UNDRESSING FEAR: A MEMOIR
by
Daniel John


“You'd make a good stripper, Daniel!” Kendra said.

“She's right, Daniel. You'd make a great stripper,” said one of her friends. I was so shocked to hear a lesbian say that it never occurred to me to ask her why. Although it did fit in the conversation. The dinner party in Seattle, with me, my old friend Kendra, and her friends, a lesbian couple, had been devoted to a discussion of the therapeutic benefits of disrobing in public.

When I first met Kendra, she was a modern dancer who'd been struggling for years with anorexia, bulimia, and poverty. She had decided that stripping was the only way she would ever be able to make a living from dancing. The transition from modern dancer to stripper was agony. Although slender by any standard, she still thought she was obese. Before her stage debut at a classy strip joint, she'd called me up and said, “I'm too fat and disgusting to take off my clothes in public. Will you come to the bar tonight? I'll pretend you're the only one watching me.”

I was entranced with her routine. She'd used the classic vocabulary of stripping—tease, bump, thrust, hide, seduce, and grind—as a medium for the art of modern dance. She'd composed a mini dance concert the length of a pop song.

After a few months of work, she was not only financially secure, she was beginning to think she might not be fat and ugly after all. Within a year she was leading a workshop called “How to Find Yourself as a Beautiful Woman by Taking Off Your Clothes in Public.”

Now she was working for a telephone stripping agency. On a typical evening she'd show up at a birthday party dressed as a police officer, charge the birthday boy with a specific list of crimes, then handcuff him to a chair and make him watch while she took off her uniform, piece by piece.

The conversation moved on to different things, at the dinner party with Kendra's lesbian friends. A few hours later, when I was driving Kendra home on I—5, an image popped into my head: I am taking off my pants for women throwing money at me. My body jerked; my hands flew off the steering wheel, my wrists smashed against the roof of the car; my foot stamped down hard on the accelerator ; and the car veered into the next lane, the engine racing loudly.

“Daniel! What are you doing?” Kendra screamed.

I grabbed the steering wheel, hit the brakes, and swerved back into my lane. The other driver leaned on the horn and didn't stop until he'd moved two lanes away from me.

With Kendra's shout still echoing in my ears and my knuckles still gripped white on the steering wheel, I decided to become a stripper. For no other reason than that it terrified me to death. I was so scared I was unable to figure out what I was scared of. Maybe after I was naked I would know. If I was still alive.

“Does your agency hire men?” I replied, my voice shaking.

My subconscious was acting as though taking off my clothes for money would kill me—so it had tried to murder me in advance in a freak car accident. I could feel it thinking, Being dead is okay, as long as I'm dressed. Reasons for not stripping flooded my mind, but before I could back down, I remembered the mind is prey to fear; unreliable, even as a witness.

“Yes, I do audition male strippers,” Kendra's manager said, when I called her that night. “I can see your act tomorrow night at seven.”

I wondered what my “act” was. Fear squatted on my chest like a troll. It took me hours to get to sleep.

The next morning I woke up ready for death. Except for underwear. There were so many other things to worry about, but all I could focus on was underwear. Although I still performed on stage as a modern dancer, at 39 I was shaped differently than I was at 29. Any dancer would say I was too old and fat to strip. I harnessed my jittery horse of a mind and focused on the problem at hand: underwear. Kendra had told me underwear was the legal minimum in the state of Washington for strippers. “It has to be sexy, too,” she'd added, smiling at my discomfiture.

I shopped like a soldier all day long, but there was a stunning array of boy panties to choose from. At the end of the day, nearly berserk with anxiety and fatigue, I bought the ones closest to where I was standing in the store: leopard—skin—print bikini panties. I retreated to my hotel room, put them on under my jeans, then drove to the stripping agency. Police cars made me nervous, even the ones going in the other direction. I expected to be arrested any minute.

Kendra's manager ran the stripping business out of her house. I thought I would find something sultry and sinful. Maybe not drugs and prostitution, but at least people lounging around in sexy underwear, such as what I had on. Instead, an average—looking woman with middle—aged spread led me between her two children and the TV set, then downstairs to the basement. Her assistant, a studious—looking man with thick glasses, was fielding phone calls in the rec room. She took me into her laundry room, told me to stand in front of the dryer, then squeezed herself onto a stool between the washer and the wall.

“Show me,” she said.

The black and white tiles on the floor stood out like opposite kinds of headaches. A drop of sweat collected between my eyebrows. I had been so worried about underwear I had forgotten about my “act.” She looked at me. I looked at her.

“Oh! You want music. Just a minute.”

She left, then came back with a boombox.

“Show me!” she said, and hit the play button.

I exploded into action, jerking like a short—circuiting robot to the music. I slipped off one shoe and tossed it over my shoulder in what I hoped was an erotic manner. It landed on the dryer with a loud clang. She started laughing. I tossed the other shoe, then went for a sock. It stuck to my foot. I hopped, fighting with the sock until I was holding my foot up to my nose. I furiously wrenched the sock off, twirled it around my head like a lasso, then threw it away with maniacal abandon. She shrieked with laughter.

“Harry! You have got to see this!”

Her assistant ran in from the rec room. Soon both of them were howling . Eventually, the music stopped, leaving me trembling and sweaty in my teeny—weenies. I got dressed like a cartoon character on fast forward. They thought that was funny, too.

“Well,” she said, wiping her eyes, “You're not a hunk, and you're not 18.”

I nearly collapsed on the black—and—white tiles, I was so relieved to hear I didn't have to go through with my idiotic plan.

Then she added, “But every once in a while we get a call for a comic strip. And that's you!” She laughed again.

My ego glued itself back together as I drove to my hotel. The manager had warned me not to get my hopes up, since it was highly unlikely anyone would want a comic striptease in the three days I had remaining in Seattle.

The phone was ringing when I walked in the door.

“We need a comic strip tomorrow!” the manager said. “Can you believe it? Do you have a three—piece suit and a briefcase?”

“Yes,” I said sadly, “I do.”

“Exactly what the client specified. What a coincidence!”

The next afternoon I drove through the suburbs of Seattle to a drugstore owned by a husband—and—wife team of pharmacists. The husband met me in the parking lot, paid me in cash, added a tip, and made me go over his handwritten script again and again until he was sure I had it memorized.

He bounced up and down behind me as I walked in the door, whispering loudly in my ear, “See her? Behind the counter? She's the one. Go ahead, do it, say you're from the FDA, she'll love it, she'll be nuts about this, I know she will, go on, do it, go on.”

Briefcase in one hand, boombox in the other, I walked up to the pharmacy counter and said, in a deep voice, “Excuse me, I'd like to speak with Mrs. Wright.”

“I'm Mrs. Wright. Who are you?”

“I'm from the FDA.” Her eyes widened. “It has come to our attention that you've been ordering large quantities of aphrodisiacs for this store, but are not prescribing them.” I lowered my voice and added, “Not even out the back door, if you take my meaning.” She scanned the store with a raging glint in her eye. “Our only conclusion is that you've been taking them yourself. As you know, this is a very serious offense.” A stack of disposable diapers fell over with a soft whump—whump—whump—whump, revealing her sheepish husband standing at the end of aisle five. She pinned him with a lethal stare. Fear rose like a shriek in my stomach. I stuck to the script. “In this case we're willing to let it go, because we have something else to turn! you! on!”

I hit the play button and started to dance. I tossed my shoes with care, since the headache remedies were on one side of me and hair care was on the other. When I started hopping for the sock—lasso trick it hit me: I am undressing in a drugstore. A Canadian does not do this. I froze in mid—hop. Even though I'd been an American citizen for years, in this situation the full force of my nation's niceness hit me like a cowpie in the face. Still frozen, I looked up. Mrs. Wright was glowering at me with a face that could kill a puppy. I forced myself to move, but I had to dance like a windup toy gone amok to stop my feet from panicking right out the door. Gasping for breath, I hunted and pecked at the tiny buttons on my vest, threw it up in the air, then went to work on the thick, tight buttons on my white shirt. I got it off, but I was too weak to throw it. I just let it drip to the floor. I struggled out of my sweaty T—shirt as dramatically as I could, then got one leg out of my pants and flopped around like a handicapped chicken trying to get the other leg out.

“Maude! Will you look at this!”

“What? What?”

“He's taking off his pants!”

“Who is? Where? Here?”

Two old ladies with bright, eager eyes ducked behind the end—aisle display of insect repellent. They hustled noisily along the other side of hair care, stopping to peek through the rows of shampoo bottles, whispering loudly in shocked, delicious tones. I ignored them, made it down to my panties, threw my arms up in a he—man pose of triumph, and with a grin like a rictus of terror yelled, “Happy Birthday from your husband!” I got dressed in seconds flat and fled to the car, socks in hand, my untied shoes nearly falling off, shirt and vest unbuttoned and hanging out.

It took me an hour to get back to my hotel because I kept getting lost. By the time I'd arrived, I'd recovered an emergency sort of composure, mostly based on the belief there couldn't possibly be any more customers for a comedy striptease in my two remaining days in Seattle.

When I walked in, the phone was ringing.

“Can you believe it!” the manager said. “No one's wanted a comic strip in months! ”

The next evening I was dressed in my three—piece suit inside out: a homeless man. Two women met me outside a dance club, paid me, and gave me a script for their best friend's 30th birthday party. They showed me a table off to the side with several subdued people sitting around it, gazing into their glasses of beer. They looked lonely, even all together. Boombox in hand and acting goofy, I made my way around the table, asking each of her friends for spare change. I got to Birthday Girl last.

“Just leave, please!” she said, looking intensely at her beer.

“You don't have anything to give me?” I sang out with gusto. “Well, I have something to give you!” I waved my hand with a great flourish toward my boombox that I'd place on the floor. The music started—but my finger hadn't touched the play button yet. I looked up. A four—man rock band, on a stage in front of about a hundred people sitting at tables around a 1,000—square—foot dance floor, had just struck the first chord of a song.

I knew better than to think. I leaped onto the dance floor and commandeered the entire space. I moved like a creature of the instruments. anticipating tune and tempo. I discovered new moves: the tie that threw me to the floor and nearly choked me to death; bending over backward until my head was hanging upside down, then doing the shoulder shimmy until my shirt fell back over my head; the pants like a matador's cape swished from side to side to hide and expose, then jammed over my head, leaving me to stagger around stupid in my underwear. Everyone in the club got up from their seats and crowded around the dance floor, laughing and clapping. Even the waiters and waitresses stopped to look. I used the whole space to show them how my throbbing eyes were only for my sad beloved sitting at the lonely table, blushing like a beet.

Finally, I ripped my T—shirt off and threw it straight up as I struck the John Travolta disco dance pose, right forefinger jabbing the air with triumph. The instant I whipped the t—shirt, spinning, off my finger, the band hit the last chord of the song, as if conducted by my upraised hand. A hundred people watched the T—shirt lazily circling as it rose while the echoes of the song reverberated to a perfect silence. Impossibly slowly, it rose and circled . . . rose and circled . . . then stuck to the ceiling. The crowd exploded in cheers. The band started playing another song. People flooded onto the dance floor. I looked up at the T—shirt, mystified. The ceiling was 10 or 11 feet high, with exposed beams and pipes, all painted black. I couldn't see what it was sticking to, but it was up there as if glued. Only its little arms hung down.

Dancers swirled around the floor, laughing and clapping whenever they looked at me. I felt fully dressed in only a scrap of underwear. I gave up on the T—shirt, gathered my scattered pieces of clothing and got dressed. The party I'd started roared on without me.

I slipped outside. The Seattle air was damp and friendly. I no longer needed to know why I'd been scared to death of stripping, because I wasn't anymore. I was happier to be a man than I had ever been, and that's what mattered.

I looked up. The milky way hung gorgeous in a clear night sky. The other side of fear was Heaven.

“Next, please,” I softly said to the stars.

I was onto something. I could feel it.