by Shanna Merceron
She spread her legs and the neon blue lights shifted like we were underwater. She was wearing underwear, but they were crotch-less, white elastic stretching around her hips to hold her tips. Her hair was brown. I don’t like brunettes, especially not with how short she kept it, just barely brushing her shoulders, yet I watched her with interest. She stood up and moved to a pole languidly, her steps not in sync with the beats of the music. She was in her own world, she spun around the pole, her head hung like it was out a window, letting the breeze blow through it. She shimmied down the pole and then she was seated again, in front of me, her legs splayed out, she lifted her butt once, twice, maybe she thought that it counted as dancing, and then she went back to the pole.
I wasn’t seated. I stood in the aisle, hesitating, my friends behind me, waiting for me to join them on the purple velvet couch that stretched the length of the room. A man was in front of me, seated at the dance floor, his elbows propped up, beckoning my girl over with a twenty-dollar bill. She’s my girl now, I thought. My girl was wearing socks like she was a baseball player, maybe. All the women in the joint seemed to be confused, no clear costumes or personas, a mish-mosh of colors and fabrics and skin.
My girl had movie screen nipples. Her breasts were so white they easily grabbed onto the blue light and she moved like she had alien skin, she’s a blue-skinned woman, dancing on the ocean floor. Her breasts weren’t as big as mine, but still on the larger side. It’s unfair that her tiny nipples sat perky in the center. Only women in the movies have nipples like that, no areolas, just perfect little nipples. I resisted the temptation to look down my own shirt at my own nipples that dared to be average-sized.
My girl was looking at me. It only makes sense that she was looking at me because I’d been looking at her for so long, watching her socks and her nipples and her ocean skin. I met her gaze and her expression was interested but disinterested and I did my best to look the same. I was curious about her, about the place, about what kind of women came here. I kept staring at her. I learned that if you look away too soon, it means that the gaze meant something to you. I didn’t want this gaze to mean anything.
We went to a strip club for my friend Teddy’s Dirty Thirty. I didn’t like that he called it that, I felt slimy when he said it. I didn’t like to imagine Teddy in dirty positions. In sticky situations.
I drove south with my friend Katie to Tampa. Teddy’s plan: steak dinner, casino, strip club. Katie and I were late, the GPS lied to us, we took a series of winding back roads that eventually spit us out where we needed to be an hour late.
We missed the steak dinner. Teddy called us, said we missed quite the show. Their waiter really had a voice on him, Teddy said he should audition for one of those singing shows, that singing Happy Birthday for someone’s Dirty Thirty shouldn’t be it for him.
Teddy’s roommate was with him. I didn’t like the roommate, Marvin. Now he, he was slimy. He looked like his underarms smelled toxic and he had permanent perspiration on his forehead. He had a way about him that made me uncomfortable.
Katie’s fiancé, Dylan, was coming from work so he met us at the casino. He was late too. He missed the steak dinner.
Katie and I stopped for food. She was on a diet and was counting calories, but when she realized that the pancake sandwich was only 70 calories more than the chicken one she said, “Fuck it, I’ll treat myself. What’s seventy calories anyways?”
She later threw up when we got to a casino bathroom. I heard her, she told me the pancakes were too greasy, they made her sick. I think she was just guilty.
My friend and I, we wore tight little dresses to the casino. I had never been to a casino but I’d seen plenty of movies. I did my hair up real nice, even wore some false lashes. Shoved my tattooed feet into four inch heels and pretended I was prettier than my friend when I watched her get out of the car. She was so tall and skinny, a real model type with chiseled cheekbones. I knew I was pretty, but I had to breathe through my Spanx. As we hustled out of the garage, her phone rang—her fiancé was at the bar.
We waited at the crosswalk to cross the street into the casino. A cop car pulled alongside us, the officer rolling down his window. “You ladies alright?” he asked. He gave us one long look up and down. It was less icky and more evaluating. I realized he thought we were hookers. We looked like hookers.
“Just headed into the casino,” I said, “it’s our friend’s birthday.”
“Dirty Thirty,” my friend said.
The cop stared at us and then nodded. “Alright, you girls have a good night.” He pulled away and we hustled into the building.
Whistles and eyeballs followed us into the casino. I slowly began to realize that we were still in Florida, not Las Vegas. People walked past us in t-shirts and flip flops. Women were wearing ripped jeans and tank tops. We still looked like hookers.
At the bar, Dylan gave us a long whistle, one hand wrapping around my friend’s ass, the other going over my shoulder. “How much for the night?”
I smacked him on the head and Katie told him to pay for our drinks and maybe he would get lucky.
Teddy arrived at the casino very drunk, Marvin was holding him up, one yellowed armpit next to Teddy’s head. “Let’s get playing,” Teddy said.
Dylan liked blackjack so we played blackjack. Marvin had a gambling problem, so he didn’t bring any money with him. He asked Teddy to borrow some, and Teddy handed him his wallet. The casino wasn’t very exciting. It felt kind of sad. Mindless Floridians moved like zombies from poker table to poker table, their sandals smacking against the carpeted floor, their drinks spilling over the rim of their cups, dripping down their hands, and they didn’t even flinch.
Katie and I tried the slots, seated next to old ladies wearing matching gold sequined scarves. A man walked past smelling of sunscreen and I turned my head into the scent, my eyes following him across the room. Sunscreen smelled like desire to me. Of summers sliding sunscreen under my friends’ bikini straps. But the man didn’t turn around, he didn’t feel my stare.
But I felt stares. They came from everywhere. The dealers, the guards, the men with mustaches and whiskey glasses, the women in the ripped jeans, the men watching the basketball game, daring a glance away from the screen to see my chest. One redneck man hooked his eyes into my flesh and dragged them up and down my body until I squirmed. How much? He mouthed to me. I couldn’t tell if he meant it in jest.
I grew tired of all the staring. Was I just imagining it? Was everyone really looking at me? Lingering on me? My cleavage was plenty. My heels were tall. My hair was blonde. People love to look at blondes. But was something wrong with me? Had I drunk too much? Was my makeup smeared across my face? I told Katie I wanted to use the restroom. Maybe there would be friendly women in the bathroom to share lipstick with. Katie patted Dylan’s hand, told him to wrap it up, and then followed me.
When I entered the restroom, I knew that something was wrong, I could smell a dangerously sweet smell in the air, my nose turning in disgust. I walked toward a stall door and pushed. It swung open, revealing a woman seated on a toilet, hunched over in pain, red down her chest, around her feet, splattered on the walls and floor. For a moment, I thought it was blood, for a moment, I thought she was dead. Her black dress was around her ankles. She sat in just her nude colored bra, the underwire digging into her pale flesh, turning it flush. She lifted her head and grunted at me, a string of saliva spilling from her wine-stained mouth.
“Oh!” I said, “Do you need help?” She clearly needed help.
She lifted a hand and in a whisper said, “Please, close the door.”
I entered another stall and peed real quick. I then joined Katie at the sinks. She was re-applying her lipstick.
“Katie, there is a woman in that stall—,” my voice was a hush, “we need to get help.”
“I know.” Katie smacked her lips. “I already let a security guard know.”
I risked a glimpse at my own reflection. I looked fine. Even my lipstick was fine.
We exited the bathroom and a guard was waiting outside. I pointed to the stall and thought that I might never drink red wine again.
The strip club shifted between red and blue lights. When we walked in, it was blue, everyone cast in an electric shade, like we were underwater. My hand was stamped with a glow-in-the dark kiss print and my group settled onto a long velvet couch.
I was caught in the in-between, not yet moving to the couch, not moving to the stage where women didn’t quite dance. I watched a stripper. The stripper watched me.
“Hey? You alright?” Katie’s breath was on my neck. She took my hand and we sat on the velvet couch, my back to my stripper. Katie rested a hand on Dylan’s knee and clutched my close hand.
Teddy pulled a wad of rubber band-wrapped dollar bills from his pocket. “All for tonight,” he said. I tried not to cringe. His eyes roamed around the club, searching for the woman he would pay first.
“Who do you want?” Dylan asked. A pregnant stripper walked by, wearing a velvet and lace nightie. “What’s your type?”
Teddy glanced at my chest briefly then said, “Oh, I don’t care.” We knew he did. I shook off the glance like I didn’t see it.
Marvin asked him for more money. Teddy peeled away a few bills and handed them to him. Marvin grabbed the wrist of a stripper who walked past and they moved to a more isolated part of the room.
“How much is a dance?” I asked, wondering, as I gazed at a distinguished-looking gray haired man in the corner of the club. A stripper shorter than I and skinnier than Katie was dry humping him to the beat. Her eyelashes were glued on crooked but I could see her appeal. Cheetah spots were tattooed on her thighs.
“Twenty a dance, usually,” Teddy said.
“Damn.” Katie’s face looked concentrated. “Songs are what? Around four minutes? That’s like three hundred an hour.” Her eyes met Dylan’s. “I think I need a career change.”
Dylan laughed and hugged her close.
I dared a glance toward Marvin. All I could see were his sweaty hands roaming over the woman’s breasts in the reflection of the mirrored ceiling. I tried to imagine that being me. Dancing for money. I tried to imagine the last time hands touched my breasts like that. The image of pink manicured nails flashed through my head. On my stomach, then my breasts, I sucked one into my mouth… I shook the memory away.
“Anyone want a dance?” Three strippers stood in front of us. One blonde, one redhead, and one with a long, raven-colored braid. They could’ve been Disney princesses. Teddy eyed the redhead with the double D’s and gave a hearty nod.
The redhead’s name was Lacey. Lacey strutted across the room to put a dollar in the juke box machine and changed the song. Teddy seemed happy with her breasts in his face.
“You can touch my ass too, I don’t mind!” Lacey was fun.
The other princess strippers still hovered by our group, shimmering like schooling fish.
“How about you ladies? Do you want a dance? We would love to give you a dance. A double dance!” They squealed and the blonde clapped her hands in excitement. Katie turned to Dylan to see what he thought and he shook his head uncomfortably.
The blonde brushed the back of her hand against my cheek and said, “Maybe later.” She was almost my type, not like the woman I knew was behind me, slinking up and down the pole, lazily dancing the night away. Where does she go after? Or is she always on that pole, on that floor, like a genie in a lamp, granting temporary wishes. I resisted the temptation to turn around, to look at my girl, to see if the stripper I had watched was watching me, or still moving on the stage like she was under a spell.
Teddy had a few more dances. The woman in the corner still grinded against the distinguished gentleman. Marvin appeared and asked for more money, his shirt sticking to him in sweat. Teddy gave him a few more bills, and Marvin disappeared again.
“Why do you do that?” I didn’t trust Marvin, I didn’t like him. I saw him in the mirror again and felt sick.
“He pays me back,” Teddy said. I didn’t believe him.
Dylan helped Teddy choose his next dancer and Katie and I spoke about the outfit choices of the women in the room. “I suppose men don’t care if they match,” she said.
“But women care,” I said.
“Yeah, but they’re not here for us.”
“I thought they would dance. I thought strippers danced.” I turned around then to see my girl, and there she was, spinning around the pole in a slow trance. She saw me staring. I held her gaze.
“It’s a nude strip club,” Dylan said, “they don’t have to put on a show, their clothes are already off.”
Teddy had a few more dances. His wad was slimming down. I caught Katie with her hand on Dylan’s groin. Marvin still held a stripper captive in his own corner. I wondered if the woman with the gentleman took breaks. I wondered how rich he was.
“Hi, ladies! How ‘bout a dance for y’all?” A new stripper stood in front of us. She wore a bright smile and a bright blue bra with rhinestones on it. Her skin sparkled too, she wore body glitter. “I’m gonna give you gals a dance, I sure am!” She pretended to sit down on our laps. Dylan laughed uncomfortably. “What?” the stripper said, “You don’t wanna see three ladies havin’ a good time?”
The stripper held his gaze until he conceded.
“Perfect! My name is Dixie, y’all.” A new song began and Katie and I found ourselves with a moon-white butt wiggling in our faces. Then Dixie turned and slipped off her bra. She scooted herself between us, resting her legs on us, her breasts in between our faces.
“Touch them! Go on, touch them!” She lifted my hand and put it on her right breast and put Katie’s hand on her left breast. As if on reflex, I squeezed it. My touch lingered. Dixie leaned her face in close to ours. “They’re fake.”
“No!” Katie gasped, “no way!”
“Way!” Dixie wiggled her chest and laughed. I caught Dylan, Teddy, and Marvin watching us with interest.
“I want implants,” Katie said. She gave Dixie’s breast a squeeze and whispered amazing under her breath.
“I want a reduction,” I said. I decided to give Dixie another squeeze too.
“The surgeries are so advanced now. I was even able to breastfeed.” Dixie turned to give us her backside. “Slap it!” she said. We slapped it. I felt excited. Is this how the men felt? Is this why they came here?
“Wow, you don’t look like you’ve had kids,” I said. Her body was perfect, slim and smooth. Her breasts were perfect.
“I have three!”
The song ended and Dixie gave us a hug, squeezing our heads between her breasts. “I love you girls. I love you. Have a good night, let me know if you want another dance.”
Dixie wiggled her eyebrows at Dylan and tried to saunter away. Marvin pulled her to his corner for a dance.
“What were you guys talking about?” Teddy asked.
Dylan walked Katie and me out of the club to my car. He was going to stay and make sure Teddy got home alright.
“I shouldn’t be long, he’s almost out of money. The Dirty Thirty is winding down.” Katie murmured something into Dylan’s ear and I walked away to give them some space. I could taste their tension. I felt tense. I stared up at the neon sign above the club, a giant clam shell that opened to reveal a naked mermaid inside. I let its blinking colors wash over me. It buzzed softly in the early morning.
I looked up and my stripper was in front of me. My girl. She was standing in the parking lot in her baseball socks and nothing else. She stretched a hand out toward me.
“You forgot your phone,” she said.
I walked a couple steps forward and took it. “Thank you.”
She nodded. The clam shell opened and closed.
My girl took a step even closer, our feet almost touching. I looked intently at her face. She wasn’t very beautiful and yet I wanted to run my fingers through her hair, slip off her socks, kiss her brow. I stumbled an inch closer.
“Do you need a hug?” she whispered. My brows drew together, not understanding the question, not knowing how to answer.
“Do you?” my voice was quieter than hers.
My girl, my stripper, shook her head. Her mouth curved in a funny way like she was saying yes and no at the same time but she said nothing. She wrapped me in a hug and I remember everywhere I felt her skin.
She walked back into the club and I realized I didn’t hug her back.
Shanna Merceron is a Florida writer whose work can be found in many acclaimed literary journals and magazines. Shanna holds an MFA in Fiction from Hollins University, where she wrote stories that explored the darker aspects of humanity and pushed the boundaries of the strange. She is currently at work on her first novel, and when not writing, best spends her time traveling or with her dog. You can read more of Shanna’s work via her website at linktr.ee/shannamerceron.