January 15, 2011

Thanks for the Dance

“You’re kidding me, right?”

That was the text message from the exotic dancer after I had asked her about a particular high-end “gentleman’s club,” in Chelsea, to where I’d been invited along with some colleagues and poker buddies by a man I know, a typical glutinous ad agency sleazebag that you would associate with a place like that. He was also a partner in an investing group that was pulling its money out of a few clubs and this was his little “send off” party. I had never been to a strip club, so that’s why I asked the dancer for some information. The last time I saw her, Lynn was on her way to another man’s apartment after eating the dinner I had cooked especially for her.

“No, not kidding at all,” I texted back. “Why?”

“That’s where I work!”

Back in New York for only a few days and I was already deep in its bowels. It can catch you instantly, like a fish grabbing with its rubbery mouth a mosquito from the tight surface of a lake.

I was the first one at the club, naturally, because I’m part German and I’m always on time. This sometimes leads to awkwardness; usually I’m waiting by myself at an empty table. At first, the bulky, vaguely middle eastern doorman didn’t know what to make of me.

“Sir, are you sure you’re in the right place?”

“I think so.”

“Maybe you want to try next door. This is a strip club.”

I liked that he made no bones about it. He didn’t say gentleman’s club, he said nothing about exotic dancers. No, this was a strip club, a top shelf strip club, perhaps, with its preferred member onyx cards, its $20 drinks, its above average playmates, and its fancy hamburger sliders with thick-cut-apple-wood-smoked bacon (which sounded semi-disgusting here), but still a strip club.

“You came!” said Lynn, finding me acting busy at the end of the bar, where I had been frantically texting nonsense to everyone in my address book so I would look unapproachable.

She wore a wig, as promised, one with black bangs. Oh, and she was topless. Taken together, she looked like a Nile slave girl. She sat on a stool next to me and put a hand on my knee.

“Oh, I’m getting the full treatment, am I?”

“You look nervous.”

“I am nervous. I’m a strip club virgin. I don’t know the procedures. And the music!”

“Yes, it’s very loud.”

“So loud!”

“Look, you need to get a couple of drinks in you and then you’ll be fine. Trust me. And then you won’t even hear it after a while. I don’t.”

“How do I not get approached? You just need to stay with me. Someone else, it would freak me out.”

“Just say ‘no, thank you.’ ”

My colleagues arrived, including the sleazebag. We were taken to a reserved corner of plush couches and the open bar was initiated. Suddenly, young ladies appeared offering massages. The agency guy began to hand each of us fake twenty-dollar bills. This scrip would buy us things.

“We trade it in at the end of the night for real money,” said Lynn. She had followed us to the back.

“Face value?”

“A little less.”

“Ah.”

“And they try to cheat us, too. They’re in bad shape. Losing money.”

“Really? So what’s the drill? You walk around and ask men if they want to talk?”

“A dance. We ask them if they want a dance.”

“Do they say yes a lot?”

“You’d be surprised. They’ll say no thanks, or you’re not my type, or I’m waiting for someone else. They’re all really nice about it, but it’s a bit of a let down. You’re always failing. More say no than yes.”

Lynn wanted to get a degree in psychology because she found how men and women interacted at these places to be fantastically interesting. After a while, I saw what she meant.

I began to drink Jameson’s on the rocks. It was the only thing I could think of. Wine seemed dumb here for some reason, while scotch seemed smarter and more site-appropriate. So it came and it kept on coming. Oh, and I’m a lightweight. Anyone can drink me under the table. Women laugh at my inability to hold liquor. Two glasses of wine and I need a nap. Three glasses, I wake up and start yapping like a chihuahua. Four glasses and oh, I’m stumbling now. Five glasses and if I’m on a date at a bar I’ll try to slide a finger into my date’s vagina. If she’s also had five glasses, she’ll let me. Mind you, I’m talking about a first date.

Lynn, whose stripper name was Scarlet, eyed the fake twenties in my hand.

“You want a dance?”

So Scarlet gave me a lap dance, a shocking revelation that left me scandalized. I guess it is true that indirect intimacy is more erotic, more exciting than intercourse. Or maybe the indirectness is simply more intimate. From her skin, no more than a half inch from my face, I could smell her perfume, sweet and hot. When one of her nipples brushed against my cheek my eyes involuntarily shut tight. When they opened, I saw every single sparkly dot on her neck. She was right about the music. I couldn’t hear it anymore. You’re forced, really, into this space that’s somehow more intense than the vaguely insular effect of sex, in which you tend to recede into yourself, selfishly listening to the thrum of your own pleasure center.

“I can smell your perfume.”

“Is it too much? If it’s too much it ruins the spell.”

You’re not allowed to touch the dancers when they’re on top of you, which sounds absurd. There were security men stationed around the club wearing ear pieces, and they immediately intervened if a guy got too excited. The men here. White, well-coiffed and dressed. Suits, polo shirts, some distinguished graying. Seated at a table, a nicely attired trio of a man and two women. Colleagues? A man getting a dance from a busty near-teen became a bit gropey. He looked completely overwhelmed, transported, not of this room anymore. He looked like a child, and it was here that I began to understand Lynn’s — I mean Scarlet’s — interest in all this. It wasn’t so cut and dried the perversity that went on here.

Scarlet gave me another dance and then a buyback.

“I never give anyone freebies.”

“That makes me feel special,” I said with sincerity.

Next to me sat Fred. Fred I have known for many years. We have worked together on-and-off since the late 90s. You would never know by looking at him, but Fred is an executive creative director. He never thought he’d be more than a 2nd grade school teacher. And the principle would have made him get a haircut. He’s all hair. He has hair hanging below his shoulders; his face his caked by hair. I have no idea what he actually looks like. Naturally, he’s a prankster. For some reason, women think he’s a bit harmless, what with the hippie thing going. But he’s not harmless. In fact, he’s a dirty old man. And somehow he manages to avoid getting called to the carpet for it. I’d already introduced Lynn as my friend. This had amused Fred.

After Lynn finished with her freebie, she cocked her head at Fred.

“What about him?”

“Meaning?”

“Shouldn’t I be giving your friends some dances?”

“I’m game,” said Fred.

“This is weird.”

Lynn hopped on Fred as a new song started. I sat holding my drink, trying with everything I had not to turn, but after a minute I couldn’t help myself. They both stared at me, Fred with an evil twinkle in his eyes and Lynn, well, she is about a big a pervert as I am and seemed to enjoy tremendously this twisted scene. When the song was done, Lynn disappeared into a champagne room.

“We are brothers now,” said Fred.

I ordered another drink.

Eventually, I became loose enough that an encounter with one of Lynn’s colleagues wasn’t out of the question. Her name was Jasmine and she was funny. She also laughed at all my jokes. And I laughed at her jokes. Everything that we pretend isn’t true between men and women got boiled down to its essences here. It took very little to feel elated by Jasmine’s fabricated attention. It felt incredibly human.

A few days later, Lynn and I exchanged notes about the encounter and about Fred. A few days after that we met for lunch at a vegan restaurant. Somehow, out of everything, we had become friends.