn’t a question, but a demand.
A demand I was happy to comply with. I held out my left hand, and just like that, I was engaged.
For a very short time, anyways. In less than a month, I’d discover what that bad boy layer was. It was something that would force me to walk away forever…