HENRI GERVEX, “ROLLA,” 1878
We stalked the town in a posse, chigger-bitten skin exposed against the night heat. Most of us weren’t old enough for bars so we pooled our money and drank in the living room of the two-bedroom on Henrietta Street. We invented games. The best one was Confession. To take a shot you had to reveal something. The biggest secrets we had back then were crushes. I want to kiss her, don’t tell.
In a journal entry dated September 20, 2003, I wrote, “I’m sitting on the tiny balcony with a book and a beer. I don’t want to read though. I don’t want to write either. Everything is good. Perfect warm night buzz. I haven’t found a job yet but that’s okay. There’s cumbia playing on the stereo in the living room, the smell of cooking beans. I have crushes on half my roommates: José, two months up from Mexico, who watches Mulholland Drive on repeat to learn English; Lara who’s studying to be a car mechanic (I think she likes girls but she’s so awkward when I try to flirt); Angela who’s married to a guy in Mexico but also has a girlfriend here. My life is so full up. It feels stupid to even try and write about it. I’ll never capture it. Even my best effort would still be like that guy I saw downtown last week, a man sitting on the sidewalk, playing the guitar with his feet. Everyone clapped and threw coins not because he was making incredible music but because he had managed a facsimile of a song with such a primitive appendage. My writing is to life what that’s man toe-song is to music.”
I was nineteen years old and had been living in Asheville, North Carolina, for one month. Before that, I’d grown up on an isolated farm in southern West Virginia and all I had ever cared to do was read and write. In Asheville though, for the first time ever, my life was more exciting than any words. My new life was all about bodies. I lived in a two-bedroom apartment with six other people. Our bodies were young, strong, and seemed endlessly replenishable. We could fill them up and run them down again. We could use them for love, for money.
I’d put in applications at every downtown restaurant and still not found a job. One afternoon, Angela told me I could have her modeling appointment if I wanted it. She’d rather go hang out with her girlfriend anyhow. Twelve dollars an hour to just sit there, Angela said, and gave me the address.
I found the building and followed a stairwell that wound around and up to the second story. A middle-age man met me at the door.
“I’m here to model?” I said.
He waved me in. The room was cluttered with canvases and easels and jars full of milky-yellow chemicals.
“You can change behind that screen if you want,” the man said.
“Change?” I hadn’t brought a change of clothes, I’d assumed that if they wanted me to model something specific that they would provide it.
The man exhaled. “You’re not the girl I talked to on the phone?”
I shook my head. “Her friend.”
He laughed. “You’ve never done fine-arts modeling before?”
He picked up a canvas and turned it toward me. A woman on a blue couch. Naked.
“Oh,” I said.
He shook his head. “It’s not sexual.” He put the canvas down and picked up a framed photo. “I’ve got a wife.”
“You still want the job?”
I nodded again. “But I’m on my period,” I said, biting my lower lip.
He laughed, his whole body shaking. “You can keep your underwear on,” he said.
My parents wanted to know why I wasn’t interested in college. I didn’t have any answers for them that would make sense. In high school I had been all about ideas and books: I obsessed over a philosophy paper on existentialism and Medieval mysticism—the writings of Beatrice of Nazareth matched with Maslow’s peak experiences and Sartre’s accidental contingency, then a study of Hemingway’s use of the perfect, quiet detail. I’d put together a collection of poems, (Burn My Clothes, I’m in Heaven Now) and a series of short stories, typed up on my typewriter and xeroxed into little zines. I hadn’t been a straight-A student—to do that I would have had to apply myself to the subjects I disliked—but I had preferred books and writing to pretty much everything else. Now, though, those all seemed a pale comparison to life itself. I was less interested in theories that took me out of my body and into my mind, and more interested in how it felt to lend my physicality to someone else’s art, how it felt to be fully present in the moment as a life model.
When the fine-arts modeling gig was up, Angela offered me a new way to make money.
“If he calls and you’re around, you can take it. I think he likes the variety,” she said. “Just write it on the board, how long you talked, and when the check comes we’ll divvy it up.”
“He” was the CEO of a chain of Italian restaurants. He’d run an ad in the paper saying he was looking for models, but when Angela called he admitted that what he really wanted was phone sex. We traded off, me and Angela and our other housemate, Jade. Whoever was home at the time or needed the money most would take the call. The CEO would then overnight us a check. We wouldn’t take another call until the check had arrived for the last. Sometimes he called five times a week, sometimes once.
Angela tossed me a dog-eared lesbian erotica book to use for inspiration. “Just change some of the anatomy,” she said.
I took the cordless phone into the back bedroom.
“Hello, Mina,” CEO said. “You said your name is Mina?”
“Well, Mina, what are you wearing right now?”
I looked down at my ratty jeans and Bikini Kill T-shirt, then I looked at the cover of the erotica book. “A white silk teddy,” I said.
“Oh, nice, very nice, Mina.”
“And no panties,” I went on, closely inspecting the erotica cover. “The phone cord is wrapped between my legs and if I pull on it, it rubs my clit.”
The CEO’s all-time favorite fantasies were sex in a Victoria’s Secret dressing room, sex in the McDonald’s ball pit, and sex in a field full of miniature ponies. At the end of each month he sent a bunch of restaurant gift cards in addition to the regular payment. We took all of our housemates out for lobster fra diavolo and chocolate dream cake.
We did almost everything communally then. We rode our bikes together at night to the dumpsters behind expensive supermarkets. We pilfered rolls of toilet paper from the gas station and blankets and coats from the donation bin at the Goodwill. The food-stamps card was communal, and if anyone got ahold of a little alcohol, we drank it all together and got mildly buzzed.
My days were the delicious opposite of my life in West Virginia. I wasn’t reading about Maslowian peak experiences, I was having them. Hangovers and heartaches and gravel under my skin. “We cannot come at what we wish to know,” Hadewijch wrote, “to live is the opposite of to know.”
Eventually the CEO’s phone calls dwindled and then disappeared. Angela, Jade, and I came up with a new plan. We were heading into winter, so the tourists were all gone and no restaurants or bars were hiring—but the local strip club ran an ad each week soliciting dancers. We figured if we worked there together it wouldn’t feel so weird.
Our first night, we went straight from a class at the local rape-crisis center where we were all training to be volunteer court advocates. We entered the dark cave of the club and watched as a tall redhead flexed her leg, wrapped it around the pole and flipped her body upside down, her long hair flashing through the flicker of strobe lights. She tipped over backward, arching against gravity, and just when I was sure she would fall, she lifted up and spun around, a rotating, levitating vision of bright hair and soft skin. In the dressing room we took our places before the mirror and painted on bright red lipstick. While we prepared, we talked about Marx’s theory on the alienation of labor. I liked the double self that was inherent in my new job. You had to dance under an assumed name. I chose Miranda. During the day, Mesha would volunteer at the rape-crisis center and serve on the board for the Latino community center. At night, Miranda would dance. I felt perfectly at home in this varied, dual-named, contradictory self.
As a stripper, I was an independent contractor, free to work as many or as few nights as I wanted. My days were all mine and at some point during that period, I began to use my daytime hours to write again. It was a gradual process. I had been keeping journals all along but hadn’t written fiction since moving to Asheville. Somehow though, my shift into Miranda opened up a space for writing in my life. I smoked unfiltered cigarettes and danced slow, turning my pale, lonely customers into short story characters in my head even as I slipped my shirt off for them. There was the man who told me he’d like to keep me locked inside a metal box and feed me white mice, the man who paid me just to smoke cigarettes while he watched, and the man who cried when our hands brushed as he handed me a fifty dollar bill.
At first it seemed like the perfect balance. My evenings at the club and days of writing and activism fulfilled me, engaging every part of me. The more I wrote, though, the more I began to recognize my own limitations. Here I was again, playing the guitar with my toes. But this time, I didn’t feel as fatalistic. My writing was already much better than it had been when I first made that observation, three years before.
Several of the other girls at the club were taking college classes. I decided to audit a fiction workshop with novelist Katherine Min. If I wanted to become a writer, Min said, it would take dedication. I had some talent, she told me, but it would take stubborn dedication to make it. I liked the sound of that challenge. Writing had always been the essential way through which I metabolized the world, but up until then it had also meant shutting myself off from others. I was either writing and not living, or living and not writing. I began to take more college classes, while still working at the club. Eventually I quit the club, but not before learning something indelible: an ability to bridge the brain and the body. I needed some way to temper my craving for life and my simultaneous desire to transform it into fiction. Though I didn’t have the words to explain it at the time, I know now that the most writerly thing I ever did was to stop writing and live for a while.
Mesha Maren is the author of the novel Sugar Run (Algonquin Books). Her short stories and essays can be read in Tin House, Oxford American, Crazyhorse, Triquarterly, The Southern Review, Ecotone, Sou’wester, Hobart, Forty Stories: New Writing from Harper Perennial, and elsewhere.
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