Nerve Classics

Performance Anxiety

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There’s an old saying: “You can pick your friends, you can pick your nose, but you can’t pick your friend’s nose.” I’ve never actually tried to pick a friend’s nose, but I recently found myself in a situation that brought the saying to mind. Afterwards, I tried to update the saying with a more adult theme, but sadly, my revision lacked the lyrical quality and poetic tidiness of the original. But here goes anyway: “You can pick your friends, you can watch your wife masturbate, but you shouldn’t watch your friend’s wife masturbate.”

If someone had given me that piece of advice a few years ago, I would have said, “Well, that seems perfectly obvious.” But when the invitation to watch my friend’s wife masturbate came straight from my friend himself, I was lured unwittingly down a treacherous path.

The friend was Bruce. We met because I wanted to work for him. Bruce had long, oily hair, and he lifted weights. His muscular physique contradicted his attire: a really nice leather dress coat and shiny, almost feminine loafers. I often thought that he looked too sleazy to star in an action movie but not sleazy enough to be a hit man. Lucky for him, his job fell somewhere in between.

Bruce was involved, as he described it, in the “pleasure industry.” He managed a cadre of strippers whom he’d hire out for bachelor parties. His was the only such business in Bozeman, Montana. My buddy, Matt, worked for Bruce as a security guy. On a job night, Matt would pick up the stripper at her apartment, drive her to the location of the engagement, then stand in the corner of the room and act like a tough-guy while she flossed her ass crack with twenty-dollar bills.

Matt informed me that Bruce was looking for other guys to fill in on busy weekends. To be on the business end of the pleasure industry — to be an insider rather than an outsider — sounded like the perfect job to me. When Matt warned me that Bruce would never hire a guy he didn’t know personally, I decided that it was high time for Bruce and me to strike up a friendship. So I started hanging out where he hung out, buying him drinks, asking about his business, and acting like a standup guy. Eventually, I scored. He asked me if I wanted to go with him to a strip club the next Saturday, to watch some girl named Twilight do a special weekend-only performance.

“I’ve got the night off,” Bruce said. “It’ll just be a good time on the town.”
“Right,” I said, though I had a hunch that this was actually a sort of audition. He wanted to see how I handled the heat. I tried to express some professional interest.
“Who’s Twilight?” I asked. “She work for you?”
“Twilight?” He looked at me with a smug smile. “Twilight’s my wife.”

The coolness I conveyed upon learning that Bruce and I would be watching his wife perform nude on a stage was completely artificial. I’ve never been an avid strip-club patron, but I’ve been around enough to know that the personal life of a stripper is best left to the stripper herself; there is a distinct separation between the performance and the personality of the performer. This separation doesn’t just happen on its own; it requires work on the part of the audience. The work involves not wondering about the stripper’s private life, and not trying to imagine that the stripper would think you were cool if she just got to know you. The fact is: You’re not cool, because you’re paying to watch a woman take off her clothes. You are even less cool because that woman does not want to fuck you.

Beyond the fact that I was going to violate my own rules about how to behave around strippers — watching a stripper as her husband’s guest definitely violates her privacy — I was also violating a much more serious code of ethics, the one that legislates how dudes are supposed to behave toward each other’s girlfriends and wives. For example, you should not stare at your friend’s girlfriend’s breasts, no matter how wonderful they are. When your friend’s girlfriend tells a story, you should look her in the eye and listen. When she gets up to go to the bathroom, you shouldn’t follow her out with your eyes. And, above all else, you shouldn’t tell your friend that his girlfriend is hot, unless she isn’t, which makes it okay to say that she is, because you’re just trying to make him feel good about himself.

This strip club situation was going to turn the ethical code on its head. If I didn’t stare at Bruce’s wife’s tits, wouldn’t that be rude? And if I looked her in the eye, wouldn’t that invite a level of intimacy inappropriate to the occasion? And if I didn’t tell Bruce that she was hot — which I suspected she would be — wouldn’t that be impolite? Following the code in this situation was going to make me look like an asshole.

By the time I got into Bruce’s car Saturday night, I had decided that getting into Bruce’s car wasn’t such a good idea. But on the way to the club, Bruce acted so cool and natural about everything that I started to feel better. I decide that I should just act cool and natural, too.

The doorman at the club shattered our ruse of total coolness.

“No fucking way, guys,” he said. “Bruce, you know the rules.”
“Dude, come on. Don’t embarrass me. I’ve got a friend standing here.”
“It’s not my rule, man.”
Bruce walked back out across the gravel parking lot. His hair swung angrily against the collar of his leather jacket. We got into the car.
“What was that all about?” I asked.
“Mr. Dickhead there is the only bouncer who actually pays attention to that rule.”
“What rule?”
“No dancers’ boyfriends or husbands allowed,” said Bruce. He fired his car up and revved the gas.
“I guess that makes sense.”
“The fuck it does. If I gave a shit about guys paying my wife to take off her clothes, would I be in the business I’m in? I fucking doubt it.”

Instead of being upset about our dismissal, I was relieved. The bouncer had a point. In fact, the bouncer had my point: Exotic dancing is a sort of private, anonymous act. It’s not for the dancers’ husbands and the husbands’ buddies. I was ashamed we’d even tried to get in. What had I been thinking?

Bruce pulled out of the parking lot. Instead of heading back to the highway, though, he shot his car straight across the road to a bar that looked like a log cabin. We sat in the bar for an hour, drinking, as Bruce grew increasingly agitated. Every minute or two, he got up to look out the window toward the club, checking to see if the bouncer’s car was gone.

“They switch shifts at midnight, and I’m friends with the next dude,” he assured me.

On his sixth or seventh look, he pumped his fist in the air. “Showtime,” he said. We drove back across the road.

The new bouncer gave us a nod and sent us through the door. Bruce made a beeline for two chairs in the center of the front row and we sat down. A dark-haired woman was dancing around on the stage, opening her labia with her fingertips and watching the ceiling. She seemed distracted. She had a big bruise on her hip, pierced nipples and breasts that lay far out to the sides of her chest. Almost telepathically, I just knew this wasn’t Twilight. I was reluctant to confirm my suspicion, though, because it wouldn’t have looked too cool to be like, “Hey, is that your wife?…Well, is that your wife?” There was a scattering of bills on the stage when she finished, and she walked around picking them up like she was collecting dirty socks from her bedroom floor. My question about her identity was resolved when Bruce leaned over and whispered in my ear, “Jessica’s pretty lame.”

The next dancer was looking pretty goddamn good. Wearing thigh-high boots and nothing else, she strutted out like a runway model, one boot placed authoritatively in front of the other. A shiny cylinder of metal dangled from her clit ring on a little chain. She approached the edge of the stage, just inches away from us.

Holy shit, I thought, it’s Twilight. Suddenly, I didn’t know what to do with my hands. I adjusted myself in my chair and tried to prevent any blood from flowing into my penis by pinching it tightly between my legs. From the corner of my eye, I tried to discern whether Bruce was watching her or me. He was watching her, his fingers pressed contemplatively to his chin. Then the DJ’s voice rose up over the music. “Say good evening to . . . Fantasia!”

I loosened my legs and let things go their own way. Fantasia folded her arms and gave everyone in the front row a look of dramatic disapproval, as though we were all in a police lineup and had just tried to pass off some ridiculous alibi. Then she shook her head, turned and wiggled her ass in our faces. Bruce tilted his head for a better look; I tilted my head. Bruce laid a few bills on the faux-leather rail; I laid down a few bills. Fantasia reached between her legs and grabbed the little piece of swaying metal. It was a miniature flashlight. She aimed the light from between her legs, to interrogate us all. I found the performance intoxicating, even though the light wasn’t turned on. Some guys behind us were screaming, “Your lights not on! Your lights not on!” She pointed the light at herself, verified the complaint, and snapped it to get it working again. When the light lit up, everyone clapped. I thought it was a little funny, but Bruce was miffed. “Fucking assholes,” he said.

When Fantasia finished her third song, she slipped back through the curtains. Bruce explained that the club runs three strippers per night. The math was simple: two strippers down, Twilight to go. The music switched to an upbeat, jazzy number as Twilight parted the curtains. She had on thigh-high stockings held in place with garter belts. Her seemingly natural blond hair was streaked with dark brown highlights. Her breasts were small and firm, with nipples that angled upward.

Unlike the other performers, Twilight was sort of chatty with the audience without actually chatting. She started at the back corner, or stage right. Each guy, in his turn, got a little eye-to-eye contact, and a little eye-to-asshole contact. She interspersed her one-on-one treatments with a brief interludes of pole dancing, but she always came back to where she left off. If a guy slipped her some bills, she did not let the gift go unacknowledged. Discreetly, she would come in nice and close to the man and move her middle finger down in between her legs to give herself a quick oscillation or two.

Twilight was working toward Bruce and me in a counter-clockwise motion. As she drew near, I felt a dreadful, horrible sinking feeling in my stomach. It was a feeling I recognized as guilt. All my apprehensions about this moment peaked in intensity. I felt like standing up and screaming, “This is a man’s wife we’re all coveting! Go home!” Instead, I dug into my wallet. I wanted to have a bill handy in case Bruce pulled out a bill. All I had was a ten, which was twice the amount I’d given to Jessica and Fantasia. Twilight still seemed pretty far away, and I knew she’d get to Bruce before she got to me. I sat there waiting, like how you wait in your car for a cop to walk up after he pulls you over. I was sweating so bad that the ten in my palm felt like I’d fished it out of a rain gutter.

Then something horrible occurred to me: Bruce wouldn’t give Twilight money; they were married! They filed a joint tax return! It wouldn’t be practical or reasonable for him to pay his wife for a lap dance.

So I was now entirely without guidance. I had to decide for myself whether I should keep my money and look like an unappreciative tightwad, or pay my buddy’s wife to masturbate in my face. Wasn’t it enough that I came here? Did I really need to take things to the next level?

I knew I only had about a minute to think. After a second, I came up with a brilliant idea: I’d go take a piss, thereby missing her passage. Then, without warning, there she was. It was as though she had arrived via sci-fi teleporter. She’d skipped Bruce and was smiling down at me. Stupidly, I looked right over at her husband. He looked at me. I gave him the dopey smile that I should have been giving to her. He smiled and nodded his head to the beat of the music. I thought I should probably say something to Bruce. Something like, “Right on, bro.” But instead I finally looked at Twilight. Her face was no where to be seen. Instead, I was glaring into the moistened passage where Bruce had undoubtedly found countless pleasures. I assumed the facial expression of someone looking at a painting in a gallery: unequivocal appreciation, but also objectivity.

Within seconds, she was on to the next guy. I felt intense relief. Then I looked down. I was still holding the stupid bill in my hand. Bruce had to see it, curled there in my lap. I felt as though I was clutching his rent money, something that rightfully belonged to him and his wife. Twilight had earned that money. But to fork it over at that point would have been even more awkward than if I had paid in time. I opened and closed my sweaty fist around the bill. Then I plopped it down on the stage. It lay there in a wet, folded clump.

When her set finally ended, Twilight came by to pick up my cash. I almost wished then that she’d just do it, just give herself a delicate, pleasurable touch. Instead, she bent at the knees to pick up the bill, like a polite woman in a skirt. As she rose, she slapped her ass, right in my face.

What the hell does that mean? I wondered. Then she was gone. Bruce led me to a booth against the back wall. Within seconds, Twilight came through a door and took a seat next to me.

Bruce said, “Steve, Twilight. Twilight, Steve.”

I sat there uncomfortably. If I had been at a poetry reading, I would have said something like, “I liked that one poem about your mom. You know, the last one.” I thought I’d better say something, to show that I would be able to make appropriate small talk with my strippers when driving them to and from engagements. But nothing seemed quite right: “Wow, that dancing was very exotic.” Or, “I like the way you apply glitter to the inside of your vagina.” Or, “Man, did you see that one guy? He really liked your ass.” Instead, I sat there like a bump on a log until Bruce and Twilight decided to go to Denny’s for a snack. Then I excused myself and called a cab. On the way home, I speculated that I would not hear from Bruce again. And I was right.

This article originally appeared in Nerve’s True Stories.