Lea didn’t visit the strip club to watch the women. She went to watch the men, watching the women. The club was tucked in an unexpected corner, wedged between a health store and a late-night copy shop. It was marked with a withering neon green arrow reminiscent of the days when gentlemen’s entertainment lived mostly on stage. Now, the club barely filled half the seats and most nights, when Lea took the subway across town to watch, she felt like she was witnessing an extinction. More and more men stayed home to see strangers writhe on their computer screens. The clubs struggled to coax them out.
She brought with her the smallest sketch book she could find and a few charcoal pencils she slid up her sleeve at the wrist. This was her portfolio project, one that three of her professors had advised against. It wasn’t wise, they told her, to go out in the field this way and try to capture people. None openly said it was beneath her, but their sneers spoke clearly and Lea avoided looking them in the eye whenever the senior art majors met each week. But a fourth professor dared her to do it. He said if she could find the moment these men lost themselves in the fantasy, she’d be a genius. A groundbreaker. Lea didn’t want to be a genius. She wanted the challenge of drawing something fleeting, something foreign. And to her, capturing that intimacy on canvas would be like bottling lightning. Her final project, a full sketch of a club, would be a triumph.
Drawing the women on stage would be easy. All she had to do was shed her own clothes at home and watch herself in the mirror hanging from the back of her bathroom door. She jotted down how her body arched and where muscles folded in on themselves. Lea was muscular and curved, through no action or design of her own. Genetics were funny that way, and she had the right type of body for this. And even if she hadn’t, the art department kept a host of students who earned money by modeling, clothed or not. Lea marveled at how the same action, of taking off clothes and posing in front of others, could read so differently depending on if you were in a university studio or downtown.
Her first night at the club, the bouncer seemed to mistrust her because he saw she wasn’t watching the show. Lea dressed invisibly, not baring her breasts like the women on the stage or hiding in a suit with her hair wrapped up in a cap, pretending to be a man. She dressed simply in jeans and a flannel, her blonde hair braided to one side, sitting across her shoulder. Twice the bouncer stood directly behind her, his shadow eclipsing the pages in her sketchbook. On her third visit he finally sat down next to her and talked to her as if they’d been friends or enemies for some time.
“This isn’t fall. It’s still boiling outside,” he complained, wiping his forehead. When he spoke, his uneven lips gapped at odd places. “Cigarette?”
He offered her one but she held up her hand like she was stopping a taxi.
“No smoking in here anyways, but I get privileges. My wife hates the smell, though. She tells me she’ll kick me out if I get that stink on our baby girl. And she means in.”
He balanced the cigarette between his lips, then shrugged and put it back in his jacket pocket. Lea noticed more hidden pockets on the inside, one with a gun leaning to the left.
“Have you ever used it?” she asked, understanding he was the gatekeeper to her staying or going, and so far he’d been pleasant to her, so she offered him a conversation.
“Once,” he told her.
“Did you kill them?” She closed her sketchbook for a minute and wanted to hear the story, not just the answer.
“Dunno. They took him away in an ambulance and called his wife. So maybe the bullet killed him, or maybe she did because he was shot in a strip club. Nobody had the courtesy to tell me.”
He left Lea alone the rest of the night after she ordered a drink, and even though she turned back and watched the men in front of her, she found herself swiveling frequently to see the bouncer. He never stopped moving, and soon his motions synced with the music coating the walls like paint and Lea wondered if that just happened. If anyone working in the club that long would find themselves dancing in time even if they didn’t like the music.
The men bent over at their tables, though, didn’t move at all. They were transfixed by the women on the stage. Some men were bold and slipped a hand beneath the table, moving then. Nobody was interested in anyone else, and Lea realized they were all invisible, eclipsed by the lights and the rhythm at the front of the club.
She’d never been in a place like this before, but she knew it well all the same. Her mother had worked at one in Missouri, but it was upscale and no one ever took off anything below the waist. Men couldn’t touch, and the customers were referred to as gentlemen and paid a hundred dollars just to enter. Lea knew because her mother needed someone to talk to in the morning over breakfast, so instead of discussing Lea’s homework or the state of the world, her mother told her about the men. Some were regulars and earned names. Others were faceless, nameless guys, unless they did something awful. One man grabbed her mother’s nipples and called her a whore, three times. He got his own special name that made Lea nauseous when she remembered it.
“Then change jobs,” Lea told her mother when she was old enough to understand the idea of free will. “It sounds dangerous.”
“You just worry about school. I’ll worry about my job. And together we’ll worry about how to eat all of these pancakes.”
It didn’t matter how late she got back, Lea’s mom cooked a full breakfast wearing her long blue terrycloth robe and took her daughter to school, both girls looking neat and happy. Lea wasn’t allowed to leave the house unless she was smiling, and it had to be a real smile. Or else her mother would keep her home and ignore her exhaustion to make Lea’s day better.
If her mother knew that she was going to a club now, she’d turn in her grave. Lea didn’t believe that the dead watched over the living. It would be too painful, like running into the love of your life with another woman or holding your dog as it died. When Lea thought about her mother, she imagined her off somewhere green and lush, tropical maybe. But Lea tried not to think of her mother too often, either. Too painful.
Lea got home from the club between one and two a.m., and she had to draw because the faces were fresh in her head. She transferred her sketches to the canvas that swallowed her dining table. Luckily no one visited her at her apartment, so she didn’t have to worry about hiding her work or being judged.
By sunrise she needed sleep and started skipping 8 a.m. astronomy because she could see stars when she shut her eyes and needed the rest. Her grades were strong the first half of the semester so she could sacrifice for this project and become nocturnal.
Her fourth trip to the strip club, she sat near the stage and considered sitting with one of the men but changed her mind when the bouncer followed her and shook his head. Suddenly he’d become her bouncer, and so she sat off to the side and arranged two vodka tonics to hide what she was sketching. Two of the women noticed her this time, and one even danced towards her, raising an eyebrow until she realized Lea wasn’t interested. Out of respect Lea stood and placed twenty dollars on the edge of the stage. She remembered her mother’s words, that single bills were cheap and offensive. Larger bills weren’t coveted because of the value. They mattered because it was a vote of confidence in one shot, saying that one sway of the hips was worth everything.
“You’re good.” The bouncer caught her on the way out. “Your drawings are like faded photographs. Can I see? I’ll walk you to the subway.”
Lea balled her hands into fists in her pockets, unnerved he knew her route.
“Have you been following me?”
“No. I live by the subway. I saw you the other day. We just need to duck into the grocery for formula. Then I’ll walk you down, and I can look at your work.”
“Because I need protection?” Lea felt judgmental but she didn’t imagine him an art critic. Although she hadn’t imagined him a father, either.
“Because I like company,” he said, disappearing into the grocery and emerging with two canisters. “You carry them, OK? The store barely makes ends meet, so I don’t ask for a bag,” he said, grinning. “But I don’t want the regulars to think I’m soft.”
Lea held them the way she carried cans of paint in and out of the art wing of Drayer Hall. The road was too dry and dusty, mingled with trash. The two walked in silence while he flipped through her sketchbook. He hadn’t said he’d wanted conversation. He’d just said company, and she appreciated steps echoing hers. When they arrived at the subway, they traded their responsibilities as she retrieved her sketchbook and handed the formula back to him.
At home she smeared the charcoal on her hands and dragged out the bags beneath the men’s eyes. She debated and finally added the man who always masturbated when his favorite woman performed. Lea blushed when she drew his eyes rolling back into his head like slot machines and wondered if the woman on stage was aware of what he was doing, if she felt a surge of power or was disgusted by it. That was something her mother never told her. Feelings other than exhaustion were off limits. Lea guessed her mother never wanted her to know how it felt to dance at the club, but she also never hid her profession from Lea either.
“Tell your friends I’m a performer if you want to, and leave it at that,” she’d say. And Lea would nod and listen.
Her mother’s words enjoyed a rebirth as Lea visited the club, and it was unsettling to her so she decided to take a break for a week to finish her composition. She kept a nocturnal routine, missing classes and spending each day covered with a fine film of charcoal. Standing lamps made sunlight unnecessary. All she knew was that she had to finish.
On the ﬁfth night, she lost track of what day it was. A knock at the door reminded her there was a world beyond the canvas. An invasive world.
“We were worried. No one had heard from you.” Her art professor leaned against the doorframe squinting at her.
Lea covered her messy appearance with her arms, embarrassed she was in pajamas and worried he’d tracked down her address—sometimes the senior art majors invited the professor to house parties, but she had never hosted before. Her work wasn’t ready yet, but there the canvas sat in the middle of everything. She wanted to tell him to leave but the words wouldn’t form under his gaze.
“I’m fine. I mean, I’m sorry I skipped your class. I’ve just been working.”
“Make it up to me, then. Show me.” In class, his voice was soft and accommodating. In her apartment it surrounded her.
Lea was nauseous and wished the club’s bouncer was there because he’d become her bouncer and could protect her. They stood frozen for moments before she finally motioned for him to come in, hoping once he had seen the piece, he would be satisfied and go.
The professor followed her to the canvas and leaned across her shoulder, like her braid, to take in everything. He traced the curves of the people with his eyes, gripping her waist at one point until she moved away, only he’d gotten hold of her and pressed himself into her, unready to break from what was in front of him.
“This is so real,” he breathed, and she didn’t know if he meant the men on the canvas or the dancers because all of the women’s backs defied the audience. It wasn’t that Lea didn’t want to give the women faces. She wanted to protect their privacy. Their dignity. From men like the professor.
Lea felt him harden behind her but noticed that he only moved when she did. If she stopped struggling, he stayed still, tight against her. If she resisted he moved with her so Lea stood paralyzed. She’d thought he was attractive in the studio, but now he was gruesome. Lea thought about her mother because it was a better type of painful to endure until the professor released her after quietly moaning in her ear like a nightmare that wouldn’t let go.
“I’d like to stay,” he breathed. “Your bedroom.” It wasn’t a question or seduction. It was a destination.
Lea backed away and reached for her cell phone. The professor held the edge of the canvas for a moment, and Lea worried he was going to take it with him, but he finally left, never taking his eyes from her art. It was like a porn movie in the background, and he had just wanted Lea’s body to help appreciate it. Lea slumped down onto the floor against the table and slept that way, in an ell, ignoring the composition for three days. She even tucked away her sketchbook and now attended every class except art. In astronomy she felt comforted by the way the constellations watched her back at night. Her art friends hunted her down and cajoled her to come back to class. The professor, six days later, sent a note saying she should change projects and that hers wasn’t right. He told her she’d missed the point, and it was an immature interpretation. That note made her return to the club one last time to verify with her own eyes that she’d been right and the professor was wrong. The note also made her drop his class even though she’d lose money and credit.
“I thought we’d lost you.” The bouncer had freshly shaved his head and wore a heavier jacket. The weather was finally cooperating with fall.
“Do you want to know why I’m here?” Lea asked him.
“No. Do you want to tell me?”
She shook her head and took a seat at the very back. Suddenly the club felt dangerous, even with the bouncer there.
“I’m Lea.” She put out her hand weeks late but the bouncer shook his head.
“I can’t touch you unless you bother the girls.”
Lea knew when he said “girls” he meant he would protect them the way he would protected his daughter at home, so she didn’t jump at him for not calling them women.
“Come sit up front. You know the men, but don’t you want to know the performers?”
Lea thought about her mother and the other dancers who had visited sometimes. Lea knew those women, and now she knew the men who gawked. Because one had been in her apartment.
“I’m good here.”
That last night she visited, she stopped watching the men and instead turned to the performers, wondering how they took clothes off below the waist and never worried that one of the men would charge the stage. Lea wondered how many of them had children at home, and if they did, did they discuss the things they saw or did they pretend that in the dark none of this counted, the way in the middle of the night in her apartment her professor had imagined nothing counted. Lea found herself shaking at the table and got up abruptly, not caring how any of the men looked anymore. She rushed down the street and heard feet behind her.
“I don’t need company,” Lea said.
But when she turned it wasn’t the bouncer. One of the women from the stage deftly navigated the road, wrapped in the bouncer’s jacket.
“You left your book. Reggie sent me after you.” She paused. “And he wanted me to see if you were OK. Here.”
She handed Lea a card with Reggie’s name and a phone number scratched beneath.
“He’s a good guy. He wouldn’t mess with you or anything, but he worries when people disappear. He keeps track of all of us, and if the owner gets out of hand, he says something.”
Even under the jacket, the woman’s costume glittered through. It reminded Lea of the constellations, of Orion’s belt splashed across her chest.
“My mother was an entertainer, too,” Lea said cautiously.
“You mean a stripper?”
“Yeah, and she was a good mom.” Lea felt foolish adding the last bit, but it needed to be said.
The woman nodded and smiled, fresh lipstick cutting through the night.
“Why wouldn’t she be? You take care.”
Lea watched the woman cross the road with her high heels and finally returned to the subway, studying each building on the way and wondering where Reggie’s wife and baby were waiting for him, and if he would tell his daughter as she got older and wondered where he was all night just what he did. Or like the art where Lea hid the women’s faces, would he keep their privacy and just lie and say he worked construction.
At home she stood the picture up and realized that it had been done for days. She’d have to bring it to the University and display it for the department to graduate. She’d be in the room with the Professor who liked her work too much and the others who had told her it was misguided. No one would ever know that each of the naked bodies on the canvas were really her body and the men actually existed in this dying city. Somewhere. She’d taken it to heart years ago when the professors told all of the anxious new majors that the only way art worked was if it were personal and they found the power in a story to tell it properly.
Lea sprayed the canvas the next morning to fortify all of the pencil marks, and she called her friend Luis to bring over his pickup truck to help her drive it to Drayer Hall. She dragged the work up two flights of stairs to the senior gallery for the world to see, good idea or not. She’d call Reggie and let him know where it was, because she had a feeling he was one of the few who could appreciate what she’d captured.Sarah Clayville is a teacher and freelance editor in Pennsylvania. She has work published in The Threepenny Review, Literary Orphans, The Bookends Review, and other journals.