She just stood in front of me and stared as if I were an apparition. I was sitting drinking coffee in a booth at the Utopia Diner. Outside the sun glowed brightly on 72nd Street, giving the May morning in New York a pastoral feeling. Her hair was longer than I remembered; it was ash blonde now and touching her shoulders. There were those same brown eyes that I loved, but her face seemed tired and a little pale.
“Michael?” she said, her voice so high it cracked.
At first, I felt happy to see her, a lover from the past—sixteen years and three thousand miles since the last time we had spoken. But then something changed. She slowly sank into the booth, not with surprised joy but with a wary defensiveness, as though she wanted to make sure the table was between us. Then she moved to the corner, as far away from me as possible. I asked if she wanted anything, and she ordered iced tea. We filled each other in. She was doing experimental theater. I was acting on a soap opera. She folded and re-folded her plastic straw, moving it through her fingers like a talisman. I stared at the water rings on the table. I felt the linoleum floor under my shoes.
“I can’t believe I’m seeing you. I just spoke to my therapist this morning about you.”
“Why would you talk about me to your shrink?”
She looked at me wide-eyed. “Because of what you did.”
Sharon and I had met in community college; we called it “high school with ashtrays.” I was just seventeen having graduated early from a high school where I never fit it in. At twenty-three she was a worldly-wise blonde stunner. We were in the theatre department—she had dreams of doing regional theater; I wanted to be a movie star. She had an apartment a few blocks from the college, and we spent our afternoons making love and doing scene readings. Of course, the age difference was significant, but my parents didn’t seem to think it was a big deal, and they understood I was crazy about her; they knew I wouldn’t give her up.
Sharon had spoken cryptically of her life; she had lived more on the edge than I ever had—a period of prostitution in San Francisco, a few times stripping to make ends meet. I was fascinated and a little aroused by her past because I felt it wasn’t her present. I told myself that those days were over now that we were exclusive.
One afternoon, we were sunbathing in worn metal lounge chairs after swimming in her apartment pool. We had been a couple for about four months. She asked what I really thought about women who performed in “exotic dance clubs.” I’d had a born-again Christian upbringing. I didn’t want to make her feel bad, so I told her people should be free to do what they wanted. But what I was really thinking was, that was a seedy way to make a living. She broached the news cautiously, “I need to make some money to pay the rent; I’m going to take a gig at the Pink Poodle. I’d feel better if you came with me.”
“I can give you money—you don’t have to do that,” I said. I was broke, but I had a vague sense that giving her money was better than entering this unknown scene.
“No, I don’t want to take money from you. This is better. I’d feel safer if you came with me.” She gazed at me in a tender way.
I said, “Sure, I’ll take you.”
I had been to a strip club in San Francisco once with a friend after seeing a porn movie at the O’ Farrell Theatre, and I hadn’t liked the experience. We were sixteen; I’m still amazed they let us in. Despite acting otherwise, I was insecure and intimidated by women fearlessly and openly showing their bodies. I could feel how much power they possessed on the stage and saw how the men seemed both mesmerized and submissive as they watched them dance. They competed for each dancer’s attention, and I could feel both my desire to be wanted by the dancer and my niggling disbelief that she would ever choose me to share her dance. I felt, at that early age, that I was being played—that my doubts about myself, my gut fear that I wasn’t an alpha male, were being used against me to make money.
The Pink Poodle was famous in our small town of San Jose in the 1970’s. The large building stood out on a strip of car dealerships and auto parts stores on a wide suburban street, a few blocks from downtown. The club was nestled next to an adult video store, and on its prominent circular neon sign a pink poodle with huge eyelashes and curled hair winked at the passing cars.
Sharon selected her outfit with care, asking my opinion on which panties I felt were the sexiest. I was pulled by jealousy and a hurt I felt so sharply it burned. I didn’t want to confess that this upset me. I wanted to support her, and I also wanted to tell her no, don’t do this. Don’t do this to me. I pointed to a pair of red flowered panties, and we drove to the club.
Inside the darkened club we were greeted by two heavy-set security guys who looked like brick walls wearing black short-sleeved shirts. They told us to speak to the “girl” at the cashier desk, and she would take Sharon back to the dressing room and get her set up. The “girl” turned out to be a fifty-something woman with a silver lamé halter top and lots of cleavage. She told me to sit in the back of the club and led Sharon through a black curtain.
The club was large and darkly lit, apart from the red stage lights that glowed like the tip of a cigarette. The stage was shaped like a T, with a central walkway extending from the center stage with seats along the edges, up close and personal. A wrinkled silver mylar curtain hung in the back. The mylar was cut into strips to create a stage entrance for the dancers. Two silver poles stood floor to ceiling on either end of the walkway. I sat in the back as instructed and ordered a twenty-dollar rum and coke. The club was half filled: some older blue-collar types, one or two guys in suits, and a group of three bikers at one table.
It was “amateur” night, and the announcer made a pitch to “give each girl a warm welcome.” Two strippers came out and did their routines to the sound of whistles and cat calls. They both seemed mechanical in their dancing, as if they were absentmindedly doing the steps and hip grinds. I watched with a kind of detachment and began to feel better; I thought, this won’t be so bad. I can watch my girlfriend dance naked in front of strangers—no big deal.
Then Sharon came out. She was focused on her choreography, which involved a small bar chair where she gyrated slowly as she stripped off her clothing. At first, she seemed tentative, but then she relaxed and gained a silkiness, as if enjoying the sensuality of her body, moving her hands to caress her breasts, her legs, and smiling seductively at the men surrounding the stage. She had a beautiful body with full breasts, and the bikers shouted their appreciation to her. Like a sandcastle hit by a lapping wave, I began to crumble inside myself. I felt all the blood go to my feet as anger and queasiness moved through me. Sharon grew more confident as the cat calls and shouts got louder, arching her back to the men so they could appreciate her from behind. Finally, she removed her panties by doing a leg kick sitting on the chair. At the end of her dance, she was completely exposed to the crowd; I bent over and stared at the floor.
On the drive back to her apartment, Sharon was excited, asking me about her choreography and what worked and didn’t, just like an audition for a Broadway musical. As she spoke it slowly dawned on me that she liked the whole experience. Her enthusiasm about the act was in stark contrast to my stinging jealousy and feeling broken. It was if I had sat and watched as all the men in the room had sex with her and she wanted a critique of the performance. Spirals of self-doubt moved through my intestines with a sense that she loved both the attention and the money, and she wouldn’t mind dancing again. A thought spun slowly in my mind and made me nauseous; I was afraid that she would take the step from stripping to prostitution to make money.
I hadn’t said much on the drive back to her apartment. She was so caught up in dissecting her performance, she didn’t seem to notice. But by the time we walked through her door, she could sense the withdrawal in my silence; “What’s wrong?” she asked.
“Why would I be angry? Just because I sat and watched my girlfriend get eye-fucked by a room full of strangers?”
“Don’t be like that. It doesn’t mean anything to me. It’s just a show.”
“Don’t act like this. The other dancers have boyfriends. They don’t act like this.” She went to her bedroom and slammed the door. I sat for a long time at her kitchen table. I remember wishing I didn’t feel the ache of insecurity and jealousy. I wished that I could be the kind of person who had no problem with having a partner strip for a living. But at that moment, I was a seventeen-year-old boy, and all I felt was anger and fear. Really, I was afraid that I wasn’t good enough to be loved by someone.
After an hour or so, I stood up. Sharon had given me the key to her apartment. I took it out of my pocket and left it on her table. She never heard me leave. We never spoke again until that day at the diner.
As she looked across the table at me, her eyes, like the sun moving through dark clouds, wavered from bitterness to sorrow, “What did I do that made you leave like that?”
I knew that at seventeen, I hadn’t had the emotional bandwidth to see my lover that way; going to the strip club with her was something I wasn’t ready to hold with grace. The sharp edge of loss cut into me as I gazed into those brown eyes, saddened that something cherished had been broken. But I didn’t tell her any of that. “I don’t know,” I said.
“Did you ever really love me?”
A long-forgotten ache entered me. Here was the woman I had held close as we lay in a mountain meadow, counting the constellations, the air smelling of pine and eucalyptus; the woman with whom I laughed so hard at Richard Pryor at the drive-in that we cried; the woman I watched walking across the college green, smiling at me while I stared in wonder and thought, I can’t believe she chose me.
“I loved you,” I said. She looked at me, and I could tell she didn’t trust me and wouldn’t forget the past. I grieved the loss of what had ended.
The May morning glowed as we walked out of the diner. She turned her face to me—quickly, bitterly and with scorn—and I recoiled slightly. She walked away from me silently and made her way down the crowded street. I watched her for as long as I could until she vanished in the crowd.
Michael Cannistraci’s essays essays have been published in Entropy Magazine, Literary Medical Messenger, The Evening Street Review, Bright Flash Literary Review, the Bangalore Review, The Dillydoun Review, East by Northeast, Stonecrop magazine, Hindsight Iris Literary Review and the 34th Parallel. He was finalist in the Pen2Paper Literary Contest and The Good Life Review Literary Contest (He/His/Him)