There were far too many orchids in the lobby. That should have been the first red flag. The second red flag should have come in the form of the mannequin in the small retail section of the lobby, which was busting out of a lycra top with its cold, dead limbs posed as if it were caught moments before sitting in a chair, or, say, a lap. Alas, I only put all the pieces together when, during a recent visit home, my mother and I walked into the inner sanctum of “her favorite workout studio,” aglow with red lights diffused by essential oil vaporizers, and I saw the circle of women in tiny shorts and bras spread eagle on yoga mats. We’d arrived at a pole-dancing class.
I turned my head, like a deer hearing the release of a hunting rifle’s safety, toward the sound of my mother’s peal of delighted laughter, and then watched as she pulled off her sweatshirt and revealed the bodysuit she had worn for class with its many, many cut-outs.
My mother and I are very close. We could challenge the Gilmore girls to a mother-daughter personal trivia match, trounce them, and keep it moving. Have you ever met someone and thought, Wow, it would be so cool if you were my aunt or, like, my mom’s best friend? That is my mother. She is funny and brash and adventurous. At 65, she started doing stand-up comedy. (The crowd loves it when she does a bit about how much man-buns turn her on.) She called me at midnight a month ago, after getting in from a salsa club, to tell me I simply must learn the tango before I get the family arthritis.
I adore these aspects of her, but there are times when I have wished that it were all an act, that she could just stop playing this zany character. For example, she once emptied her retirement savings account to buy part ownership of a plane she doesn’t know how to fly instead of helping me pay for college. When I got that call, I wanted to shake my head like an exasperated sitcom character. I wanted a laugh track to play and the credits to roll. I wanted to come back next week with a whole new mess to find our way out of. But this was my real life, and I admit that I spent a week after that call feeling really sorry for myself, wishing for a mom from a different channel.
For better or for worse, my mother is a star that I can’t look away from. She makes the normal beige world I move through sparkle with mischief, hijinx, magic. That doesn’t mean I always like it.
Getting me to unwittingly attend a pole-dancing class with her was just her latest trick.
I knew by the way the instructor, whom I will call Kimmie, said, “Squeeee! Annie!! This must be your daughter! I’m so glad you both made it, these classes can be very healing for mothers and daughters!” that Kimmie was not to be trusted. Still, instead of heading for the doors, I chose to stay.
The first 45 minutes of the two-hour class were spent writhing aerobically on yoga mats to a playlist that I would have titled: “The Weeknd, But Make It Fitness.” Kimmie’s instruction came with a constant pep talk that was rhetorically akin to a women’s-only sexual healing ayahuasca ceremony run by an instagram influencer. It was the pep talk that shot me right out of my body and into a kind of dissociative state wherein I watched myself from above, grinding on a yoga mat just feet away from my own human mother.
It began to feel psychedelically awkward (as in, so unfathomably uncomfortable I felt as if I’d been dosed with LSD and entered another dimension) around the time Kimmie told me my hair was an erotic curtain that I should let drape over my face to give me privacy as I sensually entered myself. She doled out metronomic and affirmatives like this throughout class: “Yes, Megan! Look at that ass. So gorgeous!” and “Yes, Trisha! Oh, Trisha is so sexy, you guys!” She directed us to let our breasts tease the floor as we stretched out in child’s pose to a song that consisted only of rhythmic whispers.
At this point, my fight-or-flight response kicked in and I was about to make a break for it, but then I peered at my mother, perched on the foam roller that Kimmie gave her for her arthritic knees, irreverent and so totally self-possessed. She was swinging her hair, eyes closed, completely buying into the experience. Maybe I am just being a cynical weirdo prude, I thought, deciding to unclench my teeth and attempt to go with it.
The Lap Dance
As soon as the music transitioned to what I imagine was Drake’s 2014 sex playlist, Kimmie called out, “Okay, you beautiful goddesses, it’s time for lap dances!” I felt then that I should have bolted when I had the chance. When I could have mentally preserved some version of my mother that didn’t involve lap dances. I silently asked god to beam me up, because I was ready for heaven, hell, or oblivion. When god did not respond, I obeyed Kimmie.
“We don’t have mirrors here,” Kimmie told us as we settled into a row of seats facing two armchairs that had been dragged into the middle of the studio, “because all of YOU are the mirrors for each other. You are the FE-male gaze gallery.” Translation: Two pairs of us would do the lap dance routine at a time while everyone else watched. My mother volunteered to go first (of course) and she sat in the chair while Kimmie demonstrated the various modes of grinding we would do. Then, in slow motion, I watched Kimmie turn toward me, smiling, and call me up for my turn sitting in the chair so my mother could do the routine atop me. I stood up reflexively, as if being lifted by the intangible winds of fate toward a destiny I could not comprehend. I took a step toward my mother who was waving me on expectantly, and froze. This was the line that I could not cross.
“Kimmie,” I said. “Absolutely not.” To which she replied, “Sure, okay. That makes sense!” And cheerfully reassigned me a non-blood-related partner. I dutifully crawled like a sexual cat onto the lap of a nice Russian woman who smelled of blue Powerade, and heard my mother cheering me on from the female gaze gallery.
By the time the class transitioned into the actual pole dance tutorial, I had entered a kind of fugue state. I remember the remaining portions of the class in the way I remember the end of Inception. Was that a dream? Did I really grip a metal pole between my thighs as my mother told me to arch my back like I meant it? Was Leonardo DiCaprio there?
The Cool Down
After class, my mother and I walked back out onto the Chinatown streets and the comforting, buttery aroma of the fortune cookie factory mixed with a hint of dried fish signaled to me that my tribulations were behind me. I tried to hide my flurry of emotions: shock, of course, and maybe a childish sense of betrayal, like when you come to realize, due to your parents’ carelessness, that the tooth fairy is a hoax. My mother noticed the tense expression on my face, and was almost sheepish when she asked, “Well…what did you think?”
I looked at her then, her face luminous from all that body rolling, and felt a pang of heartbreak. I realized in that moment that even though I had embraced so much of who she was, up until that moment, I still wanted her to be a mother. I still wanted her to be the mom who has a signature lasagna recipe, is a savvy comparative shopper, or would at least be mortified to have her daughter watch her perform a lap dance. But the woman standing in front of me had not changed suddenly, nor had she betrayed me or let me down. She was who she had always been—a fully alive person with a world so much bigger than me and what I know or want of her.
“Mama, you killed it,” I said, grabbing her hand, and she laughed that laugh that has always been my favorite sound.
Graphics by Coco Lashar.