Thursday, October 1, 2015

Schadenfreude is Dark Chocolate for the American Soul

No one wants to bang an actress over forty.

That's the prevailing wisdom in Hollywood--in the near-pornographic intimacy of high-def, you might see a wrinkle or a deflated boob or an ass that's a centimeter or two lower than it was when that actress starred in the rom-com that launched her career twenty years ago.

Can't have that.

Meanwhile, their male cohorts begin to look like thirsty old vampires with their crepey eyelids and liver-spotted pedophilic hands pawing onscreen love interests half their age. Hey, Hollywood is the land of dreams, and dreams die hard.

We depend on celebrities to show us a wildly idealized version of how our lives should be. Not only do we need them to be perfect, we will cannibalize them for being anything less. Jessica Simpson's high-waisted jeans and five extra pounds, for instance. The dust-up over Renee Zellweger's new dermal-filled, plasticine, Jesus-who-the-hell-is-that face. Pamela Anderson's freaky McDonald's arch eyebrows and vain attempts to remain fuckable. Pick up any magazine and you will see why the most aggressive paparazzi get paid big bucks to snap a bad photo of any woman who has the temerity to be both beautiful and famous.

Schadenfreude is dark chocolate for the American soul.

But here's the thing. I'm not going to bitch about Hollywood or "the system" or even the paparazzi. I'm going to point the finger where the finger needs to be pointed, which is at us. All of us. For our ghoulish fascination with fallen idols. We build them up and tear them down with the same vicious glee, forking over money at every news stand to see Tara Reid's "shark bitten" overly-liposuctioned tummy or a Kim Basinger "tragically" looking her age. There's a low-grade resentment among women. Why do these twats get paid millions of dollars? They're nothing special. They're flawed and human, just like we are.

Our critical eyes make them desperate. We take to Tumblr and Twitter and Instagram and the National Enquirer, poring over photos--damning evidence that these celebrities aren't worthy of the attention and money we give them. And the dissemination of bad photos may impact an actress's financial bottom line. An actress caught at a bad angle may not be considered for the roles she needs in order to pay the rent.

Like Heidi Montag, (she-of-the-ten-surgeries-in-one-day), these frantic creatures resort to expensive, invasive procedures, and they do it at increasingly younger ages. Heidi was twenty-five went she got her first face lift. And what did we do? We despised her for it. We flamed her for "cheating." After all, the rules are clear: don't expect us to treat you like a god unless you are one. And anybody who resorts to surgery is a false idol.

Because of us, women in Hollywood look as though they are made of vinyl. Because of us, they down Adderall by the handful, live on sushi and cigarettes, in order to even have careers. Only the few (Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson) who are lucky enough to be both talented AND beautiful are given any kind of a hall pass. Even news anchors are pressured to look as crease-free as possible. News anchors. Think about that for a minute.

So how do we stop this Juggernaut?

First, we take a good hard look at ourselves. What itch gets scratched when we see a bald Britney Spears going psycho with an umbrella on somebody's car? Are we proud of that morbid curiosity? Every time we click on a link that promises to show us celebrity cellulite, we are encouraging women-abusing vermin to gin up unflattering photos that will prove to us, once and for all, those bitches aren't better than we are. We relegate celebrities--and by extension, all women--to a trash heap of fuckable, unfuckable, and heading in the direction of unfuckable, regardless of talent. Don't do it. Don't buy the magazine. Don't fall for the clickbait.

In the end, if we want to see better roles for women in Hollywood and better women in those roles, women need to stop objectifying women. We need to move beyond our knee-jerk habit of comparing our bodies, favorably or unfavorably, to those of the celebrities we see. Our collective attention is meat for the consumerist beast, but if we start looking the other way, the beast has no choice but to find a different way to entice us.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

My Great Italian Adventure: Roughing it in the Land of Permits and Pasta

Calcata Vecchia is a land that Time didn’t so much forget as exempt. You won’t see satellite dishes here, although there is a forest of antennae and wind turbans glittering from its red-tiled roofs. You can spot them from the path that wends its way up to Calcata Nuova, the new town, that one that isn’t medieval and doesn’t sit on a rock that stretches out of the Treja Valley like an odd, clay-colored mushroom.

No car other than the occasional three-wheeled Piaggio is allowed to pass beneath Calcata Vecchia’s sacred arches, so you march—laden with heavy groceries in flimsy, environmentally-conscious bags made of corn husks—up wet cobblestones that have been made yet more treacherous by pigeon droppings. You stop halfway, wondering if it’s really that hot, that steep, and that difficult or if you’re just that woefully out-of-shape. Then you press on, hoping the bags hold up so your acqua frizzante doesn’t go rolling down the hill with you chasing after it.

You’re always happy when you get to the piazza. To the right is a 16th century church with an outrageously flamboyant priest who observes all the Catholic saints days, usually with a bullhorn. There was a situation a few years ago where a young woman stripped off all her clothes and wandered naked through the borgo. The priest was furious. Words were exchanged on the church steps—those same steps that a year later, as part of some bizarre Halloween ritual, a woman the locals referred to as “ham hock” stripped down to a bustier and 18th century farthingale. I guess it’s all in the context.

But in the piazza you will see artist Constantino Morosin’s legendary thrones, three of them, sculpted out of the indigenous stone called tufo. Sometimes a cat is there, licking its paws before pausing to stare at you as though you are stupidest person on earth for carrying groceries in this heat. Both Calcatas, vecchia and nuova, are abundant in cats. In many cases, a cat will attach itself to you, and then you are obligated to feed it, worm it, and buy it shots. Fortunately, the vet lives two houses down and makes house calls.

Calcata Vecchia has restaurants, art studios, bodegas, shops and bars. The one you see as you first lurch into the piazza while your heart rate levels out is called Opera, and since they have wifi, you might even see me lurking there in a suspicious manner with my iPhone clutched in sweaty desperate paws. Il Gatto Nero (the Black Cat) is a feline-themed restaurant behind a charming red-lacquer door. Neo is the mascot, which is fitting since he is a black cat, and a woefully misbegotten one at that. He snuck into our house one evening and sprayed a first edition George Orwell. There was hell to pay, believe me, and I ended up sprinkling the book with corn starch, tying a plastic bag around it and then shaking it like I was coating a chicken leg. Worked, too.

No one in Calcata (that I know of anyway) has air conditioning. This forces you to live a greater percentage of your life out of doors. But it sucks when you sleep in the attic with your boyfriend who tends to starfish the entire bed and you’re so sweaty and sleep-deprived you actually grab a pillow and try dozing in the clawfoot bathtub. If we owned a refrigerator, I would have stuck my entire head in the crisper, but as things are, the best I can do is the tub or the kitchen floor, two ladders down, where I sprawl comatose on an orange blanket. When we make coffee in the morning (on a hot plate, by the way—no oven here), the whole room rises about eight hundred degrees and you curse your tragic addiction to coffee, but at the same time you know that nothing in this life or the next is going to keep you from making it, especially the Italian stuff, which pretty much ruins you for anything else.

What you are left with when there are few televisions, sketchy wifi, no cell reception, no cars, and no air conditioning is each other. The Calcatese are a passionate, wildly opinionated lot, given to altercations in the piazza. There was one last night. As a local theater group came streaming up the hill after their performance, with no agenda more Machiavellian than wishing to dine al fresco in the piazza, they were treated to their own private performance of two locals punching the snot out of each other. One of them, bloody and with his shirt torn, gave a bravura performance of his own, yelling obscenities at everyone for twenty minutes until the carabinieri showed up.

For the record, the carabinieri view the Calcatese with sneering contempt. We’re artists, writers, actors, and musicians, you see. Calcata Vecchia is actually known as paese di fricchettoni, or “village of freaks.” To the local constabulary, what happened last night is just further proof that we are, without exception, moral degenerates. And to be fair, that’s not entirely untrue. Heroin was a problem here once and perhaps a couple thousand parties might have turned into one big orgiastic fuck pit. But in the severest terms I will maintain that your average U.S. Senatorial kegger is far more debauched, especially now that the American public is too busy watching Backstrom to concern themselves with the character of their elected representatives.

Is it true that from time to time someone’s car gets torched? Yes. Do the carabinieri do anything about it? No. Do certain members of the local communist party occasionally get their pricy new chompers knocked clean out of their skull by put-upon fascist youth? Yes. Do the carabinieri do anything about it? No. Do local farmers sometimes come up to the piazza to sell fresh mozzarella, grapes, and honey? Yes. Do the carabinieri do anything about it? Absolutely. They drive those poor bastards off with a stick. Why? No permit. Italians adore permits. Permits are the god and sovereign of the Italian legal system—although those three words together may constitute the biggest oxymoron of the free world, right after United States democracy.

In many respects, life is lived here much as it was five centuries ago. And it has taught me in the most uncomfortable ways that every problem that humans create a solution for just creates other, different problems. Television, cars, air conditioning and freely accessible wifi = isolation (plus air pollution and lack of exercise, etc.). Yet all that togetherness = fighting. At least it does when you’re Italian. But even the days, and there are plenty, where I could really use a little more climate control, I never lose sight of the gift that’s been given to me as a stranger in a strange land. I am living life out loud—overheated, vitriolic, and always teetering on the edge of disaster. But there’s laughter (mostly at myself) and appreciation of what is best about the old ways and what is truly essential about the new.

Which compels me to ask: what’s the one modern convenience you think you could live without? I’d be curious to know.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

More Balls Than Sense: My Love Affair with Italy

Almost a year ago, I quit my job as a personal trainer and group fitness instructor, sold my blue Kia Rio, unloaded my furniture, packed what was left of my earthly belongings into two bags, and flew on a buddy pass to Rome. It sounds so cut-and-dry, I know. Make a plan. Execute the plan.

But it was I who felt as though she'd been executed. I left behind some amazing friends, a job I loved, my eighteen-year-old son who, quite understandably, had no interest in going with me, plus my daughter who was scheduled to fly over a month later. The odds of her liking Italy were slim, at best, but it was a chance we had to take. I vowed that I would not commit ritual suicide if she opted to go back home again. This was a huge move for me, let alone an adorably social fourteen-year-old girl who, like most of her kind, loved Fall Out Boys, Taco Bell, and the mall.

There's no mall in the medieval village of Calcata, Italy. There isn't even an ATM machine.

A week before leaving, I had what amounted to a mini nervous breakdown with the hyperventilating and the sweating and the late night calls to the friends I felt as though I were abandoning. There were also other, larger, issues at play in my drippy leave-taking. I had to muck around in my own psychological mud puddles, ones of trust and dependency. My love affair wasn't just with Italy, but a man I met there, a remarkable, unique, and wholly un-replaceable man. After years of flying solo, I was now rolling the dice in a way that left me questioning whether I could actually go through with this, whether I'd lost my mind, whether I had the guts (or the craziness) to walk that flimsy a tightrope in high heels and without a net.

If my past history with love was anything to hang my hat on, there was no hat to hang. My taste in men was as infamously bad as my politics were leftist. I was flying against all sense and logic by making this move. I didn't speak Italian; I spoke phrasebook. I was giving up a steady paycheck to write--what a joke! Statistically, I stood a better chance of contracting a hemorrhagic disease than making my living with my pen. And now I would be leaning hard on someone else to help me navigate simple life transactions like buying groceries or pumping gas. We would also be doing some navigation of our own as we tried to match up our emotional baggage. That gets harder as you get older. They never tell you that, but it's true.

To my face, my friends were wonderfully supportive, even admiring. Breaking out of Rikers is easier than breaking out of a comfort zone. They knew that. But behind my back, I imagine they must have expressed some justifiable doubts. In one form or another, some directly, others less so, the people I knew asked me why I had decided to leave.

Here then is my answer.

Every morning in the U.S., I woke up on the wrong side of capitalism. I loved my job, but I was working seven days a week and still couldn't pay my bills. The utilitarian ugliness of Houston's freeway/stripmall/suburb bore down on me, day in and day out, like a slow gray depression. Going to the supermarket with its bright shiny aisles and over-processed everything was like a stab wound. So were the seventy-dollars-for-two-bags-of-crap.

Nothing in Italy is bright or shiny. It's old and ramshackle. I don't hear sirens all day or see billboards the size of swimming pools. I hear church bells and roosters. Roses grow in wild profusion over crumbling stone walls. Grapes spill over trellises. The village I live in, Calcata, is fraught with internecine warfare, but we all know each other.

Returning to the U.S. after my various junkets abroad had, at one time, left me stunned and sad and a little panicky. I couldn't "land." Maybe I was afraid to. Maybe I worried, on some level, that I would get trapped there in the delicate filament wires of ease, comfort, convenience, like the victim of a thirsty spider.

In my kingdom, I was tiny queen. But I had no choice but to abdicate if I wanted to follow my bliss. It felt selfish to me, yet the alternative--to make myself vague promises of doing it later--was not only delusional, it was a lie.

Do I miss the U.S.? Not in the slightest. What's toxic about American culture is the stuff of another blog post. In fact, my native land feels increasingly unreal to me. Is life easy in Italy? Never. We freeze in the winter; we sweat in the summer. Sometimes we're so poor, we eat borrowed potatoes and not much else. Italy is never convenient. And since I write all day in English, it undermines my daily attempts to study Italian. It's a damned difficult language to learn, by the way. Italian grammar is a cross between Times Square and the Inquisition.

But ... you can't regret the things you did for love. And I will never regret this. I have been changed irrevocably, have struggled and grown and will struggle again.

I am deeply, viscerally alive.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Geeks, Boobs, and Anne Boleyn: My Life as a Truant

When I was twelve, I skipped school for six weeks and wrote my first novel. It was about Henry VIII's fifth wife, Kathryn Howard, but the point-of-view character was her sister, Isabella Baynton, who was married to Kathryn's Vice Chamberlain. It was wildly overwritten, in the way of first novels...and you're wondering why on earth a twelve-year-old would even find something like that interesting, let alone write a novel about it. Skipping school is hardly mystifying, of course, since most of us spent our incarceration there dreaming of a jailbreak.

My long-suffering single mother would go to work in the morning. I waved cheerily from the bus stop as she drove past with her coffee in hand, barely awake, barely functional, a preview of things to come when, many years hence, I was the single mother chuffing by, bleary-eyed and tragically under-caffeinated. The minute her car turned the corner, I raced back into the house and locked the door.

Any right-thinking kid--any NORMAL kid--would have rolled a joint or trawled for beer or gotten in a shitload of trouble. But I was far from normal. I was a geek. I didn't look like one, but at no point in my life has my outside matched my inside. Outside, it was all boobs and sarcasm. Inside, it was a hundred geeky enthusiasms. English history was one of them.

I knew more about the Tudors and the Elizabethans and the Jacobeans and the Stuarts than most people knew about their own family trees. I was fascinated by the idea of just bulldozing over people to get your way, whether it was a divorce, a woman, or a war. Henry VIII enclosed feudal lands, drove off the peasants, balkanized England, beheaded dissenters, and gave the Pope his stiff middle finger. He was a tyrant in every sense of the word, a despicable, horrible man, and I couldn't feed my hungry brain enough information about this period of time when women navigated by their beauty, wits, and wiles. Anne Boleyn, Henry's second wife, held him at bay for six years so he'd marry her. He may have been the King of England, but Anne worked him like a meat puppet.

I'd write longhand. I still write longhand. I'd plow through my mother's records and put Bach or Chopin, something classical, on the turntable. I was insane with joy. The whole day stretched before me, hours and hours of unstructured time, time to do what I wanted to do, which was to write. When the school called, I pretended to be sick. "My mother's at work," I'd rasp. "The doctor said not to come back to school until I was no longer contagious."

Meanwhile, the novel continued apace. I never worried about school or catching up or my grades, because I didn't give a fuck. All I wanted to do was write. I had no grand expectations about "being a writer" or starving elegantly in a garret in Paris or pulling down a serious advance. I didn't even know about those things. All I was certain of was the high probability of dying a slow miserable death in social science class or by the Latina girls who liked to punch the snot out of me or on the school bus, which belched diesel fumes toxic enough to kill us all if we idled too long at a light. This is the public school experience for many of us. We are tethered to a desk, or many desks, for eight hours a day. We are forced to pay attention or suffer the consequences--which usually meant another hour after school tethered to yet another desk.

As adults, we know for a fact that we would never put up with that bullshit. Eight hours of sitting and pretending to be interested in crap we know we're never going to use in "real life?" Worse, being taught the same way and using the same techniques (i.e. rote memorization) as students were 150 years ago? Who on earth could possibly blame a child for preferring to write a novel than put up with another second of that over-structured, over-tested, out-of-touch, regressive, aggressive, oppressive, suppressive hell?

Well, my mother did, for one. When she found out (no doubt through some brazen attempt by the school to contact her personally), she didn't know whether to hug me or slap me. What does any parent do with a child who is genetically incapable of toeing the line? I was sent back to school, of course. But from that day forward, I may have been physically present and accounted for, but the part of me they wanted, the part of me they were working so hard to "get" was gone until college. In college, I was allowed to study what I wanted.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

How to Write a Bestseller Before You're Twenty

I wrote DRIVE YOUR WOMAN WILD IN BED when I was nineteen. It started out as a dare, of sorts. I was in college at the time, and a bunch of us girls were talking shit after class--you remember how that went, right? Bitching about guys as a backhanded way of saying you had one.

And at the time, I was seeing this hot musician, but complained that he couldn't find a clitoris if you built him a three-dimensional model of one. A particularly smart friend of mine said, "You should write a book about that."

So I did.

There were hours of painstaking research. Conversations with couples, both gay and straight. Conversations with singles, both gay and straight. I actually fell asleep on top of the DSM one night at the library. But I was on a mission to garner support for the rights of clitorises and women's sexual satisfaction the world over.

To make ends meet, I taught group fitness and "Getting in Touch with Your Inner Goddess" classes at this continuing education organization called The Learning Annex. The director happened to be in the office on the day I showed up to collect my check. We got to talking, and I mentioned this book I'd been working on. You could practically see the cartoon dollar signs floating out of his irises.

But he made the magic. Within a week, "The Joan Rivers Show" called and got me on their program. There was no book yet, so we had to mock one up. I showed up, all earnest in my "Forbes business attire for women" and teenage cluelessness. Actress Sean Young was in the green room, tall and lovely and lacking any kind of social filter. She put her hands on my boobs, honked them, and then said, "Jesus Christ, those fuckers are real!"

No dummy, Joan, she threw me plenty of softballs, which I caught--due to her kindness, not my ability to field. I was plenty pleased with myself, except for the fact that none of my friends from college could be bothered to watch my segment. Who cared? I was able to send out query letters to agents that had "As seen on the Joan Rivers Show" right across the banner.

The offers for representation came rolling in. I had no idea how rare and wonderful this was. I just thought that was what happened when you queried agents. I flew to New York and was wined and dined at the Russian Tea Room by John Grisham's agent. Wasn't everybody?

The book went to auction, which is publisher-speak for bidding war. I sat there in my big girl Underoos and listened while Simon & Schuster, Berkeley-Putnam, and a third publisher I can't remember knocked each other out for the chance to publish my "fabulous" book. The advance offered kept going higher. And I was flying high, too. After conferring with my agent, I went with Berkeley, in large part because the Simon & Schuster editor took one look at me, gave me a sickly-sweet smile, and then asked in the same tones one might use on a mildly-retarded toddler if I had actually written the thing.

I was rolling in puppies now! I spoke at Berkeley's big sales expo. I was a novelty, like a talking monkey or a pig that can count by stamping its hoof. I didn't know it, though, that I was part of the joke. I was still on my mission to right the wrongs of clitorises, to help give them their day in the sun. As it were.

But my agent and I couldn't seem to get a contract going. Her agency didn't want the rights to just that book, but to all my books in perpetuity, including monies accrued from lecture fees. As naive as I was, I understood the pitfalls of such a contract. We were at a standstill.

One month went by. Two months. On a robust morning in April, while I was drinking diet Coke and playing Nintendo, the phone rang. It was the editor at Berkeley. Because no contract had been signed, they had decided to drop my advance by seventy thousand dollars. I was devastated.

When I called my agent to ask why in hell no contract from Berkeley had ever been presented to me, she hemmed and hawed until finally admitting she'd decided against mentioning it until she had me under agency contract.

Oh, the buckets of tears I shed. In desperation, I called my mother and asked for her advice. She was smart and barracuda-ish, so I listened when she told me to walk away from the whole deal. I did.

Once again, I began the process of finding an agent. But the momentum had changed. Taking on a book like this was tantamount to sucking on the ass end of a week-old cod. By some miracle, I found a great agent who did the impossible: he sold the book to Warner. The upfront money wasn't anything like what I'd been offered before, but I was happy to have a deal signed.

Should I have just taken it in the shorts by my first agent? Who knows. Hindsight may be 20/20, but psychic hindsight ain't worth the effort to scratch. Personally, I'm thrilled that things worked out the way they did. Not only did I land a trustworthy, hard-hitting New York agent, but I learned another important lesson, which was this: young people don't know dick. They may know where a dick goes, but in terms of navigating the nether-realms where real dicks tend to congregate, I--like all others of my age--was out of my depth.

People ask me all the time why I didn't include this story in STRIPPED DOWN: A Naked Memoir, which chronicles my life as a stripper/cover girl/centerfold. The truth is, if I had cataloged both halves of my life in that one book, I would have written something that rivaled the length of Stephen King's THE STAND.

A writer's life is a tumultuous one. Every book you write is both a labor and a birth. And you never know what you're going to get or where that book is going to go.

But whaddyaknow. I'm still here.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Life With Cap'n: Putting The Boob in Boob Cruise

The great irony of being a stripper/centerfold/cover girl is that you--meaning me--spend all your hard-earned money getting a college degree so that you can aspire to a "better" job than taking your clothes off. You--meaning me--are still too young to grasp the reality of the situation, which is that no better jobs actually exist, even for college graduates, but especially those who are foolish enough to follow their passion and obtain a diploma attesting to their fluency in dead poets and obscure British limerick writers and other useless purveyors of word junk. I went full speed ahead, armed with a quiver full of Good Intentions.

So when rent came due that day in late August, and all my sweaty greenbacks had been dispatched to university coffers, I accepted an invite to do a "Boob Cruise." Why not, I asked myself. It was $500 up front, plus whatever tips I could jiggle, and I wouldn't be cast adrift without backup. Three other dancers had signed on, too. We were nautical entertainment for a bunch of middle-aged yachtsmen or air traffic controllers or what-have-you, I didn't ask.

I was told we'd set sail out of Annapolis at 3pm. At 2:45, I parked my car and schlepped a bag containing heels, makeup, canister hairspray, and neon thongs up the gangplank. Sure enough, a phalanx of middle-aged white guys awaited me, all grinning. I could tell they were super pleased with themselves, these wearers of plaid golf vests and jaunty tam o'shanters, men in whose dentured mouths words like "gal" and "hepcat" found safe harbor. They'd hired strippers! Their wives didn't know! They were bad boys who were about to have a naughty adventure on a boat!

After smiling through stale jokes about my "national endowments," I was introduced to the man-of-the-hour, everyone's favorite birthday boy: Cap'n. Cap'n wore a Captain's hat and a navy jacket with gold braid epaulets, so it was easy to believe he'd been sailing the ocean blue since 1907. Now, he was relegated to a wheelchair. I gave him a kiss on the cheek. The guys went wild. One suggested I kiss his dick instead, which is when I widened my smile and beelined it for the dressing room.

The three other dancers were already in various stages of undress: one in bra and panties, one in bra, panties, and war paint, and the last one dressed and smoking. "Goddamn," she said. "How much did you pay for those?"

Long experience had taught me not to bother defending myself, so I started with an introduction.

"I'm Candy," she said. With her cigarette hand, she pointed to the others. "That's Titi and Loris. Say, what are those anyway, a triple Z or something?"

First Rule of Stripping: always make friends with the other dancers. You cannot afford to to piss off anybody. Bad things happen to dancers who do. Dancers who piss off other dancers get smack said about them to customers. Things like, "She looks great, doesn't she? You'd never know she's had three kids." Or, "Boy, I hope I look that good when I'm forty."

Titi and Loris were experienced dancers, I could tell. Both were good looking and neither took this shit seriously. But Candy was clearly a mess. She had a tooth missing that you caught sight of when she laughed, which she did a lot of while I was undressing. She had bad home perm hair in color Bozo. Mostly, she had a long leather bullwhip. It went with the dominatrix outfit.

"Guys eat this shit up," she bragged. "You'll see. They'll pretend to be scared when I'm out there whipping the shit out of them, but half of those fuckers will look me up later."

"Look you up for what?" I asked, honestly confused.

"For sex, Barbie. Gee, what do you think?"

I was young and admittedly stupid. To me, sex was sex and stripping was stripping.

"What the hell are YOU wearing?" she asked, sneering a little.

"A dress."

"A dress," she mimicked. "Fugly, if you ask me."

On the way up to the deck for our show, Titi whispered to me, "Watch your step with that chick."


"She hates your fucking guts."

Loris danced first. We watched from the galley while Candy paced and smoked, the whip trailing behind her. "Don't think for one minute anyone's going to be impressed with your bolt-ons," she told me.

Titi went on next, giving ole Cap'n an eyeful while he sat grinning in his hat, front and center where they'd parked him. The men cut loose with some cash for Titi. She had a way with them, a little bit flirty, a little bit naughty.

"Watch and learn, Boob Job." Candy elbowed me aside and strutted her way onstage. Ker-whapp went the whip. All fifty men went silent.

Now, I hadn't been dancing that long, but it didn't take a ton of experience to see this wasn't the right crowd for Candy's Queen of Pain routine. They clearly didn't want anything aggressive, tawdry, or overtly sexual. These guys wanted a cute young thing to prance around naked and make them feel not-invisible anymore, like maybe under different circumstances they might have had a chance. But Candy hadn't bothered taking temperature of the room. She came out with her whip, chains, leather, and dog collar. She had a tattoo of something that looked like a demon baby on her thigh. And the quieter they got, the louder she became.

"I'm going to spank your ass hard," she shouted. Ker-whapp.

Right in front of Cap'n, she bent over and waved to him from between her legs.Then she spun around and shoved her boobs in his face. "Like those, don't you? Every inch of these babies are real." She cracked her whip once, twice, and something terrible happened. She accidentally wrapped it around Cap'n's neck.

"He's choking!" someone yelled.

Cap'n's eyes bugged out. His fingers clawed at the whip. He gagged. Candy tried to make it seem like part of her routine, but when all the guys started yelling and pulling, she pulled, too, which only made it tighter.

I could barely see what was going on now, there were so many guys waving their arms and rushing toward the wheelchair. Cap'n's face was turning blue.

Yet instead of letting go, Candy panicked and yanked harder. Cap'n flew out of his chair. He landed face down on the floor. Candy screamed. Someone managed to pry the whip out of her hand. A dozen men set Cap'n back in his chair and peeled the whip off his mottled neck.

"Go away," his friend growled at Candy. "We don't want you dancing anymore."

Candy yelled, "This is bullshit."

She came at me full barrel, obviously intent on relieving her frustration by slicing me to ribbons. Titi said, "Save yourself," and pushed me onstage.

I looked at the men. The men looked at me.

"Listen," I said. "I don't have to dance. If you'd rather--"

"Hell, gal, you come on down here," a man said. "You're the one we wanted anyway."

Oh, please don't say that, I pleaded silently, hoping Candy didn't hear. I danced over to Cap'n, who still looked pretty dazed from his non-erotic asphyxiation. "Why don't you take that dress off?" he rasped.

A flurry of bills rained down. I stepped out of my dress, and a second wave of bills fluttered all around me. But I knew Candy was watching and I knew she would make me pay.

I stayed and chatted with the men for as long as I could, knowing that Candy would stab me with a high heel the minute I set foot in the dressing room. But when I zoomed in to gather my things, she was nowhere to be found.

"Man, is she pissed," Loris told me with a gleam in her eye. "She said she's going to make you wish you were dead."

"Great," I said.

"Her boyfriend is the head of some biker gang. Do you have a boyfriend?"


"You'd better get one fast."

On the way out, the sponsor of this shindig, a guy who still wore his class ring, gave me my $500 base pay and $500 on top of that, "for being such a fun gal," he said. I could feel Candy burning holes in me, but pretended not to notice her or the big scary leather vest-wearing dude who stared at me from the parking lot. He had two slightly less scary dudes right there with him. I knew they were going to take my money and anything else they felt like helping themselves to. But they weren't going to jump me right away. They were going to be smart about it and wait until I was clear of the boat. I could see my car where I'd left it. The parking lot looked a lot more sinister at night. Or maybe it just seemed that way because I was about to get shanked.

Titi and Loris scattered like roaches. Who could blame them? Nobody wanted their money stolen. The Boob Cruise guys were dining onboard. I wouldn't have asked them anyway, mostly because I was that kind of young, dumb, and stubborn. This was my money. I'd earned it. I was trying to buy my way up the educational food chain, and no way in hell was I was going to let some psycho-skank like Candy punk my dough.

I took my time walking to the car. My key was already in hand. I could feel them closing in. And I was still twenty feet from my car.

"You think you're all that," Candy huffed. "But you're nothing but a stuck up bitch."

"Hand over the cash," Biker Guy said. His voice was a mismatch, higher than it should have been given that he looked like someone who ate human babies.

"That's my money." Candy seemed as though she might have believed her own bullshit. "She stole it from me."

Of everything she'd said that night, this enraged me the most. I'd never stolen a thing in my life. I wanted to scream at her, punch her, beat her with her own whip.

I turned around and ran.

Candy was still in heels. Biker Guy may have been big, but he wasn't fast. I had only one shot to line my key up and slide it into the lock. One shot. And I nailed it.

I threw myself into the car, slammed the door and locked it. All three bikers were pounding on my windshield. One smashed a spider in the glass, but I got the car started and when I floored the gas, Candy at her boyfriend disappeared in a rooster tail of dust.

The experience served as a reminder of why I needed to stay in school. Not because a bright shiny future awaited me. It most certainly did not. I floundered like most people who are just getting started. College was valuable for other reasons. It reminded me that a street education could never be as effective or potent without a book education to balance it out. You needed both. Street knowledge without an education, and you turned into some permutation of Candy. College without a working knowledge of the streets, and you turned into a prig. But it took almost getting my ass handed back to me in order to learn that.