Natassja Schiel | Longreads | July 2019 | 41 minutes (7,527 words)
I’ve admired Natassja Schiel since we met at a writer’s workshop on the Oregon Coast nearly three years ago. Her crisp sentences move with warmth and certainty, and her gentle courage with difficult topics pulls a reader in.
Schiel’s essay “Finding My Father,” is a layered coming of age story about a woman who turns to sex work and creative writing after a difficult upbringing. Opossum, a small literary journal based in Oregon, originally published the piece in November, 2017. According to Schiel, the editorial process was pleasant enough, until the lead editor, John Blanton Edgar, sent her numerous unwanted emails, texts, and calls outside the bounds of their working relationship. She began to hear similar stories from other women writers who’d interacted with him, so Schiel asked for her piece to be removed from Opossum’s site. Edgar complied, then reversed his decision before sending emails claiming responsibility for her career’s success. When Natassja took her story public in May 2019, she heard a resounding chorus of support. Edgar took down the piece the following month.
Longreads reached out to Edgar. He told us he believed their interactions post-publication were borne of a growing friendship. “I was under the impression that we were friends and that the publisher/writer relationship was in the past. We exchanged many texts and had a small number of phone conversations during the next year or so.” He also expressed regret that Natassja’s experience had been so challenging. “I am sincerely sorry that Natassja feels this way and that I ever made her or anyone else feel uncomfortable.” According to this statement, Edgar shut down publication of Opossum in June.
Longreads is thrilled to re-publish “Finding My Father.” It is Schiel’s second piece with us. —Danielle A. Jackson
* * *
I’d often lean into an older balding man, when I worked as a stripper, grazing his shoulder before bracing myself on the plush leather chair that he lounged in. I’d stand between his legs, undulating my body, my torso inches away, but never touching him, my right breast lingering over his nose. When he exhaled, the tickle of his breath would stiffen my semi-erect nipple even more. “You’re so sexy,” he’d whisper over the loud music, redirecting his gaze to my face. I’d look him in the eyes and think, You’re old enough to be my father. Are you?
I didn’t know my father. I’d never met him. He could have been anyone.
Customers love to ask strippers about their fathers: Do you do this because you have daddy issues? The belief is that in order for a woman to take their clothes off for money, she must have a bad relationship with her father. It’s absurd. Several strippers I’ve known were close to their fathers. And single parent households are common. Plus, more women are employed as exotic dancers than all other types of dance combined. Some strippers are bound to have deadbeat dads, just as some are bound to have loving fathers. I’ve worked as a sales associate, receptionist, waitress, bartender, professor, and administrative assistant — in none of these positions has someone asked me about my father.
The belief is that in order for a woman to take their clothes off for money, she must have a bad relationship with her father. It’s absurd.
I’d wondered who my father was many times, but once I started dancing, the question came up frequently. It was the older, lonely men — the men who could have been my father — who most often asked. How could I not wonder about finding him among the strip club patrons? What if he’d called me “sexy” on several occasions? What if I was dancing for him every week, talking to him for hours, deepening the bond that develops in relations with regular customers? What if his attraction formed because an invisible bond tied us together? I was curious how my regulars would react to finding out they’d been salivating over their daughter. What if, instead of being repulsed, as I would’ve been, they enjoyed it anyway?
* * *
I started stripping in Portland, Oregon, which has more strip clubs per capita than anywhere else in the United States. It was 2006 and I was 22. Three years later, after the economic recession shrunk my earnings, I was facing homelessness. Panicked, I followed a fellow dancer’s recommendation and moved to the Pacific island of Guam, an American territory. Club G-String funded my flight, gave me a place to live, and paid $450 for every six days worked (unlike the clubs in Portland, which were tips-only and charged stage fees). Having a salary felt like a luxury. All I had to do was sign a three-month contract.
There were two main groups of clientele: Japanese tourists and the American military. Naval Base Guam, the Andersen Air Force Base, and a few smaller bases occupy about 29% of the total land area of the island. Only enlisted military servicemen and their families have access to the bases. That means the indigenous Chamorro people are not allowed on that land unless they are in the military themselves. Now that Trump is president, another military base is being constructed — taking even more land from the Chamorro — but providing more business for the strip clubs. The American dancers were, and still are, shipped onto the island as entertainment for the military. Tourism was a bonus.
* * *
Dancing at G-String, I contemplated finding my father among the clientele more often than I had in Portland. This became further complicated when I developed a connection with Philip. Phil was retired from the Air Force but worked as a contractor on Andersen Air Force Base. Mid-fifties with his light brown hair still in a military crew cut, Phil never watched the girls dance onstage. He wouldn’t even look in the stage’s direction. Instead, he sat at the bar, staring ahead at the string of red lights that lined the liquor shelves. We sat and talked for hours. I never danced for him. He wasn’t interested in me sexually; that’s why I enjoyed his company so much. It also made me ponder the possibility that he could somehow be my father. He was around the right age. I imagined that my father had joined the Air Force after my mother ran off with me — that somehow the universe had placed us on this tiny island together, fated to connect.
I knew that Philip couldn’t be my father because he’d lived in Georgia for most of his life, got married around the time I was born in 1984, and never had children. But, while living in Guam, it was easier to fantasize about finding my father because I felt completely disconnected from my real life. The absurdity of finding him in Guam, the unlikeliness of it, made considering it less risky. It was a fun imaginative exercise. There was no real chance I’d find him there, so I could entertain the idea that I cared who he was, which was something I’d always denied. “He’s a sperm-donor,” I’d say. “I don’t need him.”
* * *
Philip was on his third bottle of Bud Light. His hand had just stopped shaking. He always arrived when G-String opened, at 7PM, and his trembling only abated after enough alcohol entered his blood. My mother had claimed many times that my father was an alcoholic, explaining that was part of the reason I’d never met him. I hadn’t believed her because I had caught her in so many lies while growing up, but each night when I noticed Phil’s unsteady hand, it seemed possible she was telling the truth. Phil appeared contemplative, then lifted his eyebrows, revealing more of his green-blue irises.
“Have I told you about my wife?” he asked.
“I don’t think so,” I said, shaking my head before taking a sip of my vodka Redbull.
“She had severe asthma. Had an attack. I tried everything. Her inhaler. Called the paramedics. I was holding her in my arms.” His hand was shaking again, though not from withdrawal. He finished his beer in one large gulp and asked for another. “She was already gone by the time they got there.”
The bartender brought Philip’s Bud Light and asked me, “Anything for you?”
I stirred the ice in the otherwise empty rocks glass and nodded. G-String didn’t allow us to talk to customers unless they were buying us lady’s drinks, a concept borrowed from Japanese hostess bars. If a customer offered us a drink, we were required to comply. The most commonly sized lady’s drink was six-ounces and half the liquor of a regularly sized cocktail, though we could also order full size shots. It cost the customer $20 and the dancer profited $9. This meant the customer paid for every moment spent with a dancer. For each drink, the dancer received a poker chip that we cashed in at the end of the night.
My mother had claimed many times that my father was an alcoholic, explaining that was part of the reason I’d never met him.
Phil and I sat silently for a few moments until my drink was in front of me. I slipped the black chip into my purse, feeling guilty about making money while he opened up.
“How long ago was that?” I asked.
“Almost ten years,” he said. “I’ve never dated anyone since. Doesn’t feel right. She was my angel. I didn’t think I could live without her. Sometimes I wonder if I am living without her — or if I’m just going through the motions.”
If Philip had been a different customer, I might’ve believed he exaggerated his story. But his pain was obvious in his trembling hands.
“I’m pretty lonely. That’s why I spend so much time here.”
It made sense that Phil never watched the dancers, never went into the private room. I liked those things about him, but I hadn’t been sure why he came in so often. He was my favorite because he only wanted company. He never seemed to notice that I was wearing a sheer hot pink mini-dress, nor did he comment on my pigtails. He was more respectful than men I’d worked with at “real” jobs. As a receptionist at a computer software company, men in the office sexually harassed me every day. Phil and I talked for hours each night and a tenderness had grown between us. I looked forward to seeing him and felt disappointed on the rare occasion he didn’t show up.
* * *
In 2016, at the age of thirty-two, and five years after I quit stripping, my mother sent me a message on Facebook: I found your father. Lying in bed not fully awake, bleary eyed and confused, I assumed I’d read it wrong. I closed my eyes and wrapped the warm blankets around me. My phone buzzed again: Unfortunately, he passed away. Then she emailed his obituary along with the names of his mother and sisters. They’re still alive. Maybe you can find them. My father had only lived in a few places in Colorado and never far from where my mother had met him in Wheatridge. Clearly she could’ve found him if she wanted to.
My phone buzzed again, displaying my sister’s name. She must already know. We’d been through something like this before. When our grandfather died my sister called me, trying to beat the text that she knew our mother would send. The text was one line: Your grandfather died this morning. “I didn’t want you to find out that way,” she had said. My sister, again, was attempting to communicate the information first, but this time she was too late.
I ignored her call. I didn’t feel like I could face her, even though I knew that didn’t make sense. At this stage of my life, I no longer wanted the information. I had accepted that I’d never know my father. Now, I might know who he was, but he was dead. I stared at the messages my mother sent and then read the obituary. I closed my eyes, cocooned in the warm blankets, while my purring cat pressed against my body. Images flickered, seemingly projected onto the backs of my eyelids: a winding road on a mountain, snow, a cabin.
When I was twelve and my sister was eight, our mother took us from our home in Oregon to Colorado to visit family. One morning she drove us away from the Denver suburb of Littleton, where we were staying with my great aunt, and into the mountains.
My mother said she was going to introduce me to my father.
The landscape changed as she drove. The sprawling urban town with several grocery and fast food chains faded away. My mother mumbled an entire conversation with herself, something she did frequently, particularly when stressed. I tuned her out, like I usually did, and stared out the window. I fixated on a huge sign written in primary colors: TILE. I watched as it shrank and then disappeared completely.
In 2016, at the age of thirty-two, and five years after I quit stripping, my mother sent me a message on Facebook: I found your father.
“I don’t know if this is a good idea,” my mother said, pausing for an answer, but neither my sister nor I responded because she wasn’t talking to us. Our mother nodded, appeared to consider the answer she’d heard in her own mind and replied, “I guess it would be good for her to meet him.” Enormous pine trees lined the winding road. The summer was hot in Littleton, but the higher we drove, the cooler the temperature became. Halfway up the mountain, snow pockets littered the ground, and my mother clicked on the heat. It didn’t occur to me until much later that she hadn’t been talking to herself in a normal way. She appeared to be talking to an invisible person.
My sister had fallen asleep in the backseat. I was quiet — nervous and excited, but tried not to show it. My mother continued her mumbled conversation, gripped the steering wheel, and stared ahead at the zig-zagging road. She almost always seemed cool and detached, unless she was angry, so I mimicked her looking out the window. She had punished me when I was younger — often hitting me — when I cried or grew too enthusiastic, so I came to believe showing emotion was weakness. Not allowed.
She eventually parked on the shoulder across the street from a wooden cabin. Pine trees and snow blanketed the front yard. I imagined magical woodland creatures would come out and play. It seemed like a fairytale.
“I think this is where your father lives,” she said in the biting tone intended for me and not her imaginary friend. She turned off the engine, but made no moves to leave the car. I fantasized that he’d be similar to me, that he would laugh too much and at inappropriate times. I imagined he would have fair skin, light hair, and green eyes — like me. It seemed like he could be no other way. These were characteristics opposite of my mother and sister’s olive skin, dark hair, and gray-blue eyes.
I waited for my mother to do something, anything. She tapped her fingers on the steering wheel then adjusted the rearview mirror so she could see herself. I watched patiently as she yanked a small hair brush out of her purse and teased back her feathered auburn hair, then reapplied peach lipstick and loose powder. “You really want to meet him?” she asked without looking at me.
I nodded but said nothing. The truth was, I desperately wanted to meet him, but I sensed that she wasn’t sure it was a good idea even though we’d driven at least an hour and were parked outside his house. Her reluctance made me feel reluctant, too.
“Are we going to knock on his door?” I asked, staring at my feet. She didn’t answer. She returned to drumming on the steering wheel. Then she started the car, turned on the radio, where Mariah Carey’s “Always Be My Baby” played softly. I’d normally turn it up and belt along, annoying my mother, but this time I didn’t. She put the car in drive, flipped a U-turn, and sped away.
* * *
Two and a half months into working at Club G-String, my manager, Mike, called me up to the DJ booth at the beginning of a shift. “You know I hate when you sit with Philip,” he said. Why this bothered Mike mystified me. He claimed it was because Phil didn’t buy drinks — even though Phil was required to or I couldn’t talk to him, so that wasn’t the real reason. Mike and the bouncers enforced the lady’s drink rule. If a dancer stayed with a customer too long without a cocktail, she was told to move on. I always had a drink with Phil and plenty of black chips to cash in at the end of the night. Mike simply didn’t like Philip, and I didn’t know why.
I’d ignored Mike the many times he’d bugged me about sitting with Philip. Mike always wore track pants and a fanny pack, which made him impossible to take seriously. His middle-aged skin drooped over his tanned muscles despite the fact that he worked out for hours each day. He smiled often, wanting to seem approachable. Some of the other dancers were barely eighteen, and he tried to function as more than a manager. He’d often pontificate about the island, dropping his knowledge on us: “The main road that runs through the tourist strip is called Pale San Vitores,” he’d informed me the day I arrived. “It’s named after the missionary that came to convert the Chamorro people to Catholicism.” He wanted us to trust him. Having no children of his own, he wanted to take care of the dancers. Protect us. Or, at least, that’s what I think he believed he was doing.
Once he had forced an elderly Japanese man to apologize after grabbing at my crotch. When I blocked the old man’s hand, he’d smacked me across the face. Mike became furious, making a mama-san — one of the elderly Japanese cocktail waitresses — translate to the groper, “In the United States women are treated with respect!” I’d never had another strip club manager defend me like that, but I didn’t care that it annoyed him that I spent time with Phil. At the end of our talk, I sighed and rolled my eyes, then returned to my bar stool next to Phil.
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Phil handed me the bottle of water I’d asked him to hide. Mike insisted customers wouldn’t buy as many lady’s drinks if we had bottles of water, so added a rule that they weren’t allowed. Grinning, I took a swig of water before hiding it behind my back.
Philip also wondered what Mike’s problem was. I was only making around $250 a night between drinks and stage money, considerably less than when I still went into the VIP room, but it was pretty good money and, by staying at Phil’s side night after night, I was safe. On the way to his office, Mike stopped behind me and snatched the water bottle from its hiding place.
“Come with me,” he said.
I sat on his big beige office chair across from him while my eyes struggled to adjust to the sudden bright light.
“I don’t want you sitting with him.”
“But he is buying me drinks,” I said, aware I sounded like a snotty teenager rebelling against her dad. I wasn’t surprised I’d reverted to childishness. My outfit matched my attitude: red plaid mini-skirt, Hello Kitty t-shirt with the caption You Lost Me at Hello, no bra, and pigtails. Even though Mike wanted to be a friendly parental-type, he also relished the control he had over the dancers: he controlled our home, our pay, our transportation to and from the club. Now he was trying to control my alcohol and water consumption.
“What did I tell you when you first started? How many drinks are you supposed to get in an hour?”
I stared at him silently. I had no idea what he was talking about.
“You are supposed to get four to five drinks an hour. Philip only buys two or three, at most. You can’t sit with him. It’s in the contract.”
The day I’d arrived in Guam, I signed a contract I hadn’t read. Mike gave me bullet points and told me to sign, skipping to a line at the bottom of the stack. I requested a copy. Mike said he would give me one, but he never did.
“I can’t drink that much; it would kill me.” I was concerned about that, but I was more concerned that I was already drinking more at G-String than I ever had. Although I was skeptical that my father was an alcoholic, I’d grown up paranoid that I’d become one myself. What if drinking more triggered something biological, and once I left the island, I couldn’t stop?
“So get fake drinks.”
“I hate to break this to you, but the customers know. And it pisses them off.” My first four weeks in Guam I’d only requested “cape cods,” code for cranberry juice, because I wanted to stay sober while I worked. Most of the military customers knew about the fake drinks. Just as we weren’t allowed to refuse an offer, we also weren’t allowed to turn away cocktails that customers ordered for us. One regular named Lucky knew the rules. After I ordered a fake drink, Lucky accused me of trying to rip him off. He called the mama-san back and ordered four shots of Johnny Walker in a row: Red, black, red, black.
Lucky left moments after my fourth shot. A fellow dancer sat next to me and fed me chips, encouraging me not to lay my dizzy head down. After that I ordered real drinks. It was easier than facing more retaliation.
* * *
As my mother sped down the mountain, I told myself it was okay — no, it was good — that I didn’t get to meet my father. It kept things uncomplicated. He probably sucked. He wouldn’t want to meet me. He would’ve slammed the door in my face. I imagined it over and over: slam, slam, slam — the woodland creatures scattering in fear. I recited this to myself as she drove further away from the possibility of meeting him. In my chest was searing pain I pretended wasn’t there. I didn’t cry; that would be weak. I wasn’t supposed to care, and I clung to the idea that I didn’t. But that pain deepened and wouldn’t abate. My chest hurt for years before I admitted to myself I’d been wounded and that I was going to have to feel this wound, deeply, or face living with the physical pain forever.
Halfway down the mountain I asked, “Did he used to hit you?”
She turned toward me for the first time since arriving at the cabin. Her icy-gray eyes looked straight through me. “How do you know that?”
I shrugged. “I have dreams that he hit you.” There was no reason I should’ve known that.
My mother never mentioned taking me to meet him again. Twenty-years passed, and as the years ticked by, I started to believe that I’d dreamed that day, just as I may or may not have imagined that he had hit her.
* * *
Phil’s worry lines cut deeper into his forehead when I told him Mike was insisting I drink more, but he waved at the bartender and pointed at me.
“Liquid cocaine, soda water back, and my regular,” I said.
“Do you think a shot is a good idea?” Phil asked.
I shook my head. “I don’t know how else to drink more or faster. I just want Mike to leave me alone.” It was that simple. There were plenty of other customers that night, but I didn’t want to gamble on any of them. If I’d wanted to anger Mike, I would’ve refused to talk to anyone, making zero profits for myself and the club. Drinking more while hanging out with Phil seemed like a small price to pay to appease Mike — so I downed the shot, cringed, and then quickly downed the soda water back. “Bacardi 151, Jäger, and Goldschälger so do not go together,” I said. “I don’t understand why Brie likes these so much.”
Although I was skeptical that my father was an alcoholic, I’d grown up paranoid that I’d become one myself.
Brie was my closest friend at the club and an example of a dancer who had a good relationship with her father. That night she was in the VIP room with the Navy Seal Cross-Dresser. He’d keep her in there for hours. Everyone knew he was harmless. He liked to show off the women’s lingerie he wore under his clothes. For a short while I was his favorite and he always wanted to color-coordinate our outfits. With Brie, he liked to dress up in Star Wars garb and role play. She became his favorite when he learned she had light saber tattoos on each of her pointer fingers.
“Why’d you order it if you don’t like it, dummy?” Phil asked and laughed.
Less than an hour later, Mike pulled me back into the office.
“That same drink has been sitting there for an entire hour,” he said.
The shot had hit me harder than I expected. All I wanted was water, but Mike refused to return my water bottle.
“Natassja, I don’t understand this. You are the kind of girl that can make a lot of money. You used to make a lot of money. Why are you wasting your time?” He was red-faced. I knew I was annoying him, but his harassment had reached a new level. A small naval ship had docked and the club was swarming with young navy guys. After being on a ship for months with no contact with women, these kinds of customers threw money around. Prior to this I’d taken advantage of docked ships. This time, I stayed with Phil because I knew he’d never hurt me.
“I don’t want to go into the private rooms again,” I said. I tried to stifle my feelings but started to cry. Weeks earlier, Brie and I had gone into the private room with a young man in the Air Force. He was belligerently drunk, but we weren’t concerned at first. Most customers were drunk. The idea of going into an actual private room used to scare me — in every other club I’d worked, the private area wasn’t really private, and a bouncer always stood nearby watching. My fear evaporated quickly because man after man stayed respectful. The more that happened, the bolder I’d felt.
But this time, once the door closed, the Air Force man lunged at us. We sat on top of him, each of us restraining one arm, but he kept breaking free. He’d grab a breast so forcefully it felt like he might rip it off. He’d shove his arm under our mini-skirts, attempting to get his fingers up under our thongs. He pushed one of us off and tried to get his pants undone. Brie or I always stopped him in time. “You’re strippers!” he slurred. I can only recall this in bits and pieces and sensations, like his sweaty arm hair pressing into my palm. The vodka on his hot breath. The smooth fabric of the taupe couch. I shot glances at the panic button. It would turn on a light in the DJ booth to indicate we needed help. The switch was in the corner, far from where we struggled.
Before this, I’d tried to imagine how I’d reach it if I was ever in trouble. Now it was clear that we wouldn’t be able to. We clawed, shoved him down, and screamed the entire time. No one came to check on us. After half an hour the bouncer knocked, then opened the door because the time was up. Brie and I ran. We hid under the desk in the DJ booth. I spotted a dead cockroach in the corner and focused on it. Both Brie and I were shaking. Mike learned about the attack and defended us later when the customer tried to get his money back. But that was weeks ago. He hadn’t connected the dots that I’d become scared to go into the VIP room.
Mike sighed and looked up at the ceiling, “That’s where the money is. I can’t force you, but if you won’t go into the room, you have to drink more.”
It occurred to me that he wasn’t getting a big enough return on his investment — me.
G-String paid us a wage but took a percentage from VIP rooms and lady’s drinks. Thirty minutes in the VIP room cost the customer $300. The club kept $150 and $15 was tipped to the mama-sans, who were responsible for pushing drinks and private rooms on the customers. The dancer kept $135. That wasn’t enough to risk the potential risk of getting assaulted or raped.
Additionally, the club penalized dancers for breaking rules: $50 for being late, $50 for chewing gum on stage, $100 if panties weren’t removed on stage, $150 for missing a shift without a doctor’s note.
Mike wasn’t worried about me. He was worried about the club’s profits.
My name boomed over the speakers. “I’m next on stage,” I said through tears. “But do I have to?”
Mike nodded. Dancers are taken out of rotation when in the VIP room. They’re added back when they’re done. Mike wanted to punish me a little more — acting out a disciplinary father-role.
* * *
An hour after my mother sent the obituary, I called my sister back. I asked if she remembered the trip into the mountains, and she did. “I thought maybe he could be a father to both of us.”
My sister doesn’t know her father either. Our mother swore for years it was a man named Ruben, but a court-ordered paternity test proved otherwise. After that, she insisted he cheated the test. Our mother finally admits her father could be someone else. I question whether she knows who or where my sister’s father is — that she’ll wait until my sister can never meet her father and then admit, “By the way, it was him.
I don’t think these are malicious acts. My mother’s father was abusive and controlling. The consequences show on her face, in her vacant eyes. She never seemed capable of dealing with her reality. Most of the time she’s so dissociated that I wonder if there is a person buried somewhere deep down inside her. When she “found” my father, she was lucid. My sister had been with her that day and was thrilled to reach our mother, get to talk to her, to be with her. I’ve experienced it too, on a rare occasion, and I always think: she’s still in there. And, please don’t disappear again. Then, just like that, she’s gone. She appears to have splintered her internal world to cope, and I think it’s her splintered-selves that she’s talking to, trying to reach back into herself and come back to life.
* * *
I ran out of the office, rushing past Phil. I didn’t want him to know I was crying. He jumped to his feet, his face softening when he noticed my bloodshot eyes.
“I need to go on stage,” I said without stopping.
The first lines of Portishead’s “Glory Box” pulsed through the speakers as I wiped down the pole with a grimy cloth and Windex. The familiar scent of brass and ammonia filled my lungs. I stood there, the catwalk before me, customers crowding it, eager to touch. Because the pole stood so far from the tipping rail, dancers did “floor-work,” meaning we had to get down on the ground and bend our bodies into sexy poses while men made squeezing motions, indicating that they wanted to touch our breasts, if we consented. I watched a gecko dart down the entryway stairs and into the dressing room — a small reminder of our tropical isolation, something that was easy to forget in the dark club, shut in from the outside world.
We had a platonic, intense intimacy, and he wanted to take care of me in the way fathers do after their grown daughters leave the house.
Both hands grasping the pole, I took a high step in my eight-inch stilettos, and then spun around and around and around. Tears streamed down my face, the stage full of blurry patrons. I wasn’t sure if anyone could tell I was crying, but it was clear they wanted me closer. I spun and spun, removing my few pieces of clothing while in motion. This was the only time I had cried on stage. My panties dropped mid-spin, and I flung them toward the wall. I wasn’t going to be charged a fee for not getting naked, even if I was crying. Dollar bills collected during my entire set, but I couldn’t bring myself to get close to anyone. I left all the money on stage — at least $100, piled in front of confused customers — and walked naked into the dressing room with nothing.
I sat down and took deep breaths. I wanted to get back to Phil. We were a team.
Phil didn’t have any children and had wanted a daughter. We had a platonic, intense intimacy, and he wanted to take care of me in the way fathers do after their grown daughters leave the house. I imagined our relationship was like mine might’ve been with my father if we’d met when I was an adult.
As soon as I returned Phil said, “I’m causing you problems.”
I followed him to the exit, the warm, saline breeze of the always open doorway a welcome reprieve from the smoke-filled club.
“Please don’t leave,” I said, desperate. I didn’t think I could get through the night without him. I eyed the crowd, colored lights danced across unfamiliar faces, and then back at Phil. He shook his head and left. I stood there in disbelief. It felt like he had abandoned me.
I took another deep, salty breath. I could rebel against Mike’s demands with Phil around, but once he was gone, Mike’s dissatisfaction affected me differently. It crushed me that I’d disappointed him. He’d stood up for me against the groper. And he’d also stood up for Brie and me after we were attacked. The only thing left to do was make Mike happy. Walking into the crowd, a navy boy offered me a shot. Right then I decided to try to meet Mike’s quota, knowing it was a bad idea. I figured by the end of the night Mike would realize it was a bad idea, too.
* * *
Before I called my sister back, I showed my boyfriend my father’s obituary. He died February of 2009. In May 2009, when I’d boarded the flight that took me to Guam, my father had already been dead for three months.
My father was a park ranger, a marathon runner, and the author of two books: Colorado Landslide Disasters: An Untold Story of the Old West and The Essential Guide To Rocky Mountain National Park. He was a writer, like me.
A pale-skinned man with green eyes looked at us from my boyfriend’s computer screen. He wore a big genuine grin. “I can see you in his face,” my boyfriend said. “You have the same smile.” Before that I hadn’t seen it, but he was right. I wasn’t sure how to react or what I was supposed to feel. I’d never met my father, after all. I started to cry, not understanding how it was possible to grieve for a stranger.
* * *
Vomit was lodged in my throat. I swallowed, but my throat didn’t clear. There were chunks in my teeth. I opened my eyes and adjusted my pillow. My head slipped into something cold and moist and I noticed a sharp odor.
I grabbed the bottle of water next to my bed and tried to wash it down. I was covered in grayish green vomit. My entire bed was too. I could’ve died.
How did I get here? To my room? In my bed? I remembered taking one last double liquid cocaine shot with Brie. Then the lights in the club went on and we walked into the dressing room. Brie grabbed me behind my neck and pulled me into a kiss — as sometimes happened at the end of the night. I kissed her neck, pushing her triangle top off her left breast, then cupping it before sucking on her bright pink nipple. She pulled my head back up and kissed me again. It was 4AM and we needed to cash in our chips. We changed from our slinky outfits into jeans and t-shirts.
The room started spinning. “I need to go to the restroom,” I announced before stomping out of the room, leaving all my belongings, including my purse, unattended.
While I pieced together what happened, I stripped my bed, praying I wouldn’t wake my roommate Lily — another dancer who was close to her father — who was bundled like a burrito in her comforter. We shared the master bedroom in one of the dancers’ condos.
‘I can see you in his face,’ my boyfriend said. ‘You have the same smile.’
Of the things that I’d considered might kill me, alcohol poisoning wasn’t among them. Before working at G-String, alcohol only made me sick once. My paranoia about becoming an alcoholic meant I didn’t drink much. I didn’t like drunk sensations, the feeling of being too out-of-control. Lily didn’t move. I tiptoed to the washing machine and shoved my bedding inside.
Holding my breath, I stepped into the shower, carefully untangling my matted hair and rinsed away last night’s humiliation, as more bits returned to me.
The navy boy offered me that first shot around 1AM, and drinking with Phil had already left me drunk. I joined the group of sailors who ordered shot after shot. In the past, this would’ve horrified me. I hated shots. But I’d become determined and dumped each one down my throat. Later when I begged the bartender for a full glass of soda water, she said, “Mike told me I can only give you small backs of soda with each shot, nothing more.” It was obvious she wanted to, but Mike was watching.
That was my last clear memory. The only thing I was sure of was that I’d drunk more than I ever had before.
In the bathroom, Brie was abruptly with me, propping me up over a toilet. “Stick your finger down your throat and force yourself,” she said. A few times she let go and I fell limply to the ground.
She shoved her fingers down my throat, over and over and over, forcing me to vomit. I couldn’t believe that had happened. I massaged conditioner through my hair, continuing to untangle it. I wasn’t remembering correctly. I couldn’t be.
Lily was awake and sitting on her bed when I came back into our room, wrapped in a towel.
“Are you okay?”
My eyes watered despite trying to act nonchalant. I sat down on the filthy twin mattress. I hated seeing it without sheets because it was spotted with stains. One large and brown stain at the top of the mattress had light edges that darkened as it fed toward the middle, ending in a maroon color. I fixated on it, wondering what it was: blood? Coffee? Hot chocolate? Lily’s big brown eyes fixed on me. Instead of looking at her, I shifted my focus to the trail of smaller, yellowish-green stains that dotted the edge of the mattress. Another wave of nausea passed through me. The stains were gross, but they made me curious about the other girls who’d slept here. Did they have fathers? Mothers? Why had they come? What had they experienced here? What had happened to them after they left?
When the bed was made, I pushed the reality of the soiled mattress out of my mind. I pretended I was sleeping in my real bed — the pillow-top mattress I’d splurged on at the beginning of my stripping career. This bed, owned by Club G-String, had springs that stabbed me in the back, preventing me from immersing myself in the fantasy, reminding me of childhood and the years when I’d had no bed at all. When I got one, at age nine, I ignored the coils jabbing me, so excited to finally have one.
I told Lily what I thought happened. I estimated that I’d taken around twenty shots in less than three hours. My purse was missing, and the only way to accurately track my consumption would be to count the money. I hoped Brie had it. I’d never blacked out before. My body vibrated with shame.
Lily reached her arm around my shoulder and squeezed. “I’ve never heard anything about a drink quota,” she said. “No one could handle that.”
* * *
My sister found my father’s sister, Kathy, on Facebook. Two weeks after my sister contacted her, Kathy wrote back. She wanted to get in touch.
Before your mother ran off with you we got to love on you for a few months, she wrote. You’re thirty-two, right? I had a daughter around the same time. I didn’t think they knew about me. It was surreal that they’d known, but ignored my existence. Your father had issues with alcohol and struggled with his mental health. He thought it was best not to be in your life. I read the lines over and over. My mother had told the truth. He was an alcoholic and didn’t want me. This enraged me. Who has the right to decide such a thing? Him? My mother? Why didn’t I get a choice? I considered how scared I’d been that I would pick up a habit in Guam. How relieved I was that drinking wasn’t appealing once I was home.
The stains were gross, but they made me curious about the other girls who’d slept here. Did they have fathers? Mothers? Why had they come?
In my father’s obituary picture, I saw kind eyes. I wanted desperately to believe he was the man I’d projected onto his photo. I couldn’t believe that his presence would’ve made my life worse. I cried any time the fact of his death fluttered through my mind. It was hopeless. I couldn’t do anything to change it.
I looked you up and saw that you’re a writer. He was a writer, too. Did she discover that I’m writing a memoir about working as a stripper? How could she not? It’s in all my published bios. Was your childhood happy? she asked. I panicked. I never wrote her back. I didn’t know what to tell her.
* * *
Mike spotted me walking out of the dressing room. A slinky turquoise mini-dress draped loosely over my breasts. My hair fell in waves, my face au naturel — I’d long ago stopped bothering with make-up.
“Wow,” he said, examining me up and down. “You look fine.” Then he walked around me, apparently shocked that I was alive. I half expected him to ask if I was a ghost. “You’re here!”
“Of course I’m here,” I said.
“I didn’t think you would come in tonight. I didn’t even want a doctor’s note. You don’t understand; we almost took you to the hospital. Wait here.”
Mike came back from his office with a digital camera and showed pictures of me passed out on the ground in a huge puddle of pistachio colored vomit, and then in a gurney. “I really thought you were going to die. I think we all did. I can’t believe you’re here. And,” he repeated, “you look fine.”
I took the camera and scrolled through the images, astounded that he would document evidence of what happened. “I’m counting down days. I want off this island.” I had twenty-three days left.
He gawked at me for a few more beats, then moved on. I was standing near the entrance of the club, staring at the abandoned, broken-down hotel across the street, wondering if it was haunted, when Philip walked in. I was elated to see him, relieved that he came back.
“What happened last night?”
“I think I almost died. And I think Brie saved me. But I don’t want to talk about it.”
Phil nodded. “You don’t have to. I’m here to listen if you change your mind.”
“Maybe another time,” I said. “But I don’t think Mike will be giving me a hard time anymore.”
Phil hung his head, shaking it. “I doubt it. He can’t help himself. Can I get you a drink?”
* * *
I bought both of the books my father authored. They’re much different than the personal stories I write, but still, he was a writer. It made me feel connected to him in a small and distant way.
I believed that by reading them I could get to know him.
I opened The Essential Guide To Rocky Mountain National Park and read the first few paragraphs. The prose was more engaging than I expected. I could almost hear his voice. He was the photographer as well, and his photos in the glossy pages were gorgeous: mountain landscapes swathed in winter snow, fields of yellow wildflowers in summer, the Colorado River lined with giant pine trees, a woman riding a beautiful auburn horse. I’d never considered that a guidebook could be a work of art, but that’s what I held in my hands. Flipping through the pages hurt.
The ending I want to write is that reading the books made me feel closer to him. That eventually I wrote Kathy back. That a little while later I met his mother and his other sister.
In reality, I wanted to throw his books off my balcony. “I can’t read them,” I said to my boyfriend. I had him hide them. He’d embraced me, dozens of times, rocked me lightly, while I cried and said: I don’t know why, I don’t know why, I don’t know why.
Every time I thought of my father, I visualized the Oregon woods behind the trailer park where we lived for part of my childhood. During the summers I spent most days back there: walking along the bank of the cool stream, climbing trees, watching squirrels, catching tadpoles, listening to songbirds, hiking through the red clay hills. It made me feel alive. It made me feel whole, safe, loved — things I didn’t often feel at home.
Is that how you felt walking in nature? I wanted to ask him. Is that why you devoted your life to the outdoors?
I wished I could take a hike with him in the field of summer wildflowers he’d photographed; wanted to inhale the crisp winter breeze alongside him. We’d make snow angels on the side of a mountain, laughing as we flapped our arms.
Later, he’d warm milk in a saucepan and I’d start to ask the hard questions: When did you start drinking? How did it get out of control? He’d peer up at me and I’d recognize how his green eyes matched mine. I’d stir the warmed milk and cocoa together. What about the struggles with your mental health? He’d clear his throat. We’d both warm our hands on the hot ceramic coffee cups.
Tell me your life story.
Natassja Schiel is writing a memoir about her time working as an exotic dancer on the island of Guam titled Tumon Strip. Her work has most recently appeared at The Millions and the Los Angeles Review of Books.