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Embracing the Inner Call Girl

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 PERSONAL ESSAYS


Five years ago, at a South Beach steakhouse, I met Lulu. The dinner was like many Miami dinners: midnight steaks, half the party too drunk and wired to eat, a few on cell phones, and everyone ready to go to the next place even before we’d gotten to where we were.
     The friend I was visiting was a local. We called him the King of Miami. When extraordinary and unusual people passed through the night-world there, he befriended them. He’d met Lulu at a club on one of her previous trips to South Beach, stayed in touch, and invited her and her date to dinner. She was an escort based in New York, flown to Los Angeles and Miami. She earned ten to twenty grand per engagement, plus airfare and a four-star hotel room. Her date, a refined fifty year old, had just taken her to a Heat game. She was his for four days.

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     Weighing under a hundred, with breasts like honeydews, Lulu was a redhead with freckles and strawberry lips. Like a porn-star Pippi Longstocking. She perched on his knee with all the gravity of a bird. She dragged me to the ladies room, and chattered away but looked through me. On the sink counter, she wrote the man a birthday card. Her hand was shaking because she was so high, and I wondered if he had given her to himself, or if she was a gift from a friend.
     That’s the whole experience. Five years later, I still think about her. The hundreds of dollars of basketball souvenirs in a shopping bag she forgot under the table. The rolls of bills in her purse. Her gingham shirt, blue jeans, Manolos. What inspired me most was his pleasure at getting the birthday card. She kissed him on the cheek. She wasn’t getting paid just for sex: Lulu had been hired to love him.

I have this problem. No matter how primly I dress, before I leave the house I compulsively add some emblem of what my friends call the hooker aesthetic. An anklet. Wet purple lip gloss. Leopard-print heels I wobble in. I’ve been ridiculed for years and I can’t stop. I blame it on a Long Island childhood, because so many things can be blamed on that, but it goes deeper.

If my soul were visible, she’d recline in a black robe on a zebra skin, hearthside.

     I’ll dare to call it a spiritual issue. Whatever my token of the moment — white fishnets, gold locket — it serves as shorthand for one important aspect of my self. It’s the shingle my id hangs out: certified lush! If my soul were visible, she’d recline in a black robe on a zebra skin, hearthside, slurping Chivas from a snifter.
     Twice that I know of, I’ve been mistaken for a working girl.
     I spent a college semester in Paris, getting fat on chocolate crepes and standing around outside nightclubs. My host family lived in a respectable arrondissement. I didn’t know it was normal for the very conservative residents to tolerate and even perhaps support hookers who worked the neighborhood after dark. Trying to hail a cab on one of my first nights there, I was characteristically underdressed in go-go boots, mini-skirt and jean jacket. Instead of getting a taxi, I got a line of customers. It took a few befuddled exchanges in a language I didn’t yet understand before the eventual horror on my face sent the last guy speeding into the chilly gray of Parisian winter, car bucking as he shifted gears.
    The second was an incident — again — in Miami. Three a.m. at the Delano Hotel. The decadent lobby, with its tropical bouquets and the blue light shining from the courtyard pool, was populated by last-call desperados. Two men asked me and my girlfriend if we “had dates.” Not knowing what that meant, we coyly said no, and they took us to another bar. Having a grand old time — sipping gimlets, paired off — until my fellow asked me “how much?” I’ll always regret not testing him. Just for trivia’s sake, it would be great to know what I’m worth. My friend, the spitfire, handled the situation. The men followed us out, apologizing. We ran in spike heels down the street, my friend turning occasionally and walking backwards to let go another string of obscenities at their receding silhouettes.
    Both events, when they happened, depressed me.
    I didn’t tell anyone about the taxi episode for months.
    And I looked in the mirror in my Florida hotel room: how could I seem to be for sale? I’m a bookworm. I’m shy, introspective. So what if my hair is dyed platinum? And if I’d taken a picture of the adult-movie legend Savannah (R.I.P.) to the hair salon? How could he not see through my props to the real me?
    But with some imagination, I’ve turned these misunderstandings into a narrative.

When I say I have a call girl fixation, I’m using call girl — inaccurately, creatively — as an umbrella for variations on a theme: golddigger, groupie, the chorus girl of yesteryear, barmaid, barfly, B-movie actress, hip-hop video dancer, lush, good-time girl, the stewardess and secretary and nurse of yore, flapper, floozy, party girl, trophy wife. Any woman between a societal rock and a hard place. Any figure who symbolizes that tantalizing dichotomy of public propriety and private sin.
     My call girl is a construction.
     My call girl is not walking the streets. She exists only in books and films, and the fantasies those breed. She’s Henry Miller’s dancehall slave and the YSL-dressed housewife in Belle du Jour. She’s Holly accepting a fifty for the powder room in Breakfast at Tiffany’s; Gloria stealing the wife’s mink in Butterfield 8. It’s the same character in Pretty Baby and Pretty Woman, in Sweet Charity and Taxi Driver: she’s the most jaded and most innocent woman in the room. We don’t know if we can trust her in Risky Business, because she won’t look him in the eye, and she paces, smoking, and tells stories that don’t match — until the scene on the train. Sex like that never lies.

By seventh grade, the girls in my class had been divided into ice queens, nerds, sluts and tomboys. The guys didn’t create these categories; they got them ready-made, handed down by previous generations, which leaves no one specific to blame. Nevertheless, whole diaries were filled trying to figure out which one I was. If I was in fact an ice queen, which I seemed to be, how did the other girls become tomboys, nerds or sluts? And was there really no fifth category? Hindsight has solved the mystery: I was actually nothing but a psychotically shy twelve-year-old girl.
     I’m thirty, and still hunting for option number five.

My friend and I nursed our drinks, waiting for a suitor, dreading a suitor. Thirsty. Proud. Broke. Greedy.

     Clinically shy people might relate: if you’re as introverted-to-the-marrow-of-your-bone as I am, you are not only unwillingly conscious of your self all the time, but of all selves within a mile radius. I’m not only aware of how I come off, but of how that might insult someone. I’ve thought of handing out business cards: I may seem cold, but I’m actually paralyzed by shyness.
    In lieu of that, I make tribal markings. Seamed stocking. Stiletto. Bridget Bardot hair. Notice how the shrinking violet is a French maid every Halloween? The message is that although this door is closed, it ain’t locked. My trinkets attempt to balance my temperament. It’s like slipping a paper valentine into a boy’s desk when he’s not looking.

A few years ago, my friend and I sipped cosmopolitans on lacquer trays that came with side dishes of wasabi peas. We scanned the Four Seasons bar for men to buy round two, since at fifteen dollars a cocktail, round one was all we could afford. Around a jungle of flowers, a table was creating noise. The men lit cigars, the women took hacking puffs, and they all laughed. Almost sixty, strong and three-piece-suited, these men were oil wells. Very handsome in a financial way. Dressed and groomed like any other woman in the place, the thirty-something blondes were not like any other woman in the place: they were definitely escorts.
     How did we know? Everyone in the grand, gold-lit room knew. It wasn’t simply the age discrepancy, the newness or loudness of the money, the blondeness, or the fact that it was a hotel bar, but maybe a culmination of these factors, and something more: the men and women seemed to be strangers to each other. There was an unlikely comfort at the table. They enjoyed a luxury that came from being sure of the night’s arrangement.
     Meanwhile my friend and I nursed our sweet drinks, stranded in the gray zone made by the black of chivalry and the white of feminism. Waiting for a suitor, dreading a suitor. Thirsty. Proud. Broke. Greedy.

Most of us are familiar with the money anxiety of new romance. It’s powerfully silent, born from transactions at dark bars and box office windows and from a fear that the value of anyone’s love can be calculated, as exactly as that of a 1984 Chevy Impala. I’ve actually come home from first dates making mental notes like: I owe him a scone.
     The call girl archetype answers a certain desire of mine: to deactivate the minefield of love, power, sex and money. Because those factors combine to affect any affair.
     Lying in bed, a boyfriend said something to me I can’t forget. The stage was set minimally: darkness, sheets, bodies, words. When he spoke, he was kidding but serious. He said: “I own you. Your ass belongs to me.” The moment was caught somewhere between a threat and a promise. I didn’t know whether to call 911 or to fall in love. I think I giggled nervously. I said “Shut up,” or “You’re fucked up.” My heart was thumping. This kid was too broke to buy me lunch, but playacting the idea of ownership was exciting.
    Memoirs of a Geisha wasn’t a bestseller for no reason. I picture myself in jeans and an obi, cross-legged, picking the strings of a mandolin for Brooklyn’s barefoot salarymen. It’s a way to imagine myself a woman devoted to men, to pleasure, to giving men pleasure, to making beauty out of art, to making an art of beauty. It allows me to picture myself devoted to devotion. That’s more of a taboo these days than most sex acts I can name.

Certain friends of mine often end their nights at strip clubs. One night, I went with them and ended up talking with a dancer. She’d just arrived in New York from Florida, couldn’t have been older than sixteen, seemed pure and childlike. At first, I made her a romantic figure: an Everglades hitchhiker, wrestling gators and eating coconuts, barefoot and determined, working her way through the big, bad city. Within minutes, she revealed herself as dumb, strung out, desperate for money and doomed.

He said: “I own you. Your ass belongs to me.” I didn’t know whether to call 911 or to fall in love.

     The call girl mirage doesn’t last. Like other spectacles, the magic works only if distance is maintained. I remember when I realized that ballerinas, those effortless swans, were actually dedicated artists with feet like gourds, spines like the trunks of thousand-year-old olive trees, and sweat pouring down their spangled and feathered arms.
     You may have been wondering how na├»ve I might be about prostitution. The diseases, the drug addictions, the physical and metaphysical bruises, the circles of abuse, the legal and physical and emotional and spiritual vulnerability: I know these exist. In no way are they glamorous. These issues coincide with the worst things that ever happened to me or to people I’ve loved, with the most acute fears I have for myself or the people I love. In other words, my call girl construction also houses pain and disaster.
     There is strength in owning every possibility fate could enforce, in knowing thine enemy and keeping it close.

One summer, I tended bar in Saratoga Springs. My boss was a local sculptor, a notorious figure who knew everyone. One night, at the height of the horsetrack season, he introduced me to his friend. I was twenty. The friend, whom I’ll call William, was a thoroughbred-horse broker and polo player, a thirty-five year old who was separated from his wife and taking care of their son.
     We started dating. We went to Siro’s, a restaurant only open in August, and ate caviar and drank Veuve Clicquot on its white-tented patio. We sat in his box at the track clubhouse. We went into the paddock before races, and he took me to the stable to pet the yearlings before they went up for auction. Champagne. Summer days. Million-dollar animals.
    Even though William was a sweetheart and a gentleman, the situation was wrong from the beginning. Our age difference wouldn’t matter now, but it did then. I was a college student, having the most aggressively irresponsible summer of my life. He had money, real-world experience, a child, a career. He never let me treat him to a single cocktail. The inequality was too much. Intentions were irrelevant. I smelled transaction in the air at all times.
    For all my subsequent glibness, being with him put me too close to the fire. We straggled on for a few months. We went to the Travers Ball, and he bought me a blue-sequined dress. The only dress a man has ever bought me, the only time I’ve ever let a man buy me something like a dress. It was a lovely experience, and an experiment, and a nightmare.
    In September, he flew me to Middleburg, Virginia, to watch steeplechase races and tailgate with socialites. Later, we estate-hopped from cocktail party to party. At each one, I suffered. I’ve since learned that such insular communities are rife with their own adulteries and scandals, but at the time, all those glares over the rims of scotch-and-sodas burned. People nudged each other’s houndstooth shoulders, pointed out the Jezebel. That night, William and I had a fight driving to his home. In the middle of nowhere on a Southern highway, I got out of the car. I eventually got in again, but he and I were over.
    I’ve kept the dress. 


To order Jardine Libaire’s debut novel, Here Kitty Kitty, which will be published by Little, Brown in May 2004, click here.

Cover design by Carol Hayes; Photo by Carter Smith/A+C Anthology





ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Jardine Libaire holds an MFA from the University of Michigan. Her stories have been published on Nerve and in Fiction and Chick Lit , an anthology. She lives in Brooklyn. Here Kitty Kitty is her first novel.

©2003 Jardine Libaire and Nerve.com