I thought that an oxymoron frenemy was fiction until I met Nikki at Penthouse. She was one of the few real natural blonds, a vanilla leaf in bitches brew of hot Puerto Ricans, Brazilians and other exotic blends. Nikki and I had things in common — a law degree, past experience of corporate jobs and reckless adventurous spirit. We bonded over expensive and pretentious cocktails we didn’t pay for – Kayle in Comparison and Devil’s Playground at Apotheke in China Town. When a Mardi Gras band broke into the chattering and merry buzz of the bar, Nikki unleashed her long blonde pony tail and trotted to the center stage. Her petite but strong frame dressed in a designer overalls started undulating to the upbeat loud sounds of trumpets. She moved her hands in the air, looking at me, beckoning me with her index finger and luring me into the center stage. We danced with gusto and confidence of popular high school girls in anticipation of the prom night, drawing attention of twenty one year old kids. I was getting used to the idea that I was not on the market of accomplished and ambitious bachelorettes in their late twenties or early thirties, hunting for successful bachelors of NYC. It didn’t bother me that I could never click with jaded bros bragging about their successful start-ups or their advertising careers. I couldn’t care less what they were making of me or my unconventional career-less path because I was jaded. I was as jaded as a bodega cat in yet another gentrified neighborhood in Brooklyn, perpetually unimpressed with hipsters, airbnb renters and skyrocketing rents. I was jaded as the subway pizza rat. I was as jaded as New York City was, neurotic, grumpy and cray.
It was a hot late afternoon in July. We were comfortably seated in a Greyhound bus speeding to Atlantic City. Air conditioner was blasting to the max. The sky was New Jersey blue, touched by the maroon clouds of pollution raising up from Newark industrial sites. Nikki and I had finally run out of conversation about men, sex and frivolous chit-chatting about nothing. Suddenly the air turned tense. Something heavy dropped out, like a cannon ball. A slip you couldn’t take back. An explosion. Nikki’s neatly groomed ponytail went flying around the aisle. My face turned tomato red. Her big natural boobs started shaking venomously. It was a cat fight between Miss Russia and Miss Ukraine supported by the heavy artillery of Russian cursory language. Nikki was PRPPPT – Pro-Russian, Pro-Putin, Pro-Trump. I was UAAPAT, Ukrainian, Anti-Putin, Anti-Trump.
“Yo, Bitches, you cray. if you don’t stop fighting, I swear to Sweet Lord Jesus I will toss you out of your seats. I will throw you outta the bus.” A black voluptuous woman, yelled at us, swinging her arms, showing off her long painted nails encrusted with swaroski diamonds and pearls.
Curious passengers turned off their iPads, iPhones, Androids, jumped off their seats to watch the commotion, chewing popcorn and snacks.
“You are a crazy KGB bitch, go and live in Russia, ruled by a psycho tyrant Putin.” A voice coming from me hissed like a viper while my hand kept clutching her ponytail.
“You go back to Ukraine. Trump will be the next President of the United States. “It’s gonna be the United States of Russia.” Nikki yelled back.
Someone went to snitch to the driver because he slowed down and said angrily thru the mic “This is my first and last warning. If you don’t cut it out, I’ll pull over, and the two of you will be ordered to leave the bus.”
“Yea, cut it out, I want it play the casino. The casino waiting, but you keep fighting. No good.” A Chinese woman said holding tight to her Louis Vuitton bag. Her young chubby teenage son awkwardly pulled out a hand from the pocket and stuck his middle finger at us and mumbled in his perfect american accent. “Bitches be gross.”
We retreated, apologizing to the Greyhound bus feeling utterly embarrassed of ourselves. Who knew that the two of us would become symbols of everything ratchet about stinky Greyhound rides.
“Look, let’s it treat as a business transaction. We don’t have to be friends. We’ll work, make money, share the hotel and we’ll try not to kill each other during sleep. And then we’ll split.” Nikki said apologetically.
“Sounds like a plan. Let’s never talk politics ever again, including the elections, Russia, Ukraine, Syria, geopolitics, Fox News, RT... Peace?” I asked, folding my three fingers down while holding out my thumb and my pinky as the weird symbol of reconciliation in Soviet Union.We got off at Bally’s Casino, got our $25 dollar casino coupons for slot machines and walked down the boardwalk.
Scores Atlantic City located in Trump’s Taj Mahal Casino was undeniably the most beautiful, upscale and expensive club I’d ever worked at. It was a mistakenly Vegas club in an infamous spot at Steel Pier that once forced horses to leap off a high platform, nearly 40 feet high into a small pool below, in an infamous and stupid show called the Diving Horse. A thirty million dollar investment, it had a comedy club, a spacious dance section with a huge podium, reminiscent of a fashion catwalk, stretching all the way to the bar. On the sides were semi-private VIP areas with leather couches. There was an ocean bar, draft beer, grilled salmon on the menu. But the main attraction was a huge outdoor deck facing the Boardwalk and the Atlantic Ocean. For a girl obsessed with swimming in the ocean and everything nautical it was a dream come true. Who doesn’t like a fresh ocean breeze? Everything inside the club smelled good and fresh. Even the locker room was huge, well-lit. The house moms were pleasantly smiling at us. Make-up artists were giving make-up for free of, encouraging only tips. There were chefs, bartenders, accountants, IT support and floor managers. Good vibes were everywhere. And it was atypical for a strip club industry.
Girls. Girls Girls. There was an abundance of girls, all and sundry, young and mature, slim and curvy, classy and grungy, multiracial, white and black, latino, and eastern-european. Going up on a new stage was a sheer thrill, a toxic cocktail of adrenaline, sweat, gamble and suspense. It was brand new and old new. It was deja vu. A deja vu – from when I was seven and eight and ten and eleven and twelve and thirteen and fourteen, a deja vu -from when I was in music school full time, 5 days a week. A very vivid flashback from going on stage and performing live on a violin and only rarely overcoming anxiety. Anxiety about forgetting the notes, the score. Performing Ave Maria with pride, impressing the jury. A thrill from nailing a bend on a violin. An utter embarrassment during a concert, a duet-performance of Mozart’s minuet with my childhood friend, when I forgot my score. Playing classic duets was scary because there was a precision and math involved in everything Mozart, Bach and Chopin. Playing in music ensembles was frivolous and fun because I could always disguise a slip as an improvisation. Music school ended a long time ago but music was circulating inside me, pumping blood around my body like heart.
I watched Nikki hovering above her prey in high stilettos and topless . She must have done at least 60 lap dances. She had her ways with men, she was a real pro. Professional. I was doing just okay and it wasn’t enough.”You need to hustle”. Nikki sad. “You need to try every single one here. Ask for a lap dance, ask for a dance in a private room And don’t act too smart or too intellectual. Nobody cares for your master’s degree here. Don’t take rejections personal. I’ve been doing for ten years, after all. I know the deal.”
Nikki was right. I was getting frustrated about not doing enough lap dances. Each rejection was conveniently used as an excuse to go and chill at the deck with a glass of Menage a Trois and ponder on life of the Diving Horse to the warm ocean breeze and neon lights of Steel Pier.
We’d checked into a small motel, run by a middle-aged Indian man on Pacific Avenue, only a short walk from the club. It was a real dump, maybe even worse than just the dump. Remnants of heavy cigarette smoke saturated every inch of the room, lingering to our bodies and clothes. It felt like there was an odor of a dead coon or dead skunk. The carpet floor had red clotted stains on it which could be wine or blood. Everything about the room reminded me an episode from the Misbehaves by Q. Tarantino and Rodriguez. When the little girl trying to locate the source of bad odor, uncovers the mattress, she finds the corpse of the ‘lady of the night’ under their mattress. At the sight of the corpse in leopard g-strings, her little brother screams and calls her a dead hoe. But the little girl feels sympathetic about the ‘lady of the night’ punches her lil brother and screams at him, “Don’t call her that!” At 5-30 am it got even more Tarantino when Nikki went to take a shower. I was alone in the room, half asleep, half naked. The curtain was half open. Suddenly, someone knocked on the window. I shuddered at the sight of the intruder, a middle aged thug with bruised eyes. “Can you please let me in? I just need to wash my face.” I sprang from the bed and pushed the curtain all the way down and put the chain on the door. “Nikki, I can’t believe we paid only $160 for this shit hole.” I exasperated.
The salty ocean breeze enveloped my tired body. It took a dip in the ocean to resuscitate my disposition and replenish my strength after 5 hour sleep. At noon we’d checked out from the Tarantino motel and went to have breakfast at the diner next door. The sign said Constantino’s Restaurant. A hole in the wall, it was a quaint and charming old school small diner. We picked a spot in the boot by the window. I ordered Greek omelet with feta cheese and broccoli that came with home fries and whole wheat toast with butter and jam. Nikki ordered scrambled eggs with bacon and a homemade muffin. Grandma Nani, a vivacious old Greek owner sat down to chat with us after we finished eating. Good breakfast and watery coffee put us in an upbeat adventurous spirit. It was Saturday and I knew I had to get lucky and hit the jackpot.
At the locker room I put my long shiny blue gown on, a gift from a retired dancer who gave it to me as as the good omen, “I made so much money in this dress. It will bring you luck.” she said. I said a few mantras and closed my eyes before leaving the locker room visualizing a better night. When I got on the stage, on that grandeur stage I thought I was in a famous burlesque show somewhere in Vegas or Gramercy Theatre. But was what my special talent? I could only do a few tricks on the pole. In fact I lost all ambitions to better my pole techniques. Thanks to Queens finest, a few black girls from Queens, I could twerk my badonkadonk like Shakira, Rihanna. Stripping had only little to do with great pole dancing. It all came down to mastering the craft of hustling. But what is Ditta Von Tesse’s talent? And why is she so famous? Why is she paid so much money to get into a silly champagne glass? All she had was her big natural breasts and her badonkadonk. I didn’t even have big breasts. How did I end up here? Being a dancer? Right. PussyCat Lounge, my friend, an immigration lawyer… I put a halt on biting myself. After all I was grateful to be on this Vegas stage. My body covered in diamond sweat, strong and toned danced to the rhythm of freedom. It was raw and real. Alternativeness existed. It was a sharp contrast to my past life of corporate jobs, perpetually hibernating or half asleep. I was finally awake and enrolled in a real life anthropology class. Dr. Carl Jung and Erich Fromm would approve of me.
“The person who gives up his individual self and becomes an automaton, identical with millions of other automatons around him, need not feel alone and anxious any more. But the price he pays, however is high; it is the loss of his self. ” Escape from Freedom by Erich Fromm.
At the eleventh hour I finally hit the jackpot, an hour at the VIP room, dancing and chit-chatting for a nice executive from J.P. Morgan Chase. I took a shot of whiskey to stay awake. It was my silly Dita Von Tesse moment. I hustled and danced and talked and worked my magic. When I walked out of the club it was almost about 5 am. Dawn was breaking. I was the last girl to leave the club. Nikki had already got on the bus. I walked down the empty hall of Taj Mahal pleasantly exhausted. The seagulls were soaring high in the sky ranting persistently in their seagull language. I was slightly drunk and tipsy from whiskey and from the fresh atlantic air and from dancing all night. The Greyhound bus was speeding quietly and peacefully. It was a good night, I made over 1K. I knew that once I was back in Brooklyn I would sleep all day. I would pay my bills. And the next day I would go to Far Rockaway beach to meditate on the I AM. I AM, Beyond My Body and Thoughts. I would meditate on friends and frenemies. After all had it not been for Nikki, I would not have won the jackpot. Who knew, maybe it was the beginning of frenemship.