“Without trying to be harsh, why in the name of the saints and all their wives would be [sic] want closure here. We want it ripped wide open for all to see and hopefully, layer upon layer of history to be revealed.”
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The occasion was a soccer victory—somebody’s niece’s husband played for a European team—and the locale was the seedier of the two Yonge Street strip clubs. Nearly 30 of us crowded the upstairs, all connected to Jesus. He said if I didn’t come, he’d bring the afterparty to my place.
It was a maelstrom of laughter, bullshit, and flirting, and Jesus was the hub, somehow catching every voice and keeping a stake in every conversation, switching from Spanish to English and back in the same sentence. These men knew how to behave in a strip club. They knew how to play their parts as well as the strippers did. They followed the stage action closely, offering encouragement less crude than the normal catcalls. The dancers were happy, the bar was happy, and the men who liked to sit in anonymity were soon driven away.
Because everyone in the group seemed determined to sample each girl in the house, none had approached me for a private dance. I assumed that my stillness would be my shield. Until a voice behind my chair said:
“There’s always a quiet one.”
The woman smiling down at me was caked in makeup, but her orange-auburn hair was natural. Her outfit was skimpy, but more elaborate and flashy than the rest. Her expression was comforting, welcoming. And she simply didn’t stand like a stripper.
Jesus was on us immediately. His face was red and he smelled like six kinds of perfume. He grabbed the woman’s hand. “My lovely, you got to rescue my poor friend. Look at him. You got to bring him back to the world of living people.” He stuffed money into her hand like it was a drug deal.
And so I followed that orange hair through the black-lit velvet and mirrors into a little booth. She was lean-limbed and a little gawky. Also not overly young. As she started gyrating, she said her name was Shasta.
“Is this good? You look a little…uptight.”
I said everything was fine.
“You’re just intense, huh?”
“Maybe I need a few more bad customers to make me jaded, but the assholes are too hilarious.” I was thinking of Judah’s favorite brothel. It would not have occurred to Judah to pay someone to remove her clothes without the logical follow-up. I noticed that Shasta was throwing in dance moves like the Pony and the Cabbage Patch.
Instead of suffering in silence through whatever Jesus’s $20 bought, I said, “You’re not the typical peeler.”
“Is that so?”
“Your clothes are more burlesque. And you seem happy.”
She laughed—a real cackle. “To be honest, this is my second week. I just wanted to try it, you know? Burlesque, too. Sample from the wide palette of life. Maybe I need a few more bad customers to make me jaded, but the assholes are too hilarious.”
I was struck by a tattoo on her thigh.
“You like that? You must. It’s the first time you looked away from my eyes.” She lay her foot on the chair back and pressed in close. “Chinese symbols. They told me it was my name. Probably the address of the tattoo parlor.”
She cackled again, this time doubling over. “Oh, fucking beautiful. They told me it was Chinese,” she repeated over and over. She told the story of how she got it, replete with character voices and good timing. I could believe she found this place hilarious.
The more she talked, the less she danced. Soon, she was sitting next to me. She touched my face.
“So, you’re Jewish.”
I sat silent for a minute. She unclasped her spangly top and paused with the straps in hand, widening her eyes as she waited for more.
“A long time ago, a very important religious leader…I worked for him. He wanted me to harm some people he thought were his enemies, and I wouldn’t. So he decreed that I was not a Jew. He said people like me couldn’t pray with others. He effectively banished me. Then, later, he was banished himself. He also said that technically I could be murdered with no consequences.”
The undone bikini top hung on her chest. Her smile disappeared. In a place full of heart-shaped rhinestones, a place where I couldn’t be less comfortable, this intimate story comes out. I had startled myself, though it didn’t feel cathartic. I’d been careful, guarded; I hadn’t used the Hakham’s name or Sabbatai’s. But there was some longing when I saw their faces again and realized I had never spoken of them to anyone. But then, what do I tell anyone about anything?
“What a voice,” she said.
Jesus passed by on his hands and knees, led by an invisible leash, barking like a dog. Maybe this was the perfect place to speak of alienation.
“What’s your name?”
I hesitated again. The ready answer would have to do, but that open face didn’t deserve it.
“Come on. Tell me, and I’ll tell you my real name.”
“I already know your name.” I pointed to her thigh and then did something I had never done without being asked or told—I touched it. “It’s Ruth.”