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Whatsapp I walked past the stage and sat down at the bar, the neon lights illuminating my pink teddy, shadowed eyes, and crimson lips.

I ordered my first drink of the night and took inventory of the club. There were a few listless customers scattered around, hunching over bar stools, and a dancer circling the pole. I waved over a colleague, a transplant from Manchester with hair extensions that kissed her velvet garter belt. We grumbled about how slow business was until I spotted a paunchy man at the bar. He was short, with a tuft of gray hair and a slight smile that crinkled his eyes.

He was also more animated than the others. I started off light, asking about his day and his job. His smile widened across his face as my eyes met his. I silently counted to 10 and reminded myself to look away for a second best not to terrify him. I switched my gaze to the top of his nose to put a boundary between us.

It was time to either close the sale or walk away. After two years in the industry, I knew which customers were worth investing in not this guy. So, I led him into the corner, which opened up to the club like the bow of a ship, public and safe, for one quick dance.

I processed events after the fact with tenuous evaluation, like peeling off layers of old wallpaper. At the time, it was not something I had words to explain, so I turned the blame on myself. Whenever I struggled to understand if someone was angry or bored, I went home and berated myself for being lazy, ditzy, and dumb as I obsessively evaluated the night.

I just needed to try harder to be more present, I told myself. One time, I went to a dinner party my sister hosted. A few of her colleagues and friends sat around her table while we snacked on hummus and bread, and someone asked about my recent trip to Europe. I rambled incessantly, illustrating the nightclubs, the hostels I stayed in, even how I bled through my powder-blue dress because I forgot to change my tampon.

I can see their faces now, wide-eyed and uncomfortable, but at the time they coalesced into one indistinguishable figure, Dave Matthews playing in the background taking precedent.

So, I meticulously designed a persona who nodded at the right time, rehearsed lines, smiled when appropriate, monitored personal space, spoke quietly. Before going out, I crafted notecards, scribbling how long to talk about acceptable topics and which to stay clear of altogether, like my period, in small talk.

The persona was a mask that helped me appear to interact in the moment, but in reality I crept by, three paces behind everyone else. I settled temporarily in a bustling beach town at the edge of Melbourne and needed money to pay off my student debt.

I considered a bar job, but decided to try stripping simply because it meant fewer hours. When I walked into a club to ask for a job, to my surprise, I realized it was just a bar with the usual roles reversed: I was intrigued, but confused how did they convince customers to spend money off-stage?

The manager looked at my petite frame and nervous smile, pointed her manicured hand to the dressing room and listed the rules: You get one free drink. No drugs on the floor. Hundreds of customers came and went during the hour shift, sitting on plush couches and crowding around the bar. All but one dismissed me. I sat at the bar to observe, sipping my free champagne.

One dancer particularly stood out with her naturally frizzy curls and tattered black bra. From the bar, I saw her sitting alone on one of the upholstered couches that lined the back of the club. I took a deep breath and approached her, brushing aside the fringe curtain separating the lap dance room from the bar.

It was getting late, two hours before closing, and I was exhausted and frustrated. I thought about packing up and never coming back, but I needed this to work out. She stared at me with a bored expression, so I got right to it.

Make them pay big bucks if they want to dump their shit on you. You sound like a child. She saw right through my mask. I learned to showcase different parts of my persona based on the customer.

Performing felt strangely comfortable, even though the job was foreign and challenging. That conversation lasted minutes, but the advice made for a successful career. And when I was unsure, I had her original rules to catch me.

Are they asking for my real name? Are they relaying problems in their life without buying a dance first? On the floor of the club, I spent hours practicing each weekend, and for the first time in my life, I learned how to cut through layers of language in real time, just like Claire, until it became effortless.

Most people I met outside of work told me I was a great listener, unaware of how much time I spent in my room practicing the correct reactions. Nearly two years after I started dancing, my friend Sarah invited me to her birthday party. My least favorite social situation: True, I was better at picking up more obvious cues like eagerness and anger, but group settings were strenuous too many subtleties to keep track of. I packed up my lace teddy and Red Bull into a discreet bag and headed over to the restaurant before work.

The hour and a half crawled by. There were six of us around a small table. I prayed no one would ask me personal questions. His words mixed in with the background conversation and it sounded like another language. I broke out in sweat. A second later the words clicked. I smiled and looked at his nose instead of his eyes while chewing over my words and length of speech, trying to offer the version of my trip they wanted to hear.

Sarah got up to go to the bathroom. I quickly walked over to her and asked: But I have to go. I let out a sigh of relief as the taxi plowed across the Williamsburg Bridge. I walked under the familiar lights to the dressing room. I squirted a dollop of foundation on my hand and painted the dark circles under my eyes. For a brief second, I wondered, Is something wrong? But then I swallowed those thoughts and walked onto the floor to escape from myself. I sat down at the bar and ordered a Hennessy on the rocks.

The birthday was successfully buried, and I was buzzing from the bliss of escape. I spotted a man at the bar alone, tall, bald with a kind smile and a glass of whiskey in his hand. I ran through the formula and we connected right away. Can I get you another one? I suggested the private room and he agreed.

The private rooms were where I connected with customers, sometimes in a way that was more intimate than my relationships outside the club. There I massaged their shoulders, let them touch me, expressed vulnerability. I bantered for hours something I was never able to do before.

With fewer stimuli around, it was easier to focus and converse back and forth in a way that felt less strenuous than at the restaurant hours before. My weirdness was worth their paycheck. After two hours, I excused myself for a moment to go to a bathroom where I got a message from Sarah: Below the message was a picture of the dinner crew, laughing with their arms wrapped around each other. I felt such a pang of loneliness and regret that I broke down in the doorless toilet stall, my eyeliner smearing like watercolor on canvas.

Why am I only alive at work? Why can I give so much of myself to my customers and so little to my friends? Work was a temporary balm, but the interactions there were fleeting, not enough to sustain my longing for people.

The force of my rotting loneliness hit like a tidal wave as the reality of how much I struggled to navigate social settings outside settled in. I allowed myself just one sob before I fixed my face and performed for the last half hour. Desperate for answers, I started scrolling through an online forum for women with ADHD, wondering if I might have an attention disorder, looking for an explanation. I started asking for advice, addressing some of my other issues first like getting lost in obsessive thought.

Within minutes, responses flooded that my symptoms resembled ASD. Central to autism is a difficulty experiencing life in real time. But in the private rooms at the club, there were no outside stimuli. The rules were clear, the distractions minimal, so I could focus and interact. Women in the ADHD forum invited me to the group for autistic women and there I saw myself a hundred times over.

Scrolling through were women like me: I gradually pulled the blame away from myself and labeled the things about me that were naturally different, not defective.


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