A year ago today, a Polaroid photograph was taken of me wearing a pink lycra and spandex bandage mini-dress. I only got to see it once but I remember being pleasantly surprised that even though I smiled big, my face hadn’t scrunched up and away from the kind of sex appeal I sought in this particular case. The photo was to go in my file as I auditioned for a job at a strip club in midtown Manhattan that I desperately did not want to take but would have been devastated if it wasn’t offered to me. I always did best when I smiled big because it made the men there think I was really having a good time. I passed muster and began work that very night. I took this photo earlier in the day when I was practicing at home:
I was owed thousands of dollars in freelance money, mostly from copywriting jobs and a handful of low-paid media ones when I ran out of Abilify, an anti-psychotic drug that I use to treat bipolar disorder. Uninsured and sinking into a depressive state, I started down the $880 price and knew that even if all the jobs I applied to called and made offers, I wouldn’t see money for another two weeks at least. And those jobs weren’t calling anyway. Abilify wouldn’t be generic for another six months and I could see myself slipping into the same suicidal despair that put me in Bellevue the year prior before that happened. But I can walk into a strip club and start making money that same day and so that’s what I did.
After my audition, I was in the dressing room getting more glammed up for my shift than was required to audition and a bubbly day shift blond in an American flag bandana approached me. She said, “Didn’t you just audition? It’s my first day too. You’re gonna do great cause there are like, no American girls and guys really like us. So you’ll do awesome!” She skipped out the door and on her way, apparently unaware of the dozen or so Russian women sitting around getting ready whose value she dismissed and made me look like a similarly over-confident slimeball.
One woman with long black hair, a thick Russian accent, and an ass that could solve the Euro Crisis kept staring in the mirror as she put on her make-up and said, “Somebody thinks she’s better than everyone else, hmmmm,” in an ominous sing-song way that I remain certain was a curse on both me and Bandana Jones because it was the worst club experience of my life. The night I quit, zero men tipped me after their lap dances that night, I had been thrown on the ground by a Norwegian man expecting a hand job on the dance floor, my tongue had swelled up and I had a fever of 103 from a nutritional deficiency I had developed from bad hours and bad eating trying to find a straight job and work at the club at the same time. I went home and just never bothered to show up again.
It was a year ago today that I started at a club in an industry I didn’t want to work in anymore. Today, I am in Paris writing my first book, a collection I sold to a Big Five publisher imprint for a generous sum with the help of an incredible agent and an insanely supportive and nurturing editor. I was hired at a major media company and left it when I realized it wasn’t for me. I started reporting science and technology stories when I thought I’d write personal essays forever. I fell in love and out again. I bought a fancy mattress and might buy a house in the Catskills in the next year. I’ve written stories that resonate with people enough that they send me very kind emails telling me that I should keep writing but that say to me, “You deserve to live,” which it is sometimes hard to say to myself.
The point of all this is not that I escaped the snares of the lurid adult industry and lived happily ever and to not become a stripper because someone might put a hex on you. The problem was not that I was a stripper but that I was unhappy being one at that particular juncture in my life. And as a writer now, I still get stories rejected and I get profoundly mean emails from readers and I still have to take Abilify so I don’t surrender to the alluring whispers from the Brooklyn Bridge that I could always just jump if the weight of myself got too much to carry around.
I just want people to know that a year is not the blink of an eye we are so often told it is because it feels like a lifetime ago that I was on that stage in that pink dress. I want people to know that they should remove the “just” from, “I’ll just stick it out another year” when they stay in jobs and cities and relationships they have the means but not the will to leave. There is nothing small or insignificant about a single year when you’re using every minute of it to claw your way out of whatever dull ache or crushing boredom or entrenched despair is plaguing you. If I had never gone into that club, I would not have made the money I needed to get my Abilify that gave me the stability and energy to follow up more assertively after job interviews and land the job that generated the kind of attention and opportunities I needed to get where I am today. That is Paris, by the way, if I hadn’t mentioned before what a cozy little bitch I am being right now.
When I got home tonight, I took this photo of myself in a black bodycon dress from American Apparel. I am not smiling big in it not because I am unhappy but because I think I look most like myself when my smile is at half-mast, not having to convince anyone what a good time I’m really having.
Originally posted on Alana Massey’s personal website here.