Division Street, Chicago. The sounds of Bon Jovi and P. Diddy spill from pubs and clubs where doormen promote neon-colored shots named after orgasms and war zones. White boys wear rasta hats with acrylic dreadlocks attached, or visors with messages like Master Pimp and Come to Daddy, and they hang out the windows of Hummer limos hollering to girls. Girls leave their coats at home in subzero temperatures and walk hunched as elderly women, arms folded across their goose-pimpled cleavage, blistered feet teetering in spike heels. Taxi drivers slam on their brakes to avoid drunkards who’ve dashed out into the street. Busboys hose down vomit. And it’s not uncommon to see a grown woman sobbing on the sidewalk, her knees skinned from the pavement, honking snot into a sales receipt.
It’s a legendary strip, a voyeur’s dream, an anthropological goldmine of mating frenzies and shattered inhibitions. Never in my youth did I venture inside its temples to stupefaction, but I’d passed them many times, struck by a dizzying mix of horror and delight at what I called “the human tragedy.”
By the time I finally found myself headed towards a Division street club, I’d gained thirty-eight pounds. My belly was so ripe I used it as a snack shelf, and I was wearing my favorite little red dress as a shirt. I was eight months pregnant, and my cousin Cici was about to get married.
I rolled down the window of our stretch limo and splashed half a glass of champagne onto the asphalt. After only three sips, the baby in me had begun to do the hustle. I sat back waiting for my vision to steady, drinking in a jumble of penis confetti, fruity penis suckers, and pink “pecker wacker” balloons quivering against the roof. The bride-to-be squealed at each lingerie gift while her friends shrieked at bachelorette dares printed on disposable napkins: “Order a drink with a sexy name—one point. Ask a guy for a piggyback ride—ten points!”
An urge to urinate struck me like a thunderbolt out of a clear sky. It was chased by sudden acute horniness, tingling like an army of ants charging my G-spot. The champagne buzz had faded—my child now lolling gently in her amniotic bath—and a more powerful cocktail of estrogen and progesterone surged in its place. I texted the father of my child: still wet frm this aftrnoon daddy. i want more 2nite!
The Men of Seduction Erotic Revue took place at Funk Groove Bar, a small, severely air-conditioned basement club. House music throbbed so loud, I wouldn’t feel my baby move for the next two days. Furious, colored lights scrambled across the stage, and the announcer said, “Alright, ladies, who wants to see some naked men?!”
A sea of bachelorettes cupped their mouths and screamed. They wore princess tiaras and gauzy veils studded with plastic penises. Tiny battery-operated light bulbs flashed on shiny sashes that read “World’s Wildest Bachelorette!” Cici was by far the classiest bride-to-be. A skinny purple boa and a bracelet of penis-shaped candy were the only accessories she’d accepted from her hostess.
We watched as a blond with lipstick on her teeth and a rock on her ring finger that was larger than her nose screamed “Hell yeeeeeah!” She wore an inflatable penis on a string around her neck. This talisman was the size of a small cat, and its “head” had a psychotic, toothy grin. The balls were shaped more like wheels, and the whole thing looked like a cannon.
Cici had gotten tipsy in the limo fast. She’d drink, laugh, cry a few tears, then chug some more. Her cat, Puppy, had been smashed by a van two days before. When we picked her up, we found her sitting on a couch still covered in Puppy’s hair, weeping, twirling a tiny felt mouse with one of its jingle eyes missing.
Her friend Wendy hugged her passionately. “Cici! I know it’s hard, but you can’t sit at home all night. We have to uphold tradition and go see some HOT MEN!” Wendy was the hostess of the party and the purchaser of all the disposable penis products. Her body was buff, exfoliated, bronzed and perfumed to perfection. She was recovering from her own recent wedding: the marriage hadn’t survived the honeymoon. “Stand up,” she ordered. She picked up a rod of lint tape and rolled it over Cici’s black dress to collect the dead cat’s hair. “Now get in the limo, sweetie.” She slapped Cici’s ass with the roller. “You’re gonna have the best bachelorette party EVER!”
Sirens wailed, a searchlight raged across the stage, and the first dancer came out in full fireman gear: mask and hat, leaden coat and dumpy pants. He started to break dance, and I laughed so hard I tore my throat. Then he started to take off his clothes. I stopped laughing.
The hero rippled and gyrated in nothing but orange neon sneakers and red briefs, and women waving twenties jumped on stage and lined up in chairs to be serviced. He turned to the first lady in waiting, pulled his briefs down to expose his rocky cheeks, and then he vehemently dry-humped her.
“Oh my God,” said Lorelei and Laney. They were twins. Laney had a toddler at home, and Lorelei was engaged and planning to Start Trying as soon as the honeymoon began.
“Ugh,” said Lorelei. “Sick. I feel so bad for Cici. I know she’s not into this!”
While the fireman humped his next victim, she shouted in my ear a description of the classier bachelorette party she had planned for herself at a spa for pore rejuvenation therapy and girl-talk over wine by the fireplace.
Each act was more frightful than the last. There was a Top Gun commander who stripped to “Take My Breath Away,” and ended up in white cotton briefs and cowboy boots. Two goons in zoot suits made a tragic attempt at stand-up comedy before stripping to gangsta rap. One young man entered in a monstrous floor-length fur coat, a Phantom of the Opera mask, and a long, nappy green wig. In a scrambled dance—half-meth binge, half-ADHD rampage—he thrashed around the stage to death metal.
I imagined what might have fueled each performance. Coke? Speed? A tumultuous childhood? Red Bull, cases of Ho-Hos, copious ingestion of lead? Judging by this guy’s disastrous getup, though, the show’s manager was clearly on crack.
I was no strip show virgin. Shortly before he knocked me up, I insisted that my boyfriend escort me to The Admiral, Chicago’s premier gentleman’s club. Girls with preteen-style pubes and rhinestone navel rings introduced themselves (“Hi, I’m Sasha.” “Hi, I’m Sunshine….”) and offered us lap dances. Compared to this carnival, female stripping seemed like high art—the performers’ restraint, their refusal to touch and be touched, their soft, smoky dances, the male audience not screaming but sitting in quiet reverence, as if inside a temple.
But here, women paid to be picked up by the hips and dry-humped, their bodies flailing like blow-up dolls. They paid to have their faces sat on. One stripper hoisted an obese woman up by the ass and thrust his hips at her as he spun around the stage. Her friends, a group of girls in matching pink shirts (Karrie’s Bachelorette Party 2008… Seize the Night Delta Phi!) just giggled like tots at a puppet show, bobbing their heads and clapping along to “Cotton-Eye Joe.”
My night reached its tipping point. Tragedy had finally outweighed comedy, and I heard myself murmur, “Dear God.” As a current of nausea twisted through me, I realized that I was alone. All the ladies in my party had retreated to the back of the club.
Cici was trashed, swaying slightly, cradling her gin and tonic and staring into it somberly. I don’t think she laid her eyes on a man all night, although she did pry open the tiny locket around her neck to steal glances at a pimple-sized snapshot of Puppy.
Her friends Laney and Lily were engrossed in baby talk. “Did you circumcise?” Lily asked. “Ohmygod, if I have a boy I want him circumcised but I hate to think of his little wee-wee, you know….”
Lily was as pregnant as I was, and already it was all about The Baby. She spent her weekends at a natural childbirth class, holding squats and meditating on her root chakra while her husband rolled tennis balls over her body. Life insurance, cord blood banking, college fund—she had it all set up, whereas my greatest endeavors in preparing for my daughter had been switching to O’Douls and putting my chinchilla up for adoption. Lily had carefully seduced her man with oysters and candlelight. She’d ticked the days off her calendar, taken her temperature, and analyzed her mucus, whereas I conceived in a marijuana haze, each thrust hammering in my sudden epiphany that childbirth would give me a perfect excuse to escape the work force, at least temporarily.
Lily and I watched as a stripper played a woman’s breasts like a piano. She responded with the vapid, terrified grin of a tyke sitting on Santa’s lap. Then he reached behind her, popped off her bra, and whipped it in the air like a lasso.
“I wouldn’t want that done to my boobs,” Lily shouted in my ear. “Especially these boobs.” She cupped them lightly and said, “These are my baby’s boobs.”
When each man’s performance ended, he mingled with the crowd, sauntering around in his underwear and shoes, twinkling his eyes at women, grabbing them by the hips, earning tens and twenties for private favors. The fireman approached me and Lily as we were bumping bellies.
“Hey, ladies!” He slapped us each on one ass cheek. Oceanic cologne stung my nostrils. I examined his legs, from the quads bulging from his teeny red briefs down to his tapered calves, ankles tied into orange sneakers with thin white socks. He had a smooth, plastic chest, not a single mole, like a Ken doll. As strobe lights screamed and beats pounded, he crouched down and put his ear to Lily’s belly. He winked. “Your baby likes house music!”
“Is she kicking?” I asked him when he had a listen at my belly, and he said, “Naw! She’s just going like this…” He backed his ass up in a warp-speed booty dance, his face a flaming grin.
Everywhere I turned women giggled, screamed and blushed with frightening enthusiasm. Why did they need this? What were they missing from their future husbands? I theorized that their fiancés had planned blowout bachelor parties, hiring Tarina Titty and Patricia Pussy to jump out of cakes and take it in the ass, and the brides-to-be just wanted to get even. They were suffering from that burning female desire to be desired, but they’d forgotten that young women needn’t pay to be touched. They could go next door to Club Suavé, stand on the dance floor, and get felt up for free.
“So what’s Mike doing for his bachelor party?” Laney asked Cici. “Going to see strippers too?”
“No,” Cici murmured. “They’re going dirt-biking instead. I don’t have to worry about cheating. Just brain injury.”
“Oh good,” said Laney. “That’s better.”
A little research conducted at home that night would teach me that the first stripper to capture the public’s imagination, around the year 1900 BCE, was a Sumerian goddess with a fantastic stage name: Inanna. Inanna was reputed to have removed one garment at each of the seven gates of hell, from her veil down to her low-rise microfiber thong. Female stripping, in other words, is the world’s second oldest profession. But male stripping didn’t hit big until Somen Banerjee, a Bengali immigrant tired of operating gas stations, struck it rich with the Chippendales in the 1980s. It was the Me decade, the greed decade, when women took to offices in droves and declared feminism complete. They wore power suits and shoulder pads in imitation of their testosterone-fueled bosses; naturally they wanted their strip clubs, too. Or they thought they did.
I can’t remember how the Erotic Revue ended. Our party was ensconced in the corner farthest from the stage, talking breast pumps and pore rejuvenation therapy, matrimonial floral arrangements and feline memorial services. I only remember bachelorettes filing out of Funk Groove Bar in various stages of disintegration—some whooping, others weeping. The dancers were surely in the back room doing lines, pulling on pants, preparing to disperse to hotter, more exclusive clubs. Would they bang babes with porn star bods and glitter eyes tonight? Would they bang each other? Would they bang anyone? I always imagined that people with hypersexed personas are repulsed by the actual act.
We ascended from the brutally air-conditioned club into a sweet, sticky Chicago night. Division Street was in an advanced state of entropy. A huge man unfolded a starchy new t-shirt bought as a bar souvenir, held it to his shoulders like a cape, and ran down the block bellowing like a moose. A girl with three inches of cleavage stood alone weeping, her mascara dissolving into streams down her cheeks. Taxis honked in disgruntled dissonance, and I swore that I could smell jizz.
Lily cradled her belly and announced, “The Baby’s tired. We’re going home.”
“I’ve gotta wake up with a toddler,” sighed Laney.
“Girls!” Wendy said. “The night is young!” I noticed a tiny tan line on her ring finger, from the marriage that died in Maui. “We’re gonna party more, right, Cici?”
Cici was anchored to a street pole for balance, staring down, murmuring at her purple boa. “Oh,” she said. “Huh?”
Girls’ night out ended at a grub pub. I attacked buffalo wings with the passion of a Cro-Magnon, hot sauce dripping on my swollen maternal boobs, while Lorelei and Laney put in orders to bring home to their men. Wendy slipped her number to the waiter. Cici shoved her plate aside and took a nap on the table. Then we all went home, not in a limo, but in shabby cabs with busted leather seats that braked all the way down Division to avoid drunkards stumbling into the street.
Up until the night of Cici’s bachelorette party, my pregnancy had been the horniest time of my life. I nearly came merely by touching my nipples: swollen, sappy, and jacked to a newly electrified network of ducts, jazzed about their upcoming productivity. With each pound I gained we got more creative, and I was so randy I didn’t mind twisted positions that gave me charley horses and primo views of the dust bunnies breeding under the dresser. But when I arrived home from the Erotic Revue, I was about as horny as a log. I cozied up with a bowl of popcorn and a cup of vanilla pudding, and I took a long, luscious swig of my O’Doul’s.
“How was it?” asked the father of my child.
“Fabulous,” I said. “Just tragic.”
“And you behaved?”
He nuzzled my neck. He smelled delicious. He gave me a kiss—long, moist, and tender.
I pecked him back. And I said, “Honey. Don’t touch me.”
Kate Duva is a writer, performer, community organizer and play therapist from Chicago. She is currently working on a historical novel about a burlesque dancer from the Dust Bowl who strikes up an unlikely friendship with an autistic savant. Find links to her other published works online at www.kateduva.com.