My first clue should have been that my eternally laid-back boyfriend was uncomfortable with it. “You look weirded out,” I said. “Are you weirded out? What’s wrong? Let’s talk it through.”
“I’m not . . . weirded out,” he said carefully. “I don’t know. I don’t know what I think. Something seems off about it to me, but I haven’t figured out what yet.” He paused, and I crossed my arms, eyes narrowing. “But obviously, if you really want to do it, you should do it.”
“Well, I’ve already told them I’m going to do it.”
“You didn’t seem weirded out when I brought it up before.”
“I guess I wasn’t sure that you were serious.”
What I knew about the party: there would be a magician, and a hypnotist, and a belly dancer. It was a benefit for something or another. And they needed models to walk around wearing nothing but booty shorts, heels, and body paint. Unpaid. (I’m a real sucker for unpaid. It says to me, “intrinsically valuable.” “Resume-building.” “Spiritually rewarding.”)
I had just joined the burlesque troupe a few days earlier, and still caught up in the sweet frenzy of our holiday show, I envisioned two scenarios:
1.) This was taking place in a dimly lit museum, after hours. The artist was young, beautiful, insane. We’d walk around with his schizophrenia swirled around our belly buttons and shoulder blades in dashes of blood-crimson, sunshine-yellow, deep cobalt. The patrons would casually glance down their noses, reaching for another flute of champagne from traveling trays, delicately fried meats wrapped around tiny fruits stabbed through with toothpicks. “Isn’t that interesting,” they would say. “You know, I preferred his earlier work.”
2.) This would be madness, a drunken, surreal circus. In an explosion of glitter and rhinestones, the magician would pull a headless body out of a hat. The hypnotist would have us all thinking we were floating down the Nile. Once painted, I would become a shapeshifter: blending into walls, appearing out of thin air onto the dance floor, dancing like a lizard. When the belly-dancer emerged, we would all howl at the moon.
I would return home in the wee hours of the morning shivering, uncertain of who I was, whisper in my lover’s ear that I knew what it felt like to be a tree.
The magician picked us up a little late, and we got stuck in traffic. I was completely fine with this, in the way I am completely fine with anything when I’ve just dyed my hair.
He told us about the endless hours he works, the crazy parties he throws in his apartment (stripper pole!) (drugs!), and I dreamily leaned my head against the window, watching the sun set over the city. “I know so little about what goes on in these buildings,” I thought.
“Here we are!” he said. “I’ll just drop you girls off here, and go find a parking spot.”
We clambered out of the magician’s car, over velveteen suits and french-tipped wands, and stood there for a moment with our plastic bags on the sidewalk, looking up at the bar.
As soon as I saw the place, I realized exactly what I was in for. There was a rotating glass sculpture in the middle of the main room, lit in icy blue. The dance floor was surrounded with white leather booths, throw pillows. Pearl bead curtains hung from the walls. It was the kind of place where all the men wear Aqua Di Gio and all the women fake their nails/orgasms.
“Hiiiii!” the event coordinator beamed, embracing both of us in a fragile, space-respecting hug. “Let me show you into the VIP room — that’s where our makeup and body paint artists are.”
“You’re going to have to trust me,” the makeup girl sighed in frustration, coming at me with a mascara wand. “I won’t stab you in the eye, I promise. Now look up!”
Eight hours later, it would take nearly a quarter of a bottle of makeup remover to get it off. My hair would still smell like toasted graham crackers.
The body paint artist had a book open on a glass coffee table, containing pictures of his recent work. Most of it had been done on motorcycles. Flames, skulls, mermaid tails going down young ladies’ legs, that kind of thing. I watched him paint dice on one model’s boobs for a while, but eventually I escaped back to the makeup area, where a friend of mine was getting her hair curled.
“I have to get away from that photographer,” I whispered to them. “I’m so sick of his goddamn innuendoes.”
“Ya baby that’s right!” he hooted to Dice Girl. “That’s what you say to me . . . when you roll over, in the morning! Ah ah ah! Oh, but you know I kid, I kid.” He slapped her butt, and she giggled.
When he would grab me around the waist later and insist that we had to go to a beach some time and take some pictures — just look at those legs! — I wouldn’t push him away. I would smile at him coyly, say that’d be fun. It wasn’t even deliberate, but this kept happening. I meant nothing I said that night. I hated nearly everyone I talked to. I didn’t even tell them my real name.
The club began to fill with late-twenty-somethings and early-thirty-somethings in glossy dresses and tight suits, pristine, tanned, hair straightened and curled. We would walk through the club and get our pictures taken with anyone who asked. This wound up happening mostly with women — men were either there with their girlfriends/wives, or they regarded our offer warily, searching for the bouncer that would take care of this situation the minute they touched our shoulders.
Every woman at this party was conventionally gorgeous, with huge smiles and plunging necklines. Lord knows how many pictures of me exist with these women. I almost expect some of them to show up on Hot Chicks With Douchebags, in which I am the douchebag: half-naked, pale and body-painted in the middle of the picture, smiling close-lipped with draping wrists. This is hot, right?
“If we touch you, will the paint get on our dresses?” nearly everyone asked. “OK great!”
The hypnotist was fat and wore a heinous purple suit that only exaggerated his fatness. He looked like a grape Bubbleicious bubble membrane just seconds away from popping. He had a thick Boston accent, so that when he said “private parts” — which he did, in fact, say, multiple times, throughout the night — it came out “private paaahts.”
At that moment, the hypnotist called eight people on stage. Three — the only two men, and one woman — were sent back. Five women, dressed in satin and diamonds, sat there, in front of everyone with their eyes closed, allegedly in a trance.
“Now, I’m going to make this ladies feel good,” he squealed into the microphone. “You think these ladies want to feel good? They look like they’re ready to feel good!”
The audience hooted and hollered.
“Now, ladies, here’s what’s going to happen. When I say the word “pillow” you’re going to feel a light tingling in your private paaaahts. Every time I say that word, the feeling is going to get stronger, all tingly, like a feather, a little eee eee eee! in your private paaaahts. All right? . . . Pillow.”
The women smiled and cooed, writhing sensuously in their chairs. The audience screamed in malicious laughter, and the hypnotist cackled into his microphone. “Pillow,” he repeated. “You feel that? Huh?” Some of them gasped, fell to their knees. The laughter now was nearly deafening, mob-like, shouting demands. Do it again! Make her scream! “Pillow.” One woman appeared to go insane with ecstasy. The hypnotist cackled and cackled and cackled.
“Think any of this is for real?” a bartender asked me, polishing a glass.
“Nope,” I said.
He stared at purple bubblegum man, at the audience rocking in their chairs, holding their sides, wiping tears of hilarity from their eyes. “Yea,” he said. “I don’t either.” He wandered back to the bar.
“You found a corner to hide in,” one of the girls said. “Can I join you?”
“Tired of being looked at?”
“Yeah. And there’s no where to go, you know? People are everywhere. I don’t even know where they put my clothes.” She sighed. “I just want my freaking t-shirt back. I’m sick of it. I’m sick of this. I just want a shirt.”
At the end of the night, I tried to escape in the VIP room. There weren’t many people here, but it was absolutely freezing inside. And there was no escaping the music, even in the bathrooms.
“I’ll have a gin and tonic,” I shouted at the bartender. I’d liked him immediately because he looked like Jim from The Office — if Jim were like nineteen years old. Shaggy-haired and doe-eyed. Shouldn’t he be reading Jane Eyre or something? He also had a habit of looking me in the eyes and talking to me as if I had a shirt on. This is the kind of bartender that makes me understand why people tell things to bartenders.
“How’s it going out there?”
“Rough. We all want our t-shirts back.”
“Well, I admire you. I could never do something like that.”
“I don’t really know that I can, either.”
“Heh. So are you cold, or what?”
“Well, in here I am. It’s better out there, due to the crowds of terrible people.”
“Oh. Well, that’s . . . good, I guess. But hey! Look at the bright side: you’ve only got like twenty minutes left.”
“Really?! Oh my God. That is the best news I have heard in years.” I threw my head in between my arms on the table. “I could cry. That is so amazingly great.”
He flipped open his cell phone nervously.
“Uhhh, well . . . actually, I just lied to you. It’s earlier than I thought. I’m really sorry. You’ve got . . . more like a hour.”
If it had been ten degrees warmer in that room, I would have stayed there until closing, commiserating with Office-Jim-The-Undergraduate-Years. But I was beginning to shiver. I slowly stood up and hobbled in my heels out of the VIP room, leaving a full glass on top of Jim’s tip, because I don’t actually drink gin and tonics.
“Just just just dance,” the song went. So I did. It was oddly comforting to hear this song: a window into my real life, where I sat on my couch and drank coffee and edited websites and read blogs and checked the mailbox at 3pm. “I know this person!” I was tempted to tell strangers, which felt true at the time but isn’t actually true at all, which would have gone with the general theme of the evening.
“Can I touch your boobs a little bit?” some dude asked.
“Aw, why not?”
“Because I said so!”
I may or may not have shouted/screeched this. It was simply imperative to me that we came to an understanding regarding this matter as soon as possible; but he looked offended for a moment, even alarmed, and walked backwards with his hands gingerly placed in the air. Later I would tap him on the shoulder. “I just wanted to say, thank you for asking.”
In the wee hours of the morning, we piled back into the car with the magician and his french-tipped magic wands and headed back to the city. I would crawl into my apartment, a little nauseated, throw my shoes by the door. I would tell my lover, “I think I know how it feels to be a stripper” and I would stand in the shower and scrub paint off my body until it turned pink and raw.
I have avoided writing about this, because I told the people involved that I’d had a good time. And — you know, I didn’t. I spent the entire night lying and judging and hoarding memories.
But I don’t actually have any regrets. I think this was actually the perfect second-semi-naked-in-public experience I could have had, because I never felt concerned for my safety — but now I know what I’m looking for with this thing, and what I’m specifically not. The line has been drawn. That could have easily taken years.