“Boy you better act like you understand
When you roll with pussy control
(Are you ready?)
Prince, “Pussy Control”
Friday night, 9:56 p.m. She can barely hear the third verse of Jordan”s favorite ACDC song from her perch on the toilet. Nina has one leg up on the sink, her dark, enormous breast set tight against her thigh while her bejeweled hands massage her calf. She watches Nina quietly. She feels a wave of self-consciousness and tries to force the pee to move faster.
“Damn girl, you been spiking those Cokes tonight?” Nina asks her, and she smiles shyly.
The refrain is over. She stands up, moving over as Nina jumps on the toilet before she can flush. She pulls up her slip and checks for camel toe. She doesn”t bother washing her hands they will be dirty soon anyway. The song is ending, and Mike is announcing her on top. She walks twenty steps, past the rows of makeup bags and dimly lit mirrors, past the coat rack, the refrigerator, the line of fruit slices and sandwiches. She pours a few inches of champagne in a plastic cup and downs it.
Breathe. She walks straight past the rows of new clothes toward the DJ booth. “How you doing, girl?” Mike asks, and she smiles quietly. On the first stair, she holds the wall with one hand and tries to look steady. First the ball of the foot, then the six-inch heel, ball down, heel down, keeping the beat. She reminds herself to look up and rolls her shoulders back, then she shakes her head and puts on her best smirk. She lays a silver purse on the second step. Come on, Babygirl, let”s rob these assholes.
“I was blessed with the body of the goddesses
Have you any idea how hard this is?
I can flex in 25 positions
But I only work here to pay my tuition”
Wyclef Jean, “Perfect Gentleman”
At least that”s how Tuelle said it would be. Tuelle took one look at me and said I would be fine, ends were going to start meeting. “As long as you don”t do anything stupid,” she said. She was sitting at a white vanity counter in the dressing room somewhere in Chicago, a thick red textbook open in place of a makeup bag. I imagine she a diet Sprite with some fruit liqueur in it sitting there too, and she probably ordered me one. She liked to have a drink on Friday nights to celebrate surviving the week. Her stage name came from “2L”, that was her way of thumbing her nose at all the people who said she would get caught up in the money and never make it. But of course, Mike spelled it “Tuelle”, which everyone thought looked kind of ethnic. I hear some Northwestern chic uses the name now.
Tuelle was the most beautiful person I ever saw. For the last half year, she had been wearing the same black Lycra tube dress every weekend, a simple thing that stretched from the base of her cleavage to the center of her behind. She told me I should go to Victoria”s Secret, pick a slip in a nice color, and stick to it. “Men get confused when you change your clothes too much,” she said. Every night at 9, she would brush her eyelashes with mascara, her skin with bronzer, and her lips with gloss, then she would start goading me to hurry up and get order dinner. “If you”re not beautiful after ten minutes with your makeup, you”re never going to be,” she would say. She was always reading and never bothered looking at clothes or having her nails done. She spoke Italian, or maybe it was German, or Japanese. It doesn”t matter really.
Tuelle was a classic beauty, not the kind you see on TV. She was unique in the sense of pale ivory or deep charcoal skin, thick blue-black or very long chestnut hair, an extra thin waist and wide hips. Tuelle had natural breasts, a respectable 34-C, and sometimes she wore glasses.
I know she lived in Ann Arbor, but other than that I”m not sure where she came from, or how she ended up there in the first place. Her real name was Lis, which was short for Elisabeth, or Lisa, Elisa, or something else entirely. It”s none of your business, really.
“You ain”t as green as you are young”
John Cougar Mellancamp, “Hurt So Good”
11:03 p.m. “Der neerda na”. She stands in the center platform stage, rolls her hips in a wide oval, and lets her hands drift over her thighs. She tips her head forward and smoothes her fingers from her neck to the top of her scalp, grabbing her long hair in the motion. She holds it there until “Lord knows there are things we can do,” when she bends at the knees and throws her arms up, letting her hair fall in that clich move.
She”s been up since 6:30 a.m. and she is starting to think she should”ve stayed home, but there are phone bills, rent, cash for her sister. She is thankful for the dim lights. She sees a man in a central booth with a huge chicken dinner in front of him. He is fat, gray-haired, and, she remembers from Wednesday”s paper, filthy rich. He should be good for $200 once he finishes his meal. She feels eyes on her coming from the north bar, but when she looks up the gaze is gone.
A middle-aged guy in a black shirt with small potbelly gives her a ten on the bar stage. She”s too tired to keep up with J-Lo”s beat, so she grabs the pole behind her head and squats. Two college punks are drinking cheap domestic beer at the bar she ignores them. A sizable group of Japanese men approach the door guard and the leader presses a $20 into his palm for a booth.
The fat man ate too much, so he offers her $150 to sit and talk for an hour. He tells her his name is John and that he is a massage therapist. She doesn”t mind the lie. John is married, but his wife is a nag, he says, who wears these stupid padded bras that feel ridiculous and spends all her time yelling about how busy she is with the kids. John”s breath smells like rotten chicken farts. When he finally leaves, she still has time to hit up the Japanese dudes.
“The best things in life are free
But you can give them to the birds and bees
I want money. That”s what I want.”
The Flying Lizards, “I Want Money”
I came back from California, my first vacation ever that did not involve driving to Grandma”s, with a tan. Tuelle was furious. “What, you think that just because all the other sluts are laying out that you”re supposed to?” she asked me. She was anxiously rubbing eucalyptus oil onto my peeling legs. “Don”t even tell me your hobag friends convinced you to get drunk and do a wet-T-shirt contest too.”
Tuelle never used the word “bitch” because she thought it was a word used to put down strong women. “Hobag,” “slut” and “Russian lover,” however, she had no problem with, as long as they were leveled by women against those irritating women who claimed to not like women. I never argued logic with her. This particular evening she was relaxing with a Marie Clare, and the girl next to her kept stealing glances at the glossy magazine over her own Macro text.
“Dirty Tequila dancing I can”t believe girls are brainwashed enough to do that shit for free,” Jordan said.
“Dudes are like “Babygirl, you walk around in too-tight clothes and teeny bikinis and that”s cool, but you better not start charging for it, cause then you might realize you OK without my broke ass”,” Nina said. She was shaving her legs less then two feet from the relish tray and Housemom was giving her dirty looks.
“My ex husband called me a prostitute, so I told him fine then, next time you call me, you better have my $1,000,” Madison threw in.
Tuelle never seemed to have a lover. She only shaved her legs when she worked, and she couldn”t help but stroke the calf folded Indian style with her free hand whenever she was sitting down. She told me that she dated someone at school once, but it was a waste of time. “I said I”m not your possession and I take my clothes off where I want to, for whatever reason I want to, and that wouldn”t fly,” she said.
“You”re really sweet, you”re really nice
But didn”t Mama ever tell you not to play with fire?”
Madison Avenue, “Don”t Call Me Baby”
2:10 a.m. Her pulse is racing, her face is glistening, and her feet feel like they”re going to give out. She stumbles on the last step and the guard shoves some old guy out of her way. Won”t get anything off that one. The smell of cigars and male sweat makes her stomach swim. There must be 300 people in the club, men standing up looking over the railing upstairs, lined up against the walls, and drunk couples curled up in booths. The shot girls move briskly from table to table. Two of the owners are here, the doctor in a plain brown suit, the other in an outlandish tux with fur lining. Mike is fading the songs off at two minutes. She doesn”t bother talking, just grab them, dance, take the money, go get another.
She walks a half lap through the floor and spots him in a corner booth with a dark-haired slim man. She heads in his direction, swinging her purse, flipping her hair. “Mr. Dan,” she says in a little-girl voice, and slips into the booth with her right leg over Dan”s lap. Dan is about 32, married, slightly soft but very well dressed. “How is my favorite accountant?” He asks her how school is, his eyes on the waitress. She says school is fine and he starts fondling her ankle. Another limo must have arrived. Start paying me, jerk, so I can get out of here. She tells Dan she needs to be compensated for her time and holds her breath, Please don”t ask me to go out with you please just keep coming in here, and Dan tells her he can give her $300. “You know I could give you more if you would quit working here and be my girlfriend,” he says, but doesn”t push it when he sees the pleading in her eyes.
“You can I got to do for you and I.”
Macy Gray, “Do Something”
Nina found out about her son getting into Andover on a Friday, so she brought in a big cake that we all ate with our hands and some champagne. Nina didn”t even have a GED, but she shelled out big cash for private tutors. “You can”t just write those kind of applications in a little boy hand, you”ll have to have me help him,” Tuelle had told her in her business tone while dabbing concealer on her cold sore. It was the first time I ever saw her show a weakness for a male, but maybe she thought the son of a dancer was no ordinary male. Tuelle edited the essays and brought them in on a green disk the next Friday, had some bigshot customer of hers write a recommendation, and he was in by December.
“Nina, girlfriend, do you even know how much Harvard costs?” Suede asked her.
“I hope you have some good Mutuals going,” Mercedes said.
“Loans are pretty easy to get for a student like him,” Sierra said.
“Who the hell is going to give loans to a stripper?” Nina said. “I”ll be hitting Tuelle up for a loan for her old girlfriend Nina, the little don”t know nothing stripper from Chi-town.”
I looked at Tuelle, half expecting her to launch into a speech. But she just picked up her Sprite and Peach Stoli, rolled her eyes, and left to wash the frosting off her fingers.
“Hey Ladies, if your man wanna get buck wild,
Just go back and hit “em up style
Get your hands on his cash and
Spend it to the last dime for all the hard times.”
Blu Cantrell, “Hit “Em Up Style”
3:36 a.m. He puts three hundreds in her hand before she spins on her heels. She walks back to the dressing room, pours a glass of water, and finds a seat at the vanity counter. There is a bombarding smell of fifty different perfumes and expensive hairspray. Her back hurts, for a moment she wishes she could have a massage. Mascara has smeared down her right cheek, her hair is a mess, and she smells like a man. Nina stumbles in with a vodka cranberry in her hand and sits on the carpet. She removes her bra top and absently massages.
“Give me all your money!” Nina calls out, taking off her white boots. She watches Nina and rustles through her makeup bag for chapstick. “Oooh, they treat me so mean, they look at me, since I was just a babygirl, just 13, all they want to do is spank my behind!” Nina says, getting on all fours and demonstrating on herself.
She laughs Jordan tells Nina she”s cut off. She opens her silver purse and starts laying the bills on the counter.
“Everyday they so me-an to me!” Nina sings loudly, emphasizing mean. Nina stands up and holds her drink in the air for emphasis. “When I”m out with my son, they look at me!” Nina is laughing.
She counts 20-40-60-80-4 20-40-60-80-5.
“What”s wrong Sir, you done spent all your money already?” Nina asks, stumbling a bit. “Well I”ll take your kids” tuition! I”ll take your Mercedes payment!” 20-40-60-80-6. “Hey, now that you here, I”ll take the money for your wife”s anniversary present, just GIVE IT ALL TO ME” 20-40-60-80-7 “cause me and MY SON,” 20-40-60-80-8 and 15 ones, “are going to Disney World!” The three of them are all laughing. She raises her water glass in a toast, and Nina rewards her with a sloppy kiss.
“Quit my job as a dancer
Had me dealing blackjack “till one or two
Such a muddy line between the things you want
And the things you have to do.”
Sheryl Crow, “Leaving Los Vegas”
On her last night before she retired, Tuelle bought three new G-strings just to remind herself. She was going to get some experience in a firm, she said, then start suing rich men for whatever excuse she could find. It was the end of the night so we were all getting dressed, pulling our hair into ponytails and taking contacts out. Someone was screaming about a lost shirt. “Next time y”all see me, I”ll be in here with a client, tipping you ladies $20s. ” I was terrified I had always pushed it out of my mind that my mentor would pass the bar long before I finished college. She had a job, she was telling everyone, paying $2500 a week for “real work”, just in the summer, but they would probably offer her a job.
“Well hey, if Marsha Clarke can do it, I know you can do even better,” Sierra said. There were cell phones going off everywhere, but very few getting picked up.
“You”re smarter than that government that used to dance.” Maya said. “But the hours are going to suck.”
“Remember Diamond? I saw her on Michigan Avenue in some fancy-ass suit,” Jasmine said.
“Tuelle, I hope you look hot in a suit,” Tiffany said.
Nina, who was still in jeans and a purple satin bra, pointed at Tuelle and said “Girl, I never know what you”re talking about. But you look like an angel and you know what”s up.”
“Well, at least I had a good night,” Tuelle said. Then she swung her bag over a shoulder, grabbed a cookie, answered her ringing phone, and just like that she was gone.