Here I am Joanne

Clea Bierman

 

I’ve signed up to be a Shot Girl for ten days during Bike Week in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

I’ve seen people do body shots, mostly in movies and a handful of times at frat parties. The Shot Girl lies on a table, her midriff exposed, lime juiced is squeezed on her stomach and then covered in salt. Tequila is poured into her belly button. The shot taker licks the salt-lime combo off her body and then slurps the tequila from her naval.

I just finished my sophomore year of college in Chapel Hill, NC. A few weeks prior, I signed a lease for a house off campus that I’ll share with my best friends. A home that is ours. I need money to decorate my room—I’ve never done that on my own before, without styling suggestions from my family or my dorm roommate. My parents would loan me the cash if I asked. But I don’t. I want to buy everything so that everything is mine. It feels like a symbol of my independence. I’m 19 and there’s nothing I want more than independence.

I tell my parents that I’m not coming home for summer, that I have a job not too far from campus (no further details). I ask if they’ll fly out and come furniture shopping with me in a few weeks, that I’ve been saving up. They say of course they’ll come, and I can tell that they’re proud.

The job is Morgan’s idea, she’s done it before. It’s easy money, she says, a couple hundred bucks a day. Sam says she’ll go if I go.

I think it over. Each morning before finals, I stop at the chicken stand on campus and buy a chicken biscuit for $2. Drinks at our favorite bar, the one that overlooks our bad fake IDs, cost $5 each. A couple hundred a day, for ten days. It feels like a fortune.

“The customers don’t touch you,” Morgan tells us. “It’s not like the movies.”

I’m not sure what that means, but Sam looks at me with wide eyes that say see, it’ll be fine, and I agree. We pack our things into Sam’s white Toyota Highlander and start the three-hour drive.

***

Sam parks in front of a bar that uses fake bamboo to separate the interior from the lot outside. Tawny palm fronds are woven together to compose the ceiling, and even their longest leaves dangle nearly two feet above the bamboo, letting the thick Carolina air seep into bar and moisten our skin. The crowd seems mellow, a handful of men with goatees sipping on beers in tall glasses. As I watch them, drinking slowly and keeping to themselves, I start to relax. But this isn’t where we’ll be working, Morgan explains as she leans against the wooden bar. Sam and Morgan order beers from an attractive bartender in a v-neck shirt. I watch a red neon light flash above the rows of liquor bottles.

A man in his late forties saddles up next to Morgan. He seems tense, his skin is sun damaged and scarred. She leans into his ear, her radiant teeth exposed as she murmurs, and his eyes brighten. He takes her hand, she nods at us, and he leads us all into a small office.

“Give me your IDs,” he says.

He has thick, dirty fingers. He takes my ID and sets it by his employment records. My ID reads: Joanne Eubanks, 26, Brunette, 5’9”. I’m glad he doesn’t look at me to compare. I have long blonde hair that passes my belly button and am barely 5’5”. There will be no record that I ever worked here, and for some reason, I’m glad. Still, as he return’s Joanne’s ID, a part of me is embarrassed, not at the deceit, but at the fact that I have on lounge pants and a loose t-shirt—comfy clothes I wore for the long car ride. His pot belly hangs over his too-tight jeans, but I need him to think I’m hot. And capable. In that order. I imagine my earnings will depend on it—what shifts I get, what section I’ll have.

After we leave, Morgan tells Sam and I that he first made his money from some sort of porn scam, something about hidden cameras in bathrooms. He bought the cheesy, bamboo-enclosed bar first, and then he bought The Dog House.

***

In the morning, I put on denim shorts, a leopard-print crop top that zips up the front, and platform sandals. My stomach is exposed, and I stuff my bra using the silicon pads I purchased for the trip. I apply dark eyeliner and icy pink lip gloss. As the other girls finish getting dressed, I sit on the couch and paint my toes—a French manicure—white tips and a sheer pink overcoat. I want every part of me to be perfect. Even my feet. Sam and Morgan look at me and say your toes don’t matter. But I think maybe they might.

***

The Dog House is essentially an enormous asphalt parking lot, a small bar on the north side, and a slightly bigger strip club on the south side. The girls and I pass through the main bar which contains three pool tables and head out the back. Atop the white painted stripes that once indicated parking spots is a second, makeshift bar the size of an average swimming pool constructed specifically for the event, and further south is a full barrel pipe at least thirty feet high.

“You guys have to see the stunt bikers!” Morgan says.

For the next ten days, Myrtle Beach will be overrun by motorcyclists. That’s the reason the Dog House needs Shot Girls.

I stick close to Morgan as we walk past the pipe and into a silver trailer. The thick-fingered man is there, slumped on a white fold-out chair that looks like it might break. I’ve learned that his name is David, and he’s been paying Morgan’s bills back in Chapel Hill. I wonder what she does in return. My stomach turns as I think about them having sex. This time, David notices me. I see his eyes land on the muscle of my thigh, my belly button.

I’m handed a Styrofoam block on a plastic tray. Shoved into the block are thirty shots in plastic containers that look like beakers from a science lab—6-inch-long, skinny cylinders with one rounded end. For each tray, I have to pay the bar $60 (or $2 a shot), but I can sell them for any price I’d like. Morgan explains that it’s $6 for a regular shot and $10 for a body shot.

“You can sell them for more,” she says, “but don’t go lower, or you’ll be fucking over the other girls.”

Morgan teaches us to put a beaker in our breasts, in the front of our shorts, or in our butt cracks. David pretends to be a customer and pulls the beaker out from Morgan’s cleavage using his lips. He never touches her skin.

“Sell as many as you can,” David says. We are responsible for our own cash, but he tells us he’ll tally our trays, so we know what we owe the house at the end of each shift.

“See,” Morgan says, as I leave the trailer behind her, “No one’s gonna touch you.”

***

Before long, there’s motorcycles covering the front parking lot—shiny, colorful Harley Davidson’s that have wide handlebars and furry seats. Sleek crotch rockets with neon graphics and sparkling rims. Bulky three wheelers with bellowing engines that leave a trail of smoke. The men that park them have grey beards and ponytails. They stand in front of each other’s bikes and marvel. Men. Hundreds of men. I start to understand why I’m here.

I’m by the back bar when I sell my first shot. A group of lanky 50-somethings wearing Oakley sunglasses wave me over. It’s 3pm. I think about the sexy waitresses I’ve seen in movies and remind myself to push my chest out. I hold my tray out to the side with one hand, so it doesn’t block their view. My body. When I tell them the prices, my voice shoots into a higher register, and I hope they can’t tell by my pitch that I’m nervous. But they don’t know my regular voice. They don’t know me. No one here knows me. Here, I am Joanne.

They don’t want body shots, and I’m relieved. They aren’t drunk enough yet, they say. I feel the sun stinging the small of my back as I pull the tubes from the Styrofoam, pass them out, collect my money. Yet, I think.

***

Sam and I stick together at first. We circle around the front parking lot, through the bar and around the pool tables, to the back bar (the best place for profit), into the strip club, and back around.

The first time I walk into the strip club is the first time I’ve ever been in a strip club. It’s just like what I’ve seen in the movies—black leather armchairs surrounding round silver tables, a stage that juts out amongst them with two poles. It feels like nighttime, even during the day. But the women are not the beautiful, full-breasted, blow-dried, glitter-covered vixens I’ve always imagined. Their bodies are mushy, and their nipples point in various directions. Their teeth are rotten, and their eyes are yellow. Years later I think about the meth they shoot in the locker room I never go into. I don’t think about it when I first see them. Even when I see their bruised and punctured arms. I don’t think about what they are trying to erase.

When we circle back to the main bar, Sam takes the shots the bartenders hand us. I have no desire to drink. Even the thought of losing control in this setting makes me feel afraid.

As I reach the makeshift, back bar for the second time, I have one beaker left on my tray. A stocky older man flags me, and I strut over. I flirt and giggle. He asks for a body shot.

“Right here,” he says, pushing the beaker into my cleavage. I laugh again, pretending I don’t care. “Put your hands on my shoulders,” he says.

I’d rather not touch him, but I do as he asks.

As he leans his face into my chest, I feel someone grab my ankles and lift my bottom half into the air. I’m in an assisted handstand, my palms balanced on his shoulders. The liquor pours onto his face, mostly missing his gaping mouth as his tongue darts about.

Upside down, I finally get it. I’m there to be touched. To be groped and fondled and to act like I like it. To flirt, and pocket my cash, and then do it all over again.

My feet hit the ground, and I take a step back, letting out a squeal to exaggerate my surprise and fake my intrigue. The man laughs and asks his friends if they got it on film, and they have. Then, he hands me $20.

Back at school, if I’m not eating at the cafeteria on the meal plan my parents pay for, I get chipotle burritos for six dollars or slices of pizza for only two. At the mall, I buy crop tops from Forever 21 for 14 bucks.

I look at the bill in my hand.

***

Each day, I’m licked and motorboated. On the fourth day a fat old man tells me he’ll give me $100 for the panties I have on. I go into the bathroom and take them off. He puts a crumpled green bill in my hand. I don’t think any more about it. I can’t.

Instead, I think about what kind of bed frame I want. The color scheme for my new room. The full-length mirror I’ll buy. I imagine getting dressed in front of it before going drinking at our favorite bar.

On the fifth day, Sam and I find a way to avoid being touched—though I’m not sure if she minds, she gets drunk and we never talk about it, not later each night, not even years later. Sam kneels and tilts her head back, putting the rounded end of the cylinder between her teeth, holding the tube upright. I lean over her and put my mouth around the tube, making the rest of it disappear into my throat until my lips touch hers. Then, she stands so that we’re basically kissing, the shot glass lost between us. I pull away, toss my head back, and pull the tube out with my fingers.

“Buy us some shots,” I say to the next group of men we encounter.

We’ve filled a row of beakers with plain cranberry juice just for the act, so that I don’t have to drink—five days in and I’m grasping for whatever control I have left, trying not to lose myself. Men make a circle around us and pay $20 just to watch. They cheer. They pull their phones out and film. We switch rolls, they pay again, another twenty. The more excited they get, the more I wonder if this is better or worse than the feeling of their pepper grey whiskers against my chest.

When we finish the row of cranberry shots, we tell them the show is over. Sam goes inside to the bar; the juice is diluting her buzz and she wants alcohol. The crowd is gone and I’m alone in the front parking lot, surrounded by bikes. The moon is a half-circle in the dusky, gunmetal sky. It reflects off radiators and rims. A man walks up to me. He’s short and his shoulders are curved forward. He’s on drugs. I can see it in his eyes, but I don’t know what kind. He’s wearing Ed Hardy jeans that are too big and a belt that makes them convex in the front. He hands me a folded, white piece of paper that’s been ripped so that it’s no bigger than my palm. I look down at it. He walks away, slowly at first, stepping backwards, then turns and disappears.

I open the paper.

$2,400, it reads. Then his phone number.

Later I tell Sam I don’t want to do the act anymore. I’ll let them touch me instead. I never ask myself if there’s a number. A number that would make me say yes.

***

Day 7. I never drink. Not even after 2am when the bar closes and the girls and I meet David in the strip club. He rubs Morgan’s hand, but looks at me. Stares. He’s already counted my trays, and knows I’ve been making the most money, even though I don’t shout out my numbers at the end of the night like the other girls. He asks me to sit on his lap. I giggle and pretend to think he’s joking.

But there’s something I like about his attention. About all the attention. It’s so easy to obtain. I linger under the shower at night, trying to wash away the tongues on my breasts, the hands that steady themselves on my hip bones or graze the small of my back. Sometimes I even cry. But each morning I get up early to choose the perfect outfit, curl my hair, stuff my bra, fix the chips in my nail polish. Each morning I’m determined to be the prettiest.

***

On the ninth day, I’m doing a loop around the pool tables. A thin, hunched man nods me over. He’s shifty and can’t make eye contact. Something about him feels off.

He’ll do the $10 body shot, he says, but he asks me to place the shot in my toes. I look down at my shiny French manicure. It’s a relief. It keeps him away from my private parts. I sit on the edge of the pool table and stretch my leg out. I place the beaker in the space between my first and second toe. I try not to notice his delight as he nears my foot.

He asks for a second shot and then a third.

I’ve made $30 dollars and he hasn’t come near my breasts.

“Should I just stay here so you can buy my entire tray?” I ask with a smile and a wink. A joke, unless he agrees.

“I can’t drink anymore,” he says, his voice shy, “but I’ll give you a hundred dollars if you let me suck your toe.”

It sounds like easy money and I accept. It’s just my foot, after all. I stand on my feet all day and never even think about what they feel. I take the money.

But then, his mouth is around my big toe. I can feel the inside of his cheeks, the edges of his teeth, his tongue. I’m screaming, and it isn’t pretend intrigue. I’m shrieking and pulling my foot back and hopping off the pool table and running to the bathroom.

I set my tray on the back of the toilet and pace around the stall. One more day.

***

Back in Chapel Hill I bring a grocery bag full of cash to the counter of the local bank. The teller uses a machine to count $3,537 mostly in one-dollar bills.

Morgan and Sam and I start texting about next year.

My parents arrive and take me furniture shopping in Raleigh. I’ve decided to decorate my room silver. I buy a vanity in Pier1 that’s made entirely of mirrors—the top, the sides, the legs, even the drawer. I add on the matching nightstand. In HomeGoods my mom finds a standing mirror that’s almost as tall as me. I hand the cashier my debit card, and my dad gives my shoulder a quick squeeze. He’s proud that I’ve earned this myself.

In my room, my dad assembles my bed frame, and my mom and I strategize the perfect placement for all my mirrored furniture. After everything is order, they give me long hugs and say goodbye.

I’m alone in my room. My own room, a place that’s mine. I stand in the open space and spin in a gradual circle. In every direction, I’m met by the reflection I paid for.

#

Clea Bierman is a fashion and lifestyle journalist from San Diego. She has earned bylines in international editions of Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and more. As a red carpet and nightlife reporter, she broke headlines for the celebrity weeklies, including In Touch and Life & Style. Clea’s creative nonfiction essay, “Rolling,” was published in The Los Angeles Review. In 2016, she completed a Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Hunter College and is currently seeking representation for her memoir. She lives and writes in New York City.