They call you Bella. It’s the name you chose from the film Belladonna of Sadness. At the strip club, where you can tell them what they call you, but not how they call you. And I’m driving you there. And I’m not one who thinks in terms of all or nothing, but I do know one thing: you’re changing. Right now, as we speak, because we aren’t speaking: you’re giving yourself a pep talk, it’s been rehearsed, a monologue. You have to become someone you’re not, but there is a magic in what you create. It’s not that it’s a lie, it’s that it isn’t real. To conjure; customers, you call them. Do you remember telling me how sex work can be sexually empowering? I do believe you, there is a light in the night even if it’s neon. I told you to be cautious, how any form of empowerment that is derived from an external source will eventually disempower you, and that the goal of empowerment is to cultivate that which is inside yourself. And you believed me. And as poetic as the thought of justice, what is justice but a justification, and for people like us, sex work is trauma re-enactment. You said, it’s really just for the money. I didn’t blame you; millennials are the generation of indentured servants. Anyone who tells you that money doesn’t buy you freedom is a fucking idiot: it’s a different kind of freedom. Before I drive you, I rub the money oil you purchased from some new age mystic shop. I make symbols: an x and an o, a dollar sign, and 666. As I write it, we joke about the 9 Lives Club, and our slogan Meow Satan for the cult we have yet to start. I’m sure you have a ritual in how you get ready before we leave—the manner in which you shave, apply make-up, select the evening’s lingerie, the heels and garter that have to match. I try not to watch you during this process. I want to give you space: what transformations require. Sure, I’ve had to take a piss and caught a glimpse of you as you stood beside me, before the mirror, but I look away. Even in perversity there is a sacredness: something not to be seen, something that can’t be unseen. I’ve never been inside the club, not once. It must remain unknown, always. I do know that after your shift, you have to shower, not for cleanliness, but erasure. And sometimes, you are so drunk that we stop at the only place near our duplex that is open after 2 AM. It’s the taco truck near the convenience store—there’s always a line and an argument, a disgruntled patron or beggar or both. I tell you to eat enough food to soak up the alcohol, and to drink water because you’re dehydrated. Other times, you don’t want to eat—you scream, throw things, cry, curse your family, the customers, drunk call your friends, throw more things, including yourself, and pass out wherever you land. One time, you howled, and it sounded like longing—I swear, in that moment, that I saw you change shape. How did you do it? To become shadowless. Sometimes, freedom is both lost and found, found and then lost, lost again, lost. I can’t speak for everyone, but the men there, at the club, they stare at you with a sickness, and as natural as sexuality is, there, it is about what they want from you, feel entitled to, and attempt to take from you: your body. Not that this differs from the world at large, and at least, there, the money is good, and the customers share a semblance to your childhood for you to re-enact, and you get the chance to empower yourself through the delusion that you are in control of them, and you stay in shape from the pole-work, and your looks are validated, not that it makes sense because it doesn’t have to. Do you remember that one night when a man tried to feed you a pill during his private dance? You told me that you let him put it in your mouth. He was aroused by the way you let him, slowly, cusping it with your tongue and teeth. Afterwards, you spit it back at him, walking out with the hour he purchased even though it had only been five minutes. Justice is chance, a flip of the coin, but I did enjoy that story. Sure, you drink, and there have been those few times when other girls offer you a line or two of coke, or that businessman who says he has coke, but only if you come back to his place with another girl to “party.” Either way, I still consider you sober because you are: it depends on how you choose to define it. And there, at the club, the ones that aren’t inebriated must be dead or dying because abstinence doesn’t exist. Seriously though, we haven’t stuck a needle in our arm in years. When we first met, I told you that if I fail at life the way I failed with drugs that I’d be ok with that because I did the best I could, how I tried, I really tried to get high and stay high forever. It didn’t work out that way. Forever is a long time. And you’re proud of me because I brush my teeth twice a day and floss, use mouthwash. I didn’t for nearly a decade, except for those few days at detox, or the periodic month on a maintenance dose of methadone, suboxone. Recently, you’ve been telling me how much you crave heroin, that you miss it, and I do too, only I stopped believing in it. And as we arrive at the club now, I tell you, good luck, and I’ll see you in a couple of hours. You will tell them different stories; you will sell them dreams: the frat boys, the old and despondent, the talkers, the out of towners on business, the moral supporters, the rare lap dance and leave types, the retired regulars who call the club “home” and the girls “family,” and the list goes on. I’ve never been jealous. None of them know you, they only know Bella: the world that you create, the name that isn’t the real you, but has somehow, become real, you, manifested, tangible as your skin, although you’ll pretend it’s someone else’s. I’m afraid that she’s taking over, that you feel safer there as Bella than here with me. Fuck, we both know the world isn’t safe, but at the club, you’re used to it: being prey (not to mention that being prey is being paid for). It’s an act until it isn’t. Maybe, we all just want to die by what’s familiar. I know that I’m not like these men, please tell me that I’m not like these men. Of course, I’ve seen you getting ready for the club—I’m sorry that I lied earlier. You ask me what to wear. I tell you that you’re beautiful. I have one rule: don’t give me a lap dance. It’s a line that we can’t blur. These men, they don’t know your real name, or that you don’t have a favorite color, or that you’re a classically trained pianist. They don’t know that you work as a hair stylist during the week, or that you’re developing thoracic outlet syndrome from how you stand and hold the scissors and for how long and almost every day. They don’t apply the ayurverdic oils when you’re sore (even though you massage me more than I massage you). They don’t know that historically men have failed you. Please, tell me that I’m not failing you. I feel conflicted as I drive you. Like maybe, I’m failing you. We pull up and before the bouncer escorts you inside, we sit and finish the song that helps ease your transition from me and our two cats to the men and strip club. Sometimes, we play a few more songs because you need more time. There are already a few men gathered outside smoking and they see me dropping you off and I hate thinking that these men could possibly want to be me, not because I don’t want to be me, or that I don’t want you, but because, frankly, they scare me. I don’t think they want you, maybe for the sake of having had you, but that’s it. They’re willing to pay. It’s what we need, isn’t it? A single night of dancing can bring in more money than an entire paycheck from the salon. We need to plan accordingly though, save up for the future—you don’t want to be a strip club’s house-mom when you’re older. I’m getting frustrated right now, not because of you, but because of me. We aren’t even shooting dope. Like, why are we still so desperate? I’m being such a crybaby, I’m not even the one stripping. I would, of course, if you really, really wanted me to. But you know my story, my past—all of it—and you’re the only one I can say that about. I’ve been having more night-terrors recently. I’m easily agitated, not at you, but at these men who I don’t even strip for, couldn’t possibly know. They remind me of someone else. I keep seeing his face and I don’t want to. I question everything, not because I’m crazy or because I doubt myself, but because no one ever believed me. Sometimes, I wake up screaming and you always hold me—I’ve never fallen back asleep so easily. I kiss you now and the bouncer escorts you inside. As I leave, I play the music louder than it was before and I roll the windows down. I don’t feel as cool as I did those first few times that I drove you. I feel stupid and insensitive for having felt so cool. The freeway and the wind and little to no direction keep me distracted until I decide to drive home. I fear for your safety, but I try to tell myself the worst-case scenario isn’t statistically likely, but there are so many other less than worst-case scenarios that I’m still worried about. I need to stop thinking about this. I’ll be picking you up in five or so hours. I need to spend my time diligently. Do something that makes our life easier. Maybe the laundry, empty the litter box, vacuum. I’m feeling out of sorts, running on and on or away. I’ve heard people say “live your best life,” often when making an excuse for their behavior, and “find your own truth” which confuses me because that means even the truth changes. I swear, spiritual awakenings are as humbling as they are cruel, and they are cruel because they are impermanent. Bella, I write words on your body, invocations of one sort or another, and I drive you and I kiss you before I drop you off. When I pick you up shortly, I’ll kiss you as soon as you get in the car and I’ll tell you what I did during the time you stripped, because of course, there is rarely anything that you want to tell me, but I do trust you, not them, but you. And I know that you aren’t much of a reader, but maybe you’ll one day read this. Tonight, I put the darks in the washer. I burned sage, not because I believe in it, but because I don’t have to. I went outside and I looked at the stars, smoked a cigarette. It’s late and the neighborhood is quiet. Do you know that the deeper you look into space, the further into the past you can see? Yes, my love, it’s been a long and hard and true paragraph. A
paragraph is a cage.
I wanted to set us free.
Christian Bodney lives in Brooklyn, NY. He/they is an MFA candidate at New York University. He is currently working on a hybrid collection of linked essays/memoirs. He has work appearing in Hobart and Ninth Letter.