The Sex Castle Lunch Buffet

Ellen sits on a wooden bench outside The Common Café and opens the obituary section. She blows her coffee cool, begins a slow scan of names and dates. Her therapy homework is to read every death notice and then record her anxiety using a numbered scale until her panic attacks stop. She initially thought she was afraid of the grocery store, the subway, crowds of hands and faces, but at the hot heart of it was a fairly mundane fear of death.  

But doesn’t our mortality terrify everyone? she’d asked her therapist.

Not to the extent that they are no longer functional, the therapist responded, after a pause.

Ellen paused just as long before repeating back, Not functional? Ellen liked to use active listening techniques on therapists, just to throw them. She dresses well for therapy, pleated skirts and tall brown boots. She feels ashamed of the not-functioning label. It was true that before this latest exercise, she’d been late filing freelance contracts, ordering her groceries online, not calling her friends. The day she finally called the therapist, she’d stepped outside her apartment, belt cinched tight, lipstick slick, and felt her arms go numb. The world appeared off-balance. If she left the house, she might die. She went back inside.

Now Ellen’s anxiety is in remission. She feels silly recording zero anxiety in the appropriate box in the workbook week after week. Her therapist is pleased. That’s real progress! She’d been desperate for answers from the therapist initially. Why me? All the books say agoraphobics are trauma survivors. Ellen’s life had been fairly mundane. She’s always been a worrier, but safe and loved. Her best friend’s mom used to lock her in a closet. Her sister had survived a train crash. The origins of Ellen’s anxiety were a mystery.

Now Ellen’s life was calm again. Reading the obituaries feels like an opportunity to enjoy tiny, concise memoirs. She especially likes the old photographs. Today she comes across a name she recognizes. Hiram Johnstone, 1952-2018.

She sips her coffee, blows a kiss towards a chow puppy tied to a nearby bike stand, as though she has to fake being casual with herself, before turning back to his photo. Even after death, his photographed smile wanted something from the person who looked at it.

*

Twenty years earlier, when Ellen was a dancer at The Sex Castle, she spent many hours astride the pyramidical lap of Hiram Johnstone. If he’d walked by her on the street, probably even back then, he wouldn’t have recognized her. To most customers, dancers only existed in three minute intervals and then disappeared into suspended time until they showed up again. Pierre, the Sex Castle DJ with the rat face and aggressive neck pimples, would cut every song off at three minutes because he was an impatient kind of guy. It worked for the dancers, economically, at five bucks a song.

Ellen hasn’t thought about that summer in years. She wishes she were still fit enough to do the side splits on a pole, but is very happy to never have to make small talk with men as they thrust palms full of sweaty bills towards her breasts. Even more relieved to never have to watch them gorge on the all-you-can-eat shrimp lunch buffet before curling a finger in her direction for a private dance. Even now she shudders at the memory of their gaping, saucy mouths, their front teeth like high-beams under the black club lights.

She takes another sip of her latte and places her palm against her chest.

*

At the start of the summer of 1995, Ellen’s first serious girlfriend kicked her out of their shared apartment. The girlfriend, whose name Ellen can’t even recall in this moment, had broken her heart. She cheated on Ellen, and then moved the woman she was having an affair with into their spare room, telling Ellen that she had no place else to go. This isn’t non-monogamy, Ellen had wailed, this is sadism! She overheard the ex calling her emotionally unevolved to the new lover. Before she left the apartment, Ellen snipped all the phone wires with her nail clippers, taped a bright red sock to the inside lip of the washing machine, and gave their address to the local republican candidate, insisting they always put up election signs on the front lawn.

She handed in her final Women’s Studies paper, ‘Lesbian Fractures Within the Riot Grrrl Movement,’ which was basically a long diary entry with lyrical annotations. She graduated from university, and then moved onto her friend Hayley’s couch. She skipped her graduation ceremony because she thought it a meaningless custom. (Now she regrets it, wishes she had a photo in cap and gown for her album.) Ellen found it difficult to go to her waitressing job. At first she called in late, then sick, then forgot to call in. The day she finally went in, she found a new girl wearing the Ellen nametag and apron. When Ellen resorted to returning bottles from the alleyway for spare change, Hayley suggested that she join her at the Sex Castle to work a few shifts. You could make your rent in two, maybe three shifts, tops! she said, taking a bite of an onion like an apple and sipping pickle juice from a jar. Hayley sat on her long kitchen counter, wearing the one-piece pleather dress she’d fallen asleep in. Hayley had perfect skin, which she swore was a result of drinking pickle juice, and said strippers make a lot of money using a different accent.

My Scottish accent makes me the most bucks for some reason, she said.

Ellen thought about it. She could barely affect a comical Monty Python British accent, though tried every time they watched Hayley’s well-worn VHS copy of The Meaning of Life.

Until that first night, Ellen had a lot of stripper friends but would laugh if anyone suggested she take a swing on the pole. She was cute but not beautiful, short with small tits. Ellen assumed that strippers had a kind of god-gifted femininity that Ellen didn’t think she could fake. But if you hang out with sex workers, it starts to seem like any other job.

You only have a 20-year-old ass for a year. Why not make it lucrative? Hayley asked somewhat rhetorically, handing her a pair of heels one size too big. Ellen took off her sweaty combat boots and thick socks, buckled herself in and tried to stand. Hayley brought out a full-length mirror, leaned it against the far living room wall and pressed play on the cassette player. TLC’s Crazy Sexy Cool. Ellen shook her ass in the mirror and laughed. Hayley showed her how to shake her knees in a way that made her ass wiggle, then got down on her knees and crawled across the floor dramatically.

I call that the wounded animal crawl. Do it whenever your feet hurt. The guys love it.

*

The Sex Castle was not a high-end place where rich guys hosted bachelor parties. Hayley had big hips and spiked purple hair and Ellen had a tattoo on her back, and so the classier clubs wouldn’t hire them. This was the 90s when tattoos were still considered a sign of outsider status. Construction workers came on their lunch hour, alcoholics lingered away their afternoons in the front row until they fell asleep and got kicked out.  

Ellen walked up a steep staircase above a trashy donut shop, under an awning she’d never noticed before. She followed Hayley, noticing how her youthful slouch shifted when she ducked through the door. She pinned her shoulders back, stuck her tits out and adopted a side to side sway. Ellen tried to mimic her. The Sex Castle smelled like any other bar: beer and smoke, sweat and drugstore perfume. Ellen followed Hayley up to the bar to introduce herself to the manager. She tried to stand in a feminine way, which threw off her balance and forced her to grip the edge of the bar.

This is…Lily, Hayley said. She’s over 18. This is Pierre.

Pierre had a throat slash scar across his neck. He took her ID card and scanned it, then her.

You look much younger than you are, he said. If you can’t hack it tonight you’ll have to pay us $30 bucks to leave before last call. Three song sets. Give your CDs to Pierre, the DJ. Don’t shoot up. He motioned towards a greasy looking metalhead smoking by a pair of speakers. Ellen nodded, as though she wasn’t completely out of her element.

They’re both named Pierre? Ellen asked Hayley in a stage whisper.

We call the DJ ‘Little Pierre’ because, she said, making a motion with her hand indicating small penis.

*

Fucked up things Ellen learned about strip clubs that night: Despite it being the 90s, and the era of identity politics, the bar would only allow one Black girl to work on each shift. A white woman with a brunette bob named Tina was called ‘the Asian girl’ because she was Italian. Tampon strings glow in the black light. You can get a yeast infection from the pole. Men had eyes like tiny televisions when they watched you. It only takes one shift to make your thighs feel strong. It starts out terrifying and humiliating and then becomes mundane. That process takes approximately six stage show rotations.

Men loved The Sex Castle because they could be king. It was still the 1970s once you walked under that lightbulb bordered door. Their sexist and racist jokes got laughs, their boring work stories were listened to, everyone felt attractive, with girls vying for their attention. No one reminded them who they really were.  

The club was practically empty – it was a Tuesday night. During Ellen’s third rotation on stage, when she’d finally perfected one twirl around the pole without falling, her first lap dance customer walked into the bar. He knew everyone, looked comfortable, wore the kind of business casual clothing typical of suburban commuters, meant to be unremarkable. He patted the server on the ass when he ordered a drink. He was immediately transfixed by Ellen as she hobbled around the small stage to The Waitresses’ classic, ‘I Know What Boys Want.’

*

Looking back on it now, Ellen realized that she was a terrible combination of middle class, lazy, and filled with third-wave feminist mumbojumbo about stripping being the new road to empowerment. And while she had emerged from an average suburb, she had thousands of dollars in student loan debt, an ability to be fired from every waitressing job to date, and parents who had the attitude of middle class people but lived paycheck to paycheck. At the time she would’ve described herself as tough. She carried mace in her pocket, and yelled back at cat-callers on the street. But she wasn’t the sharpest pencil in the box, socially. Her rent at her previous apartment was only $130 a month. Even in those days, that wasn’t much. That’s the kind of person she was. She spent a lot of time searching through pockets and couch cushions looking for enough money to buy a beer. She could never just get it together.

In her 30s she’d been diagnosed with ADHD, and it had made sense, her inability to keep all the moving parts of a life together and moving towards progress. So much of your time is consumed by worrying. It exhausts you. You have trouble managing your time, her therapist had said, recently.

Maybe, Ellen had responded. Even now, with a thriving freelance editorial business, she is haunted by the feeling that she’d ever be lazy again.

The dog has been outside so long she begins to wonder if its owners are neglectful. She glances inside, assumes the owner is in the long latte line. She pictures the dog in her apartment. She could get him a little dog bed to put near the window. She takes a sip of her cold drink, and begins to read Hiram’s obituary. Her pulse accelerates, her fingers tingle.

She mouths quietly:

I see a red bicycle, yellow daisies, mint gum on the pavement, rusted bike lock, cute dog.

I feel the softness of this skirt.

I smell spring mud, car exhaust.

I taste old gum and coffee.

Ellen takes three deep breaths and keeps reading.

*

After her sixth set on stage, Hiram approached Ellen with a coupon for one free dance that they were giving out at the donut shop downstairs. Ellen raised her eyebrows after reading the coupon.

Uh, seriously? Dances were five bucks a song. In those days, that wasn’t much either.

The bouncer, who also had an impressive throat slash scar – did the owner meet him in a support group for failed mob hit victims? – came over to Ellen.

You have to accept those coupons, new girl. Sorry.

Ellen danced for Hiram half-heartedly. She didn’t want to pull a muscle for no money.

You have sad eyes, he said, as Ellen swayed above him, sweaty fingers puckered to the mirrors behind his head. She tried to mimic what she’d seen the other girls do. She was awkward. He seemed to like that she didn’t know what she was doing.

My whole family was killed in a chairlift accident at Bristol Mountain, she dead-panned.

His eyes widened, annoyed at being jolted out of a fantasy.

Really baby?

Ellen anchored both knees on either side of his lap, locking him in. You’re even more of a moron than I originally thought.

You’re a real bitch, he said, but he wasn’t mad. He looked amused. Did your daddy teach you to talk that way?

No, but my daddy did teach me to tip when you’ve had a good time, she said as the song ended, using a line Hayley had trained her to say.

He  reluctantly parted with another five bucks. She tucked it into her g-string.

You look way too young to be working here, he said.

Maybe I am, she smiled. He handed her a business card.

Hiram Johnstone. Talent Agent.

Call me whenever you’re working and I’ll make a special trip to see you, he said. Ellen nodded, put the card into her impossibly tiny purse, and whispered to Hayley, who was in an acrobatic position astride a trucker.

I got my first regular!

Ellen had newspaper stuffed in the toes of her shoes, ugly navy blue pumps from the thrift store, and a tacky patchwork school girl uniform Hayley actually wore in high school that said Mount Mercy Academy on the lapel. Ellen didn’t know what she was doing. She’d had a lot of sex, but never came with another person in the room. Sex was for someone else, even before there was money exchanged, she knew this. Even when the boys were nice and had read Andrea Dworkin, it didn’t matter. When Ellen had sex with a girl who pursued her harder than any boy ever had, she walked home with her panties in her knapsack feeling like oh well, I guess I don’t like that either. She told people she was bi, but really she was nothing. But she’d been in love with her girlfriend. She understood love, but desire seemed unnatural.

Hayley and Ellen would dance to The Ramones and Iggy Pop until the DJ rebelled and only played Def Leppard and Guns n’ Roses. This was before it was cool in an ironic way to like heavy metal again. This was pure bad taste. They were above it, even though they were bad strippers. The real strippers, the ones Hayley nicknamed Silicon Valley, hated Ellen and Hayley, called them the college bitches. Silicon Valley dated the mafia men who came in at last call, and had physical fights over who stole another girl’s tampons in the dressing room. Silicon Valley knew that Hayley and Ellen were in it for the story first, and then the money, and Silicon Valley were in it for real.

Being around naked women wasn’t very sexy. Except for one girl, Chantal, who would dance very slowly, slower than the song, and you’d think that would look awkward but it wouldn’t. It was exactly the way you should dance, except most girls were either nervous or bored or coked up, so they danced as fast as they could, trying to outrun their stage time. Not Chantal. She took her time. Ellen was always naked by song two, or else she wouldn’t stop thinking about what she still had on, and how she was going to take it off, and what if she caught her g-string in the hook of her heel and fell? (This only happened once. Hiram brought her tissues for her scraped knee.) Chantal always made the most money, but hardly ever took her panties off. The only other dancer who could make as much money was Izzy, who was 33. At the time, Ellen thought a 33-year-old was basically a senior citizen and the most pathetic thing in the world, to be a 33-year old stripper. Izzy had a mescaline face. But she raked it in.

Now Ellen is older than Izzy had been back then and she still feels 17, and she feels bad that she was such a jerk to Izzy, who was just trying to get by. It is easier to be kind in your 30s, she thinks. She writes that down in her anxiety journal. The dog pulls the leash as far as it will go from the bike lock post and sits on Ellen’s foot, rubbing its head against her ankle. Ellen loses herself in the feel of the dog’s fur, petting his small head.

Later they found out Chantal was seventeen. She said she could work there because her uncle was in the mafia. But Ellen never found out if that was actually true, because it was what every dancer learned to say when clients crossed a line. A whispered My Uncle Tino’s in the Hells Angels was the quickest way to make a posturing man look like a tiny little boy, returning his hands from your breasts back to his lap.

Ellen’s moneymaker was the fact that at twenty, she looked fourteen. Sometimes people even mistook her for twelve. Guys like Hiram Johnstone, with certain predilections for age play, flocked to her. After their first encounter, Ellen looked Hiram Johnstone up in the phone book downstairs in the donut shop. He was listed. It was his actual name.

The next day, Ellen had nothing much to do so she went to his house. What kind of a pervert idiot gives a stripper his real address? Ellen sat on her skateboard on the sidewalk across from his house wearing baggy pants and a tuque. She smoked, read a paperback detective novel, and rolled backwards and forwards on the skateboard. Eventually he drove up in a rusting Toyata Turcell hatchback.

When he got out of the car he looked right at her, but didn’t recognize her dressed like a little skate punk. She watched him unpack groceries from the trunk and help his wife take a kid out of a car seat. An older girl, about 15 or 16, got out of the car quickly and went inside, slamming the front door. His wife looked at Ellen, who coughed on her smoke, got up, and rolled away.

As he got to know Ellen-as-Lily he became braver with his banter. How was school today, Lily? Did you do your spelling homework? Ellen would say yes, she learned how to spell big words like empowerment and pedophilia. She wasn’t into it, although there she was, in a grade nine uniform, giving him a little thrill. She sometimes pictured his wife, his teenage daughter, their regular house. What they didn’t know about him  was disturbing, she thinks now. At the time, she just thought men were predictable, horrible morons.

One day he came during lunch hour and pulled her away from the bar where she was pretending to enjoy a watered down ginger-ale and reading Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag. I don’t like to see you reading, he said, grabbing her by the thin strap of her purse.

She began the usual banter, the regular moves. Because it was early, they were almost alone in the VIP room. Instead of sweetly asking about her day at school, participating in the ruse of an imagined high school life, he pinched her thigh and said she was getting fat, then he held her by the waist against his lap, not letting her dance.

Ellen tried to roll with it, roll her eyes. What’s your deal today Hiram? You’re not usually such a grump. She lifted both arms, pretending to still be dancing with the top of her body, as her bottom half was in the vice of his arms, gripped against his bulging lap. She glanced quickly towards where security should have been standing.

He kept his hands on her waist long enough, staring at her so insistently, so murderously, even her teeth hurt from the chill.

Don’t get uppity, missy. Do. What. I. Say. Then his face looked like he was grimacing in pain. Was he having a heart attack? She wondered if she could remember the CPR instruction she’d received in junior lifeguarding. She’d never seen a man come before, only heard it in the dark. It was a surprise to see the evidence on her skirt, to figure out what had just happened. When she realized it, she moved so quickly that her heel knocked his drink off the side table, crashing loudly enough that security popped his head in. She grabbed a cocktail napkin to wipe her lap and shuddered. An inventory of diseases scrolled through her brain. She flicked the straw from her drink toward him, hoping to hit his face, but it fell flaccidly against his arm and he didn’t even notice. His eyes were closed, like he was napping, and he mumbled sorry pretty baby. She went back to the bar, shaken up. He walked by her on his way out and handed her a fifty and said here’s your allowance.

The next time he came in to the club and saw her, he picked out a new girl, someone younger. She was relieved and also annoyed.

The new girl put borage flowers in the dressing room, purple buds soaking in tap water and crowded into a plastic Pepsi cup.  She snacked on them. They’re anti-depressants. They used to give them to soldiers to help them be brave! She had a tattoo of Emma Goldman on her ass, but Hayley and Ellen pretended she wasn’t one of their own. They made fun of her with Silicon Valley because she didn’t shave her bush.

One day at the bar, the new girl said, Hiram’s a fucking perv, right?

It’s all relative, Ellen had shrugged. She thought about saying something more, but stopped short. When she’d told Hayley about him ejaculating, she’d laughed and said, gross dude, and I hope he tipped big. It wasn’t a big deal to her. Ellen felt embarrassed that it had felt like such a big deal. It felt good to belittle the new girl. Her behaviour reminded Ellen of her brothers climbing trees when they were young, egging each other on to be the one to climb the highest. Even when their hands would shake, when they’d be so high they’d get dizzy, they always laughed when they got back to the ground. It was no big deal, they’d say.

Eventually Ellen just stopped going to the club, the same way she’d stopped going to her waitress job. She got an office job, and found a new partner. Eventually she went back to school, got a masters degree and moved to another city. Hayley is a lawyer now. Chantal is a famous documentary filmmaker.

She finishes his obituary, learns he died of heart failure, had three grandkids.

She thought about the hours she spent naked with him, legs in a V, toes pointed and touching the mirror beside his ears with her big toes. Every time she did this, she had a vision of snapping his neck with her ankles, and it would make her worry that she was a bad person.

Hiram, and that summer, were an anecdote she told at parties sometimes. Her peers often had similar stories. They were the first generation of webcam girls, or they worked in dungeons and played in punk bands at night, before art careers took off, before their first films got funding. They still have one pair of pants from the 90s in the back of the closet, with legs big enough to fit their whole body inside, glitter pussy cat stickers on their guitar cases under the bed.

She writes zero in the box next to the day’s date in her anxiety journal, remembering Hayley’s advice on their first shift. If you fake it, you’ll eventually feel it, your body won’t understand the difference. Hayley used to come with customers whenever she felt like it.

She places palm to heart and inhales.

Brown dog. Scooter. Hipster girls holding hands.

Drip of air conditioner on my shoulder. Itchy toe.

The smell of rain approaching.

Zoe Whittall’s third novel, The Best Kind of People, was shortlisted for the Giller Prize, is being adapted for screen by Sarah Polley,  was named Indigo’s #1 Book of 2016, and a best book of the year by Walrus Magazine, The Globe & Mail, Toronto Life, & The National Post. She has worked as a TV writer on several shows, including Schitt’s Creek and IFC’s The Baroness Von Sketch Show, which Vogue Magazine called “the best thing out of Canada since Ryan Gosling”. She won a LAMBDA literary award in the trans fiction category for her second novel Holding Still for as Long as Possible, soon to be a limited series. She has also written three volumes of poetry, most recently a new edition of The Emily Valentine Poems, which poet Eileen Myles blurbed with, “This reminds me that I would like to know everything about this person.” Her next novel, The Spectacular, is forthcoming in 2019 with Ballantine in the U.S. and Harpercollins in Canada.

Photo credit Vivek Shraya