I’m on my work break, standing at a traffic light in Bushwick as a dozen high school kids pass me. About ten or eleven of them buzz in a group as Cardi B blasts from one of their backpacks.

“There’s some hoes in this house

There’s some hoes in this house”

They nod their heads to the music, laughing, exchanging handshakes and smoking cigarettes they bought with their fake IDs. The trees rustle in the fall wind.

I was thirteen years old when I learned that I can poison people. I wonder if any of these kids can, too, I think to myself. I look into their eyes—searching for something, but it’s my secret that stares back at me. It always does.

I have a secret that is a branch swinging wildly in a forest full of flames. But it’s just another thin branch in the midst of the chaos. Only the other branches in the forest experiencing the flames understand, and anyone on the outside can only observe what they see from afar.

As Cardi B’s voice electrifies me on this Brooklyn afternoon, I submerge myself deeper in the art of her song. I realize I am no longer treading in its weight, but I’m transforming into what it is. Today I am a libertine, disguised as woman.

“Pay my tuition just to kiss me on this wet-ass pussy

Now make it rain if you wanna see some wet-ass pussy”

The truth is, I work in a place that resembles a stuffy steel basement and smells like wet-ass pussy and iron. The second I open the heavy metal door, I am licorice, neon lights, and three coats of lipstick. I am in Fantasy Land with striped candy canes and fishnets and eye shadow that reaches my eyebrows. I am leather, loud music, motorcycles and cigarette smoke. Fantasy Land is eight inch heels and electricity in my veins that hasn’t stopped pumping since I was born. That’s why poisoning people helps.

Artwork: Victoria Smith and Leah Wasilewski

My sex work is my secret; my poison is my escape. I am always honked at and aggressively cat-called when I walk down the street. By that, I mean I have been in Fantasy Land far before I ever began stripping. I have been dirty, contaminated, toxic, disgusting, and sexualized since the doctor told my mother I’m a girl. The sexualization of women has been prevalent for centuries. Stripping is the first time in my life I have been in control of my sexualization. Since I began sex work, I am free for those hours beyond the metal door. I want the metal door to close behind me, to barricade me in. The second I leave the club, the moment my shift is over and I swing that door open to feel fresh air invade my lungs, I am even more sexualized than I am when I’m working. When my shift is over, I am not supposed to be in Fantasy Land anymore— I am no longer giving anyone the permission to sexualize me. Nevertheless, it does not stop.

I cannot escape.

Past the heavy metal door, the music caves in on me and my crotch deliberately hits the metal pole. As my eyes scan the bar like a predator stalking its prey, I find a pair of eyes glued to my naked limbs. It’s Bill. I can tell he sees a tree’s bare branches blowing in the wind when he looks at my limbs wavering in the air. Can he see the flames?

Why can’t I exploit this degrading, perverted system if I’m in it anyway? If you’re going to hate anything or anyone, don’t hate me. Hate the system I’ve been born into. I am only a pawn in this chess game. Do not point your finger at me. Do not move my piece.

I have been swallowed whole by this system but now, I’ve taken the reins once and for all. Boy, do I finally feel free.

As Bill orders me a glass of champagne, he asks me, “Do you think you do what you do because of your tattoos? That they were some sort of a preconceived notion that led you down this road?” Idiot!  I throw his body across the room. He crashes into the next building. I smirk to myself, wiping my hands. As he limps toward me, I poison him with the look of my eyes. He coughs and falls to the ground.

Artwork: Victoria Smith and Leah Wasilewski

I am in charge here.

So, this is it. Now you know my dirty, disgusting little secret. Do you feel special? Do you still believe me if I say when I touch you, I can burn you down fast?

IT’S THE AMERICAN DREAM, BABY!

I take off my heels and go into the bathroom.

“I am your God,” I whisper to myself in between clenched teeth and a wet tongue. My blood shot, tired eyes stare back at me in the mirror.

I’m twenty-one when I move to Brooklyn and start hanging up on people before they can answer. When I begin waiting till 0 to cross the street even though the traffic light’s signal tells me to wait.

5

When I stand outside in between two subway cars as the F line runs over the East River, the wind moves my hair in furious circles that slap at my face.

4

When I have never felt so ugly, not because of who I think I am, but because of what you tell me I am.

3

When I forget how to look friends in the eyes because I don’t want them to see themselves in me.

2

It’s the perfect weather to smoke a cigarette. With my back turned from the road, I hear the roar of cars zooming behind me. My mother’s long black coat drapes past my ankles and dances in the breeze. I blow smoke at the metal door closed in front of me. Past that door my sweat and fingerprints will always be found, no matter how far away I go. I wonder what my mom would do if she found out about my secret, my fire?

I inhale the liberty and dignity that is mine. Nobody can take it away from me. My decisions are mine and I am proud, I am happy, and I am beautiful. I shift my weight in my eight inch heels as that breeze tickles my bare ankles again.

I am proud.

Artwork: Victoria Smith and Leah Wasilewski

As I hear the bass bump from beyond the thick door, something stirs in my core. A puddle of my sweat trickles from inside, through the door’s crack—my feet submerging in the liquid as its depth thickens. My heels wade in the puddle as it continues to seep from inside. Then the bass gets louder. As I sway in the puddle, I close my eyes. It’s not just my sweat; it’s from all the women who have worked there and poured their hearts and souls out onto that stage.

“I wanna gag, I wanna choke

I want you to touch that lil’ dangly thing that swing in the back of my throat”

I turn my face toward the sun and it shines for me. It coats me with warmth, my skin suddenly in flames. Facing away from the steel door and the music, I pull my phone out and dial my mother’s contact. The sun beats down on me, hard.

“Hi baby! How are you?” she asks me.

I swallow the intangible thing that lies beneath the surface of Cardi B’s song. I swallow my fire and flames. I want to say, “Oh, mom, how I’ve missed you. How I long for your love, and your respect. How I long for your eyes,” but something stops me.

A car speeds past me, honking twice.

1

No matter how often I reinvent myself, no matter where I go, a stagnant consistency remains. It lurks in all of my surroundings; perhaps I will never escape Fantasy Land.

You cannot escape.

“I’ve never been better,” I answer her dutifully. “I just wanted to say hi, but I’ll call you later. I’m waitressing now.”

I have never been as dirty as I am when the metal door slams behind me, but every time it does, I am free. For those hours beyond the metal door, I am free.

0

The traffic light signals a hand. Everyone around me stops moving.

I open the door and with a smile, watch it close behind me.

“There’s some hoes in this house

There’s some hoes in this house”