I looked at the structure, with its blacked-out windows, thick doors, and hidden parking area, and I understood.
In the summer of 1984, when I should have been pursuing a path befitting of a college graduate, I took a detour instead to places less ambitious and more nefarious: Male strip joints. It wasn’t until I reached rock bottom (no pun intended) – when I was unceremoniously kicked out of one of the seedier clubs for my bad behavior and watched as a policeman handcuffed my God-fearing, cross-wearing best friend Linda – that I climbed out of the gutter and onto higher ground.
The timing of my descent was as well-defined as the moment I regained my footing. It began when my longtime boyfriend told me he loved me, then disconnected his phone the following day: my graduation day. It continued with a couple of whiskey sours that night at a club on the north side of Austin, Texas, and a stripper I’ll call “Stallion” whose first routine included Chinese splits performed to Van Halen’s "Jump."
My reason for going to the club in the first place was to escape my dark obsession with trying to make sense of my ex's cowardice and cruelty. Sure enough, once the whiskey kicked in and Stallion kicked up his boot heels, I saw the light (along with just about everything else this thoroughbred had to offer). From the edge of the dance floor, I waved a dollar bill. For my money, I got a much-needed kiss. At the time, I was a little drunk and plenty grateful. By the end of the evening, I was totally hooked.
That club helped me forget about a certain person. But a place that featured male dancers on Sunday soon became my favorite feasting ground. What made it even more delicious was that Stallion performed there. By the time Linda and I established ourselves as regulars, she’d abandoned formal church services, I'd put my job search on hold, and Stallion and I were on a first-name basis.
If the club had issued VIP cards, ours would have been platinum. How many Sundays did we spend in that place? How many buffalo wings, cheese squares, and Chinese egg rolls did we consume at the free buffet? How many dollar bills did we fold lengthwise and place onstage for dancers to collect using only the muscularity of their butt cheeks?
Too many to count.
But I can count the number of times they offered a bottle of champagne to the “most enthusiastic” patrons. Once.
And on that day, the joint was packed, the women were acting crazy, and the dancers egged us on. I vaguely remember being pushed, knocking over someone’s drink, winning the prize.
However, the victory was short-lived. In less than ten minutes, two cops approached our table with the club manager by their side.
“This girl claims that one of you stole twenty dollars,” the manager said.
A young woman then stepped out from behind him.
“What are you talking about?” I asked.
“Ya'll knocked over my drink and now my money is missing,” she said.
“We didn't steal anything.”
“Let’s go to my office. The police need statements,” the manager said.
After questioning, the police escorted all of us from the building, while the club manager encouraged Linda and me to come back the following week. We were, after all, his most loyal customers.
Outside, Linda argued with one of the policemen about how she was perfectly capable of driving us home.
“As soon as you leave the parking lot, I'll arrest you for DWI,” he said.
I took the Fifth. Linda, however, did not. That's when he pressed her against the car, slapped on the handcuffs, and hauled her in for public intoxication.
“What’s next?” I asked the policeman who stayed behind until my cab arrived.
“Probably nothing. Things like this happen all the time at these types of places,” he said.
I looked at the structure, with its blacked-out windows, thick doors, and hidden parking area, and I understood. Once I climbed into the cab, I didn't look back.
I moved to Houston that same year and started a new life, complete with full-time job and respectable hobbies, none of which involve nudity. Some time later, my female coworkers planned an outing to a male strip club. Even though the idea didn’t tempt me, I joined them. After all, I was a different person than I had been in Austin.
That night, instead of looking at the dancers, I watched the women shed their dignity over the slightest gyration. Had I looked that foolish, I wondered?
I already knew the answer.
As we were leaving the club after having stayed for only a few performances, someone called out my name. I turned around and there was Stallion, dressed in fringed boots, a cowhide g-string, and a Stetson. And it occurred to me that I’d never seen the man fully clothed. The strange part was: I couldn't remember his real name.
“Are you living in Houston? ” he asked.
“Been here a few years. You're still dancing, I see.”
“Yea. For now.”
An awkward pause followed.
“Well, you take care,” I said, then walked away. Fast.
Once outside, a coworker asked, “Do you know that guy?”
It was a simple question. Or was it?
I thought back to his Chinese splits, the paid-for kisses, the one-sided (my side) conversations on a red velvet sofa in the back of the club, the bare shoulder he let me cry on, and the strong arms that embraced me when the ripping pain of abandonment and rejection unexpectedly took hold in that place with the darkened windows. (Things like this happen…)
Most of all, I thought about the version of myself that I left behind.
“No,” I finally said. “I really don’t know him at all.”