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Stripping My Way Through College

A nonprofit intern counts down the hours until she can shed her office attire in a Times Square gentlemen's club.

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“I know,” I said. “It’s crazy.” It was crazy, literally unbelievable, and I was sure Megan’s aunt knew we were lying. “Anyway,” I stood up, suddenly eager to leave. “I’m really sorry, I have to go.”

Dodging tourists to get to work, I arrived just in time to avoid being sent home. That meant I had to pay a fine, in addition to my house fee. I started the night owing twenty-five bucks. There was no place at the mirror so I changed in a toilet stall. I got my tattoos covered and I got in line.

The place smelled like stuffing. It wasn’t in my head. “There’s a buffet,” Snow said disinterestedly, “with a real turkey and everything.” We girls, she said, were welcome to eat.

None of the other girls were eating it, so neither did I. I went back into the dressing room, where I retrieved a protein bar from my bag, which I washed down with a cup of coffee, along with my pills. Just as I was about to order an amaretto sour for dessert, a group of guys walked in. One of them offered to buy me a drink.

“To be honest I really like this song,” I said, “and I’d love if you’d take me for a dance.”

He agreed.

Sometimes, no matter how hard I tried, I didn’t feel beautiful. I felt dirty and gross, sexy and shameful. In some ways, these wrong feelings didn’t feel wrong. At some point, the wrong began to feel right.

My head is in his lap. I look up, eyes huge, round, and enduring. I want this man to like me, I mean really like me, and I’m feeling like he does. He looks back at me with such compassion and devotion, I feel as if my heart might explode. I travel back up his body to his neck. I lean in, my hair covering us. I smell his cologne. I feel his skin. I lean in even closer, close enough to touch. My breast falls in his mouth. I let it stay there. I feel a rush. Then, I feel a tap on my shoulder.

“The management is always watching,” the house mom said as I changed into my street clothes. “They might only be sending you home this time,” she said. “Next time, you’re through. Don’t cross them.” She lit up a smoke. “No offense, honey, but you’re replaceable. Dime a dozen. Trust me, you need them more than they need you.”

*   *   *

There are rules to living in New York. Rules to riding the subway. Rules to walking down the street. Rules about keeping to yourself and not staring, not asking any questions, not getting in other people’s way. You don’t, for example, stop walking in the middle of the street. Only tourists do this. You keep moving. The longer you live here, the more you learn. There are unwritten rules to sharing space in a place where space is limited. When strangers are nearly touching, there are rules to protect the parts of ourselves we wish to keep private.

When I arrived home that night the apartment was empty; my roommate was still out at dinner. I was glad. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I didn’t want to explain. I went into my room and pulled out my money — all the cash I’d made — which I kept in a cigar box under the bed. The smell of the cigar box reminded me of my father. I loved the way the box smelled and I loved the smell of the money, the way it felt in my hands. I counted it. I counted it again. Over ten thousand dollars. I told myself I could buy anything I wanted, anything at all.