One spring night, my bare mattress lay squished into the corner of my Cap Hill studio in Denver, Colorado, to clear space. A cheap Old Fashioned sweat in its glass on the floor. My body, stark and clumsy, contrasted the fluid movements of the girls I was watching on YouTube. It was Tuesday night, and just like Monday, I was teaching myself how to be a stripper.

Replay after replay, I imagined the sweet satisfaction of easy money. A dribble of sweat slid its way down my inner arm and into my armpit as I practiced. The sick light of my laptop buzzed, recording files I’d obsess over later. Or, as my therapist would call it, “self-sabotage.”

I needed heels. At 5 foot 9 inches tall, I needed modest heels. “You dance at one of the clubs?” the retail manager, holding her tiny dog at a nearby stripper supply store asked me. I felt a hundred mannequins staring down at me from their shelves. The price tag read $58. “Not yet!” I smiled, ashamed. She gave me a discount as the dog rifled through my purse.

Another week of practice and I was ready to treat myself to an Uber ride downtown. Every single girl, 8 p.m. on a Wednesday, sat bored at the bar. No men, no money, just an empty, sweaty stage. I could tell from my position at the entrance that I was should have splurged for fake eyelashes. Hair extensions. Eight inch heels. Size mattered, and in my tiny, introverted naivety, once again I felt ashamed.

I grew up in a small ranching town in Northern California of about a thousand people, the majority of who eventually receded up into the hills to grow marijuana when the lumber mill closed down and grass-fed beef became a luxury. My parents supported my creativity growing up, and I never hurt for anything that a long bike ride through the countryside couldn’t fix. But at 25, in a new city 1,200 miles east, financial and mental stability proved a lot harder.

At the restaurant I currently work at, sexism — bordering abuse — runs like an AC current through the staff. (“That’s the restaurant industry, get used to it!”) Stripping seemed like an opportunity to reclaim my sexuality and solve money problems simultaneously.

I prepared my stage name in my head as I sat backstage, stalling — Missy Lawless. Back upstairs, I screamed it into the DJ’s ear, as house remixes of  the Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers soundtrack blasted. Avoiding eye contact with the other dancers, I stepped onto the floor.

In the heavy red light, I watched one man move closer to feel me as I fell backwards gracefully onto my shoulders. I arched my hips towards the ceiling as I unhooked my bra, locking eyes with my voyeur. As if in a dream, he slid a bill into my garter belt. “That’s it,” I thought to myself. I’d won, fair and square.

A strip club in downtown Denver gets on average 5 auditions per night and employs an estimated fifteen dancers at any given time. I was given this information immediately before auditioning, but pretended not to hear. At the end of the night I clomped, stomach lodged in my throat, downstairs to the club office for my immediate review.

“We like to be straight up with people,” the bouncer announced, as if to no one in particular, without breaking eye contact with his computer. “We just don’t find you attractive enough in the face.”

Back home in my apartment, I made myself a quesadilla and Googled other clubs in Denver and the average Uber rates to and from my apartment. My face, it seemed, could benefit from some YouTube tutorials as well, and probably a trip to Walgreens for some phony eyelashes. Stripping is weird, I thought, but certainly not easy.

[originally published September 08, 2017 // cover photo Pexels]