By JESSIE MARSHALL
The club’s house mother—we’ll call her Cheryl—didn’t think I dressed sexy enough. I had purchased three slinky outfits in Camden Market, two red and one black, for less than thirty quid each. They weren’t slutty exactly, but came off quickly and showed a lot of skin. Cheryl made her own dresses and sold them for ninety pounds, so I knew her opinion was not to be trusted.
My first night at Metropolis started off slow. If the girls had been wearing different clothes, you might have taken us for customers at the DMV. I stood at the bar for an hour, intermittently eavesdropping to find out what had happened on the series finale of Sex and the City. Then a man approached, a shy Indian who followed me to the back and pushed through the swinging doors that didn’t have a lock. The doors kept us separate from the other booths and simulated privacy, though the bouncers could see our feet and Cheryl had shown me where the emergency button was hidden on the wall.
“I haven’t seen you before,” said the quiet man. Was it exciting that I hadn’t stripped before, or was it unnerving, like having your chest cracked open by a kid just out of med school? I told him it was my first day at Metropolis, but that I’d stripped before in Texas. I had never been to Texas, but the man seemed to think I’d grown up there.
“Lonestar,” he said. “Two-step, Austin, Denver.”
“That’s right!” An exuberant twang snuck into my voice. “You sure do know geography.”
I slid off the dress so it pooled at my waist and rolled my hips in a circle. I didn’t know if I should look at the man or the wall. I chose the wall. The man’s eyes kept flicking between my breasts and my face, and when the dress fell to my ankles the distance they traveled grew wider.
“Keep going,” he said. “Keep going, keep going.”
His nervousness put me at ease. I took a step closer, to a place where I felt the heat from his body. I put my hands where he wasn’t allowed to put his.
I quickly ran out of tricks. Finally the man said, “Okay,” and I began to get dressed.
“I like you,” he said, while I struggled to tie my straps. “You’re what the French call au natural.”
“You remind me of my ex-wife.”
“Thank you.” I asked for fifty pounds, which probably reminded him of his ex-wife, too. He gave me the money and wrote his number on the back of a loyalty card for a local video shop in case I wanted to do private parties. Maybe I should have called him, but I was too nervous to work outside the club.
Each night after it got dark I put one of the dresses in a duffel bag and did my makeup: red lips, fake lashes, concealer for the bruises on my legs. I took the bus to East London, switching lines at Trafalgar Square, then went down to the dressing room and handed Cheryl three twenty-pound notes. This was the house fee. I had intended to support myself in London by getting paid under the table for the things I did on top of it, but since we only earned ten pounds per dance I rarely took home more than forty quid, despite pulling eight-hour shifts from eight to close. Some nights I lost money. The girls admitted things were better in the center of the city, but those clubs were swankier and needed an N.I. number to put me on the books. Without a work permit, Metropolis was the best that I could do, but after two weeks of scraping by I began to realize the truth: I was a terrible stripper. A terrible, broke stripper.
I thought about calling my father.
Not that I had his number, but if things got bad I could call his secretary in Belgium and ask for some cash. He had sent flowers to my mother’s funeral— carnations, the whores of the flower kingdom—and for this blunder and others I’d never forgiven him. But money is money, as my mother would say, and you can spend it on anything, including revenge. Even after the divorce, my father would come home to discover she had gotten a new chin, or reupholstered the furniture in blue satin, or shipped me off to boarding school in France. Each attempt to get his attention was eventually reversed—I only went to L’Ermitage for one semester—except for the surgeries, which stuck. By the time my father divorced her my mother was no longer beautiful, but tight, and when she died her face was more canvas than skin, the flesh-colored pigments needing to be applied each morning while she lay in her hospital bed.
To punish my father for his ongoing negligence, I took the tuition for fall semester and bought a ticket to Heathrow. My college was an expensive one, and I had enough left over to pay the rent at my Earl’s Court bedsit for three or four months, depending on what I drank and where I chose to drink it. I dreamed of the amazing stories I would tell my friends back at school, but in those first few weeks at Metropolis I had no idea how to turn my life into a story as interesting as the ones in my head.
Turns out, stripping isn’t glamorous or risqué. Most girls think they couldn’t do it, but the basic gesture is simple: You go onstage and take your clothes off. Believe me, you have lots of practice taking your clothes off. True, stripping is a particular brand of clothing removal, but novice strippers are not entirely unschooled in its art. We have seen movies; we have seen the Sopranos. If you have watched television after 1973, you are probably ready.
Step One: Act Like a Stripper. If you do this in a strip club, you are a stripper. The only difference between a girl at a kegger and a bona fide pro is that one of these people gets paid and the other does not. Incidentally, this is also the difference between a slut and a whore.
Step Two: Make the Ask. I didn’t mind taking my clothes off, but it was awkward to approach strange men and ask them to buy me, which, as it turns out, is the primary task of being a stripper. It’s basically a sales position, and I’m crap at sales, but this is not what people want to hear when I tell them about Metropolis. They want blow jobs, knife fights, junkies and rape. They want to learn something about me, and possibly about themselves. But stripping wasn’t degrading or empowering, at least, not more than any other job I’ve had. It was, quite simply, boring. I suppose it sticks out in my mind because it was my first job, and, like most people who enter the workforce without a strong sense of self, I tried to glean clues about my identity from it.
Step Three: Know the Rules and Follow Them. Rule # 1: Do not see men outside the club. If a man asks for your number, say, “I’d love to see you again, but I’m working all week. If you come back on Friday, I’ll reserve a private room so we can be alone.” Rule # 2: No drunks and no drugs. If a man insists on getting you hammered, ask the bartender for a “Frosty Baker” and he’ll give you sparkling water. Don’t put anything up your nose unless you’re in the bathroom, and smoking—even cigarettes—will turn off the boys who like their strippers sweet. Rule # 3: Do not give away your time for free. If a man hasn’t asked for a dance within the first three minutes, it’s time to move on.
On the Wednesday of my third week I woke at noon, put the black dress and a pair of nosebleed heels in a bag, and tried to find another job. I went to Spearmint Rhino, Stringfellows, and Sophisticats, then tried Secrets Hammersmith, Holborn, and Euston. I’d heard that an illegal Ukrainian had gotten a job at Secrets Holborn, but the manager took one look at me and decided I wasn’t worth the risk. After that I tried phoning the strip pubs— the Flying Scotsman, Ye Olde Axe, and the Griffin. Unlike the clubs, the strip pubs offered a more structured environment, where a girl danced onstage and went around the room with a pint glass. Unless she was really ugly or the men were really cheap, everyone put a pound in the glass. It was a brilliant system because you barely had to speak and rejection was nearly impossible, but the pubs were small and afraid of losing their licenses, so I had no choice but to return to the stag-night punters and football fans at Metropolis.
My life outside the club was that of a tourist. I wasn’t familiar with the city, and though the Tube was easier, I often took buses to see what I was passing. From the top floor of a double-decker the city resembled a cute old man too effete to be dangerous, with buildings made of brick and stone darkened by centuries of rain and people with red cheeks who were happy to give directions. London looked just as it did in films, and whether I shuffled through crowds at Leicester Square or strolled along the boulevard on the South Bank of the Thames, I felt obvious and American and encased in sheer plastic, a foreign body pushed apart from anything living and real.
After a bad night at work I sometimes stopped at the fish and chips shop on the corner and bought a thickly wrapped parcel handed down to me by a sweaty man. Eating on the street was alright, but I didn’t like to go in anyplace because it made me so lonely. I’d spotted a few late-night bars near Tottenham Court Road, but their neon lights and loud music made me feel silly. I didn’t want to befriend the screeching girls or the silent, smoking boys who skulked around the snooker table in their damp wool coats. I didn’t want these people, but I didn’t want to be ignored by them, either. I needed to find someplace in London where I could feel comfortable, but the only place where I knew how to behave was Metropolis.
Metropolis is in Bethnal Green, somewhere between the Indian restaurant row and the boxing arena at York Hall. Its first floor is large and open, with sports on a giant telly behind the bar and a stage in the center of the room. The second floor is quieter, with a small bar stuck in the corner and rows of private rooms, each outfitted with a silver pole. The third floor is for fantasies: slutty croupiers, soapy showers, beach parties with inflated balls. We weren’t meant to be above the first floor without a client, but it was a good place to cool off when a man behaved badly. I was on the second floor, drinking a Stella that cost almost as much as a dance, when Cheryl, the house mum, came over.
“Get a glass,” she said, pointing at my beer. I had thought drinking from the bottle would make me more approachable. I thought it could be my shtick: like one of the guys, but naked.
I poured the beer into a pint glass and turned away in a sulk. Just then, a jumbled mass of flesh emerged from a private room and quickly righted itself, smoothing its skirts and ties until it became three men and two ladies snaking past me in a line. The girls wore their bleached hair long and had a tremor in their faces that reminded me of rabbits. The last man locked eyes with me as he passed.
“Hey,” he said.
“Hey,” I said.
He followed his friends to the stairs. When he turned back to look at me, the motion seemed intelligent, like a clever dog pointing at a bird. He paused at the top of the stairs and waved.
“What are you doing?”
He sounded like someone I knew. Not a specific person, but like anyone I might know.
“Nothing,” I said, and followed him.
Downstairs a pretty Latina was onstage, walking in tired circles around a pole. Sometimes Metropolis seemed like the island of lost toys, and the girls like sad dolls who’d been discarded by their childhood selves. Other times, it felt as ordinary and uncomplicated as an airport lounge.
“You’re American,” said the good-looking man.
I liked him. I’d never liked a man in the club before, and it completely confused me. I was certain there had to be a rule about showing genuine interest in a customer—fake interest, yes, real interest, no. His eyes were framed by pretty lashes and were a warm brown, maybe hazel. I decided to act indifferent, and lit a cigarette as I asked, “Do you come here a lot?”
He said he never did, they were just off work and his friend had got engaged, so they brought him there to celebrate. I asked if he wanted to celebrate with me, and he said alright, so I led him through the swinging doors. He sat on the leather, and I put my legs around his knee.
“You’re cute.” I felt myself blushing. But what was that? Strippers didn’t blush.
“I bet you say that to all the guys.”
“I’ve never said that to anyone,” I said, then added, “here.”
Telling the truth felt illicit, arousing. I released the top of my dress, letting the fabric fall to my waist, and lifted one breast in each hand, squeezing them together. I put a shoulder on the wall behind him, spooning his front with my back, and rolled my torso until my dress slid down my hips and fell to the floor in heap. I’d been practicing this move at home and felt pleased at its execution, but it was almost the end of the night and I could smell my own sweat. It smelled vaguely like my father, a musky basement, back-of-the-closet smell. I stepped out of the dress and moved away from the wall, turning to the man and tugging at my lavender g-string.
“Nice pants,” said the man. I looked down. “Not trousers,” he said. “Pants.”
Cheryl came over. “You take too long to get your clothes off,” she said. “This man is very lucky.” She smiled at him, but she was talking to me, and I could tell she didn’t think he was lucky at all. “Half a song,” she said, which was how long we were supposed to take.
The man was already standing.
“Wait,” I said. “I’m supposed to show you everything.”
“Next time.” He handed me a tenner and walked through the curtain, and I went down to the dressing room to remove my dress for the sixth time that night. I’d almost broken even.
When I walked out of the club wearing my jeans and peacoat, the man and his friends were there waiting for a car.
“She’s a nice bird,” one of the men was saying, “but I wouldn’t want to fuck her.”
The good-looking guy asked if I needed a ride.
I hesitated. We weren’t supposed to talk to customers outside the club.
“I’m taking the bus,” I said, and the men laughed in response. “I am,” I said, “right there.” They looked past me, as if doubting the existence of the bus stop, and I turned and started down the street. A girl from the club was already waiting there, but we didn’t speak, and when the men hailed a minicab I pretended not to notice. It seemed so simple later that night, from the comfort of my tiny flat—he likes you, get in the car!—but I didn’t want to break the rules. If the good-looking guy wanted to find me, he knew where to look.
The surgeries first froze my mother’s beauty, then emaciated it. She retained her figure, though, and even in her late forties she could make my high school boyfriends choke on their sodas just by walking in from the garden, still covered in dirt. But it wasn’t enough. At the start of my senior year she went in for liposuction, her eighth elective procedure, and died six days later. My father chose not to attend the funeral. He preferred to remember how she’d been before, rather than what she’d become.
Without my mother around, it was hard to know what I looked like. I’ve no doubt she would have hated the stripping, but I’m also sure she would have understood it. She knew I didn’t want to be like other girls who tested the boundaries of their sexual appeal with binge drinking and threesomes. Stripping, unlike boys, was clear and impartial. It told me how much I
I watched the other girls at Metropolis, the busy ones, and tried to figure out what they did right. In the meantime I practiced. I learned how to arch my back and bend my knees so my ass looked higher and tighter. That was what my mother had tried to do to her face, make it higher and tighter like a young girl’s ass. I learned to hold in my stomach all the time, even at the grocery store, even on the 4 a.m. bus to Earl’s Court. I tried to guess each man’s fantasy and become that thing—innocent or savvy, sweet or spicy. It would have been easier to hand them a menu, but I guess men don’t know what they want until it’s right in front of them.
My moves were getting better, but I wasn’t making money. The trick was to find a regular customer, someone wealthy or bored enough to pay for a private room, and to convince this man that next time, always next time, he would finally get what he wanted. My bank account held eleven hundred pounds, so I wasn’t exactly starving. Still, I wanted money badly. Any money that came from stripping was mine and wholly mine, made of my body, my movement, my tongue. But the constant rejection was taking its toll, and I needed a break from London. There was only one place I could go without spending a dime, so that’s where I went—to visit my father.
The immigration officer asked what my plans were in Belgium. He wasn’t smiling, but his eyes crinkled pleasantly, and I got the feeling it was a genuine question rather than an interrogation. I couldn’t think of anything other than the name of the restaurant.
“Actually I’m a food critic,” I said. “I’m here to review the Comme Chez Soi.”
The man’s eyebrows sprang up, filling the bald arches left by his receding hairline. “What a career!”
My father’s secretary had booked a hotel for me, a tiny boutique place north of the city center. It was still early, and a cold, bright day, so I decided to walk to the restaurant. On the way I bought a ten-pack of Gauloises and smoked them, one after the other, throwing out the empty container near the Anneessens metro. When I think of the things I saw—the Cathedral of Saint Michael and Saint Gudula, the Grote Markt, the Mont des Arts—it reminds me of those Gauloises, the way my throat clogged up and the taste of burnt spit on my tongue. I wouldn’t admit it, but I was nervous to see him.
I approached the restaurant and spotted his face in the window, through a shadow of branches that danced across the glass. In his youth he had been a handsome man, square-jawed and intense, but now his colors had faded and his eyes had sunk too far in his skull. I rarely looked at him closely because his face was a lot like mine—not beautiful, but strong. Despite the resemblance I hoped my twenty-year-old body would act as a disguise, but he recognized me immediately and waved me to the table. He had already ordered a beer, which sat half-drunk in a glass as tall as a vase. I felt a rush of dislike when I looked at the beer, followed by a rush of guilt. There was no reason to hate him.
My mother said the same thing whenever life went wrong for us. It’s not your father’s fault, she said, when a birthday card arrived late or not at all. It’s not your father’s fault, she said, when the infection from her second rhinoplasty made her face swell like a balloon. My mother’s mantra had a great effect on me, though not the one she intended. Because if you keep hearing that all the bad things in life are not your father’s fault, eventually you start to wonder if they are.
The other men in the restaurant were about my father’s age, and without exception they sat with twenty-something women, girls on the left, boys on the right, with a single red poppy in between. I smiled at my father and took a sip of water. When I brought the glass down I caught him staring at my nails, which were dusty and uneven, the glue from the press-ons still visible.
“You’re here.” He smiled in a distant, pleasant way. “How long has it been?”
Two years. But I pretended not to know.
“Dear Lord, you look like a woman.”
The sommelier approached the table. While he and my father bantered about the wine list, I studied the other women in the restaurant. They were thin and lovely, with clothes that dangled precariously off their bodies, as if breasts and shoulders and hips were not anatomical objects, but geological ones. Cliff faces. Rock beds. I wondered what it took, what sacrifices a girl had to make, to become hard like that. After the sommelier left I pretended to listen while my father talked about my college, which had been his college too, and secretly wondered how I could court the favor of these women. My own dress was an empire fit, ballooning at the top and then falling straight down, hiding my waist. It made me look like a child. I wanted these women to take me into the bathroom and show me their secrets. They could re-part my hair or tie a scarf around my waist, and I would stand there, doll-like, until their manicured hands had fixed me.
There was no need to order food. Lunch was the same for every guest: quail eggs, sea bass with basil, and chocolate mousse with a bourbon vanilla. When the wine had been poured and the bottle set into a bucket of ice, my father asked about my life.
I pretended the lunch was an interview and answered his questions politely, trying to put a positive spin on any sign of weakness. As I spoke, he leaned forward intimately, a little drunk perhaps, like an over-eager boyfriend. Each detail I threw him made him swoon with interest. A lame joke that should have won a chuckle received a roar of laughter, and with each sigh or smile I deemed him false, false, falser. His behavior might have made some other girl happy, but I had spent too many years keeping him at a distance, and was too intent on maintaining the balance of our emotional divide: he must always feel guilty, and I must never feel anything.
My father ate voraciously, slurping the buttery eggs and using a napkin to wipe the grease from his lips. Several times he had trouble hearing me, and I became angry, though the source of the anger confused me. Was it that he couldn’t hear me, or that he wasn’t listening?
“Sorry, hon. Your dad is getting old.”
He took a small, flesh-colored bean from his pocket and put it in his ear.
“I hate to wear it. But I can still taste things properly, fortunately for Pierre.” He speared a slice of creamed fish and twirled his fork extravagantly before putting the flesh in his mouth.
The little bean unnerved me. He must have been alive all those times he’d been away, alive somewhere and losing his hearing. I was so disturbed by this thought that I hardly noticed when his gaze shifted to the back of the restaurant.
“Ah!” he said, dropping his napkin. “The most beautiful woman in the world has arrived.”
He stood, smiling, lifting his arms. I twisted in my chair to see a dark-haired, olive-skinned woman with large, loose breasts that bounced inside her shirt like a pair of eager puppies. She hurried across the room and flew into my father’s arms.
“Cari, darling, this is my daughter. Sit down. We’ll get you the mousse.”
“No,” said the woman called Cari. “I did not mean to interrupt.”
She had a Spanish accent that made her words sound thick, like she had recently been eating mayonnaise. A waiter brought her a chair, and she sat in it, spouting apologies.
“Darling, I want you to meet her,” my father cooed. “It’s important. You’re important.”
She said something soft and fast in Spanish, placing her hand on my father’s cheek. Then she turned to me. “He is a real sweetheart, your father. An old, snuggy teddy bear!”
I must have looked horrified, but my father just laughed. “Cari is from Colombia,” he said.
“We met on THE INTERNET!” she screamed. The other women looked up from their meals and frowned, but Cari was laughing too hard to notice. “My parents, though, they love him. Even though he’s old.”
Cari—short for Caridad—proceeded to launch into the story of her courtship with my father, pausing to act out the most dramatic moments. He had pursued her for months online before flying out to visit. Cari missed her family, of course, but meeting a man like that—so charming, so generous —was just what she’d always dreamed of. Her hands conducted an invisible orchestra as she talked, painting the air with set pieces to compliment her story: computer screens, doorways, fast-moving jets.
“And now I live here,” she said finally. “In exciting Europe.”
“We had to get married, of course,” my father said calmly. “For the paperwork.”
“Of course,” I said. “That’s why you didn’t invite me.”
Cari reached through the dirty plates and silverware and took my hand. A cage of gold bangles sat awkwardly around her wrist. On one of her fingers, a large diamond winked at me. “I am sorry to hear about your mother,” she said softly. “I don’t know what I would do if I lost mine. She is my heart.”
I couldn’t look at her. Instead, I looked at the diamond. I wondered exactly how much it had cost, and what she had done to get it.
“Really?” I said to the diamond. “Is that what you told her when you left?”
From the corner of my vision I saw Cari glance at my father, who gave her an encouraging nod. “When we get married for real,” she said in a silky voice, “I want you to be my best maid of honor.”
“Thank you,” I said. “Excuse me.” I stood and Cari recoiled, as if my rage had rolled across the table and slapped her. “Bathroom,” I said, and left.
By the time I returned things had gotten jolly. My father and Cari were eating the mousse and giggling while they licked the spoons. I sat down stiffly and started to eat.
“So tell me,” my father said, motioning for another glass of Sancerre, “What made you decide on London? A boy, perhaps?”
This I felt prepared for. I met my father’s gaze and described how, last semester, a speaker had come to my economics class and talked about the importance of international experience in today’s marketplace. After a visit to the career center, I found a work-abroad program and applied for a job with the marketing department of a dance club. Metropolis, had he heard of it?
“No,” he said, “But I haven’t been inside a club in thirty years.” His expression softened, and he leaned back in his chair, looking at me fondly. “And you set it up on your own? What a little go-getter.”
I smiled across the table. We had achieved a weirdly simpatico moment, in which he was proud of my lie, and so was I.
“When I was your age,” he said, “I didn’t know what I wanted to do.”
“Neither did I,” said Cari. “Until I met your father.”
They exchanged a glance, and she leaned over to kiss him lightly on the lips. Cari looked so young. How could she touch him?
My father drained his glass and looked at his watch. “Listen, I’m stuck in meetings for the rest of the day, but why don’t you two go shopping? My treat.”
Cari squealed and squeezed his leg. “Waterloo?”
“What’s Waterloo?” I asked, thinking of the terminal in London. Cari took my father’s credit card with one hand and flapped the other dismissively.
“It’s the best. Couture. You’ll see.”
Outside the restaurant my father and I shared an awkward hug and made plans to have dinner the next day, but we both could tell these plans were half-hearted. The next morning I phoned his secretary to cancel, and she said that my father had been called to Utrecht anyway, but that the next time he saw me, he hoped I’d be wearing the dress.
The dress was a Versace. I had never owned anything remotely like it. Cari, of course, picked it out.
“Don’t you just die to see such a thing?” She pulled it off the rack and held it out. I had to admit, it glittered. Not like the tacky, disco-ball outfits I’d worn as a child, but more like the moon scattered across the ocean. Still, I hesitated.
“Don’t be crazy. Do you have a boyfriend?” I shook my head, embarrassed at the price of the dress, which I’d just found on a tiny tag. “Well,” she huffed, “do you want to have a boyfriend?”
Cari had seemed pretty enough in the Comme Chez Soi, but now I saw a weak chin and sharp nose that was far too large for her lips. Her neck was too short, her forehead too high, and a careful layer of makeup hid a smattering of acne that rolled across her cheeks. Here was a girl who knew how to play things right. I believed she would do well at Metropolis.
A saleswoman with tall hair arranged in a sort of upscale mohawk came over and removed the dress from Cari’s hands.
“It will look stunning on you,” she said in perfect, unaccented English.
“Not me,” said Cari. “Her!”
The saleswoman looked at me for the first time. Her face held no expression, and her words came out clipped and efficient. “What is the occasion?”
I couldn’t answer. The dress was too risqué for anything formal, but too beautiful for anything normal.
“She’s in the music industry,” Cari said quickly. “She is going to—what? The premiere of a record?”
“Album release,” I said, not missing a beat. “In London.”
“Yes,” said the saleswoman, regarding the dress critically and fluffing it out. “This will do. Follow me.”
We went back to the changing area. The dress was a little large on top, but otherwise it fit perfectly. There was no mirror in my stall, so I had to return to Cari and the saleswoman in order to see how I looked.
I stepped out onto the carpet and walked toward the sitting room, which was surrounded by mirrors in every direction. Cari and the saleswoman stopped chatting when they saw me, and Cari stood, clasping her hands.
“I hate you!” she said. “You’re too beautiful!”
I stopped in the center of the room and saw myself, not as I truly was, but how I could be.
“The transformative power of Versace,” said the saleswoman, coming up behind me and pinching the fabric. “We’ll take the bust in, of course.”
“You must own this dress,” said Cari. “No man will resist it.”
I looked at my profile and wondered if this was true. The dress was the color of snow and had a scooped neck that almost reached my nipples. The material was so soft that I couldn’t stop touching it. Was I irresistible? There was only one way to find out for sure.
I took the Chunnel back to London for two reasons: I had never taken a train under the ocean before, and there was more room to hang the Versace. When I got back to Earl’s Court I wanted to see how it looked in my own little flat, in my own rented mirror, so I zipped it up and twirled. The dress looked like money. Bright white money.
And so did I.
I wore it that night to Metropolis, and the dress did all the work. It greeted people and drew them closer. It caught their attention and reflected what they wanted. By the end of the night I’d given twelve dances and spent two hours in a private room with a group of financial planners and a slender Bulgarian who barely spoke English. The Versace didn’t come off easily, but that turned out to be a good thing. I pulled the zipper down slowly, and the men stared at the triangle of flesh, watching it grow bigger. By the time I was naked a full minute had passed. I turned to face them and got on my knees, giving a slow rise until someone’s nose was between my breasts. Then I got dressed. I felt confident putting the Versace back on, even though the tightness of the fabric should have made this awkward. Sometimes I asked the men to help with the zipper, which they were more than happy to do.
An hour before last call the good-looking guy—the clever dog—came into the club. I didn’t approach him, but made sure he saw me and went upstairs. Within minutes he came up beside me, and I told him it would be twenty, not ten, because he’d been away so long.
“Absence Tax,” I said.
He didn’t argue, but followed me into a private room and sat on one of the benches. I took a look at myself in the mirror that circled the ceiling. I looked like someone else entirely. Without taking my eyes off the mirror, I did the performance with the white dress, but let it last longer, and when I was down to my g-string I turned to the man and asked if he wanted the whole show.
“Fifty,” I said. We both knew this wasn’t how it worked. He stared at me for a moment, then reached in his wallet. I took the note in my teeth.
“I like you,” I said, putting the bill in my garter. “I like you so much.”
I pushed my g-string down and stepped over to the man. I thought he would put his hands on me, and if he did I thought I would let him, but he just sat there like he was supposed to. I felt like breaking all the rules, and when I realized this might be a sexy thing to say, I went ahead and said it. The guy looked interested and asked what I had in mind. But I didn’t know. What were the rules? I put my knees around his legs and let my ass fall into his lap. His hands cupped my cheeks but didn’t squeeze. What next? If I kissed him that would be too much; there would be nothing left to give. I pushed my breasts up to his mouth. I felt his breath against my nipples, but neither of us moved. After a moment I slid off the bench. I wanted to apologize, but I knew that if I did, all the power I held would disappear entirely. The man didn’t look sorry when I picked up the dress and put it back on, though he did ask me to join him downstairs, where his friends were waiting at the bar.
“You don’t know the birds?” a man was saying. “It’s illegal to feed them.”
“What?” said a Northern girl. “Pigeons?”
“It’s Livingstone. He wants to round them up and kill them. With poison.”
“It’s true,” said a Russian with long white legs that dissolved under a silver dress. “I live very close, three years. You don’t see them anymore.”
“We should save them,” said a busty Croatian. “Take them to the country and free them.”
“Euck,” said the Northerner. “I hate bloody pigeons.”
“I’ll take you to see them,” said a large man with a ruddy face. He said this to the Russian, who fed a practiced boredom to his uncooked steak of a face.
“I might go see these pigeons,” she said. “But I don’t think you know much about them.”
The ruddy-faced man leaned in and said something to her hair. The other girls in the circle were looking around, counting the men. As always, the numbers were uneven and not in our favor.
“I know where they are,” the ruddy man said. “They won’t disappoint you.”
“At this hour?” A woman in leopard-print laughed. “They’ll be asleep.”
“Nah,” said the man. “These birds are up.”
It was the end of the night. The women without suitors leaned heavily on the bar, letting their shoulders fall inward like butterflies shutting their wings. The ruddy-faced man said that he and his mates were going to see the birds, and anyone who felt like it could come along. The Russian and the Croatian were interested, but would need to sneak out to avoid the bouncers.
“Like camp,” I said, but no one understood. The good-looking man asked if I wanted to see the birds. I didn’t know what I wanted, so I said yes.
We arrived at four in the morning. I stood next to the good-looking guy and made the obligatory joke about Nelson’s Column, and the ruddy-faced man led our group of six around the fountain. The Russian girl kept her arm wrapped around our leader, I held hands with the good-looking guy and said dumb things in order to keep my mouth against his ear, and the busty Croatian walked beside the third man, whose silence implied he was capable of anything. I still wore the Versace, but held my coat closed to ward off puddles that might splatter the hem. As we crossed the street, steam rose from the grill of a sausage cart, and the smell of cooked onions made everyone hungry.
The ruddy-faced man moved ahead of the group, first turning down one street and then up another until he’d led us out of the square. We walked toward the Thames and stopped by a pub that had once been called the Gardeners Arms, but now was not called anything. Sheets of pressed wood covered the windows, and a crumbling brick wall had turned into a canvas for graffiti, mostly huge white penises with dripping ends. It was dark in the alley, and until my eyes adjusted I didn’t see the women who stood by the pub’s side entrance. There were three of them, and they were large, black, and scary. One smoked a cigarette, one picked her hair, and the third tapped at her phone with zombie-like boredom. Two wore miniskirts in garish, highlighter-pen shades of green, pink, and yellow, while the third wore a silver cocktail dress that made her look like a back-up singer. Each was monstrously tall, with spindly legs balanced on towering heels, and slick black hair fell like an oil spill in front of hidden faces. Their shoulders were broad and strong, but they barely looked human.
The men from the club were laughing. Even the good-looking guy was laughing. He seemed embarrassed, pink-faced, nervous, but was laughing too, with his back all hunched and his neck a quick flash of white that flipped like a fin in dark water. All three kept their hands balled inside their jeans, and they moved like wind-up toys, first buzzing away from the women and then buzzing back, their shadows shortening and lengthening across the cobblestone street. The hookers, for their part, didn’t seem to notice, not even when the men took their hands from their pockets and covered their mouths, saying, “Stop,” “don’t,” and “fuck” as they backed away and zoomed forward.
“Idiots,” said the Russian quietly, and started moving down the street, clicking her heels. She stopped at the corner and lit a cigarette. The Croatian nervously followed, and then so did I.
“I don’t get it,” said the Croatian. “Why are they laughing?”
“They think it’s funny.” The Russian blew a warm stream of smoke into the air, then flicked at the ash falling from her fingers. “They think we’re the same.”
“No, they don’t.” I looked back at the good-looking guy, who giggled with horror as the ruddy man tugged at something in his pocket.
“No,” said the Russian. “You don’t. I don’t. They do.”
We pretended not to watch while the ruddy-faced man pulled something out. The other two men got quiet and the ruddy man said, “Feed the birds, yeah?” and threw what he had. A flash of gold hit the side of the building and bounced into the road. A piece of silver danced near the back-up singer’s feet. The accompanying sound was sweet and tinkly. Timpani, I thought. Wind chimes. The hulking women looked up at the noise and shuffled away, just a yard or two, enough to move out of range. They did not look at us, and neither did the men. We were ghosts now. Barely there, but watching.
“They don’t know how it is,” I said. “How it looks to us.”
The Russian shrugged and offered me a cigarette.
“It’s criminal,” I said, thinking not of the men but of Metropolis. I’d been having sex for six years, and I still didn’t know what I was doing. How could I sell sex, how could I be its spokesperson, when I barely even liked it?
I lit the Russian’s cigarette and tried to seem calm, while the Croatian pulled out a mobile and chirped insanely, “I’m calling a minicab. Want to share a minicab?”
The Russian turned to me and blinked. “Where do you live?”
Her head twisted slightly, like an owl getting a better look at its prey. “American, right?”
I nodded. The Russian glanced down at the flaps of my coat, which blew open in the wind.
“Nice dress,” she said icily, and turned away.
I had forgotten I was wearing the Versace. I wished to god I wasn’t. My teeth clenched down on the cigarette.
“The minicab’s on its way,” said the Croatian, dropping her phone into her purse. I thought about asking to join her, but the silence stopped me. The men weren’t laughing anymore. I turned and saw the ruddy-faced man looking down at us. The birds. Though I couldn’t see his eyes, he seemed to be considering something. I knew that in a moment he’d lead the men to us, and we would have to deal with them, put them off, escape.
“Get home safe,” I told the girls, then turned and walked around the corner. I didn’t look back until I’d made it to where they couldn’t see me. There was traffic up the hill, so I went toward the sound and reached the Strand just as I finished the Russian’s cigarette. I smoked it all the way down to the filter, as if I’d hoped to find an answer there, like a fortune cookie.
The Strand wasn’t busy at that hour, but I was lucky enough to hail a black cab. Inside, the light was yellow and soft, and the seat accepted my weight like a giant hand. The cabbie was just how I wanted him to be, a kind-looking grandpa with a gentle cockney accent.
“Where to, Miss?”
I told him the address.
“American!” he said. “On holiday?” As we pulled into the street, the cabby’s blue eyes regarded me in the rearview mirror. “What’s a pretty girl like you doing out so late? You’ve got to be careful around here.”
I mumbled, “Not that pretty.”
“Of course you are. A pretty girl in a foreign city. Who wouldn’t want to snatch you up?”
We drove through the posh areas of Victoria and Kensington, past glowing storefronts and the identical trees of well-tended parks. I leaned back against the leather and held my jacket at the throat. There was a smudge on my skirt, big as a fist and grey like fireplace ash.
“My dress,” I said.
“It’s nice,” said the cabbie. “Where’d you find that?”
After a while I said, “Oh, it isn’t mine,” and the cabbie, well-trained in the art of conversation, knew to let it go.
The street light changed and we began to roll forward. I looked out at the parked cars and a weird reversal happened, where it felt like the city was moving through me instead of me through it. Tomorrow or the next day I’d go to the internet café and buy a plane ticket. I’d return to America and they would let me be a sophomore. But first we had to get through the city, past Harrod’s and a darkened kebab shop, past Waterstones and Barclay’s and all the museums I hadn’t visited. London seemed sad to me then, each blurry brick building felt like a loss, and I wondered at the maze of it—all these empty things we had to pass, just to get me to my door.
Jessie Marshall grew up in rural Pennsylvania and currently teachs at ‘Iolani School in Honolulu. She has studied theater, litearture, and fiction in Ohio, England, and New York, where she received an MFA from NYU. Her fiction has appeared in Gettysburg, Emerson, and Mid-American Reviews, online at Night Train, and will soon be seen in Barrelhouse.