It’s the Saturday of the show, and I feel awful, my stomach tied in a knot. In the afternoon I stop by the Lusty Lady, hoping to relieve my anxiety over reading a story about jerking off to strippers by jerking off to strippers. Sass isn’t here, and I’m not turned on by any of the other women, so I go into a video booth and watch porn, jumping from channel to channel: women’s bodies, a mouth on a cock, cum spurting onto artificially enhanced breasts. I have to pull hard and fast to get there, but eventually I have a weak, twitchy orgasm. My anxiety is lessened somewhat, but also compounded by guilt and shame.
I go home and shower, put on a pair of old cords and my favorite vintage button-down shirt a simple, nonconfrontational outfit and head over to the theater with both “Close” and the “nice” poems under my arm, just in case.
A big crowd is already filling all the chairs and spilling out almost into the hallway. The audience is more mixed than I’d expected: maybe 65 percent women, maybe 30 percent of them with some degree of leather, chains, piercings, or elaborate tattooing. And then there are my friends and neighbors, my little support group. Most of them have no idea what I’ll be reading either, and I worry about their reaction, too. I say hi to G., who tells me I’m scheduled to read at the end of the first half. I’ll be great, she says. (Oh, how I hate when people say that.) She tells me to relax and gives me a big hug, and I just want to melt into her embrace and disappear. I haven’t told her what I’m reading, and I begin to imagine her fury and embarrassment when she hears it, perhaps even my ritual hanging-in-effigy to close out the evening.
The readers who go on before me include a very young, beautiful, gay Asian man and a lesbian poet who is not only leather-clad and angry, but palsied and in a wheelchair to boot. The boisterous crowd is loudly supportive of both of them. And then G. introduces me.
As I step onstage, the audience gives me what I hear as a decidedly lukewarm welcome. I feel big and male and straight and ungainly. The blood begins its mad rush to my face, as if I need to be red to be seen. I arrange my papers on the music stand, adjust the mike, look around the room, mumble a hello, give a spastic laugh, and take a deep breath.
“This is a short story called ‘Close,’ ” I say. My amplified voice sounds very loud. “It’s . . .” I stifle the urge to explain or apologize up front. “It’s the journal of a museum guard named Henry.”
I take a deep breath and look around the room, searching for friendly faces. Then, just as I’m about to look down again, I see her. Unfathomably, in the back left corner of the room, leaning against the wall, is none other than . . . Sass. I look down, blink twice in what feels like slow motion, and think, Hey, I just imagined I saw Sassafras in the audience. How wacky is that? I look up again. She’s still there. I did not imagine it. She can’t possibly be here, and yet there she is, looking right at me I mean, of course she’s looking right at me. Where else would she be looking?
Her presence is actually not all that improbable. San Francisco is like a small town within its artistic communities. In fact, I know several women one a writer, one a dancer, one a budding academic who have done stints at the Lusty Lady. The Lusty Lady has always been an offbeat, radicalized strip club (it’s the first of its kind to be worker-owned) and, accordingly, it attracts intellectual, artsy employees, including women who just want to try stripping to see what it’s like.
So to run into a stripper in my life outside the Lusty Lady is not so unlikely. But to see Sass in the audience when I’m about to read “Close” for the first time is no less than breathtaking. She is my perfect erotic dancer, my dream and nightmare audience member. As much as I’ve always wanted to be seen by strippers, I never imagined this. Here she is a real person, wearing clothes, perhaps even a writer like me. But also not so much like me at all, more like the women in front of whom I’m so petrified to read my story.
For a moment I hold my breath and ride that fine masochistic edge between exquisite pleasure and almost unbearable discomfort. I begin to wonder if there’s enough blood in my legs to hold me up. I am petrified, thrilled, nauseated. I think to myself, Don’t lock your knees. I remember marching in a Columbus Day parade as a kid, standing and waiting for hours in a hot woolen uniform, and being told: Don’t lock your knees. That’s when you pass out. So I bend my knees a little, look down at my pages, and begin to read:
April. The weather is getting warmer. The other day I was walking home after my stop off, and I looked through the window of the old office building on West 52nd they’ve gutted and are turning into a Sure-Guard Storage. They finally installed the shiny corrugated lockers. I looked through the window and just happened to be right in front of number 1354, which is also the last four digits of my Social Security number. This may mean something. Or not. Sometimes these coincidences mean things.
I look up from time to time at the listening faces. I don’t look toward the back left corner. A page or so in, I pause, take a sip of water, slip out of Henry’s edgy persona, and smile as if to say, Hey, everybody, don’t forget: that’s Henry; I’m Jamie. I think of the cliched advice offered to nervous public speakers imagine the audience naked and I almost laugh out loud. I’m feeling more naked than I imagine Sass has ever felt in front of me.
About two pages in I get to the tough stuff: “After work, I stop at Babeland.” I feel as if I’m about to freeze up or throw up but I manage to keep reading:
Today Nadja is there. I feed the machine an extra bill and give her five bucks through the window even though it only costs three to touch. I tell her “high” and she kneels down so I can reach her. I hold one breast gently with my left hand and jerk off with my right. I like how heavy it is. The breast. I like that she kneels so we’re at eye level. I like to feel the weight, the warmth. . . . Sometimes she holds my face in her hands and calls me “baby.” I know it’s an act but still it feels good. “Baby,” she says, “my sweet baby.” I always forget to bring tissues.
The audience laughs at the “tissues” line, and I’m starting to feel a rush. I’m becoming Henry, slipping deeper inside his clipped, anxious voice. The final pages go by with a kind of rich, elastic slowness that I’ve never experienced before, onstage or off.
At the end of “Close,” Henry accomplishes something monumental for him: he spends an afternoon with a woman without a plexiglass wall between them. I feel as if I’ve broken down some barriers of my own as I read his story: I’ve done something difficult and monumental for me, and done it as clearly and honestly as I can. I notice my pulse slowing, my sweat cooling me. The story ends, and I say thank you.
There’s a pause, then a roar as the audience begins to whoop and whistle and clap. My applause probably isn’t any longer or louder than any other reader’s, but to me it feels like absolute thunder. I say thank you again and step offstage.
G. announces the intermission, and several people, among them a couple of the women I was so afraid of offending, come up to tell me how much they liked the story. A tough and talented writer tells me she’s “heard a lot of crap on that subject” but that my piece was “really pretty OK,” which I’m later told is high praise coming from her. And G. gives me another hug and, with a proud grin, tells me I did a great job.
Suddenly I remember that back left corner. I wheel around and look for Sass, but she’s not there. I scan the room like Rocky, punch-drunk and reeling, searching for Adrian after the big fight. And then, over by the door, I spot a familiar face, and the woman I know only as Sassafras gives me that sweet, sly smile, turns, and is gone.