1. How old are you?
To Mr. Dirty Old Man: “Thirteen. Please don’t tell anybody.”
To Mr. Feeling Guilty That I’m Young Enough To Be His Daughter: “Forty-two. Please don’t tell anybody.”
To Mr. Nosy: “That’s classified.”
My Spanish teacher and mentor, Mrs. Fuentes, was the pinnacle of grace and good manners. She’d always said that a woman, “is under no obligation” to answer a question about her age truthfully. I thanked her in my heart each time I lied about my age—which was always. At the club, anyway.
I was seventeen years old the afternoon I first walked into the club, selling tickets for Cardinal Payorelse High School’s annual raffle. I harbored movie-gleaned ideas about how the women inside would look. I imagined them tall, blonde, and fake-breasted—silicone goddesses. I was tall and pretty in a small-breasted, South American way. Would they even let an A-cup brunette in? I found the lobby empty, so I showed myself into the main area of the club. On stage, “Sunny” undulated to reggae. Witness Sunny: an obese Vietnamese woman in a neon blue wig.
I sat at the bar a minute or more, studying Sunny’s homeliness. People paid to watch her take off her clothes? I looked around. The only other person in the room besides me was the bartender.
Dick the Bartender bought a book of tickets ($20 worth—an excellent sale for me) and said, “You’re cute. You should work here.” Dick sported a drug-wizened face over his bowtie, and he was flirting with me—given he was at least twenty-five years older than me, mug-shot ugly, and not rich, I was puzzled. The whole place puzzled me. I asked him how old one had to be to work there. The answer: eighteen. Then I asked how much the girls made. “Three-hundred a night is average,” he said. “But a girl like you could make a lot more.”
I applied for the job of “entertainer” two months later. Yes, I needed the money. But also, I needed to know more about this place where the realities I grew up with did not seem to apply.
But back to lying about my age. If I confessed my real age at work, customers questioned the contents of my drinks. I held no ambition of becoming an alcoholic, but club policy required that I entice customers to buy me cocktails. Each drink cost five dollars. My “cocktails” were four ounces of cranberry juice and two ounces of ice.
2. Do your parents know you do this?
To Mr. Generous: “My mother knows. She’s heartbroken. And if she didn’t need the cash so badly to buy shoes for my six brothers and sisters and pay rent, she’d probably disown me. . . I don’t know where my father is. . . I’ve never seen him here (looks around to be sure). . . I assume he doesn’t know.”
To Mr. Tightwad: “No. They’re dead.”
The money was impossible to hide. I didn’t keep most of it. This was how my senior year at Cardinal Payorelse High School ended: my father was on his second heart attack (likely brought on by the stress of that second family he was hiding from us in Mexico) and, since we had no health insurance, his second bankruptcy. My mom was laid off. Our station wagon was repossessed. Dad’s Mercedes only worked in reverse. Sometimes the electric and water bills went unpaid, and we lived in the nineteenth century until my mom’s unemployment check came. My only sibling was sixteen and expressing his filial respect by stealing car parts, selling fake IDs, and not sharing the profits. My parents still owed tuition at Cardinal Payorelse. I found out at graduation when my diploma case was empty. The school was withholding my final transcripts. I’d been accepted to college, but the university needed to see my final transcripts to confirm my place for the fall. Fall was coming fast.
After a month of clandestine bill paying and being out until dawn four nights a week, I had to say something to my mother. I remember feeling grossed out that my hair still reeked of cigarettes even after I washed it after work one night when she asked me, “What have you been doing” to which I responded with the usual half-truth: “Dancing, Mom.” Then she got parental and said, “You should stay home more. You smell like an ashtray.” My fatigue overwhelmed my fury and I said, more calmly than I felt, that I’d been at work. “Where do you work that’s open until four in the morning,” she demanded. “The Cabaret,” I answered, yawning. I’d worked an eight hour shift in five-inch stiletto heels. In that eight hours I’d answered seven stage calls during which I’d danced, contorted, and crawled for at least ten minutes each call. I’d had between thirty and fifty conversations with strangers during which I’d met with either success or failure in parting them with their money. I’d listened to loud music and sucked in second-hand smoke for eight hours. I’d paid twenty-percent of my VIP earnings to the club plus fifteen dollars “rent” minus one dollar for each “cocktail” I’d “sold”. I’d done Two-for-Ones when the bells sounded at six and nine that night. I had not eaten the entire shift. I did not have the energy to tell my mother I was saving our collective asses, could she please not force me to point out her failures as a parent at this exact moment. A conversation of exhaustion ensued—after which the sun shone good and yellow, demolishing all hope of my getting any sleep that day, when my mother finally said, with her usual flair for understatement, “I’m not happy about this, but I can’t stop you.”
We both wished she could have stopped me. But love really doesn’t keep the lights on.
I took out loans for school so I could pay the mortgage that year. A year and a half later, shortly after I quit dancing, Mom sold the house and settled a bunch of debts. I felt good about that.
We decided, because of his health, not to tell my father. He worked and lived in Mexico, a thousand miles away, most of the time. He thought I was a party-girl; no one corrected him. Three years later, after he’d divorced my mother, after he’d promised then broken his promise to pay for my wedding, as I drove him to the airport, he suggested it had been generous of my husband to buy me a car when I was in college. My jaw tightened; I stared ragefully at the road. This was what people thought: that my husband had paid for all the things I’d worked so hard to buy. And it wasn’t that my husband wouldn’t have had I let him. But I had not let him. And I’d kept the whole thing a secret from the family to protect my mother’s reputation among her siblings. And I’d loved my Dad enough not to want him to die of shame over how I’d taken up his burdens in the wake of his failures. But I hated him enough for his failures that this time, this one time, I wanted, with my father, now that we were both adults, to stab him with the truth. I said, “I bought myself this car.” Dad then asked me how I’d afforded it. I parked in front of the terminal and hit the hazards on my black Geo Metro four-door sedan (such luxury I allowed myself.) I said, “Dancing topless in a gentlemen’s club” and braced for one of my father’s world-class verbal beat-downs. Silence. He looked at his lap, his cheeks gray. Continued silence. He bolted for his flight, and we never spoke of it again.
Not everyone reacted as supportively to news of my dancing job as my parents. Mr. Stonecaster, the Assistant Principal (and my English teacher), found out about my job. He’d given me the Senior English Award that year. He’d learned of my dancing job through gossip—never bothering to ask me if it was true. When I went to sell back my books he cut me in the hall with, “I’m very disappointed in you.”
I wrote him a three-page letter explaining what I did when I danced and why I took the job, inviting him to judge me on facts. He never wrote back. I’ve been to Payorelse a few times since then—to catch up with the teachers who mattered to me. Most have retired. Mr. Stonecaster saw me on one of my visits, though, and put his head down to avoid speaking with me.
3. Do you like your job?
To Mr. Fuentes (or any Mr. Wants To Know): “I love this job!”
Mr. Fuentes and I had met at a Spanish Honor Society dinner my junior year. My beloved Mrs. Fuentes had observed us fondly as we’d Samba-ed together. My only thought the night Mr. Fuentes and I met had been how odd that a large, Havarti-cheese-looking man should dance so gracefully; when he showed up at the club, it was the first time we’d seen each other since then.
I’ll say this: Mrs. Fuentes was the kind of teacher who talked about her life to her students. A happy woman by her own account, she’d even mentioned that her husband sometimes went to see “go-go girls” when he was out with business associates and that she always knew because of how he smelled when he came home. She tolerated this flaw of his by holding the perspective that he was an otherwise outstanding husband, and his lapses were few and far between. Advanced Placement Spanish, I’ll also say, was a class of nine nerdy kids hungry for realistic portrayals of adulthood. It was Catholic school, but we were old enough and smart enough to know we were seldom offered the whole story; we respected Mrs. Fuentes and fed on her candor.
Mr. Fuentes bought five lap dances—a hundred dollars’ worth—and swore he was doing it for me because I obviously needed the money. He could have bought dances from any of the forty other girls on that night, but he wanted me. Picture my heart as a building. Now picture it full of explosives. Now picture me dancing for Mr. Fuentes. Now picture flaming rubble. But any stripper worth her weight in lingerie will behave as though every night is the greatest night of her life even if she hasn’t eaten in seven hours, her married boyfriend just went back to his wife, and she’s dancing naked in stilts on her beloved mentor’s husband’s lap to pay off her parents’ debts. I smiled, laughed, and flirted like nothing was broken.
However, on most nights I loved dancing. Loved it. Loved it. Loved it. This is not the proper, feminist response to this question, I know. How to explain? I’d dragged my un-mathematical mind through two years of Algebra and one year of Geometry with C minuses at Payorelse, but I’d aced Economics and I graduated knowing Money=Destiny.
I went from being the left pinkie in my family to being the right hand. I bought groceries that were not all about to expire. Bills no longer came in envelopes red-stamped with “Final Notice.” I purchased a car that worked in drive and reverse.
What about the work itself?
Does it ever hurt a woman’s ears to hear men tell her she’s gorgeous? Or, when she thinks aloud about getting her (modest) breasts enlarged, that she “shouldn’t change a thing”? I did what I might’ve done in an ordinary nightclub for fun but, because I shimmied out of my dress every other song, I went home with $350 a night.
Aren’t the men reptiles? Don’t they try to grope you? Don’t you feel degraded?
Mostly, no. To make the offensive minority vanish, I’d summon Big Nick, Little Nick, Jack, Lenny, Ronny, or Frank. My male coworkers were stellar fellows, treated me like a goddess, and protected me zealously.
Men were not a problem; but I did not work only with men. My female coworkers were equal parts cobra, mongoose, and falcon. They threatened me with venom, teeth, and talons on a regular basis.
Sample threats and accusations:
“I’ll be waiting for you in the parking lot. With a knife” (I have no idea what I did to offend her.).
“You! Bitch! Don’t sit next to my customer!” (This line was delivered with physical menace which was how I learned it was a breach of stripper etiquette to solicit a dance from a customer sitting in the front row of someone else’s stage show.)
“I’ll kick your ass if you (dance for that man) again!” (The man in question had not been wearing a sign declaring his sole loyalty to my potential ass-kicker, but I did not lack for customers and felt it best to avoid him in the future.)
I pleaded inexperience and begged for forgiveness often and with great sincerity.
Footnote: The shoes were a torment. The Catholic schoolgirl in me couldn’t help but wonder if I wasn’t doing pre-penance for some of my sins by wearing those things eight hours at a stretch. I spent 1,664 hours of my nineteenth year on my tip-toes. After a thousand or so, I became inured to the pain.
4. Do you have a boyfriend?
To Mr. Wondering If He Has A Chance: “I like men. . . I collect them.”
My job was to sell the illusion of availability to the customers. Except for a deluded few, they knew this. The question, then, was a personality test.
Management forbade us from saying we were married and discouraged us from mentioning a significant other in any form. Wedding rings were taboo. Male companions were banned from the premises.
My male companions from The Year I Was a Dancing Girl (In Chronological Order):
Steven: 56, married, and my Religious Studies teacher at Payorelse; he had a daughter enrolled at Payorelse. Steven was built like an aging Nordic warrior. He regaled me with gossip from the teachers’ lounge. He schooled me in men, dare-devil driving, and adultery. He moved away one month after graduation. I missed him.
Greg: Little Nick’s younger brother, a thin, hairy, harmless, blond boy of eighteen. I should have known things wouldn’t work out when he said that he didn’t have a favorite book and that reading was “kind of hard” for him. Another clue was that Kingpins was one of his favorite movies. The deal breaker moment came when I told him that I’d kissed Jane (a very beautiful girl we both knew), and he said, “That’s disgusting.”
He’d obviously never kissed Jane. I broke up with him.
Alvaro: a jade-eyed financial advisor/Karate instructor in his late twenties who was not looking for a relationship (with me.). He just wanted to have sex (with me.). He once insisted I wait in the car while he visited his parents. When he returned to the car he explained I was not the kind of girl he could introduce to his mother.
He’d met my mother. I stopped answering his calls.
Sol: the owner of the club had a swimmer’s body topped with a noble Roman face. He drove a white Jag and lived in an old money neighborhood. I could have fallen in love with him. He found me toothsome. He supported my passion for school and, to that end, let me work whatever schedule I chose and made certain that Big Nick and Little Nick didn’t overburden me with minor policy shifts. He examined my report cards and asked me about my teachers. We chatted often about my after-college plans.
Sol introduced me to his mother, his father, his favorite cousin, and his closest friends. He invited me to after work parties every week. I usually declined—not because I didn’t want to spend time with him, but because it was hard enough to get any sleep when I walked through the door at 4:30 a.m., let alone 8:30 a.m.
Scheduling problems forestalled our romance. He married my successor.
The Man I Eventually Married: The classic good guy: Star-halo, blue eyes and a runner’s physique; cheerful childhood; sterling education; galloping career; good Southern manners; bottomless heart. I couldn’t believe he existed. I kept waiting for his friends to badmouth him when he left the room; for ex-wives and ex-children to rain on me like rotten coconuts out of nearby palm trees; for an anonymous note saying, “He’s gay.”
Impatient, I snooped through all his belongings once while he was at work. They were so devoid of real or metaphorical dirt I decided that day that I’d marry him if he ever asked. The wonder of it—the wonder of his actually being as great as he seemed—replaced the faith I’d lost at Payorelse.
5. So, what’s your real name?
To Mr. Let’s Get To Know Each Other: “Jessica.”
Also three syllables and close enough in pronunciation to Jennifer that, if I met a particularly valued customer outside the club but was with my family or someone who didn’t know of my job, I could easily explain that the fellow had misheard me when I told him my name, reintroduce myself and throw a shawl over the nature of the relationship double-quick without alienating anyone. Or, if it was a customer I preferred to avoid, I could walk past like we’d never met. Both scenarios were rare.
I danced as “Delilah.” Lovelorn and seductive. Delilah: three syllables—but decidedly un-Jennifer. When I introduced myself as Delilah, for example, no one ever said, “I have a sister/daughter/cousin named Delilah.” Everyone knows a Jennifer. She was born between 1970 and 1985. She’s tall, thin, and looks a little like the actress from Love Story. She won spelling-bees in school and may or may not wear glasses.
A few weeks before our graduation I told my friend, Gladys, of my new job. I even asked her opinion on my stage name. She thought Delilah was perfect for me. Then she told everyone at Payorelse where I worked: teachers, classmates, janitors. It was her final revenge for the time I’d kissed her boyfriend in the ninth grade. She’d enacted other revenge plans, which was why I’d thought we were, you know, even.
But I wasn’t at the club a month before a small mob of Payorelse alumni took seats in the front row. The manager, Lenny, saw my hands shaking and offered to put some other girl up at my stage call when I told him. I declined his offer. There were four boys—two were the kind who’d spent the last four years trying to steal my test answers. One was genuinely smart, and it surprised me he was there. One I knew only by reputation because his parents donated money to the school; he seemed the least interested in heckling me. There were two girls from Payorelse, too. One was an old friend of Gladys’. Both were jocks: girls who’d groaned when I ended up on their basketball teams in gym class, girls who were not as smart or as good-looking as me but whose parents bought them really nice cars for their sixteenth birthdays.
I gave them the same show I gave everyone else: one song tease, one song strip. Two boys bought (over-priced in my honor—thank you Diedre and Rina) lap dances from my blonder colleagues; one bought no lap dances; Moneybags Jr. bought two lap dances from me during which he squirmed more than I did and stammered that he thought I looked better naked than dressed. The girls did not buy any lap dances. I learned later, through the Payorelse grapevine, my lack of humiliation disappointed them greatly.
Mr. Stonecaster’s son, the smart boy, Pat-of-no-lap-dances, was there. Lenny suggested to the group that if they were celebrating someone’s birthday, it would involve a special treat. Here’s where I’ll say, if you cringe when waiters sing “Happy Birthday” to you in a restaurant, never, ever admit a birthday in a strip club. I’m fairly sure it was not Pat’s birthday, but the mob said it was. So a swarm of fringed and feathered girls tied him to a chair on stage. Then they took his shirt and pants off. Then they danced for him in turn.
There’s a picture of Pat (stripped down to his tighty-whities) on stage surrounded by ten of my (topless) coworkers. Lenny, dear Lenny, offered the picture to me. For a bitter instant I wanted to put a stamp on that photo and mail it to Pat’s father. I gave it to one of Pat’s buddies instead. I hoped in my heart that my not sending the picture to Mr. Stonecaster was something Mrs. Fuentes, had she known about it, would approve.
Interview with Jennifer Companik
by nonfiction editors Jillena Rose and Ana Robbins
Border Crossing: When and why did you first start writing?
Jennifer Companik: I began writing in the fourth grade, under the influence of Nancy Drew, to conceal from Mrs. Steiner (frosted blonde hair, gave birth to her first child the last week of school—well-timed, Mr. and Mrs. Steiner,) the fact of my finishing class assignments early. Because if I looked done, Mrs. Steiner would haul her ripening abdomen to my desk and assassinate my freedom with yet another worksheet. Writing looked enough like schoolwork that it kept Mrs. Steiner at her desk.
Plus, writing felt like being a grown up: I could do whatever I wanted on paper and it wouldn’t get me in trouble, or hurt my grades.
At least, that was what I thought at the time. My sophomore year of high school, an English teacher snatched the last page of an erotic three page poem I was revising while she went over a test on which I’d received a perfect score. (My God, I thought, she missed foreplay.) I later learned she’d used my authorship of that poem to blackball me from the National Honor Society.
BC: How were you able to get your humor across so well? Did it take a lot of finesse to get the words to have the written tone you intended?
JC: First of all, thank you for saying I get my humor across well. I revised “Five Questions” what felt like a million times—an editor at another publication liked the piece, but thought it was too flippant, that it didn’t reveal enough pain. So I actually spent several months trying to tone down the humor and turn the volume up on the pain. But I don’t believe expressions of pain and humor are mutually exclusive—so I never succeeded in meeting his “pain” requirement.
I think it does take finesse to write humor well. And if I have demonstrated such finesse . . . Am I allowed to thank my professors here? If I may, I’d like to thank my Genres professor and thesis advisor, Sheila Donohue, for telling me which parts of my earliest drafts were funny (and which ones weren’t); and my Humor Writing Professor, Miles Harvey, for teaching me how to be both funny and serious.
BC: Do you feel that a piece means only what the author intends for it to, what people get out of it, or something in between?
JC: Once it’s published, a story becomes open to interpretation. As authors, we hope readers will interpret our work how we want them to—but we don’t get to dictate what the work “means.”
And, really, what an honor that anyone should spend a portion of his life reading my work and deciding what it means: Hello, Reader. I love you!
BC: How do you handle drafts? Do you keep old versions, continually edit one file, or do you stick closer to a “one and done” philosophy?
JC: I cut and paste, then e-mail each draft to myself at the end of a writing session—because I’m paranoid about my computer dying.
I’d love to be able to say I have a “one and done” philosophy, but I rewrite pieces in different POVs, different tenses—even different genres before I’m done. So I end up with a mélange (a hodgepodge, okay, it’s a hodgepodge. But I like to think of it as a mélange) of versions of most of what I write.
BC: Finally, what is your least favorite food, and would you ever write a haiku about it?
JC: My least favorite food is sardines. And even though an angel’s wings fall off every time I write a poem, I have written a haiku about sardines. Because I hate sardines. Because I love haiku. Because you all but dared me. Because I wonder how much a bottle of organic angel’s tears would fetch at the farmers’ market . . .
Sleeping slimy in—
Their tiny, key-turn coffins:
Creepy little fish.
Jennifer Companik holds an M.A. from Northwestern University, reads fiction for TriQuarterly, and writes for RadiantStreets.com. Her accomplishments include: first-prize in The Ledge magazine’s 2014 Fiction Awards Competition; a short story in Queen Mob’s Teahouse; and fiction in the May 2015 issue of the The Acentos Review.