The sky looked like rainbow ice cream—the kind I was never allowed as a kid because my dad said it looked radioactive, which probably wasn’t far from the truth. It was a late August evening, that strange time of year when the air becomes warm suddenly and without warning. The sweet, creamy warmth of gardenia and jasmine hung new and heavy in the air. I always feel a bit strange this time of year. With the warm humidity comes a feeling of numbness in my arms, butterflies and nausea, some fluctuating mixture of anxiety and excitement. I’m never sure exactly which.
I slipped into the backseat of the Uber, tossing my duffle bag onto the seat beside me.
‘Hi’, I chirped.
‘Hello,’ the driver responded, a sterile, formulated greeting.
We sat in silence for the drive into the Valley, which I always prefer. Bland small talk with a driver whose face you can’t even see in the semi-darkness is never something I want on these nights. It was always the same conversation. ‘Where are we off to?’ they’d ask. ‘Just work’, I’d respond sweetly. ‘Where’s work?’ they’d enquire, half-genuinely, half-mindlessly. And I’d always respond, ‘Oh, just at a bar, waitressing’. I never told them the truth, and I’m not entirely sure why. Perhaps because I was going off an answer that my friend gave to the Uber driver on my first night of work; dismissive, quick, fake. Or perhaps it was, unconsciously, out of protection of my own safety. I didn’t want any raised eyebrows through the driver’s mirror, any unsavoury ideas, any ‘wrong turns’ down grimy alleyways.
The streets were wet and glistening as darkness fell, reflecting the bright red, green and orange of streetlights outside the car window. It must have rained while I was getting ready. We stopped around the corner from work.
‘This is good! Thank you!’ I smiled, before leaping out and throwing my bag over my shoulder. I trotted quickly and steadily up Brunswick Street, never looking up, feeling the hundreds of hungry eyes on every piece of flesh on my body as I walked.
A huge grin full of chewing gum greeted me at the door. A big, black-suited man with a walkie talkie behind thick velvet rope. No matter how many times he tells me, I still don’t remember his name. He unclipped the rope. ‘Hey!’ he beamed, and I smiled back. We chatted for a second. I ignored the leering, already drunk men standing, smoking against the brick outside, before hopping down the carpeted stairs, through the dark empty downstairs bar to the changeroom. I could feel the deep throb of the so-called music pounding through my chest, and then came the butterflies, with their sudden dizzying rush.
We girls always stood around, indifferent to the infinite mirrors of the changeroom, minding our own business. Just loosening up, smiling at one another, offering words of kindness or humour. Never a word of judgement spoken, maybe because it was the only room where we weren’t being judged by the eyes of outsiders. A room where you could let yourself be at ease, the changeroom. A communal sanctuary of solidarity and acceptance, of pent-up tears and passionate ramblings at 3am, with false lashes halfway down cheeks and spilling vodka sodas.
Upstairs, though, was when I straightened up my back, smiled even if it hurt, strode confidently without slipping in towering, ridiculous shoes. You got used to it after a while.
The air swelled with heavy base, ten-dollar coconut body spray, candlelight, and boredom. I was stiff and reluctant on stage. Too sober. Twirling and lowering, legs touching the ceiling, eyes closed in the mist of the opalescent waterfall behind me. A customer, a big walking dollar sign in a tie, finally walked in. So, I smiled. I would always smile when their eyes met mine, though it was drilled into me that I was never smiling enough.
Eventually, as the hours fell past and the conversations grew loud and incoherent enough to finally drown out the music, the place was as close to full as it could be. A tiny bar, not much room to gather yourself or lean against something when your feet got sore; just wedged between belts and dress shirts, beards and Armani colognes. Drunk hands pawing the small of my back, pinching me from behind, because they could. Just a sea of thoughtlessness and debauchery, knocked-over tables and candle wax splattered across the carpets.
I smiled and smiled and smiled and smiled. Except for when I didn’t, to give my cheeks a break, in which case I’d be demanded, in that brief moment, to smile. ‘You, babe. You need to smile’.
The conversations were always the same, as if those nights were a play; scripted, acted, surreal. The conversations were always the same, but they knew what I wanted. They knew I was at work. Why converse at all?
‘What’s your name? Are you having a good night? What’s your drink? What brings you out on this fine evening?’ I would smile and simper and bat my eyelashes and rub their arm. Then they’d look me over and stare into my cleavage as they answered all my questions, twirling their ice cubes. I’d pretend to listen: nodding, gasping, laughing. ‘What’s your drink?’ I’d repeat. Then, after 10 or so minutes, they’d finally get the hint and buy me one. Sometimes, on really dismal, dead nights, a single drink was all you could hope to gain.
The responses were often the same too.
‘I don’t have money for a dance, but will you come home with me for a thousand dollars?’
‘Why do you do this?’
‘Does your boyfriend know?’
‘Sleep with me?’
Some responses, some words and remarks I don’t want to write down. But on those occasions, I would simply smile politely, excuse myself from their presence, and click down the stairs to the good old changeroom, where I’d collapse in a pathetic heap, on the floor, on a chair, on a shoulder. And I’d cry for a moment, wishing I was home. The manager would look at me sympathetically. Not a fake sympathetic look; a real one, a kind one. And she’d tell me to take the time I needed. Emotional breakdowns were common. It never took me long though—a few minutes, a fixing of mascara, a touch-up of lipstick, and I’d sprint back upstairs. Fresh-faced, unbothered, unapologetic.
The night wore on, blurring and emptying. Whether it was busy and bustling and full of millionaires with loose wallets or quiet, empty and hopeless, it didn’t matter. Not in the scheme of things, which I would come to learn years later. The night would always end the same.
I’d straddle numerous laps, tipsy and tired, trying not to yawn. Staring numbly into the bricks behind the couches, the flickering candle flame. Feeling eyes gawking at my body like a product, a consumable good. Feeling hands grabbing, kneading, clawing, sometimes hurting me. Pulling them away—though they were stubborn and hard to budge—if they strayed too close to areas out of bounds. Because, for some reason, they seemed to think that the rules of the club were there to be broken, or didn’t apply to them. Because my body was never my own on these nights.
It didn’t matter whether there were thousands of dollars at the bottom of my duffle bag or zero. The nights would always end the same.
I felt the tingling soreness of my muscles as I left, and the dropping of my eyelids, as if my lashes were tied to weights. The sky grew pale outside in the Uber home. The chirping of birds and the blueness of morning confused me on the drive. It was time to go to bed, yet undeniably, it was time to wake up.
‘Thank you,’ I slurred to the driver.
Regardless of how tired I was, I always, always showered. I stepped in, turned the tap, and let the hot water rush over me. Soothing my sore muscles, stinging the bruised rawness of my knees. I washed my hair, washed myself, washed away the hands.
I drew my curtains as tightly as I could, shutting out any hint of the impending warmth and brightness of the day. I didn’t like to think about it. I just collapsed, onto my rumpled sheets, and let the tears gush out, mingling with the wetness of my hair and soaking through my pillow, until sleep finally found me.
Mairi is a Brisbane-based writer of fiction and non-fiction, and is currently completing the final semester of her Bachelor at QUT. She has been writing since she could pick up a pen, and her dream is to be a published author. She is currently working on a novel about a woman who travels back in time and meets her favourite artist.