I slapped Sebastian around for the next hour, making it up as I went. He laid on the ground while I walked on his back in my stilettos. I verbally demeaned him and made him call me Mistress. I could see the twinkle in his eyes as I paced back and forth, feigning disgust over his existence.
When the hour was up, he took out his credit card and handed it to me. “Let’s stay another hour,” he whispered with a wink.
Sebastian was a rare customer. Out of the thousands of people I interacted with as a stripper, he’s the only one who wanted to be dominated in such an extreme way.
My regulars liked the sultry strength of Belle, but they didn’t want to be slapped around. They wanted the fantasy of the girlfriend experience. But sometimes the fantasy wore off and real friendships blossomed.
I lost my scholarship at the end of my junior year, back when I was still a science major in denial. I received a C in organic chemistry and had to drop calculus to avoid a D (optimistically – it probably would have been an F). I worked my ass off to prove I was brilliant in everything and found out…I wasn’t.
I was in a funk when I got to work that night. My regular, Rich, was coming in, so I took a seat at the bar and ordered myself a martini while I waited for him. Lacy, one of my favorite bartenders ever, put her hands on her hips and looked at me. “Really, Belle? You’re buying yourself a drink?”
“I know,” I said. Girls who bought themselves drinks usually had drinking problems. I was just having a bad day.
“It’s been a day,” I said, forcing a smile.
A few minutes later, Rich entered the club. Rich was, well, rich, but you’d never guess from his appearance. He was in his early 60s, usually wore over-sized tropical shirts and flip flops. He reminded me of a disheveled old sailor you’d expect to find in a dive bar somewhere in the Florida Keys. He walked up to where I was sitting and smiled. “Hey, you.” I stood up to give him a hug. His face was sunburned.
“It must have been a good day on the boat,” I said.
Rich smiled. “Belle, every day on the water is a good day.” He glanced down at my martini and then back up at me, looking puzzled. “Are you sitting with someone?” he asked.
“No, I bought myself a drink.” I pulled my chair back out to sit down. Rich took a seat and Lacy placed a napkin in front of him.
“You did what?” Rich asked.
“Yeah!” Lacy interrupted. “That’s what I said! Belle never buys herself a drink.”
“Oh come on you two! I’m just an independent woman who wanted a martini!” Lacy walked to the other side of the bar to get Rich rich a beer as he turned toward me. He knew something was up.
“So what’s going on in your world today?”
I teared up as I told him my overachiever, perfectionist sob story. Rich had been my regular for six months or so. During that time, we’d gotten to know each other and developed a friendship.
“Are you worried about being able to pay the tuition?” he asked.
“No,” I replied. “It’s not that. It’s more….just me feeling disappointed in myself.” Lacy returned with Rich’s Corona and he handed her a $20 from his wallet. She went to get change as Rich reached around to rub my back.
“Cheer up kiddo, you’re too damn hard on yourself.” He stopped to take a sip of his beer before continuing, “I’ve been around the block and I’ve met a lot of women in my life. You’re among the brightest.”
I smiled. “You’re just saying that.”
“Nope, little lady, you should know by now that I don’t ever just say anything.” I laughed and nodded — this was true. Rich was no bullshit.
“So what does this mean? Switching majors? How many classes will you take next semester?”
“Well this will set me back,” I admitted. “But if I switch to English, I’m pretty sure I’ll breeze through those classes. So I’m thinking 5 to 6 a semester.”
“I think that’s a great idea,” he said. “It’s not always about picking the toughest road. You don’t always have to prove yourself, you know.”
I laughed. “I think you know me well enough to understand that’s one of my built-in dysfunctions.”
Rich smiled and shook his head. “Yes… I do.”
A month later, at the start of the next semester, Rich surprised me with a check for my tuition. He told me he knew I could pay it myself, but wanted to show that he believed in me.
The encouragement I received from my customers was a perk of the job – which probably isn’t what most people would expect to hear from a stripper. It wasn’t all rainbows (as you’ll see in the next post), but I did meet a lot of fantastic people when I danced.
About a month after Rich surprised me with that check, it was Valentine’s Day. I decided to go into work because, well, I didn’t have a date. I also suspected the club would be busy with couples.
I wore a red velvet gown studded with rhinestones and matching ruby red lipstick, trying my best to look Valentine-sy. I was on stage when a guy walked through the door by himself. He grabbed a beer from the bar and took a seat at my stage. He shifted in his seat awkwardly, tipped me, and asked me come sit with him when I was done.
After my set, I went up to the locker room to get dressed and freshen up. When I came back down, the guy was still sitting in the same spot. I walked over to where he was and pulled out a chair. He smiled shyly as I leaned over to say thanks and give him a stripper kiss.
I took a seat. “I’m Belle,” I said. “And you are…?”
“Roger,” he replied.
Roger was a regular looking dude. Unassuming, kind of shy. He was wearing jeans with a tucked-in polo. Wire-rimmed glasses. I could tell he just wanted someone to hang out and chat with. He tipped me generously during each stage set to “buy” my time. Roger was smart and interesting, and we spent the next few hours chatting and sipping on cocktails.
As the night waned, I couldn’t help but wonder why Roger was alone on Valentine’s day. He seemed like a really great guy. So I asked.
“Roger?” He turned to me.
“Why are you here tonight? Alone….? You seem too great to be alone on Valentine’s Day.”
He forced a smile but I sensed his sadness. “I suppose I could ask you the same. Where’s your valentine?”
“You can’t answer a question with a question,” I told him. “You first.”
I found out that Roger was there because he’d just been dumped by his fiance. A couple hours earlier. She’d met someone else.
“I had planned this romantic dinner. Her Valentine’s gifts are out in my car.” We were both silent for a moment – I didn’t know what to say. “I didn’t see it coming,” he added. “Didn’t have a clue.” He shook his head and looked down at his beer.
“Aww, Roger… I’m sorry,” I said.
He nodded. “Thanks.” He paused to take a long swig. “So, after she told me she didn’t want to be together anymore, I got in my car and just drove. The last place I thought I’d end up tonight was a strip club. I’m not the type of guy to come to these places. You know?
I nodded, thinking it was funny he wanted to make sure I knew he wasn’t the type of guy who went to strip clubs.
“I drove past the club and then got up the street, made a u-turn, and came back.”
“How come?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Honestly… I don’t know. All my buddies were out with their wives and girlfriends for the night… and I really just wanted to hang out with someone.” He paused and started to peel the label from his beer. “Pathetic. That’s pathetic, right? I had to go to a strip club for company?”
I shook my head. “I don’t think so. It beats sitting at home alone.”
He smiled and patted my leg. “It sure as hell beats that.”
I liked Roger – he was a sweet guy.
“Your turn,” Roger said. “Why are you here on Valentine’s Day? Surely you’ve got a boyfriend or husband?”
I chuckled. “Hardly,” I said. “Single. This is just another day, you know?”
Roger nodded. “That’s what single people always say. Or that it’s just a Hallmark holiday.”
“Well, it is.”
“Ah, Belle, I’m picking up on a touch of cynicism.”
I took a sip of my martini. This was a real one. Tonight the drinks were real.
“Probably a little more than a touch, at this point.”
“Someone broke your heart?”
I sighed. “Something like that. Someone broke mine. I broke someone else’s. It’s all just fucked up, isn’t it? This game of love?”
Roger sat back in his chair, holding his beer with a half-peeled label and glanced up at the stage. “Hold that thought while we tip this lovely lady.” Roger had split his stack of cash into two so I had my own pile to tip with. The girl on stage crawled up to us and writhed around for a moment while we slipped dollar bills into her g-string. Roger was transfixed for a moment and then turned to me, shaking his head. “Women hold all the power, you know?”
“I do,” I said. “The problem is that most of them don’t realize it.”
“The women here sure seem to understand it,” he replied with a smile.” This was very true. Strippers, most definitely, understand their power as women. “Back to your question,” he said, scooting his chair close to mine. “Yes, the love thing is absolutely fucked. 100%. No doubt.”
“I knew you’d agree,” I exclaimed, clapping my hands together. “It’s messed up, all of it! Soul-sucking and pointless!”
“BUT -” Roger interjected. “When it’s right, it’s the most incredible feeling humans can experience. Love… it’s kind of the point of everything.”
I sat back in my chair and crossed my arms over my chest. “Roger, this was way more fun when you were on team LOVE SUCKS with me.”
It can suck,” he said. “But it can also be awesome. Haven’t you ever been in love?” He looked at me intently. I loved nights like this when I could [get paid to] sit and chat with someone smart and interesting.
I sighed. “I have,” I admitted.
“How many times?”
I didn’t have to ponder the answer to this question. “Once,” I said.
“And how was it?”
“Wonderful… and heartbreaking,” I said. He nodded. “I have a theory about this.”
“Do tell.” He leaned in.
“I don’t think it’s possible to ever re-capture the feeling of your first love. You know, the first true love. Because your ability to love is so full, so carefree. You have no idea of how badly it can hurt. But then after your first heartbreak, your ability to love in that wild, innocent way is… gone.”
“Well damn,” Roger said. “Who invited negative Nancy to the party?”
“It’s like losing your love virginity. It’s never the same after that.”
“Interesting theory,” he replied.
“Isn’t it?” I took a sip of my martini while Roger cocked his head to the side and looked up for a moment, pondering the wisdom of a 22 year old stripper.
“But it’s flawed.”
I gasped, feigning shock. “It can’t be!”
“Yup.” A waitress came over to ask if we wanted another round of drinks. Roger nodded, of course we did.
“Belle, if you’re going to use the metaphor of losing your virginity, then you’d have to acknowledge that the first time is always the worst. It’s sloppy and awkward, nobody knows what they’re doing. But over time, it gets better.”
“Interesting counterargument,” I said, smiling. “So there’s hope?”
“Indeed! Lots of hope!” Roger held up his beer, now completely label-less, and motioned for a toast. I picked up my martini and clinked it against his Michelob. “To love!” Roger shouted.
“To love!” I echoed. “The hope for it, anyways.”
“There’s always hope,” Roger added with a wink.
Roger stayed until the club closed. When the DJ announced last call for alcohol, Roger reached over to squeeze my shoulders. “I’m really glad I made that u-turn. This ended up being a wonderful night. Took my mind off things.”
“I’m glad you did too.”
“You’re wearing poison?” he asked. “Your perfume?”
“Very good,” I said.
“It’s a lovely scent… ” he reached for his keys. “Will you wait for me for a minute? I need to run to my car.”
“Sure thing,” I said. Roger ran out to his car as the club slowly emptied. A few minutes later, he walked in with a small wrapped box. He came back over and sat down next to me.
“I want you to have this,” he said, holding the box out to me. I knew it had to be one of the Valentine’s Day gifts he had bought for his now-ex-fiance. I didn’t know what to do.
I shook my head. “No, no, no,” I protested.
“I know, I know, it’s weird, right?” I could tell he suddenly felt awkward and silly for offering me a gift. “I bought it for Marissa, but… you know how that worked out. You don’t have to take it…. I just thought it was something you would like.”
This poor guy, I thought. I knew by not accepting the gift I would just make him more uncomfortable. The gesture was genuine and sweet, so I reached out and he placed the box in my hand. It was wrapped in red paper with a white ribbon.
“Thank you, Roger,” I said, hugging him.
“No, thank you,” he replied. “Really. Thank you.” With that, we said our goodbyes, Roger left, and I climbed the stairs into the locker room.
I stuck the gift down in my duffel bag and changed into my street clothes. The locker room was bustling with happy strippers – it had been a good night for everyone. I counted my cash and tipped out the DJ and bouncers. After the lot had been cleared, one of the security guys walked me to my truck.
When I got home, I took a quick shower, threw on an oversized t-shirt, and brushed my teeth. I hadn’t forgotten about Roger’s gift. I retrieved the wrapped box from my bag of sparkly g-strings and lycra gowns, which all wreaked of cigarette smoke. I sat down on the floor and unwrapped the gift.
It was a bottle of perfume. Poison, by Christian Dior. I never saw Roger again. But every time I spritzed on that perfume, I’d remember his hopefulness about love in a moment most people would be utterly cynical and heartbroken. I liked that.
Stripping hardens a lot of women. But that was not the case for me. Those years in strip clubs taught me to be more empathetic, more accepting… less judgmental. We’re all just trying to make it through life the best we can.
Preview of the next diary series…
So many people around us are waging inner battles that no one even knows about. At that time, I was about to enter a battle of my own… one that would last about seven years as the universe kicked my ass.
Between ages 23 and 26, I would: graduate from college and get the shittiest job I ever had, be consistently flat broke, spend all four years in a draining, tumultuous relationship with a guy (Jake) you’ll meet in the next post, battle a horrible ulcerative colitis attack, lose my dad to suicide, enter a period of unbearable loneliness, get hit by a truck while riding my bicycle, and then, a couple months later, bicycle across the country.
Ages 27 to 29: When I returned from my bike ride, I was sure I’d turned the corner, but it wasn’t over yet. After grad school, I couldn’t find a job so I went back to stripping. Then I met an angel in the strip club who told me it was time for me to stop dancing (seriously). I quit dancing (for good this time) and moved back in with my mom because I didn’t have a pot to piss in. Next, I reconnected with Bryan (yes, that Bryan) and moved in with him. Two months later, I broke up with Bryan and moved out. I stayed in Jake’s condo while he was away on a work assignment because I had nowhere else to go.
I was a mess.
But finally, when I was 29, the clouds began to part. I started working in a gym (still couldn’t find a job using my degree), rented a condo, scraped together enough money to furnish it with some Craigslist finds, and fell in love.
The next series of posts will be about the tumultuous period of my life that began after college, from 23 to 27. This period served as a continuation of the fortification that started that day, several years earlier, when I stood up for myself and walked out of Bally’s after Ian’s humiliation. The next decade was a journey of finding my strength and discovering myself. I hope you’ll join me…