The Skin Trade
James Collier

Even those who understand the illusion can still be seduced by its appeal.

I never thought when i first walked into this titty bar that it would take a piece of my soul. I was there for a more innocent reason--I was visiting a friend. I remember how forbidding it had looked as a kid, going by the bar in the car with my mom. Real sin was going on there, I thought. I was scared the first time--The doorman checked my ID, I paid my five bucks, and in I went.

"Want a beer?" the bartender said as I approached him.

"You work here every day?" I asked in my most disapproving tone.

"Yeah," he says, smirking. Jesus. "There's nothing wrong here--just some girls showing their tits."

I grabbed my beer, sat down, took in the environment. What a sick place, I thought.

Fast-forward five years. "You come here all the time, James?" a friend says.

"Yeah," I say with a laugh. "You know, there's nothing wrong here. Everyone's an adult."

He stands around looking awkward for a while and tells me he has to get going.

"Take care," I say, barely taking my eyes off some red-headed girl. There's no way I'm leaving early tonight, I think. I am here for the duration.

If you get to know people in the business, one word pops up constantly: Vultures. The code name for customers. "How much money'd you get off that vulture honey?" "Gawd, this vulture just won't leave me alone!" "That vulture grabbed my tits!"

You learn quickly that customers aren't particularly well liked. Even the bartender and the DJ hate you. But I'm sort of a step up from Vulture--now I'm a regular. It means the girls tolerate me because they know that my money is something they can count on. All the girls know the regulars' preferences and moods. They know when to push, and when not to. The bartender will buy you a drink now and then. People greet you by name ("Hey, James!"). The DJ will play a song you like just because. It makes you feel like part of the club, even though you aren't.

One of the first things you notice about a club are the stage names of the girls. Nobody goes by their real name. It's always Angel, Gem, Trixie--some bullshit name. I remember there was this one place where a lot of the girls had stage names that they got off of cities. They're walking around calling themselves Hollywood, Montana, Maui, and Madison.

I've always found it funny that the women who dance for me are generally the same women who ignored me in high school. Now they have to pay attention, because they're making a living. I pointed that out to one once, and she called me a smart-ass.

Irony and dancers just don't mix.

Lula, the bartender, is a dispenser of good advice. "Don't get too attached to anyone here," she says. "Sooner or later the girl's going to leave. This job wears down even the toughest people eventually." I nod my head.

"Don't have a favorite." That's her other bit of advice. "Because it's bad for the girl and bad for you."

But I do have a favorite. Monique. She's Latin. Long black hair. Green eyes. Pouty lips. Soul. Lula, of course, sees. Everyone sees, I think. We usually talk and then she dances for me.

I don't notice exactly when my emotions for Monique begin to run amok, but Lula senses something. "It's just a game, James," she says. "It's just tits, ass, and your money. A simple trade. Nothing more." I give her a shit-eating grin. What the fuck does she know, I think. And I continue to visit Monique, get my dances, fall in love.

"Anybody who works or goes to a topless bar is a little crazy," Lula declares. "Everybody here has gotten fucked over one way or another."

I point out to her that her statement is a generalization.

"If they aren't crazy, they're assholes," she says.

I tell Lula that I'm not an asshole or fucked up. In fact, I consider myself to be a nice, normal guy.

She snorts, and then her eyes bore into me. "You don't think I know why you come here?"

I study her quietly for a moment.

"I believe you," I say quickly, and then change the subject.

I always hate myself a little after getting a lap dance. You always feel helpless when it's happening. You're getting all hot and bothered, but you can't touch, kiss, or anything. You just sit there.

Well, some dancers don't mind if you touch just a little. Everybody has their little line they won't cross. And if they like you, they'll move the line a little for you. A dance only lasts a song, and you're so aroused you want it to last forever. So when she says "Would you like another?" You say hell yes, at least until you're out of money. Then, like your cash, poof--she's gone.

The last few times i've been coming to the club, Lula's been busting my ass. Finally I ask her what her problem is.

"You don't need to be here, James," she says. "This place is a crutch for you. Instead of going out there, playing the odds, and finding a woman, you come here. I know it's easy to come here--all the girls are nice to you. You know why? They want your money. That's it. Nothing cosmic. Nothing to do with your aura. Money. If you spent as much time looking for a woman as you spend here, you'd have a woman."

Then she walks off without even giving me a beer. "Bitch," I hiss.

Lula's right, of course. In my case, I've always gone for women way out of my league in terms of looks. The type of women I should be interested in have just never really captured my imagination. Maybe I don't try hard enough. Maybe if I did, I'd find someone who could do exactly that.

Once i was grocery shopping when this woman walked up to me and said, "Hi, James!" And for the life of me, I had no idea who she was. She looked familiar, but I just couldn't place her.

"It's Casey, from the club!"

"Casey?" I said, astonished. "Jesus, I couldn't recognize you without your make-up. You look so much younger!"

She smiled at that. I noticed she was wearing an oversized t-shirt and baggy sweatpants. "This is what you go out in?" I said, teasing a little.

"I get stared at so much, sometimes I just--" she said. I nodded. She gave me a hug, and said, chuckling, "I'm sure I'll see you later!"

I waved goodbye in a daze. I have frequently seen girls outside the club and the girl I meet on the street is always different from the girl in the club. Some people look a little younger, some a bit older, some just plain tired. But if you see them outside you could never guess what they do for a living because they always look so normal.

If I see someone, there's a bit of etiquette I follow: If you don't know the person very well, avoid her; if she's with another man, let her say hello first; if they are with their kids, call them by their real name (if you know it), and never mention the club; and finally, be polite, nice, and keep your distance--it's their time.

Monique has often said that men have a hard time with the idea that beautiful women are just normal people too. "They just can't see beyond the body," she says bitterly. A man that can make a woman feel normal is a man who'll always do well with women, Monique says.

"Do I do that?" I say.

"I'm talking to you, aren't I?" she says.

Then why aren't I making it with you? I think. I also think that for all of Monique's carping she'd be bored with a nice man. She's probably addicted to the whole drama of some man cheating on her, slapping her around, being an overall leech. She's watched too many soap operas.

I actually tell her that one day at the club.

"You think too much," she says.

"It's just a theory! An observation!" I say, smirking. She doesn't talk to me for the rest of the evening.

Somehow i've gotten a reputation around the club as a nice guy.

"But I come here to be bad!" I whine to Monique. "If I want to be thought of as a nice guy, I'd go visit my Grandma."

"You are what you are, baby," she says.

I slowly stroke her ass and say, "Would a nice guy do that?" She has this surprised look on her face, because I've never done anything like that her before.

"Gotta keep you on edge, baby," I say. Then Monique just laughs like a motherfucker. Later, she slips me a napkin with her phone number and tells me to call her anytime.

"You know what you're doing, Monique?" I say. She just smiles and walks off.

"Trouble," Lula says.

I ignore her.

At home, I look at the paper, wonder if it's real, if it's the number to a deli or something. I call. A woman answers.



"It's James."

"Hi, baby. What's up?"

"I was just wondering how you are."

She starts telling about her kids, her ex-husband, her ex-boyfriend, her car. "What about you, baby?" she says.

"Shit, Monique, my life doesn't compare to yours."

"Give it a try."

So I give her some bullshit soliloquy about loneliness and life in the big city.

I know Monique only wants to be my friend, but I can't help wanting more. All I hope for is that I grow on her and that she'll come to her senses and see how much of an improvement I am over the creeps she usually fucks. That's the theory, anyway.

Monique loves to bitch about her job.

"People think what we do is easy. Glamorous. Baby, they have not seen my swollen feet after dancing for eight hours. They'd scare off any man." I laugh.

She also tells how she's going to quit.

"Every time I dance, I feel like I'm losing a little piece of myself. It don't seem like a big deal when you first start doing it, but the longer you go..."

A couple weeks later she quits and disappears.

"What did I tell you?" Lula says.

"I know, I know, I know..." I say.

"You didn't love her, did you?" she asks.

My silence says everything.

"You are a sweet, beautiful man--but stupid," she says.

I can't help but laugh. When I leave that night, I tell myself that I've learned my lesson. Fuck this place. I'm going to find me a woman, play it cool, play it normal, play it smart.

Lula's right, man, I think. Use your time wisely.

Fast forward a year. new management, new bartender, new girls--and the same old thing.

"Loneliness makes a person do stupid things," I say.

"Like?" the girl says.

"Giving money to a stranger hoping for some kind of love," I say.

She smiles. Caught in the con.

I smile, knowing I'm being conned but going along with it anyhow.

The song changes and she dances away, and me without my credit card.

James Collier ( is a freelance photographer and graphic designer in New York City. He's also a frequent contributor to TeeVee.

InterText stories written by James Collier: "36 Exposures" (v8n4), "The Skin Trade" (v9n1).

InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 9, Number 1 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1999 James Collier.