The stripper said her name was Tesla.
“Like the engineer,” she explained, extending a long, smooth, high-heeled leg into the air. I looked at the hollow space where her legs met, the way the flesh peeled back against the muscle. A man to my right folded a dollar bill. He threw it against her thigh.
“Make it rain,” he yelled. Even from feet away, he smelled of booze.
Tesla smiled at me, motioned with her finger that I should come closer. When I did, she brushed her chest against my cheek. “He was Austrian,” she whispered.
“Who?” I asked. She smelled of mangos and lilies and fingernail polish.
She grinded her breasts against my jawbone. “Tesla,” she said.
It was late, one thirty-six in the morning on a Saturday. I couldn’t believe I was here, in this strip club in downtown Cedar Rapids, Iowa-a place called the Lumberyard. It was nothing more than an old warehouse with electric pink lights and a DJ and tight-thighed women dancing to Nelly. It was like someone had gutted an old Wal-Mart and added a few poles. There were exposed beams, wide, open spaces.
It was a town I’d moved to just months before, and already I hated it-hated it for its Co-Ops and farmers’ markets and Mennonite pancake breakfasts. I was from a place where restaurants only sold wine by the bottle and customers stood in lines that snaked down sidewalks just for a hotdog on day-old white buns-a city with bridges and crowded streets and even more crowded sidewalks. People didn’t say hi and you didn’t expect them to. You didn’t want them to. I took the job knowing it would change things, that moving a thousand miles west would be difficult, but even as I took the toothbrush from my boyfriend’s downtown Boston apartment, I talked myself into it. The experience would be eye opening, I decided, an adventure. Instead I spent Saturdays on my new Midwestern couch, watching the television programs the cable company airs when they know no one’s watching.
“A fresh start,” a coworker said, “is exactly what you need.” I trusted her-she wore the black boots and the black stockings and spread her mascara thick. I trusted she knew how to find a way to live in this small place that offered two public libraries within a five-block stretch.
“Like what?” I asked, but when she said the words I didn’t expect them. “A strip club?” I said. “I’ve never been.”
“Come on, then,” she said. “What are you waiting for?”
What was I waiting for? That was the question that had been on my mind for some time. The night before, my boyfriend had called from his Boston studio loft to tell me things weren’t working. Three months in and he couldn’t deal with the distance.
“It’s not you,” he explained, “it’s that you’re in a place that requires two connecting flights.”
A month before I moved, my parents sold our home, the place we lived for twenty-two years, to move halfway across the country to a town with a name that sounded like a car company. They bought a condo and a Pomeranian. “It’s lovely,” my mother would tell me when she called. “There are tennis courts and basketball courts and a heated pool that requires a key code.”
Three months before that, my best friend killed his girlfriend and put her seeping body in a tub. He started sending me letters from prison, lists of the books he was reading.
Things were happening-bad things-and they happened whether I sat around and cared about exploited women or not.
“Alright,” I said. “Why not?”
When our shift ended, we waited on the sidewalk beside Dairy Queen until her boyfriend pulled up in his vintage Camry. We stopped at a house with peeling paint to pick up another couple to make five, then squeezed into the backseat and let thighs touch thighs. The night was wet and dark, and as the car zipped down the interstate I felt like a bead of ink on water. The night rippled around us.
When we reached the Lumberyard, the coworker’s boyfriend climbed out of the car first. He made a cat call in the parking lot. I did my best to act sexy as we entered-long, agile steps, because I was a woman, too-and then we paid the cover charge and I flashed my ID. A bouncer marked an X on our fists with ink. We stepped in and embraced what was there.
There were naked women, and a lot of them, over a dozen, all of them strutting down a big, long stage in the center of the room. Customers sat close to the platform and got to touch, and the strippers touched them back.
“Come on,” my coworker said, but I didn’t want anyone to touch me.
The coworker’s boyfriend sucked at her neck and then pulled her hand hard, drawing her closer to the stage. They took seats and sat relaxed, with their legs far apart. I hung in the back row alone next to a soda dispenser and a popcorn machine. Refreshments were free, a sign read, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to eat anything free and available to patrons touching thighs, breasts.
I was in a room with naked strangers. It felt strange, foreign. At first I pretended what I was seeing wasn’t real. These were just nymphs, imaginary women. But when one climbed a pole and then leaned backwards, her backbone inverting in a gorgeous arch, her breasts spilling out before her, I realized nothing about this was imaginary. These girls were real.
I stepped forward and sat before them along the stage. I put out a dollar. “Get Low” came on loud over the stereo, and the women dipped and rose fluidly. One woman caught my eye. It was in the way her breasts spilled from the top of her bra, the way her bellybutton was studded with a baby pink diamond. Suddenly I wanted her attention, her eyes on me, her body close to mine.
Other customers crept up beside me. They folded their dollars, too, and edged their chairs close. It felt like a competition, like something I could have if I truly tried. I sat back and crossed my legs. I uncrossed them. I’m more attractive than he is, I thought to myself, watching the man beside me heave, his belly thick and round and robust.
I didn’t like looking at him. I began to look at her. Tesla. Except she wasn’t Tesla then; she was just a redhead with a real pale body and long limbs. I watched her move, watched her body shape and take form. I watched her breasts sway, her thighs cross and uncross, her legs extend. I thought of things I had never thought about. I wondered if my thighs would look so good if I rubbed them down with lotion and walked in a dimly-lit room. They wouldn’t, I decided, not at all.
At last Tesla made her way to our part of the stage, and when she bent down to accept my dollar, she smiled and motioned. In that instant, I wanted nothing more than her sex, her secret. I wanted Tesla’s affection. I wanted her nipples on my tongue, the taste of her black cherry lotion, the scratch of glitter along my cheek. Everyone was a part of this, I decided, and I wanted in. I didn’t want to think about the stripper as a woman, someone with duties, someone with a boyfriend or a father or a child. I wanted only her skin, her touch, her affection. It bothered me when she said her name.
“Tesla,” she said, and though I knew it was fake, I didn’t want an identity.
“Sssh,” I wanted to say. “Let’s just enjoy this.” Instead, I put my tongue on Tesla’s breast. I wanted to taste her, push against something, taste what made her strong. I wondered if it might rub off on my tongue. I gave it a try. I ran my tongue up her navel and into the shallow spot between, put my lips on her nipple, sucked.
What I tasted was gummy, a filmy slip of satin skin, and it felt good, right, as if I had been brought to this place in this city in this state for a reason. She smiled, made a sound, leaned back. I sucked harder.
She leaned back again and smirked, laughed. She went to stand. I felt the void. It was as if I’d had a flame going inside me-something realized and then immediately extinguished. I thought about candles, the way the smoke curls after the wick has been wet.
“Wait,” I wanted to say, except I didn’t. Tesla had moved on, to another man, to another customer, to another dollar bill. I wasn’t kidding anyone. This was my first time. I looked at my shoes, caked in mud from the rain. Tesla was a stripper. The love I felt for her was imaginary in the way I wanted it to be.
I sat back in my chair. I looked out the window, at the wet, at the rain. I thought about the man in Boston a thousand miles east-imagined him sitting down to butternut squash gnocchi at Hearth or pouring a glass of wine with a name that took four syllables to say. It was raining there, I decided, and Boston smelled the way I hated: like wet dog, like diesel fuel. I thought about the new town, the fresh start, the storm raging above, about Nikola Tesla. He was involved with electricity.