It was winter when I went to the strip club, a few months after graduation. After ten minutes – are you here for a job interview? No? I just figured, y’know – I found myself outside with the dancers, smoking their cigarettes, huddling into my jacket and wondering how the hell they were coping in their bra and undies. When it was my turn for the cigarette, I pursed my lips around multiple lipstick marks and inhaled.
It had been Tuesday at 6pm. Hardly anyone was in the club then. It was the magical time of night where it was just us girls – walk in and the receptionists were girls. Walk further and the dancers were standing around the bar. The booths were empty except for one guy sitting in the corner, looking lost. I sat down just as the first girl came on.
She was introduced as Helena, ‘the best girl in the house’, but when I went outside to smoke with the dancers they told me it was a term given out at random. Every girl got their turn. The lights were low. The lights were always low except for the ones turned right up: beams of colour highlighting the stage and more importantly the dancer, circling the pole or sliding down. The dancers moved like they were underwater or maybe they were the water, all liquid. Sitting in that club, pitch dark except for the streams of colour, was like being dropped in a glass of vodka. Everything was clear and hazy all at once.
Two more girls came and went as Helena did a lap around the club. She stopped to talk to the other dancers at the bar before coming up to me, beaming like diamonds. They didn’t do polite customer service smiles here.
“You did really great,” I told her.
“Aw, thanks!” She beamed harder and held out the waistband of her lace undies for me to slot the club’s version of money into them. Then she pulled out a chair and sat next to me, asked my name and how my night was going. I told her it was good and kept my eyes on her face. If I looked down I’d see the nipple piercing that was visible through the sheer material of her bra, crafted to look like a set of sharp silver teeth closing around the nipple. I wanted to compliment her on it. It was a nice piercing. Instead I said, “You’re all really talented. You guys must work out a lot to get the kind of muscles you need for the pole.” Her “aw, thanks!” felt more solid this time. Her shoulders relaxed as she started telling me her workout routine.
When she invited me out for a smoke, I went. There were two other girls standing outside the club, huddled against the cold. One of them had a jacket and it was buttoned over both of them, so they looked like a strange creature with too many limbs, one of them with a cigarette they were holding out to me. I let Helena borrow my scarf and watched their faces as they talked. They were all wearing makeup that glittered when it caught the light, and their skin looked very soft.
They were talking about a movie they saw together last week and one of them that wasn’t Helena asked me if I’d seen it. I had. I didn’t love it as much as they did, but I didn’t want to bring the mood down so I kept that to myself. When the dancer asked me what I did, I told her I recently graduated with a Textiles degree and now did Not Much, what about her? Also university, she said, but not my one.
Her name was Stacy and she studied Commerce. Her friend, who was buttoned into the jacket with her, didn’t say her name, but she studied History.
“What are you doing after,” Helena asked. It took me a second to realise she was talking to me.
“After this? Or after I stop doing Not Much?”
“After this, I’m going to sleep. As for anything else – I’m trying not to think about it.”
Helena laughed. “Same, girl.”
In the lumpy space of jacket between the other two, there was a movement that might’ve been a nudge from History girl, who said, “Hey, watch this,” and pursed her lips, blowing small round Os of smoke. Helena laughed, delighted.
“Where’d you guys learn that,” she asked, and begged them to teach her. We spent the rest of their break forming our mouths into circles and blowing shaky Os.
When their break ended, Helena gave my scarf back and she and the other two smoke ring-girls headed into the staff only door. I went and sat back in my seat. There was a dancer doing her rounds, and I was in the middle of slotting a flimsy three dollars of the club’s money into the strap of her underpants, which she held expectantly away from her hip, when Helena came back through the staff-only doors. She pointed at me.
“Hey! Textiles! That means you sew, right? Properly, I mean.”
“Wanna come backstage and help us out?”
I excused myself from the dancer, then got up and followed Helena through the door.
There was no neon back here. It was dim, but in the way that a secret, misty forest might be dim. Back here the lights were moon-bright, circling around a short line of mirrors like in every rock star movie I’d been jealous over as a kid. The room was narrow and also sparse, except for the vanities under the mirrors, all of which were stacked with all kinds of makeup, glitter, jeweled and sheer underwear. There was also an open textbook that had something to do with statistics.
History girl wasn’t there, but Stacy was bending over a vanity. She had what looked like a first aid kit open next to her, but on second look it was filled with spools of thread and needles and for some reason, a lone crochet hook. She was braced over a bra, which had a strip of lace hanging off the top of the left cup, and she was swearing as she tried to insert thread through a needle.
“Was she still-” Stacy looked up, saw me and sighed. “Great. Textiles, yeah?”
“That’s me,” I said. “Do you want me to-“
“Oh god, yes please.” She held the needle and thread out. “The lace and everything – it’s so fiddly, and the last time I tried this it didn’t come out great. Fine from far away, but up close a mess.”
What she said made me think of Monet then – the closer you got, the more the lake or clouds blurred into nonsensical smears. I was still thinking of this as I took the needle and thread – not so much the smears, but the colours and light he managed to put into the paint, whether the landscape was sunset or snow.
At a closer look, I went into the supply kit to get a different type of needle, then pinched the thread and pulled it through its eye. The music was muffled back here. You could sense the beat – rhythmic, hypnotic, something to spin and step to – but not much else. Whatever was on now, it was strong and steady like a heartbeat. It pulsed up my legs, and as I stuck the needle carefully into the bra I glanced down at the dancers’ bare, previously high-heeled feet, imagining how the pulse would feel without the barrier of shoes.
Helena sat down at the next desk and leaned towards the mirror. She ran a finger around her eyeliner, clearing the smudges. It came away with glittery specks, purple and gold, and one tiny silver star.
“That must be hard to get off,” I said as I sewed. Helena snorted. She kept wiping her finger.
“You know it. This stuff sticks around like a bad smell. Thank god we can call it an accessory. I swear, glitter’s just part of my look now, no matter how far away I am from a stage.”
“It’ll still be there when they bury us,” Stacy agreed. “At least it’s pretty.”
“It’s very pretty,” I said. There was, I now noticed, glitter everywhere – even in the dim light, the glitter caught the light and reflected it back at us.
I had to concentrate on the bra after that, I’d gotten to a particularly fiddly bit and I had to do a lot of small, precise stitches. I stitched and listened as the dancers sat next to each other and talked – they were going on a trip in the summer, they said. Probably Queenstown, but maybe somewhere more exciting. A few more dancers came in as I sewed, and I ended up standing so they could use the vanities. Helena and Stacy hung around, talking about Queenstown and maybe Greymouth, where they had a knife making workshop, until I held out the bra and said, “Ta-da.” Stacy took it and tilted it around. She grinned and said “Oh, wow! This is so good. You should do this as a job.”
“That was the plan,” I said. Stacy let another dancer walk between us, then orbited forwards and kissed my cheek.
“Thank you thank you thank you. You saved my night, this was the only one that fits properly.”
I hadn’t sewed anything outside of class for a long time, and nothing at all since graduation. It was good to do it again. When Stacey tugged gently at the lace, it stayed fixed to the bra. The stitches were small and close together, and white to match the material. If I squinted, it looked like a rib cage. But only if I squinted. Good stitches stay out of sight.
“No worries,” I said.
The one guy had left when I came back out. The bartender wasn’t at the bar, so for a moment it really was just us girls. There was a different dancer on the pole now, a smoke-ring girl, the one studying History. She had a hula hoop act but now she was dangling from the pole in a way that made me think of circuses, like for her next trick she’d be halving herself. She’d explained through smoke that she was new, so she was using these quiet hours for practice. There was an art, she’d said, to unclasping a bra, to walking one heel-click in front of the other. As she climbed to the top of the pole and dropped her head back, I thought about Monet again, all that impossible light he got into the paint. History girl extended an arm. It was a long line down to her neck, her bare chest. The lights bathed her in gold until she dripped with it. She slid down the pole, a slow spin, and all of her shimmered.
I didn’t stick around for much longer. It was getting to that time where men started to actually show up. After four milled in, I was out of there. Helena stopped me as I passed by, catching me by the shoulder. She’d been standing at the bar, one of the last ones to stay instead of head to the back room or towards customers. I waited, but she didn’t say anything as she raised a hand and smudged a thumb down my cheek.
“Lipstick,” she said. She smiled. There was a silver studded star next to her eye where a dimple would go. She rubbed her thumb on her bare arm until the red vanished into her skin, or maybe it didn’t. It was hard to tell in the dark, even when it was punctured by neon pink, which skimmed over her whole body and then back towards the stage.
“Right,” I said. “Thanks.”
“Anytime,” she said. “Thanks, Textiles.”
“No worries,” I said. I waved. She waved back, and then I was gone.
Outside, I checked my coat and my pants. Both were a mess of glitter, although I was sure I hadn’t come into that much contact with things backstage. My cheek might be dusted with it as well, after getting that lipstick rubbed off. I thought of glitter on my cheek, transferred by her thumb, the whole way home. In my head, the glitter caught the light from every streetlight and refracted it all over. The light grew, gathering from apartment windows and cellphone screens and clubs with dyed bulbs that throbbed like heartbeats, collecting in one big firefly glow until the whole city lit up like a stage in the dark.
Isabelle McNeur studies at Victoria University, where she has completed several IIML courses and won the Prize for Best Original Composition in 2017. She has been published in journals such as Starling, NZ Poetry Yearbook, Flash Frontier, Wizards in Space and Headland. In 2020 she’ll complete her Masters at the IIML.