There is a group of women known as the Church Ladies, who walk down Bourbon Street to share the “love and freedom of Christ” with strippers. They pray, sometimes come into the clubs, give us roses; beyond this, I am unsure what they do. One night, they gave me hand soap and a small card with a Bible verse on the back, which I found to be a deeply inspiring text describing my work:
Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly. (Matthew 11:28-30)
The card has been on my vanity mirror ever since. When I read it, I see my limbs in blue light. I hear my voice in the hollow of a man’s neck, my hand sliding down an arm, to a wrist, to a thigh, then to myself. We are in contact. I can even smell the club a little bit. It is true and it is love.
At times, I feel so close to my memories of love—the way it felt, how the lighting was, the variety of food I was consuming and how often, the scents and the mess of time. The way time and bodies fold repeatedly into themselves, until a lack of separation is revealed. Visually, I remember my lover’s elbow, or her diaphragm. But in my body I revel in the unforgettable achievement, the confusion and exhilaration of refusing to live beside ourselves. That time when we became indiscriminate from everything around us, making our way together, when your thoughts made mine more clear.
I believe in the sad dissatisfaction of the couple, yet see no escape route in denouncing it as a social form. The couple is forced to stand in for desire itself, so we learn to stop yearning; we do not reject unlivable situations; we do not annihilate what has captured us. But by love I do not mean the rules of relationships. Not the order of things, but vast playfulness, unscrutinized. I do not mean what are my morals concerning fucking, or how will everyone deal with me loving many people, deep and uncontrolled? Not who you have as a lover, or who you allow to have you, or what it is you do with them, and when. But how we experience love, how love passes through you, how you let love tear you apart and knit you back together as something that truly makes sense in the world—no longer an amputated, isolated subject. We do not suffer from being individuals. We suffer from trying to be that. I mean fucking love, its transformative power, the only thing for us.
It has been so easy to be overtaken with the pain and degradation of life. To confuse love with a crisis. I worry about my individual capacity, about focus and productivity, about the work I need to be doing. Sometimes I think money is the only way I can care for people; sometimes money is the only way I could care for a person. I think, how will this end—before I have been invited for a beginning. I have feared: to be in love is counterrevolutionary, a distraction, a whirlwind of relations that even at its best is suffering. I can see in my customer’s eyes—the only thing worse than the fact that I do not truly love him is the unimaginable tragedy that would follow if he truly loved me.
But it is love itself that undoes this lie that we are rigid individuals, vessels holding a discrete life, separated from other discrete lives. That separation is contrary to life—a disorienting estrangement, giving up contact with oneself as well as with the world. You can resist all feeling this way. Maybe you were vulnerable with someone once, but she doesn’t talk to you anymore. You fall numb. Well, a stripper can grasp you from the inside. She has done it to me. She asked me, can I kiss you on the mouth? Will you let me take your body in sin, will you come with me? Out back, to know about my many minor lives and what could have been. In seconds, I fell in love. I have returned to this love for weeks.
I can see in my customer’s eyes—the only thing worse than the fact that I do not truly love him is the unimaginable tragedy that would follow if he truly loved me.
We are all so fucked up, the horror of it has become mundane. I know my work drains me, because if I stay awake for too long afterwards, I begin to see my nightmares on repeat. I do not think about the unrelenting, assaulting fingers and the spit, I think of bad memories unrelated to work. When I grab a stranger by their insides, I find an unorganized chaos of forces: bits of experience, fragments of meaning, flashes of grief, moments of jest, deep hatred, whatever is left when they lose control in a way they did not expect—whether from exhaustion or from trust, maybe from alcohol. I see myself all along the perimeter of the club, in the mirrors reflecting our fragmented world.
As a child, I loved in order to escape abuse. I loved in search of a sensuality I was never introduced to, to learn a new language. I have fallen in love under the specter of prison, in times of police raids and bail bondsmen at 2 a.m. and winter air that thickens even more as it cools down. In the heaviness of my own incarceration I have allowed myself to be loved, honest about not loving the same way, but receiving that love nonetheless, allowing myself to be open to impossible joy and care. We will constantly be undone and shattered by love. Desire will be choked out of us by the State. We are not free, but love is the clearest way to visualize freedom.
In this moment, I want to vomit out of me all love, to rid myself of love so that I can see it, make it material. I am crying because I have been dumped and I have broken things off; I have fallen in love with the same person multiple times and I have known she causes me more subtle pain than I can take and I have learned and I have lied. These relationships I have had with these people I am in love with, the devotion and the depth, approximates the kind of relationship I want to have with many people, with tasks, actions, regions, my body, places, tools, cuisines—with all the things that make up a form of life.
When I ask you all about love, I hear mostly how you need it. You tell me what you have learned from the pain, about the loves who have died and how you still feel them. You asked, what else could there possibly be to do?
I can settle into this: that we are for love. That we are against those who are against love. Isolation is the trap of capitalism, not the frivolous exchanging of valentines. Being alone in your refusal is a trap. We are not against Valentine’s Day, only that it exists on one day. Maybe we are against a singular Valentine. When I am working a lot, I feel further from being in love. I start to grasp for it, create it in desperation with the wrong object. I know I am so proximal to it, that I experience it, though each night I pile up intimacy so fast that I forget most of it.
I am hesitant to write that I experience love in the strip club. Even though I am not looking for love, it really is in there—I need only to grab you from the inside, to undo you. It undoes me. We do not need to remain numb. We can allow ourselves to be cracked open. Knowing this arousal is the very practice that will allow me to stop going to work, to learn to take what I need. To find freedom in pleasure: to be fucked by exhaustion, fucked by leaving your pimp, by rupture, by forcing others to bear witness, by freedom young and old, by the silence of estranged lovers, by forgetting, by the return, by excess.
I have experienced more sadness through love than is comprehensible. That is the proof of it being an experience after all, that we are not just beside each other, but becoming together. Separation always occurs, and we feel something leave our bodies. We will rest in each other, then attempt to live freely and lightly.
illustrations HAPPY BURBECK