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," 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.