Clarissa hasn’t called or sent me a text message since before she showed up at the house with Decker. There are moments when I want her to call, but this only happens when I feel like disappearing into the darkest corner of my closet or when I wish a massive tidal wave would crash into my house and carry me out to the farthest reaches of the Pacific. But those moments quickly pass when I close my eyes and see Decker’s face, the way his skin paled and how he turned to the imaginary spectacle on the brick pillar. And then I think maybe I should just hold my breath and sink to the bottom of the pool, and stay there.
Would anyone even miss me?
Peter might be upset, although maybe he wouldn’t show it too much. And Mom would be devastated, but I think she’d be most angry by the loss of yet another dream than the death of her only daughter. I think Zach would be the saddest. I know sometimes he feels intimidated around me, like I’m some untouchable being he needs to be careful with, but when we’re at home, away from the masses of people, we’re just a stepbrother and stepsister. We laugh and play games. We watch movies and eat popcorn. The hours I spend with Zach are the only hours when I feel like a real person. For 13 years, I’ve been floating through life like a character in a book or a television show, and I keep waiting for the chapters to end, for the episodes to run out when the story’s been told.
(from Beautiful Girl)
The dream started a few days later. In it, my face is the face I remember from before the accident—smooth copper skin, full lips. Not a blemish. Not a scrape. Nothing. I run my fingers along the surface of my cheek. There are no grooves or bumps. No pain. When I wake up from this dream, I run to the bathroom. I turn on the lights to the remnants of something that was once on the cover of a magazine, and all I want to do is go back to sleep, go back to the dream where I’m the girl who still has the face of an angel. Worse than this, though, is the realization that I don’t quite understand why I want to go back. I hate my life, and yet, I don’t know anything else, and this is what terrifies me. My whole existence is about the physical me—my eyes and lips and teeth and hair and skin and body—all of the pieces of me people want to see with their own eyes. And who am I if I’m not beautiful?
(from Beautiful Girl)
I grab the iron handle, push the thumb latch, and pull. I smile at Clarissa, but the smile vanishes when I see the person standing next to her. Along with my smile, the blood drains from my face, sliding down through my chest and into my stomach, then on to my feet where it seems to pool there, pumping and throbbing, holding my legs in place even though all I want to do is turn and run.
Clarissa puts a hand over her mouth and looks away, like she’s going to puke in the Hydrangeas growing along the side of the house. But Decker just stares at me, and I think it’s possible he’s stopped breathing altogether. I hold his gaze, long enough for the corners of his eyes to droop, and then he bites his lower lip and shifts his focus to the brick pillar next to him, as though something beautiful has suddenly appeared there.
I shut the door, my stomach a swirling mess, my hand shaking against the iron handle, a stabbing pain in my chest like someone’s just driven a screwdriver into my heart. And then I’m on my knees, crying so hard I can barely breathe, my tears like acid in the wounds on my face.
(from Beautiful Girl)
After an audition or a shoot, Mom and I sometimes go to a mall—The Beverly Center or Westfield Century City. Mom watches the way people look at us when we pass. Men, and even boys my age, will follow her with their eyes. I see them, and even though Mom pretends she doesn’t, I know she sees them too. I know because she sways her hips a little more and lifts her chin a little higher.
We’ll sift through stores, sometimes buying a new shirt or jeans or a pair of shoes, but we’re not there for shopping. Before we leave, we’ll sit and have a coffee in the middle of an atrium, Mom letting her eyes drift from person to person. While she gathers silent attention, I seek out girls my age. They’re always clumped in groups of three or four, sometimes five. When I’m with Clarissa, she mocks those girls.
“Oh my God, could you be more immature?” she’ll say.
But I’m jealous and overwhelmed with a sense of loneliness. I feel the same way about them that I do about Zach—that I want to be them. I want to smile and giggle and whip at each other’s hair. I want to link my arms with theirs and stomp through the mall wearing a sweatshirt with the name of my high school on it. I’m in the television show looking out into the real world, and all I want to do is shatter the glass.
(from Beautiful Girl)
I remember the sound of the car horn, then tires screeching, then a crash. Not a small crash like a single glass plate dropped on a hard tile floor, but a massive crash. A whole box full of plates being thrown from a 10-story building. My ears were ringing for a split second, and then there was pain, and when the shock of the pain subsided, my shirt was soaking wet. My eyes were closed, but there were people shouting, and later, sirens. Lots of them, swirling and spinning and looping like twirling ribbons.
The door opens again and the doctor walks in, without Mom. He touches my arm. His hand is soft. Not plastic. His fingers melt over my skin like hot fudge over ice cream—smooth and warm.
“You’re going to be fine, Melanie,” he says.
(from Beautiful Girl)
I run to the parking garage and to my silver Mini-Cooper parked on the second level. My fingers shake as I unlock the doors, and when I drop into the warmth of the leather seat, I let the tears fall, knowing there won’t be anybody coming after me. Not Clarissa, not Decker, not even the other two boys who gawked at me like I was a naked lady on a billboard. They’d seen me before, but I don’t know them. Just as I don’t know any of the faces who stare at me when I walk by and whisper when I pass. I’m a beautiful face to them, a perfect body, the chick in the magazine or the television. And they think because I look this way I have everything. I’m a spoiled little rich girl with a pretty smile.
I look at my eyes in the rearview mirror. They’re Mom’s eyes—that same deep green like polished circles of Jade. But I’m nothing like Mom, and even though I’m glad I’m not like her, I sometimes wish I was as strong as her. If I was, maybe I would’ve told her years ago that I didn’t like this life, that I hated Clarissa and Kurt and the other people who I have to be around everyday, all of them superficial like they’re living in a comic book.
(from Beautiful Girl)
Who would have thought the owner of a strip club could be angelic?
En route to Livingston and Bozeman, we spent two nights in Butte where our amazing production crew back in L.A. had arranged for us to meet with the owner of Sagebrush Sam’s—a woman named Virginia. Sagebrush Sam’s was the only club in Butte, and Virginia had even gone so far as to contact several of her dancers on our behalf to see if they’d be interested in telling us their stories. This was quite a different response than what we’d received from the two Missoula clubs owners. One banned us from the property altogether. The other merely didn’t respond to us at all, except to tell one of his dancers that we were not allowed to take pictures inside the club (of which is normal protocol for any club anyway).
We unloaded our gear at our hotel and made our way back west on Interstate 90 to the address for Sagebrush Sam’s. When we exited the freeway, we saw a truck stop, a Motel 6, and a McDonalds. There didn’t appear to be anything that resembled a club. We continued west another mile along a dusty road flanked on both sides by scattered sagebrush and dirt, and then it appeared before us. Sagebrush Sam’s. A small, gray windowless building with a single car parked out front. Melissa, Kacie and I looked at each other, and for a brief moment, we wished we’d brought along a gun. Beyond the building, dark black clouds gathered and distant thunder rumbled. And then, the door to the club opened and a grandmotherly figure appeared and beckoned us in. Her name was Virginia, but everybody called her Sam.
Unlike the bare, somewhat daunting appearance of the exterior of the club, the interior was warm and welcoming. Sophisticated and classy black and white nude photos of early Pioneer women adorned the walls. There was a small bar in one corner, a Vegas-style poker table in another, and several display cases throughout the room exhibiting an array of dancing shoes and apparel. At the far end of the place was a small stage with a single pole descending from the ceiling. The first thing I noticed was how clean the establishment was. And once we got to know Virginia a little better, it made sense.
She was 68 years old with a sweet voice and hazy eyes. Never before stepping foot inside of a strip club, she’d bought the place from her brother in the late 90’s. Her tenderness brought the girls there, but it was her “no bullshit” attitude that kept them. She respected her dancers, and they respected her. Part of her interview process entailed a discussion about their lives after dancing.
“You can’t do this forever,” she’d say. “What are you going to when you’re done?”
And she held them to it. Two of the women we spoke with were mothers, both going to school for secondary degrees. Another was a traveling dancer who worked construction by day with plans of starting her own construction company when she was done dancing. She’d only been at Sagebrush Sam’s for a week, but insisted on staying for another because of how comfortable it was to work there. She felt respected, not only by Virginia, but also by the customers. Virginia ran a tight ship with no bouncers. They weren’t necessary. The people who came there knew her rules and abided by them, and if they didn’t, either Virginia or her equally tough female bartender—a long-time friend of Virginia’s who’d been working there for over 20 years—would escort them out the door.
As we’d approached Sagebrush Sam’s earlier—by the mere appearance of the place—I didn’t think it would be possible to enter the club and not want to leave. But that’s exactly what happened. Like everything else in life—and everything we’d learned thus far on our journey—you should never judge a book by its cover.
Although there have been a number of shared moments that stand out for me over the past few weeks during our interviews with dancers, one particular testimonial rings especially loud. For one, I’m a mother, and my entire existence revolves around giving my son the best life possible. But for two, when I think about the day and night life of a dancer, I’m reminded of how simply human they are.
“In the real world, I’m a mom,” one dancer said. “I go to baseball games. I go to school. I go to the grocery store. And when I come to dance, I’m here to take care of my children.”
How different is she from anybody else? Outside of the club—in the real world—she’s a mother who takes care of her kids by supporting them in their activities, by putting food on the table for them, by attending school in order to someday make them proud of who she is. Is that so unusual? It’s not like she’s walking around the neighborhood in the same clothes and shoes she wears to work. In the grocery store or at the baseball game, she looks like every other woman there, whether that woman is a mother or not.
When I go to work, I’m a different person than when I’m at home. I have to be. I can’t conduct a meeting with a client in “mother” or “weekend fun” mode. We don’t talk about the conference I had with my son’s teacher or how insane my girlfriend’s bachelorette party is going to be that weekend. And I certainly wouldn’t attend one of my son’s baseball games (or the bachelorette party for that matter) in the poised and professional manner I must carry myself when presenting a marketing proposal to the president of a national corporation. I go to my son’s game in team colors with nothing on my mind but supporting him when he’s up to bat. When Friday rolls around and the girls call me out for a drink, I put on the sexiest outfit I can find, and I leave my little apartment in party mode, not work or mommy mode. Isn’t it fair to say that as humans, we are all prone to being one person one minute and a completely different person the next?
I know how easy it is to pass judgment. As human as it is to be many different people trapped in one body, it’s equally human to criticize others for being…different. In the four weeks I’ve been on this project, I’ve learned an incredible truth about myself. And about my closet full of shoes.
As we neared the end of our two-week Missoula stretch, it became apparent to me that in each of our interviews with each of our dancers, there was a series of commonalities. It wasn’t so much the women’s backgrounds. Those were diverse—a teenage runaway, a victim of sexual abuse, a country girl who grew up working on the farm, a Native American woman who simply wanted to find her way off the reservation. Each of these dancers was unique. But in every interview, we encountered a similar ideology about the purpose of dancing, beyond making money to feed a family or pay for school. It’s an ideology that might seem ludicrous to some, but it’s important to address, especially considering I was a person who once made my own unfair judgments and assumptions about exotic dancers. Spending the past two weeks with these women really opened my eyes…by allowing me to actually see through their eyes.
On the outside, it’s easy to assume what might be happening on the inside. But even if you’ve been to a strip club—as I have—it doesn’t necessarily represent the whole. I see what I see, as a woman in a monogamous relationship. It’s easy to feel disgusted by the visual. I certainly wouldn’t want my boyfriend to go to one without me. Why would I? Don’t I give him enough? When I was married and my son was little, I would’ve been crushed if I ever found out my husband had gone to a club. I would’ve questioned our relationship. I would’ve questioned him. That’s me. On the outside, looking in. But what I see is very different than what a dancer sees. To her, she’s merely performing for money. She’s being an entertainer. She’s often being a counselor. And like any other working person, it’s just a job.
“I’d rather my boyfriend go to a strip club than a bar,” one dancer said. “95% of the girls who work at the clubs are married or have boyfriends or have kids to take care of. There’s less of a threat they’d want anything to do with another woman’s boyfriend or husband. They’re there to work, not to flirt. At a regular bar, girls are drinking and having a good time and flirting. There’s a different motive there.”
“This is just a job,” another dancer said. “If it wasn’t for strippers, wives and girlfriends would have to deal with some weird shit. Period. They don’t always understand the kind of stuff their men fantasize about. These guys will come in and tell us about it. And some of it is really weird. And I don’t think they’re bringing that stuff home. We’re counselors.”
A third dancer said, “A lot of times, I play counselor. I kept a man from committing suicide one night. It’s an emotionally draining job at times, but I love it. People have asked me if it’s degrading to be a dancer. No. By just being me, I can take care of my family. A lot of people don’t see that. They have this image of exotic dancers, and they can’t get that out of their heads.”
Melissa, Kacie and I left Missoula in three separate cars. On the drive to Butte for scheduled interviews with two of the dancers there and the owner, Virginia, I thought about what these women told me, and I began to understand them a little better. And by understanding them, I broke through my own prejudice because, not only was I understanding them more, but I was also understanding their customers a little better too.