There exist moments in my life when, while I stand absolutely still, paradigms suddenly shift before me, cataclysmic events that shake me like a earthquake. They are violent, heartbreaking epiphanies without warning.
I have been to two strip clubs since I have moved to Portland, which is two more strip clubs than I had ever been to before I moved to Portland.
The night of my twenty-sixth birthday—my first Portland birthday—two coworkers took me to a strip club at 1 am. I had spent the evening at my local bar, where drinks were strongly poured by a bartender with a face like a baby and a voice like Harvey Fierstein. By the time we walked into the strip club, I was absolutely hammered. I remember very few things. It was all black inside. It was full of people. I was given a shot of something on the house, which I probably should not have taken.
The only fully coherent memory I have is thinking the strip club looked like it was owned by vampires. It was dirty and raunchy, and I felt out of place. But in my stupor, I was Jane Goodall. I was experiencing a completely different world—a more primal world with naked women dancing on or near men bacchanalianally in my periphery. Later, when I told people about this experience and my opinion of strip clubs in general, it was a drunken, magical experience. Then I went to a strip club sober.
That man who had seen me at my best playing softball, who had asked me out on a date, who had told me he loved me, who would ask me to move in with him, and who I affectionately call “Bear”—that man and I went to a strip club with friends of his visiting from Washington a little less than a year after our first date.
After an evening of dancing to soul music at a beloved basement dance bar, we got a couple slices of pizza, and decided to head over to a strip club on the other side of town. Someone suggested we call a cab to take us there, but I nixed that idea. Hours of spirited dancing and two big slices of pizza had counteracted the alcohol from the one Moscow Mule I had had three hours before. I was sober. The cab was not necessary and instead everyone piled into Bear’s car.
I parked a few blocks away from the strip club, though the quiet street was all but abandoned by cars. We walked inside, and everyone hit the bar but me. Instead, I set up camp next to a row of Keno machines running along the opposite wall by the entrance. Having found a place to stand and wait for everyone, I turned my attention to the stage that was thirty feet and a crowd of people away.
The dancer on stage was lean and long, wearing soft, black shoes with grips on the bottom to help her on the pole: dancer’s shoes. She had long, black hair and lots of tattoos. I stood transfixed watching her perform. I thought that she was beautiful in a gritty way, her tattoos juxtaposed against the grace of her movements. I was told in the car that unlike many if not most of the strip clubs in the city, the dancers here were dancers. And like the best dancers, she made it look effortless. Sprezzatura came to mind.
Besides the shoes, she was totally naked. A wave of embarrassment for watching as long as I had forced me to look around the room. There were other dancers walking around, with drinks in their hands, wearing black lacy bras and barely there underwear. They were nakedly, casually chatting with friends and regulars.
My face tinged red. A familiar pit of unease in my stomach grew. In a single moment I was fully aware of how comfortable these women were in their skin, and how entirely uncomfortable I was in mine. My heart sank. I looked back at the dancer on the stage. She was up there without a single article of clothing on and she was in her element. My heart dropped.
While I had been watching the dancers, everyone had ordered a round of shots. After they toasted and drank, the other two couples walked towards the rack to find seats. Bear joined me by the machines and pulled out the small bills from his wallet before joining our friends. The emcee was standing in a boxed-in podium off to the side of the stage. He was keeping tabs on the amount of money tipped for the dancers. Noticing a dearth of bills on the rack, he started to harass the patrons.
“If you’re standing there and enjoying the show, come up here and drop some cash,” he said on the mic. “She’s not dancing for free.”
Bear turned to me and smiled, pulling a single dollar from his hand. He tried to hand it to me. I started to panic.
“No thanks,” I said, attempting to sound casual, a pointless endeavor as I was speaking to the one man in the world who seemed to read my thoughts.
“We can go up there together,” he countered with a playful and reassuring smile, noting my unease.
“I really don’t want to go up there.”
“Why?” he asked.
“I don’t know—I am just very uncomfortable right now, and I don’t want to go up there.”
“It’ll really be fine. We will go up together.” He said the words with eyes that told me everything would be fine, though I was intentionally avoiding those eyes. I used to attempt that tactic when we first started to date, which was done equally in vain standing in the strip club as it had been then.
“I know,” I said again, trying to sound resolved. “But I would like to stand here and I don’t want to go up there. Why don’t you go up there and I will just stay here.”
Bear looked at the stage and took note of the dancer, this time a different girl with shorter hair, even more skilled than the one before.
“These dancers are really good. Like really good. This place is different from most clubs.” he said. “And if you’re watching them, you should tip them,” he concluded, echoing the emcee.
“Well, if that is the case then I will go outside, and then there’s no obligation.”
Bear’s face changed as I said those words. It was the face of a man looking at a stubborn child. I was being stubborn and childish. I couldn’t tell him why I was flustered and growing steadily upset because I didn’t know wholly myself. I just kept repeating that I was uncomfortable. He tried convincing me for a few more minutes until he gave up and went to join our friends at the front.
I walked to a corner, turned away from the dancers, and started looking at my phone. I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t want to keep watching and not tip, because he was right. The dancers were amazing. So I didn’t. Two minutes passed. Two slow minutes of me sulking until it felt as if someone slapped me in the face and yelled what is wrong with you? You are being ridiculous.
I put my phone back in my pocket and slowly walked closer to the front of the stage. Three of our party sat at the rack. Bear and another friend were standing near them against a wall. I walked up behind Bear and put my head on the back of his neck, wrapping my arms around his waist.
“What happened?” he said.
“I was looking at my phone in the corner until I felt like an asshole and couldn’t stand there anymore.” I said into his ear.
He took hold of my forearms and wrapped them around him tighter, holding my hands in his. I had been on the verge of crying as he had tried to convince me to come up before and as I stood there with him, I was again. I wanted to cry because I was mad at myself, and a little mad at him, but in the case of the latter there was no real reason. He saw me as out of my comfort zone and was trying to gently ease me into it. It was sweet and caring, and I didn’t like it at all.
I wasn’t out of my comfort zone. Well, I was and I wasn’t. Watching those girls, and unable to approach them, I had had an epiphany.
I had spent most of my life being uncomfortable.
Years of self-deprecation and low self-esteem from body issues and minor failures. Years of aching for positive reinforcement because I was so devoid of confidence that I inherently and desperately relied on it from other people. Years of believing that I was never good enough at or for anything or anyone, and convincing myself that being mediocre was okay.
It took standing in a strip club, with my arms wrapped around the man that I loved, watching a dancer look more confident and comfortable naked than I have ever felt completely clothed, to realize that none of those things should be thought.
I wasn’t mediocre. And it wasn’t okay to think being mediocre was okay.
Bear pulled me with him to an open table and I sat there willing myself not to cry. I tried to keep my face calm, but I was so angry inside. I was furious. I hated myself for thinking all of this was okay. I wanted to scream at myself. To shake myself. How could you think such horrible things? How could you be so mean and hurtful and cruel?
And then the anger stops, and there is just sadness. I want to hold myself and let myself cry in my arms, so I can whisper that everything is going to be okay. It’s going to be okay now.
Bear and I had gone down to California a month before the strip club. On our drive home, we had one of those conversations that you never forget. We talked for hours about our lives. Late into the drive, he told me something that made me melt.
“I am never going to be good enough for you.” he said.
I gazed lovingly at him after he said it and asked him why. I asked why instead of saying what I was thinking, which was that there was no doubt in my mind that you are good enough for me. You are smart and sweet, handsome and charming, and you love me. He is all of those things, more so than he thinks himself capable of. But, still—all of those things paled in comparison to the very simple fact that he loved me. In that car, the idea that someone—anyone—loved me still gave me pause. The idea that someone like him loved me left me dumbfounded. To hear him say that he thought that he wasn’t good enough for me was nothing short of ludicrous.
“Even at my best, I’m still not going to be good enough for you.” he said, not answering my question.
I asked him why again, thinking that’s not true. You will always be good enough for me. You will always be too good for me. You are wrong. It’s backwards. I will never be good enough for you.
“Once you figure out how amazing you are,” he said matter-of-factly, “you are going to take over the world.”
I was silent for a while in the car. I told him that I loved him. But I didn’t tell him that I didn’t believe him.
Aristotle was going against the ancient grain when he presented philautia, self love, as a good thing. He didn’t present it as narcissism or selfishness. Aristotle agreed that selflessness was a virtue, but thought that good people should and do love themselves. Philautia was “a state of inner serenity…enjoyed by virtuous persons who have become true to their own selves.”1 He also thought that self love was the foundation for all human relationships, just as another wise philosopher once said, “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna to love somebody else?”2
It doesn’t come easy, that serenity. It’s not immediate. Epiphanies reveal truths as they are. Paradigms shift what is acceptable and appropriate. But it takes time. Self love takes time. The important part is that now I see. I see what I thought I was. I see how wrong I was. And I know better. I know that I am better.
I think that’s okay. For now.
1. Stern-Gillet, Suzanne. Aristotle’s Philosophy of Friendship. (SUNY Press, 1995) 85
2. The Venerable RuPaul