As we sit in my back yard in Corvallis editing the forthcoming (Fall 2018) issue of OPOSSUM, Jon and I look back on last year’s issue featuring this stunningly honest essay by Natassja Schiel, who’s acquaintance we made through the slush pile. I fondly remember our table reading of this piece, which took place on the front porch of a log cabin on the banks of the Columbia River. I hope you enjoy it as much as we did.
FINDING MY FATHER
By Natassja Schiel
This scene often played out when I worked as a stripper: I’d lean into an older, balding man, grazing his shoulder with my arm before bracing myself on the plush leather chair that he lounged in. I’d stand between his legs, undulating my body, my torso inches away, but never touching him. My right breast lingering over his nose. When he exhaled, the tickle of his breath would stiffen my already semi-erect nipple even more. “You’re so sexy,” he’d whisper over the loud music, redirecting his gaze to my face. I’d look him in the eyes and think, You’re old enough to be my father. Then I’d wonder, Are you?
I didn’t know my father. I’d never met him. He could have been anyone.
Customers love to ask strippers about their fathers: Do you do this because you have daddy issues? The implication is that in order for someone to take their clothes off for money, they must have a bad relationship with their father, or not even know him. It’s absurd; several strippers I became friends with over the years were close to their fathers. And single parent households are common. It’s a well-known estimate that 40-50% of all marriages end in divorce. Not to mention that many couples have kids out of wedlock. There are no stats on whether or not those couples stay together for the long haul. Plus, more women are employed as exotic dancers than all other dance idioms combined. Some strippers are bound to have deadbeat dads and some are bound to have loving fathers. I’ve worked as a sales associate, receptionist, waitress, bartender, teacher, and administrative assistant — in no other position I’ve held has someone asked me about my father.
I’d wondered who my father was many times, but once I started dancing the question came up more often. It was the older, lonely men — the men who could have been my father — who most often asked. So, how could I not wonder about the possibility I’d find him among the strip club patrons? What if he’d called me “sexy” on several occasions? What if I was dancing for him every week, talking to him for hours, deepening the bond that develops in relations with regular customers? What if his attraction to me had been because of an invisible bond that tied us together? I was curious how my regulars would react to finding out they had been salivating over their daughter. Whenever I took the idea this far my stomach would lurch. What if they liked it anyway? What if instead of being repulsed, as I would’ve been, they enjoyed it — still thinking I was sexy?
When I started stripping, I lived in Portland, Oregon, where there are more strip clubs per capita than anywhere else in the United States. It was 2006 and I was 22 years old. Three years later, after the economic recession, I wasn’t making much money and was facing homelessness. Panicked, I decided on the recommendation of another dancer, to move to the Pacific island of Guam, an American territory. Club G-String funded my flight, gave me a place to live, and paid $450 for every six days worked (unlike the clubs in Portland, which were tips-only and charged stage fees). Having a salary felt like a luxury. All I had to do was sign a three-month contract.
There were two main groups of clientele: Japanese tourists and the American military. Naval Base Guam, the Andersen Air Force Base, and a few other smaller bases take up 39,000 acres — about 29% of the total land area of the island. Only those enlisted in the military and their families have access to the bases. That means that the indigenous people, the Chamorro, are not allowed on that land unless they are in the military themselves. When I arrived, in May of 2009, about 14,000 military personnel and their families were stationed on Guam, and many more on deployment came through the island. The American dancers were (and still are) shipped onto the island as entertainment for the military. Tourism was a bonus.
Once I was dancing at G-String, I contemplated finding my father among the strip club clientele more often than I had in Portland. And this became further complicated when I developed a connection with Philip. Phil was retired from the Air Force, but worked as a contractor on Andersen Air Force Base. He was in his mid-fifties and still wore his light brown hair in a military crew cut. Phil never went to the stage to watch the girls dance. He wouldn’t even look in the direction of the stage. Instead, he’d sit at the bar, staring ahead at the string of red lights that lined the shelves of liquor. We sat and talked for hours. I never danced for him. He wasn’t interested in me sexually; that’s why I enjoyed his company so much.
It also made me ponder the possibility that he could somehow be my father. He was around the right age. I imagined that my father had joined the Air Force after my mother ran off with me. And that somehow the universe had placed us on this tiny island together, fated to connect.
I knew that Philip couldn’t be my father because he’d lived in Georgia for most of his life, got married around the time I was born in 1984, and never had children. But, while living in Guam, it was easier to fantasize about finding my father because I felt completely disconnected from my real life. The absurdity of finding him in Guam, the severe unlikeliness of it, made considering it less risky. It was a fun imaginative exercise. There was no real chance I’d find him there, so I could dip my toes into the idea that I cared about who he was, after all. Something I’d always denied: “He’s a sperm-donor,” I’d say. “I don’t need him.”
It was early in my shift and Philip was playing with his third bottle of Bud Light. His hand had just stopped shaking. He always arrived when G-String opened, at 7PM, and his trembling only abated after there was enough alcohol in his blood. My mother had claimed many times that my father was an alcoholic, explaining that was part of the reason I’d never met him. I hadn’t believed her because I had caught her in so many lies while growing up, but each night when I noticed Phil’s unsteady hand, I’d consider the possibility that she was telling the truth. Phil appeared contemplative, then lifted his eyebrows, revealing more of his green-blue irises.
“Have I told you about my wife?” he asked.
“I don’t think so,” I said, shaking my head before taking a sip of my vodka Redbull.
“She had severe asthma. Had an attack. I tried everything. Her inhaler. Called the paramedics. I was holding her in my arms.” His hand was shaking, again, slightly. This time it wasn’t from withdrawal. “Can I get another?” he asked the bartender, holding up his almost empty bottle of beer, then finishing it in one large gulp. “She was already gone by the time they got there.”
The bartender placed the Bud Light in front of Philip and asked me, “Anything for you?”
I stirred the ice in the otherwise empty rocks glass and nodded. At G-String we weren’t allowed to talk to the customers unless they were buying us lady’s drinks, a concept borrowed from Japanese hostess bars. If a customer offered us a drink, we were required to comply. The most commonly sized lady’s drink was six-ounces and half the liquor of a regularly sized cocktail, though we could also order full size shots. It cost the customer $20 and the dancer profited $9. This meant that the customer paid for every moment spent with a dancer. For each drink, the dancer received a poker chip that was cashed in at the end of the night.
Phil and I sat silently for a few moments until my drink was in front of me. I slipped the black chip into my purse, feeling guilty about making money while he opened up. I swallowed almost half of the small cocktail immediately.
“How long ago was that?” I asked, wanting to know more, but not sure what to else to say.
“Almost ten years ago,” he said. “I’ve never dated anyone since. Doesn’t feel right. She was my angel. I didn’t think I could live without her. Sometimes I wonder if I am living without her — or if I’m just going through the motions.”
If Philip had been a different customer, I might’ve believed his story was exaggerated. Because it was Phil, I knew he was telling the truth. His pain was obvious in the continuing tremor of his hands.
“I’m pretty lonely. That’s why I spend so much time here.”
It suddenly made sense why Phil never watched the dancers, never went into the private room. I liked those things about him, but I hadn’t been sure why he came in so often. He was my favorite because he only wanted company. He never seemed to notice that I was wearing a sheer hot pink mini-dress, nor did he comment on my pigtails. He was more respectful than men I’d worked with at “real” jobs. As a receptionist at a computer software company I was sexually harassed daily by the men in the office. Phil and I talked for hours each night and a tenderness had grown between us. Because of that, I looked forward to seeing him and felt disappointed on the rare occasion he didn’t show up.
In 2016, at the age of thirty-two, and five years after I quit stripping, my mother told me who my father was. Actually, what she did was send me a message on Facebook: I found your father. I read the message while lying in bed and before I was fully awake. Bleary eyed and confused, I was convinced I’d read it wrong. I closed my eyes and wrapped the warm blankets around me. My phone buzzed again, she’d sent another single line: Unfortunately, he passed away. Then she emailed his obituary along with the names of his mother and sisters. They’re still alive. Maybe you can find them. My father had only lived in a few places in Colorado and never far from where my mother had met him in Wheatridge. It became clear to me that she could’ve found him if she wanted to.
My phone buzzed again. My younger sister, Melissa, was calling. Melissa must already know. We’d been through something like this before. When our grandfather died my sister called me, trying to circumvent the text that she knew would be coming from our mother. The text was one line: Your grandfather died this morning. “I didn’t want you to find out that way,” Melissa had said. She, again, was attempting to communicate the information first, but this time she was too late.
I didn’t answer Melissa’s call. I didn’t feel like I could face her, even though I knew that didn’t make sense. At this stage of my life, I no longer wanted the information. I had accepted that I’d never know my father. Now, I might know who he was, but he was dead. I stared at the messages my mother sent and then read the obituary. I closed my eyes, cocooned in the warm blankets, while my cat purred, pressed against my body. Images started flickering, seemingly projected onto the backs of my eyelids: a winding road on a mountain, snow, a cabin.
When I was twelve and Melissa was eight, six years after we’d moved to Oregon, our mother took us to Colorado to visit family. One morning she drove us away from the Denver suburb of Littleton, where we were staying with my great aunt, and into the mountains.
My mother said she was going to introduce me to my father.
The landscape changed as she drove. The sprawling urban town with several grocery and fast food chains faded away. My mother mumbled an entire conversation with herself, something she did frequently, particularly when she was stressed. I tuned her out, like I usually did, and stared out the window. I fixated on a huge sign written in primary colors: TILE. I watched as it shrank and then disappeared completely.
“I don’t know if this is a good idea,” my mother said, pausing for an answer, but neither Melissa nor I responded because she wasn’t talking to us. Our mother nodded her head, appeared to consider the answer she’d heard and replied, “I guess it would be good for her to meet him.” Enormous pine trees lined the winding road. It was summer and had been hot in Littleton, but the higher we rose, the cooler the temperature became. Halfway up the mountain, snow pockets littered the ground, and my mother clicked on the heat. It didn’t occur to me until much later that she hadn’t been talking to herself in a normal way, but that she appeared to be talking to an invisible person.
Melissa had fallen asleep in the backseat. I was quiet — nervous and excited, but tried not to show it. My mother continued her mumbled conversation, gripped the steering wheel, and stared ahead at the zig-zagging road. She almost always seemed cool and detached, unless she was angry, so I mimicked her looking out the window. She had punished me when I was younger — often hitting me — when I cried or was too enthusiastic, so I came to believe showing emotion was weakness. Not allowed.
After at least an hour of driving, she parked on the shoulder across the street from a wooden cabin. Pine trees and snow blanketed the front yard. I imagined magical woodland creatures would come out and play. It seemed like a fairytale.
“I think this is where your father lives,” she said in the biting tone intended for me and not her imaginary friend. Then she turned off the engine, but made no moves to leave the car. I fantasized that he’d be similar to me; that he would laugh too much and at inappropriate times. I imagined he would have fair skin, light hair, and green eyes — like me. It seemed like he could be no other way. These were characteristics opposite to my mother and sister. They had olive skin, dark hair, and gray-blue eyes.
I waited for my mother to do something, anything. She tapped her fingers on the steering wheel then adjusted the rearview mirror so she could see herself. I watched patiently as she yanked a small hair brush out of her purse and teased back her feathered auburn hair, then reapplied peach lipstick and loose powder. “You really want to meet him?” she asked without looking at me.
I nodded slowly, but didn’t say anything. The truth was, I desperately wanted to meet him, but I sensed that she wasn’t sure it was a good idea even though we’d driven at least an hour up into the mountains and were parked outside his house. Her reluctance made me feel reluctant, too.
“Are we going to knock on his door?” I asked quietly, staring down at my feet. She didn’t answer. She returned to drumming on the steering wheel. Then she started the car, turned on the radio, always tuned to the top-40 station: And we’ll linger on, time can’t erase a feeling this strong, boy don’t you know you can’t escape me— Mariah Carey’s “Always Be My Baby” played softly. I’d normally turn it up and belt along, annoying my mother, but this time I didn’t. She put the car in drive, flipped a U-turn, and sped away.
Two and a half months into working at Club G-String, my manager, Mike, called me up to the DJ booth at the beginning of a shift. “You know I hate when you sit with Philip,” he said. Why Mike was bothered by this was a mystery. He claimed it was because Phil didn’t buy drinks — but he was required to or I couldn’t talk to him, so that wasn’t the real reason. The lady’s drink rule was policed by Mike and the bouncers. If a dancer stayed with a customer too long without a cocktail, she’d feel a tap on her shoulder and be told to move on. I always had a drink when I was with Philip and had plenty of black chips to cash in at the end of the night. It’s been suggested that Mike had a crush on me, but I don’t think that was it. He simply didn’t like Philip and I didn’t know why.
Mike had bugged me about sitting with Philip many times before and I’d ignored him. It was impossible to take Mike seriously because he was always wearing track pants and a fanny pack. His middle-aged skin drooped over his tanned muscles despite the fact that he worked out for hours each day. He smiled often, and in a genuine, non-creepy way. Some of the other dancers were barely eighteen, and he wanted to be more than merely a manager. He’d often pontificate about the island, dropping his knowledge on us: “The main road that runs through the tourist strip is called Pale San Vitores,” he’d informed me the day I arrived. “It’s named after the missionary that came to convert the Chamorro people to Catholicism.” He wanted us to trust him. Having no children of his own, he wanted to take care of the dancers. Protect us. Or, at least, that’s what I think he believed he was doing.
Once he had forced an elderly Japanese man to apologize after grabbing at my crotch. When I blocked the old man’s hand, he’d smacked me across the face. Mike had been furious, making a mama-san — one of the elderly Asian cocktail waitresses — translate to the groper, “In the United States women are treated with respect!” I’d never had another strip club manager defend me like that, but I didn’t care that it annoyed him that I spent time with Phil. At the end of our talk, I sighed and rolled my eyes in annoyance before strolling back to the bar.
Phil handed me the bottle of water that I’d asked him to hide. Mike had enacted a rule that dancers were not allowed to have water while working. He insisted that customers wouldn’t buy as many lady’s drinks, which was ridiculous. I grinned, the minor transgression pleasurable. I took a swig of water before sitting on the barstool and hiding it behind my back.
I told Philip what happened. “God, what is his problem?” he asked.
I was only making around $250 a night between drinks and stage money, considerably less than when I still went into the VIP room, but it was pretty good money and, by staying at Phil’s side night after night, I knew I was safe. Mike started to walk past us on the way to his office, but stopped when he was right behind me. He yanked the bottle of water from its hiding place.
“Come with me,” he demanded.
I followed him into the office and sat on the beige chair across from him while my eyes struggled to adjust to the sudden bright light.
“I don’t want you sitting with him.”
“But he is buying me drinks,” I said, aware I sounded like a snotty teenager rebelling against her dad. I wasn’t surprised I’d reverted to being childish — even my outfit matched my attitude: red plaid mini-skirt, Hello Kitty t-shirt with the caption You Lost Me at Hello, no bra, and pigtails. Even though Mike wanted to be a friendly parental-type figure, he also relished the control he had over the dancers: he controlled our home, our pay, our transportation to and from the club. At this point he was even trying to control my alcohol and water consumption.
“What did I tell you when you first started? How many drinks are you supposed to get in an hour?”
I gave him a blank stare. I had no idea what he was talking about.
“You are supposed to get four to five drinks an hour. Philip only buys two or three, at most. You can’t sit with him. It’s in the contract.”
The day I’d arrived in Guam, when I signed the contract, Mike hadn’t let me read it. He gave me bullet points and told me to sign, skipping to a line at the bottom of the stack — so I requested a copy. Mike said he would give me one, but he never did. I was the only girl who’d ever asked, and he couldn’t understand why I wanted to read it.
“I can’t drink that much; it would kill me.” I was concerned about that, but I was more concerned that I was already drinking more at G-String than I ever had. Although I was skeptical that my father was an alcoholic, I’d grown up paranoid that I’d become one myself. The idea of drinking even more terrified me. What if something biological was triggered and once I left the island, I couldn’t stop?
“So get fake drinks.”
“I hate to break this to you, but the customers know. And it pisses them off.” My first six weeks in Guam I’d only requested “cape cods,” a euphemism for cranberry juice, because I wanted to stay sober while I worked. Most of the military customers knew about the fake drinks and one night a customer named Lucky became irate. Just as we weren’t allowed to refuse an offer, we also weren’t allowed to turn away cocktails that a customer ordered for us. As a regular of the club, Lucky knew the rules and ordered me four shots of Johnny Walker in a row:
Red, black, red, black.
Once Lucky left, I sat at the bar waiting for the dizziness to subside, praying I wouldn’t vomit. After that I ordered real drinks. It was easier than facing retaliation from another customer.
As my mother sped down the mountain much faster than she’d driven up it, I told myself that it was okay — no, it was good — that I didn’t get to meet my father. It kept things uncomplicated. He probably sucked. He would be a horrible father. He wouldn’t want to meet me. He would’ve slammed the door in my face. I imagined it over and over: slam, slam, slam — the woodland creatures scattering in fear. I recited this to myself as she drove further away from the possibility of meeting him. But in my chest was searing pain that I pretended wasn’t there. I didn’t cry, that would be weak. I wasn’t supposed to care and clung to the idea that I didn’t for dear life. But that pain deepened and didn’t abate. My chest hurt for years before I had to admit to myself that I’d been wounded and I was going to have to feel this wound, deeply, emotionally, or face living with the physical pain forever.
Halfway down the mountain I asked, “Did he used to hit you?”
She turned toward me for the first time since arriving at the cabin and then racing away. Her icy-gray eyes looked straight through me. “How do you know that?” she asked.
“I have dreams that he hit you,” I said and shrugged. I had no explanation. There was no reason I should’ve known that.
We never talked about this event. My mother never mentioned taking me to meet him again. Twenty-years passed and as the years ticked by, I started to believe that I’d imagined or dreamed that day, just as I may or may not have imagined that he had hit her.
Phil’s worry lines cut deeper into his forehead when I told him Mike was insisting I drink more, but he waved at the bartender and pointed at me.
“How about the usual and a liquid cocaine with a soda water back,” I requested.
“Do you think a shot is a good idea?” Phil asked.
I shook my head saying, “I don’t know how else to drink more or faster.” I shrugged. “I just want Mike to leave me alone.” It was that simple. I wanted to be left in peace to hang out with Phil, the only customer I considered to be a true friend. There were plenty of other customers that night, but I didn’t want to gamble on any of them. If I’d wanted to anger Mike, I would’ve refused to talk to anyone, making zero profits for myself or the club. Drinking more while hanging out with Phil seemed like a small price to pay to appease Mike — so I downed the shot, cringed, and then quickly also downed the soda water back. “Bacardi 151, Jäger, and Goldschälger so do not go together. I don’t understand why Brie likes these so much.”
I didn’t normally take shots and I picked a liquid cocaine because it was Brie’s favorite. Brie was my closest friend at the club (and an example of a dancer who had a good relationship with her father). That night she was in the VIP room with the Navy Seal cross-dresser. He’d keep her in there for hours. Everyone knew he was harmless. He liked to show off the women’s lingerie he wore under his clothes. For a short while I was his favorite and he always wanted to color coordinate our outfits. With Brie, he liked to dress up in Star Wars garb and role play. She became his favorite when he learned she had light saber tattoos on each of her pointer fingers.
“Why’d you order it if you don’t like it, dummy?” Phil asked and laughed.
Less than an hour later, Mike was pulling me back into the office.
“That same drink has been sitting there for an entire hour,” he said.
The shot had hit me harder than I expected. All I wanted was water, but Mike refused to return my water bottle. My tiny cocktail was untouched, watered down by melted ice; the idea of drinking more made me nauseous.
“Natassja, I don’t understand this. You are the kind of girl that can make a lot of money. You used to make a lot of money. Why are you wasting your time?” He was red-faced. I knew I was annoying him, but I didn’t think he was actually angry. His harassment had reached a new level. And I only understood why later. A small naval ship had docked and the club was swarming with young navy guys. After being on a ship for months with no contact with women, these customers were likely to throw money around. Prior to this I’d taken advantage of docked ships. This time, though, I stayed with Phil because I knew he’d never hurt me.
“I don’t want to go into the private rooms again.” I tried to stifle my feelings, but started to cry. Weeks earlier, Brie and I had gone into the private room with a young man in the Air Force. He was belligerently drunk, but we weren’t concerned about that, at first. Most customers were drunk. I’d been scared when I arrived that going into an actual private room would be risky — in every other club I’d worked the private area wasn’t really private and a bouncer was always standing near, watching. Fear dissipated quickly because man after man was respectful. The more that happened, the bolder I’d felt.
But this time, once the door was closed, the customer lunged at us. We sat on top of him, each of us restraining one arm, but he kept breaking free. He’d grab a breast so forcefully it felt like he might rip it off. He’d shove his arm under our mini-skirts, attempting to get his fingers up under our thongs. He pushed one of us off and try to get his pants undone. Brie or I always stopped him in time. “You’re strippers!” he slurred. I can only recall this in bits and pieces, sensations, like his sweaty arm hair pressing into my palm. The vodka on his hot breath. The smooth fabric of the taupe couch. I shot glances at the light switch that functioned as a panic button. It would turn on a light in the DJ booth to indicate we needed help. The switch was in the corner, far away from where we struggled.
Before this, I’d tried to imagine how I’d reach it if I was ever in trouble and couldn’t. And now, it was clear that we weren’t going to be able to. We clawed, shoved him down, and screamed the entire time — but no one came to check on us. After half an hour the bouncer knocked, then opened the door to indicate time was up. Brie and I ran. We hid under the desk in the DJ booth. I spotted a dead cockroach in the corner and focused on it. I’d normally squeal and gag. I was shaking, and so was Brie. Mike was aware of the attack and defended us later when the customer tried to get his money back. But he hadn’t connected the dots — that I’d become scared to go into the VIP room.
Mike sighed and looked up at the ceiling, “That’s where the money is. I can’t force you, but if you won’t go into the room, you have to drink more.”
It occurred to me that he wasn’t getting a big enough return on his investment — me.
G-String paid us a wage, but they also took money from VIP rooms and lady’s drinks. A half-hour in the VIP room cost the customer $300. The club kept $150 and $15 was tipped to the mama-sans, who were responsible for pushing both drinks and private rooms on the customers. The dancer kept $135. I’d decided that wasn’t enough to risk the potential danger.
Additionally, the club charged the dancers fees for breaking rules: $50 for being late, $50 for chewing gum on stage, $100 if panties weren’t removed on stage, $150 for missing a shift unless a doctor’s note was provided, and more. A dancer agreed to the fees when she signed the contract.
Mike wasn’t worried about me, he was worried about the club’s profits.
The wage and perks in Guam were an illusion.
My name boomed over the speakers. “I’m next on stage. But do I have to?” I asked through tears.
Mike nodded, “You’ll throw off the rotation.” That was true, except that dancers are taken out of rotation when in the VIP room. They’re added back when they’re done. Mike wanted to punish me a little more — trying to fulfill his desire to act out a disciplinary father-role.
An hour after my mother sent the obituary, I called Melissa back. I asked if she remembered the trip into the mountains and she did. “I thought maybe he could be a father to both of us.”
Melissa doesn’t know her father either. Or who he is. Our mother swore for years it was a man named Ruben, but a court-ordered paternity test proved otherwise. Even after that she continued to swear it was him. Because of this, I’d taken to believing she didn’t know who either of our fathers were. She had been a free-spirit in the 70s and early 80s. I wished she could be honest with us. I’d joked, and also written in poetry, that Melissa and I were products of immaculate conception.
Who Melissa’s father is remains a mystery; our mother still asserts that it was most likely Ruben, but she finally admits he could be someone else. She insists he somehow cheated the paternity test. I question whether she doesn’t know who or where Melissa’s father is — that she’ll wait until Melissa can never meet her father and then admit, “By the way, it was him.”
I don’t think these are malicious acts. My mother’s father was abusive and controlling. The consequences show on her face, in her vacant eyes. She never seemed capable of dealing with her reality. Most of the time she’s so dissociated that I wonder if there is a person buried somewhere deep down inside her. When she “found” my father, she was lucid. Melissa had been with her that day and was thrilled to reach our mother, get to talk to her, to be with her. I’ve experienced it too, on a rare occasion, and I always think: she’s still in there. And, please don’t disappear again. Then, poof, she’s gone. She appears to have splintered her internal world in order to cope, and I think it’s her splintered-selves that she’s talking to, trying to reach back into herself, and come back to life.
I ran out of the office, rushing past Phil. I didn’t want him to know that I was crying. He jumped to his feet, his face softening when he noticed my bloodshot eyes. I blazed past him, announcing that I had to go on stage.
I’m so tired, of playing, playing with this bow and arrow, the first lines of Portishead’s “Glory Box” pulsed through the speakers as I marched toward the pole, grimy cloth and Windex in hand. After wiping it down, I inhaled — the familiar scent of brass and ammonia filling my lungs. I stood there, the phallic-shaped cat walk before me, customers sitting around it, eager to touch. Because the pole was so far from the tipping rail, the dancers had to do “floor-work,” meaning we had to get down on the ground and bend our bodies into sexy poses while men reached their hands up and made squeezing motions, indicating that they wanted to touch our breasts, if we consented. I watched a gecko dart down the entryway stairs and into the dressing room — a small reminder I was on a tropical island, something that was easy to forget in the dark club, shut in from the outside world.
Both hands grasping the pole, I took a high step in my eight-inch stilettos, and then spun around and around and around. Tears streamed down my face, the stage full of blurry patrons. I wasn’t sure if anyone could tell I was crying, but it was clear that they wanted me to get closer. I spun and spun, removing the few pieces of clothing I was wearing while in motion. It was the only time I had ever cried on stage. My panties dropped exactly as I had perfected, mid-spin, and I flung them toward the wall. I wasn’t going to be charged a fee for not getting naked, even if I was crying. Dollar bills collected for my entire set, but I couldn’t bring myself to get close to anyone. I left all the money on the stage — at least $100, piled in front of confused customers. I walked naked into the dressing room with nothing.
I sat down and took deep breaths. I wanted to get back to Phil. We were a team.
Phil didn’t have any children and had wanted a daughter. We had a platonic, intense intimacy, and he wanted to take care of me in the way fathers do after their daughters are grown and out of the house. I imagined our relationship was like mine might’ve been with my father if we’d met when I was an adult.
“I’m causing you problems,” Phil said as soon as I returned.
I followed him to the exit, the warm, saline breeze of the always open doorway a welcome reprieve from the smoke-filled club, and another minor reminder that I was technically in paradise.
“Please don’t leave,” I said, desperate. I didn’t think I could get through the night without him. I was terrified to go into the club and talk to strange men, something I’d excelled at (and loved) for most of my stripping career. I eyed the crowd, colored lights danced across unfamiliar faces, and then back at Phil. He shook his head and left. I stood there in disbelief. It felt like he had abandoned me.
I took another deep, salty, breath. I could rebel against Mike’s demands with Phil around, but once he was gone, Mike’s dissatisfaction affected me differently. I was crushed I’d disappointed him. He’d stood up for me against the groper. And he’d also stood up for Brie and me after we were attacked. The only thing left to do was attempt to make Mike happy. Walking into the crowd, I was offered a shot by a navy boy. Right then I decided to try to meet Mike’s quota, knowing it was a bad idea. I figured by the end of the night Mike would realize it was a bad idea, too.
Before I called Melissa back, I told my boyfriend, Jon, about the messages and then showed him my father’s obituary. My father died February of 2009. In May 2009, when I’d boarded the flight that took me away from Portland, Oregon, to the island of Guam, my father had already been dead for three months.
My father was a park ranger, a marathon runner, and the author of two books: Colorado Landslide Disasters: An Untold Story of the Old West and The Essential Guide To Rocky Mountain National Park.
A writer, like me.
The picture of a man with pale skin and green eyes was displayed on Jon’s computer screen. He wore a big genuine grin. “I can see you in his face,” Jon said. “You have the same smile.” Before that I hadn’t seen it, but he was right. I wasn’t sure how to react or what I was supposed to feel. I’d never met my father, after all. I started to cry, not understanding how it was possible to grieve for a stranger.
Vomit was lodged in my throat. I swallowed, but my throat didn’t clear. There were chunks in my teeth. I opened my eyes and adjusted my pillow. My head slipped into something cold and moist and I noticed a rancid odor.
I grabbed the bottle of water next to my bed and tried to wash it down when swallowing didn’t work. I was covered in grayish green vomit. My entire bed was also covered. I could’ve died. The thought jolted me upright.
How did I get here? To my room? In my bed? I remembered taking one last double liquid cocaine shot with Brie. Then the lights in the club went on and we walked into the dressing room. Brie grabbed me behind my neck and pulled me into a kiss — as sometimes happened at the end of the night. I had been ravenous. I wanted to consume her. I started kissing her neck, pushing her triangle top off her left breast, then cupping it before sucking on her bright pink nipple. She pulled my head back up and kissed me again. Then we both stopped, an unspoken agreement. She had a boyfriend, a bouncer at the club. It was also 4AM and we needed to cash in our chips. We changed from our slinky outfits into jeans and t-shirts.
The room started spinning. “I need to go to the restroom,” I announced before stomping out of the room, leaving all my belongings, including my purse, unattended.
While I pieced together what happened, I stripped my bed, praying I wouldn’t wake my roommate Lily (another dancer who was close to her father), who was wrapped like a burrito in her comforter. We shared the master bedroom in one of the dancers’ condos. I prayed that she hadn’t smelled the vomit. I could have died.
Of the things that I’d considered might kill me, alcohol poisoning wasn’t among them. Before working at G-String I had only gotten sick from alcohol once. My paranoia about becoming an alcoholic meant I wasn’t a big drinker. I didn’t like drunk sensations; the feeling was too out-of-control. Lily didn’t move. I tiptoed into the kitchen and shoved all my bedding in the washer, which was next to the refrigerator. I crept back into our room, holding my breath as I skulked past her bed to the bathroom. I stepped into the shower, taking down my sloppy bun — but my hair didn’t fall — it was matted together with vomit. I carefully untangled my hair with shampoo and rinsed away last night’s humiliation, remembering more bits of what happened.
It had been around 1AM when the navy boy offered me that first shot, and because I’d attempted to drink more while sitting with Phil, I was drunk. I joined the group of sailors and they ordered shot after shot after shot. Any other time in my life I would’ve been horrified. I hated shots. But I’d become determined and opened my mouth like a hatch, dumping each one down my throat. Later I’d begged the bartender for a full glass of soda water. “Mike told me I can only give you small backs of soda with each shot, nothing more.” I pleaded with her to make an exception. It was obvious she wanted to, but Mike was watching us.
The bartender refusing me the glass of soda water was the last clear memory I had. Otherwise, the night was a daze. The only thing I was sure of was that I’d drunk more than I ever had before.
I remembered leaving the dressing room, but how did I get to the bathroom?
Brie was abruptly with me, propping me up over a toilet. “Stick your finger down your throat and force yourself,” she said. A few times she let go and I fell limply to the ground.
“It doesn’t work — I used to try — it never worked.” Then she shoved her fingers down my throat, over and over and over, forcing me to vomit. I couldn’t believe that had happened. I massaged conditioner through my hair, continuing to untangle it. I wasn’t remembering correctly. I couldn’t be.
Lily was awake and sitting on her bed when I came back into our room, wrapped in a towel.
“Are you okay?”
My eyes watered despite my attempt to act nonchalant. I sat down on the exposed, filthy twin mattress. I hated seeing it without sheets because it was spotted with stains. One was large and brown at the top of the mattress. It had light edges that became darker in hue as it fed toward the middle, ending in a maroon color. I fixated on it, wondering what it was — Blood? Coffee? Hot chocolate? I felt Lily’s gaze, her big brown eyes fixed on me, but instead of looking at her I shifted my focus to the trail of smaller, more yellowish-green stains that started on the middle left side and dotted down and around the edge of the mattress — Gatorade? Piss? Vomit? Another wave of nausea. I’d purged everything from my body so it passed, leaving me queasy. The stains were disgusting, but they made me curious about the other girls who’d slept where I was sleeping. Did they have fathers? Mothers? Why had they come? What had they experienced here? What had happened to them after they left?
Sitting on the bare bed, I felt corkscrew metal poke my butt-cheek. I adjusted myself closer to the edge and the bed creaked, but my new position was no more comfortable than before. When the bed was made, I pushed the reality of the soiled mattress out of my head. I pretended that I was trying to sleep in my real bed — the pillow-top mattress I’d splurged on at the beginning of my stripping career — and not on a bed owned by Club G-String. Springs stabbed me in the back, preventing me from completely immersing myself into the fantasy, reminding me of childhood and the years when I’d had no bed at all. When I got one, at age nine, I ignored the coils jabbing me. I was ecstatic, thinking it was part of sleeping on a mattress. After a sleepover, I’d learned that wasn’t the case; a friend complained about my uncomfortable bed.
I could still feel Lily’s eyes, but couldn’t meet her gaze, so I looked away from the mattress and focused on the white tiled floor.
I told Lily what I thought happened the night before. I estimated that I’d taken around twenty shots in less than three hours. My purse was missing, and the only way to accurately track my consumption would be to count the money. I hoped Brie had it. My memories were a puzzle with missing pieces. I’d never blacked out before and felt disoriented. My body vibrated with shame.
After I was done telling Lily what I thought happened, she nodded, came over to my bed and wrapped her arm around my shoulder.
After a long pause, she said, “No one could handle that. I’ve never heard anything about a drink quota. And I’ve been here many times.” Lily first came to work at G-String when she was twenty-six. She had come most years after her initial stint and was thirty-five by the time we were roommates.
“I’m surprised I’m okay,” I said, embarrassed.
Melissa found my father’s sister, Kathy, on Facebook. I wanted to contact her, but wasn’t sure how she would react, or if she would respond at all. Melissa took this task on in case it didn’t go well. Two weeks later Kathy wrote back; she wanted to get in touch.
Before your mother ran off with you we got to love on you for a few months, she wrote. You’re thirty-two, right? I had a daughter around the same time. I didn’t think they knew about me. It was surreal that they’d known, but ignored my existence. Your father had issues with alcohol and struggled with his mental health. He thought it was best not to be in your life. I read the lines over and over. My mother was telling the truth. He was an alcoholic and didn’t want me. It enraged me. Who has the right to decide such a thing? Him? My mother? Why didn’t I get a choice? I considered how scared I’d been that I would pick up a habit in Guam; how relieved I was that drinking wasn’t appealing once I was home.
In my father’s obituary picture, I saw kind eyes. I wanted desperately to believe he was the man I’d projected onto his photo. I couldn’t believe that his presence would’ve made my life worse. I cried any time the fact that he was dead fluttered through my mind. It was hopeless. I couldn’t do anything to change it.
I looked you up and saw that you’re a writer. He was a writer, too. Did she discover that I’m writing a memoir about working as a stripper? How could she not? It’s in all my bios. Was your childhood happy? she asked. I panicked. I never wrote her back. I didn’t know what to tell her.
Mike spotted me when I walked out of the dressing room. I was wearing a slinky turquoise mini-dress that draped loosely over my breasts. My hair in waves, my face au naturel — I’d long ago stopped bothering with make-up.
“Wow,” he said, examining me up and down. “You look fine.” Then he walked around me, apparently shocked that I was alive. I half expected him to ask me if I was a ghost. “You’re here!”
“Of course I’m here,” I said.
“I didn’t think you would come in tonight. I didn’t even want a doctor’s note.” He was ashen. “You don’t understand; we almost took you to the hospital. Wait here.”
Mike went into his office and came back with a digital camera. The screen displayed pictures of me passed out on the ground in a huge puddle of pistachio colored vomit, and then in a gurney. “I really thought you were going to die. I think we all did. I can’t believe you’re here. And, you look fine,” he repeated.
I took the camera from him, disturbed by the images on the digital screen, astounded that he would document evidence of what happened. But I said, “I’m counting down days. I want off this island.” I had twenty-three days left.
He gawked at me for a few more beats and then moved on. I was standing in the same place, near the entrance of the club, staring at the abandoned, dilapidated hotel across the street wondering if it was haunted, when Philip walked in. I was elated to see him, relieved that he came back. We walked to the bar and sat down together.
“What happened last night?” he asked me.
“I think I almost died. And I think Brie saved me. But I don’t want to talk about it.”
Phil nodded, “You don’t have to. I’m here to listen if you change your mind.”
“Maybe another time,” I said. “But I don’t think Mike will be giving me a hard time anymore.”
Phil hung his head, shaking it. “I doubt it. He can’t help himself. Can I get you a drink?”
I bought both of the books my father authored. They’re much different than the personal stories I write, but still, he was a writer. It made me feel connected to him in a small and distant way.
I believed that by reading them I could get to know him, somewhat.
I flipped to the intro of The Essential Guide To Rocky Mountain National Park and read the first few paragraphs. The prose was much more engaging than I expected, I could almost hear his voice. He was the photographer as well, and the photos contained in the glossy pages were gorgeous: mountain landscapes swathed in winter snow, fields of yellow wildflowers in summer, the Colorado River lined with giant pine trees, a woman riding a beautiful auburn horse. I’d never considered that a guidebook could be a work of art, but that’s what I held in my hands. It was too much. It hurt to look at it.
The ending I want to write is that I read the books and that I did feel closer to him. That eventually I wrote Kathy back. That a little while later I met his mother and his other sister.
In reality, I wanted to throw his books off my balcony. “I can’t read them,” I said to my boyfriend. I asked Jon to hide them and he nodded, complied. For months he had embraced me, dozens of times, rocked me lightly, while I cried and said: I don’t know why, I don’t know why, I don’t know why.
Every time I thought of my father, I visualized the Oregon woods behind the trailer park where we lived for some of my childhood. During the summers I spent most days back there: walking along the bank of the cool stream, climbing trees, watching squirrels, catching tadpoles, listening to songbirds, hiking through the red clay hills. It made me feel alive. It made me feel whole, safe, loved — things I didn’t often feel at home.
Is that how you felt walking in nature? I wanted to ask him. Is that why you devoted your life to the outdoors?
I wished I could take a hike with him in the field of summer wildflowers he’d photographed; wanted to inhale the crisp winter breeze alongside him. We’d make snow angels on the side of a mountain, laughing as we flapped our arms.
Afterward, he’d warm milk in a sauce pan and I’d start to ask the harder questions: When did you start drinking? How did it get out of control? He’d peer up at me and I’d recognize that his green eyes matched mine. Before answering, he’d pour the warmed milk over cocoa powder in oversized mugs and I’d stir the mixture together. What about the struggles with your mental health? He’d clear his throat; and we’d both warm our hands on the hot ceramic coffee cups.
Tell me your life story.