by Cassidy Chilcott
My name is Bryony Emerson and I take my clothes off for money.
Figured I’d get that out of the way before I told you the rest of my story.
I’m not one of those strippers with a heart of gold. Not even close. If anything I’d say I have a heart of ice. I have a difficult time opening up to people. Mostly because I don’t want to. I lost my parents in a car crash when I was eleven. I got a few scars and a concussion, but both of my parents died. After that I was bounced around from relative to foster home and back again.
I closed myself off because I had lost too many people I cared about. So my response was to freeze everyone out. Even the people who wanted to help. My logic was that even if I did let someone into my life permanently, they would either leave or die and since I knew how much that hurt, I decided not to risk it.
Stripping wasn’t my first choice of career. In fact I started out waitressing at the club because I needed the money to get out of my hometown. After a while the manager decided to test me onstage and see how it went.
That first minute onstage was terrifying. The spotlight shined in my eyes, blinding me, and my heart was thumping as loud as the bass. But if nothing else I know how to pretend to be okay. After that fist minute I found my rhythm. Before I knew it I was dancing regularly at the club and making a hell of a lot more money than I did waitressing.
I stripped at that club for seven years before I had enough of a base that I felt comfortable leaving. I packed my meager belongings into the back of my rusted out Honda and started driving west.
I ended up in California after three days of camping out in my car. I drove to the ocean and kept going down the coast stealing glances at the brilliant blue water every chance I got. I had never seen the ocean before and fell instantly in love with the view.
I stopped for gas in Monterey on my fourth day. I could see the ocean from the gas station. I heard some other travellers talking excitedly about Cannery Row and I decided to check it out. The busy, carnival-like atmosphere charmed me and I ended up spending the whole day wandering through shops and exploring the aquarium.
I sat on a bench overlooking the water and watched the sun set. I decided that night I was going to stay. It wasn’t what I had originally planned—I had entertained thoughts of Mexico—but I’m good at improvising. So that’s what I did.
I found a relatively cheap apartment and got a job at a strip club a few blocks over. I worked hard and eventually managed to put a down payment on a little cottage with a distant view of the water. I did the repairs I could do myself and either paid a professional or bribed someone at the club to do the ones I couldn’t.
I made my home in Monterey and, for the first time in years, I was happy.
That was four years ago.
And that brings us full circle to where I am today. I stare out at the ocean. It’s a beautiful, cloudless day. My first day off in a week and a half. Some of the other dancers had to call in from the flu and I picked up their shifts. The bench I’m sitting on is the same one I sat on my first day here. It’s become a favorite of mine. And it was here I made the biggest decision of my life.
I want to stop stripping.
I want to open a dance studio. I went back to community college and got a degree to teach dance. I took business courses and I’ve researched thoroughly what it costs to start a studio. I can make it work. I will make it work. And by my calculations, I can stop stripping in about four months.
Four short months and I can start a new life.
The sun warms my blonde hair and my green eyes scan the water looking for seals. They never fail to make me laugh and that’s something I don’t take for granted.
My heart still has plenty of scars, but the ice has thawed to a frost. I’m still convinced that staying single is the only option for me. Even if I was ready to open up to someone, with all of the dreams I have I wouldn’t have time for a pet let alone a man. Basking in the sun, I close my eyes and imagine my future studio.
As I’m mentally painting the walls a pale, sunny yellow, I hear excited barks coming in my direction. I open my eyes to see a puppy darting towards me, its leash dragging behind him. It jumps up on the bench and starts lapping at my chin. I laugh charmed by the deep brown, silky fur and the matching brown eyes.
“Hello.” I murmur. “Where’s your owner?”
I look up when I hear a shout to see a man, probably in his early thirties jogging towards me. The puppy yips and strains against me. I hold him steady while the man closes the distance.
I raise my eyebrow. “I take it this belongs to you?”
He looks at me and grins. “He got away from me. He’s still learning heel.”
I laugh. “I think he needs to learn more than just heel.”
“You’re right.” He frowns at the dog. “Bogart, come.”
The puppy jumps off the bench and plops it’s butt down on the man’s shoe. He shakes his head, looking exasperated. “What am I going to do with you?”
“Bogart?” I ask.
“As in Humphrey. It was his eyes.”
I nodded soberly. “I can see the connection.”
The man holds out a hand. “I’m Harper, Harper Ward.”
“Bryony Emerson.” I take his hand, surprised to find calluses. His clothes scream ‘money’. In my experience, calluses generally don’t accompany money.
“Interesting name. So you know old movies?”
I shrug a shoulder. “Sure. I like them better than the new ones. Excellent dialogue, not to mention the outfits.”
He laughs. “True.” He smiles at me, laugh lines crinkling around his deep brown eyes. “This might seem strange, but would you like to get a cup of coffee?”
I study his face. Good bone structure, dark brown hair due for a cut. That smile. I could practically feel the frost melting. This guy spelled trouble. “I don’t know.”
“I promise I have better manners than my dog.”
That got a laugh. Still, I hesitated. But what harm could one cup of coffee do? “Why not?”
I stand and start walking into town. He takes the dog’s leash and falls into step next to me. “So, what’s your favorite movie?”
“His Girl Friday. What about you?”
“The Philadelphia Story.” He grins. “I’m a sucker for happy endings.”
I smile. “Me too.”