Stripped, p.5
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       Stripped, p.5

         Part #1 of Stripped series by Jasinda Wilder
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“So, are you an actress?” she asks. She sounds like a movie version of someone from “The Valley. ”

  “No. I’m going into production. ”

  “Oh, like, those behind-the-camera people?” She oozes disdain as she says this.

  “Yeah, I guess. ”

  “You’re from the South,” she points out.

  “Yes. I’m from Macon. ”

  “Is that, like, in Alabama?”

  I stare at her, and I wonder if she’s joking. “No, it’s in Georgia. ”

  “Oh. I’m Lizzie Davis. ” She doesn’t offer to shake my hand.

  “Grey Amundsen. ”

  “Grey. Like the color?”

  “Yeah, well…except it’s spelled with an ‘e. ’ G-R-E-Y. ”

  “Oh. Like Fifty Shades. ”

  I shrug, not wanting to admit I don’t know what she’s talking about. She smirks self-righteously and goes back to strumming her guitar. Her phone chimes, and she sets the guitar aside, crossing her legs and tapping at the phone. This goes on the entire time that I’m unpacking. I have no posters, no decorations at all except the photograph of Mama and me in New York. I don’t have a laptop, or a phone. I see a laptop on Lizzie’s desk, a big silver MacBook.

  When I’m unpacked, I’m at loose ends. Lizzie is still texting or whatever she’s doing. It’s four o’clock in the afternoon on Wednesday, and classes don’t start until Friday, and then we have the weekend off before the semester really gets under way. I climb the ladder then lie on my side and stare at the wall, missing my Mama. She’d tell me to stop moping and find something to do. Explore the city, dance. Make a film.

  Instead, I lie on the top bunk and wonder if I’ve made a mistake coming here.

  Chapter 5

  The rumbling of my stomach becomes a constant over the next year. The stipend my scholarship gives me to live on is tiny, barely enough for the meals at the cafeteria, which are generally awful and far between. My classes take up most of my day from morning to evening, and I often only have time for a bagel in the morning and something quick and nasty in the evenings. I make good grades, a 4. 0 for the first semester, 3. 9 for the second. I study film, and I dance. My haven, my sanctuary away from everything, is a quiet room on the top floor of one of my lecture halls. I’ve never seen anyone else there, since the floor is primarily faculty offices. The room is large enough for my purposes, and empty except for a lone filing cabinet in one corner, so I can dance freely. There’s a window to let in daylight, and an outlet near the floor where I can plug in my portable iPod speaker dock.

  I retreat there between classes, keeping the music turned low and the door locked. I find a song that hits me in the place within where movement lives, and I let go. I just move, just let my body flow. There’s no choreography, no rules, no expectations, no hunger or grades or homework or loneliness. Just the extension, the leap and the roll and the pirouette and the power of my legs, the tension in my core. I can be totally me there.

  Page 13

 

  My first year goes fine. I’ve gotten a lot of the prerequisite courses out of the way, the English and the chemistry and the two semesters of a foreign language. My second year begins with my first mid-level courses and a few introductory film production classes. The absence of funds means I rarely leave the campus. I spend my days in lecture, taking notes, or in my dorm room doing homework. Lizzie is gone most of the time, often coming back at all hours, reeking of alcohol. She invited me to a party once, but I declined. I’m not interested.

  My father never contacts me.

  My twentieth birthday passes unnoticed. I spend it writing an essay for Metropolis on the use of camera angles and shot length. I’m not making any friends. I don’t know how to make the effort.

  The only thing keeping me sane through this whole process is school. To most people, college is work. It’s something they have to go through to get on with their lives; for me, this is my life. For me, it’s not just about sitting through lectures and writing essays, it’s about learning a craft, a trade. I’m soaking up everything I can about film, about the process of taking an idea from some notes scrawled on a legal pad to a film on a big screen. I watch films in every spare moment, and I dissect them. I have my Flip camera everywhere I go, making short films about anything and everything. Most of those pieces are vignettes, just momentary slices of life set to music. They’re as much expression to me as dancing.

  I’m halfway through my sophomore year when I get summoned to the financial aid office. It comes by way of a letter written in vague language saying there’s an issue with my status. Or something. I barely read it. I find my way to the office with its gray tile floor and gray pillars and red leather ottomans and partial cubicle offices. After a thirty-minute wait, I’m summoned by a woman in her mid-thirties with mocha skin and short, kinky black hair.

  “Hi, Grey. I’m Anya Miller. ”

  “Hi, Mrs. Miller. I got a notice from this office about my financial aid. ”

  “Call me Anya, please. ” She takes my student ID card and brings up my file, reading it with an increasingly blank expression, the kind of look that says she has news I won’t like. “Well, Grey. Your scholarships have been covering nearly all of your tuition and your book costs, as well as room and board. Unfortunately, you’ve used up most of the scholarship funds. You have enough to finish out this year, fully covered. Or you can stretch it out and it’ll cover some of your tuition, but not all. You’re listed as an independent, which means you’re capable of supporting yourself. If you were listed as a dependent on your parents and their income was low enough, you would qualify for financial aid. But since you’re an independent, you can work to support yourself. ”

  “How can it just run out? I thought it was a loan? Like, it would just keep piling on? I mean…what am I supposed to do?”

  Anya just gives me a sympathetic look that says she doesn’t have much in the way of answers. “It was a grant, and it was a finite amount of money. This should have been explained to you. You might qualify for a work-study program, but the job fair was held a week ago, and the positions are all filled, I’m afraid. As far as staying on campus? Most students in your position end up finding a job of some sort to pay their way. ” She says this as if that much should be obvious.

  I suppose this was explained to me, or to Mama, but I was so absorbed by Mama’s fight with cancer that I didn’t pay much attention. And I suppose it should have been obvious, but I’ve never had a job before. I have no clue how to go about finding one. I absently thank Anya Miller and leave the office of financial aid in a daze. I spend the rest of my time between classes that week asking around campus about work, but there are no openings. Even the laundry facilities are fully staffed. I receive an official letter from the university delineating how much scholarship money I have left, laying out the exact tuition, and how much I’ll have to pay every semester if I use my scholarship to pay half. It’s an extraordinary amount of money. I have thirty dollars to my name.

  I start filling out application after application for nearby restaurants and bars, shops and stores and boutiques, No one is hiring. A week passes, and then two. I get a map of the L. A. bus routes and start filling out applications farther and farther afield from the university.

  Maybe I’m not asking the right questions, or maybe all the jobs really are filled, but I have zero luck. I think have a lead on a job at a bar, but then the manager conducting the interview finds out I have no experience and that fizzles out. The end of the semester closes in. If I don’t come up with a job soon, I’ll have nowhere to live, and my reason for being in L. A. —my film degree—won’t happen.

  I ride the bus line farther and farther away, asking anywhere and everywhere if they’re hiring. No one is.

  And then I see a “NOW HIRING!” sign.

  My stomach sinks when I see the name of the establishment: Exotic Nights Gentlemen’s Club. The hiring notice says, “Now hiri
ng exotic dancers. Inquire within for details. ”

  I may be a naïve pastor’s-daughter and a hick from Macon, Georgia, but I know what a gentleman’s club is, what exotic dancing means.

  I keep riding the bus. I stop in at a drive-through taco joint and ask about jobs, no luck. I even find a dance studio, do an audition and ask about working there but the owner just laughs.

  Weeks pass. The end of the semester is drawing near. hiring notice haunts me. I dream about it. It’s work. It’s income. It’s the ability to stay on campus. But…it’s a gentleman’s club. A strip bar.

  It means taking my clothes off in return for money. I get sick to my stomach just thinking about it. I’ve never even worn a bikini before. No one has seen my naked body since I started bathing myself at the age of nine. I can’t. I just can’t.

  Can I?

  I can’t ask Daddy for money. I can’t go back to Georgia.

  I don’t sleep, can’t eat. I miss a class, and I fail a test. I receive an official notice that my dorm funding is gone. A week after that, I get the letter reiterating how much I’ll have to pay in tuition for the next semester, assuming a full-time class load of at least twelve credit hours. Books are extra.

  I cry myself to sleep at night.

  I put quarters into a battered, graffiti-covered payphone and dial Daddy’s number, listen to it ring once, twice. I hang up before it rings a third time.

  Then, a break. I land a job as a hostess of an Italian restaurant. It’s a job, it’s work. I stay long enough to pull two full paychecks, and that’s enough to make me realize hostessing won’t even come close to paying tuition. I beg them to give me more hours, let me wait tables, anything, but the manager stonewalls me, pointing at my lack of experience. In a few months I might be able to start taking some tables, but not yet.

  Page 14

 

  It’s not enough. I don’t have months; I need income now. I keep hostessing, and keep looking for something better paying.

  Again and again the gentleman’s club crops up in my thoughts. I know enough to know I’d make good money.

  Finally, the semester is over and I have two weeks to come up with tuition, room, and board. It’s a staggering amount of money. Thousands and thousands of dollars.

  Decision time.

  I shoulder my purse, shove the nausea down, and get on the bus. It’s one of the new red and futuristic-looking ones. I have my earbuds in, and I’m listening to Macklemore, “Ten Thousand Hours,” a song I came across online by accident. I bob my head to the beat and focus on the words, the smooth, passionate flow of his rhythm and the beauty of the lyrics. I try not to think about what I’m about to do.

  I’m nearly successful in pretending I’m just applying for any other job. But then the bus rumbles to a stop and I get off, stepping into the blistering heat. My wedge-heel Mary Jane shoes clack on the cracked sidewalk, and I follow the broken squares the three blocks to the door of the club. It’s a low red-brick building with a faded white awning. The name is written across the blacked-out windows in yellow neon tubes: Exotic Nights Gentlemen’s Club, and next to that is the hiring notice. There’s no phone number listed, no address, no notice of hours of operation. Just a single door, through which is visible a short hallway/foyer. It’s broad daylight, and the tiny parking lot off to the left is empty except for a single car, a white early-nineties Trans Am, the T-top open. My hands tremble as I clutch the sun-heated metal of the door handle. I taste bile, but I force it down.

  There’s no chime when the door opens. The hallway, which is barely ten steps long, ends at another door, this one a basic black wooden slab with a round brass knob, which squeaks as I turn it. I can barely breathe as I take my first step into the club, into the first and only bar establishment I’ve ever been in. The lights are all on, illuminating fifty or so small, round black tables clustered around a semi-circular stage. A silver metal pole extends from the stage to the ceiling, and a bank of lights, currently turned off, point stage center. A bar runs the length of the club on one side, and there are booths along the other wall, cracked red leather and tacky-looking Formica with battered metal napkin dispensers and salt and pepper shakers.

  A man sits at the bar, in front of him a short glass full of amber liquid and ice despite the fact that it’s barely three o’clock. He’s short, even sitting down, and he has black hair slicked back, movie mobster style. He’s wearing a shockingly bright Hawaiian-pattern button-down shirt and tight black slacks.

  He hears me come in and turns toward me, throwing out a perfunctory, “We’re closed—” But then he sees me and cuts himself off, stands up.

  My eyes are drawn to the pointy-toed snakeskin shoes, and then the bulging belly visible beneath the shirt, and then the gold rings on six of his ten fingers. He has a scruffy, scraggly goatee, a round face, and quick brown eyes.

  “Well, hey there, darling. What can I do for you?” His voice is high-pitched but smooth and suggestive.

  His gaze travels blatantly from my face down to my br**sts, lingering there for a long time, and then moving down to my hips and back up. I’m dressed as I normally am, in a pair of fitted but not skintight jeans and a button-down green sleeveless blouse.

  My voice won’t work. I can’t make the words come out. I take a deep breath and force them. “I saw the sign…and I—I need a job. ” The southern twang in my voice has never been more pronounced.

  The man comes forward and shakes my hand. His palm is clammy, his fingers thick and his grip weak. “I’m Timothy van Dutton. I’m the manager. Why don’t you come sit down here?” He pats the back of the high swivel chair next to his. “Can I get you something to drink?”

  “Just some ice water, please. ” I try to smooth the twang out, but it doesn’t work. I’m too nervous.

  He scurries around the bar, scoops some ice into a glass and squirts water into it from a soda gun, then slides it across the bar to me before coming back around and taking his chair once more. “So. What’s your name?”

  “Grey. Grey Amundsen. ”

  “Grey. That’s a pretty name. ”

  “Thanks. ”

  “So, Grey Amundsen. You’re here for the job opening?”

  I nod. “Yeah. I…I’m at USC, and I…I need a job. ”

  He rubs the mustache on his upper lip and then his chin, perusing my body yet again. “Have you ever danced before?”

  “Danced? I thought—I thought this was a…you know. A strip club. ” I whisper the last two words, barely able to get them out.

  Timothy laughs. “Most of my girls prefer the term ‘exotic dancer. ’ So, I can probably safely assume you’ve never danced before. ”

  I really need this job, so I’d better put some effort into getting it. I have make him think I can do it, even though I’m not at all sure I can.

  “I’m a dancer. I’ve been trained in ballet, jazz, and contemporary. So…I’m a dancer. Just…I’ve never danced like—like that before. ” I gesture at the stage, the pole.

  “I see. So why would you want to do this, then? It’s not for everyone. It takes…a certain kind of skill. You can’t just get up there and take your clothes off. It doesn’t work like that. You have to make them want you. ” Tim’s eyes haven’t really left my br**sts the entire time he’s talking to me.

  I ignore it.

  “I know how to perform. I’ve done several recitals before. So…I know how to perform. ”

  He laughs. “This is a whole different type of performance, sweetheart. Now, don’t take this the wrong way, but you look like you’re about to piss yourself. So why don’t you be honest with me?”

  “I really need this job. ” I stare at the sticky bar top, refusing to meet Timothy van Dutton’s eyes. “This may not have been my first choice of job, but…I’ll learn. ”

  Timothy doesn’t answer right away. He lifts the glass to his lips and takes a sip, hissing slightly after he swallows whatever
is in the glass. His gaze sweeps up and down me again.

  “Stand up. ”

  I obey, and he twirls his finger in a circle. It’s the same gesture Mrs. LeRoux used to have us do a pirouette, so I do one.

  “That was pretty-looking, but do it more slowly. ”

  Page 15

 

  I turn slowly, arching my back, pushing out my chest. I feel his eyes on me, and my flesh crawls.

  “Unbutton a couple buttons for me. ”

  I come to a stop facing him and stare. “What?” It comes out as a horrified whisper.

  “Your shirt. Unbutton a few of the buttons. I need to see a bit of skin. ” I hesitate, and he leans forward, his eyes narrowing. “Listen, sweetheart. You’re applying for a job as an exotic dancer. This means you have to take your clothes off. We serve alcohol here, so this is a semi-nude club, which means you won’t be completely naked, but you have to be comfortable in your own skin. Okay? So either unbutton your shirt or get out. ”

  He’s right so I swallow hard, even if I’d rather kick him hard between his legs. I close my eyes briefly and then lift my right hand to my shirt, pinch the clear plastic button, hesitate again, and then push the button through the hole. I feel layers of innocence being ripped away as each button slips through the hole in the fabric of my shirt. I do it again, and then a third time.

  This isn’t how I imagined it would feel disrobing for a man for the first time. I’m sick, and scared, and disgusted.

  My cle**age is spilling out over the top of the shirt now, and hints of my black bra show. I’m breathing hard, and each breath makes my br**sts swell. Timothy’s eyes are glued to my chest. He lifts an eyebrow and flicks a finger at me, which I take to mean one more button. I do it and feel tears prick my eyes. I blink them away and keep my gaze down. A tear drips off the end of my nose and hits my big toe, quickly joined by a third. I blink hard and breathe deep and focus on keeping the wave of sobs blocked in my throat. His face twists in clear lust. I steal a glance at him from under my eyelashes, and I see him shove his hand in his pocket. He adjusts himself, and my gorge rises. I may be a virgin, but I know the basics. I know why he had to adjust himself.

  I swallow it back, bitter and acidic and burning.

  “Nice. Very nice. You’ve got a great body, and the air of innocence you’ve got going on will have the guys going crazy,” Timothy finally says.

  He’s talking to me about me. It’s weird and disconcerting. I desperately want to button up my shirt, but I don’t. Timothy is right in that I’ll have to learn to be comfortable being stared at. And this is the least of what I’ll have to do if I get this job. I have no idea what it pays, but I have the idea that strippers get paid a lot. All I know is that I desperately need a job, and if I’m going to get naked in front of men all night, it had better be worth it.

 
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