I knew I was in trouble when I sat my skinny haunches down at my computer and felt a spasm of giddiness slip down my spine. I began typing, my fingers flaying the keys, but could barely continue as outbreaks of laughter overtook me each time I tried to compose a credible opening sentence. I was attempting a review of the restaurant I had just returned from, food-drunk on memories both savory and sweet and giggle-struck by the absurdity of it all – someone might actually pay me to eat – and tell – and eat again!!
I had been successfully interviewed for the job of food editor for the Toronto Star. This first column was my probationary piece and, if I did a convincingly good job, the position was mine. I was ecstatic – a restaurant review written by a woman who hadn’t actually eaten in twenty-five years! What delicious irony!
Food had all but vanished from my life about the same time as my husband, a man who had left me alone with two small children, with neither a roof over my head nor the education to obtain one. How could I earn the money I so desperately needed – me, a girl who hadn’t finished high school? Not at my part-time Seven Eleven gig. No, what I needed was the education I’d so happily spurned back in my teens in my desperate hurry to marry a loser.
How could I make enough money to support my family, pay for an education and still find time for my children? The answer to all of these questions – and the path that eventually led to my ruminations tonight – was to be found around the corner at the local Solid Gold Exotic Dancing Emporium and my new-found employment as a stripper.
I had never before entertained the idea of stripping – unless it was the stripping of wallpaper from my kitchen walls, the re-finishing of a piece of old furniture, or the removal of the husks from an ear of corn. This type of stripping, I discovered, involved the peeling away of all clothing from a well-tuned, curvaceous body, followed by rhythmical writhing, thrusting and gyrating movements across a small stage, erotically performed to loud, titillating music and concluding in a bare all, spread-eagled finale – (hopefully with several tens and twenties tucked firmly into a tiny G-string)
This strange entertainment was to be performed in front of many sexually aroused, hard-breathing, sweating men of assorted ages and sizes, who would encourage me enthusiastically to “take it all off” – a job not that different, I concluded, from my current employment – pumping gas during the midnight shift at the Seven-Eleven. I was confident I was up to the job, and the owners of the establishment approved my audition.
Three years later, as a well-paid stripper with surprisingly good tips, I returned to school as a day-student, home for my children during the evening and able to slip away once they were soundly asleep under the watchful eye of my sister, who believed I was still gas-jockeying at the convenience store. Thusly, I stripped my way through my final two years of high school, peeled my way into university and finally bare-assed it into Ryerson’s School of Journalism – as I became more educated I discovered a talent and interest in writing. And I had enough money left over to provide for all my family’s needs. On reflection, my job sounds beautiful, although some might question the morality of it – but believe me – in great success there’s always a catch.
Firstly, I needed to keep my occupation a secret from my children and religious parents, a feat which became increasingly harder and necessary as my offspring grew older. In terror I often imaged my son sneaking into a strip joint on his eighteenth birthday only to encounter his naked mother, writhing her way around a pole, breasts bobbing and weaving, mouth all pouty in phony provocation, whispering dirty little nothings enticingly into the ears of …his school friends? OH MY GOD! To keep his sanity, he’d have to blind himself with a stick, while I, equally traumatized, would have to run away to an old-fashioned, hair-shirt wearing nunnery.
Increasingly distressed by my imagined fears, I began stripping out of town as he grew older – supposed weekends with friends in Montreal, pretend shopping expeditions to New York City and day trips to wherever the need for a talented and well-seasoned stripper might take me. Somehow I got away with it – and the money poured in.
The other serious problem encountered in my chosen line of work was its demanding physical requirements and need for eternal youth. I had to look good continuously – good enough to salivate and fantasize over – and I found that although I could now afford to eat, I could no longer partake in the luxury.
Every minute of every day, of every week, of every month, of every year in which I remained an exotic dancer, I also remained on a diet – calories in versus calories out – and every available hour not spent studying, stripping or parenting was spent in the gym – eternally exercising. The exercising was difficult enough – tiring and demanding – but the real penance was the end of eating as I had once known it. No more delectable Amish baking, five-course chicken dinners, large platters of schnitzel and gravy, nor hot buttered noodles. Everything the least bit delicious was struck from my palate.
I began to live on low fat, no fat, low sugar, no sugar, artificial sweeteners and imitation fats, low-calorie soy protein drinks, high fiber cardboard energy bars and bland, sodium-free fish poached just enough to render it tasteless – along with an unlimited supply of rabbit food. Celery can be a girl’s best friend, I discovered, just not the soul mate I wanted.
You play you pay, I reminded myself, quoting the last words from my ex-husband just before his incarceration – and indeed I did pay. I am a woman who loves food; it would not be wrong to say that eating has always been my obsession – and even more so when the meal preparation was completed by someone else. “You stew it: I’ll chew it” could have been my motto back in the day when eating was still a daily occurrence. In fact, one of the reasons I’d foolishly married my ex – and left my strict Amish religion behind – had been his lasagna; in the face of all that homemade sausage, rich marinara sauce and four full-fat cheeses, I’d willingly overlooked the fact that he was a petty thief.
Once I'd taken up the profession of a stripper, I soon understood the true meaning of suffering, as hungry days passed hungry days, famished months, and even ravenous years, as aching, over-exercised muscles throbbed and burned, my shrinking stomach growled and panged, and my hitherto sunny disposition slowly dissolved into bitter, unfulfilled longings for that which I could not have – food and rest.
But the voracious need for money drove me on, until one day I realized that I had reached forty years of age, still going strong in the profession, but too soon forty-five arrived and finally, and unexpectantly, the unbelievable age of fifty overtook me. I was overwhelmed by the prospect of growing old, but, thanks to cosmetic surgery, food deprivation and a severe regimen of exercise and diet-drugs, fifty found me well-preserved and I remained employed in the only occupation I knew how to do well.
However, I was over-exhausted, over-educated and over-exposed, with nothing to show for it – except the obligation to show everything – and bored beyond belief. If one more young man suggested lewdly that “he had what I needed”, while slipping his ten dollar bill into my G string, I feared that instead of winking back appreciatively I might inquire if that “something in his pants” could possibly, and pleasantly, be a fat ham and Swiss on rye.
For my entire adult life I had carried on stripping, making money for the family, relying on the sexual stimulation of horny strangers, but always dreaming of retirement – of a life spent writing wonderful stories and novels in which my characters interacted over scrumptious meals – even as my gravity-challenged body and luteinizing hormones sent messages of protest to my oblivious brain. My rebelling hips, longing to gyrate no more, threatened to spread, my softening “abs-of- steel” belly endeavored to pout, my long, luxuriant hair struggled to grey and my arches continued to fall. But once again, there was all that need.
My widowed mother still had a mortgage that she struggled to pay, my children, now grown but dealing with post-university loans, required financial help, my sister’s leaking roof required re-shingling, my brother’s chimney re-bricking, and my antiquated air conditioner was emitting Freon into the ozone layer at an alarming rate. New government regulations and an eroding environment demanded that I replace it, and yet all of that was just the icing on the liposuction, as we say in the business.
My own personal upkeep remained a terrible expense and my cosmetic surgeon had already booked me for my second breast augmentation – breasts were becoming larger and larger in the stripping arena and I struggled to keep up – even as he reminded me that last year’s butt lift was barely paid off. I could see that my future, so full of silicone, collagen and Botox that I would soon become more plastic than flesh, was hanging over my head like the sword of Damascenes, while I, the little Dutch boy with his finger stuck in the dyke, fought off the inevitability of aging.
I finally understood that my life was out of control, that beautiful job (at one time my salvation) now nothing but a vicious parasite, gobbling up my hard-earned money as fast as I could exotically disrobe. On my fifty-sixth birthday I came to a stunning realization – I simply had to find another job – and the Gods above took pity upon me and led me straight to the Toronto Star where I came across a huge advert for the new job of food editor for their illustrious paper.
Rather than passing up the opportunity as something completely out of my reach, I came to the startling realization that I should apply for it. Theoretically, at least, as a Ryerson grad, I was qualified for the job, and because of my unrequited lust for calories, I knew more about food than the average person.
I walked into that interview in a tight, yet classy, designer suit in just the right shade of persuasive blue. In one hand, my Mother’s Amish apple strudel; in the other, my ex-husband’s authentic Italian lasagna. I spoke non-stop “food” for more than an hour, with promises of articles based on delicious dishes that tasted fabulous, and yet would leave the eater with a body not unlike that of my own.
I lied my little well-toned ass off – I lied about past jobs in the food industry, I produced my mother’s book of Amish traditional recipes that I claimed as my own, with promises of scaled-down, lighter versions that would delight both the palate and the waistline and boost his readership. I committed myself to honest restaurant reviews with a strict eye on health as well as gastronomical delight. I would have offered the moon on cream cheese if it would have helped me land the job. And yes, I employed every sexual nuance that I had picked up over my stripping career to sell myself – and my writing abilities, which were authentic; I had been an A+ student.
My enthralled future employer hastened to inform me that I had successfully procured the job, but requested that I see myself out as he seemed loath to stand up from behind his desk at that moment, and so I left, newly and joyously employed. In gratitude, I lifted my skirt at the doorway and flashed him my thanks…he smiled.
And so, here I sit at my computer, after partaking in a delicious meal with four mouth-watering courses, during which I never removed a single article of clothing nor felt the compunction to shake my titties for the world to see. I was offered soft white bread, real heavy cream, thick salty butter and sweet authentic sugar. None of it taboo – it was part of the job! I gratefully accepted, practically weeping for joy as my nipples arose in an elated salutation.
Later, my appetite completely satiated, I left that hollowed establishment in a state of culinary enlightenment, with the shirt on my back still intact, my appreciation profound and my gluttony fully glutted, having decided that I was going to use all my writing skills and all my brain power to write the best restaurant review I was capable of composing. A sophisticated French restaurant such as Francoise’s deserves an equally sophisticated review.
After hours of attempts, though, it seems all I can come up with is a heart-felt assessment based on the only standards I have come to trust. I am therefore giving this excellent eatery, known as Francoise’s, a well-deserved rating of four and a half lap dances out of five. Bon appétit!
Janis Coulis loves to eat, but the rest of the story she just had to invent.
Note: For information about Brian Henry’s upcoming writing workshops and courses see here.