The truck let out a groan of protest as I inched forward along the loose gravel. The trailer behind lurched and slid sideways, pulling the steering wheel out of my hands. Maybe this ‘Burning Night’ thing was not such a good idea after all.
A wolf ran in front of my car, yellow eyes meeting mine for a split second before it disappeared into the brush and trees on the other side of the road. By that time I’d slammed on the brakes, tires skidding. I sat there dazed. Whatever telepathic communication had passed between us in that moment was too profound to ignore. It was only when I heard the honk of a horn and an angry voice yelling that I eased the truck to the side of the road.
“What the hell is wrong with you?”
I ignored the red-faced man as an awareness of the mystical floated through my brain. The wolf was a messenger. I was supposed to be here and my appearance at this burning night was required. After all, I had driven nearly two thousand miles to witness the longest day of the year and take part in the ceremony known as Burning Night. The travails of my trip slipped away as the message became clear. This is the turning point. A second later, the engine sputtered and died.
“Collie--where the hell are you?”
My stomach contracted at the sound of Dean’s voice. “I’m in here,” I called from the bedroom.
“Where’s my dinner?” he yelled. He peered around the door to where I sat cross-legged in the dark room, his frown deepening. “What in hell are you doing? Is this some spiritual practice?”
“I…I didn’t expect you back this early…usually you…”
His face turned red, anger spreading like a stain from one side to the other. “Usually…I what? You know I like to eat when I get home. What is wrong with you lately? And why are you still dressed in your nightgown? God, you look like shit. When did you stop combing your hair? Maybe you need to see a shrink.”
He was right about my appearance. I hadn’t felt up to combing my hair, taking a shower, or even dressing. I knew enough to recognize the signs of depression. My interest in life was as shallow as the dish I kept under the potted plant that had recently died. There were lots of things wrong with me, but admitting it to this man would not help.
I rose and slipped by him and headed for the kitchen. The open refrigerator revealed very little in the way of food, but I managed to pull a meal together from the leftover pickings of fried chicken from the night before, adding a small salad. Blessedly I knew that dinner would be consumed in silence and that Dean would leave again, heading to the bar around the corner to drink himself into oblivion.
It hadn’t always been like this. I’d thought it was Dean’s affairs that had wrecked things for us. But now, after nearly twenty years, the truth had finally dawned, sending me into a tailspin as I realized how much time I’d wasted on a man who had no respect for me and never had. He’d promised to stop drinking and seeking out other women, but both had turned into addictions, his pecker leading him on and his drinking the lamp that showed the way. At forty I was finally ready to be free of him. Any love between us had long since burned out.
I was asleep when he got home, his drunken advances unwelcome. “No woman to pick up at the bar tonight?” I mumbled, regretting the words as soon as they were out of my mouth. Less had caused rages in the past and I had the bruises to prove it.
He didn’t answer, his grunts loud in my ear as he held me down and fumbled with his zipper.
“Get off!” I yelled, wriggling out from under his heavy bulk.
I was poised to run for the bathroom, the only door with a lock, but a second later he was face down and snoring.
“Why do you stay?” Mary asked for the zillionth time, a frown marring the perfect porcelain skin of her forehead.
Mary had been my friend long before I met Dean, our paths crossing at the public school during eighth grade. A year later she went off to a private high school, but we still managed to stay friends.
Mary pursed her lips. “I guess I know the answer to that—you have no self-esteem. I told you a year ago I’d pay for a therapist. You need help, Collie. Why won’t you listen to me?”
I turned, readjusting the heavy basket of work clothes on my hip ready to be shoved inside the coin operated washer. “You are not paying for me to see a therapist. And besides, they can’t tell me anything I don’t know.”
Mary’s eyes flashed. “Like when your husband cheats on you that you shouldn’t put up with it? Stuff like that?”
Around me the whirring of washers and dryers filled the small space, hollow-eyed women trying to corral small children as they waited for their laundry to finish. Dean worked for a garage and his clothes always smelled of gas and oil, the dark stains nearly permanent. He’d refused to buy us a washer and dryer so that I could do his laundry in the privacy of my own house. But then again, at least these weekly trips got me out. Even though Mary’s home was equipped with every possible modern convenience she often met me here, slumming it so we could catch up.
“I’ve been thinking about leaving, but how would I support myself? The job market is saturated with low-skilled workers like me. God—how did I get so old?” I tried to laugh, but the realization of my age pressed on my chest, making it hard to breathe for a second. “Why didn’t I finish high school? If I had my GED I could have gone to the community college.”
“Because that man literally charmed the pants off you, that’s why. You could always go now. You’re a smart woman. You’ve read a ton of books on a ton of different subjects. Half the time you know a lot more than I do, and I have a master’s degree! If you won‘t take me up on my offer, get yourself a used copy of a self-help book geared toward women in your situation—god knows there’s a lot of them,” she added, looking around the Laundromat at the tired faces, some of which sported bruises.
The used copy remark made me feel even smaller than I already did. I was couldn’t even afford a book. Most of my reading lately had been free and done on my computer using the kindle app. “I don’t have the money for college, and as to self-help books—I’ve read them,” I lied. “Dean didn’t want me to work and now I’m too old to get a decent job.”
Mary pursed her lips and let out an exasperated sigh. “Why do you let him dictate your choices? If you’d had a job these past years, and put some money aside, you’d be a free agent now. Instead you sit around your crummy house and fix his meals and do his laundry. You don’t even have any kids. What kind of a life is that? Just leave him. You can get a job at Starbucks. Staying with Dean is why your self esteem never improves.”
“Says the woman who’s been happily married for twenty years and has two perfect children to prove it.”
Mary scoffed. “I admit I lucked out. But I met Bill in college. If you hadn’t met Mr. Charmer when you were too young to know any better your life would have turned out very differently.”
“If I hadn’t gotten pregnant, you mean. I was lucky he married me after what I was doing at the time. He could have told me he didn’t believe the baby was his and walked away. ”
Mary’s eyes clouded. “I have to admit he did the decent thing.”
I thought about the accidental pregnancy, the miscarriage at nearly five months, and my utter depression that lasted nearly a year. By that time we’d married, and I thought Dean was the love of my life. That’s what getting married at age nineteen will do for you. He was caring and loving during that terrible year, and even skipped work once in a while to keep me company. The loss of the baby had hit him hard too. But that was then.
Marrying him was what got me out of the stripping business. But just recently I’d discovered that while I was recovering he kept going to the strip club. I hadn’t known it because I drugged myself every night in order to get to sleep. “Dean was messing around right after I lost the baby,” I whispered.
“Did you just figure that out?”
“You knew and you didn’t say?”
Mary looked away. “I thought he’d get back into the marriage once you got over your grief. You were pretty unapproachable for a long time.”
“So because we weren’t having sex he’s excused for seeking other partners?”
She blanched. “I didn’t say that, but you have to admit that men are different than women in that regard. As I remember you walled yourself off. He probably needed comforting too.”
I let out a huff and watched the clothes spinning as I scanned backward through the years. Maybe Mary was right—Dean needed a woman and I wasn’t there for him. It was my fault he looked elsewhere back then, and probably my fault that he was looking elsewhere now. I hadn’t exactly been a model wife, especially in the bedroom. I couldn’t remember the last time we’d had sex.
“Bill went to the strip club recently—the one where you used to work? He told me he saw Dean with one of the gals.”
I turned from the washing machine. “Which one?”
“How do I know? Anyone you once knew is long gone now—they’re too old.”
Which meant I was too old too. I thought about the years since my last stripping job and how I’d let myself go. I hadn’t exercised, hadn’t even walked much. Instead I’d holed up here feeling sorry for myself. No wonder Dean treated me the way he did. “And why was your faithful husband at a strip club?”
She pushed her shoulder-length blonde hair behind her ears. “He was doing undercover work for a client.”
Bill was a private investigator with a law degree--in high demand and very well paid. Mary had never worked a day in her life. My mind drifted to one of the times I’d visited her parents’ house with its Olympic size swimming pool and uniformed maids scurrying about. Her mother sat like a porcelain doll on the veranda smoking a cigarette with a drink on the table next to her. “What are you two gals up to?” she’d asked in dulcet tones when she happened to glance our way.
“Just heading up to my room to do homework,” Mary told her. In
truth we were headed into the woods behind her house to smoke some dope she’d managed to snag from one of her many boyfriends.
“How did you find out about Dean’s more recent extramarital activities?” Mary continued, lowering her voice as a woman came close to heave a bunch of nasty smelling sheets and towels into a washer.
“His Facebook friends and a box I found while I was cleaning out the garage. He saves love letters. And it’s pretty clear when he comes home smelling like perfume.”
“Have you said anything?”
“I can’t, Mary. For one thing he’d fly into a rage, and for another it’s my own fault. If I ever let him touch me he’d probably stay home.”
Mary pursed her lips. “A normal married couple would seek help. But instead you say nothing and he continues with his obnoxious behavior. You really drive me crazy, Collie.”
I frowned at her. “He’s never really never respected me. I’m sure it’s because when he met me I was stripping—what normal man would respect a woman who takes off her clothes for a living? I don’t respect myself. I stripped because it was the easiest way to make quick money. You remember my family life. Half the time Dad was too ill to work and the other half he was getting fired.” Dark times. “I didn’t inherit money like you did,” I muttered.
Mary’s mauve lips pressed together in annoyance. “Why do you have to bring that up? It’s not like I could help it. Yes, I had a happy childhood, yes my parents provided for me. I’m sorry your Mom died when you were thirteen and I’m sorry your Dad was an alcoholic. But you made your own choices. You could have finished high school and gone to college.”
“If I’d taken your advice, you mean.”
“An abortion would have freed you, Collie. Instead you tied yourself to a guy who treated you badly and diminished any self-esteem you ever had.”
“He told me early on he was falling for me, and he came to see me dance four times a week. He was very handsome back then, and charming too. I was too young to resist him. As to the abortion, Dean wanted the baby. And I did too.” My eyes welled with tears, remembering how heartbroken we both were after the miscarriage.
Mary watched me, a sad smile on her face. “I get it, sweetie. What I want to know is how a shy girl like you managed to stand up in front of a room full of men and take off her clothes? I could never do that.”
“It was a persona I developed—like acting, I suppose. On stage I wasn’t Collie, I was the sexy woman who wore skimpy white lace and danced around a pole. It was so easy--weird that in real life I can barely function. I sometimes miss that feeling of being in control. Men were so sweet and adoring, calling me ma’am and walking me to my car. They respected me.” I glanced at her. “And I think Dean did too—at least at the beginning.”
I heard the derisive sound Mary made in the back of her throat as I put coins in the washer. She had no understanding of what I was trying to tell her. The first time I met Dean was between sets when he bought me a drink. We were like magnets, the chemistry between us lighting up the room. He gave me a hundred dollar bill to dance on his table. After work he was at the club’s back door waiting for me. “Will you come home with me tonight?” he’d asked with a winsome smile.
Mary’s question came back--why had I stayed? I could have walked out a long time ago. My father’s death played a part in my reluctance to leave Dean; once he was gone I had no place to live and not a penny to my name. Every cent from selling my father’s run-down shack had gone into paying for his funeral.
My mind rushed backward to life before I met Dean. Even Mary didn’t know about my trips down back alleys, the furtive groping that brought me a few extra bucks here and there. When I met Robbie, the owner of a more high-end club, he encouraged me to work for him. “No stripping,” he promised.
But even with the sizable tips I got from pole dancing it wasn’t enough to pay for Dad’s growing bills—on top of food and house payments he needed doctors, medicine. And after my Mom’s chemo our insurance ran out. I did the only thing I knew to do, which was lying on my back in one of the rooms behind the bar.
Dean had entered the picture not long after that. And then I got pregnant.
It was six years into our marriage when he lost his job. One night he approached me, asking if I’d mind stripping again. “Just until we get back on our feet.”
I was horrified that he’d want me to enter that seedy life again. “Are you serious?”
“Six months, that’s all I ask. You can do that for me, can’t you?”
Of course I could. I loved him and would do anything to please him. And so at twenty-five I went back to work, finding another club that specialized in strippers who pole danced. It was different this time, knowing that I had a home and husband to come back to every night. But the competition with the other dancers got to me. They were unfriendly and cutting whenever they had the chance, snide about the ring on my finger and why I was even there.