The International Writers Magazine: Canadian Life: From the Archives
Clive Branson in Ottawa
have been her coquettish smile that prompted me to ask if I could
photograph her. She agreed. My attraction for Sylvie grew like that
of a moth to a flame. Her appeal was her raw sexiness and streetwise
confidence. She wasnt a student or a runaway, but a stripper
by choice and profession. She was a 10-year veteran whose movements
on stage were reminiscent of a woman lying down in bed waiting for
her lover: economical and precise with no trace of self-consciousness.
In person, she
was far from the consumptive whore, maligned by drugs and coarse language.
She was a professional who took her career seriously. Sylvie had developed
a savvy business acumen to everyday concerns that would make an IBM
management seminar seem riveting. The same approach she had towards
stripping. She thought nothing of revealing her body in front of a roomful
of lascivious men. All she saw was capital ventures. Ironically, when
it came time to disrobe in front of me in the intimacy of my studio,
she confessed how self-conscious she was.
The first time I encountered strippers was on a frigid January afternoon.
I was 18, broke and desperately needed money. A friend introduced me
to an "entertainment manager" holed in a back street basement
office. His face flushed, beads of perspiration, a raspberry nose and
blood-shot eyes. He wore a shirt with pools of sweat stains under each
armpit. A pyramid of cigarette butts rose from his ashtray. He stubbed
out another cigarette and offered me $100 to drive two strippers to
a nightclub just outside of town. How difficult could that be? I picked
up the two strippers in Gatineau in the family Mazda stationwagon. José
was a short, lumpish young woman, squeezed into a tight little nothing
under a fake jaguar fur coat. We exchanged pleasantries as she plied
her Pillsbury load into the back seat, exposing her deep-dish cleavage.
Conversation was light but she would peel off the odd tinkle-load of
laughter. Claudette, waving goodbye to her mother and three kids, would
be best described as legs that stretched up to a swampy voice attached
to a cigarette. As we navigated off, the women teased me with seductive
innuendos, sensing how timid I was. I inquired about their profession.
José confided how dismal her pay was by the end of the week.
Claudette expressed the occasional horror story about abusive men, lovers,
an alcoholic father and being a single mother. For all their apparent
misery, they seemed content to stick it out.
Our destination was in the middle of nowhere and I realized after several
hours that I didnt know where nowhere was. The two women couldnt
remember the exact route. Snow flurries whipped up a blinding storm
as evening descended. By the time Claudette finished her twentieth cigarette,
we were squinting through a frozen windscreen at a howling nightmare,
paralyzing our efforts to see the road, street signs or the direction
we were going in. Inside the car was a cloud of smoke. It turned out
to be one of the worst snow blizzards in regional history.
A gloom enveloped
the car as it meandered aimlessly into the dark abyss. José became
a mass of silent tension with a frozen expression like a little girl
who didnt have enough time to reach the washroom but didnt
want to tell anyone. Claudette added to the confusion by navigating.
What should have been an hours drive, took us five hours to complete.
Upon arrival at the destination, I huddled them into the club to a chorus
of cheers from the patrons and a verbal attack from the sole stripper
who, undoubtedly, had the unenviable task of arousing a disgruntled
crowd. I received my $100 from the bartender, bid my adieu and vowed
never to do this job again. In hindsight, it probably turned out to
be Claudette and Josés best working night.
I asked Sylvie what she thought of her clientele: were they men who
usually viewed the dancers with lewd smirks, boorish bravura, shy curiosity
or with blatant vindictiveness? Did these men repeal her against all
men? "Ive been inoculated against their advances and crude
remarks. Besides," she added, "most just need someone to talk
to." Sylvie revealed the marks from her breast reduction operation.
I had always speculated strippers would want to be well-endowed, but
she found her heavy breasts were ungainly for they collapsed sideways
like water balloons only three-quarters filled. I asked her what happens
when a dancer has gas or her period starts whilst working. "Suffer."
Her voice was low and attractive, but with a touch of condescension.
"For the dancers?" I responded. "No. The men," she
replied dryly while lighting a Players. "If its a matter
of your period, you either dont work those days since were
all freelancers, or you use a tampon and paint the string black - or
even tuck it inside yourself."
One moment she was nurturing, the next, she had the warmth of a toneless
yet servile bank clerk and the insistence of a loan-shark. Her voice
had the northern Quebec cadence - a husky resonance that curled around
her native patois. She had done well for herself since leaving her small
town where her ailing mother still resided. By caressing her slim physique
provocatively each night, she had amassed an apartment complex, a sports
car, and had intentions of starting a string of ambitious enterprises.
When I last saw her, she had just become serious over a Chinese-American.
Several months later, she was no where to be found (and I dont
mean the town of nowhere.) Out of the blue, Sylvie left where she was
working and living. Like her stage act, it was all a bit of an illusion.
The young nurse inquired congenially, "Have you ever had an endoscopic
"No," I replied, "but my frien-"
"Open your mouth, please," she interrupted as she sprayed
a liquid into my mouth from what looked like a silver oil can circa
1914. "This will freeze your throat."
"Youll feel it swelling up in a few
"Ah kan swalo!" I gasped, clutching spasmodically at my throat.
It felt like someone was inflating a balloon in my throat.
"Need to spit?" she asked. Too late, a string of saliva had
already drooled from my mouth to my chin and onto my shirt. "Sawiee,"
I said apologetically.
She smiled sympathetically, "It is a simple procedure that wont
take too long. The doctor will do an exploratory examination of your
stomach via the monitor behind you with the assistance of a mini-cam
attached to the end of this tube."
"War do yu pu tha?" came my response.
"Down your throat," she said frankly. I raised the proverbial
eyebrow. Now, I have difficulty swallowing an aspirin and they want
to shove a garden hose down my gullet for a "quick" peek.
Then the banter faded into an earnest silence. I hate an earnest silence
because it usually means something unpleasant is going to happen. Five
minutes later, I look as though Im doing the side-stroke in a
pool of my sweat teeth clamped on a plastic mouthpiece. My hand
was perpetually slapped away each time I wanted to pull the tube out
and that was just sticking it into my mouth.
"It only feels uncomfortable initially," assured the doctor,
forcing it down with grim determination. Each time the tube was moved
or pushed further down, an ugly, sonorous belch-like heave gurgled up
faster than air from a whoopee-cushion every four seconds. My mouthpiece
popped from my mouth like I was punched in the stomach. The kind nurse
replaced it back in my mouth like a gag, held my clinched hand
the only redeeming consolation and cooed for me to keep breathing
normally through my nose and to relax. Relax? It felt like a David Attenborough
documentary scrutiny taking place inside of me. A prod here. An "Ohh"
and an "Ahh" there. A chuckle there. It felt like an eternity.
I was hoping a quick Polaroid snapshot would be sufficient, but the
doctor was probing around as though learning to do a 3-point turn taught
by Mr. Magoo. Finally, the tube was removed like air out of a
tire. Everyone was cheerful and self-congratulatory while I sprawled
on the gurney like a fish out of water.
"Well done, Clive," said the nurse soothingly.
I think "than yu," dribbled out of my mouth. Pebbles of sweat
soaked my skin. Tears streamed down my eyes as I gave a weak victory
smile. I looked like Peter Sellers in The Party dying to pee while feigning
a smile to the other guests.
"Well, you have an active ulcer," said the doctor as though
he just discovered his lost lottery ticket.
"I coda tool yu tha myself," I said in a dazed stupor.
"Sorry?" he replied while he scribbled some medical hieroglyphic
prescription on a pad of paper.
"Oh, really?" I responded.
In a chirpy, confident manner, "Yes, probably permanent. I want
you to take these pills one every day."
Apprehensively I asked, "For the rest of my life?" The doctor
must of sensed my anxiety for he continued. "For a month, then
whenever you feel the burning sensation. However, if it gets worse
Then those five dreaded words came out like a Gattling gun. "We
will have to operate."
"Every patient has reacted the same way you did," the nurse
consoled. "Except one a young girl who never even
Probably passed out I thought. Not that that made me feel any better.
I felt a lot worse leaving the hospital than when I came in. My throat
felt like I had a puffer fish lodged in my larynx and that someone was
excavating for oil in my stomach. Still, I shouldnt complain.
My options could have been a tube through my nose, penis or rectum instead.
Modern medicine. What a marvel!
© Clive Branson November 2004
bransonshirley at sympatico.ca
all rights reserved