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Erin Stalcup

With Strangers

 

 

I.            One puts fingers and instruments into her body, nonsexually smells the smell between her legs. One scrapes plaque off her teeth, scrapes below her gums, makes her bleed, makes her drool down her chin. One shines beams in her eyes, contracts the irises, then puts in drops that leave her sensitive to light pouring in. One flexes and points her ankles, runs electricity through her skin to heal deep tissue wounds; one pierces her skin with long, thin needles; one cracks her spine. One slides metal into her veins, fills a vial with what keeps her alive, with what can pass on sickness. One listens to her heart, tells her if the pulsing of blood through her veins is strong enough to keep her alive a little longer. One sends radiation through her body, examines reflection and absorption, white shapes that indicate bones, tendons, muscles, absence, her frame. One helps with athlete’s foot and bunions, pain when walking; one examines her urinary tract; one presses her breasts between metal plates, reads the lumps, tells her if she’s malignant.

           Some doctors know daily that they are hated.

           Lacey’s glad someone’s willing to do it.

            Because they tell her things she can’t know herself, Lacey loves paying visits to doctors. She loves that they have to see what others don’t want to see.

           Lacey doesn’t read a magazine while she waits in the gynecologist’s lobby. She knows what they say. She knows what they show. Lustrous pages of women who look just like her. Lacey is the kind of woman the magazines say anyone can be if she just tries hard enough, but Lacey doesn’t have to try at all—no surgery, her only exercise is her work, and she eats whatever she wants. Lacey knows she’s just a bag of bones, just a container filled with lots of fat in some places, very little fat in other places, and she doesn’t understand why other people think there is something marvelous about her dimensions, something miraculous, something that matters beyond pure coincidence.

           A youngish girl, maybe fifteen, in jeans and a tight baby tee, big sneakers, sits next to her mother, an older, more formally clad version of the girl. Maybe the girl is here for her first appointment, she has that nervous way of sitting, not sure whether to cross her arms over her breasts or her belly. Lacey smiles, and is not surprised when each woman only half-smiles back.

           Her name is called. She stands, taller than most women, offers her hand to the new medical technician she hasn’t met yet, says, “I’m Lacey”—after that ringing, Beautiful and full of holes. Lacey thinks that phrase every time anyone says her name. She shakes hands like a man, walks towards the examination room in remarkably high heels, and everyone in the waiting room watches her go.

 

           “Everything looks good in there,” Dr. Wilson tells her. He pulls off his gloves, washes his hands. Lacey has been seeing him since before his hair was gray. “I’ll call you if there’s anything abnormal, like always, but it looks like you’re healthy. See you next month, Lacey,” he says, tapping the box of Kleenex as he walks out the door. Lacey wipes herself clean, dresses, drops the gown in the laundry hamper. Hearing that there’s nothing wrong with her should be thrilling, but she’s disappointed every time. If there were something wrong with her she would know why she always feels like there’s something wrong with her.

 

II.            After her appointment Lacey goes to work. She uses her real name on stage, didn’t have to start calling herself Fantasia or Eurasia, and she works the moniker, wears only lace bras and lace-topped stockings, wonders if anyone gets the joke.

           Tonight after her set she doesn’t have to walk around in boots and a thong talking to the men, asking if they’re having fun, seeming interested in showing them more of herself, because tonight when she’s on stage a man watches inches from the edge, his face as close to her as possible, and when she’s done dancing he takes her elbow and escorts her to his table.

           When dancing for this man calling himself Harold, Lacey makes sure he knows exactly what is up against the cloth of his fine suit, covered with a thin film of lace. Harold says he wants to see more of her. Lacey has never served him before, but he knows how it works—he walks to one of the rooms in the back meant for private dances, tells the bodyguard what he wants, Lacey nods agreement, the bodyguard names a price, and Harold pays. Skin is the only club in the state with no cameras, the only club that offers immediate gratification. Most bodyguards watch, but this one, Louis, always turns his back. “Tell me if you need me,” he says.

            Lacey pushes Harold’s shoulders so he sits in the chair in the middle of the room, then sits in a chair across from him, legs spread wide. Harold wastes no time, quickly starts doing what he’s paid to be allowed to do. He tells Lacey how beautiful she is. Mirrors ring the room.

           Lacey lists all the places she wants him to put himself, one by one. He’s not paid for that tonight, but when new clients are feeling Lacey out they want to hear it anyway, want to know what she’s willing to do, what they can come back for. She gives the same inventory to each man, but each item gets altered depending on his reaction, cut and tailored into the perfect shape to slip over his body, cover him in exactly what he wants. When Lacey gets to the last item on her list, “My hands,” Harold’s grimace tells her what she needs to know.

           She talks about her hands, how dirty they are, how public, how everyone touches them and anyone can see them. She tells Harold, “Let me catch it. Harold, let me hold it in my hands.” She kneels in front of this man in a suit leaning back in a chair, cups her hands in front of him, looks him straight in the eye, and she’s found the exact right thing. After his mask of concentration breaks into a revelation of release, he smiles, says, “Thank you,” and for the first time, he looks human. Lacey rubs her palms together, rubs her fingers between each other, tells Harold to visit her again, slips through a door to wash up. 

           When she takes the money from Louis she gives him fifty bucks back: the thing that makes it worth it for him, to break the law by letting her break it. Sometimes they accidentally let a cop back there, and then they both pay a fine, both spend a night or two in jail, but most of their clients are regulars, have proven by now they aren’t undercover. Lacey never leaves the premises with men. They often want her to, but then there’s no bodyguard. No cut—she’d be an independent businesswoman—but she never takes that risk.

           The rest of the night goes quickly. The man paying for “anything goes” spanks Lacey with a hairbrush and calls her Marsha, and Lacey hopes his daughter’s best friend or his secretary or his daughter is freed through his play. She trusts he knows that isn’t the kind of thing he can do in real life. That’s why he needs her. Someone to agree to it all. Someone who has different rules. Samuel, the slim, dark-haired man with near-translucent skin, blue veins, thick lashes, he comes to her weekly with slashes along his thighs. It’s clear he uses a blade on his shoulders, sometimes there are burn marks in places clothes will cover. Tonight she pulls his hair, runs her nails down his back leaving a scratch. She spanks him and when he dresses he is astonished by her handprint, the smack of five fingers, a palm, the look on his face telling Lacey he knows the mark will fade and wishes it would not. “You make me feel normal,” Samuel says after they’re done. “When I’m an old man,” he says as he puts back on his clothes, “too old to want to do this anymore, I’ll buy you stiletto heels with stiletto blades. I’ll come to you one last time, and we’ll do what we just did, or as much as I’m able. Then I’ll lie on this couch and you’ll stand on my chest, crouching, all your weight balanced on the balls of your feet. And when I say the word, you’ll stand, one foot over each lung, and pierce through with your heels. My last vision will be the pillars of your legs, between them.”

           Lacey wonders how many times Samuel will want to tell her about his new fantasy in the coming weeks. “I’d have to be put in the will to do something like that,” Lacey says with a smile.

           “That seems fair.”

           “By the time you’re old enough to want to check out, I’ll be an old lady too.”

           “You’ll never change,” he says. “You’ll always be as you are.”

           Because Lacey’s clients have her to come to, because she meets their sick, twisted, needy, inventive, creative, far-ranging desires, because she shows she’s not afraid, she knows her clients hit their wives less, curse their sons less, fondle their daughters’ friends less, shoot into buildings less often. She allows her clients to let go of something, allows them to let something else in. But they always come back.

           By then Lacey’s made enough money that she doesn’t have to take any more clients, can sit in the dressing room with some of the other girls, wait for closing time. There’s Exotica, a girl twice as wide as Lacey, whose following of men worship her bulging curves, her bounty, though none know she’s really named Beth; there’s Chynna, actually Japanese, actually named Jane, here while she gets her Master’s in social work so she can graduate without debt, accept a low-paying job, serve those no one else wants to serve; there’s Majestik, real name Selma, whose look was all the rage in the eighties, dark eye circles that seem to be smudged makeup but stay after she has washed her face, jutting hipbones, cheeks hollowed out to reveal the skull beneath—because she always makes enough to score all the horse she desires she never seems as desperate as she seems detached, unsuffering in the way of zazen monks setting themselves aflame. Out of all these women, Lacey always earns the most.

           The manager, Pete, asks Lacey to watch the new girl’s last set, stage name Eros, to see if she needs any pointers. She was working at another club in town so she should be well trained, but he wants to make sure she’s top notch.

           Pete doesn’t warn Lacey that this new woman looks uncannily like her. Her body seems identical, illuminated from every angle by bright beams; her face seems shaped the same as Lacey’s, though her hair is not as pale as her own. And her dance isn’t the same—Lacey’s routine is athletic, frenetic, set to Joy Division or Tool—but Eros’s striptease is slow, sultry, relies on the agony of waiting. Lacey makes it hard for men to catch their breath; when watching this woman dance, all the men hold theirs. Eros leaves the stage and a man at a table near Lacey asks for a lap dance. Eros is all-pro: she doesn’t let him touch her, she only touches his shoulders and arms, she doesn’t release the tension her dance has built, she implies what can happen outside the public eye. He doesn’t take her to a private back room, Eros says, “Maybe next time,” and the bartender yells last call.

           Lacey meets her in the dressing room, and Eros’s handshake is as firm as her own. She introduces herself as Kate. Lacey says she did a fabulous job and Pete claps a hand on each of their shoulders.

           “Eerie, isn’t it?” he asks. The girls all nod. “You two could be twins.”

           Jane says they should do a routine together, a duet, and Lacey smiles, says sure. Why not? She thinks of all the stage names she could take on to: Eros and Thanatos. Or Eros and Narcissus, the cursed demigod who was told if he came to know himself, he would die, but who found himself anyway. Or Eros and Nymph, a creature who mated with men or women as she willed, outside the control of men or gods, the basis for Freud’s name for a psychosexual disorder—nymphomaniac, women who enjoy sex too much. Lacey has always loved mythology, what people once thought was real.

           Kate looks at Lacey’s face, and says, “It’s like looking at an improved version of me. Higher cheekbones. Bigger lips. Smaller nose.” She spins Lacey around, to see her from every angle. “Smaller waist. Bigger, higher breasts. Slimmer arms. Firmer thighs. Tighter ass.” 

           “Thank you,” Lacey says. “But to me, we look the same.”

           “Almost. But not quite.”

           “We’re lucky to have her,” Pete says. “Lucky to have you both, now.”

           Lacey imagines having one leg, a cane, a hearing aid, a limp, a port wine stain across her face, a slash of a scar along her cheek. She imagines feeling Kate’s body with her hands, pressing against something outside herself to know her own dimensions. “It will be nice having you around,” Lacey says instead. “She’s a real professional,” she says, turning to Pete.

 

III.            Lacey has been having dizzy spells, and though the easy explanation is they’re often after she dances a set, after she spins and slides upside-down down a pole and lights flash at her from every direction—anyone would be dizzy—she schedules an MRI just to be sure. Her general practitioner asks if she’s certain: she pays out of pocket, and the chances of a brain tumor are slim, but she says better safe than sorry.

           The technician tells her to take off all her jewelry, leave it in a locker, asks if she has any metal under her skin. She lies down on a thick plastic plank. The technician explains she should not move. The machine slides her inside and the top is closer to her face than she thought it would be. She was told there would be three series and each would be fifteen minutes long and she already wants it to stop. The clanks are a claustrophobic metallic symphony, polyphonic and three dimensional, the levels of tones resounding in her body, reverberating through her bones. The magnets circle to bounce waves off of her from every angle, and it is suddenly clear she is being tested. The air pulses with a hammer ringing on a tin roof, a hammer thudding on a railroad tie. She wants to scream, but she knows she can endure anything, so she quiets her breath, stays still even in the panic that makes her want to thrash. 

           A voice asks, “How you doing in there?”

           “I don’t like it.”

           “Do you need it to stop?”

           “No, I can keep going.”

           She feels each joint, each tendon, each notch and curve of her surface. She feels straight-jacketed. When the voice leaves the space she thinks, Well isn’t that what we ask ourselves daily. Sometimes it is so lonely to know exactly how your body feels—I want this to stop happening. I want to stop feeling this way—what is done to us by grief, sickness, desire.  

           For consolation, to invent solace, find a focus, Lacey imagines hiring Kate like people hire her. Kate would already be in the back room, waiting, legs crossed, fully dressed. As Lacey walked in Kate would stand and take off her clothes. White shirt, black skirt, black heels, garter belt, stockings, bra, panties. She’d lead Lacey in front of the full-length mirror on the wall, stand behind her and take Lacey’s clothes off, the same outfit, slowly, in the same order. Then she’d put her palms on Lacey’s ribs, rub up and around her breasts, run her hands along Lacey’s shoulders, across her throat, inside her thighs, as if Lacey were watching her own hands touch herself, unable to guide them.

           Kate would walk in front of Lacey, let her watch her hands roam over a body so like her own, without feeling the sensation caused by her palms.            

           Lacey would touch Kate her between her legs, watch her face change. Kate would bend forward, press her palms against the mirror, let Lacey see her back, keep her face lifted so Lacey could watch her expression chronicle everything. Their images would reflect in the mirrors behind them, back and forth, a tunnel to look into. As if Lacey could finally see herself the way she is seen. Lacey would use both hands, then reach down and lift Kate, press this woman’s body against her own, hold her in front of herself like a shield, watch Kate’s body in the mirror, watch her responding to Lacey’s body, Lacey’s touch. 

           “You’re done,” the technician says, and the machine slides her body back into the open air. “We’ll have your results in a few days.” He doesn’t say he hopes she’ll be just fine, he doesn’t say he hopes it’s not a brain tumor, he doesn’t offer her any company or comfort at all. 

 

IV.            Lacey decides to give some of her body away. She is paid to take what people want to give her, now she chooses to give freely what other people want. She wants to help. On her day off, she donates blood, signs up to donate plasma twice a week—Lacey figures if she donates the payment to a fund for people who can’t afford to buy plasma-based medical products, that doesn’t count as getting paid. She gets the inside of her cheek swabbed to see if she’s anyone’s bone marrow match; she gets her finger pricked to get on a kidney matching list—she wouldn’t mind the scar, thinks the wound will be sexy when she dances.

            She volunteers for two drug studies. She can’t participate in the heavy-duty tests because there’s nothing wrong with her—she can’t do the fish oil versus placebo study because she’s not depressed, she can’t do the new miracle-drug trials because she doesn’t have cancer, she can’t sample the new finger-prick method and newest variety of insulin because she doesn’t have diabetes. It’s not that Lacey wants cancer, but if she ever gets it she hopes a drug trial will accept her so that she can go to the doctor weekly, get monitored, feel like something miraculous is being done for her—for others. She participates in a study of a new cold and flu remedy, a new variety of Midol. They ask her pages full of questions, take her vitals, give her a bottle of syrup that may or may not contain a placebo, another bottle of pills, tell her to take one dose every two hours the next time she gets sniffly, the next time she’s feeling cramped and bloated, then come back for more measurements. They’ll send her blood and urine off to a lab, and the people who examine her before and after fluids won’t know who it came from. Just a number. Atoms from her body, the people in white gloves who figure out the messages those cells contain will have no idea what the body is like that enclosed them.

           To become an organ donor Lacey changes her preferences at the DMV. The man in the uniform tests her perfect vision, tells her to stand against a white screen. While she waits for her picture to be taken she imagines her corpse laid out on a table, examined by first-year med students, or by oncology experts or endocrinologists high-ranking in their field. She pictures the cuts on her body, the Y slice through her torso, heart removed, other kidney gone, liver given to someone with yellow skin. Her eyelids sewn shut, two people given the gift of sight, one of their brown eyes paired with her bright blue—still freakish, but at least a freak who can see.

           She hopes whatever isn’t harvested or put into jars of formaldehyde for future study will be burned, the preserving chemicals evaporating with the smoke. She imagines her ashes left stored in the place where all unclaimed remains stay, her cardboard box touching other boxes, her last intimacy with strangers. The man says, “Smile!” and the flash is an explosion. For a moment, she can’t see a thing.

 

V.            Her second night at the club Kate almost makes as much as Lacey, and everyone in the dressing room is impressed. As all the women clean up, get ready to go home or go out, Kate tells them that her husband runs a fancy hair salon where she used to also work, so if they ever want their hair cut for cheap, she’d be happy to. She walks to Lacey and lifts a lock. “Split ends. You need a trim.”

            “You’re right. I’ll make an appointment.”

            “If you aren’t too tired I can do it now. Then you can tell all the other girls how incredible I am.”

           Selma asks if she can get pink streaks put in next week and Kate says sure; Beth musses Jane’s hair and tells her she’s never had a split end in her life, says she’ll give her a ride home. As the women leave Lacey asks what Kate drinks, gets them neat bourbons from the bar. The room settles into silence as Kate washes Lacey’s hair in the sink, surrounded by sequins and feathers, the showgirl attire some of the girls wear. She rubs Lacey’s scalp and temples through the suds, each finger pad circling and circling, then her nails scratching the skin in small loops. She rinses her hands and brings her wet fingertips down to Lacey’s shoulders, kneading deep with her thumbs. Lacey knows Kate does what she used to have to do for the clients in the shop in order to hear her sigh of satisfaction.

           It’s five in the morning, near dawn, and then even the bartender goes home, but the women can’t see the sky because there are no windows in the building where they work. Lacey pours them each another and Kate leads her to the empty stage, the place where there’s the most space, where the hair will make the least mess. She clicks on one overhead light, pulls up a chair. She combs out Lacey’s long locks, rhythmically parting and untangling, stretching out a length of hair and trimming, little cuttings sprinkling the floor, longer pieces curling as they hit the stage. She rhythmically runs a humming blowdryer down each section and curls the ends under neatly. The repetition is soothing, and then she turns off the little machine.

           “I’m going to take a little more off, neaten you up, make it messier in some places,” Kate says. “Just sit still.” Lacey nods. In a salon she’d be facing a mirror, see each strand sliced away. Lacey stares into the black offstage, where there’s usually an audience. She wonders what kinds of men and women would be aroused by watching this small intimacy. She can hear tresses being sheared, can feel her head lighten and lift from her shoulders as each miniscule weight drops away. “When I was little,” Kate says, “my mom used to cut my hair at home. We’d sweep up the trimmings every time and carry them outside, let the wind blow the wisps away so birds could use them to make their nests. Little bits of myself blown away in the wind. I searched the woods, found a nest only one time, and there were threads of my hair woven through sticks and twigs. The eggs were bright blue. In the crook of a branch of a maple. I thought it was so beautiful. Though no robins or maples here. Just squawking grackles, oaks infected with mistletoe. Now all we see are these bright green parasitic plants stuck to bare gray branches. Nests abandoned for winter. But I guess the trees will bloom soon, cover them up. I’m not from Texas. Where I’m from we have real winter, and the trees make a forest, aren’t just trees. My kids don’t know what they’re missing. They were born here. We carry their hair outside though. Is it the grackles that build those nests? When the trees are full of leaves, we can’t see who’s in them.” She stops cutting. Lacey wonders what it would be like to live somewhere else, be someone else. Then Kate says, “Well, I’m not sure what you’re going to think about this. I took a lot off. It seems I’ve given you the haircut I actually want, but haven’t yet been brave enough to get. Fabulous. But different. Do you want to see it?”

           Lacey looks at the face everyone says is so like her own. She doesn’t know what she looks like. “No thank you,” Lacey says. “But thank you.”

           Kate sweeps the stage and fills Lacey’s cupped palms with a tangle of pale hair. She picks up Lacey’s purse, opens the door. They walk into the parking lot, a black slab with bright painted lines, only two cars left. The horizon is pastel. Lacey stretches out her hands in the light wind and releases a part of herself to unknown places, unknown uses. What might help make a home. And while Kate watches Lacey’s hands lift and empty, she thinks how astonishing beauty can be, how gleaming and grotesque.

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