by TENEA D. JOHNSON
Strip clubs aren’t my thing. But my girlfriend, Luz, asked me to come on her first night. She wanted me to be there for the performance, her pièce de résistance in exploring exhibitionistic sensuality, as she put it. Luz had tried to get me to come for a private session in the back room of the porn shop where she, and several other of my fellow students, pulled in a grand a week as lingerie models. I never went. Stories about lotion bottles and boxes of Kleenex kept me away. But tonight was special she said. And she was my first girlfriend. Smart in the all the right places and sexy in all the others, just what I needed after eighteen years of yearning. So I decided to go.
When I got there it felt a bit classier than I expected. Instead of guitar rock, soft jazz flowed over the walnut and brass bar. The walls were textured ochre, and the air was clear; only a solitary tendril of smoke glowed in the amber lighting. And the men: no droves of men wearing big, dumb smiles like I’d imagined. Some of them even looked nervous—especially when they saw me. Whoever said women came to these places had never been to Delights.
Luz must have told the bouncers about me ‘cause I didn’t have to pay a cover; they just swept me through to the hostess, a thin brunette. She led me to a small table upfront, right next to the splatter glass. Before I could ask, a waitress appeared at my elbow with a glass of white wine and a fresh peach, sliced into eighths. For a skin joint, the service was surprisingly good.
Emptiness filled the stage. I must have shown up between shows. I flagged the waitress down and asked when Ms. Tique, Luz’s alter ego, would perform. I had another twenty minutes to wait so I pushed the wine away, pulled out my sketchbook and pencil. Too nervous to work, I watched a man clean the stage in long slow arcs. When he finished, the house lights dimmed.
Luz took the stage. Goddammit—she was playing my song. I never bought the CD so that every time I heard it would be a special occasion, and now it blasted through the speakers, funking the joint up and searing into my memory as something now forever grotesque. I wanted to close my eyes and just listen, let it be that shiny penny on the sidewalk, but I couldn’t and so it became the soundtrack to this:
Luz in her black leather bodice, wide hips swaying to the wah wah, loosely-closed fists popping open when the high hat hits, her whole body dedicated to the rhythm of “Tell Me Something Good.” She seems longer than her six feet as she unrolls her limbs, snakes her hands high into the air. She brings her arms down before the chorus, grabs the bodice and rips it open just as Chaka does the same with the song.
And Luz is topless and I hate everyone else in this room.
I jerk my head around to catch them leering at her. But they’re not; they look bored. The man at the table next to mine lazily swirls his drink with a straw and only intermittently brings his attention to the stage. Others lean closer to the splatter glass, elbows propped on their tables, but even they are waiting for something more. I turn back to the stage.
Then Luz starts stripping and the men come alive. The skin on her forearms goes first. She peels it like overripe fruit, blood and gunk dripping onto the floor. Hooting and catcalls drown out the song. I’m locked into her eyes, looking for signs of pain. Her lip trembles, but that’s all. She rakes her thumbs across her collarbone and a line of blood beads out, starts to stream down her breasts. That’s when I think I’m gonna be sick, but I grip the table and hold on. She’s staring at me just as hard as I’m looking at her and I think if I lose it, she will and it’ll just be gore. Not this special thing she’s been pumping her body full of chemicals for, not a pièce de résistance at all. So I hold on to the table and look her in the eye. That’s when she smiles and starts walking toward me, pulling the skin of her right hand off like a glove. She stops just before the splatter glass, leaving a trail behind her. Another woman comes up from behind and brings a razor to Luz’s back, carving off the first layer. I can’t see it happen, but I see the other woman lay strips of Luz across her forearm as she works.
And in that five minutes it takes my song to play in a place I never wanted to go, Luz is laid absolutely bare: the fat of her breasts glistening, her veins pulsing, her muscles seeping. Everything moving out from her heart. And it is beautiful.
She keeps her face, and partly, I think she does this for me.