Life's Little Hooks
Amie M. Evans
The price for me is never right. I don't do backrooms or private dances. I'm a stripper, not a hooker; a girl's got to draw the line somewhere. I make enough three nights a week to live alone and go to school. I don't have kids or an addiction to feed or a boyfriend or husband who keeps betting money he doesn't have on a sure thing. I don't have to do lap dances, I just have me and a cat. And a tuition bill that comes like clockwork. But some big shot always has to have me at any price. A challenge. Big game hunting. It ends with me out of a job and them in the backroom with some other girl getting a freebie on the house.
That's what happened tonight.
I packed up the scant contents of my locker into my backpack after the manager said do it or leave. I could get another gig tomorrow. And I have three months' rent saved in the bank. That's not why I'm upset.
I walked west down East Houston Street with no destination in mind. Men in dirty coats and skull caps huddled around open barrel fires. They didn't hide the bottles with brown paper bags. Instead, they held them by the necks, took their long drinks, and reluctantly thrust them to the next in line. They called out to me in slurred voices.
Sweetheart. Lovely Lady. Come here, Darling.
I didn't answer. I didn't look. They couldn't afford it even if I sold it. I had nothing I would willingly give. Nothing they had I could possibly want.
I walked past dark brick warehouses with windows boarded up, five-story apartment buildings with barred windows half open, and street-level stores with windows locked tight by iron fences. Empty lots held mud and wild shrubs. When I hit the Bowery I turned right and followed it past more of the same -- more homeless people, more closed warehouses, more locked stores, more empty lots, more rundown apartments. This part of the city I never saw when my Nana and I spent a long weekend in the fall and another in spring shopping and theater-going. I was too afraid to venture down the Bowery when I was sixteen. I had just received my first car and skipped school with my friends at least once a month to drive to New York City, sneak into bars, hang out in the grit and stink and energy. Once I moved here to go to college, I'd discovered the best second-hand shops, the women's bookstore, and the dyke bars. When my family disowned me and I had to get a job that actually paid my bills, it was here that I found the upscale strip clubs. The hostility and discomfort of these streets were comforting to me in their familiarity.
At Fourth Street, everything changed. The Bowery became Third Avenue. I buttoned my coat against the cool air and light rain. There were all-night businesses -- pharmacies, flower shops, beauty salons, and diners. People with fancy evening clothes and umbrellas moved about the street in groups of three or four scurrying from somewhere to someplace. As they wandered the city streets, college boys talked drunkenly about literature, girls, and the meaning of life. In twos and threes, working girls stood on corners or against buildings. The stinging night air pimpled their exposed flesh with goose bumps. I paused with a collection of mismatched city folks to watch two lovers screaming at each other on the corner of Seventh Street. They were so consumed in their own angry passion that they were unaware or unconcerned with the people watching them. I drifted back into the thin, moving crowd along Third Avenue.
When I stumbled by accident into the heaven that was St. Mark's Place, I was a teenager enchanted with the complexity of the city, the sheer diversity of the people I saw moving through the streets and subways, the incredible depth of life that showed itself everywhere I looked. Everything I saw was new and mysterious. Its very existence problematized my small-town, middle-class, Catholic reality by opening doors to options and worlds that I hadn't known existed or couldn't have possibly created even in my fantasies.
The world I had lived in was highly structured and organized. People did certain things and did not do others. Roles weren't confusing. Goals were clearly stated. Destinies easily identified. I had no confusion over what was expected of me. My mother made it very clear that I was talented and could become a dancer, a model, or an actress, but instead, I would marry "up." And although I attended a private college prep school and was expected to go to college, I was told a lady should hide her true intelligence, lest she scare away potential qualified husbands. Being smart was important, but unless you used it to ensure that you married well, it meant nothing. But my teenage desire for rebellion itched at everything.
I developed bulimia.
It started slowly, casually. I am not entirely sure when I did it the first time, what prompted it, or where the idea came from even. I'd use the handle of my toothbrush to tickle the back of my throat. The gagging, the burning, and the nausea led to comfort when it ended. No one knew. No one suspected. Perhaps part of the thrill was not getting caught.
At some point the thrill turned into a compulsion. I'd eat too much so I could throw up. When my size ten dropped to a size eight, my Nana congratulated me on losing the baby fat. My ballet Madame, a skeleton of a woman with a cane, sighed a "finally" and almost smiled. My friends gushed at my new figure and, more importantly, the number printed on the tag in my clothing. When my body dropped to a size six and then a five, no one seemed to notice that my small A-cups disappeared completely and my hip bones popped out.
Our family dentist noticed the cavities. The stomach juices forced through my mouth ate away at the enamel. He told me to stop or he'd tell my mother.
But I could no sooner stop than I could stop breathing. I ate everything I wanted, even things I didn't, and was thin and praised. I could have my secret rebellion. But most importantly, no one knew that I was masterminding my own life. No one -- not my friends, not my mother, nor the dentist -- could understand the sheer pleasure I got from throwing up. I wasn't going to stop.
It was here, in New York City, when I was seventeen that I realized my body was a commodity I never had control over. I wasn't a feminist yet -- the words "patriarchy" and "misogyny" weren't part of my vocabulary. I wasn't versed in gender politics. I didn't know or care about pornography, sex workers' rights, abortion. Just a gut feeling I was being used by those closest to me.
I watched the whores with my naïve eyes and saw freedom -- freedom to do and have whatever they wanted. Topless dancers, strippers, dominatrices all had more control over their bodies than I had ever had. Despite my bulimia, my body received no payment for its use. I had no say in who did what. But a girl's got to draw the line somewhere.
"Spare a sandwich." A harsh female voice pulled me out of my memories and back to the street.
Looking toward the buildings, I saw an older woman with thin, dirty blonde hair pinned up haphazardly in a sort of bun. The two ends of a red wool scarf wrapped repeatedly around her neck hung across her chest over a heavy gray jacket. She held a barely tattered, full paper shopping bag by the handles and had a large overnight bag on her shoulder. Her free arm was half extended, palm up. With her head slightly down, she looked at me over the top of her glasses. Her bottom lip trembled slightly.
Our eyes made contact, and I stopped, stepping quickly out of the sidewalk traffic.
"Sandwich?" she asked.
"Sober?" I asked, locking my eyes on hers.
She slowly nodded her head yes.
I never do this.
I reached into my pocket and pulled a folded ten from the club. I placed it on her palm, but before I could pull away she dropped the bag and captured my hand between both of hers.
"Thank you," she said as she squeezed. "Thank you."
I felt my lips pull in tightly, pressing against each other. I felt the sting and burn building in my eyes, the pressure of the tears trapped for so long welling up.
She closed her fingers around the bill as I pulled away, her eyes never leaving mine. I took the half pack of Camels from my coat pocket and offered. I didn't know if she smoked, but I knew if she didn't cigarettes were currency on the street. She smiled as she took the pack from me. Her wrinkled lips slowly pulled up as if her muscles had forgotten how to perform that movement. "Thank you," she whispered, her eyes moving slowly back up to mine.
I smiled back, tears trickling, "No, thank you."
I nodded, then turned back and continued up the avenue.
Perhaps her husband, who had taken care of the money, bills, and her, had died, leaving her nothing. Perhaps her kids after years of suffocating love and affection or belittling chastising hadn't talked to her in 20 years and didn't even know she was homeless. Perhaps her husband had beaten her, so she'd fled, choosing to live in the street rather than submit to his violence one more time. A woman's got to draw the line somewhere. Perhaps she was unaware that her waistline had grown with the birth of each child and after those kids left the nest and it was just the two of them his eyes had wandered. And maybe she didn't know he had never liked that recipe for bean and meat casserole she had clipped from Good Housekeeping the first year they were married and had cooked with love every Friday for the last twenty years. And he had left casually for cigarettes or milk or Supper 8 tickets on a rainy summer night when the air was thick with heat and the smell of that casserole cooking. He couldn't take it. The sight of the haze over the city from the window of their fifth-floor walk-up, his wife's once curvy body now pear-shaped, the children gone, and the smell of bean and meat. He never came back. And maybe she wondered and worried and waited until he was gone long enough to report him missing. And maybe on Monday she called his job and they said he had quit and left no forwarding address and maybe she was thrifty and looked for work but had no skills. Maybe... it didn't matter, really, why she was here. She was here, now, with her hand out.
But someone somewhere at some time must have loved her. Maybe for a minute really loved her. Loved her in that deep, real way. But that doesn't matter either because love always comes with strings, some so fine you don't realize they're there and others so thick you can't breathe. When it's easy you can pay for it in cash, but most of the time you have to pay for it with strips of your soul. Most of the time people aren't even aware they are paying for it. Eventually, they feel it one way or another. Slices of their souls cut clean like a holiday roast.
By the time I reached St. Mark's Place, I had smoked two Camels, stopped crying, and was exhausted. Cabs zipped by. I considered one, but instead I slipped into an all-night diner with greasy tempura, fluffy omelets, and, most importantly, an open disregard in the early morning hours for the City's no smoking law. The waitress took my order and left a makeshift ashtray of aluminum foil on the table. After an hour, I'm on my third cup of Earl Gray and again have a half-empty pack of Camels.
My mother would hate this restaurant. The last time I saw her, we were at her favorite lunchtime location, the country club's Grand Room. It was eight years ago. I was twenty-one and had been home for the summer before my senior year. I was scheduled to return to New York City the next day. I had spent the whole summer dodging questions, ignoring the superficial reality that was my parents' life, and counting the days until I'd be back at school. We were seated across from each other in large, comfortable chairs at a round table with pale pink linens in a large room surrounded by other club members: my father's golf buddies, my mother's tennis partner and her daughter, some wives of men who worked for my father, neighbors, and people my mother only knew by reputation.
"Rachel is engaged to the Wallis boy. He's getting his MBA from Harvard...or is it Yale? Either way, he's going to take over his father's business. Good catch."
I smiled and nodded. It was the third time that week she told me about Rachel's engagement. Rachel and I had been close friends at prep school but drifted apart during college.
"Bethany, you remember her? I play tennis with her mother Janet." She didn't wait for me to reply. "She was married in the spring at a lovely ceremony, here at the club."
"Yes, I remember. A doctor from Chicago." I said opening my menu. "The shrimp scampi looks good."
"Too much butter will make you fat. Have a Caesar salad with shrimp, if you must."
My mother was beautiful. She always dressed well, avoiding fads by purchasing timeless designer pieces. Her make-up never faded or smudged. As a child, I thought her lips were naturally that color, that her hair was really blonde. She said exactly what needed to be said and was kind to all she met. But her kindness wasn't natural. It was ruthless, calculating, and cunning. She didn't make friends; she made contacts. She played life like a board game. She hated to lose.
"So, have you met any nice boys at college?" she asked closing her menu.
"Plenty," I said not looking up from mine.
"Well, tell me about them."
"You wouldn't like any of them. They're all artists or musicians from the wrong kind of families." Our eyes met.
My mother took a sip of water then placed the glass back in its spot.
"It's your last year; you should really start to line up some options."
"I am. I'm applying to a number of really great graduate programs."
The waiter came over to the table and took our order. I requested the shrimp scampi and watched a small twitch in my mother's forehead as I did it. But she didn't say a word. When he left, she continued as if he hadn't interrupted us.
"That's not what I meant. I meant a boyfriend."
"You meant a potential husband," I said, and she slowly nodded her head twice as if finally she'd gotten through to me.
"I'm not getting married. I'm a lesbian." The words left my mouth, and I was immediately sorry I had said them, but also relieved. This wasn't how I imagined I'd tell her. I had hoped it would be an affirming event full of love, not open hostility and power plays.
In the silence that followed, my mother shifted in her seat, first to the left then to right, before returning to her original position. She slowly lifted the glass of wine in front of her and took a sip, then set it down next to the water glass and folded her hands in her lap before looking at me. "Don't be ridiculous." Her voice was alarmingly even in its tone, as if I had just declared I was planning to wear white shoes after Labor Day. "You are not." She took another sip of wine and let her hands rest on the arms of the chair.
"I am," I said, at a loss for how to prove it.
"Diana," she said leaning toward me as if to confide a secret, "No one really likes men, dear. You can have as many friends who are girls as you want, but you need a husband." She winked at me.
"I like men, Mother. But I fall in love with women." And then, mostly out of spite, I added, "I just prefer sex with women."
"Whatever gave you the idea that marriage was about love and that sex was about what you prefer? Marriage is something you do to ensure your place." She made a small gesture to our surroundings and then the gems on her fingers. "And sex is how you keep that place. If you're lucky, he's good at it. If not, he'll find a mistress by the time he's forty. Meanwhile, Diana, I've worked too hard for you to destroy our family's reputation."
"Hasn't Dad already done that with the whole Susan affair?"
"Not another word on the subject. No daughter of mine will throw away her future to be a lesbian. I suggest you reconsider."
"Or what?" She looked at me but didn't answer. "You'll cut me off? Disown me?"
"Lower your voice. Let's have a nice lunch a--"
"No. No to all of it." I stood up. I could feel everyone looking at me.
"You have no idea what I am capable of, Diana. Sit down."
I folded the napkin in my hand into quarters and placed it on the table, "Like mother, like daughter. You have no idea what I am capable of, either." And with that I walked, then ran, out of the Grand Room with tears welling up. I took a cab home, packed my stuff, and left that night for college. A girl's got to draw the line somewhere.
She called me and left a voice mail message a month later, asking me if I had reconsidered. I never called back. Shortly after that, the checks stopped coming. My credit cards no longer worked. I was idealistic and stubborn, but mostly I was na´ve. I got a waitress job. More than likely, I would have crawled back after a few months, agreeing to anything, if I hadn't met Tina. She introduced me to the strip clubs, told me about all the money to be made, and showed me the ropes. I dropped out of school, moved out of the dorm into a cheap apartment, and disappeared into the city.
Somebody, somewhere, at some time must have loved that woman.
I hate the smell of the car exhaust that lingers even now in the wet, pre-dawn hours when the air should be clean and sweet -- refreshed for a new day's beginning. The unforgiving miles of dirty concrete always smelling faintly of urine and cheap liquor even after it has been freshly washed with a hose and detergent by diligent shopkeepers. The neverending noise of the voices of the people who live in the city that doesn't sleep and therefore cannot sleep themselves. Even now in this all-night diner, there are fifteen customers sitting at tables and booths mostly in groups of three or four chatting and laughing as they eat a late night, early breakfast and six people milling about in the street talking much too loudly for a rainy four AM weeknight. Even here in New York City there should be something sacred about the night metamorphosing into a new day.
I felt betrayed by the city.
From this window I can see the fetish clothing store Religious Sex. Through the grate-covered windows the fancy latex dresses and velvet bustiers illuminated by harsh blue neon lights sit waiting to be purchased. From noon to midnight, the clerk buzzes customers through the locked door to keep homeless people and thieves away from the expensive clothing. Just up the street, the punk clothing store Trash and Vaudeville is nestled into a second-floor shop. It has been in St. Mark's Place for years. It has, as far as my memory goes, always been here. Founded sometime in the 1970s when punk appeared as an alternative to disco, its walls have always held cheap punk treasures for those living the lifestyle. Trash and Vaudeville caters now to a more upscale, designer punk crowd with cash to burn on high-ticketed clothing for Saturday nights. Even Trash is tainted.
A hooker in a short, latex, hot pink skirt and a pair of fuck-me, white, patent boots that lace up the front strolls up St. Mark's Place and stops at my window. She checks her reflection in the window glass. I smile at her. She looks right past me or does not see me at all. She carefully wipes the edge of her lips where the lipstick has gone out of the lines with her finger and adjusts her breasts in the halter top. She pulls on the hem of her skirt which refuses to move then smoothes her hands over both her hips in one long movement.
Her eyes seem to stare right at mine without any sparkle or acknowledgement that I am there. Neither of us moves or blinks or breathes as if the glass window was a one-way mirror, and I am not sure if I am watching her or if she is watching me or who is looking at her own reflection. We just look at the glass.
Her eyes are tired, and her mouth, despite the heavy lipstick, shows undirected worry and use at the corners. She's maybe ten years older than me. Her hair has been highly styled, but like mine shows signs of a long night in the city. She is thin. Her hip and collar bones protrude from snow white skin. There's a small scar -- a sign of a long-healed, deep wound -- just visible on her right shoulder.
Maybe she ran away from home when she was a teenager, leaving behind an abusive, drunk father and an impotent mother. Running from his angry words, his hard fists, his late night visits. No matter how good she was, he was never happy. If she didn't eat the peas, he was angry. And if she ate the peas, she used her finger instead of the edge of the knife to push them onto the fork, and he was angry. No matter how good she was, he found a reason to hit. And his visits to her room became more frequent.
She most likely expected New York City to be the answers to all those prayers she'd whispered into the darkness in the hopes that they would travel upward through the roof into the sky and God would hear them and fix her father or fix her. NYC was a new start, a new life. When she got off the bus from Ohio or Pennsylvania she was, for the first time in her young life, completely alone. But she was lucky -- lucky because a nice young man had befriended her at the bus terminal and offered her food and a place to stay while she looked for work. He was older than her and so well dressed, and she let herself entertain the possibility that maybe, just maybe, he'd be her boyfriend. But by the time she understood what he wanted, by the time he made his intentions known, it was too late. Teenage runaways with an empty place inside, whose lives are devoid of real love, are easy pickings for nice young pimps. And she settled in and said it wasn't so bad and at least it wasn't her father.
I wonder if anyone really loves her. A girl's got to draw the line somewhere, and sometimes no one understands why but her.