My first strip jobs were down in Chicago, secretarial pools and bachelorette parties where the girls squealed and ran their hands along my abs and up over my pecs. My old man would shit one of his very own bricks if he ever found out what I do. All my life he’s been saying, “Get an education. Move up. Don’t spend your life slinging bricks and mortar like me.” But it’s safer than my last job, as a bouncer; pays better, too. Before I started stripping, I was always behind on my med-school tuition.
Anyway, after working downtown awhile, I got a gig up on the North Shore, at one of those big brick-and-stone houses that look like some of the smaller buildings on campus. Nobody touched me at that party; nobody screamed or tried to dance with me. The women were as neat and trimmed as the hedge around the patio. They made little noises in their throats and tucked fives and tens in my G-string like party favors. The next week I got another job in the same neighborhood, and two more the week after that. Down at the agency, Bernie said, “You take care of that bricklayer’s bod. It’s bringing in the customers.” At home, Valerie counted my tips and said, “Honey, this is the way to pay for med school.” I said, “Baby, when we get out of this apartment, I’m going to buy you a real house, one with a built-in barbecue grill right next to the patio.”
“Tell me about it,” she said, taking off my coat and leading me to the shower to wash off the scented oil the agency gives me to wear.
Once, after going through some garden catalogs, Valerie said, “Do any of those houses have goldfish ponds? I’d like a goldfish pond.” She was the only one who thought I could get into med school. She went over every application with me and camped out at the mailbox until I got accepted. Over and over she said, “We’re going for the gold, big guy, and you are going to make it.” So as far as I’m concerned, if she wants a goldfish pond, she can have it.
The next Sunday, while I studied anatomy, Valerie looked through the real-estate section of the paper. “Listen to this,” she said: “ ‘New construction, three bedroom, two bath, his-and-hers walk-in closets, deck and outdoor spa.’ ”
“Is that like a hot tub?” I asked, and I told her about the pool behind a house where I’d worked the night before, how it had a little hot tub off to the side surrounded by big cement pots with flowers spilling out.
“I could do that,” she said. “I could plant some petunias and some geraniums. It’d be real pretty.”
One Sunday, she woke me up with coffee and chocolate-chip bagels, then brought me the suit I wore for my med-school interviews and said, “Here, put this on.”
“Why? Are we getting married?”
She swatted my butt and said, “You wish, big guy. When we tie the knot, the newspaper is going to say, ‘Mr. and Mrs. Nicholas Cortino announce the marriage of their daughter Valerie to Doctor Arthur Wazniak.’ ”
She drove us somewhere out I-90, took an unfamiliar exit, and finally pulled through a pair of stone gates that said “Sandrigham Estates” in iron letters. Damn if she didn’t have an agent all lined up with a list of homes for us to see. We drove down the street, past houses with roofs sticking out every which way, like little-bitty castles. “Not too many trees around here,” I said, thinking of the place on Lake Michigan where I’d worked the day before.
“So what are we,” Valerie said, “the Swiss Family Robinson?”
As the agent led us up a brick walk into a tiled front hall and through the empty rooms, I kept thinking of the houses where I had danced, with their fountains and long, sloping lawns and tennis courts. But those houses didn’t show up in the real-estate section.
So we go every couple of weeks now — a different agent, a different suburb. Valerie likes the northwest, where the houses are big and new, with vaulted ceilings and built-in sound systems. I keep wanting to go north, where the agents drive imported cars and tell you a house is old like that’s a good thing. Sometimes if the agent gets paged and leaves us alone, Valerie presses me up against the wall, bites my neck, and whispers fiercely, “Someday, this will be us.”
Now it’s the end of September, and I told Valerie we should skip the house shopping this weekend. I’ve only worked three parties on the North Shore this month. The last one was a pool party in the middle of the afternoon. Bernie handed me a bottle of Quick Tan and a fishing net. “Think Mediterranean,” he said. There was a band and a bar right out by the pool. The band let me put my tape in their deck; I drew a crowd.
In the middle of my act, two of the guys in the band walked up with the guest of honor balanced on their arms. She was so small, they could bounce her up and down. Her hair was dark with a white streak through it that began right at her forehead. She laughed as they tossed her up in the air, trying to scare her. Reaching down from her perch, she plucked the fisherman’s net off my shoulder. “Help me catch him, boys!” she cried, spreading the net wide. Her bright green swimsuit and the white streak in her hair made her look like a mermaid. The crowd was laughing and cheering her on; I made a low, hip-swinging move and let the mermaid catch me. I’ll see her again, I thought. I’ll see all of them. Summer after summer, they’ll want me back. Then, after my residency, they’ll come to my office for the same reason they asked Bernie specifically for me: because of the way my body moves; because they think I understand them in a way their husbands can’t.
I made $163 in tips that day. To celebrate, I stopped on the way home and bought Valerie a suit just like the one the mermaid had on, bright green with a strap over one shoulder and see-through fabric around the middle. It took most of the cash I had to pay for it. When I got home, Valerie took it out of the box and said to herself, “Girl, I see a house with a pool in your future.” Then she pulled the tie of her halter top loose and slowly changed into the suit while I watched.
But that was three weeks ago.
“What happened to your fan club?” Bernie at the agency asked the other day.
“You tell me,” I said, like it was no big deaL
“Aw, it’s seasonal,” he said. “Just wait till the holidays.”
Maybe he was right. I’ve got another job on the lake tonight, not a holiday party, of course, just another birthday, but I’m wired anyway. I crank the radio up loud and drum my fingers on the steering wheel as I drive. The agency’s directions take me past a couple of streets where I’ve worked before. Then I make a right at a stop sign, and I’m in new territory.
I count the brass and wrought-iron numbers until I come to a tall stone house on a big spread. A golden retriever trots down to the end of the front walk. Just about every job I’ve worked around here, there’s a golden retriever — you’d think they come with the house. This dog is bigger than most, barrel-chested and fluffy. He stops just before he gets to the driveway and stands there wagging his tail, here to please, not to protect. He’s wearing one of those radio shock collars that keep dogs inside some invisible boundary. You see a lot of those around here, too: the dog gets too close to the edge of the yard and the thing beeps a warning at him; if he keeps going, the little brown box on his collar gives him a good jolt. You’d think people with this kind of money would put up a decent fence instead of zapping their dog, but not many do.
Through the storm door I can see a silky blue banner that says “Happy Birthday” draped across the long hall, and balloons climbing the banister. I ring the bell and hear laughter. A tall blonde comes to the door with a glass of white wine in her hand. “May I help you?” she says in a voice that knows it’s polite. It doesn’t look like she’s the one who called the agency; if she’s the hostess, things could get a little tricky.
“I have a message for the birthday girl,” I say.
“Oh,” she says, “like a singing telegram or something? I love it.” Without waiting for me to answer, she steps back and ushers me into the creamy hallway as if I’m a guest. “No, Chet,” she says to the dog when he tries to slip in with me.
I look around, making a mental list of things to tell Valerie about when I get home. There’s an oriental rug on the floor, which I see just in time to keep from wiping my feet on it. Paintings hang one above the other all the way down the hall, and a tall, blue vase with no flowers in it sits alone on a table.
The blonde is looking me up and down, checking out my scrubs and white coat and stethoscope. “So, you’re a doctor?” she asks.
“Not yet,” I say. “Still in school.”
She laughs at this. They always do.
“Where’s the birthday girl?” I ask, and she points me toward the living room, which is as big as our whole apartment. The women look like decorations, perched on sofa arms and window seats. There are maybe thirty of them; smaller than most parties. I start to worry about tips. They stop talking when I walk by. The one who’s turning forty is sitting with her presents at her feet and a friend bending over her, writing down the gifts. She looks up just as someone murmurs, “Was there an accident?”
“Hello,” I say, making long, steady eye contact. I swing the stethoscope back and forth across my chest.
“Hello,” she says, then looks past me at the hostess for an explanation.
I hand her my card, which says I am “Dr. Adonis.” “Happy birthday,” I say. Then I kneel down to open my black bag and pull out my tape player. She jerks her feet away from me, keeping them crossed at the ankles. “Don’t worry,” I say, “I’m a very gentle doctor.”
“Oh, no,” says a voice at the far end of the room. Someone always has to act prissy in the beginning; the rest of the group will bring her around. The music thumps out of the tape player. I stand up and say, “First, we have to check your pulse.” I take the birthday girl’s wrist and push back her gold bracelet. She doesn’t resist, but turns to the circle of women and says, “Who did this? Whose idea was this?” It’s hard to get a real pulse with my hips moving, but I like to try. I watch the seconds tick by on my watch. “Nice and healthy,” I say, then I kiss the air above her hand and put it back on the chair arm. (Most guys, even the private-school types in my classes, think you kiss a woman’s hand, but you don’t — you kiss the air above her hand. I read it in Miss Manners.)
I’ve got a good rhythm going now, keeping the energy rolling as I go through my moves. I drop the white coat off my shoulders and let it slide down my back, onto the floor. The birthday girl watches it go, and someone behind me says, “Oh my God, he’s going to strip.” You wouldn’t believe how often someone says that. It’s a joke between Valerie and me: “Oh my god,” she says when I start taking off my clothes to come to bed. “He’s going to strip.”
The birthday girl sits as straight as the queen of England. Sometimes the client gets angry or embarrassed, but this one has no expression at all. I wink to let her know it’s nothing serious, just a little birthday fun. Still no reaction. So I pick up her hand again and wrap the rubber tubing of my stethoscope around her wrist, and around mine. Then I thrust our two arms up. It’s a classic dance move; you see it in everything from old Fred Astaire movies to any of the clubs downtown. Plus, I look good this way; it gives my deltoids definition. The tape hits the first drum solo and I flex-release, flex-release, right along with the beat. Someone makes an appreciative “hmmm.” For a minute I think I’m doing just fine; then I see the birthday queen is looking right past me. She frees herself with a neat twist of her wrist. No one has ever done that before, so quickly, with so little fuss. It throws me off for a second. I have to reestablish my rhythm.
At most parties, women clump together and twitter behind their hands, watching me from under their bangs or out of the corner of an eye. But not one woman here is looking at me. They’re all sitting with their knees together, talking that way women talk, their heads bent toward each other, lips barely moving. They remind me of the popular girls in high school, the ones who had secret rules that constantly changed so that no one else could figure them out.
Once I’ve got my rhythm back, I turn to face the birthday queen and rip the Velcro seams of my scrub pants wide open. There is a sound of women sucking in their breath behind me. I start the long, low swinging back and forth.
“Oh, gross,” someone says.
“Who brought this in?”
The birthday girl gives the room a chilly look, like a regular ice queen, looking for the offender. But then she picks up one of the packages from the stack beside her chair, holds it across her lap, and opens the card. “It’s from Kathy,” she says, and tries to hand the card past me to her friends.
Thinking, She is going to kill this job for me, I take the card from her hand, tuck it in my G-string, and swing my way around the circle of women. The first one I come to is tucked into the corner of a velvet sofa, just about eye level with the card. She covers her eyes with one hand and shooes me away with the other.
“I think he likes you,” says the woman next to her.
“I don’t believe this,” the first one says to her lap.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” the Ice Queen says, and for a minute I think she’s going to ask me to leave. Instead, she says, “Girls, look at this.”
Every one of them looks right past me to watch Madam Ice Queen slip a pale blue scarf around her shoulders. “Perfect,” she says.
“Isn’t it darling?” they say, and, “Look at that,” and, “It even goes with your outfit.”
Whoever arranged for me to come here ordered the deluxe package, a full ten minutes of entertainment, but the tape has just gotten to the sax solo, which means I’ve barely gone four. Unless someone asks me to leave, I have to fulfill the contract. I can’t tell Bernie I left early because the guest of honor was opening presents. Odds are, whoever paid for me is in the room. Twice, I’ve turned bad jobs around by finding the guilty one and getting her in on the act. I start to work my way around the room, trying to make eye contact with each woman. The first is showing her neighbor her watch, saying, “It’s Russian. When have you ever seen anything from Russia? I bought four because I thought they’d make such clever gifts.” I keep moving. A woman in a white jacket with bows on it says, “. . . absolutely the best instructor. My game has improved three strokes. And cute.” Another present gets passed around right in front of me, to lots of oohs and aahs; it’s a flowerpot full of white gravel. “You just have to water it,” says the woman who gave the gift.
Two girls in catering uniforms come in carrying plates of food and a basket of rolled napkins. They stop, wide-eyed, in the doorway and start to leave, but the Ice Queen tells them to come ahead. “You can start serving on this side of the room,” she says, which is right where I’m working. The girls skitter by. “And you,” the Ice Queen says, meaning me. “Make yourself useful.” The girl with the napkins giggles and hands me the basket. I take this as a good sign. Some customers just need to feel in control; “dominant dames,” Bernie calls them. Maybe the Ice Queen is finally getting into the act. I hook the basket over my arm and take two plates from a girl just coming in from the kitchen.
That’s when I see the mermaid from the pool party. Her hair’s not as dark when it’s dry — it’s more of a reddish brown — but the white streak is a dead giveaway, flaring up from her face like a comet. I wonder how I’ve missed her until now. I think of how the crowd loved me at that party, how they laughed when the net settled over my shoulders and she pulled it tight. I think of the tips. With an eager little bounce, I swing over to where the mermaid sits by a window full of waxy flowers, doing her best not to smile. Leaning in close to hand her a plate of food, I say, “Sorry I didn’t bring my net.”
“Maureen,” the Ice Queen says, “are you two friends?”
The mermaid’s expression changes suddenly. “No, I wouldn’t say that.” She grabs the plate so hard that for a second I can feel the rhythm of my movements pass through the china and into her hand. Then she twists the plate away and says, “I’d like a little more wine, too, please.”
“Sure, baby,” I say. “I’m here to serve.” And because this woman has brought me luck before, I reach out and playfully touch the white streak of hair that shimmered in the sunlight by the pool.
Instantly the music stops. I turn and see the Queen handing my tape player to the hostess. Then she rises from her chair — she’s almost as tall as I am — and says across the silence, “I’m sorry, but this is just not your sort of party.”
Before I can stop myself, I say, “But I’ve been here before” — which is not technically true, but it might as well be.
The hostess comes forward, holding my scrubs at arm’s length, and says, “You’ll need a place to change.”
But I do not take the clothes. Instead, I say, “You know, I am in medical school. I will be a doctor. Do you know what it costs to become a doctor? Do you know anything at all?”
My voice is quiet, but I have everyone’s complete attention. For a minute, no one moves. Then the mermaid stands up, takes my scrub pants from the hostess, and fastens the Velcro at my waist. The birthday card is still in my G-string, and I am holding a plate and the basket of napkins. The mermaid’s square red nails press the Velcro together down the side of one leg, then the other. Another woman comes forward and puts my stethoscope back around my neck. Two more take the plate and the basket out of my hands. They drape my white coat around my shoulders, careful never to touch me.
When they are done, the hostess leads me down the hall, past her private art gallery, toward the door. The golden retriever gets up from his place on the porch when he sees us coming, flattens his ears against his head, and wags his tail hopefully. As the hostess holds open the storm door to the chilly afternoon beyond, the dog pushes his nose past my leg, but she says, “No, Chet,” and he backs away.
Chet follows me down the steps, down the long brick walk, but when we reach the edge of the driveway, he hears the warning beep from his shock collar — a sound pitched too high for me to hear — and he stops right where he’s supposed to.