My strange friendship with the world's neediest burlesque dancer.
"If you want to make real money," Nicole told me, her dark, hooded eyes swiveling to meet mine as she set down her water glass, "you can always do fetish pictures."
"Oh, no. I don't think I can do that." I speared a pea pod with my fork. "I'm not really comfortable being naked for people I don't already know love my body."
"No, not naked," she said a little too loudly for the bar of the trendy Thai place. "Look, you can pose in your underwear and have the camera at a low angle and stand on a bunch of toy cars, like the realistic-looking Matchbox cars with the doors that open. You know, for giant fetishists."
A woman sitting in the corner booth with a toddler jerked her head toward us and glared. I looked at my friend who, unaware of the embarrassment she'd caused me, was now shoveling vegetables into her mouth. She reached for her water glass once more, "People are fucking freaks. They buy stuff like that. Pay's good."
New in town, I needed a job; her idea of career advice was very much in character. Nicole was no stranger to the freaky-deakies. She often posed nude or nude-but-in-costume for art classes and amateur photographers, though her real love was burlesque. Her dark hair, heavy hips, and rosebud lips made her a natural. She had a love of all things turn-of-the-century and had constructed a rich life as her alter ego, Athena Stimulator.
I think it was hard for either of us to distinguish who was Nicole and who was Athena. I often pictured her alone sitting at a vanity, stroking her pretty things like a young Miss Havisham.
I met her at a friend's barbeque in Prospect Park during the summer and we bonded over a love of high-waisted jeans, meeting later in the week for drinks. Her oddness was appealing. She had a thick Brooklyn accent and took phone calls from her mother at the bar, which were conducted ferociously in Greek.
I had recently moved to Brooklyn from Portland, Oregon following a devastating breakup. I found a roommate through Craigslist, an Irish man whose main trait was his absolutely enormous head. Since his boyfriend had left him, he could also be recognized as the one holding the wine glass and muttering angrily at the middle distance. I tried to spend as much time away from home as I could that summer. Nicole and I would often meet and ride our bikes to our favorite neighborhood bar. For a month or so, while the sun was still shining and we happily sped through Prospect Park, I like to think we had a normal friendship. As normal as it could be with Nicole anyway.
Her blood did not clot well, which could cause problems for her. She liked sadomasochistic sex. I found out soon that she could not clot her words either. They flowed from her un-edited and un-abated. She shared every feeling, every thought and doubt, obsessively. If she thought she had behaved strangely, she would need to be reassured ten times over the course of the evening that she hadn't, in fact, crossed a line. (She almost always had.) By the fall, her self-examination had become nearly pathological. She was twitchy and unhappy. It was beginning to exhaust me.
I finally went to one of her burlesque shows in early winter. I had started dating a guy named Nick, who was employed by a tech company and hadn't left Manhattan in the past year. Our dates up until then had been self-consciously conducted in whichever trendy lobster-roll shack or Edison-bulb-lit cocktail bar he had found in the New York Times' online style section. They invariably ended at his ludicrously expensive loft in the West Village. I decided it would be good for Nick to accompany me to Red Hook to watch Athena perform at a bar next to Ikea.
The bar had swinging doors with round windows like portholes, which from the inside framed a desolate view of vast empty parking lots, lit with yellow orbs of light, as though you had arrived just seconds after an alien abduction. Otherwise the place was nondescript — a long bar, and in the back, a small area raised the height of a single step. It was probably to accommodate live bands, though God knows when Red Hook had ever had a thriving music scene.
It was a Saturday night, but the place was empty. A few older men in union-issued jackets stayed by the bar and looked down at their beers, politely oblivious to the scene unfolding behind them.
To make it a real burlesque show, Nicole had explained to me, there needed to be several acts. It was preferable that there was also a man in a suit who could make clever introductions to class things up a bit, but for tonight's show she had found only Tina, a.k.a. Miss Georgia Peaches, a pudgy brunette who dedicated most of her non-performance time to ranting about an elite group of burlesque dancers who'd snubbed her in a sexy calendar competition. (“Those bitches. I’m Dita-Von-fucking-Teese!” she’d proclaim, looking down at her cleavage admiringly.)
Tina was already onstage in a red cowgirl-themed leotard. Her pin-curled hair flopped up and down, and the fringe on her waist bounced wildly against the rhythm of the song. It was clearly a sad kind of situation. No one should try to be sexy under certain circumstances.
Nick ordered a "Mandarin and soda" from a burly, tattooed bartender, and I was momentarily more embarrassed for him than for Nicole and her disastrous booking. Miraculously, a group of Nicole's supporters — friends she'd made in other Brooklyn bars — clustered at a booth close to the stage. I had never met most of them, and never would again, but that Nicole had somehow lured all of these people into being here said something about what she had the power to do if her energy was properly channeled.
I shot Nick an apologetic look just as the opening notes of Nina Simone's "The Laziest Gal in Town" filled the back of the bar. It was the musical equivalent to an atomized spray of Chanel No. 5. Athena appeared suddenly, covered by the feathers of a giant folding fan, which she twirled and partially closed with perfectly coordinated twitches of hip and wrist to reveal flashes of an off-white vintage corset and leotard underneath. Her dark lips parted, her eyelids dropped in a show that was at once demure and powerful. Like Nicole, Athena was dramatic and beautiful, but when Athena performed, she had the kind of confidence Nicole didn't even know was missing. It was a stunning entrance, despite the fact it had been made from the handicapped bathroom.
After her act finished, Nicole, flushed and still in costume, went out front for a cigarette, then gave me a quick lesson in seductively twirling the enormous feathered fans before Nick hustled me out of Brooklyn in a taxi. I could tell he felt as though he had performed some sort public service by attending. We went to a place convenient to his apartment, a bar called Employees Only, where Nick was able to regain his equilibrium with a fist bump to the bouncer and a bag full of cocaine. I spent the remainder of the night buzzed and bored by Nick's conversation. Part of me wished I had just stayed in Brooklyn for the night, but with Nick that wasn't even an option really. I don't know why, but I always did what he wanted.
When I saw Nicole the following week, she seemed sad. "It's this guy," she said and sighed heavily. "The one I told you about who MCs some of the shows at the Slipper Room. I really like him, but he only calls me at night when he's drunk and he wants to come over and I'm like, 'You can't just use me!'" She looked at me expectantly.
I spent the entire evening advising her not to call him. We discussed repeatedly why it would be a bad idea, that he was using her and she should hold off and see if he would be more respectful. As the evening wore on, her body would occasionally go rigid and she would glare into her drink and say with progressively more emotion, "Fuck him." Then she'd relax and turn to me to ask yet again, "Should I call him? I shouldn't right?"
She apologized each time, but it was like she couldn't help herself. I tried to divert the conversation down another path, but she was un-distractible. "We should go to the Met some day," I said, mumbling something about Francis Bacon as her eyebrows came together and she angrily pulled an ice cube out of her empty sangria glass.
Her head jerked toward me. "So. You don't think I should call him?"
The next time she called I didn't answer. I was having my own problems. Nick and I had broken up temporarily. I had found a pair of white women's Marks and Spencer underwear wadded up in the bottom of his Donna Karen sheets one morning. "Who's the British bitch?" I should have asked him, flinging the soiled panties into his face as I walked out on him for good. But instead I stayed away from him for exactly one week before allowing myself to be fed excuses and finally dinner. We went to a new Scandinavian restaurant and sat at a table next to Sarah Jessica Parker. According to Nick, the underwear belonged to his friend Pam, a miserable woman who worked in fashion and whom I only ever saw smile — an evil, close-lipped grimace — when she was making fun of someone's clothing. He didn't know why or when she'd taken them off, he insisted, as I concentrated on spearing a caper off of my plate. As little comfort as that line of reasoning was, I doubted the panties were even hers. They weren't a designer brand.
Nicole and I met one other time. It was a hot summer day and we took the train to Brighton Beach. We lay on a large towel, and watched a group of Puerto Rican girls laugh as a group of boys tried to touch their breasts. "Some people are so stupid," Nicole said. Her body was dotted with bruises I'd never seen, even when watching her dance. Perhaps they showed up more vividly in the direct sunlight. I wondered how many were from men.
She turned on her stomach away from me, and I felt sad about the friendship. I couldn't keep up. When she started talking about the last man she had sex with and how she hadn't heard back from him in several days, I felt like crying, knowing the questions were about to start again. "Should I call?" she'd ask me in a second. And I knew that no matter what I said or what she did, she would probably never see this man again.
On the way home, as the Q train rattled past her childhood neighborhood, she told me again about her mother who she could never please and who hurled abuse at her when she returned for family meals, whom she was no longer speaking to as a result. I was sorry, I said. How awful. A girl in yellow short shorts got onto the train, holding a cell phone like a boombox.
"That's awful," I repeated. There was a lot of sadness in Nicole. But also a lot of crazy. And right there, as the sun dropped down over the row houses, she got a nosebleed. A drop of crimson appeared on her porcelain skin. "Fuck," she whispered. We found some napkins in her beach bag. It didn't stop bleeding for the rest of the ride home. When we parted at Prospect Park, hugging awkwardly goodbye as she told me again that she didn't need any help, she was still holding the tissue to her nose.
Though I would have stayed with her if she'd asked me to, the truth was that I didn't want to help her. I wanted to go home and shut my bedroom door and lie down. It wasn't just annoyance — spending time with her left me sad and depleted and, with my relationship (and career, as it happened) in shambles, I already had enough sad, depleting things in my life. I was just as confused and miserable as Nicole, and I didn't have any other persona to escape into.
After my massive-headed roommate tried to commit suicide, I moved to an apartment in Manhattan. I lost touch with Nicole for a bit. The voicemails accumulated in my phone and I promised myself I'd return her calls as soon as I was settled, when I could be more patient and caring. Then the calls stopped coming and I didn't have to be reminded of how much I was disappointing her. It was a relief. I'd left it for too long now anyway, there was no excuse I could give to explain why I didn't call her back.
In a show of finality, she removed me from Facebook. I had been excommunicated, just like her mother. I didn't really blame her.
That winter I found a flier at a food festival in Tribeca. It showed Athena standing with several other burlesque dancers, looking gorgeous in a feathered headdress. I brought the postcard with her picture back with me to Nick's cold loft in the West Village. A few months later, as Nick and I broke up for good, I noticed the postcard sitting in a woven paper basket on his coffee table, where I must have left it. It may very well still be there — a rogue piece of Brooklyn — buried in a lonely pile of catalogs selling Lucite furniture and wall adhesives shaped like birds.
It took only days to feel like myself again after I finally left him. It was amazing, really, that a relationship that tortured me for more than a year could be so absent from my mind just a week later. How pointless all of that suffering was.
But though I felt nothing but relief at being away from Nick's detached judgment, I felt and occasionally still feel a bit sad about Nicole. I like to imagine that she's made it to the top of her game and has some adoring, kinky man with a pencil moustache and a thing for pocket watches looking after her and reassuring her that she is just fine — that he loves her despite, perhaps even because of, her insecurities.
Occasionally, when I pass by a toy store, I fantasize about buying some Matchbox cars and photographing myself stomping on them wearing only old-fashioned lacy underwear. Then I'd send a picture to Nicole as an offering — "From one giant to another" written on the back.