The Spirit of the Staircase: Emotional Labor and Whorephobia

Updated April 16, 2016 4:11pm PDT
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"I'm just…" he stalled, looking down at his hands, "having a hard time dating someone who used to be a stripper."

The air throbbed around me, filling my ears with the sound of my rapid pulse. Everything went orange, the color of his couch bleeding into my watery vision.

There it was. He finally said it.

It was April of 2013. The previous summer I had worked briefly as a stripper in between corporate finance jobs. Employment had been rocky since the world financial crisis—I worked in the industry that fueled the meltdown.

When I was laid off in October of 2010, I took it as a sign to exit the financial industry for good.

Fortuitously, I had just met a charismatic young man who was heavily campaigning for my relocation to his home and farm in Michigan. We had met briefly in New York, where I was easily charmed by his golden red hair and the story of his ailing mother. Her deteriorating condition had prompted him to leave Brooklyn in order to care for her, and since his sizable childhood home sat on 50 acres of fertile soil, he thought it'd be fun to keep busy by starting a farm.

The dream didn't match the reality. In hindsight, I doubt he ever intended to run a farm.

I arrived in January of 2011, weeks after his mother had passed and left a healthy inheritance to her only child. By mid-February, and after a disappointing Valentine's Day on which he sarcastically asked, "What? Do you want flowers or something?" all romance and pretense to organize a business had dispelled.

Instead, I cooked, cleaned, and tried desperately to have my love reciprocated by a changed and now deeply depressed man.

The backyard held the only semblance of a farm: a 1,000-square-foot garden that I, and I alone, tended. And while it was my joy, this consolation gift had limits and controls. He wouldn't allow me to organize the plants into swales or food forests, techniques I learned in a permaculture workshop and was eager to practice. I couldn't grow eggplants, one of my favorite vegetables, because he didn't like them. And despite my observation that the soil was in excellent condition, he dropped a pile of cow manure on the plot and spent two days grudgingly and ineffectively tilling it into the ground.

Without proper drainage, our carrots grew into ugly, anemic stumps. Which is just as good a metaphor as any for our pitiful farm: his lack of direction, planning, or investigation; my labor, bullied silence, and emotional malnourishment.

He had all the money, after all. What say could I have when everything around me was his?

With that quiet, domestic horror of inequity looming over me, I was desperate to regain my independence and earn a steady income. After nearly a year of our fruitless arrangement, I received a call from a recruiter in New York—I left with no intention of reuniting with him, should he also return to New York.

And return he did—pursuing me in ways that struck me with fear. Each pleading text message and email leveled me, broke me down to that hollow, cruel place I felt in Michigan.

I knew I would be powerless once more if I let him into my life again.

Unfortunately, the new job crumbled when I uncovered acts of neglect under the Chief Compliance Officer's jurisdiction. Several SEC-mandated filings had lapsed, and I innocently brought them to the attention of HR in a routine meeting for recent hires. Ultimately I was forced out of the company by the CCO, and HR sanctioned it because firing me was far less controversial than firing her.

I was once again unemployed, and, motivated by fear and poverty, resorted to exotic dancing in the summer of 2012 in order to make ends meet.

Contrary to the trope of miserable, drug-addled strippers hustling for single dollar bills, I was happy and even made friends at the club. Stripping, as it had done before when I first tried it in my early 20s, gave me a boost in self-confidence that I so rarely found outside of that precious space.

In the real world, I was subject to frequent, disturbing catcalls and solicitations; going for a run always carried with it the high chance that a man's shouted comment from a passing car would ruin my joy in being outdoors, in my body. In grad school, I fashioned a messenger bag emblazoned with the word "NO" to rest over my rear end—the part of me that seemed to attract the most unwanted commentary.

Variations of "Can I tap that booty?" were a daily occurrence.

But inside a club, I held power and profited, handsomely, under the male gaze.

It was during this time—a "low point" in my professional career, but a high-water mark for my confidence and well-being—that he finally got to me. I was carefree and open that mid-July day when I answered my phone and agreed to coffee. I suppose I wanted to prove I had recovered from our tormented time in Michigan, that I was happy and had moved on. Yet I cried as he listed all the ways he had prioritized his life—therapy, antidepressants, exercise, proper diet, an end to drinking and smoking—in hopes of winning me back.

Throughout our relationship I had enumerated these very things to him, things I needed from him in order to stay. I cried because it was too good to be true. And it was, of course. But I wanted so desperately to believe this fairy tale, this miraculous second chance.

It fashioned me the hero and prized object of love and desire, which was everything I wasn't in Michigan. I was already hooked.

I didn't keep my stripping gig secret for long. I wanted him to know everything I was doing and hoped he'd accept the temporary measures I was taking to stay financially afloat, never hinting that my drained bank account was due, in large part, to his empty farm pitch and my unpaid labor.

He asked me if I felt exploited. I explained as best as I could that no, in fact; I felt empowered. If anyone was being exploited, it was the men who frequented the club.

For once in my life I was getting paid for the objectifying treatment I received every day.

In hindsight, I don't think he came to any conclusion other than that he wanted me back, and I never received the acceptance and unconditional love I craved.

I rationalized that it didn't matter that he failed to approve of my stripping because I quit a few weeks after we reunited.

That should have been the end of it. I'd overcompensate by being the best, most virtuous girlfriend ever. And so we both steamrolled our way back into a tumultuous second round, falling once again into our former dispositions: his lack of direction, planning, or investigation; my labor, bullied silence, and emotional malnourishment.

After just two months, our honeymoon period shattered when he awoke from a nightmare and confessed his problems with my past.

I don't know what the dream entailed, but he said he was bothered that I had dated other people during our break-up and that he didn't like the idea of others seeing me naked.

This coincided with the day I was set to finalize on-boarding paperwork for my new temp job at another financial firm. I told him that I didn't have time, nor was it fair, to deal with his doubts when I needed to focus on securing this position.

Now, I wonder if he wasn't consciously or subconsciously sabotaging my renewed chance at financial independence.

He later called to apologize, and I didn't hear about my old stripping job for months. Yet something impossible to pinpoint had changed, and over time, our discomfort and distance grew too large to ignore.

Moments of caution came and went. I had ample opportunity to reconsider the relationship and leave it. When I landed a better, permanent position at a financial firm with a shorter commute, his response was not to celebrate my success, but grumble that he guessed I "had to do what [I] needed to do in order to do what [I] wanted to do."

I didn't have the guts to tell him that I would never return to the farm with him ever again.

Finally, everything came to a head in April of 2013 when he was making moves to install a friend in his Michigan home to serve as his "farm manager," despite no real plan regarding the farm or its latest employee. She had proven flighty and unreliable when we lived in Michigan, failing to return phone calls or follow through with a promised visit. Her casual abandonment flung him into weeks of an even darker depression, which I bore alone.

Then there was the story he told of her first time on the farm: upon her arrival, she tore off her clothes and ran headlong into the small pond on the back forty acres, never mind that his ailing mother was at home.

I expressed my concern that perhaps she was too young and provocative to trust, and, along with an employment contract, I needed some assurance that she could keep her clothes on in my boyfriend's presence.

To this he rebutted, "You take your clothes off, too." Not understanding his line of thought, I asked what he meant.

Stripping. Of course.

He later said, when I pressed because I absolutely needed resolution on this issue once and for all: "I'm just having a hard time dating someone who used to be a stripper."

This, despite eight months in a relationship, was what he characterized the core of our problems.

After the throbbing in my ears abated and I could see well enough to look him in the eye, I rose from my seat and said: "Well let me make this easier for you: I don't want to date someone who has a problem with me having worked as a stripper."

And with that I left, heart shattered but spirit revived after months of suppression.

Except that's not how it happened at all.

In French, there's a term that describes the predicament of crafting the perfect retort too late: l'esprit de l'escalier. It literally means "the spirit of the staircase," or, colloquially, "staircase wit."

It was coined by a French philosopher who, during a dinner party, found himself speechless by a remark directed at him. Regarding his delayed response, he explained, "A sensitive man, such as myself, overwhelmed by the argument leveled against me, becomes confused and can only think clearly again [when he reaches] the bottom of the stairs."

It's funny how, years later, that pivotal moment in which I failed to say what I have the words for now still haunts me. It remains my great shame.

But how could it have been any different? I had spent a collective two years under the treatment and subsequent belief that I was less than, an unequal and unworthy mistress perpetually on the brink of losing him.

Instead I said, "Oh, but you'll fuck me while you figure it out?"

It wasn't a bad observation, but it certainly didn't end things. In response, his temper swelled with offense that I dared suggest he was using me for sex while not fully committing. As usual, control shifted in his favor; he out-blustered me and I fell in line to soothe and placate him.

I needed to keep the peace and restore order, an order that always had me stooping, off-balance and fearful.

We went on another few months, breaking up in June when the new "farm manager" moved into his house. No one cared about my comfort or consent, and it finally crystallized that I would never receive the partnership I wanted from him.

For four months we maintained a terse silence, until he called me one evening in October. It was a long and messy conversation, but I engaged because I felt strong and thought it could provide me closure.

He wanted forgiveness, but his apology was too ambiguous to grant it. He pled for my friendship and told me how much he missed me, but everything he missed was what I did for him. Curiously, he asked if I wanted to know why he "left me," despite the fact that it was a mutual decision that I initiated.

There it was again: his rationale for our demise hung pitifully on stripping.

Later, when he begged me again for my friendship, I asked, "Why are you so desperate to be friends with an ex-stripper? And really, what do you have to offer me in friendship?"

He had no plausible response to this, and we hung up, never speaking again.

Those two questions will have to serve as a substitute for my missed moment in April of 2013, that l'esprit de l'escalier that haunts me still. Nothing ties up so easily. Awful relationships drag on past their rational length, and it's a healing mind that searches for the precise place when things when wrong, and where we could have prevailed, if only

But those if onlys are crafted in the present to soothe a bitter past. The best we can do with if onlys is make promises to our future selves.

Which is why I will never waste another moment of my life with someone unwilling to accept my past, even a stripper past, as a vital component to the whole, vibrant, compelling, and worthy person I am today—and always was.


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Just Elise is a queer-identified writer raised in the South.