My first time at a strip club was when I was seventeen. My friend’s older brother was a DJ for such an establishment and thought it would be an important passage into manhood for us. I had previously been in a sexually active relationship with a lunatic who possessed a nice body and a cat that I liked to feed corn chips. Beyond that, I had very limited experience with the fairer sex. My friend, Eric, had even less. He would prattle on anytime he was accidentally grazed by a woman’s breast and was dating a puritan. While faithless, he still went to church every Sunday with his girlfriend for six months in the hopes that she would someday take her shirt off. When she finally defied Jesus and did, he threw a party at his house to celebrate. Eric’s disreputable brother seemed incredibly nonplussed by all of this and the next week he invited us over for a real party. He fed us drinks for roughly an hour before his gravelly voice commanded, “Alright, let’s hit it and get you two faggots some pussy.”
The club was within walking distance and looked like it used to be a movie theater during America’s heyday. It smelled vaguely of stale cigarettes but not of booze. At this time in Michigan there was a law that prohibited clubs from serving alcohol if performers exposed their vaginas. The effectiveness of this law should be placed under some mild scrutiny, as I arrived at the front door swimming in a personal sea of orange juice and vodka. The benefit of these alcohol free clubs is that they are eighteen and up (seventeen and up if your friend’s brother works there and sneaks you in). The downside of these kinds of clubs is that they attract a lot of garbage people with poor hygiene and a loose moral code. However, the greasy perverts did not occupy a controlling share of the space. The majority of the clientele were couples, bored soldiers, and the random band of college students. The club itself was dark and predominantly lit by pink neon and the occasional pastel-colored spotlight beaming through the smoker’s haze. Private booths were illuminated by a single bulb covered with a lacy rouge lampshade. In the very back corner was a VIP area with black lights that showcased the dander on my shoulders as illuminated green flakes. It reminded me slightly of laser tag if they replaced all the guns with breasts and changed the music from bad techno to hits from the nineteen-eighties.
Between dances, Eric’s brother would hustle us out back and encourage us to to smoke and drink with some of the girls. They had a private stash of cigarettes, clear liquors, fruit-drinks and were more than willing to share them with us. I had imagined that I’d feel sorry for them but it all felt very casual and orthodox. I’ve had less comfortable smoke-break exchanges with people I’ve worked with for years. As I watched them work, I realized that they were playing each guy in that room for every dime he had. Someone would make their rounds and report back who had money to spend and what type of girl they might like. The work didn’t seem particularly enjoyable though. Every so often a woman would come back with a story about a man having grabbed her ass or a particularly bad smell a patron was giving off.
When we made our way back to the front of the club, an oversexed Eric was sheepishly eyeing every single woman there. As a cure, the older brother bought him lap dances relentlessly. “This is my baby-brother!” he would yell over the bass. The women always looked surprised and would giggle and say something before grinding their pelvis into his lap like a mortar and pestle. That was the strangest part of the experience for me. It wasn’t the women or the false promise of sex, it was that brotherly love meant using a proxy to sexually stimulate each other. Each time one of them gave the other a knowing nod affirming their sexual gratification, I felt uncomfortable and glad to only have sisters. I refused every dance offered, confident that I was too high, drunk, broke, and bothered to want to participate. Eventually the featured performer, a Canadian actress in the soft-core porn scene, came out and pulled random people up on stage. Tired of me dodging the women, they gave her a handful of bills and she grabbed me. Once I was standing in front of a bunch of hooting men and women, she pushed me to the ground and mimed sex with me before shaking her loins directly into my face. I recall her looking lovely but not feeling very good about myself when I went to go wash my glasses off in the sink. The smudging may have been perceived but the shame was genuine.
She was around later, allegedly doing cocaine with one of the bouncers but I didn’t see any. I chatted her up and told her I felt a little like an asshole when asked how I liked my dance. She laughed and told me that was admirable. At this point I ensured that all of my exchanges with people were exceptionally brief as I was trying with great difficulty to pass myself off as a sober person. I had drank and been drunk before but this was my rookie season in the big leagues of alcohol so I did not yet understand my limits. The conversations people were having were becoming increasingly difficult to participate in and I noticed that time was sort of leaping on ahead without me. Before I knew it, it was time for us to leave.
Eric’s brother brought us back to his dump of an apartment. There his wife was waiting, annoyed that he had brought company. She was a dancer as well and smoked long, thin Capri Super Slim cigarettes one after another. I was attracted to her and Eric hinted at the idea of her giving him a dance and she shot him a look that would have withered any man’s penis. She treated me much better and offered me some marijuana, which I accepted gratefully. This was the decision that ruined everyone’s night. At seventeen, you’ve only a limited number of experiences to draw from so you aren’t always in the best position to make quality judgments. In an effort to keep up with Eric’s brother, I had already gone through half a pack of cigarettes and had enough drinks to put a much larger man to bed early. While I thought this would earn me respect, allow me to reassure the younger readers that nothing is cooler than maintaining composure. Those few drags of a joint were the tipping point. They were the last step over the edge and into a free fall into pain and, finally, insensibility.
It started as a cold sweat and a throbbing in the temples. The room shuddered, pulsed, and shifted as I attempted to use my eyes to examine it. Something was terribly wrong with me. Their speaking became a distant echo as my internal monologue became a clumsy plea to stand up and run to a waste vessel. I know I made an attempt to explain my situation and it might have emerged eloquent and polite or it may have just come out as a garbled mess of verbs and nouns only hinting at the torment and intentions. When I entered the bathroom I ensured that the door was secured behind me as I erupted into a sink surrounded by empty pill containers and grooming items. I could hear someone asking if I was alright through the door and, during a reprieve in vomiting, I assured them everything was going great before falling to my knees and yelling my insides out into their filthy toilet.
The ride home was long but filled with blackouts that expedited my trip. The passenger-side window was left down as I frequently needed to wretch into the frigid January air and the little coupe smelled pungently of the alcohol I drank earlier in the evening. Once we arrived at my home, I tumbled out of the car and swatted at the door until it swung shut. Eric, fed up, drove off as I collapsed into a mound of snow at the side of the drive. Convinced I was about to get sick again, I paused there for a moment.
I awoke to my father standing over me two hours later. He had gotten up early to plow the driveway as it had begun snowing. He asked me if I had enjoyed myself and suggested that I might want to go inside. It was his practice not to punish me when it was clear I had already done so myself. My joints felt fused into place but I managed to hobble inside where the warm air made my legs and arms feel itchy and swollen. I changed into sweatpants and a clean shirt before crawling under a quilt and falling back asleep. I didn’t make it into work that day because of the hangover and I didn’t work the next four days because I ended up with walking pneumonia. The entire experience taught me a lot of valuable lessons. I learned not to smoke weed after a night of hard drinking and no food. I also found out that strip clubs can be normal or sad; it is all dependent upon your perspective.
Despite having friends that worked as erotic dancers, I never voluntarily visited a gentlemen’s club after that. The closest I ever got was a eight month stretch where I attended nearly every burlesque show in New York City at the behest of my girlfriend. But I eventually stopped going. Maybe I just got tired of seeing breasts. I certainly didn’t tire of the humor and vampire or robot-themed costumes routinely incorporated into acts. That will never get old.