When You Fall in Love with a Stripper

The ultimate missed connection.

Brian Blanco/The New York Times

K.J. grew up in the desert, near Ninth Avenue in a little town called Hesperia, which was known in those days as the only town in the area without curbs on its main drag.

K.J. was a shy kid with secret longings, among them a girl in his high school class, a beautiful Asian cheerleader named Miyoko Fujimori who lived a few blocks away. But in a town the size of Hesperia it seemed everybody lived a few blocks away. In any case, after he had fallen secretly in love, K.J. would hurry home and back his father’s 15-year-old Ford truck out of the carport, down in front near the street, and then jack it up, as if he were changing a tire. As if the pickup were his.

In a perfect world, the wheel was lifting off the ground at the moment Miyoko Fujimori appeared around the corner. He had a story ready against the possibility that she might actually stop and ask him about his truck. Some days he jacked the truck up and down half a dozen times, so that he would be sweating when she came by. Not wanting to look like an idiot.

The cheerleaders practiced three times a week, and on those days Miyoko ran an hour late, usually still in her uniform, carrying her books in a bag over her shoulder. Cheerleader, straight-A student, student council, Latin Club...

K.J. himself had no place in particular to be after school. He wasn’t a football player—that had been established in the first half of the first two-a-day practices at the beginning of freshman year—or any other kind of athlete, and he wasn’t a joiner, especially of some after-school dork clubs. He wasn’t that kind of dork. There was a mandatory meeting every year with his guidance counselor, who suggested K.J. might think over going out for the cross-country squad, and he’d almost blown lunch at the thought.

Still, no sports, no clubs, no band. When he thought about all the stuff he wouldn’t do because he would look ridiculous, there wasn’t much left. He was definitely not impressive enough to talk to the likes of Miyoko Fujimori.

She had once slowed down when she saw him lying under the jacked-up truck, and said, “That thing’s going to fall over and smash your head,” and he had smiled at her from under there until it felt like the smile was going to fall off his face, but he couldn’t think of anything to say back. He went to bed that night, wondering whether she'd come visit him in the hospital if the truck did fall on his head.

Time passed. K.J. and Miyoko graduated from high school. He got a job, a nine-to-five grind, and stayed in the desert. Miyoko moved though, disappeared. He also moved, but only a few miles to another little town called Victorville, which was also in the desert, and was a lot like not moving at all.

One of the hard things about growing up in small towns is that there isn’t much to do. Victorville is not quite as small as Hesperia, but nobody has ever mistaken it for Times Square. He found new friends, and sometimes, for no other reason than to be someplace besides Victorville, they went to Los Angeles, about an hour and a half southwest. On the night we are talking about, K. J. and his amigos did not start out for Los Angeles. They were just hanging out in Victorville, drinking Southern Comfort and root beer—Southern Comfort, if you are not familiar, can be set on fire in a shot glass—and smoking a little dope, and pretty soon somebody said boobs and the next thing anybody knew they were all on the way to a strip club called The Tropical Lei in the community of Upland, east of L.A., just over the county line.

Generally speaking, K.J. is not a strip club sort of guy, but then he is not generally speaking a root beer and Southern Comfort sort of guy either, and one of the disadvantages of living in a place where there is nothing to do is that you sometimes end up driving extended distances to places where you don’t want to go to do things you don’t want to do, just because they are different than the things you don’t want to do at home.

The sign outside said Exotic Dancers.

Inside, four of them are on the stage, dancing. Twice that many are flitting through the audience, slightly dressed, soliciting lap dances. For K.J., this is the most embarrassing part of walking into one of these places, the awkwardness of the conversation. You never really grow out of being shy.

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As for the lap dancers, they have apparently been instructed to pretend the customers are interesting. So a half-naked girl sits down at your table and asks do you have any hobbies. Or where do you come from.

Uh… Hesperia?

“Yeah, awesome…”

All in all, K.J. would just as soon skip the romance. He might even pay the $20 they are going to ask for to squirm on his lap for three minutes if they just wouldn’t ask.

Anyway, the four dancers are still on the stage, dancing. The three closest are pretty much what you expect, crude, shaking this and shaking that as the clothes come off. The fourth dancer, a beautiful, dark-haired Asian woman, dances to the same music, but finds something in it slower and more sensuous. K.J. cannot take his eyes off her, remembering the cheerleader from Hesperia, the year when every afternoon he waited in the driveway, jacking his father’s truck up and down, hoping for something so far out of reach that he couldn’t actually put his finger on what it was. More than a lap dance, though.

He began to feel sentimental, something to do with the years passing, all the waiting for something or somebody perfect to come and find him. And knowing by now that it doesn’t happen like that—all the wasted years—and knowing he is still doing the same thing.

And maybe it was something to do with living in a place he didn’t want to live, working at a job that didn’t mean anything. With drinking Southern Comfort and root beer that he didn’t really want to drink, smoking dope that he didn’t much want to smoke, going along to a strip club where he didn’t want to be. And for a few seconds, he glimpsed something true—that you could spend your whole life waiting for the beautiful, dark-haired Asian girl to stop and talk and it might never happen.

And he stood, gawping.

And then the music stopped and the dancers collected what clothes they’d taken off and ran off the stage.

K.J. waited and pretty soon the girls who had been dancing came out to mingle with the audience. Not wearing much. He spotted the beautiful Asian girl, and she caught him staring, and misunderstanding his intentions—what were his intentions, anyway?—she made her way through the crowd.

Still shy, K.J. found himself unable to look. It was easier when she was on stage, naked. Now she was looking at him, though.

She said, “Do I know you?”

It was dark and new dancers were coming out onto the stage and he wondered if she could see his face go red. One of his friends laughed, pushed him slightly in her direction.

He looked away, mumbling. “No, I don’t think so.”

“He would remember,” said the friend. But she didn’t look away, didn’t seem to hear the friend.

She said, “Yeah, you live in Hesperia…”


“On Ninth Avenue, right?”

And now he did look, and there she was. Miyoko Fujimori.

He will hear about her again. She’ll write a famous how-to book for women who want to save their marriages by learning how to strip-tease for their husbands. He’ll look her up on the Internet and find out that she owns a dance studio. Famous, maybe rich.

For now, though, something K.J. will wonder about a long time. Because now he looks, wills up the courage to stare straight into her beautiful eyes, and there they are, face to face with who they are and who they were, and in that moment something in her breaks, he sees it happen, and she turns and runs out the backstage door, and he never sees her again.