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The room is filled with low hanging fog from cigar smoke and the last dance number stage effects. An atmosphere of unfulfilled desires, leering lust and barely contained anticipation for the next performance is sizzling among the patrons, who are gulping their drinks, waving for another glass. The tray feels slippery and heavy in my arms as I tread between the tables towards the front of the stage.
The club is nearly full tonight, well-known regulars intermixed with new unfamiliar faces. The latter are the ones that keep us on edge—there is always someone who is here for the first time and doesn't know the rules or simply doesn't care to follow them. Their wandering hands would find a way to grab a feeling between a server's tights or on their ass when we bend you over to collect a glass or hear the order over the beating music. Most of the time it's not a problem, unless you trip and fall, toppling the entire tray on the one acting like a bitch in heat. It's always purely accidental, promise.
The brief lull is suddenly interrupted by Jack' s voice, announcing the next performer. That what's one of the club most strictly enforced rules—there are no strippers here, they're performers. They may dance for the enjoyment of the crowd and allow you to stick bills down their thongs, but you don't own them, you only pay for the illusion they sell.
"Tonight, for your pleasure and your pleasure only, please welcome the snake charmer that will make all the pythons in the room stand in attention, our very own genie, Jamal!"
The music changes from the low indistinct guitar to an exotic beat you could feel humming in your very bones. I'm just about to roll my eyes on Jack—that was corny as hell but they seem to be eating it all up. The stage is shrouded in darkness for a moment before Michael, pardon me, Jamal slinks towards the pole. The ray of sunshine-like light makes his tanned skin glow like flowing honey over his bunching muscles while he is twisting and slowly turning. It's mesmerizing if you're seeing it for the first time, and he doesn't lose his allure the second or the third. I stop to admire the vision he weaves before I look around for the next customer and see him. He is one of the regulars, always sitting alone on a table on the second row before the stage. He never makes lurid comments inviting you to sit in his lap or expect you to fall on your knees for him as some people do. He is looking at the stage with lazy eyes, but there's something melancholic in the downturn of his mouth.
Someone taps me on the shoulder.
"Dominic is asking for you."
I turn around towards the direction of Andy's hand. Dominic is waiting for me near the back of the stage. Andy takes the tray from my hands and hurries me along.
Dominic cuts a towering figure in the conservative suit chosen for tonight. Most days the club owner looks more likely to fit in a meeting room or a court hearing. I asked once in the very beginning and got the most bizarre of answers:
"Don't dress the way people expect you to, dress as how you see yourself."
"I need you on the stage tonight," I hear even before I fully reach them. That makes me frown.
"You know I don't dance."
"Tonight you do."
"May I know why?" I'm trying very hard to keep the meek voice even if I'm itching to snap. Snapping would be unwise at the moment.
Thing is, I'm not sure what Dominic is exactly—if you listen to the old crowd he was a high hitter female fixer that decided to transition back when that wasn't so mainstream and had to content with a more obscure business venue. Others speculate whether some unfortunate dealings with the wrong people cost him his junk a while ago and he never got back to his full functioning self. They sound like a tired cliché from a noir film, but those are clichés for a reason—the persona fits them like a charm. Regardless, you don't ask for that particular story you like all your bones in working order. Same goes for questioning direct order, but this time I'm willing to risk it - I don't dance, made that clear in the interview when Dominic hired me.
“Boby seems to be pulling a Casper act tonight. We need a replacement last minute.”
“What about ….”
“Never repeat a performer on the same night, you know that," their voice sounds annoyed, not a good sign. “Just go up there, do your thing, go down. There will be one or two disappointed faces, expecting the star of the show but the drama will be greater if we cut the night short. Do not make me lose money, kid, you will not like the consequences.”
“What act do you want?” It’s happening and there is nothing I can do about it.
“Put something modest, I will tell Jack to play a classical piece, should put you in the mood, no? Break out a plie or two and you will be fine.”
“When do I go?” I have rarely contemplated murder before, but the manslaughter fantasy I’m having a the moment is fit for a news report. Just the thought of ballet and pointe shoes is enough to make me sick. Hate to be reminded of… never mind, Dominic is speaking and I missed it. "
Sorry, come again?”
“You have ten minutes!” Oh, if looks could kill, I would have been a corpse in a dumpster.
I’m practically sprinting towards the backstage dressing rooms. Ten minutes are not enough. I bump Michael on his way back.
“Where is the fire, kid?”
“Boby is a no show.” I’m looking through the hangers—something modest, my ass, is there such a thing as a modest thong?
“And…?” Now every bloody one is watching me with interest. Creeps!
“And the boss wants me on the stage. Never repeat a performer on the same night, you know that.” I repeat in mocking voice.
“Oh, boy, that’s a pickle.”
I turn towards Sam incredulously. That’s all he has to say on the mater? I seem to be shaking because Mic suddenly takes the clothes from my arms, gives me a brief once over and nodes to himself.
“Come on, let’s see what we have. What act are you putting?”
“Dunno, Dominic said something modest. What the hell am I gonna do up there?”
“Put these ones, we don’t have time for makeup, so a domino mask should have to do. Skip the shoes, not sure if we have anything that will fit you. Go on, change, your time is almost up.”
I’m gonna kill them all crazy bitches, swear I’m gonna kill them. I’m not even paying attention to what the piece of cloth looks like, only whether it’s back or front. Feels tight and uncomfortable, and the mask is obscuring my peripheral vision. I hate it, feeling like there is something out of sight that’s gonna creep on me.
“You need help, kid? The undies giving you grief?” Sam singsongs on the other side of the paravane. The bastard is really enjoying himself, isn’t he?!
“Go fuck yourself!” I stumble back and flip him the finger.
“Tonight we have a special treat for you, gents!” Jack’s voice is booming from the speakers. God, it’s loud back here!
“That’s is a one time deal so keep close attention, because we are bumping up the class a notch. Please welcome, The Swan!”
The second I hear the music I want to scream. Seriously, “Swan Lake!" From all the classical pieces there are, they expect me to put on a striptease routine on that. I take a deep breath and walk on the stage—the light is kinda low and muted, but it’s still blinding after the darkness behind the curtain. I can’t see the patrons’ faces, that is good, otherwise, I might throw up. And I’m just standing there, not good, not good at all. Well, if it’s ballet you want… The routine comes back to me, the twists and turns, I can’t exactly stand on my toes barefoot, but it’s close. I don’t look at them, just like I would not look at the audience back when I was dancing with... no, don’t think ‘bout that.
The pole is there, but I could not bring myself to touch it. There were no poles in the opera house, so I would rather not embarrass myself further hanging on it like a monkey of a boa. I run my hands down my bare chest, over my nipples like I have seen the others do, trying to entice the room, to make them pant in their seats because that is what they are here for. Who should I be—the innocent and fragile Odette or the sly and seductive Odile? Or a little bit of both… I’m not getting any clothes off, so let’s give them a tease—I drop on all fours, turn around, slowly raise my bottom just so, the flimsy fabric stretching over my ass and balls. The piece is almost over, I fluidly raise to my feet, ready for the final accords and in a stroke of fancy, slip my fingers over the pole’s surface, circling it, sliding my grip down as I bow with the last notes.
The silence that follows is deafening. Not even the usual corny comment from Jack to signal the end of the night’s show. I’m about to run back when it happens—someone is clapping, then another, and another. I bow again and make a run for it, my face is probably burning red. Jack’s voice sounds finally, but I could not be bothered to stop and listen.
The dressing room is buzzing, but I pay them no mind, I want to be out of those clothes and back in what passes as a uniform—still revealing, but anonymous, just another server, a body without a face. An there are two more hours before my shift ends, bloody great…
Don’t know who’s asking, could not give a fuck. Hate dancing, hate feeling like a trinket for an auction, to be ogled, to be put in the spotlight. No way to run, nowhere to hide…
“Fine, should be back, those tables won’t serve themselves.”
“Oh, you will be surprised.” I turn around so fast my head spins. Dominic is standing there with an expression that gives away nothing but makes my stomach churn. Damn, how bad did I mess tonight!
“Meaning?” My voice shakes and I want to fade into the background.
“A customer requested a private dance from you.”
And that is it, the moment I realize what crazy actually feels like. For me, it’s hysterical laughter. Before a know it, I’m doubled over, my nose sounds like a trumpet and my sides hurt. I hear a strange shrieking noise and wonder for a second what it is before I figure out it’s me, cracking like a loon.
“If you are finished?” Dominic is still standing there, looking at me with that bored unreadable face.
“You want me to give a private dance?! How? What am I supposed to do, sit in some creep’s lap and call them 'daddy'?”
“No. You know the rules. Repeat them to me.”
“We sell an illusion, the customers can look, but they don’t touch. They pay us to dance or to serve them drinks, but they don’t own us.” It’s a mantra that Dominic made everyone memorize—from the stage divas to the last server.
“And if the customer asks for more?”
“I can refuse.”
“If they push?”
“I push back and kick enough fuss to make noise and attract attention and you will come.”
“Good, now go to the room with the ottomans, and put the mask back on, it was a nice touch.”
The first time I even realized that the club offered more than just the show on the stage was back in my second week on the job. Until that day I was always covering the slow hours, learning the ropes, trying hard to remember the numbers of the tables and the layout of server’s areas. Dominic has it very efficiently organized so the servers have a straight line of sight to the bar in every spot in their piece of the room. So, back to the day, I got the crash course of “Don’t ask, don’t tell."
I got held after my usual shift ‘cause there were more customers than usual and a big stag party was being held at the club. Who would have that on a weeknight, anyway? So there I am, almost ten hours on my feet, the tray feels like made out of led in my arms and I take a wrong turn in the dark. Instead of near the storage, I find myself in front of one of the back rooms and my jaw hits the floor at the view before my eyes. The curtains were not fully drawn and I get glimpses of what is happening inside. Let's make it clear, I'm not a prude or a shrinking violet, but my upbringing had not prepared me to the possibility of one of the dancers kneeling in front of a customer unbuckling their belt. Should I have guessed that there could be a different service provided, that the club didn't advertise openly—probably? Did that give me a pause—you bet it did.
I stood there frozen on the spot as he drew the zipper down. I could no make their faces through the shadows cast by the curtains and thank God for that—I don't think I could have looked them in the eyes after that. The one kneeling murmured something that made the customer chuckle before gasping suddenly. Next thing I know the dancer starts bobbing his head and the customer groans relaxing back in their seat. My legs carry me closer to the room and I hear the sounds they're making over the muted music. It's obscene and exciting at the same time. The customer runs his hand over the other man head, down his neck, keeping him in place while trusting in his mouth. I could only imagine what that feels like, for both of them.
I stood there for some time, watching them while the dancer ran his fingers up his inseam, rubbing the customer's tights, never losing his pace, his back muscles moving and twitching.
After some time the customer twisted raising his hips from the seat, his hand gripping the other's neck firmly, fucking his mouth a couple more thrusts before he finishes. The dancer looks up and there is a hand caressing his face, prompting him to rise and straddle the customer's lap. They kiss, sloppily, the patron's fingers moving down the back string of the thong, slipping between the other man's ass cheeks…
I shake my head to clear it—no time for daydreaming, I have a customer waiting and no fucking idea what to do with them.