The Weeping Nude
The Weeping Nude, Edvard Munch 1913
“No. It’s not even light out. I want to sleep.”
“You heard me.” He lights a candle, then another. Then claps his hands. “Move!”
She smells the turpentine. Hears the clinking of glass bottles. The room is freezing. Tiny sounds of the night drift through the walls. A horse kicks a stone, then neighs.
“I’m not posing,” she says.
“I’ve told you before. You never have to pose. You just have to be yourself.”
This makes her smile. She likes being different than the others. Not another archetype, or myth or stupid symbol. How 18th century? She’s the youngest of his models. Only seventeen. A strong peasant girl with a wide face and wide-eyes, who earns room-and-board for cleaning the house of a lonely painter, who had just spent eight months in a sanatorium suffering from hallucinations and anxiety.
“Fine,” she says, gathering herself under the blankets. She rising to all fours, articulating her spin, the blanket still on her back. She looks like tent. Her head thrashes and her hips shake until the blanket falls off. She stands on her knees and takes off her white nightgown. Her now-famously dark hair covers her breasts. Her mane keeps her warm. She’s thankful to her mother for giving her this thick mess. Suddenly, she hears the bristles of the brush dancing on the canvas, the palette knife scraping the surface. She smiles to herself under all that hair. She loves the power of her beauty. Its ability to wake up this old man in the middle of the night.
“Don’t move,” he says, commanded by inspiration. Grinning at her like she is some kind of God. She wonders what his friend, Dr. Fraud, would think about this?
“Stay still, Moss Girl.”
Her thighs burn with fatigue. Her fingertips and toes are frozen. She fidgets. She doesn’t want to stay still anymore. A draft moves over her nipples and belly. She wants to crawl back under the blankets.
“You’re stronger than you think you are,” he says.
She narrows her eyes, but she feels badly for him. He had told her that he was a sickly kid, that he watched his mother die of tuberculosis when he was five, then his older sister at fourteen. One night when he allowed himself to drink, he said, “Illness and madness and death were the black angels that stood at my cradle.”
So she stays still for him, but her body aches. She doesn’t want to do this anymore. She falls back on her heels. Her left leg cramps and she lunges it straight. She hates him for waking her up. She hates her mother for encouraging her to work for him. She hates that her only skill is to please him. She places her head in her hands and feels her belly convulse with rage.
“Fantastic,” he says. “Bravo!”
“You’ve never been to a strip club?” Ruby asks.
“Nope,” I say, sitting between two poles with naked women dangling from them. One woman spins with her legs like scissors. The other like she’s climbing a rope. We are so close that you can hear skin sticking to brass over Depeche Mode’s Personal Jesus.
“Doesn’t that hurt?” I ask Ruby.
“You get used to it,” she says.
“I imagine that you would need some kind of lubrication for your skin, but then how would you grip the pole?”
“I’m going to get singles,” Ruby replies. “You should get some, too. If you’re here, you have to tip. Don’t be one of those women who come to strip clubs and don’t support the dancers.”
“Of course,” I say. I hand her money and she goes to the bar to get change.
We are at Sassy’s in Portland, the city that has the most strip clubs per capita of any other city in the US. It cost only $1 to enter the bar. No phones. No photos. No videos. The girls can touch you, but you can’t touch the girls, the bouncer told me this as we walked in. I’ll try to hold myself back, I replied. But he didn’t laugh.
“You train here to go to Vegas,” Ruby says. “They’re that good.”
On cue, the dancer on the right leaps off the pole and lands on the surrounding table like Michelle Pfeiffer in Cat Woman. She squats in eight-inch heels while a man presses his face into her crouch. She squeezes his ears with her knees while he inhales a little too deeply for my taste. I cross my legs and look at the other stage. A new athletic woman in a cotton tank dress rubs her hands together, generating heat like an Olympic gymnast who is just about to mount the uneven parallel bars. She wears black grippy socks that look like ballet flats. I’m drawn to her practicality. Instead of using momentum, she uses her muscles and glides in slow motion. I’m attracted to her strength. For the rest of the evening, we will reverently refer to her as The Gladiator.
Ruby pulls me to the stage so we can tip her. The Inhaling Man floats to her like Garfield sniffing lasagna. Of course, he sits right next me. He crumbles dollar bills like spitballs and whips them at her back.
“Isn’t that rude?” I look at Ruby
“No,” she replies. “It’s celebratory. Like confetti.” Ruby flicks her elegant wrist and a fan of ones fall on the floor. I hand Ruby my money. I’m not ready to throw it just yet, and she does the honors for me. The Inhaling Man’s torso leans so far over the table that The Gladiator could easily break his nose with her spinning hips. Sensing his closeness, she arches onto the table and pushes him back into the chair. I thought she was reprimanding him, but instead she cradles his chin in her hand and looks tenderly into his eyes. She walks past me, over to Ruby, and squats down to caress her cheek. I want to be touched, too. Heeeeeeeeeey! I almost reach out and grab her. But I remember the bouncer’s warning, and I realize: I’m the one who’s gonna get kicked out of here.
Ruby and I are sitting back at the table and I yawn. One of the dancers, not The Gladiator, taps me on the shoulder and says, “I have to talk to you.”
“I’m sorry,” I say. “Did I do something wrong?”
She looks at Ruby like, why did you bring her here?
“I just need to talk to you up front,” she says firmly.
Ruby starts laughing. The young woman tugs at my arm. I hear a NOOOOOOoooooooh thank you! Escape my mouth. My face and body are ten years old and Tweety Bird is pulling me on stage at Great America. Then I realize I’m insulting this young woman and my friend who presumably already paid for this. How much do these things cost? I need to be mature. I need to be a feminist. I need to get a lap dance.
Kendra interlaces her fingers in mine, and we parade around the club together. She opens the curtain and whispers, “We can just talk.”
“That’s probably better,” I say.
I sit in a booth behind the stage. Kendra plops on the floor. The red curtain is so thin, I’m afraid Ruby will see that she is not dancing. Kendra snuggles her warmth into my legs and hugs her arms around my hips. Her fake-eyelashes are so thick that I can barely see her eyes. It must feel like heaven to peel those puppies off at night. She asks me if I’m comfortable. I tell her that I am in hopes that I’m making her feel more comfortable. But we both know I’m not comfortable. She asks me what I do. I don’t tell her that I am a poet. That Ruby and I are both poets and we are here for a writer’s conference. That the same small press has published our books, and that’s how we know each other. It all seems terribly sad in the dim light of the red gauze curtain, but she’s looking at me for answers.
“Science fiction writer,” I say.
“Like anything I would know?”
“Dystopian thrillers,” I reply.
“Like ones published in The New Yorker?”
I nod, but we both understand that I’m not published in The New Yorker. She goes on to tell me how she wants to move to LA to become an esthetician. I hate everything about this conversation.
“You have gorgeous skin.” I study her pore-free face.
“I know it’s gross,” she replies. “But I love popping other people’s zits.”
“Then you should definitely do facials,” I say, wondering if I made the wrong choice. Was it too late to change my mind? Could she dance instead. How many wrong choices have I made in my life because I’ve been afraid of a little intimacy?
Just then, Kendra hooks her finger into my shirt and pulls me close to her face. “You go out there and tell your friend that I gave you the hottest lap dance of your life. And that she needs one too.”
I gasp. Her sales tactics are on point. I could have used those skills hocking my poetry books at the book fair! This is a transaction. Am I supposed to tip her?
She gives me a squeeze, signaling that it’s over. She takes my hand and leads me to Ruby who is optimistically smiling. I’m nodding like it was the greatest experience of my life. Kendra watches to make sure I follow her instructions.
“How was it?” Ruby asks.
“Super hot,” I say. “You should definitely get one. My treat.”
“You don’t have to buy me a lap dance,” Ruby laughs. “I’ve had thousands of lap dances. We used to practice on each other.”
“I don’t know about you,” I say. “But I’m exhausted. I think it’s time to go.”
“But you liked it?”
“She told me she wanted to be an esthetician,” I replied.
“She was probably lying. I used to tell people all the time that I was a nurse.”
“No way! Kendra seemed so sincere.”
“But did she, you know? Do it for you?”
“Pop my pimples?”
“Oh my God,” Ruby says. “You’re so straight.”
“Yes. It’s so disappointing.”
In my hotel room, I fall asleep with The Gladiator spinning in my head like a GIF-file. She stands on her toes at the end of a runway. She sprints onto the springboard and does a handspring-double-front off of the vault and lands on the pole. Ruby, Kendra, and I give her perfect 10s.