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The International Writers Magazine
: Canadian Life: From the Archives

Clive Branson
in Ottawa

It may 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 wasn’t 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 didn’t know where nowhere was. The two women couldn’t 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 didn’t have enough time to reach the washroom but didn’t want to tell anyone. Claudette added to the confusion by navigating. What should have been an hour’s 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 José’s 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? "I’ve 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 it’s a matter of your period, you either don’t work those days since we’re 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 don’t 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 examination?"
"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."
"You’ll 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 won’t 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 I’m 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 flinched."
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 shouldn’t 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

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