I packed up my lace teddy and Red Bull into a discreet bag and headed over to the restaurant before work. From the outside, it looked grim: I settled temporarily in a bustling beach town at the edge of Melbourne and needed money to pay off my student debt. I felt such a pang of loneliness and regret that I broke down in the doorless toilet stall, my eyeliner smearing like watercolor on canvas. I sat down at the bar and ordered a Hennessy on the rocks. Work was a temporary balm, but the interactions there were fleeting, not enough to sustain my longing for people. I suggested the private room and he agreed. From the bar, I saw her sitting alone on one of the upholstered couches that lined the back of the club.
I rambled incessantly, illustrating the nightclubs, the hostels I stayed in, even how I bled through my powder-blue dress because I forgot to change my tampon. I let out a sigh of relief as the taxi plowed across the Williamsburg Bridge. All but one dismissed me. Are they asking for my real name? But in the private rooms at the club, there were no outside stimuli. With fewer stimuli around, it was easier to focus and converse back and forth in a way that felt less strenuous than at the restaurant hours before. True, I was better at picking up more obvious cues like eagerness and anger, but group settings were strenuous — too many subtleties to keep track of. But I have to go. The manager looked at my petite frame and nervous smile, pointed her manicured hand to the dressing room and listed the rules: I broke out in sweat. I ordered my first drink of the night and took inventory of the club. You sound like a child. I gradually pulled the blame away from myself and labeled the things about me that were naturally different, not defective. A second later the words clicked. I quickly walked over to her and asked: I took a deep breath and resisted pretending to listen and asked: When I walked into a club to ask for a job, to my surprise, I realized it was just a bar with the usual roles reversed: The force of my rotting loneliness hit like a tidal wave as the reality of how much I struggled to navigate social settings outside settled in. After two years in the industry, I knew which customers were worth investing in — not this guy. He was short, with a tuft of gray hair and a slight smile that crinkled his eyes. Are they relaying problems in their life without buying a dance first? People would love me or not — frankly I was okay with the risk. From the outside, it looked grim: The possibilities of the night unrolled in front of me and I intended to savor them. On the floor of the club, I spent hours practicing each weekend, and for the first time in my life, I learned how to cut through layers of language in real time, just like Claire, until it became effortless.
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