Too Good to Be True, or, the Stripper with a Heart of Gold


by Christa Carmen


Not a single soul knew where Adriana went on Thursday and Saturday nights. But then, she used the name ‘Nikki’ when she was on Philadelphia’s South Columbus Boulevard, so even if friends or teammates were aware she was missing, it was Nikki who was prowling the dark rooms of the Crazy Horse Too, not Adriana.

The idea had come to her over Christmas break. Every December she spent three boring weeks in her home town on the southern coast of Rhode Island until called back to the University of Pennsylvania before the rest of the student body to get in additional training before the start of the gymnastics competition season.

That December, her senior year, an old friend had given her an early Christmas present in the form of Jenna Jameson’s trashy autobiography: How to Make Love like a Porn Star. She read the first few chapters with amused indifference, grateful to be reading something other than a textbook. As she came to the descriptions of Jenna’s introduction to strip clubs, followed by her mastery of the trade, Adriana surprised herself by thinking, ‘I could do that.’

She told herself that the idea of working at a strip club was nothing but an idle daydream, but upon her return to Philadelphia, she searched for a club to pursue employment at with the tenacity of a woman possessed of no other means of income.

That she was mere months away from graduating with an Ivy League degree as a double major did not dissuade her from her intentions. The Crazy Horse Too was the third club listed in the search engine results, a white columned building far down the boulevard from the historic tourist spot of Penn’s Landing, and just as divergent in respectability.

The General Manager hired her as a cocktail waitress, but she was on stage as a dancer before the end of her first shift. The learning curve from nervous co-ed playing dress-up to self- possessed femme fatale lugging a duffle bag of cash home after every shift was short. She kept the details of her ‘real’ life quiet while at the club, and on Thursday and Saturday evenings (she had no class on Friday mornings), she told her roommates she was out with her new boyfriend, and her new boyfriend she was out with her roommates.

Adriana felt far drunker off the secret of her foray into dancing than she had gotten at any frat party she’d attended as a normal college senior.

Having been a gymnast for fifteen years, Adriana was a quick study in the pole work required to wow customers. These tricks combined with her inability to completely disguise her eloquence and intelligence, as well as a propinquity for eighties hair metal bands in a club flooded with hardcore rap and R&B music, allowed Adriana to quickly acquire ‘regulars.’ She’d been dancing under the stage name “Riana,” thanks to an uninventive DJ who’d helped her choose a name before her debut performance, but an infatuated customer had christened her ‘Nikki,’ after observing that she’d danced to Mötley Crüe several times in eight hours (he’d stayed for the duration of her shift). Mötley Crüe’s Nikki Sixx, one half of the band’s duo dubbed ‘the Toxic Twins’ for their depravity and excess, seemed an appropriate embodiment of the character Adriana aimed to create.

The man who’d contributed the moniker for Nikki’s new persona was her first ‘regular.’ A forty-five year old engineer named Jeff Discher, he’d met Nikki on the singular occurrence when she’d worked a day shift. Penn was supposed to have a gymnastics meet against Temple one Saturday in mid-January, but a snowstorm had forced their head coach to reschedule. Nikki hadn’t been dancing long enough yet to yearn for a ‘normal’ Saturday night with her college friends, but she had heard that the diehard customers frequented the club during day shifts or on Sunday evenings, and wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to experience this type of customer herself.

Nikki caught Jeff’s eye while on stage, and approached him after her set with hopes of garnering a few private dances. Nikki’s strategy in accomplishing this was to do everything but ask if the customer wanted a private dance. She’d sit and talk with business men and construction workers alike, eliciting reactions as if she were a licensed therapist rather than a bronzed and sequined stripper.

She’d sat with Jeff for a little over an hour when he’d asked if she would escort him to the VIP room. Nikki gave him a genuine smile, abandoning the shy or coy pretenses the other girls so often employed, and marched him toward the gauzy double doors, purple lights blinking and illuminating her eight-inch rhinestone-studded platforms in the dark, intermittently, so that each step felt like a gamble before her foot connected with the dirty carpet.

She’d been in the VIP room before, but not frequently enough to have shed the sense of accomplishment that accompanied it, and she choose their couch like an excited child choosing the first present to unwrap on Christmas morning. She waited with impatience as the cocktail waitress took Jeff’s champagne order. The waitress was a chunky girl whose curves had been crammed into a too-tight corset like a casing overstuffed with sausage, and whose acned skin was covered with so much foundation that Nikki feared her face would fissure and crumble if she smiled too hard. Her fear was unfounded (although who could smile when breathing was probably difficult enough in that outfit, Nikki thought), and ‘Magenta’ disappeared to fetch the Veuve Clicquot with a muttered ‘thank-you’ and a scowl.

Nikki turned her attention back to Jeff.

“So,” she said. “Where were we?”

“Well, I think we were talking about my job. But to be honest, now that I’ve got you alone, there’s something I wanted to ask you.”

“Sure,” Nikki said, curious.

“Well, first, can you take your shoes off?”

Nikki hesitated for just a second, then bent forward and unzipped the backs of her shoes. Wriggling her pink-painted toes out of the straps, she placed the shoes to the side of the pleather couch, and leaned back next to him.

Magenta returned with the champagne, and Nikki twirled her rings and checked her lip gloss while Jeff gave the waitress his credit card, and feigned a connoisseur’s judgment of the Veuve.

“Great,” he told her. “Thank you.”

“Hey,” Nikki said to the waitress. “Is Magenta your real name?”

Magenta glared at her, and plodded out of the open area to go sulk behind the bar. Nikki giggled and looked into Jeff’s eyes. He put the champagne flute down and without warning, whisked her into his lap, facing him.

“Put your feet on my face,” he whispered.

Her mind floundered, but she maintained her composure and did as she was told, though still somewhat tentatively.

“Press your heels into my forehead,” he commanded.

She did.

This went on for the duration of the fifteen-minute session he had purchased, and when Magenta sidled into the room, he ducked out from under Nikki’s size-sevens, and barked, “Fifteen more minutes.” Magenta managed a half-smile then; she may have been cantankerous at her life sentence (always a cocktail waitress, never a dancer—unless she lost fifty pounds), but she wasn’t stupid. For every fifteen-minutes Nikki kept Jeff engaged in the VIP room, Magenta made a percentage off the mandatory champagne bottles they consumed. She retrieved, opened, and poured the second bottle without Jeff noticing.

Nikki wouldn’t have thought she would have been able to entertain a man in such a way for over a half hour, but it was hard to argue with the soft moans of pleasure coming from under the pads of her feet. Jeff requested a third fifteen-minute block, told Magenta to split the last bottle with the other cocktail waitresses and leave them alone until they were through, and instructed Nikki to put her shoes back on.

“You are amazing,” he said to her. “You know, I have to admit, I come to places like this a lot. The girls in this city are either hood rats or uppity bitches, and while I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I’m not going to find the woman of my dreams at a strip club, at least I can pay for what I want.

“But you. You’re different. You seem like the real thing. You’re sexy and sweet, and you strike me as having that whole ‘lady in the streets but a freak in the sheets’ thing going for you. I mean, I don’t know…” he paused, embarrassed.

“Go on,” Nikki goaded him, stroking his arm.

“I mean, would you ever consider seeing me outside of here? If, like…well, I mean, we could meet in a public place the first time we went out. So you’re comfortable and all. There’s actually this concert I’ve been dying to go to, but I haven’t bought tickets yet because I have no one to go with. It’s not until the summer, and I wouldn’t want to wait that long to take you out, I’m just saying, if we did something like that, would you be up for it?”

“Absolutely,” Nikki said.

“Wow, really?” Jeff’s excitement made him look ten years younger. “Could I get your number?”

“Well, here’s the thing. I’ll give you my number, but I have to warn you, I’m very busy for the next few months. I’m a senior at the University of Pennsylvania. I’ll be graduating soon, so I have a lot going on. But I work here two days a week, sometimes more, and until I get some more time on my hands, I’d love it if you’d come visit me at work.” Nikki leaned down and adjusted one of two toe-rings on her right foot. A third toe-ring glinted on the second toe of her left.

Jeff’s gaze was frozen on her feet. Nikki, worried he was in danger of drooling, said quickly, “But if you’re ok with that setup for the time being, then yes, I’d love to give you my number.”

She reached for the checkbook with the customer copy of Jeff’s VIP receipt. Their forty-five minutes in the secluded back room and three bottles of champagne had run him nine-hundred dollars, before tip. She held it out to him, her fingers clandestinely obscuring the figure.

“Sign this so I can write my number on the back.”

He signed. Nikki wrote her real cell phone number on the back of the slip, waved it in front of his face so he could see, and put it in the front pocket of his tacky suit jacket.

“There,” she said, matter-of-fact. “That’s that. Oh, don’t forget to leave Magenta a tip.”
They left the VIP room, but Jeff stayed at the club another two hours. Nikki worked the room, but made sure to shoot sultry looks at him from her stage sets, and once even winked at him as she walked another customer back to VIP. As the day shift wound down, Nikki slunk over to where Jeff still sat. She sunk her ass into his lap, yanked one foot out of a shoe, gracelessly but below Jeff’s line of vision, and put her heel on his forehead as he’d instructed her a few hours before. Jeff groaned and closed his eyes.

Nikki whispered into his ear and tickled his face with her toes. Then, just as quickly, she was off him and replacing her shoe on her faux tanned foot.

“Bye Jeff,” she said, and turned for the dressing room.

#

Jeff shut the taxi door behind him, blinking like an opossum in the still-light of the afternoon.

“Seventeenth and Locust, please,” he told the cabbie, trying to keep from grinning like an idiot. The cab driver sped out of the parking lot and onto Columbus Boulevard, and by the time he’d taken the next turn onto Walnut Street, Jeff’s recollection of the afternoon had him sweating. He removed his jacket, and sat basking in not only his memories, but the possibilities to come. He was jolted out of the reverie by the annoyed driver a few minutes later.

“You getting out, or you want me to keep driving around with my meter on?” he asked, his voice dripping with sarcasm.

Jeff checked the meter, threw some wadded up bills through the partition, and went to step out onto the snowy sidewalk. He remembered his jacket before he closed the door, and grabbed it in a panic. He shut the door with a jerk, not noticing the driver rolling his eyes at him before pulling out into afternoon traffic. The taxi was out of sight when Jeff reached into his jacket to finger Nikki’s note and came away with pocket lint. The uncertainty of whether he had dropped it in the cab, or lost it while still in the club weighed on him until the following Thursday night.

#

“I was wondering why you didn’t call!” Nikki exclaimed when they were back in the VIP room late Thursday night, conversing after another lesson in foot fetish.

“Yeah, I really couldn’t believe it. I was kicking myself, that’s for sure,” Jeff replied. He was intent on getting his hands on her number again, and his impatience was palpable. Unwilling to let him wallow in his tension any longer, Nikki plucked the cell phone from his pants pocket. Jeff trembled as her fingers brushed his hip bone, and he watched, rapt, as she punched her number into his contact list.

“I double-checked it,” she said. “It’s definitely saved in there.”

“Great, thank you. Like I said, I can’t believe I did that. Now…on to the next order of business. Let’s plan that date.”

“I’d love to,” she said, pretending not to notice that he was ignoring her request of the previous week for more time.

“By the way, I meant to ask you this last time I was here. Do you really go to Penn? Well, that is, I mean, I meant to tell you that I think that’s really great. Like, you’re really smart, and I’m not surprised that you’re so smart, you definitely seem it, I was just thinking about it afterwards and I was thinking how awesome it is that you go there.”

“You know, I really appreciate that,” Nikki replied. “I’m happy with the education I received there and all the opportunity that graduating from Penn represents. I just wish I had had better luck with relationships while I was there.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, to be honest with you, I haven’t had a serious relationship the entire time I’ve been at Penn. The guys I’ve met are either too wrapped up in their own lives, their fraternities, their sports team, whatever, and never willing to meet me halfway. I’ve pretty much given up on finding someone while I’m in school.”

Jeff struggled to keep his eagerness in check. “If you give me the chance, I promise you won’t regret it. I’ve had just as rotten luck in relationships, and I’ve been waiting a very long time for the right woman to spoil.”

Nikki smiled. “Oh yeah? Well, then what’re we waiting for? When are we going out?”

#

Jeff took Nikki to dinner at an Italian restaurant in Old City the following week. The food was delicious, the music romantic, and the conversation easy. Nikki had a great time, and though Jeff asked her back to his apartment, she explained that she had an early practice the next morning, and would have to take a rain check. As they wandered out to the street to look for two different cabs, Nikki cursed in frustration.

“What’s wrong?” Jeff asked.

“My damn cell phone. Verizon shut it off on me. I guess I forgot to pay it.” She gave him a sheepish look. “Forget it, I’ll use my roommate’s phone and call in the payment tomorrow.”

“I was hoping to talk to you tonight,” Jeff said in earnest, and took the phone from her hands. “You have Verizon? Let me pay the bill for you online when I get home. That way you don’t have to worry about it.”

“No Jeff, I can’t let you do that. I’m not one of those dancers, or one of those girls for that matter. I’ll pay it tomorrow as soon as I have the chance.”

“Nope, not good enough. I insist. Do you have your account number, or a copy of the bill somewhere?”

Nikki took a cab back to West Philly, and her phone was reactivated by the time she’d gotten home and taken a quick shower. She sent Jeff a text message with a smiley face and a thank-you, and they talked long into the night. The more she got to know him, the more Nikki began to think that he was just what she was looking for in a man, and the more grateful she was for following through on the crazy idea of working at the Crazy Horse Too.

#

Weeks passed, and while Nikki continued working at the club, her relationship with Jeff progressed. Her college boyfriend forgotten, they went out to eat five nights a week, went to movies and shows, and Jeff booked tickets to the concert in June he was so looking forward to. He still came to see her at work, and though he tried to abstain from at least one of her two shifts a week, Nikki found that more and more often, he was present at both. She didn’t mind. She enjoyed his company and reveled at his appreciation for her dancing, and Jeff had taken to given Nikki a ride home from the club so she didn’t have to spend the money she’d earned on subway or taxi fare.

When May came, and graduation drew near, Jeff expressed interest in attending.

“I’d love to have you there, but I’m not going to walk,” Nikki explained. “I’m not into the whole sitting outside for three hours and listening to the dean read off two-thousand names of which I know ten of. We can go out that night though. If you want to, that is.”

Jeff picked Nikki up from her Chestnut Street brownstone later that night, and they went out for dinner and drinks at an upscale piano bar.

“I’ve been thinking,” Jeff began. “There’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you, something I think we should talk about.”

“What is it,” Nikki asked, thinking she knew what he was going to say before he said it.

“Well, you graduated today, and I know you’re going to go on and get a really kick-ass job, but I also know you were planning on working at the club at least through the summer, to make some extra money before your apartment lease ends at the end of August. Well, see, me and you, we’ve been together for five months now, and I really care about you. I…I love you, actually. And I was wondering if you’d consider quitting the club now instead of at the end of summer.”

“You love me?” Nikki asked him, the fake eyelashes that she’d taken to wearing with Jeff even outside the club fanned wide around her smoky eyes like twin sets of tarantula legs.

“Yeah. Yes, I do. Do you love me?”

“Yes…I do love you, Jeff.”

“Will you quit the club?”

“If that’s what you want, I won’t give it a second thought,” Nikki promised.

“Wow, that’s so great. This makes me so happy I really don’t know what else to say.”

“Then don’t say anything,” Nikki said, and leaned over the table to kiss him.

#

There’s something about a contented woman that men always recognize. Though Jeff himself had not perceived it, ever since he and Nikki had been together, it was as if she was the most exotic of fruits, hanging naked from atop the silvery stripper pole tree, and ripe for the plucking. During the five months they’d been seeing each other, Nikki had amassed more regulars than any other girl in the club, and it was a rare night when she wasn’t tipping out a small fortune to the house mom, bouncers, and bartenders, and clearing a grand at least a shift a week post-tip out. When Nikki didn’t show up for the first Thursday night shift since having ‘the talk’ with Jeff, there were four distraught patrons wandering around the Crazy Horse Too like lost puppies, until four other dancers swooped in to reap the benefits of Nikki’s absence.

Jeff was also upset on what was to be Nikki’s first free Thursday, when she had to forego dinner plans in order to study for a human sexuality exam Friday afternoon, an ‘advanced topic in psychology’ requirement for her major that took an evolutionary approach to human sexuality issues by first exploring sexual conflict among animal species. She got through a lot of the lecture material by likening interlocus sexual conflict, or the evolutionary benefits of a higher optimal mating rate for men over women, with the dynamics of the dancer-client relationship: the male reduces the female’s desire to re-mate with another male, which serves the male’s interests, but also shortens the female’s lifespan by reducing her fitness. Hadn’t Jeff reduced Nikki’s desire to work the other men at the club by enticing her to be with only him? And hadn’t that shortened the lifespan of her excessive cash influx? Pressing on, Nikki read about different traits that had evolved as a manifestation of sexual conflict, when the evolutionary interests of males and females differ. One of these manifestations was sexual cannibalism, occurring when a female cannibalizes her mate prior to, during, or after copulation.

Branching out from her course material, Nikki took to the internet to further research the phenomenon, stumbling on a study published in The Proceedings of the Royal Society B in which researchers hypothesized on how accurately female false garden mantises portrayed their physical condition to potential mates. The author of the journal article found that female mantises that were poorly nourished sent out higher levels of pheromones to attract male mantises to mate with, essentially lying to them regarding their fecundity. Successfully duped, the males would still attempt to mate with the malnourished females, even after the female commenced with eating them. The female starts by biting off the male’s head, but the male is sometimes still able to copulate while headless due to a second brain in its abdomen.

“That’s one major difference between male mantises and human men,” Nikki said out loud to her empty apartment. “One has two brains, the other has zero.”

By Saturday, Nikki was getting restless. Without the afternoon ritual of preparing for her trek downtown, she paced her living room like a caged tiger, waiting for Jeff to call her. Around six o’clock, her phone chirped from the coffee table, and she answered his text requesting she meet him at their favorite restaurant with a short reply of her own. With this preemptive move completed, she began to get ready for the evening.

The knock on the front door startled her. She had told Jeff she would not be meeting him out, and for him to come to her apartment instead, but she’d been expecting a text that he was outside the complex, after which she could buzz him up. Someone must have held the door opened for him, she thought. No matter, this works just as well.
Nikki opened the door, and Jeff hadn’t gotten two steps into the kitchen before the waterworks began.

“What’s wrong?” he asked her, wiping tears from her cheeks, a mixture of fear and concern on his paunchy face.

Nikki returned to where she’d been positioned at the kitchen table, her laptop opened and various bills spread in a half-circle around the workspace like a Chinese hand fan. He knew her roommates had left for their respective hometowns for the summer, but he was surprised to see her things in such disarray. Nikki was usually so neat.

“Oh Jeff,” she started, and the tears came harder. She got up and disappeared into the bathroom, returning with smeared eyes and an already half-empty box of tissues.

“I didn’t want to say anything. You’ll think I’m awful for lying to you, but I just don’t know what to do anymore!”

“Just tell me what’s going on, Nikki. You have to tell me so that I can help you.”
He was struck at how young she looked in her Penn t-shirt and ponytail, makeup washed almost completely away with the first tsunami of tears that had come at the apartment door. She sniffled, and began to speak:

“Well…the reason I didn’t want you to come to my graduation ceremony was because I didn’t graduate. I didn’t graduate because my grades really suffered this last semester working at the club and all. But you see, I couldn’t stop working at the club because I’m in such dire straits financially. Now I’m really fucked because I’m not working at the club any longer, so I’m even more broke than before, and the stress from all of this is making it even harder to concentrate on my summer classes, which I need to pass in order to finally graduate.” She broke into fresh sobs.

Jeff sat in the straight-backed kitchen chair next to her, and took her face in his hands.

“Nikki, I asked you to stop working at the club so that you could be with me,” he said.

“All these problems, financial problems, school problems, they’re taking you just as far away from me than if you’d still been working at the club. Now we’re together. We’re a couple. This isn’t your mess to clean up alone.

“We’re going to start by cancelling our dinner plans tonight so that you can get some work done for your summer class syllabuses. And in order to have a clear head, we need to take care of the financial stuff.”

He grabbed her laptop and slid it over until it was set squarely in front of him.

“What bills need to be paid first?” he asked her.

#

Forty-five minutes later, Jeff had paid off two substantial student loans, her overdue rent, and five months’ worth of utility, cell phone, and cable & internet bills. The first month’s rent and security deposit checks for the apartment lease beginning in September were in the outgoing mail slot of Nikki’s apartment complex. Nikki had ceased crying, and sat silently in the chair next to Jeff as he logged out of the last online bill paying website and shut the laptop with a click. He stretched his fingers and cracked the knuckles as if he’d been typing for the duration of his visit, and not copy-and-pasting his credit card or bank routing information into different text fields, and smiled a sickeningly sweet smile at Nikki.

“There, baby,” he said, clearly pleased. “Now don’t you wish you’d have told me what was going on a long time ago?”

Nikki got up from her chair and walked parallel to the kitchen counter behind the table.

“I suppose I do,” she said, all traces of sadness gone from her voice. She stopped behind him and put her hands on his shoulders. As she continued to speak, she began a deep, almost aggressive massage, moving up from his shoulders to his neck.

“You know, now that you’ve done what you have for me, I feel so much better about everything,” she said. “In fact, I’m not so sure I want to forego our dinner plans for this evening.”

“Really?” Nikki heard Jeff ask, his voice swallowed up by the fabric at the neck of his button-up shirt as he relaxed into the massage. “That’s great babe.”

“It is great,” Nikki said, switching over to a one-handed massage as she turned for something hidden in the kitchen sink. “It’s actually too good to be true.”

Her roommate, Heather, had gotten the meat cleaver prior to their last pre-gymnastics meet team dinner. Always the team’s number one suspect for closet anorexic, Heather loathed partaking in the carbo-loading meals they made the night before a competition, and had subsequently become a master chef of T-bone steaks, pot roast, and other recipes high in protein.

As Nikki used the cleaver to hack through skin, muscle, and vertebrae, blinking through the spray of blood, she imagined that her method wasn’t as effective as the female mantis’s innate ability to bite off the male’s head with her teeth. Halfway through, she realized her endeavor would be better served if she was cutting from a slighter higher vantage point. Looking around for a makeshift step ladder, she spotted her clear, nine-inch platforms lying next to her club bag, which was unzipped and haphazardly spilling thongs and garters like a post-party piñata. Leaving her prey long enough to slip into the shoes, she returned to the blade half-obscured by Jeff’s skull. It looked like he was wearing one of those ‘knife-through-the-head’ Halloween prop headbands. It took a few more minutes to finish the job, and an hour or so to make herself presentable. With her roommates gone, she could worry about cleaning the apartment tomorrow.

Nikki left Jeff’s brain and tongue simmering on low in her crock pot with an assortment of vegetables, and headed out for her Saturday night shift at the club.

#

The man with the dark hair and darker eyes approached Nikki as she came down from her stage set, glistening with a light sheen of sweat and body lotion, and glowing with an inner light of contentedness the man was drawn to like a moth to a flame.

“Can I get a few minutes of your time?” he asked her as she shrugged into her new Chantilly lace babydoll.

“Of course,” Nikki replied. She didn’t ask him to take her to the VIP room. He’d ask her himself, eventually. They all would.

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