by Meghan Lamb
This used to be the peep show, says the manager. She walks me through the attic of the club. The halls are lined with mirrors, like a a dim-lit sexual Versailles. Red wires of lights appear to make my movements glow.
It’s storage now. She taps a naked mannequin. Brown boxes tower up against the booths. The doors are sectioned off with pinkish metal bars, like corral stalls for unused carousels.
She walks me through a locked-in dressing room. You’ll be in Booth 3, she says, opening the last in a line of white doors. She hands me a bottle of spray and a roll of paper towels. She shows me how to put my PIN into the booth control box.
The curtain comes up when they put in the money, she says.
I nod. When does it come down?
She says, when you push this button.
When do I push the button? I ask, tugging on my earring.
She says, push the button when the show is finished.
The peep show is said to originate from a traveling toy theater. These performances were known as raree shows. Children would gather to gaze into holes in wood boxes. Inside these boxes were images, slides controlled by an unseen string.
The images did not move until the string was pulled. They were narrated with spoken stories from their traveling host. Sometimes, the narrator would dance or play with puppets for the children. He would charge them extra to look through the holes.
Often, the pictures told stories that were partially familiar, fairy tales or famous operas and epics. The narrator shortened these stories and whittled them down into simpler language. The narrator altered these stories so his customers could understand.
I watch the mirror put on my face. My features take their form. My eyes become two heavy lidded fronds of blackish lace. I look and think, what sort of person am I? Then, my mouth becomes a pair of lips that do not need to say.
A man wanders into my booth and he fumbles around with his wallet. So, um, how does this work? He says, muffled behind the glass.
The curtain comes up when you put in the money, I tell him.
He says, oh. He puts the money in. The curtain rises.
I say, good morning.
He says, hi.
I ask him, how are you?
He says, fine.
I say, you’re my first customer.
Oh. He nods and makes a terse little sound that is not quite a laugh or a cough. So, um, can you explain? What kind of show do you do?
I pretend I know the answer to his question. I can do any show you would like, I say. Whatever that means. Is there anything special you’d like for me to do today?
He shrugs. Just want to watch you take your clothes off. He laugh coughs. And to maybe see your asshole.
I turn around slowly and gaze at a light that my customer cannot see. I shimmy around as I slide down my bra straps, unclasp, and unveil my tits. I turn to face him with my arm positioned so he can’t quite see them. Then, I lower my arm, slowly, and look toward his face.
He says, very nice. I can’t see his face, but I can tell he’s nodding. From waist up, my customer’s body is a shadowed silhouette. From waist down, he is illuminated with theatrical contrast. A pair of dark pants. A leather belt. Three buttons of a light blue blouse.
I ask what he would like for me to take off next. He says, take off your panties. Leave the garter belt and stockings. I remove them and pretend to toss my hair to see him better, but I’m really looking up into the light. I feel him nodding again. I ask, what would you like to happen, now? The light says, please lean back and spread your legs.
I never really played with dolls when I was little. I pretended with my friends, but that was for their benefit. I didn’t understand the point. It creeped me out to watch them play. I didn’t like their voices, making words for mouths that did not move.
When alone, I would arrange my dolls in still lives. I’d dress them up and set the scene just right. A bright blue scarf became the ocean. A marled wool tie became the dock. A bag of slivered almonds opened and became the beach.
I positioned the dolls in their natural setting and snapped photos on a disposable camera. I maintained the photos in albums, but I never looked at them. I knew the dolls weren’t real, and the pictures didn’t make them real. The fact of their existence was enough.
The sounds around the booth tell stories of the things I cannot see. The manager making her lunch. She is hungry. The microwave opens before the clock beeps. The janitor making his rounds. He is tired. He yawns. The other girls. Customers stopping to talk at the first or the second booth.
Hello. How are you? Would you like a show?
It’s a mutual masturbation show. It’s $20.
It’s for 10 minutes. $20 is 10 minutes.
Okay. Step up around the door. I’ll be there soon.
The sound of fake orgasms. Ah, ah, ah. Some from real girls, some from recordings. There’s another hall next to my booth where the men can watch videos.
A man comes to my booth. He pays. The curtain rises. I take off my clothes. He says, your breasts. My wife, she used to look like you.
Does she know that you come to the show? I ask. He nods. It keeps me out of too much trouble, he explains.
As he’s coming, he presses his left hand up into the glass. His hand stands out clearly against the blur of his foreshortened frame. I lean in. My reflected features sharpen. My face blends in with the shadowed outlines of this stranger’s body.
One weekend, I saw my dad watching a film with Halle Berry. I don’t recall which film it was, but it was dumb. I said, Dad, this film is dumb. He nodded. Yeah.
She’s hot though, Halle Berry, said my dad. I squinted like he’d given me a strange new math equation. I didn’t understand the math of Dad + Halle Berry. I didn’t understand the sum of two such different parts.
I looked at Halle Berry in her midriff shirt, her skin-tight jeans. My mother was her opposite in every way. I didn’t know you felt like that, I said. I felt like I’d forgiven him for something.
I wanted to know what my father thought about, in secret. Later on that evening, in my room, I Googled Halle Berry, nude.
A thin young man approaches the booth. His movements are quivery. He peers into the glass like he’s parting a thick mesh of branches. He mouths like a goldfish, some words I cannot hear. I motion toward the hall phone, but he doesn’t understand my gesture.
I wave him toward me. I write on a sheet of paper, $20 for 10 minutes. I hold the paper in front of the window. He nods.
The curtain goes up. He stands before me, fully clothed. I ask, what can I do for you today?
He pulls something up on his cell phone and types something into it. He holds the screen up to the window. The text says, sexy.
I nod, assuming sexy means I’ll have the usual. I give him the usual. I turn to show off that I’m wearing a backless dress. I slide down the dress, then slide it up to show my stockings.
He still isn’t doing anything. I stop. Is something wrong? I ask. Is this not what you wanted?
He types into his phone again and holds it up. Sexy nude live girl.
I start to take off my dress. He shakes his head. He types, live real girl. I want you. I want real live girl sex.
I don’t think I can give you what you’re looking for, I tell him. He keeps typing. I want real live. Real live girl sex.
In confusion or desperation, he pounds his head into the glass. I push the button and the curtain closes. This show’s finished. I can hear him pounding from behind the curtain. I’m not paid enough to be a real live girl.
I was 19 the first time a partner told me I was sexy. At least, that was the first time I recall now. My boyfriend at the time had split with me the night before. We’d had an argument. I’d packed a bag and left.
I was walking toward a party that was near his house. I’d dressed up too much for the party. I knew I was going to his house instead. I wore a slim black dress, fishnets, and shiny heeled shoes. There was nowhere else for me to go, looking like that.
It was a cool autumn night, the kind that smells like smoke. The dead leaves chattered secretively in their branches. I knocked on his door, and he looked up and down when he answered. Going somewhere special? Going to a party, I replied.
He poured me a glass of red wine from the bottle he’d had sitting out. He handed it to me like maybe, when I took it, I would disappear. I sat beside him on the couch. I sipped the wine and spaced out. He said, don’t drink too much wine before the party.
I put my hand on his leg. He sighed. He said, look. We can’t do this. But, he sighed again, a different sigh, you are extremely sexy.
I left his house after I finished my wine glass. I went to the party. I looked out of place, but most people were too drunk to notice. The people were dancing, so I danced. I was not a good dancer. I was not good at moving and doing things in my dress.
A young man with asymmetrical hair started dancing with me. He got really close right away, like he knew what the dress I was wearing was for. He whispered, I live in this house. We could go to my bedroom. We did. Inside his bedroom, I went down on him.
He murmured from above me in an almost monotone, like he was reading from a poorly written script. You like sucking that cock, you slut. You like sucking that big cock. I nodded, but he didn’t seem to care. You like sucking that cock, you whore, don’t you. You like that cock. You like to suck that cock. You like to suck that cock.
I had no lines in this script about whores sucking cocks. His words began to blur together from their repetition.
He came in my mouth and his come tasted faintly of urine. We looked at each other like, well, now, whatever just happened is finished.
I went to the bathroom and looked in the mirror. What sort of person am I? I imagined my ex-boyfriend’s sigh. You are extremely sexy.
As a liminal space, the peep show draws attention to its script. It is clear what cannot happen in this play.There is a glass wall and a curtain that defines when it begins and ends. The curtain writes the play that is performed.
You cannot touch, you cannot smell, you cannot taste. You cannot view of me what I do not reveal. You cannot move my body without asking me to move it. Language is movement, in the peep show. Your words are what you see.
By the time the curtain rises, the men usually have their cocks out. I say men because a woman has never come into my peep show. The men know they have a certain space of time to get themselves off. If their goal is to get off. It always is, though.
A middle-aged man buys a show. He is tall with square-shaped shoulders. When the curtain rises, he is standing very close-up to the glass. He is so tall his face and shoulders are completely shadowed. He says, have a lot of other guys been here today?
I say, yes.
He says, how many?
I say, 6 or 7.
You lose track of them, he says.
I nod. Sometimes it’s back to back.
He says, so a lot of guys came here. The men in the peep show repeat themselves, frequently. A lot of guys came in this room, with their hard dicks out.
I nod. I start to fiddle with my bra straps. I can tell that he wants to keep talking to himself throughout the show.
A lot of guys looked at those tits with their hard dicks out.
A lot of guys stroked their hard dicks while they looked at that pussy.
A lot of guys came in this room, with you there, with their hard dicks.
Hard dicks appears to be his preferred nomenclature.
When I’m fully nude, I ask, what would you like to happen, now? He says, lie down. I lie down on my side. No, not like that, he says. I want you to lie with your head tilted back, and your legs spread apart, like I’m standing above, and you’re sucking my hard dick.
I position my body this way. His cock is looming right above me. It’s veiny, which makes it look vaguely ferocious, like the ribcage of a starving dog. I close my eyes. Open your eyes, he demands. Stick your tongue out. As I start to, the sight sets him over the edge, and he comes.
I want to do that with you, he says. Can I take you out to dinner?
Can I buy you drinks?
Can I give you some tips?
Can I buy a dress for you to wear to see me?
Can I pay for a different performance? This one finished so quickly.
Even though we’re engaged for 10 minutes of time (it’s time; I make no promises,) most men who approach me desire to make some connection. Some men simply want to control me and don’t like the fact that the curtain goes down. Some men are simply lonely and they want a more long-term companion.
Sometimes, I feel uneasy with the imbalance. Though my experiences vary, my gain from them — money — is clear. The take-away gain for my customers is more ambiguous. What do they feel? And how long does it last?
A stooped elderly man approaches the booth. He stumbles as he walks. He is wearing a shirt that says Special Olympics 2000. He presses his face against the glass. He has no teeth. I look up at the light and ask it, how are you today?
You are beautiful, says the light.
I tell it, thank you.
Could you please take off your clothes? It asks politely.
I do, and as I’m doing so, I see his cock, which he has also pressed right up against the glass.
You’re beautiful, the light says. Then, it whispers, you are perfect. You are perfect. I’m in love with you. I love you.
I say nothing in response. I try to fill the time. The light breathes. I don’t owe him. The light breathes. I don’t know what I’m worth.