The woman in the bustier catches me glancing at her cantaloupe-sized breasts. Honestly, there is nowhere else to look. You might as well avert your eyes from a zeppelin attack. As she huffs by, I feel a flush of indignation. Spare me the attitude, Lady Marmalade. If you're offended by the male gaze, don't stand on a bartop in a leather dishrag grinding badonkadonks with Keira Knightley's slutty double.
Then again, I am the interloper here. The occasion is Sugar, a monthly party series at Bar23 designed for the women of Nashville to mingle freely, openly, and sexily, dressed however they like, without fear of prying eyes. The attraction is that for the first two hours, no men are allowed. And yet I have been invited. I choose to take this as a compliment.
Men spend much of their waking lives, and the better part of Shannon Tweed movies, wondering what women do when they're not around. What man could resist getting a peek behind those perfumed veils? And so here I am in the gentrified wasteland of SoBro on 12th Avenue South, where gleaming lofts look down on railroad yards and construction cones. Sugar's audience, improbably enough, has triangulated with the clienteles of the Station Inn and Ru San's and robbed the zone of its parallel parking. Either this is a one-time convergence, or Nashville has a growing population of hillbillies starved for sex and sushi.
On my way out the door, I tried to explain the basic concept to my wife as I understood itwhich, as it turned out, was not well. I knew about New York's famous Cake parties, where women of all orientations gather for het-gay horseplay and girls-only games. Still, what I envisioned was something like a Tupperware fiesta with Jackrabbits and male objectification instead of burpable soup tureens. "Oh," she said, "a Pampered Clit party."
Not quite. It's more like a cross between a rave and a fashion show. "Rock star attire," read the invitation, and in a country where Blues Traveler's John Popper qualifies, I figured my habitual T-shirt and jeans would too. (And more to the point: I am a rock star, baby.) I pass a stern bouncer who speaks body language eloquently: he needs only his raised eyebrow to say, "Who let you in?" Then it's my turn to enter the forbidden world of women. I walk through the door, adjust my eyes to the candlelit glow and the SoHo-meets-South-Beach vibe, and the first thing I see is...a guy.
My heart sinks. Still, maybe he's been keeping notes on the evening's debauchery. "What do women do when guys aren't around?" I ask, clicking my pen. He shrugs and gives me a foggy smile I haven't seen since Dean Martin sauntered through The Cannonball Run II. Later I learn his boyfriend is the snake-hipped cutie with a bandanna who gyrates like a paint-can shaker while four women watch from a horseshoe-shaped couch. They sit as transfixed as rabbits in a cobra's thrall. Another guy (dammit!) watches uncomfortably at his girlfriend's side, white knuckles locked over his lap.
"You made it!" trills Amy Waddell, the organizer responsible for putting the spice in Sugar. The process entailed auditioning go-go dancers, lining up a slide show of slinky near-nudes, and finding a dreadlocked DJ who could get from AC/DC to the Violent Femmes by way of Bon Jovi without making anyone barf. Amy is especially proud of the mix of womenI get to 100 and stop countingwhich includes everyone from Vandy law students to dominatrices. "Here, meet Mistress Stephanie," Amy says, with the zeal of a cruise-ship entertainment director. She introduces a no-nonsense brunette with a handclasp that can crack nutsas it has, no doubt, on many occasions.
I am still no closer, though, to understanding how women behave when men are not around. In my exploration of the feminine mystique, I chance upon a Planned Parenthood display. "Have you ever seen a female condom?" asks the enthusiastic woman working the table. She dangles a contraption that looks like a collapsible drinking glass made of shower-curtain liner. It looks safe, I'll give it that. Before her is a table spread with Trojans, IUDs and Mike & Ikes. I ask if the Mike & Ikes work as contraceptive devices. It is the second time tonight I see the Dean Martin smile.
I have been out of the world of singles for many years, let alone single women, so here's what I learned. Forgive me if these sound like the quaint observations of a thawed caveman. First, smoking is back in. Waaaaay back in. I'm not talking about Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction smoking, the sultry exhale of nicotine wisps through moistened lips. I'm talking Denis Leary in No Cure for Cancer smoking, the kind that in 20 years'll have you accessorizing with an oxygen tank.
Second, today's post-feminist empowerment session is yesteryear's wallow at the Playboy Mansion. The featured performer of the evening is burlesque queen Kicky La Rue, who descends the bar's metal staircase in a glistening raincoat and ends twizzling the tassels on her red bra. That too soon vanishes. There are hoots and cries of "Take it off!" and wolf whistles; the difference is that they are coming from women. Is this an ironic appropriation of male sexism? An expression of solidarity and encouragement to a woman unafraid to bare herself in public? Or is this simply standard operating procedure when a woman takes off her clothes in a crowded bar? I couldn't tell you. I'm a guy. And not only that, a guy who finds public nudity more creepy than arousing. I'm the kind of loser who'd go to Deja Vu for the buffet.
All the while, around me I see nothing but guys, guys and more guys coming in: a psycho mime in referee shirt and skin-tight pants, a cameraman bobbing around for Canadian TV, an Asian American dude in sunglasses and skull-adorned jacket whom I expect to see shooting Takeshi Kitano in his next movie. The invitation said guys would be permitted after 10 p.m. Like me, the other interlopers wanted to experience hitherto-inaccessible realms of feminine intimacy.
The problem with that is the uncertainty principle: by observing something, you interrupt its natural state. Or, to put it in scientific terms, if guys show up to watch how women walk and talk and bump and grind and kiss and flirt when they're not around, that's exactly what they're not going to see. I saw women teetering on uncomfortable stiletto heels and squishing their breasts and sweltering in hot leather. Is this how women really dress for each other, or how they dress when they know they'll eventually be seen by men? I'm genuinely curious.
The happiest, sexiest woman I saw all night was a student in a cool white tanktop adorned with a single sash. She didn't dress or dance to be seen, and that was why my eyes kept gravitating toward her. She looked wholly at ease with herself, and even though she didn't deserve to have a gawker like me, she didn't care whether anyone saw her or not. The best dancers never do. She just laughed and swung her swept-back hair to the music. She looked free. To put this in sex-friendly exhibitionist terms, maybe this is why more and more people prefer amateur porn to the simulated arousal and silicone valleys of mass-produced fantasies. However slight, the possibility of authentic transcendence remains.
Then again, maybe it's the Mike & Ikes.