A strip club might seem an unusual location for a double date, but Libby, the other girl in our foursome, knew the dancers, and we were bored and twitchy, wanting something different that night.
Despite the wintry rawness and a prickly, icy snow, we rode our motorcycles—Bruce and me on his Harley and Libby on her Triumph with Rick folded into the sidecar. I never learned to ride and never would, preferring to cede control and close my eyes, trusting fate to deliver me unscathed. I always found the notion of predetermination seductive—problems, accidents, your failures and weaknesses are woven into the carpet of your life at birth, and nothing is really your fault.
At first blush, Stiletto exuded a generic seediness, occupying a warehouse off Route 17 in New Jersey that catered to construction workers and car salesmen on their way home from the Paramus dealerships. What made it unique, radiant even, in those six months we frequented it, were the girls. Art students, classical musicians, film-makers—somehow one of them had discovered Stiletto and realized she could make her rent with a couple long weekends of twirling around a pole, and then they all sashayed in. Creative, young, smart, the daughters of lower middle-class families too strapped to afford their schooling or living expenses, these women took to stripping as if it were a carnival, a competition for most inventive attire, most sensual routines.
That’s how it was at first.
The night of that winter double date, Bruce immediately bought the first round, ordering me a vodka cranberry without asking. Inside the circular bar, on a blue-lit stage, two girls spun to punk rock music. In addition to singular costumes and acts, the girls often supplied their own soundtracks. On any given night you might hear Green Day, Bessie Smith, Prince, or an aria from Carmen alongside the standard Aerosmith and Guns N’Roses.
My boyfriend, often the loudest, most talkative person in any group, turned quiet, hunched, tilted his head down while his eyes focused on the dancers. He’d want sex later, hence the vodka cranberry. He wanted me blurred, pliable, and that was fine, it was okay. As I said, I liked relinquishing control. That’s the story I told myself anyway.
Libby grabbed my hand and dragged me to the bathroom, Bruce’s attention veering after us, a hot, tight clamp on the back of my neck.
The women’s toilet in Stiletto doubled as a dressing room, a chat room, a shower. The girls lounged on folding chairs, fixed makeup, fluffed hair or wigs, peeled clothes away from their perfect bodies, rolled other clothes on, barefoot, nude, at ease.
I stood back while Libby forged ahead, hugging her friends, running her hands through their curls, fixing lipstick smudges. “This is my friend Lara,” she said, pointing at me, and the girls smiled and waved, and one got up and offered me her seat, welcoming me in. I sat to be polite, and wished I’d downed the vodka cranberry so I’d be bold enough to join their conversation.
“What did you do in there with them?”Bruce asked later, in bed, his large hand heavy on my hip. “You were with them a long time.”
“Nothing,” I said, my head spinning from too much drink. “I just watched them.”
“Libby didn’t just watch, did she?” There was a petulance in his tone, slight, but present, and if the lights had been on, I’d have seen the distrust in his eyes, the downward turn of his mouth. Did he imagine a porno orgy in the bathroom and me an eager participant? With anyone else I’d have laughed, but I knew him well enough to worry that was exactly what he thought.
“They’re her friends,” I said. “It was nothing.”
He coiled my hair around his hand and pulled me close.
“You were there a long time,” he repeated, and his wrist jerked, just enough to snap my head, and before I could respond he kissed me.
The next time we went to Stiletto, I stayed in my chair and drank less.
It wasn’t until our third visit that I met Polina. The DJ called her Polly, and she tripped onto the stage to Nirvana’s song of that name. I knew right away she was Russian—the over-bleached hair, the heavy eyeliner smeared around pale-gray eyes, the Tatar cheekbones and thin nose. Whereas the other girls luxuriated in their firm flesh, thrusting their hips and wagging their tits with glee, Polina moved gracelessly, her ankles wobbling on spiked heels, her shoulders stiff, her small arms clumsy by her sides. She wore a plain, red bikini—nothing like the spangled, feathered, latex creations the rest of the girls constructed.
Making their rounds, the other girls embraced the regulars, chatted, collected money in their G-strings until the dollar bills fanned from their hips like grass miniskirts. Jennie, an art student at Montclair University, hugged me and kissed Bruce on the cheek.
“I have a new trick,” she said and winked. From the nest of bills around her belly she produced a match book and tore off two matches. Carefully, bouncing to the music, she peeled the matches in half lengthwise, then sat one over each nipple like upside-down letter vees.
“Got a light?” she asked Bruce, and he did—we still smoked back then. He lit the match-heads, and she shimmied, head thrown back, her breasts jiggling on fire for a second, lighting her skin a glorious red.
We laughed, and he gave me a fiver, just so he could watch me slide it along with the other bills into her G-string.
Polina had finished her set and started her rounds. Once again I noticed her diffidence, the distance she maintained between herself and the patrons even as she leaned toward them, murmuring words that made them smile.
Jennie caught me watching and beckoned Polina over.
“This is Polly,” she said, her arm around the other girl’s thin shoulders. “Polly, say hello.”
“Hello,” she said, and her voice, the accent thick even in that one word, confirmed what I’d guessed. Bruce noticed it too—I felt it in how he folded his arms and cocked his head.
“Otkuda vi?” I asked. Where are you from?
She beamed, showing uneven but pretty teeth, and nodded. Again, that careful restraint—an American girl would have touched me, or slapped the bar at the coincidence.
“Tobolsk,” she said. “Ah vi?” And you?
And right there our relative positions were firmly established. I’d come to the United States as a child, had grown up, gone to school, university, become a citizen. My friends and my boyfriend were American. I had a job I liked, doing what I’d studied to do, and although the money wasn’t great, it was enough. She was from Siberia, from a place where mosquitoes swarmed in black clouds in summer and snow covered the ground for seven months in a warm year. And she worked in a strip club.
I could see she wanted to talk, to connect, but her hips were lonesome, bare of dollar bills, and she moved on, glancing at me as she made her rounds.
The next time she neared us, I gave her a tenner (my own, not Bruce’s), placing it awkwardly into her hand. Unlike touching the other girls, who laughed and called me honey and blew air kisses when I slid money into their bras or panties, who made a game of it, touching Polina seemed intrusive.
She smiled her constrained little smile, tucked my tenner into her bra, then glanced uncertainly at Bruce.
His stillness charged the space between his body and mine, but I didn’t look at him, told myself I could have this moment for my own.
“Kakdolgo vi zdes?” I asked. How long have you been here?
“Two month,” she said, holding up two fingers. She paused, and I thought she’d say something else, but her eyes drifted over Bruce again and she continued to the next customer.
Curious, I slipped away to the bathroom, to see what I could find out about her, but she was new and nobody knew much. When Bruce pressed me for details, I had little beyond what we’d already gathered from her.
“Why are you so interested anyway?” he asked.
I shrugged and sipped my drink. Bruce had a binary view of the world—people were smart or stupid, agreeable or thick-headed, useful or pointless. How to explain what I felt?
I had no Russian friends, and the idea of speaking with someone who could understand a part of me seemed appealing. Or maybe it was her separateness, her obvious discomfort with her job that snagged something in me—not pity, I didn’t pity her, and not anything so crude as recognition. She was acting a part, unconvincingly so, and I understood that about her, understood both the necessity for it, and the resentment—mostly but not quite buried. Or maybe my curiosity was more superficial. Maybe I simply found the spark of enthusiasm with which she looked at me flattering. I’m still trying to understand.
For numerous reasons, we stayed away from Stiletto for three weeks after that. When we visited next, I had to move with care because my ribs still hurt, as did sitting.
Polina also seemed careworn, though I’m not sure if my memories are colored by how I felt that night, and if she was in reality as happy and fizzy as the other girls.
But I remember a bruise on her upper thigh and how she fluffed her hair to cover her forehead and cheeks.
“Did you come over by yourself?” I asked her in Russian as soon as she gravitated toward us, then placed a reassuring hand on Bruce’s knee. I’d translate later.
This question always interested me about new immigrants. My family fought for and received refugee status. After we lived a stateless existence in Italy for a year, the U.S. granted us visas, then green cards. We accepted aid from charity organizations and the government just long enough for my parents to find employment. In the beginning I lived on a cot in an almost empty apartment with an elderly couple—strangers who agreed to take me in while my parents lodged in a dilapidated welfare hotel, applying for jobs and an apartment of their own.
Newer immigrants had no help, often waited years or entered lotteries for visas that never materialized. Sometimes they took leaps of faith and arrived as tourists or students and never left. Which was she?
“With my friend,” she said. Russian being a much more precise language than English, I knew she meant a male friend, a boyfriend. But she hesitated on that word as if it were a sharp thing inside her mouth.
“Do you like it here?” I asked in English because Bruce was growing quieter and quieter by my side. He hated being excluded.
For a second her eyes widened, and she looked away, shrugged, then looked back, her red mouth pulled up at the corners.
“Is okay,” she said.
“Do you want to hang out?” I asked on impulse and pushed my card toward her. After all, we socialized with Libby and Jenny. Why not Polina? Surely we could enfold her into our circle.
The grin with which she took my card and tucked it between her breasts was wide and genuine. Even through the loud music I heard her breathy little laugh, and she nodded and touched my hand before moving away.
“What was that about?” asked Bruce.
I looked down, which, he always said, made me seem shifty, but I couldn’t help myself. I had responded to a neediness in her eyes, a desperation that troubled me. Though what could I do about her life? I had my own to live through.
Bruce turned so his body faced me, leaned into me. “What, you’re going to hang out with her? Like you’re friends?”
“Maybe,” I said. “She seems nice.”
“She’s a scammer. I can tell. Stay away from her.”
“How is she a scammer? She’s a scammer, but Jenny is not a scammer?”
“Listen!” He gripped my wrist, hard, grinding my bones against each other. “She’s not like Jenny. She’s not like you. You think she’s like you, but she isn’t. She’s a prostitute, and she wants something from you. She’s playing you and you can’t even see it.” He released me and turned away.
“Okay,” I said.
My phone rang at five a.m. the next morning. I didn’t answer, but lay under my thick duvet, my eyes closed, listening to it ring and ring and ring. Whoever it was didn’t leave a message.
Next to me, Bruce lay equally awake and quiet, waiting out the rings.
Later, when he left for work, I used the call back function and got the club.
She (who else could it have been?) called every day at five a.m. for the next six days, never leaving a message. Each morning I pictured her in her after-work jeans and the horribly cliché fake-fur white jacket, her eyes bleared with smoke and exhaustion. What did she want with me so early? Did she really want to hang out? Eat eggs and potatoes in a New Jersey diner as we yakked about our shared birthplace? Those calls were not about wanting to hang out, not at five in the morning, not with such insistence.
I waited for the rings, listened to them, pretended sleep, and all the while unease stirred within me. Predetermination works fine if you only think of your own life. I was meant to meet Bruce. He was meant to love me the way he did.
But when a person reaches out to you, suddenly you have the power to make her life go one way or another, and fate no longer feels like the last word.
Bruce and I never discussed those calls, as if they happened in another, disconnected, universe.
The last time we visited Stiletto, I asked about her and Libby told me she’d left, just didn’t come in one night, no call or nothing. The owner had been pissed.
In the bathroom I cornered Jenny and asked her the same question.
Jenny snapped a garter into place. “Polly? She took everything too serious,” she said. “She shouldn’t be doing this work.”
I watched her comb her hair and pin a fabric rose behind one ear.
“You don’t take it serious?” I asked.
“I got rent and tuition,” she said, studying the perfect curve of fake lashes over her eyelid. “But I can leave this when I want to.”
“Well so can she,” I said. “No?”
Jennie’s lips tightened, her face aloof and unwelcoming for the first time since I’d met her.
“You don’t know anything, do you,” she said. It wasn’t a question.
I wasn’t then, nor am I now, used to criticism, to another person’s dislike. I itched to rush off, my face burning. But I stayed and asked, “Why can’t she?”
Jenny rolled her eyes. “You’ve been coming here for months. What do you think we do? What do you imagine goes on in that room?” She pointed at the private lounge where the girls gave lap dances.
Twisting back toward the mirror, she brushed bronzer over her cheekbones although she was already perfect, beautiful.
She said, “I don’t mind. It’s fun. Usually it’s fun. The guys are really grateful and I make a lot of money. But the difference”—she gestured with her makeup brush—“is I keep all my money.” And now her voice grew colder, hollow. “Polly gave her money to her pimp.”
Such a strange word—pimp. A word from movies and music videos. Who has pimps? I felt ill. My stomach churned, but I couldn’t use this bathroom to be sick. It would be as rude as vomiting in someone’s living room.
I stalked away past Bruce, past the doorman, out into the warm, spring night.
I searched for her after that. I called Stiletto’s manager, but he didn’t want to talk about her, and neither did the doorman. Libby asked the girls and uncovered a phone number for me, but, predictably, it was out of service.
It took another month and a visit to the ER with a broken wrist before I left Bruce.
Once again I lived on a cot in an acquaintance’s apartment, paying half her rent until I found my own place. For months I’d wake at five a.m., thinking I’d heard my phone ring. But of course, it never did.
Emilya Naymark has published stories in Snowbound: Best New England Crime Stories 2017, 1+30: THE BEST OF MYSTORY, and Zouch.
Lionel Miele-Herndon: I am a student at Parsons School of Design. The structure of buildings, both exterior and interior, intrigues him, leading to my interest in these minimal architectural studies.